December 8, 2012

How to Think Faster On Your Feet While You GM

Adventurers looking in all directions: where to go?

Image credit: Patrick Crusiau

A couple weeks ago I sent out a Reader Tip Request for the spouse of a GM in need. The game master was having problems reacting to in-game events. He needed to think faster – or different – on his feet so he could handle unexpected player decisions and actions better.

Here’s the request from RPT Reader F.:

Reader Tip Request: Thinking Fast on Your Feet

Hello! I’ve been subscribed to your tips for awhile now and I’ve enjoyed them and found them useful. I don’t have much experience GMing myself, but my husband has GMed for years. The only problem is, due to a brain tumor and other brain trauma, he doesn’t think as fast anymore.

Trying Something Different to Get You These Tips Faster

This Reader Tips Request generated a huge response. Over 100 emails! Thanks so much to everyone who wrote in with their thoughts, ideas and advice. Roleplaying Tips readers are such a smart and generous group.

The overwhelming response became just that. I was unable to use my usual way of doing things, which is to collect all the tips into an article or free ebook.

I try to edit, condense and piece everything together into a single narrative so everyone benefits from each others’ ideas.

With 100 emails and thousands of words to work through, edit and combine into something cohesive though, I was paralyzed.

It was truly overwhelming based on the free time I have available.

Then Andrew Quee emailed me with a brilliant suggestion: blog it. (D’oh. Why didn’t I think of that!?)

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll post the initial Reader Tip Request, and then in the Comments section below paste in each reply.

That way, everyone benefits from the tips, I can publish the tips faster, and most importantly, the reader who made the request can evaluate the responses sooner than waiting weeks for me to process everything in detail.

I will make responses anonymous (name abbreviated and no email address posted) in case readers do not want to be identified. We can all use the comment reply button to hold a conversation and give feedback or post more ideas.

Thanks again to everyone who responded! And thanks to your great suggestion, Andrew.

To all, I hope the following tips contain a nugget or two for your own GMing.


He’s tried GMing again and he just can’t keep good control of the party. He says he has to plan out every possible avenue players may take in detail beforehand because he can’t think on his feet well enough (and that would take a long time).

It’s either that or he has to shoehorn the party and make the story too linear (which most parties won’t like and many will try to break it without even knowing what they’re doing).

He designs his own adventures. He has difficulty figuring out what happens after each encounter.

But the biggest problem is keeping players in line. Because it takes him a few extra moments to think about what happens next, the players tend to steamroll ahead before he’s ready (which causes him to have to rethink everything he has just come up with, which takes more time).

I play in his games and try to moderate when I can (I know what he looks like when he’s having a hard time) but it doesn’t always work out.

He’s just gotten so defeated that he feels like he can never GM again, and I want to show him that he can.

I was wondering if you or the community have any tips or tricks to try and help him? Thanks for your help.

- RPT Reader F.

Below are the responses I received by email. Lots of great advice in there! And feel free to add a tip of your own.

Johnn Four

From the_onyx

Break the quest down into flexible encounter modules that can be moved around to suit wherever and to a large degree ‘whenever’ needed.

Beginning middle and end may be fixed, but the rest of the encounters can be moved.

E.g. That bunch of orcs with the leader carrying the quest clue can as planned ambush in the forest. Or, if the party go to that village instead, then have the orcs raiding the village or ambushing the party as they leave.

It’s the encounters that matter. Location is flexible.

Johnn Four

From Stroztech

It often works out well when my players steamroll ahead on me. I quite happily let them. Eventually, they’ll give me a plot hook idea without realising it.

Then suddenly I need time to flesh it out on the fly! How?

A trick I use is to have an NPC or two and an encounter or two up my sleeve.

The players hear through rumour of this NPC they’ll really want to talk to (about the plot hook they’ve just given me), but he/she was last heard of in some remote location they need to organise travel to and have a (pre-planned) “random” encounter or two they need to resolve along the way.

Sometimes, by the time they reach the NPC ,I’ve had a week’s downtime to prepare, or at the very least, a half-session to flesh something out.

During this, a notepad and pencil is my best friend. The players think I’m making notes about the current encounter, when I’m really fleshing out the next one, based on their idea.

I’ve had several players say to me they love it, because they feel like they can go anywhere in the world at any time, and that the adventure sometimes goes places they want it to go, not where they can see it going by the plot so far.

Oh, having the books in PDF helps too, as I can discreetly look up any manner of resource on my netbook whilst running them through the rest of the adventure.

Johnn Four

From Adrian D.

I have found this out about “fast thinking”. You can think fast on something that you know about.

What I mean is he has to know his adventure. He needs to know it like the back of his hand, like you, like himself. More specifically, he needs to know these 3 things:

1) His NPCs
2) His dungeons
3) Most importantly, his PCs

Thinking fast could also be called reacting. You react faster in familiar situations (like I reacted quickly to this post, because I am in a similar place right now with my gaming).

If he already knows how his NPCs and his dungeons would react to PC choices, then he can react quickly.

But this doesn’t mean he has to go out and plan every possible avenue, because that is futile. He needs to know how his NPCs would react to general situations, focusing on emotion. To paraphrase the Buddha: emotions lead to thoughts, thoughts lead to actions, actions lead to reactions.

Have him meditate over these examples when he sits down to plan:

1) How would his villains would react if their plans failed? Focus on emotions here: would he be mad or calculating? Would he react with naked violence or a cunning retort?

2) How would said villain’s minions would react if their master’s plans failed? Would they scramble to please their master, rush to overthrow him in a time of weakness, or cast blame among them.

3) If the rogue busts a trap, will anyone else in the dungeon hear it?

4) If the PCs kill the biggest threat in the dungeon, could the beast death throes weaken the walls of their room and cause it collapse.

5) What other evil forces would be cross at the PCs victory?

6) What supporting NPCs would reward the PCs, and more importantly, how would the villains (or additional villains react to that)?

7) What if the PC got everything they wanted, what would they do then?

8) What if the PCs did everything they wanted to do? Who would get hurt? Who would hate them? Who would love them?

I think your husband is just having a time in which he is forgetting that ol’ GM admonishment: don’t make hard and fast scenarios. Looser is way easier to think about than perfectly planned.

Johnn Four

From Paul C.

I am a generalist, not a doctor, but while there is a chance of improvement after brain surgery, there is part of the brain literally missing.

Until other parts can train to take over some of this function, this will take time – maybe years, depending on how much was removed.

Therefore the real question is what to do for a GM in the meantime. This requires the approval of the group and is not some magic formula that can be imposed from outside.

From the description, his time as GM is over, at least temporarily. However, reading between the lines, he seems to still be a competent scenarist.

Find someone, from within the game or from outside, that the group supports, to do the in-game refereeing, using his scenario for the basis – like a commercial module, but specifically tailored for that group.

The former GM should be involved in the playing – with a PC – both to avoid feeling shunted aside, but also to avoid losing a competent scenarist.

The new GM should modify the scenario sufficiently to keep the injured player from knowing what is coming next in any specific sense, although obviously the general run of things will not be a surprise.

If the new GM keeps things moving as the old one apparently did, the pace may be sufficient that the “new player” will be sufficiently occupied not to know where things are in his own scenario.

I have had this experience a few times when the players throw in a brilliantly unexpected twist to what I had prepared. It is what makes the game so much fun.

Finally, this seems to be a group that has played together for some time and thus are experienced players. From the start, make it known the GM job will rotate among the players, a scenario at a time.

This warns the players their time will come, and avoids making an only partially willing player be saddled with the GM job when they had rather be playing.

It is only temporary. If a skilled GM emerges, great, but deal with that when it happens. If it happens.

Johnn Four

From Josh S.

It isn’t about thinking on your feet. It is about preparing in advance for the possible situations that may arise and having plans for when your PCs make choices.

In reality, your PCs will react to most situations in a predictable set of ways. They will either: fight it out, try to sneak around it, try to use some sort of magical intervention to avoid it, or roleplay it.

Just try to think along those lines and then you will not be thinking on your feet. Rather, you will be presenting material that is well-considered and crafted for your situation.

Good luck. DMing is a bitch no matter how you slice it.

Johnn Four

From Chris H.

I find the best way to think on my feet is not to try and out think my players, but instead concentrate on knowing my NPCs well enough I can react as them.

For example, if the party is going to be spending time with an important nobleman and his staff, say having a meal with him, rather than figuring out what will happen, I’ll spend my prep time figuring out the personalities of the NPCs, and making some notes of sample reactions to things like anger and surprise for each of them.

    Andrew Quee

    This works really well from a simulationist viewpoint, but then itself can quickly become overwhelming as well. I dread my group going into cities for this reason as trying to flesh out dozens of NPc is exhausting.

    I think the key is to make each NPC appealing and individual, so they have at least one ‘hook’ to set them out from each other. Then quickly tie in how they relate to the party, factions and their goals, without getting too wordy about it.

    The idea in this case is to just provide you with enough mental markers to bring the character to life without needing excessive reading of their bio.

Johnn Four

From Marc P.

Number 1 tip: don’t get flustered. If you need extra time, tell the group that and allow them a 5 or 10 minute break to gather your wits.

Using story prompt items such as story dice can help to prompt your idea forming process by giving you a kernel to work with.

    Andrew Quee

    Great suggestion, and as many have said, most players would agree to hold back a little and ease up on their GM if they’re getting stressed.

    It doesn’t need to be a long break either, the GM can lead it by saying, “You guys discuss your next move among yourselves while I look at this.” or “How about we put the kettle on/refresh snacks?”

    You can pace the break to your needs, without necessarily overly disrupting the pace of the game.


      One of my buddies will often take a “smoke break”, which usually tells anyone who knows him that he needs a moment to think. “Bio breaks” or snack breaks are also good ways to buy a few minutes while thinking about how to proceed. “I need to make a quick call…” is not bad either, and can be a good excuse to go outside to get some fresh air and quiet for a few moments.

Johnn Four

From Michele F.

Some standard advice: train mind with puzzles and riddles and problem solving.

And in every moment keep a notebook to write down every cool thought that runs in your mind.

Maybe prepare a note with a schematic “standard situation solver” to give fast feedback to players and gain some time to think to how return to correct pattern.

Add examples of some prepared phrases to say in various situations.

Johnn Four

From Daniel B.

I haven’t GM’d often, but the last time I did was for an RPG system I created myself. Without much background information, as we were mostly testing out the system, I used a trick that worked so well, I might just use it for the rest of my GM trips.

I let the players themselves make it up. They made up their characters and background information for them. Might as well let them come up with things in the game world as well.

I think GMs can fall into the trap of thinking the world is theirs. It’s not… It belongs to the players just as much, and often they have ideas that are just as wonderful as the GM’s, sometimes perhaps even more so.

Exciting things can happen when you ask “Well, what do YOU think/see/feel?”

Perhaps you guys should try that out. Good luck on everything!

Johnn Four

From A.Q.

I can’t say that I have any valuable advice for reader F as this problem is my own nemesis. I find I just can’t really deal with the unexpected or think fast on my feet.

The solution I’ve come up is to plan everything, but then inevitably, there is always something you missed or something you never expected, and as you’ve written before, it’s far too easy to do far too much prep, leading to mental exhaustion and creative fatigue.

What I have done recently is try to find a middle ground, and write down a limited set of possibilities, and summarize what will happen, including only bare-bones stats.

For example, party has tracked down the BBG, knows when he will be there and have a workable strategy:

I assume that the party will be able to stealth through defences without alerting the entire base.

The BBG will be awake, or awakened (no easy kill here), but will not have 100% readiness unless the party allows him to do so through blunders in their final approach.

Outcome #1: Fight
The BBG will fight a classic end-game, at the best location for him possible, using whatever minions/resources he has available.

If possible, he will concentrate force on which member seems weakest, and try to demoralise the party by killing as many as possible. If the party escapes, he mobilises all possible force and allegiances to track down and annihilate the party, their allies, friends and family. And their pets.

Outcome #2: Standoff
If the forces are equal, he calls for negotiation and will try to parley his way out of it. Betrayal and subterfuge are called for.

Need to fully realise the BBG and present him as a real character to work with, not just a stat block to defeat.

Could become an interesting story arc, especially if the party manages to form an uneasy/temporary alliance with the faction.

Outcome #3 Flee
If over-matched, the BBG does whatever he has to do to save himself or fulfill his story goals. He will have at least one escape plan, or perhaps several (depending on his paranoia and resources).

This could make a great alternative PC strategy to deceive via a false attack, and then follow up with the real ambush, if they can discover his plans beforehand.

To this I would add some basic crunch, story material and descriptions/sketches.

That gives me a number of options to play with, without going over the top and preparing too much.

If I see that it’s heading down one path, I can quickly add more material to fill out that thread on the fly, or throw in some pre-genned/recycled stuff.

Johnn Four

From Rick W.

1. Adversary GM and Story GM both run the game. If you were to agree to run his monster encounters sometimes, occasionally, or all the time, he could use the combat time to think of the possible outcomes.

There are some kinks with this system (such as how aggressively/intelligently each monster is played), but these can be mitigated with good communication.

2. Devise a “Random Event Table” that can be used to buy himself some time. This can be part of his regular game planning time, and consists of anything that will buy him time and add to the adventure.

Examples include follow up encounters of small significance, strange noises or occurrences to investigate, or secret doors that are opened during or after the encounter somehow.

The key element of this idea is that the incidents are minor, take no more than 15-30 minutes to resolve and reinforce the story somehow.

Maybe the players find a track from a rival’s horse (what’s he doing here? Only the GM knows that he is secretly the villain) or a secret door that leads to a smuggler’s abandoned hideout (no treasure, but a few Search rolls and some descriptive text later and they’ve found evidence that the man they are working for had this smuggler killed a few years ago. Why?).

He could use some adventure specific monsters for filler on this table, too. As long as they don’t present enough of a challenge to throw off the pace of the game by forcing PCs to rest too early or depleting their resources, a few xp never hurt anybody.

If he plans these little sidetracks, and allows the players to gain something for following them, even if its minor, they will not resent the distraction, and he may be able to remove his struggle from the table completely.

Johnn Four

From Kamal H.

Do improv comedy classes (e.g., Second City); otherwise known as ‘theatre sports’. It’s the best possible training you can get in thinking flexibly. You could possibly take some of the simple games (Google: Theatresports games) and run them with your gaming group some time, so you can all try them out.

Johnn Four

From Noah D.

Keep a list of names available for those NPCs who just crop up during a game. Often players will fill in a lot of the details of an NPC in their own minds if s/he has an evocative name.

Secondly, a tip I picked up from Robin Laws’ book on GMing – keep a random flowchart available. It can be used as a quick dungeon, a quick city, or even a quick multi-path adventure.

Obviously it doesn’t work as a map, but it describes that if you go down the left path you will be confronted with this choice/complexity, while if you take the right path you’ll be confronted with a different kind of choice or complexity.

A suggestion from my wife (a therapist and non-player): Run email games that don’t require immediate turnaround, giving him a chance to think about his options.

Johnn Four

From Ben M.

I often keep a file on computer with quick pre-built encounters. I started this file in a duo-tang type folder with notepaper.

They are simple encounters reusable with quick tie-in ideas.

For example, a fantasy game might have bandits hit the party as they move through the woods. The bandits will be a minor challenge, but I will add clues to whatever the current adventure is, and maybe some extra supplies to help the party out that they may need.

This same bandit group could be a foreshadowing of something else that I have coming up later as well, or maybe it is just a side item to be tossed away and forgotten.

Take notes about what ever you toss out to the players then or right after the game session to have them to add to your long term notes to have the “throw away” encounters come back to haunt the party at a later date.

Johnn Four

From Sonny S.

Deflection always works. Point out that they just discovered something (a door in a tree, a secret panel, a map) and lead them off into something you are ready for.

If they are trying to pull something clever, just say, “It’s not working right now.” and figure out what to do the next time they try.

Johnn Four

From Dave G.

Two thoughts on this one but perhaps not the perfect solution:

First, it’s probably worth talking with the players and explaining the situation. They should understand and perhaps can present their actions in an easier to cope manner.

At very least they can roleplay their characters response to give the GM some thinking time.

My other thought is more of a Plan B. When in doubt, the BBEG should attack. Have an attack already planned and keep it in your back pocket for when you need to press the emergency button.

Any crazy actions the players are about to take come to a halt as the swords start swinging and should allow you time to come up with a response.

Okay, one more. Push it back to the players. Ask them what they think would happen if they took the course of action they are suggesting.

If it’s good then go with it. If it feels like nonsense then you can happily go another way. It should give you a gut feeling.

Johnn Four

From Telas

I’m sorry that he’s having difficulty with this, but he’s got someone in his corner, which is more than many can say.

First off, are his players fully aware of the situation? Do they know that their eagerness to forge ahead puts him in the situation you describe? Perhaps it needs to be spelled out for them.

Second, does your husband know exactly what the effects are on his thinking? Can you both come up with workarounds or techniques to handle the situations that stump him?

When I get stumped, I call a break. Five to ten minutes is usually sufficient, and sometimes I listen to the players conjecture over what happens next (frankly, their ideas are usually better than mine), but sometimes I disappear into my office to think or look up something.

Other options include having a list of “Things That Could Happen Next”, like an old enemy or ally showing up, ninjas kicking in the door, or just a random encounter. This sometimes gives me time to think up whatever is coming, or at least gets us to the end of the session.

Johnn Four

From Lahur

Hi Johnn, I’m glad to have such request, this is an ever-present problem, and for your friend I may have a thing or two.

