The random thoughts of a thirtysomething pseudogeek with a paladin complex.
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Gamemastery can be a brutal, dirty job. And the only way to get great is to get messy. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve been having fun with role playing games for a couple years now; maybe it’s time to try your hand at being the gamemaster. Dirty job? Pfft. … The post The Dirty Job of Gamemastery appeared first on The Jovial...
I know what you’re thinking. You’ve been having fun with role playing games for a couple years now; maybe it’s time to try your hand at being the gamemaster. Dirty job? Pfft. How hard can it be?
Well… short history lesson here.
Over the course of the years when the crown rested on his brow, Henry VIII employed four dudes to perform a very specific, very dirty job. Each day, these men rose with the sun, dressed for work, ate their breakfast, kissed their much younger wives goodbye, then spent their day chilling with the king, even accompanying him to the john. Why? you might ask. Great question. Why indeed. Were they food tasters? Close, personal yes men? Special bodyguards, trained to lay their lives down for the king should he require such a sacrifice? Nah. The answer is somehow more mundane and weirder at the same time. And maybe a little disgusting, too.
The king dubbed these guys “Grooms of the Stool”. Their job? Assist King Henry with excretion and ablution. You read that right: they wiped his royal buttcrack clean after he dropped a deuce. It sounds like a crappy job, if you ask me, no pun intended. In fact, if you’re like me, you’re probably asking yourself what special brand of gullible these fellows were.
Naive dolts? Nope. These ambitious dudebros hungered for power within the court, and did anything it took – everything within their ability – to grab hold of it.
See, the time spent chilling in the men’s room with the king gave the Grooms real, direct access to their monarch, which translated pretty much straight across to influence. Many younger members of the aristocracy whose long-term goals could only be achieved by playing this, um… game of thrones lobbied hard for the position. The intimacy of privacy led to a belief that the Grooms were keepers of secret knowledge, information shared between them and their liege. Their position lent them tremendous authority, so much that others considered their word sufficient evidence in itself of the king’s will.
Henry VIII knighted all four of these guys, and most held high offices outside of their defecatory duties. Take Sir William Compton, who occupied the position of Groom of the Stool for seventeen years, from 1509 to 1526. Sir Bill was, during his life, the Chancellor of Ireland, Usher of the Black Rod (but apparently not the Bigger, Blacker Rod), and High Sheriff of Worcestershire, among a dozen others fancy (and not-so-dirty) jobs. In other words, though their task might seem menial, the Grooms of the Stool represented a powerful force within the nobility.
What does this have to do with gamemastery? Well… fellow gamers, part of me is tempted to wax eloquent and claim we proud few, the gamemasters, are the Grooms of the Stool for role playing games. We sit in a position of menial tasks juxtaposed against great power, our fingers simultaneously molding the minutiae of a thousand worlds and resting with patient majesty on the pulse of the very lands we create. But come on, that’s a handful of high-concept hogwash right there, even if it’s totally true.
The real parallel, the one I’m aiming at? Are you ready for this? You can handle it. It’s in the title.
It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
Gamemaster is a messy, unstructured, stressful, and underappreciated job. Fortunately, there are ways to lighten the load we bear as gamemasters. Skills and tools we use to keep the House of GM from looking like the next episode of Hoarders. Over the course of years, while I’ve gone from neophyte to High Lord of All Things Awesome (HA!), I’ve scratched together a handful of guidelines I utilize to keep myself in check, both from my own experiences and those of GMs I trust and admire. Think of this as the syllabus for Being the GM.
You want to be a great GM? This is how it starts.
If you don’t know what Rule Zero is, go back and read your game books, because it’s an important rule. In fact, it’s the important rule. Dating back to 1980’s Dungeons & Dragons: Basic Edition, we are told that the rules are more like guidelines, and that any rule the GM (or in the case of D&D, Dungeon Master) sees as a hindrance to the fun of the game can be ignored. It’s a simple idea.
