The Fine Art Of Game Mastering (And Why I'm Shit At It)

Due to the popularity and subject matter of my books, I often get emails or messages from fans of my Facebook page stating that they would love to play a game that I was running.

I'm a writer, a creator of worlds! I weave storylines together for a living. Even if I didn't put as much effort into a gaming session as I did a piece of fiction I expect people to pay for, surely a game run by me would be good times and a ton of laughs.

Please allow me to explain why that line of reasoning is dead wrong.

Writing a story and running a game are two entirely different beasts. They may look similar to the casual observer, much like a dolphin and a particularly obnoxious tuna. 

He's literally selling out his own kind. What a dick.

He's literally selling out his own kind. What a dick.

Though they share many similarities, the differences between the two disciplines are numerous and significant enough that a knack for one doesn't even come close to guaranteeing a knack for the other.

That's not to say there aren't people who are skilled at both. Authors & Dragons' Drew Hayes, for example, dual wields the powers of prodigiously pumping out tome after tome of fiction and herding our drunken band of merry assholes on the A&D podcast.

I, however, am not one of those people. Here is a list of the aforementioned differences which allow me to be a passable writer, but a shitty Game Master.

1. Having to think on the fly.

Adequate preparation is part of being a good Game Master, so I'm told. One should have maps handy of the towns, countryside, dungeons the characters are likely to visit, statistics at the ready for monsters the characters are likely to encounter, familiarity with NPCs the characters are likely to run into, and some forethought on the answers to questions the characters are likely to ask.

Notice how many times I said "likely to" in the above paragraph. It's all but guaranteed that the players are going to say or do something extremely clever or (perhaps more often) mind-bogglingly  stupid that tells all of your carefully compiled notes to go fuck themselves.

"As you kneel before the queen, she raises her sword and -" "HOLY SHIT! I Lightning Bolt that bitch!"

"As you kneel before the queen, she raises her sword and -"
"HOLY SHIT! I Lightning Bolt that bitch!"

Unpredictability is largely what separates tabletop gaming from computer and console RPGs, and it takes a talented Game Master to just run with that shit on the spot.

I'm a pantser by nature, and my books routinely go off in directions I'd never intended when I started typing out the first few words. But I will often sit there staring blankly at my computer screen for several minutes, weighing the consequences of a character's actions and trying to think several steps ahead, before typing the next sentence. Nobody will be entertained experiencing my storytelling process in real time.

2. Control.

Role-playing is an interactive storytelling experience in which the players and the Game Master contribute. The characters may wander off on side-quests, screw around at the tavern, or spend two hours debating how to best navigate a possibly-trapped twenty-foot section of dungeon. And who cares if they never complete the quest the Game Master had in mind, as long as everyone's having fun? It's not quite the same when writing fiction.

Be the writer a plotter or pantser, the reader is going to expect some kind of story arc. Sure, sub-plots are a wonderful thing, but even they need to amount to more than pointless wandering and goofing off.

Some people can switch back and forth between mindsets, but in the few gaming sessions I've had players suffer through, I Game Mastered with the mindset of an author. I had a story I wanted to tell, and goddammit I was going to tell it.

"Little did you know your drinks were drugged! You all fall into a deep sleep." "Wait... Do we get to roll a Fortitude Save?" "No." "My paladin wasn't even drinking." "Then the tavern owner clobbers you over the head with a shovel." "Why?" "Because fuck you, Gary! Now you all wake up on a deserted island."

"Little did you know your drinks were drugged! You all fall into a deep sleep."
"Wait... Do we get to roll a Fortitude Save?"
"No."
"My paladin wasn't even drinking."
"Then the tavern owner clobbers you over the head with a shovel."
"Why?"
"Because fuck you, Gary! Now you all wake up on a deserted island."

In the process of writing a novel, my characters' different personalities and motivations certainly guide me. But at the end of the day, if I need them to get to the island, one way or another they're getting to the fucking island. As a writer, part of my job is getting them there in a way that doesn't feel forced to the reader, even if it means...

3. Sometimes, backpedaling is necessary.

A Game Master can't change the past. Any clever ideas he or she has for the future are at the mercy of what the whole table has already witnessed.

Well, I suppose there are ways. One could always tell the players that the woman they all waved their dicks at was not actually the princess after all, but rather her identical cousin. Or there's always the tried and true...

"You wake up in the woods around the smoldering remains of the campfire from two sessions ago. Everything that happened in our last session was just a bad bad dream." "We all had the same dream?" "Goddammit, Gary. Open your mouth one more time, and I swear to God I'll come over there and stab you with this fucking pencil."

"You wake up in the woods around the smoldering remains of the campfire from two sessions ago. Everything that happened in our last session was just a bad bad dream."
"We all had the same dream?"
"Goddammit, Gary. Open your mouth one more time, and I swear to God I'll come over there and stab you with this fucking pencil."

Until a book is available for public consumption, not a single word the writer types is canon. Sometimes you need to go back and make some changes or add some details in the beginning of a story for the ending you just thought up to make sense. I didn't know how my first novel, Critical Failures, was going to end until I got the idea about two thirds of the way through writing it. For that ending to work, I had to rewrite the whole first chapter.

Some people are good at accepting the past and improvising as the players actively try to fuck up what they had planned. I'm not one of them.

4. Pressure and responsibility.

In a role-playing game, everyone shares part of the responsibility for an enjoyable session. If all the players are fiddling with their phones or constantly getting distracted by other shit, that's going to lessen the gaming experience for everyone. But if one or two players occasionally glances at their phone, or gets distracted, or maybe just aren't feeling the role-playing vibe that night, the game can go on, and everyone can still have fun.

The Game Master, however, needs to be focused and in the zone. The chair at the end of the table comes with a responsibility to provide an atmosphere in which fun can be had. I can't stand that kind of pressure.

Most of that can be said about writing as well. If you want to make a living at it, sometimes you've got to write when you're "not feeling it," or when you'd rather be watching porn.

And you've got even more of a responsibility to provide entertainment. You're competing with a whole world full of other shit people could be doing, and you don't have a bunch of people around a table to help out with creating the entertainment. Trust me, raising a family on dick jokes alone is not without a certain amount of pressure.

But there are two big differences between the pressures of running a tabletop RPG and writing RPG-influenced stories.

1. I don't have a bunch of people sitting around a table gawking at me when there's a lull in the action.

2. As jobs go, it's a pretty good gig. The pressure of writing dick jokes for a living is alleviated by knowing that I do, in fact, write dick jokes for a living.

Not pictured: ME!

Not pictured: ME!

5. Drinking.

At this point in my life, gaming for me is a way to unwind. I like to enjoy a few drinks when I game. As a player, I can do that. As a Game Master, not so much. Too much concentration is involved. Too much math.

Given the stereotype of writers who find their muses at the bottom of a bottle, and the not-taking-myself-too-seriously nature of my books, you might be inclined to think that I booze my way through every novel and short story.

On the contrary, almost every word I've published has been written stone-cold sober. Once the beer starts flowing, the words tend to slow to a trickle.

Contrary to what a couple of reviewers have speculated, this was the product of a sober and lucid mind.

Contrary to what a couple of reviewers have speculated, this was the product of a sober and lucid mind.

If you're a fan of my books, I'd be honored to one day sit around a gaming table with you, just so long as someone else is sitting at the head of that table.


For more tales from a sober and lucid mind, click HERE!

For the kind of of content I produce when I've had a few, like my Facebook page.

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