Our gaming group group received a pretty good compliment from one of its own this week, which is not as self-serving as it may sound. To paraphrase: “I really enjoy the group’s ability to switch games so smoothly. My previous group couldn’t, due to the limited number of willing and able GMs.” For the last ten years or more, our current group has been lucky to have a number of willing (and able!) individuals who didn’t mind getting behind the screen to give the rest of us some quality game time.
Sometimes, however, a good DM is hard to find. Or more accurately, no one wants to do all of the work and none of the play that is commonly associated with running a long-term campaign. We’ve purposely adapted a rotating GM schedule to allow everyone a chance to run “their game,” but also to make sure no one gets trapped in the driver’s seat and misses out on playing too.
The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, however. Being the game master doesn’t mean you have to stop role playing. In fact, if you’re being the best GM you can be, you’ll be constantly role playing!
Now this wouldn’t be an Advice column if I didn’t make some suggestions about what you should or should not do. I’m going to start with the “not suggested” side, so we can end this Wednesday on a positive note.
The Frustrated Actor, or “Community Theater Syndrome”
Sometimes the director of a play is the person who can form a cogent vision for the production, integrate all aspects of its execution, and bring out the best in everyone so that the final product tells an amazing story. Sometimes, however, the director is just a frustrated actor who couldn’t get the role they wanted, or was dissatisfied with the lack of control over the production an actor faces. Directing, then, is their chance to do anything and everything they want to in a production.
Likewise, some game masters can form a cogent setting for a campaign, integrate all the aspects of game play, and bring out the best in their players so that the resulting RPG experience tells an amazing story. Sometimes, however, a GM can be the guy who wants to role play all the characters. Sometimes he’s the guy who doesn’t get to be the center of attention when he’s in the group, so he’s going to make sure he’s the center of the story during his campaign.
Don’t be that guy. Don’t role play so much that you forget to listen to what the players’ characters are saying; they’re giving you important story and theme ideas you’ll need later. Don’t role play so much that you get in the players’ way; if you don’t leave them any space on the stage, they won’t have any room to take compelling actions. Most of all, don’t role play so much that you steal the spotlight from the players who are invested in telling this story. If you get to make all the stunning reveals and stirring dialogue happen, there will be no incentive for them to continue role playing. It’s like shouting out the punchline to the joke that someone else is telling.
Don’t be that guy.
It’s hard enough to GM a game, and see all your good ideas and careful planning get lost to player choice. What’s especially hard for some game masters, especially those who are legitimately good role players, is to watch players miss opportunities for great character development or story building. It may not even be about wanting them to tell your story; it may just be that you want them to tell the best story possible, and certain choices or actions would make that happen more easily.
At those times, you might be tempted to jump in and offer your expert advice. You might be tempted to utter something like “Don’t you think your character would really want to X or Y, because of that earlier conversation with his brother?”. In short, you might get tempted to role play for the players.
Don’t be that guy. As we’ve discussed here at Intwischa many (many!) times, the GM shouldn’t do anything to intrude on that necessary illusion of player freedom. Nothing shatters that illusion faster than putting words in a player character’s mouth, or directing their feet down a certain path. The players will lose immersion and investment in those characters in a heartbeat if they feel like their choices are not their own, even if they aren’t the choices you think are the ‘best.’ If nothing else, think of how you would feel if your GM was so excited to role play, he hijacked your character “for their own good.”
Don’t be that guy.
Ok, so now let’s talk about the fun stuff. What are the healthy opportunities for role playing available to the GM?
We Are the World
One of the many jobs of the game master is to set the scene. It doesn’t end there, however; once the scene is set, it has to grow, move, and adapt to the characters that live within it. The world that your players are trying to save is a living, breathing environment that will be most successful when it takes on a life of its own. I read a great directive recently that players deserve a reasonable and consistent reality to interact with; the key words I took out of that were ‘reality’ and ‘interact.’
Providing a consistent reality for your players requires role playing on the part of the GM. All the events that take place around them are determined and described by the guy behind the screen, from natural disasters to rebellions to ground-breaking discoveries. The game master has to bring all these elements to life for their players. While it doesn’t necessarily involve individual characters, those elements will develop personalities of their own in the hands of as skilled GM.
As such, communicating and developing those personalities is a prime opportunity to role play the whole world. Providing that voice to the setting will all but beg for an active response from the players, giving them countless opportunities for the interaction they need to feel a part of that world. It might be the way you describe an approaching storm, and all the disturbing clues that hint at its ferocity. It may be in the way you tour them through a new town, pointing out the warmly lit shop windows and aromatic smell of fruits and baking bread. These details aren’t just storytelling; they’re role playing that world, breathing life into a new and exciting reality.
A Cast of Thousands
If you’re looking for a fantastic chance to role play as a GM, what about the endless sea of faces that your party will encounter as NPCs?
It’s true that some NPCs are little more than cannon fodder or living sign posts, pointing the path to plot with a pinch of personality. Some supporting characters in your game, however, are more developed and established than the characters they’re meant to encounter. This can be true of both allies, villains, and everyone in between. If they’re good enough to play a significant role in your tale, then they deserve some attention and, perhaps, a tale of their own. The story of their own lives should influence their actions just as a PC’s would, and may just provide some valuable opportunities to draw the characters even further into the story.
Matt did this very well in our current Dresden Files RPG game set in Victorian London. He used personal hooks to draw each PC into the campaign, a nice touch in and of itself, and my character’s was an old childhood friend who was in need of her aid. What worked so well was Matt’s role playing of this NPC, named Winifred; he made her so intriguing that she is still with us many sessions later, and has become integral to our group’s “mission.” I think it’s important to point out that Winifred was never mentioned in my character’s backstory, and Matt has admitted that he never planned for her to play such a prominent recurring role. She was merely introduced in that first episode in such a way that she took on a life of her own.
This is something I’ve struggled with personally; that idea of treating NPCs as people and not as chess pieces. Obviously, NPCs are powerful tools that the game master can use to deliver information, challenge the party, or provoke them to action. Many of them have generic templates and stat blocks that represent a mechanical being within the bounds of your game. Sometimes, this can lead to a very “mechanical” employment of them as well: “Kazeem tells you that his village needs help, or it will be taken over by cultists.”
But this is a role playing game, even for the game master. Don’t tell the group what Kazeem says; just say it! Use an accent, give it some feeling, and deliver his desperate plea. Most NPCs tend to end up as worn out stereotypes that we’ve all seen again and again, be they city cop or jaded barkeep or aloof noble. Giving them a story and a personality and a voice turns them into a full-blown character, and when the GM role plays those characters he’s drawing the players deeper and deeper into playing theirs.
Be that guy. Please! Be that guy.