Gamesmastering: The Art of the Illusionist
© Andy Staples 2010
This article represents some of the the techniques I've used in traditional, old-school GMing. It's the way I've been trying to run my games for nearly 30 years (yes, trying - I don't claim to be perfect and able to apply best practice, even my own best practice, all the time). As is typical of many longtime gamers who cut their teeth in the '80s, I'm used to a simulationist gaming style, as defined by Ron Edwards.
However, I'm trying to move away from this this style of GMing, partly for variety, partly because time simply doesn't allow the extended sessions in long-running campaigns with dedicated players that a simulation game really needs. As I move towards one-shots and short campaigns, my style has become more gamist, and in such circumstances it's less important to hide the inner workings of my campaign or my techniques, simply because suspension of disbelief is less important for the players.
Alongside this shift in gaming style, necessitated by lifestyle changes, I've become more aware of some of the radically different GMing styles discussed at The Forge and Chris Chinn's blog Deeper into the Game, including techniques that spread the traditional role among several people (eg, one person is the rules expert, another provides the creative input, etc.). I'm keen to give some of them a try, partly because they share much of the workload of GMing.
At this stage, my style is in transition. But I still believe some of the traditional techniques of the old-school GM have a place in new styles of gaming. I hope others will find them useful as well.
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), epic-level bard
Henry V, Prologue
We all know the story of the swan: serenely elegant above the water and paddling like the clappers below it. It's not a bad analogy for gamesmastering on the fly (and the bulk of good gamesmastering is done on the fly). But I really like to think of gamesmasters as illusionists, in the stage magician sense of the word, not the specialised wizard sense.
I have nothing up my left sleeve, and nothing up my right sleeve.
Illusion is trickery. Using sleight of hand, misdirection, psychology and, sometimes, elaborate props, the magician convinces his audience that they've witnessed something impossible. He invites them to believe, and offers entertainment and enjoyment in return for that belief. That's exactly what a gamesmaster does.
Before we start discussing tricks and how to use them effectively, let's step back for a moment and remember what's fun and not fun about being a player.
Aside from the social interaction and flexibility of tabletop gaming (something no video game can offer), I love discovering what's going. That is, I like campaigns which have a plot and I enjoy figuring it out. The sense of mystery, and the opportunity to explore. I also like feeling that my character is making a difference, and I like to see him (or her) develop and progress. I want to be a protagonist — not the only one, sure, but one of them. I like things to make sense. I also like feeling that I'm in control of my character, and that the GM is prepared to work with my input above and beyond whatever rules we're using — if I don't have that, I may as well be playing a video game. I like a GM who can spur my imagination.
I enjoy games with a balance between action and roleplaying — and prefer games that err on the side of roleplaying. That isn't to say I don't like combat in games — I do — but I don't need it to dominate.
In contrast, I get frustrated if I spend too long without discovering some new bit of plot development. If I try three or four different ways of advancing the plot to no avail, it feels as if I'm banging my head against a brick wall — or, worse, that the GM's blocking me. I become bored with games that have little or no plot or have cliched plots (one-offs can get away with that, but even short campaigns need something). I hate to feel forced into a line of action. I don't like to feel I'm being ruled by dice.
In short, as a player I expect the GM to provide me with an intriguing mystery to solve or interesting world to explore, to let me do it my own way, and to let me develop my character the way I want to. I want the GM to display some creativity and consistency, and I want the GM to acknowledge my character is important to this campaign, not a bit player.
In return, I try to do what I can to further the story, and avoid breaking the game. As a player, I see maintaining the verisimilitude as partly my responsibility, not just the GM's.
Some players like more combat than I do, others more roleplaying. Both camps have people who take it to extremes — they'll only fight, or avoid it at all costs. I regard myself as pretty average in that regard. I'm not especially keen on puzzle-solving in games (I can get that in a book of puzzles, which I can work on without the distraction of friends nattering around me). Some people, however, love it.
But what I love most is being part of the game. Some people watch football, some people play golf. I game, because that's the way I like to spend my hobby time. If I have a bad game, I'm not going to give up the hobby, or even the people I play with, any more than a golfer will quit the sport because he's had a bad round. If I'm having consistently bad games, then, yes, I need to consider finding a different set of rules, a different genre or, heaven forbid, a different group. But that's an extreme I've never reached. I've found something to enjoy in pretty much every game I've played and every group I've played with.
You'll probably find you have a number of players like me. We're pretty much typical gamers.
It's important to remember that as a GM. Your players want to enjoy your game. They're prepared to enjoy your game. To stop them enjoying it, you've got to do something wrong. And it doesn't take much effort to move them from merely enjoying a game to loving it.
