39
\$\begingroup\$

I live in a small Finnish town with my wife and we want to play. But we cannot find any GMs there. So I decided to try to be GM myself. The problem is - I love to explore the worlds, story, monsters, personalities of NPCs, and so on. But as a game master, I must invent them beforehand, and there would be nothing to explore even through players.

Are there any techniques I can try to use to enjoy GMing? Or am I doomed, and my personality will completely prevent me from being a GM and enjoying the game at the same time?

I think I can manage to have only some parts unknown for me, but even this I don't know how to do - except for random encounters and random loot, but that is not enough.

Or maybe I can use some tool to get what I want, at least to some degree?

\$\endgroup\$
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking about a particular RPG system/edition, or about handling this issue in RPGs in general? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 29 at 20:08
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Best legit game rec question in some time. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 30 at 1:54
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I see that this was held as “unclear”, but there's no lack of clarity in the question that I can see, and nobody has asked for anything to be clarified, so I've unheld it. If something's unclear that I've overlooked, please do point it out so that the asker can clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 31 at 2:22
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Re the first comment, unless system information is required to understand a question it can leave it out, so there's no need to add what game is being played, let alone force the issue with a hold. It didn't register as a clarification request, just asking for additional info. For the second comment, the body is clearly "how can I enjoy", and if the title needs to match better it can be adjusted. Fixing up a title is a non-issue, and the body doesn't need clarifying, since it already says. If those two things are all that was behind the hold votes, it really didn't need to be held. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 31 at 2:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ (I don't think the title needs to match better, anyway: not enjoying being GM is incompatible enough with GMing that the title already describes the problem just fine in that respect.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 31 at 2:38

10 Answers 10

41
\$\begingroup\$

A Style or Category More Than a Tool

There is a style of games in which the GM gets to be surprised and explore unknowns. These are games where the players also have the right to add story details, places and NPCs to the game world, and otherwise take over parts of the usual GM's repertoire of powers.

In some games, such power is highly restricted and/or regulated. In others, the line between the GM's and the players' ability to directly shape the world by fiat is much blurrier.

These games are known by a plethora of names such as 'collaborative', 'narrative', 'storygames' and perhaps some others. There is surprisingly much flame-warring about what exactly 'narrative' means what are minimum requirements for a game to use such adjectives. But that's not as important to this question as understanding what games should help with your problem: games where the GM gets to explore parts of the world created by players in a manner similar to how players explore the parts made by the GM.

Examples of such games:

  • Microscope. A 'high-end' example, to the point of being disputed as an RPG, where participants get to define huge parts of the world, and are encouraged to just add a world-feature on top of whatever's been added by the previous participants. E.g. one may say that the galaxy includes aliens, but another adds the twist that meaningful communication with them isn't normally possible. Keep in mind that Microscope has very weak attachment to characters - probably even less than assumed in 'dynastic' playstyles!
  • Various FATE games. A 'mid-range' example: players do have ability to shape the world, but the ability to do so depends on expending limited resources and/or successful rolls, and there is some veto power wielded by the GM.
  • There are many normally 'traditional' games (i.e. non-storygames) that add 'low-end' elements of such player abilities. In them, such powers are highly limited in scope, magnitude or both, and may also be very resource-limited. Such as GURPS (a game with an overwhelmingly 'physics-oriented' reputation!) allowing players to give their PCs lucky coincidences if they have the (expensive and limited in use per session) Serendipity advantage, or Impulse Points (likewise moderately expensive and slowly-regenerating). Or Exalted allowing players to add small details to the world if they make a sufficiently glorious description of a character's action that already builds upon world details that have been described by the GM.
  • Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and their derivatives instruct and require the GM to play to find out what happens, and to not plan ahead too far (the system fights you if you try). They support improvisation and exploration in the moment without having to define things thoroughly ahead of time. That probably puts it on the a 'mid-to-high' part of the spectrum.
  • Fiasco. The GMless, story-focused nature of the game puts it on the 'high end' of the spectrum, though not as high as Microscope because it is more attached to actual characters by comparison.

