Many people and many different game systems will give many different opinions on what makes a successful Game Master. In the world of pen and dice RPGs, Game Masters or GMs are at their core storytellers, referees, and character actors rolled into one. When one considers the procedures and why to master the game, one must understand what an RPG really is at its core. RPGs at their core are made up of a group of players who, under the guidance of a Game Master, go on a mission while portraying people of a heroic nature in a fantasy land.
The GM has the dual purpose of presiding over the rules of the game system and maintaining the illusion of the game world in which it takes place. The game master provides the essence of the game world and is the source of its physical realities, situations, and possibilities through the art of descriptive storytelling and character performance. There are a host of tools designed by a host of game companies, fan groups, and individuals to assist the master of the game in creating the player’s universe. These tools execute the reference book tactic for completing adventure scenarios with scripts and maps. However, the seasoned DJ knows that these are only tools to help present the individual game adventure and feel of the game world.
As the master of the game, you use the rules or texts of the game system of whatever game world you are playing in as a source for the physical realities of that world. In these texts you will find the “nuts and bolts” that make the game playable. You will also find a descriptive story or backstories to help you present the world environment of the game as intended by its creators. However, these books should not be used as step-by-step guides, such as those written for board games. Rather, they serve the dual purpose of providing the mechanisms by which game elements, such as combat, movement, and achievements are regulated, and impart a global view of the game world. Understanding the dice roll rule systems, cue tables, and use of items is essential to being a GM, as it is obviously necessary for the game. However, of equal importance and possibly greater scope is being the narrator who presents the world of the game and all its characteristics, physical laws, situations and characters. The last part of being a DJ is usually more elusive as it requires one to use their imagination and storytelling skills to verbally lead players into a fantasy world.
It is important to remember that there is no set scenario, even if it is intricately written with many optional variations. Making an effective DJ that will be enjoyable for both players and DJs involves using a little imagination and flexibility. As each player will perceive the game world according to their point of view, the game will never be exactly as described on the stage – this is where imagination comes in.
There is always room for story drift, and as a DJ, you can add your own “twist” to the stage by modifying its structure and intended sequence of events to suit the flow of the game. By making the story your own, you avoid the possible and sometimes tedious step-by-step “A” to “B” feeling of a scenario with a restricted script. By allowing the setting to become a free-flowing adventure, the DJ interacts with the players, using their ideas and insights to create an interactive story that everyone is a part of.
Essentially, it’s fine if the player characters want to veer off the stage and run off to get drunk or go shopping for new weapons. These deviations can be added to the setting or can even be provided by the presence of places like towns and cities designed for such purposes. This gives the DJ the opportunity to be more creative in their interpretation of the game script while allowing players to experience their own “twist” on the game stage.
Returning players to the stage objective can be as simple as engaging them in a bar fight or accusing them of cheating a merchant. Any number of non-player characters designed for the GM to use in the mission settings can be inserted or even invented by the game’s masters to guide players back on track when needed. Players’ actions often need to be manipulated if they stray too far from the plot. In the same way, the game sometimes becomes more fun if the master of the game allows the story to precede in its own direction guided for a time by the actions of the players.
Non-player characters or NPCs are any creature, from a simple monster to a useful ally played by the game’s master and often described or written in adventure stories that add depth and interaction to an adventure. The NPCs played by the game master are not intended solely as scripted automata used to complement combat or appear in a location doing one thing as they do in many video games. Rather, they can be as comprehensive and flexible as necessary within the limits of their abilities, as described in scenario texts or rule books. Non-player characters are one of the primary means by which the GM guides and directs players and the game setting through their location, intent, and mission knowledge. For example: a player decides to deviate from the scenario script to get drunk.
The GM can use an NPC as a drinking buddy, the antagonist who starts a bar fight, or the person who breaks the player out of jail and back to the stage objective. NPCs are essential to any RPG and invaluable tools for the DJ to use as they are the co-stars, protagonists, and filler that provide the interactive aspect of the game world. Since you, as the game master, represent the NPCs, you can use them to slow or improve the player’s progress throughout the adventure. They are a very good way to give clues to lost players who get stuck or lose important clues to reach the mission objectives. In the case of Monster NPC, you are the direct adversary of the players, as you make all the monsters attack rolls and try to damage the players.
Aside from playing the role of hostile NPC game masters, they shouldn’t view their role as an adversary, as an RPG is not a competition between players and the GM. Rather, it is a challenge presented theatrically for players with danger and reward presented in the context of a loosely scripted theme or story. While the game master is (usually) the only one who sees maps and descriptions that may include the location of traps and hazards, this does not necessarily create a confrontational situation between GMs and players. DJs who play to “kill” player characters often lose players and don’t play fun games. In a sense, the game master is analogous to the god of the game world in that he has all the foreknowledge of every bad situation and the huge payoff players are likely to face would be too easy to manipulate into danger. There is really no challenge or enjoyment in this style of mastery of the game and it is not considered to be in the spirit of the RPG genre. Having said that, there are many occasions when the game master will not reveal the presence of an unseen or lurking danger, as the flow of the story or the player’s actions do not warrant a warning.
RPGs are largely “real world” in terms of the player’s actions or lack thereof that determine the outcome of a given situation. There are many cases where players can simply forget to use that magical hazard detection ability or simply not look before jumping. In these cases, GMs never consider themselves adversaries if they do not tell the players things that they could not have seen or known. This can sometimes cause disputes and this is when your knowledge of game mechanics or rule processes takes on its value. If players run into danger or lose a battle or fall for a trap, they can often ask if there is a die they can roll or a table they can look at to see if they can escape or win. In most cases, the occurrence of dangerous or challenging situations automatically invokes a die roll.
However, it is up to the GM to decide what to shoot and when and by whom for a given situation. All of this knowledge is included in various game texts produced by the creators of the various adventures or systems for which they are designed. The sometimes tricky part occurs due to the “free form” nature of RPGs that creates situations that are sometimes in the gray areas of the rules and do not directly invoke a specific die roll or decision driven by rules. The masters of the game in this situation must decide which rolls to apply and, at times, make a roll or judgment decision in the spirit of the rule system being used. Possessing a good working knowledge of the rules, the game world, and the general idea behind how everything is supposed to work, GMs can make these decisions on the fly quite easily and fairly.
The bottom line for a good DJ is that you, the GM, are the creator of illusion and the administrator of the natural laws of the gaming world. It’s your adventure and you run it in the hopes of providing players with an immersive fantasy adventure that gives its characters ample opportunity for personal gain and glory, while providing enough danger and challenge to make it exciting to play.