But as GMs we're often short of inspiration and we're always short of time. Creating an intricate world of thrills and adventure with depth and detail is impossible for one person with a job and a family to consider.
Fortunately, you don't have to create an intricate world of thrills and adventure with depth and detail and a backstory to rival Tolkien. You only have to create the illusion of one.
This is how I pull the rabbit out of the hat.
Note: The Illusionist and illusionism
If you're familiar with GNS Theory and the Big Model, you'll know that illusionism is a bad thing. In the terminology used at The Forge, illusionism occurs when a GM uses his position to influence player-character decisions without the players being aware of that influence. It's a subtle form of railroading.
This is not the way I'm using the term 'illusionist'. I'm not advocating the Black Curtain so much as a net curtain. As GMs, we aren't here to make the players' decisions for them, or push them into a particular course of action. Nor should we create a situation where player-character decisions are immaterial to the course of the campaign.
The illusion we want to create is that we are prepared for anything the players do, or anywhere they want to go, that we have maps, encounters, NPCs and adventures to hand. That we aren't just making stuff up on the spot.
And in truth, we aren't making stuff up on the spot (not always, anyway). We're maximising the value of our preparation, or at least having enough material to hand to seamlessly and harmlessly delay the players' progress for the rest of the game session so before the next session we can plan a proper response to whatever had us flummoxed.
Inspiration: where to find plots
Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and three hours' march to dinner — and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830),
Table Talk, xix. On Going a Journey
I love research. One of my major failings as a GM is a tendency to over-research (check the history section of this site if you don't believe me — gaming led me to surveying medieval villages and learning to read medieval Latin, albeit slowly and with dictionaries to hand). When I keep the tendency reined in, I can put a game together pretty quickly (when I don't it can take ages — I've been working on my 12th-century Anarchy campaign for over a decade).
The key is in rapid plot development and open preparation. Open preparation is stuff you can use anytime, anywhere in your game world. It's drawing a map of an inn you're prepared to use over and over again to represent any inn the PCs visit. It's generating a generic NPC soldier rather than generating Bob Tanner, second-in-command of Alpha Squad. It's planning an encounter at 'a campsite', wherever it is, rather than the campsite in the woods two days south of Ankh-Lesspork.
Putting numbers on a map to show encounter locations, or setting elaborate conditions for an event to take place is closed preparation — an event will only happen in under circumstances which may never arise, meaning any time spent preparing it has been wasted. Open preparation is about choosing events which will happen, leaving the justification for it loose enough that you can work that out in-game.
Of course, you can't let the players know that everything's generic (well, the same inn map is a bit of a giveaway, but don't tell them everything else is generic). You hide it by personalising the important bits — the names list is the best-known trick in the GM's arsenal for a good reason.
You don't need to create all your generic stuff before play. Do it bit by bit, over weeks, months and years. The longer you run games, to more stuff you'll build up. You may get away without needing to create anything — websites will often give you PCs, maps and plots you can use. Character generation software, mapping software and other little gaming utilities will help you generate material.
Don't imagine, however, that I run games built entirely from generic building blocks. I generally use them to bridge the gaps in an overall story arc. They are time-savers and aids, and sometimes a diversion to hide the fact I've got nothing properly prepared, but not a replacement for a good adventure or campaign plot.
Plots are where people often stumble. I've got a few tips for developing plots before a game (and a couple more for generating them in game, but we'll get to that later):
- Keep an ideas book with you, so you can scribble plots whenever inspiration strikes (same thing works for characters, scenes, business ideas).
- Observation, keeping my eyes and ears open. A snippet of overheard conversation, a passage of text, a piece of artwork, a mood or place can all provide a spark of inspiration. News-in-brief columns in newspapers can be a great sources of ideas — at c.60-100 words they provide the kernel of an idea without restrictive detail. Here's one I've just culled from Gulf News: Police discovered six bodies in a cavern near the tourist resort of Cancun on Sunday, three of them cut open and their hearts removed. Authorities are investigating the identities of the four men and two women said the Quintana Roo state attorney-general. Someone took their hearts? Wow. I can definitely use this in a game — and the person(s) or thing(s) responsible can vary wildly depending on the genre: organ-leggers, psycho killer (ques que c'est?), aliens, werewolves, black magicians. The location can vary as well — hut, ruined tower, derelict space station... Scribble these ideas down in (or clip them out and stick them in) your ideas book.
