In a recent issue of RPT I called out for volunteers to do a GM interview. I wanted to find out the nuts and bolts of how other game masters around the world prepared and ran their games. I received a number of offers, and below is the first in the series. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.
The interview is quite long, but I think that’s what sets it apart from the more casual interviews I have read online. Hopefully you find this as interesting a read as I did!
Thanks to everyone who endured the long questionnaire I sent out. If you want to do an interview like this, shoot me a note and I’ll send you the questionnaire too.
Section One: Opportunities
What is your biggest GMing stumbling block right now? What could you do to fix that?
Knowing when I’m actually fully set up for a game session or new campaign. I always feel there is more I can do to be “completely set up,” be it finding more pictures for key NPCs, detailing the history of a place or person, or the floor plans for the next inn or starship an encounter will be taking place on.
The best way I’ve found so far to keep from getting stuck in the “endless prep loop” is to make a short checklist of the minimal things I need to have for the next session and then focus mainly on the list. This helps me focus on exactly what I need for a session and realise when I have enough done to be ready without going overboard.
[Comment from Johnn: I'd love to see this checklist, sometime.]
Describe your perfect gaming session with you as GM
A perfect session is one where the group falls into character quickly and the pacing of the adventure keeps flowing smoothly, without scenes dragging on so long the tone and mood of the adventure is lost. One of those rare sessions when the rules seem to merge flawlessly with the story and there are no six minute pauses to look up damage resistance vs. silver bullets or the shield recharge rate of a light cruiser.
Basically an adventure that unfolds as smoothly and captivatingly as a 45 minute TV episode and leaves you wanting more at the end. (For both players and the GM.)
Section Two: Your GMing Stat Block
Your name: Jenette (known online as Silveressa pretty much everywhere).
How long have you been a GM? Going on sixteen years now roughly. (I’m 31 btw.)
Estimate the number of times you have GM’d a game. Around a thousand or so.
Game(s) you have run in the past two years?
- Shadowrun 3rd & 4th editions
- Palladium Fantasy 2nd Edition
- Dead Reign
- Rogue Trader
- Hollow Earth
- Battlestar Galactica
How did you first get into GMing? Why?
Having played in a few games beforehand and been doing creative writing as a hobby, I soon began to realize some of my stories would make for pretty exciting adventures in a RPG game. When the school library’s resident GM moved away I decided to step up and run a few games rather then stop gaming.
How has GMing affected your life over the years?
Well, for one, it’s how in high school I met the gal who went on to become my life long partner, and it’s helped me to become a lot more quick thinking and focused when I set my mind to a task. (Prepping for games for 16 years teaches you how to focus and become efficient at a task without much fuss.)
It’s also one of the few hobbies I was able to enjoy anywhere, and without needing a lot of money or room to play. I still remember years ago when we were homeless, playing TMNT & Palldium Fantasy 2nd edition in the back of our vehicle, and being able to forget for a while how bad things were in real life, and still laugh and have a good time despite the circumstances. It was one of the few bright points in a very dark time.
What is your gaming schedule, on average?
I primarily game one-on-one with my lover Rosie (living in the middle-of-no-where-Vermont means very few fellow RPG players, with most people assuming “role playing games” means dressing up in a nurse’s outfit, lol) so our schedule is a bit fluid. On average, once or twice a week, with a session lasting around 6-8 hours give or take. (It depends on the amount of interaction that goes on between the character and NPCs as well as the progression of the storyline.)
Where do you play? Describe your usual game environment.
On the couch usually in our living room, with a computer and surround sound system in easy reach. Mostly our game sessions take place in the evenings to late nights, so it’s nice and quiet without any distractions, letting us focus on the game much easier.
Do you use published worlds or create your own? Why?
My favourite games are published worlds based off popular TV shows (Supernatural, Serenity) simply because the worlds are already familiar to me and the players (who are usually fans of the show the game is based on). This makes it easy to run adventures without a lot of explanation of culture, technology levels, etc., and everyone has a common expectation of the game world’s mood and theme, making it easier to have fun.
I’ve dabbled with making my own settings, but the amount of time investment is a bit much compared to the ease of grabbing an already published world and heavily modifying it into something more unique and personal.
Do you use published campaigns or create your own? Why?
I’ve generally always made my own campaigns with occasional concepts from published works, mostly because I find the published campaigns are a bit too linear for my taste, and I’ve found published campaigns tend to lead me as a GM towards certain expectations and outcomes, which never survive the first encounter with characters’ creativity and left field solutions to problems.
Do you use published adventures or create your own? Why?
