A Good Game Master Must Read

Better than any supplement.

This morning, I read a post by Alex Kimball over at the Castalia House blog. In it, he describes how he ran a tabletop RPG campaign off of a short story from the 1940s and along the way developed a set of rules that he could use to play WWII-style campaigns. He explains that the supplementary material that often comes along with tabletop RPG rulebooks is useless because that material includes too many details irrelevant to the action. As an alternative, he suggested using short stories as a basis for a campaign, since only relevant characters and settings are included, and the story itself could act as a rough outline for an adventure (keep in mind that players will deviate, though.)

Kimball’s experience underlines something important that every Game Master should do: read.

Within many a book, one can find a playable adventure. GMing is a neverending game of improvisation, and you are guaranteed to get a situation you did not prepare for. Being well-read lets you pull out a roughly analogous situation and keep going from there. It keeps the adventures varied and stops them from collapsing into bad jokes and random, pointless encounters. It provides structure to a game that could easily become very chaotic.

It’s important to know, of course, that you don’t use the stories to railroad your players. Your players will take actions that directly contradict the events of a story, and you must accommodate them if you want your game to survive. This means that you must read the stories actively, thinking about what could happen if events went differently. Nimble switches from situation to situation will make the game that much more fun, and your players will thank you for it.

You don’t need a bunch of supplements to generate an interesting game. You just need some good sci-fi and fantasy stories to nourish your imagination and share that excitement with your players. A well-done RPG will create lasting memories.

Also, my novella Sword & Flower can give you some ideas for a tabletop RPG campaign.

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6 Responses to A Good Game Master Must Read

  1. Ralts says:

    One of the big things that results in arguments every time you get TTRPG publishers together is: Modules. Back in the early days of the OGL/SRD many people (including WotC employees and ex-employees) believed that modules were a money losing proposition, citing the HUGE amount of left-over modules when TSR went bankrupt.

    So the big boys were gunshy about metaplot, modules, or supplements that moved time (unless it was time for an edition change, in which case they destroyed the setting/world to force you to buy the new books), which meant lots of new GM’s had to work the absolutely TERRIBLE campaign advice in early books. Honestly, after Gygax, nobody did a good job explaining how to set up campaigns or adventure arcs worth a damn. Nobody. Even VtM wasn’t that good, just had a slapped on meta-plot. (Don’t make me slap your eyeliner off)

    So a lot of people missed out on the old advice of: “When out of ideas, steal steal steal!” that a lot of the older gamers got. Additionally, they were never taught HOW to steal from books. This led to people wanting to railroad people through either whatever book/movie/song they heard, or wanted the write a novel with the players being railroaded through their latest fantasy.

    Without modules as examples, because modules lose money (snicker), lots of players and GM’s weren’t really sure how to put something memorable together. Yeah, they could string something together, but largely, people were missing the advice. Partly because the “big boys” of the industry didn’t believe that modules made money.

    They pretty much ignored the Core Books, Modules, Supplements, Modules, Core Books cycle that actually could work, preferring to go Core Books, Splat Books, Revision. (WotC, I’m looking at you) They were always afraid of players realizing one thing: After the Core Book purchase, they didn’t NEED you. You had to provide something they want.

    That led to “if we do modules, and spend $400 on artwork and cartography, and all that time, we won’t be able to put out MUST HAVE SPLATBOOKS! (that nobody will use because they’re trash that was never playtested)” and personally, I feel that the attitude of treating the customer less like a fellow traveller through TTRPG fun and more of a “buy this now, silly consumer, even though you know we’ll just change editions on you” is what caused a LOT of problems in sales.

    So the books with the chapters on HOW to GM, how to design a dungeon, HOW to design a world, HOW to design a campaign, usually found those chapters either cut, or severely trimmed down. Which didn’t give people the bare bones idea of how to create to an adventure.

    But, I’ve rambled on enough.

    Good article, and I agree. Grabbing the plots, even the characters, from literature and applying it to you game, works great and makes for memorable campaigns, even if all you did was file off the serial numbers and slap some cheap plastic surgery on the characters.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      An excellent comment — very enlightening. The early history of the hobby is always interesting.

      So a lot of people missed out on the old advice of: “When out of ideas, steal steal steal!” that a lot of the older gamers got. Additionally, they were never taught HOW to steal from books. This led to people wanting to railroad people through either whatever book/movie/song they heard, or wanted the write a novel with the players being railroaded through their latest fantasy.

      Railroading the players is playing with yourself.

      Grabbing the plots, even the characters, from literature and applying it to you game, works great and makes for memorable campaigns, even if all you did was file off the serial numbers and slap some cheap plastic surgery on the characters.

      I can attest to this from personal experience.

      • Ralts says:

        Pretty much. A *really* good GM can make a railroad feel like a wild roller coaster ride where it could explode in flames and kill everyone for a mile radius, but for every 100 that think they can do that, maybe 1 actually can.

  2. The Mixed GM says:

    If you are a well-read GM, especially if you are more well-read than your players, you can make them think you are a better GM than you actually are* by stealing a plot twist or culture idea from a great work. This is especially important in a “kitchen sink” kind of game world.

    In addition to great fiction, I would advise that GM also read some history, even if it just perusing some Wikipedia articles. There are plenty of interesting plots and ideas that can be adapted from historical events, if you file off the serial numbers.

    * I mean this more in the “fake it, ’til you make it” sense, rather than trying to deceive your players

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