Game Master Preparation: Remembering What’s Important

In all the GM prep work, trying to come up with ideas and statistics, making sure I’m presenting interesting challenges for my payers, it’s easy to forget that the ultimate goal is just to make sure we have a good time for around four hours. That said, a tabletop roleplaying game session is a particular kind of good time, one which requires a certain amount of work beforehand.

As this goes live, I’ll be around three hours from running Session 2 of Tarmadan Sector, my Star Wars: Force and Destiny campaign, for my players at the ClubHouse Collective in town. I first drafted this article two days out to get my thoughts on preparation in order, in the hope that they might be of help to other folks prepping games for their friends.

At first, my main focus was coming up with a challenging puzzle; a gateway, if you will, that the players had to open or bypass in order to progress. How would I represent it in the system? What sort of rolls would the players need to make to solve the puzzle, at least in a timely fashion?

I got so hung up on the puzzle that I almost forgot that I myself don’t find RPGs entertaining when my friends and I are sitting around trying to decipher the game master’s clues, feeling confused and frustrated.

An RPG session fires for me when we have an immediate and compelling situation that engages emotionally as much as physically, where even a bad decision is an entertaining one because things keep happening.

My job as the game master is to be the driver of that entertaining three or so hours. I present compelling challenges to my players, problems for which there may be no easy solution – heck, I may not even have any kind of solution in mind.

The point is to engage my players’ creativity; not just their problem-solving skills, but their chance to make interesting decisions through the alter-egos that are their player characters. If a villain with some immediate power offers them a deal they’d like to refuse but can’t without risking not just life and limb but also reputation, resources and relationships, how do they choose to respond? Do they attempt to negotiate a compromise?

And, what do they do if, when they choose to act, the dice are against them?

It’s not all hard choices, nail-biting confrontations and thrilling action scenes, though. My job is also to engage their sense of wonder, to paint pictures for my players of places and people worthy of the Star Wars name, that my players will want to explore and interact with.

And finally, it’s my job not just to keep the pace moving when things start to get bogged, but also to know when to ease off and let the players play let’s-pretend as their characters and talk with not just the non-player characters I introduce for them, but also each other.

(One of a GM’s greatest pleasures is when the players settle down for a bit and jam with each other, making in those wonderful moments like the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon on the way to the Rebel base on Yavin IV in A New Hope.)

So I still have a few things to do before Saturday, but writing this has let me get some more focus on just where I need to be spending my efforts.

I’ve been writing more about the place on the other side of the gateway, the people who will likely wind up stuck in it with my players’ characters, and what one or two of the villainous NPCs we cooked up during the Decuma beta test session back in July will want if they get to show up. It’s been a lot more gratifying, and it’s given me some even more interesting ideas for that gateway puzzle.

And with any luck, I’ll be able to show it all to my players later today – unless they decide to go over there instead!

How about you?

What’s most important to you, whether as a game master or player, when getting ready for an RPG session?