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Session Preparation for the Busy GM
Session preparation is the primary reason why nobody wants to be the GM. Let's be honest. It's a lot more work than being a player. But someone has to do it, and if you're reading this, chances are it's you.
As a GM, you have a strong personal investment in the quality of the game you present. You want your players to enjoy the game. You want them on the edge of their seats, drenched in sweat, making that all-or-nothing roll of the dice. You want your players, tears in their eyes, to thank you at the end of the session for the greatest role-playing experience of their lives.
And you have less than a week to get that game ready to play.
So, how do you prepare for that great game - the game your players will love - without spending every waking moment sweating over all the details?
Let's start with some general principles.
1. Prepare only what you need, but everything you will need
2. Keep your notes terse and meaningful
3. Prep for fast play
4. Know thy NPCs
5. Prepare a spare encounter
Your Game Notes
If you are creating a session from scratch, it is helpful to think of your story as a collection of scenes. In a linear game, these scenes follow one another sequentially, just like in a play.
In a sandbox-style game, the scenes could occur in any order. They are just events waiting to happen depending on the choices of the player party. If they go into the Darkwood Forest, that launches one scene. If they decide to go through Snowdale Pass, that triggers a different scene. Usually each scene will contain hooks that lead players to still other scenes. In a traditional Swords and Sorcery dungeon, each room is a scene and the connections between them control the order in which the scenes can be experienced. You may also have scenes that are triggered by player actions or other events. For example, what happens if the players decide to flee, rather than fight, the Minotaur that has been terrorizing the village?
Regardless of the way your game is structured, you are going to want between eight and twelve scenes prepared for a typical session. Start with some sticky notes or index cards and jot down a few words describing each scene; Robbery attempt by inept highwaymen, Climactic battle with sorcerer, Talk with NPCs at festival, Infiltrate the Baron's castle. You get the idea. Spend some time thinking about how each scene will link to other scenes depending on the choices the PCs might make.
As you look at and arrange your scenes on the table in front of you, this is also a good time to look at the purpose of each scene. Every scene should have an objective, or goal, for the party to accomplish. This might be to collect a key piece of information, deal with a complication, or have a conflict. A good dramatic game has a nice balance. Too much talk or too much investigation and exploration can get dull, and too much conflict will make it feel less dramatic.
For each scene, create a quick description:
• A few bullet points describing the scene, conditions, and events
• Difficulty levels for likely skill checks and the consequences of success and failure
• Brief notes on game mechanics and rules relevant to events in the scene
• A bulleted list of information or clues to be dropped on the players
• Any items of interest
• Hooks or links to other scenes
Each scene should easily fit on one page in large print. Remember, you aren't writing a novel. You are creating an aid for yourself so you can GM effectively. Keeping your scene descriptions short saves you time before the game and during the game. Also, ninety percent of the rules or mechanics you will need can be anticipated. Look them up during your session prep, rather than at the table. Including difficulty levels for skill checks and likely game mechanics will save you and your players from having to halt the action for a rules lookup.
In scenes where combat is likely or the players need to explore the physical space in some detail, it's better to draw your maps ahead of time. Hastily drawn maps on a battlemat often lead to confusion at the table in situations where precision matters. And it takes too much time away from the gaming experience for the players to sit and watch the GM carefully ink out a detailed map in front of them. Gaming paper or flip chart paper with 1" grid works great for this, and isn't expensive. But you will also want to bring a battlemat and some wet-erase markers for those situations where a quick sketch is called for.
Monsters and NPCs
I'm using the term "Monsters" in the generic sense of anything that needs a stat block. If you want to save a lot of time at the table, I suggest you prepare your monsters and NPCs on index cards, rather than have them in the game notes or worse, stop the flow of the game while you look something up in a monster manual. It's much quicker and easier to be able to have them right at hand on their own card.
Put a minimal stat block on the blank side of the card, and more detailed information on the lined side such as spell descriptions and special abilities. For NPCs, it helps to write down the name of a character from a movie as a quick guide for how to roleplay them. "Like Sam Spade" or "Like Dumbledore" for example. It's also helpful to give the NPC one prepared line that sums up their role or personality. "Never tell me the odds!" or "The spirits have spoken. Your doom is at hand." The Hulking Nazi Sergeant below had "Talks like Sgt. Schultz" and "Shooten der Amerikaner Schwine!"
Props and Visual Aids
A picture is worth a thousand words. It can also be a big time saver at the table. If the details of how something looks are important, hand the players a picture. Google Images may be the GM's best friend for things like this. The same idea works for items that the characters might find. Have the details written down on an index card ahead of time. This way, when the party finds the +5 Sword of Fighting you don't have to spend valuable game time having this conversation…
GM: "You've found the Sword of Fighting! It's a +5 sword with a silver blade. It grants the user a +1 Dodge bonus, and makes you impervious to fire."
Player (writing furiously): "Okay. +5, and +1 armor. And it's impervious to fire?"
GM: "No. +5 with a silver blade. +1 Dodge. It makes you impervious to fire."
Player (still writing): "Got it. +5 Fire resistance, silver armor."
GM: "Ugh. Just forget it."
Other Stuff You'll Need
Many RPGs have other physical items that are needed for game play. I would recommend creating a kit for that system that you can pick up and go. Here's my box for Savage Worlds with Bennies, combat pogs, status magnets, and action deck. You'll also want dice, spare pencils and blank notecards, the relevant rulebooks, a notebook for your own game notes, and any other physical game aids that the system frequently uses.
Your Ace in the Hole - The Spare Encounter
Finally, for those games where your party insists on going beyond everything you have prepared, it's always good to have an extra encounter or two that can be thrown in anywhere. It could be an angry bull, a lost child, or a wily pickpocket. Most times, it won't be needed, and you can just save it for another game.
Session preparation is unique to your needs. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a GM is your best guide to preparation. If you are brilliant at coming up with NPC names on the fly, trust your ability to be able to do this at the table. If you are hopeless, then a handy list of names is a smart addition to your GM notes. Good preparation practices will save you a lot of unneccessary work away from the table, and give your players the immersive and fast-moving game that they love at the table.
Steven Nation Army
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Let's start with the most important thing about memorable NPCs: players suck.
No, it's true. You can spend hours detailing the caravan master to ensure he's an interesting and three-dimensional character with unique quirks and a wealth of information the players might need. They'll fall in love with Bob the cart guy, one of the 23 nameless drivers employed by the caravan who happened to survive an orc attack.
It's still worth it to craft them, just realize that sometimes your players will ignore them despite your best efforts. So how do you go about crafting a memorable NPC?