The Cost of Discovery

Of course, such a style is not necessarily for everyone, and not just in terms of being not to everyone's taste. GMing in such a style requires being more ready and willing to improvise, to tolerate carefully set up plans being invalidated by a seemingly-inconsequential detail that turns out to significantly change the context and the like. It can result in the game world ending up less coherent under the weight of all the additions - more Star Wars Expanded Universe than Historical WWII. If you and your players are fine with that - great!

\$\endgroup\$
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ You mentioned you're not familiar with how AW and DW fall, but I'm familiar and have taken the liberty of adding a description of how they relate to this situation. Please revise further as you'd like. ("Play to find out what happens" is one of the three points of the Agenda, a set of instructions for the GM to follow and live out when running these games.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 29 at 23:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Thanks. Will edit my part to make the transition smoother and focus more on your description than my disclaimer (which is no longer necessary, come to think of it). \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Jan 30 at 7:24
15
\$\begingroup\$

Don't invent and plan your entire world in advance.

It's always a good idea to have a basic plan ahead of time. Knowing that your players will start in a city and you want to throw a hook at them dealing with a crime boss (maybe they get mugged in an alley to get the ball rolling?). But you don't need to plan out the entire world. Sure, they're in a city, and the city has all the things that cities have such as shops, inns, bars, etc. So wait for your player say that they want to go to the shop to try to buy an item. On the fly, make up the shop's name, make up the shopkeep. Create their personality as you go, in response to what the players do and say. This way, the experience is new to you too; you're also discovering the shop and learning about the shopkeep.

Now, if you do do this, there are a few things that you'll have to do as well:

  1. Keep notes! You've now made Fizz Wizzets Magical Gadgets, and Fizz Wizzet is the owner, a gnome with red hair and a bubbly personality. Write all that down so that the players have a consistent experience next time they want to visit the shop.
  2. Have a very basic outline of ideas. Plot hooks, key story points, major characters and their motivations, etc. It might also be helpful to have a list of possible character name and personality traits that you can throw together at a moment's notice to create someone new as needed.
  3. Be good at improvisation. Good DMs can always improvise on the fly a little bit, but to be able to run a game like this, you really have to do well. You don't want to drag the game to a halt while you try to make up a name and decide how an NPC will respond, you need to try to keep things moving whenever possible.

This can be done with many TTRPG games, including D&D and Pathfinder; but some games are better than others. Further, there are some games that help to offload some of the work onto your players; see other answers for examples and details.

Personally, the hardest part about this strategy is combat encounters. It's one thing to make up NPCs and improvise their reactions and responses. It's another to make up a combat encounter on the fly and have it be fair and balanced; especially for a less-experienced DM. I would advise planning out a few combat encounters in advance. You can shift around the name and description of the enemies, but have an idea of how many there are, what their statblocks are, what weapons/magic they have, etc. When it makes sense to put your players in combat, you can then decide if they're fighting Human Thugs, Orc Raiders, Kobold Guards, or Royal Knights. At that point, you're just putting a skin on the block of stats and abilities you pre-prepared.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer a lot personally. I think it's totally reasonable to make the world with the players, ask them what they want, ask them where they want to go, ask them what they find interesting. At the start you can do a lot of this during character creation. The improvisation step becomes much easier if you offload the improvisation to them, while still adding your own flair & creativity to keep it fresh and interesting. \$\endgroup\$ – Yvihs Jan 30 at 7:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ A tool that can greatly help keeping tracks of everything you invent (quick note taking + quick ability to "sort" and "classify" datas) : a mindmapping software (ex: FreePlane). Have a laptop nearby, have the mindmapping software open, and you can very quickly open/close sub branches (ex: have main branches: worldmap - PCs - NPCs - monsters - deities) (have sub branches: World-ContinentA-landX-townY). FreePlane allow to quickly open/close subbranches (all or just the one you click on), and you can take a note (TAB to open a node) and then move it around (ctrl-arrows to move across the tree). \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Dulac Jan 30 at 17:01
8
\$\begingroup\$

Put that exploring energy into worldbuilding

Explore the world, but instead of it being another DM's world it is your world. Let your imagination fill in the pieces as you construct the world.

