Below is a series of post I did in support of Triple Crit’s 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. The challenge seemed to peter out around day nineteen over at Triple Crit, and since I wanted to move my regular posts back to other topics, I created this page. Here is all thirty days of the challenge laid out in one spot. You might find some of the questions towards the bottom aren’t answered yet. Don’t worry, I’m filling in the blanks and when I do I’ll mention the update in a regular post. I may also come back from time to time and update or edit an entry; if so, I’ll indicate it in the text. If you are a GM, I hope you find what’s here helpful. Please feel free to comment with any questions or helpful tips of your own below.
30 Days of Game Mastering
What advice would you give a first-time GM?
Have fun and don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself. If you’ve been playing the game you’re GMing you likely have a good grasp of the rules, so trust that. If it’s a new game, don’t worry about knowing every rule right now. Instead, focus on setting things up so you can find rules quickly, thus keeping the action going.
Remember “Yes, and…”, and don’t block your players. If the players are excited about an idea or a plan or anything, and you can figure out a way to use it in the game, do it. It makes them feel more connected to what is happening, and actually makes you look brilliant for “anticipating” their desires. Always remember, of course, you don’t have to use their idea in quite the way they wanted/anticipated; leave yourself the option to surprise them, thus making yourself look more brilliant.
And write stuff down, even just point form notes. Trust me, it will save heart-ache down the line.
What are your favourite GMing tools or accessories?
I posted a while ago about my GM kit, so the easy answer would be “everything I carry in that”. But using my GM kit as the start, I’d say my favourites depend on what game I’m running. If it’s Old School, I just go with my dice bag and a pencil, like I did in the old days. But if I’m running something more recent, based on the d20 model, I’d say my favourite becomes the re-usable flip mats. Those were a stroke of genius for any GM needing to map on the fly.
Now if we’re talking computer tools, my laptop actually comes in as my favourite GMing tool. Not only is it an easy way for me to carry all my information in one place. It also runs my second favourite tool, Hero Lab. Not only can I use it to track combat and player progression, but it’s a handy tool for tweaking NPCs and keeping basic notes on the campaign.
How do you find players?
I’ll admit, I haven’t had to go out and look for players for a while now. I have one group I’ve been gaming with once a week (more or less) for about 8 years, and another two I GM (one bi-weekly, the other monthly) that have been together just over a year. Between that and Pathfinder Society Organized Play, my GMing slate is pretty full without having to look for new players.
BUT, if I did need to find players I actually have a few options. If I was starting a new Pathfinder campaign specifically, I’d probably put the word out through the Pathfinder Society players. Your local organized play events are often good places to find players for a game, especially if the campaign you want to run is for that game. Be advised, though, it is NOT COOL to schedule your campaign at the same time the organized play runs. Then you’re just poaching players, and that’s a dick move.
I also belong to a few gaming Meetups, and those are great places to meet and recruit new players. If you haven’t already, run a search on the Meetup main site for gaming groups in or near your area. You’ll likely be surprised by what you find.
Another good option is to join some gaming forums, and make sure to post your location so other forum members can find you. Many such forums have “Looking for Group” sections for both GMs and players. They can be hit and miss, depending on the size of the forum and how active it is; less so if you are good with playing on-line via a virtual tabletop. At the very least you get some good conversations while you wait for someone to show interest in your game.
I still see notices up occasionally at my Friendly Local Game Store, but I’ve never used that method myself and I’ve never responded to it unless it was for in-store organized play. So it can work, but the better looking you can make your notice, the better. I see so many “LFG” notices scrawled out on loose-leaf pages in crappy hand-writing, and I honestly don’t know why anyone thinks they work. Even something typed out in 10 minutes on your computer is going to look way better than that.
Do you use pre-published adventures or write your own?
These days it’s about an 70/30 split between pre-published and the fruit of my own fevered brain. It has been many years since I have run a campaign that was completely my creation. Because I’m running a lot of Pathfinder these days, I tend to avail myself of the vast resource that is the Adventure Path line, with the modules coming in a close second. Between the four groups I either play in or GM, plus Pathfinder Organized Play, I only have so much prep time time available. So if there is pre-published material that will suit me and my group, I will go to that first.
That said, I almost never run pre-published adventures as written. Take Pathfinder for instance; most of the pre-pubs are written for the “ideal” group of four players, composed of Fighter, Cleric, Mage, Rogue. Rarely do I play with just four players (usually five, sometimes six) and I can’t remember the last time I had a group that was the standard FCMR mix. As an example, when I started the Rise of the Runelords adventure path with my group, it was back during 3.5. One of my players chose a Goliath Barbarian as his character. Goliaths were a 3.5 race who were essentially Giant-kin, and one of their racial abilities allowed them to treat themselves as Large when it was beneficial to do so. That meant he started the game with a Large two-handed sword (doing 3d6 damage, plus strength bonuses). Minor spoiler, but the first foe you face in the adventure path are goblins, with a paltry 6 hit points a pop. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that, with making some changes, he was going to own early encounters. So I adapted; made the goblins a little tougher and a little harder to hit, and had more of them show up.
So that would be my advice here, never be afraid to modify pre-published adventures to suit your group. There are no continuity police to come along and give you hell for changing things. It’s your group, your campaign; take the material and make changes as necessary. Don’t like the class of the main NPC? Change it! Encounters don’t seem tough enough for your group? Try maxing out the hit points to keep the monsters in the fight longer, or just add more monsters (that last works best with small fries, like goblins and kobolds). It’s your game, so do what you need to do to keep things fun and exciting for your players. And for you; it is a real downer for a GM when the players cake walk through encounters. Don’t let it happen, modify away!
Stealing like an artist: what inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc?
