Running the Game
What the Gamemaster Does
If you’re the gamemaster, then your job is a little different from everyone else’s. This section is going to give you a bunch of tools to make that job easier during play.
The GM’s job was discussed a bit in The Basics, but let’s take a more detailed look at your unique responsibilities.
Start and End Scenes
One of your primary responsibilities during the game is to decide definitively when a scene begins and ends. This might not seem like that big a deal, but it is, because it means that you’re the person primarily responsible for the pacing of each session. If you start scenes too early, it takes a long time to get to the main action. If you don’t end them soon enough, then they drag on and it takes you a long time to get anything significant done.
The players will sometimes help you with this, if they’re keen on getting to the next bit of action, but sometimes they’ll naturally be inclined to spend too much time bantering in character or focusing on minutiae. When that happens, it’s your job to step in like a good movie editor and say, “I think we’ve pretty much milked this scene for all it’s worth. What do we want to do next?”
We have more advice on starting and ending scenes in the next section, Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios.
Drama Is Better Than Realism
In Fate, don’t get too bogged down trying to maintain absolute consistency in the world or adhere to a draconian sense of realism. The game operates by the rules of drama and fiction; use that to your advantage. There should be very few moments in the game where the PCs are free of conflicts or problems to deal with, even if it’d be more “realistic” for them to get a long breather.
When you’re trying to decide what happens, and the answer that makes the most sense is also kind of boring, go with something that’s more exciting than sensible! You can always find a way later on to justify something that doesn’t make immediate sense.
Play the World and the NPCs
As the gamemaster, it’s your job to decide how everyone and everything else in the world responds to what the PCs do, as well as what the PCs’ environment is like. If a PC botches a roll, you’re the one who gets to decide the consequences. When an NPC attempts to assassinate a PC’s friend, you’re the one who gets to decide how they go about it. When the PCs stroll up to a food vendor in a market, you get to decide what kind of day the vendor is having, what kind of personality he or she has, what’s on sale that day. You determine the weather when the PCs pull up to that dark cave.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do this in a vacuum—you have a lot of tools to help you decide what would be appropriate. The process we outline in Game Creation should provide you with a lot of context about the game you’re running, whether that’s in the form of aspects like current and impending issues, specific locations that you might visit, or NPCs with strong agendas that you can use.
The PCs’ aspects also help you decide how to make the world respond to them. As stated in the Aspects and Fate Points section, the best aspects have a double edge to them. You have a lot of power to exploit that double edge by using event-based compels. That way, you kill two birds with one stone—you add detail and surprise to your game world, but you also keep the PCs at the center of the story you’re telling.
This facet of your job also means that when you have NPCs in a scene, you speak for and make decisions for them like the players do for their PCs—you decide when they’re taking an action that requires dice, and you follow the same rules the players do for determining how that turns out. Your NPCs are going to be a little different than the PCs, however, depending on how important they are to the story.
Let the Players Help You
You don’t have to shoulder the whole burden of making up world details yourself. Remember, the more collaborative you get, the more emotional investment the players are going to have in the result, because they shared in its creation.
If a character has an aspect that connects them to someone or something in the world, make that player your resident “expert” on whatever the aspect refers to. So if someone has Scars from the Great War, poll that player for information whenever the Great War comes up in conversation. “You notice that this sergeant is wearing a veteran’s mark, which is a rare decoration from the War. What hardcore crap do you have to do to get one of those? Do you have one?” Some players will defer back to you, and that’s fine, but it’s important that you keep making the offer so as to foster a collaborative atmosphere.
Also, one of the main uses of the create an advantage action is precisely to give players a way to add details to the world through their characters. Use that to your advantage when you draw a blank or simply want to delegate more control. One good way to do this during play is to answer the player’s question with a question, if they ask for information.
Ryan: “Is there a way to disrupt this magical construct without killing the subjects trapped in it?”
Amanda: “Well, you know that it’s using their life force to power itself. If there were a way to do that, what do you think it’d look like? I mean, you’re the expert wizard, you tell me.”
Ryan: “Hm... I think there’d be some kind of counter-incantation, like a failsafe mechanism in case things go horribly wrong.”
Amanda: "Yeah, that sounds good. Roll Lore to see if that's there."
Judge the Use of the Rules
It’s also your job to make most of the moment-to-moment decisions about what’s legit and what’s not regarding the rules. Most often, you’re going to decide when something in the game deserves a roll, what type of action that is (overcome, attack, etc.) and how difficult that roll is. In conflicts, this can get a little more complicated, like determining if a situation aspect should force someone to make an overcome action, or deciding whether or not a player can justify a particular advantage they’re trying to create.
You also judge the appropriateness of any invocations or compels that come up during play, like we talked about in the Aspects and Fate Points section, and make sure that everyone at the table is clear on what’s going on. With invocations, this is pretty easy—as long as the player can explain why the aspect is relevant, you’re good to go. With compels, it can get a little more complicated, because you need to articulate precisely what complication the player is agreeing to.
We provide some more tips on judging the use of rules below.
You're the Chairman, Not God
Approach your position as arbiter of the rules by thinking of yourself as “first among equals” in a committee, rather than as an absolute authority. If there’s a disagreement on the use of the rules, try encouraging a brief discussion and let everyone talk freely, rather than making a unilateral decision. A lot of times, you’ll find that the group is self-policing—if someone tries to throw out a compel that’s a real stretch, it’s just as likely that another player will bring it up before you do.
Your job is really to have the “last word” on any rules-related subject, rather than to dictate from your chair. Keep that in mind.
Create Scenarios (and Nearly Everything Else)
Finally, you’re responsible for making all of the stuff that the PCs encounter and react to in the game. That not only includes NPCs with skills and aspects, but it also includes the aspects on scenes, environments, and objects, as well as the dilemmas and challenges that make up a scenario of Fate. You provide the prompts that give your group a reason to play this game to begin with—what problems they face, what issues they have to resolve, whom they’re opposing, and what they’ll have to go through in order to win the day.
This job gets a whole section all on its own. See Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios.