Teaching GM Skills: The Roughest of Outlines

Thursday afternoon in the At-Will Webchat, @gamefiend asked the question, "What skills would you need to be a great GM?" The room talked and debated, focusing on what skills we can teach in some sort of "How to GM" educational course. The discussion fed into my pipe dream of some sort of GM Academy or at least a certification, but that's a topic for a different day.

Some of us focused on scope, and yes, there is a big difference between GMing a one-shot at a con with newbie players and an extended campaign at home with friends. Some focused on finding the simplest core of GMing: debatably rules arbiter, master of surprise (story or dice), and pacing/spotlight director. Some spun off into a discussion about psychoanalysis and escapism. It was glorious. The thoughts swirling around the room made it hard to keep up on my tiny phone screen, but the effort was well worth it.

Since then, I've been stewing on it and trying to come up with the skills I'd teach. Not all skills are applicable in all situations, but I'd rather err on the side of overfilling the GM's toolbox rather than risking neglecting a technique that will save a GM's bacon in a specific circumstance. I was hoping to write up a little on each, but then the outline kept expanding.

So I'll leave it in your capable hands. Here's the outline that I threw together. What's missing? What topics would you like to see explored in-depth? What topics do you already have resources for and would you be willing to share them in the comments?

The Outline-In-Progress
The Big Picture
- Overall Goals. How do I GM? What's the point? What core ideas do I take into a game? How do I know if I'm doing well? Separating design-time from run-time.
- Which came first, the game or the social relationship? Shared language and depth of trust at the gaming table. Start talking about Social Contract, since it's important enough to cover twice.
- What does GMing mean? Thinking on different levels (Campaign, Adventure, getting in NPC's heads, tactical adventure decisions). Allowing different levels of player control.
- Scope: One-shots vs. ongoing campaigns. Different skills needed for each scope.

The Rules
- Intro: Player-level learning. Easiest skillset to master. WILL NOT cover looking at actual rulesets. What rules do you need to learn? PLAY THE SYSTEM, or at least mock up something to run through yourself so you can see how the system works.
- Styles of rules: Simulationist vs. Narrativist vs. Gameist. Different expectations and emphasis on play.
- Styles of mechanics: Narrativist "roll for scene resolution" vs. Sim "Roll each hit in combat". Maybe a little deeper, like dice pools vs. d20-style to-hit and damage rolls?
- Figuring the point of play. What player actions receive rewards under the rules?
- Two types of rules: Conflict (X vs. Y: who wins?), and spotlight control (building scenes and creating stuff in-world). Go for the awesome and only roll when it forwards the story.
- Extend discussion to how to improv within the rules. Where's the wiggle room? Where can you tweak, and do you need to?
- Extend discussion to world design - How do rules and abilities impact social standards? If everyone can cast magic missile at will, what changes vs. Vancian magic?

The Story ("Advanced" - Campaign/adventure design: mostly not applicable for canned one-shots)
- Act and Scene structure - Story Arc and Adventure contexts - overlaps with "pacing" below.
- Surprises and Preparing for sudden turns.
- Making structures to support improvisation - Don't be afraid to go off-script. An adventure ain't sacrosanct. Prepping your GM Toolbox with scenes and side plots.
- Keeping track of Run-Time decisions vs. Design-time plotting. How to manage your campaign.

The Game
- The Social Contract - setting expectations and making sure everyone is rowing in the same direction.
- Sensitivity training - Listening to your players and preventing issues. Study Robin Laws's player types. Make your game awesome by giving your players what they want in a way they don't expect.
- Communication is king! Make sure you back and forth with your players. Exposition sucks.
- Nailing descriptions and characterization. Sometimes less is more.
- Improvisational Techniques. More GM Toolbox topics. How do I keep up when the players go off the rails?
- Controlling the Pace of the game.

I think that's a good starting place for discussion, though I can spin off and add to this list 'til the cows come home. I tried to boil it down to big topics, but there are so many specific and important skills that beg for attention.

What do you think? What did I miss? What did I include that doesn't make sense to you?

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