There are a few ways you can start. Most of the time there's going to be some reason the heroes come in contact with him and you should start there. Why is he the one who survived the orc attack? How come he knows so much about whatever it is they want to learn about? Were did he learn to shoot so well?
There are two kinds of memorable NPC - ones with character sheets and ones without. The ones with detailed character sheets are a lot of work since you're basically creating a brand new pc. The ones without are a little easier since you just need need to know a name and maybe a quirk or two to make them memorable.
For me, I always start any NPC with a very general sense of his abilities and wait to see if he catches on. It's too frustrating to make a detailed character sheet only to have the players decide a stray dog you threw in to introduce the Druid of the Western Wood is more interesting than the druid.
So here are my rules for starting one I hope will be memorable:
Name - if he doesn't have a name, he'll be hard to remember. Sometimes I fake my players out by appearing to come up with a name on the spot. I think sometimes they deliberately avoid named NPCs. I know when I play if I think an NPC is too helpful or too useful it makes me nervous for the double-cross.
Role - why is he here and how can he help advance the game? Note this isn't "how can he help the players". NPCs have their own agenda and so they may help the players when it helps them. This kind of is where the class might get mentioned. "He's a wizard with a thick spell book and he likes to trade spells". "He's a shopkeeper with a soft spot for elves and fine food." "He's the mayor but he has a terrible secret he must keep."
Description - I'll be honest I'm hit or miss on this, but it helps if you know what an NPC looks like at least in a general sense. "old woman" gets old, but if you can say "Her hair is white now but beneath the wrinkles you can tell she was once beautiful" or "His attire was extremely fashionable 5 years ago" you're heading in a good direction.
Schtick - This is often the part people will remember or that will cause them to seek this NPC out. It could be a quirk like "mother hen" or "dislikes wizards". it could be an unusual voice that you use or it could be the thing that makes them valuable "foremost expert on the ruins of Talgar Keep".
My usual strategy for those who will have a detailed character sheet is to start with the above plus a general feeling like level 3 cleric or speedster martial artist. If they do become recurring characters then I write up a detailed sheet based on notes I take during the first game or two to make sure they have the abilities I've played them with so far.
If you're an inexperienced GM it can be hard to play an NPC without a sheet. My advice is to assume he's a little worse at most things than the best person in the party. If it's part of his schtick or purpose for being there he's good at it. Everything else the party should be better at. The worst thing that can happen is to have an NPC who can outdo the heroes at everything.
So to sum up (or in case the above was too long):
1) Players suck and will not correctly identify the memorable NPC you've crafted. Protect yourself by not putting a ton of effort in until they've decided they like the NPC
2) Start with a name, a reason why someone might want them to be around, a schtick and a description.
3) Flesh them out into more detailed sheets if needed later.
Crafting memorable npcs can be a lot of fun and there's nothing quite like having one of the heroes say "Hey, lets go ask Lestamos, he knows all about that".
explanation does not equal excuse
SIMPLE AND AWESOME
This week we take on one of the most critical GM skills, and one of the easiest to get a handle on. That’s because GMs can bring the same excitement and creativity involved in making up characters as players to making up NPCs. Being a GM just allows you the freedom to come up with concepts and play them out almost immediately. I love NPCs and I think one of my strengths is coming up with different and intriguing characters. Sometimes I overdo it- and have too many NPCs, but it is easier to edit or pare away than to have to introduce new characters late in a campaign.
Before I begin with GM advice, I want to start with one piece of player advice regarding memorable NPCs. If you meet an NPC you find interesting in a game, interact with them. Go back and talk with them again. Mention their name. That’s the best signal a GM has that something they’ve done has hooked you. A good GM will clue in and expand that NPC’s presence or role.
Some time back I put together a series of posts on the topic of NPCs in games. Consider these supplemental and expanded readings.
Gamemastering NPCs: Part One
Gamemastering NPCs: Part Two (Death, Selfishness and Other Topics)
Gamemastering NPCs: Part Three (Smells, Spartacus and Other Topics)
Gamemastering NPCs: Part Four (Rules of Engagement)
Gamemastering NPCs: Part Five (Dialogue, Doppleganging, and Dumb Love)
As you can see at some point I need to go back and revise those pieces. In today’s article I want to reinforce a couple of key points- simple rules to keep in mind. But I also want to present you with a new tool you can use in NPC creation, one that allows you to maximize prep time.
1. Always Have Names
A name is a solid and concrete detail. It shows players that this NPC matters. The sound and color of a name offers atmosphere: ethnicity (Al-Shaghiir, Zenokevitch), tone (Rump-Bonnett, Grishnar), title (Vadshana of the Rift, Duke Forlorn). The easiest way to do this is to hit the various name generator sites and put together a list of names, especially if you can find some theme to them. For example, I put together this list for a standard fantasy campaign. On the other hand, for another campaign, all of the players chose compound names for their characters. So I decided to build most of the example names with compound terms as you can see here. I’ve done the same kind of thing for modern games, for wushu games (using the Exalted name generators), and a number of others. One trick is to find names from certain cultural groups (like Hungarian for example) and then switch around letters or rearrange syllables. You get the sound of the language, but with a strange newness to it. As I use names, I cross them off the list or put an annotation next to them.
There’s a bit of showmanship involved in telling players an NPC’s name. Never let them think that you’re making it up on the fly. That’s a signal that the NPC isn’t important. Refer to your notes, repeat details, describe the person while you’re making the name up. If you make something up unobtrusively make a note of the name for later. I know some GMS theorists dismiss this as “illusionism” but it goes a long way to making an NPC concrete for the players.
2. Desires and Dilemmas
NPCs should have motivations. In any conversation between an NPC and a PC, the NPC should have something they want out of that interaction (money, acknowledgement, commitment to a quest, not to be killed, romance, figuring them out, getting home to their family). Take a moment to figure out what that position or desire is. Use that to shape their desires. The NPCs will seem more lifelike. It shouldn’t be done just to block or confuse the players. They don’t have to necessarily figure out that motivation. But it should affect tone and the shape of conversation. It also reminds everyone (including the GM) that these NPCs have lives.
Interesting characters have a gap between their external motivation and their internal desires. That creates a conflict. Often in games with disadvantages, that internal desire might be represented mechanically. It shapes or limits their behaviors. FATE represents those through aspects; these can be compelled to prevent or direct actions. For NPCs who will be sticking around or appearing repeatedly, take time to consider what the gap is between who they present themselves as (or wish to be seen as) and their deeper desires or motives. Over time those NPCs may be faced with a choice between those, creating a dilemma for them. This can reveal character. The reverse is true as well- NPCs can be used to uncover or illustrate the gap between a PC’s external image and internal values.
