Grim’s Tales: Where to Play

Once you’ve gotten a group together you need somewhere to actually play the games. You don’t need a huge amount of space, just a table with room for a fistful of people, enough space to roll some dice and a bit of peace and quiet for a handful of hours. Can’t be too difficult to get, can it?

Home
The obvious place to choose to play is at home, either in your home or that of another member of your group. You’ve got the advantages of comfort, familiarity and you – or whoever else it is – doesn’t have to lug their entire gaming library to the new location. On the downside there might be a lot of non-gaming people around, interrupting, getting under your feet and otherwise causing all sorts of mayhem and mishaps. Sometimes spouses and house sharers can be less than understanding about tramping hordes of gamers descending upon the house and messing up the place and that’s another disadvantage, you might have to tidy up. It can also be a little difficult to get people to leave once the gaming is over, releasing the hounds can be helpful in this regard.

School
Schools often offer rooms for hire or for after-school activities and you can use these to game in. Schools are often central to areas and can help you get a bit of publicity for your gaming group, plus you can recruit some new gamers from the fledgling hordes of acne-ridden adolescents in need of some power fantasies. On the minus side you might have to include students in the club, be attending, or have a kid going there in order to use the facilities, plus other after school groups may well interrupt or cause problems for you by running up and down the corridors or – badly – practising the trombone in the next toom.

Pub
Pubs often have rooms for rent that you and your group can use, like schoolrooms. The disadvantage here, as with the schoolrooms is that this costs money, but with a big enough group – or a couple of groups – you can spread the cost and then it’s not going to be so much. You’re also going to be restricted on time, usually the rooms are paid for by the hour and the pub does, eventually, close. Another drawback is that pubs sell booze, that means no underage players and it also often means that your players get plastered which, while occasionally funny, can also be a bloody nuisance when someone vomits on their character sheet or starts telling you why they love you in the middle of a scene.

Shop
Gaming shops often have play spaces that you can use to meet up at. Some of these are only open after hours and some of these are only open during hours, each approach has its own issues. If they’re only open during shop hours then that’s no use to you if you work, if they’re only open after hours then time may be restricted and the shop gaming room is more likely to be oversubscribed. In either case there’s likely to be a lot of interruptions and, being surrounded by all that swag, you might be tempted to spend a lot of money on gaming stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise buy; a boon for the shop owner, but not necessarily for you.

Room Sharing Issues
Sharing rooms with multiple role-playing groups has its good and bad sides, on the plus side you get a nice, vibrant feel to a room with lots of people in it and you get to mix with and meet a lot of other gamers, whether you know them already or not. On the minus side the noise makes it difficult to play and if you’re trying to have an intense and serious session of one game while someone else is having a boisterous game of Paranoia or Sea Dracula then you’re shit out of luck. It also tends to be the case that some people don’t take such good care of rooms as the rest of you, but you all end up carrying the can for one person’s bad behaviour.

Burn them in effigy and they might get the hint.

Teh Interwubz
There’s some other possibilities but one that’s really worth mentioning is the use of the Internet. You can use e-mail lists, IRC, chatrooms or potentially Google Wave to coordinate a game. If so inclined you could also spend a small fortune setting up a Second Life area to play in, but that’s not really going to conform to the rules of the game. The Internet is great for all sorts of communication and you can play across it but there’s disadvantages as well. If you’re using a dice-rolling program then all your rolls will be open, making ‘fudging’ the rolls towards a certain outcome more difficult. Not everyone can type quickly either and this can really slow things down no end, even more so if they’re dyslexic or just relatively illiterate and that makes it no fun for people to play at their end either. Playing online tends to really slow things down unless the system you’re using is really abstract, so reckon on things like combat taking even longer.

There’s some nice tools out there that can give you virtual tabletops and tools to help you with the rule of the game but these tend to be amateurish, complicated and not very intuitive to use and they also tend to only cater to a few of the major systems on the market. At the time of writing Wizards of the Coast still haven’t brought out their 3D virtual tabletop and it’s become something of a joke in any case. It remains to be seen if that – or some similar software – can truly provide a real, full suite of online role-playing options that works, is adaptable and is user friendly. Don’t hold you breath!

Grim’s Tales: Getting the Band Together


Forming a Group
These days this is probably about the biggest obstacle to any successful game, getting people to play. It’s possibly a downer to go over all the problems but if you’re aware of them you can either give up without trying and save yourself the trouble, or be aware of the issues as you’re going into them.

