Hi! I thought I’d start off my gamemaster tips with a few simple, but central, ideas.
Pacing, Pacing, Pacing
I’ve given this advice for years without complaint. This has got to be the most important thing a gamemaster does. In fact, by my experience, if you have players who’ll ‘do their own thing’, this is actually all you need to do (that and react to whatever the players throw at you.) There are two main reasons I put this at the top of my list. First of all, as players, the participants in your game keep rather close watch over their possessions (character, spotlight, niche, et cetera); they usually have problems with the conflict of interests (spotlight time vs. sharing). Worse, whether they know it or not, by this issue alone will they judge you (and rather harshly).
What do you do? I’m glad you asked!
Cut to the Chase
Dropping the players into the milieu and letting them figure things out on their own is usually a big waste of time, their time. What you want to do is cut out the fat, right up front. In fact, you should cut it so closely that you leave the beginning bleeding slightly. That means beginning with a player’s choice (player choice must always seem to have the biggest effect on play). For example, let’s say one of the players wants to use his streetwise roll to research something the players are on about. Do you a) run several street-side encounters checking each for info rolls (including running the failures), b) roll the dice and just tell them something (truth based on the die roll) or c) start the scene with them in the back room of a dive being browbeat by three heavies and a cardsharp who want to know how much the player knows and wants to use a little excessive force to remind them to stop asking too many questions?
I thought so.
To do this, you have to always imagine the worst. What’s the worst that can happen? Next you turn that into a complication on whatever the player(s) wants. How would that really stop them? (And not just a dead end; never, ever, use a ‘dead end’; use a complication.) Now, consider how well the player succeeded in their die roll; that’s right, imagine the worst and think about how the character would pull it out in the end (at that success rating). How well did they roll? Now start the scene at that exact point. Do they trick the supporting characters or how do they get out of it? (Leave the ‘how” up to them and just make them think on their feet.) That is how you ‘cut to the chase’ (sometimes literally).
Fill the ‘Gutters’ with Blood
Everyone knows there’s no more powerful pacing killer than a droning completist description. We also know that the imagination is a wonderful thing, a wonderful, horrible, terrifying thing. (Misuse it every chance you get! What else are gamemasters for?) In comics, the artist tells you a story; but unlike all other media, he often tells it to you with the parts you cannot see. For example, panel one: an image of a madman chasing a panicked victim with an axe. Panel two: a nightscape punctuated by a blood-curdling scream. Where did the axe fall? Did you see that what happened? No. But you ‘see’ it in your imagination. Like Scott McCloud would put it, you conspire with the killer where to plant the axe; you are as guilty of the murder as he is. This is referred to as filling the ‘gutters’ with blood. (The gutter is that blank space between comic panels.)
The same sort of thing happens just as well in gamemastering. If you describe the chase scene passing before the players’ characters’ eyes and then jump to a poetic description of the scream from ‘out of sight’, the players imaginations will go into overdrive. Even if you never describe the scene of the crime (and I strongly advise you not to, directly) they will have a very vivid picture of what happened in their minds. (If they go to where it happened, you won’t need to describe it; just describe the gut reaction the characters would have and their imaginations will do the rest.) So it goes; the best descriptions ever given by the gamemaster are made up of the things they don’t describe. (If you still need help with this one, shoot me an email or comment below.)
When All Else Fails, Run an Action Scene
What do you do when the players seem do everything they can to make things slow and boring (especially to the other players)? Your first line of defense: short circuit what they’re doing. For example, if they want to search, have them make just one roll for the whole room. Another example, if they want a survey of the haunted keep, ask them how they want the keep to be (a quick pass-fail decision later, it’s over). Second line of defense: close the scene and ‘cut to the chase’ for the next one. And if those aren’t workable, use the ultimate solution: turn it into an action scene!