3. See What Sticks
Different players have different tastes. Ideas you think are awesome or interesting will fall flat at the table. The most important thing to remember as a GM: Get over it. You’ll make more. You’ll have other brilliant ideas, interesting plots, cool new monsters, and intriguing NPCs. If something doesn’t work, drop it and move on. With NPCs don’t focus on creating one or two deeply. Create a batch with some details and color, and run them through the grinder. I don’t stat out NPCs. I can do that later or on the fly if I need to. What's more important is figuring out some hooks.
NPCs hit the table and some of them will be acknowledged and then forgotten. Don’t worry about these. Note the names- you might bring them back with changes in their situation or kill them off later. Pay attention to player reactions: do they have one? do they interact with the character? do they ask questions of them? do they clearly hate them? If your players have a significant reaction then the NPCs made an impression. Consider bringkng them back on stage later. A more important signal should be if the players remember/mention the NPC’s name or go back to talk to them later. Even if it purely a question of utility for the players, you’ve establish someone with a significant role. Once you’ve determined that an NPC works or has a hook the group likes, you can work them in more and deepen them. Focus on what seems to be a hit at the table.
4. Secondary to Players
This is more a caution. Just as players should love their characters, the GM should love their NPCs. However they should be careful about that. There’s a balance which needs to be maintained. The secret is that NPCs exist in relation to the PCs, but players who behave as if that’s the case come off like sociopaths. But NPCs shouldn’t take the spotlight away from the players. If they’re able to do something expertly, they can put those skills in service for or against the PC group. If they’re overcoming an obstacle in the group’s way, it should be at their behest. Unless you intend them to be enemies or rivals, your NPCs shouldn’t show up the players. Even rivals will need to fall and be overcome. Beware Mary Sue characters.
5. Exercise: An NPC Tool
I have a trick for creating NPCs that GMs may find useful. Before campaigns begin, I like to create a batch of NPCs all at once. This activity takes me one or two hours, depending on how creative I’m feeling and how many I want to create. I actually did this yesterday and it took me about an hour to do 22 NPCs. I’ll talk about the mechanics of the system in a moment, but let me try to sell you on the why of it.
NPCs can serve as the best engines and devices for plots and stories. When I start figuring out a campaign, I usually have a general sense of the kinds of stories I want to tell. I might have an idea about the villains or challenges I think the group would enjoy facing. Perhaps I’ve already developed an idea for how we’re going to open. But I’d like to know more about the world, like to come up with more stories and hooks for the players. To do that I can brainstorm NPCs. Each ought to suggest a new story or reveal something about the world. That process serves as half story idea generation and half world-building. And the way I do it is cheap and fast.
A number of years ago I came up with a “tarot” deck unique to my fantasy world. I came up with nine suits of nine cards, plus a wild card. Each had a symbolic name, meanings for upright and reversed positions, and a relation to something from the game world. It was one of those goofy GM exercises where you build something elaborate that isn’t as great or useful for play at the table. Then I hit on a use for it. I was trying to come up with some NPCs for a town the players were going to hit next session. I decided to draw three cards randomly and come up with a story based on that. I did that repeatedly until I had a great set of unique characters. Eventually my wife created an Excel spreadsheet with the cards and meanings, each with a number. I could then easily generate a list of random numbers, use a lookup function, and generate quickly a set of three details. I use my fantasy world’s tarot, but anyone could easily do this by building a sheet with standard tarot meanings or any kind of symbolic set.
The trick is that you have to come up with something based on the elements listed. You can take them as thematic or chronological. It acts as a spur to creative work while limiting options. Let me give you a couple of examples. Yesterday I was going to be running the first session of my new Scion campaign run in Las Vegas- MY PLAYERS SHOULD STOP READING NOW- so I generated some NPCs. I knew the game would take place in Las Vegas, and I knew that the big bad would be Prometheus. I also figured he would have human agents that he “inspired.”
So here’s the first three. I like the joke of the name I put there for the first one--it gives me a sense of what he’s going to be like at the table. He’s a cop, so he’ll be easy to throw into the mix in the game. That second one, well now I’ve come up with a plot for later. Ascendant Bounty Hunters (borrowing from Unknown Armies). Maybe he decides he can gain power by taking down a celebrity bounty hunter, like Dog. Maybe the players get wind of that and have to protect an obnoxious celebrity. The third character’s interesting, more open. He doesn’t immediately spring to mind with stories, but I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out down the line.
So the PCs will obviously be making a lot of noise in the city. The first character could be used as an ally or agent of an enemy. She could appear after they’ve caused collateral damage. The second one’s great- I can imagine a mystical hoarders junkyard estate. That could be a great scene with someone who perhaps seems crazy but knows too much. The last one’s a nice contrast to Aaron Brokovitch above- another cop who they might cross paths with but who could be bad news.
Here's the full sheet of the 22 NPCs if you want to see all of the finished product, written up in a little over an hour.
Here’s the thing, it doesn’t take me long to create these NPCs and already I’ve got new story ideas. I now have a great fallback resource for the campaign. I can pull them out when I need a new idea or I can throw them into the mix right away. I don’t have to tightly plot the game, instead I have elements I can drop into the sandbox. If I don’t use one, no big deal, the effort doesn’t feel wasted.
Here's a link to a blank worksheet I generated if you'd like to try this out for yourself.
Steven Nation Army
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The first thing we need to do is to define Railroading so we don't get off on some weird tangent. Here's what the RPG Glossary says:
Railroading - Referring to a game's story being forced in a particular direction most often by the GM. Commonly perceived as bad form.
There's a reason it's commonly perceived as bad form: it IS bad form.
Stop and think for a moment about the Indiana Jones movies. In the first one there's that sword-fighting scene where Indy finally says screw it and shoots the guy. Legend has it that wasn't the script, it was just Harrison Ford frustrated at too many takes of that scene. It's movie gold and it happened because he left the script.
Games are the same way. You can set up situations, but the real magic happens when the players interact with them in ways you never expected. We all need to aspire to be like water - not expecting what the players will do, only reacting when they do something. Jeet Kune Do isn't just a martial arts style, it's a life style and a GM style.
RPGs are really about players having a choice to do something other than what's expected. Normally when a building catches fire, people leave. RPG heroes don't. They rush in or put out the fire or do a million other things none of which are the things we expect "normal" people to do. When you give players that freedom, your game really takes off and becomes great. Without it, you're limited to plodding along the well worn trail of fantasy tropes.
That doesn't mean don't ever plan. If the players say they want to explore a dungeon, board a ship or visit a planet, you have to have some idea what it looks like, what lives there and what the inhabitants would think of newcomers. The plan though should be sort of a general cultural understanding, not a specific if the players do X then result 1 else if they do Y, result 2.
