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The Path of the Game Master Vol. 1
Game Master Artwork by Dean Spencer

This week, I’m going to start a three-part article on Game Masters, and the various styles of game mastering, as it is something I’ve been giving a fair bit of thought lately, especially after the Order 66 episode where the hosts were talking about the skills needed to be a Con GM instead of “merely” a normal GM and having experimented a fair bit with the various styles myself, I thought I’d have a bit of a look at it.

I’ve identified 3 types of Game Master so far, and I call them the “Planner,” the “Railroader,” and the “Improviser.” Our dear hosts of the Order 66 Podcast (which we never listen to), have already given advice on how to be a GOOD GM, and that’s not what I’m going to go into here. All I’m going to do is to analyze the various styles, and then leave it up to you to decide which type you want to be.

So this time we start with the “Planner,” and this is probably the most common type of GM.

This is the type of GM who spends hours upon hours preparing the game, often tailoring the adventure to the particular group of players and characters that are at his table. It’ll often be a ready-made campaign setting, whether that is one of his own making or a release from an established publisher.

Preparing ahead of time, and knowing your players, will allow you to prepare for the most likely routes of action that your players can take. You’ll have a good idea of where your adventure is supposed to go and the players can roughly expect what direction the game is likely to take. And of course, you have a plan for how to get your PCs to the greatest and most satisfying conclusion to their game.

However, this ability to preplan and get all your little ideas in order comes with 2 rather annoying costs. The first is simply the fact that you HAVE to plan most of what you do and that costs a bit of flexibility. More importantly, for most of us, it costs a lot of TIME, and that’s not something most of us have a lot of. Families and real-life jobs often take time away from our dearly beloved hobbies.

The “Railroader” is a similar GM in style to the planner. However, it is usually a GM with a particular vision in mind, one that is difficult to stray from. This style of GMing usually works best with novice players or at least groups where there are no “alpha” players, those who like to take control.

The Railroading GM needs to apply himself to ensure that his action runs smoothly and that each of the encounters and situations that he sets up has an obvious solution, but not necessarily one that is so obvious that the players feel like they have no choice. It’s basically a bit of salesmanship that you’re engaging in, presenting options as “Option 1, Option 2, or AWESOME option 3″- most of the time, you can be fairly certain that the players will go for the AWESOME option, which does smooth gameplay a fair bit.

The downside is of course that you’re railroading your players, allowing them limited room for inputting their own ideas, and you still have to do a fair amount of prep-time to get your campaign set up, especially if you don’t want it to feel like railroading. Often a railroading GM will find a good use for premade adventures, especially if they play them exactly as intended, and as long as the players are OK with that, there’s no reason not to. (An important note to make here: A lot of gamers will see railroading in a negative way, and that is NOT necessarily the case. While there certainly is something to be said for not railroading experienced players, new and insecure players can use all the help they can get, and on those occasions, a railroaded adventure is not a bad idea).

The last GM type is one that I’ve experimented with a fair bit, as I found that I did not have time to prepare as much for the games as I used to, but there was not necessarily anyone available to take over the GM’s chair. This is the “Improviser” GM.

Now, I’ve been all of these styles of GMs on occasion, but it was only a few months ago that I started the Improviser – and I don’t think I could easily go back to the other styles again. The basic concept that I ran with was simple: I ran a session with a clean map (literally one village with some randomly generated terrain. Anything more than 20 miles away was a blank map). And then I improvised EVERYTHING from there. I created a whole new world by the simple expedient of saying “The map is blank because something has happened about 20 years ago. Everyone knows this. But no one knows WHAT has happened, and those who might know aren’t talking.” That way all the skills remained relevant (except certain history-based skills), but I could run with whatever came up in my head at the time, and so I did.

My players tend to be rather set in their expectations, thinking that every world is the normal world(s) that they know. So I turned that on its head. just taking every expectation and turning it upside down.

  • “Oh we thought the elves were good”: Nope, in reality, they’re an evil slave-taking empire, modeled on the Roman and Carthaginian empires.

  • “Dwarves live in mountains and underground”: Nope, they fly giant steamships and gather them together once a year for the summoning of the clans. In order to survive, they sell their skills as mercenaries.

  • “Goblins are evil and worship demons”: Not these. They’re rather confused, like mushrooms way too much but have a strong tie to the natural world. They also claim that the evils are the actual demon worshippers.

At the end of each session, I usually had a few notes of what had happened and important named NPCs, and from that, the world grew. My wife even had her own gaming journal going for it, written in the style of her character and it was a blast. It was hard work keeping up with the changes on the fly, but I think my GMing skills really improved from it.

The downside to that, of course, is that keeping a coherent story becomes difficult. You have to set an overarching conclusion at the beginning, and then you have to let the players get there in their own good time. And you have to be on your toes because your players will throw you a lot of curveballs during the game.

As said though, I don’t think I could ever go back to fully embracing the others after this, if nothing else then simply due to the way that my own skills improved from it, and I think it’s something everyone should give a go, ESPECIALLY if it’s one of those things that you’re insecure about.

Hope you enjoyed this one. Let me know what your games are about.

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Hello everyone, There's been a bit of a change in my circumstances lately, in that I've gotten a new days job — working for a LARP company. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of a commute (at least f


Rodney Sloan
Rodney Sloan
May 31, 2022

I'm a planner, for sure. I've found, though, that planning the skeleton of the adventure helps me improvise more, and, for improvising, listening to the players is a great source of inspiration.

Kim Frandsen
Kim Frandsen
May 31, 2022
Replying to

I think most of us are (or at least start out as) planners. But I think more of us could benefit from more improvisation. :)

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