5 challenges to set yourself as a GM

When you end up running games a lot, like I do, you can often end up in a rut – the same characters, the same scenarios, the same challenges, week after week. If you’ve been gamesmastering for a while and fancy a change, I came up with five challenges for you to take on to keep your hand in, and probably have more fun yourself in the process. I reckon you can do all of them in one session, too. Maybe even your next session, if you’re feeling brave.

ONE: Stop using accents, start using mannerisms.

I used to use accents a lot when I was voicing non-player characters. Like, a lot a lot. But the problem with those accents is that they weren’t very good, quite aside from being so bad that I probably wouldn’t dare to use them in front of someone who came from the country I was aiming for, they reduced the characters to cut-out stereotypes instead of… well, characters.

So last year I set myself a challenge to stop using accents completely and instead focus on mannerisms, posture, vocal tics and repeated turns of phrase. Where before I would have made a blacksmith northern and slapped on my best Sean Bean impression then carry on, now I had to think about what sort of voice he had. Was it gruff? Was he tired, after a long day in the forge? How old was he? How would he stand – broad-shouldered and proud, or hunched over with back pain? Was he confident, or unsure about dealing with the characters?

Just taking a few seconds to “find” a character’s voice and settle into it can make them a lot more fun to play than channelling a bad accent you already know. (Plus, it’s 100% less racist!)

TWO: Have your NPCs lie.

I never remember to do this – somewhere along the line I developed a routine in my head that says “NPCs can’t lie to the players,” and instead of having duplicitous bastards I have open, honest bastards who lay out precisely what they’re going to do to you instead of being sneaky and fibbing about it.

And yet: there is a sharp and fascinating sensation to being betrayed, because you put some of your trust in with the NPC and they used that trust as a weapon against you. So to make a more exciting game, have an NPC betray the players. Which means you have to have an NPC be nice to the players first, or at least give them something they want, even if that’s an excuse to show off their heroics.

Now the best part about this is that, because this is an improvised story that you and the players are telling, you don’t need to plan out these betrayals far in advance. You can just decide that an NPC was lying, and work out the motivations later – remember, nothing’s true until you say it is. (Even better, if your NPC gets confronted by the players and you’re not sure of their motivations, turn it around on them. “Well – why do YOU think that I lied?” Then just go with the second thing they say.)

THREE: Give up your NPCs to the players.

If you’ve got a scene with more than one NPC in it, ask if any of the players want to take on the role of the other NPC. And, similarly, if you’ve got a scene with only one PC in it, maybe give out NPCs to every other player.

You don’t have to hand over their reins of your longest-running, preciousest NPCs to the players, but if they’re just going to sit there and watch (or, more likely, get bored and zone out) while you talk to yourself in character… well, it doesn’t hurt to give them something to do.

If you or the player is worried about messing up the narrative of the game or saying something that doesn’t gel with the reality of the world, then a) don’t worry so much about that and b) you can always give them the role of an idiot who doesn’t know anything, or a boastful character who’s talking themselves up and is economical with the truth.

FOUR: Be open with your players.

There’s a strange idea in roleplaying circles that the GM and the PCs are opposing each other, and while I can certainly see why this would rise out of traditional roleplaying philosophies, there’s no need to carry it on into the present day. A lot of GMs complain when the player characters can’t be persuaded to stick with the plot – and a lot of player complain when they’re “railroaded” or forced into a particular set of events no matter what actions they take.

A lot of this comes from miscommunication, and the idea that players have to be tricked into following the plot as though their characters had free will. Next time, before you start a session proper, discuss what you’ve got planned out-of-character with your group. You don’t have to go into great detail and ruin all your surprises, but if you can say “Hey guys, I had a fun idea for a zombie horror story tonight, you all up for that?” then you’re briefing the players on what’s going to happen – and they can steer their characters appropriately.

FIVE: Just have everything work.

There’s a rule in improv that goes like this: Everything Works. If, for example, the story you’re telling is about going to the park, then it’s no fun to watch someone lose their car keys, so they can’t start the car… and then find them, but for the car to be broken, so they need to call a mechanic… but then the mechanic’s late, and so on and so forth. What we want is to see what happens in the park, and by introducing arbitrary problems, the actors are indicating that they’re nervous about pushing the scene forward.

Now, almost all of roleplaying is arbitrary problems, and our characters are ways to overcome those problems. But, next time you sit down to play, try this: things just work. Thieves can pick locks. Warriors can kick down doors. Scientists can identify compounds. Spaceship captains can get through asteroid fields with nary a scratch.

Because, and here’s the thing – interesting stuff happens when people interact with each other. (Even if it’s just fighting.) But if we make players roll to see if they can get to the interesting stuff, what’s the point in that? So power through, and see what happens.