It might be easier to list sources I haven’t used as inspiration. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t drawn on the Etruscans for anything, but I could be wrong. In seriousness, though, I’ll borrow ideas and inspiration from just about anywhere. I’m a sponge that way. But I do have a couple of favourite sources.
For a long time, National Geographic Magazine was my “go to” source for interesting ways to dress up the various races in my campaigns. It was an article on the Mongols, for instance, which led to my tribes of orcs being horse riding nomads. It added an interesting flavour to the game, and the only thing scarier than an angry orc with an axe is an angry orc with an axe on horseback. I’ve also used NatGeo to lend Elvish nations the feel of Imperial China, and to make the Halfling folk a bit more Romany.
Besides that, NatGeo is a great source for adding great details on all sorts of things. Articles on archaeological digs can help add verisimilitude to your tomb and grave appearance and contents. You can snag plot inspiration from just about every article in an issue. And if you do base an adventure around something from the magazine, often there are excellent photos to help set the scene for your players.
Still a periodical, but not quite in National Geographic’s ballpark, is The Weekly World News. You’ve seen it on the check-out stand at your grocery or convenience store, even if you don’t realize it. But if you’ve been waiting in line and glanced at headlines like “Bat Boy Seeks Love Match”, or “Do Chupacabras Live Amongst Us? One Man’s Shocking Proof!”, then you’ve seen The Weekly World News, or a similar rag. Like NatGeo, I use WWN as inspiration for all sorts of stories, especially if I want an adventure with a touch of the ridiculous. WWN is especially perfect if you are running a game in a more modern setting, like Supernatural RPG, d20 Modern, or any Cthulhu game with a current-day setting. Heck, in one d20 Modern campaign I ran, WWN was the in-game source of information for my heroes; while everyone else assumed it was a terrible rag, my group new it printed the truth more often than people were ready to accept.
And then, yes, there are the usual sources: fantasy/sci-fi movies and books, comics, and TV shows. I’ll also cherry pick bits and pieces from other games and gaming books, if I see something I think would fit my current campaign. I think if I were to offer one piece of advice under this topic, it would be not to restrict yourself. Be a sponge. If you see something cool, something you like, make note of it. You may not know how or where to use it right now, but it may come to you later. Looked at the right way, anything can become part of your campaign, so don’t self-censor.
World-building: What’s your process?
The Pathfinder RPG is about 70% of my gaming these days, so not a lot of world building involved. More like “world fleshing out” (a topic for another post). But when I do use my own campaign world, I use something I’ve termed the “concentric circle” approach. You can also think of it as the “fog of war” approach, but I like my first analogy better so I’ll run with that.
Basically, think of your campaign world as being contained within a series of concentric circles, like an archery target. The bullseye is wherever the players are going to start in the campaign, and I mean “start” in every sense; physical location, where their characters fit in society, their community, and so on. Once I’ve figured out where the bullseye is, I build my world from the bullseye outward. The most detail and attention is paid to the parts of the world in the bullseye which is, not coincidentally, the parts closest to the characters. I flesh that out as fully as I can, often with the help of my players’ character backgrounds.
So what is considered inside the bullseye? In terms of physical location, anything of interest within a day’s journey of the characters’ starting point. In terms of community, any family, friends, or contacts the characters might have within that physical location. Social standing, the details of day-to-day life at the characters’ social stratum. So if a character is a noble, I need to figure out details of how the nobility works inside the bullseye (it may work differently elsewhere). If a character is a peasant, what is their life like and how does it affect the story?
The next circle out from the party gets less detail, but still gets filled in. How much is encompassed in each circle is largely up to you, but for the sake of argument let’s say in physical terms it’s 2-3 days travel from the party’s location. I’ll make sure I have names for all the locations, some handy rumours about those locations, main NPCs fleshed out, and so on. Again, not as much detail as the bullseye, but fleshed out enough that if the party suddenly decided on a road trip I could keep things interesting and answer most of the questions the players come up with.
I think you get where this is going, right? Each circle further out from the party gets less detail, until at the outermost circle I might just have names for the locations and that’s it.
Why would I create my world this way? Simple. No, really, that’s it: I like to keep things simple. The characters are the stars of the campaign show, so it makes sense to fill in all the details immediately around them, since those are the details they’ll encounter right away. Take physical location: if the characters start in the village of Homesweethomesburg, why spend any pre-campaign prep filling out all the details and nuance of Nevergonnagothereville, located hundreds of leagues away from the party? Slap a name on that city, maybe give it one or two details you can relate if they ask about it (“Nevergonnagothereville has a thriving doll-house industry and is renowned for Jacobi, a champion throat singer.”) Spend your time bringing Homesweethomesburg to life; give it character and depth, make it lived in.
There are benefits to this approach for both you and the players. You get to cut down on a bunch of prep that might never get used (though see later questions in this series on what to do with extra prep), and stick to campaign prep that immediately affects your group. And the players start the campaign in what feels like a fully developed campaign world. Well of course, because the characters only see what is immediately around them, and that’s what you filled out. Once the characters start to move away from Homesweethomesburg, however, the bullseye moves with them. Now you have new information to flesh out. But if you follow this model of world-building, you’ll only be building the parts of the world that matter to your players. Which is all you need.
How do you prep for the start of a campaign?
Most of the Game Master prep I do at the start of a campaign was touched upon in yesterday’s post. To sum up, I heavily detail everything immediately around the party’s start location, because this is the part of the campaign they’ll spend the bulk of their time to start. But I do have other things I do at the campaign start, mostly related to the players.
Campaign Intro Email – I send out an email to the players with the following:
- character creation rules
- campaign restrictions; which books are available for use, any races/classes that are off limits, any optional/house rules we might be using, and so on.
