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Gamemastering 101 1/2

I had hoped to come up with an article more elaborate, or at least less digressive, for the grand opening of Blackjack's Corner but eventually realized that a few pages of brain leakage regarding my views on gamemastering would be an excellent introduction to the ideas which will appear in a more focused form in future writings. At the very least this should get you accustomed to my use of run on sentences.

I've been gamemastering for a very long time now, at least nine thousand years, and during this time have discovered that it is impossible for me to do everything most believe the archetypical gamemaster is supposed to be able to do. Perhaps it is just me but it seems that if I utilize all of the rules, describe all of the surroundings in detail, roll for initiative for every turn for every NPC, and follow all of the other one billion things I'm supposed to it would take decades for a simple fight inside a Stuffer Shack to play itself out, not to mention the fact that I would be insane before the session was over. In order to combat this problem I decided to quit gamemastering Shadowrun and become a D&D halfling. Just kidding! What I really did was develop a gamemastering style which takes some of the burden off my shoulders and places it where it belongs: on the PC's.

An example: If a player asks if there are any scalable walls bordering an alley, I'll let them know. If they don't, I won't. Sure I could simply state that there are scalable walls and thus save them the time it would take to ask the question but when you consider the hundreds of little traits a single alley possesses you realize there is no way the gamemaster could possibly describe them all. What if the player asks if there are any chunks of asphalt lying around? If I say "yes" does that mean I should have described it before hand? Gee, then I should also state that the license plate on that runabout up there says "ILUVDOGZ" and that it's windows are tinted black and that somebody has installed an Buick emblem on the hood and that this emblem has some of its chrome chipped off. Forget it. I'll let the runner know they're in an alley, let them know if there is anything obviously weird about it, throw in some color and the weather and the rest is up to them. Why should I mention doors if they're not looking for them? Perhaps they don't even care about doors. It'd be an incredible waste of time.

Still, a problem arises when various NPCs begin to utilize aspects of a given area which were not described to the players. If a NPC is involved in a fist fight and they pick a crow bar up off the ground the player's usual reaction is one of anger over the fact that they were not told of said crowbar and, if they had been, they would have picked it up themselves. Well, all they had to do was ask. All the player would have had to do was ask "Is there anything on the ground I could use as a club?" and I would have said yes, there is a crow bar. And even if I hadn't said yes then it would also mean there isn't any crowbar for the NPC, either.

My primary defense when a player accuses me of not describing a location thoroughly enough is, since the player didn't ask me what they were looking for, descriptions must not be that important to them. As far as I'm concerned, if the PC didn't ask me if there are any scalable walls then they weren't looking for any scaleable walls. If an NPC ends up dropping on them from a wall and the PCs did not pick them up through any perception rolls then I'd assume the players were not on the alert for anyone coming from that direction. In fact, if there was a group of PCs, they should always have one of their members checking above their heads to see if anything's there.

Now does this mean I'm ditching part of my responsibility as a Gamemaster? Well, that depends on what you define as the gamemaster's responsibilities. I've usually divided gamemaster and player responsibilities into two categories, although there is a lot of grey area:

Player's Responsibility: Keep their character from getting killed.

GM's Responsibility: Kill the player's character.

Now before all you players get upset and firebomb my apartment let me say that the word "kill" can be replaced with "hurt", "take advantage of", or any number of terms. Let's face it, the GM's job is to make the PC's life difficult. If it wasn't we wouldn't have wonderful entities like security guards armed with machine guns. We would have people standing at the door, eager to help the runners carry their stolen merchandise. This is why I believe it is the player's responsibility to be on the look out for people scaling walls. It is something they should be concerned about. Meanwhile I'm concerned over whether or not my guy on the wall can successfully jump them without getting his own head blown off.

