Building a Better GM

A challenge was issued last week, and I'm going to try my hand at it. The challenge was to share three "best practices" that I possess as a GM, and then elaborate on them (specifics here). I'm not the best at writing about myself, so I'm just going to go for it... I hope my players will respond here and give their input.

Best Practice #1: Create interesting and varied combat situations.
Sometimes this means fighting in unusual settings with weird terrain, and my group's foray into Warhammer 40K scenery has certainly improved the cool factor of our RPGs from a visual standpoint. However, this also includes challenging the players with different situations and tactics. Take your trusty old standby of marauding orcs. Nobody wants to fight 3d6 more orcs that look just the same as the last ones that came up on the random encounter chart. That's boring enough to make you pay more attention to the Cheetos and Mountain Dew than the game itself. However, even monsters with the same stat lines can use different tactics. Perhaps the last group just stumbled across the party, but this group heard them coming. The two fights should be noticeably different, even if the monsters have the same stats. You could use different monsters each time, but eventually you suffer in one of two areas: the necessity for more preparation time, or a lack of verisimilitude within the adventure. Sure, your characters could be adventuring in a fantasy zoo where all the cages magically opened, but most of the time, you need something believable to tie the monsters together thematically and give them a reason to be there.

Best Practice #2: Make it a point to know your players' preferences and give them opportunities to interact with those game elements.
If you have the opportunity to play with the same group for a long period of time, you'll know your players pretty well already... but you might be surprised what a quick survey would tell you. Put one together and see what your players are really looking for... you might find some things intriguing. And as soon as you find these things out, look for ways that you can incorporate them. For example, when our Age of Worms campaign ended and I was in the process of brainstorming for the next campaign, I gave out a survey for the next game. In it, I asked things like, "What percentage of the game do you think should be combat and what percentage should be roleplaying?" I also asked what monsters they would like to see in the game. To be honest, I don't remember too many of their responses... but when I introduced my group to Rifts, I created a minotaur character just because Matt had listed minotaurs as a monster he'd like to see more of in our D&D games. He snatched that character up, and while other characters died off and were replaced by more and more powerful ones, Matt managed to keep that minotaur alive as long as the campaign lasted. I would never have known he would be interested in such a character if I hadn't given out that survey.

Best Practice #3: Use flat characters sparingly, and keep your players guessing.
It is actually kind of a joke around the table that nothing can be taken at face value in one of my games. My brother especially is hesitant to act on anything I describe as GM without trying to figure out what kind of spin I've put on things that are seemingly obvious. I took Ray Winninger's advice from his Dungeoncraft articles very seriously, and one point he always brought up in his setting design was the idea that everything must have a secret. I realize that shopkeepers can be flat and uninteresting, and so can the bad guy's minions at times, but I try to make sure everything in my campaigns has some trait that nobody knows but me... until the time comes to reveal it. It certainly keeps my brother on his toes...

Now, with all that said, I'm hoping my players will drop by and offer their opinions. They've dabbled in GMing as well, and I'd be curious to hear their critiques of my style. What do I do wrong, guys? And don't worry... I have thick skin... I can take it...
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