Last week on The Gauntlet Slack I asked which rpgs game facilitators felt confident running. I wanted to know the games folks felt they had mastery over. For example, if given an hour they could feel ready for a session which would run smoothly at the very least, but more likely amazingly. The games where they’re Rockstar GMs or Game Facilitators.
In the thread, I named a few I know I can knock out of the park. All other things being equal that includes Hearts of Wulin, Godbound, Masks, Tales from the Loop, and a few others. People made interesting points in response, in particular that in acting, mastery involves arriving at a point where the script and other considerations get out of the way. There’s a parallel in GMing where the play flows so naturally that the system gets out of the way. So we’re talking about a kind of mastery that isn’t about prep or pre-play, but what happens at the table.
The discussion sparked some smart responses– asking what mastery actually meant and suggesting the player group was just as, or more, important than the GM. There's some truth to the latter, but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. There's a thing we say on The Gauntlet: system matters, but play culture matters more. This may be similar. We should consider the many factors that make a session sing and hum. And my weak argument would be that the player group matters, but maybe the GM matters slightly more.
Despite my hedging, I believe a good GM can draw in and make a better experience for a weaker table (disruptive, unfocused, inexperienced). But in my experience the reverse is less likely. A strong table more often can’t rescue a weak GM. Instead it’s more likely those strong players will feel frustrated at having their time wasted.
RUNNING THE TABLE
Indie and Storygaming has rightfully moved the GM away from a place of absolute or dominant authority. Instead GM has become a collaborator, partner, facilitator. This has happened over time supported by conversations about ideas like Illusionism and what others might call Forge theory. These approaches have helped unpack what happens at the table, but have also colored some techniques negatively. I love new collaboration approaches, but even with those techniques and approaches in play, my gut tells me GM has a strong impact on how a session goes and we shouldn't ignore that. Yes, the GM is a player, but in a GM-full game I honestly believe the GM crucially shapes things. But how and why may not be as obvious. I want to talk about those factors which form the backbone of this.
There’s many different conversations about GM advice and support. We talk a lot about system mastery, knowing the rules, and how to get to there. PbtA guides GMs with principles and guidelines for responses. We now have great books offering advice for supporting improv at the table. We have concrete resources for GM prep, world-building, balancing combats, and designing incredible encounters. And there’s a cottage industry of just tables, lists, and details for all kinds of settings and games.
But what gets less attention is managing the table. Sometimes we talk about spotlight management, inclusivity, the game as conversation, but not enough discussion focuses on what this looks like. Some sharp observers have talked about project management as a model for GMing. But that feels like a larger scale approach– including prep, planning, environment, and table play. Other approaches look to the lessons of leadership, but may be too abstracted from what we’re doing when we run. These are decent models, but I want to talk about the really crucial skills. The stronger the GM is at these things, the stronger the table experience will be. Yes, a bad table will hamstring this, but I honestly think a good GM can often rescue a table with the right attention to detail: the right ability to engage, manage and control. A dirty word control, but I'll talk about what I mean about that for the table.
And that’s what I’m focusing on: GMing in the moment, at the table, handling play. While that activity includes coming up with cool shit, engaging improvisation, and rules arbitration, that’s not necessarily what I’m discussing. There are five aspects of the job I think strengthen play and define a good GM. These are aspects I try to be really conscious of. I’ve played at tables where the GMs doesn’t have a grip on these things– that’s what’s cemented my feeling about the importance of the GM role. As I suggested earlier, a good table can mitigate a weak GM, but that's paddling upstream.
So what are these five aspects?
GM as a Traffic Manager
The ability to track the conversation– who has spoken, who needs to speak next, whether a stop or pause is needed. While some of this relates to spotlight management and time that folks get, it is more about order and space. The GM should establish and model the order of conversation or establish early how players signal for attention. The GM as traffic manager watches for players stepping over their fellow players' conversations. They are on the alert for derailings or people interrupting: jumping into already moving traffic.
They keep the pace going at a clip which is not too fast and not too slow. The former is about spotting if people seem to have lost the map of the discussion. The latter is about demonstrating that the GM respects the players’ time. When a leg of a journey– a scene or point of discussion– has been completed they move this along.
