May 17, 2011

GM Interview: Gerald

game master interview

Today we interview Gerald.

Roleplaying Tips needs more interviews. If you would like to do a GM interview, email me and I will send you the questions. Veteran and new GMs are equally welcome – it would be great to get all perspectives here.

Section One: Opportunities

What is your biggest GMing stumbling block right now? What could you do to fix that?
I think that my biggest stumbling block is having too many things I want to do. I have built a website for my campaign but it is missing quite a bit of the content I would like it to have.

I have built my own campaign world, but world building is an extensive project and there is always more to do.

I built a map of my world, but I’m not satisfied with it and I’d like a much better map – I also think this would be of great help to my players.

All that and I still haven’t mentioned the campaign itself! Prep for a weekly campaign plus trying to come up with other neat ideas and alternate plots makes for a lot of stuff to do!

I’m currently working on the highest priority items, but I’ve managed to get ahead on the campaign planning, so I’m going to start targeting specific goals. I think the best thing I can do is make sure I get at least ½ an hour (and preferably 1 hour) worth of productive work done for the campaign every day.

[Johnn: I do this too. A little each day adds up quickly and keeps momentum going. Most importantly, it develops a habit and slot in your schedule that cannot be pushed around as easily by other things.]

Describe your perfect gaming session with you as GM

This is a pretty tough question! I was tempted to answer with a list of what would happen during the session (role-playing encounter, challenging combat) but those are just details.

I think the perfect gaming session is one where my players are immersed in the setting and excited by the events. Where the role-playing is flowing naturally and the table is loud. And primarily a session that is remembered in 10 years in detail and with as much excitement as it generated on game day.

Section Two: Your GMing Stat Block

How long have you been a GM?

About 20 years. I guess I’ve been GMing since university at various conventions, but I only started GMing our regular gaming group around 2001 and my own campaign world since 2004.

Estimate the number of times you have GM’d a game.

Perhaps 200 – 300?

Game(s) you have run in the past two years:

Just D&D 3.5

How did you first get into GMing? Why?

I joined the Gaming Society at my university and ended up as the president of the society by the next year. The executive decided that we would like to run a couple of conventions per year and that meant we needed GMs.

How has GMing affected your life over the years?

It has definitely provided me with a way to display my creative side. As a player, I was happy to role-play within the world provided, but once I became a GM I wanted to explore the open nature of gaming, which included developing my own world. It’s also helped with problem solving, quick thinking and improvisation skills.

What is your gaming schedule, on average?

For the latest iteration of my campaign, we play on Sunday evenings from approximately 9 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. Because we’re old folks who need our sleep. :P

Where do you play? Describe your usual game environment.

This is where it gets interesting. For most of my time as a GM, my game environment would be a large table, books everywhere, battlemap and minis (courtesy of one of my players). However, I live in a different city from my regular gaming group, and where once I would set aside a Saturday and drive 2 hours for a marathon gaming session, that’s no longer possible. Because I now have a wife and children (and therefore limited gaming time) our group decided to play through online tools.

So, my gaming environment is my desk. I have two computer screens, one with our gaming software (Fantasy Grounds II) and the other with my prep and background materials (and game website). I’m still old-school and like my books, so I usually have books and paper strewn around along with a coke and some pistachios.

Do you use published worlds or create your own?

I had an idea. I’ve owned published worlds, and played in them many times, but when I was considering starting my own campaign I wanted it to be entirely my own. I wanted something original and exciting, and something that would be new to the seasoned role-players I was inviting to play. I have to admit, it bothers me a little that every player can know as much as the DM for a published world – I wanted to bring an element of surprise and exploration to my players.

Also, creating my own world allowed me to use some skills differently, most noticeably the knowledge skills. Players who chose to invest in those skills for their characters (and those who chose to be a bard) would know more about the world than those who didn’t. If they chose to disseminate that information was up to them.

Do you use published campaigns or create your own?

I’ve never actually considered running a published campaign before. I didn’t really know they existed until I saw some references to the War of the Burning Sky campaign from EN World. Unless you consider things like the Against the Giants/Descent in the Depths of the Earth series to be a campaign?

[Johnn: Good question. What is a campaign? I bet answers differ. Mine would be: a sequence of two or more adventures. What is everybody else’s definition?]

But the main reason to build my own campaign world was to host the campaign idea I had, so that’s what I’m running with.

Do you use published adventures or create your own?

I’ve considered using published adventures but I would definitely want to modify them to fit my world and be more flexible to the characters.

I’ve played in modules that ended up being dull because all the NPCs were new, not related to the rest of the campaign and some of the events were too staged.

I think that if I want to be a good DM I need to take almost as much prep time with a published adventure as I would with my own creation to ensure it merged seamlessly with my campaign.

I would also like the majority of my adventures to play some part in forwarding the storyline of the campaign, which would require some thought to add to a published adventure.

So, with that in mind, I’ve chosen to stick almost entirely with my own material.

