How to be a Game Master

Traditionally, the role of Game Master has involved providing a place and time to meet, offering drinks (usually caffeinated in order to heighten player tension and attention), and the occasional salty snack. Plus providing a story, complete with clever puzzles, gripping thrills, and unearthly danger, of course.

This hasn't changed. We can't help you with the first set of stuff, but here's a bunch of tips on actual GMing.


Basic Narration

The first skill a GM must master is basic narration. In a pinch you can fudge rules, gloss over continuity errors, and get away with using formula plots. The one thing that you'll never be able to fake is the meat-and-potatoes ability to describe things.

You are the players' senses and, to some extent, their memories as well. Everything they experience comes to them through your words; everything they do has its repercussions described by you. It's a lot of responsibility and power, both of which you need to be a good GM. Let's look at the areas you need to consider to do effective narration - in other words, good storytelling. (Note that dealing with NPCs gets its own section a bit later in this chapter.)

Voice

If you describe a lovely, daylit scene in a normal tone of voice, it establishes one set of expectations in your players. If you describe it in a low, growly, hungry voice, with just a hint of sarcasm underneath it - there you've got something else entirely. Similarly, describing a gruesome crime scene in a blasé, casual fashion is going to rob the scene of impact that could be captured by a taut and serious tone of voice. (Be careful, though: it's easy to talk yourself hoarse if you're doing lots of demanding voices and aren't used to it.)

Vocabulary

You don't have to necessarily settle for the first word that pops into your mind; stretch for the most specific word, the one that captures your meaning exactly. The perfect word, Le mot juste. After all, any number of people might be "big." But is the character "flabby" or "beefy" or "bulky" or "towering"? Each has a different meaning and creates a different mental picture. A "dank" or "sticky" or "greasy" storm sewer has a lot more character than one that's merely "wet."


Props

Let's suppose you're a player and your character has gotten ahold of mad Dr. Lowenstein's notes. Which is going to make it easier for you to get into the story: a GM who summarizes what's contained therein, or a GM who hands you pages of hand-scrawled notes that you can actually read? The first option creates a layer between the player and the events of the story. The second brings it much closer. Granted, preparing props can be a lot of work, but it pays off.

Images

Get out your scissors and cut up a newspaper, magazine, or one of those catalogues that get stuffed in everyone's mailbox. Pick out images of houses, office buildings, parks, whatever, and use them as visual depictions of scenes during play.

Pacing

The way you describe things can obliquely affect the pace of the game. If you give a very spare, basic description of an area or individual, the players probably won't pay much attention. If you give a more detailed description, or indicate through tone that this area or individual is important (or better yet, "deviant"), you'll practically see their nostrils flare as they catch the scent.

Pacing is also important for maintaining a sense of excitement and suspense. Descriptions in combat should usually be quick, blunt, and brutal, presented in a tense tone of voice. If you drone on calmly about how their opponent is shuffling in, waving his fists around, making a feint, etc., it doesn't sound like a fight. It sounds like stage directions. Bad stage directions.

To put it another way: if your characters are walking through an abandoned factory, looking for clues about perverse rituals that might have been conducted there the night before, then you can describe it in a slow, low tone of voice with plenty of detail and atmosphere. If the characters are tear-assing out of the factory because they've found a perverse ritual, then you'll be describing it in a quick and sketchy fashion.

Full-Sense Description

Hearing and sight get the lion's share of GM effort, and rightfully so. Don't neglect the other senses, though. Temperature can be an effective way to set a tone. (A graveyard at night could feel unseasonably chill; a seducer's apartment may feel very hot and stuffy.) Aromas can be hints. ("Remember that nice citrus smell from the bloodstained sheets? Must be cologne, 'cause this guy's wearing it.") Touch is up close and personal, so it can be especially effective. ("As you grab for it in the dark, your hand connects with something - an arm, perhaps, but the skin is so dry and brittle that it crumbles under your touch, then something hot and sticky pours over your fingers as you hear its hoarse scream . . .")

Level of Detail

Detail is good, so more detail is better right? Not necessarily. If your characters are in a library, you don't have to name every book, Choose the right details to focus on. If the purpose of the scene is to build a sense of dread and expectation, you can layer on details heavy with shadow, rustling sighs, maybe the sweetish smell of rotting meat, and so forth. But if the purpose of the scene is to give the PCs a place to discuss clues in character, the phrase "a well-lit diner" may suffice. You can add the comforting clink of silverware and the smell of frying bacon, but that's chrome. Weighing your players down with too much detail will bog down the pace of the game, just as surely as a lack of detail will leave it sketchy and unbelievable (Don't worry. The range between "too much" and "too little" is broader than a lot of people would have you think. It also varies from group to group, depending on the tastes of the players and the GM. Even if you don't get it perfect, you'll improve over rime.)

