Recently I posted the campaign logs from a very short campaign I ran back in 2009, titled “The Orc Lands”. I’d decided to use the extremely flexible Basic Roleplaying system and a low magic setting of my own design.
The second session log, ironically, ended thus:
The big challenge will be next session, where the campaign starts its second act.
Ironic in that:
One or other of the two players kept cancelling, and we finally called the whole thing.
I, in fact, had no clue what that second act would entail.
Over a decade later, I’ve only run occasional one-shots for whatever gaming group I’ve been in at the time. These logs, and the associated memories, offer a few valuable lessons for beginning Game Masters that maybe I, the perpetual beginning GM, should have taken to heart.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
As the players soon found out, I was essentially winging a lot of things. Oh, I’d prepare for one adventure in advance, but I didn’t have much of a story arc in mind. Eventually they’d head into the central desert and find a lost city of evil, but what would happen in the meantime? I hadn’t figured that out.
A more experienced GM once told me that he used published adventures because they were enormous time-savers. At the time I told myself “well I’m doing something new”, but the freedom to build a whole new world also entails a responsibility to really think through that whole new world and figure out what players will be doing in it, session to session.
Some GMs are excellent at improvisation, especially with the right system. In the Cypher System, for example, the players roll all dice, and the GM has only to come up with difficulty factors from 1 to 10, the Armor and Health Points of NPCs and monsters, and any special abilities the stranger monsters might have. One guy I knew essentially improvised an entire adventure based on the Oz books, apparently off the top of his head.
Sadly, I don’t think I can do that, even with Cypher. (Which I did run, once or twice … after I prepared.)
Write Down Your House Rules
More damningly, I had only a vague idea how magic worked in this world, and one of the characters was a “shaman”. Had this been 2010, I could have used the experimental “Spirit Magic” system of Mongoose’s RuneQuest II, which later became “Animism” in RuneQuest 6 (2012) and Mythras (2016). Instead, I sort of handwaved something I’d read from an old Fudge supplement: no concrete spells, basically checks on the POW characteristic to “sense spirits” and communicate with them.
As the player later told me, it would have been helpful if I’d written down what powers he had and how they worked, and maybe created a percentile skill rating or something so he could get better at them over time.
Years later I’d write “Rules as Interfaces” (and a sequel), an extended analogy between software interfaces and RPG rules. One essential part of any software interface, whether a series of commands, a graphical application, or a set of functions, is that it’s far more useful when it’s documented.
Find More Players
“The Orc Lands” had only two players plus me the GM. If one of them couldn’t make it, there was effectively no game because half the players would be absent. (I also dislike GMing for solo players.) More successful groups I’ve been in have had at least four players, so that when one person drops out – life happens, more frequently these days – the others can continue for a session.1
In time’s past I’ve dithered about playing “more mainstream” games, i.e. D&D, so that I can not only find players but maybe get someone else to run. For the most part it’s a Faustian bargain: why play something I don’t like just to play something at all? But in an age of Meetup groups, “virtual tabletops” like Roll20, and a range of pre-built (and pre-tested?) systems I like (about which I’ve raved ad nauseam) finding enough players is hopefully just a matter of casting a wide enough net.
Monte Cook’s Invisible Sun apparently has procedures to let the game progress without a GM, let alone a quorum of players. It’s also $200, and even I have limits. ↩︎