Gamemastering By Pushing The Envelope

Crew DM/Gaming Advice

Our motto was “bite off more than we could chew, then figure out some crazy complicated way to make it work.” Source: Making Crash Bandicoot pt. 3

The Crash Bandicoot quote comes from the fact that to get the game to do what they needed it to, the designers would come up with something they wanted to have happen and work with the system until they were able to make it work. They were so apt at this design approach that Sony couldn’t even rival them with it.

Years later Sony tried to create a game called Harry Jalapeño to compete with Crash.  No, I am not making that up.  Besides the name fail, the internal team in San Francisco also utterly failed to create the complex worlds and characters that we created in Crash.  Let me repeat – an internal Sony team couldn’t create Crash.  Let the rumors of “insider information” forever rest.

Examples of this can be seen in every element of the design, as even the look of the character played into this. By making Crash look the way he does, you could figure out what direction he was facing quickly and easily without them making use of any complex polygons that the system couldn’t process easily.

There are any number of quotes about pushing boundaries, going to the edge and just working to improve yourself. For example, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd, posted a list of 10 of his favorite quotes on the subject, but in the end, it all boils down to the fact that by stepping out of your comfort zone you get the best chance to improve yourself. This is no less true in being a Gamemaster than anywhere, as to keep the games interesting, you need to keep finding new and inventive ways to challenge the party and players and tell your stories. If you think that it cannot be done, take a look at TV Tropes which shows the basic tropes of storytelling and examples of how they are followed or subverted in different media.

When talking to players about why they don’t try their hand at Gamemastering, common answers include ‘I don’t know how to tell an interesting story’, ‘I don’t know the rules well enough to run something’, ‘I don’t know how to challenge the players’, ‘It’s too much work’. Each of those is the same as excuses we tell ourselves as to why we don’t want to do something, where we have that inner critic voice being negative against us like the heckling muppets Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet Show. There are many articles you’ll find online about overcoming it such as this one by Forbes, but when it comes to RPGs also remember that this is an environment where you are usually dealing with close friends who are contributing a lot to the story as well and want it to succeed and thus are willing to forgive faults more than a detached viewer of a movie or tv show. Also, if you have players who are actively trying to make things hard for you, talk to them and let them  know as they likely may not see it in that light. As for the objections themselves, they are all easy enough to overcome.

  • Can’t tell an interesting story? Take a story you like and put the players in that. Personally, I have run players through stories cribbed from movies and TV shows to begin with and they have had great times. You just need to be able to step away from strict script adherence and let the players do their thing.
  • Don’t know the rules well enough? Assuming you know the rules well enough to play your character, you know the rules well enough to run a game. A lot of games will tell you in the opening chapter something along the lines of ‘Make use of as much or as little of this book as you want. You’ve given us your money already and the Game Police aren’t going to stop by and enforce the rules’. In other words, the rules you really need to know to gamemaster are the same as being a player. How to check if an action succeeds or fails, how to determine damage and so forth. The behind the screen stuff is all determining challenges to face and things like that. Usually no specific rules for most of it, except some games like D&D where they have a metric to determine Challenge Ratings for combats but that can be done outside of table sessions.
  • Don’t know how to challenge players? Essentially all stories are driven by conflict. Story analysis gives us the 7 types of conflict, 36 Dramatic Situations, 7 basic Plots, The Hero’s Journey story structure and so on. These will give you general building blocks to come up with challenges, and remember, not all conflict has to be physical confrontations. Perhaps the conflict is solving a mystery, negotiating something, exploring a dungeon in search of treasure, or any number of other things. These are the moments of tension where a physical conflict may break out, but it is not the primary focus of the interaction. So, find something the players want, put something or someone in their way, and make them have to find a way to get to what they want.
  • Too much work? Most of the last points show ways to cut out a lot of the work. You will likely want to prep ahead of time for the first few sessions that you run. You’ll want to sketch everything out, make the NPCs, design various challenges and such until you find what works for you. However, the majority of people who have run games for years will have their own system for designing only what they need, as they will be able to draw off their experience to fill in any other gaps on the fly. Plus, players will usually find some way to throw your plans through the wringer anyway. The whole idea of plans not surviving first contact is so true when it comes to running games, as the openness will allow them to come up with some way to surprise you.

Going back to the Naughty Dog motto from Crash Bandicoot of finding some crazy complicated way to make everything work, this is essentially what you will do as a GM. You’ll come up with some sort of cool idea you want to put into place, like having your players in a fight on the edge of a volcano, and you’ll come up with some complicated way to work it into the story and make it all seem natural in the end. Just look at some of Naughty Dog’s other games and you’ll see how that works out for them, with series like Uncharted, Jak and Last of Us being widely acclaimed, like their work on Crash Bandicoot. Of course, this philosophy does come with some chance of not working, as we see some flops in their game history, like Rings of Power for the Sega Genesis or Way of the Warrior for 3DO, but the idea is to learn what works and leave out what doesn’t to refine your craft.

You can research storytelling tips and video game design strategies, though they will only get you so far as tabletop RPGs are a different breed than both. That is why a great way to get help in this field is to talk to fellow Gamemasters. In tv show Castle, he has his poker buddies and fellow authors to talk to who give him help in solving his murder of the week scenario by using their experience in how to tell stories. There are various communities on Youtube, Twitch and other forums where people can add their say to whatever problem you are facing. There is always the comment section on a blog like this, to be a little self-serving.