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Behind the GM's Screen: Part Two

I believe it is the job of the GM to surprise the players with what they want. Create the kind of experience that they are looking for, use your GM magic to save them from themselves in times of despair, allow them to control the direction and flow of your game – do these things and you will not diminish the world you have created, but will enhance it. Don't try to control how they respond to the story. Respond to their response.

I believe it is the job of the GM to surprise the players with what they want. Create the kind of experience that they are looking for, use your GM magic to save them from themselves in times of despair, allow them to control the direction and flow of your game – do these things and you will not diminish the world you have created, but will enhance it. Don't try to control how they respond to the story. Respond to their response.

In the first part of the series we began to look at the role of the GM and the mechanism of the gaming screen. The screen, like the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, holds the power of the GM. The screen preserves secret rules and allows the GM to manipulate the outcome of the game.

My theory is that in order to sustain a long and interesting campaign the successful GM will not let the screen separate them from the players. A good GM's screen is not an impervious wall – like a novice GM is apt to make – but a magician's cloak that reveals both truth and mystification. A magician's trick always appears to be spontaneous, but is actually the result of preparation and study.

So that is where we left off. I espoused my views on what makes good preparation for a gaming session. Game table transparency can't happen without preparation; otherwise, you reveal inaccuracies, problems, and inconsistencies. So if you struggle with Part II – go back to Part I and do some more work. The section that follows is all about how to cheat and play fair at the same time. It is an art, and, like all good art, is about a problem. It is my GM's pledge to always seem more fair and open than any GM they have ever played with and to never get caught cheating.

Part II – Transparency and Obfuscation

The players must feel that they are in control of the environment around them and that their actions and dice rolls determine the fate of their characters. Too often the GM's screen is used to cloak the manipulation of events. Most players can do basic math and will so recognize when the laws of probability are turned on their head to suit the whim of a decadently controlling GM. They will recognize when they are being steered towards a solution because the GM has only one interesting scenario mapped out. If you have done your job in preparing the world for play then you are ready to enhance the gaming experience by putting the players in charge of the events – you are only in charge of the rules.

Pre-game Dialogue

Before you begin the game, explain to the players that they are in a world where they need to participate. Find out the kinds of things that they like to do and make suggestions for adventure. If they express interest in treasure and power, make a couple of suggestions out of game as to what their characters may choose to do. Opening this dialogue will increase your credibility with the players.

As some players may be used to an adversarial relationship with the GM it is important to instil this concept in prospective players. I had the frustration of GM'ing for a "gun shy" player who was so afraid of doing something wrong that his character would hide from everything, run from everything, and avoid everything. This warrior would hide in the bushes if he saw travellers on the road, or villagers on the street. He was expecting that I would bombard him with the adventure and he was entirely defensive in his style of play.

The pre-game dialogue works well with players who you have played with for a long time too. I still ask the players in my 20-year campaign where they are planning to go and what they are planning to do next. It gives me the opportunity to prepare. Sometimes they will have surprises for me – as they may conference call before a session to prepare a clever plan or work something through, but they know that I like to have things ready. There is, of course, another reason. This dialogue helps them to feel like they are in complete control.

If you have characters, clues, and locations ready you get to put them wherever you want the first time. This power of first placement is the hidden prerogative of the GM's screen. In essence you are subtly encouraging them to go to unexplored areas – areas where you can place your characters and locations to the best advantage of the story (all the while making the players feel more in control). It is a win-win scenario.

The Open Dice Roll

Don't try to control the dice. Your story should be well enough put together to handle the unforeseen. The threat of death to characters should be palpable. When lives hang in the balance, stop and look up at the players. In a sombre GM voice let them know that this spell/event/attack could finish the target player's character off. Calculate the odds carefully, announce the threshold result required and roll the dice in open view.

Win, lose, or draw these events solidify the players faith in the integrity of the game. The laws of averages tell you that life and death rolls will eventually catch up with the players. Sure, wiping out some characters in a pick up game of your favourite RPG isn't going to ruin the fun of the evening. However, you can't sustain a long term campaign with a 5% mortality rate per session. At this rate the story and character development is jeopardized by your "realism."

One of the tricks of a good GM is to make the players believe that they have rolled more of these than they have. The characters legitimately feel like they have cheated death in many situations – not because of GM intervention, but because of fate and good play. Here is where the clever art of deception comes in.

Depending on the kind of game that you are running, you may wish to plan escape routes. If you want to be able to scare the players, but don't want a procession of characters to the Halls of Valhalla, put some preparation into creative escapes. A note here – I don't play with Raise Dead/Resurrection abilities as I feel that they take away from the game (another topic though).

Here's what I mean: have the character come across a single-use item of magic that is all but useless, say a magical broach of protection from feathers. Whatever player ends up with this trinket you mark carefully. After many gaming sessions and many years you should have a couple of aces for every character – really stupid and improbable defences or exceptions that will certainly be forgotten by the players on a day-to-day basis.

When it comes time for the coup de grace roll in the life or death situation, make sure that you set up the out. "The mighty chieftain spins around with his war-spear and cries a mighty battle cry to Aarok of the sky. His face a half-mockery of man and bird as he plunges his bird-spear into [your character's] chest."

Then you turn to the open dice roll to determine if the character lives or "dies". If the result is death, be immediate in announcing that the mighty war-spear of the chieftain – a strangely fashioned weapon – pierces the chest of the character and that the character of 10 years of play has been unequivocally killed. The group will be silent, and after a few moments of reflection you know that one of the players in the group may ask the inevitable question "what is it made of?" If they don't, continue to resolve the battle as normal. Organically, and in stages let the revelation occur that the spear is made from the feathers of a Roc or giant eagle and let the winds blow where they may. You now have many options. The players could call you on the construction of the weapon and declare that the character is immune to the blow –trumping your determination and giving the players no end of satisfaction. The rest of the party could be defeated and taken captive in an "impossible" situation where the "dead" character could remarkably recover to save them. Whatever the outcome – you have planted an ace in the hole and can heighten the gaming experience through manipulation of a situation that on the surface appears beyond prejudice.

I am anxious in sharing this trick of the trade as I know that it could be horribly over-used and abused. Characters should play the game and the dice should be left to their job in many cases. After a few years of experience a GM should be able to bend the story where appropriate. Like any magician's trick it takes slight of hand and practice to execute. Doing this kind of thing poorly will quickly ruin your campaign.

Constant Target

Many GM's will hide too much information from their players. I feel that it is better to give them information on the game mechanic as soon as it is needed. As soon as players attack one of my monsters I tell them the Armor Class and I announce saving throws that are required before hand. I assume that many people do the same thing and include this tip not as something original, but to espouse a consistent approach to game table transparency.

Open Table Riddles

If your preparation is done correctly then you will be able to lay the answer to a riddle or a puzzle upside-down on the table in front of the players. When they take action to solve the riddle, or do so, have them flip over the card. This also works for any kind of multiple path scenario. Don't have certain doom as the result behind many options because players will always make choices that seem strange to the GM.

If I have to tell you how you can manipulate this kind of methodology, then you weren't paying attention during the section on open dice rolls, aren't a good student of human behaviour, and shouldn't be trying to manipulate these events until you improve.


Handouts are a useful tool in the game transparency toolbox. It gives the players a document that can confirm the legitimacy of a solution or idea. As a GM you should be able to hide enough ambiguous information within a handout that whatever action the players take you can reveal something that will decode part of the handout to predict that eventuality. Because they only ever decode part of the handout they will never realize that all scenarios were ambiguously predicted by the same handout – and what looks like fore-knowledge is an age old gypsy trick.

Tricks aside, the sheer act of giving a handout implies that you don't need to hide your plot from the players. It gives the sense that your story is accessible with their diligence – and it should be, but the secret of a great game is that the story is a much the player's as it is yours.

The Post Mortem

After a gaming session take time to re-hash what happened and find out what resonated with the players. Review the events of the gaming session and take notes for next time. As you talk about the gaming sessions, prior session will come up as well. This gives you the opportunity to put a slant on the actions and motivations of key players to re-interpret what happened with new direction and insight. What appears to be a transparent re-telling of past deeds is an opportunity for the conniving GM to go back and re-engineer the story to prepare for upcoming events or provide perspective on current events.

The Tell-back

The tell-back is the in-game version of the Post Mortem that allows you to re-tell the deeds of the characters. Players love hearing about their actions and the effects they have had on the people of the land. Again, you can re-interpret the past with present knowledge. Within a session or two the players have accepted that a concept that was first introduced in your campaign two weeks ago has been a theme for the last four years. The human mind is surprisingly ill-equipped to perceive time correctly. That is why we talk about time in spatial terms – length and distance. Telling someone that they are going to die in two weeks or two years elicits the same response. Understand this weakness of the players and exploit it.

Like a magician's trick, a good gaming session is all about creating a shared experience that leaves the audience mystified – it challenges preconceptions, overturns expectations, and reinforces faith. But tricks don't work if they are hidden. Making a rabbit appear from a hat only works if you show the empty hat at the beginning. At the end of the trick you need to show the rabbit too. One trick means showing the audience two points in time. Magic is the inability of the audience to connect what is shown with what is hidden.

I believe it is the job of the GM to surprise the players with what they want. Create the kind of experience that they are looking for, use your GM magic to save them from themselves in times of despair, allow them to control the direction and flow of your game – do these things and you will not diminish the world you have created, but will enhance it. Don't try to control how they respond to the story. Respond to their response.

In the last part of the series I would like to examine the structure of the story that is told and how to avoid the clichés of fantasy while drawing on the rich archetypes. At times I feel that these articles are too vague to be useful in providing insight and I hope that the concepts are not too wrapped up in metaphor to be usable.

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