Monday, March 9, 2015

The Unappreciated Game Master

Being a game master is a thankless job? During GM’s Day I read that somewhere recently on a forum. While I don’t agree with that statement entirely I can empathize with the emotion behind it. Over the past thirty years I have occasionally felt unappreciated by certain players. You know the type. They arrive late, are not prepared, forgot their character, or are completely distracted. You put up with it for a while because they are your friends or family.

That being said, I learned long ago not to let a group disintegrate because of this. Instead after some diplomacy if the problem is not resolved that player is no longer invited back. If you spend hours as I do preparing your campaign world and adventures everyone should be at the table to play. A normal session in the Game Tavern always includes some social catch up time before the game commences or during breaks. But at the end of the day there is a group of middle aged adults that set aside time to game together. For many this involves arranging baby sitters, travel or even squeezing the session into a busy schedule. No game master or group should ever suffer in silence because of a disruptive player. 

So what are other reasons you feel unappreciated as the game master? Perhaps your players are just not as involved in the story to the extent you would like? I have heard this as a common complaint over the years. The important thing to remember is players come in all different flavors but have one unifying focus which is fun. Everyone wants to have a good time, get together with friends, roll some dice and escape for a few hours.

I think the old adage of know your audience really holds true when it comes to game mastering. If you current group is composed of heavy role players then story may be more important. On the flip side if your group has more war gamers then story may be secondary to them. Game mastering is really a balance in trying to understand what motivates your players to be seated at the table. Is it the politics of the realm, battling monsters, exploring fantastic locations or just finding treasure?

Often at the start of a fresh campaign I ask my players to write up a background for me. I usually offer a permanent 10% experience point bonus for the life of the character if completed. The information serves as a source for story hooks and gets the players invested in their characters. But most importantly it helps me gauge what is motivating those particular players to attend my game sessions. Even if you have played for years with someone this is a great exercise to partake in. People’s tastes change or they may just be looking for a new perspective with a particular character.

A perfect example is my wife’s current barbarian character. In the past she usually played some sort of shadowy rogue or archer that was careful and sneaky. This campaign she wanted to be a melee machine and see what it was like on the front line. Moreover her character has a split personality with the worse of the two always appearing when she rages.  As a game master there are some easy things to target in on here to make the game experience more enjoyable for the player. The barbarian needs plenty of combat challenges and exploration of the split personality when applicable in the story. This is not a character that will flourish in endless game sessions of political subterfuge or murder mysteries.

Again know your audience. As a game master there is something far worse than railroading your players and that is placing them inside the neat little box you have built and closing the lid. If you feel unappreciated it may just be that you need to find a more common ground for your game sessions. If players are not excited and interested then your own enthusiasm will start to dwindle as well. Finally you may just be suffering from game master burnout which is very common. Running a campaign or even just one game session is a daunting task. From the preparation involved to answering the barrage questions posed by a table of players being a game master is a lot of work.

My solution for game master burnout has been to take a break and just schedule a board game night. Or I just switch things up and run a one shot of a no crunch RPG to rekindle my own game master fire.  For some it may be as simple as handing over the reins to another game master for a while. The former is usually a limited option since good game masters are hard to find. And remember while everyone is a critic very few if any will put themselves out there. It takes a tremendous amount of courage in any medium to be the one running the show. 

So know that you are appreciated my fellow game masters because our hobby needs you! There are still many stories to tell, lost places to find and monsters to defeat. Keep scheduling those game sessions but if you need a break don’t be afraid to take it. Sometimes a little time reflecting on what has worked and what has not will lead you back on the path of adventure quicker than you think!