We continue the GM interviews, or should I call it the J interviews? Jared joins Josh, Jenette and Josiah in sharing with us his GMing style.
Jared Hunt (www.jaredhunt.ca)
Section One: Opportunities
What is your biggest GMing stumbling block right now? What could you do to fix that?
I think I’ll go with the cliche answer here and say that time is my single biggest stumbling block. Business, family and social time all compete with prep and session time. I suppose one fix would be to close my businesses and shun my family and non-gaming friends…. As a more balanced solution, I’m learning to streamline my planning time and take advantage of technology to make sure every second I have for gaming is put to efficient use.
Describe your perfect gaming session with you as GM
The perfect session would follow a classic story arc:
It would begin with the players choosing to pursue a goal that was interesting to them as players and personally relevant to all their characters. In a series of challenges, they would gather information about the world and themselves that would force them to adapt their plans or re-evaluate their initial goal.
Those challenges would test them in combat and out, and force them to stretch their resources to the maximum. The session would conclude with the players achieving their goal, but in a way they would never have expected.
For the session to be perfect, however; someone else would have to pay for the beer.
Section Two: Your GMing Stat Block
How long have you been a GM?
About 20 years.
Estimate the number of times you have GM’d a game.
I’d say I’ve averaged 1-2 sessions per month for 20 years. 400 is a nice round number. Let’s go with that.
What games you have run in the past two years?
I’ve focused completely on 4th Ed. D&D. I have planning-stage campaigns for Ars Magica, Cyberpunk 2020 and a homebrew system, but I haven’t put in the time to get them off the ground.
What is your gaming schedule, on average?
My 4e group is scheduled to meet every Monday night from 6:00-11:00. In reality, we tend to get 2-3 sessions per month, and the day we play frequently changes to meet the needs of the group.
Where do you play? Describe your usual game environment.
We’re lucky to have a player in the group who has an entire basement available for gaming. We set up two long tables in a T formation. I sit at the top of the T with a pad of chart-size grid paper in front of me and my laptop within easy reach to my left. The host has an extra 15″ monitor that sits on a ledge behind me.
Do you use published worlds or create your own?
I’ve done both over the years, but for my present campaign I’m using the default setting from the 4e DMG. I enjoy the world-building process, but I’ve found the cost-benefit analysis comes up in favor of using published worlds. I think my comfort level with improvising and altering published worlds on the fly means I don’t find them as limiting as some GMs might.
Do you use published campaigns or create your own?
I often use elements of published campaigns, but I have yet to run one as written. In my experience, published campaigns don’t offer enough flexibility to run long-term. Player decisions and my short attention span combine to derail even the best-written campaign.
Do you use published adventures or create your own?
About half of my sessions are based on published adventures that I’ve customized. As a rule, I like to use published adventures for dungeon crawls and I write my own material for more open-ended adventures.
What non-digital GM aides do you use, other than books?
We use minis and flipchart-size 1-inch-grid paper for combat. I also print out encounter and daily powers on card stock for the players. When they use an ability they hand me the card. We’ve found this makes it 100% clear what abilities they have left, and I like to judge how difficult an encounter is by the size of the stack of power cards.
For initiative tracking I use small tent cards (outdated power cards work great). I write the character’s names on both sides of their cards and the NPCs’ on my side only. After getting initiative totals from everyone, I arrange the cards in order. When someone readies or delays, I hand them their card and they hand it back when they’re ready to act.
This system lets the players see when their next turn is, but they have to pay very close attention to figure out exactly which NPC is acting on which count. We refined the system by buying paper clips in half a dozen different colours. A paper clip unfolded about half way drops nicely over a tent card without obscuring the writing on it too badly. Paper clips of different colours represent different status effects. The clips can also be dropped directly onto the minis as reminders.
What electronic GM aides do you use, if any?
Virtually everything in my campaign exists solely on my laptop. I use a program called OmniOutliner to do all my campaign planning, and I’m just mastering a program called Virtual Combat Cards to use for combat management. I also try to use as many digital pictures as I can. I place a link to the picture in my notes and display it on a second monitor during the game.
What player handouts do you offer, if any?
I like to use handouts for information the characters would receive in paper form. Notes, maps, letters and things like that.
When was the last time you were a player? What insight about GMing did you pick up?
I’ve played in two campaigns over the last few years. Both suffered from scheduling trouble and are now on hiatus. I think the main thing I learned was to have everyone commit to regular session times before the campaign begins. Campaigns that are supposed to take place “whenever everyone is available” are unlikely to succeed.