- Your players are an often overlooked source of ideas. Character backgrounds are a great source of character-driven plots - if you have metagame talks with your players you can even ask them to ensure their characters each have a built-in hook in their background. If you want, you can ask them to generate new hooks before a particular session. Also listen to their general thoughts about the campaign, their hopes for their characters, and their speculation about hwta may be going on in the campaign. It may be they think of a cooler plot idea than you did, and you can adapt it, or just provide a kernel of an idea which you can note in your ideas book for future use.
- The 'what-if' game. This is basically taking an incident (from an in-game event, history, fiction, film or wherever), and wondering what would happen if you changed something. The more radical the change, the more distinctive the campaign — what if the PCs were an orcish warband tasked with defending their caves from a small group of invaders, comprising a fighter, a priest, a wizard and a rogue? It's been done before, but not by us... What if the guy the party killed last week had left his lawyer with a list of their dirty deeds? You do need a spark of inspiration to play what-if, but you can generate very detailed plots by piling one what-if on top of another.
- Tarot. This is my fall-back, my safety net, my way of kicking my imagination in the seat of its pants until it forces an idea out. I basically pick an NPC or a PC as the querant, and do a reading. I like the Celtic Cross layout as it gives a good overview of a particular problem and the particular issues or personalities surrounding it. It's particularly nice, when running Hârn games, to use Robin's long out-of-print Hârnic Tarot (I live in hope that Kelestia will get round to producing a PDF version of this). If you don't read tarot, or don't like it, you could use a random idea generator instead. If you're using a random idea generator, let it output several results, then see how many you can tie together into one plot. I ought to add here that I do not believe Tarot can predict the future, or is in any way 'magical'. Like many people who play fantasy games, I'm a hard-nosed cynic. But I do find it a spur to my imagination.
If you have other methods of generating plots when inspiration fails, I'd love to hear them.
Consider three layers of plot: premise, arc and adventure.
- The premise is the selling point of your game; the pitch, in Hollywood terms. Doesn't matter if it's a one-shot or a long-running campaign. It defines what your game's going to be about, its genre, who the PCs will be, and in broad terms, the kind of things that are likely to happen in game. The premise of an old-school D&D game is that the PCs are a group of adventurous freelancers exploring a fantasy setting of dank caves, dark dungeons and ancient ruins in search of fame and fortune. A pulp game may feature the crew of a tramp steamer struggling to make a buck in the East Indies of the 1930s, flavoured by rare high magic and legend — Indiana Jones meets Firefly. Or superheroes battling supervillains in modern-day New York. If you're looking for a group of players, you can hang the premise out like a merchant's shingle and wait for customers. If you're a member of an established group, the premise can be worked out in discussions between GM and players (we want to keep everyone happy, don't we — talk to your players about the kind of game they want to play).
- A story arc is the overall theme of your game. In a one-shot adventure it's pretty much absent, unless you choose to run a series of one-shots with an overall theme. In a longer-running campaign, it's your über-plot, the grand scheme of things which will be slowly revealed, piecemeal fashion, during a series of related adventures. Once the story arc is complete, your campaign is over — unless you choose (or originally planned) to run a sequel. Arcs are generally fairly loosely planned affairs, at least in my games. I have a broad idea of what it is (often, though not always, an adversary up to something the PCs are likely to want to stop — I usually have an idea of who the adversary is, and what they're up to), and fill in the details as the campaign progresses. Others may prefer to work out more detail in advance. Check Polti's Plots for inspiration for arcs other than the adversary/nemesis/archenemy idea (I find Polti much more useful for generating arcs then adventures).
- The adventure (or scenario in oldschool terms) is the immediate matter in hand, the meat and drink of the tabletop RPG. It may last only one session, or it may take several sessions to resolve it. It's the most concrete layer of plot, and deserves the most concrete preparation.
Anyway, once you have your premise and your story arc (if any), it's time to start hammering your adventure plot into something you can use at the table.
Scenes: the building blocks of adventures
In truth, he was a strange and wayward wight,
Fond of each gentle and each dreadful scene
In darkness and in storm he found delight
James Beattie (1735-1803)
The Minstrel, Bk 1, xxii
I usually think of adventures in terms of scenes. At an absolute minimum, you're going to need three key scenes: a beginning, a middle and an end. You should put most of your precious time, inspiration and resources into these. For instance, if your endgame is going to involve the party facing down a level-boss and his senior minions, you should have a pretty good idea of their capabilities (you may even want to go as far as full stats for the level-boss at least) and at least a rough sketch of the battlefield. If, at any point, you have any special requirements, you should think of how to apply them (if you want your level-boss to escape, s/he needs a way to do so).