- what I’d like to see as far as character background information, and the rewards for such
- date/time suggestions for our first session(s)
- details about snacks, dinner arrangements and the like
I also use this email as an opportunity to discuss details of the campaign world, ask for player input, and give the players information their characters may know. If we are starting with a character creation session, the email gives the players a chance to think about character concepts. If we want to jump right into play, the email gives players everything they need to have a character ready to run.
Stock my Campaign Binder – Even though I find my laptop useful for taking notes during game sessions, I still use a physical binder to hold some campaign information. Things I include in my campaign binder include:
- the game world’s calendar, so I can track time
- a random weather chart, just so every day isn’t sunny and clear
- a print-off of any non-player characters the party will encounter
- a page of random NPCs in case a player really wants to talk to that shopkeeper
- blank character sheets, for levelling up or recovery from horrible spills
- blank loose-leaf, preferably graph paper, for taking notes and mapping
I keep the binder next to me during play, and add/remove pages as required.
Prep my Playing Space – About half of my gaming takes place in my game room; I have a travelling GM kit to cover myself for the rest. Prepping my space includes:
- clear off the table and make sure I have enough chairs
- pre-draw the maps we’ll need for the first few sessions
- set up my GM space at the table: laptop, dice tray, GM screen
- ensure good lighting
- select miniatures I’ll need for the first few sessions
- setting out snacks, as well as the collection jar (my players each chip-in $5 each session, which I use to buy snacks/drinks/make dinners for each session)
Amongst those three things, I also read and re-read the first adventure, until I’m comfortably familiar with the encounter details. Or if it’s a home-brew, I go over my notes and make sure I haven’t forgotten any details. I like to get as much of the prep work out of the way pre-session, making it easier for me to improv during a session as needed. If you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, or you’re playing an RPG that is more improv-based, you can set aside the reading and re-reading portion of prep.
How do you prep for each session?
I know there are GMs out there that maybe don’t do a lot of prep between sessions. I respect GMs that can really work on the fly, because I am not one of them. I’ve gotten better at improv over the years, but I still need to do a minimum amount of prep in order to feel confident going into a session.
The very first thing I do is go over my session notes from the previous session. I’m looking for anything I said I’d have done by next session (XP totals, treasure lists, and so on). I’m also looking for any NPCs I might have to prep, and any indications of where my players are going next. Sometimes that’s straightforward; they’re still in the dungeon, so they’ll stay in the dungeon. Sometimes they have a bunch of options, though, and hopefully I noted which one they were leaning towards at the previous session.
Once I’ve gone over my notes I start putting together the things I might need for the session: NPC stats, location info, results for Knowledge checks. I read over the next portions of the adventure a few times to get familiar with them, assuming I’m using a pre-written adventure. If not, I review my adventure notes, and fill in any blanks I might need for the next session. I also assemble the physical items I’ll need for the next several encounters, like miniatures, maps, and player handouts. I like to have those things ready to go so I don’t waste playing time fumbling or searching for them.
I usually prepare one more encounter than I think I’ll need, and often two. Sometimes the players go in a direction you weren’t expecting and it’s great to be prepared for that. And sometimes the players breeze through an encounter you thought was going to take longer or be tougher. Either way, it’s good to be ready with the next, or alternate, encounter so they aren’t waiting for you to catch up.
About an hour or so before the session starts I prepare the playing space. I anoint the four sacred corners with the sacrificial blood…just kidding. A little Old Gamer “D&D is satanism” humour. But I do tidy up the play area, removing any distractions. I set up my end of the table with all my GMing tools close to hand. I set out the players’ minis, the map sheet we’re using, and character sheets if I held on to them. And I set out the snack bowls so we don’t have to waste time hunting for those later in the game.
One thing that I started doing fairly recently, I pre-roll about 15-20 times on a d20 (assuming we’re playing Pathfinder; I pre-roll for other games as appropriate) and note the results. This speeds up things like NPC/monster saving throws, skill checks, and surprise attack rolls a great deal. I use the same numbers for player checks when I need the check to be secret; for instance, an elven character’s Perception check for a secret door. This is useful, because sometimes you don’t want to give the game away by rolling a d20. Some players can’t help meta-gaming, and pre-rolling avoids that issue.
On my laptop, I open up the PDFs of all the resources I’ll need during the session, and bookmark the pages I’ll need for reference. As part of my NPC prep I’ll have noted any spells and abilities that were not familiar to me, and I’ll have those pages open as reference. If for some reason I’m not using my laptop (rare, but it happens), I use sticky notes to tab all the pages I’ll need as reference. Either way, I want to cut down on the amount of fumbling through books I have to do during play. Not only does it cut down on wasted time, but you come across as a more confident and in-control GM.
Then I sit back, sip my coffee, and wait for the players to arrive.
Player “homework”: what do you ask of your players before and between sessions?
As you can guess from my previous post on world-building, I prefer to focus the world/campaign on the player characters. Like characters on a TV show, the action of the story should revolve around them. I also want the world to feel fleshed out, so I also include things that have nothing to do with the players. After all, in the real world there are lives and events going on all around you that have nothing to do with you. So I try to keep about a 70/30 split of character-focused versus “random” or unrelated plot.
At the start of a campaign I ask my players for some sort of background for their character. Many GMs ask for a straight-up written bio, and while I’m happy to take those not all players are comfortable writing what amounts to a very short story about their character. So a few years ago I expanded my request for background info to include things like:
- character biography, written out or point form
- map of your character’s home village, or farm, or city street
- description of your mentor growing up. Could be a family member or the woman who taught you how to fight.
- a description of both your best friend and nemesis growing up.
