November 2, 2010

GM Interview: Josh

game master interviewIn 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, posted the first GM interview a couple of weeks ago, and now have the second ready for you. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Section One: Opportunities

What is your biggest GMing stumbling block right now? What could you do to fix that?

Probably my biggest GM stumbling block right now is the schedule I have at my new place of employment. My job schedules for three weeks in advance, and my hours are an erratic collection of first and second shifts. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to my schedule… one week, I may work Tuesday night, and the next week, I might work Tuesday morning.

However, I have sort of enacted a system to deal with this. Every week, I look at my off days, and ask everyone in the group what nights they have free. The night with the most free players will be the night we role play. We also have a rule that we cannot be missing more than two members, or we just reschedule the session.

This has worked well, even though we have 8 players. Normally we have everyone, though we have played with 6 on a few occasions.

Describe your perfect gaming session with you as GM.

The perfect gaming session would begin with everyone arriving on time! Lol. It is so nice when everyone shows up on time.

Next, it would be one of those sessions where everyone is well rested. If two of the players stayed up all night the night before, I can sort of count on them dragging a bit. However, if they are well rested, I know they will have more energy to play.

As far as the session goes, my favorite are the ones where players are engaged. I definitely try to keep my players engaged as much as possible. I also love the sessions that have a great flow to them. This comes from playing the game slowly, paying attention to detail, and having just the right amount of action.

Too much action gets repetitive, but a complete lack of action makes it boring. I think my best sessions could be summed up in a sequence like this…

  1. Start on time
  2. Begin with something intriguing or interesting
  3. Start off with a taste of action…maybe a quick fight to warm things up
  4. Introduce some colorful, mysterious or interesting NPCs
  5. Develop some party NPCs
  6. Build up to a session climax with action, small puzzles and challenges spread throughout
  7. Add a touch of humor
  8. Close out the session with either some sort of hero battle, epic puzzle or cliffhanger.

Since my games usually last around 15-25 sessions, I usually try to end games differently. I may end one session when they make camp, the next when they solve a puzzle, the next on a cliffhanger involving a cut scene, and one on some sort of battle where they fight a hero or main villain. If it is not the climax of the campaign, they never kill the main villain. Perhaps they chase him off, barely get away alive, or succeed at destroying one of his generals/head minions/leaders.

I think the best sessions are ones the players look forward to, and also ones that do not disappoint. The way you do these things is simple. First, set up every session with a good session before it. Second, play every session with detail and care to set up the next. If you do this, your sessions will string together into an epic campaign that your players will always remember.

Section Two: Your GMing Stat Block

How long have you been a GM?

For about 8 years now.

Estimate the Number of times you have GMed a game.

Close to 250 sessions, if not more. That includes single sessions, campaign sessions and other single-session campaigns. I usually run 2-5 campaigns per year.

Games you have run in the past two years:

I have run a lot of a Star Wars system I developed myself. Three players and I had a story that spanned about 5 campaigns with the same characters. This lasted for about a year, and we played about once per week. The system was my own, but it was basically a system derived from the old Classic Marvel system. The mechanics were about the same.

We also played a post apocalyptic/zombie game several times that I also developed using some of the same mechanics found in Classic Marvel, but leaning more toward a D&D sort of thing in the way we ran the skills.

I have also run a little bit if Classic Marvel itself, but more recently have been running a D&D campaign using the 3.0 system. In addition, I ran one game on a fantasy system of my own that was pretty much the exact same system we used for Star Wars, just applied to a fantasy setting instead, and it worked out pretty well.

What is your gaming schedule, on average?

We game about once per week. Sessions usually start about 7 pm, and last until anywhere from 11 pm to 1 am. We used to start at 11 pm, but everyone was so tired by the time we started that we voted to start earlier, and it made a big difference. Everyone enjoys it more because they are not so sleepy when we start.

Where do you play? Describe your usual game environment.

When we play, we move my kitchen table into the living room and play in there. We have a window air conditioner that we only run during breaks (because it is SO loud), two lamps, and a coffee table we use to store snacks, maps and other things on. We all use either kitchen chairs or folding chairs, except for me. When I do sit down, I use a drumming throne ( I am also a drummer, lol).

Do you use published worlds or create your own? Why?

I use all of my own worlds, with one exception. When we play Star Wars, I include the world of Courescant and the Jedi Temple of Courescant,  though I make everything else up.