Every role-playing game setting has what I would call, a ‘dynamic’ background1). This means there’s always ‘something going on’ in the milieu. The reason this is important is it will be the single greatest source of action in your game. Are the players engaged in dull dialogue? Where did those ring-wraiths come from? Players musing over the ruins of a mall? When did those hunter/killer droids notice us? Players arguing about rebuilding a shotgun? When did those zombies break in that basement window?
Jumping to the action without closing the scene is the most effective (if not most clumsy) ways of salvaging both tension and pacing. As I’ll get into in a later tips article, to make play continuously engaging, you will have to constantly increase the tension level. (In other words, if tension stays the same, the players will become inured to it; if it falls, you’ve walked right into a disappointing anti-climax and are begging the players to go do something else.)
One of the toughest things to remember is that not all action is physical. I mean, sure a gunfight or a chase will definitely get their attention, but that isn’t all there is. Other direct forms include things like a romantic tiff, nearly getting noticed being up to something, familial confrontations or employment endangerments. Indirect methods offer even more alternatives; you can dial up the tension by reminding them of, or creating, a time limit (the classic race against time!), exposing a lucky break, revealing a new ‘wanted’ status, et cetera. The point is, if anyone looks bored, it’s time to kick it up a notch!
Fade to Black Remember why I laid out how to ‘cut to the chase’? Perhaps the next most important aspect of scenes after how you start them is when you end them. Like I said before, since the players are paying more attention to ‘their stuff’, they can’t make the best choices on beginning or ending a scene. One thing I can guarantee is that if you trim all your scenes down to just the meat of teh awesome, your players will see nothing but how great of a gamemaster you are. The more blood you spill cutting short the ending of a scene the more frenzied your players will be for more (as if you ran a cliffhanger, if you didn’t).
Would you rather a) start a new scene only when it looks like no one has any ideas left for the current one; b) let the players poke around afterwards, looting the mooks and stealing everything not nailed down (talk about a buzz-kill) or c) end the scene just as the last body falls, with brass still tinkling on the ground, cross-fading to the next scene of player awesomeness?
I already know your answer to that one.
What about all those piddly details? Hey, it’s the players’ game; assume the best for them. If they ask for retroactive details, let them have them; it can’t harm what you’ve got cooking and might spice things up! If they keep it verisimilar or in-character-likely, no harm, no foul.
Here’s how it really works: as play progresses, you’ll be keeping track of what’s been done per the overall game; when you sense that something significant or memorable has happened, you start looking for an exit. Does this move the game, if not forward, in some significant direction? Look at everything past this point for the coolest thing to happen in this scene. Does this (what is happening right now) bring down teh awesome? And don’t forget, you can always make anything they do have ‘more awesomeness’ with your descriptions. Can I amplify this in some sneaky way?
The most important ingredient of any good scene is its complications; the scene has to resolve, start or escalate some complication that affects the game and the players. It doesn’t even have to be one that the players were after or one you have planned; as long as the complication goes away, rises up in their way or morphs into something worse, everything is good.
Complications are the language all gamemasters mush learn to speak, at least to themselves. The resolution of a complication must lead to one of three things; to a complication already ‘in play’, to an interruption or to a new one. Use common sense to make the connections. Well, on second thought, use stupid sense; make sure the connection is so obvious that only an idiot would miss it. (No matter what you do, the players will probably expect a trick; therefore you never need use one. But always try to avoid this sensation unless it increases tension.)
No doubt the players will succeed or fail at what they attempt, regardless of how that affects the complication. If they fail, it has to lead to another try, a different try or simply the response you could expect from the adversary 2). In their winning, you must reflect a pronounced affect on the world, usually the response you could expect for someone messing with the status quo. Finally, if it turns out a pyrrhic victory, the best thing you can do is create mystery and intrigue 3) based on it.
In brief, here’s how you (know how to) end a scene: wait until something ‘happens’, find teh awesome and cut there. One of the best side effects is that it will leave them talking about the scene while you figure out how to ‘cut to the chase’ with the next one. Never forget to assume the best for anything regarding the players that doesn’t get played out.
I’d like to leave you with this; all this underscores something I’ll get to in another article: only keep track the complications!