GM Tech: How to be an MC

I’ve talked before about how I run my games quite improv-heavy. That’s something I picked up from my time playing Apocalypse World, and while I’ve run many different games in many different styles my absolute favorite style is when I don’t GM at all; I have the most fun when I MC instead.

What is an MC?

MC stands for “Master of Ceremonies”, which is different from a Game Master in that you’re not in charge - you just facilitate things. It’s a way of running a sandbox game to encourage emergent story.

An MC doesn’t have a plot in mind, and they don’t know what’s going to happen; an MC is playing to find out what happens as much as the players are. An MC doesn’t even necessarily have to give the players direct motivation, just poke and prod at their sensitive areas so they can’t rest on their laurels. A good MC keeps everything in motion, and when everything is in motion some nifty patterns will start to appear. My favorite plots in any of my games ever have been the result of being an MC and playing to find out what happens.

How does that work?

Being an MC mostly involves hunting after any possible status quo as though stability killed your parents. The lack of an overarching plotline means that stagnation is your worst enemy, so your job is to make sure things are always in motion so nobody gets bored. Set up your sandbox to be full of interesting people, groups and locations, then go around knocking them over like a vengeful toddler playing with building blocks.


Your main tool for fucking with the status quo is your threats list. This list covers anything and everything that can interfere with the plans and day to day lives of your players (or even of other entries on the list).
Some things you should include:

  • Other factions
  • NPCs in the players’ own faction
  • Monsters
  • Disease
  • Shortages
  • Gods
  • Religion or superstition
  • Dangerous terrain
  • The weather
  • Enemies
  • Allies
  • Things the players want to own/destroy/protect
  • The drawbacks/weaknesses of the players’ items and gear

Anything which could interrupt a plan? On the list. Anything which could cause harm? On the list. Anything which might distract the players from what they’re doing, or force them to intercede (“Oh my gods, someone kidnapped your puppy!”)? On the list. Keep adding things as you play, anything you make up on the spot or any areas of the map that you’re forced to fill in.

Every entry on this list should have an impulse and a personality (yes, even the terrain and the weather). It helps literally bring your world to life, give you ideas about when to use them, and keeps things cohesive. If your weather is “depressed” with the impulse to “delay” then your players will pick up on that even if you don’t tell them outright; they’ll notice from how its always putting a damper on their plans.

Refer back to this list when you’re in need of anything to apply pressure; either because there’s the foul stench of stagnation in the air, or if you want something interesting to apply on a “fail forward or success with a twist”. Whenever your PCs look to you to find out what’s happening, have one of your threats do something to put things in motion.

The First Session

Without a preplanned plot, your first session can feel a bit aimless as people find their feet. Yes, even you. You might have a list of threats already, but that’s not that helpful until you figure out how to apply them to best effect. That’s why session one is usually “a day in the life” of your PCs.

No, stop yawning. It’s not as boring as it sounds, because (say it with me…) a good MC keeps everything in motion. A day until the life of the PCs is still fun and dangerous and tense, because the world you’ve made is fun and dangerous and tense.

So, follow them around for a day or two. Find out what they do for a living, who their friends and enemies are, what they value and what they strive for. Make copious notes of things that seem important - those pressure points I mentioned earlier - and don’t be afraid to ask the players themselves to chip in: “Hey Phoenix, who sells you gas for your car?” or “Hey Vega, you’re pretty big in this settlement. What’s the major industry around these parts?”

Introduce the scenes with stuff already happening and the PCs together in small groups. Stomp and Nif are skulking around the settlement looking to steal some food. Spector and Rhythm are out in the ruins trying to pull out a hunk of valuable metal without collapsing the building. Phoenix notices that there’s some bandits scoping out the town, he’d better go tell Vega and Stomp so they can do something about it.

Don’t be afraid to throw them into combat, and don’t be afraid to have bad things happen. Just, you know, make it regular everyday bad stuff and save the big drama for later when everyone is more invested.

Keeping the PCs together

MCing is fun and rewarding because it encourages your PCs to be dynamic and interesting. An unfortunate side effect of everything being in motion means that your PCs can start to drift away from each other. Try and use your threats to push them back together: if someone is far afield, have a distant threat start moving in towards the main group to give the far afield player some urgent news to deliver, if someone is pursuing a radically different goal to the others then have something threaten their plans that they need help from the other players to deal with.

Don’t try and bundle them up into a traditional party though, give them PC-NPC-PC triangles to strain their relationships a bit and keep things nice and tense.


I ended up cutting a fair amount from this post after I realised I was basically just paraphrasing a big chunk of the MC’s guide from Apocalypse World. If this sort of thing interests you then I’d recommend purchasing the 2nd Edition, even if you never play it the rules are full of GM tools and tips like this.

I’ll revisit this thread later to give some examples from the games I’ve run like this, in the meantime let me know what you think. Is this a good idea, or the worst thing since stagnation killed your whole family? Have you used ideas like this in your own games already? I look forward to finding out!


