GM Basics


As a GM, you should keep in mind all the player basics, but from your side of the screen. There's also a few GM-specific tricks you can use to make your job a little easier.

Say "Yes."

As the GM, you have the ultimate authority over what is possible in your games. Whenever you can, permit possibility rather than denying it. Give most anything a chance — even a small one, that requires a lot of effort — to work, and don't deny or contradict a player's statement or assumptions unless you are forced to. Be permissive and agreeable whenever possible. You don't need to compromise your vision or change your world on a whim, but the more you can allow and permit, the more you give a chance to work, the more players will become invested and in control of their own characters and the world around them. Even if it's unexpected or unusual, if you can see a way that it might work, let them try it (even with a small chance of success). This is somewhat tied to the "advance the plot" guideline: choose what pushes the action forward, and try not to deny players the chance to try something, especially if you didn't anticipate it.

Advance the Plot

The narrative structure is the man behind the curtain of the FFZ experience. It is this basic pace that underlies the flow of the game, and that makes it easy to plug multiple variables into one end to get a satisfying experience out of the other. The basic narrative structure is Beginning (where everyone is introduced and the big qualities are noted), Middle (where things are discovered and the risk becomes clear), and End (where everything climaxes). The campaign follows this arc, and so does each arc within the campaign, each adventure with the arc, each session within the adventure, and each encounter within the session. When at a loss during play, consider what part of the arc you are currently in, and plan the next series of events to highlight that part of the arc. Draw the story on to it's next point. If you haven't introduced all the basics yet, you're still at the beginning (even if you've had some big encounters): introduce more basics. If the villain hasn't quite been understood yet, you're still in the middle: draw the PC's on toward the villain with another few hooks. If the PC's are heading straight at the villain, but the big risk isn't in place yet, you may be hitting the end: show the PC's what the villain is capable of, and what is at stake if they loose by showing areas of the world affected by the villain.

Let the Players Lead

The Player Basics entry is filled with advice about how players should take their characters into their own hands. As a GM, you should be prepared to follow where this advice takes you. If the players manage to hook themselves on some off-hand flavor comment by an NPC, don't deny them the opportunity to pursue that. What is or is not true is ultimately up to you, but you don't have to make those decisions right away - you can save them until the players want to explore them, and then make the choice depending on what's more interesting to you at the moment. The plot should avdance depending on the player's choice, not the GM's hand. This means that the plot also need to be flexible: what the players choose should be significant enough to guide the story in a different direction, even if the villain and the risk are already well-established. Don't be afraid to leave things vague when starting off, filling in details only as needed, as the players fill them in. Another form of this guideline is "give the players enough rope to hang themselves with." Let them create complications and subplots and develop their own quirks and motives and desires. Whenever possible, follow their lead, such as by putting obstacles in the way of the path they are already following, rather than trying to lead them yourself.

Flex the Plot

Given that players are pretty fundamentally unpredictable, you won't be able to define everything they do. A lot of FFZ is set up to guide players in a certain direction most of the time, but that direction is fairly general, and PC's can't be forced into a scenario (though they can often be guided there). Furthermore, FFZ rather embraces this aspect of play: the player's freedom to do whatever they want (given their character's abilities) is a rather fundamental appeal to the game, and the GM should only resort to dictating PC action in the most extreme of circumstances. This means that your campaign will need to be adaptable and flexible, able to handle abrupt and unexpected changes. If the PC's get clever and manage to find their way to the villain long before the climax of the adventure, you should allow it (as per the other guidelines), but you should be flexible enough to bring the game back to the story. That is, if the PC's face and kill the main villain, perhaps you can change the world so that there was a different "main villain," or that the main villain is one of many clones, or that what they fought was a red herring, or some other diversion. Remember that the only things set "in stone" are what the PC's know. Anything they don't know is subject to change at your whim, before it is introduced. Keep these secrets — they are your wiggle room when the story goes off in an unexpected direction. Rather than saying no and limiting player choice, say yes, and change the unknown factors to keep the game running. Allow the players their victory (gaining gil, XP, AP, treasure, etc.), but don't let an unexpected victory undo an entire campaign. It's useful to always have a "Plan B" in the wings, just in case the path taken to the climax is an especially winding one.

Hook and Line

The "hook" is the thing you provide a player with in the world that serves as a motive for his character. Much of the character-construction advice is about desires and fears, flaws and flair, and you should use these to draw characters toward plot points and interesting encounters. It should never be forced — that is, the choice is always up to the player — but the line between "you must do this" and "I will give you many reasons to do this" is a fairly blurry one. These are mostly guides, gentle nudging toward an encounter or a location or a plot point that they might otherwise miss, giving them a breadcrumb trail to follow to the point you want to get accross. Of course, if the players are leading there already, you don't need much of a hook. The "line" is where this hook leads. If you provide a greedy character with the potential to make a lot of gil, that is a hook. That the gil lays in an ancient sunken ship riddled with monsters is the line — they have a path to follow if they want it. The line is also the narrative payoff for following that hook: if the greedy character goes for the gil, it should also lead them closer to the climax of the campaign (if only incrementally).

Set the Pace

In general, you want big, dramatic, setpiece encouners to take a good amount of time, but the smaller encounters, you'd like to get through quickly. It can be hard to anticipate how quickly players may end a given encounter, especially if they use clever, out-of-the box strategies to turn what you thought would be an epic combat into a one-round slap-down, or fail to grasp something you see as obvious, turning what should have been a simple encounter into a slog-fest. The basic rule for alleviating this problem is to decide how important the encounter was after it is over. Regardless of your original intentions, the significance of the encounter is determined during play, not before or after. If the encounter was long, it accomplished a lot: the enemies they slayed happened to be more important than the players (or you!) thought to the villain's plot, moving the story forward. If the encounter was unusually short, what they thought was going to be the big final boss or at least one of her major allies turns out to be a lackey in disguise, or a red herring from the true plot. Instead of getting frustrated about how the players thwarted your plans, adapt your plans to how the game played out, and then bring it back on track. Put a different hook in the party and lead them down another path, and don't be afraid to change "reality" on the fly. Remember the advice from "flex the plot," above: the only thing set in stone is what has entered play. Anything else should be subject to change, and you, as the GM, should be flexible enough to change what you need to change for the sake of a good story. Things don't always play out as you expect.

Avoid Bottlenecks

Characters should have multipule hooks in them at one time, each hook's line leading to different (but all plot-advancing) outcomes if successful — or even if unsuccessful. A "bottleneck" occurs when there is only one way to advance the storyline. This is especially important to remember, as the FF games often include bottlenecks, so this is a place where the tabletop and the videogame experience differs. In the games, you often have a limited amount of options, and an unlimited amount of time, meaning that sooner or later, you can try everything and find something that works. However, these things are reversed at the tabletop: your character can do anything you concieve of, but the game needs to keep moving forward, meaning that a bottleneck can ground play to a halt as the players try to guess what the solution to their challenge is. The classic example is a door that requires some sort of puzzle to get through. If it's not possible to ignore the door, it should be possible to go around the door in other ways (bombing through the wall, or failing the puzzle and fighting a beast, or something). Alternately, of course, avoid forcing the door: whatever the players are trying to get to might be able to be acquired in some other way, or might not even be necessary to acquire (it could be one of many MacGuffins).

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