You can do that with a computer. In fact, these days computers can often do better than that. If a machine with no imagination is doing what you're doing, then you've lost. You've given up the open-ended advantage of tabletop rpgs over any other kind of gaming.
Railroading, whether it's as simple as "You reach the end of the corridor do you go left, right or search for secret doors" or as complex as "This week the players will be told they need to go to the dungeon immediately", is inherently bad. It breaks the sandbox and it robs your games of their collaborative nature.
Don't give your players a list of choices, tell them where they are and what they can see. Let them find out about the big stories and the big events past and present in the campaign and then let them decide what they're interested in.
This isn't as easy as a railroad game. After all, if I've already decided they have to go in the dungeon, then I don't need to detail anything but the dungeon. We've all been there when the pcs go off plan. If the gm is ready for it, the experience is among the best in role-playing. If he's not and keeps trying to push them back onto the tracks of his well-oiled machine, then it's just another weekly dungeon slog.
Toss away your conductor's cap and put on your gaming fez and go for it. It might take your players a few sessions to get used to the missing tracks, but once they do, you'll all have a better time.
Steven Nation Army
Welcome to GMU's first "Hot Topic!" For these weeks, we'll be treating readers to a mock debate on a controversial issue - each participant will argue for a particular point of view on the topic. We leave it for the readers to decide where The Truth lies, and as always we invite vigorous debate on the discussion thread (see link below)!
Choo-choo! Buckle yourself onto the railroad to fun!
This week we are introducing a new format to the GMU blog: “hot topics.” Two or more featured bloggers will address the pros and cons of some issue important to all GMs – in this, case, railroading.
First, what is it?
Railroading - Referring to a game's story being forced in a particular direction most often by the GM.
RPG Theory Review Blog wrote:
Railroading is a term used to describe the imposition of a predefined set of resolutions onto the choices and conflicts that occur in play by a storyteller or game master. (see here
In other words, railroading is when the GM determines the course of the story, not letting the players have significant agency in driving the plot (or at least part of it).
The utility of railroading should be clear. Most GMs spend a lot of time preparing their games, setting up great world for their PCs to explore and engineering great plots and antagonists for the players to defeat. (Almost) the only reason to make such an effort is if your players are going to interact with those plots, antagonists, and setting elements – hence putting them on the railroad ensures that your work won’t go to waste – and, presuming you’ve written a good story, that the players will be entertained.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that both of these definitions go on to point out that railroading is generally perceived as a negative. After all, us RPGers style ourselves as playing “collaborative storytelling games.” There doesn’t seem to be much collaboration going on in a railroaded story: the GM has determined where it’s going and how it’s getting there. So where’s the fun in that?
The key point is that “collaboration” can mean a lot of different things: some players want to drive the story, but some just want to play their character and use the GM’s world to develop that character. In either case, though, I’ve rarely seen a player – at least in games set up to have a GM – who wants to set the entire game’s plot, without any mystery or larger action outside the view of the players.
So I would argue that, to have a good game, some level of railroading is all but essential – and almost ubiquitous. Consider the following issues:
Everybody in the RPG group is coming together to have fun gaming. An important part of that for most (almost all!) GMs is the prep work: designing that engaging story and game. Not only should the players cooperate with the GM to explore his or her hard work, but I think there is an implicit assumption that the group is meant to experience that story rather than run off and loot the poor villagers or some such silliness. If the GM enjoys making a story, he or she has just as much of a right to that fun as the players do to enjoy developing their character.
(There’s an important exception in games that are designed to be “sandboxes” open for exploration – but, even there, the GM often has some sort of overarching story in mind that the players should engage, even if it is only part of the larger narrative.)
Stories are made great not just by their characters and plot but also by pacing: there’s a reason every novel, play, and movie has a climax! The problem is that good pacing isn’t a naturally emergent phenomena (unless you’ve got a very clever game system that enforces it, and I don’t know of any of those) – ask any writer or screenwriter. The rise and fall of the story takes a strong and clear vision, and railroading is by far the easiest way to achieve that.
Many games shine in “set piece” encounters, where strong tactics and/or complex interactions are necessary to explore the full power of the rules. Let’s be honest: such encounters are extremely difficult to develop on the fly. When you want unique opponents, a dynamic environment, AND interesting goals within the encounter, preparation is a huge boon – and railroading your players toward the encounters they will most enjoy is a good way to maximize enjoyment.
In all spheres of entertainment, improvisation is rare: stories are generally most powerful when one or a few hands is directing them. When improvisation is used, it takes training and specific techniques that enable a group to play well together. One of those techniques is not to surprise each other – to keep things moving forward, everyone has to stay on the same page. In fact, I’d argue that in true improvisational, collaborative storytelling, groups are very likely to follow the threads that seem simplest, those whose value is immediately apparent. These may not, however, be the best threads, especially if some lead to more complex (and possibly fulfilling) interactions and threads down the road. If you want a complex game of intrigue and dramatic plot, some element of railroading is necessary.
Also, don’t forget that many – I would even say most – players want to explore a plot. They want a sense of something bigger than themselves – and any plot bigger than them must be railroaded to some degree. Mystery is a big part of the fun of RPGs, and if everything is driven purely by the players, there’s not much space for mystery. This is not to say that players necessarily want to be forced through a plot – though some do – but engaging with any plot requires some degree of railroading.
Are you considering published adventures? Guess what: railroad city, because 99% of them have a beginning, middle, and end through which the players must pass! And yet these are some of the most popular supplements for any game. Most players are more than willing to cede some of their agency for the sake of an entertaining and engrossing story!
Finally, railroading can be done for the greater good - even in player-driven games! Not all RPGers are created equal - some are showboats, some are wallflowers, some are assertive, some (especially new ones) get intimidated. That means many games are always in danger of one player or another dominating the play and the story. Even in a player-driven game, the GM is the moderator, and he or she is in the best position to see and correct these imbalances. Railroading can be used to create situations in which the quiet or shy player can take the spotlight for a minute - to push their story and agenda to the attention of the group. It can also be used to balance the skills or abilities at the game's focus, to push the players out of their comfort zones, or to introduce new structures or mechanics. The collective is very good at some things - but balance is not one of them.
Put all this together, and I’d say the usual value judgment – railroading is inherently bad – is flawed. Railroading can enhance the story and balance play. That said, just like anything else, it can be done well or poorly – so how can you do it well and keep your players happy passengers on the train to story bliss?
First, try the old standard: use the environment to limit choice. What’s a dungeon but an engine to railroad the players? Now a good dungeon will still provide options – interesting paths through the structure – but they are limited in a manner that makes perfect sense to the players.
Use a carrot, not a stick. Positive incentives are as effective, and significantly more palatable, than punishments. Provide compelling reasons for the PCs to take a route, and they’ll usually follow happily along. Need to get the players to Waterdeep for the next adventure? Don’t kidnap them and drop them in the harbor – have a trusted NPC ask for help.
Build the railroad around the characters. If you know what the PCs want, work those elements into your own vision. If the PCs’ desires flow along your plot, there’s not even a need to railroad: everything builds happily in the same direction. Sure, you can’t always predict what they want…but let’s face it, RPG characters are rarely deep and complex, so you probably have a reasonable idea. Don’t dictate your vision: build a communal vision.
Be honest and communicate! If, ahead of the game, you know what kind of plot you are running, give the players a clue about it. Tell them it’s a pirate game, or a horror game, or whatever – then they can design characters who are well-suited to your story, and railroading won’t be an issue
Communication is key during the game as well. If the plot requires they go to Waterdeep, but they are dawdling or getting distracted, just tell them! It might break immersion, but most groups will happily go along if they understand what is at stake.
Put the goals on the railroad, not the methods. Where players do like choice is in how they overcome the obstacles before them: so give them the freedom to do so. Lay down the basic plot sequence, but don’t demand that Brutus be defeated in combat – let them try to convince him of the error of his ways if they so desire (though you are free to make that difficult). If your “core” is on a railroad, but you let the players think their way to interesting advantages in each encounter, they’ll be pretty happy. (This is how good published adventures work!)
Where you can, build in obvious choices. If the path to Waterdeep could go overland or by sea, give some thought to how those alternate routes might play out!
If you are careful, this doesn’t require a great deal of extra work: this is the magic of “re-skinning.” Come up with a core challenge, then make a few specific changes to suit the different courses. For example, if the players can either go over or under the mountains, first come up with a structure to represent the journey challenge. Then require skills appropriate for each course – Climb for over, Dungeoneering for under – and pick out a monster that looks like a good challenge, but describe it as an ice construct (and turn some of its damage into cold) or a lava construct (and turn some of its damage into heat) depending on which path they take.
Players never actually get to see under the hood – you can do all sorts of crazy stuff back there, so long as their choices DO have a significant impact.
Foreshadow! Players get annoyed when the choices they make don’t meet their expectations – that’s often the real source of frustration about railroading. Provide liberal doses of hints about what they should expect along a path, and stick to those: the players will feel like their choices matter – even if you have limited them – and that will make them happy. For example, if the
Villains can be proactive too! A good villain has an agenda that she is aiming for, and most likely lots of minions to push that forward. That means that you have in-game agents to push the PCs in particular directions. Use them! It makes for a more compelling and dramatic story, and it helps you move the game in the direction you want.
You don’t want to be heavy-handed with this: if the players feel trapped, they’ll do even more than usual to jump off their comfy railroad car. But if they stubbornly resist your well-planned showdown with the mastermind – well, his minions are going to make things worse and worse for the city until they step up and do their jobs. That’s railroading, but it’s exactly what should happen with a smart villain.
Or, suppose the players surprise you by hiring a ship to speed downriver and beat the villain to the Macguffin. Guess what? That villain is most likely a super-genius (all good ones are) and probably thought of that too. All it might mean is that some of the minions don’t make it in time. That rewards the players for being clever (just make sure they realize it), but it leaves your core encounter intact.
Use these tools judiciously and you'll find players are happy to follow the train all the way to a satisfying showdown with the big bad!
explanation does not equal excuse
EXPERIENCED THROUGH YOUR WORDS
One of the most important realizations for me as a GM was understanding that nearly everything the GM does at the table is description. Certainly meta-issues exist- table management, strategy, rules interpretation. But where the rubber hits the road is that contact between player and GM. This communication and exchange revolves around describing their world, their situation, their choices, and the rules. That can be more or less ornate, more or less clinical. Players create images, mental pictures, and maps of the game on many levels. The GM through description tries to provide a unified picture- or at least one the players can interact with collectively.
Below are ten suggestions about description I've found useful as a GM.
1. ALL SENSES
You’ve probably heard this before, but it is important to use all the senses in describing. We generally focus on visual and auditory because they’re define the situation most clearly. Bringing in small details of smell, touch and taste deepens the experience and makes it seem more real. In a recent session, we had a underwater city rise from the depths. I talked about the smell of it, something all of us living near a river could related to. The feel of the mud underneath their feet as the marched through. The slimy spots where the algae and kelp had stuck and begun to dry. The way the smell of it got in their mouth so that could could taste the rot.
These kinds of senses have a strong relation to place. A big city smells different, and the subways and train stations of those places have a distinct aroma to them. Different cultures wear different clothing, with unusual tactile feel and appearance. Food offers a great gateway to establish a sense of place. The smell and taste of it- heavy, creamy, spicy, aromatic, sickly sweet- you can easily use those details. My players know that when they go someplace new, they’re likely to experience those kinds of details and scenes.
Related to the above, take some time to think about your personal experiences. When you imagine a scene, what sticks out for you? What details serve as anchors? Importantly when you’ve been in some place uncomfortable, strange or dangerous, what triggered your responses? I’ve been in a couple of burned out houses in my life and that’s etched in my memory. I lived in the Middle East and the smell of dry air combined with dense crowds remains with me. Think about little things- how metals and stone feel different depending on how it has been worked. There’s a visceral difference between running your fingers along marble or porous brick, between touching a smooth-surfaced mirror and a rough cut slab of steel with burrs along the edges.
This can vary from group to group, but I find it effective to break the fourth wall from time to time. Using the language of cinema- zoom ins, pans, close ups, wipe to X, the camera lingers, smash cut- can be effective. Some think points to the artifice of the moment. I’ve found it more useful than distracting. Players have seen enough movies and TV shows to appreciate these techniques. These can add motion and movement to your descriptions. I’d recommend Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll as a good reference. Related but a littler trickier is explicitly referencing movies, TV shows or even real world places or things for sensory elements. Describing architecture or cuisine as being “like that of X” is an easy trick to offer. I’ve used pop culture references to give the players the sense of scales of explosions, the visceral sense of gore, and the quiet menace of a place. Don’t be afraid to use these devices, though sparingly. It may seem obvious, but I’ve heard some GMs dismiss this technique. I’ve had solid success with it.
4. NO BOXED TEXT
Never read description text directly from a book. Never. Never ever. It will always sound forced. Extemporize, make a note of the most important details in the text and work with those. In my experience, there’s a switch in player’s heads that trips when they hear material read from a module. Suddenly they’re in irritation or parody mode.
5. TIME FOR PRECISION
We often focus on description as a means of creating atmosphere. Reluctance about descriptions comes, I believe, from worry about GMs spinning off into florid prose or engaging in pure storytelling exercises. The GM as a frustrated writer. This can be a problem: but a simple tactic to avoid this is to pay attention to your audience. Recognize disengagement and move to quickly wrap up your presentation if you’re beginning to lose them.
Besides atmosphere, the even more important arena for description comes when the players are about to engage with the environment in a significant way. The obvious example is PCs about to engage in combat. But it can also happen when they’re about to infiltrate of a castle, enter a grand ball, or escape from a deathtrap. Descriptions here need to be reasonably complete and precise. In this case, that precision ought to trump considerations of pacing or player interaction. Describe the situation cleanly, focusing on elements you would want to know about if you were a player. Set up the landscape, the kind of opposition, and the resources available.
Getting good at this is one way to really develop yourself as a GM. One of the traps I’ve fallen into when I’ve run has been speeding the game up so that the conflict feels tense. At that point I don’t want to break that flow by stopping to provide detailed descriptions. Inevitably if I rush forward, I lose the players. They end up confused about layout, positions, enemies, options and so on. Even with miniatures, unless you paint a coherent picture, players may only focus or understand a slice of the scene.
One approach is to raise the speed up and then make a clear break or gesture to signal you’re about to describe the tactical situation. You might even do this as people are rolling initiative or getting their dice and such in order. I’ve found it useful to go around and describe the scene quickly from each character’s interests or line of sight. A thief might see the scene differently from a mage for example. Once I’ve done that “loading screen” set up to the fight, then I return to faster pace and speed to restore the tempo and tension.
6. CONNECTING COMBAT DESCRIPTION
When I run a combat, I try to keep the speed up. Players know that when I come to them, they should know what they're going to do. But also they need to stop me and ask me if they're unsure about something important- I try to be good about shifting gears down if I see those kinds of requests. But my goal within a combat round is to construct a complete narrative of that scene, meaning that I’m constantly describing. When I come to a player, I try to give a quick statement of their situation and position: "OK, Kenny, you're on the conveyor belt, and can see that the mooks are trying to lift something out of the box in the corner. What are you going to do?" I've already described the scene, but I do a recap for each player. It’s a few seconds that reorients the player in the moment and also says: OK, you have the floor now, Mr. Player. When I come to the next player I do the same thing- except, I make sure I describe their position relative to the previous player and their action. "OK, Sherri, the machinery's going full tilt and you've seen Kenny leap off past you towards those Mooks with the box, what do you do?"
As the round goes on I compound this- adding a little more, rewinding and describing the turn- and making sure the active player sees what others have done and how they can play off of it. In a tight turn, but the time I get to the last player I'm providing a mini-story of the turn as a whole. Ideally I can take some time at the end of the turn to clarify results and signal the move to the next turn. We draft a dramatic narrative for the turn on the fly- in part by not seeing everything as simultaneous, just close to simultaneous. And I deploy repetition for effect, a classic storytelling technique which can get old in a visual feature. That repetition is a form of flashback, or rewinding. Especially when the environment is crucial, repeating yourself is a good thing.
7. AVOID REACTIONS
Be objective with your detail. I mentioned above providing description from a character’s PoV: both physically and based on their role (i.e. the swashbuckler notes the chandelier, the dwarf notes the stonework, etc). However never describe that character’s reaction to the details. Describe something as repulsive, paint a picture of a revolting moment, but don’t tell a player that they pull back their hand in horror and revulsion. You might suggest something reminds them of something else, but leave connections, interpretations, and responses in the players’ hands.
That can be a difficult thing to avoid- especially when the description’s rolling out at a good tempo. But imposing reactions can create resentment- an immediate reaction of “oh NO I wouldn’t…” regardless of the legitimacy. That kind of irritation can be hard to articulate, and therefore hard to resolve. Give players room to respond to your descriptions.
The exception to this would be systems which use fear, sanity or response checks. Once you’ve gone to the dice, you have more room to describe reactions based on the player’s failure or success. It’s a good idea to still give players room to define those failures themselves, but randomization reduces the feeling that the GM’s imposing something on their character.
8. THE SMELL OF HERRINGS
Perhaps the biggest problem a GM faces with description is player paranoia. The difficulty being that they’re not wrong. You want to give players a fair chance and offer them a response to details or events that don’t quite fit- give them a clue that there’s a trap or at least a thorn in the rose. If you’re trucking along and take time to describe something when you haven’t done that before- you raise a red flag. Suddenly the group can go into lock-down mode, not from the circumstances but from the meta-game. There’s no good way to rewind from that state.
The trap here is that you don’t want to describe everything, all the time. Instead you need to pick your battles. You can do this in two ways. The first is to make sure in each scene you give at least one set of significant descriptions, and throw in at least one odd detail. Get players used to the fact that there will be things that appear in scenes that are simply color. The first couple of times you do this, especially with a paranoid group, you will have players stopping to investigate…to check out the odd thing that you described. You have to play this completely straight. In one campaign, the group arrived in a cavern which could serve as a potential refuge. I described it generally, making mention in particular of water dripping from stalactites into a puddle on the floor. The Magician in the group couldn’t leave it alone- he investigated, made perception rolls, spent spells, and only detected that there were mosquitoes around the puddle. So he cast Deathcloud on it to be sure. Once the table stopped laughing at him, he approached those kinds of moments more evenhandedly.
One of the other ways to keep players from reading descriptions as pointing to sudden changes or hidden traps is to vary your delivery speed. If you find yourself slowing down or speeding up when you hit those moments, try to manage your speech. If you control and vary your delivery patterns whenever you offer description, it makes it harder for the players to immediately identify a moment as a giveaway. I try to monitor this to manage pacing. I slow down when we get to spooky moments, I try to speed up as the action heightens. When things become frenetic my descriptions will shorten- sharp, short sentences or even single words.
A couple of related presentation techniques can assist this. Certain kinds of words in the English language have a weightier, harder-edged sound. Writers suggest using Anglo Saxon words to create a directness and immediacy. You can find a number of articles about this on the web. It means paying attention to word choice and considering how they sound. If I know I’m going to be describing something like a swamp, I’ll look up words related to that and make a list. I’ll consult a thesaurus to see if I can find some with an evocative sound. By writing out perhaps a dozen of those in the margins of my notes, I put those ideas in my head before we play. I’d also suggest that you complement your descriptions with movement and gestures. They can add emphasis. And if you regularly use those, you’ve added another device that makes it harder for the players to read any description as “the important one.”
10. SPAM IMAGERY
I’ve mentioned making up lists of keywords and details above. I don’t necessarily refer to these during the game, but by doing that quick exercise, I have that in mind when I run. When I’m running in a particular genre or setting, I try to think about the elements and description details fitting with that. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World offers the following rule for the Master of Ceremonies,
Barf forth apocalyptica. Cultivate an imagination full of harsh landscapes, garish bloody images, and grotesque juxtapositions. In Apocalypse World, when the rain falls it’s full of fine black grit like toner, and all the plants’ leaves turn gray from absorbing it. Out among the wrecked cars, wild dogs fight for territory, with each other and with the rats, and one of the breeds is developing a protective inner eyelid of blank bone. If you get too close to them you can hear the click-click when they blink.
I’ve heard that advice restated as “Spam Fantastic.” Build up for yourself a set of images that come into your mind when you think about the game. Hit players with these from time to time. It isn’t that you need to smash the players with a block of narration, but be ready with an evocative detail for any scene. That helps keep you and your players in the moment you’re trying to create.
If you want to get good at solid, tight description, consider reading some of the masters. Tolkien’s great, but his style’s less useful at the table IMHO. You need to read Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber for amazing and economic approaches to combat. For general economy of words consider reading James Ellroy or Dashiell Hammett. I’d also suggest listening to some great storytellers to consider how they handle voice, pacing, tone and detail: Kevin Smith, Spalding Gray, or even stand-up storytelling comedians like Patton Oswalt.
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This is one of the topics that I felt I was pretty qualified to talk about (at least in regards to F2F playing; I'm still working on my PbF style). With that being said, my particular article will focus on F2F GMing as opposed to PbF.
There are a few guidelines I have worked out for myself in regards to descriptions. I've found that they're tried and true for me, though that won't necessarily mean it will be the same for you.
1. If it's an important scene and your players KNOW it's important, be as descriptive as you can.
If your players are about to enter the climactic battle, or are already in it, or are about to walk into negotiations that could decide the fate of multiple countries, and your players are going into it knowing this is the case (meaning you're not about to surprise them), let them FEEL they are about to do something important.
I'm not suggesting to describe every thread of the tapestries on the wall, but if this is a battle, rather than just saying "You hit him for X points of damage," get cinematic. Describe how (or allow the player to) the character ducks a clumsy blow from his opponent, does a slip over the enemy's head and lands behind him, thrusting his sword, without looking back, through the opponent's spine.
If it's an important negotiation, or a debate, or some other important non-combat scene, describe the looks of worry on the delegate's faces, the bead of sweat dripping down the brow of the prisoner being interrogated as he lies through his teeth.
2.Gloss over unnecessary situations, unless required for some kind of effect.
The biggest example of this for me is travel. When I first started out GMing, a week's journey went this way: "You travel for the first day and setup camp. What order are you walking in, who keeps watch that night? Nothing interesting happens. You travel the second day, then setup camp etc, etc..." This bores the players to tears. Unless you have an encounter planned or you're trying to get the players to see just how dreary this particular journey is to build up the joy of finding civilization again, don't go into crazy detail about the trip.
Even if there IS an encounter planned, I generally just go this route: "OK, what's your traveling style and watch order for the trip? Great, on day 3, Grimbarg hears something in the woods during his watch." Bam, encounter setup and ready, players aren't bored to tears.
3. Always give some kind of description during combat situations.
I touched on this in my first point, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail. Sure, you can say "You hit him with an arrow, he takes X points of damage," but where's the escapism in that?
Now, I'm not saying detail every blow of every battle with intense description. However, at the very least I'll generally throw out a "The arrow strikes the orc in the left shoulder. He's still standing and able to fight, but you've definitely cause him some pain." Let the players feel that their enemies are more than just numbers on a piece of paper.
4. Change it up.
If you only go into intense description when something important is going to happen and use small descriptions for everyday events, your PCs are going to see any surprises coming a mile away. GIVE them good descriptions once in a while for a mundane situation. Don't go overboard on details when leading up to an important moment they don't see coming.
If you change up when you throw out heavy descriptions, your PCs will have a harder time predicting when you're about to pop something on them they shouldn't see come.
5. ALWAYS describe in some way.
There should never be a situation where there is absolutely no description. To me, the point of roleplaying is to transport your players and yourself into a world that has come out of your head. But always remember, the world is in your head. Just because you see the throne room in your brain, the fearful peasants cowering in the background; it doesn't mean your players will. Always give them something to work with, no matter how unimportant the scene is. I mean, really if you were a player, which would you prefer:
"You walk into the magic item shop, here's what he has and how much it costs"
"You walk into Olbrec's Oddities. A wrinkled old man walks out of the back room as the bell above the door sounds. He looks over your party and your travel-worn clothes. He scoffs. 'You sure you've come to the right shop? We don't give out hand-outs here.' The Orb of Dencarum your wizard has been searching for rests prominently on a shelf above the old man's head."?
And that's about all I have to say on the subject of description at the moment. Just remember, while you don't have to describe every hair on every NPCs head, the more descriptions you provide your players about what's going on around them, the more they're going to have to work with in their decisions
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This is a topic I just went over recently with
She's been roleplaying for about a year now and I'm proud to say the GM bug has been starting to gnaw at her for the last couple of months. When she and I sat down to talk about it, these were more or less the key points that we hit:
1. Don't dive off the deep end until you can swim.
I wouldn't recommend picking up Rifts and start GMing that way. I mean sure, you can do that, but most people would be clawing their hair out before even helping the players create characters.
Basically, don't start with a system that's extremely crunchy or overly complex. Find a system that, as you read through it, you don't have to reread the same page over and over again just to understand how the basic mechanics work.
2. If you're a player in a group, try a new game.
This is probably going to be a point of contention with some GMs out there. However, in our case, this was definitely what we thought would work best for her. If you're newer to RPGs and are playing with an experienced group, running a system the rest of the group is more familiar with than you are can be extremely intimidating.
I think that starting with a game that captures rule number one and is also a game no one else is familiar with is a great way to build confidence as a GM. Whereas, if you're running something everyone else has been playing for years so they have a chance to plow you over with rules you don't have down yet, if you pick a game no one knows, you will automatically be the expert after the first session.
Now, once you've had the GMs hat on for a bit, go ahead and try that game everyone loves. But if you're not sure of yourself right off the bat, I would go for something new. Get that confidence in your GMing and mechanics rulings built up and you'll be set to run anything!
3. Find a system you would like to run.
Ideally, this will also be a system your group wants to try, or at least is willing to. I'm not at all recommending finding a game you'd like to try and then have to cram down your players' throats. No one would end up having fun.
