Saturday, March 30, 2013

Improving Game Mastery: Reflective Storytelling

Choo!  Choo!
            The only type of Game Master or Storyteller that I really think is bad is the one who has no interest in improving his GM skills.  From the very first time that I ever ran a game until now, I have always looked for ways to improve, and I think that is true of every good game master.  I suppose that’s why I never look down on a new game master who does a bad job.  He or she is trying their best and things didn’t work out, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  My first attempts to run a game were awful.  Learning from your mistakes and failures is the key in the growth of any skill, especially a skill such as cooperative storytelling.  As long as that GM has learned something and applies it to the next he or she runs a game, then I think it was a good session.  However, learning to improve your GM skills is a skill all its own. 

            I am never satisfied with any game that I have run because I know that it wasn’t perfect, but no game that I run will ever be perfect, and that’s not a bad thing.  What it means is that I can always get better by honing my craft and studying my mistakes.  I can also look to a lot of sources for improving my skills.  The internet is glutted with sources of information for game masters:  blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, forums, v-casts, free books and PDFs, etc.  With a quick Google search, you can find just about anything you need. 

The best place to begin your quest to become a better GM is to simply talk to your players.  Ask them what they thought of the game, but don’t ask them “Did you like the game?”  You should avoid questions that can be answered yes or no.  Instead, ask open ended questions such as “What did you like about this session?” or “What part of the session didn’t you like?”  Asking open ended questions will allow your players to give you better feedback.  When they tell you something, write it down so that you can refer back to it when you are preparing the next session.  Also, no matter what your players might say, don’t become defensive; instead you should accept their criticism because it’s what they really think.  Don’t take the criticism personally, the players want the same thing that you do – to make the game better.   

            The next thing to do after a session is to think about what you think you did well and what you did poorly.  Reflect on your mistakes.  What rule did you not know and had to spend time figuring out?  Maybe you could write it down on a note card to have it nearby.  Did you have a hard time coming up with names for random NPCs that the players stumbled across?  Maybe you should write down a list of names for NPCs for future use.  Reflect on your successes.  The players really enjoyed that chase scene, but can I make it better?  The players really liked that NPC’s personality, could I make him/her more important to the story. 

            After that I would start to look elsewhere for advice.  One thing about GMing an RPG is that the skills you need to run a Vampire the Masquerade game and the skills you need to D&D or GURPS are pretty much the same.  Whatever the system, you need to be able to create an adventure, populate it with NPCs and encounters, and run it effectively.  So, you can read other RPG books and look at how they suggest that you GM.  The advice for running a dungeon in D&D is a great framework for running an adventure set in the Nosferatu warrens beneath your city.  The advice for running the court of Emperor Hantei XXXIV in Otosan Uchi in Legend of the Five Rings is going to be equally as useful for running the prince’s court in your Vampire City.  All of these ideas transfer relatively easily.  More importantly, running new systems will help you get new ideas for your game and may help you break out of a rut.  If you switch from something combat oriented like Dungeons & Dragons to something more political or social oriented like Vampire, you might find that new ways of approaching adventure construction and ways to challenge players who have seen all your tricks already.  Playing a whole new system can offer you a new perspective and approach for your own game. 

            Probably one of the best books on improving your GMing skills is Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.  While this book was published by Steve Jackson Games, it is not specifically for GURPS.  Instead it has suggestions that are appropriate for any game system.  Laws divides players into several groups based on what they want out of a type of game from the Power Gamer to the Method Actor to the Casual Player, and he explains how best to involve each of those archetypes in your game.  If you can find a copy of the book, I highly recommend that you get it.  It can be found on 

            Obviously, I would remiss if I didn’t also suggest a few podcasts and vid-casts.  Probably the most entertaining v-cast is Spoony’s Counter Monkey series on The Spoony Experiment.  Spoony is infinitely entertaining as he tells stories about his many adventures as both a player and a GM in various games.  He also offers some great advice on running games; his best piece of advice is “All Jedi or NoJedi” as a rule for running the Star Wars RPG.  

My favorite podcasts are Underdiscussion and Happy Jacks RPGPodcast.  I love Underdiscussion because it reminds me of my friends sitting around a table after a game talking about games and having a good time.  Underdiscussion is laid back and fun but still offers plenty of good advice; although they do have a tendency to go way off topic.  Happy Jacks is a great podcast that offers a lot of laughs and plenty of advice.  They answer questions from listeners and typically tackle one new topic each week.  For people interested in a World of Darkness focused Podcast, you should try Darker Days.  All of these podcasts are available on iTunes as well.  Darker Days covers both classic and new World of Darkness games as well as some of the other White Wolf properties such as Trinity. Darker Days is a one stop podcast for everything White Wolf related.  
            If you've found my blog, I'm sure you'll find others.  However I do read a couple of blogs such as Aggregate Cognizance.  I loved his article on Wandering Murder Hobos, and I am going to post a reply to that article very soon.  I frequent the RPG.Net Forum frequently, and usually I'm the one asking for advice rather than giving it.  It's a great place to ask for some help when you're stuck on a problem or you need to locate some obscure piece of trivia that will help you with an encounter or adventure.  There are lots of other websites out there if you need advice or help with GMing, and these are just the ones that I use.  I'm sure there are better ones that I haven't found yet. 

            The one thing that I hope that all of my readers take away from this article is that GMing is a skill that requires constant maintenance.  Every session is learning experience and a chance to improve.  Whether you are an experience GM who has been playing since D&D first edition or a brand new GM who just opened up his first RPG book, you can always find a way to get just a little bit better.  And I'll end this article with a question:  What pod casts or blogs do you go to for advice and help when you're GMing?  Leave a comment below! 


  1. there are a lot of good rpg channels on youtube. my favorite is prolly the main man ander wood

    followed closely by the gentleman gamer

    both have good oWoD content.

  2. The Gentleman Gamer is one of my favorite youtube channels. His explanations of each clan are really well thought out and in-depth. They provide information on the clan but retain the mystery of the clans. He has some Planescape videos that I want to watch as well.

    I just subscribed to the other channel you recommended. I can't wait to watch some of these videos. Thanks!