Psychological Slant

Different types of people notice different things, because every perception is filtered by our expectations and interests. This isn't a technique to use all the time, but every once in a while it's very useful to remember that you're playing the characters' senses - and senses are heavily influenced by mental state. If you're describing an apartment to a real neat freak, you might want to stress how untidy it is: the clutter of unpaid bills on the mantelpiece, empty cups and glasses scattered around next to bowls of peanut shells, a reeking cat-litter box, and that sort of thing. The former Green Beret, on the other hand, might notice a pair of heavy candlesticks (potential bludgeons), the loop of phone cord strung amateurishly across the ceiling (could be a makeshift garrotte), and the halfopen closet door (as a possible ambush site). Someone else might immediately notice the kinds of bills the apartment dweller is paying, her choice in decoration, or even the feng shui (ambient Chinese magic based on the position of objects) that the room has.

Bad Narration

Even as there are useful techniques to pursue and perfect, there are also pitfalls and common errors to avoid. These include the following.

"Gamish" Description

If you ever hear yourself saying something along the lines of, "He's got Body 79 and he's pointing a chainsaw at you," hang your head in shame. Never describe characters or creatures in game terms. Nothing else will pop the bubble of credulity faster than drawing attention to the mechanics that underlie it. Movie stars don't point out their facelift scars, do they?

The rules and stars are conventions, tools for modeling capacity. Instead of describing the tool, describe what it's modeling. "He's a hulking brute of a man, and the grip of his chainsaw disappears into a fist that looks big as a bowling ball." Don't say that a character is highly educated; say that he speaks in big words, or put him in an academic setting (college library, museum, office full of books).

Contradiction

If the town hall was on the east side of the town square last time the characters stopped by, it better not be on the west side next time. If "Marcia" was a character's older sister in one session, she'd better not be the younger sister in the next game. This isn't all that hard to manage; if a character, object or setting is important enough that your players are paying attention, you've probably given it enough thought to portray it consistently. If it's not that important, you can get away with glossing over a mistake - especially if it makes no difference to the plot. ("No, it was always on the west side. I said `west' last time. Now can we please move on?°)

A good way to avoid this problem in the first place is to keep notes. These don't need to be pages of elaborate detail; just a few key words or phrases about important places or people will be enough to underlie their descriptions and give you consistency.

Repetition and Genericity

If your characters break into one evil cultist's apartment and it's filled with pentagrams and candles, that can be pretty spooky ... the first time. But if the next few apartments they break into are always described the same way, it gets old fast. Don't get lazy. You probably wouldn't try to portray every blonde as a bubbly dingbat or every cop as a donut-eating lardass. (If you are, you shouldn't.) Why, then, should every setting be the same? Maybe one cultist's apartment is completely bare: no decorations, no TV, no bookshelves, just one mattress in the center of the room - a mattress crusty with dried blood and covered with flies and maggots. Maybe another cultist has an apartment that's completely decorated in sunflowers, gingham check, and teddy bears. It's only when you open the attractive wicker chest from Pier One that yon find her collection of hollowed-out cat heads.

Remember that tension and suspense depend on the unknown. If your players can guess what a setting or scene or person is going to be like after your first sentence, you've just made your job of surprising them roughly a dozen times harder.

GM Characters

Every character the PCs meet will be portrayed by a single actor: you. This puts some pressure on you, since it's important to make the NPCs memorable and different. There are two aspects to this: portrayal and character depth. We'll also deal briefly with GM stars and how to make NPCs that are tough but not too tough.

Portrayal

The way you portray different characters is up to you. Some basic components of NPC portrayal include speech, body language, props, and pictures.

Speech

The most common GM tool is the voice. If you're a radio actor and can do one voice for the breathy, sexy ingenue and another for the grunting, brutal thug - well, you've just made it much less likely that the players will get them confused. Accents can work, if you can pull them off; otherwise, it's just going to turn into a joke. (Which doesn't mean you shouldn't use them for comic-relief characters.)

Even if you aren't confident in your ability to do voices, word choice can be just as important. If one character always speaks in short, crisp sentences that rigidly follow the rules of grammar ("I'm accused of shooting whom?") and another uses rambling sentences full of slang ("And, like, I think he's givin' me the yank so I draw the nine and I'm like `who's tasty now, man?' and he gets like jello on me then . . .") then once again, they're easy to tell apart.

Body Language

People are very visually oriented. You can try holding your face differently for different characters (though this, too, should be reserved for comic characters if you're not confident in your skill) but body language is just as important. A slouching thug with hooded eyes is going to make a different impression from a graduate student who's constantly fidgeting, or a police officer who always sits up straight and stares, unblinking, right into your eyes.

