As tempting as it would be to write this as a one word article (and that word would be “don’t,” for the record) I feel that I’ve learned more about Gamemastering from this particular campaign than any other game I’ve ever run. For those of you unfamiliar with the setting, it’s a high-powered, epic fantasy set in a world heavily influenced by cinematic Wuxia and Chinese Mythology. The players are typically the chosen champions of some of the more powerful gods, gifted with unrivaled supernatural abilities. Said abilities allow them to do things like parry house-sized boulders with a teaspoon and shoot a man through the tear duct from a neighboring country.
Does that sound awesome? You bet it is! Does it sound like a tremendous pain in the ass to run? You have no bloody idea!
1. Learn when to say no
Some systems are more permissive than others when it comes to what a character can do. What a generic fantasy character is capable of is fairly cut and dry most of the time. Throw in characters who were given enough power to choke the Elder Gods to death with a barstool, and suddenly your campaign world is a very different place. Regardless how lenient your system of choice is, players are players, and they will always find ways to break something.
However, breaking things can be a large part of the enjoyment players get out of a game. As storytellers, we find ourselves tasked with making the difficult, and often thankless, choice of what can be sacrificed and what can remain sacrosanct. The difficulty in making these decisions is further compounded by what is perhaps the most essential maxim of good storytelling; always be even handed. It’s neither fun nor fair if everybody but one character gets what they want, but what if the thing that lone character desires might horribly violate the eye-sockets of game balance? How do we avoid these Catch-22s?
- The supplement books are not the shopping channel. While they can be fun and add some extra flavor to the game, some of them are written by authors who might not have as good a grasp on the balance and workings of the system as the original authors. Sometimes items from these books can help balance the game back out, and sometimes they will destroy what tenuous balance you do have. Just because somebody dropped a twenty on Gorlock’s Grim Book of Hideously Unbalanced Weaponry doesn’t give them the automatic right to import its contents into their game.
- Set clear expectations. Whenever you enter the “reward” phase, or the phase where characters have enough down time to churn out some artifacts, establish that everything is subject to veto based on availability, threat to game balance, etc. Don’t be despotic, but sometime’s it’s necessary to be a little firmer than you like to keep the game from pear shaped.
- Always work with people. I’ve heard the school of “Yes, but” touted as a solid ideal of roleplaying, and for the most part, I agree. However, “No, but” can work just as well. If you have to turn someone down on something they want, work with them to find a similiar, albiet less horrible, alternative.
- Enforce the time limits of a combat round. This is seems fairly obviously, but creative players like to make lavish actions, and sometimes they will try to cram about three rounds worth of stuff into a single action. Doesn’t matter how cool it is, if they can’t fit it in a round, they can’t do it in a round. Parse things out over a few combat actions or tell them to come up with a more concise plan. Combat takes long enough as it is.
2. If something is difficult, it’s probably difficult for a reason.
White Wolf has, in my opinion, a tendency to balance things that are overpowered by making them difficult to do… as opposed to not making them overpowered in the first place. This can you put you in a difficult position, as you are faced with either repeatedly having to perform the necessary dog and pony ceremony every time it comes up, or streamlining the process at the risk of the unhindered power running roughshod over your campaign. After having tried it both ways, with some solidly mixed results, I personally suggest to err on the side of tedious. If your player character has to spend a round or two whispering prayers before they can reload their Holy Dakka Dispenser, then that’s the price they pay for that extra fistful of dice.
Now, in some situations it becomes untenable… like when the rest of the party has to sit around for several months while the artificers build things. When faced with this sort of situation, I prefer to take a little off the top and a little off the bottom. Make it less tedious to do, but tone down the end results to be a little less problematic.
3. Make sure everyone gets time in the limelight.
This can be a lot harder than it sounds. Some people are naturally quiet and less assertive, while others are loud, boisterous and quick to act regardless of the circumstances. In a group of ten players, this problem becomes much, much worse. Getting the quieter folks some screen time is important, and sometimes you have to distract the players with Main Character Syndrome with something relevant to them, but not the plot, and then switch the camera back over to the quieter folks. Old acquaintances with new information are a good way to tie the characters into the story, while having them discover or rescue an important NPC, who will then only trust and/or deal directly with them from that point onward can be good ways of getting your seldom-seen characters into the limelight.