First one is to start reading the RoleplayingTips from far back… Organize and plan in advance. There is a lot of things already said, just try not to abuse a system designed for emergencies.

If every time you play you need to use it, then is not an emergency, it’s a crisis, and that means you have to change the whole strategy.

Consider the next choices. You have ended an encounter….

* Then let them play the scene of treasure and how they are going to split it, instead of just giving them a list of things earned.

* Ask them if someone has a character development to play.

* Give them a better description of the scenario if it’s linked to the next encounter or send them a door with a logic solution (instead of skill) and tell the they have 5 minutes to figure out as is the song in the clock. And if they fail, just don’t tell them what was abut. If they succeed, throw a hint (not a treasure) of the next encounter.

I think the best tip is to know the players and their tastes. Do not pimp them, but allow them to grow closer to their expected character.

Johnn Four

From Dave L.

It’s a brain-training site that can focus on specific areas of the brain like memory, speed, problem solving, etc.

It’s not a quick-fix, but if you stick with the regimen and practice daily (or multiple times a day), it really does help.

I use it myself and have noticed a marked increase in my speed and memory.

In this case, F’s husband can spend some time playing the games to “retrain” his mind to work around the damaged areas. It’ll take a while, but I think it’ll help.

I work at the Shepherd Center, a therapy hospital that deals with spinal and brain injured patients. I’m not a therapist (I’m a computer guy) but I’ve spoken with enough of the therapists to know that a brain injury isn’t necessarily “permanent”.

Meaning that often the injured area can be worked around and the mind can resume more or less normal function in many cases. Not all cases, mind you, and the improvement likely won’t be as good as the original, but in this case, any improvement would help.

And of course, F. should check with her husband’s doctor for further ideas and ask whether Lumosity would be good for him.

I’ll check with some of the therapists at work and see if anyone has any other suggestions.

Johnn Four

From N O

The first thing that comes to my mind is the GM in question needs to be told by his players that they see supporting him as he recovers.

This is like physiotherapy. Proper exercise of the brain to build its strength. Given that players are riding ahead and causing anxiety, this hasn’t happened yet.

Now as to the actual recovery, basically take it slow and do a little extra prep. For instance write out notes on interesting NPCs and places.

You can also print out some of the many random tables.

Might even be worth trying a published adventure.

I’m no expert, but I believe that doing puzzles (i.e. sudoku) and reading both help exercise your brain.

The next thing is to find ways to slow the PCs down. This can be accomplished with riddles/puzzles or simply a large combat.

Johnn Four

From Jeff G.

Well the game world that my group plays in has a bit of a sandbox quality to it. I keep in my mind what it is the other factions are doing while the PCs are doing their thing.

So even if I don’t know what the players are going to do next, I know what the world is doing around the players. So that helps a lot, but it requires a deep understanding of the rest of the universe around the players.

While some individual scenarios are linear Point-A to Point-B affairs, a lot of what they do involves how they are impacting the other factions and what sort of operation they are planning to engage against one of those factions.

Then we play out those operations.

A stable of good solid stock minions to fight can then be plunked right into whatever the operation is, with some pre-planned surprises ready to be dropped into whichever operation it is on which they go.

It also doesn’t hurt to give the players a specific patron that asks them to do specific things as a hook for the more Point-A to Point-B things.

I think the biggest thing that might help besides a deep level of understanding of the universe is letting the players know what’s going on.

I will straight up tell my players if, for example, I didn’t get a chance to prep much for a gaming session. We then deal with inter-character social stuff, and maybe elements from the player character’s histories.

Your players should be able to help you make the world work. Let them know that you need some time to work on things. Give them an idea of where the story is supposed to go and let them help get you there (of course saving some surprises for them)!

Also, take frequent short breaks so that you can consider the options without the pressure of player demands in the moment. Offer snacks! Or have your players bring them! And then take some time to eat and chit chat at various points throughout the session to let you catch up.

Especially if it’s clear that you are struggling, and you know it, that’s a good time to call for a break, “…and think about this while we take a break for some pizza! We will pick back up in ten minutes.”

Also, if the players are actually unruly, it might be a good idea to call them on it, let them know that they are making it hard for everyone to play. Most players don’t intentionally want to disrupt the game. Those that do really shouldn’t be playing.

Also, a trick I use sometimes when my players take a really unexpected turn if it presents a problem, I facilitate the players talking about the problem in and out of character and I listen to what they are thinking is going on, and I will then take one of the things they are debating that sounds interesting and I make that the solution to whatever the problem is.

Then I let them put their plan into action to make it happen.

I have noticed a lot of GMs will take this sort of thing and try to construct fresh roadblocks. I’ve even been in player groups that won’t talk about plans in front of the GM for fear of the GM putting up new barriers based on the plan that we’ve discussed!

That’s the wrong approach for this. Your players will think you much more clever if their plans work sometimes than if they feel like you are actively competing against them and that you are trying to stymie them (unsuccessfully, of course, because, in the end, the story is about the player characters _succeeding_ at their plans)!

Your players are creative. Let them create their own solutions to the problems from time to time! Obviously that one can easily be overused, so it helps to use it sparingly.

I hope this helps!

Johnn Four

From Ray N.

Hi Johnn.

The first thought that came to mind was smaller groups.

Does the couple’s group have 2 or 3 sub groups? Depending how often they play is it possible to sub divide the group into Tuesday/Thursday nights. Sub groups and once in a while combine them back again to the original group.

    Andrew Quee

    Nice. A simple and elegant strategy to prevent GM overload, while not over-simplifying the game.

    To that I would add, increase the GM rotation (if any) giving the GM more time off as a player, or more time between sessions to recharge.

    Quite often I’ve noticed my GM start to burn out, but give them a rest and they’re normally rearing to go once again.

Johnn Four

From Betsy S.

Hi Johnn,

Here are a few ideas for the DM who feels he can’t think fast enough on his feet.

1. I’m sure everyone is going to suggest this, but I’m going to say it anyway: talk to the players first. Explain the situation and ask them to be patient and take it a little easier. They may not have even noticed the DM was having any difficulties.

2. Use published adventures, at least for a little while. This will cut down on preparation time and well-written adventures will include suggestions for plot flow, combat actions, NPCs reactions and other details the DM can fall back on in a pinch.

Keep a cheat sheet of major NPCs with their names and important details, especially their motivations.

3. Think of NPCs as real people. They are going to do things they want to do whether the PCs intervene or not. They also have definite personalities and reputations and you can use those as a guide when something unexpected happens.

4. Let the players talk and really listen to what they’re saying, especially when they are planning their actions and discussing NPCs.

Much of the time, my players give me the best ideas for what happens next. They often come up with a far more evil plot for a villain than I could and I go with their version of events.

But also, listen to make sure you are playing the same style of game. If the players prefer action to talking, for example, plan for combats not other interactions with NPCs.

5. Take lots of notes about what players do and say. Go over the notes from previous sessions for inspiration and direction.

6. Finally, when all else fails – stall. Use the bathroom, take a cigarette break, get something to drink, whatever. Let the players know you need a moment to think – there’s no shame in that.

I do that all the time in our group. When a player really stumps me with a question or course of action, I’m honest and tell him/her, “I hadn’t thought of/planned for that – can we discuss that next session?”

If nothing else, I hope he cuts himself some slack and relaxes a bit. The DM is not all-powerful and all-knowing and just because a session didn’t go as planned doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun or that he’s a bad DM.

I hope this helps!

Johnn Four

From Aki H.

The obvious solution about not being able to think fast on one’s feet would be to do as much of the thinking before as possible.

Design generic tale pieces that can be put together to create the next story with a bit of jostling at the edges.

That also requires that there is a design to plug them into, so he needs to know the game world, the characters, their associates, and the plotlines, main storyline and some side plotlines, well.

Then some of the design process becomes multiple choice rather than seat of the pants. I spoke of that in rpgtips ages ago, calling it lego approach I think?

I’d design.. say, seven of seven things?

seven scenes, seven well detailed npc’s, seven plotlines, seven revelations, seven areas, seven enemies, seven items. Pick one, and you’re set.

The roadside encounter lists etc. also help in another way – they buy design time.

Johnn Four

From James M.

I think that this GM could create a bank of NPCs and generic ideas for interactions/combats. When the players make some off the wall decision (as they tend to do), the GM could pull a random NPC from the bank and interact with them in that way.

My first thought would be to put all of these ideas on index cards and then use them in a stack. The NPCs and interactions could be as specific or general as the GM needs.

Johnn Four

From Yblent of the syllantrades

Hey dear F.

This one is a hard one, really. When I read it yesterday, I really had no idea what to say.

Well, there is something, but it’s some kind of investment: do theatre. You don’t have to partake in some Shakespearean piece for two hours or something, but find yourself a theatre workshop which involves improvisation.

When I was younger I was rather slow to react and think, even couldn’t get the words out which I had in mind properly at times. I had no voice, so to speak. I ended up in a youth theatre.

I’ve been part of various amateur productions ever since – and now I can take down most people in witty banter, as I am more free to use my associations.

Not that this an absolute requirement to gm, but it sure helps in some discussion-heavy situations.

What theatre practice in the improvisation department can grant you with is not more numerous or colorful ideas, but a more open, less judgmental access to them.

And while your decisions in gaming situations alter
the told reality quite quickly, what you do or say in a workshop is of little consequence.

In theatre you play, and no trainer worth their salt will judge you for whatever style you choose to play. Quite unlike a gaming group.

So I’d argue that might be a valid path to go down – not only for the person mentioned in the mail, but virtually any gm. It trains your skills of expression, body language, control of voice and quick reactions to your co-actor/gamer. Also, it’s fun.

It’s great fun.

I’m not sure what kind of courses you might be able to attain, but where I live there’s plenty of them for little or
at times even no dime. Do it. I once had the chance to take part in a meisner-class, that was really helpful.

Well, without going into too much detail, I know from experience that there are certain things in life which hinder you and maim you.

I’ve come to the point where I think there’s always a way around it, though it may take time and work, but it’s quite,
quite worth it. So good luck to you mister and F., and have fun.

Johnn Four

From Susan D.

Dear F.,

Here’s some advice I would like to give your husband.

First: Relax. I know a lot of good GMs who are slow thinkers. I am, and nonetheless people keep pestering me for more GMing. So fast thinking can’t be that necessary, no matter how much you – and I – feel hampered.

Second: Do not even try to plan out every step your players can take. They *will* out-think you.

No matter how much you pre-plan, it will not work, be it because they have a truely inventive idea, or be it they completely mistook one of your hints. They *will* surprise you. And if you try to pre-plan everything, it will overtax your memory just to keep in mind all those possibilities.

Instead, I focus on giving NPCs goals, goals for the story as a whole, and goals for the immediate future.

When planning one session, I first wonder which NPCs are immediately involved. For those, I try to pin down their immediate plans.

The clearer my picture of those plans, the better it works later during play. Those plans will probably be thwarted by the PCs, but I know that in advance. It’s OK. All I need is for them to *have* plans, so they act consistently.

Next, I think about how important those NPCs are to the overall story. The more important, the more ideas I need on how to keep the PCs away from them. This last one is because I know my players think faster than me. If they only get to deal with the Duke’s steward, they cannot kill the Duke.

For combat (my weakest point), I try to pre-plan the first two or three actions of a NPC. Like “first cast your short-time protective spell, then if you can spot a spellcaster, cast X on that one, and cast Y for the rest of the time until your spells are out.”

Or “if attacked, try to find cover, then…”, or “rush into the strongest-looking one”, or “try to single out PCs and provide flanking aid to the rogue”, or things like that.

A simple 1-3 bullet list per NPC. Then during the fight, I need not think much any more. The plan will not hold for long. I just accept that. And let my PCs make a meal out of them. That’s what fights are for.

I do not hang my heart on any NPC. I know my players think faster than me. So whoever I send into the pit will be eaten sooner or later. That’s a given. So I focus on giving them color, focus on the things I *can* do, and try not to feel sorry for the points where I cannot shine.

Third: Roleplaying is a collaborative event. What load the GM carries and what’s taken care of by the players, that’s up to this GM and players.

If the PCs come into a new town and one PC claims he knows of a good tavern here, why not have this player describe the room, the bartender, the serving girls, and the usual patrons? If one PC wants to go shopping, let another player take over the shopkeeper.

This has three advantages: there’s more variety in the NPCs as they stem from more minds, players of PCs not involved in a scene can find something to do (and be it just describing a cart driving by), and it becomes *their* town much more than if it were just you describing. And, of course, you can lean back and enjoy the show.

From my experience as a player: the best gaming sessions are those where the GM goes to sleep because there’s nothing left to do for him. ;-)

I hope that helps you some.

Johnn Four

From Drue T.

Hi Johnn,

A few suggestions for your reader request.

First, and I’m sure you have many similar submissions, perhaps someone else could take on the GM role for a while. Since the person in question is not so much learning as re-learning skills, time on the other side of the screen might give him a chance to build up improvisation and problem solving abilities without feeling responsible for the whole table.

Second, a change in system might help to both create new pathways as well as put a little drag on the players — not in a bad way, just to even things out a little. Maybe something very system light, e.g. one of the Apocalypse World hacks, would focus the concentration on the story and the characters without having to keep a lot of crunch rules in mind.

Next, try listening to actual play podcasts. They enable the listener to experience the ebb and flow of a gaming session without the demands of participation, but also they are an excellent tool to build GM skills — take notes on the players and when the game is about to shift back to the GM, pause the playback, review the notes, and come up with a few different ways to go.

Then resume and compare how the podcast GM handled the situation. I’m fond of rpgmp3 and fandible; both available for direct download as well as via the iTunes storefront.

Last, and the most general, skills in concentration, problem solving, and creativity under pressure are not needs unique to the gaming table — there are many resources to help train the “mental gymnast”. My favourite at the moment is definitely — they have a free trial and easy cancellation, so there’s not much risk in giving it a look.

Anyway, hope some of that is useful!

Johnn Four

From Don F.

I have seen many tips on how to prepare for the unexpected by adjusting the encounters to be where the characters go instead of railroading them into a direction.

However I’m going to answer this question differently. If this fellow GM is grappling with a genuine disability, but doesn’t want to give up the chair (which as a GM would be a terrible loss), perhaps he could request a concession from his players.

Instead of the typical “What do you guys do?” he could approach it more like the old choose your own adventure books.

What do you guys want to do?

It would still give the players flexibility in their choices, they would know from the choices the directions that advance the plot, and it would limit how much the GM has to prepare and eliminate the guesswork.

Johnn Four

From Jochen

Hi Johnn,

That’s an intriguing question.

My personal advice would be: don’t try to think on your feet – the more you try the harder it gets. Both as a GM since 29 years and as a professional lawyer I’m convinced that you think faster and more “in the flow” when you don’t try to be fast.

Another point: let this guy know you like to play *with* him. Make him feel at ease and relaxed. rpging is about having some exciting hours with your friends.

No one will judge how fast he is. The only thing that counts is in my opinion having a good time. Most of the time you have a good time when you don’t try but let things roll, even if they take a while.

Ok, to be very honest, this is the only advice I can give here. Don’t force yourself, be at ease and have fun, that’s when things roll. Improvisation gets easy and ideas come fast. The safest way to prevent having a great idea is thinking too hard about having one.

Johnn Four

From John W.

One tip is to have general positive neutral and negative consequences planed out for an encounter. You don’t need every detail, just a one phrase general guideline for each possibility which can be fleshed out based on exactly what the players do.

The important thing is not to really have to work out the decision on the spot, only the specifics.

Ex. the characters are speaking with the king.

Positive: the king grants them a boon, offers them an interesting position in the city, etc.

Negative: The king throw’s them out of the court prohibiting their return to him.

Neutral: The king offers them a mission to prove their worth to the kingdom.

The details can be completed based on what the topic is, but you no longer have to make a decision, only flesh out some details.

Johnn Four

From Geoff N.

The thing that occurs to me is either a hat with a sign that says “thinking cap” or a sign that says “shhhh….the DM is thinking.”.

The group would have to understand that there would be no going forward until the hat is off or the sign is down.

This would require cooperation, and a lot of love for the GM.

However, it could be a way to keep the group in check. The GM may require additional support.

Maybe he should also use an egg timer to hold himself accountable.

Once the timer is done, maybe the GM could hand off responsibility to narrate consequences to the players.

Another idea: the GM could use cards at the end of encounters to generate random events.

Johnn Four

From AndNenAlone

Thinking faster on your feet can only be done with practice, and as with all things you need to start small.

A sandbox leaves a great deal of options to the players, which means they are more likely to surprise you. Therefore, limit their options. Burn their supplies. Poison their food. Mess with their magic. Give them a limited time to think in, no banter at the table during combat/tense situations, if the character is crushed for time so is the player. It’s easier to predict reactions rather than action.

Limiting them is half of it, you can also buy time for yourself. Which can help you make your decisions seem more seamless.

Go for mystery. Your players will discuss things and you can follow along with their conversation, making your plans as they make theirs.

Try conlanging, or making a cypher or more for exchanged letters or ancient ruins, then mess with the spellings and invent pictograms, write backwards, etc. to make it more difficult to decipher.

For instance, I use “Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum” smushed into one ideogram as the word for “Giant,” in one conlang, the word “Life” ended up actually being rather elegantly pretty in the end and was shortened to “fe.” Just things to throw them off course that are not direct translations.

That way they have to spend time ‘reading’ it, and get the fun of a puzzle while you get time to think.