Props

Some GMs favor the use of props (a hand fan, a cigarette, a prop pistol) or even rudimentary costumes (like a hat or veil). These can be very effective if used appropriately (and if you're not breaking up the flow of a scene by switching back and forth between costumes every time you say something). To each his own, but here's one warning. We know, you're probably too smart to have to hear this, but you never can tell who's going to buy one of these books: Don't use a real gun or a real knife, or any real weapon, as a prop! Just don't do it; it's begging for trouble.

Pictures

Collect a bunch of interesting faces, but avoid recognizable celebrities. Match each face to a recurring NPC in your game. Attach it to an index card, then put the character's name and a short description on the back. Now your players can connect a name with a face. You can even give the picture to the players as a sort of visual clueor rather, cue. They can study the face, visualize the person, maybe tack the various faces up on a board and draw connections between them, and generally get creative with this little resource.

Character Depth

The players are only portraying one character, but they're portraying that character (hopefully) in great depth. Your task is different. Because you have many characters, you can get away with being much shallower in your portrayals. After all, the focus is on the PCs all the time; your characters only get attention for a few minutes per session. Still, your characters deserve the best you can give them. An easy way to deal with this responsibility is to approach minor and major characters differently.

Minor Characters

Minor characters shouldn't be obvious throwaways. That means that you must decide what is important about that character and how to show it as quickly and cleanly as possible. If the character is a district attorney who is going to tell the characters about the thug who attacked them ("The phrase `chilling lack of remorse' is kind of a recurring theme in his criminal record . . .") you don't need to know how he feels about his mother or what he had for breakfast that morning (unless he's a slob and it's on his tie); all you need to know is what he knows about the thug, how he feels about that, and how he's going to display (or conceal) those feelings. Maybe he's tough, with a dry and ironic sense of humor. Maybe he's new and a little nervous, intimidated by getting involved (even tangentially) with this Bad Man. Maybe he's bored and blasé - he's seen it all, and worse, before.

Major Characters

However, over-detailing your minor characters is unlikely to be a problem. A pitfall that's more important to dodge is under-detailing your major characters. You need to put more thought and attention into recurring characters, particularly major antagonists and important friends or allies.

These characters need to make sense. All the cool voices and acting in the world aren't going to save a character who isn't internally consistent. It's not enough to know what the character does; you have to know why. Motivation is critical. The framework established for PCs can be very useful here; passions and madness meters will put some meat on the bare bones of a NPC. (Though you should be careful to not get too caught up in the mechanics of these things. Those mechanics are for PCs; don't bother with them for NPCs, who are simpler creatures you can drive mad at will for the sake of the plotline.)

As your campaign moves along, your characters run into a variety of antagonists and allies. One way to make a campaign stale fast is to be lazy and stamp out cookie-cutter villains. This goes for minor characters, but it's doubly important for major characters. If every enforcer is a cool, sneering thug in a tailored suit (the "John Travolta") or a wisecracking, short-tempered sadist (the "Joe Pesci"), they're going to get boring and interchangeable pretty quick. Similarly, if every ally is a pleasant, stammering idealist (the "Jimmy Stewart") and every villain is a cultured megalomaniac (the "Jeremy Irons"), clever plot twists and exciting combats aren't going to disguise a certain feeling of deja vu.

Every major character should have unique goals and unique motivations. How are your players going to react when they find out their villain is trying to take over the world in order to save it? ("Only by controlling the ignorant masses can we sculpt their opinions, ensuring that the next ascension is a positive archetype - not some icon of sexism and degradation!") On the flip side, how are they going to feel if invaluable advice and assistance is offered to them by a murderous head case? ("Once I realized that magick was real, no other prey would . . . satisfy me. You can understand the lust for a challenge, can't you?")

You owe your players a good time and a challenge; you don't owe them anything they can take for granted. If Unknown Armies is going to focus on developing characters, you have to give them people worth interacting with.

NPC Stats

Your NPCs should have skills and stats like PCs, but this doesn't mean you have to use the same rules for building them. Feel free to give them skills over 55%, stats over 70%, skills higher than their stats - just give them numbers that sound right.


Too-Tough NPCs

Be careful about building characters who are all-around better than the PCs. This is okay for a major villain, someone they're going to have to gang up on. But it's very annoying for players if there's some NPC ally who constantly bails them out and makes them feel inferior. After all, how would you like being Miss Moneypenny to someone else's James Bond?