It seems to me that it’s pretty much like the “sandbox adventure” that is described in “chapter 8 - running the game” of the rules (Not that it’s bad, in my limited experience, I preferred the sandbox approach). Isn’t it?

I’m not sure how to keep the PCs together. I mean, if they all have their own goal, sometimes those goals contradict. How do you deal with it?

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You’re right that it’s a sandbox style, I even call it one in my introduction to the concept. They key difference between MCing and the traditional style described in Chapter 8 is that in the traditional style you go into the game with some sort of plan. When you GM a sandbox you might have a list of factions who are competing for something, or a bunch of areas of interest for your players to possibly investigate. When you MC, instead you spend the first session finding out what your PCs value and then spend the rest of the campaign fucking with that (fucking with, not fucking over).

It’s the difference between showing off the cool sandcastle you built and challenging your players to alter them, or letting your players build their own sandcastles, finding out which of your castles are their favourites, and then breaking out the golf clubs. It’s a fundamentally cruel method of GMing, but as I tell my players, you don’t get interesting characters without a struggle and I am all about helping your characters be as awesome as possible.

That sounds awesome! Player goals contradicting means drama, and drama means interesting story (that you didn’t plan out at all). My section about “keeping the players together” is more about keeping them interacting and being interesting rather than trying to force them to be a traditional RPG party. As for dealing with that though, I find that starting the game with the PCs already knowing each other is generally enough. Maybe they’re a small band of mercenaries, or a mayor and her advisors, or different specialists in an elite task force. If they start the game knowing each other, and knowing how they know each other, then that’s usually enough to keep them interacting through the early stages long enough to develop their own reasons.


An MC in Action

There’s some confusing aspects to this style, so I thought I’d give a more in-depth example of when MCing goes right. This is taken from session 1 of the last game I ran in this style, set in a post-apocalyptic city.

The Cast (PCs)

  • Vega: Runs the local settlement with a fist of steel
  • Stomp: Vega’s chief enforcer, never seen without his mask, that he refers to as “Norman” and occasionally converses with.
  • Spector: Resident weird-tech specialist.
  • Phoenix: Local courier, best driver in the city.

The Threats

  • The Ruins: lonely, with an impulse to conceal
  • Power plant: capricious, with an impulse to consume
  • Mad Dogs: local gang - violent, with an impulse to destroy
    Newton: Warlord of the Mad Dogs - scary, with an impulse to possess things of value
  • Norman: Stomp’s Mask - intense, with an impulse to demonstrate strength
  • Many more: including the car, the weather, all the NPCs and the general mood of the population, but these are just the most relevant ones.

The Events


To give us something to start with, I picked the power plant more or less at random from the list. We kicked off the session right in Vega’s office as she fielded complaints about the fluctuating power from various residents of her settlement. The NPCs were giving her grief, and I used the opportunity to let Vega have some input: “So Plover comes up to you, and he’s pissed because the power situation means that he can’t work. What does he do that needs power?”

Vega obviously had no way of dealing with this, so she went to go find Spector who had already been trying to get to the bottom of the problem (I asked the player, he said that it made sense he’d be in the middle of his own investigation). Spector made some investigative rolls and succeeded, working out that whatever this problem was it went right to the source; the power plant on the far side of the ruins.

Now Vega knows what the problem is and Spector can probably fix it, she just needs to get there. There’s plenty of vehicles around, but if she wants to maximise her chances then she needs Phoenix and his car.

Meanwhile, Phoenix and some other PCs are out scavenging, which I RP with them for a few minutes, making a few rolls. They’re just hauling some valuable loot out of a pile of rubble when the radio crackles into life and Vega requests Phoenix’s presence back at the settlement.


Vega gets into the car with Phoenix, picking up Spector (who’s needed to fix the power) and Stomp (for some extra muscle). They set off, and to keep the journey interesting I look to my threats. I hadn’t decided where the Mad Dogs lived yet (I actually hadn’t even decided they existed at this point, so I made them up on the spot) but just to be inconvenient I told the PCs that this violent local gang was right on their route to the power plant.

With everyone on edge, a couple of perception rolls were thrown out from Phoenix and Spector. Usually I wouldn’t allow two simultaneous rolls for the same purpose like that, but the dice hit the table before I could interrupt and they were both failures! I look to my threats for ideas for “fail forward or success with a twist”.

Phoenix is driving, so I make his the most straightforward: he spots the ambush (that I just invented for this failed roll) too late, a ruined bus crashes out of a side street to block the road and Mad Dogs pour out and start shooting up the car. This cascades into some defensive driving and suppressing fire, and at the end of the encounter they’re free and clear. But not so fast! I still haven’t interpreted Spector’s fail. The ruins like to conceal, and Newton likes to own things, so I combine the two and have Spector fall from the car in the chaos of the ambush. When he wakes up, he’s tied to a chair in Newton’s headquarters.

The Rescue

After eventually noticing that Spector was gone, the group in the car turn around and try and get back into Mad Dog territory. The Mad Dogs themselves are still around, so they’re definitely in for a fight.