They do this gently, being as invisible as possible: gestures, asking a question, adding a detail before narrating a new element. At the same time they’re willing to be explicit and call out turns and sequencing. Sometimes they have to put a stop sign in front of a player. Sometimes they need to signal someone that they’ve been in the driver’s seat too long. Sometimes they’re alerting a player that they’re going next (which has multiple benefits).
GM as a Meeting Manager
There’s a lot of material out there about Active Meeting Management and its techniques. When I was teaching, it influenced how I managed a classroom. Importantly a role-playing session is a meeting. That can be a liability in a world where we can be burned out being in online meetings, Zoom calls, or behind a desk. But it also offers an easily understood model.
The meeting manager GM sets the agenda, gets the preliminaries done quickly but clearly, and then opens the table up to responses. They guide the session from scene to scene, sometimes hard framing to a logical next step, sometimes offering up alternatives, sometimes soliciting choices from the players. They’re flexible about what is going to happen at the meeting, but possess an awareness of what needs to happen. What did players ask for during the ‘Wishes’ of the previous session? What story beats would be good to hit? How many sessions do they have to work with? What questions were unanswered last time?
The meeting manager watches to make sure everyone is still in the loop. They sum up previous events. They restate what’s happened in a scene to make it clear to everyone. They ask and answer questions to clarify. They loop things back in and draw connections between elements which have been presented. They check in and keep checking in.
The GM calls on people when it’s unclear who needs to go next. They give players validation when the play goes well and put challenges before them. They try to pick up on player behaviors quickly– who might need nudging, who resists suggestions, who has a habit of not listening to others, etc. They make sure everyone has had a chance to have their say before moving on. But they also move things forward when they need to shift.
They provide a forward direction for play at the start and when players aren’t sure of the next action.
GM as Interviewer
The GM is always asking questions– they are effectively interviewing players about what their PC does. Interviewing is about tone, insightful queries, and responsive space. I highly recommend GMs listen to good interviewers, those with an easy touch. That doesn’t necessarily mean famous interviewers– I loathe some NPR hosts for the roundabout, long way they ask questions.
My go-to is Paul F. Tompkins, the comedian, and his Spontaneanation podcast. The improv part is OK, but the first part of each episode has Tompkins talking with a guest. These discussions are dynamite. He has a great tone– he really wants to know the answer. It’s casual but thoughtful– he conveys that he’s listening.
The good GM communicates engagement and responds positively to answers. And follows up where necessary. “You said X, that’s interesting. Can you tell me more?” They look for opportunities to ‘yes, and’ these conversations.
Insightful queries are harder. They require active listening. Anytime a GM finds them themselves imagining or wondering about the answer to something, they should write that down. It may be as little as a couple of words (“why a dog?”). They watch what player implies or alludes to, but doesn’t completely address. They look for why a player has made a particular choice.
There’s a storytelling technique about showing character through little details: how someone dresses, where they live, how they get along with others. The GM can ask these questions to give the player a chance to describe a PC’s specifics and established what that says about the character. The often-used Paint the Scene offers this on a larger, metatextual level.
Finally interviewing is about the GM giving the players room to answer, responsive space. A weaker question is: “do you think your character is going back to their room,” but a stronger one is “Is your character going back to their room, down to the lounge, or somewhere else?”
The GM should offer at least two options as well as providing a statement giving the player room to come up with another choice without judgment. A query with a single, binary question makes a statement about what the GM expects. If a player doesn’t want that, they have to say no– often hard in play– and then present an alternative which they may feel they have to justify. This question structure doesn’t always apply, but a good GM watches for those spaces.
Our interviewer GM also has to be willing to ask the meta questions. Sometimes they must step up and explicitly ask a player to express their intent. The GM must recognize when they don’t understand a player’s course of action. It can be a moment of vulnerability to admit this, but being willing to ask and then follow up with good questions is a vital technique. Plowing forward without understanding or checking in can lead to confusion and frustration on both sides.