All that said, I am a little jealous of those DMs who have chosen a more standard fantasy storyline and world, and can simply pick up an adventure and with an hour or two of prep be ready to go for a few sessions.

What non-digital GM aides do you use, other than books?

Does the streetcar count? I have a little notebook that I cart around with me almost everywhere, and when I have time, I jot down notes and thoughts on the campaign or world. Often on the streetcar on the way to and from work.

Other than the odd idea from a movie or book, my primary non-digital aide is other GMs and friends. I’ll often bounce ideas off other people, throw out problems I’m having, and get ideas on solutions back from them. I’ve come up with many aspects of my world and campaign based on one line suggestions from friends, which I wouldn’t have even considered on my own.

What electronic GM aides do you use, if any?

Well, obviously since our game is through the internet, we use a Virtual Table Top. We chose Fantasy Grounds II as our tool after I did quite a bit of research and we found that we liked this one the most.

Once you get it set up it can really help speed up combat! Since we’re used to playing around a table, we also chose to use Ventrilo and do the bulk of our role-play through voice chat.

What player handouts do you offer, if any?

Since we’re playing electronically, player handouts take on a slightly different context. When I’m DMing at a table I would provide handouts of any documents found (usually with a clue or two hidden in the text) and that was usually about it.

On the Virtual Tabletop, I’ve been attempting to give handouts of images to set the scene (a picture of the tavern the PCs have just entered, an NPC they have just met). I also create notes for the players to view.

But the biggest handout is the website I have developed for the players. I’ve set it up so the players can each log in with their own password and I track specific information for each character (e.g. race, class, religion plus a whole set of knowledge skills and a few other things).

When the players log in, the information they see on the site is tailored to their specific character – so a character with Knowledge (Religion) will see much more about the various religions on the website than a player without that knowledge skill. It’s also dependant on the number of ranks in each skill – and it can be as basic as elves simply knowing more about elves than other races.

When was the last time you were a player? What insight about GMing did you pick up?

It’s been quite some time since I’ve had a chance to be a player – I do miss it. I think the last time would have been around 2004 for a short-lived campaign that followed on the heels of a long term campaign which collapsed.

I think the lesson learned was this: it is very important that the DM understand the type and style of game the players are looking for. As a DM, it is easy to get caught up in the stories, plots and planning behind the adventures we create – but if none of it matches the expectations of the players, then it is wasted time.

Screen or no screen?

I almost always use a screen. I’m not a solid enough game mechanic to ensure all my encounters are thrilling and balanced, so I require the ability to fudge when necessary to give the players an encounter they can enjoy.

Table or no table?

I’ve played with both, but I find that a table tends to focus my players more effectively. So I GM with a table.

Laptop / mobile device or no computer stuff at the table?

When I’m DMing at a table I don’t tend to use my laptop – I print off what I need and play paper-based.

Minis or no?

I have the good fortune of having a player who loves painting miniatures, so he provides for the table and the DM. On the VTT we use tokens, side view.

Until 2000 the vast majority of my games didn’t include miniatures. They simply weren’t needed for 2nd edition D&D and sometimes made the game slower and less fun. But when D&D 3.0 came out with rules such as the 5’ step and feats like Cleave, it became almost impossible to play without miniatures.

[Johnn: My experience was somewhat the same. We always used minis because they were neat and we loved to paint them. (Plus, lead is tasty.) However, they were always dressing, sometimes used for initiative, and sometimes used for positioning before some trap or whatever went off and had to be adjudicated.

Then D&D 3.0 came out, which we gobbled up the day the books were released. We instantly started using minis and battlemaps. I guess we were always looking for a reason to use minis tactically in conjunction with a rule set while roleplaying.]

Section Three: GMing Style

Describe in a few words each of your players and their playing style.

  1. Dale: Detailed, great rules knowledge, loves to research his characters and understand the world concepts for the race/class.
  2. Dave: Likes to understand the motivations of his characters, not afraid to be independent of the party without being disruptive.
  3. John: Low-key at the table, has a character concept which he develops quietly, less interested in rules than story.
  4. Tisch: Loves to take a character concept and run with it, provides lots of background information, generates new content and is willing to create on the fly.

Describe in a few words your group’s playing style.

Our group is very relaxed and the purpose of our game is to allow 5 friends to get together on a regular basis while enjoying our hobby. While we can have our intense RP moments, the game has more of a beer and chips type feeling. Because we have only a couple of hours a week (as opposed to our 10 hour sessions we used to enjoy) we do tend to remain focused on the game, with the odd joke tossed in here or there.

All that said, we enjoy a game based around epic tales with long campaign arcs where the PCs are meaningful and will have an impact upon the world.

Describe in a few words your GMing style.

Tough question! I guess I would describe it as relaxed and story focused. I want the players to enjoy the storyline, enjoy interacting with the NPCs, and enjoy interacting with each other

What is your best GMing skill or ability? What advice would you give to a GM wanting to improve in that area?

