Thursday, December 07, 2017

What Makes A Great Gamesmaster?

Just a few thoughts on what I think makes a Great GameMaster, and my recollections of David Kahn's world of Telthanar...

I am thinking of my old friend David Kahn's world of Telthanar. The way he ran the game, to my mind, seemed infinitely amazing. I couldn't wait to get to his house on certain weekends to find out more about it. But what did he do that was so great? Let me think...

Well, for one thing, David was definitely master of his game. He used his own rules (as most of the GMs I knew did in those days), and he knew them back and forth, up and down. There were no quibbles about the rules, and rules lawyering was nigh on impossible. But moreover David had a personality that established him as "The Authoritative Source", and so even if there was a quibble... people would look to him for the correct and official answer anyway. And that went a long way towards keeping the mechanics of the game running smooth.

Also, when he created his rules, he kept it reasonably simple. The complicated parts were largely hidden from the players, as he would do the calculations behind the screen himself. Character development was probably more involved than he let on, and calculating things like armor class and total attack level was something he did on the fly in his head, but from our point of view as players it was seamless and looked easy. Of course, there's also the fact that he fudged his own rules. In fact the first time I rolled a Character in his world he said with his usual benignly wry and dry humor, "By the way, I cheat." That was David.

Lastly, as far as his rules were concerned, they were also interesting. He imbued a lot of philosophy into his rules system, and that made them fun to think about. For example, his magic system incorporated a fascinating numerology that established the underlying metaphysics of his world. More on that another time. Suffice it to say, his rules were an embodiment of his philosophic musings.

But more important to the joy of his game than his handling of the rules was the scope, depth and nature of his World. Telthanar. What an amazing place that was. First off it was huge, but at the same time discrete. There was a continent on which were major civilizations, some old, some new. The old ones had been buried in ruins for ages, and mostly forgotten, except by those who took it upon themselves to explore the ancient places. Over 20 years of play the story was unveiled, one tidbit at a time. David was very reticent about explaining anything of his world out of game. To learn about it, our characters had to explore it. He didn't wax eloquent about it's grand history, or tell us off hand what transpired and why the ancient Agmarians fell, or anything. But we fought hard for clues all the time.

So that made the World itself a huge ball of intriguing.

Then there was his style of playing NPCs. David had a very natural way of role playing. He could play any Character or creature and you really felt like they were in the room with you. But he didn't over do it to the point of being hammy either. He gave a strong impression of each NPC or monster, and each one was an individual. Even down to the guards at the local town hall. Every character in his world seemed to have a fully fleshed out life of their own, a personality, goals, traits, secrets and so on. And it all flowed so naturally from David's lips it really gave the impression of a living world.

Also, his maps. David made amazing maps. They were done on huge pieces of graph paper with the small squares. they had long long corridors, with clusters of 20 rooms or so at a time. He had a stack of these gigantic dungeon maps neatly piled on his desk. And no, we were not allowed to look at the maps. We could only see them from a distance. On our end we had to do the old fashioned style of mapping from his descriptions. And our maps were not bad, but we had mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes were costly. A flight of stairs that we wrote went up, when in fact we forgot later actually went down. Costly mistakes. But that of course was part of the fun of the game. We tried to be careful, just like we try to be careful in real life - but mistakes get made, and consequences are paid. Part of the challenge of the game was getting the mapping right, even amidst the bluster and excitement of battle.

Another thing is that his dungeons were actually very imaginative. For example, when entering the Major Ruins of Agmar there is a main hall, after you get down into the thing a certain ways. On the ceiling of this hall, which was something like 360' x 360' (iirc), was a pool of molten fire. On the ceiling... gurgling, bubbling, frothing fiery magma. It didn't drip down. It seemed as though gravity on the ceiling was simply "opposite". One could speculate about the how's and why's but ... we never really knew. But we knew that David knew. And we would scurry through that glowing red hall every time. The rest of the dungeon awaited on the other side through vast towering doorways that led into long corridors heading off in different directions. And so on. That was just one interesting spot. David had hundreds that were equally intriguing. Eventually we discovered that the Ancient Agmarians created the entire dungeon to be a magic item. The whole dungeon itself was a magic item... one that they used to keep the fabric of reality from tearing apart under the duress of their experiments with Chaos Magic.

Lastly, I'll say that David possessed a dry sardonic wit that made his Gamemastering something really enjoyable to behold. One always had a sense that he was gently challenging his players to do their best under perilous and uncertain odds. He was tremendously fun to be around, highly intelligent, very well read, and a true and natural story teller.

So David's world was fascinating on many levels. The history. The philosophy. The execution. The rules. And for all of this David earned his place as my all time favorite Gamemaster. He was the best Gamemaster I ever encountered.

My dear friend died of a stroke at the age of 54. Far too young. And very sad. May he rest in peace.


To put his life in a little perspective before I leave off, here is a piece about David's father, Herman Kahn. You may want to listen to the recommended sound track shown at the very bottom of that post while reading it. It may add correctly to your understanding of the atmosphere in which David lived his short but intensely creative life.
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