4. Share the load.
Keeping track of everyone and everything is a lot of work. The amount of effort involved in that task only goes up as you pile on more and more players. Figure out what strengths and knowledge bases your players have, and delegate some of the tasks to them. I usually ask my mechanic fanatics field rule questions, since it makes them happy and they are much more familiar with the corebooks than I am. In regards to the Lunar Exalted, (a kind of character class, to grossly oversimplify it) I have logged very little play time with one and I am not very familiar with their particular nuances, so I happily let the player who spent three years playing one answer most of the questions coming from the Lunar players.
5. Reward Positive Behavior
As any laboriously mined exploit in a computer game will tell us, gamers will go a long way for extra loot and/or experience. Dropping a chunk of bonus XP or arranging for a deposit of material wealth to serendipitously deposit itself at the character’s feet will rapidly encourage better behavior your players. But what should you reward? Teamwork, trying to involve the seldom-seen PCs in the plot, and similar behaviors all make for good XP fodder.
6. Non-combat Encounters
Combat is the central mechanical focus of most RPGs. Most of the rules congregate here, and the majority of the information on the character sheet is there for the purposes of battle. As such, combat is usually the slowest part of the game. I used to try for one solid combat per session when I first started running, it kept things visceral and entertaining, and the group was small enough that I could usually get away with it. As my gaming group got larger, this became less and less feasible. Still, a largely political game would be a waste of 90% of the group’s powers, but what could take the place of regular combat?
As it turns out, just about anything. Natural disasters, athletic events, treasure hunts, missing children, chase scenes and more make for fantastic, faster paced adventures. Saving a village from a lava flow or chasing a group of shadowy figures across the rooftops in the dead of night let the characters be heroes and sling some dice without having to go into initiative, separate their eight pages of character sheets or sit there for thirty minutes while all the other players go through initiative.
7. Cover all the details.
You’ve got a party of ten players. Half of them are new the the system, and a chunk of the other half have been playing this game since 1st ed and might get the rules confused sometimes. As much of a lengthy process this is, as the GM, you need to go over every character sheet and make sure every important detail is filled out at all, let alone correctly. This goes double for derived values, the ones that take their rating by dividing the total sum of three different variables. Make sure that things like weapon ranges and ammo capacity get written down as well, since people have a tendency to only record the damage of the weapon if they aren’t particularly combat-oriented.
8. Streamline Combat
Speed up combat and you’ll speed up your game immensely. This entry should probably get it’s own article… and luckily for me, I’ve already written one! Read this piece on streamlining combat if you’re so inclined, and then continue on down the list.
9. Player-driven stories.
While I consider this a must for any game, it becomes even more crucial in a campaign with a bunch of players. Antagonists of the campaign can be old foes of the characters, their home city is the one that comes under siege, friends, lovers and family members become involved in dangerous plots. Working to involve your players very heavily in the story makes it better for everyone involved. It’s a great way to get the wallflowers more involved in the story, to boot.
Let them fall in love and get married, reproduce, earn titles and start their own businesses. A lot of new (or hack) GMs view PC families as little more than ablative plot points to be murdered every time the PCs aren’t chasing the big bad with enough gusto. Do not do this. It’s trite, boring, and just a generically crappy thing to do to your players.
I’m not saying that everything should be +1 sunshine and roses, but never throw away the life of an important or beloved character cheaply. It lessens everything about your game.
10. Split the party
It’s a tactic dreaded by both players and GMs alike, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. A split party can cover more ground, engage with enemies on multiple fronts and pursue personal goals without having to drag a small army of loud, fractious, ADD-ridden psychopaths in tow. I would suggest enforcing a two-party limit, since nobody will get anything done if the party splits into five groups of two.
Don’t. Seriously, just don’t.