GM as a Showrunner
I’m not going to say I know exactly what a showrunner does– have the sense that they grow the show’s concept and keep the writers focused on the key ideas, themes, and details of the show. A GM has to do this while being flexible about interesting new approaches and alternatives.
The showrunner GM fills in details and helps put a player’s ideas and statements into the context of the world at play. They build on what the players establish and show that yes, it does make sense given what the table already knows. The GM keeps an eye on the established fiction and watches for apparent contradictions. They then have a choice: does it directly contradict or can it be worked in? The good GM tries to lean to the latter, but is willing to say “no, but,” offer another kind of compromise, or ask for a clarification or revision.
But the showrunner GM also recognizes that player connections trump this. If something suggested bumps up against a plot, NPC, or detail another player has established or feels strongly about, they have to acknowledge that. They take extra caution in these cases and check-in. Players, like writers, have invested their energy and creativity in the play. They feel ownership and the GM should acknowledge it.
On the other hand the GM as showrunner keeps track of the world. They juggle the details and effectively keeping the “show bible.” That is supported sometimes by other tools, like player notes and NPC keeper, but when a question is out there, they have to answer it or offer it up to the table for input.
And here’s where two of the roles– interviewer and showrunner– intersect. If the GM asks a question, offers a choice, they have to respect the answer they get. If the GM asks a player why a detail is a particular way, it isn’t a quiz. They shouldn’t say no. A question is an offer, a promise of input. If it bangs up against established fiction, then they can accept that or present compromise. But importantly the showrunner recognizes and manages the distinction between established fiction and head canon. Saying no based on something not previously established– i.e. just in your head– breaks the promise made by offering a choice. It reduces trust.
GM as Counselor
And trust is the key element of this fifth role. The GM as counselor works hard to establish trust. That means keeping promises made at the table. Those promises range from adjudicating the rules fairly, giving everyone their say, listening to their responses, and accepting the choices the players make and working them into the fiction.
It means frequent check-ins and confirmations. As an example, in PbtA most moves trigger when a character takes certain actions. There’s a conversation and exchange leading up to that. The triggering of a move is a moment of finality, establishing the risk and playing to find out what happens. Forcing a player into a resolution when that wasn’t at all what they’d intended is a gotcha moment. And for years that was a major tool in the GM’s toolbox. And that can be exciting and make the GM feel clever, but the cost is the player’s trust and a disincentive to participate in the story.
Trust is about a host of things: respect for players’ time, awareness of the schedule, giving players room to shift builds, giving breaks, watching for player problems, helping players establish their vision for their PCs, and many more. Safety’s crucial for this. The GM needs to establish what the safety tools are at the table and show that they take them seriously. They need to respect when they’re invoked, without pushing back. If criticism is offered, they need to listen and consider it– not respond defensively.
And trust is hugely important. If someone doesn’t trust the GM, they’re not going to come to them if they have problems: not enjoying the game, feeling like elements work against them, issues with another player. These things become invisible. And these things being out-of-sight, invisible is how we get “We always had women at our tables and never had problems, even though they never stayed that long.”
This is a long way away from my original question: which games do you have confidence in, have mastery over? I have a small set of games in this category. They’re the games which I know well, where I have internalized the play– not just of rules, but of theme and focus. Because of that, when I run I can focus on the five roles above. I’m not worried about the system, the game, and I can instead give all my attention to the play.
Notably this isn’t a question of number of times running or rules mastery. I wouldn’t say I have mastery over the games I’ve probably run the most in my life: Champions, GURPS, Rolemaster. There are also more recent games I’ve run a ton of that I don’t claim mastery over: 13th Age, Mutants & Masterminds, Blades in the Dark, Mutant: Year Zero, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins for example. I’ve run all of these at least two dozen times, several of them many, many more sessions than that.
Having mastery is hard, but I honestly think for many GMs having confidence and accepting that they’re good at running something is harder. We second guess, doubt, or write things off as just having a great table. We ignore the technique and skill we’ve developed. My list of masteries above isn’t to intimidate or gatekeep, instead I hope it’s a way for GMs to inventory what they do well and maybe be more conscious about these aspects. If they’re great at them, they should feel good, if they feel weaker just being aware of them will make them stronger.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? What have I left out?