Johnn Four

From Greg T.

Sorry to hear about your husband F. I imagine DMing is probably good exercise for the brain. I know my memory isn’t what it used to be.

In my games I sometimes write out 1 paragraph or 1 sentence tangents as I am working on the core adventure. That way, I have stuff in my back pocket ready to go.

For instance, at a river crossing the encounter may be trolls blocking the road. I may then note: “Upstream = troll’s 2 big brothers with stolen pig. Downstream = big pond with a giant catfish, gnome obsessed with catching.”

Most likely, the party will simply defeat the trolls and continue on their travels, but I am ready without having to think about it if they veer off the path.

Remember also, a wandering monster is a good way to stall for time while you try to figure out what comes next. I’ve also been known to have to go to the bathroom at the key moment. lol

Johnn Four

From Laura

I have been running a non-linear, player-directed game for several years. I’m no stranger to winging it. Here are a few things I hope help.

For non-game practice thinking on your feet, try improv theater games. The idea is to have fun and retrain your spontaneity. This is useful for anyone who has to think on their feet.

Here’s a link to some improv warm-ups.

On to the game itself.


Know your world and the NPCs the player characters are likely to encounter. You don’t need to memorize anything, just have pages you are likely to need bookmarked, important information written or typed and placed so they’re at your fingertips.

You can have them in hard copy or on a laptop, whichever works best for you. (Note on laptop use: Back up frequently! I lost several sessions worth of notes when my netbook keyboard decided it didn’t want to produce the proper characters to let me enter the logon password. Ouch!)

Stock encounters:

I’ll usually have a list of these and if I think it’s time for something to happen, I’ll pick from the list. Stock encounters can evolve over time depending on region and season.

Some examples of stock encounters are:

Weather. Tornadoes, blizzards, thunderstorms make interesting encounters. Be sure they fit the season.

I like to create a monthly calendar of weather so if my druid casts the spell that gives a 10 day weather report, I have the info ready. And if I feel like throwing a storm into the mix even though one isn’t on the schedule, there could be a spellcaster a few miles away messing with the natural patterns.

Common dangerous animals and vermin and dangerous plants native to the area.

NPC interaction. Is there an obnoxious NPC needing a comeuppance? My players enjoy a good prank war. Staying a while? PCs can take workshops and gain a bonus skill or perhaps they can build something that takes everyone contributing something.

Contests: drinking, spicy food eating, horse race, archery, perhaps a trivia contest in which bards compete to see who knows the most obscure information – and let the other players ask the questions. It’s a good way to find out what the players want to do. They pretty much write your next adventure for you.

Potential adventure generators: An example might be a battlefield strewn with long-dead skeletons (Do the PCs investigate? You can run them through Searching and let them find a few non-decomposable trinkets, some of which might be valuable. The greedier the party, the longer this will last as long as you keep giving them something. Or perhaps if night falls and they’re still in the area, they rise and attack. End of session. If they just move on and do nothing, no worries.)

My list of stock encounters is highly personalized to the local area and works as a wandering monster table. I expand on it a few entries at a time as the inspiration hits. I’ve had more sessions grow out of throwaway stock encounters than I can count. Choosing the most potentially complex ones for close to the end of the session sets up a cliffhanger and gives you until the next session to flesh it out. It becomes more linear, but the players chose to walk into it, thus it doesn’t feel like railroading.

Stock treasure:

I like to type up lists of treasure and print them out and have slips of paper to hand out. I’ll keep them in separate envelopes by value and type. Did the PCs just kill a bunch of marauding hobgoblins? Reach into an envelope and pull out a few slips per dead hobgoblin. Give the leader a few extra slips. If you don’t want to hand out slips of paper, have a list handy and pick things off the list. It’s also fine to have nothing of value in some of these encounters. The hobgoblins were wearing tattered armor and bearing weapons in poor condition that break when you test them. No wonder they weren’t successful raiders.

During the game:

On the Spot Details: If you declare a feature or a detail or name something, write it down. If you inform the players that the Shrine to the Holy One supposedly is located in the middle of the jungle, make a note.

If the PCs are interested in that shrine and ask questions, write down everything you tell them. Present the information as rumors or potentially questionable sources. Mark anything that is obviously reliable. Decide later between sessions (if the PCs decide to go there) how to tie the on-the-spot information together. If it doesn’t all fit, not all rumors are true.

The Many and One rule: Eight players can be guaranteed to come up with something even the most prepared DM hasn’t thought of. Did someone do something that stumps you? Bathroom breaks will give you a few minutes to consider what to do next. These kinds of moments usually occur after someone announces they’re going to do something that could be critical.

But what happens if you know you’re going to have moments like these more than once or twice in the session and you need more prep time to be ready to respond?

Bring out the in-session cliffhanger: You can do this elaborate or simple. Here’s an example of adding spice:

Play a dramatic chord mp3 and intone, “To be continued. Will our heroes be mind-controlled by the illithid lair they just stumbled into? Will the rogue’s crazy idea be crazy enough to work? Will the wizard and the bard really find out what’s behind that secret door? Will they want to know? Will the barbarian regret running ahead?”

Give yourself a few minutes, ask yourself a few what-if questions, look up rules, take someone aside and ask them to roll a handful of meaningless dice. The window dressing will make it look planned, add suspense or a sense of humor depending on the mood of the group and how you play it.

An example of a simple cliffhanger is: “And now a word from our sponsors.”

Like everything, moderation is key. Too many cliffhangers and commercials will suck out the suspense, but two or three a session should be fine. Everyone needs to replenish snacks, use the bathroom, check to make sure the children haven’t killed each other or broken anything, or even just stand up and stretch.

Johnn Four

From Will S.

I find thinking on my feet difficult; it’s probably my least-favorite part of GMing. Here are some things I do to cope.

1. I recently read an e-book called Play Unsafe which had some interesting advice:

One piece that might help is, when confronted with “What happens next?” the answer should always be, “The most obvious thing you can think of.”

In other words, don’t try to come up with something clever, cool, or interesting. Just whatever is the most obvious sensible course of action, happens. This is very easy to do, and it turns out to lead to interesting situations anyway because of the PCs and their antics.

2. Being prepared helps with this. If prepping takes too long, maybe focus on preparing things that are hard to come up with on-the-fly, and reusable.

NPCs and encounters are both like this; maybe the characters didn’t encounter the Captain of the Guard last session, but it makes sense for someone like that to show up this session, so you re-use the character.

It helps to have a good list of randomly-generated names, treasures, events, etc. so that you don’t spend any time trying to figure out those sorts of details.

3. Have simple, clear, motivations for each NPC; this makes it easy to figure out what they will do next.

If you want more complex NPCs, it’s often easier to give them 2 or 3 straightforward (possibly conflicting) motivations instead of creating a subtle and nuanced personality. I find that using NPC motivations to drive the game forward is a lot easier than trying to plot on-the-fly.

4. Often, when I find myself presented with two or more potential outcomes and I can’t figure out which one should happen, I roll some dice.

The outcomes that seem more likely get larger die sizes. This way I only have to worry about relative likeliness and let the dice work out the tough call. (Ties go to the higher die, or get rerolled for equal size dice.)

Example: The Captain of the Guard’s primary motivation is money; he’s corrupt. His secondary motivation is not getting caught. The PCs clue in to this and try to bribe their way out of a bad situation. The Captain wants their money but doesn’t want to get in trouble with his superiors. The GM decides to roll a d6 for accepting the bribe and a d10 for arresting them, getting a 5 and a 3 — the Captain of the Guard accepts the bribe and lets the PCs go.

5. Ask players what they think should happen next. Depending on the group you may get some good answers. Keep them honest by always asking for 2 or 3 possible outcomes and using the dice-rolling trick to pick between them. Of course, veto anything that sounds abusive.

6. Take frequent breaks or pauses. Even during an intense negotiation or action scene, it’s OK to say “Give me one minute.” The key is to actually only take one minute — pausing for too long will drain the group’s momentum. Once the action slows down a bit, call for a 5-minute break, like between every encounter. This will also give the players time to discuss strategy.

Johnn Four

From Oliver O.

Dear F.,

I think there are a few things going on. First, is it possible to recover from a brain injury or to limit its effects? Second, how does a GM prep for sessions in a way that prevents the difficult situation of the players wandering into a blind spot?

As far as the players cutting him off and charging ahead before he has had a chance to upload their actions and come back with a response, I think that sounded more like lack of common courtesy on the part of the players – they need to be more patient.

Ok, so the brain injury part. Neuroscience tells us that we can and do create new neurons, and that neural connections are plastic. Brain damage is certainly reversible in many cases. Mental stimuli will re-train the brain.

Also, the brain functions on ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which is generated by mitochondria that reside within the neurons (prokaryotic symbioses that have DNA independent from our own – weird huh?).

Good exercise will actually cause the number of mitochondria within the cells of the body to reproduce – that is a large part of why athletes can exert themselves without getting winded: they are using oxygen to catabolize their glucose more efficiently. Physical exercise has been shown to stimulate brain function.

Good nutrition is also vital. Stay away from fructose, table sugar and synthetic sweeteners as they mess with glucose levels and can cause issues when they catabolize.

Be cautious about caffeine, as this can have some undesired effects too.

Stay hydrated. Synaptic relays are dependent on certain ions transferring electrical impulses, and calcium is very important here.

Take a good multivitamin – you need those cofactors for your bodily enzymes to function properly.

Also, you can do specific brain exercises by engaging in mental activity. I would check out Lumosity and buy a membership – they have speed exercises and word construction exercises that I imagine will help.

Lastly, stick with GMing. The human brain is an amazing adaptation machine that gets better at whatever it engages in. Even though he is frustrated, he is bound to get better the more he does it.

The players should give him feedback, telling him about things he did well or that they enjoyed – this will positively reinforce him and he will start getting pleasure and satisfaction from his small victories, which will give him energy to tackle his challenges.

Regarding the campaign structure to plan ahead and easily handle in-game developments – I have found it difficult when I try to have a map-based scenario, where the action is driven by where the PC’s go.

Linking encounters in this way can be frustrating. I would recommend instead to have an NPC-based situation. Do a flow chart, with a handful (3-5) major NPCs listed as main areas in the middle of the page.

Draw some lines connecting them to represent their relationship: good, bad or neutral.

Next draw some peripheral people or groups attached to each major NPC faction. These could be servants, trade relationships, etc.

You could go on drawing and connecting lines and defining relationships. This plays like a giant pin-ball machine plot device, where the players can bounce around and you have a simple way to define the encounters in relation to each other.

Another approach is to first list out the likely courses of action of a given player given a situation. Put down like 3 for each person, and differentiate them as much as possible. Work out what happens next if the players succeed, in terms of an obstacle dealt with or new information gathered. Also work out what happens if they fail, and don’t be afraid to let them fail. Sometimes it makes things more interesting.

Another option is for him to attend some outside gaming events and observe other GMs that are good.

He could get some ideas of how things flow together and might find some insights into how to clobber his own obstacles.

Johnn Four

From Evan R.

This sounds like a meta problem that needs to be solved by the group as opposed to the GM.

While the GM can have tricks for aggressive players, like plug and play encounters or plot points that can be switched out (oh they went into the forest instead of the caves, well then goblins become wolves, with the same stats, or they didn’t talk to the old man with the quest, well then the barmaid has it) or back up story points for when they go afield (they’re no longer on the rails, quick bring in the long lost brother with some problem, that should get them back on) there will still be plenty of times causing you to have to come up with new ideas.

If it takes you 5 minutes to rethink things, the players will attempt all sorts of nonsense. So the solution is ask them not to.

Tell the group you have an improv problem. It’s not your strong suit. So at multiple points during the game you may need stop for 5 minutes or so to rethink everything. You’ll still have to do a lot of preplanning, so during this time you can be more efficient, but this way the players will know it’s coming, and they won’t push as hard.

To help make this time useful for the party, try to give them problems that require long term thinking, so they have something to discuss during the break.

Maybe give them a tough riddle. Or explain that an army is coming in 10 weeks, and they have to organize the defense of the town.

At first it may seem a little awkward, but after a while it should become no different than any other meta action that breaks up play.

Looking up a rule for 5 mins, cracking a joke that derails the game for a bit, discussing tactics during a players turn for exceedingly long amounts of time.

So like most player/gm problems I think the way to handle it is simply to talk to your group and explain the issue.

Johnn Four

From Debra C.

My biggest suggestion isn’t really about thinking on your feet. It’s about control.

If the players are steamrolling him, he needs to lay down the law. It sounds to me like his players are taking advantage of a perceived weakness and that just wouldn’t fly with me.

It may help to have a discussion with the players. Something along the lines of, “If you want to play with me, you need to get on my schedule. Nothing moves forward without the GM. I may have moments of slowness, but if you can be patient through that, we’ll ask have a better experience.”

Sometimes guys forget that they aren’t in a competition with the GM. Remind them that it’s a collaboration and the GM wants to have fun too. They may be completely oblivious to the anguish they’re causing their friends.

Johnn Four

From Redd

As a GM, I have learned that my players NEVER do what initially expect, and in fact there are times where they would go chase something just because of the “shiny” factor and for get all about the plot and story that they were currently on.

At first, I made the rookie mistake of stonewalling their curiosity and exploring my world. It actually took me a few years to learn how to cope with the unexpected.

Now I always keep a sheet of paper just to take notes for possible plot hooks that my party might snag when I am telling my story based on their interest, and I write down just a few key words or phrases.

From those I can look to see how I can tie it into my plot or allow them to go as wild off as they like, since I know that they will come back to the main plot.

For encounters, say that I intended for my group to go a particular town to continue the plot but they get sidetracked by a bandits and they decide that they want to kill all of the bandits in the area.

Well they tracked down their base of operations and since I did not have ANYTHING for this I made the base look like it had already been hit by something, something dark and evil.

The trusty paladin does his detect evil and gets a migraine, the rogue finds traces of tattered white bandages and the group surmises that there is a mummy in the cave and then run away, since they are only level 3. I know it is a copout but the group can always comeback later and take care of the mummy/bandits.

The key for thinking on your feet is to actually just know your players. Once you know how they play, you can actually plan around what they may do that would go off of the main plot line. If anything, you can always take a 15 minute food break and write something up quickly.

There is also the option of a Co-GM. Someone who can help with creating encounter types and the GM can substitute monsters/traps as needed, but that way s/he can just pull it out of the binder instead of out of their arse.

Johnn Four

From Bryan R.

I have run into this problem a lot. I am also a slow thinker, and I like to be very thorough and methodical, which often leads to a condition I have heard described as “paralysis through analysis.”

There is only so much preparation you can do, and the players will invariably upset it by doing something completely unexpected. In order to keep up with the game, I use two tools: Relationship webs and snap judgement.

A relationship web, or map, is a visual representation of NPCs and factions, and their attitudes toward one another. I try to determine the motives and goals of every character and faction the group will be interacting with, and if something unusual happens, I determine those characters’ reactions by considering what they want and what they’re willing to do to get it.

If the PCs interrogate a random NPC, I can add that character to a faction on the spot, and I instantly get guidance to how they’ll respond based on the goals of the group they’re associated with.

The second tool I mentioned is the snap judgement. Recognizing that I have a tendency to over-think things and want to be several steps ahead of my players, I deliberately suppress my natural mode of thinking, and I instead respond with the first thing that comes into my head that seems reasonable (and hopefully fun).

Sometimes the right answer isn’t as important as the fast one. And if I introduce a discrepancy, I often find that I can back-sell it later on when I have had more time to think things through.

It may also help to shift to a game, or at least a play style, that places more story control in the hands of the players. Maybe non-essential NPCs can occasionally be created by, and even controlled by, the other players. Then again, that can sometimes go terribly wrong.

Johnn Four

From Tyler

Never having had a brain trauma, and not knowing anyone who has, I apologize in advance for any assumptions I have about the particular situation of the reader in question.

It might be a good idea to address the players about the issue, asking them to wait on the GM’s response. GM skills are not limited to adaptation of a story line; if they value his storytelling, setting, NPCs, or world, they should be willing to restrain their play style to fit his less agile response time.

He could also try using the players as resources; if the party’s quick response needs are in NPC interactions, why not prepare 3X5 cards with important NPCs:

* names
* characterization
* goals and motivations
* resources
* opinions of the party
* limits of actions

For example, handing a player a card describing their contact as

the Yiddish bartender,
who wants to make his bar profitable so he can pay for his daughter’s medicine,
owns a bar and has a handful of bounty contracts to sell,
thinks the party’s a bunch of reckless but useful kids,
and is willing to offer a free drink if they do him a favour but not introduce them to more contacts until they finish a couple more missions for him.

This nutshell gives the agile PC the freedom and basis to substitute for the GM when the party needs rapid response time. The player can give snappy responses and plot hooks without giving them the whole bar.

The GM might also want to consider a blacklist/whitelist approach. A simple list of actions or type of actions with rewards or punishments to associate with them can help keep the party on track without a lot of wit. For example, the GM might decide that the party must;

1) stay in the forest,
2) convince one pair of each animal species to join the druid, and
3) find a way to cross the river of acid without getting wet.

And they also must not
1) respond to any of the snake demons offering them powers,
2) cut down any trees, or
3) wear two types of fabric (/leather/metal) at once.

The GM can let them run around and do whatever they like, until they stop doing anything in the whitelist or start doing anything in the blacklist, and then come down and raise hell. It becomes more of a stimulus/response than a complex interaction.

