The Three Pillars of GMing. Or, Why Being the Best Just isn't Good Enough.

Posted by Mike Provencher II

I’m the best writer I know. I’m sorry if that comes off as arrogant, but, truth be told, I don’t really believe in false modesty. English has always been my favorite subject in school, and, despite my atrocious spelling, it’s always been something I’ve been good at. I savor the moments when I’m standing in line at the supermarket, the DMV or wherever and two unrelated ideas come together at the exact right moment to create that spark. The flurry of action in my head as I try to create, dismiss, refine and connect ideas to that first amalgamation of random thoughts is what I live for. Putting those thoughts down on paper is another matter entirely.

By this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with gaming. Or, perhaps, you’ve seen though my flowery first paragraph and have a good idea of where this is going. To those people, I say, “Yes. You’re very smart. Shut up”. To everyone else, I must confess that the ruination of our HMB game was completely my fault. Were the final two combats overpowering to the party? I’ve thought about it a lot, and, truthfully, I don’t believe they were. Even so, the TPK isn’t what ended that game. The apathetic atmosphere I created was the death knell, and I was in sole possession of the clapper. I stated before that I don’t believe in false modesty, and it’s true. For that to be a virtue, you have to also be willing to face hard truths, and I do my best to keep that true of myself. So here it is, the cold, hard truth…I suck as a GM.

I love to conceptualize plot lines for games. I love to write out the overall plot of a storyline, and to pepper it with smaller moments that make the final payoff worth the journey. All very important things for a GM to be good at, and as I said, I’m the best writer I know. However, that’s only the first of what I consider the three pillars of being a good GM. Let’s call the first pillar “Story”. It doesn’t matter if you like to run a character driven game or a plot driven game, if you don’t have a good concept of Story then you have no business GMing a game. If you aren’t familiar with the terms “character driven” or “plot driven”, or don’t understand why a character driven game (sometimes called a sandbox game) needs Story just as much as a plot driven game, fear not. There’s a column in there, and one I plan to tackle sooner rather than later.

The second pillar of GMing I’m going to call “Detail”. And, alas, here is where my skills start to break down. I’ve already said that I enjoy plotting out details of a story, and, indeed, that is one very big part of this pillar. What I don’t enjoy doing, what comes as an onerous chore for me, is encounter building. Overland mapping is something I’m particularly poor at (a direct result of my complete lack of artistic skill). This includes mapping out towns and cities, but, strangely, doesn’t include dungeons. Although I fear that has more to do with the graph paper than any skill of my own. And yet, mapping isn’t my problem. Or, at least, it’s not my biggest problem with Detail. No, my biggest problem comes with the actual nuts & bolts of populating cities, towns, dungeons, forests or whatever the encounter area happens to be. I’ve put a lot of thought into it, and the only reason I can come up with for this deficiency is that if it’s not important to the story, I’m not really all that interested in it. I’m far more interested in getting to the encounters that advance the plot that I regulate every other encounter as unimportant, and try to gloss over it as quickly as possible. Meaning I could never write for an anime (send all anime hate mail to For the record, I don’t hate anime, I just hate it’s pacing. And my girlfriend loves anime, but, if you think your opinion of it will be more influential than hers is, by all means feel free to give it a try). Detail is important to GMing because it’s the lifeblood on which a campaign thrives. Too little and you may as well just be telling a story. Too much and the game gets bogged down in minutia. If your players just sacked a dungeon and acquired enough things to have to hire six carts to lug it all back to town, making them keep track of what bag and what cart every single copper piece is in is probably going to cause your players to find another table.

The final pillar of GMing is Storytelling. And I’m just as bad at Storytelling as I am good at Story. There is a fine difference between the two, but don’t be fooled. There is a difference. Story, as I said, is the ability to come up with a plot. Storytelling is the ability to present it to your players in a way that keeps them interested, engaged, and hanging on your every word. It’s the ability to bring a setting to life, to make your NPCs more than just pieces of paper but real people that the players care about, either because they love them or want to see them destroyed. It’s setting the mood with your descriptions and having your players lean forward in their chair as you deliver the Big Bad’s epic monologue. With the written word I have little trouble leading readers on the journey, making them experience each wonderful and terrible moment as if they were there. But when it comes to the spoken word, my skills are, at best, that of a fourteen-year-old boy talking to a girl of his dreams. I stumble over my words and let slip details well before they should be known.

