In the first segment of this article, GM Responsibilities – Beyond the Table, we discussed the role of the Game Master outside of running the game. In this segment, we will delve into several roles Game Masters must take on while running their game. This article will focus mainly on roles that the players will see at the table. In the final article – Behind the Screen – we will talk about the roles of the Game Master that the players don’t always see. Without further ado, let’s jump right in.
Master of a Thousand Faces
Over the course of their adventures, the players of a campaign are sure to meet a wide variety of new and interesting non-player characters, or NPCs for short. They will inevitably want to question and otherwise interact with these NPCs for any number of reasons. The Game Master is responsible for bringing each and every being that the characters interact with to life. There are many ways to accomplish this, and each Game Master has their preference. Some Game Masters narrate the dialogue so that each player knows which NPC is talking to them. Some Game Masters hold up a card with a name or picture when a certain NPC is talking so that the players can tell the difference. I personally love to do accents and voices to differentiate the characters. I find it entertains the players and helps with their immersion into the story.
One piece of advice I have is to write down your roleplaying notes between sessions. This way even if you have a large supporting cast of NPCs you can keep them all straight. As the players interact with the NPCs in your world, they may change, so it is important to keep careful notes. The notes don’t have to be exhaustive. Something as simple as, “Has a Scottish accent” or “Wishes the players ill” will suffice.
Master of Reality
As players move from location to location, their scenery changes, sometimes drastically. It falls to the Game Master to describe the world around the players in detail. It is always important to set the scene when combat breaks out. This way players know what hazards they need to avoid and what terrain they can use to their advantage. However, descriptions are much more than just setting the scene for combat. When giving a description, the Game Master paints a mental picture for the players. Using only this mental picture you can convey a variety of emotions. Describing the scene in detail helps the players immerse themselves in the story and allows them to better understand the scene before them.
A few pieces of advice when setting the scene. Be sure to use all five senses when describing a location. What sounds can be heard? Is the location well lit? What smells linger in the air? You can also describe the weather and the feeling of the ground beneath the players’ feet. The Game Master can also give subtle indications to the scene by describing the surroundings. Instead of telling the characters that the noble of a land is wealthy, describe the ornate fixtures of his study and the well-maintained furnishings therein. The more details you can give, the better. It is always acceptable to adlib things as you are describing the scene, but make sure you remember to take note of them later! This way the players will be able to recall the location if they return to it.
Master of Law
During a roleplaying session, there are bound to be rule questions that come up. This is especially true when new players are learning the system. The Game Master is responsible not only for the final interpretation of the rules, but also for teaching the rules to new players. It goes without saying that the Game Master should have a firm grasp on the rules and their intricacies. However, a Game Master should never miss an opportunity to learn something new from one of their players. It is important for players to understand that the Game Master interprets the rules and has the final say over questions regarding them. Even if the Game Master’s rule interpretation is incorrect, what they say goes. If you don’t like a rule, don’t use it. It really is as simple as that. However, a word of caution: as a Game Master, you do not have to be fair, but you should always be consistent. If you swarm your players with enemies and give them a bonus for attacking with great numbers, you should give your players the same advantage if they attack a single foe.
If a question regarding rules comes up during a session, do your best to answer it quickly and to the best of your knowledge. The goal is to get back to the action as quickly as possible. Do not waste time by digging through the book to find the answer unless it is critical. If you are teaching new players, you may need to bend this rule a little for their benefit. While it is not ideal to stop the session to explain a rule, it is important that new players feel their questions are being wholly answered. If the answer would require more delving or explanation, make a note and talk to the player after the session. Learning a new system can be frustrating for the Game Master as well as the new player. It is important to be patient with them while they adjust to new rules.
These are the roles that the Game Master can count on being responsible for while at the table. During the session, the Game Master will need to set the scene, become the characters that the players interact with, and be an arbitrator of the rules. No doubt Game Masters have a ton of responsibility, but that is part of what makes it so interesting. There is no down time; the story waits for no one. Next time we will discuss the roles the Game Master has behind the scenes. Some of these affect the players directly, while others do not.
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Karington Hess is a lifelong gamer whose passions for hospitality and all things game-related led him to Ravenwood Castle, where he served as an Innkeeper before joining The Malted Meeple. When not pouring beers, crafting milkshakes, or teaching boardgames, Karington can be found behind the DM’s screen, weaving intricate stories for his fellow gamers.