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GameMaster University Topic 5: Crafting Memorable NPCs

Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
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explanation does not equal excuse
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.
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Sun May 20, 2012 7:27 pm
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GameMaster University Topic 4: Descriptions: When to be Verbose and When to be Sparse

Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
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explanation does not equal excuse
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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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Sun May 6, 2012 9:44 pm
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GM Topic #2: Running your first adventure: pitfalls and perils of GMing

Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
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explanation does not equal excuse
MasterGeek was kind enough to allow me to contribute to this week’s topic. I run two-three games a week, and at present have four campaigns ongoing. You can see the chronology of my campaigns here in two geeklists, one covering my ongoing fantasy world and the other everything else. As a GM I’ve moved away from detailed rules systems, to games with lighter mechanics. Along with that I’ve shifted to put more focus on story and narrative aspects over game or simulation elements. Different groups and gamers have different needs, and I want to make my approach clear at the beginning.

For the topic “Running Your First Adventure” I’ve focused on first sessions- getting to them and running them. Negotiating the genre and system you’re going to run is worth of a topic of its own. So I’m going to assume that you’ve agreed on that. Now you need to lay out some details for the players.

The open discussion forum for this week's topic can be found here: GameMaster Universtiy Topic Week 2:" Running your first adventure: the pitfalls and perils of GMing" open forum thread

Campaign Description: Give them a sense of what kind of game you hope to run and what kind of campaign it will be: episodic, dungeon-crawl, long arc, big story, etc. If you’re going to be adding in uncommon elements to a classic genre- like horror or steampunk to fantasy- make that clear. Give your players an idea of the planned campaign duration: a few sessions, a longer arc of months, a year, or open-ended until the campaign wraps up. I’ve gotten into campaigns I expected to last for a summer that ended up going on much longer (and vice versa). A couple of times it felt like a bait and switch because the GM wasn’t up front about intentions.

Rules Guidelines: Outline what rules you’ll be using. This can be a s simple as saying D&D 4e core rules. If you’re playing a game with significantly secondary or optional rules be clear about what you want to use or not use. If your group has invested heavily in the system, consider being more open in those choices. At the very least open a dialogue about that. As a GM my inclination is a narrow use of optional rules and classes to make it easier for myself, but players may have concepts they’ve been dying to play. If you allow that, you’ve earned some GMing goodwill. Think carefully before vetoing options.

Fluff & Crunch: If you have house rules, character creation extra systems, background information, history, and the like for the players, give it to them ahead of time. However, expect that players won’t read that material ahead of time. Some may have, and some may have skimmed it just before the session. But often your background material and set up won’t have been assimilated. Coming in with that realization can avoid some frustrations. Be ready to go over it again at the table.

Will you do character creation ahead of time, as a its own session, or at the start of the first session? Regardless of what choice you make, communication is essential- not just between you and the players, but among the player group. I’ve found letting players establish concepts and “call” roles ahead of time makes things easier in the long run. I usually do this in email- asking them to reply to everyone with what they’re thinking. It helps players who aren’t sure what to run see open niches. It encourages players to cooperate and negotiate about choices. It also fosters a sense of teamwork before the game starts.

Pre-generated characters: These can be a time-saver, especially if you’re planning on running an experimental or short-term campaign. Perhaps the players are new to the system. Perhaps you picked up a great module or introductory adventure which has characters balanced to the challenge. If you do this allow the players some choice or swapping. You can afford to be generous on this and some players have character types they really don’t like.

One pre-gen option is building characters yourself based on player input. This has several benefits. You can balance choices and abilities between individual players. Your sense of what the group can do improves. You save yourself time at the table while still giving the players choice. I’ve done this with higher crunch systems (Champions, Mutants & Masterminds, Scion), especially with players new to the system or where some have an advantage in rules knowledge. I usually allow the players to swap and shift character details a few sessions in, an option even more important with this approach.

If you don’t create characters ahead of time, you may be thinking you can have the players roll up characters and jump into play in the first session. That’s cute.

Character creation expands to fill the time permitted.

If your character creation is more than a few picks, some assigning of numbers of the like, strongly consider having a session devoted solely to that. Some games, such as The Dresden Files RPG, have made this a necessary and multi-layered experience, assuming a full session for it. Character creation always takes significantly longer than I imagine it will- made even longer if you have new players, a group inexperienced with the system, not enough copies of the rules to go around, more than a few secondary rulebooks, or any need for a calculator.

I’ve found it more successful to have players talk about ideas and concepts before they sit down to roll/create characters together. They may change their minds in the meantime, but they at least have some sense of what others have chosen. I’ve used that to keep players from stepping on each other’s toes.

Use the character generation session to answer questions about the game and ask questions about what the players want. The characters they choose and how they describe them should shape what you bring to the table. Make notes about interesting details they mention, along with their character’s name so you get in the habit of using that at the table. If players suggest a concept you think might not work with the game, address that now-- gently- ask them what they want to get out of the campaign and explain reservations you have. A couple of bloggers I follow have talked about this recently, The Githyanki Diaspora and Voices in My Head.