The purpose of a game is for the people playing to have fun. As the arbiter of the rules, the GM can suspend rules for the sake of the story and the fun of those involved.
Rule Zero puts a massive, world-shattering amount of power in the hands of the gamemaster, but come on, it’s in their title. Gamemaster. Master of the game. The GM creates the world in which others play, shaping it to their preference. The GM is the embodiment of the setting.
This power, this ability to rewrite the fundamental laws of a game world at a whim, can be useful. It’s why, for example, I don’t believe a gamemaster is beholden to the dice. GMs make stuff happen; the dice just help things along. If a truly devastating roll comes up that doesn’t make sense in the context of the current encounter, the GM can mitigate the results. GMs don’t necessarily need to fudge rolls when they can change what the results of the die roll mean, but there’s an artistry involved. We aren’t just talking about fudging die rolls (though that’s not the worst thing a GM can do in a pinch).
Like everything else in the gamemaster’s arsenal, the dice are a tool. In general, we roll the dice when the outcome of an action is uncertain – attack rolls, initiative, searching for traps, reading ancient runes that might contain a clue to the location of the MacGuffin – and then act on the results of the dice. How we read the dice is generally detailed in the rules of the game we’re playing. In Dungeons & Dragons, a check of average difficulty requires a roll of 15 or higher. In Genesys, it’s made against two difficulty dice. These guidelines for how the dice are rolled and interpreted are part of the game rules.
Remember, folks, the rules of the game are subject to Rule Zero.
(For those of you who aren’t satisfied, I promise to go into this more later. We can dig into why fudging the dice or modifying the results of a die roll can cause distrust at the table and how to overcome those issues. And I promise, I’m not advocating for gamemasters to be able to take a success and turn it into a failure, but rather to narrate a success or failure so that it moves the story forward rather than killing it.)
Okay, where did we leave off? Right. Power.
This kind of power, the ability to change everything at a whim, can be devastatingly dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced, leading to issues ranging from godmode GMPCs and unstoppable adversaries to egregious railroading and untenable acts of GM fiat.
You probably noticed the distinct negative tone shading the term “GM fiat.” I think of GM Fiat and GM Discretion as separate (if related) concepts. GM fiat is the arbitrary changing of rules without any logic other than “because the GM said so.” GM discretion is the even-handed moderation of the game that comes into play when changing or suspending a rule or result makes narrative sense. It can be a fine line; sometimes determining one from the other isn’t easy.
Why do we put so much power in the hands of our gamemasters? The assumption is simple: GMs ostensibly possess experience not only playing the game they are running, but enough experience with role playing games in general not to let the power go to their heads. And like most assumptions, this one is, at least to some degree, bunk. Mostly because humans, when put under just the right degree of pressure, sometimes make selfish decisions. Stupid decisions. People decide on courses of action out of anger, excitement, jealousy, desire, frustration, and sometimes just plain whimsy.
Which leads us to our next point.
Thankfully, geeks that we are, we recall Uncle Ben’s warning: With great power comes great responsibility. (Admit it, you recited the comic book axiom out loud while reading it!)
What responsibility do we have as gamemasters? We are the Grooms of the Stool. The game is the king. Rule Zero is its first and only law. It is our Charmin, the tool by which we do our dirty job. The responsibility of the GM is to the game (and through the game, the players), and so we use a light touch when applying Rule Zero.
But let’s face it: Mistakes will be made, and sometimes they will be yours. Some nights, everything you do will fail. Fall flat. Go BOOM! Sometimes, the PCs will do something so crazy, you will be overcome with the dreadful notion that the only tool you have left in your toolbox is the ability to break the game. You’ll do it, too, invoking GM fiat in a flailing attempt to regain a sense of control. Someone is going to call shenanigans, too, and you will be tempted to say, “I’m the GM… live with it.”
There. Right then. Count to ten. Take a deep breath. Invoke whatever deity or positive construct you follow. Let your heart rate return to a normal thump-thump rather than the jackhammer motor it has become. Do not utter those words.
