Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about having fun as a GM in Pathfinder.
When I’m casually browsing through the Paizo forums or Facebook threads of the internet skimming for topics to write GM Guides on, there’s always one thing that pops out at me: the number of seemingly negative GMs that appear to dwell on the internet. All the time I see GMs saying that, “You’re not a good GM if you do X,” or “You need to do Y in order to run a good game.” Along those same lines, I see tons of reports from GMs who have thrown in their towel and pledged to never GM again.
It always shocks me when I read stuff like this because I personally think that GMing is a lot of fun. While it can be great to play a PC and go on adventures and slay dragons, when you’re a GM there’s a fairly grandiose amount of power at your finger tips, if you’re willing to move past the fact that it’s imaginary power. Normally my GM Guides provide tips and tricks to help GMs make Pathfinder more fun for their players, but today I’m going to do the opposite. Today we’re going to talk about a few tricks to make GMing more fun for you, the GM.
To GM is Not to Play
This is the most important thing that I am going to say in this article. To GM a game is to not play the game. Why? Well, let’s start by taking a look at the role that the players fulfill in the game and why those roles don’t work for the GM.
- Scale of Role. This is important to remember. When you are a player, you have complete control over a single person in the campaign setting. Sometimes generous GMs will give you some or total creative control over followers and cohorts if you’re using Leadership, but that is usually on a case-by-case basis. Players shouldn’t expect that control and honestly, not all players want that control. In contrast, the GM controls everything in his world except for the PCs, however many there may be. In most of the games that I play in, that’s an average of four to six characters that are not under GM control.
- History and Events to Come. This is another big one. A GM’s role is make the world convincing by giving the PCs as much information as he can. This means that the GM needs to be the authority on everything that has ever happened in the campaign setting. The PCs may have a small ripple on the timeline as the result of their backstories, but generally speaking PCs do not write grand histories for their GMs to approve. Where the PCs do matter, however, is what happens moving forward. How are the PCs choosing to solve problems and how do those solutions impact the world around them?
- Value of a Life. A GM has an infinite number of possibilities at his fingertips. If he needs a dragon to go up against the PCs, he’s got a dragon. If he needs a high-level spellcaster to create magic items for his NPCs, then he has a high-level spellcaster to create magic items for his NPCs, or the magic items are already there for no real reason because screw the rules, he’s the GM. Players, on the other hand, have to bleed, sweat, and cry their way towards every reward they own at a staggeringly slow rate. Have you ever seen how long it takes for players to earn levels in the mid game and end game? It’s a REALLY long time in some cases! Rewards and experience are hard-fought for a group of PCs while they’re really a nonfactor for the GM.
So now that we’ve talked about how GMing differs from playing Pathfinder, let’s talk about how you can GM “wrong.”
All the Wrong Reasons
So, how do you GM wrong? Well, first its important to note that being “wrong” isn’t an irrevocable, irredeemable level of badness. These GMing practices have varying depths of inappropriateness. But generally speaking, they’re practices to avoid placing in your GM toolbox if you can avoid it.
- Star of the Show. I think most of us have played with a GM who created a super-special PC in all but name that either joined the PCs or brought them all together for a purpose. And in purpose of that purpose, this super-special totally not a PC solved all the problems, had the answers to beating all the bad guys, had the best equipment, did the most damage, or was the center of the campaign’s plot in some major way, shape, or force. Wanting to play in your own game is not a bad thing, and we’ll actually be discussing GM PCs next week. But what mind set is “wrong” is going into a game with the intention to be a PC because no matter how much you don’t want it to be so, you can’t be a PC and a GM at the same time. At least, not without marginalizing all of the people at your table who are just PCs.
- Complete Narrative Control. I cringe a little bit every time I see a GM talking about “his” story like he was the only one working on it. Assuming that you’re the only person with a story to tell at the table is a huge red flag when you’re GMing because a GM who controls every little aspect of everything happens in his game is denying its most crucial piece: the human element. To understand what I mean, consider this question: why does every Godzilla movie ever made heavily feature humans? The titular character is not human, so why do we care about humans in a Godzilla flick? The answer is that Godzilla, the monster, utterly lacks any human emotions for an audience to cling on to. Without human characters that put the destruction caused by a monstrous kaiju battle in context, Godzilla has no meaning. He’s just a guy in a rubber dino-suit (or an incredibly expensive CGI effect) smashing buildings. As cool as Godzilla is, what we really care about is the human reaction. How do people handle such an uncontrollable disaster? Along the same lines, the element that makes or breaks a GM’s story is that same human element, the element that the GM can’t provide himself. This is element is found in the reaction; how the PCs react to the grandiose machinations of the GM’s world. Without PC reactions, the GM isn’t running a roleplaying game, he’s telling an oral narrative, and while storytelling is an awesome pastime and great fun, its probably not why all of your friends bought plastic dice and decided to sit around your table with pizza, soda, and several dozen sheets of paper.
