Running the adventure
It is in running the adventure that “GMing” comes closest to directing a movie. The GM should be guided by one primary principle: The players are here to have fun. Having fun means that the GM keeps the action moving, keeps the PCs on the right track, does not kill PCs off capriciously, and brings the entire adventure to a satisfactory climax and conclusion. The GM is not doing his job when half the players are sleeping while the GM works with one individual, when the PCs spend half the session chasing false leads, when PCs die because of a single unfortunate roll of the die, and when the climax of an adventure is dull.
Keeping the action moving is a hallmark of a skilled GM. The GM must keep the party’s attention concentrated, not let players take too long to decide what to do, and cut out extraneous material. Parties larger than three or four PCs can split up, forcing the GM to divide his attention and neglect each player about half the time. Keep the party small. Players can delay an adventure by taking hours to plan how to break into a hotel room; don’t let them. Give the players enough time to make a reasonable plan, then get things moving. Finally, chop out extraneous material. Too many fantasy-game GMs let parties spend too much time in bars and taverns, making no headway whatsoever. The players will find enough dead ends of their own. Don’t slow them down any further.
Keeping the PCs on the right track is similar to keep the action moving, but it is so critical that it merits closer examination. When the PCs chase false leads, they should turn up evidence that they are on the wrong track. If the PCs investigate the wrong person, they should discover that the suspect has a solid alibi. PCs who deviate from the straight and narrow should find that the trail grows cold very quickly.
Killing PCs is a matter that must be approached with great care. PCs in espionage RPGs tend to have a great deal of personality and are therefore valued by players much more than usual. PCs should never be killed simply because of bad luck or a die roll. Death is a penalty that should be reserved for sustained stupidity on the part of a player. If the GM needs to spank a player, he can demote a PC, take away a favorite gadget, give the PC the worst assignments, and have the NPCs heap scorn on the offending player’s character. If the GM simply needs to neutralize a PC, incapacitating him is quite adequate. Death is reserved only for the most exceptional circumstances.
Finally, the GM must bring the adventure to a successful, dramatic conclusion. Dramatic conclusions can make or break an adventure, and the GM should spare no efforts on the finale. A good finale usually starts with a warmup fight or chase between the PCs and the villain’s henchmen, and ends with a dramatic final confrontation between the PCs and the master villain himself. The secret is to manage the finale so that the PCs do not throw a wrench into the works, such as killing the master villain with ease, then sneaking out unscathed. Good players will develop plans that give them a high chance of pulling off such undramatic endings. Good GMs will take these plans, make a note to reward the PCs for thinking of them, then modify the adventure to ensure that the plans will fail in ways that ensure dramatic endings. Good PCs with good fighting skills may be able to defeat the villain’s henchmen too easily. Good GMs will add more henchmen to compensate. Some players may be petulant when the GM does such things, but ample rewards for innovative thinking (even if the fruits are disallowed by the GM) and a dramatically staged finale usually mollify them.
My last comment to the GM is that there is no such thing as a good GM who does not also play. A good GM can learn many things as a player, including GMing tips from other GMs and a better idea of how broad the evidence trail in an adventure must be. It may be difficult to persuade your players to take on the burden of GMing, but it is rarely impossible.