Hope these are in some way useful.

Johnn Four

From Stephen E.

Thinking on your feet is about thinking time – making it and making it in such a fashion that you have time to think whilst the players play without you.

The party takes a left instead of a right, the first thing to do is to delay them momentarily whilst you gather your thoughts – a stash of handy encounters of some kind is what’s appropriate here, each of which are planned so that you know what’s going on and can be pulled out at the drop of a hat.

Make them simple, so you don’t have to focus too much on them. Make them spark the players to need to settle amongst themselves what to do and you have actual free time to plan the real game.

The kind of encounter that works depends hugely on the setting and style of game of course, but there are some easy triggers in every setting.

Make a moral quandary or an incentive – several NPCs embroiled in an argument or confrontation of some kind, where one side has the power, the other the incentive for the PCs to help them. The PCs may shoulder past of course, but if they’re going off the plotline, then presumably they’re not feeling time pressured and can get involved.

You can go to a couple of levels of preparation with this – a single encounter moment to buy some time, or something with a stage or two of planned encounter, which can draw the players in and distract them maybe long enough to finish a game session or reach a “pause for meal” time, so you get your planning done then.

A quick example:

In a Shadowrun game, the PCs decide instead of pursuing the plot tonight, they’re going clubbing – whoop whoop!

First Layer – a short stop:
As they’re leaving the bar to go their separate ways to prepare for the night out, an elderly dwarf runs into the group as he ducks through the door, literally because he was looking back the way he came.

Picking himself up, he pleads for assistance to everyone in the bar (the PCs, the bartender and a couple of drunks) – he’s being chased by Humanis Policlub thugs and needs help. He doesn’t have much, but he’ll pay if someone will just help him out. Just as he’s finished his plea, a voice shouts from outside to “send the lawn ornament out” or they’ll torch the building for sympathizing with “metafreaks”.

Shadowrun can be pretty dark and mercenary in its play, but the aim is to pitch the encounter so the PCs have the opportunity to talk amongst themselves about what they do. There’s money to be made, a heroic action to be taken, but risk involved in a potential fight to be avoided and unknown enemies.

You can chip in provocatively from the sides from the bar tender and the drunks, but none of them really want to be involved, so the main decision remains the PCs.

You have to prepare a bar layout, a few stats for the dwarf, a set of stats for the humanis goons (with some reason why they’re threatening).

Second layer – a bit more delay:
Background and character the dwarf enough, plus draw up an apartment, that he can offer anyone who helps him dinner and somewhere to put their feet up for the night, get into a conversation, maybe become a Contact or just turn up again later.

Anyone in Shadowrun will appreciate the usefulness of a friendly house no one knows they have a connection to, just in case, or they may just need a good meal.

Also layout the Humanis goons hangout – if the PCs opt against the dwarf, have the goons think them fine upstanding citizens and make them a similar offer. Plan out a core group of goons, a leader and three others, and a hangout (a little forethought and you can use the same apartment template for either).

Third layer – side quest:
Plan an entire side quest with an extra two encounters – they needed someone like the PCs to help with something.

The beauty of all of this is is that these designs can sit unchanged and ready for use for sessions, ready to drop in at a moments notice. The trick is all in that first hook though, so having several ready to go will mean you have more chance the players will go for one of them.

Also, the more of these you run, the easier the basics will flow – I had to plan all of these diversions originally, but now can spin them on the fly as long as I’m familiar with the setting.

If all else fails, call a coffee break and be candid that you need a moment to think and that moment is best filled whilst such and such who’s decided to go off on a tangent makes you (and everyone else) coffee.

Johnn Four

From Leah R.

Sounds like there are two things that would help here — first, he needs to tell the party that he needs a little time; the party needs to respect their GM.

He needs to be forthright about what he needs the party to do and establish some rules to not bulldoze ahead. He can award extra XP to party members who are respectful of that rule to help reinforce it.

I also think that co-GMing would be very helpful for him, so that he has someone he can discuss adventures with and who can help him over the rough spots.

Also, preparing some generic resources in advance (spare cities, NPCs, encounters, names, etc., may be very useful and could be pulled out and used if necessary)—that helps me a lot when I get stuck during a session.

Johnn Four

From Ned

How about slowing the players down. When the players are trying to jump ahead, give a them a puzzle to solve, and I mean a literal puzzle.

Buy some cheap puzzles (25-100 pieces) from a discount store. Tell them that they have run into a room where the door has shut, and there is an intricate locking mechanism. The players putting the puzzle together represents them defeating the lock (or hacking the computer, or rebuilding the broken magic item, etc).

While the players are busy with this, the GM can have his time to plan, and the pcs can get some extra xp for solving a puzzle.

Johnn Four

From Eric W.

The DM’s job is to present the fantasy world and inform players of the effects of their actions. If the DM has enough backstory to keep the world entertaining and consistent, then the characters may roam where they wish and do what they please.

And the players might not even realize the adventure is created ad-hoc. Simply let them lead, and describe the results of their actions.

Let them find what they are looking for; sometimes they will regret it.

The main drawback of this method is groups typically have some players that are natural leaders and some that are followers, and if the leaders are allowed free reign the followers may not have as much opportunity to contribute.

If the backstory is lacking or if the DM wants more structure, a plot-centric combination of prefabricated location-based encounters and time-based events can help with an ad-hoc style.

Then, instead of going completely off the cuff, you can simply connect a few pre-built plot points. If you prepare several plot paths that are unused, save them for later– perhaps a few levels later.

Johnn Four

From Mark of the Pixie

A desperate solution may be moving to Play by Email. This format would allow him ample time to think and may satisfy the creative drive, but would lack the face-to-face time of tabletop gaming. (Personally I find it much harder, but I know people who prefer it.)

As for keeping control of the party, this may be something he can delegate. The In-Character party leader can be given the responsible of being the Out-of-Character player wrangler.

The “player wrangler” duties are to work out what the party will do next and succinctly present that to the GM. They handle all the “what do you want to do, what do you want to do, who’s carrying the princess, do we have weapons out or do we sneak, etc, etc”. This allows more time for the GM to shift gears between each stage / scenes.

As for planning every possible avenue, there are some tricks you can use which reduce the number of avenues. For example, to get past a guard the party may attack them, sneak past, trick them or bribe them, and they may succeed or fail at any of these.

This gives players at least 8 avenues. But which they choose doesn’t matter to the GM. The only important thing for the GM is if the guard sounds the alarm or not. This means the GM only needs to prepare 2 avenues; A) the alarm is sounded or B) the alarm is not sounded.

By breaking encounters down to this sort of simple Yes / No outcome (or similar) you can vastly simplify planning.

Examples may be things like “do they find the hidden door?”, “does the alarm sound?”, “do they take the painting?”, etc, etc.

The important trick is not to care HOW they do it. They might borrow the painting, steal it, buy it, we don’t care. As far as planning the next step goes the only question is “do they have it?”.

However you must be careful to avoid exponential growth. If you have each choices leads to a different set of choices then this quickly grows to a huge number of outcomes which are impossible to prepare for.

i.e., PC can go to village A or village B. At A they have a choice of C or D, at B they have a choice of E or F, etc. This leads to 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on. No-one can ever prepare this much in advance.

“Goal post” planning can sometimes work. Consider 4 possible outcomes (goal posts) for this whole session.

* One is the most likely outcome of the PCs being successful. (just a regular success)

* One is the most likely outcome if the PCs fail. (just a regular failure)

* One is the best possible outcome. (Like a Critical success)

* One is the worst possible failure where everything goes wrong. (Like a Critical failure)

This gives you a framework for where the session might go. If the PCs do something odd or an encounter goes in an unexpected direction you can often look at it as moving towards a different one of these goal posts.

It has some of the planning advantages of railroading, but still allows quite a bit of freedom for the players. It is unlikely that the players will ever end up exactly at any one of your planned outcomes, but by having these goal posts as a handy reference you can adapt much more quickly and easily.

As to shoehorning the party (even railroading), this can be done in ways many parties will enjoy.

One example is to have a likable friendly NPC with the party who apologetically / regretfully needs the party to go this way, do this, etc. The NPC does need to be likable, which means they need to actively do things to get the PCs to like them.

Perhaps a cleric who heals the party for free and is on a quest. The quest means they have to do X, Y and Z, giving you your railroad, but for entirely in-game reasons.

Another example is encouraging “self-railroading” PCs. I have had PCs who actively ask me to railroad them. I have done this with a “plot detector”, a magical/technological device which tells the PCs which way they should go next.

A magical amulet, a mechanical owl from your patron goddess, a book of prophetic verse, etc, etc. These all encourage the PCs to ask where the railway lines are.

A similar related example is to have prophetic bonuses. I have a PC with a magic wardrobe which gives them the most suitable outfit for the day. The PCs enjoy guessing why she has been given a beekeeper hat and waist high waders, or a corset and hiking boots. They also look for places they can use these outfits, so if they see a bee-hive, they will go investigate because I gave them a beekeeper hat. It allows me to throw in clues to where the railway lines are, and gives players a “I’m clever” feeling for following them.

As for players steam-rolling ahead, there are a few tricks to prevent this being a problem. One simple one is to ask the players to stop it. If the GM says “OK guys, give me a few minutes here.” then the rare player who says “No” is too rude to bother gaming with.

The thing is, these few minutes are roleplaying gold if you can make use of them. Give the PCs something to argue over (“division of loot” or “what to do with a prisoner” are the classics). But you can also just say “You have a few minutes; work out who is cooking dinner.” Or “While I get the next scene ready; play a round of Questions.”

Questions is a simple “getting to know you” game where one PC asks a question about something they noticed about another PC. Examples might be “that is an unusual sword you carry, what is the story behind it?” or “how did you get that scar?” or “Why did you spare the red priest in the battle a while back?” or “You mentioned that you have a sister, tell us about her.”

PCs can decline to answer (if it is too personal), but they don’t get to ask a question and the original asker gets another go (either a new question to that PC or they can ask another PC another question). If the PC does answer the question then it is their turn to ask the next question.

These GM free PC-to-PC interactions allow the GM time to work things out without wasting any roleplaying time. It also gives PCs more of a chance to flesh out and develop their characters and the relationships in the group.

Another idea may be to move to a lighter simpler system (depending on what you like and what you know). Some systems lend themselves to thinking on you feet more than others.

Hope something here helps.

Johnn Four

From Mike

This may not be what you’re looking for but has your husband ever considered co-GMing? I know it sounds like an odd idea, your husband should try it.

It’s not something I’ve done personally, but I have had friends GM in pairs, and it works well with the right people. I have one friend who is excellent at coming up with ideas and thinking on his feet, but is a poor planner isn’t good with setting up campaigns in advance.

I have another friend who can plan a campaign really well, but has the tendency to think very linearly and has trouble dealing with players who try to go off the beaten path. The two got together for a Savage Worlds campaign and it worked out well.

Of course, you have to get used to GMing with a partner, but there are a lot of benefits to doing this. For one thing, it allows the two GMs to split their duties (one can run the technical details like traps and combat, and the other can be a kind of color-commentator, giving descriptions of rooms and fights).

Another big benefit is it allows players to split up without the headaches inherent with dealing with two different groups at the same time. Like I said, it isn’t for everyone, but your husband should give it a try. Just make sure he finds someone who doesn’t take too much away from his own creativity. Hope this helps!

Johnn Four

From Wolf

Don’t despair. Thinking on your feet is actually nothing more than prep work and knowing your players and their characters.

In order to cope with the random actions of player characters, I make sure I know their characters well. I try to know every spell, every skill and attribute for each character, well at least their best and worst skills and abilities.

Definitely their strengths and weaknesses. This will allow you to place encounters and challenges in front of them that will challenge them, and let them show off their skills, be sure to play to everyone’s strengths and secrets.

An additional thing you can do is to find out the dreams and hopes of the character. In other words, find out where the player wants the character to be in say 5 sessions and at the end of the current campaign.

If you give them an opportunity to reach these goals they most probably will.

Also try to listen to your players, try to read into their thinking, don’t make your plans so rigid as to the fact that you cannot change the locations a bit. If they raid the house of the wrong baron prince, either go along with it and have them thrown in jail, or make it so that this baron was actually the one they were supposed to raid.

Having some contingency plans also doesn’t hurt. Try to think like the players a bit. What would you do if presented with those clues, and what if you miss one or two, will it then lead off some where else?

So there it is, a bit of hard work and you should be able to wing it with the rest of them. :)

Johnn Four

From Charles

I feel for the guy. I know how hard it is for me, and I (supposedly) have all my faculties.

I wonder if he can find a happy medium between fully detailed and sketched or outlined. I have the advantage that a large amount of my world has been at least conceptualized now for 30 years.

However, I still have to plan for needing greater detail on specific places and people. Define, for yourself, the culture of the area, and then make a list of NPC names for immediate use. There is a great website I use, where I can randomly determine the first letter of an NPC’s name, and then use the Advanced Filter feature to get a list from specific Earth cultures that I equate with my fantasy cultures.

The great thing about this site is that it includes the meaning of the name, which gives me a bit more material to stylize my characters or to select a name for a preconceived character.

Another suggestion is more for the spouse. It sounds like (s)he has already started to help out. Can they perhaps formalize this into a co-GM strategy, anywhere from running together to him designing the game and she runs it?

I know that, as a GM, I would love to play in my world, and often run a party NPC (careful not to overshadow the players). He might enjoy designing the game and then running a knowledgeable PC such as a Bard or Wizard to help overcome some of the player-character knowledge discrepancies.

Johnn Four

From Jeremy B.

Here’s some suggestions. I don’t know how helpful they’ll be since I have not experienced this same issue, but these often help with problems in groups.

First off, limit games to small numbers of players and especially ones who are friends of and understand your husband’s limitations. This will limit impatience and working against his situation.

Second, if you have limited gm experience, but have some, talk to your husband about him designing the adventures, and you running the pc/npc.

Let me explain. The gm sometimes needs a voice in the party or a way of directing pcs in a certain direction. If you know how the adventure is supposed to go, you can, as a pc, direct traffic in that direction.

Further, ask him if you can help him by vice gming encounters. If a player action demands immediate thought and GM reaction, you suggest several possible actions to him in a note. This is not ideal, but it could speed the process up for him by having someone sift through possibilities and jot down three or four likely ones.

Third, provide the illusion of choice. Your husband can continue to “shoehorn” the pcs, but give them choices that end up leading the way he needs to go.

You come to a fork in the road, one fork leads toward the bright happy town of Crestvale, the other to the dreaded Castle Boneburg. After discussion the players decide that crestvale sounds nicer. But as they continue through the forest, the trees begin moving to block their paths, vines tangle across the road. Their horses stumble in inadvertent holes. Every time they turn toward Crestvale, the path grows difficult. Eventually they end up in front of Castle Boneburg due to the foul enchantments laid over the land.

It worked for Tolkien in the Old Forest. Give it a whirl.

Fourth, make some action summary cards. What I mean is this. Say your husband plans an encounter with a group of goblins. If the goblins gain surprise they will open with a volley of arrows, switch to spears, and try to kill clerics and mages first. This is a general battle plan that adapts well to most situations. If they do not gain surprise is where the problem comes in. So create several divergent paths. I’ll give some examples.

1. Fire the volley of arrows anyway and proceed with the attack as planned. They’re dumb goblins after all.

2. Drop their bows and switch to spears, but take a defensive spear hedge approach. Form two ranks. Goblins in front kneel so goblins in the rear can poke nasty adventurers.

3. If only the rogue and a cleric spot the goblins for instance, concentrate all the volley of arrows on those two characters. If the goblins get lucky the next round they can still fire again before the party realizes their under attack and they will still be flat footed.

4. If the goblins are spotted, they fire then retreat drawing the party toward a next encounter or a trap.

5. The goblins charge wildly some firing, some switching to spears.

By planning 4 or 5 possible routes, the gm can still present a credible encounter without having to plan every possible contingency.

This assumes that your husband’s difficulty is with strategic style thinking. If it’s a matter of tactical reactions, i.e. reacting to the mage targeting the goblins with a fireball, then I’d suggest playing to a monster’s strengths in all cases.

With something like goblins gang up, attack weaker party members, and generally trip, overrun, bullrush, and disarm your way to fictory. Use aid another a lot with weak monsters.

With stronger monsters go toe to toe and beat hell out of fighter types. There’s more to this, but since your husband’s an experienced gm, I think he can probably take this advice and formulate his own approaches for different sorts of monsters.

The main thing is to take the speed factor and the uncertainty out of combat. To do this, introduce as many aids as possible: miniatures, an initiative board, note cards, etc. Whatever it takes to make things easier to visualize and see. This will take a lot of the abstract thought process out.

Johnn Four

From Chris

Here are some of the things I do:

1) For NPCs plan a personality not a scenario. By characterising three things you can then jump to plausable what would X do in this situation.
* What is the motivation
* What is the restriction
* What is the time constraint

For example a Bandit leader 1:
Motivation: Wealth

Restriction: Is a member of a local community and so wants to avoid being recognised

Timing: Needs to maintain position of innocence in village

Banit leader 2:
Motivation: easy wealth

Restriction: Has to prove himself to his band

Time: he just killed the old leader and the band want to know he is worth following so he must get it right first time.

Both of these will play very different and there is enough to keep them internally consistent.

2) The old ‘e’ answer. If the last word the player uses ends in e it’s a no, otherwise it’s yes. Useful if you don’t know whether to say no or yes.