In my campaigns I start with a single town or city, often I take this from a module or adventure to make things simpler to start. Once I need to expand the world I explore it as though I were an adventurer.

An example of the train of thought this leads to:

What happens if I head north from here? Maybe there's mountains.

How do I get through the mountain? With a little searching there is a mountain pass.

Who controls the pass? The pass is guarded by Hill Dwarfs who won't allow passage to outsiders.

How do I placate the dwarfs? If someone were to deal with the nearby Winter Wolves the Dwarfs might let you through.

What lies at the other end of the pass?

Worldbuilding like this is still exploring, but exploring your imagination instead of a pre-made world. To me that's more exciting because there are infinite possibilities of what is around the corner or over the hill.

Additionally this gets me more excited for my players to explore. When they explore I get to share my discoveries with them. This makes me a more engaged and (in my opinion) better DM.

\$\endgroup\$
7
\$\begingroup\$

I also enjoy exploring, and I would encourage you not to underestimate how much exploring your players will cause. If you create a robust world and give your players freedom to do some exploring of their own, they will almost certainly go off in directions you didn't expect, and require some improvisation. Even if they don't go off in odd directions, you may find that watching others enjoy exploring the world you built brings you some joy. If the idea of bringing your carefully built world to others does not sound like it would be enjoyable, then DND may not be for you. However, suggestion or shopping posts are not really within the scope of this board, especially once we depart from DND and the wide world of tabletop RPGs opens up to be explored.

\$\endgroup\$
6
\$\begingroup\$

You can absolutely still DM! You can get the same enjoyment of exploring out of being the DM as being a player. I DM and I am often surprised at what the players in the party do and how it changes the story. I get a great deal of enjoyment and exploration out of preparing ahead of time before we play.

Get into the lore and explore things like the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. These can give you a sense of adventure and immersion as you go along.

As others have also answered, definitely check out some of the pre-made campaigns like the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set campaign. This has a story, world, and villains already made up that you get to discover and explore along the way with your party.

You can also explore some of the tutorials on Improvising a campaign. This lets the story grow and unfold in ways that you wouldn't even expect and allows you to get enjoyment out of not knowing what is going to happen next.

Bottom line is just have fun!

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 29 at 22:05
4
\$\begingroup\$

As a volunteer-to-DM myself, I often feel that too. I really enjoy both DM and PC sides but at first, I'm a DM because I couldn't find a DM. So here are two pieces of advice:

Build over the pre-built, and improvise

As Linksassin said, you can use your imagination and exploration craving to build you own stories. I would suggest to begin with pre-built stories, then you'll quickly start to add your own paths and forks. Then, when you'll be more familiar with the game you play at, you can build your stories from scratch. I'm sure you will truly enjoy to see your PC explore your stories.

Switch sides!

In my current group, I was lucky to have one of my players who told me he wanted to try DMing too. I jumped on that occasion since I admitted that I missed being a player, just exploring and improvising my way out. So we agreed, with the group blessing, to switch sides at the end of every scenario. We just have to find some RP justifications (He plays a priest that have to retreat in his cult's temple every now and then, and I want to play an semi-hermit druid, so that was easy). So you could suggest that to your group, and maybe one of your player will understand your situation and agree to switch side with you.

\$\endgroup\$
3
\$\begingroup\$

You'll be surprised how much on-the-fly worldbuilding you do as a GM. Even if you have the entire campaign memorized, your players will never do exactly what you expect, and they'll surprise you with all kinds of twists as they do silly things and ask about details you never thought of.

The easiest way to make the game interesting is to encourage the players to explore and be silly. Don't be one of those GMs who won't tolerate nonsense or off-topic play. When your players are allowed to be goofy, you end up with a lot of zany scenarios that create all manner of situations you never expected and get to explore along with your players.

