This is my first draft, and I'm really interested in hearing feed-back from you folks - particularly you gamer folks. Whether it's a specific critique or general obersvation, please don't hesitate to sound-off and help me hammer this into something worth sharing. Without furhter ado
The game is for the players.
This isn’t your chance to play that super-powerful dude that you never could have had as a PC. This isn’t your grand masterpiece of intrigue and subtlety. It’s a game for the players to show up and enjoy. Everything must follow that – rules-calls, plots, NPC’s – everything must be with an eye towards the players. That doesn’t mean say “yes” to everything and everyone, because that’s as sure to end in lack of enjoyment as saying “no” to everything.
Story is conflict, conflict is story.
Encouraging conflict is good. Encouraging strife is bad. Conflict is when a character is beset with a difficulty, preferably as a result of his own goals and motivations, that he must overcome. It is not “I want to rack up as many PC deaths as possible.” That’s just being a spoiler and a bully. A storyteller has to nurture character-driven and character-building conflict while reducing as much as possible pointless strife.
Listen to your players.
If you have a beautiful and complicated plot, rule-structure, or intrigue, and no one “gets it” – it’s not because the players are stupid. It’s because you haven’t given them enough information, because you haven’t left enough hooks, or you haven’t given enough motivation for them to be arsed to resolve it. Or maybe it’s just not fun. The players will tell you – listen to them. If they say they aren’t enjoying something, change it, stop it, or let it pass. If they love something – do more of it. But listen to them, don’t just dismiss what they say. If you have doubts about whether something is working or not – just ask! And remember – many, if not all, of the players know the rules and the genre at least as well as you do. They are hobbyists in a hobby that tends to attract obsessives and smart people – often both. You know the plot secrets, and hopefully the characters’ individual backgrounds. That’s all that separates you from them – they’re just as knowledgeable, competent, creative and inspired as you. Trust that, and listen.
Every player wants his trick to work.
Everyone who shows up at a LARP has a character that they made, and to which he probably gave a lot of thought. They’ve got some cool concept that they want to do, and they want it to work. A good challenge is not the same as a blanket refusal to let them do their thing. Let them do their thing! If it means ginning up a few “easy” encounters, heck, why not do that? Not every antagonist has to be competent or spectacular. The players *didn’t* show up to be outshone by NPC’s, to be incapable of affecting the plot, or sitting on their hands.
Know your players' background stories.
Nothing makes a game more intense and enjoyable than a personal touch that comes from, or affects, individual attention to a character's back-story. Encourage backgrounds with bonus point awards - and both read them and utilize them. If it's important enough for a player to write - and for many, writing is an agonizing task - it also warrants your full attention. The game, after all, isn't just FOR the players, it's also ABOUT the players. The more you know and use from the player's stories, the more fun they'll have.
Err on the side of awesome.
I don’t know how to make that much clearer – when you have to make a story choice, just ask yourself “What would be more amazing?” Do that.
No NPC Theatre!
I’ve never heard a player say “Wow, that scene with two NPC’s interacting with each other was so much fun!” I have often heard them complain about how PC’s got overshadowed by NPC’s. NPC’s exist to further the story. The story exists to entertain the players. Anything NPC’s do that isn’t to the direct benefit of the players can be handled “back stage”. Do not make NPC’s to exercise your ego. Do not make NPC’s to belittle the players or make them feel powerless. The NPC’s can be foils, pointing to the players’ tragic weakness, they can be mentors, they can be allies, they can be lots of things – but they should never, ever be the center of attention any longer than absolutely necessary. If they make an appearance, it’s to put the plot back on track and in the players’ hands, not to be a deus ex machina, and for god’s sake, not for you to get your rocks off. All the glory, drama, and excitement should be for and about the player-characters.
Plot is a story, not an annoyance.
