The Art of GMing

I've been thinking lately about how you could teach gamemastering. I'm fairly certain that it can be taught - I've yet to meet an art form that can't. Sure, you need some native talent, or rather, you need not to be incapable of it. I can't think of many people who're incapable of it; in the end of the day, it's imagination and talking.

Since an early age, I've treated the running of RPGs as an art form - part improvisational theatre, part novel, part screenplay, and other parts unique to it. I've run into a few other GMs who do likewise, and while it could be argued that it's a bias based on my own style, I've found their games better than the ones who regard it as a hobby or "just a game".

So I've been trying to boil it down to a few core concepts that you could teach - like perspective, life-drawing, and so on in painting. This article is an attempt to present a summary of these core concepts, for later expansion. There are plenty of magazine articles addressing parts of this concept already (though few books - I wonder why?), but none that try to lay out the whole thing. Gamemastering is one thing I know well how to do, and I'd like to spread it around.

The first and most important concept is what you want the game to do. You want the game to make your players forget about work, forget about the news, forget about the gossip and jokes of this world, and be subsumed utterly into the events that you are laying out before them for as long as the game lasts. This, I think, is a large part of the aim of any art form - to make the recipient, the viewer, forget that there is anything else, for a little while. Every other concept here, like the techniques of any art, is just a means to that end.

The first of these is getting your story straight. There is little more distracting than asking a simple enough question - "What language do they speak here?" and getting a slow reply that involves a great deal of "Hmm", "Er", and page-flipping. You can label this concept different ways "Presence of mind", "Thinking on your feet", "Knowing your setting", and so on. Those different labels indicate different approaches to the same concept, that of being able to offer the player an immediate answer.

The second is knowing your rules. Not the rules, but yours. The rules shape the game, define what can and can't be done, and most of all, get in the way. Your job as gamemaster is to minimise that getting in the way, and there are many techniques for this.

The third is perhaps the most difficult to define; the ability to describe what you see in your mind's eye so that your players see the same thing. This is important for both atmosphere and for plot - the latter being more fundamental. This is the one thing that people say they can't learn, and one thing that I am convinced can be learnt and taught.

I'll expand on these a bit in further entries, and try to set down my techniques for the art form.

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Posted by Drew Shiel at April 28, 2005 11:21 AM | TrackBack

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