Why GMing Teaches You About Decision-Making

As some of you have probably picked up by now, I like gaming.  I was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games when I was about ten, by a group of friends who are still my friends, even probably my best friends, to this day.
It should also surprise nobody that I’m a GM most of the time.  Last time I was a player was a Shadowrun game, and about three sessions in, the GM was lamenting not being able to play.  I mentioned that I prefer GMing anyway, and the deal was sealed.  From then on, I was in the GM’s chair.

I often wish I could encourage more people to GM, actually, especially those with aspirations to being writerfolk.  Because it is truly amazing what you will learn from being in control of the world, but not the characters in it.

Ask any GM to give you a few stories of times their players did the entirely unexpected, and I bet you they could tell you about fifty of them.  I’ve had some doozies in my time, for sure.

One time, I was DMing a DnD 3.5 game, wherein my players were collecting pieces of a mysterious artifact called the Eye of the Druid (shush. I was, like, fifteen).  Here was how it was supposed to go: The players would hear that the object was an old wives’ tale from the wizards’ university in the town.  Then, they’d get overheard by a cult member asking around, and they’d almost get sacrificed, but in the process, find the piece they needed if they escaped.
Here’s what actually went down: Instead of asking where it was, the party asked the wizards for a finding spell, which told them it was at the bottom of the lake.  They then spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince the wizard to drain the lake so they could get to the piece.

Or the time when one of my players decided the most expedient way to escape slaver was to cast Teleport while jumping into the privy hole … without stopping to check if the shackles he was wearing were magic-cancelling.
You have no idea how hard it was to keep a straight face while he proudly laid out his grand plan to me.

See, stuff like this is why I distrust the idea that I have no control over my characters.  I’ve seen what happens where the person creating the plot doesn’t control the characters in it, and it’s stunts like this.

But it’s not just because of the funny stories that I wish more writers GMed tabletops.  I think it’s a very important exercise in information control.
When I’m talking about this, I’m often tempted to say “the characters take the most logical route”, but that’s not entirely true.  For some players it, is; others like roleplaying illogical characters and then all bets are off.
What’s far more true is “The players will take the route suggested by the information given to them.”
If the piece had been in the lake, rather than in a tunnel under it, that would have been an excellent choice to make.  If my player’s shackles hadn’t been magic-cancelling, his plan would have worked a treat.  With the information they had, my players made very logical choices.  Or, at least, ones that would have gotten them what they wanted, theatrics and pits full of fecal matter aside.

This, ideally, is what your characters should be doing.  I’m not going to say that any decision made by an RPG player is necessarily going to be what a book character ought to be doing (I’m sure we can all name one thing that a player has done that just … no).  But as you get better at GMing, you’ll get better at controlling what information your players get, when, and how.

There are a few levels where a good GM controls what information they give.  The first, and most obvious, is information given straight from GM to player.  One campaign I ran?  I gave the players a map of an island they needed to explore.
The map was very, very wrong.  Almost deceptively so – that is, it got them roughly to the middle of the forest.
We had to stop playing before they realised what I’d done.  This always makes me sad.
The equivalent to this in a book is probably describing places and people.  Choosing words to set up a scene, and then subverting or contradicting them later is quite powerful.  Maybe a character lies about their past to the main character.  That’s all on this level.

The second is a bit subtler, more misdirection than lying.  I didn’t lie to you, you just didn’t ask the right question.
One game, my players were trying to protect a briefcase containing a powerful device.  They asked me if it was still in the room, and intact.  I told them the case looked perfectly fine.
They got out of the headquarters, only to find that their new “friends” had run off, and the case was empty.
The writing equivalent?  Probably something where you set up a perfectly logical explanation for something, and then it turns out to be something different.  Is the main character shy about dgoing topless because in his years of adventuring, he’s collected a whole bevy of scars and cuts, and he doesn’t like people seeing them?  Set that up right, and you can have the audience believing that right up until they learn that no, he’s actually just shy.  Grew up in a household of many sisters who teased him ruthlessly about his buff, manly figure (or perhaps about his lack thereof), or something.  But remember, both options have to be equally logical.

Third, and probably one of the hardest ones to learn, is the art of overshadowing information with other information.  Sometimes it’s just selective hearing – I told that player with the shackles that they had runes on them, but he was more interested in hearing the layout of the room, so I guess he didn’t think to ask about the runes.  I’ve heard it described very well in a DM’s guide: If you lead the characters into a room, and say “There is an old, oak table and a wardrobe with a key still in the lock.  On the oak table is some paper, and an inkpot.  In the inkpot stands a pen with a huge, glossy feather, probably a dyed feather from some tropical bird.  The metal nib extends into a sheath, leading halfway up the feather’s spine, engraved in silver”, then the players are very likely to investigate the pen.  If you meant the pen to be important, that might not be the best way to go.  There’s no suspense in it.  But by the end of that paragraph, did you remember quite as vividly that the wardrobe’s key was still in the lock?  I bet you a significant group of players wouldn’t remember that at all.  If that’s what’s really important, then burying it under the information about the pen might be an excellent way to keep players guessing just that little bit longer.

The great thing about using GMing to hone these skills is feedback in real-time.  You describe a room, and you know exactly whether or not your players caught your veiled references within about thirty seconds, rather than three months, half a novel draft and an editing pass later, when you finally let it out of your hands to a beta reader.  Players will often talk about their thoughts as they go, so you can tell exactly what they did and didn’t notice or remember.
You won’t have the chance to retrofit the story to the plot, either, so you can’t weasel your way out of the stupid decision that way.  More than half the time, I look at what the players did and say “You know, that was disturbingly smart.”  I’d like to see that applied to some fantasy characters sometime.  Might give those cackling villains more of a run for their money.