  • There’s a lot of competitors for gamer’s time these days. Computer games, MMORPGs, card games, all sorts. Even if you get people who want to play, they’re going to want to do a lot of other things as well, leaving less time for gaming.
  • Gamers are an aging demographic, that means we’re shrinking in size and there’s even more demands on a lot of gamers’ time, partners, kids, work, all takes its toll.
  • Game shops aren’t as common as they used to be, eliminating a major meeting place for gamers.
  • Gaming has gone from being Satanic (which is kind of cool) to nerdy, which isn’t. While there’s some ‘geek chic’ going on it seems to only really exist/persist within existing geek culture.
  • These are problems, but they’re not insurmountable with the right approach and some can even be turned into positives.

Friends with Benefits
It’s pretty likely that when you started gaming (or if you are starting now) that the first people you gamed with were your friends. They’re the ones you could rope into trying it and if anyone stuck with it it’s likely some of those original friends that you played with. Friends make some of the best members of your gaming group, you know each other, know what you like, have a rapport and are likely to be fairly forgiving with each other and you’ll be more likely to find some time to spend together, for whatever reason, not just for gaming but for any other reason. Friends are also more likely to offer up somewhere to play and spouses are more likely to be understanding about you spending time with your friends.

Perfect Strangers
Meeting new people to game with can be a bit of a bind. Where are you going to meet? Sure, there’s some RPG clubs dotted about here and there and a few shops, but probably your best bet is running into people at conventions or the occasional serendipitous encounter.* It can be hard to suss out whether you’re going to get on with someone from such a brief meeting and a chat, but it’s better than nothing. As with dating, go with your instinct to start with and don’t be afraid to run, screaming for the hills if they turn out to be a creepy psycho.

*I met some of my best friends and lifelong gaming friends only because another gaming friend mentioned monowire while playing laser tag. That’s serendipitous.

Blind Dates
Another way of hooking up with new gamers is to answer ads in magazines or on the Internet and to find people near you in that way. This way of hooking up with people is even more random and unpredictable than chance encounters or stalking gamers in stores or conventions. You’ve really got nothing to go on other than the way they write, what they say and maybe a picture, if you’re lucky. Again, there’s no harm in going and meeting up, but it might be a good idea to take a friend with you. People aren’t likely to be killer psychos, but things might be weird or uncomfortable and it’s always good to have backup when you’re meeting any strangers. As with the random encounters mentioned before you shouldn’t be afraid to cut and run or to break off contact if it just isn’t working. Sometimes things don’t work out, even with other gamers.

Conventions
For your part, when you’re at a convention you and your existing group can do things to maximise your opportunities to meet new people, there’s little point all just playing together like you were at home after all! Split up, maybe in pairs so you can feel a little comfortable and then mix it up in as many events and games – or running games – as you can. That gives you your best chance of meeting new people, making new friends, getting new gaming partners and scoring! Bonus!

The Internet
There’s plenty of forums out there, plenty of social networking sites, blogs, e-mail lists, twitter and so on that can get you together with other gamers. Getting you together with other gamers in striking distance of yourself is a little more difficult. Many clubs and groups do make their own websites as well and you can do the same thing. Make sure you’re easy to find via e-mail and that your general location is listed on such a site so that potential players can find you and get in touch with you. The real problem is that the role-playing scene is completely fractured across many, many, many different sites and there’s no real, universal, central point for you to find people and to communicate. Because of this you’ll need to spread your efforts as far and wide as you can. Some ideas to draw interest might include…

  • Lots of pictures – people pay more attention to pictures than text.
  • Podcasting – You could record some of your sessions on audio, or discuss them, or products you’ve bought that you like. Gamers do value each other’s opinions and that can draw an audience.
  • Play reports – Summaries of your sessions and some of the ‘war stories’ from them can give people an idea what your sessions are like and whether they’ll fit in as well as giving clues to the game systems and types of games you like to run.

Schools & Colleges
Schools have a lot of activities after their official hours are over. Community schools may have rooms for hire for clubs and groups to use as well. It’s potentially creepy to play across a big age gap and some games might not be suitable but schools are often the hubs of communities and good places to get the word out about your group and your games.

College or university is also a great place to put gaming groups together, lots of people packed into one institution, away from home and looking to socialise and find new friends. There’s usually plenty of rooms and facilities to host games and directories and notice boards upon which you can advertise. The gaming friends you make there might well be friends for life and universities might well be the hubs of any local gaming clubs in any case, whether you attend or not.

