Game Mastering and Leadership Skills: A Summary


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This series is about using leadership skills to improve your own skills as a Game Master.

Part 1: Introduction Why leadership skills matter to a GM.
Part 2: Leadership Types A different take on “What kind of GM are you?”
Part 3: Motivation Why do you bother running games?
Part 4: Leading Going where players want to follow.
Part 5: the Assisstant GM Cutting down your workload to reduce burnout.
Part 6: Communication Bringing the Party Together

Now you know how your style affects the kind of game you run, what motivates you to keep doing it, how to lead players forward instead of just beating them with a stick, why an Assistant GM can be a good idea and how communication is your best friend.

Feedback time: Did this series help? Did you take anything away from it to constructively improve your game? What section did you the most good? Did I miss anything glaringly obvious? Leave me some comments guys, and let me know how this worked for you – or not.

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Game Mastering and Leadership Skills: Part 6

Previous Installments:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

No one leads a party or a game like the Game Master will. His influence is by far the most pervasive on any gaming table. – Bard of Valiant

And one of the things the Game Master has a huge influence in is who is playing in the game. When I think of a campaign I want to run, the first thing I do is decide what system best suits it then I start looking around for interested players. Many GMs are in the same situation I am, the number of available people is fairly small. When I began collecting players for Project Valiant, my total pool of people was 6. Of those, 4 decided to join up.

This can cause a huge problem if any of those people aren’t any good at gaming or roleplaying. I don’t have any more options for players so I can’t very well tell Susy she sucks or that her boyfriend Zach is too disruptive. Instead I need to step up and do my part to make the party better.


Obviously, the first thing any GM faced with this situation should do is talk to the player in question and see if they’re willing to improve and what can be done. Complaining about them or their style behind their back will only lead to further disruption and more problems. And since you’ll need to talk to someone about your problems, you might as well talk to the people causing them.

Ok, social engineering talk complete. Other than that, suppose your players are already doing their best? No one is being deliberately problematic but somehow when you run an adventure, things just aren’t clicking together well? Here are some concrete things you can do to help them out while planning adventures.

1. Know the Goals. Make sure they know the goal of the adventure and the goal of the campaign, if any. Don’t be so mysterious with the NPCs that the players have no idea what direction to turn. So obscure with the clues they never see them. Early on in a campaign, you may have no idea what the long range goals are, you might be the type of game master who doesn’t use them or you might be revealing campaign goals gradually, but there is no reason to hide adventure goals.

2. Look at the Characters. Make sure they have the ability actually accomplish these goals. Obviously, for long range goals, the adventure goals will be gathering these tools but for adventures – do they have the skills? If they do, are the skills good enough to actually have some realistic chance of succeeding? Have you sent a bunch of bashing characters into a challenge that requires a magical solution? Worse, do you have a bunch of hack-n-slash loving players with a roleplaying challenge? Or vice-versa?

3. Give them Tools. If they don’t have what they need, can you find a way to give them access to it? Micro-adventures, or adventure scenes,  can be really useful here. If they need a magical solution they don’t currently have access to, can they buy it? Hire it? Can they learn the social skills to navigate Court? Perhaps an NPC is willing to teach in exchange for an item only found in a particular wooded glade protected by fierce treants….

4. Motivation. Just like you need it to keep up with this thankless job, your players need it to want to even bother chasing the goal you’ve set. If you’ve got a huge, epic story and the characters just aren’t biting the bait, stop and think. Why? Then ask the players! Talk to them about what you’re trying to achieve and ask them what you need to include to motivate their characters. Players are not your enemy and want you to enjoy yourself, too.

The huge tip here is communication. Communicate as a group so that everyone is getting what they want from the game and having a good time. Don’t be lazy or afraid to give a part of the story away if that’s what you need to do so that everyone is on the same page as a roleplaying group and everyone is having fun.

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Game Mastering and Leadership Skills: Part 5

A lot of the things I’ve talked about in part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 will help anyone be better at running games of any kind but let’s face it, we all have day jobs and doing these things is going to add to the investment in time and effort developing a good campaign or adventure already takes.

I clocked myself writing an adventure from scratch this week and it took me a little over 5 hours to write it all out from developing the story to statting NPCs and monsters to figuring out what loot to include as treasure. Going back over it and polishing it up using some of the ideas I’ve written about on this blog added another 90 minutes.

As I get more practiced, I will be doing these things as part of the actual adventure writing from the beginning and that will cut down the amount of added time it takes but most of us don’t even have that extra 90 minutes in the first place. We’re already squeezing gaming in the spaces left by work, family and other hobbies.

This can lead to a real sense of pressure and work overload: You can’t do everything that everyone wants, and this can leave you stressed, unhappy, and feeling that you’re letting people down. – Mind Tools

That sense of overload is going to eventually lead to burnout and then an end to what could have been the campaign of your life. I recently had to end a campaign for this reason among others and I felt a sense of futility and failure that I may never overcome entirely. What an awful thing to feel about a game! Hobbies are meant to be enjoyed, not add to the stress and pressures life already brings, but to help relieve them.

…I’m currently swamped with work, and surrounded with distractions.  Because of this, I’m less prepared than I’d like to be in terms of my GM planning. … That said, there are a few tricks one can work with in order to come up with a good session, when real life has your schedule out of commission: – Pointyman2000

There are some extremely good tips on saving time or using the time you have more efficiently in that post. Using commuting time, break time at work, time in the shower are all good ideas and something most of us are probably doing to some extent. His reminders of time we have available to us are worth a look over.

