The GM/Player Interface, Part I

The subject of this lesson from the Downes’ School of the Gamemaster’s Art is how to operate the interface between the players and the gamemaster during character creation, and how to get the most out of it. If you don’t know how to work this lever, your career as a gamemaster will be short and tragical.


The reason your players aren’t sitting at the PS4 right now is because the PS4 doesn’t offer eye contact. It does not respond to their imaginations like you can. It can only play at them, it can’t play with them. Video games keep adding more rails and more sand, but they’re still a rail trip around a sandbox. You aren’t that. You can interact with your players, you can respond to them. That’s why we still and will keep on playing these games. Video games aren’t going to overtake pen & paper, pen & paper will overtake video games when video games achieve what they have been searching for the last two decades – the flexibility and responsiveness of a real entertainer, a human GM.


Paradoxically, many GMs start out a campaign where they and the players are going to work closely together by sending the players home alone with one-sentence instructions to come back with a character. This is a plan for failure. The players will show up with characters built on rules they misunderstood or didn’t know the house rule for; characters who don’t relate to each other or the campaign setting; characters packed with adventure-thwarting surprises; characters born of the hallucinations of solitary confinement.


This is why it’s very important for the GM to guide character creation. If you are planning a Shadowrun campaign of covert ops among the corporate skyrakers of Neo-Tokyo, you don’t want someone to show up glowing with love for the Scottish Highlander and water rigger they just spent the weekend building, with the backstory about guarding North Sea oil rigs, no Japanese, and a character concept that relies on a rule the player misread. You avoid that when you create the character with the player, and they end up loving their Japanese drone rigger, forced out of his zaibatsu by a matter of honor, just as much as they would have loved the Scotsman.


PC backstories are good, but they can also rage out of control very easily. Especially when codified by mechanics like the Qualities and Contacts rules in Shadowrun, backstories can become so big that they derail the campaign – and when you multiply that by five players, that smash-up gets worse. When you supervise character creation, you can avoid having a character show up to the first session who is hunted by a dragon, best friends with the Yakuza, and dying of an addiction to something she can’t get. Backstories can provide a fast jolt of action and intrigue to a campaign, but they can also fry your circuits if you don’t handle them carefully from the start. If a PC is at home alone making their character, they’ll see themselves as the center of the universe. If they’re with you making a character, they will see themselves as part of a universe.


Speaking of being a part, you should encourage PCs who relate to something, who participate in shared experience. Too many players think The Man With No Name is an original character, coming over the horizon with no identity but a fast trigger finger and a squint. But emotional connections add a lot of color. In the example of Shadowrun, a PC might feel loyalty toward their brother, their wife, Aztechnology, the Ute Nation, or the Sacramento Chargers urban brawl team. If these connections are shared by other PCs, all the better. You can theme a campaign around it if all the players are rabid fans of the Chargers, or all proud Ute patriots.


Or suppose some of the PCs are siblings struggling to provide for their elderly father with dementia; or veterans of a lost cause in hiding from the winners; or share a dream of opening a microbrewery. This kind of thing brings in an emotional charge that’s lacking if the only motivation the characters have is storming and looting for fun and pay, so work to bring more of this kind of thing to your game. Because pen & paper campaigns are islands. If you didn’t pack it and bring it with you, you don’t have it.


And of course you’ll be in a great position to move players toward characters that have skills and abilities that fit together well with the rest of the group.


If you must nerf, nerf early. Guiding character creation, you can firmly put down any broken, misunderstood, or overpowered rules before your player falls too much in love with them. A player with dice in his hands is a lot harder to course-correct than one with a calculator.


The last advantage participation in PC creation brings to the GM is that you know the PC as thoroughly as the player does. So you won’t be surprised and derailed when the player suddenly reveals that they are immune to mind control spells, but great at demolitions and seeing through walls. Surprises are for players, not gamemasters, right?


So that covers how you can start GMing right at the beginning, before the first dice are thrown. Next month’s GM’s Art will discuss how to interface with your players for maximum fun and minimum effort once the Doritos have been opened, the screens set up, and play has begun.


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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