You screwed up. Own it. Apologize for it. Move on. Nobody has ever choked to death by swallowing their pride.
Unlike Henry VIII, the game is a merciful king, providing endless second chances. Your players are likely to be forgiving, too, especially if you work hard not to make the same mistake again. I can’t speak for them, though, so no promises.
But there are two tangible benefits for admitting your mistakes. First, you learn something new about yourself, the game, or your players. Second, by showing humility, you create dialog with the other people at your table. The former is all internal, either at an intellectual or visceral level – or both – and will help you grow both as a person and as gamemaster. Knowledge isn’t just power, it’s brain food. It’s how we improve ourselves. And there is no better way to learn than to make mistakes.
The second benefit, however, is external. And while bettering yourself is always a worthy goal, improving dialog at the game table means a better experience for everyone. Why? While you might gather a bit of insight from reflecting on your own mistakes, having multiple perspectives will provide you with a bigger, more clear picture. When we open up a dialog about our errors – and listen to the opinions of others – we tell them their thoughts on the subject have value. When players feel their opinions mean something, they become more engaged, because they have a stake in what’s going on at the table.
The story becomes theirs, just like it should be.
Here’s where you need to be careful. Don’t let conversation about the game take the place of the game itself. I prefer to save those discussions until after the session is actually over. Once we’re at that point, hit me up with all your suggestions and, yes, even your complaints. That way, a single player’s issues don’t siphon away the lifeblood of any fun the other players might be having. The game table belongs to everyone, not just the one person with a problem that needs solving right now. This sort of meta-game talk is best handled when the game isn’t going on in the background, or it will overshadow the fun of the game itself.
If an issue rears its ugly head, beat it down with a quick ruling and a promise to discuss it after passing out experience points for the night. Then follow through.
Communication isn’t only about the meta-game, though. While it’s absolutely important for you take care of issues as they crop up, even more important is knowing what’s going on in the story you and the players are creating. Ask questions. Dig into the motives of each character. Find out why they are doing what they are doing. They’re exploring a cavern where a tribe of ratfolk scavengers reside, only to discover that, deeper in, there is a hive of anthropomorphic arachnid creatures worshiping an ancient spider goddess? Why? What drives them forward? Maybe one of them believes they will find a treasure horde, while another is on a righteous quest to rid the world of evil.
Gamemasters ask “What do you do?” an awful lot. But there are other questions of equal importance. Asking how something is done gets the player involved in the creation of the story by inviting them to take part in the story’s narration. Knowing why a character is behaving a certain way offers a kind of insight into what sort of story the player wants to be part of.
Look for opportunities to get to know both the players and the characters better and you will have a better understanding of what makes them tick.
Some guy named Helmuth once uttered a much longer and less applicable sentence that has since been paraphrased into, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Gamemasters have been applying this phrase to role playing games since, well, before I was running Mountain Dew-fueled teenage fantasy AD&D campaigns back in the mid-80s. It’s a bit confrontational, pitting the GM and the players against each other as enemies, so some people have simplified it to “no plan survives contact with the players.”
With over three decades of experience as a gamemaster, I can unequivocally say this is true about ninety percent of the time.
It should be obvious to anyone involved, but while role playing game campaigns share some traits with the kinds of stories we find in books, they’re an entirely different medium. Unfortunately, some GMs approach campaign creation the same way they would a novel, following a strict detailed plot in a meticulously-designed setting. Everything about the world is gussied up in slick description. Non-player characters have personality. The world possesses the illusion of depth and breadth. This should be a textbook success, right?
At least until the players go off the rails. Suddenly, the House of GM comes crashing down.
Nine times out of ten, nothing you plan is going to end up looking how you planned it. Nine times out of ten, players will either ruin or ignore the majority of ideas presented to them. All the beautiful, intricate work you have poured into creating that ancient, lost city? Your players will go to the port town to charter a ship for a seafaring adventure instead. Or decide to take on the toughest jobs and stake their claim as the best bounty hunters in the realm. The cult of shadowy warlocks who may or may not have been kidnapping young men and women to use as virgin sacrifices in order to summon a demonic force of devastating power? Rather than infiltrate the group and discover the truth, they will brashly stomp through the front door and make a literal blood-soaked mess of the whole thing.
So what’s the point? If any plan you make is going to be demolished by players running roughshod over all your hard work, why bother planning anything? Most people can’t fly by the seat of their pants. Most people can’t run a game off the cuff with zero prep time and no notes. When the players go off the rails, GMing can become a nightmare.
The knee-jerk response, of course, is to double down and take control, to force the story despite what the players have chosen. The gamemaster has set up all sorts of delightful fun in the abandoned dwarven city of Underforge – the quickest (and most dangerous) route out of the Bewilderness and onward to the Twelve Steppes – but the characters decide to take the mountain pass instead. After all, less chance of getting murdered to death by emissaries of doom. But… the GM put all that work into the encounters in the underground city. How dare the players let their characters ignore it. Oh no, it seems a recent avalanche has made the mountain pass unpassable! The party is rock-blocked.
Okay, well, the characters can always travel around the far reaches of the Impossibly Jagged Peaks. Unfortunately, it appears the Bewilderness has thickened to the point where the characters move at a snail’s pace. Worse still, giant gnarlicious bewilderbeasts prowl through the treetops in unreasonable numbers, looking for fall upon a meaty snack with a crunchy, bone-like center, and the PCs look mighty tasty.
All of a sudden, the cavernous hallways of Underforge and the potential for death within its cold stone walls seems more appealing. The gamemaster has succeeded in forcing the players back onto the rails.
Back onto the rails? Maybe we should be asking why they were on rails in the first place. Because you know what else is on rails? Mine carts. Trolleys. Pretty much anything that starts at Point A and travels to Point B according to a fixed path and doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Like trains. On railroads.
Chugga chugga choo freakin’ choo.
Railroading is the grand boogeyman of gamemastery. It’s exactly the opposite of our holy grail; it’s the cursed Solo cup of mediocrity and shoddy planning. Railroading happens when the GM overrides player choice in order to enforce their own predetermined results, when a gamemaster is too enamored by the story they have crafted – their story – to let the players tell their own tale. The real culprit behind railroading is a rigid plot prepared by the gamemaster, a story that is now being utterly neglected by those filthy players. Only, the fault isn’t on the shoulders of the players. After all, how could they know what was planned for them?
Look, having a plot for the PCs to discover, investigate, and follow isn’t a bad thing. Even GMs who wing it, who have the sort of innate creativity that frees them up to fly by the seat of their pants, will usually have a general idea of where the story could go. The plot is one of the core tools of the GM, and someone who was definitely not Ben Franklin once said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” (Maybe that was The Sphinx from Mystery Men.)
That said, forcing the characters to discover, investigate, and follow a strict, preconceived plot with no real options, that’s where things get sticky. Railroading is bad. Got it? Bad. I’m not saying it’s badwrongfun, because it’s not. Railroading is bad and it’s wrong, but it’s not fun. At least not for the players who just lost agency over their characters.
I’ll write something more in depth about railroading in a future article. Promise. (That’s two promises for future content already, just in the first article. What have I gotten myself into?)
Rather than planning out plots – long storylines designed to tie a party of PCs to a specific track – plan out individual, modular encounters.
What’s the difference between creating a plot for your campaign and running it as a series of encounters? Mostly it’s about whether you are tied to a specific order of scripted events. In plot-based design, the players march down a pre-determined set of events. In encounter-based design, the players do as they please, all the while being offered little nibbles of circumstances that could lead to something greater.
