Make your own free website on
The Tao of Gamesmastering, Part III

    Void is.

    Void isn't.

    Void's got an awful lot of dodgy philosophy stuck onto it.

    There are two virtues in the element of Void. The first of these is Everything and the second of these is Nothing. Mastery of these virtues requires first mastering all the other Virtues of the other elements. Void is nothing on its own, and everything with the other elements.

    Let's deal with Everything first. Everything is what the first two sections of the Tao dealt with (well, there's a lot of GMing tricks and techniques I haven't even mentioned, but that's beside the point). A GM who has mastered Everything is one who knows the other virtues intimately, and, more importantly, remembers to apply them. Far too many books of tips on GMing just give you lots of good ideas - the trick they miss is implementing them. It's one thing to know that the Virtue of Ubiquity suggests that there should always be a possible plot hook no matter where the characters go, it's another thing to remember to put an appropriate one in.

    So, how do you master Everthing? Firstly, a good GM should practice his art. Run as many good games as you can. If you go to conventions, run games for strangers - if you're always running a game for the same players, you get lazy. Even when you're not GMing, try to apply GMing techniques to other things. Watching Buffy on tv? Work out which bits of it are Imagination and which bits are uninspired but Cool, and decide what you'd do if the characters took a different route. Reading l5r fiction? Think about how you'd convert the story into a gaming session.

    You know you're doing well as a GM when the delusions of Godhood hit.

    Don't be afraid to experiment in gaming sessions. There's a basic level of competance and fun which you always need to keep the game going - keep the players from getting too bored, don't kill off characters pointlessly, don't screw up the campaign - but anything above that level is gravy. Make sure you hit that level even when experimenting with a different gming style.

    Everything really comes into its own when the various elements of the game start interacting with each other, when your game takes on a life of its own. When you start inventing new plots to keep the world stable after the PCs' actions threaten to upset the political situation or something. When NPCs appear fully-formed out of nowhere, because it's the right time for a plot twist. Several of the characters in the Chrysanthemum Road weren't consciously made up by me - they just popped into my head with secrets, motivations, character traits and history all prepared. Bayushi Hotasu was just a name on a bit of paper until Suko walked up to Bayishamon and asked him to tutor Hotasu in iaijutsu. Several elements came together and produced something more than the sum of their parts.

    One of the best gaming sessions I've had was at a con, running a Vampire: The Dark Ages scenario. The scenario had been written by another writer, and was fairly mediocre in my opinion. The characters were nothing but poorly-chosen stats, and the plot was a rip-off of a famous novel. The one useful thing included with the scenario was a map. In trying to entertain the players (Fire) I spontaneously (Water)  added more detail which both added to the plot (Air) and took into account the existing information (Earth). GMing is like throwing a dozen balls into the air. Void is when you look up and realise you're now juggling fifteen balls, 'cos the interaction of the first dozen creates more if you GM well.

    When GMing, you're not trying to beat the players, you're trying to keep them interested and entertained. You have to outthink and outplot half-a-dozen people at once, while keeping the game world consistent and balanced and the game flowing. It's very tricky. The Virtues are only aspects of the totality of the game. When you embrace Everything, your game becomes the focal point of an emergent phenomenon. The game becomes more that everything put into it.

    Players play for the sense of wonder that gaming evokes. GMs, who know everything in the game, can normally only experience this sense of wonder vicariously. Only with Everything, when the game starts running itself, can a GM directly experience this sense of wonder. It's when something cool happens that you never planned for, but in retrospect seems perfectly fitting to the game.

    Basically, the virtue of Everything is knowing all the other virtues, including them in your game - and knowing how to make them come together to create things no one element would inspire. It's a subtle virtue.

    And, finally, nothing.

    Nothing is a key virtue. It's related to Timing more than anything else, but it's more than simply knowing when to sit back and let the players talk amongst themselves. Nothing is the virtue of letting Entropy and silence sometimes rule the game. It's the virtue of realising that not every day need bring a new challenge. It's the virtue of saying "enough".

    Over-water a plant and you kill it. Over-GM a game and you kill it.

    You should pay attention to your players, you should ask them what they're doing, you should always be there, focussing the game on them - but sometimes, you should sit down quietly and let the players breathe. Let the characters talk to each other without an NPC present. Let the players have a cigarette break without taking the oppertunity to run a one-on-one horror sequence with the lone non-smoker. Gaming is tiring, GMing doubly so. Take a break, and let the game itself rest.

    Nothing is also important for stability, and for character growth. Conflict reveals character, yes, but too much conflict turns a character into a combat machine. There should be times when the characters aren't being threatened, when there's no great enemy attacking the Empire, when there's nothing happening in the campaign. You don't necessarily have to roleplay out the entirety these dull sessions - but there should be breaks. Players like to imagine their character "off-duty" as well as in the midst of carnage.

    Nothing is knowing when not to add more plots and characters and intrigue and excitement. It's taking time to reflect. It's letting silence and peace enter the game.

    The whole point of the game is to provide a place for the characters to grow and develop. You must give them space. Don't smother the characters, or the players, or the game world.

    Void is self-contradictory, hard to comprehend and harder to master. Even a good gm only touches the Void rarely. I consider it a good game if I hold on to half the Virtues I've described in these essays. I've only wielded Everything and Nothing a handful of times in ten years of gaming.

The Players follow the Way of the GM,
The GM follows the Way of the Tao,
The Tao follows its own Way.

 Back to Writings
 Earth and Water Air and Fire