- a sketch of family members, the home you grew up in, favourite pet et al
I could continue, but the point is, not every player is good at stringing together a story for their character. Giving them other ways to engage with their characters past and show that to you may get you more information than just the standard written bio. And things like these are just begging to be included in your campaign! If a player draws for me a map of their home village, do you really think I’ll pass up the opportunity to set some of the campaign there? That would be the worst of missed opportunities.
Once the campaign is running, I still encourage players to give me titbits about the world around them. For instance, in a one Pathfinder campaign I’m GMing the party’s gnome sorcerer works in a theatre. So I asked her to give me a general layout of the theatre as well as some folks that might work there. Homework like this does two things. First, it gets the player more involved in the campaign world, and gives you a glimpse of how they see the campaign world versus how you see it. If parts of the world fit their vision better, it is easier for them to immerse themselves in the campaign. Second, it takes some of the writing and creation pressure off of you. I could just as easily have drawn up the theatre the character worked at myself. But I’d be taking time away from other session prep to do it. Letting my players help gives me a chance to kill two cockatrices with one stone; I get interesting bits of character related campaign info, and I can focus on creating and running exciting events and encounters for my players.
A key component of this player homework for me is rewards. I tell my players flat out at the start of a campaign, if you give me some sort of character background you will get a tangible, in-game reward. You could just give an EXP or build-point bonus for it, but I try to connect the reward to some aspect of the character’s background. The more connected and specific I can make the reward, the better. For example, in a recent campaign I rewarded a wizard character with 250gp worth of scrolls, written by her, because her background talked about her learning at the hands of itinerant wizards. I imagined her character quickly jotting down what notes she could in the hopes of expanding her spell repertoire, trading scroll scribing for lessons. Another player in the same campaign is playing a paladin of the goddess of beauty, and his background (and player actions in-game, so far) focused on his attempts to find peaceful solutions, using combat as a last resort. His reward was to start the game with a potion of eagle’s splendor (to aid in diplomacy) and a potion of cure light wounds (for when diplomacy breaks down).
Other rewards can include: one-time or continuing bonuses to skill checks or saving throws; a situational bonus to item creation; actual treasure in-game (though don’t get out of control with this one); or anything else that might appeal to a player character. I’ve even hidden adventure hooks in seemingly over-generous rewards, like gifting the characters a castle or thriving merchant business. All sorts of interesting things can find you when you are tied to a castle or have to travel to keep your business running.
So don’t be afraid to include your players in the campaign building process. Engage them and reward them for engaging. You’ll find your campaign world starts taking on vibrancy and detail beyond what you expected.
What are your tips for running a low/no prep game?
As I said in an earlier post, I’m not the strongest improv GM. I’ve become better over time, but I’ve bolstered my meagre improv skills by being hyper-prepared behind-the-scenes. Every once in a while, though, I’ll end up having to GM on the fly, mostly because of a lack of prep time for a session. And that’s when I fall back on my hyper-preparedness. I’m going to talk about Pathfinder because that’s what I play the most, but you can file the serial numbers off and apply these to other games.
My first tip, then, is know your resources. I have PDFs of all my Pathfinder books, and I have bookmarked relevant pages in all my books. The two big ones for GMing on the fly are the GameMastery Guide and the NPC Codex. Between these two books you have everything you need to make up NPC encounters off the cuff, develop plots, and set the scene for your players. If you GM Pathfinder, I highly recommend these two books. If you don’t play Pathfinder, your game likely has similar resources available, so track them down.
Other resources that will help? Pre-made maps. If you have to put an encounter together on the fly, having a collection of pre-made maps is a big help. Not only is it one less thing you have to come up with, but the map itself can inspire your encounter. You can get them from a variety of sources: Drive-Thru RPG, old issues of gaming magazines, table-top miniature games. Paizo sells a line of flip-mats and map packs for a variety of terrains and locations. I have never thrown out any map I have ever found (I’m actually a bit obsessive about keeping them), so my collection is vast enough I can usually present a unique location on demand.
My second tip, and this ties back to my world-building style, is let your players help. This is the time to ask your players questions about their characters, what they want, what they think is going on, where they want to go. This takes some of the pressure off you, and helps gives you ideas for the session. And because the ideas came from them, you know your players will be engaged. Engagement is big when you are improving a session; your players will be a lot more forgiving of the evening’s rough edges if they are into the plot. So don’t be afraid to ask them to help you.
My last tip: keep the session moving. If you haven’t had time to prep, this is not the night to engage the players in long research encounters. If they’re in the pub, have someone throw a punch. If they’re stuck in a dungeon and dithering, a secret door opens and goblins pour out. Keep the energy up, keep the party moving forward, keep the players doing something as opposed to talking about something. Of course, if you have a role-playing heavy group, then switch it around; this is the night to have extended NPC interaction. Know your group, and run hard with what they love.
House rules: what are your favourite hacks, mods, and short cuts?
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.
Table Rules: how do you keep players focused on the game?
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.
Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?
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.
How do you facilitate combat? Any tips, tools, or cheats?
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.
Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative?
Whether I’m running a pre-written adventure or something I’ve put together, I spend a lot of time figuring out the villain. If the player characters are the heroes of the story, they deserve a villain that challenges and, if possible, scares the bejesus out of them. I have three main tips for making the villain memorable.
1. The villain wants the opposite of what the characters want – Seems pretty straightforward, right? But many people forget this very simple definition of antagonist, and give their villain some esoteric goal the players (and therefore characters) don’t care about. Tie your villain’s goals into the things important to you characters. If a character has loved ones, the villain must threaten them in some way. If a character is after a particular item, the villain wants it as well. If a character wants a specific person dead to avenge her family’s murder, that person is of particular importance to the villain and under his protection. The more specifically you can tie the villain’s desires into the characters’ stories, the more memorable he becomes. After all, any villain could want to destroy the world, but only yours needs to sacrifice villagers from the characters home town (including the character’s family) to do it.
