GMing and Playing Styles… What’s yours?

Hi there…

Recently I watched the new documentary Dungeon Masters that featured a GM who managed to kill his whole party simply because they were dumb enough to charge into a Sphere of Annihilation… And it got me thinking.

Over my nearly 30 years of playing RPGs, I’ve encountered a variety of GMing styles. Everything from being adversarial to strictly hands-off “see what happens”, from lockstep “don’t go off the path” to “wow did we just roleplay a NPC-NPC conversation for the last 45 minutes?” They all have a place, but I have to wonder if it’s a progression through which most GMs work through in their gaming careers.

At the beginning of the cycle is the newbie GM and at the end is the battle-hardened GM…

When I was young and just starting out in RPGs in junior high, the GMs I played with were mostly focused on the critical path. Whether it was a pre-written module we were going through or something they had thrown together, we focused on getting the job done. It was less about roleplaying and more about roll-playing at that point. Combat was everything on both sides of the table.

In high school and college, we started getting more into playing the characters. Combat was still important, but less so. We became enamored with the collaborative effort within the party. But our GMs started to diverge a bit. Some were interested in the all-important story, pushing combat to something that only happened rarely. Some were focused on trying to kill players, which made the players more apt to simply trying to defeat the GM’s nefarious schemes.

After college, wow there have been even more extremes. In one Vampire game we played, I swear the GMs (it was a boyfriend/girlfriend pair where one typically played and the other GMed) simply wanted to hear their own voices. However, we were really able to focus on character development to the max. And in one game I GMed I lost control of a game simply because two players became more dominant than I was.

Now I haven’t GMed for a while – at least nothing more than the occasional playtest or one-off adventure. But my goal would be to offer a focused sandbox that gave enough wiggle room, but could accommodate combat and roleplaying in equal amounts. I’d probably sway more towards the roleplaying than roll-playing these days, but there are plusses and minuses to both approaches.

The odd thing to me is the advent of RPGs on the computer in the last 25 years. Everything from Bard’s Tale and the Gold Box games from SSI/TSR to World of Warcraft and Neverwinter Nights… none of them have managed (beyond Planescape: Torment maybe) to capture the roleplaying/storytelling aspects of the tabletop roleplaying experience. As such, when new folks want to try playing tabletop after playing CRPGs, they tend to focus on the roll-playing combat aspects more than anything else and have to work through all the things the rest of us who started with tabletop years ago went through…

Anyway… Where are your GMs in the continuum? Where are your players on that same continuum?

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–Fitz

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This article has 10 comments

  1. Kevin Reply

    @Fitz: Agreed. The complete sandbox is a bit too freeform for a lot of players who would prefer to react to the GM’s world rather than be primary movers… but still I can dream of the day when I’m in a group and we actually hit that sweet spot.

    • Fitz

      @Kevin – Yeah… It would be nice to hit that sweet spot, wouldn’t it? :)

  2. forged Reply

    For me a lot of it depends on time to prepare for sessions, but the things I enjoy the most are keeping the focus on the players and working with them as opposed to against them to tell good stories. (Although maybe from their perspective, they might still think of me against them.)

    Due to time constraints, we are currently running through a set of modules, but I keep trying to figure out how to make it less linear because it doesn’t feel quite right story-wise to be that narrow.

    In general though, I find story-based games/campaigns more interesting to GM. But to really pull it off, you have to get your players to engage.

    • Fitz

      @forged – Why do I think of Jean-Luc Picard saying “Engage” when you wonder about us being engaged as players? Is my mind wandering again? ;)

    • Fitz

      @A.L. – Interesting. I’m not seeing it here in Chrome, Firefox, or IE here on Windows Vista. But I’ll keep an eye out for it. My theme does seem to have issues on FF these days.

      And thanks for the compliment. I appreciate it!

  3. Fitz Reply

    @A.L. – No worries on the vote – I’ll add a “None of the Above” option to handle your case. :)

    Ultimately I think we all probably end up with some combinations of the elements in an ever changing recipe.

    What browser are you using where you see the side bar encroaching? I’ll have to give it a look.

  4. Kevin Reply

    I chose the sandbox, and that’s my real style these days – though I’ve progressed over years to it – but I probably run more of a stepped-down version of that style since most of my players have yet to demonstrate a desire for me to turn total authority in the game over to them and just watch them play. They say when the students are ready the teacher will appear… Sometimes the teacher is ready but the students are all dozing at their desks.

    • Fitz

      @Kevin – A wide open sandbox would be tough to maintain I think… More of a guided sandbox is probably what I have tried in the past. In a truly collaborative approach, the players would contribute as much as the GM in some ways, with the GM merely providing gentle nudges along certain paths or letting them explore in the weeds from time to time to expand the horizons…

  5. A.L. Reply

    I didn’t choose one of the choices as none of them really fit me. I don’t believe in an adversarial approach for GMs to players, I can see where some would have fun with it but I think you’re better off being the Antagonist to their Protagonist than an adversary to be beaten. The GM should play the badguys, and play them fairly, but they should be rooting for the PCs essentially.

    I don’t do modules, and also hate games on rails so I try not to run them. A bit of forced rail roading at the beginning to get things moving? Maybe, sure, depending on the game. But in general? Keep it out of the game, you’re better than that.

    The NPC chat I also dislike as well, what are the players doing while the GM is talking to themself for 45 minutes? is it important? Ok, sure. But is it THAT important that 4-6 people have to watch you talk to yourself? Sum it up, have it written out before hand and just hand it to the players on a sheet. hell, give the script to two players and have them act it out for the group. Do something with it. Again, you’re better than that (imo) :D

    The sandbox could be fun. Actually, it is something I want to try to do. A real, honest to god campaign where it is about what the players do and stories may or may not happen depending on that.

    Currently though, I don’t Gm like that. I do more story focused games. Closest probably to a combination of the Sandbox, the NPC, and the Module all together. The players have freedom, but there are bumper rails on the edges to nudge them back onto the path if they start straying too far. Generally this isn’t forced, the world is set up to show where they should be going/doing and to make them want to. But occasionally there are things like “if you keep going west, you’re going to run into the army of lava monsters…..” followed a few sessions later by “You top the crest and see…An army of lava monsters!” if they keep going west.

    You get the idea though. Oh, not sure if you noticed but your side bar encroaches on your blog post near the top.
    A.L.´s last blog post ..What Comes Next

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