If you look back at all the stuff I’ve done on this website that I’ve classified as “How to F$&%ing GM,” you’ll notice that there’s a sort of progression there. And that isn’t accidental. First, I started talking about the very basic skills. I called that s$&% “How to Run a F$&%ing Game.” And all of that crap was about the skills you needed to actually sit down and, well, to RUN game sessions. That’s why I called it that. F$&%ing duh. After that, I moved on to another category I called “How to Write a F$&%ing Adventure”. And that one was a whole bunch of crap about adventure building. How to design your own games. Now, there is a third category that we’ve only dipped into once or twice. And that category wasn’t even prominently featured. UNTIL TODAY. It’s called “How to Build a F$&%ing Campaign.” And you can probably guess what it’s all about.
Starting today, we’re going to move into bigger topics: campaigns and settings. That doesn’t mean I’m done talking about adventure building and game running. I’ll keep dipping back into those topics. And I actually do have a final sort of pièce de résistance coming for the adventure building series. But I feel like I’ve touched on all the major topics in adventure building. The rest is just details and advanced concepts.
Now, I WAS going to launch into a discussion about campaigns and settings and what they both are today. But I realized that there’s a much bigger, more important issue that lies not just at the heart of campaigns, but underneath absolutely everything. And it is the reason why – not to brag – this site is absolutely the BEST instruction manual for game masters of traditional role-playing games.
And, you know what? I’m not going to apologize for that. The “traditional role-playing games” thing. I mean, I’m not going to apologizing for being the best either. But, look, it’s no secret that I am not talking about your hoity-toity story games who think they are the only way to get a satisfying narrative experience in an interactive medium. And I’m not talking about those abstract as f$&% specialty games whose rules are three layers removed from any actual game fiction. I’m not talking about the elitist indie crap that seeks to elevate the medium. No, I’m talking about the standard fare. The Dungeons & Dragons. The Pathfinder. The Star Wars. The old school and the new school action-adventure games. The ones that CAN be great epic stories of mystery and intrigue, like that Game of Thrones thing the kids are all playing. And the ones that CAN ALSO be the dungeon-crawling fun of killing green-skinned evil-doers and taking their stuff. And the ones that CAN ALSO be tear-your-hair-out challenging tests of your strategy and gaming mettle. D&D can’t be anything to anyone, sorry. I’ve said that before. But it can be a lot of things. And it’s pretty easy to get to a lot of things from D&D.
Oh, and just because I talk about traditional RPGs and play traditional RPGs, that doesn’t mean I also don’t play (and even sometimes LIKE) other games. I play and run A LOT of games. I try a lot of s$&%. Anyway, I got distracted. My point here is that this site is unapologetically about teaching you how to get the most out of traditional RPGs, however you define “the most.” Deal with it.
Anyway, make no mistake: even taking into account my excessive wordiness AND my attitude AND my egomania, I am THE BEST place for GMing instruction. I know. Every goddamned day people e-mail me about it. Now, I don’t like to brag, but… oh, wait, I do like to brag. I’m bragging. Suck it every other GM out there on the web. I’m the best at teaching GMing. Everyone thinks so. Except the people who are wrong and dumb.
Okay, this Long, Rambling Introduction™ is going a little off the rails. Let me try to focus back in on my point.
My approach to GMing and to writing about GMing is part of what makes this site so helpful to so many. But, what’s funny is that I never noticed I had an “approach.” It wasn’t until I started writing and categorizing and discussing and explaining. And the thing is, I think the approach itself is SUPER valuable. That is to say, there are deep truths buried in my organization scheme. And its high time to spell some s$&% out. Especially because, when I start talking about campaigns, there’s some CRUCIAL terms that need to be discussed, defined, and separated.
What you’re about to read is basically how I see GMing and how I see RPGs. Or, at least, how I see them today. That might change tomorrow. My view is constantly evolving. And I’ve discovered a lot just by writing about it. Basically, this is partly a road map and partly a glossary. It will explain how I write – and how I will continue to write – about game mastering. But it will also explain a lot about how the game is put together and how it is run. A lot of the stuff is stuff I have said before. But summarized and organized differently.
First and foremost, let’s just lay down the most basic of all definitions: what is a role-playing game and how do they work. That forms the basis for everything else we’re going to discuss.
What is a Role-Playing Game?
A role-playing game is a game in which players take on the role of fictional characters in a hypothetical universe. The players attempt to make the decisions that they feel their characters would make if they were real and if their universe were real. Those decisions are based on the characters’ motivations and the games goals. The results of those decisions are played out and new decisions are made.
Ultimately, an RPG is about choice and consequence. The players make choices for their characters and then deal with the consequences. And goals provide benchmarks for success and failure.
