What are basic GMing skills?

Thank you, @RogerBW for recommending this topic.

To start I’d say:

  1. organization prior to play
  2. table management
  3. improvisation

Table management presents both concrete and relational sides. Rules of play is what I see as an example of concrete. Keeping a group focused and engaged with the interaction is what I see as an example of relational.

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The better you are at #3 Improvisation, the less you need #1 organization prior to play.

My worst gaming experiences at conventions are due to poor #2 table management.

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I’d agree with your categories: they seem to be as logically necessary as beginning middle and end.

But there is always (even with one offs and in the last session of a campaign) a fourth stage: Aftercare. This requires enough energy and enough commitment to write things down, sketch out what happened and outline what happens next… And I have always been terrible at it.

The devil is in the details in all four categories.

And yes, Roger we should do some chat about this.

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Since I highlighted table management, I think I should expand on this skill in more detail.

Table management is not the sole responsibility of the GM. All the players have equal responsibility to make sure that the it goes well. Players must be able to manage themselves, even if everyone at the table is a stranger, and help the GM manage the table as a whole. The GM is not a babysitter.

The GM is a moderator, orchestrator, and conductor of the game. GMs keep the game running smoothly and fairly. They ensure every player has a voice and every PC has agency (even if they decline it). The GM manages the game’s pace, speeding up or skipping head when the pace lags, and slowing down when the players need a good think. The GM knows when to pause the game to look up a rule or have a meta-game discussion and knows when to let the game play and address issues later (such as the end of the session).

GMs need to read the table and know when to step in or when to back off. For example, a GM might need to bring the table back into focus if the players go on an OOC tangent, but out-of-game socializing may be exactly what the players want or need. When the players are planning and plotting, the GM listens to their discussions and offers advice when they are stuck and clarifications when there is confusion. If the GM detects that the players are heading down a path that would make the game more frustrating and less fun, the GM should give them some guidance, but if the PCs bad plans and foolhardy decisions will be fun for all, let them be.

When I GM, I make a point of going around the table and calling on each player individually. In combat, the initiative system handles this. Out of combat, I point to each player in turn around the table and ask them what they are doing or want to do. When I was conducting some training at work and I had multiple students wanting to ask a question, I found myself using the same “point and ask” technique.

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I’d say that like a lot of these things it varies a great deal with the style of game. In the style of RPG in which a great deal of important content will consist of detailed conflict against NPCs and monsters, resolved using game mechanics, preparation of interesting opponents and encounter locations that give a good fight and that it feels like an accomplishment to beat when eventually one does so, and organising one’s notes for quick reference, are key skills. But I don’t do any of those things at all. In my style of GMing the key skills are to characterise an NPC, and to extrapolate details and incident that the players weren’t expecting but that they will recognise as logical consequences of the situation established.

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I’d add ‘Storytelling’ as a foundational GM skill.

@Sexagesimalian, I think the boardgame Firefly benefits from something similar: it potentially has a lot of downtime between player turns, but if players are ready with the stuff they are going to do it can go quite quickly. That’s harder because there’s no GM role, but the host of the gathering or teacher of the game can help by returning people’s attention to the game at the right moment.

@Agemegos, I’d say that being able to lay hands on the large amount of information you need, whatever form it may take, is a general skill: in the style you described you still need to remember that this NPC is the one with that plot significance and that characterisation.

I’m wary of quibbling over slightly different interpretations of meaning in discussions like this, but certainly for me storytelling isn’t anything to do with GMing, or with roleplaying in general. Stories are what we see when we look back on games and piece together the events and interactions, not the aim of the activity.

GMs don’t need to tell stories (even if the cliché is that GMs are all frustrated novelists) so much as they need to set the scene and populate the landscape. Sure, an engaging GM may use a number of the same tricks as a storyteller but he isn’t telling a story.

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I concur. The term storyteller is too loaded for me. At worst, it implies the other players are not storytellers. Plus, it excludes gaming styles that are less about telling a story and more about the tactical and intellectual challenges.

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Yeah, deliberately pigeonholing ‘storytelling’ into very specifically the act of performing a verbal story for others certainly would mean that a lot of GMing wouldn’t fall under that umbrella. What a shock, my definition is broader than that, and I would include all of the considerations of pacing and characterization as part of the ‘storytelling’ skill. I thought we were talking ‘foundational skills’ not ‘foundational tasks’.

Are there GMs that are trying to avoid being engaging?

Did I say the GM must be THE storyteller? I said a foundational skill is storytelling.

Unless what we’re talking about is ‘what makes a human about as good as a phone app’ rather than ‘basic competence in the craft of GMing’.