2. A villain is known by the company she keeps – Every memorable villain has had memorable lieutenants, someone to lead the minions into battle. Sauron had the Witch King and the Riders; Goldfinger had Oddjob; Emporer Palpatine had Darth Vader. Yes, each also had scads of less memorable minions, but the trusted servants all stick in the mind. Why is that important? Well, if the lieutenant is powerful and scary it offers you two things as a GM. First, if the characters haven’t encountered the main villain yet, they might mistake the mook for the boss. Which makes for a fine bit of surprise when they discover the truth. And second, when the truth is revealed the villain seems that much more frightening because she is controlling (even if just barely) the already frightening lieutenant. This reveal is particularly fun if the characters are still a ways off from being a match for the main villain, because it drives home how serious their situation is and what they might need to achieve to finally win out. Yes, it takes a bit more work, but trust me, exciting mooks make for memorable bad guys.
3. Pass the salt, it’s time to chew some scenery – You can be excused for not coming up with distinctive personalities for every goblin or thug the party encounters. But when it comes to the main villain, now is the time to pull out all the stops! The first time they encounter him, the box text should lay thick with description. The villain should have a distinctive voice and style, a way of talking and acting that is clearly theirs and no one else’s. Give them a catch phrase, a specific vocal quality (a lisp, a rasp, or a higher/lower pitch), or have them speak only in the characters’ minds. Maybe the room gets noticeably hotter/colder when they enter. Maybe there’s a distinctive smell that accompanies their arrival and lingers after they’ve gone; I had a villain who kept bees, and so a sweet smell would linger after he’d left a room. Maybe their eyes glow with a sickly green flame whenever they cast spells or become enraged (which they should become around the characters often). The point is, now is not the time to be subtle. Once the villain has chosen to reveal himself he should be larger than life and scarier than death. So pull out all your acting chops, and make sure the characters never forget him.
Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?
Investigation and mysteries can be some of the hardest things to pull off in a role-playing game. Too often GMs tie clues into the result of Knowledge checks, which can work if your party has the needed skills. But what if no one has Knowledge (engineering)? Do they just not get the architectural clue left by a previous builder?
One of the best games I’ve found for investigative scenarios is the Gumshoe System, by Robin D. Laws. In Gumshoe, the basic clue will always be found by a character with an appropriate skill. So if you took Art History and the clue is hidden in an old painting, you will discover that clue and keep the story going. However, you can choose to spend points from your skill to get more information and reveal even more important clues. Therefore the story never gets bogged down because there is always a way to find a clue, and your skills are still useful because they can get you additional information.
I’ve carried that same idea back to my Pathfinder games. I now modify Knowledge and Perception checks in such a way that beating a relatively low DC (5 or 10) will get you the minimum information necessary to keep the investigation going. But achieving better results (beating a higher DC) gains the player more information and an edge on solving the mystery. After all, while some of the fun lies in discovering the clues, most of the fun in an investigation comes from putting those clues together. In order to do that, you have to make it a little easier for players to find them.
Putting clues together leads us into red herrings. I use them sparingly, because I’ve found through experience that sending players to constantly chase their tails is more frustrating than fun. So at most I’ll include a couple of false leads in the investigation. But I think they can be useful. Red herrings add a bit of realism to your investigation; every investigation suffers from the occasional bad witness or clue that goes no where. They also help point up the fact that other things are happening in your world that don’t directly involve the characters. But if you do use them, I suggest making them relatively easy to sort out. It’s okay to use a red herring to send the characters on a fruitless chase through the village, for instance. But don’t send them on a fruitless chase across a continent. Doing so will only frustrate your players and make them feel like their characters can’t impact the world around them.
To raise tension in my games, I find it useful to construct events that happen when the characters aren’t present. Like all good ghost stories, the most frightening things are the ones that happen when you aren’t looking, or just catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. In the same way, having the players encounter the results but not the thing causing the results allows you to build tension. If they enter a room and see that the stone wall has been pitted and scored, they may know they are dealing with acid. But from what? An NPC throwing vials of acid? Some sort of acid spitting creature? OMG A BLACK DRAGON!? Showing them effects without apparent cause allows you to use the players’ imaginations against them, and that can be a powerful tool.
Structure and time: how do you use flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives in your games?
Flashbacks – Flashbacks can be a great tool for spicing up the presentation of box text. While it doesn’t always fit, presenting key moments as a flashback helps tie the characters further into your world. For example, the party approaches the ancient tower they’ll spend a great deal of time exploring. At this point I could launch into standard descriptive text and ask for various Knowledge checks. Instead, I wait to hear the results of the various checks and using the results as a guide, I do a flashback for each character that provides information about the tower. So a Knowledge (history) check results in a character recalling a portion of a lesson from an old tutor. A Knowledge (local) check might flashback to the inn the night before, and an old codger recounting tales and rumours about the tower. Not only do you get the information across to the players, but you make their checks part of the world you’ve crafted, instead of just dice rolls. You’ve also set up possible NPCs for later; if the old codger’s rumours turn out to be true, maybe the party checks in with him before their next dungeon sortie.
