Tips from the Trenches

by Rana Loreus

How many times has Murphy visited your gaming session and hurls a few Missiles of Murphy or Power Word: Murphy’s Law at you? GMing is a mind-boggling task – there are NPC’s to keep track off, secret dice rolls to make, complex rules to remember and the power-hungry, partially-insane munchkin power-gamer to keep in line. The potential for committing grave mistakes are great.

Right up I will not say, “Don’t worry, read this article and all will be fine!” Rather, basing on my own personal experiences, I have gathered here a miscellaneous collection of things which may go wrong. Forewarned is forearmed.

But first, a friendly disclaimer. Every GM is a totally different, unique individual with his own style of GMing and their own skill-sets. Hence, depending on who you are, some of the items below may more likely inspire a chorus of “Dohs” than gasps of joy and delight due to the discovery of some awesome insights.

1.      An Ounce of Preparation is worth more than a Pound of Agitation

How many times have you heard this? “What’s with all the time-consuming planning? I am the type of GM who flows with the Muse – I will be like a flowing river, able to adapt to any situations the players throw at me.” Without proper preparation, however, it is very likely he will flow as a pool of dark, stagnant water.

A game session requires tones of preparation. Beside the scenario itself, there are character sheets to be printed, dice to be sought, people to be called, and a number of myriad details, depending on what game you are playing and whether miniatures are gracing your gaming table or not. Getting all the logistical details done properly is good for a GM’s emotional health and confidence. Ever got the sinking feeling that you are suppose to bring something all-vital and important, but had forgotten about it? Too much of that could be potentially stressful.

Beside the hard, physical details of the game, there are also the “soft” aspects – the adventure itself. I am the type of GM who loves to details thing out in advance – some GMs I know prefer to leave the details to their spontaneous creativity processes. I am not against GMs who want to “be like flowing river and gliding clouds”, but I believe that preparation is still important for both extremes.

By preparation of the scenario, I don’t mean brain-storming all the possible actions that the players may take, or consulting a psychic hotline to foresee what may happen. What I meant is to gain a general understanding and hone your knowledge about your scenario. Let take your typical defacto dungeon crawl as an example. Say the dungeon is built into an active volcano. Isn’t it a good idea to read up on volcano, the temperature of lava, and the properties of volcanic soil and so on? Let say you plan to have a volcanic eruption during a dramatic battle of epic proportions; will you be hard-pressed to describe what comes out from the volcano beside “fire and lava”?

Isn’t a good idea to brush up on your geography of the area the game is set in? You never know where the players will want to go next, and unless you want to impose your omnipotent wills on them, it’s quite hard to confine players to one small, specific region. There’s no need to remember the specific names of towns or villages, but it helps to understand the geography of the area. For example, say your party decides to head into a coastal region where a famous port is situated, and they wish to find a village inn to rest their feet. Now if you have some idea of what the port is, the general situation of the region (is it filled with bandits?) Is travel safe? Are there any power-mad sorcerers stalking the land?) and so on, you can come up with an imaginary village which fits well into the game world.

Let say that your game takes place in a pseudo-Roman Empire, where culture and events run parallel along the greatRoman Empireof our world. Being prepared would mean reading up on Roman history, understanding their culture, finding out what are common names during those era and so forth, so when you are called to aid-lib you can come up with something convincing and near authentic.

Such research can help you to deal with unexpected actions, and provides juicy materials if you shall decide to wing anything (be it a plot twist, or a NPC, or just some details) on the spur of the moment.

2.      Plot Hooks shall always flows into the Main Plot

Let suppose you are one of those enlightened GMs who has given up beginning a new adventure with the equivalent of the tavern scene… Now, you are faced with the difficulty of drawing your players into your adventure. How? One of the time-honored and tested ways is through plot hooks, and they work fine, but like all things, they can be over done.

One of the most terrible things with plot hooks is that players may take the lure – plot, hook and line – in all one terrible gulp and refuses to let go. The plot hook, which you have so cunningly conceived to draw the player into the main quest, has become the main quest for the player in question. He sees the tree for the forest, and pay scant attention to the main, glorious storyline which you have labored on for so long in secrecy.

Here is how I shot myself in the foot. In order to draw two of my PCs to an area where the adventure takes place, I set one after an errant Sorcerer who has razed her home village, and give an objective for another PC to assassinate. The main plot of the adventure is a mysterious plague which is running unchecked. Unfortunately, the two PCs ignore the plague, and go about seeking their own personal objectives. Undeniably, their own personal agenda is more interesting than the plague.

This also has the side-effects of the PCs going solo, and not working together, for both of them has radically two different goals. One player is obsessed with finding the sorcerer, while the other can only think of ways to assassinate the objective. Of course, with some flexibility, the two plot-lines can be reconciled with the main one, but the main thing is this – the plot hooks work too well.

Hence, when using plot hooks, make sure that the plot hooks do not steal the thunder from the main plot, and shall not be too distinct from the main plot-line. Or be prepared to put the “main plot” on the side-line for a while. For my case, a close friend who has been infected with the plague and is asking a PC to help him is a more subtle and appropriate plot-hook.

If you like to give players side-missions to accomplish, then do make sure that the main plot-line grabs their attention as soon as the game starts.

3.      Don’t Read from the Text (and don’t rely on the Text alone)

No, no, I am not advocating the memorization of the entire module text. Rather, I am encouraging you not to be bound to whatever text the adventure is based on. Here are some justifications.

First, players know when you are reading and when you are talking. When you read, it is hard to maintain eye contact with the players, and your voice may take on a “droning feeling”. Unless you are a professional newsreader, it is difficult to make read text sounds dynamic and interesting.

Second, when you are reading from the module text, it is easy to be bound by the text description. For example, say that a particular scene takes place in the day, but your players are strange fellows – and when the scene finally happens, it is now night. If you read straight from the text, you have to mentally adjust the text to the situation. What if you come across an incompatible description half-way through the text?

This happens to me. A group of soldiers were beating up on an old man, and so one of the PC cast a Darkness spell to confuse the group. When the soldiers have left, I began reading from the description however how villagers with lanterns went to help the old man, before remembering that there was a magical darkness in the area.

Third, the module text is mixed with stuff that you needs when GMing, and extras which you ought to have read and understand beforehand. Back in schools, when we learnt about doing presentations (such as to introduce a new product, or a topic of any sort), it is a bad idea to bring the entire textbook or script out to the front. One reason is because it is unwieldy. In the case of the book, the information which you need may be buried within a dense block of paragraphs. In the case of the script, you may be tempted to read from it.

The same reasons apply to GMing too. The module text may be filled with information which you don’t need at the moment. The description of the room may be intermixed with the information on how the secret door behind the painting of the skeletal Mona Lisa could be opened, which you do not need at the moment.

All right, so if we abolish the use of module text, what then? Do we expect GMs to remember everything? No, but I am suggesting that GMs shall keep a list of key-points before him. So instead of a whole description of a room, the GM list down the most eye-catching and important features in point-form, with short snippets of descriptive text, and link them together on the spur of the moment. This helps the GM to, at a glance, decide which details to keep and which to omit. A summary can be scanned and processed by the mind faster than a page full of text and irrelevant information.

Of course, this calls for more work, on the GM’s part. But it helps to keep the presentation smooth, and free you from the tyranny of the module text.

4.      Be fluent with the use of any extra accessories

With the advent of technology, laptops and PDAs have found their niche among the world of table top role-playing. Accessories need not to be high-tech too. A CD player hooked up to a set of speakers can provide atmospheric music which is excellent in setting the mood of the game.

Whatever extra “accessory” you employ in your game, it is important to remember that the game is about the game, not the cool gadget. You shall not draw too much attention to the gadget. Oh, I do not mean that you cannot say, “Oh, behold the cool stuff which I have set up for our gaming pleasure!” I am meaning that whatever cool gadget you are using, it must not distract the players. There are two likely situations when this could happen.

The first is when the gadget is not working at all. If you panic and flutter, making a scene out of it, it may upset the players and make them nervous, especially if you have no back-up plans. Losing your cool is not good for your composure too, especially since GMing can kill quite a lot of your brain cells in just one day. Or even worse, some aspects of the game may depend on the gadget. For example, if you decide to eschew the sheer joy of rolling dice physically and opt for an electronic number generator instead, your game will be severely crippled if the generator doesn’t work at all. In such cases, always think of a back-up plan. Are you using Microsoft PowerPoint to simulate a “Mission Impossible” style briefing? Great, but prepare some paper hand-outs too increase the power is down for the day and your laptop has not power supply left.

