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Run Like A Man!

By Steve Darlington

In which the author reminds us that GMs have to be a lot more than just story-tellers.

Atlas Games now own the licence for AM. Check them out here.

At the outset, I would like to say that the comments below should not be taken as any sort of criticism towards the game Ars Magica. Despite what happened, I still regard Ars Magica as one of the best role-playing games I've ever come across, and I urge you all to run out and buy the new edition immediately. Ars Magica is merely the device through which I learnt a valuable lesson about being a GM: you need more than just a dream.

It all began one fine summer day, when I decided to gather my friends for some role-playing. I'd just purchased the third edition of Ars Magica, and was dying to try it out. And so I presented myself with the book, some dice and a big stack of character sheets.

For those of you who have never played Ars Magica, the phrase "big stack" needs clarification. Ars Magica requires each player, and the GM, to create at least two characters: a mage, and a "companion". The mages are the main characters of the campaign, and the companions are the supporting characters who live and work with the mages. In any given adventure, one or two players will play their mage, and the rest will play companions, bar one who plays the "grogs". Grogs are even more supporting than the supporting characters; they are the rabble of grunts that the group of mages needs to handle combats and the like. The book suggests that each player creates about 5 or so grogs. Which brings us to the grand total of 7 characters to design each.

AM has many strange virtues and flaws, stretching from "Immortal" to "Leprosy".

Again, for those of you who have never played Ars Magica, the phrase "design" will also need clarification. Ars Magica has a long and complex character creation system, similar to that of GURPS. Players have to choose abilities, skills, backgrounds, advantages, disadvantages and more. As with GURPS, many of the advantages and disadvantages are of a deeply psychological or emotional nature, and have a strong impact on both character creation and role-playing. When you add the fact that mages also need to choose where their magical strength lies (spending points on 15 separate categories) and choose their spells (from a cross-referencing list of over 250), this rapidly gets out of hand. We are talking about maybe half an hour to make a companion, and at least an hour to make a mage.

This is, of course, assuming that you are able to read through the rule-book thoroughly and fully understand the creation process, the rules, the setting and the intricate magical paradigm it uses. Now you may have spotted my problem: I had just the one book. And I had five players who had never played the game before. The result was an unmitigated disaster - no one knew what was going on. It took us over three sessions of play just to finish making the mages. After that, the game just fell apart, and the summer holidays ended without us playing one session that wasn't ruined with rules consulting, character adjustment or general confusion.

But the root of this problem, the reason the whole game collapsed, has nothing to do with Ars Magica, but rather with me. The potential for this problem had simply not occurred to me, and I wasn't in the slightest bit prepared for it. By the time I realised how bad things were turning out, and how to change them, it was too late. I should have made photocopies of relevant rules and tables, I should have lent the book out to my players weeks in advance, I should have provided my players with something to do while others were reading the book, I should have...

AM calls its setting "Mythic Europe", that is, the medieval world we'd like to imagine it was. It drips with GM inspiration.

There are a thousand things I should have done, but I didn't, because I didn't see the problem. Why not? Because I was in GM dream-land. The weeks leading up to the first game, I was designing worlds in my head; dreaming up PC's and NPC's and villains and monsters and adventures. I wrote complex plots, lengthy descriptions and detailed backgrounds, I was reveling in the ecstasy of campaign design. Every GM knows this feeling: it's your world, your stories, and everything is going to be just perfect. Of course, you soon wise up when your players start tearing apart all your ideas, but that's another story.

And I'm not knocking this. The dream-land is great. It's where we get all our great ideas from. It's where we get the desire to be GM's from. But when it comes to doing the job, this is just not enough. Because a GM is not simply a dream merchant, or a story-teller, she's a referee as well. And a manager. And an event organizer. It's up to the GM not just to tell a story, but to run a game. And keep it running, smoothly and enjoyably, week after week.

And to do this, you need to take certain steps. You have to budget your time carefully. You have to plan ahead and be well organized. You have to make sure everyone turns up on time, and brings everything theyy need. You have to make sure no-one is left out, and everyone knows what is going on. You have to predict possible problems, and be prepared to handle them. In short, you have to manage your games, in the same way as a business would manage any group project.

I'm not for a second suggesting we take all the fun out of the game. All I'm saying is that being a GM requires more than just creativity and dramatic poise. It also requires decent managerial skills, the kind of skills that any good executive are required to have. I'm also not suggesting over-preparing so much that you remove any spontaneity, creativity or free-form opportunities from your games. Those sorts of things, however, can only work well if you and the players are already working together as a well-organized team. And I'm also not suggesting you throw away your improvisation abilities. But having an organized framework in which to work makes improvisation much, much easier.

If you have a friend or relative who is a teacher, or runs a youth group or a sporting team, they may be able to give you some tips on this sort of management.

So next time you're thinking about taking up the GM ropes, don't just think about the stories you'll be creating. It's definitely worth while also having a good hard think about the GAME you will be RUNNING. Think about who will be playing: what will each individual bring to your game, and how will they all work as a group? Think about what you will be playing, and more importantly, how you and your group should approach it to get the most enjoyment from it. Think about what you want, and what your players want, and consider how these needs can best be balanced. If you don't know what they want, ask them! Most importantly, consider and plan the time and resources you will need to achieve this balance.

Clearly, we aren't all experts in leisure sociology; and we're not running a summer camp where no-one is allowed to feel left out. It's the real world, and our games can't be perfect. But if you begin just to think about these things, you'll achieve two things. Firstly, you'll be training yourself in the kind of skills that executive employers really look for, and secondly, you'll find your games will start being more fun - for everyone. And after all, that's what these games are all about - and you are the games master, are you not?


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