- Meat Grinder. I’m always surprised by how common of a mindset this is. Some of my best friends subscribe to this, actually. There are plenty of people who view Pathfinder in terms of “winning” and “losing.” To these types of GMs, if the players are defeating encounters and winning treasure, the GM is “losing” and in order to play the game correctly, GMs should try to “win” the game by slaughtering PCs. Although its debatable whether or not you can “win” a game like Pathfinder, “winning” for the GM is not the wholesale slaughter of the PCs. If the PCs all die, the campaign usually ends and if it doesn’t, then those PC’s lives weren’t very meaningful to begin with. Few players are going to want to participate in a game where they aren’t meaningful or where they feel consistently punished or out-gunned by the GM.
- No One Else Will. This is the absolute worst mindset to be in when you start GMing. GMing is an artform that requires passion and dedication. It is fine to GM because no one else will, but you need to find something about GMing that you love and cultivate it. If you don’t, your players will slowly fade away from your table because no one wants to play with a GM who doesn’t care about his role at the table.
When people GM for these reasons, they end up burnt out and their games subsequently collapse.
All the Right Reasons
Virtually any reason that you GM that isn’t on the list above is a good reason to GM. Here are some good things to keep in mind while you are GMing.
- Cater to your audience. This is a great lesson to learn early on. Find out what your players like and give them more, more, more of it! You want your PCs to enjoy your game, so you want make sure to include elements that interest them. For example, I am not interested in playing a campaign where there is no roleplaying. Kick-down-the-door style doesn’t cut it for me and I need opportunities to interact with other characters, both other PCs and NPCs. Without those moments, I don’t have a good time and I’ve left game groups over it, two to be exact. Others are the opposite of me: they build their characters to fight and play the mechanical game rather than the roleplaying game. It is important to identity what your PCs like and make sure to deliver adequate amounts of their favorite things to them. Writing a cool, interesting story is a great idea but it is meaningless if your players aren’t invested in it.
- Maim, but don’t kill. This is a hard one for many GMs, but a story ultimately ends when a party is wiped out completely. You don’t want your game to end, especially if it has been going on for a while. Make sure that when a player dies, there’s either A) a good reason for them to come back or B) a new, interesting character for the PC to play. Some players like trying new classes and ideas when their previous character dies; they don’t like “cheating death,” even through legitimate, game-approved methods. Other players will be heartbroken to see their favorite character perish and for those characters a way to bring them back is going to keep them invested in your story. This is why when I design encounters, I design every encounter with the intention of killing the PCs, but I never make their deaths my goal or the standard by which I judge my encounter’s success. Expecting to slaughter PCs every fight is like expecting to put a quick end to a brief flirt with GMing, and that’s no fun at all.
- Make your PCs the stars. This is a big problem that Forgotten Realms had, where there were so many powerful PCs who could easily fix a multitude problems that the PCs were often left with little to do. Wherever you set your game, make sure that the setting makes every hour your PC’s finest. Give the PCs good reasons why they are the only ones that can effectively deal with the threat and either give other important, big-name characters in the setting something important to do or give them second-string roles to the PCs. When your PCs are the stars, they’re having fun and a good time is infectious; they’ll be thanking you for the awesome job you did in running their game.
Ultimately, that is what should motivate every GM: not getting to tell an epic story, slaughtering characters, or playing out a personal fantasy, but reveling in the praise and knowledge of a job well-done. When your PCs talk about their exploits in your games for months or even years to come, you can be sure that you are a successful GM and you probably had an awesome time getting the players there!
And that’s all I have to say on having fun as a GM. What do you think? For the GMs out there, what do you find most fun about GMing? How do you measure your personal success as a GM? For the players, do you GM occasionally? If not, what’s keeping you from doing it? Leave your comments and answers below and we’ll meet back here for another GM’s Guide next time!
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune rift warden, and he’s now on the Private Sanctuary podcast, if you haven’t heard!