Hobby Shops
While there are less hobby shops around these days, that does mean that the ones that remain are good hubs for meeting other gamers. You can also find out who plays what by seeing what they buy and what they look at, many stores also host games and tournaments during or after hours and most will also have a notice board or let you set out some poorly photocopied fliers for your gaming group. They’re an excellent place to be a stalker and you can lurk behind the miniatures racks ready to pounce out on whoever looks like they might play something you like. Games Workshop stores don’t work so well, they don’t like anyone talking about anything that isn’t one of their games and you can get thrown out, so take it easier there or lurk outside and pounce people as they leave.

Grim’s Tales: Balancing Act

A great deal of being a successful GM is in successfully balancing your needs from the game and those of each of your players. This is not an easy prospect, especially with a group of practised and experienced gamers. Some people’s desires from a game are virtually incompatible and the only way you can achieve any sort of balance there is by switching from one style or focus to another either within a game or from session to session. This isn’t a perfect solution either as it can make games become a little schizophrenic. Here’s how you deal with it…

A game doesn’t have to be perfect.

So long as you’re all having fun most of the time you can let go of the ‘need’ to run a perfect game. After all, we can’t all be Spielbergs and so long as you’re not being Uwe Boll, everything’s going to be just fine. Games can be pretty forgiving; they’re played over longer periods. People don’t remember everything session to session, even if they make notes. You can shift the game as you go along to find the ‘sweet spot’ for your group and you can get feedback from your players to make everything better over time.

So long as you all make a bit of an effort, together, to make for a good game, everything will be fine, really.

Grim’s Tales: Problem Players

Knowing what kind of players you have in your game is helpful and lets you tailor things to suit the group that you have. Different players with different needs can lead to problems in the group but actual problem players are a breed apart. Any player can be a problem player in combination with whatever other kinds of player they are, but that doesn’t mean they have to stay a problem, you can either fix it or, provided there aren’t other issues in the way, you can exclude them from the group. You shouldn’t be afraid of being selective over who you play with, even when it can be troublesome getting a group together. If someone consistently ruins games and can’t be ‘tamed’ or moderated, then, frankly, you can be better off without them.

Other issues can be tackled…

The Centre of Attention
Problem: This player constantly wants to be at the lead of the action, always wants to be the one moving and shaking and getting things done and resents it when other players are in the spotlight, practically vibrating in frustration and pent up need to be leading the action. If allowed to indulge this they’ll marginalise the other players, if not their presence can exasperate and upset the other players since their disquiet is obvious.
Solution: If they can be made to recognise that they’re having an issue then maybe they’ll moderate their behaviour. You can also deliberately play up the roles of the other players by emphasising the skills and abilities that their characters have so that everyone gets their time in the spotlight.

The Cheat
Problem: OK, so RPGs aren’t competetive, they’re storytelling exercises, even so, without risk, without the role of randomness in the game you might as well just be sitting around telling stories. Risk, the chance of failure, adds spice to the game and so when people cheat, lie about their die rolls, alter their character sheets, they rob the game of some of its appeal and their in-character accomplishments of worth. They also marginalise and sideline the more honest players, who can’t match their ‘success’.
Solution: As the Games Master you can do some things to moderate cheating behaviour. You can insist on public rolls in a box or through a die-rolling tower, you can insist on making all the rolls yourself or you could even institute a mert/demerit system within the game, rewarding people for paying attention and playing nice and punishing people for being disruptive and cheating. You could also shift to playing more indie/story games, where there’s less emphasis on the vagueries of random chance and more on the story, less chance to cheat.

The Deviant
Problem: It’s a great strength of the role-playing community that we’re so welcoming and so non-judgemental. However, it’s also a great weakness since we allow in and tolerate people that would be thrown out of a furry swinger’s club. If you’ve got a greasy-haired living-potato at your gaming table, in semen-encrusted jogging bottoms, reeking of cabbage and stale sweat and gently massaging their genitals over hermaphroditic ocelot porn between turns, you have a problem.
Solution: Kill it with fire.

The Disinterested Tagalong
Problem: It’s all very well when friends and loved ones take an interest in your hobby but not everyone likes roleplaying and when someone is playing who isn’t really interested and is acting like a martyr, only because they want to show an interest in their friend/partner, it drags the whole game down into a hole.
Solution: “You know, you really don’t have to be here if you don’t enjoy it. Not everything is for everyone.”

The Frustrated Gamesmaster
Problem: Some people just aren’t happy unless they’re in control. Every Games Master is different and many have very different playing styles to each other. The way one Games Master does something can drive another Games Master crazy and some have a bit of an issue letting go of control and relaxing in order to enjoy playing.
Solution: The best way to solve this problem is to remind the player how they’d feel if someone was second guessing them in one of their own games. If they’re a half decent Games Master that should be all it takes to get them back on the straight and narrow. Another possible way to get around these problems is to share the Games Mastering duties and work together.

The Kid
Problem: A big age difference in a group can lead to a little bit of disomfort and a disconnect. This might be because you’re at a gaming club where there’s little or no control over who joins the group, it might be because you’re at a convention or it might be because a younger sibling is foisted upon you by a well meaning but ignorant parent.
Solution: Frankly, we should do all we can to encourage younger players to game and maintain an interest. If that means moderating your language and playing slightly less adult game themes, then so be it, so long as it’s not forever. If you’re playing a more mature game then a frank explanation to the parent, or even the kid, might do the trick. If need be you can always organise kids games seperately.

The Munchkin

Problem: The munchkin issue has been satirised and played out in a huge number of ways and the munchkin has almost become a figure of affection. Games like 4th Edition D&D even seem to go out of their way to acknowledge and encourage the munchkin, legitimising ‘character builds’, optimised for specific purposes and exploitation of the rules. Regardless, munchkins are an issue for games, overpowered, playing the rules rather than the game and tending to drag other players along in their wake, simply so that they can compete and feel useful.
Solution: More of an emphasis on story and roleplay will disarm the munchkin a little, as will using puzzles and other non-rules oriented game problems. Munchkinism can often be a ‘stage’ that a player will grow out of. Even so, it can be fun to engage with munchkinism sometimes and to play a game where it doesn’t matter so much, just so you can all get it out of your system.

The Ninja
Problem: It needn’t actually be a ninja, but there’s something that this player is obsessed with and seeks to play some version of in every, single game they ever play, even where it’s completely inappropriate. Needless to say this can get annoying for Games Masters and for other players as yet another ninja makes their presence felt in a game that’s supposed to be about sentient clams, or whatever…
Solution: Gentle encouragement to try other things might work, so long as they get to indulge their fantasy once in a while. Wish fulfilment and fantasy is, after all, a large part of what gaming is about. They just need to learn to accept that they need to moderate their needs with that of others.

The Non-Player
Problem: Having someone in the room who isn’t playing the game can be distracting, disruptive or embarassing. Let’s face it, gaming is a strange passtime and we can all be a little self-concious about it. Someone who isn’t playing is a disruptive presence, especially if they’re bored out of their mind and watching TV, playing on their DS, reading or constantly interrupting the game. This usually happens when it’s one of the player’s girlfriend or boyfriend.
Solution: Whoever is bringing along the person who doesn’t play is the person you need to talk to, though the issue can also be with flatmates and others who don’t play. In that case you can possibly trade favours to be left alone while you’re gaming.

The Sponge
Problem: Some people just turn up to games, munch all the snacks, drink all the drinks, crash over without properly asking and make a big mess. They’re basically taking advantage of hospitality and that eventually breeds resentment, no matter how generous and good natured you all are.
Solution: Even if they’re dirt poor, some sort of contribution to munchies should be possible, however small. The rest of it’s just down to politeness and it’s better to take a firm hand on sooner rather than later, before it becomes habitual.

Grim’s Tales: Player Styles

As with Games Masters there are as many different types of players as there are players. No two people quite want exactly the same thing in the same way no two people like exactly the same books, TV shows or films. You can identify trends in player desires and play styles though and that can be a very helpful thing in crafting a game to suit the group and individual play to suit the individual players.

The Action Hero
The Action Hero wants to do impossible deeds, swing from chandeliers, fight off ten men at once and get away with the damsel in distress. They tend to like games that encourage or include this sort of over-the-top action and may run aground in games that are more gritty and realistic, trying to do things that – in the real world – lead to a quick and messy death. Games Masters may need to loosen up the game and be a bit more generous with Action Hero players but Action Hero players themselves need to be aware that not every game is Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain.

The Anthropologist
The Anthropologist finds social interaction to be the key to their enjoyment. As well as socialising Out of Character with the group they like to talk up a storm and understand the situation with the Non-Player-Characters in game. This can be a headache for the Games Master who has to keep dozens of NPCs and their motivations clear in their head at all times. The Anthropologist’s concern with social interaction can bore other players who like to hit things more. The Games Master should include social scenes where they can shine and get their jollies, but equally the Anthropologist should be gracious and acknowledge that not everyone likes to play out two hour long speeches.

