REVERB GAMERS 2012, #13: Who’s the best GM/storyteller/party leader you’ve ever had? What made him/her so great? (Courtesy of Atlas Games.)
I have been so ridiculously, stupidly fortunate in my gaming experiences, it isn’t even fair for anyone to take my idea of a good GM into account. Why do I say that?
I’ve been in the wild and woolly adventures of the Thorne Family in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign run by bestselling author Jim Butcher; it goes without saying that he’s a master of epic storytelling, but he also makes every player feel important. I’ve been in an Amber throne war run by Fred Hicks, co-founder of Evil Hat; he’s got a keen understanding of character motivations, and he knows just when to twist the knife. I was at the first meeting of the Diogenes Club run by Rob Donoghue, fellow Evil Hat founder and one of the creators of Spirit of the Century; if you like bombast, wild theatrical play, and devlishly clever twists, look no further. I’ve played Roman Empire intrigues run by Jason Roberts and Michael Miller, creators of FVLMINATA; Jason’s historical knowledge is vast, even by my standards, and Mike is very skillful at breathing life into the setting. I’ve played in battles on the Caribbean seas run by Jason Hawkins, creator of Run Out the Guns! (as I’ve described elsewhere). I’ve played in a Black Company escapade run by Lydia Leong of Ars Magica and MU* fame; her technical mastery of systems frees the players to be as twinky as they want to be, yet she loves to orchestrate big fights and wallpaper-chewing RP. I’ve played in a power struggle for control of the Kansas City Camarilla run by Allan Grohe of Greyhawk and Chaosium Press renown; he’s got an unparalleled knack for balancing the egos and motives of both players and characters. I’ve played in Clark Valentine‘s original setting; Clark’s a wonder of creativity, and he thrives on player collaboration to build marvelous worlds. And, of course, I’ve played Dragonlance with Cam Banks, as well as countless one-shots and other campaigns of his design.
I’ll give all you RPG players just a moment to seethe with envy.
Some of this luck has been self-made. Several of my favorite games were run by the creators of that system and/or setting, so here’s my best piece of advice: When you’re searching convention programs for games of interest, look for the events where writers and designers are running their own games. In almost everything else, familiarity breeds contempt; in GMing, familiarity breeds comfort and flexibility.
Of all these extraordinary experiences, though, the best GM I’ve ever played with is, hands down, my Darling Husband, Cam Banks. Sure, I’m biased, but I think I’d get a fair amount of agreement for anyone else who’s been lucky enough to sit across the table when he’s running the show.
But I’ve got lots of good reasons why this is the case. First, he tends to run systems that he knows backward and forward, so he navigates the rules with speed and deftness. I know the look in his eyes when he’s crunching numbers, rules, exceptions, and sources; it’s similar to the look WALL-E gets when he’s making one of those tidy little trash cubes.
Because he’s so facile with the mechanics, he rolls easily with whatever harebrained schemes his players develop (and by players doing harebrained things, I mean me, doing what I usually do). He also often runs games in settings on which he’s exhaustively informed, whether because they’re of his own design, or they’re from canons of work on which he’s earned his status as an authority, like Dragonlance and the Marvel Universe.
Second, he juggles player dynamics with uncommon sensitivity. This may be his counselling training and skills as an arbitrator showing through, but whatever it is, he’s got a knack for keeping all the characters in the mix, so even cut-away scenes when the party splits up don’t end up with anyone feeling bored, ignored, or slighted. He manages all different kinds of players and lets them play the way that’s fun for them, making the most of their strengths so that something that may seem annoying to different-style players under another GM ends up feeling like an essential contribution to the whole group.
Third, finally, and most important, he is the single most brilliantly creative storyteller I’ve ever known. He has a Red Phone with a direct line to the Primal Well of Story. If most people were put into a room with paper and pen and told to come up with as many completely original story concepts as possible in one hour, we would probably be quite pleased with two or three solid ideas–Cam would have ten, unique, insanely clever, out-of-the-ballpark hits. He sees stories the way Grand Masters see a chess game, infinite possibilities spooling out from every decision point. And despite this mind-boggling talent, he’s never threatened by his players’ input. I commit the most egregious mutilations of his best intentions, and over and over, he’s taken those derailments and woven narratives I could never have imagined. He even makes me, and all his players, feel like they’re brilliant for those contributions.
He runs games at conventions all the time, so it’s always worth trying to get in to one of his sessions. Bribe, beg, connive, steal–whatever it takes. He’ll redefine your image of a great GM, but even more remarkable, he’ll make you feel like you’re a great player.