The second is when the gadget is working, but you are not experienced with its use. You may end up with errors, pointless delays when you try to get to the right menu or to choose the correct setting. All this could lead to long stretches of waiting which may cast doubts on the validity of the cool, expensive gadget. When this happens, you are drawing the player’s attention away from the game to the gadget which now dominates your attention and which is now the cause of many hiccups. Worse, you may even lose your temper at your cool gadget and this may cause unnecessary tension among the group. (After all, if the GM is god, and the GM is angry, how would the players fare?)

When a cool gadget works, it shall blend seamlessly into the gaming experience. Hence, when deploying a gadget, make sure you are prepared for it. Let take the example of the simple and humble CD-Player. Do you know what tracks you wish to play? Can you locate the PAUSE or FORWARD button in a pitch? Have you found the optimal volume for the music?

Of course, when trying out something new with your gaming group, it is good idea to hold a few trials first, to see if it really meshes with your gaming style. Some players I knew took an affront to the dice-rolling program on my PDA – they rather see me rolling the dice than to tap the screen with my stylus.

5.      Spend as little time on dice as possible

Pareto’s Law basically states that in a process, 80% of the delay is due to 20% of the factors. When it comes to gaming, one of the main causes of delay could be the dice.

Dice are our one of the most time-honored tools of our trade. With it we decide life and death, destiny and fate, black and white. This handy little device, however, could be capacious at times, but can be tamed with little efforts.

What are the problems with the dice? Well, they can slip off the table and roll wildly about. It takes some time to generate a random number with the dice. How can we smoothen the process of using dice?

One thing which I do is to set a cardboard box, or a bowl, in the centre of the table and insists the players to roll their dice into the container. This way, we eliminate the problem of dice falling off the table. Another way, albeit more drastic, is to switch to a gaming system which uses only one type of dice (a d10, in our case). Having to pick out a d8 takes some time when it is mixed around with a whole mess of d12 and d10, unless you have been role-playing for years.

Depending on your game, you can also combine some dice rolls. For example, in D20, you can roll your combat roll and damage dice together, instead of rolling to see if you hit your opponent, and then rolling the damage dice to determine the amount of damage done. It helps if you have dice of different-color, so you can specify which dice is for the to-hit, and which is for the damage.

Another idea is to eliminate dice with pre-rolled dice charts. With those charts, you can grab a random number out from the thin air anytime and any when. Of course, some players may take affront to this as well, so be sure to consult your players. What I would suggest is to pre-roll random numbers for situations which call for numerous dice rolls. For example, in D20, say you are pitting five NPC’s against the players, so you would have to make 5 Initiative Rolls. You can streamline the process by pre-rolling the five Initiative Rolls first.

If an aspect of the rules calls for a roll of many dice (consider the “Overpowered Death Spell 101” which does 100d4 points of damage), change the rules to streamline the dice-rolling. Instead of rolling one hundred D4, change it to a roll of 1d10 x 1d10 x d4. Now, a rules lawyer may point out the probability chart for 100d4 and d10 x d10 x d4 is different -yes, that’s true, but the time needed to roll 100d4 is also vastly different from the alternative.

6.      Be sure to provide enough information to keep the game going

Open-ended gaming has many merits – it has the potential of crafting creative, unexpected storylines and providing a most satisfying gaming experience, as opposed to a “railroad” game. However, it can also be a recipe for boredom of an epic proportion.

In an open-ended game, the PCs have more freedom than in a game where the plot is fixed and railroaded. Hence, you must be prepared to give the PCs enough information to give a sense of purpose, regardless of their actions. Without a sense of purpose, the PCs may wander about in circles, being bored to tears.

Have you ever play a computer role-playing game when suddenly the plot abruptly cuts off, leaving you scratching your head in bewilderment? You have no direction where to go next or what to do, and so you started visiting all the towns in the game, hoping to trigger off the next scripted sequence which will propel the plot forward. This could happen in a pen and paper game too.

