How to be a Star Wars Game Master
Complied below are some guidelines that I believe to encompass the qualities of a good Star Wars Gamemaster (although the suggestions found within can be easily applied to any RPG). These thoughts, of course, are a matter of personal taste, and your mileage may vary - but I think that 10 years of running a game says I must be doing something right. Feel free to pick and chose - you may not use everything, but at least give some consideration to the thoughts below. . .
Rule one: Fun is the name of the game -
This rule, above all others cannot, must not be broken. If the participants are not having fun, then what's the point of getting together? Everyone might as well be staying at home, watching TV. Now I am *NOT* saying that the characters should win and/or be successful at everything they set out to do. Some of the best game's I've run were one where the players had their butts handed to them on a platter - but everyone still enjoyed themselves. The heroes can lose and still have a good time doing it (case in point - Empire Strikes Back, where the Rebels lost big time, but it was a great movie).
Also - this rule applies to EVERYONE, including the GM. If the GM is not having a good time, it will show through to the work, and the game will suffer for it. Balance the game, so everyone including the GM, is having fun.
Rule One-A:Don't Be Unfair -
This is not a game of 'You' versus 'Them' - there are no winners and losers (well, if everyone has a lousy time, then I guess you are ALL losers). The worst thing for a GM to do is to "play against the players". Let the PCs succeed if you can't think of a reason why they shouldn't, even if they seem to get away too easily. On the other hand, don't give them everything they want, that WILL end up boring in the long run.
Rule Two: Rules are CRAP!
Observation #1: The Star Wars game mechanics consists of lots and lots of rules.
Observation #2: Star Wars is a fast, action packed universe.
Conclusion: If not handled correctly, the game will bog down to a slow, boring crawl.
I wont lie, GMing any game (including Star Wars) is a lot of work. Characters to write up, settings to construct, a good story to write and dozens of rules to memorize. For a beginning GM, it can be overwhelming.
As a GM becomes more and more adapt at the game mechanics, eventually you get to the point where you can determine, without rolling dice, what succeeds and what fails. You learn to streamline the rules to keep up with the fast and loose setting that is Star Wars. The player just bust out a stream of absolutely brilliant dialogue while trying to bamboozle that Stormtrooper - let them get away with it. Do you need to look up EVERY range for EVERY weapon in the fire-flight - just call it medium range and get on with the fight. Know the mechanics well enough to employ them when necessary, but know them well enough to ignore them as well.
Rule Two-A: Dice are CRAP!
At the climax of the campaign, In the final conflict between the characters and Ultimate Evil - the Wookiee rolls enough damage on the very first shot to kill your villain outright. Suddenly the grand confrontation is in jeopardy of being un-satisfying and unrewarding. One shot, one kill. What can the GM do to save the end of the game?
The Villain spent a force point, or got really lucky on the wild die - something to keep him in the fight. However, with great power comes great responsibility - never, ever abuse this ability. Alter the game only when Rule one is about to be broken. Also, don't be afraid to use this tactic on the players, also - killing them out of hand from a lucky stormtrooper shot is. . . anti-climatic at best.
Rule Three: No battle plan EVER survives contact with the enemy -
Be prepared to be flexible at any time during the evening. There are more players than there are of you, and they can be a lot more devious than you - so be prepared to diverge off the course you have carefully plotted out, for they WILL come up with coming you hadn't thought of. Of this, I guarantee.
For example - at one point in my game, the Chaos Crew owned a bar on a resort rim world. The GM decided to throw some underworld action at the players, by having the local Mobsters trying to get a cut of the action. The GM fully expected us, in typical Chaos Crew fashion, to go after this Mob Boss guns
blazing - and normally he'd be right. However, one of the players casually asked if there was an regional governor election coming up any time soon. Upon hearing that there was one coming up in six months or so- the player then proposed the cunning and subtle plan of: "Lets run for governor and put him out of business the legitimate way!"
All the other players thought it was a great idea, and set about how to out the plan in motion - totally ignoring the direct approach. Meanwhile, the GM, behind his screen, looked down at his suddenly useless stack of NPC thugs and detailed plan of the Mobster's stronghold. If the GM wasn't confidant in stepping off the proscribed path, the game would have come to a screeching halt.
Rule Four: Free will Vs the Story -
There are ways to constrain the characters and make them do your bidding and/or follow the plot of the game. However, these methods must appear to be almost undetectable, or otherwise the game suddenly feels artificial - like if the characters look the wrong way, they'll see the edges of the set, complete cameras and crew. They should feel as if they COULD fly off to Bespin at the drop of a hat if they wanted to.
What's a poor beleaguered GM to do then? The players may be devious, but the GM has a much more potent tool at his disposal - the power to manipulate the universe. The Characters want to leave planet to chase down the villain from last game? The spaceport is locked down due to an upswing in terrorist activity. They want to run for regional governor? The Mob Boss in question kidnaps one of the Character's friends and forces the confrontation. Or the background check is too extensive for them to run with their Rebel Alliance background.