The other thing I took from playing was a reminder about what’s really important. It’s easy for GMs to get caught up in rules, storytelling, roleplaying, or even just in trying to make sure the players are challenged. All of those things are important aspects of the game, but they should never, ever overshadow the primary focus: HAVE FUN!
Screen or no screen?
Though I had always used one in the past, in my current campaign I don’t use one and it’s been great. I make all rolls in front of the players (though I don’t always explain what the rolls are for). It adds a level of transparency to GMing the players seem to appreciate.
Minis or no? What do you use for minis, and how do you use them?
For 4e you definitely need minis. One of the players has a big collection of plastic D&D minis, so I just keep a pile of them nearby. The primary purpose is just to be absolutely clear about relative locations, movement and sight lines—combat oriented stuff. Over the course of the campaign, each of the players has picked up a custom mini for their character and several of them have been professionally painted.
Section Three: GMing Style
Describe in a few words each of your players and their playing style.
- Pete: An experienced GM who is enthusiastic about being a player. He’s also a trained and experienced actor who fully commits to the role of his character as much as her rolls.
- Ash: Committed roleplayer with a tactical mindset in combat.
- David: In any given session, he may play any one of the classic RPG group roles: instigator, min/maxer, actor, rules lawyer or observer. Enjoys them all about the same.
- Dave: The least experienced player in the group. Has a great understanding of his character and seems to revel in his role as troublemaker for the party.
- Simon: Laid back player who prefers characters with straightforward abilities so he can focus on developing their quirks and personalities.
Describe in a few words your group’s playing style.
My group is about 75% dungeon crawl and 25% immersive roleplaying. That being said, I believe we could adapt to other styles quite easily—75/25 has just been working for this campaign so we’re sticking with it for now.
Describe in a few words your GMing style.
A wise man once described my style as control. I believe the GM’s primary responsibility is to ensure the group is having fun and I try to base all my decisions on that.
What is your best GMing skill or ability? What advice would you give to a GM wanting to improve in that area?
I think my strongest trait as a GM is my ability to focus on making the game fun. No matter how cool, flavorful, challenging, interesting, neat or evocative I think a game element might be, before I think about incorporating it, I ask: Will this make the game more fun for everyone involved? If I can’t answer “yes, absolutely,” I don’t use it.
What process do you use to organize game sessions?
Our primary method is a campaign forum (on Obsidian Portal). We also tend to use text messaging for more last-minute organization (like who’s getting beer tonight?).
What is your typical session planning process?
My goal is to always allow the players and their characters to shine in some way in every encounter. To help accomplish that goal I keep an updated list of character/player strengths, weaknesses, interests, relationships, goals and other hooks.
At the adventure level I try to incorporate at least one background element, character trait or non-combat skill for each character in each session. The vast majority of plots I use tend to grow organically as I try to work in elements from my list of hooks.
My approach to encounter building is to use my hooks list to spark ideas that can combine NPCs and settings to engage and challenge the players. I then search for stat blocks in the D&D Compendium that are level-appropriate and paste them into my campaign notes. For non-combat encounters I focus on notes about the motivations of the NPCs involved.
What are your favourite GMing reference books, other than the rules?
For the rare occasions I actually get to spend time on world-building, I love the Aria books some guy gave me as a gift many moons ago. In my present campaign I’ve been pretty happy with the DMGs from WotC.
What are your favourite online resources for GMing?
I’ve used the D&D Compendium for every single session I’ve planned since it was released. I also read every issue of RPT.
What tools or aides (digital and non-digital) do you wish would be created or invented to help you GM easier?
Up until 2 weeks ago I would have said I wanted a light-weight, intuitive combat/initiative manager that would run on Mac OS. However, I think I’ve found one in Virtual Combat Cards, so that’s off my wish list. I guess my next wish would be mapping software designed specifically to create 1-inch grid maps for use with a projector.
After working through these question and getting a 10,000 foot view of your GMing, what is the number #1 thing you’d like to learn about and work on next to become a better GM?
My current goal is to improve my ability to incorporate descriptions into encounters. 4e is such a rules-heavy combat system that I tend to forego a lot of description that would probably make the game a lot more immersive for my players. This is tricky, however, because I also don’t want to overload and bore them with long “read-aloud” passages. Finding that balance is what I’m working on.