Moving into days eleven through twenty of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, we focus more on how things run at the table. As a reminder, if you follow the link above and look in the comments section, you’ll see all the blogs taking part in the challenge. I encourage you to do so, there’s a lot of good advice being shared. In the meantime, since I took the long-weekend off, here are Days Eleven through Fourteen. It’s a long one today so strap in; regular length posts resume tomorrow.
The usual disclaimer: since I play a lot of Pathfinder, much of what I say here will refer to that game. But it is possible to apply it to other games as well, with a bit of modification.
One of my favourite optional rules for the Pathfinder game is Hero Points. When I’m not playing Pathfinder I really enjoy games where the player has agency and can direct some of the action. Hero Points allow for that in a Pathfinder game, as well as giving the player a chance to pull off the truly heroic action. For those not familiar with Hero Points (found in the Advanced Player’s Guide), each character can have a maximum of three at any time, and spending one allows the player to affect the d20 roll. The exact effect depends on whether the player decided to spend the point before or after the roll; bigger bonuses apply if the Hero Point is spent before the die roll. Players can also spend a point to get back a spell cast, use a special ability one more time, and a variety of other options. I allow their use in every Pathfinder game I GM, because I love encouraging the players to be heroic, to take the big chances. It always make for a more exciting night at the table that way. If I’m not playing Pathfinder, I try to find a way to introduce the concept of Hero Points to whatever game I’m running.
One of the few things I actually stole from 4th ed. D&D to use in other games was the idea of the passive skill check. While most skill checks require the character to actively attempt something (climb a rope, pick a lock, remember research), sometimes something is so obvious and the character so skilled that she succeeds without really trying. While an active check requires a d20 roll plus bonus, a passive check assumes the player rolled a ten on the die, plus skill bonus. The most obvious use of a passive skill check is for Perception, and I use it to gauge what the characters might actually see upon entering a room or situation. If their passive Perception score is high enough, they might actually notice the “hidden” door (or monster) right away, because it just wasn’t hidden well enough. But I also use it for skills like Sense Motive, and even Knowledge checks. Depending on where the DCs start on a Knowledge chart, for instance, a character may know the basics about something without really thinking about it. Only after pondering the situation, item, or creature for a bit longer (making an actual Knowledge check) could he potentially know more. Using passive checks has greatly sped up my game play, because I don’t have to bog down play with unnecessary dice rolling.
I also like to hack whatever game I’m running to find a way to reward players for staying on top of the story. I try to start each session by asking for a recap, or a “Previously on…” summation. If the players can give it to me I will find a way to reward them in game, either with additional XP or bonuses. These recaps also give me an idea of how I’m doing as a GM; if the last session wasn’t memorable or they players seem confused (when I don’t want them to be confused, of course) I know I need to make a change.
I don’t use a lot of “set in stone” table rules to keep my players focused. After all, if I’m doing my job as the GM the players will generally stay focused because I’m holding their interest. And because gaming for me is first and always a social activity, I actually embrace the occasional lack of focus. I’m okay with funny asides, or “this reminds of the time…” stories, because for me that’s part of the hobby. Also, as a cunning GM, I’m always listening when players talk about things that stood out for them in other games. It’s one of the best ways to figure out what your players will like/hate, and add/avoid it in your game.
That said, I do take steps to minimize disruption when we play. I’m lucky enough to have a separate game room with a table and chairs, so I use that. Not only does sitting around a table suit my sense of tradition better, it also keeps the players focused on each other and the game. Moving from the living room to the game room also gives a concrete transition from socializing and catching up on the week, to playing time. I also have a general rule that, unless you need to look up a rule or find something for your character, no internet at the table. I’m always happy to watch the latest funny video, but only after the session. This one can be hard for players, especially with the ubiquity of smart phones, but it’s important for me as a way of limiting distractions. Like most of my other table “rules”, however, I don’t do hard-ass enforcement. But players who pay more attention to their phone or tablet than to me find they miss out on important information, and I don’t go back over it for them. Usually it only takes one or two instances of walking into a trap or suffering a surprise attack before the offending player turns off his/her device.
Sometimes as the GM you have to take the mood of the table. There are going to be some evenings where, for whatever reason, no one is really focused on what is happening. While you could try to grab control and force players to pay attention , I’ve found over time that sometimes you need to let the players have their unfocused sessions. Let them go in whatever direction they choose, even if that’s sometimes every direction at once. Gaming is a social activity, and sometimes your players are going to focus more on the social than the game. That’s okay. Let them. Enjoy it with them instead of trying to force them back on track. You may have worked hard on the encounters for that session, but those encounters aren’t going anywhere; tuck them away for next time. Have fun with your players, let them have their head, and you’ll generally find that next session they are back on task. If they aren’t of course, that’s an issue (and the subject of another post).
I also make sure to talk with my players about my “at table” expectations. Many, many issues can be avoided if your players know up front what you want from them as far as play behaviour goes. If you’ve been letting them check emails for three or four sessions, then suddenly freak out about it at the fifth, that really isn’t fair to them. Take a moment to talk about expected etiquette, it will save much grief later on.
