The Hard and Soft Skills of GMing

For the past few weeks, I have been in a kind of low-energy state in regards to gaming. Usually during these times, is when I do some soul searching and explore what gaming means to me, my philosophy on GMing, etc. This time was no different. I took myself out for a quiet lunch armed with my favorite new pen, and my leather covered Moleskine journal and got to thinking about where I am as a GM and what things I can do to improve myself.

As I started some mind mapping over some General Tso’s chicken, it became clear to me that GMing is the combination of Soft and Hard skills, a Ying and Yang of sorts. As my mind map expanded, it became clear to me that my GMing Chi has been out of balance fore years, and that for me to make my next step in my growth as a GM that I would have to restore some balance to my Gaming Chi.

So let me take you through what I came up with during that lunch…

I stared this mind map, with the concept of what does a GM do, at its center. I then started to think of all the different roles and skills that a GM must have to be a good GM. As the mind map grew, I could see there was a natural grouping forming. On one side you had skills that related to the interactions with the players; the Soft Skills, and on the other side you had skills that related to the mechanics of the game; the Hard Skills After some light brainstorming and some spicy General Tso’s my initial mind map looked like this.

The Soft Skills

The Soft Skills focus on interacting with the players, for there is no GM if there are not players. A GM must be skilled in interacting with his players on two levels: as a Storyteller and as the Group Leader.

The Soft Skills break into two main areas: Storytelling and Group Dynamics. Storytelling is all about a GM’s skill to tell the story. Group Dynamics is all about leading the group and promoting group harmony. Its the ability to keep the group focused, resolve group conflicts, and keep the group motivated on playing the game.

A GM lacking in Soft Skills is going to have problems with keeping his players engaged in the game. They are going to have tables with lots of side chatter, people reading comics, and group conflict. A GM who is strong in the Soft Skills is an engaging storyteller, who’s group is focused and harmonious.

The Hard Skills

The hard skills focus on how the GM interact with the rules, and how the GM prepares the session by using the rules. A good GM is an expert in the rule system they are playing. They understand the inner workings of the system they are playing and know how to use it to create exciting sessions.

With the Hard Skills there are also two main areas: Rules Mastery and Session Execution. Rules Mastery is all about the in-depth understanding of the rules. It is about being able to create new effects based on the framework of the rules, and to create house rules and fully understand the consequences of the changes they make. Session Execution are the skills and techniques that a GM uses to create their session. An idea for a session has to be translated into encounters, stat blocks, and maps, and an understanding of the rules is key for creating exciting encounters.

A GM that is lacking in hard skills is going to have problems with players over rules questions, they will be looking up a lot of rules during the game, and they are likely to make some bad on-the-fly rulings. Also, they will not create as challenging encounters because they do not know the right spell, or rule, or effect that takes an ordinary encounter, and makes it something heart-racing.

Mastery Comes From Balance

Every GM has strengths and weaknesses. We tend to gravitate to one side of the spectrum, or another, based on a number of factors: game system played, personality, gaming group preferences, etc. It has been my experience that most new GM’s actually start with a tendency for Hard Skills, because it is something that can be learned from the rule book. Then they swing towards the Soft Skills, in a rush to become better storytellers.

The path to GM mastery then lies in the balance of Hard Skills, understanding the rules and creating encounters; with Soft Skills, of being able to weave an exciting story, and motivating your group to deliver their best.

Next week I will talk more about my own path and how I have discovered where I need to go next to grow as a GM.

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  1. Given that it is possible to play a game with very light rules, the hard skills seem to be largely optional.

  2. I think that you don’t actually have to have either set of skills, to run a game. If you lack one of them, then you tend to have some common issues with your games.

    Granted that mastering the Hard Skill of Rules Mastery is easier with a rules light game, but to be effective with the game, you must really understand the rules.

    My best example of a rules light game I ran, was Amber:Diceless. The game itself is not mechanically difficult, but to really deliver challenges to the player you have to understand the what the system is designed to handle and what it does not handle.

    For example, Amber does not have a skill system. It assumes that all the Amberites have had ample time to acquire any necessary skills that they may need. Knowing this, you have to decide how mechanically you want to handle something like a car chase, when there is no skill for driving a car. In addition, there is no Dexterity-like skill in Amber. But by understanding the few rules of the game, you make the car chase a Warfare challenge, and resolve the car chase, in the same way you would a sword fight.

    So I would not say that Rules Mastery is optional if you are playing a rules-light game. I would say that it is easier to archive Rules Mastery than if you played something more mechanically complex, like Iron Heroes.

  3. There is freeform play, which (in some cases) means that social bargaining and implicit consensus take the role of rules. I’d take that kind of game lacks all hard skills, assuming that a particular skill can’t be both hard and soft, or assuming that “rules” mean mechanics and translating fiction into mechanics, or some similar assumption.

    You also assume that a GM would want to delivar challenges to the players. I don’t think that this assumption is always true.

  4. No argument on Freeform play not having what I was defining at Hard Skills. a game like that really centers on the Soft Skills of play.

    In my definition of Hard skills, I was really focusing on the game mechanics of more traditional RPG’s. And I would not consider a skill being both hard and soft, so you are right again.

    As for delivering challenges to the players, I think that the definition of challenge may be important. There are a lot of ways to challenge a player. In the most mechanical sense, in a game like D&D, a challenge can translate to a monster-based encounter, where your hard skills are put into use to create a mechanically interesting opponent, and to utilize the rules that apply to this creature (spells, abilities, etc.) to their best form.

    But challenges show up in other forms, be it a mystery, a puzzle to solve, an NPC to convince to sway to your cause. I think that challenges are a core component to most RPG’s. In one way our another, there is typically an opposition mechanic at play, be it overt or covert.

    I would think that a GM would want to create challenges that were enjoyable to the player. A challenge, that the player knows that he can or cannot win, at the onset , is not entertaining. The best challenges are the ones that make a player really work for the solution. Be it the right spell to defeat the monster, or just the right thing to say to the Duke to have him commit his troops to your cause.

    I think a GM that does not want to create meaningful and entertaining challenges, regardless of game, is not playing as entertaining of a game as they could.

  5. On challenges: That there are several kinds of challenges is a good point. I think almost any obstacle or threat can be viewed as a challenge. I’ll also argue that this is not always the best way to look at everything (applicable).

    Take, for example, the traditional baby orc dilemma. With some groups it can inspire great play (arguments and other interaction among characters, usually). Is it a challenge? One can see it as a challenge to party integrity (if there is a party), or a challenge targeted at the moral nature of the characters. There is another way of seeing it, though: Given this interesting situation, what kind of people are the characters? Cold-blooded killers, perfect saints, something in between?
    The same question can be applied to any situation involving surrendering or captives of war.

    Another, different, situation: Put the player characters in a position where they have several right options (or essentially unlimited options) and see what they do. For example: PC is a hatchling dragon. Where to build a lair and what kind of lair? Again, this can be seen as a challenge, yet need not be seen as such. One game I might be running in the future: You are the only vampire(s). You are hunted. What do you do?

    To take less obvious example: Very powerful wizard is approached by guardsmen out to arrest the wizard. It is clear that the guards are no challenge, but the situation is still interesting; the wizard may slay them all, negotiate, disappear, do something else, and every action has interesting repercussions.

    This all is not to say that challenges are not usually interesting; they are, or at least challenging situations are. My point is that there are other ways of seeing play and sometimes those other ways are more useful.

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