Rucht Lilavivat, Dragon Con Table Top Gaming Track Director, and Sean Molley joined in a virtual discussion Sunday at 5PM on Dragon Con TV’s Fan Track channel to share tips every game master can use. Both have won the Dragon Con Top Game Master Award before and collectively have more than sixty years of gaming experience. They began with a conversation about the dice, the “third intercessor” in a game.
When to roll the dice is a fundamental decision every game master (GM) must make. It’s important, Sean pointed out, that a GM not roll the dice unless the outcome is going to be interesting for the story. In other words, if failure’s not an option, don’t let the dice put you in that situation! As a GM you must use your discretion and focus on investment in the story.
Lilavivat then turned to the concept of social contracts in gaming and the importance of making sure everyone understands the parameters that will define the game. Here Session 0 takes on a special importance, for the GM can use it to establish the culture of the game. Spending some time laying down the expectations and explaining the kind of game folks are there to play at the beginning is time well spent. Part of these conversations must include matters of consent. There’s a lot of discussion across the gaming community regarding this issue, and Lilavivat recommends that if you’re running an online game encourage players to use the chat tool to send the GM an “X” is they’re uncomfortable with the direction the game is taking.
Molley admitted that he is terrible at coming up with names on the spur of a moment. So, he recommends that GM’s have a list of names prepared beforehand. There are a lot of resources available, especially The Storyteller’s Thesaurus by James M Ward & Anne K. Brown as well as several adventure books from which the GM can draw. Having the list prepared in advance can make game play smoother and less stressful.
It’s important for a GM to know and read the personalities at the table. In particular, the panelists recommend the GM get identify the “alpha” player. Lilavivat describes the alpha as the person who is never late, always attends, and is the most enthusiastic. This person is really committed to the game. A GM can use that person to help not just to carry the group but to help the GM with tasks such as record keeping (damage during a large battle etc.) At the same time the GM must be aware of folks who have disengaged and think of ways to draw them back in. Pay attention to negative body language, and don’t be afraid to ask that person to contribute to the scene at that moment.
It’s also important to allow the players to provide bits and pieces of world building as the narrative proceeds. For instance, a player asks if there’s an alley. The GM can reply “yes, what do you see at the end of it?” This brings the players further into the world. Lilivivat also recommends the GM incorporate music and ambient noise into the game and enhance its atmosphere. He recommends GMs visit Tabletop Audio (tabletopaudio.com) which is free.
Trust and consistency on the part of the GM are absolute essentials to a successful game. Several of the panelists’ tips grew out of this requisite. Molley discussed “GM voice” which is a baseline neutral voice. This is the tone he uses when relaying information as the GM. When using the GM voice, players know that the information is factual and trustworthy. Both panelists tend to roll dice in front of the screen rather than behind to build trust. GMs can work their way out of the “uh oh, I rolled a 1” problem by following a three-step process: let the roleplay happen first, then establish the stakes of the roll, and finally allow the roll to happen.
Finally, the successful GM must learn how and when to “draw the curtain.” If a scene is completely dragging the GM can end it in two ways: narrate it out or make something happen. You want to change the scene in a way that characters must act. Always remember—nothing acts like action!