Design

The Lazy Game Masters

I admit – I’m a lazy Game Master. I don’t like spending long hours preparing sessions, coming up with a complex plot, designing tons of locations and NPCs. But I really enjoy the game itself, interacting with the players, presenting them with hard choices, finding out more about their characters, sharing excitement and emotions. Because of that I always look for games that will help me with the parts that I don’t like, so I can focus on the things I enjoy.

For many years I’ve played games that were quite the opposite, like WFRP, WoD or Fading Suns. They had a lot of rules, an interesting setting, but in terms of preparing and running the game they weren’t much of a help.

It was as if the designers were telling me: “Here, this is a large and diverse playground. You can do whatever you want with it. Now you’re on your own. You’re the Game Master, you’ll figure it out.

I thought that this is how it had to be and I struggled with coming up with interesting ideas that would be entertaining for my players. That was until I discovered Apocalypse World and realized that a game could be much more helpful to the GM. 

As a designer I’ve always acknowledged that the GM is the one with the toughest job. But my approach was more about explaining how to run my game better, how to be a more efficient, more successful Game Master. In fact, while trying to help, I was putting even more weight on GM’s shoulders. I was  relaying almost all responsibility to her for the sake of everyone’s entertainment. I realized I needed to change my attitude. But how to design a game that really helps the GM? How to design games for lazy Game Masters like me?

Settings

Setting is the part of the game many designers begin with. Some rely on universal mechanics (like Fate, Savage Worlds, GURPS, etc.) and create only the setting themselves. Others design their own rules along with the setting. Some settings are elaborate, like in the Fading Suns, World of Darkness or Forgotten Realms. Some are very sketchy, like in the Apocalypse World, Urban Shadows or Dungeon World. Both approaches come with different pros and cons.

Elaborate settings

Elaborate settings give the GM a background, lore and story hooks at hand. She can focus on the plot, drawing from the rich resources the designers prepared for her. On the other hand learning all the history, geography, political and social order, races, cultures, etc., can be an exhausting and daunting task. It will pay off if you plan to run a lot of games in this particular setting, but if you like exploring many different games (like me), it’s sometimes a waste of time.

Sketchy settings

Sketchy settings usually require the players to come up with a concept themselves, based on general guidelines, provided by the designers. I’m not a fan of this approach either. It’s useful when you want to run a quick game with no preparation, but impromptu settings are rarely interesting. If you have a creative and well-knit group, it could work, but judging from my experience it hardly ever happens. A bland setting means no story hooks, no background and more work for the GM, and that’s not what I’m after.

Settings for lazy Game Masters

Designing a setting that requires minimum effort on the Game Master’s part is not an easy task. It should give them enough material to make creating a story easier, but not too much. We don’t want the GM to spend hours drudging through the sourcebooks. Because of that we should focus on the most important parts for our game.

Focus of the game

What is the game about and what elements of the setting are crucial to make it work? If you want the game to involve mainly killing monsters in dungeons, you don’t need to describe the local court etiquette or the reason for the war between two neighboring kingdoms. It’s all interesting, but wouldn’t add much to the game, would it? Same with the game about courtly intrigue on spaceships. We don’t need to know the problems of enslaved race on a distant planet or the common folk’s legends about mechanical dragons. All that information could potentially lead to a great story, but if the game is about romance and duels, it’s better to focus on things related to the theme. 

This approach of reinforcing the designated gameplay type requires discipline. On every step of designing the setting we have to ask ourselves whether each element helps the GM run the game as we intend it to be run. If not, is this element really necessary? Will it be helpful to the GM or just a potential waste of time?

Obviously this way of thinking requires us to decide what the game is about and how we intent for it to be played, but I assume you have that part covered.

Supplements

If you have a lot of ideas for your setting, that are not essential, but still fun and relevant, you may always add them in supplements. Supplements are for players who are already familiar with the game, who have spent some time playing it and know the basics. For those people new locations or lore will be a welcomed addition and inspiration. Supplements would give your game a breath of fresh air, renew the interest of the players and help the GM. Lazy Game Masters would appreciate you giving them fuel for the next campaign.

Juicy details

After you’ve decided what elements of the setting are crucial to the game, you should add some juicy details following a general description. They will help the GM prepare a compelling story, spark her imagination, but also add a lot of flavor to the game and lead the players in the direction you want.

In our dungeon-crawling game example, you can describe some legendary dungeons, that every adventurer wishes to find or interesting creatures they can encounter. You can add some ideas about why the dungeons exist in the first place, who built them, what was their purpose. Are they ruins of an old empire? A test set by the gods to find worthy champions? Part of an ancient mechanism? 

In the game of the interstellar courtly intrigues, the juicy details may concern the etiquette, feuds between noble houses, the most influential figures, rules and norms of the society. Everyone knows, that a member of House of Serpents never backs down from a duel. When you enter a spaceship, it is customary to have a gift for the host (the more expensive the gift, the more prestige you get). Rumors have it that the duke of Red Arrow cruiser is gravely ill and has no clear successor. These are the type of things you’re aiming for.

Juicy details are a great resource for the GM. She doesn’t need to remember them all, as they are not essential to the game. But if she needs an inspiration, she can turn to the book and find something interesting.

Game mechanics

For many years I thought that the term game mechanics referred to rules that determined an outcome of player’s actions, regulated combat situations and stats of the characters and NPCs. I used to hate game mechanics. All this rolling and counting, preparing characteristics for the opponents – it took away from the game experience for me. But after reading the Apocalypse World, Houses of the Blooded, S/Lay w/Me, Monsterhearts and a lot of other  RPGs, I realized that my understanding of what game mechanics means is very limited. That’s when I became a fan of mechanics.