The Expert
The Expert likes their character to be really, really, really good at something. Perhaps they’re a sniper or a hyper-specialised magician, perhaps they’re a scholar of ancient Egypt, perhaps a computer hacker. Whatever it is the player likes to be an unparalleled genius in that one specific field. Unfortunately in scenes or encounters where that expertise doesn’t apply they’re probably about as much use as a chocolate fireman. The GM needs to make sure that in every game there’s somewhere that The Expert can be useful and that their pre-eminent status doesn’t get undermined too much. The player of The Expert needs to realise that there’s other people in the game and other topics and ways of going about things, developing some secondary capabilities is probably a good idea.

The Investigator
The Investigator lives to solve the mysteries of the game. They love uncovering layer after layer of plots and schemes until they get to that sublime ‘AHA!’ moment where everything falls into place. Investigators are good from a Games Master point of view since they can drive the plot forward but there can be a temptation to create overly convoluted plots to appeal to The Investigator which can leave less motivated players behind. The Games Master needs to introduce puzzles at appropriate levels for different players and The Investigator needs to remember to let other players have their moment in the sun.

The ‘Me but not Me’
The ‘Me but not Me’ doesn’t quite grasp the idea of playing a character other than themselves, or can’t, or prefers to consider how they would act in such a circumstance. The Games Master needs to be careful not to push too many of the player’s personal buttons, though some of them can be good to put into the game to increase engagement. The ‘Me but not Me’ player needs to remember that the other people at the table may not be playing themselves, at all.

The Snowflake
The Snowflake likes to be something special and unique. Maybe they want to be a lost prince or princess, maybe they want to play a race that’s normally limited to monsters. Perhaps they want some unique powers. This can, frankly, be a pain in the arse for the Games Master who shouldn’t feel that they have to go along with any and all whims of the players. Snowflakes can be good for a game though, excellent for plot hooks and providing something of a focus for the rest of the group. The Games Master should find a way to fit some uniqueness – for all the players – into their games while the Snowflake should try to understand that they make a lot of extra work and perhaps settle for something rare, rather than absolutely unique.

The Thespian

The Thespian craves suspension of disbelief. They want to live the life of their character and work their way entirely into their head. They want to think and act as them and live in their shoes, even for a couple of hours. The Thespian can have trouble compromising their role-play for the good of the group and the game as a whole. As a Games Master it’s flattering and enthusing to have someone so into the game but, on the downside, they can resent the out-of-game chatter and socialising that goes on. The Games Master needs to give The Thespian a little more attention and RP opportunity. The Thespian needs to understand that not all the players are like them and some people just like to eat pizza, kill things and take their stuff and take their enjoyment where they can.

The Winner
The Winner likes to conquer, to defeat, to win. They may view the game in an adversarial mode of thought and may even compare themselves to the other players. They’re driven to be the best and while this is often a hindrance it can be a boon as they can often take the lead of the player group and play ruthlessly to best the antagonists. Games Masters need to watch Winners as they’re more likely to cheat and also needs to up the ante for the difficulty of scenes and encounters to account for how driven they are. Winners need to take a step back, calm down, remember that it’s only a game and give the other players more input.

Grim’s Tales: What is a Player?

What’s a player in an RPG? This seems like a pointless question to ask but I think it is worth exploring. What are you when you’re a player in a role-playing game? Are you an actor playing a role? Are you yourself – or some part of yourself – thrown into these situations? Are you like a chess player, only with a single piece, are you the controller of something ‘other’? Why are you playing? How do you play? What are you playing for?

Different players have different motivations for playing, some people like to step into the shoes of someone unlike themselves, some people like to win against overwhelming odds, some love tweaking statistics or creating ‘optimal builds’, some play the system, some play the game, some play make believe.

The only thing all players really have in common that they’re participants in the game. In an ideal world all the players have similar playing ideals and goals that compliment each other and the Games Master, but the world is rarely perfect and diversity can have a beauty all of its own. Players are all there at the sufferance of the Games Master and each other though and an awareness of that, of some basis of social etiquette and that – like the GM – each player is there to facilitate each other’s fun, and the Games Masters. This is something that I feel’s being lost, particularly in the CRPGs and MMORPGs where singular play and internet anonymity makes a lot of players very selfish and focussed entirely on their own fun, that attitude can – unfortunately – carry over into TTRPGs.

Tabletop RPGs are a filthy, commie, pinko, liberal pasttime. They require an awareness of other people, of ‘society’ to work really well together and the players, as the game’s ‘proletariat’ are essential to the Glorious People’s Republic of Gaming!Long live the revolution!

