GMing apprentice craft

Quite by accident (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) a spambot directed me to check in with the 20×20 Room where I found the old entry on Game Craft regarding lack of support for how to make a game work once you know the rules.
What’s that? You imagine that once you know the rules, or have read the game book from cover to cover you just need players and a bunch of game prep?
Uh, no. If only it were that simple.
You see, GMs make mistakes, forget their own maxims, and even misjudge the ‘fun’ in every session at least once. Every session. “At play” stuff most rulebooks ignore.
When was the last time you read rules for ‘fixing’ a bad GM call?
I ran a D&D game that lasted off and on for twenty years and I blew up the campaign with an error in judgment I didn’t see coming. Isn’t hindsight a marvelous thing?
Trust me, I didn’t handle it so well in actual practice.

That fallen game was with friends.
Friends who wanted the game to succeed.
Friends who had been gaming very successfully for years.
And the game died because of out-of-character miscommunication and PC goals in conflict with canon, not lousy rules or bad play.
Elsewhere, Amber DRPG has been noted as a game that is tough to play well. (Bias note: this linked forum does not conduct polite posting. Beware clicking and engaging.) This notion that Amber DRPG isn’t for beginners is not a new idea either. Lucky for us all, lots of folks have posted free advice.
With all the immortal competency involved in Amber genre, GMing doesn’t usually work if you try to ‘gimmick’ your way past a PC’s skills and determination. You have to respect those PC niches and powers and points. It jolts really fast if a GM tries to handwave these elements away. The interrupt of ‘GM railroading’ can break your belief in the game premise incredibly fast for any game, dice or not, character-driven or not—but in Amber DRPG it is kryptonite.
Without excellent communication (in and out of game) with the GM, you risk your connect with the game world and belief in your PC’s competency.
In my experience, this would be true in the wild semi-surreal world of Over The Edge or in a humorously fatal world of Paranoia. If you don’t work with the GM, if you try to stay in-game when you have an out-game confusion that your Character should not have, you will break your connect to the premise and lose your way. If you hide Player issues from the GM while trying to solve these items with PC responses, you will lose your way. To paraphrase an infamous bit of philosophy:

If you continue to do something that isn’t working expecting some different result, you are probably going to be Very Disappointed and Hugely Pissed at the point things finally break.

Some games offer GM advice and examples of tough calls—most do not. Amber DRPG is considered by some to have excellent examples of play. Others gamers find the GM advice to be spare or pointedly wrong.
You see how tough this is?
I refer you all, once again, to the invaluable Amber Tips by Epoch. Here are pages and pages of GM advice specific to setting up and running a game of Amber. There are a few gems for the Players of the game too. The how and why of such choices is lovingly detailed for your benefit.
From the Player side of things, you might want to save a copy of Tony LB’s essay here on Amber PCs. While brief, there are some great points made.
And here are a few more thoughts:

  1. feedback— it never hurts to take a break and say, “thanks, I’m having a good time” or “I just don’t get this thing that happened last session, can we go over that again before we start?” Try to do this ‘offline’ or when it doesn’t block other players.
  2. even in an action scene, remember that the more complex the conflict, the longer the build-up to that conflict, the more critical it is to ‘break down’ the scene and pace decisions to allow maximum flow of PC choice. Do not squash PC opportunity to make plot or NPCs look better.
    The short version: as drama increases—slow down time and speed up info
    In my profession, some folks call such advice “measure twice and cut once”

  3. as the GM and Players are mortally flawed, even more so make the NPCs flawed, especially if they are not mortal or very powerful. Zelazny’s canon makes this clear: immortals are flawed in very human ways—that’s part of their interest to us.
    In My Campaign these days, a PC has set herself against the Fae several times. That strange race happens to be older than Chaos and twice as powerful magically. IMC the Fae play tricks on gods; they are older than all shadow civilizations.
    Yet the Fae don’t master every scene. They shove the PCs about but do not negate them. They make mistakes. They don’t know everything.
    The story is not about the Fae, it is about the PCs. Really. Trust me on this.

