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The Tao of Gamesmastering, Part I

Gamesmastering is something like trying to write & direct a screenplay while the cameras are rolling, for half a dozen prima donnas who are all demanding they're the star of the movie, and you've also got to do the special effects and play *all* the bit parts yourself.

Shinsei had it easy.

This is going to be my personal philosophy of GMing, written down as well as I can. It's what works for me. To be more precise, it's what worked for me running a rather odd L5R campaign. I'm not advocating that I've got the universal truths of GMing here, but you might find something you can adopt for your own personal style. Or find something you disagree with so strongly you write a flaming email in which you clarify your own thoughts on GMing. And that's good too.

Patronised enough yet?

The Tao of Earth

Earth has two virtues - the virtue of Preparation and the virtue of Stability.

Preparation isn't working out the stats of every single NPC, or mapping the entire of the Kaiu wall in 10'x10' squares. Preparation isn't planning every little encounter of a scenario. It's coming up with interesting plots and characters beforehand. Yes, you probably do that already. But how far in advance do you prepare? To do foreshadowing and plot development well, you should have most of the major plots planned before the game starts, and you should be planning at least two scenarios ahead. You need not know exactly how those plots are going to unfold, but you should have the significant concepts and characters well defined, so you can drop hints into the game. If your characters are going to end up looking for Shiba's Lost Sword, then you could start mentioning legends of a sword, have NPCs whisper about omens, let the characters have dreams about a shining blade etc. It works a lot better than having Togashi Yokuni turning up in an inn and telling the PCs to go get that sword.

Preparation also involves handouts. Players love handouts, and so should you. Nothing focussed attention on the game as much as a cryptic piece of paper. Maps, riddles, diaries etc. Do 'em in advance, make them distinctive and well-written (and mysterious). Handouts are wonderful because
(1) they're clues which the players won't forget, and can refer back too, (2) they're physical things, so roleplaying about them is going to be more expressive. When a player says "I grab the page off <other player>", he actually can. You can wave them around, slam your fist on 'em, hold them up to the light etc etc. (3) Writings don't have to explain themselves. If a Mysterious Old Guy tells the characters a riddle or gives them a much-needed hint, nine out of ten players are going to stalk the guy, grab him in a headlock, and twist his neck until he clarifies exactly what he just said in words of one sylabble. They can't argue and beat up on a scroll.

If the game's going to need a detailed map, try and do that in advance too. Generally, you only need detailed maps for whodunnits ("aha! According to these floorplans, there's a room between the daimyo's study and the dining room - but I can't see a door. It must have been hidden...") and battles. Oh, and cities. You can stall the players for ages if it's their first time in a city by showing 'em a map. If players become committed bargain hunters when equipment shopping, they become sightseers when given a map of a city.

That's preparation. Never walk in blind to a game. You should know - roughly - what's going to happen in a game, or to be more precise, what you want to happen in the game. You should have the physical notes and handouts to support the game.

Stability is a subtle virtue. On one level, it's being fair and constant. If goblins were cannon...wait, the Emperor banned those. If goblins were berzerker-fodder last week, they'd better not be feared foes this week. Players rely on you for so much as it stands, if you start taking away their safe assumptions for no reason, they'll get annoyed.

More than that, though, Stability is the virtue of saying "naaah". Too many games are ruined by the GM thinking "wow, that'd be cool" and having something big happen without sufficient thought into the ramifications of the event. It doesn't matter how cool it would be, do not include Togashi Yokuni, the Elemental Dragons, the Oracles, the Kami, Clan Champions, Kolat Masters or the Fortunes in your campaign without taking at least five minutes quiet thought and deep breathing first. Resist munchkinisation.

I lost Stability in the last few sessions of my campaign. I started introducing Clan Champs and other big things without fully thinking of the ramifications - and I ended up with one character killing Kuni "Darth Vader" Yori. Stability is knowing when not to bring out the big guns.