This depends on the game. For some games like Serenity, Supernatural and Shadowrun, published adventures are great (with some small modifications to fit into my campaign arc) for game sessions I don’t need to put much effort into getting set up for, and the episodic format the games lean towards work well for the adventures.
For other games like Hollow Earth or Palladium Fantasy 2nd edition, it’s a lot harder to make published adventures fit smoothly into the game without feeling contrived or ruining the overall mood and theme of the campaign. But that’s more because such games tend to be freer wheeling in the locations players are likely to be at any given time and their immediate goals, than in other games that are more centered on a single location or theme. (Like how Shadowrun is based around cyberpunk adventures in Seattle, and Supernatural based around investigating and hunting supernatural threats across the United States.)
What non-digital GM aides do you use, other than books?
A white board and dry erase markers are a must for quickly drawing out the location of characters in relation to enemies or complex surrounding terrain. A pot of fresh coffee is another essential tool for keeping up the energy and focus during a long session.
What electronic GM aides do you use, if any?
Hero Lab by Lone Wolf Development I’ve found to be a huge asset when it comes to writing up characters and NPCs for the Cortex rule system (Supernatural and Serenity is what I use it for) and tracking damage levels, etc.
Aside from that I use the internet a lot when prepping for a session to find pictures of key NPCs, weapons, equipment, vehicles, and the occasional location, as well as mining it for ideas for adventures.
Music also plays a large part in setting tone and mood for my games, so a lot of play lists are customized for our gaming sessions, focusing mostly on ambient soundtracks from movies or games, with even a few theme songs for key heroes and recurring villains.
Recently for my birthday I received a copy of Campaign Cartographer 3 with the Cosmographer and modern day add-ons, so that will likely feature prominently in prepping for future game sessions (once I learn how to use the program anyway).
What player handouts do you offer, if any?
It depends on the game. In Shadowrun I use handouts of a lot of data files characters find in their adventures, often having them on a flash drive ahead of time and passing the drive to the player when their character successfully downloads a file from whatever matrix node or steals it from the body of NPC X. It also makes it fun to hand them a flash drive with an encrypted or password protected file they need to crack in-game somehow.
For most other games, aside from the occasional diary entry or piece of jewelery, I don’t do much in the way of player handouts, using the computer for most of the game related stuff such as NPC pics or building floor plans.
When was the last time you were a player? What insight about GMing did you pick up?
Last night, actually. I would have to say one insight I did pick-up was to give important NPCs a few skeletons in their closets (maybe nothing overtly criminal like an accomplice to a crime, but everyone’s got a few secrets they’d be desperate to keep from others learning). It helps add depth to the NPC and can also make for an interesting plot hook if the character learns of their secret. (Or suspects they know due to an off handed comment the characters never knew had a double meaning.)
Screen or no screen?
Only a computer screen. I use a computer as my main GM repository and can easily ensure it’s tilted away from prying eyes, and it makes a handy screen to roll dice behind.
Table or no table?
A coffee table for drinks, snacks and gaming related material.
Minis or no? What do you use for minis, and how do you use them?
Yes, it makes using the white board a lot easier than drawing x’s for character and enemy positions. Mostly we use paper minis due to the low cost, and they’re easy to customize with a paint program and a little effort. (It’s also hard to find character minis for high tech/future settings without the Warhammer 40k power armour look)
Section Three: GMing Style
Describe in a few words each of your players and their playing style.
Rosie. Her play style is slanted heavily towards interaction and storyline, with a secondary in tactical challenges and exploration interests. She easily loses herself in each character (each one usually different from the other ones in class and personality) and doesn’t worry so much about acquiring powerful weapons/abilities or loads of XP as long as the storyline is fun and challenging to her character.
Describe in a few words your group’s playing style.
As I mentioned earlier, Rosie tends to lose herself in the story line and her character, often making choices from the character’s perspective that, while unwise or dangerous, when viewed with OOC knowledge make perfect sense and often add to the tension or dramatic impact of a scene or climactic encounter.
I would have to term her play style as sort of a method actress, but with a definite focus on having fun and telling an exciting story. (I’ve seen her at times come up with a solid in character reason for doing unexpected and fun actions with her char, usually with exciting or hilarious results that fit well with the theme of the game.)
Describe in a few words your GMing style.
When GMing I usually try to present the game with a cinematic flair and keep the story moving forward smoothly without rushing the players or making them feel railroaded.
For example, if the characters are questioning townsfolk about a local legend and RPing though each encounter is beginning to slow down the pacing of the story I’ll usually summarize their interactions with unimportant NPCs with something along the lines of “The rest of the patrons in the bar mostly agree with Gabe’s recollection of the tale offering very little new you don’t already know, aside from conflicting recollections just what Captain Pete really looked like back in the day.”
