Game Mastering: or, the art of herding cats

We’ve all been there: You spend the weekend reading the next chapter of your current role playing module, cross reference all of the NPCs and monsters with their stat blocks and lore connections, come up with a list of potential plot hooks, and build a complex dialogue tree for your players to explore as they interact with the lord of the manor. Or maybe you prefer the fully home brewed approach and have spent hours designing a meticulous dungeon with traps, cursed treasure troves, interlocking mechanisms, and even an ecosystem of competitive monsters.

You arrive at the role play table, open up your notebook, and down half a bottle of Diet Coke to lubricate the vocal cords. You’re ready to guide your friends through a truly epic encounter.

Then Ted speaks up.

You like Ted. He’s a great guy. You helped him with a home brew beer last month and he paid you back by babysitting your kids. You’ve been gaming together since college and you can’t imagine playing without him, whether you’re raiding a dungeon, competing for control of a multinational cybercorp, or exploring uncharted solar systems.

“So, we’re wondering what’s inside that closet in the blacksmith’s shop.”

Let it settle in for a moment. No reason to panic just yet. This will only take a minute.

“Sure. I’ll need a search check.”

Ted tosses his dice and gets a painfully low result.

“Looks like it’s just a closet,” you say, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Oh, come on. Ariana, why don’t you give it a try?”

Ariana has only been playing with you for about a year. She joined because her boyfriend knew the other players from college. They broke up a couple months later and, in the fallout from their breakup, he ended up taking a job in Alaska. Said something about needing to rethink his whole godforsaken life and, frankly, most everyone in the group agreed. She ended up sticking around and is still a regular at the gaming group.

“Hell, yeah. I sneak up to the closet.”

“There’s nobody around but the party. You already killed the blacksmith last week.”

“I’m still sneaking!”

Fine. This might take twenty minutes, but you’ll get them to the plot before anyone is on their second beer. “Right. So, you sneak up to the closet and don’t find anything particularly interesting.”

“Except the dead blacksmith!” Theo shouts.

“Except the blacksmith, yes, there’s also some extra hammer heads. Pivot bars for tongs. Maybe some half finished chains and a cedar wood box with half a dozen leather aprons.”

“I told you the blacksmith was a pervert!” Greg shouts.

Greg. You kinda wish that you’d never started gaming with him, but he’s best friends with Theo and there’s no way to get rid of him without pissing off half the group, even though the other half hates him more than you do.

Greg keeps riffing on this theme for the next ten minutes, egged on by Theo and Ariana. That’s a bit surprising, but in the course of the conversation it comes out that Ariana hasn’t got laid since her boyfriend moved (a detail that Ted and Sam find endlessly interesting) and she just watched Pulp Fiction two nights ago, so it isn’t long before the Zed jokes are flying like fastballs.

Two beers later you’re just drunk enough to deal with these dips you call friends, when Greg asks, “Why the hell aren’t we playing? I’ve only got another two hours before I have to go.”

“Bedtime for baby?” Sam taunts.

“Gotta get three or four hours in before I’m on shift.” Greg works odd shifts with a day trading firm. As far as you can tell he jumps between international markets at random intervals, fueling his stock trades with a blend of caffeine and high fructose corn syrup, like some kind of angry hummingbird.

Don’t complain that he’s the one who threw everyone off. Don’t complain that…

“So, if everyone done investigating the closet, the party travels to-”

“Hodor!” Sam shouts.

Face palm. Doesn’t anyone have some goddamn earl grey tea around here?

“I haven’t searched the closet yet. There’s got to be a trap door or something.”

“Too late for that,” Ted mutters.

Greg spits beer across the playmat. Thank Cthulhu you haven’t drawn a new map yet.

Ariana shoots Ted an indignant look.

Sam rolls her eyes. “Least I’m getting some, Teddy boy. You finally admit that you’re bi yet?”

You’ve known Samantha since she was Samuel, way back in middle school. Given her habit of always playing female characters and jumping aboard every social justice wagon train throughout middle and high school, nobody was especially shocked when she transitioned in the first year of college.

Ted, perpetually single Ted, is probably the only person who hasn’t fully adapted to Sam’s new clothing and pronouns over the last ten years.

“Just roll!” you say.

The table grows silent for a moment and you try to hide your embarrassment behind a bottle of Guinness. It basically works, though you do catch a glance from Theo that suggests he knows you’re pissed. Maybe from your tone. Maybe because it’s been over a month since you’ve had a beer on gaming night.

Sam throws her dice and shouts, “Ha! Beat that.”

“You give the storage closet a thorough inspection. By the time you’re finished, you’d be willing to bet your life that there is nothing suspicious about it.”

“Double-You-Tea-Elf,” Sam shouts. “Why the hell did you spend so much time describing this closet if it’s just a regular closet?”

It’s time for another beer. You get up from the table and head into the kitchen, calling over your shoulder, “I didn’t. The closet didn’t even exist on my map until Theo insisted on killing the blacksmith and hiding his body someplace in the forge.”

In the dining room, your friends begin arguing about who is to blame for the adventure slowing to a crawl. Your eyes settle on a bottle of moderately expensive bourbon sitting in the liquor rack beside the refrigerator. You’re trying to give up alcohol, at your age the calories are starting to count and chocolate makes you almost as happy, but Ted still owes you for that hydrometer he busted while you were helping him with his home brew.

By the time you make it back to the table, expensive bourbon concealed in a tall glass of coke, Theo, Sam, and Ted have decided on a courses of action. Andrea wants to set up shop here in town, taking over the forge and using her disguise skills to pose as the blacksmith until such time as they can pretend that he has decided to retire to the southlands and sell the forge to his illegitimate daughter. The others overrule her, insisting that it’s high time they go to the manor house to turn in a quest that Sam has just remembered them picking up three or four months ago.

“Great! You all go up the hill towards the manor house. It’s grander than you remember, with half of the front replaced by grey stone. Clearly the lord has heard of the dangerous beasts abroad in this land and has decided to fortify his home against incursion.”

“We walk boldly up to the front gate,” Theo declares.

“OK. There are numerous laborers toiling beneath the noonday sun.”

“It’s still morning,” Ariana insists.

“I’m counting all that time you spent searching the closet.”

“But!”

“I’m still not counting your encumbrance for all the goblin swords you stole. If I say it’s noon, it’s noon. Pray that I don’t alter the arrangement any further.”

There are chuckles all around the table. You continue, “There are more guards at the gate now, possibly to ensure that none of the laborers try to sneak in.”

“I step forward to speak with the head guard,” Theo declares.

“He looks at you with-”

“And I use my ability to disappear in plane sight,” Adriana says.

Oh. Oh, no.

“I sneak around to the side…”

Please tell me that this isn’t happening, you think.

Adriana throws a handful of dice on the table. The whole party exclaims in delight as she shouts, “Sneak attack, beotches! And crit damage!”

“Cast of your bonds, free laborers of Jotungaard!” Ted exclaims.

“Death to the king!” Sam and Greg shout in unison.

“Oh, frak me,” you moan. Through your fingers, you notice Theo adding another  mark to his meticulously tracked tally of GM outbursts.

You slam the book on your notes, toss it aside, and reach for a wet erase marker to start drawing a battle map of the castle. Apparently the party has decided to overthrow the government that they spent the last year propping up. If you’re lucky, maybe they’ll all fail their saves and die beneath a murder hole equipped with a cauldron of hot oil.