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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #5 – Your GM Big Picture Fu is Weak

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.


If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?

Being able to reflect on one’s weaknesses as a Game Master, as with any other part of your life, if no easy thing.  We like to know, and do, what we are good at.  Things where we kinda suck are not easy to dwell on.

The challenge with Marc’s question is, for me, that I find a lot to criticize myself about.  It is just the way I am.  I worry about making each thing work in a game, I silently berate myself as I trip over rules, I worry about making sure that each person around the table is involved as much as possible, and, while I am not solely responsible for each person’s fun, I am supposed to be, as it were, the captain of fun at the table.

However, despite these foibles and anxieties, none of my moment to moment mistakes with rules, player involvement, or improvisation are a key downfall.

I really have trouble connecting a big picture with the here and now action.  I find that some very rewarding forms of storytelling, the kinds of things to which I aspire, have this kind of linkage.  It does not have to pervade every little bit, but it should be helping to run things in the background.

I have a terrible time doing it.

This is really a campaign failing.  I want to give my players a meaningful campaign, with distinct story arcs, and larger meaning in events and action.

That turns out to be hard.  I really became aware of this kind of storytelling explicitly, from television, and specifically Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Each season had a defined arc, a villain, larger plot and metaplot elements, and supporting characters that helped move them along to the exciting or tragic or apocalyptic conclusion.  Buffy as a show certainly didn’t originate this, but it is the show where I became aware of this kind of master planning, which is distinct from the purely episodic nature of an older show like the original Star Trek.  One planet one week, some starbase the next, each episode almost always self-contained.  Like a series of, at best, loosely connected one-shot adventures that happened to include most of the same core characters.

Since before I became conscious of the modern showrunner style of television, I have wanted to have all the little stories add up to a big story.  I usually could come up with the big story, the ultimate goal at which to point the players.

However, this big goal was generally too lofty and remote, and I rarely could keep a campaign going to connect all the dots to get there, let alone provide the recurring NPCs, atmosphere and foreshadowing that might drive along one adventure after another to get to the mighty MacGuffin, the Big Bad, the Final Conflict.  My imagination just seems to exceed the grasp of my plotting ability, not to mention my ability to budget time and manage players through a coherent set of stories.

What to do?

In some ways, you have to learn to manage your expectations and also to murder your darlings.  Better yet, I have to learn that.

So, here are some coping mechanisms.  Dreaming big is fine, but two things are important to keep in mind when launching your campaign ideas.  First, you need to keep your mind open to all the ideas.  You can just catalog them in your Mind Palace (if you happen to be Sherlock), or otherwise, keep notebooks, journals, or, my favorite, random scraps of paper with your evolving ideas noted down.  In most cases, don’t spend a lot of time developing them.  Just keep them as a kind of fermenting yeast out of which something great may or may not come out.  This is because of the second thing.  Secondly, you have to factor in the players.  You may have the greatest ideas every (I know I do), but, since role playing is a cooperative and collaborative activity, it does no good to set your ultimate goals if what your players want out of the game experience is something different. 

Believe it or not, sometimes what players want is old traditional episodic television.  This week they are in a dungeon, next week they are in a town, the week after that, they are on a mountain.  Nothing much connects all of this, except that the characters are all together, and they are probably getting some loot and killing some bad guys.  If that is your group (and sometimes for me it is), then you can’t squash them into your sandbox setting, where they will explore through many adventures, meet dozens of NPCs with secret motivations, finally to win their place in the community and vanquish an ancient evil that has been pulling strings behind the scenes SINCE THE FIRST ADVENTURE.

It may turn out that nobody cares.

Big dreams have to be shared dreams.  Sometimes those big dreams come together organically, by working together with players and adding some elements from your imagination soup.  That may not be as seemingly coherent or satisfying as plotting out a series of story arcs, with specific beats and some clever triggered events, but what you and your players build together will be stronger than anything you can just come up with on your own.

I have definitely found that the story elements that games like 13th Age bring to the table provide tools for that dialog between player and Game Master.  A character creation process that helps show what is special about a character (13th Age’s One Unique Thing comes to mind), what motivates the character, and what that character’s story has been up until now, provides the fertile ground in which to plant my big ideas.  Add to that drawing links between the characters (one approach I like is the “guest starring” index cards used during team creation in Evil Hat’s Spirit of the Century; but Dungeon World’s Bonds also work, as does the fascinating process here,  here and here employed by RPG and GM innovator Rob Donoghue), and you get some wide open possibilities for your big story.

Now, everyone’s experience is going to be different.  Some GMs may be able to showrun their campaigns very satisfactorily.  But this is about my weakness.

And I am still working on it.  I have a bunch of big stories towards which my current game might move along, but for now, I am finding the connections between our different adventures where I can, and always looking to incorporate my ideas, the ideas of the players, and do a reveal here and there to make it look like I planned things all along, even though I mostly made it up as I went.

Thanks to Marc for this month’s topic!

Here are some other folks that participate in our Round Table, and where I’ve been able to, the links to the responses to this specific topic.