Some of the most memorable games I've ever been in have involved things like discovering a medieval sex shop, characters playing bagpipes while strolling through the dungeon, and players determined to find a magical item who end up on some completely random quest based on some other player's suggestion. Let your players fill the world with their own quirky ideas and you'll never get bored.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour and check out the help center. This is a good first answer! \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 31 at 2:25
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Thanks. I've seen the Role-Playing Games site, but never extended my account to it until now. \$\endgroup\$ – CMB Jan 31 at 3:56
2
\$\begingroup\$

I would suggest seeking out published adventures, such as those written for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition or Pathfinder. They not only reduce the burden on a first time GM by reducing the amount of preparation necessary, but also have pre-established characters and settings that you can learn about while running the game. It's unlikely to have quite the same effect as actually playing would, but it should provide some of that sense of discovery and exploration.

\$\endgroup\$
2
\$\begingroup\$

The Friends at the Table podcast does a lot of "play to find out what happens". They have used Stars Without Number, Microscope and The Quiet Year, along with a couple different Powered By the Apocalypse variants to do this kind of exploratory gameplay, and they are very good at it.

If you'd like to listen to the episodes that they use these in to get an idea of the gameplay, try the COUNTER/Weight "faction" episodes and the Marielda, City of Light pt. 1 episode to hear actual gameplay.

I might also recommend Follow, from the creator of Microscope, because it's specifically meant to be a GM-less game, so everyone participates to try to reach the goal: slay the dragon, pull off the heist, settle a new planet...Friends at the Table also played this, but I don't remember which episodes it was used in.

\$\endgroup\$
1
\$\begingroup\$

Play to find out what happens.

It's not, for instance, your agenda to make the players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them, or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I'm not [messing] around). It’s not your job to put their characters in double-binds or dead ends, or to yank the rug out from under their feet. Go chasing after any of those, you’ll wind up with a boring game that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived, and you'll be pre-deciding what happens by yourself, not playing to find out.

Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game's fiction's own internal logic and causality, driven by the players' characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside.

The reward for MCing, for this kind of GMing, comes with the discipline. When you find something you genuinely care about -- a question about what will happen that you genuinely want to find out -- letting the game's fiction decide it is uniquely satisfying.

Apocalypse World 2nd ed, "The Master of Ceremonies", p.80

I don't know if that's exactly what you want. It sounds very close to what you want. And Apocalypse World isn't the only game you can play like Apocalypse World, it's just the best one. (And you can grab the first edition free here. It's not irredeemably worse than the not-free second edition, just made in a world where Fury Road didn't exist yet.) The second-best one is whichever of its successors you favor the setting for, whether they use the engine (Fellowship, Masks, Rhapsody of Blood) or just the philosophy (Blades in the Dark, Scum and Villainy).

Not all games will be easily or even possibly compatible with the most fun bits, so I'll spell out what those are and what elements in a game engine could make them derail.

The Incomplete World: Clear a Space to Barf

Barf forth apocalyptica. -- Apocalypse World

Draw maps, leave blanks. -- Dungeon World

How do you run a game when you don't know what's going to happen? Well, one important part of it is that you just scatter around a whole bunch of things that could happen. Ordinarily, you might have been hesitant to do that because what if the PCs just spend three hours poking at some purely atmospheric lava pool? But when you don't know what's going to happen, you leave yourself room to listen to what the PCs are interested in and steer toward that.

And of course, in order to do that you need to scatter a bunch of things the PCs might be interested in around the game landscape with wild abandon. Don't commit to anything, don't decide just when you've placed it that it's going to be huge. Maybe the PCs will turn their backs on it, and if it's still small, hey, no loss.

So to start with, focus on sensations. Mention colors, tastes, scents, sounds. Explain things the characters know, but the players don't, at an extremely surface level. I'll give you an example: as a result of a botched roll during setup, my players came back to their rented quarters to find out the place had been drastically rearranged:

And when you came back, she'd reinstated The Dukes. Bodies hung by intricate wire-and-gear-work from the brasswork spheres, now mounted on the ceiling. She's got what appear to be the proper seals from the Last Gatesmen attesting these deaths are by neither her hand nor her malice, same as the first time. Same as the first time, they're slowly being stripped of flesh by her spawnlings, even as they seem to consult with each other and order the spawnlings around. Same as the first time, she doesn't explain why she's doing this - part of her lifecycle, power play, nervous reflex - and you've got no idea quite what it accomplishes either.

This is a game set in something like Planescape, and I didn't want them to be rooming with a bloody-handed murderer, at least not yet, so I came up with something like the Dustmen - the Last Gatesmen, a guild that involves itself in the things that come after death. Through a combination of player curiosity and my own needing to improvise when players made bad rolls (oh, a partial to try and get your living quarters back? She says sure, as long as you can dispose of the bones. Oh, a botch trying to find where to go to do that? Sure, you know exactly where, this needs to go back to the HQ a ludicrous distance away) my players wound up visiting their home turf, taking the occasional request from them, and one became personally involved with them in an effort to hide their necromantic battle suit from its original creators.

But all I started with was the seed. Plant a bunch of seeds and you can see what needs to grow later.

This doesn't work well for: systems where players have strong capabilities of divination. If players can force you to act as though any given part of your game world is strongly and absolutely defined, you can find yourself scrambling to come up with lots of information and attaching it to something that the PCs might not even be interested in.

Prepare to React: The Threatdown

But you are still the GM, right? How do the standard GM responsibilities of session prep hold up when you're leaving a blank spot in the place labeled "end of session"? Pretty well, as it turns out.

During play, you leapt forward with named and motivated NPCs, you barfed forth landscapes and details of society. Now, between sessions, it's time to go back through your notes and create those people, places, and conditions as threats.

Creating them as threats means making decisions about their backstory and motivations. Real decisions, binding ones, that call for creativity, attention and care. You do it outside of play, between sessions, so that you have the time and space to think.

The purpose of your prep is to give you interesting things to say.

-- Apocalypse World 2nd ed, "Threats", p. 106

All of your dangerous people and places and things get their own section in the various offshoots, but whether they're called threats or arcs or fronts they represent the same thing: an opportunity to prepare productively.

This isn't the prep that you might be used to, creating a pre-keyed dungeon and inhabitants that are frozen in time one minute from the midnight of their evil scheme until the PCs show up and the clock starts ticking. Depending on your hack of choice you may not even be prepping notable antagonists, but for games like Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows devising NPCs which serve more to set your PCs on interesting collision courses with each other. If you do prep conventional antagonists, you can set them up to advance their nefarious schemes to present the PCs with motivations to act against them and to give them something to do when the PCs show up.

What you'll be preparing is broader than that: what do they want, and how do they get it? Most AW-derived games will include some suggested activities depending on what role in the story they fulfill - and "they" here can encompass the normal sort of people, but also animals, landscapes, disasters, buildings, vehicles; if it would show up in the opening credits of the TV show, you can prep for it. So what you can present the PCs with is one part or another of this seething mass of desires and actions, and as they assert their own motivations against it, you'll know how it's all going to wind up reacting.

This doesn't work well for: Games with intricate rules for creating antagonist characters. Most AW-derived games don't get any more complicated than hit points, armor, damage, and the descriptions of unique things an antagonist can do. If you find yourself thinking "oh, of course, they'll run into the Motti Gang trying to smuggle shine dust down at the docks" it's easier to just let that happen if you don't have to break for an hour and make members of the Motti Gang with an approximate lifetime of five minutes. It also doesn't work well in games with strict rules for extended recovery periods. Math is cruel, and your PCs may find themselves helplessly watching doom descend because of some very bad luck.

