Behind The Screens – Forward Momentum

In last week’s Know Direction 223 – GM Tips from the Pathfinder Pros, I mentioned that my GMing style favours forward momentum. In the Know Direction Discord channel, Litis asked me to expand on what I meant by GMing with ‘forward momentum’.

Know Direction 223 – GM Tips from the Pathfinder Pros with Jason Bulmahn and Amanda Hamon

I sure can!

What Forward Momentum Is

You know how players are supposed to be ready for their turn? It’s always our turn, GMs. Even when it’s a player’s turn, they can say and do whatever they want, but unless we are answering their questions, giving them the results of their rolls, and explaining the ramifications of their actions, their turn is meaningless. You can think of a player’s turn as your and that player’s turn, and the GM’s turn as your and the whole group’s turn.

That means you are always on. You are listening when the players are talking. You are watching for reactions when you are talking. And even though we as GMs do the most talking at the table, the more meaningful our talking is, the more engaged our players are.

What Forward Momentum Isn’t

As I’ve mentioned before, the ultimate role of the GM is fun facilitator. I’d love to think that it’s assumed when I give GMing advice, at it’s core I believe my advice will help you make your game more fun. But I can get technical and analytical in my presentation, and a regular reaction to that is “but what about fun?”

So to be clear, if someone at the table makes a sweet pop culture reference and everyone is having fun joining in, you don’t have to slam your GM rod on the table and say “enough fun, we’re here to play a game!” The players can have non-game related fun. You can join in on the non-game related fun. However, try to stay in GM mode. Watch your players. Read them. When the distraction stops being fun for some of them, start thinking about your transition back into the game.

How I Forward Momentum

There are two factors that contribute to how I keep the momentum going forward: How I interact with the space and how I interact with the players.

Interacting With The Space

Like Amanda Hamon described in the episode I linked above, I GM a physical game. I stand for the majority of the session. When players are talking, I move closer to them, then hurry back to my spot behind the GM screen. I talk fast, I gesture boldly, I’ll grab a prop to embellish a description. All of this boosts the energy in the room, and keeps players focused, which reduces downtime between turns.

Interacting With The Players

Comedian Bob Newhart talked about a trick he used to keep his audience engaged during a stand up routine: Off ramps. When he works out a bit, he includes multiple ways to conclude the bit and transition into the next. That way he is simultaneously prepared to maintain a bit that’s really landing for 10 or 20 minutes, while also not needing to commit to 10 or 20 minutes of a bit that’s not working. In both cases his bit has a beginning, a middle, and an end, so even if he has to abandon it at the first off ramp, it doesn’t look like he’s abandoned it.

This is a complicated trick for a high level professional comedian (and runs contrary to the conventional wisdom that a GM wastes nothing), but it is a worthy goal for us to have, my fellow GMs. It’s also indicative of the relationship between momentum and engagement.

Every GM has their own style and priorities, so the following advice is biased towards mine; I love when my group is in character. They don’t need to use their character’s voice and cadence to ask where the bathroom is or if I’d like a chip, but when its time to make a decision, I hope that the decision is based on their character’s personality and perspective. When my players apologetically explain “It’s what my character would do” I want to dive across the table and kiss them (don’t read into the fact that I married one of my players).

All that to say, to me the easiest way to keep a game going forward is if every player is engaged, and the key to player engagement is staying in-character. As I mentioned last time, I also use my personal experience to ground my descriptions. Algebraically, here is how a turn goes at my table:

PLAYER: [takes action]
GM: [reference to their character’s personality or experience]. [incorporate reference into my description of their results]. [quickly sums up the ramifications of the results in game terms].

Example 1:

PLAYER: I attack the sahuagin.
GM: You are reminded of the sushi you had the other night. The raw fish wasn’t to your liking but you loved watching the chef skillfully filleting in the open kitchen. At the last second you adjust the curve of your blade to run parallel to the sahuagin’s scales, cutting right to the flesh. Your hit clearly dealt a significant blow, and while it didn’t kill him, you now hear it gasping laboured breaths.

Example 2:

PLAYER: I cast hydrolic push.
GM: You’ve cast this before so you’ve learned to hold your breath as soon as you’re done the verbal components, lest you end up with a salty taste in your mouth from breathing near seawater. Even your fellow party members are starting to learn the verbal components of hydrolic push so they can do the same, although [finds a player who seems distracted and uses their character’s name] didn’t get the memo, and now you feel like you licked every Pringle in a fresh tube. Even [that other PC] is better prepared for it than the monsters you target, you are blown clear across the room by the burst of water you conjure.

Find Your Own Momentum

Not every GM is able to stand their whole session, and not every GM needs to. Likewise, I am regularly complimented on my ability to describe action on the fly, so I know not to assume everyone is as comfortable improvising at their table. The ultimate takeaway is that if you have the group’s attention, use it. Stay on task as a GM to keep your players on task as characters.

Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game has turned into an empire of gamers talking about their games. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as a co-host of the flagship podcast, Know Direction.