GM Lessons: Selling the Game and Creating Encounters

I wanted to start a new video series about GMing on my YouTube channel, but I thought writing them out first on here might be a tad less scary and probably beneficial in the long run. I can get my ideas out straight here, and they can serve as a media accouterments to the videos.

First, a disclaimer. I’m by no means the most experienced GM you will ever meet. I’ve been Game Mastering for about 2 years. In that time I’ve covered a handful of different systems, listened to a lot of podcast and actual play series, as well as GM videos much like the ones I want to make. But sometimes a newcomer’s look at the topics and the hobby in general can provide a different enough viewpoint to warrant a blog/video itself. Not to mention my fervor in ‘gittin gud’ at most things I do; GMing certainly being one of them. So lets head to the first important nugget of GM tutelage I can offer:

‘GMs need to be good sales-people’

You know when you go into a shop to buy something, and the sales-person comes over to you all eager, and asks you what your looking for. Lets say your looking for a new iPad. Yes, I’m sorry, you’re talking to an Apple Genius. Feel free to abandon this imaginary encounter if you start to feel nauseous. Anyway; the first ‘Genius’ you encounter hears you want a new iPad, and starts to show you all the exciting features on one of the new models: “128 GB storage, 4G, 18-megapixel camera, three different colours!” That sounds mightily impressive, you might say, but you’re pretty sure you don’t need all those things. This (as I’m sure you’ve guessed) bad sales-person carries on trying to sell you one of the most expensive models they have. You despair, excuse yourself and try return when this person is not on their shift. Or you order online.

Scenario 2: You come back, and talk to a new person. This person hears you want an iPad, and says “OK, what do you want to use your iPad for?” You’re taken aback momentarily by the lack of verbal barrage and being put on the spot. You tell them what you’re going to use it for, but you’re open to learning about how to use it in other ways. The sales person says this is not a problem, and finds you the iPad you need. You leave not only satisfied with the purchase, but with a willingness to put your 12 megapixel camera to some decent use.

The morale of the story is: As a GM, you need to listen to your players and what they want out of the game. The GM is the creator of the world the players are going to exist in. They cannot change anything apart from through their characters. You will need to make sure that they have made the right character for the world you’ve created, and for the right campaign. I would always recommend a ‘Session 0’ before each new campaign, especially if its a new system or if players are creating new characters. Do they want lots of combat? Do they want investigation, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, teamwork, Player vs Player; do they want the campaign to stretch on for years, or just try one out for a few sessions; Are they comfortable with a sandbox, or do they want you to guide them through a pre-determined story; Serious or comedic themes; do they want to roleplay a lot of interactions, or would they prefer to do it all through dice rolls?

As you can tell, there are a lot more different types of roleplaying campaigns as there are different iPads. If you want your players to enjoy themselves, and more importantly, you want them to stick around in your group, you need to make sure they get a bespoke experience. If they’re new, they may not know what they want exactly, so try to do your best to describe the possibilities, or run a pre-written adventure module and take notes and feedback on who enjoyed what aspects, and why.

‘Create encounters, but let them float’

This is more of a personal choice for my types of campaigns I like to run, but I think its solid advice for most (new) GMs. I know that when planning a campaign, its easy to get carried away with thinking about cool scenarios for your players to be in. You may see something in a movie or read it in a book, and think “That would be so cool to do in my game!” This is fine, but you have to be willing to drop that idea like a hot potato if the players are just nowhere near close to reaching that point.

Say you had a cool idea for an ambush in the woods. You thought up this great Robin Hood type figure, you couldn’t wait to do his accent and act him out, and give your players the ‘money or your life’ speech. You create his lackeys, give them stats; maybe you’ve made a map for the clearing in the wood. But, when you start playing, the players aren’t interested in going to the woods. They’ve missed the plot-hook or clue that would make them go there, and besides, the woods are dangerous, and the party doesn’t have any survival skills! They’re going to stay and see what they can do in the city, maybe follow up on that (throwaway) character they met in the tavern.

So you’re pretty bummed by now. Instead, when you come up with your forest encounter, try to create the template for your idea, rather then setting all the details in stone. Maybe this Robin Hood figure can become more of a King of Thieves type, controlling a district of the town the players wondered into. Maybe that character they met in the tavern leads them into an ambush in an alleyway, you can still use the stats for the enemies you created, the leader can be as eloquent as your previous Robin Hood.

The idea is to have cool ideas that can work as building blocks – that can be slotted in and out of your campaign at will. Having a list of interesting encounters can round out a session and break up the main quest. This is particularly useful if you’ve skimped on preparation, and need to pad out the evening’s session. Depending on the type of campaign you’re playing, players may also be open to side-quests, given enough clear incentive. Defeating the gang of thieves may give you an opportunity to learn something useful about the main quest, or earning their respect can lead to them helping you out in something you couldn’t do – they could even go to the forest for you! If the players find a great way to interact with your encounter, let them.

Be wary though of throwing these encounters at players undeservedly. I know its tempting when players are doing very well, to turn up the heat a bit. But take a close look: did you make the game too easy, or are they just playing well? If its the latter, let the players have their reward – let them win and feel good about it. Rolling critical hit after critical hit MEANS they will win with ease, because they got lucky. If you were planning to have them encounter a group of thieves when they reached a certain stage of the mission, then it will happen, but if they have been clever and found a way to progress the story away from the mean streets or the woods, then let them have that satisfaction of (unknowingly) avoiding tribulations. I personally love it when my players are clever and outsmart me, then you as a GM get to experience something new and unexpected.

That’s all for my first post; two what I think solid pieces of advice for any GM. Next time will be tips about running the game itself!

Until next time.