What kind of a DM/GM/ST are you?

What kind of a Dungeon Master/Game Master/Storyteller are you?

There are plenty of Pen & Paper RPGs out there and for each there’s probably a different term for the Storyteller, the person behind the plot, the villains, the conspiracies and sometimes the loot (which you’ll find in EVERY SINGLE GAME, be it a +1 Ballbusting Sword of Awesomeness or a Renraku Hyperdeck or a simple meaningless necklace of human fingerbones; so stop lying to yourself when you divide games into “loot-fests” and “real storytelling”). But in the end, what you call this person is meaningless, what is important is what kind of storyteller they are. I for one am quite evil. Well, not exactly evil, just not nice.

I think I should explain that a bit further.

In my games, death, suffering, maiming or utter ruin aren’t just possible outcomes but they’re close at every moment. There are no easy encounters, be they fights or negotiations or infiltrations. There’s always a chance for things to go horribly wrong, and thinking carefully is a requirement. I don’t make it easy for players to become legends; but when they do get there, they’ll feel like they’ve earned it. They’ve braved every single horrible thing they’ve gone up against with brawn or brains and they’ve come out on top, powerful and proud.

I also enjoy, sometimes too much, to play with player’s preconceptions, prejudices and expectations. Let’s take D20 for example, Pathfinder. In almost all D&D-derived games, Liches are evil undead. Well, I threw in one who not only wasn’t evil, but also became into a Lich against his will, pulling the rug from under the players and to my enormous satisfaction, made them care for this undead monstrosity. Sometime before that, in the D20 version of World of Warcraft, I threw out Good Demons, or at least non-evil and even honorable, and with that, I had one of my players’ characters, a Paladin, scratching his head and questioning everything he believed.

In the same Pathfinder game, the players joined a caravan traveling north, with 4 guards, a blacksmith and his 10-year-old daughter, a jeweler and his wife, a tailor and a leatherworker. Every night of their journey, a guard was killed off, and through some careful rolls and choice of words, I scared the living hell out of the players (it was one of my proudest moments as a storyteller). They knew the killer was among them, but they didn’t know who it was, and I will always remember (with glee), the looks on their faces when they discovered, quite tragically, I might add, the killer was the little girl, who wasn’t a little girl but a Changeling.

I give my players absolute freedom. I don’t force them down a specific road, nor do I force them to travel together. If they want to be a group, so be it, if they don’t I’ll work with each of them separately. They can do whatever they like, but I make sure they’re aware that while they are free to do anything, all actions have consequences, so anything they do is at their own discretion and peril.

Of course, even with the odds and the dangers and the horror (of which there’s plenty, sometimes I go a bit overboard on the “screwing with their heads” part and come up with some really horrifying things), it’s not all gloomy or intense. There’s plenty of humor in my games, from myself and from my players, all of them people with fantastic senses of humor.

If there’s a weakness I have as a storyteller in RPGs, it’s that I’m not good with short stories, with modules/adventures, etc. I can make them, I can write them even, but when I’m working them into the plot, I’ll always end up building on top of it, adding more plot, more characters, slow turning the simple adventure into a 3-year campaign. Of course, only I know this; my players don’t know how the simple “go into the bandit’s cave” from the first session turned, in my head, into “we have to perform the ritual that will banish the ancient demon once and for all”. Sometimes, not even I know how I leapt from the simple adventure to the epic-scale campaign, but I don’t mind; as long as I can tell a story and have fun with it, I’m fine with it.

As a storyteller, I focus on the story and characters in tandem, but not in the sense of building them up to be heroes. No, that’ll come or not in its own time and with the players’ efforts. What I mean is I put a lot of emphasis on character growth. I force my players into new and sometimes awkward situations, the results being the character’s growing as people (if the players do so as well it’s purely accidental).

