The most crucial GM skill is listening. Roleplaying games, by and large, are an art form where the creators of each piece and the primary audience are the same. You and your fellow players are both the ones telling the story and the ones the story is meant to entertain. The GM’s particular responsibility, I’d argue, is to listen carefully for all players’ hopes and wishes, the things that make the story exciting or engaging to them, and then guide the group towards that sizzle of player interest.
There’s one specific listening skill I’ve been honing that’s had a noticeable positive impact on games I run. I’ve developed an ear for themes and imagery. There’s something particularly gratifying about seeing players light up when I pick up on and carry forward the motifs they’ve introduced into the game.
Want to bring your GMing to the next level? Listen for themes and imagery, and reincorporate them into the game.
“Motifs are created when the narration of a fellow player inspires you to create one. Once enough Motifs have been recorded, it is the beginning of the end. So keep a keen ear and be swift to record whenever your fellow players’ narration evokes that sense of wonder, danger or adventure that drew you to the sword-and-sorcery genre in the first place.”
In effect, this means in a game of Swords Without Master, your table slowly accrues a pile of index cards with epic, sinister, and gnarly phrases written on them. A few examples from a game I ran: “A smooth-tongued rogue rapidly cycling through religious habits,” “A pale queen fading from life as the dead invade to announce her shame.” These Motifs serve as a clock for the game, as it concludes when enough have been recorded—but the rules also require a certain number of later Motifs to echo and reincorporate Motifs recorded earlier. In effect, Swords Without Master is a machine designed to tune players to say swords-and-sorcery stuff that thrills their tablemates.
Now, Swords Without Master draws no distinction between players and GM (renamed the Overplayer here) when it comes to recording Motifs. There’s another game that makes deliberate use of listening and reincorporating as a GM-specific technique, and that’s the feminine horror blockbuster Bluebeard’s Bride.
“When you shiver from fear, name the thing you are most afraid will happen; the Groundskeeper will tell you how it’s worse than you feared.”
The book is very clear: this move is triggered, not when the character shivers from fear, but when the player does. The GM is listening for players shuddering, gasping, or saying “That’s messed up!” When they do so, the game focuses in on that fear. Thus there’s not much time wasted with horror that leaves the players unmoved—every monstrous setpiece in Bluebeard’s mansion is something that specifically disturbs at least one of the players at the table.
Swords Without Master and Bluebeard’s Bride each build into the game’s mechanics a script for listening and reincorporating. But as a GM, you can steal these techniques for use in any game! Ask, subtly or directly, what players find exciting, empowering, romantic, or horrifying. Then reincorporate those elements into the world and the situations you describe. You can do this between sessions as part of your prep, or even plan to do it on the fly during a one-shot.
Two of my own games are often enhanced by this technique. Autumn Triduum, a game about nuns confronting the forces of darkness, centers around an emergent mystery. Rather than having an answer ahead of time about the form taken by the darkness afflicting the convent, the GM is encouraged to listen to the players’ answers to the backstory questions and work from them. One should pay particular attention when players respond to “Where are you certain you’ve seen the Devil active in the world?”
This question usually elicits a mix of answers, some about clearly supernatural devilry, others focused on structural or personal sins that character sees as the work of Satan. For example, in one game different sisters had seen the Devil in young men leading girls astray and in a recurring nightmare of drowning. Some juicy material to reincorporate! So the challenge the sisters faced was one of their wards being lured away by a disreputable boy, with the trail leading to a dangerous (possibly devilish) flooded subway station.
My game The Great Soul Train Robbery opens up even more opportunities for this GM style. The game is set aboard the train to Hell, and so the whole environment can have a heightened, allegorical cast. The PCs are Desperados aiming to rob the train, and a mechanic incentivizes them to narrate flashbacks showing how their past sins have led them to this point. This makes it easy to reincorporate character backstory elements, often expanding and solidifying a vice or struggle into a very real obstacle aboard the train. Did you harden your heart to work your confidence games on people? On this train, hearts can literally turn to stone and burst from your chest. Were you always motivated by a greedy desire to grasp at more and more? The Conductor here is Avarice himself, and boy does he have a deal to offer.
Hope you can make use of this technique the next time you sit down to GM a game. Remember, if you listen you’ll hear players flagging what they find interesting about the world or the story of the game. Pay attention to that, and reincorporate it—remixed and recast as need be.
If you’ve appreciated these thoughts or are intrigued by my games, consider backing The Great Soul Train Robbery on Kickstarter! The campaign runs till 10pm EST on February 18th.
Alexi Sargeant is an award-winning game designer creating indie roleplaying games under the banner of Cloven Pine Games. When he's not running or playing games, he's a writer and editor living in Princeton, New Jersey.