These 2 Things Are All You Need To Do To Be A Great GM

Ok, so I realise this is just about the most clickbaity title that a clickbait generator could have generated. But it is my genuine and firm belief that to be a great GM there are only two things you need to do. Sure, there’s a thousand other things you could do that might make your GMing even better. But, in my view, there’s only two essentials. I’m going to get straight to the point and tell you what they are.

1. Ask Lots of Questions (And Listen to the Answers)

It is almost magical the effect this will have on your game, and how much easier and more fun this will make your role as GM.

Here’s 3 great reasons why you should do this:

Encourage and facilitate roleplaying and characterization

We want our players to embody complex and well-rounded characters, in a well-rounded and complex world. We want them to have complex and conflicting relationships with other characters, both player and non-player.

To do this we need to generate opportunities for character development, and force them to think about their character’s internal world and external actions. There is a small chance a player may already know the answer to the question you’re about to ask. But most probably they haven’t thought about it yet. Ask a question: go forth and stimulate their creative juices.

Give players space to create (and create a better conversation)

In my view, roleplaying is a collaborative storytelling exercise. As such, a roleplaying game has to function successfully as a social occasion as well as a narrative one. In other words, it has to be a great narrative experience and a great conversation. I take this one step further and believe roleplaying has to be a great conversation before it can be a great narrative experience.

Asking questions is a way of getting people to open up, talk, and share the experience. It means that everyone has the opportunity to contribute and to gain value from each other’s contributions.

Share the narrative burden (and pleasure) with the players

A new trend is shaping the roleplaying community. The GM is no longer viewed as the God of the story. Now the GM inspires and facilitates the story. I like this because I believe in the value of the contribution of everyone sitting at the table. The more people creating, the richer the narrative tapestry. It’s our jobs as GMs to make sure it weaves together as well as possible. But I also like this because it’s not my story goddammit, it is the player’s story. They are the main characters. Asking questions is a fantastic way to hand over narrative power in a controlled way. You can keep the shape of the game intact without having to dominate.

Here’s some questions that are always great:

  • What do you do?
  • How?
  • What does that look like?
  • What’s your aim here?
  • What do you say?
  • What are you thinking?
  • What are you feeling?
  • Are there any questions running through your mind right now?
  • Who is there with you?
  • Have you seen this before? What happened?
  • *Other player* what’s your reaction to that?
  • *Other player* what are you feeling/ thinking about that?
  • How does *NPC* react to that? What do they do?

Try and keep a good balance of action based questions (like “what do you do?”) and introspective questions (“what are you feeling?”).

Here’s an Example

We’re currently playtesting our Jane Austen RPG. In it, each character has different secret objectives, and they spend the game aiming to accomplish these. This strong motivation is a blessing for the narrative. When I GM the game, pretty much all I do is ask a series of questions, from the first moment of the game to the last.

The first scene of the game is always a ball.
“Which of you is hosting the ball? How do you decorate? Who arrives first? How do you make your entrance? You see your old paramour there, the wealthy Mr Heeding. What do you do?”

2. Make Relevant Stuff Happen

You’ve asked a lot of questions. You’ve listened carefully to the answers. Now you’ve reached a point where your players need more narrative stimulus. It was by no means inevitable, but now you’ve reached a point where you are going to have to make stuff happen.

Here’s the difference between a good GM and a great GM. Good GMs make stuff happen. Whatever stuff they have prepared. Great GMs make relevant stuff happen. They have listened really carefully to their players. They use the material they have gathered to make stuff happen that is relevant and connected to what has occurred so far – stuff that moves the story forward in a way that enriches the complexities and conflicts of the player characters.

Why do this?

You remember how this is the players’ story? Here’s how you make that real. By the time you’re called upon to make stuff happen, your players will have let you know through their character’s actions and interests what kind of tale they want to tell. You know how to pull their character’s heart strings, how to make them care, and how to place their world in a well-constructed blender. Make it happen and the drama will be spectacular.

3 Great Ways to Make Relevant Stuff Happen

Put Stuff in Their Way

You know what the player characters want. The simplest and easiest way to make relevant stuff happen is to put an obstacle in their way. Their obstacle could be physical, logistical, social or emotional. The important thing is, it is a problem that has to be solved before the character’s desires can be achieved. If you can, draw the obstacle from forces already at work in the world.  Jo wants her gang to take over the docks? Great, but there’s a pack of vampires who own it. And their leader is Jo’s old flame.

Give them a tough choice or a devil’s bargain

Tough choices and devil’s bargains are so great at adding drama that games like Blades in the Dark even include them as part of the rule set. I talk a bit more about how to create hard decisions in this blog post. There’s three basic things you need to do to construct a tough choice. First, make sure the player cares. If you’re drawing the decision from events happening in the game, this should come pretty easily. Second, make sure there’s very compelling reasons to pick both sides. And last, make sure that the PC’s decision will come back to bite them, no matter what happens.

Have an NPC they care about get themselves into trouble – and pull a PC in with them

When asking questions earlier in the game, it was revealed that Jo’s brother runs with a gang that buy and sell magical energy. This is a great opportunity to make stuff happen to an NPC that a player character cares a lot about. Time to make some trouble for him. Jo’s brother was in charge of a huge shipment which went mysteriously missing and now he is in deep trouble. He’s managed to avoid a broken knee cap by promising he had Jo – and her gang – onside to help find it. Naturally, he didn’t ask Jo first.

This situation could easily be turned into a tough choice, if it turns out it was Jo’s gang that stole the shipment – and they’ve already promised it to a buyer.

One other thing. Don’t be afraid to stop and think about what question to ask, or what to throw at the player characters next. They’ll appreciate the result. If you get stuck, you can even ask the players if they’d like to make their own trouble. From my experience, they do it rather well.

Well, there’s a giant world of GM advice out there, and most of it is right. However, these are the two things I think make a great GM. Do you agree, and if not, what is your top two?

5 thoughts on “These 2 Things Are All You Need To Do To Be A Great GM

  1. Thorsten Panknin says:

    “In my view, roleplaying is a collaborative storytelling exercise. As such, a roleplaying game has to function successfully as a social occasion as well as a narrative one. In other words, it has to be a great narrative experience and a great conversation. I take this one step further and believe roleplaying has to be a great conversation before it can be a great narrative experience.“

    I’m not a native speaker and would like to ask what you mean by “narrative”? Specifically what’s the difference between “great conversation” and “great narrative experience”?

    • Hayley Gordon says:

      Hi Thorsten,

      Here’s the difference as I see it.

      A great narrative experience is a great storytelling experience. It may have been powerful, or dramatic, or paint the picture in vivid detail, or maybe it comes to an awesome conclusion. Either way it’s great because of the story that was told.

      A great conversation is a great social experience. It’s the same experience you get having a great time chatting to your mates. It’s basically that feeling that you’re being listened to, you’re listening to others, and there’s a mutual respect for what everyone has to say.

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