Another really excellent options is to have your players help out with the workload. Leaving parts of the setting deliberately vague leaves room for them to fill in detail based on the inspiration they have for their characters. I’ve done that with Valiant and Chgowiz writes here how that worked out for him as well. This not only saves you energy and time but will make things even more unique as you tap into their creativity. You can find even more time management tips here at Roleplaying Tip Weekly.

Migration Assistant

Another option, not quite the same thing as leaving holes for players to fill in, is something I’ve seen mentioned occasionally but until recently never tried myself and that’s to delegate to an Assistant GM. I talked to a friend who wants to learn how to GM himself and told him how he could help me out. Then I offered a small added experience bonus for his character. He quickly took me up on the offer.

This seems like such a simple solution and yet, in talking to several people I know who have either run games in the past or are currently running them, they have never tried it nor had they known anyone else who had. I myself had only read about it and in 25+ years of being a Game Master had never done it myself.

When discussing the subject with them, one thing quickly came forward. They felt it was actually less work to do it themselves than ask for help and then have to redo whatever the person helping had written. My own experience is bringing this to light as well. My Assistant helped me write some spells for Project Valiant and I did indeed have to go over them and rewrite portions to fit my vision.

Now hold on… wasn’t this article about making the job easier?

Yes. First, in the long run, as he learns the job and how I’m fitting things together, he’s going to get better at it. This will save me alot of work because I can then ask him to help create NPCs and monsters. Since I’m actually running two games a week, and he’s from one group helping me build content for the other group, this should ideally work out very well.

Second, as much as I enjoy being a game master, creating and building worlds, writing epic stories for people to explore, I’d like to play once in awhile, as well. This gives him a chance to see the process from the inside out, see the work involved, develop his own ideas about how things should be done and viola! I can play in his game next time!

Delegation is a win-win when done appropriately, however that does not mean that you can delegate just anything – Mind Tools

I doubt I’ll ever ask him to write story for me although I’m undecided about eventually asking for a complete adventure. There are some things about Valiant I’m just not willing to see someone else poke their noses into and stir up. Before you delegate everything ask these questions from Mind Tools (my comments after each in italics):

  1. Is there someone else who has (or can be given) the necessary information or expertise to complete the task? Essentially is this a task that someone else can do, or is it critical that you do it yourself? Obviously I’m having to teach as we go but many groups have multiple people with experience being game masters. You could save considerable effort asking them for help.
  2. Does the task provide an opportunity to grow and develop another person’s skills? Perhaps you know another game master who’s games no one enjoys playing. Is he redeemable? Can he learn to do it and just needs experience? Often I’ve noticed, players can get pretty impatient with someone new to being a GM. This could be their chance.
  3. Is this a task that will recur, in a similar form, in the future? Creating spells, NPCs, monsters – these are all things I’m going to have to do over and over again. Teaching and correcting him a few times early on should pay off for me over time.
  4. Do you have enough time to delegate the job effectively? Time must be available for adequate training, for questions and answers, for opportunities to check progress, and for rework if that is necessary. Yes, I know. I keep suggesting things that add to the time and work you’re already doing but I think I’ve shown how this might be a good idea to attempt regardless.
  5. Is this a task that I should delegate? Tasks critical for long-term success genuinely do need your attention. I would never ask him to screen players for the game or to write sections of the campaign. These are things I need to do myself, given I’m the only one who really knows the vision in my head.

An assistant GM might be just what you need to do first before you attempt any of the other dieas in this series. Once you have him or her up and running, you should have enough time and energy for the rest of it!

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Short Takes 02/02/09

A firework in Bratislava, Slovakia, 2005

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Posts I’ve found of use lately:

I voiced my wish to see some chance of spell failure in D&D in my recent post about Fantasy Magic. Having been called out by Bonemaster I have put together my suggestions as to how to use spell failure. – 6d6Fireball

D6 Fantasy, the system I’m using to develop Project Valiant, allows for spell failure but doesn’t really detail what exactly happens when it occurs. 6d6 Fireball posted a table I’ve swiped and modified for my own games. I’ve chosen to use a d10 instead of a d30 because I prefer Read the rest of this entry »

Game Masters and Leadership Skills: Part 4

Previous Entries: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

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 Read the rest of this entry »

Interlude: Putting Elements Together I

veil-of-convenient-illusionsAs a Bard of Valiant, I try to write about actual processes I use as a Game Master that work in concrete ways to make my game better. Hopefully by passing these methods on, it helps make your game better, too. In this spirit, these series of posts will be about how I actually used something I posted about to improve my game so maybe you can use the process yourself.

As commented here, I really love the name “Veil of Convenient Illusions” as written about by Wyatt. I also recommended something Chgowiz found, the stock.xchng for finding cool images you can use in games. Well, I now know what the Veil will look like by randomly viewing images there.

I still have no idea what it does but by putting two things I’ve found on different blogs, I’ve come up a very cool and interesting magical item. Click on the picture for full impact.

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Game Masters and Leadership Skills: Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed why leadership skills matter to a Game Master and his gaming group. In this article, we’ll take a look at some different styles of leadership and how they pertain to game mastering. Read the rest of this entry »