PAX AUS 2015: Making Good RPG Sessions Great: Behind the GM’s Screen

PAX AUS 2015: Making Good RPG Sessions Great: Behind the GM’s Screen

PAX AUS 2015 featured a smashing range of panels and amongst them was a tabletop roleplaying panel titled “Behind the Game Master’s Screen: Making Good RPG (Role Playing Game) Sessions Great”. The panel spanned a range of interesting topics related to being a Game Master (or GMing), but as the panellists lamented at the end of an hour of discussion, there was barely time to scratch the surface on a lot of topics. Things tended to jump around a fair bit, but the conversation was always interesting. I took a few notes during the session, and the following is my attempt to formalise them in such a way that I might share their advice to a wider audience. So here goes – a guide to ‘What Makes Good RPG Sessions Great’.


The six GMs on the panel held truly diverse opinions when it came to well, just about everything. But I think that’s a great reflection of the fact that RPGs can be for anyone and everyone, because they are just such an adaptable type of play. Moderator Anthony began the panel by describing, in media res, a scene of battle, where you as a prisoner captive aboard a massive airship witness an epic battle between a dragon and a knight riding some kind of winged beast. He later explained that the scene had been the opening scene of one of the best games he had even run, and it also happened to have been a game which he did zero preparation for. Discussing the pros and cons of prep, the general conclusion seemed to be that if you have the kind of experience Anthony or David have (20-30 years-ish), prep is a fader that can easily be slid either way.

On the other hand if you are a new GM, working with a new system, running a game at a con, or are running a game with tight time restrictions prep is key! Good GMing requires a lot of confidence and to have confidence in running a game, you need to know your system. This is why an experienced GM can survive without prep, but in the event that they wanted to run something new or different, they would still need to do it. Another key point raised was that GMing, like any kind of public performance, requires confidence, so if you are new to the art it’s best to rehearse, and when it comes to RPGs reading and re-reading the core rules is the best way to prepare yourself for that terrifying first performance. Along with a solid foundational knowledge of the system you are running, it’s best to go into GMing with tools which will help you improvise effectively, things that will help you maintain your confidence and keep the players immersed. Having handy lists of possible NPCs names, locations and other random information will help keep the game flowing and help maintain your confidence as the GM. In short, if you are going to look and act confident, you need to feel prepared, and preparation for RPGs is best achieved through having a solid understanding of the rules, and being ready to improvise.

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This question prompted a range of interesting responses that I had not really considered. I always thought that most GMs decided to start because they wanted to GM – but for some it seems it is more a case of really wanting to be involved in RPGs, but having no group to play with. Volunteering to be GM is the surest, fastest way to begin playing RPGs. Other, more obvious, reasons included forming new friendships, strengthening pre-existing ties with friends and family and ‘giving back to the community’ by contributing to it as a GM. Another interesting, and controversial, point raised was the idea of GMing as an opportunity to “be your better self”. From the perspective of David, who I believe voiced this idea first, GMing and playing RPGs can be an opportunity to play a character that brings out the best in you – although he confessed that this feeling might have been a result of his experience playing Star Trek RPGs in which, as you can imagine, players strive to upload the principles of the idealistic Starfleet.  However, as some of the other GMs were quick to point out, their experience of GMing had often served as an opportunity to explore parts of their and their players personalities that regular, law-abiding, life would likely never grant them.  But perhaps the best gem to come out of this question was Tania’s tongue-in-cheek reasoning that “I run games because if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”.

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The panel was well put together in that all the GMs seemed not only to play a wide variety of different RPGs, but they also possessed very different approaches when it came to the best way to build a world or run a game – although there were a few key principles that everyone agreed upon with confidence. Chief amongst them was the idea that “ultimately, the game is always dictated by the players”. This statement can be interpreted in a lot of ways, but at its core is the idea that GMing is a collaborative story-telling experience, and that you should always strive to build, or run, the kind of world that your players want to explore/dominate/save/explode. Some interesting ideas to help with world building included:

  • Using a map as the starting point for your world, and then asking lots of questions about why things are that way. For example, “Why is that town near a river? Who lives in those mountains? Where does the river go? Why are those farmlands so close to the Orc Badlands?” et cetera.
  • Splitting your players into multiple parties and using the actions of each to influence what happens in the world of the others. A really interesting example given was a game in which two groups of players took on the roles of adventurers while another group took the roles of the political leaders of the same world. Every session each group would receive updates on what the other parties had been doing through play, and the events of the world evolved organically as result of player-driven decisions and actions.
  • Letting the players build the world through exploration. For example, waiting to see which direction the players want to journey in and filling the landscape up as they explore. This kind of preparation-light improvisation-heavy approach is probably better suited to more experienced GMs, but can nevertheless be a fantastic way to make the players feel really involved in the world, bringing it to life as much through your players imaginations as your own.
  • Instead of trying to plan out the adventure chronologically, like you would if you were writing a script or a story, choose a set amount of locations and encounters that you want your players to get through during a session and plan those instead. Then it will be up to the players to make their way to those locations and resolve the encounters, and, as you are only planning the key points of the adventure less of your planning will go to waste! (Note, I said “less”…)
  • If you are running an investigation-heavy game, don’t focus on locations or events, instead your planning should be all about how much knowledge to reveal during a session. Focus your planning on which NPCs know what and how much information you want to reveal during each session. This way, it is up to the players to track down exactly where they need to go and who they need to speak to in order to move their investigation forward, making for a better simulation of detective work.
  • Something that Wade, creator of Fragged Empire, said during the panel really stuck with me as great advice: “Always try to nail the motives of your NPCs“. In other words, when figuring out what your NPCs are going to do during sessions always ask yourself “Why?”. Why does your evil half-orc war captain get up every morning? Why does she hold such a strong impulse to destroy nearby villages? NPCs with complex, believable motives will always make for a more immersive world than simple ones.