Why? It gives me maximum creative freedom. Is it more work? Oh yes, definitely. I create maps for my worlds, name all of the cities, and need to be pretty up-to-date on what is going on so the world will seem real and alive. However, it also gives me the freedom to express my world however I want. As a result, my worlds have actually become like published worlds.

For example, in my own “Star Wars universe,” there are several planets the gamers visit over and over again, even during different campaigns. They remember these places and keep going back to them. So, to our little group, these worlds actually have a meaning beyond the paper. There are experiences that took place, allies who fell in battle, grave sites of NPC friends they have buried, sites of great triumph where they slew dark lords and evil villains, and places where they barely escaped alive.

Do you use published campaigns, or do you create your own? Why?

I use my own campaigns, mostly for the creative freedom. Part of the joy of GMing for me is to build my own story and campaign, and to work with the players to create a memorable story. To me, that is what it is all about.

I am almost like the novelist, writing the most epic adventure of all time, and the characters are so real and lifelike I cannot predict what they will do. It is like a movie that writes its own script. I don’t always have everything figured out from the beginning, but I stick to my facts, stay true to core ideas and always try to be consistent. When done correctly, this is so much more rewarding for me than using published campaigns.

Do you use published adventures or create your own? Why?

For campaigns and sessions, I always use my own adventures. I do use ideas I like from other sources. For example, I liked the final battle in the second Lord of the Rings movie, so I sort of used the outline for that battle in a campaign I ran once. The battle went differently, but that scene inspired me and gave me ideas about my own GMing and how to run a battle of that scale. I have used a lot of ideas, but I have always applied them to my own stories and adventure backgrounds.

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

I use a lot of scratch paper, as I am sure most GMs do. I also use maps I create or edit on the computer, and then print out in sheets and tape together to make like a large session map we can mark on if we need to.

I have a set of pewter miniatures we use, along with some wooden blocks that I have custom made, and we build small sets with those and keep tabs on where our characters are that way. It is not too high tech, but still allows us to keep clear communication during battles to figure out who is where.

I use a bunch of extra D10 dice to represent enemies, and I turn them with different numbers up to keep track of which enemy it is. Then I can keep track of enemy hit points individually on scratch paper.

What electronic GM aides do you use, if any?

I use my laptop and a name generator so I can generate NPC names as I need them. I also sometimes use Google Image search to find pictures similar to what I have in mind for special weapons, villains, NPCs, etc. I also keep a calculator on hand so players can do math on their character sheets if need be.

What player handouts do you offer, if any?

I supply my players with character sheets, a map of the campaign world, and special maps/scrolls as they get them. Most of my players do not own their own books or dice, so I supply them at every game session.

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

I was a player in a short campaign my friend started not too long ago. It was the D&D 3.5 system. I did pick up a few things I hadn’t thought of before, and I think that these things helped me better myself as a GM.

First, I figured out how good it feels for my character to kick some butt once in awhile! So, from now on, I always try to introduce at least one conflict per session, or even one every-other session, that is easily handled by the PCs. Maybe it is a thug who thinks he is tough, but in reality is weak and pathetic.

It is good for the PCs to realize they are not under-powered and helpless, and I have learned that they will have a lot more fun if they get to dish out a good, old-fashioned butt-kicking every now and then.

I have also learned that players need to direct themselves. This GM had a bad habit of trying to control the PC decisions, and it was annoying! So, I try very hard to let the players make their own choices, and not to react to them with any positive or negative feedback. It is their character – they choose what their character does. I am fortunate enough to have players who actually care about the story, so I think it is my responsibility to let them react to my world and environments in whatever way they believe best for their particular character.

Screen or no screen?

I do not use a screen. I keep enemy information on scratch paper, and I turn it over if I do not want it seen. Besides, it just looks like a sheet full of numbers. My players would not know what it all meant even if I showed it to them.

If I need to hide a roll, I roll it under the table to my left, where it is out of the line of sight of most of the players. Or, I roll it several times, but call out the real roll in my head so that they do not know which roll was the actual one. That definitely keeps them on their toes!

Table or no table?

We use a kitchen table or large folding table when we play. It makes it easier to write on character sheets and use the miniatures and simple sets we have made out of blocks. We actually use two tables – one for snacks, and one for gaming materials like sheets, miniatures, etc.

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

I sometimes have my laptop at the table so I can look up images or utilize an online name generator quickly. Other than that, no other computer stuff.

Minis or no? What do you use for minis, and how do you use them?

I have a small set of pewter miniatures that we use for miniatures. The set is actually a collectors set, displaying the history of armor through the ages, but they work remarkably well for D&D minis. When we play Star Wars, we either use those minis or some Star wars monopoly minis I have.

I use D10 dice to represent enemy goons/soldiers, with D4s to represent enemy leaders or special NPCs. I don’t use a grid or anything, we just build a quick set with blocks and use the minis so we know where everyone is. This allows us to still use our imagination, but helps us keep tabs on what is going on.

Section Three: GMing Style

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

We actually have eight right now, but I will tell you about the players I have been gaming with the longest.

1. Tom

He is one of those gamers who tends to lean toward the more violent side of gaming. He is more concerned about kick-butt weapons, sweet armor and being feared by everyone else than he is about most other things.

In Star Wars, he always goes to the dark side. In D&D, he likes to be an archer and has a short fuse. In post apocalyptic/zombie games, he shoots first and asks questions later. He sometimes gets so mad at low rolls that he will throw his dice across the room because they rolled so bad!

He will rob banks, hack computers, rob travelers. He is pretty much neutral evil. However, his character is usually the most suited for combat, and without his expertise in the artistic expression of death and destruction, his party would probably be in a lot more trouble a lot more often.

2. Mandy

She is more sensitive to the story line and moral code. She generally plays a healer of some sort. In Star Wars, she always specializes in force healing and prides herself in being an upstanding member of the Jedi order. In D&D, she likes to play a good druid who closely obeys the druid code.

However, she is not above using her talents to rob a bank if the owner is crooked, or to steal the sheriff’s gold if the sheriff is a low life criminal under the table. She tries to think subjectively and logically, but will dish out as much destruction as she can if she feels the mission or her party are in danger.

She is also not above using dark magic or dark side force powers to protect her group and the mission for the better good.

3. Dusty

He usually plays a big, fierce warrior. In Star Wars, he played a massive Jedi warrior who could wield two double-bladed light sabers at one time, and in D&D he is a half-orc Barbarian who wields double axes.

His characters are generally short-tempered, and are almost geared completely for combat. He also has a tendency to spend his creation points on anything but intelligence and charisma, which usually gets him made fun of by the other players when his charisma and intelligence are so low that he is basically a simple minded, homely barbarian.

He also loves sweet gear. If you want to get Dusty on your side, promise him sweet gear or some kind of weapon that dishes out fire damage. The other players also have to hold him back sometimes, because his characters generally have the habit of picking fights with absolutely anyone who strikes him in a negative way. This has gotten the party into trouble with the local law enforcement on more than one occasion!

4. John

John is a newer member of our gaming group, but he has been a lot of fun nonetheless. His playing style is forward thinking and logical. He will not rush into combat without planning it out, and tries to utilize situations to his and the party’s advantage by using his wit.

In D&D he plays a wizard. He is pretty much chaotic good, and does not want to see evil plague all of the known world, which is why his character is helping the party on their quest to rid the world of an evil wizard-emperor.

He is not above stealing if it will help his party and their mission, but would also not turn his back on someone in need of help just to escape danger himself.

He also tends to put a lot of thought into making his backstory interesting, and is a great story teller/GM in his own right. His characters are generally a balancing force for the group. He balances the rest of the group’s tendency toward raw physical combat with magical prowess, and brings a logical balance to the sometimes hot-headed nature of the rest of the group, keeping them out of bad situations they would have ran right into, swords drawn!

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

Our group’s playing style is one that favors storytelling. I will overlook more tedious rules for the sake of storytelling, and will allow the players to bend some rules if it means making a battle, engagement or confrontation more epic or memorable.

However, we also try to keep things consistent. There are a few house rules we abide by, but other than that, we go by the book. Our campaigns are interwoven with battles, hero-villains, super powerful arch enemies, political complexity, mystery, humor, interesting NPCs and everyday tasks that become memorable parts of the game.

We basically play out our campaigns as if they were one long, epic movie – complete with cut scenes and sometimes cliff hangers at the end to set up the next campaign should we choose to continue with the same story in the next one.

Describe in a few words your GMing style.

For me, it is all about telling a story. When the campaign is over, I want the players to love their characters, love the NPCs, hate the arch enemy and feel that they have taken part in a real adventure with real characters in a real world.

I want them to talk about the campaigns as if they were real. What would have happened if they would have done this? What if so-and-so would not have sacrificed himself? What if that battle had been won instead of lost?

For me, I know when the campaign has been a success when the entire group will discuss it for hours over pizza, reminiscing over adventures, NPCs and battles. Plain and simple, I try to make it epic, and give the PCs a chance to shine, and it almost always turns out to be just that – epic!

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

I think my best ability is in building campaigns out of sessions. It can be tough to string sessions together in a way that makes sense and feels real, but it is also something you will get better at with practice.

If you want to run a single campaign that lasts for a good 10, 20 or even 30 sessions, here is what you need to focus on.

  1. Develop a world that seems real, diverse and consistent.
  2. Develop NPCs, both good and evil, that are in it for the long run. There should always be a couple NPCs that live through almost anything. One of them may die at the end, but it is rewarding to see an entire party so concerned over the welfare of an NPC they care about and are willing to risk their own lives – and even the mission – to protect them.
  3. Take it one session at a time. If one session does not go so well, do not give up the campaign! Keep things consistent, and just try again.
  4. Go with what you have done; do not try to change decisions you made. You made the decision, so now it is etched in history. Once history happens, there is no undoing it. Make it fit with your plan in a way that is epic and will make sense. Even if you feel like your campaign is headed downward, you can always bring it back with a few awesome sessions.
  5. Practice makes perfect. The best way to get better at stringing sessions together into an awesome campaign is to think of them like movies. Just keep making movies, and you will keep getting better at them.

What process do you use to organize a game session?

I usually choose the night that will work best for me, and text everyone in my group a few days before asking them if that night will work for them. If all but 1 or 2 can make it, we go for it. If 3 or more cannot, I choose my second best night, and propose that to them.

By using this system, we almost always have a full party, though sometimes we have had to play missing 2. Our rule is that we will not play missing more than 2 players.

What is your typical session planning process?

Planning a session, for me, starts days before we actually play. I run scenarios through my head, trying to think of cool things to throw at the players. I also keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration. Movies, websites, books, and video games all help give me ideas for adventures and encounters.

Also, real life people inspire me to create unique NPCs and villains. My best NPCs have been secretly based on real people I knew.

Finally, I think about how all of these things will fit into the general plot. If something just does not add up to the main plot, I dismiss it or change it so it does. Sometimes I make up special props if need be (scrolls, maps, codes, puzzles), but usually, several hours of thought and brainstorming, along with a little bit of creative research, will go a long way.

What are your favorite GM reference books, other than the rules?

For Star Wars, I love reading books about the actual Star Wars universe. Even though I use a different universe, I love gleaning ideas and inspiration from actual characters and events in the books. For D&D, I enjoy reading books about weapons and armor.

What are your favorite online resources for GMing?

One of my favorite sites for general role playing tips and advice is www.roleplayingtips.com.

For Star Wars games, I love reading wookie-pedia (http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page) . For a name generator, I absolutely love Samual Stoddards Fantasy Role Playing Generator (http://www.rinkworks.com/namegen/). I don’t know what I would do without it!

What tools or aides (digital and non-digital) do you wish would be created or invented to help you GM easier?

I have never found good map-making software that worked for me, though I must admit I have never tried a version that costs money. Perhaps if I tried paying for one it would work better for me.

I also wish there was some kind of set building system out there you could use over and over again to make different types of sets. I have sort of done this myself by cutting, sanding, and shaping a wide variety of wooden blocks, which I then stack together to make whatever I need. But still, it would be cool to be able to buy it.

Finally, someday I want a power-point type of system I can put up, which could have all kinds of information on it. It would be cool to be able to cycle through maps, magic items and character images on a big screen projector! You could also look at the map in detail like this. This is all probably available, but just a bit out of my budget.

After working through these questions and getting a 10,000 foot view of your GMing, what is the number one thing you’d like to learn about and work on next to become a better GM?

I want to work more with my characters to develop backstories. This is so important to GMing, yet something I still struggle with. I often get so in a rush to make history with these new characters and this new campaign that I rarely stop to take the time in the beginning to cultivate proper character backstories.

When done well, this can greatly contribute to a session, but I definitely struggle with it, and I don’t know why. If anyone has any suggestions for me on this subject, I would be very happy to hear them!

Now it’s your turn

Dear reader, would you like to do a GM interview? It is fun and easy. Guaranteed, you will learn something about your own GMing when doing it, which is priceless insight to gain.Do a GM interview >>
Johnn Four

Thanks for doing a great interview, Josh! I can’t believe you juggle 8 players.

Have you ever tried http://www.doodle.com? We use it to help session date planning.

Could you take a picture of the wooden blocks set-up you have?

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