We’re assuming you have already read the Player’s Handbook. That is an absolute prerequisite for reading – and understanding – this guidebook. From that information you should have a good idea of how a gaming session runs.
And that means you know that the game master – or GM – is the most important person at the gaming table. Her performance dictates whether the game turns out to be an invigorating experience that the players enjoy immensely, or whether it is just a mild diversion from the daily troubles. (To the great misfortune of players, the same can be said of their performances as well. The GM isn’t alone at the table, and without good players who fully participate, her best laid plans and plots inevitably will go awry, too.)
The major task of a GM is to tell a story in which the players take the roles of their characters. It is much like a movie where the players are the actors, but the GM is both the director and the script writer. She alone knows the story whereas the “actors” have to improvise.
To do that, the GM must have done extensive preparations beforehand. She has to know all the major points of the plot, where she would like to lead the player characters (PCs) – and also how to handle more or less unexpected actions of the characters.
Once a party assembles for the first time around the gaming table, a few points have to be considered:
· Everybody must have read the Player’s Handbook and know its contents relatively well. Without a fault, each player should have a copy of the handbook at the ready at every session.
· One of the participants has to take over the role of GM, in which case she must read the Game Master’s Guide (incidentally this book). She also needs to have the guidebook with her, so she can check the special rules in here as well as those in the Player’s Handbook.
· The players must have created characters. The character sheets must have been filled out.
· Players and GM need to have all materials available, e.g. their dice and pencils.
First of all, the GM needs to have a story ready – the so-called “adventure”. (Which also means that the GM must have been chosen long before the actual session begins.) It is the adventure that the players engage in – without knowing the story. Much like the characters in a movie, they have no idea what is waiting around the next corner, or whether to trust a person they have just encountered.
The adventure needs to be exciting for the players to fully enjoy it. Remember that excitement comes from more than just the thrill of bashing in a monster’s head – if you consider the movies that most fire up your imagination, they have far more to offer. There’s character interaction, the growth of a character, the exploration of a new world (be it literally a different planet, or a new city, or simply the adult world). That, and so much more is part of an adventure, and a good GM pays at least a little attention to these details.
You should also remember to insert plot twists. Don’t follow a straight line to the conclusion of your adventure, put in a few diversions that could sidetrack the players, and at least one surprising revelation. (That revelation must be grounded in previous events; if one of the PCs is revealed to be the heir to a kingdom, there must be previous indications of this special position. Ideally, none of these indications can be understood until the revelation is given – but then the players should slap their foreheads, thinking they should have known right away. Without these revelations, you would be pulling the proverbial rabbit from the hat, as an illusionist does.)
Note: As the GM you can get help in creating a proper adventure for your group. If you use a fully prepared adventure – a so-called “adventure module” – you will find most questions already answered, and a complete plot prepared for you. You are always free to follow the prepared plotline closely, or deviate at your leisure, and often you will find that there are “blank spaces” which are intentionally left for you to create your own portions of the adventure.
Currently, there is one module available for the Gushémal Role-Playing Game (GRPG), The Courier’s Oath, which is released in early April 2001.
The players have no script to follow, and they cannot directly see what their characters experience. All of that has to be related to them by the GM: She has to tell a player what his character sees, smells, tastes, etc. One could say that the GM is the interface between the players and the game world.
What is the weather like today? What does the village down the road like? Is it noontime, and are there smells of roast meet wafting ahead to the party?
These are instances that the GM has to describe, to explain the world to the players.
One integral element of that world are the people that the party encounters – characters which aren’t portrayed by a player but rather by the GM. (These are called NPCs, for Non-Player Characters.) A NPC might be a peasant tilling his field whom the party asks for directions to the next town, but it would also be the evil wizard whom the party has to vanquish in the course of the adventure.
When describing the world, the GM has to take into account what the PCs can notice. If none of the characters understands the dwarven language, the GM cannot have them overhear – and understand – a private conversation between two dwarves.
By the same token, she ought to make sure that she doesn’t miss anything a PC knows. If there is something particular about the construction of a house, and one of the characters has learned about house building, she must point out this special feature.
Everything special – or suspicious – must be noted to the players, unless it is hidden and none of the characters possess a relevant skill to recognize this. Remember, the GM is the link of the players to the world their characters inhabit.
It is also important for the GM to tell her story. As such there are occasions when she must try her best to make a feature (of a house, for instance) seem unimportant, so the players don’t investigate more closely and endanger her plot. Or she can over-emphasize something else, so the players go off on a merry goosechase, while the GM can quietly put her pieces together for the next big move.
… is always the game master’s. That is the primary rule of any role-playing game. Whenever there is a disagreement, the game master can finish it by ruling one way or another. Her word is final and cannot be challenged.
It’s possible that the GM is wrong, but in the interest of keeping the game going, her decision must stand.
(If the players absolutely don’t agree with that decision, they may discuss this after the game, or prior to the next gaming session, but they should refrain from interrupting the current game. Should the GM’s decision directly violate the game rules, it should be pointed out to her, preferably quoting directly from the rulebook, but even then the GM may countermand the rules. We certainly don’t encourage this, but we believe that there are some occasions when it is necessary.)
When reading the Player’s Handbook, you will have noticed that the GM is encouraged to roll her dice in secret, so that none of the players can see the actual results. This practice is often contested by beginning players (and sometimes by veterans as well), since one would think that the GM can easily cheat on her rolls.
Unfortunately, that is not only possible but sometimes necessary.
Keep in mind that the GM wants to tell her story. Some rolls might prove disastrous – let’s just imagine that one of the PCs is a vital part of the adventure (perhaps the heir to a kingdom, again?). And that PC is now in a fight that is going very badly for him – so badly in fact that the game master’s character has just delivered a killing blow to the PC. But rather than reveal this result, the GM is now free to make up another result and give the PC another chance to survive this encounter – only because her rolls are in secret. (Of course if the PC isn’t quite that vital to the story, she should just let him face the great beyond.)
It’s about telling the story, that is the single most important point to remember here. The GM should stick to the correct results of her dice most of the time, but when the story is threatened she ought to feel free to make up “better” results. The same applies when there is an opportunity to push the story a little further.
Nonetheless, telling a good story also means that the GM mustn’t make it too easy on the players – or herself. Sometimes an unexpected roll, an unexpected turn adds just the right spice to turn a decent, solid adventure into a great, rollicking ride.
Being the interface to the game world means that the GM also has to keep watch of the actions that the players take.
When a player wants to take a specific action, he has to explain this action to the GM. Sometimes it might be enough to just announce “I’m going through the northern door”, but sometimes more in-depth information must be given, such as “I’m opening the northern door with my lockpick, then I walk through it”.
For each action, there is a re-action – usually the result of the action which the GM has to describe to the player. In the case of the door above, the player needs to be told whether (a) his attempt to open the door succeeds and (b) whether he inadvertently springs a trap.
Another example: Let’s say the party is in a room and decides to search it in-depth. One character announces that he wants to expect the southern wall. Now the GM has sketched in a secret door in that wall, so there is a chance that the character could find that door. The GM needs to roll (in secret) to find out whether the character discovers something. If he does, the GM tells the player what he has just found, e.g. the secret door.
Supervising the characters’ actions also means defining what is possible in a given situation. Some actions are always impossible – e.g. an ordinary human trying to bend the steel bars of a cell -, some are only impossible at a given moment. For instance, if a character has lost a lockpick, he won’t be able to open a door with it.
Here the GM has a little leeway as to what she deems possible and what impossible. She also has some leeway in deciding whether an action succeeds or not.
There is a guideline – or a rule-of-thumb, if you will – as to what is possible. Each character has a set of attributes (cf. Player’s Handbook, Chapter 3: Attributes): Strength, Agility, Constitution, Charisma, Intelligence and Willpower. They are grounded in the human example, i.e. the maximum value in each attribute that a human can reach is 100. (The other races have their own maximum and average values.) Let me reiterate: 100 is the maximum for a human, that is the absolute top of each attribute. The average human values are somewhat further down the line.
Nonetheless this is a good guideline for the GM to decide whether someone can accomplish a feat with his or her attributes. (Keep in mind that the absolute values are the same for every species, they are not in relation to the maximum of each race.)
Being a GM is a lot of work, granted. And your troubles will doubtlessly increase when you interact with the players, and the players just don’t want to play your way. So there is quite a bunch of unpleasantry ahead of you.
On the other hand, you’ll find out that it can be an exhilarating experience to lead a game as a GM. For one thing, you can live out your creative urges and come up with a grand adventure all your own, in a setting that you love. (And a setting that you can create yourself, too!) It’s marvelous to have created something, present it to others and find that they enjoy it as much as you do.
And dealing with the players and their unexpected decisions has often proved to be far more fun than one might think at first. Players inevitably will screw up your carefully planned plot, come up with unexpected solutions to situations, and you’ll have to scramble to salvage as much of your adventure as is possible. But that in itself is magnificent! Sometimes under that pressure you stumble over ideas that are far better than your initial concept.
All in all, the rewards far outweigh the troubles. You’re getting to be the director of a marvelous motion picture which is playing in your head and the skulls of your players; you’re going to have a great time directing the party through the adventure. It’s going to be fun!