Day Two of the #RPGaDay challenge is ‘your first RPG Gamemastered’. Mine was Unhallowed Metropolis, a post-apocalyptic-steampunk-zombie-survival game. It’s an enjoyably batty game with one of the best settings I’ve ever read and an unfortunately flawed rules system. In running games (I haven’t actually run very many) I have found that the most important thing going in is for the GM to manage the players’ expectations and assumptions. It’s something that can be difficult to do, as it requires being brutally honest about what a game is going to involve and be about, and there’s always the lingering fear that you might end up without any players as they all decide it isn’t for them. Human beings don’t like rejection, but I’ve been in enough games where the Terms of Engagement weren’t made clear right at the start to know that it’s much better to be brutal at first and happier in the long run. I ran into this problem with the two campaigns I’ve done, Unhallowed Metropolis and Witch Hunter: the Invisible World. I think part of the problem was that I didn’t know what was planning for those campaigns, and it was also that I hadn’t run any games before, so I didn’t understand the kind of job the GM has to do. To be fair to them, my players in both games were brilliant. In Unhallowed Metropolis, I had some who were into the super emotional backstory stuff and some who were more into the immediate ‘shoot zombies a lot’ stuff, whereas I wanted to run a horror game, so I knew that the emotional stuff had to feed into horror directly and the zombies should feel like a terrifying enough threat, even with the players’ ridiculous armoury. In many ways, I feel that my fail at setting out my campaign before it started was saved by the fact that my players were so happy to respond to where I wanted to guide the campaign, even if the combat characters didn’t always have something to do and the social characters sometimes felt like they weren’t in the right arena. I still feel pretty proud of it, even today, but it could have gone very wrong.
Witch Hunter, on the other hand, is a game I feel proud of but also a little sad about. I knew what I wanted to run, and could have answered easily if my players had asked, but I wasn’t confident enough to explain it fully. I particularly wasn’t confident enough to say that the grumpy anti-social woodsman and the foppish French aristocrat couldn’t easily both be accommodated by many scenarios. I deliberately jumped my own shark by including a comedy Christmas game (it involved a cakeomancer who was stealing hearts to craft his gingerbread army) but I acknowledged that trying to force the game into something I hadn’t ever explicitly set out wasn’t doing anyone any favours. Instead of full-on survival horror in an unforgiving colony, I went for action with a dash of humour and occasional moments of horror, and it worked fine. I can still make my players shudder by reminding of the Patch Jack that they thought they were escaping, only to realise it was keeping up with their horses. Ultimately, I think my players had fun, but it was only when I loosened my hold on the reins a bit and let the game be what it was going to be that it worked. It wasn’t what I originally envisioned, but it was fun. So, even if you find that your beautifully-crafted campaign of subtle political intrigue is changed by the players into a guns-blazing game of big damn heroes, try going with it and see whether it’s fun after all. Stuff I now endeavour to do before pitching a game: – Even if you don’t know precisely what’s going to happen in a campaign, make sure you have a rough idea of the tone and what you want to run. – Make some suggestions about what kinds of characters or focuses would be appropriate and if there’s something you really don’t want in the game, make it very clear from the start. – Consider the fact that players will do what is fun for them, so you may end up having to compromise. That’s OK, role-playing is a collaborative thing. If you want a story that they will receive passively and not change, write a novel and avoid the fan fiction communities. Players will get much more out of a responsive GM who allows them to explore what they want to explore rather than keeping them to a strict plot or tone. – Have a talk with your players about the game and really listen. If they don’t know much about the setting or system, explain it in a way that emphasises the focus of your game. If they do know the setting or system or have played it before, talk to them about what’s happened in games they’ve played, which bits interest them and try and root out their assumptions about the game. That way, you can either make it clear that your game is different or incorporate them rather than being surprised by them. – If possible, try and get the players together to gen. It’s a faff, I hate doing it, but it means you can have a nice talk with them before hand about all the above and you won’t end up with two characters playing the same archetype – or if you do, they’ll do it in different ways. As a GM, it’s really important to respond to your players, but it’s also important to know your own mind as well. If a game isn’t going how you want it to, instead of letting it fizzle as you lose enthusiasm, round it off with a bang over a couple of sessions and then move on to something else, or try a new pitch and new players. You actually have nothing to lose. Links: Atomic Overmind Press, which published the revised edition of Unhallowed Metropolis. I really hope they fixed the rules, because it’s a game that deserves a lot more love. Vernian Process is a steampunk band who did some songs about Unhallowed Metropolis. RPG.net review of UnMet.