A very simple example would be a thug character. If you want to give him a high Body, a great skill at Face Wrecking, and a fairly scary Unlicensed Gun skill as well, feel free. But give him a weakness. The obvious one is low Mind (or Soul) which makes him gullible and easy to trick. Maybe he's got a one-track mind, or maybe he's slow on his feet and easy to get away from. There you have a character who is challenging to a PC (because he's got superior combat skills) but not unbeatable (because he has a weakness that can be exploited if it's discovered).

Managing the Flow

Horror and suspense, more than other genres, require steady pacing. If you get too slow, the players have a chance to assimilate what you've been telling them, and if the horrific elements become too familiar, they lose their power. ("Well, I suppose flying, screaming heads aren't really that awful.") On the other hand, if the pace is set too high then the players feel completely helpless and ineffectual and don't have time to figure out the things they're supposed to figure out. ("Threatened" is good; "completely helpless" is bad. If people want passive entertainment, they can click on reruns of Hogan's Heroes without even building a character.)

Flow Tools

You've got two tools for flow control. You can control it through narrative and through plot. Let's suppose you think your players need a chance to get away from the Unspeakable Awfulness and put together some clues, so that they can figure out what this particular threat is. Let's further suppose that whatever it is, it's chasing them through the NYC subway system.

To slow things down using narrative, all you have to do is not describe any pursuit. They've been trying to get away; let them think they have for a while. They're still in the dark service tunnels between stations, but at least they don't have it breathing down their necks for the moment. They'll probably ask you questions about where they are, and then they'll start talking to each other. Once they've either figured out what you wanted them to get (but nothing more), or have spent so much time on their "breather" that the mood is in danger of winding down, that's when you tell them they hear/smell/think they see something that indicates the game is, once again, afoot. If you're really sharp, in the ensuing chase you give them more clues about the it.

On the other hand, slowing things down with plot is quite a bit easier. Just have them run into a subway station (or an access tunnel, or a sewer worker who can guide them up and out). Now they've got all the time they need to talk things over - at least until you use the plot to prod them again.

The difference between these two is subjective time and objective time. If you use a narrative slowup, the ten or fifteen minutes they spend talking things over may only occupy a few tense seconds of game time. (If you're using this subjective slowup, you may want to remind them of the game setting every couple minutes or so.) With the plot maneuver, you give them objective time; their fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes of their characters talking.

Dithering

One thing that slows games down a lot is player dithering. This is when the players (and/or their characters) spend endless time debating the advantages and potential drawbacks of every single conceivable course of action. This is somewhat forgivable when they're planning a course of action they'll initiate (half the fun of an RPG burglary is doing all the stalking and spying and planning how you're going to get in and out.) When it starts to drag, a few comments like "Is that your plan then? Are you ready to go?" will probably spur them on. However, there is no place for debate when they're reacting. If a clockwork automaton the size of a riding mower (equipped with a good dozen circular saw blades) is charging them, then they shouldn't be debating, they should be acting. If you ask a player what she's doing and get a request for information as a response, assume they're looking or listening for that information. Next round you can tell them the information, assuming the clockwork hasn't carved them into coleslaw. This may seem brutal, but it's a learning process; you've just taught that player that almost any fast action is preferable to taking no action because you're trying to take the right action.

This cuts both ways. It's not carte blanche to hose the characters who hesitate, and it also means you should cut some slack for people who do act fast. (Think of it as "positive reinforcement." You've just reinforced the behavior of getting with the program and keeping the pace going.)

Communication

A key to good pacing is clear communication with your players. Let them know when they're in a "rest" scene so that they can lower their guard (slightly) and figure things out. Let them know when they're in an "adrenalized" scene so that they can react fast and enjoy the frenzied pace of nonstop terror. Let them know that what's appropriate in one scene is possibly the last thing they want to do in the other. Finally, let them know when you've switched scenes.

Does this mean you should draw up big signs that say "REST" and "DANGER" on them, holding them up at the appropriate times? Certainly not. You have to communicate these changes in tone subtly, using our favorite tools of vocal tone and word choice. If you're describing things in a leisurely fashion, choosing reassuring words ("You can feel your muscles relax as the sanitation engineer pops up the manhole cover. The sunlight is almost blinding, and a gust of cool, clean air pours down over you. Eagerly, you climb out into the street, which looks so normal it's almost impossible to believe that right underneath it was . . . that thing.") they'll know the scene has switched. Similarly, if you suddenly start talking in a tense tone of voice, describing unsettling input, they'll get into "lightning reflex" mode.

It's really not as hard as it sounds. Think of movies and how they communicate these kinds of scenes: through music, editing, and camera movement. The faster, noisier, and jerkier a scene is, the more likely that it involves danger. It's the same approach in GMing, only we use simpler techniques of expression.