Cut Scenes – I use cut scenes to deliver information or setting/plot flavour to the players, which their characters might not yet know. Often your players will wonder aloud about certain aspects of the campaign; what the villain is actually up to, who the next victim might be, and so on. While you can just keep your mouth shut and let them speculate, done properly a cut scene can give them a bit of answer to those questions, while tantalizing them by producing more questions. For instance, if the game so far has featured a series of brutal murders, you might give the players a cut scene featuring a young man leaving his workplace and walking home. As he makes his way down the darkened streets, a shadow detaches from a nearby alleyway and begins following the boy. As the young man turns at a noise behind him, there’s the flash of a dagger and the boy screams…! End scene. The next day, in game, a boys body is found and the players are presented with more clues to follow. As you are presenting “meta-knowledge” to your players, though, you have to gauge whether your players can handle having that information without warping their characters’ behaviour. I use cut scenes primarily as a treat for the players, so I don’t want their characters suddenly acting on knowledge they don’t have. In my example above, if the characters just start acting like the weapon used was a dagger when that hasn’t been established in play, then that is meta-gaming and not allowed. But, if the players use the cut scene as a spur to more closely investigate the wounds and the weapon used, which leads them to a dagger, then they are using “meta-knowledge” correctly.
Parallel Narrative – Parallel narrative is a device similar to cut scenes. As a tool it will be the one most familiar to the players, as it is used extensively throughout television. If nothing else, the inclusion of commercials turns every television broadcast into a series of cut scenes, albeit mostly bad ones. But where I will present a cut scene as a show the players can watch but not affect, parallel narrative involves one or more of the players directly. It is most often used when the party has split for some reason, as a way to keep the action moving forward while splitting the time evenly between the players. The key to running good parallel narrative, I’ve found, is always make the jump from one player to the next on a high point in the action. That can mean a cliff hanger (“The door squeals in protest as you open it, dust swirling at your feet. You see something move in the darkness beyond…and over to you, Bob.”) or waiting for the player to discover some important bit of plot (“As you finish reading the town ledger you realize it is the town reeve and not the mayor who was funnelling tax money to the cult. Think of what you’re going to do next, and we’ll go to Steve who just opened an unfortunate door.”). Make sure to mix things up. Too many cliff hangers dulls the effect; likewise, you don’t always want to give your players a lot of time to make plans without the rest of the party.
How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?
I tend to modify rewards, whether tangible (gold, magic items, property) or intangible (exp. points or story awards), to more closely suit my players as well as my campaign. Most treasure in a pre-written adventure, for instance, is placed with the standard blend of fighter/mage/rogue/cleric in mind. But what if the party’s main combatant is a monk? After the second or third longsword or shield +1 the party finds, that player is likely to get frustrated. So I look very closely at my party blend, then go in and modify treasure accordingly. That doesn’t mean every treasure pile is going to have things perfectly suited to each character, because that would be ridiculous. But it does mean that occasionally the party will fight a monk NPC who wields a staff +1.
As far as suiting the treasure to the campaign world, I’ll take a page from the real-world and try to modify the cosmetics of the treasure to match my setting. After all, not every item is equally valuable everywhere. Before the Chinese made it so valuable to the West, jade was just another greenish rock. The Spanish looted much of South America for Aztec gold, but to the Aztec other more useful materials, like obsidian for weapon making, were more highly prized. Paper money is a perfect example of this; finding a bag containing millions of dollars is great, unless those dollars are Confederate currency. So while I still include the ubiquitous gold and silver coins in my treasure, I might also include a cannister of rare teas, bolts of silk, and jade figurines, if my setting was more oriental in flavour.
Intangible rewards, like experience points and story awards, can also be modified to rely at least partially on the characters and setting. One of the easiest ways to do this is to tie XP gain to resolving a situation or encounter, instead of connecting XP to successful combat. I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the players in my Kingmaker campaign is playing a paladin dedicated to finding peaceful solutions first. Which means tying XP just to successful combat will undermine his character concept. So instead, I’ve tied XP to encounter resolution instead of encounter elimination. I still expect many encounters will end with combat, and XP will be awarded as usual. But I’ll also award XP for resolving situations diplomatically, without combat. That will make the player happy, because his character is actually impacting the game world in the manner he prefers. And it also allows me to show the other players that they will still be rewarded even if they don’t go all “murder hobo” on every NPC they encounter.
As a side note, treasure is one of the few times I adhere closely to whatever encumbrance rules the game uses. While it can be tempting to just hand-wave the party walking around with thousands of gold pieces weighing hundreds of pounds, I actually think it adds possible encounter and story ideas to a campaign. Do the characters leave and come back with a cart in order to strip everything to the walls, hoping someone doesn’t stumble upon their now unguarded treasure trove? Do they leave someone behind to watch things, and what happens to that person while the rest of the party is gone? Or do they pick and choose, trusting to Appraise checks to help them snatch the best loot? And what do they do with the valuable statue, easily worth tens of thousands of gold pieces, but standing eight feet tall and weighing a tonne? Like most things I try not to go overboard, and make most of the treasure found relatively easy to transport. But it can be fun, as well as an easy way to keep players from creating over-powered characters, if you make treasure a bit harder to manage.
What was your worst session and why?
I racked my brain for a bit, trying to come up with a specific worst session to talk about. And I have to say, so far I seem to be lucky since I have no real stand-out bad sessions. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had bad sessions, every GM has (and will). Just nothing I can single out as the worst. But I can single out one particular type of player guaranteed to give me a bad GMing experience.
All players like to be the centre of attention every once in a while. The Diva starts that sentence with “I” and ends it sentence after “attention”. The Diva is the player that must be involved in everything; every role-playing moment, every turn of combat, every decision whether the player’s character is present for it or not. They have to have their say, sometimes interrupting the GM and other players, and they get offended and pouty when they don’t get their say or the party chooses to ignore it. I used to call this player type The Asshole, but many times the player in question can be a really nice person, acting the Diva out of a real or imagined sense the party needs their guidance. But even if they mean well, the Diva still bulldozes over everyone else’s play experience, making things less than fun at the table. Nowadays I largely encounter The Diva at conventions. I’ve successfully weeded them out of my home campaigns; either I fix the problem (preferred), or that player doesn’t get invited back for another campaign.
