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Behind the GM's screen: Part One

"When I was young I had a passion for maps. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.'" (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)

A referee is used in a game to adjudicate the rules and manage the flow of the game by starting and stopping the action. Unlike any other kind of game, pen and paper RPGs (Role Playing Games) also rely on the referee – by whatever name you use – to control the mysteries of the environment. By extrapolation, many groups also relinquish the action of the game to the GM (GameMaster). This deference is assumed but not warranted. The purpose of the added power of the referee is so that the mystery of the game may be preserved, not because it is fun to set up one person as more important than the others. While the GM's screen has an essential part in any RPG it is also the single most abused rule in any game.

The mysteries and secret rules are held behind a physical and metaphorical screen. What separates the RPG referee from his American Football counterpart is that the RPG referee has knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and is aware of rules that the players are not. The mysteries and secret rules are held behind a physical and metaphorical screen or curtain. In theory the GM will base decisions and rulings on what is created there. However, unless a new breed of GM emerges with the capability to distill a universe into a jar, there will always be gaps behind the screen that have to be creatively filled. These minor cracks do not detract from an adventure but can be used as an accidental blind hook that leads to more adventure and mystery.

The fun of the game derives from the sense of discovery, the tension of conflict, the thrill of triumph, and the vicarious immersion into another personality. Only one of the four aspects above requires the presence of a screen, yet, in many games, the screen (metaphorically) is the dominant element.

It is all too easy for the GM to hide behind the screen, make mistakes, and have huge flaws in logic and planning. Through the course of any sustained campaign the players will come to know whether there are indeed any good mysteries behind the screen. By revealing inconsistencies in the story and execution the players can effectively pull down the curtain between player and GM. In this series I am going to examine some of the reasons why a GM screen fails and some of the solutions to the problem.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," laments the Wizard of Oz as his fantasy world becomes unravelled. Much like a GM caught in the ruin of his own creation, the mechanisms of his magic and fantasy are revealed as gimmicks. Just like in the Wizard of Oz, this signals the end of the adventure. The Wizard's screen fell because he tried to use it to control others.

Players do not derive enjoyment from being manipulated, teased, or abused any more than they appreciate being senselessly rewarded for their inaction. This manipulation does not need to be present to ruin a game – it needs only to be perceived.

Let's go back to the Football metaphor and examine some uses of the GM's screen. Imagine that an RPG referee was given charge of an NFL game. On the second play of the game a player is tackled on the 10-yard line. The referee blows his whistle and calls out a 15 yard penalty for landing in the "near-end-zone." At half time three other penalties have been assessed for unrelated incidents and the players are frustrated because they don't feel that they are in control of the outcome of the game. When they step on the field for the second half, the referee explains to the quarterback that he should throw more passing plays and make sure to do a lot of spinning. After dismembering the referee the players march off the field to the applause of the fans.

Had the referee spent some prep time, things could have gone a lot better. Imagine the same rules, same mysteries, yet as the players arrived on the field they noticed that the area between the ten yard line and the end-zone had been painted with a skull and crossbones, and strange circles are painted in the centre of the field. Even without divulging the new rules, the players are apt to trust the referee because the preparation connotes consistency.


Everything is a precursor. Since players cannot see the preparation it is important to give the players a glimpse of your preparation. A player will understand that, like an iceberg, 90% of your planning will be beneath the surface. That means if you give them nothing as preparation they will assume that you have done nothing. Give the players something for everything that you prepare. If you create a civilization, give them a clay pot. If you create a martial art, give them a sweaty glove. Use handouts, maps, recipe cards, or anything else you can think of.


Simplify. Players will view the game not through the omniscient view, but through perspective. Things that are simple become complex as you add perspectives. Understand this and you will develop material that is comprehensible. This means that the "hidden rules" are fewer. Even in the best situation, too many hidden rules detract from the sense that the game will ultimately be decided by the players. Let the players control the action. Let them play the way they want to without using hidden rules to support your hidden agenda. The stories that you have written about during your preparation are not the stories that the players have come to act out. The players will respond to your stories with one of their own.


Dismantle your Material. Few GM's will effectively dismantle their stories for the players. So often they are so impressed by their own story that they look for someone to tell it in its entirety, truthfully, and without omission. The story of the last war is going to be told by widows, wounded veterans, and nobles who profited by the conflict. Take some time to re-examine the story from their perspectives so that what is told is not the truth, but a consistent window for the actions of the players. Every aspect of your preparation needs to be done at least twice – once from the omniscient point of view, and once from the viewpoint of the vehicle of its delivery.

Use blank hooks. RPG's are a creative game and sometimes the players can be more imaginative than the GM. I love to drop blank clues to which I have absolutely no idea what their relevance is ... yet. A good blank hook piques the imaginations of the players and gets them going. For instance -- three people in the same town all have a similar scar on their right arm that they hide and won't talk about; Small figurines of animals are found in various locations; a Paladin character gets a strange sense of evil from a horseshoe but nothing else supports that conclusion. Those that resonate with them can be followed up on and lead to adventures. Players will begin to fill in the story for you and investigate in some odd places.

Inaction is the enemy of the GM and a hook, even a blank one, can precipitate action. Make sure that not all your hooks are blank, and remember that you can tie the hook to the plot much later and make it seem like your pre-planning is greater than it is. You can't ever be caught with a blank hook. Let them discover it and don't offer any explanation -- you don't need one. Don't ever use a blank hook as a riddle or something that is tied to the immediate action. They belong solely as flavour.


Leave Space. The allure of adventure is tied to the unknown. "When I was young I had a passion for maps. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.'" (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness) Players should be confronted with a well presented mixture of space and setting. Without this space the GM's screen has no purpose.

Link your treasure. A lot of novice GM's use the treasure pile as a reward -- avoid this. I had been playing with the current group for six years before they got their first magic item. Use the treasure pile to lead to the next adventures. Treasure should have a story. A good story always gives the reader what they want, but does it in an unexpected way. Treasure is often stolen from other people and places, and something that may be a trinket to the PC's is immensely valuable elsewhere. The next part of the story lies in the elsewhere. Include letters in the treasure pile from some far off king pleading to have a glass key returned. Include the glass key in the treasure pile. In order to cash in on the treasure they have to find either the King -- or whatever it is that the key will open. Write the treasure out on recipe cards and describe the treasure as you lay the card in front of them. Be sure to write small and let them know if they touch the card, they have touched the treasure. Obviously, only include obvious visual descriptions about the treasure.

Twist on treasure from my campaign: Dragons sit on treasure because they take energy from magic. They don't know what is magic so they sit on valuable items (they are likely to be magic). After many years the dragon draws the magic out of the treasure and becomes more powerful, or magical, themselves. Young Dragons haven't acquired much treasure yet -- old dragons have absorbed the magic from their piles. The players will pull out their hair over that conundrum.

Planning is essential to keeping the GM's screen for what it was intended. It is not intended to hide poor preparation as you then require manipulation to stimulate action. Planning is used to create parameters for action and give the game back to the players. In order for the game to survive the players must be free. One of the reasons why so many people have turned to electronic gaming for RPG's is that the computer is better prepared, more consistent, and more fair than the GM's of the PnP (Pen and Paper) world. So many people lament the rise of the computer RPG and do so little to address the inadequacies of the PnP games.

In this series I am going to examine some of the reasons why a GM screen fails and some of the solutions to the problem. If there is interest I will continue this discussion on the GM's screen with views on Game transparency, Game Table management, and using meaningful archetypes and mysteries. These views include the use of open dice rolls in critical situations and other tactics to limit the "power" of the GM.

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