3) Give them something unexpected to give you breathing space. Prepare some vignettes:

“You turn the corner and there is ‘what appears to be’ a shallow puddle stretching across the corridor.”

“There is ‘something crunchy’ underfoot. Sneaking is going to be difficult.”

Johnn Four

From Jeff

Hi F,

I’m sorry to hear that your husband is going through these trials.

By profession I’m a developer (UIs) that builds software for the aircraft industry, and one of the tasks that we’ve recently taken on is building a knowledge base for a client.

This might not sound pertinent to your question, but it got me to thinking, if we can “teach” a computer to think on its feet, why not a human?

My solution might be to supplement your husband’s decision making w/ random tables. As long as he knows the general parameters of the situation (they’re in a barrow mound, travelling through a city, etc.) he can have the appropriate chart(s) at the ready.

And as time progresses, he can tailor those charts. You can help him…as you sit at the table just jot down ideas for addition to the charts. The players can even join in.

Anyway, it’s an idea. There’s a lot of power and fun in random determination.

On a side note, have you ever thought about co-DMing? Helping him when he gets in a jam?

Hope you guys figure out a solution! Keep on gaming…

Johnn Four

From dzanis


My tricks-of-trade – how to manage to keep ahead of player steamroll:

1) Default NPC profiles

When PCs asks too many questions to too many NPCs, I have a list of default NPC profiles to consult so that I can answer and so that my NPCs are not all bland and the same.

When PCs travel through the town that I have not prepared in detail and suddenly want to visit the trader, smith, carpenter and the tavern and speak with all NPCs that I had never thought of preparing, then I turn to my short list of general NPC archetypes:

For example:
- Illiterate, racist, stubborn, know a lot of legends.
- Chatty, talkative, knows local rumors and useless information
- Wants to develop personal relations with PCs

2) PCs have more to do besides current adventure

PCs usually have some priority adventure (or campaign, or saveing the world), but I try to create a lot of stuff that they need or want to deal “when they have time”.

Of course, finding the evil rakshasa who endangers regional stability is top priority, but PCs are also asked to find noble’s missing daughter. Also, their keep/safehouse has gotten a lot of strange noises going out and next time they return, the neighbours say that there are lights now appearing (and next time after that maybe door is missing).

So when PCs finish the encounter or adventure and are thinking what do we do next, I may remind (directly or with some additional information) about these things and they will return to them. The benefit is that they do not go off completely random but to one of the hooks or ideas that I have prepared for beforehand.

I think that this is very relevant to the question by F. that her GM has difficulties to think what happens after each encounter. Maybe about what happens after each adventure.

3) OOC Pause

Sometimes PCs do something unexpected (e.g., killing an NPC that I had prepared as a key role in following adventure) that changes my preparation.

I ask for 5 minute pause. I let players chat, take a food break or something, while I ponder over the implications of their actions.

In general, this is good thing (except maybe in middle of combat) and it shows players this is not a railroad, but their actions may change all planned adventure in ways even unexpected to GM.

Johnn Four

From Mark M

Dear F,

4 Ideas for you

1. Controlling the Space

Decide beforehand how far the adventure will go in the next session and don’t let it advance any further. “I don’t want the players to explore any further than 4 rooms in the Dungeon this session”.

Have a list of 10 Creatures/NPCs/physical objectives/Treasure prepared that can be used to slow down the adventurers if they start to go too fast through the adventure.

2. Players are your Allies

Make sure every player knows the GM isn’t as fast as he used to be. Be honest about the situation. Remind them that Roleplaying is a cooperative game not Players against GM, but GM and Players creating a story – a shared story.

If you have a player or two who are the movers and shakers have a quiet word to them about support their GM. Most people want to do the right thing but it’s not always obvious.

3. Take the pressure off the GM

Have more PC to PC interaction, not so much GM to PC interaction. Have Players run NPCs or even monsters.

The GM is still running the adventure, just not this NPC or encounter. Give experience points for doing it well, given out either at the end of the session or if you want time to think about it, at the start of the next session.

4. Sometimes we all need to Cheat

Sometimes it’s just easier to run a prepared module, and you can always say “I need to read the next section” and use that time to think up whats happening next.

Best wishes to you and your Husband!

Johnn Four

From Peri

Hi Johnn,

I’m thinking 4 or 5 point form ‘breadcrumb trails’ for them to follow would be helpful as a primer to keep them on track.
The killer is the details. That’s what’s causing the blocks for me.

I’ll create what’s happening all around the PCs to make my adventures as immersive as possible and all of a sudden, something I created to be just a small environmental detail becomes the focus of an intense search by the PCs and they won’t let it go because “if I put that much detail into it, it must be important.” I hate that.

I start to plan for everything outside the box instead of focusing on bringing the PCs back into the box that is the adventure.

Focus on keeping them in the box, not what’s outside it. Flowchart it. If it falls outside that, have those 4 or 5 breadcrumbs to get them back inside it. Don’t allow them to get too sidetracked.

If this, then that.

If not, then a, b c to get back to x. else, notes on ‘how can I block this path they’re on?’.

Johnn Four

From Gillian

I would suggest that maybe he should try a format where quick thinking on his feet is not required, at least right now.

DMing a play-by-post online game would really reduce his “instant-response” load; he could spend as much time as he needs being creative and responding with as much detail as the situation merits, without feeling like he’s holding back everyone else.

I know it isn’t the same as DMing face-to-face (I’ve done both for years), but at least it lets him keep going, and he’ll have a sense of accomplishment without the frustration of trying to do what he may just not be ready to do again, yet.

Johnn Four

From Jon

Well, first off there are a couple of things I noticed from your request. One, is that the players are seemingly taking advantage, in a manner of speaking, of your husband’s required playstyle.

I could not tell from your request whether or not the players understand your husbands’ needs or whether they are aware of his health.

I think the first step would be to make sure that the players are aware that there will be delays and that they are going to have to be patient with the GM.

Playing in a Role-Playing game is a group effort, and should not truly rest solely on the shoulders of the GM. Your husband is doing all this work…*extra* work to prepare a game for them to have fun. I think it would be only fair that they play at the speed of the slowest member of the group (I didn’t want to phrase it that way but could not come up with a better explanation).

So, first and foremost, everyone needs to be gaming at the same speed. I mentioned a tool in a previous tip that could come in handy: The Speaking Stick (or hat). This is something that can be passed around the table. Whoever doesn’t have it has to be quiet, pay attention and be patient.

Of course, the GM can use this to their advantage as well. If the GM has it in this situation, he can take all the time he needs to get set for the next section of the adventure or session.

Try writing it down as he comes up with it and don’t stray from that. If the players interrupt, they should be reminded of the speaking stick. Sure, they can make all the plans they want but, it shouldn’t be distracting to the GM (and their questions can wait until he’s ready for them).

Another tactic you’ve already incorporated but, could be expanded upon. You’re already playing interference to assist your husband. How about taking it the next step further and Co-GMing with him.

You could still control your character (as an NPC even) and also share some of the GM responsibilities. Is he tracking initiative? You could do that as a player and it would be a BIG help. I’ve gotten so lost doing initiatives that I’ve completely abandoned tracking it myself. I just count from fastest to slowest 1 through 10. Each player could use the Speaking Stick (hat) during their turn to slow it down too.

Another idea that sprang out at me was all the effort your husband does in planning out all possibilities. Personally, I myself have never done this (running my adventures mostly ‘from the hip’), however, I do use a method in world creation.

How about creating smaller sections of detail. For example, running a dungeon crawl, instead of detailing out an entire dungeon level, split it up into quarters and only work on one. Start small. If it’s too big, go smaller. Ignore everything outside of your chosen section. Eliminate that which could bog down the process.

Then, that section which was the target of all that focus, that is the *only* part of the adventure the players experience. Make a standing rule that they cannot go outside the boundary, or there are locked doors that require special keys to proceed.

Lastly, your husband can share the work with the players. Have them contribute something to the storyline (or world) and have them submit it to the GM as homework.

You could even make an entire session out of something like this and your husband wouldn’t need to prepare. “That sounds good. Write it down in detail and I’ll look into it for next session.”

I started a new campaign with the goal of giving the players a base of operations if they cleaned it out of undesirables. This was completed after 2 sessions. At our third session, I could not come up with anything for them…until I decided “Ok, you are a group of mercenaries, right? You’ve got your base, you need to come up with a coat of arms that the rest of the region will be able to recognize and know who you are.”

The players spent the next 5 hours drawing up various symbols to identify each member, the colors, placement, a motto, and even fleshed out their character storylines…and I didn’t have to say a thing.

All I did was look on and smile while they enjoyed themselves getting into their characters. When they were done, they had a more personal connection with their characters and their relations to the other members of their team, and I had come up with an idea for the next session (approving upgrades for their base).

So, to sum up: Make the players aware, slow them down, allow them a greater role with the GM’s approval, offer to co-GM some responsibilities, incorporate tools that foster patience (Speaking Stick), take the campaign from a large canvas to the frist square if a quilt and build from there.

Hopefully some of these suggestions will work with your group, or inspire you to come up with your own based upon your specific needs. But, most important of all, Have Fun!

Johnn Four

From Christian K

One quick answer is for him to shift to using more random encounters, and stringing together a narrative afterwards.

An example is chart of village encounters, then tavern/guildhall encounters. Any outcomes from those drive the next table, dungeon/wilderness/city/exotica.

There only need to be a few of each, and each one has easy to determine outcomes, like Victory/Retreat, Info Gained/Lost.

While this is something like the “everything solution” above, he only needs a FEW possible solutions to know where things flow next.

As they finish each mini encounter he calls for a time out, assesses which outcome is the best fit for how the encounter ran, AND then goes down that branch.

She mentions that she tries to help, but doesn’t say what help they have requested from the players. They can and will help the GM with accommodation, if he asks.

Things like he gets to take time outs! That he can break the 4th wall and say “I wasn’t prepared for that, please give me 5-10 minutes to catch up on my notes.”

He can also use the trick of asking them where they think things are going next, and whichever is closest to his plotline is the path they take.

Johnn Four

From Tyler P

I would suggest that the reader check out Dungeon World by Sage La Torres. The game focuses more on collaborative storytelling.

One of the main ideas behind the game is that the GM and players create the fiction together. During the first session the GM is encouraged to put the players on the doorstep of a dungeon and then ask them question about it. What is the dungeon, why are they there, what is the danger, etc.

After the dungeon is cleared the GM asks the players what they want to do next. They want to go back to town. Where is the town, how far away. Players are asked to build the world they inhabit instead of leaving it up to the GM.

It is possible to create adventures but GMs are encouraged to leave blanks for the players to field.

Letting the players shoulder the creative burden will reduce the quick thinking needed by the GM while investing the players fully into them game.

Johnn Four

From Wulf Gar

Hi Johnn!

Some advice for the GM who suffered a brain injury and now has problems thinking on his feet.

I saw a guy at a convention once; he was a tournament-level DM, and he had previously suffered a stroke.

He had 3 cards (3×5 is fine), colored RED, YELLOW, and GREEN. He would set these cards in a designated spot, or right in front where all the players could see it, and he could change them out as needed.

He told his groups right up front that this was his traffic control system. The Red card meant no actions from the party until he spoke. The Yellow card meant go slow, and he would point at the person he wanted to interact with. He even wrote on the card “I’m taking notes”. The Green card meant the group could interact freely with the DM.

If people didn’t play by his rules, he would either stop the game, stop the player, or ignore that player altogether. A bit harsh, but necessary to keep the DM’s frustration level from spinning out of control.

And his group should care enough about him to see the necessity of this system.

Another method I saw was a different DM who planned out many encounters in advance on 4×6 cards. He would then roll percentage, and pull the corresponding card out to apply to the situation.

He had cards for monsters, NPCs, random encounters, etc. This gave him the advantage of never having to try to figure out how to respond to the players, because it was totally random anyway.

Johnn Four

From Andrew B

It sounds as though there are two separate problems here. 1. His difficulty with extemporaneous gameplay. 2. His players arguably taking advantage of his difficulty and rushing him before he is ready.

I can’t say I’m a terribly experienced GM, but I thought I’d at least put in my two cents worth.

Issue 1 is a tad broad. Nobody wants to sit there and plot out campaigns bit-by-bit. It’s miserable on the part of the GM and robs the game of part of the fun (at least, I think so).

But if you are incapable of doing the campaign mainly off the top of your head (which I personally am not advanced enough for either) you might want to try something in between the two.

This can be split into two parts. 1. roughly map out your campaign ahead of time. That can be backstory, plot, hooks, whatever you want.

Detailed enough to have a general flow, no need to sit there and figure out the possible avenues for each. Yes, this will mean a small amount of railroading. Big deal – there’s always some of that anyway.

If the game began with the description “you find yourself on a road coming up to a tavern” and the players decide not to go into the tavern, they’re just being ornery.

If they don’t realize that there’s a certain amount of this expected in an RPG, they need to learn it.

2. Pre-make modular events. Things that you’ve already put together and are at least reasonably familiar with. You can slot and swap ‘em together as you like, and it’ll give you something to quickly grab if needed.

3. Have note cards or just quick outline notes which you can check off and refer to quickly to help keep yourself on track.

Issue 2. We’ve all had those times where our players manage to fluster us, and start getting the most insane ideas and doing the craziest things. You want to help keep them reasonably on track.

I’d suggest getting a stuffed animal of some kind. Something particularly eye-catching, in a red maybe. Or a fez. Or something eye catching and somewhat silly, enough that people will notice but won’t be offended.

At pre-determined times (the end of a module, the end of a fight, the end of certain scenes, etc.) as well as any time you begin to feel overwhelmed, whip out the fez and either wear it (I call it my GM hat) or put it on the table.

It’s a signal to your players that they need to give you a minute to get your stuff together. They can chat about OOG stuff or whatever if they like during this time, but the game is now on pause.

You can even make that a rule – when you wear the fez, no IN GAME chat. Tell your players ahead of time that you’re going to try this.

Of course, part of the problem is that often you can begin to get overwhelmed and not even realize that you are overwhelmed until it’s too late. That’s why I’d suggest figuring out ahead of time (and putting into your notes!) times when you’ll need to whip out the Pause Doll.

The nice thing about this is that if you need 5 minutes or so, people expect it and get used to it, and learn to work with it. Don’t feel rushed. Take your time. You’re there to have fun, they’re there to have fun. Hope this helped.

Johnn Four

From Gordon V.

There are a few things to address, so I’ll take them in order:

Brain Tumor: I can’t help with that, but best wishes, and good to hear that he has a good group of friends, and a supportive spouse!

Planning ahead: I occasionally make a sort of flow chart, just on the branching of the main possibilities I can think of when I’m planning an adventure, and what the main sort of consequences might be. I won’t think of everything, and I often won’t think of what the party decides to do, but it gives me practice in thinking up possibilities.

Need for “keeping the players in line”: Suppose you structured the adventure like a movie, or a TV series?

When the players are getting ready to (storm the base, rescue the princess, land on the planet, etc), that’s often the time for

(1) a dramatic statement of intention
(2) swelling music
(3) a commercial or cliffhanger!

Why not give the GM the benefit of that structure? Let him mirror the players for a second (“Okay, so what I’m hearing is that you plan to do X, Y, but C instead of Z. Give it to me in a memorable line, and break for commercial!”).

Even if the GM’s followup to their declaration is, “To Be Continued!” this can be a good time to get a drink, hit the bathroom, refill snacks, while he thinks through how this new plan (and the party will always come up with a new plan) will fit in with the encounters he has set up.

I think a good GM does not need so much to “keep players in line” as allow himself to adapt himself and them to the evolving adventure.

Anyway, hope some of this helps, and best wishes to Mr. and Mrs. RPT Reader F.

Johnn Four

From JT

You might try encouraging the DM to take improvisational theater classes or workshops, if any are offered in your community.

I think being able to think “on your feet” is mostly a matter of having faith in your own mind and that when we “freeze up” it’s mostly because of anxiety.

Practices which provide positive reinforcement for improvisation and reduce the anxiety associated with improv performances may help!

Also, you may need to consider that this person is in fact too disabled to be able to DM a *tabletop* game. A play-by-email or other asynchronous electronic / online system may work much better for him, since it removes the anxiety of immediate time pressure.

Good luck!

Johnn Four

From Thalia

Hi Johnn,

I played a PC in a campaign a while back which had two GMs and I thought this would relate to your thinking fast problem.

The two of them worked well together and knew what their strengths were, one of them concentrated on combat and the other progressed the story, although each were completely capable of running entire sessions on their own when called to do so.

They planned carefully beforehand which parts of the campaign each would handle, and worked well together by defining what they would allow the PCs to do or not.

Occasionally a quick conference resolved unforeseen responses to situations.

Quite simply two GMs were better than one, especially when it came to thinking quickly because two heads are better than one.

This way of managing the campaign had a lot of advantages. Firstly, two GMs meant a split party was no problem, one took one group and the other took the second group. We could have a relatively large player group without it slowing things down, and we got a lot done each session.

The two personalities moderated each other, we had one naturally soft GM and one (sort of) killer GM, so we actually got a very balanced campaign with fair outcomes.

It also meant that playing NPCs was less arduous for the GMs because the NPCs could actually have a conversation without it becoming ridiculously schizophrenic. This lead to some really nice set pieces and flashbacks that included PCs as required.

This particular campaign also regularly involved scheming against other PCs so it was very useful to have more than one GM to supervise the scheming – quick conferences with one GM or other during a game were a regular occurrence, as were private scenes.

