This week I thought I’d take a break from writing specifically about heroes and chat about a somewhat related topic, roleplaying games in general and one aspect of them.
During the last forty or so years, I’ve played in a lot of tabletop rpgs. Often I’ve also been the game master, sometimes called a Dungeon Master or referee or judge. Players and game masters have different roles, but both are still playing the same game together. That being said, the game master runs the game, is in charge of the game, and this comes with a fair amount of responsibility.
The game master is the one who guides the adventures, usually also helping to guide the story behind the adventures, and who controls the bad guys and the other non-player characters while coming up with and keeping track of the world the characters find themselves occupying. In a way, somewhat like a fiction writer, the game master guides the plot; if a game master is good at their job, they’re also allowing the players to guide the plot, at least within the boundaries of characters’ abilities, but at the end of the day it’s usually (though not always) up to the game master whether a particular session of play or even a broader campaign of play succeeds or fails.
How to know if a game succeeds or fails? Well, did everybody enjoy themselves? If so, then the game master likely did an excellent job. If not, players can take some responsibility, but much of it comes down to the game master. Obviously there can be bad players who can ruin a game, and even good players sometimes have less-than-stellar moments, but ultimately it’s the game master’s job to deal with those situations, though that’s easier said than done, especially when outside factors such as personalities and personal relationships come into view.
Over the years I’ve been on both sides as player and game master, and I’ve performed at various levels of quality play. Sometimes I’m an awesome player or game master. Other times, not so much. We all have bad days.
When I’ve been a player and not performed to my best, usually others in the game are understanding or at least willing to give me the benefit of the doubt if they’ve played with me before. When I’ve been a game master and performed poorly, those who are familiar with me will still usually give me the benefit of the doubt, but players new to me as a game master might not feel so forgiving. Which I understand, though I hope those who have experienced my play during less-than-stellar performances will give me at least one more opportunity.
As for forgiving myself, as a player that’s relatively easy to do, but as a game master I have a much harder time of it. As game master, I’m the one in charge more or less. It’s not too dissimilar from when I’ve been a manager at one job or another. If I perform badly, it reflects on everyone and affects everyone. If I’m a bad game master, or manager, and one of my players or employees has a not-so-good day, I feel responsible. Maybe I’m not always fully at fault, but I feel that weight.
If you are ever faced with having had a bad session or campaign as a game master, I’ve a few words of advice. Some of it might sound of cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
First, remember to act like an adult. Face up to your shortcomings and to the fact you harmed a game, however unintentionally. However, don’t beat yourself up too much, and remember there will always be other games. Took a good look at yourself as a game master, and if you feel it is important to do so, apologize to your players. I’m not suggesting you need to cry and weep and gnash your teeth, but if you are apologetic, most players will usually be understanding.
I’ll also suggest to remember to empower your players. That doesn’t mean you need to turn over the game to them, though I suppose that’s possible, but that a good game master tries to present players with options and opportunities. Even if a particular game is not going so well, sometimes things can be improved by a game master not getting in their own way. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. If the players are on a roleplaying roll, if they seem to have a good vibe without interference from the game master or non-player characters, then let them go with it. Some of the best games can come from players without a game master being much involved (not always, but sometimes). Also, allow players to attempt pretty much whatever they want, even if it’s something silly or outright stupid and impossible. Warn them first, if you wish, but let them try. Let the dice be the bad guy, or the cards or coins or whatever. If a player wants their character to jump from the Earth to the Moon, let them try. Yes, it’s silly, and yes, it’s not going to happen, but saying ‘no’ can cut short the game. Whenever possible, say ‘yes’ to players, but within reason. They are there to have fun, and being told ‘no’ is not fun. That doesn’t mean allowing a player to do anything and it doesn’t mean allowing a player to destroy everyone else’s fun. It means letting them push the boundaries. It means letting them play the hero or the big shot. It means not becoming so involved with your own plots and your own non-player characters that you can’t accept change. Also, it sometimes means letting the dice be the bad guy. If a player wants to do something that seems improbable but is still within the realm of possibility considering their skills and powers, have them make a dice roll instead of just saying “no.”
Remember to be fair at all times. Even if a player is being disruptive, try to be fair to them, but also remember to be fair to the other players in the game. Sometimes this can hurt, but usually it leads to better relationships in the long run.
Perhaps more than anything, however, is learn. Learn from your mistakes. Learn from your triumphs. Learn from your players. Learn from other players. Watch videos about being a game master. Watch other game masters in action. Don’t allow yourself to think you know everything and that you have nothing to learn.
In the end, by being humble and fair, by giving some control to players, you’ll be a better game master. And that will mean a better game for everyone, including yourself.
About the author
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.