Grim’s Tales: The Lessening Role of the Games Master

It feels to me as though the role of the Games Master in gaming has been lessening for some years and in two directions. On the one hand there are some games – such as D&D4 – that are so codified and clear-cut in their rulings and systems that the Games Master might as well be a games console, running along a set little track nice and efficiently. On the other hand, the reaction to these kinds of systems has been the ‘soft’, narrative type games where player input plays a much more significant role in the game – directly rather than through play – than it used to. Case in point being the character/team creation rules in Spirit of the Century.

In some ways this is good, the more set and codified games are easier to prepare for, they’re ‘plug and play’ in a way. You can just slot in a gang of goblins, treasure option B2 and some environmental hazards and you have an ‘encounter’. With the softer games the shared burden of coming up with plot hooks and character buy-in relieves the Games Master of a great deal of the weighty burden of coming up with something everyone wants to play and finding reasons for the group to be together. In other ways it’s bad, the GM becomes less of an interpreter and gets to put less of a personal spin on what’s going on, or they succumb to being a wish fulfilment engine with less of their own narrative engagement with the game and the story.

Of course, you can always ignore both and do your own thing, damn the torpedoes, but it’s nice when a game works with you rather than against you, where the system, setting and theme harmonises with the way you want to play. Speaking for myself I’m caught in the middle of the whole ideological ‘gaming battle’. My happy place is somewhere between the two extremes.

Grim’s Tales: Games Master Styles (And comments)

There are as many different kinds of Games Master as there are people willing to run games for people but they can, nonetheless, be streamed into a number of different types, depending where their focus on the game rests. If you’re a player it helps to know what sort of Games Master you have so you can have realistic expectations of the game. If you’re a Games Master identifying what sort of GM you are can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and play to them or overcome them. Here’s a few of the more recognisable ones:

Auteur

“The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.” – William Faulkner

The Auteur has an idea and you’re privileged enough to be along for the ride. The Auteur isn’t a railroading Games Master in the traditional sense but, rather they have a story to tell and if your irritating player actions get in the way, then they’ll get ridden roughshod over. If they add to their idea then that’s different, they might get incorporated and run with. The Auteur wants everything to be perfect, to shine light on their idea and for the game to be one of the best ever. If you all get on then this may, indeed, happen. If the player’s tastes and ideas differ from those of the GM then you may be in trouble.

Advantages: The Auteur tends to put a lot of work and thought into their games and they’re often great, so long as you don’t go against the flow too much. The Auteur is unlikely to run out of interest in their own project and so you’re pretty much guaranteed the game will run on through to its conclusion.
Disadvantages: The Auteur wants to do everything and they may include playing the player’s characters, or at least interfering with them to the extent that they’re unrecognisable to the player’s original intent. You’re also very unlikely to get a lot of leeway in playing the game and while not on rails per se, you’re at best on a fairly narrow path.

Autocrat
“Dictatorship is without a doubt the most satisfying form of government…as long as I’m the dictator.” – Phil Stromer

The Autocrat desires total and absolute control over the game and will brook no argument, no rules-lawyering and no complaints. They’ll probably be quick to chuck people out of the group for being ‘disruptive’ and arguing their calls and they get off on being ‘in charge’. They may even see the Games Master’s role as being adversarial in a decidedly old-skool fashion.

Advantages: The Autocrat’s game will tend to be organised and efficient, you’ll get a lot of gaming done, albeit on their terms. They know how to keep order at the gaming table and to prevent others from spoiling the game.
Disadvantages: You can never quite be sure whether what you do while playing is going to offend and goofing off, half the fun in a lot of games, is less likely to be tolerated.

Captain Play-Doh
“Too little liberty brings stagnation and too much brings chaos.” – Bertrand Russell

Captain Play-Doh is whatever you want him to be. You want to play a tense Lovecraftian horror using Bunnies & Burrows? You go it. You want to play a sentient otter with Jedi mind powers in D&D? No problem. Captain Play-Doh is an amorphous mass shaped almost entirely by the desires of the players which can often lead to games that are such an incoherent mess that anyone new joining the group wouldn’t have the barest hint of a clue as to what the hell was going on.

Advantages: Whatever you want to play they’re up for. Provided your gaming group isn’t too wild and crazy (in different ways) this can help ensure everyone has fun and a GM with some flexibility is good for helping everyone get on and get their kicks from the game.
Disadvantages: If your group isn’t coherent or of similar taste then you’re going to end up with a growling Frankenstein’s Monster of a game. Without a backbone Captain Play-Doh is unlikely to stick up for the things that they find fun or to be able to apply some necessary discipline to the game.