I admit this style of GMing isn’t for everyone, but it worked well for this campaign. I suggest it here because it sounds like the GM in the query is great at the planning, but needs help with the execution.

If one brain can’t manage it, and to be honest even the best GMs can’t anticipate everything or deal with every single thing thrown at them, a second brain gives another perspective and more ideas.

GMing as a two man team can really work, as long as good planning is done with responsibilities laid out beforehand and there is communication during the game.

It actually increase the enjoyment of the game for everyone involved. Perhaps here one GM could do the planning and another could take on the role of execution, with guidance and input from the first GM. It might take some time to get into the new way of working but it could definitely be done.

My two cents.

Johnn Four

From R.

Good evening Johnn,

My ex husband had a brain injury and I recognize a lot of what F is writing about. Some things that I was wondering is if anyone has taken each of the players aside, without the husband, and explained the head problems and how he is feeling when he get steamrolled.

It’s also important to let them know exactly what is going on with him and how he feels and how his “new” brain processes information. This is something that should not be done with the whole group, but individually.

Everyone will have questions and might feel awkward to ask them with everyone present, or if the husband had been present. Then F should let each player know the “signs” that the husband is having a problem and may need a moment.

This should all be done, again, individually, and without the husband. This will let each player feel more comfortable about the problem and may make it easier to ask hard and, sometimes, embarrassing questions they would not otherwise ask.

The second thing for F to do would be to come up with some banter with the players that will cause some table talk. Some joking and laughing things, or maybe this would be a good time to bring out a snack. Anything that would clue the group that the husband is having a difficult time at the moment.

If the group still seems to want to steamroll the husband, I would consider a new group. Maybe a group of baby gamers (as we lovingly call new gamers).

New gamers usually appreciate a moment pause at times just to look at character sheets, look up rules, look at what their characters can and can’t do.

I know changing gaming buddies is hard to do, but if the current group does not want to be empathetic to the trials the husband is going through, then I know they are not gamers I would want to game with.

Johnn Four

From Simon

A couple of ideas spring to mind.

Firstly, if you can bear it, try surrendering narrative control and delegating some of the Thinking Fast On Your Feet (TFOYF) to your players.

There are a few ways this can be done effectively:

- Failed rolls are narrated by the person who failed. Every GM knows what success would entail, but failure requires TFOYF. Let them build their own obstacles for you in the narrative.

- Try using aspects of a system where narrative control is more shared between GM and Players.

Spaaaace by Greg Stolze does an interesting job of this, where narrative control belongs to whoever cares the most (determined by a bidding system) but there are plenty of other systems (Fudge, Story Engine, PDQ) where narrative control is more shared.

Under this model the TFOYF is required only by the person with narrative control and not always the GM.

- You can replace the GM in-game with the rather awesome Mythic Game Master Emulator. The story telling is now truly collective.

The GM’s role is to set the basic premise and the setting (and I’ve even played Mythic without those!).

Secondly, there are narrative direction tools like Rory’s Story Cubes. If your players throw a left curve, throw in some random symbols by rolling the Story Cubes and then go with your first thought without second guessing yourself.

It’s too easy to get trapped into the idea that there’s
a “best” outcome, when most of the enjoyment of the players is with their interaction with each other and with you the GM.

You can further reduce the element of TFOYF with this idea by using “specific” randomisers. There’s a lot of good quality ones out there – the stand out product being Ultimate Toolbox and the silliest being QAGS – The book of Dumb Tables
that actually has a random table of tables!

I hope some of that’s useful.

Johnn Four

From Michael M.

One of the hazards of hanging out with a group of amazingly creative people – and I find gaming groups to be amazingly creative – is that they frequently surprise me with their approaches.

If I have three solutions identified and prepared, they never even consider them, instead finding three *other* solutions I missed and then develop a fourth by consensus.

When this happens, I have learned I *must* tell them something like, “I was not prepared for this exact approach. Please give me a few minutes to think through how I need to handle this.” Usually, my group is more than willing to give me the time I need to rethink things.

Another approach I have used is to draw out a rough flowchart. That way, I can see how encounters lead from one to the next and what special conditions may affect outcomes.

It may seem like this is too linear/railroading, but it really doesn’t work out like that in play – it’s more a series of illustrated notes. Be sure and add in where random encounters might occur.

Having a visual reference for the adventure helps me see and keep track of how well (or poorly) things are progressing and what I need to be ready for.

NPC cards for typical encounters have been useful as well. Multiple cards of a typical city watchman (for example) that I can lay out quickly, particularly laminated so I can track HP & conditions and then wipe clean have been game-savers.

Good luck and good gaming!

Johnn Four

From Ed

OK, in the spirit of the test e-mail, I’ll reply by thinking off the top of my head.

Couple of things. The first thing I noticed about the e-mail was that there was no mention that the GM has had a frank discussion with his group.

I don’t know if the group is a set of close friends or if he goes down to Ye Olde Game Shoppe and the group is random people walking in every time. If the latter I could see where one might consider that TMI and not want to discuss with strangers, but if this group are friends, then talk to them and find some middle ground where everyone can agree to a few more heartbeats to give the GM time to respond (or some other compromise, the point being talk about it).

Most groups want to keep going and the person who GMs the game is typically worth their weight in gold! This will hopefully have a secondary effect that over time the GM will get into a groove where he’s able to feel more and more comfortable.

The second thing I noticed was the comment the he tries to plan for every possible avenue. I know how he feels. That’s the way I used to do things. My advice here is to not do that any more.

I’m not saying not to plan, but when I tried to plan for everything then when it went down an unknown path I was stymied (even without the physical issue presented here).

Now I try to literally plan as little as possible while still keeping a general outline of what needs to happen. And in most cases I opt for things that keep the group moving forward by which I mean the GMs response doesn’t have to been 100% on target every time.

Lastly are those handy lists that a lot of GMs throw together. “You meet a guy named…” “Jake with a…” “limp he says he got in the war. He wants to talk to you about . Then just have a conversation. Obviously different scenarios will require different GM fodder lists but I think it helps to keep it loose.

Johnn Four

From David L

A couple more resources for your brain-injured DM to help improve his quick-thinking skills.

Michael McNeill

Here’s something for the GM to look at:

I’ve downloaded it recently for myself, but haven’t looked at it yet. But hey – it’s free.

Johnn Four

From Bertrand

How about playing turnbased:

The DM presents the situation and what NPCs do. Then the person left from him tells what his character does and so it goes around until the turn is back on the DM.

The first time I DM’ed (Kobolds Ate My Baby) I did it like this. I’ve found it greatly reduces chaos around the table and helps enjoying the in-game chaos that is going down in the story.

On a sidenote:

It also forces all your players to say what they’ll do, even if they “do nothing and wait”. By forcing everyone to say something, the chance is smaller that players become passive or let the adventure be led by the stronger personalities at the table. Everyone can concentrate on the story and no-one needs to feel like they have to fight for the ability to talk or get a turn.

You could have characters with highest agility going first, if you care.

Johnn Four

From Ben S

Hey Johnn,

I’ve had similar problems with both difficulty thinking on my feet and with medical stuff getting in the way of my games, so I think I can help F out.

When I was 17 (now 21) I suffered from lymphoma which required me to undergo several surgeries that have left me with a myriad of medical complications. However, despite this, I still wanted to GM and I made it all work.

Firstly, I made sure to let everyone know the situation. I explained it to them in jovial matters (trying to make some light of the situation and remove any stigma around talking about it with the group).

They asked questions and I let them know my limitations and where I fall down a bit, but they understood and were willing to bear with me for a little while.

This meant that when I got random fatigue crashes during games or chronic head aches for no particular reason, they were willing to occupy themselves whilst I dealt with it. Sure, it slowed things down a little at first, but we all got better at coping with it, and it eventually just passed into the background and is now no longer a problem at all.

Secondly, on the subject of improvisation, I find that it is like any muscles and needs to be trained. I used to be terrible at this, and yet I now improv almost all of my sessions (I will outline what the session is about and any major NPCs, but other than that I am improv).

How I did it was by doing improv exercises. I would ask a friend to give me a list of random situations and I would tell them how I would solve that situation as fast as possible. For example, try the following ones:

* A man wants to get your autograph, but he is over the other side of the packed theatre hall. How do you get to him?

* You’re in class, without a water bottle, and really thirsty. The teacher is angry with you and won’t let you leave to get a drink. How do you solve this?

And so on.

Start by answering logically:

* You excuse yourself as you slowly make your way through the crowd.

* You ask a friend for their water bottle.

And slowly go to the more extreme until you come up with ridiculous solutions:

* You jump onto the empty theatre stage, cut one of the ropes holding the sand bags and spring yourself into the air to land at your fan’s feet.

* You use your pen to slowly drill a hole through the wall at an upwards angle. The rain from outside will drizzle into the class room which you can use to fill up your water bottle.

These exercises not only help you come up with solutions and answers to the player’s actions, but they also enable to you improv settings better – the question never detailed a stage, nor that you were next to the wall of the classroom. But these are things that COULD be the case, so you as the GM just make them the case.

If you do enough of these, and you really work at it, you’ll train this skill until you can work through most sessions without much prep at all.

I hope that helps, F, and I hope everything goes well for you and your husband!

Johnn Four

From Jeff S

You don’t have to think as much as you think you do.

Whatever is happening, is happening.

My favorite role-playing sessions have been the result of careful planning (where I don’t have to think on my feet) that gets totally wrecked when play begins (just let it happen).

Johnn Four

From Pierre

Most significant encounters take 30+ minutes, and there is usually plenty of in-game time to recover before the next major event.

Even if you’re trying to find someone in a city and just finished an interrogation, normal people don’t just bolt out the door.

Maybe they have maps to look over? Equipment to check over? Spell buffs to cast?

Those things shouldn’t need GM involvement. If you’ve planned well, you can have a loot list or piece of map or whatever to handout to the PCs after an encounter and that will keep them busy for a short time anyway.

Even if there’s no post-encounter cleanup for the PCs, it’s justified to take a short break.

I and some GMs I’ve had just say “give me a few minutes” after an encounter. The players can entertain themselves for that amount of time, they’re creative people.

Johnn Four

From Garry S

The trick I have found is to use all the brains at the table, not just my own. When stuck I punt. Then listen to the players they will tell me what the next step is without me even having to ask.

When they start asking themselves “Well what if?” and speculate on possible actions, that is your cue to listen carefully. The planing session has started. They will plot out your next move for you. Or, spark the suggestion of your own that you can play on.

In short, use all the brains at the table.

On a secondary note, if you are worried about “controlling” the players you are playing the wrong game. Don’t control, lightly direct. The game is a cooperative effort. You don’t need all the answers. You shouldn’t be supplying the answers, just the questions. The GM asks the question. “A problem”, be it a hungry baby or 10,000 savage Orcs. The players in the role of the characters answer the question.

Sometimes one problem naturally leads to another. That is an adventure key. The end of that is the reward. Sometimes you need to punt with a quick problem. If you don’t think fast, have a few spares on hand. Mickey Splain used to say, “When I get stuck in a story I have two guys come through the door with guns.”

So don’t worry about keeping control, just keep momentum. What ever the destination the object is to make the trip fun.

Johnn Four

From Christian D

I have always thought that it’s too much work to plan out every angle the players may take so I now go with a different approach: I make the players do all the work.

I have a rough spine of my adventure and what the objectives of the session are. My monsters and NPCs are prepared and I have some rough setting ideas of what they want to do.

If the players go off-plan and approach an attack differently than I would, I start being more mysterious and let them start to fill in any gaps.

If they think that the sewer entrance to the manor might be guarded, I immediately throw in some guards there. If there is some sort of magical trap in the loot room, I throw one in there.

Listening to your players makes them feel like geniuses when they are ‘proven’ right and you have had your problem solved at the same time. Everyone wins!

Johnn Four

From Laurie

1. Remind players he needs a couple more minutes to respond. Good players will respond positively and with understanding.

2. Call “stop” to prevent players from continuing forward so action can be taken by GM.

3. Start rolling dice. This will cause them to pause to see what is happening. Even if you are doing nothing the action of rolling will slow them down.

Johnn Four

From John E

Hi RPT Reader F.

I’ve never been terribly quick on my mental feet myself, but I’ve learned that spending time between game sessions thinking about what could go wrong during the upcoming session will help me have ideas in place when I need them.

Planning for anything from character death, to characters taking a completely different tact to what I expect or had planned becomes a bit easier.

Of course, remembering them when the time comes is also essential. Preparing alternatives ahead of time will help with this. Preparing generic alternatives that can be applied to any plot for dropping down whenever you need them will make things run as if it was intended.

A big help for coming up with alternatives includes knowing your players and their characters and how they’ll react to specific situations.

This takes some time, getting to know them, but once you have that down, you can pretty much predict how they would react to any given circumstances, within reason.

Johnn Four

From Mike

The GM can create a chart of 10 (or 20) events that fit the adventure but won’t ruin the plot line. When the GM needs some time to think about the plot, he can roll a d10 (or d20) to pick a random event.

While the players are discussing what to do about this turn of events, the GM can be thinking about the real issues. Do this a few times, and then the GM can get the attention of the players by rolling a d10, and not necessarily referring to the chart.

The GM can check the chart, nodding the head, grinning evilly and pretending to take some notes, but using the time to think about the real issue at hand.

If that gives the GM enough time to come up with a solution to the real problem, then forget the random event on the chart. If the GM needs more time, then go ahead and spring the selected random event on the party. If the GM uses the chart a lot, change up the events it contains every so often.

Need ideas for events? Check out my event generator at

Not all the events it generates will be appropriate for any given adventure, but of the 572 events it contains, there are bound to be a few that will work, possibly with some slight alterations.

Johnn Four

From Robert

Here’s a suggestion for Reader F.

Since she’s already indicated that she’s helped him moderate on occasion, she might want to help some more by sending him an occasional text message.

If her husband keeps his cell-phone (or other sms capable device) on silent and within view, he could receive occasional text messages from F.

i.e. “the party was supposed to visit Behren the thief at the cottage of winter’s edge.”; “we already used up all our magic missile spells”; “don’t forget that the vampire can charm characters”, etc.

Anything that might help her husband keep the party in line when his mind begins to wander or things get a little foggy.

Johnn Four

From John R.

Ideas on thinking fast on your feet when at a mental disadvantage:

1) Call a Time-Out.

It is the GM’s game, and as such he is in charge of the game universe. If the gods need a few minutes to mull things over, they just put the game on pause.

If the problem is as given, (GM with a brain injury, and a mate who can spot a crisis point) put the mate in charge of calling the time-out when needed.

When a time out is called, no actions described by players apply to the situation until the game is underway again. The GM is not required to listen or respond to proposed actions during a time-out, and can even leave the table if needed … if we are talking about a situation where the GM is not at 100% capacity, this should be a matter of common knowledge, and it should be a matter of courtesy for the others to make allowance for this. Communication about the issue is probably a good idea.

2) Keep a player goal list handy, in the form of questions.

- Can the party save the princess?
- Can the party find the treasure?
- Can the party still kill the dragon?

These aren’t necessarily your goals for the players, but more what the players seem to be working towards. When you’re in crisis, review this short list, and decide how the unexpected character action has affected one or more of these goals, and use them as a context to interpret that action and what the likely results might be.

Have they made it easier or harder to accomplish those goals? Does it make any difference at all? Have the goals changed as a result?

Remember, “Can the party stay alive?” is always on this list, too, and everything should be at least briefly evaluated for foolhardiness, and let the players suffer the consequences if they’ve brought them on themselves.

3) Fix it with a Table – everyone thinks of a great solution for a problem days after the fact.

Turn your idle ‘what-if’ing and brainstorming during non-game-time into a chart or reference that can be accessed in time of need.

Create a ‘consequences deck’ of index cards. Each card should have a generic response to an imagined problem which could serve as a pointer for what to do next. Make up a bunch, and pull as many as you need in a crisis until one makes sense. Write up more when you’re not stressing about it. Some very generic examples:

– Someone set off an alarm
– Combat has critically damaged a sail, horse, drive engine, etc.
– Family member(s) of the recently deceased have shown up looking for answers
– You find unexpected information on a body
– A secret identity is revealed
– A secret passage is uncovered
– The gods have noticed and are pleased/displeased with your actions
– During the fray, minions of the overlord abducted a person of importance or a party member
– Ninja attack!

This will have to be tailored with responses that are suitable to your game world. This gives you the opportunity to make suggestions to yourself when you need them.

There are scads of resources and tables already available on the internet which can help to populate this table; for example is a warehouse of often used plot twists and turns, many of which you can easily adapt to this purpose.

Do an image search at google for terms germane to your problem, and see what pictures turn up and what they might suggest. Glean ideas from favorite movies and stories. Improvise, adapt and overcome.

Note also, that not every outcome will be immediately apparent to the players. After players have experienced the result of a few of these cards, you have the option of drawing one, reading it and giggling a little, and continuing on as though nothing happened …

Johnn Four

From Keyser Soze

In a case to case scenario as hers a possible co dm may be in order. I usually have a few pre generated lists to help with names and random monsters or events on the fly. A random encounter might slow them up enough to get your barring.

The “Usual Suspects” movie is also good for the idea of using your surroundings. Not to mention the more you practice the easier it gets.

Johnn Four

From Peter M

I can sympathize with this situation; coming up with stuff off the cuff is an integral part of my GMing style, and it would KILL me to lose it. So I’d like to come up with a helpful suggestion, if I can.

