My go-to has always been the Call of Cthulhu system. It’s elegant in its simplicity, it’s surprisingly adaptable, and it has a great balance between character advancement versus threat escalation.
To explain the last bit, I think that the problem with most conventional systems is that threats and challenges become more abstract the farther your character advances. There comes a point with a D&D campaign where mundane threats cannot begin to touch players. In the Chaosium/CoC system, you can become very skilled and dangerous, but you still have to worry about how to take out the sentry standing watch. Skilled doesn’t equate to invincibility, and I require some sense of danger to remain in the game without simply sending them out against Tiamat or whoever.
What made you want to become a DM/GM?
Unlike many players and GMs I’ve spoken to, there was never a transition point for me. I didn’t start off on one side of the shield and cross over to the GM spot. Instead, a friend bought me a book with the expectation that I would be running the game and I took to it very naturally. I’ve always had that storyteller gene, plus I’m adaptive and skilled at performing, so it was a natural fit for me.
GMing feels like an underappreciated art for me. I think running a quality event really helps create something magical and a good GM makes or breaks a game. The burden of narrative is on the players, as they have the agency and the incentive to engage in your story, but a GM holds the entire thing together with as light a touch as possible.
How much prep time do you conduct before a gaming session?
The prep time varies per game. D&D, for example, requires more stat-juggling to make sure the challenges balance out fairly and I spend the bulk of my prep time crunching numbers. In terms of narrative, I generally sketch the bare bones of the story as well as a timeline of what would happen WITHOUT player intervention and then I just turn them loose.
What is one of your most memorable moments running a game?
I think for me, it’s less about “oh shit, we killed a Tarrasque on a freak natural 20 roll” and more about introducing beginners to gaming.
I specialize in running games for players who have never done an RPG before or who have had bad experiences with them in the past. A lot of people come in and don’t quite “get” how they work or they have misconceptions, but once they realize that they can essentially do what they want, there’s a little spark that lights up in their eyes when it all clicks. I like that feeling. Good RPG sessions are special and it’s nice to share the joy.
Do you do anything to set the mood or atmosphere?
99% of what I do to set mood is through performance. A large part of gaming is drawing people into the world you’re trying to create and the more you can actualize it, the better your players will respond to it. So I find visual aids, I prepare maps, I think about the NPCs they will interact with and try to present them in a distinctive way. When people get emotionally invested in the world to the point where they care about something other than leveling up, then you’ve done your job.
There is one unique type of gaming that requires more work on atmosphere and that’s horror gaming. Horror is probably the hardest type of game to run (excluding Toon, because I’ve NEVER understood how to successfully run that game) because it’s both easy for a group of players to dispel an atmosphere of dread that you’re trying to build and most people in gaming think “horror” is just “action with scarier opponents.”
The way I make horror games memorable is 1) pre-screen players. I make it clear that we’re trying to be scary, so people who like more light hearted games should probably look elsewhere. One comedian can tank things for everyone. 2) I run the game like telling a ghost story. We play in the dark, people use oversized flash cards rather than character sheets (easier to see in low light) and I use every dirty trick in the book to freak people out. If done right, this type of gaming can be the most rewarding.
What's one tip you would give to other DM/GM's out there?
I want to give so many more than just one tip, but the one I think is the most important is to find the sweet spot between too much and not enough. How much is too much open world farting around versus plot railroading, how much is drowning your player in florid description versus too little so everything boils down to “10x10 room, treasure chest, orc.” Gaming is a social thing and a good GM has to learn to read the room, read the group dynamics, and play them like a fiddle.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Gaming has given me a lot over the years. It built my social skills and my confidence, it taught me the basic structure of narrative, it taught me how to intuit the needs of a group, and it taught me how to build amazing things out of the imagination. I don’t get a chance to do much of it these days because it’s hard to get a bunch of mid-30s people to agree on a consistent schedule, but it’s a wonderful activity and well worth taking seriously while still keeping a sense of joy and discovery.
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Joe Borrelli used to write under the pseudonym of Justin Bailey, both because it’s a Metroid joke and because he wanted to be anonymous for deeply pretentious grad school reasons. Now he’s a member of the Horror Writers Association, he’s hosted a paranormal skeptic’s show for Littlethings.com, he has a podcast, and he’s one of the organized of Brooklyn’s legendary Bushwick Writers Group. He’s been published in Nightmare Magazine, Corporate Cthulhu, and has written some truly smutty vampire erotic for Blood in the Rain 2. Find him at creaturecast.net or search “Littlethings.com The Beyond” for his show on YouTube.