(Monte Cook ran a seminar about being a game master, and decided to mostly take questions from the audience and run off those. Here are my notes from the event).
When asked to sum up the essence of being a game master, Monte often responds with something smart-alek like “everything I know could fill up a book… and so I did and WotC published it.”
The most important thing is that the game master is the facilitator of the fun. He is not responsible for everyone having a good time, but that is the main concern (and that includes for themselves). A GM sets up situations in game and outside of game so that everyone around the table can have fun.
The big difference between a table top RPG and a computer RPG like WoW or Fallout 3 is the game master. There’s an actual intelligent person facilitating things and keeping things moving smoothly and the way it’s supposed to, so the role is a key one.
However, the whole experience is not just the responsibility of the game master: a lot of it is on players as well. If you show up at the game table with a character that doesn’t fit the setting or doesn’t get along with the party, you’re not playing the game right. Just as the GM is supposed to provide the adventure and setting so everyone can work together, the players need to do their part by providing a character that goes along with that.
Monte has run into that question again and again both at home games and at seminars of how to deal with such a player. Players not taking adventure hooks is not the GM’s fault. You’ve got to want to play the game.
Q: Isn’t it metagaming to create a character that just goes along with adventure hooks?
A: It’s slightly different. If you’ve created the character to be disruptive, then you should make a different character. If the roles were reversed, and the GM showed up with a Champions adventure to a D&D session, it wouldn’t fly. The social contract says that everyone works together.
Q: How do you feel about targeting players’ interests (like identifying their Robin Laws player type) and designing around them?
A: The biggest difference between a game designer and a game master: a GM has a huge advantage in that he knows the players. A game designer can make the adventures as cool as he can, but he won’t know the characters and players taking part of it. The GM has the ability to shape things around the players and PCs. If you’ve got a guy who loves puzzles (within moderation) make sure there’s puzzles.
Of course, you run into a problem is mixed groups. The answer is to balance likes. It’s not hard: in any other social interactions, it’s the same situation. If you’re at a party with a guy who loves to talk politics, and one guy who leaves the room when politics comes up, you strike a balance. Again, the GM is the “Facilitator of the Fun.” You don’t provide all the fun, but make it possible for everyone to contribute to it.
Q: So a GM is like a party host?
A: “It really is.” You never want to play an RPG with someone that you wouldn’t want to go out to dinner with. It’s all social interaction: if you don’t like them enough to eat dinner with them, why spend 4 hours every week playing with them?
That’s where the metaphor ends, without getting into “gaming hors d’oeuvres”… maybe that’s what the ranger’s foe is?
Q: What are you currently running?
A: Two games, both D&D. One is all Underdark. Players were told at the beginning they were never going to see the surface. When the game started, they thought it would be a “Voyager” or “Gilligan’s Island” where the goal would be to get back. Which is fine: but the campaigns ends when they succeed. It’s not spoiling the campaign idea to tell your players where they’re going.
Monte is a big proponent of giving a number of choices. It’s not quite a sandbox game, more of a limited sandbox where there’s an overall framework. If you’re running a game that is city based with urban intrigue, and the players announce that they’re going to explore the wilderness, it takes some time to plan OR you can tell the players that’s what you’re not prepared to run.
The other game is a playtest is for “Dungeon A Day.com” (but he wasn’t trying to make it into a plug).It’s a dungeon campaign being built one encounter at a time. The playtest for that.
He has a group that he’s been promising to run Call of Cthulhu for (his major love) but it hasn’t happened yet.
Q: The audience member is running Age of Worms. He has Rogue character in his game who was happy early on when there was lots of stuff to sneak attack, but later in the campaign her interest in tapering off because there’s more undead and other things that can’t be sneak-attacking. Since he’s running a module, he doesn’t have time to adjust on the fly.
A: Monte is a big fan of games where the PCs have a lot of distinctions, where every character feels different. But if one character has a strength and another has a weakness, the focus can get off in a campaign. The only advice for that is to try to adjust, even though he said he doesn’t have time. Convention games are different than home games: they have a different set of unwritten rules for running. In an ongoing home campaign, the most important thing is to know what the PCs can and cannot do.
When working on 3e, Dire Animals were put in because the Rangers and Druids didn’t have enough to use their animal abilities on at higher levels. They were very aware of those kinds of things when writing 3e, but it does require effort on the module writers and GMs.
As an aside, he saw a real Dire Wolf in a museum, and they’re not nearly as scary as the one in D&D. From that real creature, they decided to make “Dire everything elses.”