Plot does not consist of “There’s this guy, and he does crazy stuff to annoy player “X”.” Where’s the story in that? What would the motivation be? Your antagonists will ideally have a goal that puts them in direct opposition to player or players. That goal must spring from a real need on their part, and their methods should reflect the importance of that need. It is well and good to have a cool idea for a villain – but if he has no goals, he has no reason to interact with anyone, no reason to develop a relationship (whatever sort that might be) with the players. Having your antagonists just randomly wander around and causing trouble is unrealistic, and will not lead to a story that changes or improves the characters in any substantive way. The best villains need something that the players stand in the way of, and he must find some way through or around them that involves interaction or violence. His methods should be substantially different than the players, preferably in such a way that points out their own limitations or flaws. For example, if your players believe in justice being greater than revenge – than a villain that foils them with legal impunity will make them question whether or not they really believe this. Whatever the case, make your stories ultimately about the characters, and the antagonists holding a dark mirror up to them; not a device or trick or stats-packet with legs.
You are not infallible. You will make mistakes. Correct them as best you can, and be honest about the mistake you made. The ratio of GM’s to players is very low, and your players know it as well as you do. Own up to a mistake, fix it, and drive on. Don’t punish players for your own pride or errors; but don’t get hung up on it either. But make no mistake – you MUST own up to your mistakes. Don’t get defensive, don’t make rationalizations for why it’s not a big deal, and most importantly – don’t blow it off. The reason for the mistake doesn’t matter, and your excuses don’t matter, either. Don’t make excuses, don’t argue about it – just acknowledge it, correct it – and drive on.
Players will make unreasonable demands.
I don’t know why they do it, but they do. They’ll want their character brought back to life six months after death because HA HA they discovered a bureaucratic error from the year before. They will tell you what they want and inform you that they “let you” run the game because it’s too much trouble to do it themselves. They’ll squabble with each other and try and put you in the middle, they’ll expect to be catered to at the expense of all others. Give it a listen, and if it’s unreasonable, politely but firmly say no. You’re not better than the players, you’re not more important than them – but you’re entrusted with making decisions that insure fairness for all players. Therefore, don’t make decisions that are good for one player but unfair for all the others, even if that one player is insistent, rude, or just plain insane.
Get the administrative details right.
If this means you have to find someone who loves dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s”, do it. But players only get so much experience per game – and the game is for them, and they want their trick to work. So this is important. It’s a mountain of details, but all those details are important to someone – pay it the attention it’s due.
Accept Criticism Graciously
The sad reality is that you will rarely hear from players when they are happy, but you will frequently hear from them when they are not. Whether they don’t like a plot, don’t like a rules-call, don’t like your NPC, or just plain don’t like your style – in a game where people sometimes “win” and sometimes “lose”, the people who perceives themselves to be on the losing side are going to be unhappy, and will sometimes complain. Of course, we all know that story is conflict, and that a setback is just a chance for character growth. But in the midst of the set-back, people don’t always see it that way. Too, your fellow ST’s may disagree with something you’ve done, said, or decided. Instead of getting defensive, arguing, and escalating a confrontation – be diplomatic. Make sure you really understand the criticism, do this by repeating back what you’re hearing. RIGHT “Ok, it sounds like you’re saying the NPC’s were over-powered, and you didn’t have a chance. And I can see why that’s true; they were very powerful. My intent was that you’d find some method other than a stand-up fight to defeat them, and I’m sorry if it wasn’t clear enough.” WRONG: “It’s not my fault you were too stupid to outsmart the bad guys.” Don’t try to pass the buck, shift the blame, squirt out a cloud of ink, or confuse the issue. Just listen to what you’re being told, and think – honestly think – if what you’re hearing is true or not.
The game is for the players
I’ll say it again – the game is for the players. Every one of these tips is essentially a sub-set of that one. Get the details right – because the game is for the players. Correct your mistakes, because the players need consistency, fairness and accuracy. Make your story and plot about real conflict, and not just annoyances – because the game is for the players and that’s what they will enjoy. The NPC’s are support, not the spotlight – because the game is for the players and NPC’s are, by definition – Non-Player Characters. Consider the players in everything that happens – keeping your rulings fair and consistent, generating plots, administrative work, correcting mistakes, accepting criticism, everything, nuts-and-bolts, soup-to-nuts is for the players. The game is for the players. The game is for the players.