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Yeah, that’s pretty much why I hesitate to get involved in so many discussions these days, because we go from reasonable conversation to, well, the sort of thing you just did.

Again, I don’t think that RPGs are about telling a story from either the GM’s or the players’ side. It’s about facilitating play, not writing a sodding play.

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Sorry for being terse in my reply.

Was trying to express that facilitating play can be done best with using the principles of storytelling - and through that facilitation you do tell a sort of story - a collaborative one.

Sorry, again, that my reply was very salty.

I figured “At worst, it implies…” would have been enough to prevent inference you are making.

Let me try again. Pretend that a would-be GM is looking at a list of skills they need to have. They see “storytelling.” It would be colossally bad if they interpreted that to mean, “I must tell a story to my players. Since they are being told a story by me, the players role is be my audience.” This is a wrong interpretation of what you meant. In fact, it is perhaps the worst interpretation. Unfortunately, many GMs do exactly this.

Many of the aspects of good storytelling are applicable and recommended to GMs: setting a scene, crafting and voicing interesting NPCs, creating a tone and mood, etc. I would prefer a better term for this stuff than “storytelling.” Plus, these elements are not applicable to all gaming styles. If the game is focused on tactical combat, for example, the 3 skills listed in the OP are still important, but storytelling isn’t.

Well now. Setting the scene so that the players realise what environmental hazards and possibilities they’re facing in this fight still seems relevant.

Sorry for being combative. I was irked that ‘at worst’ is the starting engagement point. Because it felt like ‘I’m going to pick at the worst possible scenario to discredit your statement’, and I took that personally, which was foolish of me.

If your combat isn’t couched in a story then it’s just chess, and are you even roleplaying? And good fights have a plotline - if you are a GM you pace a fight to be satisfying and exciting.

That’s why some GMs spend a lot of time, effort, and money into making really good props and models for the battlefield. They also do it because they enjoy doing it independent of the game. Even though my own games are not tactically based, I will use hex-grid battle maps drawn with dry erase markers because it’s often a better than “storytelling” to set the scene and conveying position, terrain, and hazards. Rather than having to describe which tree or boulder might be best for cover, the players can just look.

You and I are probably on the same page when it comes to our preferred mode of playing rpgs. But there are some who just see the “story” as the connective tissue to get them to the next fight and delegate all investigation and PC-NPC interactions to skill rolls. Any “storytelling” is just the GM reading (often in a monotone) the pre-written block of text from the published scenario. We would probably hate such a game, but they enjoy it.

Agreed. And if anything is guilty in that opener is that it’s intentionally broad.

I think of this as part of engaging players at the table. Part of building and maintaining the play relationship.

When brainstorming there, the principal difference I had in mind was the difference between how the GM intends to engage the folks around the table when it starts and the improvisational aspect of engaging the players as play goes on. That seems to be a different set of skills.

I guess I wasn’t thinking of that kind of GMing as… GMing! But I guess it is?! It’s so out of my field of vision that I didn’t even consider it.

I think I see all of this through the lens of ‘making a collaborative narrative’ - which may also make me alone there.

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Absolutely. My view on it is that the collaborative narrative is emergent from the play.

My observation from prior play is that when one or more participants arrive at the table with a decision already made about what that collaborative narrative will be, then flow of play is interrupted. When the GM has made the decision I think it tends to be labeled railroading or performance. When a player or players have made the decision I think it tends to be labeled disruptive play or intra-party competition.

I want to stress I view this is a razor thin point of differentiation and my focus on it is for how it affects what people do with their voices and their dice at the table.

Observing some of the newer books for this continually changing hobby, it seems arriving at the table with an intended collaborative narrative is becoming more common and more supported. Something like The Mountain Witch seems to be an example of this to me. That is, the acts and story beats and narrative are part of the goal.

This is a form of play I have not attempted and I likely view things this way from previous mismatches among the folks around the table about what the narrative would be.

My experience, and the world can absolutely change around this and not be wrong, is more from the view of we will arrive with characters, rules, and setting pretty thoroughly agreed on, but the narrative that emerges may not ever have a recognizable form to it even after it’s done. But we will have had a good time at the table and we’ll enjoy the story after even if one party member killed everyone with an essential flame spell.

To paraphrase something from a discussion of conversations I listened to recently, conversations tend to have a dominance axis (who is right and who is wrong) and a proximity axis (do we feel closer to each other or further apart after this exchange). My hope is to focus the table on that second aspect. That even if Calico, Princess of Amber, beats her cousin to death with a stick and reduces his corpse to cinders because he used advanced shapeshift to store the Jewel of Judgement in his abdomen; the takeaway isn’t, “I beat you”. The takeaway is “we just had an experience together we could not have ever had with anyone else under any other circumstances.”

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