The Most Important Rule in Every RPG
There is one rule, one structure, that underlies almost every RPG that exists. It is the most basic process by which the RPG runs. And it goes like this. The GM presents a situation to the players. The players project themselves into the mind of their characters and decide on a course of action for their characters to take. The GM determines the outcome of those actions and describes the results, which becomes a new situation to which the players then respond.
That’s it. That’s every role-playing game ever.
The Role of the Rules
The vast majority of the rules exist to help the GM determine the outcome of actions whose outcomes are uncertain. The rules strike a balance between consistency and variable so that players can make reasonable guesses about likely outcomes but can still be surprised by the actual outcome. However, some rules provide an abstract structure to make the game playable and enjoyable.
The Game Master
At the core of the game is the Game Master. Without the Game Master, RPGs simply could not function as they do. So, let’s lay this out.
What is the Game Master
The Game Master is not a player in the game; the Game Master is a part of the system. The Game Master is a game mechanic. The GM exists because only a creative human mind is capable of responding to absolutely any action or choice the players can imagine. The GMs role is to facilitate the free choices the players make as participants in the story by responding to their actions.
Is Game Mastering Fun?
The Game Master should not view an RPG as a game, but rather as a performance. The Game Master’s role is to facilitate the game play of others. However, the Game Master should also find the experience satisfying. Many Game Masters enjoy the chance to entertain their friends, the fun of being the center of attention, the opportunities for creative expression, the surprises of an unpredictable narrative, and the challenge inherent in having a response for every action in a way that keeps the game moving in a satisfying way.
The Tenets of a Game Master
The Game Master’s role, above all, is to facilitate the core activity of every role-playing game: making decisions and dealing with the consequences. That requires the game master to deal fairly and consistently with the players so that they can make good decisions, to ensure that the players know that their decisions affect the outcome of the game, to show the connection between actions and their consequences, to provide goals and motivations to drive those decisions, and to provide a satisfying and enjoyable narrative framework for the game.
The GMing Hats
In the end, GMs wear three primary hats.
Running the Game
The first hat is running the game. When running the game, the GM presents situations, determines the outcome of actions, and presents the consequences of those actions. The GM also moves the action from scene to scene, provides goals, and provides a resolution for those goals. Every GM does this. In fact, this is the primary activity that would be defined as being a GM.
Administrating the Game
The second is the administrative hat. When administrating the game, the GM handles the organizational and social aspects of the game. The GM essentially functions as the president of a club or the coach of a sports team in this role. The GM must deal with interpersonal problems, disruptions of the game, and other social issues. This is something that every GM ends up doing at some point, even if they have players to help with things like scheduling.
Creating the Game
The third hat is the hat of creation. When creating the game, the GM is creating new scenes and situations, adventures, goals, characters, or even rules. While many GMs prefer to use the rules as defined and use published adventures, campaigns, and settings, those GMs will still find themselves occasionally acting as a creator in response to player actions. Those GMs wear the hat of creation off and on. Other GMs prefer to create their own characters, monsters, adventures, campaigns, and worlds. The hat of creation can be worn both at the table and away from it. When wearing it at the table, the GM is improvising small bits of content to fill some game need. When wearing it away from the table, the GM is usually designing larger chunks of content like scenes, encounters, adventures, and campaigns.
The Minimum GMing Skills
There are TWO skills every GM MUST master. They must master them early and they should have a strong grasp of those skills before they do anything else as a Game Master.
Narration is the skill of presenting clear, concise, and useful information to the players so that they can make good in-game decisions. It includes describing the situations the characters are currently facing and it also includes describing the transitions from situation to situation.
Adjudication is the skill of determining the outcome of player actions and choices. After a player has described an outcome, the GM must understand the player’s intentions (what they want to happen) and approach (how they want to bring it about) and then determine the outcome (did the player accomplish their intentions or not) and the consequences (how did their approach change the world). GMs have a variety of tools at their disposal. For simple actions whose outcomes are certain, they may simply decide on the outcome and narrate it. For more complex, uncertain actions GMs will fall back on the rules of the system. However, many actions will require them GM to make interpretations or judgement calls about the action, the situation, and the rules.
The Structure of the Game
Role-playing games have a nested structure and each structural element acts as a container for the element below it. Higher level elements provide context for the lower level elements, usually by providing motivations or goals.
The smallest chunk of a role-playing game that still counts as a role-playing game – the atom of the role-playing game – is the action. An action begins when a player states an action for their character to take. That action will include a desired outcome or intention and a method or approach meant to bring about that outcome. The GM will then resolve the action, describing the outcome of the action and determining the consequences of the character’s approach and how those consequences change the game world. The GMs resolution and description of the outcome usually provide a setup for the next acton.