Q: How do you maintain a campaign when there is intrigue between individual characters? If you have characters that scheme against each other, should that be supported by the GM?
A: Totally depends on the players. Some players love it, others will have friendships ruined. When running a long term campaign, if the players have secrets, all the secrets are on the table by the 8th to 10th session. Like all games, PCs don’t know everything about each other to begin with, but they are revealed throughout the game. Even though it’s rarely played out, the PCs would be talking when resting by a camp site to regain HP.
At the same time, if you can work it out, it can be satisfying. The easiest way to tackle this is to focus on one player with a secret. It’s a cool moment when everyone around the table can gasp from what a GM reveals, but it’s even cooler when a player can do the revealing. If you can set it up so that players have something to reveal, it’s worth cultivating.
If it’s a matter of real intrigue/conflict and not being able to trust anyone, most groups can’t keep that up for that long. So much of whatever game you’re playing is about trusting each other, and success depends on it. If they can’t do that, then you lose reasons for them to stay together as a party. And then the DM has to provide reasons to stay together.
Q: How do you handle splitting the party, especially given your affinity towards providing many options?
A: It can be handled in a couple different ways. If the group is big enough and schedules provide, you can literally split the group for a few sessions and run them as separate sessions. That can be really fun. One of the really fun things about that, like what happens in the game, the two groups don’t know what’s happening in the other group. If they’re sitting at the same table, there’s not a lot of real mystery. But when separated, when the groups get together, the players have a reason to tell each other stories.
The other way to go is to do the opposite. Have everybody stay at the table. In the same way that you manage the group, move between the different parties and try to make sure that each scene gets equal time. It’s more like a book or movie this way. When both groups get into a fight, everybody rolls initiative and goes in initiative order, to mix up the screen time between groups. This can add a more dynamic feel to the fight.
Actually, on a similar note, in the Ptolus campaign went on for about 6-7 years. For most of the campaign, they were always in two groups. Groups were adventuring concurrently, and the groups would hear about what the other group was doing.
This created two really good things:
- If there was such a big challenge, both groups would meet up to deal with the big thing in the campaign, and run a big session with lots of players.
- One player (Chris Perkins) ran a character in both games. His characters were twin brothers, and sometimes they would switch groups, and not tell anyone. It came out in the course of the game, and people would start to ask which twin he was. Then it became even more complicated: one of the two characters was kidnapped by Drow, and then replaced with a spellcaster in disgiuse. Monte knew Chris well enough to know it would fly with him. Chris played the replacement.
Along those lines, the best way to do a doppelganger encounter or have a PC be replaced, is to get the player in on it. Just about every time: players love it. Players relish the idea of playing the secret evil version of themselves. It’s one of those great moments where the player gets to reveal something.
“Have you noticed whenever a situation occurs where someone is mind controlled or a duplicated, the players ALWAYS roll really really well. Sometimes to the DM’s delight.”
Q: Will there be another Ptolus print run?
A: It’s an expensive book to print. He just can’t get enough people interested to justify the cost.
Q: Being fast and flexible is a very powerful tool in a game. When you have players who just want to move and roll, do you have any tips to draw them in?
A: “As far as thinking outside the box, or roleplaying?”
Q: All of the above.
A: One of the drawbacks of any game that has a lot of codified rules and tries to handle many situations is that if you give someone 20 options, they stop thinking outside those 20 options. In his games, he mechanized it, sort of.
If someone comes up with really cool ideas, even if it shouldn’t work, there are Hero Points. A Hero Point is given for these ideas. They can be used later on to help you do more crazy things. They make it possible. What are the rules for those? He tells his players there are a bunch of rules for them, but really they’re all lies, because all they do is make things possible. They aren’t hard and fast rules, and they’re all situational. If I’m asking players to think outside the box, I have to think outside the box too.
For example, a wwo-handed sword thrown across the room to try and hit the dragon in the eye. Pretty cool but impossible. At the table, he just says make an attack roll. Hero Points don’t make it an automatic success, but it makes it much more likely for things to happen, or setup things to lead to other things.
You can’t just encourage people to do it, you need to reward people for doing it. Hero Points can save your life too, so they’re important to gain.
Q: If players realize that you’re just BSing things like Hero Points, do they complain?
A: Part of being a good game master is being a good actor. Even if you’re rolling all the dice in the open, it’s sometimes good for the DM to pretend like things are different than what they are so the players can’t just read your face. The players in his game have not figured out how Hero Points work.
