I run more games than I play, by a very large margin. Part of this is a continual stream of game ideas I want to run…and part is the fact that all of my groups have had fewer people wishing to GM than to play. I think another part of it may be that I’m picky.
One of the big advantages of being a GM is that I get to have control over the type of game being played. Though this doesn’t mean I have total control over the story, it guarantees I have some level of control and input, and it also means that the game is what I want to play genre-wise.
My experiences as a player can be split, roughly, into two time periods: college, and before college. The games I played in college I found were almost all good. The games I played prior to college I found were almost never good. Though it may be ego talking, I don’t see that same split in the games I ran. In fact, I’m willing to say I ran more mediocre games in college, though this may simply be because I was experimenting more.
In high school, very few people ran games. And the one person who ran a game I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed as long as I was there was a guy a couple years older than me named Pete. He ran a Champions game where the players mostly used silly character premises, and in fact the whole game was pretty silly. Pete had no issues with the game being derailed or not going anywhere; to be perfectly honest, he encouraged it. And this made the game fun. I can’t remember what happened in that game, nor do I really remember any of the characters besides my own (a starship captain with a pathological inability to make decisions), but I remember having a ball.
Pete was not in my main group, though he cameoed as a pothead Rockerboy in my Cyberpunk campaign for one session. The rest of my main group was not really interested in GMing, which was a shame. Two guys ran one-shots in systems that weren’t our norm (Rifts and Ironclaw), and despite their first-timer roughness, they were fun. The only other guy in our group who had any long-term interest in GMing besides myself was, to say the least…bad at it.
There are a few cardinal sins in running a game that almost always indicate this particular game will turn out poorly. The first is railroading. Railroading refers to keeping players on a “railroad” that disallows or trivializes any actions that don’t lead to the GM’s intended plot. Now, there are exceptions to this rule. One of the players in my college group who GMed tended to run fairly linear plots, but managed to keep it from looking like railroading by giving his players an illusion of control. The easiest way to do this is to only really develop anything interesting in one direction, so your players will naturally go that way. If done well, the game can still be fun, though personally prefer handing over the reigns a bit to doing more work in developing a plot with “push”. Of course, railroading can also be done poorly, and that’s the easiest way to get everyone at the table to hate the GM…because the GM is not letting the players do what they want, and the players aren’t having fun.
The second cardinal sin is the GMPC. A portmanteau of GM and PC, a GMPC is a non-player character inserted to act as the GM’s player character. They follow the party around, are usually cooler than the party members, and somehow end up getting cooler stuff. Everyone does this at some point, I’ve done it multiple times (though mostly earlier in my gaming career). And unlike railroading, a GMPC is always bad. It may not always break the game, but it never benefits the players.
I highlight these two cardinal sins because they showed up in most of the games our other willing GM ran. He was in love with his plots and in love with his characters. Those are terrible traits to have as a GM, because the whole point is giving a degree of control to the players. Hell, they aren’t really great traits to have as a writer either; the plot will need to be revised, and it will never be exciting unless the characters go through some form of struggle or conflict. Either way, there were about three different games this guy tried to start, and we went with it every time. The last game he tried to run while I was there was a D&D game. I knew once he had his GMPC kill my character in his sleep that these games were never going to be fun. I GMed for the remainder of the time in my high school group, and everyone was happier for it.
In my college group, three of us had GM experience, but others ran games as well. One of my favorite games was actually run by a first-time GM, and was a Cyberpunk game set in Thailand. It involved a case of mistaken identity and some crazy gunfights, but it was fun, nutty, and well paced. There were a handful of other games, though I only really remember two campaigns running very long. From what I do remember, my college gaming group had more people that were willing to experiment, and willing to do crazy things for the hell of it. I know for a fact that some of the most memorable moments in the games I played in were unscripted, and I believe my players would say the same thing about my games. In short, what it has taken me 900 words to say is that GMs shouldn’t exert control on their games, instead letting the chips (and dice) fall where they may. Looking back, I can say that games run this way were fun, and the ones being railroaded or pushed by a GM character were not. Simple as that.
This weekend I’ll reflect on writer’s block. Monday, I’ll discuss my latest worldbuilding project.