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Behind the GM's screen: Part Three

So, we are back to the beginning after having a turn on the wheel. The GM must prepare a session, run a session, and be able to string the sessions together into an Epic cohesive story.

This series of articles is about exploring the concept of the screen used by GMs in tabletop RPGs. In the first article we explored the function of the GM and how they can prepare properly for an upcoming session – doing the preparatory work required to make a session run smoothly. The second article focused on the in-game tactics that are available to the resourceful GM. In the last article of the series I'd like to the structure of the story as required by an ongoing expansive narrative. It is my experience that many GMs– even those good at preparing and running a session -- are unable to sustain a long campaign. My approach to the task of the GM has four major components: Prepare, Disassemble, Re-assemble, and Re-prepare.


There is no more powerful tool in the GMs bag of tricks than the use of recursion. We learn through repetition and embedded patterns. These patterns on a grand scale are called archetypes and these resonate with us on the deepest level. Yet even the mundane aspects of the game can benefit from recursion. Players trying to immerse themselves in a game that has a whole new world of cultures, races, languages, and religions can quickly find themselves overwhelmed with information. Amidst utter confusion they will revert to what they know. If you are ever going to whisk them away to a far-off land it must be done in slow degrees and the unusual aspects of the setting can only become familiar through habit and re-visitation.

The Medicine Wheel

The native medicine wheel identifies the seasons and changes that happen over the course of a year. Yet it recognizes more than this. It recognizes the cycles of life as we change and grow old. This wheel is not static, because every year when Spring returns there is a difference. We have changed through the passing year and bring forward the sum of our experience to a Spring that is new and familiar. The longing that it awakens and the promise of new adventures remains even as the perspective shifts. The blooming of Spring to a dying man is still the birth of hope – a reminder of all the Springs that have passed. So it is a spiral. We can never set foot in the same river twice. The changes are a sort of permanency. If you want to tell a long story – and most RPGs are built upon an expansive epic framework – you have to have the great wheel running for you in your game. Otherwise your players will eventually drift off, growing bored of characters who always do the same thing because they never re-visit their journeys or explorations on the wheel.

Home Sweet Home

The first places that the characters visit should be the most important. As the wheel turns they can return to them with new understanding. The re-introduction of these locales does many things for the story. It becomes a benchmark for how they have progressed in wisdom and confidence. It makes their actions to this point significant. This layered approach means that you must have two truths at work in each moment, in every location. There is the story that they know – at first the enigmatic stranger who offers them a task. After some time, they will discover the politics behind this task and the wheel will have turned round completely. The second task will happen on the political level, but behind the curtain religious or arcane forces stir. Again, over time, these forces will be known and the characters will act on those, while there is an unknown but growing knowledge in an ancient connection with an obscure force. The story is not absolutely confusing because the layers are peeled back one-at-a-time. Connections between the first and fourth layers are appreciated (or imagined) long after the fact. This connects the narrative so that it is not one linear series of events, but a connected and personal tapestry in which the players become emotionally invested.

That's what she said

Whether it is the pithy patois of Josh Whedon's "Firefly", the slang of "Battlestar Galactica," or the pedantic quips of "The Office" language provides a portal into new and different worlds. The repetition of certain words and phrases allows the participants to engage the world on a certain level. They know what to expect and these words become markers that help maintain the illusion of "otherness." Characters from diverse backgrounds can easily melt into bland, indistinguishable supporting roles if the GM does not pay attention to languages. Few GMs have the voice talent to successfully pull off varying accents, but all of us can use word choice, common phrases, and sentence structure to not only clearly identify the character who is speaking, but also remind us of their cultural framework. Yoda speak is achieved by placing the verb at the end of a sentence. While this works moderately well in a movie – it is far better suited to the gaming table. NPCs can be given some pat sentences that they repeat. These phrases are different enough to remind us who the character is and what essentially different viewpoints they have. Perhaps your barbarian spent some time in a city and lost "the smell and taste of water." Upon returning to the wild this scent returned. Forever she will use this metaphor in her speech. A place where the "rains do not breathe" is not place for your character.

Recursion is not repetition

Doing the same thing the same way every time gets tired. Characters who are cliche have borrowed too much from the work that precedes them. Conan is not an archetype. He is however an example of the wild-man archetype; like Enkidu in the "Epic of Gilgamesh" he is struggling between the wild world and the civilized world. His raw power is tested by the lure of flesh, comfort, and the fruits of civilization. The walls of Uruk become the metaphor for society, law, and constraint. To fashion a character out of the primal struggle between progress and wild nature is laudable, while to make a muscled, fur-wearing, sword-wielding nomad with a gruff demeanor has already been done. It would be hard to look past the similarities unless the character is well differentiated from the type. Start with the archetype ( that your character belongs to, then identify their personal metaphors, mix in their past experiences and prejudices, and salt with their aspirations. Find ways to constantly remind yourself of their quirks and different world-view and you will have a character that comes alive in a game session.

Not all bad guys are opponents

There is more than one kind of foil to the characters. Rival adventurers, former mentors, corrupt politicians, misguided priests, weak monarchs, prejudiced literalists, and self serving mercenaries are among the many villains in a good story. These villains cannot be overcome with a mighty battle, but through constant effort and struggle. The opinions of the townsfolk, fickle and often misguided, will see the characters place in society shift and change. In order for them to have a context in society there needs to be more than the two viewpoints. They can choose to align themselves with certain groups and sever old affiliations. Players can develop a deeper visceral reaction to a petty self-serving noble who has never robbed or killed in his life than to the Trollish chieftain who has waged suffering and slaughter along the coast. They have a method of controlling the chieftain. It is the petty noble who is beyond their reach. If the wheel of understanding is drive gear that runs the game, the villains are the crank that turns the gear. Games that set up all of the bad guys as the pure embodiment of Evil lose context and characters do little self examination as their place is the story is too easily defined. Villains belong to archetypes too.

Back to the Beginning

So, we are back to the beginning after having a turn on the wheel. The GM must prepare a session, run a session, and be able to string the sessions together into an Epic cohesive story. To accomplish this they have the mystery and enigma of the screen at their disposal. Used properly it is a magical curtain that can hide secrets, yet is tantalizingly transparent revealing an open, honest, well-prepared adventure. The players can drive the action, but for there to be longevity in the game, the GM must understand the structure of a story and use the Great Wheel to re-visit old knowledge from a new perspective.

I tend to run long epic campaigns using my own material. I've been doing this for about thirty years, and have been running a single campaign (same players, same characters, same story) for over twenty years now. In this time I have made a lot of mistakes, but have done a few things right along the way. If I can remember to throw out what doesn't work (for me) and keep what does, maybe I'll be running games for many years to come. I'd love to hear other suggestions to improve the gaming experience from session preparation to in-game tactics and finally, keeping the magic alive.

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