How do you deal with a Diva? Make sure the Diva is very clear about what they are doing at any particular moment, then hold them to that. This is especially helpful if your Diva always seems to be at the back of the marching order when the potentially trapped door is opened, but is miraculously right at the front when combat starts. Or across the room when the potentialy trapped chest is opened, but within snatching distance once the loot is discovered. I’ve found that using miniatures along with clear house rules about each player being responsible for moving their mini and enforcing the “playing where it lies” rule clears up most of this problem. For non-combat encounters, have the Diva’s behaviour reflected in their character. If the Diva is constantly chiming in with their opinion during another players attempt at negotiation, for instance, then that is what the character is doing. And if it’s annoying to the player and GM, it should be annoying to the character and NPC involved, affecting the DC of the Diplomacy check. And if the Diva is just so far out of control those tactics don’t work, it’s time to take that player aside and explain what’s going on. Sometimes the Diva isn’t aware they’re being a Diva, so talking to them about their behaviour can often bring it under control. In certain situations, like a convention game where you don’t have time to be subtle, go with this last step first. It may result in the Diva being sulky or even leaving, but it will keep the entire table from having a bad table experience.
What was your best session and why?
I have one particular session that sticks in my mind, from a campaign I played in years ago. The session didn’t start out so promising; only three of the usual six players had made it to the game that night. But while we were talking before the game started, we discussed how funny it would be for the next session to start with some totally improbable situation, just to freak out the absent players. A little more discussion, and this went from “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” to “This is what we have to do!”. And one of the most epic evenings of play had begun!
Out of context here is the list of “six impossible things” we had to achieve in order for our plan to work:
1. Kill the fire giant chieftain and his mammoth animal companion.
2. Take control of the fire giant tribe.
3. Hollow out and reanimate the animal companion.
4. Using the animal companion as a sort of “Trojan Mammoth”, secure the bulk of our party inside.
5. Get safely to the Drow stronghold, potentially protected by the fire giant tribe.
6. Our vampiric dwarf cleric must use diplomacy to gain entry to the stronghold, allowing us to start next session not only inside the Drow stronghold, but inside a zombie mammoth.
Not exactly a short or easy to complete bucket list for the party. And frankly, we would have been happy to just get one or two items complete that evening, and carry on with the rest next session. But as amazing as it sounds we completed everything on that list in one 3-1/2 hour session of play. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will touch on a few points that contributed to our GM starting the next session with, “We start where we last left you guys, inside the mammoth. What would you like to do next?” Side note: we resisted saying anything about what happened that night to the other three players, so they started the session ignorant of what had passed. The looks on their faces when the GM started the session were everything we dreamed of.
Our GM ran with it – Our GM could have fought us any one of the points of our plan. They varied from the improbable to the downright ridiculous. But our GM saw how invested were were in this plan and rather than fight us, went along for the ride. That isn’t to say he made things easy for us, though I suspect there may have been a little fudging in our favour at a few points. He realized that, first and foremost, his job was to make sure we had fun. So rather than throw pointless blocks in out path, he went with the key improv philosophy of, “Yes, and…” and gave us an exciting evening of D&D. I GM that same group of guys now (with a few new additions) and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t still remember that session with fondness. And all because our GM put the fun factor first.
Discussion does not equal fun – For the campaign we were playing, six players was a perfect size. (Against the Drow, for anyone that remembers that 3.5 ed. gem) For most situations, anyway. But with six players a fair amount of session time can be spent just deciding what we were going to do. I can honestly say, if the other three players had been there that night we would never have come up with the plan, never mind pulled it off. That doesn’t mean they were bad players, or intentionally obstructive. But there can be a tendency during these group discussions to just go with the path of least resistance, in order to end the discussion and get back to playing. But with just three of us, plus a desire to “punish” the other three players for their failure to attend, we went from conception to planning to execution in a very short order. And when it came to execution, we still had all six characters at our disposal; our GM’s policy on player absence allowed for the characters to be played by proxy, either the GM or one of us. So we essentially had three brains controlling six bodies that night. Combine that with us being very brave and bold (especially the three player-less characters), and we were able to achieve in step in our plan in easily half the time it would have taken with full attendance. I’ve carried that lesson with me as both a player and a GM: sometimes it can be a bad thing to give the players too much time to discuss. There is often value in throwing them into the thick of it and forcing them to think on the fly.
The goal was fun – I think if our goal was more punitive towards the absent players, the GM would have steered us away from whatever course of action we developed. But because our goal was to: a) do something fun with our evening even though we were missing half the party, and b) “punish” the absent players by starting in a weird situation which ultimately served our campaign goals, the GM allowed things to happen. And I think that was my biggest take away from that evening: almost anything should be allowed to happen at the table as long as it serves to make the game fun. Fun is why we play; fun is why these are role-playing games and not works. That doesn’t mean that, as a GM, you have to allow the players to run with every demented idea they come up with. But, if their idea isn’t going to sink the campaign or harm another player’s character without their consent, and it will lead to the players having more fun rather than less, go with it. Our list of six things was a near impossible shopping list of tasks, and by rights we shouldn’t have pulled them off. But we did, and as a result we had an evening of fun still talk about years later. So the next time you’re GMing and you want to say no to your players, take a second to reconsider. Saying yes might just make for a memorable evening.
What are your favourite books about game mastering?