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The audience and panellists raised a lot of questions about players. What is the best way to introduce new players to a game? How do you best deal with shouty players? How can you get your players to understand the game rules better? Ultimately, balancing the dynamic of a group is different for every set of players, but the panellist s did give a few useful tips.

Provided someone is willing to volunteer, and someone almost always is, offer your players the opportunity to run a one-shot session of whatever system you are running. This can be a great opportunity for one of the players to learn how a session feels from the GM’s side. As Paul rightly said, after having this experience that player will likely turn up to your next session on-time, with food, prepared to help out with managing combat and other rules-heavy sections of play, as they now have a much deeper appreciation of how much work goes into the game from the GM’s side – and just how hungry that work can make you!

Tania, who was the (relatively) new GM on the panel, possessing 2-3 years GMing experience, gave some great advice about directing players without railroading them – use the environment to direct the players. For instance, if you need to get from town A to town B and your party is already running low on time for the session, instead of asking them how they would like to journey to get to town B, you can just tell them, for example, that “the most direct route to town B takes you through a long series of caves.” Taking them through the cave does not mean that they lose anything in gameplay – there could still be random encounters or events, it just removes the time that players fill with discussion over ‘what we should do next’ in situations where there really is no need for that much strategy or planning. This leads neatly into another idea that the panellists touched upon, and that I believe is really important – players need to believe that their choices matter, so never give them meaningless ones. Going back to the above example, if going through the forest, as opposed to the caves, to reach town B was a decision that would shape the course of events in the game, then of course the players should be given that choice. However, if it’s merely an aesthetic choice, don’t bother including it – instead saving player choices for meaningful junctions in the game.

In regards to helping new players enter your group, the panellists all agreed on the importance of nurturing new players and most seemed in favour of introducing new players to a group one-by-one. This gives the new player the opportunity to learn how to role-play through observation of their more experienced fellows, and by surrounding them by players who know what they are doing; they are likely going to feel like a real member of the party much faster. In order to make a player’s first session memorable, it can be a good idea to give the new player an opportunity to shine during their first session – let them do something epic, so that the memory they will walk away with is a positive one.

In regards to getting players to pay attention, Paul confessed that he had found reward systems to be extremely useful. At the beginning of sessions, ask your players to recount certain, important details from the last session, and hand out d20s to those who can answer. These extra dice are re-rolls, which the player may use throughout the session. And if you’re worried that giving your players these re-rolls might make the session too easy? Well, you can always jack up the difficulty of certain encounters!

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Finally, the question of player failure was raised. Namely “should players be allowed to fail” the alternative, I suppose, being that the game is altered throughout play so that the players always complete their goal in some way. All of the panellists agreed wholeheartedly that of course players should be allowed to fail – if they can’t fail then their in-game choices have no meaning. But one stipulation that was made, one that I wholeheartedly agree with, is that failure should never be boring. Yes, your paladin may have missed what looked to be the killing blow against the orc captain, but NEVER just say “you miss” – describe the scene in way that is entertaining, and that fits the personalities of the characters. For example, “His head filled with righteous glory, Sir Reinald swung his two-handed sword, aiming to lop the Orc’s head off. Unfortunately, Reinald was so sure that all the fight had gone out of his enemy that he did not count upon the Orc’s swift ducking manoeuvre at the last instant.”

If you would like to hear more advice from this diverse and interesting panel of GMs, a recording of the entire panel can be found on Paul’s podcast The Fourth Player. You can also find all six of them on Twitter:

Anthony Stiller @antstiller

Nick Carruthers @yodasears

Tania Walker @TaniaWalker

Paul Houlihan @paulyhouly

Wade Dyer @Des-Ministries

David Hollingworth @atomicMPC

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Since first travelling to Japan at the age of fifteen, most of my life has revolved around trying to learn Japanese, and unravel the mysteries of the country’s culture. Gaming ranks just behind this obsession. I enjoy video games – particularly RPGs and Strategy – but my main interest is in tabletop role playing games and board games. Writing ranks third – luckily I get plenty of opportunities to write about Japan and games, so it all works out.

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