Stability is also rewarding player investment in the campaign. If the players have spent a lot of time getting to know a city, or an NPC, be careful of taking the campaign away from the city, or killing the NPC. If your players feel that <thunderbirds voice> ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN IN THE NEXT SESSION, they're not going to get attached to things. Each session of a game should have lots of elements in common with the last session, other than the player characters.

Stability is in conflict with the elements of Fire and Air, and to some extent Void. It's often neglected or accidentally ignored.

A GM strong in the element of Earth has rich, consistant campaigns, full of detail and intricacies. A GM weak in Earth makes up too much off the top of his head, and changes the nature of the game at a whim. A GM too strong in Earth is rigid and unbending. He plans too much in advance, and does not let the characters significantly affect the game. Old TSR modules are waaay to strong in Earth. Young GMs tend to be fairly weak in Earth.

Earth rocks.

The Tao of Water

Water had two virtues. (Could I be basing this whole essay on the character sheet? Surely not!). The first of these Virtues is Timing and the second is Reaction.Water's a very now element. It's got little to do with stuff before the game, and little to do with planning or long-term plotting or anything.

Timing is an underestimated tool for GMs. You can spend ten minutes describing the unutterably hideous tentacled oni, and the players will yawn. Saying "you see an tentacled slimy thing rushing you! what do you do!" mightn't scare them much more, but it will shock them into action. When you're running a tense situation like a fight, whip around the table, firing quick questions. If a player flounders, so does their character. Tough. Don't spent ages describing how the sword arcs through the air, the sunlight glinting off the kanji engraved on the diamond-hardened blade. Katanas flash and cut through meat like that. The speed of your description conveys the speed of combat. Oh - time instantly slows to a crawl just after a mortal blow or the instant before a strike in a duel.

Timing is more than just combat though. It's dividing your attention equally among the players. Every player should have their time to shine. If it's a "generic" plotline, not related to any of the characters, then they should all have at least one cool scene. If the game's going to concentrate on one character, then every other character should at least be included. If a player is just sitting there at the table, ask 'em what they're going to do. Get an answer. Have what they do affect their character. Draw them in. If they give a non-answer, have an NPC talk to 'em or something.

Keep the game moving. Don't get bogged down in anything. If a fight's going on too long, kill it :-). If an in-character argument is dragging, end it. If the players are bored by your wonderfully researched Kabuki play, speed it up or have a character comment on it. Break up long streches. You're gming for the MTV generation.

Reaction is a fairly simple virtue to comprehend, but difficult to explain. Everything the characters do creates ripples in water. Everything they do comes back to haunt them. Everything the characters do in the campaign should do something. As the Fortune of Madness put it, "our existence deforms reality". If you let players get away with doing nothing, or if their actions do not have consequences, you create a distinction between player characters and non-player characters which should not exist. Characters should not vanish from the world between adventures, nor should their misdeeds go unpunished or their great feats unrewarded...or unnoticed.

Reaction is related to the Element of Air, but where Air is about ubiquity, Water is about consequence and reaction. Water is more than the classic commands to gms, to punish characters who break the law, not to let the characters escape the consequence of their errors. Water is the acknowledgement that a stone thrown into a pond creates ripples, and becomes wet. A character in a campaign creates ripples, and those ripples cause elements of the campaign world to wash over him.

Reaction is a subtle virtue. It is the difference between a GM who is unmoving and a GM who flows with the players, who lets them move in the world and had the world move around them. It is a rare virtue.

Water is in opposition to Fire, and finds common cause with Air. A GM strong in Water runs sessions that are fun and involving, never dragging, never boring. A GM weak in Water ignores the actions of the players, and does not flow with the game. GMs weak in Water tend to get bogged down in rules, and often emphasise rules over story. A GM too strong in Water is too reactive, and forces the players to be constantly involved in the game despite having no plot of his own. He lets player actions be the story instead letting player actions drive the story.

Flow with Water.
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