30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Seven

30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, yadda yadda yadda…

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.

What do you do to prepare, pre-campaign? Leave me a note in the comments.

30 Days of GMing, Day Four

I feel like you guys should know what’s going on by now, so I’m just jumping right in.

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!

What do you use the most, home made or pre-pubs? And do you modify? Leave a comment!

From my Brain: 50 Random NPCs

Monday I talked about what to do if game night came around and you had nothing, and I suggested having some pre-made NPCs on hand to make your life easier. Looking through my GM’s binder (you don’t have one? Oh, they’re brilliant! I’ll tell you all about mine sometime) I noticed my stock of NPCs was looking a bit thin. Since I have a few campaigns coming up I figured this is a s good a time to rebuild my stable, and if you can use them as well, so much the better.

Each NPC has a name, occupation, and either a physical or personality quirk. That should be enough to get you started, and you can flesh them out from there as needed.  Either roll percentiles to chose an NPC at random or grab one you like. As far as names go I’ve tried to stay gender neutral while keeping a fantasy feel. The names should also transfer fairly well between races, but feel free to add or modify as you need.

01-02: Nyhab, mourner, cracks knuckles

03-04: Sanoly, deckhand, notices smells others don’t

05-06: Cacagos, gravedigger, suffers from allergies

07-08: Visiang, soapmaker, one-handed

09-10: Rarotec, barker, loves puns and word games

11-12: Dinesini, moneylender, unibrow

13-14: Kofun, pedlar, wants advice about unlikely problems

15-16: Lalela, constable, avoids eye contact

17-18: Loric, vintner, generally filthy

19-20: Mateket, fire eater, easily distracted

21-22: Yemera, interpreter, cross-eyed

23-24: Byset, dowser, blames fae creatures for all his/her problems

25-26: Topan, astrologer, giggles

27-28: Rilet, stablehand, always giving out treats (cookies, bits of apple)

29-30: Kamas, rat catcher, big ears

31-32: Jalys, ostler, disgruntled failed actor

33-34: Berudu, farrier, glass eye

35-36: Lasyro, school teacher, jots down things to remember but can’t read handwriting

37-38: Ralus, skinner, picks teeth nervously

39-40: Masen, sailor, terrified of disease

41-42: Bekobi, composer, hacking cough

43-44: Rasakada, sign maker, prays a lot

45-46: Mosskelo, rent collector, nervous laugh

47-48: Ackate, cooper, tells boring stories about family

49-50: Eldath, lady/lord in waiting, tribal scar on forearm

51-52: Sulek, appraiser, confused by local customs

53-54: Gartasa, locksmith, clubfooted

55-56: Urnia, butcher, sensitive to criticism

57-58: Darhir, haberdasher, very white teeth

59-60: Caild, leatherworker, twitches

61-62: Inaid, prelate, always eating

63-64: Threess, banker, whistles when talking

65-66: Honal, roofer, font of gossip

67-68: Banmor, executioner, lisps

69-70: Draust, herbalist, uses very formal speech (big words, no contractions)

71-72: Voer, animal trainer, different coloured eyes (each different, or odd coloured pair)

73_74: Areck, embalmer, seems surprised and offended at being spoken to

75-76: Ormpero, wheelwright, long hair constantly falling in eyes

77-78: Rilath, soothsayer, uses nicknames/terms of endearment

79-80: Verarde, bailiff, sweats a lot

81-82: Cleny, grocer, makes bets about anything

83-84: Verelda, carpet weaver, covered in tattoos

85-86: Burtat, clerk, overly agreeable

87-88: Rodlera, steward, scratches a lot

89-90: Essib, messenger, know-it-all

91-92: Kelund, painter, enormous sideburns

93-94: Braque, custodian, easily angered

95-96: Foon, innkeeper, covered in pustules

97-98: Zyser, valet, almost violently self-loathing

99-100: Smeden, teamster, winks a lot

And there you go, fifty NPCs to fill out your campaign world. The names were generated using this Fantasy Name Generator; occupations came from a list of fantasy-world jobs on page 97 of the GameMastery Guide; characteristics came mostly out of my brain or from random searches on the internet.