A three-scene game isn't going to stand for much more than pub-play or a tight one-shot, however. I usually try to operate with five or six key scenes (ones important to furthering the plot) and a smattering of optional scenes. Optional scenes come into play if the party does something I've figured out is likely, if they seem really bored with my main plot (just because I think it's cool doesn't mean they will) or if I want to slow down play because they're figuring all the clues of my key scenes out too quickly. I rarely give much thought in advance to speeding up play — it's pretty easy to create a more obvious clue or have a PC experience a moment of intuitive insight, so I do that on the fly. (You should give thought on how to speed up play for convention games, which usually have a pretty tight schedule.)
What's the difference between a key scene and an optional one? Basically, a key scene is crucial: it has to happen, some way or another, to complete the adventure. Optional scenes add colour, flavour, assistance with key scenes, extra rewards or greater understanding of the plot, but are not necessary to complete the adventure. It's important to remember that, although they delay the PCs' progress along the main plot path, optional scenes should be enjoyable diversions. Don't force combat bunnies to talk (at least not all the time), or force roleplayers to fight (at least not all the time).
There's a third kind of scene: a digression. A digression is usually some kind of side-quest or mini-adventure which will take them away from the main plot, so you generally only want to use this in an ongoing, regular-session campaign. However, in an ongoing campaign you may want to keep quite a few of these ready for use when necessary because they add a lot of depth to your campaign. Some digressions are designed for players to choose whether they want to follow them up or let them lie (ie, they require an active effort on behalf of the PCs — they love making decisions, it makes them think they're in control).
I like to have at least a couple of adventure-specific optional scenes to hand. More is better, but I rarely find the time to develop a scenario in that much detail (and if I do, I often invest that extra time into the key scenes). The other optionals are generic.
There is a final kind of scene I use in ongoing campaigns: the colour scene. This is designed to illuminate a particular aspect of the world (background exposition) or generate an emotional response in the players (a motivator). It almost always involves me narrating something, and I try to use such scenes quite sparingly, as I talk enough already, and they usually break the "show, don't tell" rule, making players passive observers. They also have a tendency to be a bit preachy (if intended as motivators) or a lecture (if revealing background) — or maybe that's more to do with me and my style than inherent the scenes themsevles. Either way, I find a little goes a very, very long way.
Purely for aesthetic reasons, if I'm running an ongoing campaign, I like the plot of my opening adventure to tie in closely with the overall story arc. The PCs may encounter their adversary (or hear rumour of him/her), or become involved in whatever it is the adversary's up to.
Challenges: the building blocks of scenes
Without another word he flicked the stone towards her — a bad throw, moving fast and to her left. Her hand flashed out and the pebble bounced against her palm, but she caught it at the second attempt. Relief swept through her and her eyes were triumphant.
'Why so pleased?' he asked.
Danyal catches a pebble in the moonlight
David Gemmell (1948-2006), Waylander
I compass five basic categories of challenge: combat, puzzles, dialogues, skill tests and mood-shots.
- Combat should need no explanation. Orc raiders, bandits, Imperial stormtroopers, hungry beasts, wandering elderly mountain hermits whose ancestors you have inadvertently offended... Break out the battlemap! Roll for initiative! However, you should try and ensure the PCs can avoid any optional combat scenes in some way, by stealth, guile, charm, bribery or whatever (we likes creative players, doesn't we, precious). Your combat scene then becomes a problem-solving or roleplaying scene. You should also remember that most opponents don't want to die, and will try to withdraw if they're losing. If their opponents are really willing to lay down their lives, the PCs should wonder why — and the reason is probably a matter for a key scene rather than an optional one. In most games, combat can devolve into a series of boring dice rolls if you're careless. Don't let it: work your descriptions, put flavoursome meat on the bare bones of the rolls.
- A puzzle is also pretty self-explanatory. I've already said I don't particularly like problem-solving in games, but I appreciate that others do. (My main issue with them, to be honest, is that in most games I've played I've found puzzles so trite as to be no challenge, or far too difficult to solve in-game.) There are many different kinds of puzzles and many ways to dress them up. Most of them challenge the player, rather than his or her character, to solve them, which may be another reason I'm not that keen on them. Obvious puzzles include petty engineering challenges, riddles, code-breaking, logic problems and lateral thinking challenges. A quick search of the web will bring up loads. When planning puzzle scenes, do remember your players' strengths and weaknesses. I have a player whose English is far from fluent; setting him a riddle is utterly pointless. Raw puzzles are presented as puzzles in-game ("Three riddles you must answer before this gate you pass.") Disguised puzzles are dressed up as something else — working your way through government bureaucracy, figuring out how to mix a potion or assemble the bits of the magical maguffin.
