For me, there is nothing more boring than watching a GM roll dice behind a screen, whispering something to his chin for minutes on end. If a GM tells you: “I like to roll dice and play as well!” just roll eyes and remind them that the GM plays by moving the narrative forward.
Now, I might have tables, dice, procedures, notes, maps, and other esoteries around me, but these are not there for me to have fun while others wait, they are there to help me run the game better. And to me, better means moving and engaging.
I already wrote about engaging and how GM might delegate procedures to other players, today I want to focus on what I think is the main GM activity during a session:
GM should either resolve a narrative moment or move the game to a new moment1.
I should not be doing anything other than those two things. Or in other words: Whatever I do, it should further the game.
Of course, this is a bare-bone mechanical definition, I am skipping principle things like “having fun with friends” or “something, something story” as these are assumed - we are playing a game.
Here is the ideal scenario that I try to aim for:
Player speaks their action
I immediately speak it back to them formulated as a successful state
I say if that seems easy, hard, or impossible
Done! At least the main part, which should take less than 10 seconds, as most of the time will be spent speaking. There is, of course, more to it, but let’s first analyze these three points to figure out what is going on here.
Player speaks their action
Teach the players to include their general intent and reasoning in their actions. Misunderstanding player intent is a number one reason for sluggish games. Let’s imagine a wall, and our player for some reason wants their character on the top of it.
Not great: “I climb the wall!”
Better: “I want to climb on top of that wall so I get a high ground advantage on the enemy.”
So why is the second way better? Because there might not be any advantage on the top of the wall, or it’s not climbable, obvious to me the GM and their character, but not to the player. I would stop them right there, and explain the situation better.
I immediately speak the action back
This is the main trick, and three things are going on here. First, by repeating it back I confirm the action and intention. I reframe it as a successful state, knowing that now I only need to figure out a fail state for this action if there is any. Half the job already done!. For our wall example, it might look like this:
GM: “OK, so you will climb and end up on the top of the wall gaining an advantage over the enemy”.
The third, important, thing happened sneakily in my brain. As I was saying this action out loud, I imagined it, and my survival instinct measured the risk in the background.
Easy, Hard, or Impossible
Subconscious survival instinct is fast but imprecise. I will not get an exact difficulty number out of it. It will probably scream something like “tricky” or “death imminent!” or “terrible injury awaits the foolish”. I need to speak this fast, remember we are already at the 5-second mark at this point. To get this information out of me fast I start by saying: “This sounds…” and then utter the first thing that comes out as either easy, hard, or impossible. These three I will map to the difficulty range later on but first, I need to buy some time by engaging our player.
- GM: “Do you have anything to help with this action?”
At this fourth step, I made a player look at their sheet, or speak with other fellow players. This trick buys me some time to think about the failure state. Apart from the time I got, at least one player and possibly others are now engaged, discussing tactics and options.
I find it important to communicate the fail state (most of the time) to the player before they roll the dice. It helps them manage the risk and how much resources to spend on it. This is doubly more important if you like to come up with interesting failures as I do.
At this point, I already have a hunch on what might go wrong from my survival instincts, so I just need to formulate it. Maybe they slip but leave there hanging on the wall with one hand. Maybe they lose footing and their equipment spills. Maybe an enemy climbs the wall first? Possibilities are endless. However, if there are no interesting failures, that means there is no need for a roll. It’s an auto success, and at most I might have them pay some resources, and they are up on the wall.
Move the narrative forward at any opportunity. I don’t want to get stuck on boring bits, calculating fall damage for example, when the interesting part of the scene - the epic fight on the top of the wall is waiting to happen.
Of course, there are special situations where the outcome of the action should stay unknown, so use logic.
The time has come to say the difficulty. I will map it like so:
I will pick a number in the range that sounds plausible and say it out loud. The player should have their bonuses/assets/shenanigans ready at this point and once applied they can roll the dice.
- GM: “This is a difficulty 4 for you.”
Phew! So with that blazing-fast resolution process, I hopefully ensured minimum waiting time for other players and kept the dialog and engagement going. Next up, is how to communicate.
Communicating the Scene
One might think that the GM’s job is to blabber all the time, but it’s the opposite. Learn to shut up. Remember that any time you speak, yet don’t move the narrative, the game is on pause, as everyone at the table is sitting there listening to you, not playing the game.
Open a scene with just several sentences. Two or three at most. Keep it breve and visual. It’s always better to have players ask you for details - this means they are engaging and that is what we want.
Drip additional details and flavor throughout the scene, also just a line or two, at opportune moments.
Adress player characters individually when dripping scene flavor, instead of addressing the whole group. It’s a great way to snap back unengaged players back to paying attention. Say something ominous!
A particularly good moment to inject scene flavor is when the party is discussing options and not making good progress. This will remind them that the in-game clock is running.
Practice closing scenes at the denouement, ie when the tension is low. Don’t allow lingering around, always try to move the narrative. If the scene served it’s purpose, move on.
Few Tricks for the Road
It’s harder to resolve situations when you are thinking defensively. When players come up with a
bullshit daring plan, I tend to default to “Yes, but…” (failing forward) as it’s easiest due to Cypher being a resource management game. Additionally when you are saying “Yes” all the time, the occasional but firm “No!” will not end in a table riot.
Here are few things that work well in Cypher for the “but” part:
Yes, but it’s risky. The intrusion range is increased.
Yes, but at a cost. Remove a resource from a character.
Yes, but with a consequence. The world reacts unfavorably even if you succeed.
Yes, but the success is limited. You will have to work more for the full effect.
Yes, but hardly. The difficulty is high.
Yes, but chaotically. No way to predict the outcome for a player.
Yes, but with an interesting failure, and an even worse fumble.
Yes, but with all of the above.
Sometimes players will do things without any particular intention or motive, just roleplaying for fun. Instead of resolving these moments fast, focus on the engaging part. Open up the world by introducing a new NPC, or a faction, or use the oportunity to bring more flavor to the location. It’s not always about failing and succeeding.
If you are not sure how to make a ruling consult your players.
Don’t allow discussions. Discussions are bad, they will ruin your sessions and likely your friendships. Make a ruling and apologize tomorrow. If you damaged someone give them XP.
Allow being challenged, but keep it limited and make it so that you accept the challenge almost always. If it turns out you were right, address it in the next session. To keep it limited give each player three challenge cards. When raised, just accept the challenge, don’t pull up the rule book, resist the temptation!
A scene or a situation. ↩