Scenes and Encounters
Actions happen within the context of scenes and encounters. Scenes and encounters begin with a dramatic question, a statement of the character’s goals in the form of a question. The GM then presents the scene to the players, usually in some way hinting at the dramatic question or goal. If the answer to the dramatic question is uncertain because of a source of conflict within the scene, the scene is an encounter. The scene or encounter plays out as a series of actions until the dramatic question is resolved. Then, the GM provides a transition to the next scene or encounter.
An adventure is a series of scenes and encounters that comprise a single, complete story. Adventures begin with a motivation or goal and a scene that presents that motivation or goal to the players. Adventures then play out as a series of scenes or encounters as the players pursue the goal. Once the players have accomplished the goal or definitively failed to accomplish the goal, the adventure ends.
And speaking of adventures…
Sessions are not a part of the structure of the role-playing game, but they are a metagame structure nonetheless. A session is the real-life period of time during which the players and GM participate in a role-playing game. An adventure may be played out over many sessions or may take place in the span of a single session.
An adventure path is a series of adventures that are connected by an underlying narrative. Adventure paths generally have an underlying goal or motivation that each of the adventures serve to advance, but the players may not be aware of the motivations or goals until an arbitrary point during the adventure path. An adventure path ends with a resolution of the underlying motivation or goal.
Adventures paths may be strung together as a series and may be unified by even more overarching goals and motivations. Adventure paths can be nested inside of each other infinitely, in theory, but there’s really no point in differentiating them further.
And speaking of adventure paths…
A campaign isn’t really part of the structure of the role-playing game. A campaign is the sum total of all of the game sessions involving any sort of continuity between adventures. Usually the continuity involves the ensemble of characters and the setting, but through one or more adventure paths, there may also be a story continuity.
A note for older gamers: once upon a time, the structure of the game was action, encounter, adventure, and campaign. But the word campaign has become diluted over the years and is now often used to refer to both adventure paths, series of adventure paths, the overarching plots that connect adventure paths, and also to refer to series of adventures that are only connected through continuity, not by plot thread. Thus a campaign could be an adventure path, a linear series of adventure paths, a container that contains multiple adventure paths unified by a single motive or goal, or a collection of adventures about an ensemble with no unifying goal. Rather than try to redefine the term and force everyone to just listen to reason, I’ve decided to accept the fact that a campaign is just a whole bunch of adventures, however they are connected. That said, it is still MY personal habit to refer to adventure paths as campaigns. So I sympathize if you have the same problem.
Stories have structures and the most satisfying role-playing games follow that structure. Thus, it’s important to understand the elements of narrative structure. These are the elements that give stories their shape and flow.
A goal is something that the players and their characters want to accomplish and actually can accomplish. In order to be considered a goal, something must be achievable and it must be clear whether that thing has been achieved or not. There must be a benchmark. Goals may or may not be failable, but any goal that can be failed must be obviously failable. That is to say, the players must always be able to tell whether they have accomplished their goal, have not yet accomplished their goal, or have failed to accomplish their goal.
Goals may be personal, desired by only one character, or they may be desired by several characters, or they may even be sought by the entire group. Goals may be defined by the players for their characters or they may be defined by the game master as part of the adventure or adventure path.
A motivation provides the drive for a character or player to pursue a particular end. A motivation represents the reasons underlying a goal. Motivations provide reasons to care about accomplishing a goal. Motivations are always personal and are almost always defined by the players for their individual characters. Characters may have several different motivations.
Some characters may lack motivations and instead may have long-term goals that provide them the impetus toward accomplishing short-term goals. The difference is that a goal has a definitive endpoint and a motivation does not, even when it seems like it does.
Incitement to Action
An incitement to action is an event in a story that defines the goal that the player will be working toward in the current adventure, usually by appealing to their motivations or long-term goals. The incitement to action defines the initial goal toward which the characters will be working in the adventure.
Tension represents the level of uncertainty that the players have in the outcome of their actions and how strongly that uncertainty is weighing on the players. In other words, it is how much the players are aware of the uncertainty of the outcome of their actions. At moments of low tension, the players may either feel that the outcome is not uncertain at all or may simply be able to temporarily ignore that uncertainty. At moments of high tension, the players may either feel that the outcome is quite uncertain or may simply have been reminded of the importance of the outcome.
Tension rises and falls throughout a story, but it tends to trend upward throughout the story. A good story moves waivers between moments of high and low tension, but the minimum level of tension is constantly rising. Tension also tends to rise and fall within individual scenes in a story.