Until next time!

When the Cupboard’s Bare

It happens to every game master at one point or another. Game night is here, players are expecting a continuation of your Super Fun Time Awesome Campaign™ and you’ve got nothing. Maybe it’s been a particularly busy week at work, or you’ve been caught up in your studies. Heck, maybe it’s the “centipede’s dilemma”, and you just have so many directions you’re having a hard time picking what to do next in the campaign. It happens.

So here are three quick and easy solutions to get you through that session. Maybe even a few sessions if you have to stretch it out, though excessive use can lead to the stall tactic becoming the new campaign.

1) “I heard tell there’s treasure in Baron Puddlemarch’s crypt!” – Time for a quick and dirty dungeon crawl. Doesn’t need to be a huge affair, as a matter of fact it should be small enough to wrap up that session. Don’t sweat the details too much: choose a main monster of the right challenge level, give it appropriate treasure, figure out a trap to liven things up and boom, done! Oh, you want a map, too? Fine. Go through your published modules and find a four or five room chunk from a dungeon you like. Give it an entrance and there’s your map.

There are all sorts of resources to help you with this sort of quickie dungeon. If you’re playing Pathfinder, having both the GameMastery Guide and NPC Codex means you are only a few minutes of reading from an interesting encounter. And if you want more general quickie information at your fingertips, slide over to Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips and download his free PDF of 5 Room Dungeons. I have it, and not only has it saved my bacon when I’ve needed a dungeon on the fly but I’ve actually built small campaign arcs out of some of the ideas found there.

The point of this is to keep the evening fast and fun, without bogging you down in campaign details. If the players are likely to baulk at pursuing something not related to the main campaign, though, no problem. Maybe some campaign Maguffin is rumoured to be wherever it is you want them to go. Or an NPC nearest and dearest to the party asks for a favour. Or for some reason, Big Baddie’s minions are crawling all over that location and now the party needs to know why. Just find the trigger that fires your band of psychotic murder hobos in the right direction, and pull it.

2) “Look, fellows, we’ve been invited to a party!” – If you are comfortable with improvising (and I mean really comfortable), maybe tonight is going to be a heavy role-playing night. Like the dungeon in point one you just need a hook to get the players involved. A party they know Big Baddie or his Chief Minion is attending. A local tavern or inn minions of Big Baddie are known to frequent. Heck, it doesn’t even have to involve your main plot; maybe the local townsfolk throw a party in your adventurer’s honour, and they’ll spend the session chatting it up and playing friendly games of skill and chance.

The point is to use this time to role-play. The key to this is to largely let the players decide where they’re going, and then fill in the scene around them. Most important, don’t block. If a player gives you an idea for what they think is going on, go with it. They’re obviously interested in it or they wouldn’t have brought it up. So let them help you direct the conversation, and don’t get too hung up on what your NPC is actually saying. After all, not everything out of an NPC’s mouth is going to be the truth. Just like real people, they lie, they boast, they pretend to knowledge they don’t have. So if you slip up and “reveal” something you shouldn’t have, no worries. It can turn out that NPC was full of crap.

This is, of course, where it helps if you’ve at least minimally fleshed out some NPCs. You don’t need a Briggs-Meyer’s breakdown for everyone, but name, occupation and a few words that will give the players a first impression. For example: Jacovo, coffin maker, easily moved to tears; Yolinda, potter, prays a lot. Why those three things? A name because the players always ask and it’s better to have one to give them right away. Occupation, because it gives you some clues as to physical details and appearance (coffin makers might have fine sawdust on their clothes and smell slightly of pine or sandalwood; potters might have dusty clothes or a spot of dried clay on the cheek) as well as something the NPC will talk about. And the last detail to add a bit of interest and give you an idea of how or why they might speak to the players; Jacovo might burst into tears upon hearing the party’s latest plight, and Yolinda might importune the gods every time a player mentions a monster.

