The GM/Player Interface, Part II

In this lesson from the Downes’ School of the Gamemaster’s Art, we’ll see techniques for how the gamemaster can interface most successfully with her players once play has begun. The first rule of that is this…make them do the work.

The most successful humans figure out how to benefit from the work of others. Ramesses the Great, Francis Walsingham (1532-1590 AD), and George Lucas could do what they did because they had people working for them. A gamemaster needs to harvest the players’ energy to be successful, and as long as you give them a beautiful world to play in, they won’t even notice that they’re giving it up.

Don’t make the common mistake of building your world first and then dumping in whatever players happen along. You should do the bulk of the world-building only after character creation. It’s more fun for the players, and less work for you.

Here’s an axiom that will spray forth the fun. Imagine what the player was imagining during character creation, and then give it to them. A player who builds a Rogue with high Stealth and Sleight of Hand was imagining slinking through the guttering shadows, palming other people’s coin purses. So make some purses the goal of an adventure. A Wizard with lots invested in Knowledge: The Planes imagined paging through ancient tomes of the other worlds. So build an adventure around NPCs who come to consult with the sage, or make an NPC an extraplanar creature. Dwarves hate goblins, so bring in some goblins for your dwarf to exercise her loathing upon.

I saw some very bad gamemastering when I played in a Pathfinder campaign as one of a pair of brothers and Cavaliers. A necromancer had taken over a temple. The party encountered dozens of zombies on the road to the temple. The gamemaster waved his hands and said that we could easily run the undead down on our mounts, so he wasn’t going to play through the encounter, but take our victory as given. Then he moved us right on to crawling into the dungeon underneath the temple complex, where our mounts couldn’t go. So we “had”, but did not play, an encounter we’d been eagerly imagining, and then were steered into a series of encounters we were badly suited for instead.

Remember, you are an entertainer. So give the characters what they want. Only break it a little first. Make the dwarf have to cooperate with goblins now and then. It keeps them on their toes. Remember this, too – the players aren’t your audience, they are your collaborators. So let them collaborate. Work with them, and they will work for you twice as hard. If you have Cavaliers, send them against mounted bandits. Do you have a Bard? Make sure there are social skill encounters that move the plot forward.

This is much more fun than nerfing 40% of your party by forcing Cavaliers to be dungeon crawlers. Don’t chop and stuff PCs down to fit your campaign; build your campaign to fit the PCs. Or at least guide your players away from PCs that won’t work comfortably in your campaign during character creation.

A corollary rule is that you give the players what they want, too, not just the characters. Design your adventures with your players’ interests in mind. Does Emily work as an astronomer? Then set an adventure in an observatory. Is Sara a cop in real life? Then let her character interact with the town guard…maybe by outwitting them as a Rogue.

A few years ago, I ran a Vampire: The Masquerade 20th anniversary campaign, set in occupied Paris. My player Josh was a grad student; his Tremere had a cover identity as a professor at the Sorbonne. I made sure there were subplots about grad students. Another player was a polyamorous lesbian. I offered a subplot involving a Sapphic love triangle between her Ravnos, another Ravnos, and a Gangrel (secretly in the Sabbat, alas!). My player dove on it, and I cheerfully did a serious remodel to accommodate this, because she clearly enjoyed it so much.

Take care, of course – a little of that goes a long way, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. If Linda loves kids, brutally slaughtering them in front of her character will create unhappiness. But imperiling a few will engage her interest.

Another method for keeping your players engaged is to mix things up. Don’t let them fall into a rut of using just one trick. Don’t just let a Ranger stand in the back and thrum their bow – force them into melee combat sometimes. Don’t just let the Rogue degenerate into the Backstabber Automaton, make them pick pockets here and there. Most character classes are multifaceted, and you should use that to the utmost. A Ranger who doesn’t track in the wilderness, a Bard who doesn’t sing in a tavern, a Cleric who does not worship with others of his faith, and get asked to solve some monster problems by his co-religionists, is a character that has wasted half his potential.

A common mistake is to fill your campaign with only combat encounters. This slides downhill, because players will soon see that their non-combat abilities aren’t worth what they invested in them. They will see that multifaceted doesn’t pay. They’ll gravitate toward Barbarians and Fighters, and your campaign will fulfill its own prophesy; you started out with only combat encounters, which pushed your players toward combat characters, to whom you fed more combat encounters. Now you might as well be playing a miniatures battle game.

So don’t forget the story, and don’t forget all that the PCs can do. Urge your players to carefully review their character sheets on a regular basis. How many times have I heard players suddenly blurt, “Oh, shit, I have Charm Person? I have Knowledge: Nature?” PCs can do so many things that a lot of it is often forgotten, which robs your game of riches.

Your players are your best resource. They will carry more than half the weight if you make room for them to get a grip on it, so make room! Make room! Respond to them individually, and you’ll be doing something no movie, TV show, or video game ever did.

Walsingham was Elizabeth I’s spymaster. You can Google him. You can bet he knew a lot about his players.


Brian Downes
Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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