As for the story, I work hard on keeping it interesting, even the slow parts, and instill on my players a sense of urgency, or dread or whatever may be the case, even if it’s giving them a chance to catch their breath and have some downtime. But just as I said about consequences, even if he characters aren’t doing anything, it doesn’t mean the plot isn’t advancing. The various factions will still be working at their secret projects, the Megacorporations will still plot and hire people, and the adventuring community in the world will spread the word about the world-ending threat on the horizon.

In other words, by giving the characters freedom but consequences, and allowing the world to keep turning even without player input, I’m making sure that world feels real, feels solid and believable, even if it’s just in our heads and our character sheets.

As for the difficulty, that’s just me being mean and hating games on the “Easy” difficulty level.

Now that I’ve ranted on and on about it, I need to ask you. What kind of a DM/GM/ST are you?

7 responses to “What kind of a DM/GM/ST are you?

  1. Mmm interesting post. As a GM, I like to go for shock, comedy (sometimes reeeeeeally dark comedy), gore, high adventure, conspiracy and moral delusions. If players think they are going one way, they will always be reminded there is other people around who may or many not like what they are doing…

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    • Could you give an example of what you call Shock? Different people are shocked by different things, and I think it’s interesting to know how you go about shocking a particular group of people.

      How would you go for shock with a new group of people, complete strangers?

      When I want to mess with people’s heads, I do it progressively, adding something slightly disturbing here and there and gauging their reactions to the imagery and the descriptions, until I have a good sense of what will work or not. Then, the next time something disturbing will come along, I’ll go for broke and do it big 🙂

      I recently did something like that with some disturbing Angel imagery, for a Pathfinder game, and the results were fantastic as you well know (since you’re one of my players). On the same session I upped it a bit with some humanoid taxidermy afterwards, which always freaks the hell out of people, but some I’m sure were more disturbed with what they had to do to an angel (another story for another time) to save the world than seeing a gallery of stuffed people.

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  2. I can related with your style in many levels, I’d add my perspective of what “interesting” means in my games: Most of the times I use a “fractal” style for my campaings (usually WoD) that means that I give a story to what ever any player shows interest in, so depending on their characters actions different parts of the chronicle gain detail. In general the story frame is set, however it lacks of detailed design, except for those places/characters that are important for the sake of coherence and mainstream.

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    • As part of the freedom I give my players, they’re free to explore personal quests, subplots, etc. and I’ll focus on those when they’re interested in that, helping to build something they can be invested in. I think that’s the closest thing I get to your fractal style.

      The one game I’ve run that’s branched out the most, and I have to admit it was amazingly fun for them and myself as storyteller was a Scion game, where characters didn’t only have to deal with the main story but also their own Pantheon’s politics, family matters and personal stuff, and some subplots as well, and whatever they were interested in, I gave a bit more focus. As a result, the players were very invested in their characters, allowing them a greater immersion and enjoyment.

      “Fractal” storytelling as you call it is a lot harder on us, meaning more work coming up with stuff, but the results are fantastic

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      • Indeed, its very similar to this fractal storytelling. Here some more lights up the subject:

        Usually I begin with set up story-frame, at first I design the most general (like scenario, mood and other general parameters) and as I work on it I get closer to detailed parts of the story, such as characters and plots. This design isn’t dependant on characters, not even on players since it’s something I write at home before looking for a party.

        Afterwards we start with character creation, where I try to include any character in its best fitting place, where it isn’t possible (that happends when a player is specially creative) I make a new thread coherent to the mainstream, built specially for that character, whether its a secret society, an corporation, sect, or whatever…

        Prior to the first game sesion I think about all character’s backgrounds, specificly about how they character’s presence is relevant to the context they’re in, creating potential allies and enemies for the sake of coherence between that character’s background and the main storyline. This usually results in a bunch of NPC creations and lesser storylines/plots.

        This is where the party starts xD from here on is rinse and repeat, each action means a variance in context that results in more NPC and plots, and so on. Same methodology is applied over and over to the resulting context of any action taken by the character in a recursive way. That’s why I call it “fractal”.

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