Enthusiast

“If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.” –  Vince Lombardi

The Enthusiast is dead keen on something. Perhaps it’s Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5 or The Lord of the Rings but it could be something much more obscure, like bats*. Whatever it is they’re devoted to it, enthusiastic about it and are a die hard fan. While they know everything about it and can produce games and adventures of startlingly complex subtlety and depth on this subject, outside of it, not so much.

Advantages: Within the paradigm of what they know you won’t find a better GM. Even better, everything they do will fit within that universe and no matter how obscure you go, they should know what you’re talking about. This is even better if their enthusiasm is for a particular game that you all like to play.
Disadvantages: Outside of their favourite subject the Enthusiast isn’t so enthusiastic and their performance will be lacklustre or, even worse, they’ll start introducing things from what they do know into games that they don’t like so much. AT-ATs as dungeons for example, or even worse.

Homebrew
“He who builds a better mousetrap these days runs into material shortages, patent-infringement suits, work stoppages, collusive bidding, discount discrimination – and taxes.” – H. E. Martz

The Homebrew GM never does anything by the book. They build their own games either from scratch or by cannibalising the bits they like from other games and roughly nailing these pieces together and calling them a game, but a game that only they really understand. The Homebrew is a bit different to the professional games designer, who may be looking for playtesting. The Homebrew GM isn’t interested in creating a working, professional product so long as their Rowland Emett-like game system does what they want it to do.

Advantages: You’ll end up with a system and a game perfectly suited to your GM and the kind of games they like to play as well as their game world. At least they’ll think it’s perfect and that counts for a lot.
Disadvantages: You’re unlikely to understand the system, so they could be just making things up for all you know. Whatever system there is, is likely to change from session to session, constantly pulling the ground from beneath your feet.

The Long Haul
“As you journey through life take a minute every now and then to give a thought for the other fellow. He could be plotting something.” – Hagar the Horrible

The Long Haul Games Master is in their element with epic, long-term campaigns rather than individual adventures. They crave the extended story, the slow build up, the reveal and the intricacies and attachment that come with longer games. This long term view covers almost everything they do, meaning that individual adventures can cover… not very much ground.

Advantages: If you have the time and energy to invest in a long term campaign then these are the perfect Games Masters to have. They appreciate character development and if the games are slow to get going, the eventual payoff is worth it.
Disadvantages: If it’s a one-off game you’re after the Long Haul can be worse than useless as by the time the game gets anywhere you have to wind up the session, so you end up with a ton of different campaign starts that never go anywhere.

The Mayfly
“There are three side effects of acid. Enchanced long term memory, decreased short term memory, and I forget the third.” – Timothy Leary

The Mayfly is the opposite of the Long Haul. The Mayfly is a firecracker chain of ideas and enthusiasms but none of them ever, really, seem to amount of much. The constant flow of ideas and distractions pulls them in all directions and makes them a fount of novelty but none of it ever really seems to stick.

Advantages: If you’re after a one-off game the Mayfly is your man. Their scattershot of ideas is bound to get a few good hits and if you’re really lucky you have another GM in your group who can take some of these good ideas and run with them.
Disadvantages: Even if you start a campaign the Mayfly is likely to lose interest and either change the game you’re playing in some way or to want to change to an entirely different game.
Disadvantages:

Referee
“A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers.” – H. L. Mencken

The Referee sees the position of the Games Master as like being ‘the guy who knows the rules’ in a boardgame. They’re there to officiate, to see that the rules are applied fairly and evenly and that the scenario is followed. While they’re fair they’re also likely to be fairly uncreative – at least where the rules are involved. A style of GMing that has largely fallen out of favour.

Advantages: You’re going to be able to get a fair showing in the Referee’s games but since most GMs bias in favour of the players, that may feel like they’re picking on you rather than being fair. The Referee is going to know the rules though and you’re unlikely to have huge pauses in the game while someone looks up a rule in the book.
Disadvantages: Referees tend to be the people who buy modules, so you may well find yourself stuck on rails when it comes to actually playing through an adventure. You’re also unlikely to get away with any creative rules bending, even if it makes perfect, logical sense.

*Srsly, I felt really sorry for the guy but it was a non-starter.

***

 

Q: When was this time of which you speak where the plot was sacrosanct? Mine have always tended to getting themselves very violated in personal ways – this said I kind of find that fun … and only moderately soul crushing as I throw aside a few hours of prep… You realise that all of these rules can be condensed under the umbrella of “Things you are able to do if you have a high level of social maturity.”A: By the ‘plot being sacrosanct’ I mean this was the one thing over which the Games Master had control that wasn’t compromised by the rules. Your Big Bad can be killed mid-soliloquay by a lucky roll on the part of one of the players but the evil eunuch is still the main enemy. You didn’t use to have people spending plot points mid game to change the main enemy to General Wang, their own personal nemesis.
Q: I very much like these ‘spend a point to take over being GM’ style systems. Players should get move involved with plot and story.

