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
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
4:30-10 Work at computer services
10-10:30 Ride subway home
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
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
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)