Strategic Gamemastering, Part 1: RPG theory, Premises and Data gathering

GNS and Big Model theories have limits. They describe the players, the relationships between player stances, and the social contract between the players. They help expose the incoherences and/or game design flaws of role-playing games. They help understand the psychological mechanics & dynamics of a RPG gaming table. They help understand that differing expectations will end up with incoherence, zilch play, or even agenda clash. In that, they are useful awareness-raising tools for the GM and the players alike.

However, they also show their limits in that they are theoretical tools, from which GM & player best practices have to be deducted, and depend on the effort of the GM, on his understanding, and on the willingness and/or ability of each player to understand her own creative agenda, her own needs and expectations, know her own stance and the nature of the game, and fulfill her part of the gaming table "social contract".

But what of the time-deprived gamemaster? What of the player who is unwilling or unable to clearly state or even understand his own expectations?

Moreover, what of the case of an impromptu gaming table, or a gaming convention demo? How can a GM apply his understanding of the Big Model or the GNS model to the gaming session at hand without engaging in interviews on the preferred creative agendas and expectations of the players?

I believe that these limits can be broken through by any GM, by adopting a common, game-independant, player-independant, creative-agenda-independant methodical gamemastering approach.


Tabletop roleplaying games share common traits :

  • They occur on a table (virtual or physical).
  • They involve players, who take on the roles of characters during the course of the game.
  • They involve a gamemaster (whether a single player, rotating gamemaster, or shared gamemastery between players).
  • They have a gaming system.
  • They take place according to a particular universe or setting (which can be written or implicit).
  • The aim of the game is to have fun, through creative agenda blends of 3 main axes of exploring the universe through player-controlled characters, creating a story set in the aforementioned universe in which player-controlled characters are protagonists, and besting other (player-controlled or GM-controlled) characters through luck, ingenuity or min-maxing.

The most important common trait in this list is the last one: players and GM alike want to have fun, and, hopefully, to achieve a maximum level of personal fun. Additionnally, the deeper they have invested themselves in the game, the more fun the players experience.

According to these premises, any general gamemastering approach needs to aim at optimizing the fun experienced by each player, while reducing the stress & energy load of the gamemaster.

The issues with fun optimization

Fun optimization in a roleplaying game, however, is difficult to achieve by the very fact that the players enter the game with different expectations, and that they have a very high level of control on the flow of the game through the actions of their characters. The very difficult work of the gamemaster will be to find a compromise between the various player's expectations and wishes in order to make the game enjoyable for everyone.

However, the more a player's expectations differ from the others', the greater the gap between said player's wishes and the resulting compromise, and the more gamemaster effort incurred to achieve that compromise.

The result, however, is disappointing :

  • the game will be less enjoyable for that player, regardless of the fact that the gamemaster invested more time and more energy into worming his character, his expectations and his wishes into the game ;
  • the game will be less enjoyable for the other players, because the wishes and expectations of the differing player will have drawn the resulting compromise solution apart from the other player's own expectations and wishes ;
  • the game will require more energy from the gamemaster in order to reconcile player expectations and wishes whereas such energy might have been spared for better improvisation, more detailed world-design, prop creation, or anything else.

The obvious solution would be to reach an agreement with differing players whereas they'd curb their wildest expectations in order to help obtaining a compromise (or not play with them at all). However, this approach incurs an effort from the gamemaster and the concerned player, and will necessarily end up with restraining the differing player's ideal fun. The issue is even worse when each player's creative agenda wildly differs from every other player's, in which case the differing expectations will gravely interfere with how the plot will unfold & how the players will interact with the setting.

It seems necessary at this stage to raise the obvious questions: what is "good gamemastering"? What is a "good gamemaster"?

Basically, gamemasters are judged by their own players, but according to which criteria can a player judge a gamemaster to be good? According to the fun the player had in playing the game. And the criterion is obvious: it depends on whether the gamemaster catered to the player's wishes and expectations, according to said player's creative agenda.

A good gamemaster therefore endeavors and succeeds at catering to all players' differing creative agendas at the same time. With the incurring energy expenditure, no wonder good gamemasters often feel spent after running a game.

Therefore, a valid gamemastering optimization method needs to :

  1. work for any tabletop roleplaying game, regardless of system or setting;
  2. take into account differing player creative agendas without trying to forcefuly reconcile them;
  3. diminish the gamemaster workload while also improving his management of the Shared Imagined Space.

