For someone just testing out the waters of running their own role-playing game, I’ve boiled down the top 5 things (in my opinion) you can focus on in order to run a successful session. I’ve skipped over the obvious ones like “know the rules” and “have dice handy for players.” These focus on more non-obvious elements of the craft. Keep them in mind and it will be very hard to go wrong. The numbering of these means little. None are more important than the other and each of them, individually, actually work hand-in-hand with the other 4.
As a side note, I actually don’t like the word “master” in these titles because I think it separates that player out from the other players at the table. I prefer to use Gamehost and will use this interchangeably throughout the article.
1.) This is NOT a board game.
One of the things that always bothered me about role-playing games is that they are called “games.” It came about because they grew out of military simulation games and to a larger extent, the title makes sense. However, when most of us think about games, especially someone new to the hobby, you think of your typical family board or card game; like Chess, Risk, Monopoly, Dominoes, Yahtzee, Spades, etc.
In those games, the goal is to “win” the game. There is typically competition and struggle with the other players at the table. The players care less about the environment of the game and more about what the other players are doing.
This is where beginning, sometimes young, Gamemasters often fall into trouble. It says on the box it’s a game. There are dice. There are other players. It must be a competition. Because their job is to build the environment the characters will be adventuring within, they build their adventures with the intent of competing against the PLAYERS of those characters. They build their adventures and dungeons with the forefront idea being, “How do I kill these characters?” This in turn generates the idea from the players that the Gamemaster is “out to kill their characters.” Which, in turn, can bring about hard feelings, anger and strong competition against other players.
This is not how it typically works.
Unless the role-playing game is set up to be competitive (which does exist) a good session is typically the opposite of all of those ideas. Players work together to tell a fun, exciting story and the competition is against not other players but the environment WITHIN the game.
A new Gamehost needs to remember they are like a set designer for a series of performances, a director of a series of movies, or a writer creating the scenes where the characters are going to interact. You are building up problems and situations for the troupe of players to work against and to, hopefully, overcome together. In a story driven role-playing game there should be no losers.
If you are new to the Gamemaster gig it might also help to remind your players of this as well if they are new. Remind them that you are not in competition with each other and that you are the world builder and scene-maker. The rest is up to them.
2. Respect your players and their character’s narrative.
In most situations, as a Gamehost, you will be running a game for friends. Hopefully, you already know and respect them and are looking forward to spending time with them. So, #2 should not be a problem, right?
Try to pay attention and respect a character’s narrative. What is a character’s narrative? It is the individual pieces of the character that makes them who they are in the story. James Bond is a daring, wisecracking assassin who has cool gadgets, fast cars and an eye for the ladies. Black Widow is a successful Russian spy who relies on her skills in deception, psychology, disguise, and combat skills. The things that occur to them in their stories directly relate to who they are as characters. You would not expect either one of them to suddenly become cowboys. And, as far as that goes, you wouldn’t expect Rooster Cogburn to be a daring spy.
This is the character’s narrative.
Don’t ignore it or put it to the side. I think this is the real “art” of Gamehosting in that you want to try and accommodate everyone at the table as best you can with some element of their character’s story. The Outlaw gets to be sneaky or devious. The Wizard gets to fiddle with ancient magic or save the group with spells. The Monk gets to provide her wisdom and show off her fighting style.
Occasionally, you may find yourself running a game with someone at the table you do not know as well or perhaps running a game at a convention where you know no one at all. It is still important to respect the people joining you at the table and the story they would like to tell in your setting.
Oftentimes, the easiest way to let a characters’s narrative show itself is to put the spotlight on them. When you do, let them shine and tell their story.
3. Be Flexible
Running a role-playing game is a combination of knowing when to be flexible and when you need to move the game forward. Of the two, being flexible is more important.
An example – You have put in hours of game prep and are ready for the upcoming game session. You have a clear idea of how the adventure will occur and how you will guide the players to the conclusion. Then, a player knocks everything askew with a brilliant action you never saw coming. You have two choices at that moment.
- You negate the brilliant action and push through with your idea of how the plot is “supposed” to go down with the material you’ve labored over.
- You stay flexible and use the material you have to improvise an entirely new situation and adventure even though it means losing all those hours of work.
Which do you think is going to be better for the overall health of the game? Hint: #1 is so frowned upon it has it’s own special term called “Railroading.”
