Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Madicon 21: Game Mastering Panel Discussion

I never really aspired to be a dungeon master. I’ve always loved games, but I only ever got into the organizing sessions because at some point, it was the only way to actually get them onto the table. Walking into the conference room, though, it was clear that the role of adjudicating role playing games more often gets taken up by a very specific personality type.

I raised my hand in order to chip in a few times and got rolled right over every single time. (Ironically, the topic was about how to make sure everyone got to participate in a game’s story.) As things went on, I was glad that I’d kept quiet: nothing that was being said appeared to impress anyone. This was a seriously tough crowd.

The topics ranged from how to deal with a player who has a build that is superior to everyone else’s, to how to deal with monsters that are immune to certain weapon types. They talked about how to deal with the party splitting up, and how to make sure all the players had moments where they could shine. They talked about setting up the climatic battle with the “boss” monster and when you should lie about the dice rolls. And as each question got answered, it became clearer to me just how drastically different my concept of role playing really is when compared to theirs.

Listening to them… I realized that the Doctor Who game I’d played in the day before was pretty close to the norm for this generation of gamers. I’ve long known that times were changing, but it wasn’t until this moment that I finally understood how wide a gulf there is between my 1980 Moldvay Basic Set and the types of games these guys run today.


12 responses to “Madicon 21: Game Mastering Panel Discussion

  1. RogerBW March 21, 2012 at 8:50 am


    For me, GMing technique stopped being about the mechanics quite a few years ago – that’s just something that everyone assumes will more or less work. But at least some of the things you talk about – spotlight time, party splits – are the sort of thing I’d more or less expect to find at novice-GM discussions. Could you lay out your points of difference in a bit more detail? Because that Doctor Who game sounds woefully dirigiste by my standards, but I think I lean a bit more towards the narrative side of things than you do.

    • jeffro March 21, 2012 at 9:04 am

      If I could pin it down to just one issue… it’d be how much autonomy the players have. Moldvay Basic and Keep on the Borderlands allowed me to push that to a level I hadn’t achieved before. (Advice from the OSR was key in getting me to actually try it.) A second issue would be something Earlburt taught me. He tells his players, “I’m not invested in any particular outcome.” Consequently… I roll dice publicly and don’t fudge them– that would (in my view) damage both player autonomy and realism/simulation. A big part of the fun is seeing how the campaign evolves as players and world-setting interact. (Though I’ll admit… my way of doing things is frequently anti-climatic– I’ve gotten very little feedback from the players on how *they* feel about that.)

      • RogerBW March 21, 2012 at 9:56 am

        Interesting. I used to run completely free-form – there’s adventure out there, but if you don’t go and look for it it won’t come to find you. These days I tend more to have a fairly specific sequence of plot in mind, which will happen if the PCs don’t do something about it. In an adventure for a convention, I’ll structure things a bit more, because four hours of flailing around looking for the right place where the action’s happening is no fun for anyone. (And I tend to run fairly mission-based campaigns at the moment – the agency says “here is the problem of the week”, and the PCs go off to investigate it.)

        I think that quite a bit of this can be handled in pre-game negotiation – I use Bill Stoddard’s technique of running multiple campaign concepts past the players and seeing what’s most popular. So I get a certain level of buy-in: the players have said they want to play a game about being the SAS in Zone London, knowing that it means there’ll be a certain amount of following orders.

        So in something I run now I might have two or three things I want the players to find out (and if they go somewhere they might plausibly get the information, they’ll probably do so), and three or four set-piece events that will be triggered if the right conditions apply (if you go to a place in Pasadena where Jack Parsons might be hanging out, you will meet him, rather than rolling a random encounter) – but sometimes none of those events will be triggered, so they’re more of a way to save on thinking-on-my-feet than something that I’m determined to work into the game.

        I am always wary of over-narrativist approaches; Robin Laws has done some very detailed work on emulating storylines from other media in RPGs, but I prefer to regard the RPG as a medium that has its own optimal story forms. If I want to tell a novel’s story, I’ll write a novel…

  2. Karl Gallagher March 21, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I haven’t been part of the RPG community enough to notice trends but there are a lot of “railroad” GMs out there. I remember picking up a published adventure that included tips on how to force the players back onto the intended plot if they’d managed to jump the tracks (ie, if they’ve killed a nasty NPC, have his bigger, meaner brother arrive to take his place). Not how I like running games. I create a situation and see how the players run with it. Surprise are some of the most fun I get in the game.

  3. morrisonmp March 21, 2012 at 10:21 am

    I skipped the GM advice panel for a lot of the reasons you just presented… I tend to be a very story-oriented, relationship-builder when I GM and I’m always struck by the reliance on mechanics as solutions to GM problems at the table. I’ve been involved with Madicon for a long time though and I appreciate your efforts to blog about your experience there. Thank you.

    • jeffro March 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      My goal with Madicon was to meet its gamers about halfway. Basic D&D is the one vintage game that I expected could go over well. I was pleased with the results and glad to discover quite a few quality gamers in the process. (I think I started planning for Madicon 22 as soon as my last session ended.)