3) “Okay gang, I have to level with you…” – This is my least favourite plan, but sometimes you just have to admit you have nothing on tap for that evening. Be up front, explain why (helps if you have a reason beyond “just didn’t get to it”) and promise you’ll get your stuff together for next week. Then break out a boardgame, pop in a movie or even head out to grab dinner or catch a flick in the theater. Part of playing role-playing games is socializing, so if the game isn’t going to happen you can at least keep the night positive by focusing on that aspect. And sometimes it can be good to just hang out with your group; get to know them better if you’re a newish group or just hang out and relax if you’ve been together for a while. But you don’t want to pull this too often, so make sure when the next week comes around you have something for the party to do (even if you’re just using points one or two).

What do you do when you’ve got nothing in the tank for your players? Any good tips or tricks? Share them in comments!

My Game Master Kit

I’ve had a few folks ask me, here and at Gen Con, what I carry with me to GM. So I thought I’d give you a virtual tour of my GM kit. First thing to note, I don’t always carry this full kit with me to every session. What I take depends on the game I’m running, and to a lesser extent who I’m running it for. For instance, most of what you’ll see in the kit is focused towards Pathfinder RPG and other d20 style games, because right now that takes up the majority of my GMing time. But if I were running a Gumshoe system game, I’d take almost none of this kit. So depending on what you run, your mileage may vary.

We start with the case that holds the kit. I used to just pile everything into a book bag, but20130901_112836 that led to a lot of digging during play and a cluttered table when I GMed, and I hated it. There are gaming specific toolboxes you can buy, ranging from $30-$100. Or you can grab a regular toolkit from a hardware store in the $20-$50 range. The kit I use today was a lucky Ikea find; I picked up two of these simple tool boxes for $5 a piece in the “as is” section. It has plenty of space for everything and makes finding items on the fly a breeze. I highly recommend something similar if you are putting together a kit of your own. And if you don’t like a hard case for your kit, get a bag with as many little pockets as you can find, to help keep things organized inside.

20130901_111716Next up, dice and counters. My dice travel in my stylish Dragon Chow bag, and the bag is spacious enough to carry 4-5+ sets comfortably. I used to carry a separate bag of dice to lend new players and such, but these days I have no problem just lending out “my” dice. The counters I use are glass beads from a now defunct gaming accessories company, but you can get coloured beads on the cheap from dollar stores or gardening centres. I use them for everything from Hero Points in Pathfinder, to representing minions on a map when I don’t want to dig out twenty goblin minis. If you have them , you’ll find a use for them.

I always have a variety of writing implements, both for my use and to share. It is especially20130901_111924 important to carry extra pencils, because at least one player will forget. But I also have pens, markers, and dry erase markers in two sizes; the large dry erase are used to draw maps, the smaller to write on my combat pad or make notes on the map. It is important to note: DO NOT mix up your markers and your dry-erase markers (but if you do, rubbing alcohol will remove the ink with a bit of scrubbing). Include a pencil sharpener if you use regular old pencils like me, and a dry cloth (not shown) to erase your map/combat pad.

Speaking of maps and combat pads…okay we weren’t but we are now. I always try to pre-20130901_111948draw my maps on the 1″ square map pads you can get at the stationary store, or through Gaming Paper. But I also bring my dry-erase Flip Mat so I can draw a map on the fly in case the players go somewhere I wasn’t expecting. I also pack along my initiative tracking pad. The pad pictured is the new Pathfinder release of their original tracking pad, and having used it through a busy Gen Con I have to give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. It is wet/dry-erase safe and magnetic, and comes with magnetic tabs. You can also grab a 8″x10″ whiteboard from a stationary store if you’re on a budget. Besides initiative tracking, I sometimes jot down quick notes or reminders during play. And while many GMs push to get away from using screens, I find mine too useful to get rid of. I hang notes to myself on the inside, and items for the players (condition cards, pictures and so on) on the outside.