Rule Five: Know where you are going -
You don't have to have the very end of the campaign plotted out in every detail, but certainly have an idea where the story is going. That way, you can start foreshadowing from day one. Little, subtle things - throwaway lines like "He has too much of his father in him." "That's what I'm afraid of.", or slowly revealing more information about the main villain of the game. All of the above will make the conclusion that much more interesting and satisfying when the time comes.
The trick to it is to make sure that what you say makes the players take notice, without being obvious enough that they say to themselves "OK, so the GM wants us to know ______." One thing that I like to do is have a Rule of set ideas for what will develop in the campaign universe: conspiracies, brush wars, military coups, whatever. Once you have these ideas in place you start casually dropping hints about what is to come for all of these ideas, but (and this is the devious GM trick) depending on the actions and interests of the PCs, only a few of your ideas actually happen, or only a few of them are of any importance to the characters! For example, in one session you casually let the players know that a man from an archaeological dig who tends to get drunk and tell incredible stories about ancient technology goes missing. The players automatically think "Oh, the dig must have uncovered something powerful, and somebody wants to make sure that nobody else finds out." Just when they're finishing whatever they are currently doing, and starting to prepare to find out more about this dig you throw them a curve ball and let them know that the guy who went missing was actually on a 2 week bender, but that Star Destroyer that they saw in drydock last month (and have now virtually forgotten about) has just destroyed a New
Republic taskforce with an unknown new weapon. . .
And of course the further out you can plot and plan the better. If you can set up the climax of the whole campaign in the very first scene of the first game, then go for it! However, with that level of detail, be prepared to re-write on the fly - again, battle plans and contact with the enemy. Build all the PCs and NPCs with trap doors, just in case of accidental death, unanticipated character disinterest or a sudden flash of GM inspiration. Don't get so locked into The Plan, that you lose sight of telling a good story.
Rule Six: Cause and effect -
Everything the characters do should have an effect on the game world - or if not have an effect, not get contradicted later in the campaign. To do so then gives the players the impression that their actions didn't really matter. Luke blew up the Death Star - there are going to be repercussions, both good and bad, from that. It should be the same for your characters.
One interesting method of showing the players that they don't exist in a vacuum is to prepare a 'newsnet' handout. This contains brief local stories about all types of news, some of which may be foreshadowing for the campaign, and some of which may have nothing to do with them. When the players read about something that their characters did, it's very rewarding for them, and interesting for them to see how the 'other side' sees them.
Rule Seven: Anything you say can and will be use against you -
The biggest bombshell ever to grace the silver screen - "I am your Father!" Now sure you can't unleash a Dark Lord of the Sith on EVERY player, but you can come up with your own twists and turns for your characters. I am, of course talking in a much larger scope than just villains being distant relatives - I mean using everything. That Imperial officer that the players have to capture? Why not make it the same officer who ordered the execution of X-Wing Pilot Bob's family. Suddenly the mission has a very real stake to one of the players, and done right could have a dramatic scene or two (PC1: "Put the gun down, the alliance said we needed to bring him back alive." Bob: "And let him get away - AGAIN? I don't think so. . .")
But the scope has to be bigger than that - old lovers, academy buddies as underworld contacts, unexpected offspring from that one night stand years ago, characters as descendants of disposed royalty. Each one has just loads of plot potential, either as sideline material or for a full game. Don't waste it.
Rule Eight: Bigger is better -
This is Star Wars - make the games BIG! Not necessarily having the players save the galaxy every week, or blowing up a Death Star on a regular basis (although they SHOULD do this from time to time), but pushing the characters to the limit and beyond. Think of the game a juggling act for the
players - keep tossing them more and more balls to juggle until they have so many in the air, they cant blink without having everything come crashing down around them.
Lets say the climax of the game is a simple gun fight between the a gang of Mercs and the players. Put the gunfight in a hospital. - in the nursery ward. Then set the hospital on fire. Then have the Empire show up and surround the building with walkers and scores of stormtroopers. Then have the Imperial troops led by the Dark Jedi that's hunting the characters. And the players are running out of Force Points.
That's when the pregnant rebel operative goes into labor.
This is called the onion style of gaming. The players keep peeling back the layers of the onion until they get to the center - but by the time they do that, they should be crying.
Rule Nine: It's technical. It's one of our little toys -
Don't be afraid to use . . . other materials to enhance the game experience. Bring toy lightsabers and blasters to the game, scatter lead figures across the table, throw the Phantom Menace soundtrack on the CD player, use action figures, bubblegum cards, Pez dispensers, micromachines - anything to make the game more realistic, believable, and fun.
Besides - players love waving around toy lightsabers during a fight.
Rule Ten: Random encounter tables are your friend
ALAWAYS have some stock encounters on-hand. Since there are more player brains than GM brains and players are statistically more likely to create a new path than follow the one so carefully and lovingly made by the GM, the GM should "stack his deck" to keep things flowing smoothly even when they're actually flapping for dear life! And there's nothing like a fire fight with some bounty hunters to buy you some thinking time as you reorganize your thoughts. . .
Special thanks to
Armage Bedar, Ben Wafer, Phil O'Neill, Michael C McNeill
and everyone on the SWRPG mailing list for help putting this document together.