My hands-down favourite book on game mastering is Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Steve Jackson Games. Sadly out-of-print in dead tree version, but still available as a PDF, this is my go-to game mastering book. I re-read it cover to cover at least once a year, and I’m constantly referencing it when I run campaigns. It is a great setting-neutral source for GMing advice, and I’d hand it out to every starting GM if I could. If you don’t have it, get the PDF. I promise you won’t be sorry.
If you GM Pathfinder, there are two books you must have: the Game Mastery Guide and Ultimate Campaign. I’ve talked about the Game Mastery Guide before, so I really don’t have anything to add. It is full of useful information you will be happy to have at your fingertips when prepping and running a Pathfinder game. Ultimate Campaign expands on that information, giving you suggestions and tips on: expanding character backgrounds; what to do in the downtime between adventures and how to make that downtime fun for the player; how to adjudicate things like magic item creation and retraining; creating and running a kingdom, in case your players have an urge to rule. Just about anything your players might get into during a prolonged campaign is covered in the pages of this book, and it’s a great resource for any GM. Heck, a lot of the information is presented in a setting-neutral manner, so even if you don’t play Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign is going to be useful.
Finally, if you are looking for a GM guide for world-building, the best one I’ve found is the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, published by Kobold Press. It features essays by gaming luminaries such as Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, David “Zeb” Cook, Jeff Grubb, Scott Hungerford, Chris Pramas, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, and Ken Scholes. It is packed with great meaty gobs of world-building tips, tricks and advice. The thing I love about this book is that there are some conflicting ideas on world-building, which means the book has something for you regardless of your personal views on world creation. This is another book I re-read often, and you need to have it one your shelf if you plan to create your own campaign worlds.
A novel solution: what’s the best advice you have borrowed from a totally different field?
I freelance as an editor, and spend a lot of my working time with genre fiction. One of the best pieces of advice I received early on and spread around wherever I can is: show, don’t tell. In fiction this means instead of writing “He felt sad.”, which is static and frankly boring, you write something like, “His gaze lingered on her scarf by the door, and he choked back a sob. He poured himself another drink and curled up on the couch in the comfortable dark.” Both methods convey the character’s sadness, but the second method is both more interesting and conveys much more information without using a huge exposition dump.
“Show, don’t tell” can be applied to GMing as well. Instead of telling players how evil the villain is when he’s introduced, show him doing something despicable. It’s cliche, but have him punishing a subordinate as the characters approach. Have the vampire villain stop in the middle of his conversation for a “snack”. It’s much more interesting and exciting for your players than just telling them the villain is evil. It also opens up the chance to surprise your players with the villain. If she’s been acting normal up to that point, then suddenly stabs someone to death in alley, that’s a great “Holy crap!” moment for the players.
And it doesn’t have to be reserved for villains. You can use the technique for any of your NPCs to give them a bit of flavour and bring them alive. Don’t tell them the blacksmith is angry; instead describe him hammering more furiously. Don’t tell them the innkeeper is obsequious; describe how he instantly switches on a smile and agrees with everything the characters say. Giving your players these types of descriptions instead of just telling them what an NPC is like also makes their Perception and Sense Motive checks more useful. After all, how a character acts may or may not have a connection to what they actually think or feel.
Showing instead of telling opens up a whole new way of both providing and hiding information from the players. If you aren’t used to it, don’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the habit and rhythm of it. Just keep plugging away, and spend a bit of time practising your descriptions, and you’ll soon have a whole new tool in your GM’s bag of tricks.
What effect does the system mechanic have on the story?
I think there are two big ways in which game mechanics affect the story being told: how much they include the players in the story process, and to what extent the game mechanic itself acts as a player at the table.
Player Involvement – Probably one of the biggest recent trends (and by recent I mean the last 5 years) in role-playing games is the rise of player involvement in the story. Of course the players have always been there, but in early RPGs the player presence was largely reactive; the GM presented situations and the players worked within that structure. But in recent years there have been a number of games that involve the players in the creation of a campaign’s narrative. Fiasco, Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouseguard RPG, all of these games require input from the players in order to function. The reduction or even elimination of the GM’s role as sole creator and narrator greatly expands the story possibilities. Now, instead of the story coming from one brain it can percolate through all the brains at the table.
This can be great…and also not so great. I really enjoy games of this ilk, but my enjoyment is in the hands of my fellow players to a greater extent than in a game with GM-driven narrative. So if you have a good group of players you’ll have a good time. But if even one player just isn’t into it, or can’t engage, the session can go off the rails fairly easy. That factor is what keeps me from playing these sorts of games at conventions; unless I know at least a few of the players involved I am less likely to sign up for player-driven games. That is more of a failing on my part, however, and shouldn’t be taken as any sort of suggestion on my part to avoid these games. I play them whenever I can, I just stick to playing them with friends.
And as fun as they are, I don’t think player-driven RPGs will ever replace GM-driven ones. There is a benefit to playing a game in which the story happens to you instead of coming from you. There is a focus to the game that is not often achieved when the players direct the narrative. And in my opinion, one weak player (we’ll talk about what a weak player is at a later date) is less likely to derail a GM-driven game. But I do think player-driven games are here to stay. Speaking as a GM, they offer a welcome change of pace, where I can settle back and shift some of the responsibility to the players.
Game Mechanic as Player – It may seem sort of strange to think of the game mechanic as another player at the table. But I realized, as I was reading through yet another set of RPG rules, I was evaluating the rules in much the same way I evaluated new players. How intrusive are they? Are they pushy or do they fade into the background?
Canon versus alternate universe versus original settings? What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?
If I understand the question, it’s asking about pre-written campaigns, pre-written campaigns with GM tweeking, and GM created worlds.
The main benefit of a pre-written campaign source is time saving.