First steps in Strategic Gamemastering

Strategy :

  1. A method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem.
  2. The art and science of planning and marshalling resources for their most efficient and effective use. The term is derived from the Greek word for generalship or leading an army. -

Keeping this in mind, an efficient gamemastering strategy would exploit each player's efforts in-game and meta-game to fullfill his own creative agenda and divert that energy expenditure to the goal of fulfilling the other players' own creative agendas.

This approach requires a rational and systematic analysis and exploitation of any and all data available to the GM about his players' creative agenda. Most of this data is not only easily and readily available, but also provided in an easily exploitable and understandable format: the player-character as defined not only by its character attributes and background scribbled on the character sheet, but also by the acting of the player.

Hence the three most obvious data sources available to the GM trying to exploit the creative agenda of a player are the following:

  1. Player-character backstory & description
  2. Player-character goals
  3. Player acting

Let's look into them.

Player-character backstory & description (numbered and/or lettered)

The main source of data for player creative agenda exploitation, really. The backstory of a character is often very revealing of the creative agenda of the player. A thoroughly occult backstory in a supernatural investigation game may indicate either that the player intends for his character to take the role of a mentor (or dark mentor for that matter), or that he designed the character in the aim of representing a real competition to the possible supernatural dangers of the setting: giving his character the ability to best supernatural antagonists on their own field.

Whichever is the answer, the player means for his character to be considered as a present (or past, since we're talking about backstory) strong contender in the occult. Any GM aiming at satisfying this player's creative agenda will certainly do better by this player if the scenario at hand has ties with the strongly supernatural past of the character. The player will probably find more opportunities for his personal satisfaction & enjoyment:

  • by exploring a scenario with ties into the backstory of his character, which will give him more opportunities for drama;
  • if the scenario consistently takes into account the backstory of the character and that there is even more to explore in his own past, enriching his roleplaying;
  • by confronting the character with personal past foes or nemeses, ultimately ending with the character besting them in the course of the scenario (and/or campaign).
  • by the "spotlighting" of his character as a key character in the game.

The same principles can be applied to the player-character description, whether as defined by attributes or skill scores on the character sheet, or as written secrets, flaws, traits and notes related to the character.

For example, the player of a Dungeons & Dragons character with a 18 Strength will expect that this particularly high attribute rating will distinguish him (both in good and bad ways) from other characters. The player of an albino character will also expect this albinism to have an impact on the game, both good and bad.

Both these traits are easy to exploit for a gamemaster because these are distinguishing traits, and fun for the player because his choices at character creation have a defining effect on the situation / story at hand. These traits help set aside the character from its peers, and as such they are obvious but efficient potential story hooks. However, all other character traits are just as useful for the gamemaster : the traits which do not distinguish the character from its peers are also hooks to the character's social group, to his daily life.

In the long run, getting hooks in the character through various traits tends to ensure that the player does not get bored with the way his character is introduced in the scenario.

Player-character goals

Player-character goals are usually very strong indicators of a player's creative agenda, and the most effective way to integrate the character in the scenario / campaign while maximizing the player's engagement in the game. It is through character goals that the player "reveals his hand", since he necessarily expects his character to have an opportunity, sooner or later, to pursue his goals. A character's goals can even be exploited, for example through a little NPC misdirection, to shoehorn said character in the scenario - though not too often as not to irritate the player by regularly deceiving him.

As a player, I remember my gamemaster using exactly this tactic in order to hook my character in a scenario: In a pulp game, I used to play an englishman secret agent, initially trained by a old indian fakir, and with a particular enmity towards thuggee assassins. The GM made one of my character contacts indicate that he had leads on thuggee activity in Boston, which made me jump into the scenario with gusto. The scenario had nothing to do with thuggees, and everything to do with the Tong triads. When my character comfronted his contact, the answer was : "Tong... Thuggees... It's all the same to me". Regardless : the end result was my utmost investment in the scenario, which was thoroughly enjoyable precisely because of that investment.

Player acting

The last source of data for the gamemaster is the acting of the player. This data source is delicate, and often unreliable. Not all players make the same effort at acting while playing their characters, nor have the same talent. Unless a group is composed of experienced improvisation thespians, there is sometimes a risk that the gamemaster might misunderstand the player's acting, or be confused as to whether the player is in-character, or out-of-character.

Therefore, though this data can be exploited and/or (re)acted upon like any other type of data, an experienced gamemaster will exploit it only if he is certain of the player being in-character and of understanding the motivations and objectives of the player-character in that particular interaction.


There is a lot of data which can be gathered and thereafter exploited in order to build a strategic approach to gamemastering a roleplaying game. The next article deals with an easy and efficient manner to organize all this data, in order to design an effective gamemastering strategy.

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