Guide to Becoming a Successful Game Master Part 2: Getting to know Your Players

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So, about that Game Master article…

Last time, I wrote about mastering game master duties and choosing a game system and becoming comfortable with it before introducing the game to your players. This article was going to be about rolling up those characters. But on my long drive home from work I realized that I had skipped a very important step along the way.

Getting to know the people you will be GMing for!

In the many years that I have been GMing role playing games I have run the gamut. Playing with long time friends but first time players, people I have spent years roleplaying with and people I just met on the street sitting down to roleplay for the first time in their lives. In every one of these circumstances, knowing the people you are playing with and what they expect out of the game enhances the experience for everyone.

I have made a lot of mistakes in this arena though. So this article will be looking at how to get to know your players before the first die is thrown and how to avoid the pitfalls that I have encountered along the way.

Setting your Settings

Before you get together with the group of players it is important as a Game Master to think about the setting and themes that you want to get out of the game.  You spent time reviewing and choosing a game system. Why did that system speak to you? What kind of stories do you want to tell?

A lot of game systems have a setting and theme baked into the rules. If you are playing a game like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge most players will be familiar with the universe that the characters will inhabit. The themes of the game focuses more on the fringe elements in the universe: the bounty
hunters, smugglers and spice runners that make up that seedy underbelly of the star wars universe.

Other games clearly define what the player characters will be. In Werewolf, you play werewolves. In Blades in the Dark you play a gang of scoundrels just beginning to make a name for themselves.

Some games are more open world concept than others. In DnD you are playing a hero in a fantasy setting. Dragons, orcs and other nasties are just waiting to beat down the door and carve you up. However, there isn’t a clearly defined world that comes with the core book. This leaves a sometimes daunting task of building the world setting up the GM. Never fear though, world building is a future article to sate your GMing thirst!

As a beginning GM, I find that defining what kinds of stories that you want to build will help you in laying down the foundation for good storytelling. Go  ahead and tell your players “You are all playing as kings guards for the Crown. At the beginning you’re trained to follow the orders of your commanding officer.” Or “you are playing a group of scum and villains on the edge of the galaxy.” Or my favorite “You’re playing werewolves who do werewolvy stuff. Grr!”

What Happens When I Don’t Define the Setting…?

Alright, here’s the part where I explain why its important for your players to have a sense of direction. My last three games I have Game Mastered for have all been DnD. In two of the games I clearly defined that “You are all heroes that are going to do heroic things to stop an upcoming war/hobgoblin invasion.” And my third game I GMed I said” … I dunno, what do you wanna do?”

Guess which games started off smoothly and which one was pure chaos, fire and destruction for several sessions until I could figure out what it is I wanted out of the stories.

Now, I’m not knocking chaos. The games were still a lot of fun, with laughter and cheering and so forth, but from a GM perspective, I was sweating bullets and on the edge of panic every time I sat down, until I could latch onto something to give those players a defined story.

Don’t do what I did kiddos, think about the stories you want to tell and define it, even a little bit, before sitting down for your first session.

But What About the Players?

Now it’s time for some player feedback and interaction. Something I do before the game gets underway is have a conversation with the players. I bring a notebook with me, break it into sections with each player’s name and a section for the party in general and then I ask a handful of questions of each player. As I ask the questions, I write down key things that I hear from the players. When everyone agrees, I write it in the party section. When I have arguments, I write it in the individual players section.

What kind of questions do I ask? That depends on the game and the story I’m trying to tell.

  • What kind of stories and themes do they want to see, personally, when they are playing their characters?
  • If you are playing a combat heavy game, or if they’re trying to stop war.. “How often do you want to fight baddies?”
  • “How politically motivated do you want this story to be?”
    • You can dig deeper – how much internal politics do they want to have?
    • Also: How much external politics?“
  • “Do you guys want to become landed and titled, or just rich?”
  • “How much dungeon diving do you guys like to see?”
  • “Do you want any romance in your game or keep that out of the picture?”

Another useful tool that I have done in the past if I didn’t have time or the players couldn’t get together early, was build a small list of themes and email it out to the players. I then tell them to assign a number next to each theme.  From 1 to 5, how much you want to see that theme or play style come up. They write a few things that they wouldn’t mind seeing when we are playing the game, or maybe a few baddies that they wouldn’t mind facing along the way and email it back to me.

Putting it all together as the Game Master

After sitting down with the players and telling them what kind of story they are in for and receiving their feedback on what they want to see, you should have a pretty well-defined picture of your group before you start playing. By using this method, I know that one group likes the political aspects of the story I am running. They love character roleplaying and dungeon diving but don’t like as much combat. My other group likes action and drama. They want to be constantly on the move with not too much downtime as the action pushes the plot forward.

My chaos group? That was more like throwing ideas at the wall until something stuck. Combat? Love it, more please! Dungeon diving? Yes! Politics? Eh, maybe not. With this knowledge in hand as a Game Master you can start thinking about the stories that will come to life at the table. At the same time it will help you when you sit down to build characters with your players. You can help them make choices that will fit into the story.

For how to help your players build characters for your story, see the next article in this series, and remember, Party On!


Photo Credits: People Sitting in Living Room: Kaleidico | People With Laptops: Annie Spratt | People with books: Alexis Brown | People with Notebooks: Dylan Gillis | People at a cafe: Helena Lopes

2 thoughts on “Guide to Becoming a Successful Game Master Part 2: Getting to know Your Players”

  1. Pingback: Guide to Becoming a Successful Game Master Part 1: Choosing the System/Rules/Settings | Blog by Total Party Guild

  2. Pingback: GM Guide: Building a Campaign part 1 | Total Party Guild | 5e Actual Play D&D Podcast

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