The Id DM recently invited me on his podcast, Ego Check, an interview podcast series hosted by a licensed psychologist, Michael Mallen, Ph.D. The podcast delves into a variety of game types (e.g., tabletop roleplaying games, board games, video games) from a psychological perspective. Dr. Mallen has been interviewing members of the gaming community for articles on his blog, The Id DM, since 2011 and is now posting these interviews for others to enjoy. Check out his blog as well as the other fantastic episodes with other guests from the gaming industry and beyond!
So you’ve got a collection of guides for game masters, an arsenal’s worth of GM tips, and a group of players who are happy to be your test subjects. In order to become a great GM, all you have to do is clock in ten thousand hours of practicing those techniques in order to become great at gamemastering, right?
Not so fast.
According to the research, simply reading a book, watching a video, or listening to a podcast and giving those concepts a try isn’t going to make you better. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool details the process, as backed up by data, of how to get good at just about anything. You have to apply your newfound knowledge with practice, but you have to practice the right way.
If you just do something repetitively for a long time, you’re not actually likely to become an expert at it. You need to try, fail, recalibrate, and try again. In this book, the authors discuss the method that’s proven to work for the world’s top athletes, musicians, surgeons, chess grandmasters, and more: it’s called deliberate practice, and it’s designed to help you create stronger mental representations.
Mental representations (or ways of thinking about something) are what separate the good GMs from the great ones. Well-developed mental representations enable GMs to juggle multiple considerations such as plot twists, NPCs, and pacing in their heads all at once: they’ve trained themselves to be consciously thinking of those all those things and more at the right times during game. Mental representations also give GMs a model for predicting how different rulings or story choices will play out at the table, and for making the right call when presented with the players’ unexpected plans or unanticipated dice rolls.
Here’s what the authors of Peak say you have to do in order to practice deliberately and forge those mental representations.
Inspired to try your hand at running a new roleplaying game? Approaching an unfamiliar ruleset can be daunting, but with the right tools, you can learn the mechanics more quickly and easily, making for a smoother first session when you finally have a chance to play! Here are my five tips for teaching yourself a new RPG system.
Tip #1: Equip Yourself with a Beginner Game, Starter Set, or Quickstart Product
Publishers have tried to make it easier than ever to pick up and start playing their games. Rather than starting out by reading the whole core rulebook cover to cover, you might want to check your friendly local gaming store, DriveThruRPG.com, or the publisher’s website to see whether an introductory product is available.
Beginner games and starter sets are meant to ease new players and game masters into the rules through play, which makes learning a new system fun and low-stress. Many physical beginner products come with everything you need to play the game, from dice to maps and handouts to pre-generated characters. The rulebooks are condensed, so they don’t take as long to read, and the adventures are designed to highlight the essential aspects of the rules.
So-called “quickstarts” tend to be PDFs or small booklets that serve a similar purpose, although you might need to add your own dice or print/photocopy your own character sheets. You might also look for digital downloads of Free RPG Day offerings from past years, which typically contain quickstart versions of the rules along with a short adventure.
Your players have sent you their character info for your next campaign and, as their game master, you want to incorporate their backstory elements, but you’re not sure where to start. Here’s how to break down their histories into manageable pieces and utilize them throughout your campaign in a way that resonates with players.
Create Obstacles Between the
Characters and Their Goals
One of the ways to make an RPG campaign that truly engages players is to craft a story that features their goals as subplots, sidequests, or even the central story arc. First, however, you need to know what the characters want most. It’s your job as the GM to make achieving those goals both challenging and rewarding. Ignore those character goals, and you risk monopolizing the campaign with your own storylines, leaving the players wondering why their heroes would be on the adventure in the first place.
If you’re like most game masters, you probably got your start running dungeon crawls. But after a dozen or so sessions, when the player characters are ready to emerge from the darkness and step into the limelight of society, the skills you’ve used to run dungeons don’t quite translate to social encounters. Crafting a compelling social encounter is a different challenge, but with a little bit of practice and preparation, you can add compelling intrigues to your tabletop RPG sessions.
Tip #1: Determine Who, What, and Why
Like all RPG encounters, it’s important to define the player characters’ (PC) objectives early on. Before diving into play, ensure the PCs understand whom they need to talk to and why. If the PCs don’t know, have an NPC make their goal clear. Don’t be afraid to swoop in and talk directly to the players as GM, recapping what they already know and what they still need to find out.
Most social encounters, boiled down to their most basic level, have one of two objectives:
- The PCs must figure out what an NPC wants, knows, or is doing
- The PCs must change an NPC’s allegiance, beliefs, or course of action
Both of these situations can be flipped so that the NPCs are in the active role, but you should ensure the PCs have some goal they’re actively working toward, otherwise they might feel powerless or even bored.
During prep, starting with the objectives allows you to assemble a cast list that hits all the plot beats you need. Once you have the essentials covered, then you can sprinkle in characters to serve as set dressing and red herrings. Begin with the end in mind to avoid ending up with too many extraneous NPCs, dangling plot threads, or conversations that lead nowhere.
Great social encounters also include new, secondary objectives that the PCs can discover through play. Besides the immediate excitement of a new quest or mystery, these subplots can add dimensionality to the main objectives (e.g., you didn’t change so-and-so’s mind, but you did gain another unexpected ally!). The rewards for accomplishing these secondary objectives might be the leverage needed for the main objective, something that relates to a PC’s backstory, or items and information that will help the PCs in later encounters.
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Welcome to the professional portfolio and personal blog of Katrina Ostrander, a writer of fiction and games who works full-time in the tabletop games industry. Here you can find resources and advice on writing, roleplaying, and gamemastering, as well as updates on her latest publications.
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📚 reader (history/sff/romance) ✒️ writer (sff/romance) 🎲 roleplayer/gm (story games/d&d/l5r/cthulhu) ⚔️ wargamer (warmaster, 40k, gmt) opinions are my own.
First it was Aidan Turner and now it's Richard Armitage. Tell me, how many of the dwarves from the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies also star in romantic period dramas? Ugh.
So far North & South (the BBC drama) is like Brass: Birmingham meets Pride & Prejudice and I am here for it. (SO many yearning looks, against a backdrop of industrialism and class struggle.)
My debut album “Hope In Chaos” will be out 11/19! This album is about finding the light through the darkness and preserving though our inner demons. All 12 tracks are produced, written, and sung by me. No collabs. I’m going to give you all a story by me 💜2
On the advice of people who know what they’re doing I’ve created a folder of screencaps: kind acceptances / glowing reviews / good shit in general, to sustain myself through the harsh winter of no new pubs for the rest of the year and #nanowrimo 🤞
I was talking with an industry friend this weekend about social media branding. During our conversation, they expressed some (very reasonable) frustration surrounding community expectations when it comes to online presence and the nuances of social media etiquette.