Players are great when they go along with DM moves like that. You’re there to make everyone else have fun, so the less they can worry about how the rules work and the more about the story and their character, the more they’re going to start thinking outside the box. Stop worrying about doing something and a five foot step.
One thing he loves is playing with brand new players. They don’t know the rules, so they say “this is what I would do if I were that guy.” One of his favorite Call of Cthulhu experiences involved a new player. In the basement of an old house, a vampire showed up. The players experienced with D&D immediately tried to find weapons. The new player instead said her character stands there and screams… because it was a vampire. (Eventually she threw her shoe at it and ran).
The best player is the kind who has never read Lovecraft but would like it if they did, and never played roleplaying game but would like it if they did.
Q: What is a good way to do self evaluation as a DM?
A: Ask the players.
Q: Other than that?
A: It comes down to something as simple as asking “did everyone have a good time?”
Monte’s biggest shortcoming as a DM is that he forgets things. Lots of cool things are planned in a single encounter, but he’ll forget parts. The less he can forget, the better off.
What that comes down to is knowing what your shortcomings are as a DM, then trying to work on them. Look back at the game you just ran and analyze what you did, what worked, and if it was better than 6 months ago. Figure out what you don’t do as well as other DMs, and slowly work on those aspects. Also accept your own shortcomings: there are so many things that go into being a good DM, and no one can be good at all of them.
“I run great games with wonderful stories and engaging NPCs, but I can’t do accents and voices. that’s OK. Nobody can be great at everything.”
Q: Have any tactics used to mitigate forgetting?
A: He is a Game Master who believes in preparation. All GMs have to do some improvisation and seat of your pants stuff, because players always do something unexpected, but prepare in advance as much as you can. For Monte’s games, each adventure has 3 pages of notes or so. Make a bunch of notes to yourself. Anticipate the things that you will probably forgot, and put those on a post-it note and attach it so it stands out. Putting stuff with sticky notes on the screen works helps too. When possible, mentally tie the easily forgettable to something else.
“Octagon shaped room tied to guy hiding behind the statue.” Think of something visual to tie them together.
Q: Do you roll the dice behind the screen?
A: “Most of the time.”
A: Not because he’s a big fudger and liar. Monte wants the freedom to fudge something, but almost never does. Uses the screen for D&D, but not other games. Smart players (who sit close) do the math and figure out all the math. He doesn’t like to encourage math-metagaming. Because he rolls behind a screen, when it’s really important, he can roll outside the screen for added drama. When rolling the die in the open, everyone stops and realizes how important it is.
When a player has the dramatic roll, it’s better, but sometimes, the important roll has got to be from the DM. One of those quintessential game moments is when someone is tossing a d20 and everyone’s eye is on it. He shoots for one of those moments not quite every session, but maybe almost every other session.
Q: If players keep getting themselves a slug fest, do you have any suggestions for pulling games out of it? I have a player who the others follow, and he charges in.
A: “Are they doing that because it’s fun and they like to have big fights?”
Q: Short-sightedness… they run out of resources pretty quickly.
A: Lots of times GMs ask questions like “my players are always doing this…” and they’re having fun, in which case it’s the GM that needs to change. Otherwise, a lot of it can be done in character, in game. When they do make some plans or think ahead, really reward them. It can be heavy handed, but include an NPC that suggests other courses of action, though you can’t use that too often.
He’s a big fan of rewarding players when they do things you want them to do, and less of a fan of punishing them.
Q: If the central concept of being a DM as being facilitator of fun: what defines fun? Losing isn’t fun either.
A: There is a balance that can be reached between the fun of succeeding and the tangible perception of failure (or possibility of failure). There doesn’t have to be an actual possibility of failure, just the perception. Ideally you have an actual one. It’s just a matter of gauging that balance. If you can set things up so that when PCs fail, they can look back and say, “I can see here why we failed, and we won’t do that next time.” If that failure doesn’t mean TPK, it can just become the setup for next adventure.
Q: The not fun right now moments can turn into moments the players talk about for years.
A: Fiction writers will take characters that readers identify with (like Frodo and Sam) and want to succeed, and then put them through hell. For some perverse reason, that’s enjoyable. The same is true in roleplaying games. Everyone wants to enjoy the game, but they like it when they’re overwhelmed but pull it out in the end. Lose the battles, win the war (and win some of those battles). As long as there a chance or feeling that they could lose, that’s what is important.
This is another point where Game Masters are often good actors because you know things the players don’t know, like how far or close they are to failing. Sometimes you lead them to believe the reverse. A big part of being a GM, and it’s nothing about rolling dice, is to manage the expectation of the players. It can be fun and rewarding to make the players think that they’ve made the wrong choices, but in the end they pull it off (but actually all the choices were the right ones… it leads to tension and drama).