A conflict occurs when several goals, motivations, or desires come into confrontation in such a way that they cannot both be achieved. External conflicts occur when the goals, motivations, and desires are held by different individuals, forces, groups, or other elements of the story. An intraparty conflict occurs when those conflicting desires are held by the members of the player-character party. An internal conflict occurs when the conflicting desires are all held by a single character.
The climax is the point of highest tension in a story. It is the point in the story that comes immediately before the resolution. In most role-playing game adventures, the climax is a scene in which the outcome of the scene determines the resolution of the adventure. Well-designed scenes and well-adjudicated actions also have climaxes.
The resolution is the part of a story, adventure, scene, or action that comes after the climax. During the resolution, the ultimate outcome is revealed and the players are able to come to terms with that outcome. The resolution usually involves a denoument or epilogue during which the players are able to rid themselves of any remaining tension.
The pace of a story refers to the ebb and flow of tension throughout a story as well as the speed and directness with which the story moves towards its resolution. A fast-paced story is one where the level of tension remains fairly high, for example, and wherein there are few extraneous scenes beyond those required to move the story from its incitement to its resolution. Pacing also refers to the skill of controlling the rise and fall of tension throughout the story and the movement of the story toward its conclusion.
Finally, every role-playing game also involves a number of narrative elements that aren’t directly a part of the structure of the game. Rather, they are ingredients.
A story is the sum of all of the narrative elements of a game. It is thus a holistic and emergent aspect of the game. In role-playing games, the story is the game and vice versa. The story is akin to a cake. The GM and the players provide various ingredients and combine them through the action of play. When they are done playing, they have experienced a story. Thus the story only exists and is only a useful point of discussion after the adventure, adventure path, or campaign is done.
A complete story is a story that contains all of the minimum structural elements of goal, climax, and resolution in and of itself. An adventure is the smallest structure in a role-playing game that can be considered a complete story. Stories may consist of multiple complete stories. An adventure path is a complete story that contains multiple complete stories.
Characters are story elements that possess motivations or goals and can take actions toward those motivations or goals. Characters are often humans or human-like entities, but supernatural entities and even the personification of various forces can also be characters.
The setting is sum total of the world that the characters exist in and wherein the story takes place. The characters are all of the elements that possess motivations and can take actions. Everything else that inhabits the world of the story can be considered to be setting. Settings generally consist of a physical space of some kind, such as a city, kingdom, continent, world, or cosmos and the physical, spiritual, and supernatural rules by which that space operates.
And that brings us to…
Setting or Character
The definitions of setting and characters are very precise. And that precision is extremely useful. If the thing has motivations and can take actions that affect the outcome of the story, that thing is a character, even if it seems like an element of the setting. The world of Athas in the Dark Sun D&D campaign setting is often used as a character, not a setting element. If a thing either doesn’t have motivations or can’t take actions that affect the outcome of the story (or both), that thing is an element of the setting. In many D&D games, the gods are NOT characters, they are setting elements.
Themes are concepts and ideas that exist – or may exist – as a subtext within the game or story or. Most themes represent conflicts that are considered central to the human experience. The game or story provides a framework for exploring or discussing those conflicts, either accidentally or by design. Themes are a common element in almost all stories, even when the author did not intend to include them.
Tone represents a general sense of the moods or emotions evoked by a story, game, or by a scene within that story or game. The overall tone of a work represents the moods or emotions evoked by the work as a whole and generally tends to vary little throughout the work. However, the momentary tone can vary from scene to scene. In fact, the tone of any given story or game should vary from scene to scene. Often that variance will be along a spectrum defined by the overall tone of the work. For example, a game that has a mostly optimistic tone will vary along a spectrum from hopeless to hopeful throughout the work. Tonal dissonance occurs when a story element evokes a tone that is drastically differently from the overall tone of the game or story.
The Small Questions and the Big Picture
In the end, this whole big shebang began with two very small questions. Or rather, two very small discussions I was going to have. Well, one question and one explanation. The question was: “what is the difference between a campaign and an adventure path?” The explanation was: “why campaigns and settings are two very different things?” And then things ballooned out of control.
I think this may be the most useful thing I’ve ever written – not for other people, but for me. The problem is that it’s very dangerous for me to publish. Because, quite frankly, I can only go down from here. Almost everything else I have to say about running games, writing adventures, and building campaigns is just about moving around all the bits and pieces I’ve just defined above. That and mechanical minutiae.
In short, even though I’m going to start talking about building settings and adventure paths from here on out – and continue to talk about writing adventures and running games – I’ve probably just peaked. So, enjoy watching my inevitable slide down into irrelevant mediocrity. At least Yoda had the good sense to die when he taught Luke everything.