However, also don't give in to pressure by anyone in regards to what system you should start GMing with, unless it's one you were already interested in. For MistressGeek and I, this one kind of came about by itself. We were going to start flipping through my stack of RPGs to find one that she would like when we stumbled upon Gamma World Roleplaying Game (7th Edition) at a FLGS that was going out of business, along with both expansions. It seemed like serendipity. MistressGeek likes weird/goofy (thus her love of Ghostbusters International, and she's been becoming a bit of a sci-fi geek recently.
Of course there are plenty of other things to look out for when picking up your first game such as price, availability of supplemental material, ease of teaching to players, etc. However, I think if you follow the first three rules I listed here, you'll find yourself off to a great start in the world of GMing.
In Gamma World, MistressGeek ended up with a game she was interested in playing that no one else has tried (but were also intrigued by) that wasn't particularly rules-heavy. Bam, in one purchase we went from her sitting on the fence about trying her hand at GMing to making the rulebook her extracurricular reading material.
Good luck out there, and most importantly, have fun!
Steven Nation Army
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There are only two kind of gamemasters who are trying to choose an initial game. Those who have never played and those who have been playing for a while and are now going to try their hand at being the GM.
My guess is that if you're a player becoming a GM you probably already have a game in mind. If you don't, this advice will probably still work, but some of the things I suggest you ask RPG Geek below can instead be asked of your current gaming group.
There are many factors that can go into choosing your first game, but ultimately it's all about taste. What kinds of stories are you and your friends interested in telling and what kind of system can you use to tell them?
The kinds of stories you're going to tell are really about genre first. Do your players want to be spacemen, superheroes, spies, animals, gunslingers, soldiers, ninjas, magicians, or just regular people?
In some cases you might have to know what they'll do to make a good decision. Will they be spacemen like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, or some other book or novel?
Don't make assumptions! Ask them. The hardest part of becoming a GM is finding a group of players to GM for. Pick out the people you're hoping to make part of your group and, if you can, get them all in one place and talk about the game. Chances are not everyone will be equally excited about gaming or specific genres. Your goal is to find the one that most people are interested in.
Try to make it into a sentence that everyone can agree to. "We want to play a game like Firefly", "We want to be in an adventure like Willow", "We want to be the avengers", or "We'd like to be a spy team like Mission Impossible" are all pretty good descriptions of a game. The more experienced gamemasters reading this are already thinking of games that you could use to tell stories about each of those sentences.
That's actually the next step. Come back here to the geek and go the General Role-Playing forum. Give your topic a good title like "Need recommendation for (fill in genre) game. In your post explain what kind of games you've played before (if any) and then put in that sentence so the readers know what you want to with your game.
Now stand back. You've just put an army of dedicated geeks to work for you and you're about to get a LOT of information. Read through it and pick out one that seems popular or well-reasoned. You're about to become a gamemaster.
From here, you need to buy and read the rules, then set up a first session where you and the players can create characters together. Once you've had your first adventure, come back and tell us how it went. Don't be afraid to do a session report even if you're worried your first session was a little lame. We all have games that don't go well. The collective mind of the geek will help you fine tune things so your next session is better.
Good luck and good gaming!
Steven Nation Army
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Welcome to the second topic of GMU, running your first adventure.
Some of the advice below might not apply to you since there are really two kind of first-time GMs. The ones that are long-time players just trying their hands at running a game and the ones that are new gms with new players.
So here's my advice:
Try to run a prepared adventure your first time.
Depending on which game you're playing, setting up an adventure is a lot of work. Making it balance out is difficult and it's probably easier to start with something someone else has done some of the heavy lifting on. Make sure you've read it through and understand what's supposed to happen. Don't be afraid to make notes if you need to so you'll remember important things.
If you have experienced players, use them
Don't be afraid to say you don't know how a rule works. Chances are one of the players will know the answer and be happy to help. If no one knows the answer or you don't have experienced players, then see the next suggestion.
If you have good judgement use it!
Most of the time specific rules aren't that important. If you have to choose between moving forward with your best guess and a 5-10 minute break to find a rule, it's probably better to guess. If you realize later you've made a mistake, then let everyone know before the next session starts so they aren't counting on the interpretation you used last time. Inconsistency is annoying, surprise inconsistency can be a game killer.
Learn to ask open-ended questions
When the players find a door and seem to be stalled, don't ask "Do you open it?" ask "What do you do now?"
Make a cheat sheet for the characters
Mine typically has a spot for their name and their main combat abilities and then anything special I might otherwise forget, like special senses or other abilities that might operate without them thinking about it.
Give and use names
Every NPC should have a name. When you address the character (for example, when an NPC is talking) use his character name. Most of the time you can do the same thing yourself. Don't ask "what do you do" to a specific player, ask him "What does Karg the Destroyer of Worlds do now?"
The players don't know everything
When they're in a fight, the other guy could have spells or abilities they don't know about. Someone could speak a language they don't expect. You could make a minor mistake. The players don't know everyone else's stat block. They don't know there's supposed to be a trap on that door or that it was supposed to do 1-2 not 1-3. Minor errors you can just keep going. Major errors you might have to backtrack for.
Remember Everyone should be having fun
That includes you and that guy that doesn't seem to be engaged. Be careful that your adventure doesn't revolve too much around one or two characters. Be careful that the players are making their own decisions.
You'll make some mistakes
My first few games I was a pretty terrible GM. Railroading and arguing about rules; creating items that were too powerful and then ramping up the monsters to match the items rather than talking about changing the items. All kind of things.
My last session, I made some mistakes too. I put an npc in the game that didn't make sense, I gave the players an item that I thought they'd return to the "rightful" owner (they didn't).
My point is that you'll probably make mistakes too. In the early stages, you'll make some crazy rule errors. Later you'll make mistakes with your story or opponents. It's okay. Whether you've run 1 time or 501 times there will be mistakes. Learn to roll with them - sometimes the mistakes lead to great stories. If they don't, then learn to admit them and move on.
Find out why they're doing things you don't understand. Maybe they've assigned more importance to something than you've expected. Ask about their hopes and dreams for the game and their character; make it possible for them to reach those dreams or tell them why you don't think they'll ever get there. Work with players to make sure the stories that are being told are as interesting to them as they are to you.
The most important thing for a gm is to have the trust and respect of the players. If they don't trust you, then they'll always find reasons to complain about your game. If it's not about rules, then it will be about the story and the opponents you've chosen.
Trust is key. Make sure the players know that you're trying to make it fun for everyone. When you do make a mistake, rewind ("take a do-over") if it just happened and can be easily undone. If it can't, at least admit it and then try not to make it again.
As long as the players believe you are running the game fairly and with the idea that everyone should have fun, they'll be in your corner. If they're with you, then you're a good GM.
Sun Apr 22, 2012 11:15 pm
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