Q: Those players who do a lot of math and calculating: would you prefer that they don’t do it, or keep it to themselves, or…?
A: It doesn’t bother him all that much, just a little bit. It bothers him when they’re so focused on the game minutiae that it detracts from other parts of the game. Nothing can bring a climatic encounter to a halt faster than someone saying “if you power attack, the odds go up…” Probabilities and stuff can ruin that. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t do it, but he prefers they keep it to themselves.
Q: Ever been in a situation where you feel like you’re going to die UNLESS you do the math?
A: Sometimes it’s important for the players to know if they’re in over their heads. They often feel like they have to figure out that they rolled an 18 and missed, and it’s kind of metagaming to know they can’t hit the AC, but it’s important for the players to know they’re in over their head.
Players need to have the information needed to make informed decisions, so sometimes they need to do that math, however, a good GM can convey those kinds of ideas and information without having to find out what the monster’s AC is. Describe how all the attacks bounce off the dragons scale, and how the dragon is not worried at all. They don’t have to metagame: it’s in character.
The actual answer is Yes, but a good GM shouldn’t have to.
Q: Going back to Vampire example with the new player, how did it end?
A: She just ran.
On the subject of running away, it happens so infrequently that the group wisely chooses to run away, he almost always lets the group get away if they decide to flee. If they’re clearly outclassed and decide to run, there’s every reason to reward that. It happens so rarely. There’s a real PC mentality of “we’re the PCs, we’ll win in the end” and sometimes you don’t.
Q: You say that some encounters should be ran from, but the Challenge Rating system in 3e encourages DMs to design balanced encounters…
A: “EXCEPT in the DMG it sspecifically says to make some higher level encounters.”
Q: How do you feel about individual XP rewards?
A: Monte goes into every game session with 2-3 pages of notes, and then 2-3 blank pieces of paper. By the end, those pieces of people are not blank. You want to remember ”when Sue did this, it was a really good idea and I want to reward that.” If anything for the campaign was made up on the fly, note that.
On the topic of NPC names: come to every session with 100 NPC names, and cross them off as you use them. “This is the tavern owner”. 9 out of 10 of all Game Masters come up with terrible names on the fly. The list is divided into “elves, dwarves, etc.” so they’re appropriate, and they’ll last 10 sessions at least.
Keep track of those things on the blank sheets. Some GMs will slow the game down to write notes, and “that blows.” After you’ve run a lot of games, you realize there’s a lot of time when you’re at the table not doing anything. When the players are discussing, that’s the time to make notes and reminders. Don’t even listen in- that way, there’s a surprise for the GM. Unless, of course, the bad guy has an active divination spell..
Sometimes people ask “how do you play a character or NPC whose smarter than you are?” It’s hard for a player, but easy for a DM. The DM can just use the metagame knowledge. If you abuse it, the players just assume that you’ll always foil their plan. You can do the opposite too: if you have a real idiot NPC, make sure that the NPC falls for a PC plan completely. Even if it’s something he wouldn’t normally do, it seems appropriate to his intelligence.
Q: Any recommendations on scaring the hell out of characters without just throwing a big monster in Survival Horror? Or scaring players?
A: He had a D&D player that couldn’t get into horror games because, the player said, “you’re only pretending to be scared.” Lots of things that can be done.
Add an aura of creepiness on a subtle level by using weird psychological tricks. Set up seats so that players have their backs to an open door, but you facing the door. Keep looking over their heads at the open door (but don’t call attention to it). They start to pick up on it and feel strange.
Doing stuff with lights is a great thing. From wherever you are, having total control of lights to suddenly make the room pitch black (suddenly brightly lit) can be very effective. Same with sounds and music. Keep sound effects files on a laptop, cued up to suddenly make it scream.
One particular startling trick: throw an old glass jar into a box to make it shatter when something bursts into a room. Lot of little things like that. It has bothing to do with what’s going on in the game, but everything of what’s going on in the room. There’s a million tricks like that.
Q: Not paying attention when players are collaborating: is there any advice to get them to collaborate with each other and not just talk to the GM?
A: Nothing comes to mind; there may not be a problem with that. It hasn’t needed a lot of encouragement if it’s something important. If the GM stresses it’s big and important enough, everyone wants to put in their two cents.
Thanks to Monte Cook for putting on the seminar and the audience for asking such great questions. Coming soon: Monte’s seminar on dungeon design.