In any game the leader can only go where the players are willing to follow, whether it be a Guild Leader in World of Warcraft or a Game Master of a tabletop role-playing game. If the players won’t follow, you have no game. And there are really two ways you can convince them to do this. The Stick and the Carrot.
The Stick, used very sparingly and with extremely judicious care, can be extremely effective at teaching players which direction was the best one. Character death is a pretty graphic representation of failure. Watching the NPC ride of with the treasure also works. Used too often, however, in too many situations and your players are going to quit having fun and before long, quit playing.
If team members respect your judgment, they’ll trust you to guide their efforts in such a way that you’ll make the most of their hard work. – Mind Tools
The Carrot is much, much more effective and can be used in almost any situation to reward success and good thinking. In addition, the players learn to respect and trust you, their GM. And trust in a Game Master is more important than many realize when it comes to the realms of imagination. Players who trust their GM are more likely to be imaginative and think of interesting solutions making the game more fun for everyone, including you.
And all these discussions are great theory but what can you, the GM Extra-ordinaire, actually do to get better at leading the game? What concrete things can you accomplish to get that trust, making a better game?
1. Gain Expertise. Get to know your system and your setting. Reread books over and over again if necessary. I once tried to run a D20 Modern game in a Cyberpunk 2020 setting. I thought it was enough to know the setting and learn the system on the fly. As a result, my games were unbalanced and clunky in pacing. When I realized I wasn’t willing to put more work into learning how D20 Modern was actually written as a system, I realized I really didn’t enjoy running the game that way and ended that campaign in favor of a different one we could all enjoy and that I knew much better.
2. Learn to Bluff. At first glance, this seems like the anti-thesis of #1, but it’s actually complimentary. Your players will, bet your life on it, think of things you didn’t. If you can bluff convincingly, they’ll never realize you were taken by surprise and they’ll respect your judgement to a greater degree as someone who can effectively deal with surprise situations. This means you do have to follow suggestion 1, because if your bluff isn’t logical and consistent with the rest of the game, it isn’t going to work.
3. Don’t Blow It. That isn’t really a very descriptive suggestion on improvement but it’s effective. Once you’ve got their respect and trust, don’t throw it away. Don’t be a braggart, don’t react to a character action that blows your story in anger, don’t suddenly kill a character arbitrarily, don’t make fun of an idea they get, don’t blow it. Regaining respect and trust is a thousand percent harder than getting it in the first place.
4. Communicate. Talk to your players, learn what they want to see in your game. Not only should you learn the goals they set for their characters, but learn how they think those goals might be best implemented. They might give you the idea for the next chapter in your campaign and will love seeing their ideas come to life. Ask them what modifications to the system they’d like to see, what house rules they enjoy. All these things not only increase everyone’s fun but gives them a stake in the game they didn’t expect to have.
5. Listen. This one can be hard but when players express disillusionment, find out why then shut up while they tell you. From personal experience, I can say it’s awful easy to get defensive when they criticize my game and I want to explain or make excuses. Just shut up. Wait for them to finish, then address their concerns without whining about your campaign. This takes alot of practice but it’s well worth it. If you can find a compromise, all the better.
All of these suggestions will help you become a GM the players want running their game and help you develop a game they talk about for years afterwards. Not only that, but you’ll really enjoy the game yourself which is the whole point, isn’t it?
Stay Tuned for Part 5.