Are any of these pillars more important than another? I don’t think so. Can you be a good, or even great, GM without being great at all three? Absolutely. Two examples come to mind, both members of my group, both with GMing experience, and both with different strengths and weaknesses that I hope they forgive me for talking about here. Christian’s greatest strength is his Storytelling ability. He has the ability to mimic many celebrity voices, making his important NPCs (and, indeed, his PCs when he’s not GMing) extremely memorable. His lesser NPCs tend to have generic accents of one kind or another, but the ability to give them different voices make them come alive in a way nobody I’ve ever played under has ever done. The other pillar Christian is good at is Detail. A campaign he ran recently involved us being on a boat for a long period of time, so he took the time to create a 3D map of the ship for us. His characters all have stories, no matter how minor they are, and he does his best to create balanced encounters that still tax the party. His shortcomings are when it comes to the Story pillar. He comes from a school of gaming where the players are the star, not the story, and it shows. He doesn’t so much create Story as he does create a world for the characters to live in. That’s not always a bad thing. Some groups thrive on this kind of freedom, but, to be blunt, these games are memorable for the PCs, not the GM.

The other example GM is, well, the guy who owns this blog. He’s amazing at Detail. In fact, he’s as good at Detail as Christian is at Storytelling. Quite simply better at that pillar than anyone I’ve ever played under. Player aids, handouts, and backgrounds, both of his world, his factions, and his NPCs are all top of the line. The last two campaigns he’s run have come with campaign books (thick, spiral bound tomes that detail the world better than any simple synopsis) that he created in his spare time and paid for out of pocket. That kind of devotion to the game should never go unthanked or unnoticed. The other pillar he’s good at is Story. In contrast to Christian, he believes that every game should have an ending. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be sequels to the campaign. Indeed, one of the recent games he ran was actually the fourth in a series, and there’s talk of a possible fifth. But this style of GMing tends to be remembered for the Story itself, rather than just the PCs that played in it. His weakness comes in the form of Storytelling itself. He’s still much better at it than I am, however his NPCs don’t come alive like Christian’s do, and to be blunt, are sometimes memorable in how annoying they are. Having said that, he’s getting better at Storytelling just as Christian is getting better at Story. The two of them playing in each other’s game is great a great boon. As they learn from each other, the next campaign they run is better than the last.

In summation, it takes a rare person to be good at running a game. Finding a good GM is much like finding a good boyfriend/girlfriend. When you find them, stick with them to the bitter end. Our group is lucky enough to have found two, and I’m man enough to admit I don’t belong behind the shield.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at Tuesday, October 13, 2009 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



The 3 of you obviously need to start publishing some adventures together.

Great essay on what it takes to be a successful GM. Thought provoking and I'm now going through all the GM's I've played with to see how many pillars they stand on.

Of the 3, I think Storytelling as you define it is the most difficult to learn. You are born with it or you are not, imo. (im not btw)

October 13, 2009 at 9:47 PM

You seem to approach an RPG as a means to tell a story and relate everything to that. Why isn’t player interaction with the world and story a key element? I think a great GM doesnt write out a great story and then plays that story, I think he lets his players make up a lot of key decisions in how they story should develop and still beeing able to keep the story interesting, to make sure it will have a climax and ending.

You talk about Chris his setting the PC’s at the forefront a negative thing and add the weirdest statement to that: “but, to be blunt, these games are memorable for the PCs, not the GM.”

I never had a game beeing memorable for me as a GM for totally different reasons then for my players. I enjoy their part of shaping the story just as much as they do.

Have you ever considered writing novels? Might be more your cup of tea and if you are truely the greatest writer you should be able to make a lot of money too! :)

October 14, 2009 at 6:36 AM

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