By glossing over the unimportant interactions it keeps the game from bogging down with yet another similar conversation and lets it move onto more interesting scenes and encounters without depriving the group of useful information.
[Comment from Johnn: good tip Jenette. I need to do this more in my current city-based campaign - especially your point about not rehashing repeat conversations.]
What is your best GMing skill or ability? What advice would you give to a GM wanting to improve in that area?
I would have to say GMing NPCs. People seem to become attached to my NPCs readily and remember them long after the encounter or campaign, sometimes months or years down the road.
The best advice I could give is to always try to find a picture for the NPC in question (Google’s image search works wonders here) and attempt to match the personality with the picture. Think of it like auditions for a role in a TV series. Does the person in question look like they fit the role? Can you easily imagine them playing the role if your game was to be turned into a movie?
This helps you portray the character easier than trying to fill a faceless personality with life. Do be careful about using overly famous actors for the pics however, or your group may have difficulty interacting with them without OOC movie quotes and other inane banter.
What process do you use to organize game sessions? (i.e. How do you schedule and get attendance.)
For my main campaigns I mostly just ask if x time on x day will work well for a session that week, and if not what time would work better?
What is your typical session planning process? (i.e. Adventures and encounters.)
Usually (assuming the adventure isn’t a continuation of a previous one) I start by writing down an interesting problem or exciting combat scene for the characters to encounter. After the idea is detailed enough to make sense when I read it again later, I then slowly build my adventure around the concept, adding in extra encounters or complications to fill in the details and make for a fun adventure, usually writing about one or two sentences for each.
Now I take this page of bullet points and expand on them, fleshing each one out with the needed details, and weaving them all together to form a solid timeline/storyline with how events will progress without any character intervention. From there it’s easy to add in clues and hooks to get the characters involved and adjust events based on what effect the characters have on them.
Mostly these days I use the Cortex RPG system for the majority of my games, so encounters are a lot less bookwork intensive than other systems like d20, which lets me save the nuts and bolts mechanics of the adventure till last. Usually, I use Hero Lab to write-up any needed NPCs/creatures and then use whatever spare time I have left for drawing up floor plans, organizing music tracks and maybe creating a few optional floating encounters to use if needed.
What are your favourite GMing reference books, other than the rules?
Robins Laws of Good Gamemastering I’ve found to be handy to help with the occasional GM stumbling block, and for impromptu one shot games.
Instant Game (available from the creator for free.)
Other than those I make a lot of use of medieval weapons catalogues (and museum replica catalogues) for weaponry pics for fantasy games, and the modern day map compilations on .pdf for floor plans when I’m, in a rush.
What are your favourite online resources for GMing?
- The Roleplaying Tips weekly ezine is one I look forward too, and deeply enjoy. Having 500 issues (and counting) to reference has been a nice help over the years.
- Gnomestew is also a favourite place to stop for gaming tips and a few GM Yahoo groups.
- The Cortex RPG forums is a regular stop when seeking inspiration, adventure concepts or just rule discussions for and games using the Cortex system (and other games players have converted to the Cortex system).
- Strolens Citadel is another great place to visits for inspiration and a huge repository for NPCs, adventures, items, and pretty much everything RPG-related for any setting, and all presented in a system neutral format.
- Last but not least, Google maps is perfect for modern day games when you want some good overhead pics of cities and streets, or satellite imagery of remote islands and Alaskan compounds. (Great for those modern day special forces RPG and post apocalypse games.)
What tools or aides (digital and non-digital) do you wish would be created or invented to help you GM easier?
Some conversion software to automatically convert stuff from one game setting to another would be huge help and save a lot of time switching a setting or items over to a preferred rule system. Unfortunately, the legal red tape will keep such a program from ever being created (legally, anyway).
Perhaps seeing a large .pdf of all 500 issues of RPT organized and bookmarked would be an excellent resource as well and save opening 500 separate .txt files to find a single article I want to re-read from long ago.
Most of all though, I’d love to have a program that could create a rough floor plan blueprint based off description only. It would save tons of time in creating adventures, especially ones needing a lot of floor plans. A big book of detailed blueprints for ocean liners, battleships and other sea going vessels would be another plus for modern day games.
After working through these questions 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?
A way to keep large scale combat fast paced and interesting. Currently, any type of combat beyond 6-10 opponents becomes either bogged down and tedious, or too faced paced to feel as if the character is playing a significant role in the outcome.
Read more from Jenette
Jenette has sent great GMing advice into the newsletter in the past. Check it out: