Comments on GMing After a 15-Year Hiatus

09:10 Sun 03 Jan 2010
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Last Wednesday, I ran a roleplaying game for the first time since late 1994 or early 1995. It was a one-shot, using the same broad setting and rules system hybrid that I’m planning to use for a campaign later this year.

It went quite well, and it was definitely a good thing to run it before starting the campaign proper, giving me plenty of useful information.

The setting is an evolution of my Fantasy World Sketch from last March. The rules system is the D&D 3.5 SRD plus Iron Heroes and a magic system of my own devising, with some other changes due to the setting (like the absence of clerics and druids).

I’d never run any of those individual pieces before, never mind the hybrid. I’d also never run a game for any of the players there.

I was happy with it—15 years later and it still felt like a completely natural thing to be doing. The eleven years I spent regularly running games prior to the break clearly haven’t disappeared into mist, and aside from specifics of the system, knowing what to do wasn’t a problem.

It was a relatively simple plot, as befits a one-shot for an untested system, GM, and players. I’m not going to go into the details, because it’s a one-shot I plan to run again with a different group. It worked well, although it definitely had some weaknesses; Dave pointed out later that it should have followed a slightly different narrative structure, and I realized that with my gaming preparation and with my fiction I tend to focus not on the story arc or narrative line per se but on the details and intricacies of what’s going on—situation rather than plot, or plot in the sense of intrigue rather than storyline. This focus has been a creative strength of mine, but my attention to story structure has probably been too lax, and that’s something I can do with some work on.

Due to a hectic schedule and some unforeseen time sinks, I wasn’t as prepared for the game as I would have liked. While this was mostly fine, I want to avoid that situation in future. I know from experience that it’s really easy to go overboard on preparation and then have the players do something that means that the preparation is wasted, but I still want to do more work on it. Some of it is basic mechanics: it’s a good idea to have stats for anyone the players are likely to encounter, and also for people they might encounter when they go off on random tangents.

More than that, it’s also good to have a set of personalities alongside those stats, so that improvisation isn’t always the only resource.

One fairly major, and natural, shift over the last decade-and-a-half is that my primary tool during the session was my laptop. All the characters were on it for my reference, all the rules were on it, and I used the d20 Dice Bag to make a lot of the rolls, although I also used physical dice. I definitely prefer the laptop approach, and was happy to not have to spend time searching through physical books—although some of the rules checks on the laptop took almost as long.

To represent combat, we used pencil and paper for longer-range situations, and then a grid for melee. The grid was actually a quilting mat rather than a gaming-specific mat, but worked fine, although we couldn’t draw on it. Miniatures might have been nice, but didn’t really matter; any tokens or pieces work fine. I know that some groups have moved combat onto a virtual tabletop, such as MapTool, but I’m not ready to make that step yet.

That being said, I am considering using the laptop more centrally for play, in a way that might seem totally wrong for fantasy roleplaying games: as a presentation tool. Even in a fairly simple one-shot, players had trouble with some typical things—like names, for example. So I’m seriously considering the possibility of using a projector (or other large screen) as a presentation aid during what are essentially briefings. Even just using the projector to display the name of the NPC the players are dealing with might actually help matters significantly. Using it at other times to display the names of the player characters might help too; in the full campaign I’m thinking about providing handouts each session that include things like character names, what’s known about each character, who the primary NPCs are, etc.

Of course, as a GM, I want players to remember this stuff, but that’s not how it works, and any aids to player recall might be worth the investment of energy.

Combat was a fairly major part of the session (eventually…), and while it mostly went fine, I was frustrated by some of it.

What I really want, and I suspect I’m not alone in this, is to make combat interesting as a tactical sub-game but also retain roleplaying cohesion and character identification during it, and further to make it retain the flexibility of roleplaying rather than reducing it to a boardgame. Combat could be reduced to a boardgame (in fact the whole D&D system evolved from small-squad wargaming), but while roleplaying is about cooperative storytelling and trying to see and choose with your character’s eyes and mind rather than your own, boardgaming (and competitive gaming in general) is about acting optimally within a ruleset. Those are quite different things, and the latter places quite a strain on the former.

I haven’t figured out what to do about this yet, but I’m thinking about ways to interrupt combat, to yank players out of the flow of it and push them back towards their character as a character rather than a gamepiece, and I’m also considering the opposite as a technique, forcing players to make decisions very quickly during combat to make them feel some of the stress that their characters feel.

I suspect players might not like this, but I hope to get past that if they see how it makes the game better overall.

I personally hate it when combat, particularly combat that’s quite significant, ends up being a no-tactics series of attacks back and forth—which means just a series of dice rolls. Sometimes that’s simply what makes tactical sense for both antagonists, but what should be a highly tense situation in which characters are literally fighting for their lives can turn into: “I roll. Miss. You roll. Miss. I roll. Miss. You roll. Hit. eight damage”—which continues until one of them dies. It’s hard, as a GM, to get past that, particularly since at that point the players generally want to dispense with detail and just know how much damage they’re dealing and how much they’re receiving, which is understandable. I need to find a way to get out of such situations when they arise.

Lastly, I’d like to get players to focus more on the combat situation even when it’s not their turn. This wasn’t a terrible problem in the one-shot, but I was reminded of how it can get fairly bad. This goes together with other things: if combat is faster, it’s easier; if combat is more interesting even when you’re not in it, it’s easier; if combat is tactically deep and players react to it as a problem to solve, it’s easier; finally, if the player is more invested in their character, then the mortal danger experienced by them and their comrades should prove compelling and thus make it easier.

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