But it’s not easy. Planning everything out definitely isn’t practical – players are simply too unpredictable, and there are too many ways in which situations can mutate and develop in unexpected ways.

In fact, that’s often one of the delights of GMing, from my perspective; if the players didn’t surprise me pretty often, I’d get bored.

I see two different options here, neither of which is mutually exclusive:

1. Creating an idea bank, essentially a set of generic event-responses and “interrupt” events to draw on.

These would not be attempts to predict what the characters might do, but simply a set of tools that can be pulled out and plugged in immediately when necessary. All he’d have to do is pick the best one, or if necessary pick one at random. Some retuning of the campaign might be necessary to allow the use of such plug-in events, of course, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.

You know, you might even make that an open Roleplaying Tips project. Readers could send in their ideas for random plug-in events.

2. Co-GMing. Since F has already started to try to help out, and the GM has a real impediment, it seems reasonable that she could become a co-GM, sharing duties behind the GM’s screen. It would be a sacrifice, of course, since she’d have to give up her character and playing time. She’d be the one to handle on-the-fly situations. This may sound crazy, but that could even enhance their marriage!

That said, it’s my understanding that the human brain can often rewire itself to some extent after damage. It’s a process that can take time, and I’m sure it doesn’t always work.

The GM may never be able to respond off-the-cuff in the same way that he did. But it may be that if he keeps working at it, his mind will develop new pathways to allow him to cope with that sort of situation. Not to sound like Pollyanna, but GMing might actually be a net *positive* for his recovery.

It might be worthwhile discussing all this with his doctors as well. They would be in the best position to estimate the chances of his recovering more of his GMing skills and improving his reaction time. In any case, F and her husband have my best wishes!

Johnn Four

From Nate

Mrs & Mr. RPT Reader F.,

First, just in case, there *are* support-groups and other resources out there, and being able to continue a well-loved recreation is no less valid a reason to seek ideas and help than any other. Quality-of-life is important.

Just an off-the-cuff idea is to work in a more formalized framework. It might mean something even approaching Robert’s Rules of Order, but hopefully not.

Remind the players that steamrolling the GM serves no one. There may be those players who are going to have an intractable problem with that. Just like any other game-play issue, it happens. Either the player can work with it or they can’t. But a player who “can’t” work with issues of player conduct, well….

Another suggestion might be to consider either ‘re-styling’ whatever game you are playing. It’s like a movie for pace. Is the style of the world fast and frenetic, or perhaps more contemplative and slow? What about another genre that adapts well to slower play?

It seems to me that there are lots of possibilities to try. Can you go right back to how you were before the injury? Good question. But trying to force that issue will only lead to frustration.

The possibilities are not exhausted yet. Keep trying things. Best luck!

Johnn Four

From Croz

I would try Mythic GM Emulator.
You can find it right here: ->

It provides a way to make up things on the fly, no prep necessary. You can use it to play solo or use it to assist in GMing regular games as well.

This way the players can’t steamroll the GM because a roll of the dice will determine where the story goes next off a series of YES/NO logic questions. You can use it as much or as little as needed. Hope it helps!

Johnn Four

From Jerry

Our gaming group has been together for about eight years, in one variation or another. We now have about 7 regular players from all different age groups.

We mostly play D&D – we are now playing the D&D Next – 5e.

We change GMs as one person gets tired of running and wants to play again – most all of our group has DMed at one time or another over the past years.

I am running the current game – a melange of the latest iteration of D&D Next, 3.0 and 3.5 modules, and some free form gaming as we try to stick with the newest materials available.

We play every Friday night – some nights are just board games as we may be missing a few players, yet we still want to get together to play something.

Our starting time is 7 to 7:30pm, but, mostly by the time everyone shows, eats, updates characters and chats it is pushing 8:30.

Usually by 9pm we are in the thick of it.

It sounds like there are 2 different problems going on here – both common to every group I have ever been in – players that don’t know when to shutup and players that are being rude and inconsiderate – kind of the same, but coming from different angles.

There are nights where everything clicks – and then there are those where we might just as well put away the dice and let the conversations take us where they will.

If the question is how do you control the players and keep them focused on the game, well, my curt suggestion is to find some new players.

That may sound extreme, but think about it – we have all had those nights with players that can’t seem to shut up – ever. Or, worse yet, bring stuff to the game to “keep themselves busy” during slow times – phones, minipads, and gameboys – what the heck?

You can do all that stuff at home – why bring it to the game? Especially when you have to keep asking the person what they are going to do because they are so busy doing something else besides paying attention to the game.

Are these Adults or what?

Most of the problems I have is with “flavor text” – those bits and pieces of prose someone labored over to be succinct, yet descriptive enough to give the DM the ability to paint a verbal picture for the players – if for no other reason than to inform the players as to whether they should be using their Wilderness skilsl or Dungeoneering skills when confronting the next set of monsters.

Sometimes I just wait, sometimes I just start reading – softly and then louder – until I have everyone’s attention. I still have players that can’t control themselves and feel the need to start a new conversation that has nothing to do with the game, but is about something they found on their “smarter than them” phone.

Don’t get me wrong here – I genuinely like everyone one of our players and have told them so – I am the oldest by over 10 years, at the age of 63. Most of the others are the age of my children or the grandchildren I don’t have.

If your players can’t adapt to the new conditions of the game – someone’s disability – then they are flat inconsiderate.

Maybe a private word with a few of the players may help – but – how freakin’ hard is it to be considerate of other people’s conditions – remember – it all can happen to you – Karma will get you in the end.

Self-policing sounds like a good solution – even if it is the “hairy eyeball” given to someone that is being out of line.

I had a student assistant that had been poked in the temple with a stick, as a young teenager. He had been a healthy young person, and, due to a freak accident, he died 3 times and ended up without the use of his left arm and walks with an extreme limp. His speech is now impeded, has faulty short term memory – especially with vocabulary.

Yet he can do the physical work of any of my other student assistants and graduated from college.

After he had told me the story of how he ended up with the physical and mental condition he would have to live with for the rest of his life, he looked me in the eye and, with no hesitation or stammering, he told me “Impatience’ is a luxury” and continued to to look me in the eye to make sure I understood what he meant – which he knew I did.

We choose this hobby for various reasons. We choose to make it a social event, unlike those that choose to sit at a computer to game and “socialize” with virtual people.

You can turn a computer off – you can’t turn people off, but, you can lay down some basic social rules of the evening. Have a discussion with everyone on a night where you may be between adventures or it looks to be a slow night – make people uncomfortable with the discussion – make them understand they are being rude and inconsiderate with their actions.

Or, continue to be upset to the point where you will both want to quit the group and they won’t have a clue as to why you suddenly don’t show up one night.

Johnn Four

Something that MIGHT get him thinking quicker, is getting some time on some old-school ‘twitchy’ video games. (Think Super Mario, in the castle levels where Bullets fly out of all 4 screen-edges, and you need to keep dodging… and still platform. And oh god look out a goomba!)

This shouldn’t be just his burden. The player’s need to slow down and account for the fact the guy is havin a problem (head trauma or not).

Case in point, we just added a new DM to our rotation in my group. The guy’s intelligent, but he’s…… “slow” to put it quickly. He appears to have a hard time organizing his thoughts into speech and dealing with the inevitable wrenches we throw into his plans.

The group as a whole, makes allowances for this. Naturally (hopefully) as time goes on, our new guy (and hopefully this individual as well) will by sheer repetition begin to go faster and react quicker.

Johnn Four

From Paddy

Hi Johnn, thanks for the great GMing resource you provide! I write to you today to offer a tip for Reader F; GM’ing can be a very demanding role, especially if your group is constantly racing headlong in directions you never intended them to go.

Unfortunately I can not offer any tips to help you (or Reader F’s husband) think on their feet faster while GMing! What I can suggest though, is, if none of the tips from Johnn’s readers work, try a great little product called the GM Emulator from Mythic.

The GM Emulator will let the actual gaming group contribute to your husband’s GMing, but still allow control to remain in your husband’s hands. Mythic works by predefining the chances of any event or action succeeding, meaning you only have to ask the question & roll to determine the next event in the plot or game.

Rather than staying on your carefully designed road that leads to the forgotten temple, the players have charged off the road on a deserted track that was only meant to add flavour and scenery!

Does this track still lead to the temple – you decide that this is “Unlikely”, cross-reference Unlikely with the Mythic GM Emulator and the track has a 35% chance of still getting to the temple.

Now just roll and interpret the results; a roll of 7 or under is an “Exception Yes” – the track is actually the back way in to the temple and far safer. Ditch all the traps and hazards you had set up for the PCs on the road.

A roll higher than 7, but not over 35 is a “Yes” – the track takes just as long as the road, has all the roads carefully designed traps and hazards and still deposits the PCs at the temple’s front door, ready to be greated by the temple guardian.

A roll over 35 but lower than 88 is a No – let the PCs wander around lost for awhile, but use the GM Emulator’s Event Meaning charts to flesh things out more (rolled up the words “Block” and “Travel” … easy, the PC’s wander into a landslide while on the side track!!).

And a roll of 88 or more is an “Exceptional No” – the track heads to the lair of the worst creature you can think of!

The other nifty thing is that your gaming group can help your husband. Get them to ask Yes/No questions about the situation they find themselves in.

Your husband then decides how likely that is, cross-references the GM Emulator and rolls for the answer.

In this way, your gaming group can help inspire your husband and prompt him with ideas he might have trouble coming up with – it will totally change the way your group interacts, but it should be a change for the better!

Johnn Four

From Brother Lud

I think in this case we might be looking at the wrong angle of things. My natural tendency is to do what this GM has done – try to control the random variables from the get go by having a variety of charts, encounters, reactions stats prepared.

But, as we all know, you can’t prepare for everything and players are pockets of chaos, designed at times to give GMs fits.

So, instead of controlling the encounters and reactions so much (though I can’t see this GM ever moving away from that entirely) make the environment your friend by having your environment address the key issues you are struggling with.


PCs are storming ahead: Put them in a prison like the movie Cube – running ahead without carefully thinking things though, or just being incautious leads to death.

Partner the PCs up with an even more gung ho group of NPCs who charge ahead – only to see saw blades in the red walled room whip out and kill the group.

The door closes, the floor rumbles a bit, door re-opens and it is a yellow walled room. Add some key role-playing interactions to provide the info to get the PCs out of this map and you have yourself some real fun.

Couch the whole thing into a wider and deeper story line that makes these types of situation not only feasible, but expected:

You’ve somehow pissed off the deity Tarxis, god of torture, trials and ordeals. The group wakes up on a demi-plane of his construction designed to be the living embodiment of this deity’s belief system.

The other people populating the plane are just like the PCs. They managed to carve out a small pocket of safety out of a giant broken death machine once used for primordials back in the dawn of time, they call the ‘town’ Certainty. Only way off the plane is to please the god by testing his contraptions.

Take that same content and make it the basement level of a sadistic evil genius who captures high end soldiers and tests their metal. Put it into the future, and it is a small prison planet and the computers have been infected with a sadistic virus that has gained A.I. but because it lacks human compassion or emotion it is now basically a sociopathic control freak with homicidal issues.

Point is – identify the weakness of the GM and write that weakness into the environment. Embrace the weakness by making it a strength. Make the environment work to your advantage.

The risk comes in being overly contrived, but that is a challenge of the writing and design. Play with your PCs. Restrict their control for a while and then give them a series of options that allows them the freedom of choice.

They will be a tad hesitant after being restricted, and feel good for being able to take charge of their future – of course you know the results of all three choices and the actual gift of choice is merely a clever illusion made to appear real when contrasted to the restricted choice they have been experiencing. And they will applaud you for it.

A flaw I have: I have trouble killing my PCs. I don’t like doing it. In the real stories the heroes don’t die because of a chance spider bite during a random, meaningless encounter.

Solution? I am going to kill at least one PC. Maybe two. On purpose. One might be awesome, part of the story, noble and all that. The other random, a cautionary tale.

In both cases I will be ready for the results – it will be written into the story and will make the story deeper and richer. I just have to work double time to make sure the contrivance levels are low.

Figure out your weaknesses, embrace them, make them part of the story.

Johnn Four

From Luke R

Hi Johnn and Reader F,

Firstly, I have to say that it make me truly proud to see a wife be supportive in this way. As if you don’t have enough on your plate with what your husband has been through, you’re helping him here as well. That’s more than a little inspiring to me.

My advice is simple: Practice. Of course, that’s easier said than done, even more so with a room full of people waiting on you. So what I suggest is this, use something like the Mythic GM Emulator. This way, your husband can, if he wants to, play alone, or just the two of you, a few of your more patient gaming friends and eventually, a whole group.

On a side note, one book that I really enjoyed on how the brain changes and adapts is called “The brain that changes itself” by Norman Doidge.

Good luck, I hope this helps!

Johnn Four

From Loz

Hello Johnn,

Whenever people say “this is too fast/slow”, I remember that these are *comparisons*. GM too slow? Maybe. Players too fast for him? Definitely.

Classic solution: try to speed up the GM.
Sneaky solution: slow down the players.

BTW: since the players are steam-rolling/taking advantage a handicapped GM, I have no scruples on *their* account.

For example: Try inverting all the GM tips that say “this will speed up your game!”.

Have players speak through an elected “spokesman” such as a “Combat spokesman”, a “Magic-use spokesman”. The PCs spend time thrashing out their tactics and feeding them to the spokesman. The spokesman prepares the synthesis for the GM, with pre-crunched data on the PC dice-rolls.

Delegate a PC to handle some NPCs (not the ones that you would have to spend tons of time briefing them on how to play, or the ones with plot-critical secrets).

As an aside: Anti-steam-roller techniques exist.

DON’T be afraid to gain a few seconds by saying, “Woah, too fast, slow down!”, “I’ll have to think about that.” or “Roll a Diplomacy check” or “What’s your skill bonus again?”.

Or, on a less conflicting/sneaky note: “Guys, I’m slower since the operation, you’ll have to be a bit patient with me in complex situations.”

Johnn Four

From KC

I’m not sure how well my tips will work but here’s a shot!

I’m another person who doesn’t have a huge amount of luck thinking on my feet. The trick I’ve come up with involves a little bit of knowledge of who you’re playing with, but once you have that knowledge it gets easier. I simply create 5-6 general directions for anything to go.

If my party gets information that there is a necromancer attacking town I prepare something like this:

1) They go out and start attacking – Whether it’s with swords and axes, gallons of holy water or buckets of magical spells one of the general approaches my group uses is to wade in with guns blazing.

2)They decide to sneak in – I try to create one or two ways to sneak in to a lair, though they are riddled with traps. One player runs a typically sneaky character and will opt to take out the leader without dealing with the minions. If the group is sneaky enough (or can provide enough magic to cover the gaps) they will follow his tactics.

3)Research – Sometimes these guys try to look up what going on, especially if our rogue player or our fighter/paladin player aren’t leading the party this adventure. So I put some info into the area whether it’s Gather Information/Diplomacy for talking to townsfolk, Search/Perception for finding nearby objects and relics or Knowledge checks while looking things up in the library.

4)They take advantage of the situation – The guys I play with aren’t always heroes. They have played villains who have saved countries because their own slices of the pie are threatened and have simply decided to take everything of value and kill the town, blaming it on the undead or bandits.

5)They run- A few times I make the description of the forces attacking too intense adn my players high-tail it due to fearing the deaths of their characters. Or I’ve managed to pick something that someone made their worst fear. Either way, my group flips the table their sitting around at the inn and declare “F@$k this, I’m out!” and run. And then I change the normal +1 Weapon or Armor piece they picked up into the minor artifact the bad guy was hunting for }=D.

6)They ignore it – They are simply too busy or interested in other clues I put into my area to bother. Then I overrun the town and make them kill a bigger horde due to the magical macguffin or information they are looking for was under their noses the whole time.

Anyways I take these six basic things and apply them to most situations, though that does make me write six plots/encounters for each major story point. On the upside I can shoehorn there sometimes random actions my group can make under one of the headings.

Johnn Four

From Phil N.

Hi F,

I would suggest that your husband take a look at the GM Helper cards created by Jim Pacek at the Carjacked Seraphim blog;

There is an excellent article outlining the use of the cards and their 12 categories of information that they each contain. There is also a pdf online of the cards all ready to print out.

I have made myself a set of these cards, and use them every time that I need to improvise another scene in my game. I steal names, elements of names, scents, sounds and random magic on a regular basis.

If all else fails, then I can look at the three small images on each card, and see how that can help kick my ageing mind into action.

Each card also has a superb geometric dungeon layout, that joins up to any other card, to make improvised buildings or dungeons very easy to create.

There is even enough blank spaces on the cards to add some system-specific notes to help too.

I would advise your husband to also make a printout of the guide to the cards, as there is so much information on each card.

Johnn Four

From Steve B.

I have pondered this over the weekend and discussed it with a couple of others and have come up with a number of options which could be considered.

1. The players themselves are I assume aware of the GM’s condition and could modify their thinking or how they approach each idea so that it is considered.

The problem with this is that it would slow the game down overall, however not necessarily that much as players can discuss amongst themselves the relative merits of a solution or course of action giving time for the GM to consider his own options.

2. Play a game that is more heroic in nature and outcomes are actually easier to determine by skills of a character. If a character wishes to attempt an action that requires consideration then the rules should be agreed beforehand how to cover these circumstances as a general terms, leaving the GM to only consider the bigger picture and how their success or failure determine the outcomes of events overall.