Meanwhile, I want to give Spector the chance to do something other than waiting for rescue. After a tense scene with Newton, where she breaks his knee with a hammer, he’s left alone. He’s still in the ruins, which have an impulse to conceal, so I tell him that he has the opportunity to sneak away provided he’s okay with risking the climb out of the open window with a broken knee. He agrees, and slowly and carefully sneaks his way out of the window onto the fire escape.

The fight with the Mad Dogs is short but bloody, and ends with Vega unconscious. Phoenix goes back to get the car while Stomp is in charge of resuscitating Vega so they can move out. Stomp technically has access to the Heal boon through Presence, but it’s really out of character for him and he can’t explain it, so that’s out of the picture. With no other ideas for what to do, he asks his mask for advice. Norman isn’t quite on his side, even if he has Stomp’s best interests at heart, so he suggests that a sudden burst of pain and adrenaline would wake Vega up while simultaneously displaying Stomp’s dominance.

Stomp looks at his machete, then the player looks up at the Legend Point token I’m waving above my GM screen. With a heavy sigh, he kneels on Vega’s forearm and hacks off two of her fingers. Vega takes some lethal damage, but wakes up. Stomp experiences regret, but also gets that Legend Point. We called the session there, and went into session 2 with plenty of drama to springboard the emergent plot off of.

Minimal Prep

So after 20 minutes spent writing down threats, I already have a living world. With zero time spent planning it out, we already have the beginnings of a plot; with a clear goal, a villain one of the party has a grudge against, and a group who didn’t even exist at the start of the session ready to be a persistent nuisance. It continued on in this manner, with maybe 10 minutes of prep per session (spent reevaluating the threats) being transformed through the magic of the MC into a huge, sprawling plot with betrayals and love triangles and hidden agendas. All of it was a surprise to everyone at the table, including me, and that is why I love to MC.


Thanks for the clarifications, that does seem interesting and I think I’ll try that, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to improvise enough

I think I wasn’t clear on what I asked about keeping the PCs together though. Some drama is cool, but how do you keep it from going too far? If in your example Stomp decided he wasn’t okay with Vega’s decisions and wanted to take his place, the most obvious ending to that is Vega (or Stomp) dying. Wouldn’t that create resentment among the players?
Do you just nudge them in the “right” direction, say by suggesting to Stomp that he tries to run elections instead, or do you just forbid them outright from some actions, or what?

It’s certainly very improv heavy, although having a comprehensive list of threats does help with that by giving you ideas so you’re not making things up in a vacuum.

As for stopping the PCs from going too far, that is a tricky problem. The first time I ran Apocalypse World I had one PC kill another in session 2, and that player then never came back (to be fair, she has some other problems with other players around the table). The solution is threefold:

  1. Talk with the players before you play. Set expectations. Tell them “drama and conflict is cool, but it’s cooler if you can make it last. Be as cruel as you want to each other, but make it so the player wants to come back and settle the grudge”
  2. Another mechanic that I borrow from Apocalypse World; make the PCs really hard to kill. If someone finishing blows a PC, then they’re dead as far as the one inflicting the blow is concerned. Have the “dead” character left behind in the dirt, maybe even bury them. Then have them show up again a few days later with brand new scars and one heck of a grudge, maybe represented by a new flaw. If every PC gets one of these then it makes other PCs think twice about “killing” someone.
  3. Occasionally, just let it happen. As long as both players are fine with it, there’s no reason to stop it from happening. Real example from the game above: Vega ordered Stomp into a field of carnivorous sheep to gather the wool she needed for her settlement’s winter clothes. Stomp reluctantly complied after some heavy threats, and then died in the process. I asked Stomp’s player how he wanted to do his “come back with a vengeance” thing, and he took one look at Vega (who was coming to the realisation of what she’d done) and went “Nah, I’ll let her suffer.” He rolled up a new character, and Stomp went down in history in a way that was satisfying to the player (until someone brought him back, but that’s another story)

This stuff is awesome. I do it in my games, and it makes my job a lot easier. When we started up my Open Legend game, I had my players create characters, and then we spent a day in their lives. All we had at the beginning was the setting I mapped out (in a mind map, so something coherent but light on details). At the end, we had a town with factions and a bunch of threats. The game pretty much writes itself at this point. One of the nice things about Open Legend is that it encourages you to let players narrate their successes. Depending on what they say or do, you may end up with some new threats to add to your growing threat map. Last session, one of mine saw an old acquaintance at a bar he was scoping out. The guy’s a private investigator, and he’s obviously come to their frontier town for some reason. We’ll just have to play to find out what happens to learn why. :smiley:

There’s another thing Apocalypse World does that I also find very helpful, which is to clarify the MC’s job with an agenda and principles. The agenda is why you are playing. Everything you should be to accomplish it. The principles are like a checklist of things you should be doing as an MC to be a good MC. They’re not exactly surprising, but having them enumerated can be a great reminder when there’s one part of your MCing game that’s a little weak. I’ve always been kind of lazy/terrible with descriptions, but every time I see “Barf forth fantasia” (I’m running a fantasy setting) in my notes, I’m reminded to step it up a bit.