- A dialogue is a conversation — a roleplaying challenge. It usually involves persuading an NPC to do something ("Send in the Marines!") or not to do something ("Don't kill us!"). To qualify as a challenge, a dialogue should be sufficiently difficult and carry a significant reward. Persuading the bishop to lend you the relics of St Commodius for a venture into the Temple of Unlife is a scene; haggling over the price of a pair of boots is not.
- Skill tests challenge a character's abilities, not the player's. They generally involve dice rolls. A thief rolling against his Pick-Lock skill is a skill test. A character rolling against his strength is a skill test (by this definition — I know some rules differentiate between attribute and skill tests). Sometimes an entire scene can be built from nothing but skills tests, such as an attempt to scale a huge cliff in several stages, or a multi-event athletics competition. Even more than combat, extended skill tests can become mere roll-fests. Work life into them with descriptions, tone of voice, actions. Failed rolls should increase the danger (if any) and drama, rather than casue disaster (disaster is for a whole sequence of failed rolls) — the cliff-climbing character is left dangling over a chasm by his safety rope; somone trying to defuse a bomb cuts the wrong wire and the timer stops for a moment... then starts again, counting down twice as fast; a character in a chase loses ground, rather than loses the entire race.
- Mood-shots aren't challenges as such, but are intended to show the players the results of their characters' actions (or inactions), or to provide a spur to action. They're my response to the old adage show, don't tell. Don't just tell them people will starve unless they find a way to restore the fertility magic, find the G.E.C.K. or whatever: show them, in game, people panic-buying, hoarding food, struggling to raise poor crops, killing off working stock and ultimately starving. Lay it on as thick as you feel you need to.
Plagiarism: an honest man's guide to nicking ideas ethically
He who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will soon be reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has often before repeated.
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
Discourse to Students of the Royal Academy, 14 Dec. 1770
Any IP lawyer will tell you that there's no copyright in ideas, only in the expression of ideas. Around your own tabletop, in your own games, how much you steal (and how obviously you do it) is purely a matter of personal taste - and the taste of your players.
But that doesn't mean you can get away with introducing a bullwhip-wielding, fedora-wearing adventurous archaeologist into a pulp game, call him something like Bob Pendleton, and not expect the players to identify him as Indiana Jones. You stole Indy's schtick and gave it to someone else. That's not big, and it's not clever.
If you want players to know Indy exists in your pulp game-world, it's much cooler to have the real deal. And perilous to the game, because Indy can likely upstage most PCs. I'd leave him as a background pop-culture reference. If the players find a diary entry along the lines of: Attended Professor Jones' lecture at the Royal Society on Monday evening. Interesting theories on the Ark of the Covenant, but so far behind Pitt-Rivers in excavation and recording techniques. Man's little more than a treasure hunter, I fear. That sort of thing can be passed of as homage, or pop-culture reference, and shouldn't harm your game.
If you intend to publish your game, professionally or amateurly (look, I invented a word!), you need to hide your influences a little better, or acknowledge them openly.
So what can you get away with? Almost anything, so long as you file off the serial numbers and mix up your sources a bit — remember the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, but stealing from several is research.
Recognisable characters are usually out (unless you're playing in their world or playing it for laughs), but their role in the plot or an aspect of their personalities is usually safe enough. One of my more memorable villains was basically Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, not that the players have ever figured that one out. I took a little of his background (special ops war vet) and flavoured it to my Hârn game (he became a member of an elite religious fighting order and veteran of a crusade) and his willingness to cross the line in pursuit of his goals and combined it with the self-belief of the murderous red-leg captain in The Outlaw Josie Wales ("Doin' good ain't got no end.") and turned him into an adversary with power, position, a clear goal and a conviction that the end justifies the means.
Rather more dangerous to your game is stealing plots lock, stock and barrel. If just one of the players recognises the source, it can ruin the game for them. If they act on their knowledge, they might ruin it for the others.
But again, getting inspiration from movie or book plots (or even song lyrics) is fine, if you carry the plot in a different direction.
I've run a very successful one-shot game inspired by Reservoir Dogs — more particularly, by the one-room claustrophobia and the Mexican stand-off at the end of Reservoir Dogs. It was a D20 Modern game, and the PCs were the orc henchmen of a recently deceased drugs lord, stuck in a warehouse and fighting each other for control of the gang. As an added complication a group of 'heroes' were trying to wipe the gang out for good, so the players had to balance their characters' in-fighting with co-operation to defeat their mutual enemies. As a one-off, there was a clear winner: the last orc standing. As it was a very gamist one-off there was no need to suspend disbelief so I flagged my the source inspiration to the players by calling the game 'Reservoir Orcs'. Hilarity ensued.