Even if a character creation session ends up with time to spare, I usually hold off on running something immediately after. That gives me time to think about the characters and what will work for them. Are there stories I can connect to their backgrounds? Also, even if players know the rules, getting up to speed with new characters can take longer. Just keep that in mind.

The group character creation session offers benefits, but presents a potential problem. If players miss that session, they can feel left out of the bonding. If someone comes in later with a character built outside the circle, some players may suspect they had a mechanical advantage. I recommend having new players partner up with an existing player during character creation, rather than the GM.

Some of what I’m going to suggest is more general GMing advice, but I will try to focus on the first session. Your first session is a chance to set the tone, hook the players and establish how you want sessions to go.

1. Agile Prep: Don’t freak out and over prepare. I used to spend hours getting ready for sessions. But over the years I’ve come to realize that I will use only a portion of that material. Now I brainstorm, outline ideas, and sketch out scenes very broadly. I loosely write out the details of the opposition, focusing on what makes them interesting. Quick Set Up- Incident/Conflict- Choices/Interactions- Second Conflict is a common pattern I use for first sessions. Your results may vary, depending on the rules crunch for your game.

2. Basic Knowledge: If you’re running from a module, don’t worry about memorizing everything. One trick I use is to read through and make a simple outline to refer to during play. That helps you see at a glance how scenes or elements connect together. I also create a list of NPC names and their role as a play aid. Avoid restating things like descriptions or box text from the module verbatim; that always feels flat.

3. Character Sheets: Make sure you have a copy of everyone’s character sheet. It might be rude to say, but that keeps the players honest and makes prep easier for you. You can roughly update changes from time to time over the campaign.

4. Dispute Resolution: Establish in the first session how you want to handle rules disputes. Generally my approach is that during play, if I make a call it stands. Players should, however, feel free to point out and correct rules decisions after the session. This maintains game flow while allowing the group to fix problems. I’m not a fan of flipping back to the rules while we’re playing. From time to time, I’ll also ask players to make a rules call or ask for their rules knowledge. That keeps them involved and demonstrates I respect their skills. How you handle this may vary, but be sure to establish your method through example in the first session.

5. Expect Questions: Know the rules. That doesn’t mean being an expert or knowing every situation or modifier. However you should understand the basic mechanics and be confident enough to make rules decisions during play. If the system uses skills, know what those are. Figure out what are standard difficulties for actions. Most importantly know the basics of combat and conflict resolution.

6. Food Formulas: If you have other rules or house procedures, or even a group contract for behavior, set that up before you even roll the dice. Your group may have guidelines about electronic devices or delicious snacks. Do dropped dice count? Restate those rules before beginning play.

7. GM Methodology:
Use the first session to make clear your methods. Screen/No Screen? Dice rolled openly? More or less lethal about combat? Some GMs take players away from the table for secret stuff, some write notes, and some state it openly- relying on the group not to take advantage of it. Show how you’re handling that. If you’re working with a new group, keep in mind they may have very different expectations about that.

8. Have Openness: Be open to the players’ input as you run. If you have the chance, I recommend reading Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley. I don’t follow his highly improv approach, but his book gave me more confidence about going into a session without everything written out. The key point I take from it is that a GM should respond to ideas in an open rather than closed way. The idea that a GM should say “Yes, but…” or “No, but…” comes from that. You don’t shut down suggestions, but instead accept or offer alternatives based on that. Remember to go to the dice if you’re uncertain about something- use randomizers to help with decisions if you’re unsure.

9. Incidental Details: For anything longer than a one-shot, the first session’s your chance to establish narrative elements. If there are particular ideas or themes (the fall of a kingdom, a decadent empire, man against nature, etc.) try to work those into the first session. Given that there’s so much for the players to take in, keep this low key.

10. Justify Them: Come in with a sense of the characters, especially their names. Try to have at least one hook or moment referring to their character in particular. That establishes you’ve paid attention to their choices.

11. Killing Time!: I almost always have a significant conflict or combat in the first session. It tests out the rules, forces the players to work together and shows the group my running style. It also adds energy and action to hook the players.

12. Launching Mechanics: First sessions should show the players how things operate. If your system uses skills, then have some skill challenges. If NPC interactions are going to be important, then present some NPCs for the group to react to. If the games going to be about mysteries, dungeon crawls or the like, come right out of the gate with that.

13. Maintain Parity: It can be hard, but try to pay attention to how much action each player gets. Players don’t necessarily have to have the same amount of time “in the spotlight” but they should have relatively equal opportunities and chances to do things. Table management may be the most important skill a GM can have.

14. Now This!: Getting the characters together and establishing motivation can be a challenge. So skip it. Begin the session in the middle of things. “You hired on for various reasons to guard a caravan, suddenly in the middle of the night you hear a scream…roll for initiative…” Then allow the players to ask questions and establish where they’re at as they take actions. Throw the players into the soup together with shipwrecks, earthquakes, sieges, shared amnesia, wars, collapsing dimensions, prison breaks, firestorms and the like. You begin right away with energy and worries about motive become secondary. Conflicts build drama.

15. Optimism Engaged: Remember that most of the time, your players want you to succeed as much as you.
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Sun Apr 22, 2012 9:33 pm
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