Next, I include a variety of useful stationary items: sticky pads, index cards, clips (both bulldog and paper), rubber bands…the list goes on. Basically, if you might find it useful20130901_111938 during a day of working at a desk, I likely have at least one or two of it in my kit. Need to remind the party they are still suffering the effects of that curse? Write the effects on a sticky or index card and clip it to your GM screen. Use the index cards to write notes to the players. Or write “Invisible” on a sticky and attach it to a player to remind you his character is invisible (I’ve only done that last one once, but it helped). You won’t always need every item every session, but when you don’t bring it that’s when the need pops up.

And I always pack along the minis I need for each session in a plastic baggy so they don’t 20130901_111907spill into the rest of the kit. Larger minis will just nestle in the bottom of the kit as needed. I try not to pack more than I need if I’m travelling to GM somewhere else, though I will bring extras. And as I said before, the glass counters make great impromptu minions if required.

Now we get into items that are Pathfinder related, so if you aren’t running Pathfinder they won’t be of much use. I have my special card decks from Paizo: Critical Hit, Critical20130901_112057 Fumble, Condition Cards, and Buff Deck. The first two I use to spruce up critical hits and fumbles during combat. While I usually save them for important “boss” fights, players in my Pathfinder campaigns love the twists and turns they add to combat. Fumbles become especially feared and memorable, now that they aren’t just an auto miss. The condition cards cover all the negative conditions from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook that can afflict players; I’ll either hand the card to the player, or if it affects more than one, clip it to my GM screen so they can all see. Same with the Buff Deck, which covers all the most common spell and class ability buffs. I find these last two decks super useful, because they cut down on time spent flipping through books during the game. Which in turn means more chances for me to torment my players mercilessly challenge my players.

20130901_112118Next are gewgaws and trinkets that definitely fall in the “your mileage may vary” category. I use some regularly, some not so much. But I pack them in the kit because when I need them, I usually really need them. At the top of the pic are my Dungeon Map and Hit Location randomisers. I try to be descriptive during combats, and the hit location die helps me come up with different body areas on the fly. The Dungeon Map die doesn’t get used as often, but I have had occasion to need a quickie five room dungeon, and it has saved my bacon. The metal squares are from Steel Sqwire and each has the necessary info for the effect stamped on it: Mounted Combat, Righteous Might, and Enlarge Person. Again, not always needed, but can be easily slipped under the affected mini and saves flipping through books for the needed effect. And I also have two sand timers, courtesy of Chessex. They arguably see the least use, but I have used them to great effect to move combat along or add tension during sessions (“You have until the sand runs out to disarm that trap…”). Worth it. I also bring my line-of-sight indicator (right), also from Steel Sqwire, to help avoid any arguments about who can see how much of whom. Basically, any gaming gewgaw that has a chance of keeping my game session running smooth will find its way into my kit.


And here we have the whole kit, loaded and ready to for a night of gaming awesome-sauce. With this kit plus my laptop with all my session notes and rule books, I’m ready for just about anything my players throw at me. Oh, players throwing things, another good reason I use a GM screen…

Do you have a GM kit? Or a must-pack item for either playing or GMing? Drop it in the comments below.

3 Tips for Running a Con Game

Summer con season is in full swing, and that means con gaming! I love playing and running RPGs at cons. It gives me a chance to try out new ideas and game with folks I don’t see or have just met. If you’ve never tried gaming at a con, I highly recommend it as a great change of pace from your usual table(s).

I’ve GMed a number of games at cons, both as a Venture-Captain running Pathfinder Society and just a schlub running his own creations. A convention RPG event is a different beast than a home game, and you have to approach it differently to pull it off. Here are my top three tips for running an exciting con game (which players love) and doing it in the time the con gave you (which the con organizers love).

1) Preparation, preparation, preparation! – Gaming conventions set aside a certain amount of time per game, usually referred to as slots. Slots can be anywhere from 2-6 hours in length, with most shaking out at 4 hours. Four hours is not enough time to create characters, look stuff up in your books, scribble out an adventure etc. That might fly in your home games, but gamers come to a con to game so it’s important not to waste their time. If you are running your own creation, get it in shape before the con. If you are running a prepared adventure (say, for Organized Play), make sure you have read it cover to cover at least three times. Have your maps pre-drawn (if you just stick to drawn maps, see below), tab your books , hardcopy or PDF, so you can find any monsters, treasure, special rules and so on you might need. If you are not running for some sort of organized play, where players will generally have their own characters, provide pre-generated characters. And even if it is organized play, have level appropriate pre-gens in case you get a new player at your table. In short, do everything you can before the con, so when your slot starts you can just sit down and roll dice!

2) Put the “Special” in your Special Event! – At a con you are generally running a game for new people, and they’ve come to your table to be entertained. So this is the time to pull out all the stops! If you have 3D terrain to use, use it instead of flat maps. If all you have are flat maps, no worries; try to pre-print some good looking colour ones, or add colour to your hand-drawn maps with markers, paints or art crayons. Print any hand-outs (player hand-outs, pre-gens) in colour on good paper, and laminate if possible (lamination will not only keep the pages, especially character sheets, in good shape longer, it gives surface player’s can use wet/dry erase markers on). If your game uses minis, provide good looking minis for the players to use, and put effort into finding the appropriate minis for your monsters and NPCs.

But the special doesn’t stop with the materials. You have present your adventure or scenario in a fun, positive, and exciting manner. Any text you have to read allowed should be practised out loud before the con, so you can get a feel for the words and pick out any points that should be punched up. Keep energy in your voice, don’t mumble, don’t talk into the page, and try to make eye contact with the players as you read to keep them engaged. If you have any acting skills at all, or even just a selection of funny voices, this is the time to bust them out! Keep the energy up and the action moving, and don’t let the rules bog you down. I have never once remembered a con game because of the GMs slavish adherence to the rules.

Okay, I have. But not fondly.

3) Stand Up! – This could probably be a subsection of point two, but I think it’s important enough to warrant special mention. A con is a busy place, and you are usually in a hall with a bunch of other tables, all noisy and distracting. The single best way to keep the players’ focus on you is to stand up. Placing yourself higher in their line of sight forces them to look up from the table and pay attention. If you stand up your players can also see and hear you better, and are less likely to get distracted. And standing puts you in a more dominant position than your players, which allows you to control the events and energy of the table better.

Standing also energizes you, and forces a certain urgency into what you are doing, which in turn keeps the action flowing. It also allows you a good view of what is happening on the table, and gives you more space to cut loose with actions and gestures. Remember what I said about busting out those acting skills? Only so much you can do from a chair!

Of course, if your are physically unable to stand for long periods, then pick your moments: combat, or important NPC interactions are good times to stand. And if you can’t stand at all, maybe find a way to raise your seat, or make sure there is some separation at the table between your space and the players’ space. Though not as effective as standing they will help keep the focus on you when you need it.

Those are my big three “best practises” for running a con game. I have other tips and tricks, depending on the game I’m running, the venue, number of players, and so on. But following these three will get me (and you) through just about any con game you care to run. Just remember the most important thing: keep the fun! If it isn’t fun, for you and the players, you’ve missed the point of running the game at all.

Have con GMing tips of your own? Share them in the comments!

GM Advice: Letting Go of “No”

If you’ve been game mastering for a while, the word “no” can start to feel like a comfortable old friend.  After all, you spend your sessions riding herd on players, who often have the impulse control of Ritalin-deprived, sugar-soaked 10-year-olds…or maybe that’s just my group.  In any case, it is easy to just say no when players ask for some seemingly outlandish thing: “No, you can’t kill all those goblins with a bench.” “No, the sword you found  is not a fabulous relic.” “No, you can’t eat the last slice of pizza.”  Fine, that last one can stay.  But otherwise, as GMs we need to stop relying on “no” and start working with “yes”.

