Table Reflection: Better Game Mastering Through Questioning

One of the most useful items in the human intellectual toolkit is the ability to question; as a fundamental tool of analysis asking questions is a core function of being an effective Game Master. When running a game for others, it is important to ask questions about the rules, yourself, and the players at your table to craft the most meaningful experiences for you and your players.Keep in mind that it’s important to act on your questions. The point of any analysis is not to be disregarded, and even if your first ideas about how to make something that you think isn’t going well go well are entirely incorrect at least you’ve attempted to fix your problem and learned how not to do so.

The first step to questioning that I really suggest Game Masters to do is to question the rules they are using for their games. I suggest this in part because as someone who’s always been interested in game design it was the first thing I did, but primarily because the rules are made to be accessible. There should be little question as to the purpose and decisions that went into designing a ruleset, at least from a strictly mathematical standpoint, and not only will it help a Game Master immediately to know what is actually going on when they roll the dice, but it’s also a simpler field of study; it’s not metacognitive nor does it rely on reading others.

One challenge that really hurt me when I was starting out as a GM was the fact that I played larger, mechanically complex games and I hadn’t really understood the rules all that well. A good exercise is to question why you roll the dice every time you pick them up; even if the answer is the same, you need to look at it in a certain way. A lot of game designers don’t use DR for enemies in a d20 system, for instance, because of the fact that the reason why combat dice are rolled is to “make my enemies hurt”, and not only does being partially immune to damage run contrary to that point but it also causes battles to become protracted-the fun of combat is not primarily in tossing dice, but rather in tossing dice so that something happens, and excising the risk and excitement from that by having lengthy drawn out is a fatal mistake.

Another thing to ask as a Game Master is why certain rules exist. When playing a game, you can decide to gloss over certain rules if you know that neither you nor your players will care about them; my first campaign of Shadowrun almost entirely ignored the lifestyle system, because it was an action-oriented high-adventure campaign that not only wound up with the players making an astronomically high income every session (I was at one point considered a “generous Game Master”, though I have done my best to beat that out of my players), but also moving and traveling a ton. I often overlook rules for long-term healing and recovery in my games, simply because the stakes are so low for it (few games have any remotely likely penalty for having crummy long-term care), and because it’s just another bit of bookkeeping for something that really just keeps my players from coming to the next session.

The next step of questioning is to look at oneself and how one acts. Every step of the GM process is motivated by something, and it’s very important to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. I like to ask myself why I introduce every element I put into my game. Sometimes the reason is “because I saw something like it in ‘X’ and it was cool”, or sometimes it’s “because I’m tired and it popped into my head”. Knowing this can be helpful; if I am incorporating good elements from things that I enjoy, I can make a note to revisit that source for additional inspiration down the road, or to recommend it to any of my players that particularly enjoyed seeing it in my game. If I lean on certain things too much, I can make a note to either subvert some of the elements and tropes to make my game more interesting, just in case my players have caught on to my borrowing. I can also improve myself; if I’m doing things because I’m tired and I don’t really know what else to do, I’ll prepare more before the next session, so that when it comes time to bring something up I’m not just dredging from a tank of ideas that’s down to fumes.

Finally, you need to observe your players and ask questions about their behaviors. When they act certain ways, why do they do so? Is the player who’s always looking at their phone nervous about the time, or do they have something going on that’s taking their mind off the game, or are they just not all that interested in the game any more? This can be a dangerous path to go down for the novice GM, but it also gives you a way to discuss concerns and issues with your players when you’ve noticed some troublesome table manners.

Of course, the questions don’t have to be only about bad things, ask why your players enjoyed certain things, either to yourself in reflection or to them overtly, and try to give them more of things that they really want. Think about why they choose certain courses of actions, and how you can give them novel elements to surprise and challenge their ways of behavior in-game. The more questions you ask, the better a framework you will have to experiment in providing a better game experience for your group

As a Game Master, questioning and evaluating your table is important, and doing so will allow you to analyze the games you play, how you run them, and how your players respond to them in a much more sophisticated fashion.

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