  4. the more impressive the story conflict opposition, the more awesome the PC response will be
    That should be guaranteed in an Amber game and shall be if you give your Players the chance.
    Empower the awesome responses of the PCs

  5. share the fun, acknowledge the social activity with little “side perks”
    meals might be time to talk about movies or books rather than the game you are already playing. Variety makes the fun better and creates better understanding between players

  6. encourage a formal OOC (out-of-character) outlet that isn’t mixed with in-game responses
    The game will run smoother and character voice is stronger if folks know where/when to put their OOC comments. Encourage summary questions by email the day after a game when everyone has digested play! Before each session start a genre prologue! Groups can discuss how to set up these OOC flags as part of the social dynamic they seek.

  7. Fairy tale games often begin with ‘Once upon a time’.
    Imagine that Amber games might begin with Zelazny’s ‘It was starting to end’… and the GM summarizes previous play or foreshadows the new session.
    Why? It’s a formal flag that gaming has started and encourages folks to prepare their character voice. It’s a shorthand reminder for everyone very like the title on a chapter.

What sort of tips can you share about tough GMing choices?


  1. Off topic?!
    “If you continue to do something that isn’t working expecting some different result, you are probably going to be Very Disappointed and Hugely Pissed at the point things finally break.”
    You’ve just described my approach to the computer systems aspect of my business. Heee!

  2. For me, it comes down to four elements:
    I need to be prepared to go with the flow. I need to be ready to tear up acres of work and planning and be prepared to let my players do what they want, and g=follow their paths – while still being ready to deliver the powie! element they want – and tie everything up in nice neat bows at the end, so that they can sigh their satisfaction.
    I need to be ready to talk and to listen. I need to be prepared to listen to players – but also to explain things to them in a way that gives them the support they need. And I need to be prepared to see that what might be trivial to me might be a gamebreaker for them – and to act on that, and yet at the same time knowing when to say – and being prepared to say, “I don’t have time for this” or “This ends here.”
    Even if I have set up what I think of as a jolly decent game, even a fantastic game – I haven’t invented a cure for cancer, or even the common cold. No-one goes to bed better fed because of what I’ve done. No street child escapes poverty. I increase – I hope – in that splendid phrase, the gaiety of nations. I make – at least, I aim to make – a small number of people happier. It’s important to get that in context.
    In addition,I can be wrong. I can make hideous, stomach-churning mistakes. I’ve done it before and I will do it again – and I will then have to rely on the kindness and good will of my players, who will believe (and I hope with justification) that I am more likely to get it splendidly right – and that it’s worth sticking around for that.
    Because without that, how can the players have faith in me? And how can I have faith in myself?
    All very lofty, of course. But the pistons driving my GM engine.

  3. I wrote this on Carriwitchet’s Aphasia, and I will stick to it:
    The GM is not the “director,” “storyteller,” or “author.” The GM is closer to a coach.
    A GM-as-coach listens to what you say your PC does, but asks questions to make the actions more pointed and the results more awesome for everyone. They aid in challenging the PCs, aware that the whole perspective relies on player incentive. They are a collaborator for a better experience, rather than the sole source of competition.
    Sometimes your team doesn’t win. A GM makes that loss a real opportunity for the next game.

    “The game is ABOUT the PCs. Every piece of the game is intended to be enjoyable, every puzzle solvable, every victory earned. Every character will have their fifteen minutes of fame, plus. No NPC is untouchable. The more you dare, the more you win. Character death is possible, but it will not be wasted.”

    That’s what _I_ want out of a game, so that’s what I want to offer. If my character dies, I want to know they did it in a fabulous way. I want the experience to be awesome, so I want to contribute to the enthusiasm as GM OR player.

Comments are closed.