This doesn’t mean we let the players do whatever they want, because that way madness lies.  But we can harness the power of “yes” for our own nefarious purposes with the addition of two simple words:

Yes, and…” – “Yes, and…” is probably one of the few rules of improv acting.  Basically its function is to stop actors from blocking the ideas of fellow actors.  So if an actor makes a suggestion, instead of countering that suggestions, you would accept it (yes) and build on it (and).  The same thing can be done when you are GMing.  If a player offers an idea (“Can I tip this soup cauldron on the goblin cook?” for example), instead of saying no you say, “Yes, and not only do you scald the goblin cook with his own soup, but the rest of the goblins are infuriated by the loss of their delicious dog soup.”  Whether that means anything in game terms is up to you.  It could just be a nice bit of flavour, or the goblins could have some sort of attack bonus for a round because they are so angry.  As well, there is now soup everywhere; maybe that makes the floor slippery, and some checks are needed for both goblins and adventurers to keep their footing.  Either way, saying yes and building on it leads to a more exciting scenario compared to saying “no” (“Can I tip this soup cauldron on the goblin cook?” “No.” “Oh. Okay, I guess I’ll swing my sword at him.  Does a 16 hit?”).  And wouldn’t you rather have your players excited? (Yes, and…)

Yes, but…” – “But” serves much the same function as “and”, but allows you to control the direction things take.  Whereas “and” takes the player right where he/she wants to go and then some, “but” allows you to give the player what they want, but with a twist or consequence they didn’t anticipate. So continuing with our example, “Yes, but…whatever is in the soup isn’t quite dead yet, and it takes a bite at you as you tip over the cauldron.”  The player still gets to do what they want, but there is a consequence they couldn’t foresee.

Used that way, “yes, and…” and “yes, but…” are fairly interchangeable.  Where “but” really comes into its own is when the player fails at something, which is essentially the dice saying  “no”.  Instead of that, let the dice say “yes, but…” instead.  Consider the following:

Player: “My fighter is going to jump off the roof onto the fleeing carriage!” *rolls* Does a 12  make it?

GM: (Option 1) “No, you needed a 15.  Your fighter hits the ground and takes 8 points of damage.  The carriage speeds off.”

GM: (Option 2) “Yes, but just barely. Instead of landing safely on the roof, you slide off the other side and are hanging from a luggage strap.  You can see the ground rushing by beneath your feet, and over your shoulder you hear the familiar ‘click’ of a crossbow cocking…”

Which of those two options is more exciting?  Which would you rather hear, as a player?  “Yes, but…” allowed the player to get the result that he/she wanted, but still suffer a consequence for a failure on the dice.  No the character will have to spend a tense round dangling from the side of a speeding carriage and hoping the driver’s aim is really bad.  Most important, the action keeps going instead of stopping dead with the failed die roll.

I’m not saying you never say no to your players again.  But I am suggesting that “no” shouldn’t be the first tool you pull out of your GM toolbox.  Maybe let it sit for a while, and get used to the feel of “yes, and…” and “yes, but…”.  I think you’ll find those tools get the job done better.

When a Game Master Gets Lost

It can happen to any Game Master.  There you are, mid-campaign.  In an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere.  But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up.  You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it is only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either.  And when the players lose focus…

But it’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you, my struggling GM.  Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:

1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore.  Why are backstories so rich in plot?  Because your players are highlighting the things, people and events important to their characters.  They are providing you with the bones of people, places and situations that you can then build into encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally.  Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn*  Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring about an age of darkness?  Now you have your player’s attention.

So go back to those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out.  Now look at your plot-threads.  Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory.  Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters.  Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again.  Take a tip from television, make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another.  The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.

What’s that?  Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign?  Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking!  Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:

  1. What is your characters most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
  2. Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
  3. What one thing does your character covet above all else?  What one thing does your character fear above all else?

Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.

2)  Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game.  The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet.  Then you do it again with another NPC, and another.  Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.

So don’t.  Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie.  Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a.  But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty.  Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think.  Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together.  Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.

3)  Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play.  No problem.  See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into you plot?  Perfect!  Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it!  The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?).  After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world?  Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.

Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things.  One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important.  Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes.  Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out.  Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well.  You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots.  And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.

So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and remember my advice.  You can get untangled.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’ve got a place for those…