The short answer to that question is: I don’t always. The long answer is, well, longer. How and whether I balance depends a great deal on who my players are and what type of game I’m running. For instance, I’m currently running a “sandbox” game where the characters are exploring wide swaths of uncharted wilderness. The characters are starting at first level, but they may encounter things in their exploration that no first-level party can handle. But because the players are all experienced, I expect them to know when to run away and save that encounter for later. If I were running the same game for brand new players, though, I’d tend to make sure the bulk of their encounters, while challenging, were within their capabilities. In each case how much balance I add depends on my ultimate goal. With my table of experienced players I’m trying to challenge them, so I want the sphincter-clenching moments of finding something they shouldn’t have or evading something truly nasty. Because they are more familiar with the game, I’m trusting them to put that knowledge to good use. But with a table of new players my goal is largely to teach them the game. The best way to teach the game is to play the game, so unless I really want them to learn character creation rules, killing them off just because they took a wrong turn would be counter-productive. So I balance the encounters a little more in their favour, letting them learn and become the more experienced players.
And let’s be honest, imbalance is more fun. It’s what players remember. Try it yourself; think back to every combat encounter you’ve had in a game. How many of the ones you remember were perfectly balanced? Now how many were gut-wrenching, “oh my god we’re all going to die!” encounters, where you barely won out in the end (or maybe didn’t)? Chances are you remember more of the latter, right? Sometimes, to challenge the players, a GM has to tip the scales against them. Whether you tip them a little or a lot is up to you, but I guarantee those are the encounters your players will talk about when the campaign is over.
That said, if every encounter becomes a life-and-death struggle, soon the players will either get blasé about them, or just give up. So I usually worry less about balance inside each specific encounter, and more about balancing encounters against one another. After all, easy encounters have their uses as well. Sometimes you want to remind the players their characters are indeed heroes; slip them an easier encounter where they can strut their stuff. I use these especially after a party has levelled up, so they have a chance to try out any new feats/abilities and get a handle on them before bigger challenges rear their head. Using a baseball analogy, these easy encounters are the practice pitches before I put them on the mound. Of course, once they are on the mound I try to make every encounter bottom of the 9th, bases loaded, and winning run at the plate…sorry, enough baseball. My point is, I tailor the encounter for the characters, but keep in mind what I think the players might need or want from the situation as well.
Earlier I said I try not to force focus at the table, but if there were an exception to that, combat would be it. I expect my players to be focused on what is happening during a combat encounter, and I am definitely less lenient about lack of attention. My biggest tip, therefore, is “Lead by Example”. If you want the players to be focused and ready when their turn comes around, then you as the GM have to demonstrate that same (or greater) level of readiness. For me, that means not fumbling through books looking stuff up; declaring a definite action for an NPC/monster when it’s their turn; always having something happen when it comes around to me. How I do that goes back to my earlier post about session prep. I make sure I have all the information I need ready and at my finger tips, so I don’t have to hesitate for longer than it takes me to choose an action and declare what’s happening. If I can be ready to go, especially when I’m running multiple creatures or NPCs, then it is only fair to expect a player to be ready on their turn with their one character.
To keep combat moving I also try to remind players when their turn is getting close, so they have a chance to look up rules and plan during their down time. That way when it does come back to them, they are ready to go and can tell me what they want to do right away. If they have questions about the situation I do try to answer them but I also remind them this is combat, and they don’t necessarily have time to notice everything in the moment. So I don’t really allow extended question-and-answer sessions about the environment, the monsters, and so on. I give a brief answer and then ask, “What are you doing?”. I always bring it back to the character’s actions, because that is what moves the encounter forward and I want the player focused on the action.
One of the tools I sometimes use are initiative cards, like those offered by The Game Mechanics. While initially created for D&D 3.5 they work equally well for Pathfinder. They allow me to keep character information in front of me during combat, so I don’t bog things down by repeatedly asking for things like armour class. And tying back in to my passive skill check rule, above, at a glance I can know what to tell players about their situation initially and what they’ll need to dig deeper to discover. They require a little more organization than using a standard initiative tracker, but not much more. I do recommend holding off on their use until the characters are a little higher level, though, unless you can laminate your cards. Otherwise you’ll spend the first few levels erasing and re-writing a lot of information.
My general, all-purpose combat tip is, Keep It Moving! Nothing sucks the energy out of an exciting combat like having to look something up, or dither about actions or results. When in doubt, make a decision and keep going, even if you aren’t sure it’s the right decision. Remember things like the 50/50 Rule (all things equal, the chance of performing anything is 50/50), and the +2/-2 Rule (when in doubt, apply a -2 modifier for something bad, and a +2 modifier for something good). Yes the game has rules, and yes you should know them, generally. But sometimes you forget, sometimes you didn’t look up that rule before play, and sometimes (usually) the player is doing something you didn’t consider. So just roll with it, make up something reasonable in the moment, and look it up after the game. Your main job as the GM is to keep things fun and exciting. Looking up rules is neither of those things.
Whew! Okay, that was a big chunk. I’ll try not to do that again, I promise. If you have anything to add or ask, please drop it in the commets!