Table Reflection: Finding a Style

One of the crucial steps to becoming a great GM is to figure out the style in which you operate. This will help you figure out the pathway to successful games that don’t burn you out and that allow you to create the best experiences for both yourself and your players. This style really boils down into three parts; your relationship with your players, your role at the table, and your way of storytelling.

Most GM’s will build a relationship with their players, even if they do not meet and know each other outside of the context of their games. As a GM, it’s important to consider a few elements of your rapport with your players when at the table. First, you need to make it clear what degree of authority you expect to have when running your games. You also need to establish an at-table relationship outside of your normal practical relationship. Is showing up to every session a commitment? Who is going to host the games? These are things you need to make clear to your players.

For instance, I’m not an authoritarian GM, as far as things go. I’m easygoing and laid back; players can set precedent for rules interpretation if they can back it up, and I usually give them a fair degree of trust in terms of not cheating and knowing what they’re doing. I do, however, make regular attendance mandatory; I won’t expel players for not showing up, but they get to watch their characters fall behind on account of it (note that I generally don’t play level-based games like D&D, preferring things like Shadowrun where characters don’t fall behind as dramatically if they don’t get their levels).

Your role at the table, however, will shape how likely you are to burn out at a game, and also really determine the sorts of players that you’ll get along with well. If you do a lot of preparation, set up everything yourself, and get every sourcebook the moment they come out you’ll probably have a pretty fancy game, but you’ll be pretty burnt out. The degree of control you take also matters; the more preparation you do the less flexibility you’ll usually have in certain things (such as, for instance, actually using those fancy miniatures you painted last night if your players just skip the dungeon and go to another kingdom entirely). You need to be clear with your responsibilities at the table; how much you do in terms of customizing the rules, keeping things recorded and ready, and your involvement in the process of play will determine your style.

For instance, I have one game where I roll all the dice, because we’re playing with real physical dice and rather than handing them around it’s quicker to just do the rolls when I have them and get them done with. I also keep pretty concise records both for their use and mine (separate, of course), but for the most part they’re responsible for their characters. It’s in a homebrew setting I write, so I’m responsible for almost all the content, but I also don’t have to read a lot for setting consistency, since I remember most of it pretty well.

Finally, your way of storytelling will impact how your players participate in your game. How rigid you are in terms of how things happen, and how much direction you give your players, will greatly change the experience they have at the table. For instance, a true sandbox game with very little input may actually fail to interest players who like a grand dramatic plot, while a game with a very rigid, structured, prepared plot will likely turn away more free-spirited players who want independence and the ability to feel like their contributions to the story matter. You do also need to consider the manner in which you tell stories; if you have a very terse style, certain players will prefer you to someone who is verbose, but it’s very hard to be eloquent if you’re not being very descriptive.

My example for this would be my own style; players often have to prompt me for more description, but they also enjoy a lot of freedom and can experience things I didn’t expect for them to see because I focus heavily on improvisation. On the other hand, I’m in a game that literally has flowcharts planning our potential actions, and while the GM insists that we have freedom some of the players are obviously concerned about the fact that things tend to precipitate certain conclusions more often than not.

In short; if you want to be a good GM, you must know yourself.

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