Writing a diary certainly helps in this instance, as the GM can review the previous session and consider implications for the next.

3. Change the format of the sessions, though I appreciate as a GM I wouldn’t want to do this, but do more old fashioned dungeon bashing where the challenges are puzzles/monsters to slay.

I appreciate this is more linear though in format and less open in scope.

4. Have a player as DM’s assistant, running the creatures/NPC’s that the GM has created, similar to option 2 but the GM becomes more of an author looking along the bigger plotlines.

He can introduce reinforcements when needed for the enemy, and still run the overall game actings as more of an adjudicator, revealing the treasures and the plots.

I have done this a few times, when combats are larger, especially bar room brawls and it can be immense fun for all players and the GM.

Personally I like option 4 best.

Johnn Four

From Dave M.

Hi Johnn,

I’m probably not going to be the only one to offer this suggestion but, index cards. They can serve multiple uses:

* Jot down the stats and pertinent information of monsters/random encounters and use them instead of a wandering monster chart. Just shuffle the cards and draw one. Everything you need will be on it.

* Put each location (be it dungeon, town or wilderness) onto a card. Put as much information on there as required to be able to run that location with minimal outside references. If you run out of space (say for a combat stat block) put a note in referring to your Combat “deck” (see below). Give each card a code (room number for a dungeon location, “address” for a town location or map grid reference for a wilderness location) and sort the cards logically (numerical order, alphabetical order – basically whatever works for you).

If the players head to that location, you just pull out the card and you have everything you need to run the encounter (be it a roleplaying one or a combat one).

* Have a “deck” of index cards detailing combat stat blocks for all creatures in the system you use. Also include generic NPCs (innkeeper, watchman, bandit, etc.)

You can buy pre-written ones for D&D 3.5 on DriveThruRPG – all you need to do is print them off (when I run D&D 3.5 I always use them). They are especially useful for summoned monsters.

* Likewise, have similar cards for spells (the same company that make the monster cards, do spell cards for D&D 3.5).

If index cards aren’t your thing (or you are more technically minded) then a laptop can be used instead. Evernote is a free piece of software than enables you to make “notes”.

Treat each note as an index card. A bonus is that they can be accessed from any syncronised device – I sync my phone, tablet, netbook and desktop PC enabling me to work on any one and be able to access the information from the rest when needed. Very handy if you have a scenario idea while out and about – just tap the basics onto the phone and flesh it out when at home.

I hope that helps.

Johnn Four

From Jostein

I have been a DM for quite a while, and have learned to think on my feet through the experience. I’ll be happy to offer some thoughts to our fellow DM.

I should mention that I currently run a bi-weekly campaign at a game store in my city. These sessions are shorter than the average session, and as such, there will be less encounters to prepare.

I have found through my preparations of the adventures that I have gone from detailing a lot of things – including maps, skill checks with DCs, weather, npcs, and the encounters themselves – to preparing mostly maps and the encounters.

The reason why I write much less down now is because I came to realize that I almost never looked at my notes (except for the stat blocks and encounter maps) during sessions.

There are, however, two advantages of writing things down. First, you will be able to find the information if you should forget something. Second, in the process of writing things down, you will get to know the adventure better. This is my main point.

It is much easier to be able to think on your feet if you know the adventure (including the main characters). To know the adventure well, he will need some notes about people, places and events, but too much information will slow things down because it may make it difficult to find the information you need when you need it.

I have found bullet points often works well (ex. the person knows: point 1, point 2, point 3). It becomes a lot of work if you shall try to plan out every possible avenue the players may take, so I usually focus on the area the characters are visiting (location), planned events, and the main npcs/monsters they will meet. That becomes the frame of the adventure (with some intended events and encounters), and then it becomes up to the players how they go about doing it.

I have made a simple adventure template for myself, and would be happy to share if anyone is interested.

I would suggest he takes another look at the notes he have used, and see if anything can be scaled down or removed. If he finds that certain parts of his notes are almost never used, maybe he will be able to reduce or remove that part.

I used to calculate the DC for a lot of skill checks, but now I mostly use 10/15/20/25 based on the difficulty of the task. The intention is not to get bogged down in rules that have little or no effect on the situation.

Last, I suggest (if he has not done it already) he talk to his players, or ask them to give him a minute to think during play if he needs it. Most players would give him that, especially if it can help make it a more fun and enjoyable game for everyone.

I hope it may be of some help.

Johnn Four

From G.

Regarding thinking on your feet I have two replies…

1) Speed is less important than accuracy. It doesn’t matter if the GM is a little slower provided that the players are okay with it (and they should be if the GM is someone they’ve known for a while).

In a situation like the one described I would start by talking to the other players on the GM’s behalf as explaining the problem to them, asking them to go a little easy and give the GM more time to react. Maybe even to reign in their off-topic behaviour. Not completely but a little.

To give an example of how this works: I’ve been suffering from a form of GM-related performance anxiety for several years, for reasons I won’t go into here.

Needless to say this is an embarrassing situation for an experienced GM. I find myself prevaricating at the start of each game session unless I have a pre-written session start.

As a result of this I KNOW that I’m not running as well as I used to and find myself occasionally apologising for this. In addition I’m running a new edition of the game (Pathfinder) for the first time and with new players (which worsens the anxiety).

Fortunately those players are pretty easy going and while they certainly keep me on my toes (two of them are trying to buy up most of Sandpoint!) they’re willing to give me the time to work out the results and are okay with my occasionally discovering that I’ve been using an old version of a rule and changing it after the fact.

Recognising my weaknesses, I try and play up my strengths and I emphasise elements of the game which I know the players enjoy in the hope that this will cover the flaws.

2) Something which people tend to forget is that the brain needs exercise like the rest of the body. Crosswords, brain teasers and the like can help keep it in trim and speed up problem solving.

Of particular value is any activity with a real human opponent. Find a competitive game with a degree of skill (the less luck the better) and play it regularly against someone slightly better than yourself.

You’ll soon learn to think faster on your feet. I recommend games such as Carcassonne for this and the more players you play against the more it hones your thinking. Of course the traditional game for this is always viewed as being chess but some people, myself included, just don’t get on well with it.

Another good tactic is debating. One of the ways I keep my brain in trim, in as much as I do, is religious, political and philosophical discussion with a couple of good friends (usually over drinks, admittedly).

Arguing your point helps to develop the same skills you need to deal with players and even if you and your “opponent” actually agree you can still get the same workout by trying to make the point in a better manner than they do.

Lastly, I want to go back to point one again briefly. The situation described in the request could easily cause exactly the kind of performance anxiety that I have, indeed it sounds like its already getting there, and this will just make the situation worse.

Gaming is supposed to be about having fun and most players will respond well if they realise that the GM ISN’T having fun any more. It is easy to get carried away with what we want in a game but we always need to remember that we aren’t the only player and that even GMs need a little love on occasion.

To the players out there I say “Take time out to appreciate your GM once in a while. Congratulate them on a good session or scenario, encourage them to keep it up, maybe even thank them for what they are doing. After all, without a GM there isn’t a game and anyone who has tried it knows that it can be a lot of hard work.”

Johnn Four

From Dan

I have ADHD and have a hard time with prep. I don’t know if my ideas will translate over but it’s worth a go.

* Use templates for everything (I have some examples for my Sundered Skies game)

o NPCs
o NPC types
o Encounters
o Scenes
o Sessions

* Mindmap or other flow chart to brainstorm possible turns the PCs will make

* Discuss openly with players the problems the GM has and make sure they are on-board

o If the players are on-board let them know that the adventure has taken an unexpected turn and ask for 10 minutes to prep for the next encounter/scene

- Give everyone a bathroom/smoke break

o If players aren’t on-board and want to break the game politely ask them why they want to play this game

I think the most important part is discussing with the players what is going on.

If they are trying to purposefully derail the adventure then maybe they are the right players for that campaign.

Johnn Four

From Arlene

Would appealing to the players help? A simple, ‘hey, you came up with something I wasn’t expecting. Give me a minute to figure out how this is going to play out’ can work wonders with some groups.

And if he knows the group of players and characters pretty well, he can start predicting what they are likely to do (Jen wants to know the name of every barmaid and barman in the tavern; have a list of names and descriptions ready). And if the characters have any hooks (like the infamous one from our Werewolf game “but you are mighty Wendigo and we are lowly Bonegnawers”), they can be applied to steer the game without using linear plots.

I hope these help.

Johnn Four

From Aesma


One trick I use when I need to think fast on my feet is to give a paused and slow vivid description. That way you are not only earning time to think what would happen next, but it also helps to reactivate the imagination and let new ideas emerge naturally.

For example, suppose the players enter a house, a building a corridor or any other place you hadn’t planned beforehand and it was never meant to be explored.

That’s when you temporarily stop the action of the game and switch to slow vivid description mode. “You open the door to that old building, but it’s hard to look what’s inside as your eyes adjust to the darkness inside… the place is covered in dust and you start to cough… everything smells like old and rusty, the floor is made of fine marble”.

See? You are gaining time as you begin to build what you didn’t planned ahead, and you can start adding elements as ideas begin to flow and you feel comfortable with this new ambient (maybe they hear footsteps at the stairway in the distance ¿a beggar perhaps? or something else.

This also work if for example the players kill a clue npc, you can pause the action and describe his dead as dramatic and vivid as possible, maybe even acting as he coughs blood out and tries to tell something important to the pcs. While you put all that emphasis, you can think how the dead of the npc affects the story or what event could pop out to get again the story on its right direction.

Your players won’t notice that they caught you off-ward as they will think you are trying to be more dramatic or to add suspense to the scene, and also that gives the players the sense that they actions and decisions matters, as you describe them richly even when they weren’t part of the original plan.

Johnn Four

From Gilbert

Ok, first for this reader I would suggest finding more mature players for the party. If they know that the DM has an issue thinking on his feet and continue to take advantage of him, it’s time for a new group. The DM’s job is difficult enough without having to deal with insensitive, uncaring players.

The quickest way I’ve found to slow a party down is to throw a “random encounter” at them. By random, I mean deliberately pulled from a list of encounters I have on standby and have familiarized myself with.

It should be an easy encounter to run, but lengthy enough to keep the players occupied for a few minutes while the DM gets his feet back beneath him. An ambush by bandits, orcs, goblins, etc. where all of the enemies fall into either a single skill list or two simply skill lists works very well here. Puzzles or other challenges also work to solve this issue.

In an ideal world, these side treks can form subplots on their own to introduce information that either the players missed or the DM wants to add.

Another thing I do to help me on the fly is to create lists of NPCs that the players may need to interact with; shopkeepers, inn keepers, priests, constables, etc. Names, stats, personality, rumors, jobs/side quests, etc. should also be listed. This way, if the players want to travel back to town because the need to purchase supplies, why not have a wandering tinker pop up with some goods on his cart? He might actually be a wizard in disguise (if one is needed).

Johnn Four

From Skavenhunter

Hi Johnn,

In thinking about the situation, the first question that comes to mind is, “What is the GM good at doing?” Since thinking quickly on his feet isn’t a strong point, what is? (Drawings, planned narratives, maps, short stories, handouts, etc.)

I’d suggest building a strategy based on his strong points to buy a little extra time after encounters. The writer below states “Because it takes him a few extra moments”, so it doesn’t seem like a large amount of time is needed. Pre-planned delaying tactics could be worked into the ends of encounters, to divert the PCs attention for a short time so the GM can gather his thoughts.

Whenever I use handouts, letters, maps, etc. that PCs discover while adventuring, the game pauses for a few minutes as all the players read/examine their finds. If the GM can matchup his strengths with preplanned “delaying handouts” of some sort, this may provide him with the extra time he requires to move the game along.

Example: I believe an earlier reader tip suggested using music lyrics as “scrolls”, rather than just listing a Scroll of “Whatever”. If something similar to this was employed, the players could be puzzling out what spell(s) were on the scroll by reading the lyrics, giving the GM some extra time.

I’m sure if examined from the perspective of delaying tactics, the wealth of RPTs would reveal many more ideas to buy some extra thinking time.

Hopefully this helps!

Johnn Four

From Alan

Hi Johnn,

The GM needs to focus on keeping things simple, therefore requiring less processing time and consequently being faster.

The major steps and varied responses in the progress of the session can be noted down clearly, and broadly put to use.
This might put less stress on him, compared to having to keep coming up with fine-tuned, sophisticated reactions, every time players vigorously deviate from the planned session.

Also, a creativity tool which might be simple enough to help in responding resourcefully impromptu, would be SCAMPER, as explained in this link:

It stands for:
S ubstitute
C ombine
A dapt
M odify
P ut to another use
E liminate
R everse

For example, consider the use of skeletons as undead in a fantasy campaign.

Can they be Substituted with more challenging ghasts?

What about Combining them to create flesh (the weakening stink!) loosely hanging off bones (all stiffs!)?

Or can such ghasts be Adapted to now generate non-tangible fear instead?

What about Modifying rigid skeletons to retain sinews and tendons, making them swifter, more fluid and nimble in movement?

Or else, Put to another use, these are non-fighting skeletons, pressed into cliché mindless labour like cogs and gears in a larger machinery.

And then, what about Eliminating their lower body bones so that they hover in the air, to dive down in attack?

Finally, Reverse could mean that rather than skeletons be the slow, jerky stereotype, a rare, magical variant of actually makes the _characters_ behave so in their presence.

Hope this helps.

Johnn Four

From Scott in Arizona

I haven’t always been good at split-second thinking either. Over the years I got better at it and I think I have nailed down some reasons why. Not all these will apply to all readers like F’s husband, but they’re my own reasons why my quick thinking (or at least the appearance of it) has improved. Also I’ll toss in some thoughts specifically for F.

Get plenty of sleep.

Lack of sleep hurts your memory. The more often you don’t get a full night’s sleep, the worse your memory will get.

Plan effectively.

Using effective planning techniques can improve your awareness of what’s going on in your own game world. RPT has some great links/articles/past newsletters about this subject.

Know your NPCs well.

Knowing “what would happen if” can depend on knowing the personalities and motivations of the NPCs in the world. Maybe a DM with a brain injury can still stay on his game by focusing some of his planning time or just “non-game life” on thinking about the monster/ NPC personalities, backstories and motivations so when the PC’s do something you don’t have to think much about what the monsters or other people in the world would think about it or do in reaction to the PC’s acts.

Make notes.

When designing your encounters, writing well-organized notes, with headings, tabs, flash cards or whatever can greatly increase a DM’s response time when figuring out “what now?”.

Change the game.

Maybe the DM has other systems he knows and likes that he’d be better at with the new paradigm. People change systems many times during their ‘gaming career’, and some play several at once. Maybe a different system would be easier to run.

Be a player.

One thing that has really stuck in my mind from RPT was when someone floated the concept that adventure planning was part of “playing the game”. Plus I’ve noticed that I’m a better DM when I know what it’s like to walk a mile in the player’s shoes every once in a while. I imagine that being a player engages the same cognitive abilities (maybe I’m wrong) as being a DM, at least during game sessions where you have to think about puzzles, traps, monster abilities, and a plethora of other minutia. Maybe being a player for a while will help F’s DM get better at it.

Never Give Up!

If there’s one thing to be learned from RPG characters (and I personally believe there are many) that’s of help here, it’s the tenacity of how the heroes pursue their goals. It may be hard or even seem impossible at the beginning, but if you persevere there’s almost nothing you can’t accomplish somehow.

Johnn Four

From Josh

As much as I hate to be pessimistic about this (not to mention late to the party), I’m going to be pessimistic. If the problems are coming up as a result of physical damage to the brain then it’s going to take a lot more than “tips and tricks” to change it.

Granted, the brain is an amazing organ and can develop workarounds for a lot of deficits resulting from various damage, but as far as I know it’s a much slower process for the frontal lobe (the location of most of our advanced functioning, including planning and strategizing) than for other areas.

I’m not saying that F’s husband will never recover, but it is going to take an awfully long time. Hopefully he has access to a good neuropsych/cognitive rehab provider, because that will certainly help.

In the meantime I would recommend that either someone else take over the GM’s throne for a while, or everyone agrees as a group to adopt a different play style (i.e., moving more slowly from one decision to the next so that F’s husband has the opportunity to adjust his plans accordingly, and maybe having more planning discussions in between sessions so that he has a better idea of what to prepare).

One additional idea – if F’s husband does step down from running the game for a while, find a way to at least keep his GMing brain in shape. For example, after a game session he could brainstorm ideas for how the story is likely to develop based on whatever happened that day, or at least what he would probably do with it if he was in charge. I used to have postgame analyses like this with a friend of mine when we carpooled to and from games, and I always thought it was fun anyway. Add in the potential benefit of brain exercise, and, well, why not?

    Johnn Four

    Josh, do you think GMing could be part of his rehab?


      Potentially, yes. My guess is that what level he’s at now (in terms of rehabilitation, not gaming ;)> ) will influence how much he is able to benefit from it.

David Crowell

I think this more a brain injury problem than a GMing problem. in this case the brain injury is making itself felt most strongly in GMing. While GMing tips and strategies can help, do not overlook tips and strategies for dealing with brain injury.

Has this gentleman discussed GMing and his current issues and problems with his brain injury support team? They may be able to provide insight into what is causing the issues and how to devise work arounds. The GMing issues may also help to illuminate issues of brain function that are otherwise not readilly appearant.

beyond that I think the place to take action is with the gaming group as a whole. Take the time to discuss the situation with them and devise ways that the group can continue to game together in an enjoyable way for all.

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