GM-ing: Advanced Storytelling for Nerds

I’ve loved tabletop role-playing games since I started reading the Order of the Stick comics in high school. I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons  so badly, but I didn’t have anyone to play with. I finally played my first campaign in college (3.5 Edition), which quickly fizzled out. Soon after, the real-life party disbanded and I was left to roll characters by myself that would, sadly, never be played.

Since then, I’ve branched out a little, taking up Fiasco in addition to D&D 5th Edition. Just recently, I tried my hand at being a GM for the first time.

After watching it on Table Top, I picked a copy of Dread at ConnectiCon and gathered some friends to play. Dread is a thrilling, unique horror game where players make skill checks by drawing from a Jenga tower. If the tower falls, your character dies. The mechanic is irresistibly tense and makes for some fantastic gaming moments.

Since it was my first time ever playing a GM role, I chose one of the pre-set scenarios in the book. And I’m pretty sure I picked the most difficult one, which really didn’t help. Something I enjoyed was the freedom of creativity it GM-ing allows, even in a pre-written scenario. At first I was nervous that I would have to keep referring to the book for details that I may have been missing, until I realized that I was the one in control of the story. Those details were mine to create and bend based on the needs of the situation.

A really neat aspect about Dread in particular is the collaborative nature of the storytelling. In order to create their characters, the players fill out questionnaires that give the GM (or “host” as it’s referred to in the book) key aspects they can use to tailor the story to the players’ interpretations of the characters. This can also make the game deceptively open-ended. For example, I didn’t know how the story would end when I started. I didn’t know until the very end, which was a combination of allowing the players a bit of creative freedom and just poor planning. It also didn’t help that Alex refused to stop meta-gaming when he knew it wasn’t allowed (he was the first to die).

From this experience, I can certainly say I learned a lot about the challenges involved in running a game. You can plan and set guidelines and plot your way to victory, but if the players refuse to go along with it, your plans are meaningless. It’s a rather interesting balance between control and collaboration that could very easily translate to a lot of valuable life skills. As if we needed another reason why everyone should play tabletop role-playing games. I’m hoping to GM another game in the near future. In fact, Alex and I are writing a couple of our own that we hope to play-test soon (one of them may even show up on my portfolio site in the near future; no promises, though).

Until then, in the eternal words of Wil Wheaton, “Play more games!”

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