But all of them have the caveat that the GM can overrule whatever they want to throw in if he deems it too far out. I’d also argue that rules lawyers in a tamer form can be a real help. Having someone on hand who knows the rules so well they can point you to the right place can be helpful. As long as they know to shut the hell up when you overrule them! 🙂

A: I like them too, but there’s a tendency to let them undermine the GMs role a little too much for my taste and a little reinforcement of the Games Master’s role isn’t remiss – in my opinion. It’s worth re-stating the GM’s prerogative to approve or disapprove of things they want or don’t want in their game. Rules Lawyers can be tamed – to an extent – but ceding that also reduces the GMs authority. Better used as a human reference book I think. 😉

Grim’s Tales: The Player as Games Master

The idea of giving the players more direct influence over the course that a game takes has gained a certain amount of cachet in recent years, though it’s not exactly a new phenomenon (many Games Masters seek player input into their games, game worlds and adventure settings and topics) it has become more and more mechanically formalised, which is a little contradictory as it’s more associated with the story-strong games than the system-strong games. This ranges from special points (Fate/Action etc) that let you interrupt the flow of the game to get re-rolls, trigger special powers or force a redaction of a scene to the more explicit worksheets, merits and flaws that can dictate the way the game will go or provide fodder for a Games Master to create a campaign from.

This isn’t all a bad thing, if you’re the sort of Games Master who can roll with the punches this sort of stuff can be a real boon, providing constant feedback and direction to the game, making it more of a negotiation between the Games Master and the players and helping everyone get something they like and want from the game. If you’re trying to guide characters through a particular story that you like and that you’ve worked hard on though, you can end up completely sabotaged.

The real problem lies with the fact that players can now interfere with something that was relatively sacrosanct, the plot. Previously Rules Lawyers could argue the toss over the application of the rules and that was bad enough, Rules Lawyers can be a real bane to successful campaigns, now players can also interfere with the plot and the story – in some systems – something that the Games Master could previously cleave to their bosom as relatively inviolate.

Grim’s Rules
4. Whatever the game, the guy running it is ultimately the one in charge.
5. Work with your Games Master, not against them – and vice versa.
6. Whatever the game, you don’t need to apply all the rules, as written, or at all.

Grim’s Tales: The Games Master as Player

The Games Master might be the adjudicator but they’re still, also, a player in their own right and deserve to have a little fun. Believe it or not, from the Games Master side of the table it can seem like the players get all the fun, getting to play their characters in depth and engage in the storylines, to feel the thrill of victory and the bitter taste of defeat. Being the Games Master can seem a bit too much like being an accountant in a large firm, underappreciated but essential, wrestling with dry figures and statistics while everyone else is having high powered board meetings in exotic locations. From the player’s side it might look like the Games Master has all the power but it often doesn’t feel like it.

It’s often overlooked that the Games Master is another player who deserves enjoyment from the game as well, sure, some Games Masters are just awful but still here’s a person who has taken the time to come up with an adventure idea and who has been kind enough to offer to run it for you. Their ideas and their game, however hackneyed and/or cheesy, deserve a little bit of respect because without them you wouldn’t be playing at all. So, show some appreciation for your Games Master, even if they’re not the best one in the world because they’re still going to be offering you something you’ll have a hard time getting without them.

Sometimes the Games Master can take the idea of being a player in their own game a bit too far of course. This is where the horrifying case of the Games Master Player Character (GMPC) comes in, or even the favoured NPC. Sometimes a Games Master wants to get the joy of playing as well as GMing, but both at the same time. This is when either their character joins the party and they play them out as well as Games Mastering or when a particular NPC that they really like, a LOT, is suddenly all over every plot and scene in the game. Games Masters are only human, they want their character or their favourite NPC to be super competent and effective and suddenly the players can feel sidelined, accomplices to the Super-Character. The best way to avoid the problem is simply not to have Games Master characters in the game at all, ever, period, make it a rule. If your Games Master is being a prick with a super-powerful NPC and disenfranchising the player group, tell them, fix it, don’t suffer and bitch in silence.

Grim’s Rules
1. Know and understand where your games are coming from, your gaming history and that of your group.
2. Don’t GMPC, ever.
3. If someone in your group is being a dick. Tell them, but gently if possible.