Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #3 - My Evolution as a GM and Gamer

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.

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This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Scott Robinson, who asks, "How has your gaming and/or GMing changed over time?"

I started running games when I was in high school, and I’ve been running RPGs for over 20 years now. My gaming and GMing hasn’t changed as much as one might think, but there are some differences.

I used to not consider the PCs at all when I planned adventures. I just did what I wanted. Now I like to consider the players and their characters and try to find a sweet spot that combines something I’m excited and inspired to run with something the players will enjoy and fits their characters.

I used to worry a lot more about the rules. I still learn the rules, and I have a much better grasp of the rules of any system I run than I did back then. I think that’s mainly because of experience. There are far more similarities than differences  among the many RPGs I’ve played, so it’s much easier to be cognizant about the few unique things in a particular system.

However, I don’t worry about the rules anymore, which is to say I’m not overly concerned if I screw up. When I am first learning a system I will pause the game to look up a rule if needed (especially if the players are learning as well), but once I have a handle on the game, I usually will just make a ruling on the fly. I think the rules are very important long-term to preserve balance and fairness among the players and the setting, but in a case-by-case basis (short term), pacing is much more important. The way I handle it now is I will make a ruling during a session, and then look up the actual rule between sessions.

Another difference is that these days I almost always run games by the book, whereas in my early days I made house rules all over the place. I think it’s interesting that when I was inexperienced I thought myself qualified to make a lot of house rules, but as I’ve become more experienced I do this less and less. I think a lot of this has to do with the inherent arrogance of being a teenager. When you’re young, you tend to always assume you know everything and know more than others around you, but as you get older, (hopefully) you learn that people (especially professionals) often know what they’re doing.

I find it extremely frustrating as a player to play under a GM who doesn’t grasp the rules and/or decides to “improve” them. This often results in an imbalance between the player character options, or a skewing of the balance between the player characters and the rest of the game world. These house rules have very rarely been an improvement of the game in my experience.

I used to plan my games way out into the future. I’ve of course since learned not to do that for two reasons. First, you never know what the players will do, and if you try to guess you’ll probably be wrong. The farther out you plan, the less likely you will ever end up where you think you will. The second reason is I’ve found that the more I plan ahead, the less receptive I am to the players doing something I didn’t foresee because it will “screw up” this cool thing I have planned down the road. Nowadays when I do plan something relatively far out in time, I make it very general, so I can get there in numerous ways. However, I’ve learned that if I have a really cool idea, I should use it now and not in the future. I’ll always have more ideas.

One way that I think I was a better GM in the early days is that I used to do better descriptions more often, especially in combat. This is just a result of GM laziness, which becomes more and more of a problem the longer you GM. I plan to discuss GM laziness more in future episodes of my Game Master’s Journey podcast, as this is a very important topic to address.

When I first started I was very much a power gamer and GM. I often gave the PCs abilities above and beyond what a starting character had. I often advanced the characters very quickly (a level per session—sometimes more—in D&D terms). Part of this was being young and a lack of patience. I wanted to “get to the end”. Part of it was a lack of self-confidence. I wanted to give the players what I thought they wanted so they’d keep coming back.

I’ve since learned to appreciate character growth and arc. If your character starts as a demigod, there’s not much distance to travel beyond that. Also, the more powerful a character gets, the more complicated the mechanics get (this is true of every system I’m played), and the slower and more bogged-down the game gets.

I used to always go for the epic “save the world” stories. Those still have their place (Tyranny of Dragons is this kind of story, and I’m loving the campaign), but they’re also horribly over-done in fantasy.

I’ve become more and more interested in telling stories that ask questions. I love making the players face moral dilemmas; I like making them make hard choices, and then showing them the consequences of those choices.

I like to break down preconceptions and black-and-white thinking. I like turning assumptions the players make on their heads. What if the PCs met a lawful good orc, or a neutral good green dragon, or a chaotic evil celestial? My campaign world I’m building right now is based on just such an idea. I’m presenting the gods of the world not as divine, infallible beings, but as just really powerful entities that are very much flawed (just like the PCs) and may actually not be very good at their jobs.

I run more published adventures these days. Until very recently, I almost never ran published adventures. Mainly due to time constraints, I’ve been running more of them. There’s definitely a large continuum when it comes to the quality of published adventures, but when you find a good one, it can result in an amazing experience. I like being able to take what I’m given and expand on it. It allows me to come out with something much more fleshed-out than I could on my own.

A big change in the way I approach tabletop RPGs as a gamer is in my perspective of GMing versus playing. When I first started out playing RPGs, I became a game master because I couldn’t find a game. It was a thing of necessity. I always wanted to play, and I would any time I had the opportunity, but I ended up usually running the game because I couldn’t find a GM.

Now, 23 years later, I find that I prefer being the GM to being a player. There are a few reasons for that. First, I really enjoy the prep as a GM. As a player you get to play the game once a week or whenever your group gets together. As a GM you’re almost always playing the game, because you’re always turning ideas around in the back of your mind (or at least, I am). As a player you get to create a character once (maybe more if you die), as a GM you create countless characters. I love world building, creating stories, and creating characters for my games. The second reason is that as a GM you are always engaged; you’re always doing something at the table (even on breaks a lot of times). When I play an RPG, I can find it difficult to stay engaged during combat or scenes my character isn’t involved in. After all these years as GM, I’m used to always having something to do.

Overall I’ve greatly improved as a GM over the years. In the early days it was something I just did; I didn’t think about it too much or analyze how I did it. Now I’m very interested in becoming the best GM I can be. I watch other GMs run games and try to learn from them. I watch myself run games on YouTube, and analyze what I see. What do I like about what I’m doing? What don’t I like? How can I improve?

I’ve run a wide variety of games when it comes to how rules light or heavy they are. I’ve run relatively rules heavy games like Pathfinder (although nothing as rules intensive as Rollmaster), and I’ve run relatively rules light games like Numenera. I’ve learned that I prefer something in the middle. I think Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition hits the sweet spot for me—it has enough mechanical meat to dig into, but not so much that it gets in the way of a good story. This has been an interesting transition as well, as I started out with games in the middle (AD&D 2nd edition), went to more rules heavy games (D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder), and then went more rules light (Numenera). Now I find myself liking it more in the middle (D&D 5e).

The one area that I think I’ve gotten a bit worse as a GM is in my descriptions and is due to GM laziness. It can be hard when you’ve GMed as long as I have, to remember to describe things, especially things you’ve described a hundred times before. I think combating and defeating GM laziness (and jadedness) is my next big hurdle to becoming a better GM.

Blogs Participating in this Discussion

Inspiration Strikes by Marc Plourde

Strange Encounters by Scott Robinson

Files and Records by John Clayton

Dread Unicorn Games Blog by John Marvin

I Live 4 Crits by Jim Walls

Adventures, Planar in Nature by Peter Smits