This blog post began with a joke which, to understand, needs a bit of context.
When I’m not gaming I’m a teacher in Australia, and one of my regular gaming groups includes several other teachers.
In Australia we have a set of professional standards for teachers that inform accreditation, professional learning, evaluations and basically all aspects of a teachers practice.
The first of these is “Know your students and how they learn”. In a conversation about the our recent game, for which I am the GM, one of the players asked about my approach to running games and in response I rephrased the first teaching standard as “Know your players and how they play.”
Great joke, right? You had to be there.
While the comment was flippant, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me, and when I thought about the other professional standards, they also translated quite effectively into a gaming context. There seemed to be a lot of overlap between my perception of a good GM and those practices considered ‘best practice’ for teachers.
I wondered; could these inform a set of Principles of Good GM-ing?
While I’ve read many excellent books and blogs about GMing, and while some talk about the qualities or techniques of a good GM, they don’t always succeed in identifying the behaviours and practices that a person might engage in to be a good GM, or to become a better one.
So, with that thought bubble expanding inside my brain, I set about adapting the Australian Professional Teaching Standards into a gaming context to see if they all could be applied to the practice of being a good GM.
So here is my first attempt at coopting the Australian Professional Teaching Standards into the Principles of Good GM-ing
1. Know your players and how they play
A good GM understands the kinds of games, stories, and events that their players find interesting and engaging, and uses those elements to craft plots and narratives that till be fun to play. This does not mean a GM should capitulate to every whimsical desire of every player, but rather a good GM seeks to find an equilibrium in the game that offers something to everyone, rather than forcing a particular style of play on to their group without consideration of players’ preferences.
A common strategy toward this goal is to start the game with a ‘Session 0’ where players and GM can talk about their preferences and expectations and find common ground before commencing play. For the GM, however, it is an ongoing process of observation and adjustment as the game progresses.
2. Know the game and how to run it
The GM should be fairly familiar with the setting and rules of the game being played. While many GMs and gaming groups introduce homebrewed rules and settings, these should be discussed and agreed upon outside of play (when delivering the death blow to one of your players’ characters is never the time to introduce your new house rule that allows certain attacks to bypass or otherwise ignore armour).
The published rules of a game define people’s understanding and expectations of the gaming experience, and the shorter the distance between someone’s expectations and experience, the happier and more satisfied they will be with the experience.
Adhering to the rules faithfully – or flagging variations to the rules ahead of time – is an essential element of trust between GM and players, and that trust is essential to players feeling safe and free to take risks either mechanically, or with their roleplaying.
3. Plan for and implement appropriate gaming experiences
Every group has it’s own preferred playing style, from the rigidly mechanistic board-game-like dungeon-hack to nearly mechanics-free LARPs to the completely improvised collaborative story-telling.
Whatever your group’s approach, as a GM, you need to ensure you plan appropriately for each session, as even effective improvisation takes some planning and practice.
Your planning may involve a flexible plot outline which is altered by your players’ decisions in game, rehearsing the voice or mannerisms of a major NPCs, you may like to prepare pictures or maps, or maybe you prepare 3D printed dungeons with carefully painted miniatures.
In effect, this standard speaks to the implementation of the first principle, and says that whatever your group’s agreed style of play, make sure you are prepared to deliver on that style.
4. Create and maintain supportive and safe gaming environments
Like any collaborative activity, roleplaying depends on a certain amount of trust between players and GM. That trust depends on all participants feeling safe and supported within the gaming environment in order to take risks and engage in the game in new and interesting ways.
While roleplaying is usually a collaborative activity among friends or peers, and as such everyone has some responsibility towards a positive gaming environment, the GM holds at least symbolic significance within the group and has a larger-than-average role to play in establishing the tone and nature of gaming group interactions.
Consider particularly the way in which you handle queries or disagreements over rules, or the distinct separation of dialogue directed at characters compared to players, but also how effectively you implement the first 3 principles will contribute significantly to players’ feeling safe enough to take risks within the game.
5. Acknowledge and respond to player contributions to the game.
(This one is the most modified from the original language of the Teaching Standard)
Almost all games contain a mechanism for character advancement through the earning of Experience Points (XP), Karma, or other abstract representations of growth-through-experience that can be used to advance a character’s ability. In the first instance, this principle is about the appropriate use of such systems to acknowledge and reward desired behaviours within the game.
Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this principle is about player agency. Agency – being the perception or belief that ones actions result in a meaningful effect – is a key part of enjoyment within a roleplaying game, as well as a significant contributor to a person’s overall sense of wellbeing. Few things are more demotivating than the belief that one’s own actions are pointless and this is as true in roleplaying games as it is in the workplace or more generally in life.
As such, the good GM considers the actions of players and their characters and allows them to have an effect on the game, to influence the setting, the outcome of a scene, or even the direction of future stories.
This is part of the collaborative storytelling process that exists to varying degrees within all roleplaying games.
6. Engage in ongoing learning
At its core, this principle is an acknowledgement of the fact that being a good GM is ultimately a process of ongoing effort, rather than a fixed state of being. A good GM is not something you are, but rather Good GMing is something you do.
As an extension of the second principle, to be a good GM, be prepared to continually revise aspects of your game, your story, the published rules, your session notes, etc. It is a rare human who could have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the rules within a single gaming system, or the nuances of the setting that might be relevant to an upcoming session. For the majority of us, it requires an ongoing process of revising rules, adjusting ideas, seeking inspiration form other sources, or even just reflecting on what went well or could have been improved from previous session.
7. Engage with other GMs, players, writers and the gaming community
Roleplaying is a collaborative, community-based activity. As such, your practices as a GM can only be improved or enriched by engaging with the game from a community perspective. Whether it comes in the form of ongoing discussion with your group, participating in online forums, contributing to Q&As about particular topics relevant to your game, any broader engagement will ultimately provide you with opportunities to test and expand your ideas and understanding of your game.
So that’s it. A model of Good GMing derived from the Australian Professional teaching Standards. This is still very much in draft form, however I feel there’s enough here to be worthy of refining over time.
What do you think? Is there any aspect of being a Good Gm that you think isn’t covered in these 7 principles? Or is there something here that you don’t agree is necessary in order to be a Good GM? Let me know in the comments below.