I never have any idea where anything is before the PCs get there anyway, which I believe is a good thing. It seems most of the published adventures and many of the scenarios gamemasters write up have everything placed exactly where they're going to be during a run before the game even starts. This doesn't work for me because I never, ever plan a run in detail. Ninety percent of the time I'm using a half page abstract describing the goals of the run and a few of the important locations involved along with one or more of my NPC lists and that's it. I can't even imagine going so far as to draw up a map. I mean, sheesh, what if the NPCs decided to go out for burgers and a shootout occurred at Mr. Bun as opposed to some Z section warehouse? I guess many GMs would keep their NPCs in one place, probably a place designated before hand in some multi-page description of the run's plot. My NPCs are never that cooperative. Sometimes I think they control the game, not me.

And while I'm on the subject, whatever subject that may be, I must say that, aside from the PCs, the NPCs are the most important aspect of shadowrun, or any role-playing game for that matter. And, in my opinion, the plot is way, way, way down at the bottom of this list. Since when does one find a plot in life? And since when has anybody WANTED a plot in life? Life would be terrible. I hate knowing what's going to happen. Fortunately, we hardly ever know what's going to happen. Hell, I can hardly ever remember what has happened and is happening, let along even begin to consider what's coming up. In order to illustrate this principle I've typed up an example of a random day in my relatively mundane life. First I've written it up in what I'll call "plot" format, structured in basically the same way one might write up a shadowrun timetable. Second is what really ended up happening. Bear with me, there is a point buried here somewhere.

7am       Wake up
7-8       Get ready to go to work, shower, eat breakfast, ect.
8-8:30    Ride subway to work
8:30-12   Work at computer services
12-4:30   Teach
4:30-10   Work at computer services
10-10:30  Ride subway home
10:30-12  Write
midnight  Go to sleep
Ok, so that was nice and simple. If it was a shadowrun simply replace each line with "Meet Mr. Chan" or "Pick up weapons." Now here is what ended up happening:

7am       Woke up.  Mistakenly turned alarm off instead of hitting
          snooze button.
8         Woke up.  Dressed and out the door in less than 5
8:45      Arrived at work late because a generator had blown up on
          my subway line, thus leaving many stations without power. 
11:30     Had to restrain myself from beating the hell out of
          obnoxious computer user.  Additional consultants called
          in to relieve tension.
12:10     Late to teach because food truck messed up my
          cheeseburger order.
12:40     Encountered wonderful computer crash while utilizing Avid
          editing system during my class.
1:30      Computer back on line
1:32      Computer crashes
2:15      Computer back on line
2:15:48   Computer crashes
3         Send everybody home.
3-4:30    Kill time by using Avid editing system which mysteriously
          came back to life mere minutes after class was disbanded.
4:30      Get to work
4:45      Get smashed in the face by an extremely large woman's
          extremely heavy book bag as she blindly swings it over
her       shoulder while getting up.
4:50      Begin to hear things
5:00      Begin to see things
5:05      Feel nauseous
5:10      Write semi coherent message to boss explaining situation,
          requesting pay for the rest of the evening, and a bunch
          of other things I could never remember.
5:30      Ride subway home
5:45      Over shoot stop by several stations
6:00      Ride subway home
6:05      Get home, take aspirin
6:10      Fall unconscious
So, what was the point of all this, other than to add another page to this article? Nothing ever goes as planned. Therefore, if you plan anything, and stick to this plan, you are in denial of reality. Moreover, it's simply a bad habit. I was once playing a PC (I'm sure we all remember the day: The world spun backwards. Oh, yeah, I didn't mention I never get to be anything but the gamemaster. Well, now you know.) In any case I was playing a PC and was trapped in a building, I believe the gamemaster was using a published adventure, and I decided to escape by blowing a hole through the wall and into the building beside me. The gamemaster just froze. He had no map for the next building and had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what to do. He planned himself into a corner and had no idea how to get out.

Well, enough babble. Stop by next week for another spattering of Shadowrun philosophy. Something profound. Something enlightening.

Something that will make sense. See ya.

Branson Hagerty (BHAGERTY@thunder.ocis.temple.edu)

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