Perhaps this is a little odd, but I think my best skill is my ability to present an engaging story while keeping the game moving and the players happy. I don’t excel at the RP angle (although I do have my moments) and I’m definitely not a rules guru.

I think the key is that I try not to get too hung up on the rules. I actually have a rule for game-play that, if you disagree with one of my calls, you can object and I’ll listen to your argument, but then I’ll make a decision and we move on. I think I’m a pretty fair GM, so one missed call isn’t going to disrupt a game as much as a rules argument would.

And above all, I just keep in mind that everyone at the table is there to have fun, so if any activity is making the game less fun then I try to deal with it.

What process do you use to organize game sessions?

We have a regular schedule, every Sunday at 9PM. In previous campaigns we would ensure that we had the next date set before we finished the game day.

What is your typical session planning process?

The more I think about this question the less is seems like I have a plan! Much of what I do takes place in my head.

I spend quite a bit of time just thinking about everything I know about the campaign and seeing what percolates to the top. However, if I were to itemize what I think the process is, it might be something like this:

  1. Assess the situation; determine where the party is, and what their choices are likely to be during the next session.
  2. Analyze primary NPCs involved in the story and determine what their actions are likely to be for the duration of the next session – and if they are likely to intersect with the actions of the party.
  3. If they aren’t likely to intersect with the actions of the party, I brainstorm a bunch of ideas to see if there is an interesting and exciting way in which I can make the two intersect.
  4. Review the story and ensure something is happening to move the story forward.

That probably takes a couple of days following the session. Then I lay out a priority list of what I have to have ready for the next session to run – what maps I need, what NPCs and monsters I have to have in the VTT, any handouts required, any updates which must be on the website.

As mentioned, much of my campaign development takes place on the streetcar, or over lunch, or in the evenings.

Since I don’t always get large blocks of time, I spend a lot of time jotting down thoughts and letting them roll around in my head, and try to connect those thoughts to the storyline.

I’m also working hard to continue my world building and campaign development, so I’ll decide what to work on based on my situation: do I have rule books, do I have a computer, how much time do I have?

So, if I have 15 minutes, I might just try to figure out a small part of the society of one of the cultures on the world, whereas if I have 2 hours at my computer I may instead spend the time modifying a map for the next session and developing one of the NPCs.

This is all significantly different from my session planning from the previous campaign, which involved me going out for coffee with a couple of friends the day after the campaign and brainstorming the next session or two over coffee. Now they are both players in this campaign.

What are your favourite GMing reference books, other than the rules?

I think I might fail this question :P I don’t know that I use any at the moment. I have used Palladium books for D&D inspiration in the past, I’ve referenced heraldry books and history books, plus fantasy novels which I read. However, generally speaking, I don’t tend to look to books for my inspiration.

What are your favourite online resources for GMing?

Obviously, www.roleplayingtips.com is a big one, I’ve read every article – while foolishly never actually signing up to get them by email!

I’ve been visiting some other blogs lately, and I used to use the Wizards forums quite a lot until DDI came out – they changed the categories and effectively eliminated anything useful to me. I’ve also found a few creative writing blogs which had some useful insights, most memorably Holly Lisle’s workshops.

For creating my materials I use several tools. I’ve found two different NPC generators which I have been using – they are usually good to create a base NPC, but they still require too much fiddling. Random is nice, but a little optimization please! Who needs a sorcerer with two-weapon fighting and not combat casting?

I use name generators for my NPCs, primarily Rinkworks and Squid. I used to use Chris Wetherell’s Elf name generator which I think gave the best elf names, but unfortunately it seems to have vanished. I also just found this generator site which looks pretty cool (needed a book generator).

[Johhn: If you need more names, be sure to check out 40 Great Name Resources, Lists and Generators.]

I created my map with Fractal Mapper, and I mess around with various graphic editing applications.

What tools or aides do you wish would be created or invented to help you GM easier?

Aside from the perfected NPC generator that could save me hours, does an assistant count? It probably already exists, but I’m looking for a decent forum specifically for GMs working out plot points and world building where I can bounce ideas off other GMs and get some external creativity.

A few years back I had a network on my messenger tool that I used to that effect, plus the previously useful Wizard’s forum. There are a lot of blogs with GMs offering advice, but fewer forums that aren’t either 4E specific or mechanics specific.

[Johnn: do any readers have forum suggestions for Gerald?]

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?

There are certain techniques a DM can use that will draw out the role-playing from his or her players.

One of the best sessions of our previous campaigns was when the DM (one of my players) set up a series of rules the PCs had to follow to interact with a specific NPC and enforced them.

The rules, plus the scenario and the involvement of the DM, combined to draw all the players into character and created a fantastic RP session.

I’d like to figure out how best to do that, and how I can apply that across the internet where I cannot easily provide visual cues or manage the environments of the players.

[interview-request]?

 

 

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