Not too long ago, the characters in a fantasy campaign I was running at the time (using the Genesys RPG System) came face to face with an undead beast of epic proportions. It met them on a bridge into the city, denying them entrance. “He’s going to collapse the bridge underneath us,” one of them pointed out. Meaning me, not the undead monstrosity. Of course, I had no plans to do any such thing, at least not at that point. Needless to say, they attacked, bringing to bear their arsenal of axes, bows, and magic. After a few rounds and a handful of devastating blows powerful enough to bring at least one of their number close to death, they defeated the monster, but had depleted their Story Points in order to succeed.
Now, I have this unwritten rule – a holdover from Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG – that I call Behold the Power of the Dark Side. (I really need to come up with a better name for it in a fantasy setting. Suggestions go in the comments box!) The rule is simple: If, at any time, all the Story Points are in the GM’s pool, I can flip the entire batch of them back to the player pool, and in doing so create a huge, catastrophic event for the PCs.
All it took was a single misfire from a trebuchet to send the characters plummeting into the river below.
Their idea, not mine.
If you pay attention to your players at all, you’ll find them coming up with all sorts of awesome ideas. They’re trying to break into a fortress where Xaltaire the Excellent is being held captive? They’ll wonder if there’s a secret entrance. Or if they can hide in a cart of hay being hauled in to feed the horses in the local stable. They’re trying to gather information on a villainous NPC? That surly bartender at the tavern probably works for Lord Evil himself.
You didn’t plan for the contingencies your players concoct? It’s fine. Everything is going to be okay. Planning for all possibilities is hard work and can really suck the fun out of the game for a GM. Regardless, take some advice from Captain Picard and make it so. Pencil in a secret passage to the enemy stronghold. Make not only the bartender a lackey of Lord Evil, but the tavern itself a hangout for the villain’s minions and other ne’er-do-wells. Not only will you look like you planned far more than you really did, but your players will experience the kind of warm, gratifying glow that only comes when they think they’re on to the GM’s schemes.
Here’s the thing. If you’ve done fifty percent of your job effectively, you won’t need to have schemes. At its core the job of the gamemaster – outside of serving as moderator for the rules – is to provide a setting in which the players build stories surrounding their characters. If there was an IMDb equivalent for role playing games, the players would be listed as Cast, while the GM would be the entire crew, from director and producer to set design and special effects coordinator. This is why I say it’s a dirty job. There’s an awful lot on the GM’s plate at any given time. We dig into the primordial soup of our own minds to create something the players will – hopefully – remember.
If you build a solid world, the story will fall into place. Well, for the most part. Once the story starts to unfold, the gamemaster’s job gets even more complicated, because that’s when you have to start making stuff happen.
There exist, with most games, a plethora of tools to make this work. Random encounter lists. Monster manuals, bestiaries, and creature catalogs. Premade generic adventures. Notice boards in every town, village, or hamlet the characters pass. Roll a die. BAM! Random encounter. These sort of things are nice enough, but what about the story? Do they move the story forward or bog the night down with excess fluff?
It’s easy to make stuff happen. It takes a great GM to make that stuff relevant.
My players will tell you, I rarely do random encounters. In my experience, they don’t add to the story, other than providing a glimpse of just how dangerous the world is to the PCs. Thing is, most players have already figured that much out. The world is a deadly place. Sirens sing ballads about the dangers of traveling out in the open, and you can sing with them!
There are orcs and ogres aplenty.
There are dragons and giants galore.
You want highwaymen? I’ve got twenty!
But who cares? No big deal! They need more…
Well, more relevance, anyway.
Let’s take those twenty highwaymen. These swarthy fellows set ambushes on lonely roads, waiting to spring their trap on unwary travelers. Chances are, someone is in charge of this crew. This crew chief may also be connected to a larger group – maybe even a thieves guild! – with broader influence. So maybe the encounter becomes relevant to the story not because the crew of highwaymen were hired to steal the MacGuffin from the party, but simply because one of the bandits escaped and news of the location of the party is carried up the line, from crew to crew chief, from crew chief to guild leader, and then sold to an agent of Lord Evil.
What appears to be a random encounter suddenly reveals the location of the party, and the MacGuffin they carry, to their greatest adversary!
Not everything has to be connected to the main story to be relevant, of course. Let’s say the PCs are hired by a village constable to bring in the leader of an unruly gang. Who is this rapscallion? What is his backstory? Could he have any connection to the party?
Of course he could.
By some strange twist of fate, the gang leader is the man who murdered the parents of one of the characters. The encounter becomes relevant to the character, and through her, the party. Not only that, but they’re left with a conundrum. Kill the gang leader in revenge for the murder of the character’s parents – even though the constable wants him brought in alive – or capture him without the character exacting vengeance.
In other words, hit them in the feels. And do it in a way that provides some kind of tension, where no matter what they choose, there’s going to be some fallout.
My ultimate goal as a gamemaster is to create a world where the players can lose themselves and become their characters. Traveling merchants travel. Kings make proclamations. Armies go to war against each other. The entire world keeps moving despite the actions of the characters. And sometimes, because of those actions.
In the majority of role playing games, the players take on the role of heroes of some sort (and I unabashedly admit, they’re the games I enjoy playing the most). The things they do have an effect on the world around them, rippling outward. The bigger the success, the greater the ripples. Some of those ripples translate into glory, with people from nearby villages lauding the actions of the characters for saving them from goblins, bandits, and rabid bugbears. Other ripples become opportunities for greater wealth, power, or widespread fame. Some of them, however, are more dire.
We’ve been trained to think of the word consequences in its most negative context. When we perform a task that yields something good or positive, we call it results. But when we fail, or something negative comes out of our actions, we call it consequences. The words effectively mean the same thing, “the outcome or result of something that happened earlier.” But we’re going to focus on the negative here.
Because sometimes, as gamemasters, we have to be right bastages.
So you want to make your world a living, breathing thing? Sure, the characters eventually own diamond-studded swimming pools and indestructium armor. Of course they find magic doodads and holy thingamabobs along the way. Those rewards – positive consequences – are baked into the design of most RPGs. Only a few, like Blades in the Dark, have real, lasting negative consequences for player character actions written in to the core. Some, like Genesys and Fate, come close, but for the most part the gamemaster is left with the task of figuring out how a party’s actions affect the game world.
How does that look?
A halfling with a ring of invisibility sneaks in to the lair of a powerful dragon, steals a golden goblet and banters with the terrifying beast. With tremendous cunning, the dragon puts two and two together and realizes the halfling came from a town on the lake at the foot of the mountain. Each word the little burglar speaks enrages the dragon further. What does he do in his anger when the thief and his party are out of his reach? Why, he determines to take out his fury on the people of the lake town, of course.
A hotshot pilot utilizes space magic to make the shot of a lifetime, causing a chain reaction that makes a planet-destroying weapon go KABOOM! How does the Evil Empire react? They tighten their grip on the people of the galaxy, and specifically target the hotshot pilot’s friends and allies.
Consequences can be as impersonal as a pissed off dragon rampaging off to destroy a nearby village, or as personal as one of a character’s closest friends being frozen in a big gold candy bar. These kinds of results feel real, and it doesn’t hurt for them to create additional problems the players may feel obligated to clean up. Sure, the town on the lake has an archery-based fighter who slays the dragon with a special family heirloom arrow, but in its death, the draconic monstrosity crashes into the village, razing it. Who are the survivors going to blame? Who needs to fix this? The halfling and his party, of course.
Even powerful, positive events can have lasting and dangerous consequences. What happens when the players decide it’s time to take down the immortal sorcerer-king whose vile reign spanned the last thousand years? Forget, for a moment, the kind of power this emperor held, enough to keep enemy nations and supernatural threats at bay, and think of the practical consequences. Suddenly, every noble lord in the land decides they represent the best hope for the people, creating political rivalries which grow into skirmishes and then wars. Lacking trade regulation, the economy tanks. With no solid governmental structure, criminals become bold, causing crime rates to soar.
The once-great empire, admittedly under the leadership of someone more wicked than Lord Evil himself, plunges into chaos.
There’s nothing quite like stealing the thunder right out of under the noses of your players, am I right? No. That is not what we are doing here. They still achieve their victory. The spoils of the campaign – the emperor’s gold and secret stash of goodies – is theirs to plunder. Historians a millennium into the future list them as the catalysts who toppled a despot. But that doesn’t stop them from being forced to deal with the real, visceral consequences of what was otherwise a grand victory.
Consequences make the world a living thing.
Let’s go through this one more time, in case you weren’t taking notes: Respect Rule Zero. Apologize when you screw up. Communicate with your players. Prepare, but don’t prepare too much. Listen to your players. Stay relevant to the story you and the players are telling. Make sure the characters’ actions have consequences. Do all that and you’re on your way to greatness.
Finally, don’t be afraid to step up and do something preposterous. Maybe it will fail, and you will fall flat on your face. Heck, it could all crash and burn in a huge ball of mystic green flame. Or maybe it will succeed with glorious results and what you have wrought will be etched into the collective memory of your players forever.
Yeah, it’s a dirty job, but the rewards can be pretty darn amazing.
Until next time!
It’s time to save vs. awesome! The Jovial GM has arrived! This is how the journey starts. No lightshow, fanfare, or lah-de-dah. Just a guy with a blog and an idea or two for articles. Welcome to the Jovial GM. What the Heck is the Jovial GM? Fair question. That … The post The Jovial GM – A Brief Introduction appeared first on The Jovial...
This is how the journey starts. No lightshow, fanfare, or lah-de-dah. Just a guy with a blog and an idea or two for articles. Welcome to the Jovial GM.
Fair question. That would be me. I am the Jovial GM, professional gamemaster extraordinaire and writer of articles of impeccable instruction designed to teach you how to be almost (but maybe not quite) as awesome as me. I’m a satirist and a taco-powered philosopher. (In a pinch, I can convert cheeseburgers or pizza into fuel, as well.) I am classically trained in the art of being both vague and specific, often at the same time. I am your polyhedral sensei, your world-building rabbi, and the FedEx driver delivering a serious crate of adventuring goodies right to your mental doorstep. The curator, if you will, of all that will be available here at JovialGM.com, a site mostly dedicated to the pipe dream of becoming a full-time pro gamemaster, but may also evolve into a role playing advice site of little to no renown.
Or I might just be some guy with a WordPress install and the temerity to suggest he knows a thing or two about role playing games.
The Jovial GM, or course, is just a nom de plume. (Isn’t that a great phrase? Say it with me. Nom de plume. You can feel the italics tickle your nasal passages, vibrating with arrogant titillation as the idiom instills a certain degree of superiority into the left frontal lobe of your cerebral cortex, can’t you?) My real name is an unfortunate, bland, and pedestrian one, like Evan, Patrick, or Brian. No offense to those of you who bear those names (mine might be among them!), but nobody wants to be named Evan, Patrick, or Brian.
Well, maybe a few people. Evan Rachel Wood, Patrick Stewart, and Patrick Warburton, who are actual physical manifestations of unadulterated awesome. And then there’s Brian Blessed, who has really ruined the name for anyone else using it, what with his history of sparring with the Dalai Lama, climbing Mt. Everest, knocking Doctor Who out cold, and keeping a full grown grizzly bear hidden behind his massive beard. If you’re going to be named Brian, you must be Brian Blessed. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I am neither of the aforementioned Patricks, nor am I Evan Rachel Wood or Brian Blessed. But since we’re all going to be great friends, you are going to need to call me something. As I am indeed jovial (a word that, in this context, means “endowed with or characterized by a hearty, joyous humor or spirit of good fellowship” rather than “of or relating to the god Jupiter”), and I am a GM, the Jovial GM seemed a reasonable option. But if you really must call me something more name-like, well…
I am Simon of the House Fiasco, first of my name, the jack of some (but really, not many) trades, the most jovial of game masters, regent of hooligans and rapscallions, lord of nothing in particular, scribbler of words, eater of Hawaiian pizza, protector of small fur-bearing animals, breaker of chairs, and speaker of dad jokes and silly voices.
