Welcome back to the Zurn blog! As I get ready to launch two new campaigns starting next week, I decided to switch gears and write a few blog posts about good etiquette at the table (and in preparation for the table) for gamers, as it assists in building a better game experience for your group.
In today's post I want to talk specifically to game masters (or dungeon masters, or doom masters, or whatever your game system calls you) about ways that we can make the table better for our players, and tips and tricks to aid in making running the game a bit easier.
By means of summary, remember this: less is more. The less you do (with one major exception), the better your game will be. Allow me to explain.
I. More Prep
I'd like to say that it goes without saying that you should prep, and that generally the more prep you do the better your session will be. But as someone who has been busy with life outside the table and had to go to a session with less than optimal prep, I can also tell you that you need to give yourself some grace in this regard. If you are not a full-time GM (and even if you are), there will likely be a session in which you are not well prepared for the encounter(s) that night. More on that later, as we have thoughts on how "less is more" helps you when winging a session.
But as a general rule, err on the side of more prep. Think through the rough flow of the session (more on why I preface this with "rough" below): what scenes will you need to prepare? How will you describe those to your players? What pertinent details do they need to know to make informed decisions? Will you use a physical map to describe it? Are there details that will be important in future sessions, not necessarily that session, that need to be grasped and remembered by the players?
Think through voices. When the party interacts with Person X that we're introducing, what do they sound like? Are they important in this town? Are they liked in town? What do they want (goals, aspirations, things they will find more attractive/appealing)? All of this affects the way you talk, communicate with the party, etc., and helps to bring characters to life.
But sometimes, you aren't going to have a lot of time to prep. And that's okay - because sometimes the session is actually better by doing less prep, as we'll see below.
II. Less Talk
We've all had those moments where we wrote a really epic description or intro for our players and we can just feel it in our bones that we really nailed it with that read aloud section. And that's excellent - as a player who has sat under several GMs and a DM who had really good descriptions and read alouds (ranging from visions to good perception/investigation rolls), those sessions are still memorable to me despite years having past.
But players also don't want to feel like they've shown up just to hear you talk, and long descriptions can lose the punch and power that a shorter description might have. So one way to make your games better is to talk less.
Some players like being given clear-cut choices, and want you to ask those of them. Others, though, may feel like you're putting them in a box. So let them talk amongst themselves (heck, even if their character isn't in the room), as players talking over what to do are players that are engaged. They came to the table to have fun as a group, so as appropriate let them talk and carry the conversation for you. This is now one less thing you need to do, which frees you up to prep the next scene.
From my school of thought, the players are the main characters, so let them be the main characters. Give them the reins when it comes to talking.
So if you are running behind on prep and you don't have an epic description readied, don't worry about it: give a short, slow description of what they see. This gives you time to figure out what needs to be on the map, what will matter both for the session and future sessions, and then let your players fill in the details.
Don't solve the problems for them. If they're stuck and can't find a way out (because it's been a long day/week at work, or whatever) by all means help them, but let them sweat and talk it out for a bit before adding your thoughts. You want them to feel like they are on their own journey, not just a track that you have built in your mind for them to use. So talk less.
III. Less Distractions
This takes a lot of forms, so I'll take the most time on this point. The most obvious (and the one that everyone mentions, and for good reason considering our day and age) is less technology. I've been at tables where the DM wisely said, "No phones during the session," and it helped immensely in keeping us engaged. And some players are "married to their phones" so to speak, and really need to hear this, so don't be afraid to ask it of your players. If you can, do this in your Session Zero (as I'll be doing), so that from the outset the expectation is clear.
On a related note, though, the GM can also put out distractions, and you need to do less of that. A funny voice for an NPC, flashy backgrounds, and many other things can distract your party, not to mention distract you by having to ready things instead of critically thinking in the moment how to dynamically move the story. This is part of the reason why I don't use Roll20 (there are other philosophical reasons as well): some of my players would be distracted by how to do things with the program (even as simple as logging in), and I want to remove that from them.
Now, on this point, there is always going to be the exception for exigent circumstances. If your mom calls because your dad is in the hospital, by all means take that call. But it proves the rule: remove the distractions to increase the engagement of your players.
Environment can also cause distractions. Do you meet at someone's house? Is there construction going on in their neighborhood? Is there a movie playing in the room? If so, you may want to relocate to a different room or location to mitigate distractions. And these are not bad per se, but they can cause people to disengage from the game, especially if the party mage is taking forever to take their turn (or whoever - we love you, mages!). So if you can, remove the environmental distractions that could impede the game.
There are also personal distractions. Did you have a bad day at work today? Get that out of your system before you start GMing, because you don't want to take that out on your players. Did you watch a video on YouTube or read an article online that had a really cool puzzle or riddle that you love and want to use, but it's not well-made to go into your session content for tonight? Write it down and get it out of your mind for the session, and then go back to it after the session is done. We want to be all there for our players, so let's be all there.
Distractions can also come, ironically enough, from mission content. Have you prepped a really cool side quest that could go really long or distract from what the party wants to do? If so, that's not a bad thing - side quests are fun, from someone who has been on (and designed) many of them. But don't let it become a distraction, or you'll have restless players who will disengage from your mission content.
We could go on, but you get the idea: less distractions. Sometimes that means us doing less, and sometimes it means removing things from the gaming group that are a problem. But get rid of them.
IV. Less Control
And perhaps the most contentious point, you need to relinquish some of the control to have a good session. This comes from my school of thought that says that your job as GM is to be the narrator. Your job is to tell them what is around them, weave elements of the world together for the points in the timeline that the players touch, and to aid in facilitating fair play and group engagement. This means that you don't have to have control at all times.
Let players make some of the rolls for you so you don't have to think about it. If you plan to use a weather chart, or a random encounter chart, or heck if they roll for how many NPCs they fight in an encounter (as I often have mine do - they hold their fate in their hands, bwahaha), get the players to do it so that it removes things from your plate. Your plate is full - you don't need to do more.
It also builds engagement. If you tell a player, "Roll 2D for me (or 2d6 or however your game system writes it)" and don't tell them what they are rolling for, their mind is now glued on the session. Did they just roll for allies that will show up to help them? Enemies they'll face? Whether the weather is fair or poor? Who knows. They don't, and now their thoughts are going wild trying to figure out what it means.
Pulling the veil back a bit more, sometimes it may even be for nothing - you may just be having them roll a few dice for the mystery of it, and that's okay. It gets them thinking, it keeps them engaged, and while you are more than capable of doing it, we use the players instead because we want to do less. This frees you up to do more.
It may also mean giving the players what they ask for (with limits, which we'll talk about in the next post). If they are clearly using their minds, trying to think through ways to solve a solution, and you have an opportunity to let them go that direction with the story, you may want to do that. We want to reward them for being engaged, for using the tools at their disposal to add to the game. And that may mean taking our hands off the wheel for a short bit. But trust me: when done correctly, your player will not forget that session. Because in that moment they knew that they were the star of the show. They had an idea, and they ran with it. And now you've got them.
All told, a good gaming experience for our players requires us to come ready for the session. And readiness at times may mean doing more by doing less. Something to think about as you prep for your next session.
In our next post we will be turning to the players, discussing how you can make your gaming session better for your fellow players and your GM.