An important part of being a Gamehost is knowing that, no, you are not the master of the game. You are the host of the game. Think of it in the form of party planning.
Let’s say you have planned a party for friends and you’ve spent hours getting ready. You’ve spent another handful of hours preparing a delicious appetizer. You place it on the snack table with the vegetable plate, the potato chips, and the nacho dip. When the party gets going your carefully crafted appetizer is left untouched and, instead, you are out of nacho dip. Do you force your friends to eat the appetizer they may not actually like or do you stay flexible and send someone off to the store to get more chips and nacho dip?
In a nutshell, this is Gamemastering.
Learn to be flexible and that you are here to create a fun environment for your friends. You might have to move an entire adventure’s sequence around. Based on character’s actions your game may turn into a bawdy tavern session and the dungeon may have to wait until next week. You will have to take your cues from the players. Given the party example above a good Gamehost might say, “Let’s get some more nacho dip and see if tastes good with this appetizer I made.”
Yes, there will be times that you will need to be firm about something or you will have to tell a player character “No.” Those times should be few and far between though and if you lean towards flexibility your game will always go better.
4. Be Prepared… Sort of.
You should always have the key points of your adventure, in some format, firmly in your mind before you start a session. Being a Gamehost is a tightrope act of knowing what to be prepared for before the session begins and what to not have worked out at all. This might be several pages of notes in a notebook, maps and some key points on important NPCs or it might literally be four lines of hastily written down bullet points on an index card.
A good way to do this is to simply understand how you think your plot or story line will begin and end. These can give you some guideposts that help you navigate a gaming session. There will be times you have to scrap one or the other or both but it’s always good to start out with them in place. Even if you do have to scrap them you can often craft your new starting or end points from the remains of the old ones.
Each Gamemaster is different on how they prepare but the bottom line is they are always prepared in their own fashion. You’re not going to be able to have every possibility covered. You will go crazy trying to do this or, in doing so, you will run a greater chance of railroading your players towards all these details you passionately worked out.
Have just enough prepared so that you can run the game but leave some things open so you can be surprised by a few twists and turns yourself.
5. Communication Cures All Ills
Repeat this with me – Telepathy is not a known skill. Now, every time you are about to start a game repeat that to yourself three times.
The players cannot read your mind and you cannot read theirs. All you can do is make educated decisions about what a person is thinking based on prior experience. If you rely on those alone then you stand a good chance of being wrong at a critical time. (And, if by chance, you are reading this and are telepathic, my apologies. If you need a sidekick, let me know!)
I feel a game can run smoothly if the Gamehost takes the time to communicate with the players about any and all expectations being placed on the table. This does not have to be a complicated process which takes a lot of time. Simply making sure everyone around the table understands why they are here, what the expectations are and the ground rules which are in place will go a long way to making for a smooth game.
An example – A Gamehost wants to run a heroic fantasy game but she doesn’t want to deal with evil characters being played. During the initial organization of the game she makes this very clear to all the players. She might also state that if any character starts to act evil she will turn that character into an NPC and the player will need to make a new character. After making sure everyone understands how that might work, through something like a series of warnings or Shadow Points, the game can move forward.
Role-playing is a creative, communication based activity and because of this, and the fact we are human, emotions will make themselves known during a game. If expectations are communicated clearly at the beginning and throughout the different sessions this will help keep everyone in a good space around the table.
In return, the Gamehost needs to listen when players are trying to communicate as well. A player may state a clear goal of their character but is not sure how to proceed forward. Situational questions from a character’s point of view will need to be cleared up so the player can make a clear decision.
From rules clarifications, to describing an environment, to managing expectations around the table, you will need make sure clear communication is in place. As the one that has brought everyone together to play the session, this is going to fall on you to implement and model. Don’t worry though. It’s not complicated. Just make sure everyone is on the same page when you are playing.
Remember, Gamehosting is a craft and the more you practice it the better you will become at understanding it’s subtle complexities. Always take a moment after a game to review what worked and didn’t work. Believe me, there are going to be things that don’t work. There will be a few bumps along the road. Take the time to go back and review and learn from them. This is how we get better at anything we do.
The only way to know how much fun you could have is by jumping in and doing it. And, believe me, there is a ton of fun to be had!