Give Truth, Get Truth: Asking Charged Questions

Once you have the player's answer, build on it. I mean three things by that: (1) barf apocalyptica upon it, by adding details and imagery of your own; (2) refer to it later in play, bringing it back into currency; and (3) use it to inform your own developing apocalyptic aesthetic, incorporating it -- and more importantly, its implications -- into your own vision.

Apocalypse World 2nd ed, "The Master of Ceremonies", p.85

So, you've got your pick-and-mix of setting details lying out there, you've got your prep notes for the various dramatically important elements in the world and the things they like to do, and you go to the players to tie them all together, but how?

Well, you present them with these setting details and elements of the world and see how they react to them, and you do that by asking charged questions.

The difference between a charged question and a more open-ended exploratory one is discussed at greater length in this blog about crossing the line but, in a nutshell, it's the difference between

You finally kick the slaver out of the driver's seat and he drops screaming down the canyon. You brake his buggy to a halt, and only then notice the box strapped into the passenger seat. What's in the box?

and

You finally kick the slaver out of the driver's seat and he drops screaming down the canyon. You brake his buggy to a halt, and only then notice the box strapped into the passenger seat. So, pertinent question: what do the slavers use for barter?

which can be restated more boringly as

You finally kick the slaver out of the driver's seat and he drops screaming down the canyon. You brake his buggy to a halt, and only then notice the box strapped into the passenger seat. The box is used to transport whatever the slavers use for barter. What's in the box?

I've pulled the charged (some would say "loaded") fact about the world out, it's in italics. It serves a couple of purposes - it gives the person answering the question something to think about as a starting point for their answer, and it lets them know how I'm going to use their answer. This is a much easier prompt to respond to than "say something cool about the world, I'll tell you what for later".

(It's calendar scrip, by the way. Their concrete compound used to be a printing concern, and they've stamped pages of that old product as promissory notes for a day or a month or a year's unskilled hard labor.)

Now, you might get some pushback there, and it's important to listen to players who might object to the facts you introduce about the world, but ultimately you're still the GM, still curating their input, still responsible for running the world in their absence. If you want water to be a concern in the post-apocalypse*, then when you say "how low does the water tank have to get before you start getting concerned", assuming both a water shortage and a water tank, you might get pushback. Someone might say "what? don't we get it from the river?" but one of the cores of post-apoc fiction is you ain't got enough, so you can incorporate the idea that there's a river and say: sure, on days when it's running clear and doesn't smell too bad it's kind of a rush to risk cupping some up in your hands, but otherwise you've got to boil it and filter it and it goes in the tank. So how low does the tank have to get before you start getting concerned?

* Yes, I'm aware of The Waterbearer. Obviously you don't contravene the playbook that exists entirely to explore the interesting circumstances surrounding the guy who always has water in a thirsty world. But let's assume nobody wanted to be one.

This doesn't work well for: Mostly this is about player types, but there are certain systems that attempt to model the world in such detail that something you intended to be an open-ended question with an answer that only mattered for the story actually has important mechanical implications when you get curious and go look up what it means. One type of player it doesn't work well for is someone who's used to those kinds of systems and will be worried that even though you seem to be asking a simple question, they might be screwing themselves over by giving "a wrong answer", and will try to dig into implications you didn't intend. Another is someone who shows up to game night more to socialize than to play, to appreciate the story that's going on around them without contributing much. Some systems can incorporate a player like that into more structured play procedures, but they don't do well when put on the spot to answer open-ended questions.

Run to the end of the world.

So there's your basic plan for playing a game even you, the GM, can explore:

  • constantly introduce minor setting flavor that doesn't have to mean anything, so you can catch onto what the players are interested in and make it mean more
  • if you introduce opposition, plan its reactions more than you plan its actions so it can more easily fill a space that opens up for it
  • use relevant information in the world to prompt players to make connections, then run with them

It's possible that your favorite system might not be able to do this easily or well. It's possible it might not be a good fit for the player group you put together. It's possible it might not make it a good fit for you, since while you can productively prep for this style of play it places greater demands on you in the moment to look for and find interconnections to keep the game going.

But if you can make it work, it's pretty great.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.