Ramblings on GMing Voice

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Personal, RPGs

As I mentioned in my previous post about WoAdWriMo, I’ve been thinking about starting up my D&D campaign again in a few months, and so am starting to think a little bit about GMing topics again. Add on to that the fact that our group just started up another new campaign (Yeah…) and it’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.

One of the other guys in our group has begun his new campaign in DragonStar, which I previously talked about here, and it’s going pretty well. I’m still kind of worried about how it’s going to work out beyond these few initial steps — We’re drawing from about 20 books total, including both magic and technology, and in essence there is a counter to everything. Fantasy D&D itself is already quite problematic with the obscene number of spells in unforeseen combinations it has, adding technology into the mix just makes it that much more troublesome. Anyway, I’m starting to drift.

Playing this campaign has gotten me started on thinking about GMing voice as an important factor in the game. Now — I basically take it for granted here that “the best” campaign is one in which the GM is doing as little as possible, meaning the players are so engaged with their characters and the campaign world that they don’t need pushing and prodding. But getting to that gaming nirvana is no easy matter, and one certainly can’t expect to start there. The degree of a push any game needs to get rolling, though, is up to the players, how well everyone interacts and plays off of each other, how much each person’s creative vision overlaps with everyone else’s, and so on.

One of the things I was noticing while playing in the DragonStar campaign is how much a bad GMing “voice” so to speak, can hinder involvement in the game. Now for the purpose of structuring my thoughts I’m dividing up “voice” into three categories:

– Narrative style
– Vocabulary
– Demeanor

Narrative style refers to basically how you tell your story. How much description do you use, do you “act” out the lines NPCs say or merely describe them? My general feeling here is that if you’re running a homebrew campaign setting you definitely need to step up the description. Now I’m not advocating writing up a block of text such as you might see in a prewritten adventure (unless doing so will help you remember the description better on the fly), since nobody really listens to the block of text. The idea here is that if someone asks a question about the environment you need to be able to field that question.

On a similar note, when you are using NPCs by and large I think it’s much more immersive to “act” as the NPC rather than to describe what they say or do. I know I personally have trouble doing this, as I’m not particularly dramatically inclined. On the other hand, it really does improve the game for the players to feel like they are interacting directly with the NPC rather than through this distancing membrane. Discretion, of course, is required, as not every NPC should be so readily accessible. For mysterious characters, distancing will add to their mystique.

Vocabulary is raw word choice, and when done wrong is probably the single easiest thing that can undermine your “GM Voice” authority. I know I personally tend to use stopgaps such as “Uh”, “Um”, and “Like” too much. Controlling this tendency is something I’m always struggling with. My friend running the DragonStar campaign has a similar problem with “Basically” — The word, when used frequently in descriptions, conveys a sense of hemming-and-hawing, a sense of uncertainty that is a stumbling block for immersion.

Demeanor I’m throwing in here to indicate what I consider intangibles or extras that can affect your game. If you’re such a nice guy that you will refuse to kill off characters this will definitely affect how players interact with your campaign. The alternative is being ruthless, which can encourage competitive “Beat the GM” play.

All of these categories are rather fluid and flow into each other. For example, I think a GM’s ability to do, say, comic character voices falls into a general sense of his demeanor — But it also influences the descriptiveness of the game when used with the right intent. In the latter case this becomes acting, which is effectively character description by demonstration. Despite that the categories are fluid, in thinking about how I want to conduct my campaign in the future I find them somewhat useful to think about as they give me general areas I can focus in on and improve.

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