Simon Fiasco, the Jovial GM.
There are all sorts of crazy plans in the works for this place! In fact, the Forge of Unmitigated Awesome – which, as I am certain you have already surmised, is what I call my brain – has been working overtime to create a plethora of options for those of you who want to take your GM skills to the next level. Just think of this site as the glass elevator designed to take you to every nook and cranny of my own personal chocolate factory. Only instead of chocolates, I’m churning out gooey ideas and rich, scrumptious words, coated in a witty – and sometimes sarcastic – candy shell.
Okay, maybe that was too much. Was that too much? Yeah. Too much. Maybe even a little gross, huh? Yeah. Sorry about that.
Allow me to be more specific.
This one should be obvious, but since I’m calling myself a professional gamemaster, I should probably have some sort of qualificatons, right? I mean, what kind of pro GM, game advice, and unlicensed therapy service would I be providing if I neglected to actually address what made me qualified to discuss the matter at hand – Game Mastery? After thirty-five years of being Game Master, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, Narrator, Arbiter, Director, Producer, Referee, Lorekeeper, Moderator, Guide, Judge, Big Mac Daddy, and a dozen other names, I have a small satchel of thoughts on the subject. Just a few. Tiny things.
Maybe you will find them useful.
Let’s face it, worldbuilding can be an unrighteous pain in the posterior. History. Geography. Geology. Religion. Politics. War and peace. Life and death. Apocalypses and extinctions aplenty! It’s like college homework, only there is no professor grading your efforts, just a group of people depending on you, the GM, to provide them with a setting in which their characters can adventure and thrive. You have the figurative weight of a world on your shoulders, but you don’t have to carry it alone. I’m here for you, and worldbuilding is something we’re going to dive headlong into, sooner or later.
(Probably sooner than later, but since I am not only jovial, but also lazy, it might be later.)
What is that sound I hear? It’s the triumphant call announcing the chariot bearing the Jovial GM to your aid! Swing low, sweet chariot!
Do you want your players to meet Mulvark the Dwarf, or do you want them to meet Mulvark Two-Axe, retired, one-legged adventurer, agent of the Knights of the Shield, and proprietor of the Cloak & Swagger, a tavern catering largely to shady types and the disenfranchised of Neverwinter? Look, not every NPC needs a deep backstory, but one who ends up as a recurring ally to your player characters – or their nemesis! – requires special attention only you can provide. By investing effort into these kinds of characters, you create more than set pieces, more than just scenery for your players to ignore.
I’m not going to lie here: I like to have a good time. It’s entirely possible I will do it at your expense and absolutely certain I will do it at my own. This is your first and only warning. They don’t call me the Jovial GM for nothin’, bub!
Maps are self-explanatory, but for those who aren’t sure exactly what I mean, I will expound upon the concept. I like making maps – that is, committing a geographical location or archaeological construct to paper (or pixels) as a means to enhance immersion and fun at the game table. Most GMs do it, at least insofar as making some scribbles on graph paper so they have a general idea of where the players are at any given moment. The goal here is to post two of these each month, screen quality, for you to use at your leisure. Cities, towns, wilderness areas, caves, ancient temples. General fantasy stuff, but who knows? Maybe some sci-fi will sneak in there, too.
You know, because my maps are just that awesometastic.
Or maybe I just like to share. (I mean, I’m okay, but nobody’s paying me for my cartography services…)
No freakin’ way! Expect the unexpected from the Jovial GM! In all likelihood, that’s just my way of saying I haven’t quite figured out what in the heck I’m doing here, other than the stuff I’ve already outlined. But while that’s true to some extent, I have a couple dozen articles already in the works, so we’re this little journey we’re taking together is going to be just fine for the time being.
I’ll figure out the rest as we go.
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