Simple

When you design rules for the lazy Game Masters, you should make them simple and easy to comprehend. Don’t make the GM memorize characteristics, charts and special rules. In my opinion, complicated, simulation-like mechanics are a nightmare in your first attempt at the game. And it doesn’t get much better later, especially if you have a new player, who is not familiar with the rules.

During the session, sophisticated rules cause a lot of trouble. You have to constantly browse the book, looking for a particular rule and potentially spend time arguing with the players, who interpret the rules differently.

If you want your game to be easy to run – make it simple. Don’t try to make it “realistic”, because it’s impossible to make a game that works like the real world. Let’s make it fun to play instead.

To make a simple mechanics that works great, you need the same mindset as with the setting. Focus on what your game is all about. In a dungeon-crawler you probably need rules about fighting monsters, disarming traps, looting treasure, character classes, weapons, etc. You don’t need elaborate rules of castle sieges or naval battles, because there’s a slim chance that your players will ever do that. In a court intrigue game you should create rules for duels, romance, learning secrets, spreading rumors, etc. You don’t need a versatile bestiary with ton of stats for every monster, since your players will probably never go monster hunting. 

Clear

This is a really challenging part. Clear rules are easy to understand, logical, neat. They are also well organized in the book, so the players can quickly find the information they need. 

I like to divide my rules into two categories: core and optional. Core rules contain everything that is necessary to run the game, especially for the first one or two sessions.

It’s really hard to decide what the players can do without and sometimes the only way is to test it with different groups. Optional rules make the game even more fun. You should encourage the GM to incorporate them when she feels comfortable with the core rules. 

There are many small things you can do to improve clarity of the rules. For example I like to write game terms, like Skill, Attribute, Challenge with a capital letter so it’s obvious that I’m referring to rules of the game. You can use bulleted lists, text boxes, diagrams or text formatting to make the rules visually easier to understand. You can write examples (and format it differently, so it’s easy to distinguish between regular text and the example). Examples are a great way to explain how a rule works and tell the reader something about your vision of the game at the same time.

Supportive

The game mechanics are not limited to determining whether characters overcome the odds and achieve their goals, or fail and face the consequences. They’re not limited to combat, hit points, skills and dice rolls. Game mechanics, if designed with a lazy GM in mind, can be a powerful support system. 

Usually RPGs assume that the GM will spend hours preparing for every session. They require a scenario with plot twists, antagonists, story arch and all the hero’s journey. Lazy GMs can use premade adventures or campaigns, but what if they wanted to play something different? Something original? More suited to the group’s needs? How do we design a game that will be easy to run with little preparation?

Rules for the GM

The answer is: by designing game mechanics in a way that supports the GM. I like the concept of the rules that tell the GM how to run the game. “Whenever X happens, do Y”. Whenever the room goes silent, throw a surprise attack on players. Whenever a new NPC enters the scene, pick one player and make the NPC instantly hate or love her. Whenever players don’t know what to do, introduce a freight train that’s about to run them over. 

These kind of rules help a lazy GM during the session. Even if she didn’t prepare a lot of content, the game gives her guidelines on how to improvise, how to deal with certain situations that may arise during play. Even the most experienced Game Masters are constantly surprised by the players’ actions. They would appreciate the game giving them a hand in those situations. 

Preparation

You can go even further and give the GM a step-by-step guide of how to prepare a plot for the next session. For this to work you need to focus (again) on what your game is about. General tips on how to prepare a story to any given game wouldn’t be very helpful for a lazy GM. It needs to be tailored to the gameplay you want for your game. In our dungeon crawler your guide should cover designing a dungeon, a monster and a treasure with some interesting twist quickly. In our space court game, the GM should get information on how to create a romantic situation, a rivalry, an intrigue, a political plot and things like that. It’s not a full blown adventure, but it’s enough if the GM has little time or doesn’t like to prepare complex stories. 

Improvisation

Game mechanics can also help the GM with improvising the story as she goes. PbtA games or The Freeform Universal RPG are both great examples of this approach.  The outcome of any test gives the GM something to work with. There’s no simple “ok, you did it, congrats” or “sorry, you failed, try again” outcome. There’s always a “but”, an “if” or an “and”. The rules require the GM to put players in tight spots, give them hard choices, make their lives interesting. And it’s not just a suggestion from the designers, it’s a built-in mechanics of the game that regulate what the GM should do in every situation.

I fell in love with this as a lazy Game Master. I no longer had to spend hours preparing a story. I could just sit with my players whenever we felt like it and watch it unfold before our very eyes. With the rules guiding our every step we could just trust the game and see where the story would lead us. It’s entertaining, exciting, interesting. And it requires half the effort I used to put into running a game. 

Conclusion

Let’s not be lazy game designers. Let’s not create games that tell the GMs: you’re on you own, go figure it out. Let’s figure it out for them. Let’s design games that are easy to run, but still engaging. Not every game has to be universal. If a game is about everything, than it doesn’t support any given playstyle and relies on the GM to do all the work. If you design a game with a certain gameplay in mind, you can design the setting and the mechanics that supports it, and – in turn – support the Game Master. 

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are you lazy Game Masters yourselves or do you enjoy preparing complex stories? Do you think that we should design games for lazy Game Masters or is it better to have an universal game for many different playstyles?

Leave a Reply