      Though I missed voices like yours contributing to the panel, I’m glad I got to hear it all in depth. I expect to referee for players from this… uh… “other gaming culture” again some time and it’s really helpful to have a clearer idea of how they think and what they expect. (In effect… I’m the one playing in *their* lawn.)

  4. earlburt March 21, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    I’ve given lots of thought to why players play the way they do, and lots of articles have been written on the topic. But I’ve never hunkered down and thought about why anyone but me GMs.

    For me, the reason to GM is obvious– to create a game world, and to then further explore it by dropping a bunch of creative players to stir it up. For me, it’s actually a pretty self-absorbed endeaver in its essence. I use players to reflect my creation back at me. A railroading, purely-plot-driven, game would serve little purpose. It wouldn’t give the players the freedom to interact with the world in unexpected ways. No discovery-mode, as it wrere.

    I’ve always been puzzled by GMs who railroad, or are otherwise wed to a certain set of plots and outcomes. But I’ve never thought about why it puzzles me, or what they get out of it.

    Unless what they get is just control. And, given how loathesome and anti-social so many gamers are, that might actually be the simple explanation.

    • RogerBW March 22, 2012 at 4:06 am

      earlburt – consider the old Paranoia adventures. If one ran them the way most people did, 90% of the material would never get used, because the party would be dead. Which is a bit of a waste, so there’s a temptation to bend things so that the PCs survive and go the “right” way.

      I must admit that I tend to associate railroading more with semi-old-school than with the modern stuff – because a lot of my early gaming involved the classic AD&D modules, which were not afraid of GM fiat if it were needed to set up a big battle scene.

      • Peter March 22, 2012 at 8:45 am

        To echo what RogerBW said, old-school modules (B2 being a big exception) were often railroady because they were adaptations of tournament modules.

        And frankly, it’s easier to write A which leads to B which leads to C and easier to run it if everyone goes from A to B to C. If they go elsewhere, prep work is “wasted” (or just not needed immediately). So it’s not as simple as control, to me. It can easily just be “I’m not ready to improvise here.” Or at all – improvising takes some confidence in your GMing skills and in the game system. I’ll admit right out that linear adventures don’t help you improve at this.

        I personally need to have some prep done, even if just a little, before I play. I try to be upfront about this. “Yes, you can ignore the Ghost Castle that appeared in front of you and teleport to the Isle of Amazons. But I haven’t had time to write that, and we’re playing tomorrow. Can you save the Isle of Amazons for next time and I’ll write stuff for it?” Or, “Guys, if you kill the sages instead of agreeing to help them in their plight, the campaign is going to radically change. Are you really okay with that or do you want to say yes and then go slay the dragon?” I doubt I was like that when I was just starting out, red box D&D set and B2 or not. I know I didn’t deal well with my sister’s attempts to adventure in the Village of Hommlet instead of going to the moathouse. It wasn’t control, it was not knowing there is another way to do it.

      • Earlburt March 22, 2012 at 9:31 am

        Valid points for sure. A1-4 (Slave Lords series) was super-railroady, even to the point of forcing Party failure at the end of A3 to ensure their capture to beging A4. With modules like that, I just borrowed the maps and whatnot and plopped them into my gameworld, leaving the plot elements aside. Of course, Paranoia is a whole different animal from the get go, with a unique GM-player relationship.

        And I’ve definitely had the kind of negotiation with players that Peter describes, where I signal that we’re all going to have a better time if they latch onto one of the hooks I put forward. But the plural of hooks is part of it. I try to have multiple exciting things going on in a game world so that thye aren’t forced into one plot line. And any given plot line doesn’t have a fixed outcome.

        So, even in my games players don’t have total control over themselves, and they need to go along with the program. But the program need not be rigid. I think you guys all get that. There are GMs out in the world who run their games like movies– highly linear, one plot line, fixed outcomes. And even get huffy if players “mess up”.

      • Peter March 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm

        Yeah, A3 is a classic railroad. The one time I ran it straight up, I didn’t want to use A4 so we just played out the fight at the end and that was that. The next time I had it queued up (for a GURPS game at least two decades later) I just decided that the slave lords would have piles of capture-the-PCs kinds of traps around. All of the encounters were changed a bit to involve sleep spells, sleep gas, sleep poison, etc. – the final fight was rigged again, but a sufficiently resourceful party could have bypassed it. The game took a detour before that so I never did get to run that. Oh well. ;)

  5. phantomwhale March 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    “how to deal with a player who has a build that is superior to everyone else’s, to how to deal with monsters that are immune to certain weapon types.” – this feels like a very 3.5+ Ed D&D discussion.

    I’d say many GMs of DnD past have later enjoyed the more narrative systems, including old edition DnD, but also newer gems like Fiasco and Don’t Rest your Head. I have fun with Savage Worlds, as the random dice seem to flatten any “over-stated” issues, but even then it seems to breed roll-playing over role-playing, which as others have alluded towards, kind of kills the joy of it BEING an RPG (for me).

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