As the PCs have freedom as to where they want to go, and to whom they wish to speak to, they may at times miss out on some terribly important events which you have masterfully scripted, or bypass a clue which you have so brilliantly planted. They may ignore crucial NPC’s helpful to their cause or choose a fork in the road which brings them somewhere less interesting. That’s the price of freedom and that where your flexibility have to make up for. Ensure wherever the PCs go, the PCs have enough information to carry on the game, lest they end up just wandering about, just waiting for something to happen.

One such example could be a typical dungeon crawl. Say within theTempleofCertain Doomthere is a locked door which behind it lays a vital artifact to the quest. You have devised a fiendish puzzle to ward the door, and the PCs, for all their worth and mettle, could not solve it.

Now imagine, what if, due to the amount of freedom in the game, they have missed an all-important clue which states that the artifact could be found behind the door. Your PCs may spend a few minutes on the door, then give up, and proceed to spend the rest of the day combing the dungeon for the artifact.

(Some GMs, at this point, may snicker at the worthless party of hapless adventurers, thinking that they are getting what they deserved. True, the party may not be the brightest sparks around and if you feel its fun to gloat at them, go ahead. However, the players will not find this fun, or funny.)

If the PCs know, or realize, that the artifact lies behind the door, then they may seek ways to open the door. But what if, due to the freedom you have given to them, they have overlooked an important clue in solving the puzzle? They may wander all over the place, trying to look for something which can help them, but not being sure what it is actually.

There are two ways the above problems could be solved. One relies on the GM’s ingenuity, the other on the GM’s planning. If the players have freedom, likewise so do the GM. To preserve the flow of the game, you may have to change details on the moment. So the players can’t solve the Fiendish Locked Door Puzzle? Hell, open a new route which test some other skills beside their defective intelligent. Or perhaps drop in a clue the next time they search another spot. Being flexible is a prerequisite for open-ended games.

The other depends on the GM’s planning skill – make sure there are plenty of clues scattered about, and indications as to where help could be found. For the case of the Fiendishly Locked Door Puzzle, you could maybe leave a plaque which says “This Puzzle is Courtesy of the Great Wizard Merlin”. Hence, the players, knowing that Merlin the Wizard is the one who crafted the Locked Door Puzzle, can then start looking for more information regarding Merlin, hoping that they may unearth something which helps.

There is a vast difference between wandering clueless about and following a lead. The latter gives a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, while the former is likely to inspire agitation and frustration.

The examples may be contrived, but they apply in lot of other cases. Throughout the game, always evaluate the amount of information which you have given to the players. Are those enough to give the PCs an idea of what to do next? If not, step in and drop a lead so the plot may continue.

7.      Avoid extended, gratuitous sequences of character introduction

It is evident that you have expended time and effort in your NPC development. Each of them features a portrait, a bio several pages long and a detailed write-up about their personality, their family tree and how many times they bath each day. However detailed your NPC may be, do not have too many scenes which purpose is just to introduce NPC’s.

There are some characters that could just go by generic labels, such as “The old innkeeper”, “the young barmaid” and “the scruffy captain of the guards”. Yes, we shall prepare details for those NPC’s, but it doesn’t mean that we shall dump that information on the hapless players all at once, especially if they are not interested in those minor characters. No matter how excited you are about this “cool NPC” which you have labor on, it is the players in the end who chose who they will interact with. and how much they want to know about the NPC.

Try to spread out important NPC’s across the game, if possible. Having too many of them appearing at the same time confuses the players – they have to remember names, who they are, what happened when they were around and what they want. If possible, include them, but do not spend too much time on introducing them.

It so happened once that I spent an hour to introduce about five NPC’s in succession and at the game of the session, a player remarks that it was like watching an episode of a Soap Opera series. Perhaps he had “Days of our Dungeons” in mind.

8.      Don’t say “No” too quickly

How easy it is to tell the players, “No, you can’t do that” or “This course of action is unacceptable. Try something else.” Definitely, there are times when players wish to try out some hare-brained schemes, but most of the time, saying “No” too quickly can kill the potential of neat role-playing moments.

There are two cases when GMs would say “No” to a PC. One is when the PC is trying to achieve something impossible. For example, a PC may be trying to lift a lever which is, to the GM’s knowledge, stuck and impervious to all force. The GM could just dismiss the PC’s attempt by saying, “No, the lever is stuck”. But wouldn’t it be better if the GM takes the opportunity to introduce more role-playing moments? Instead of saying “No” straight away, the GM could ask the PC to attempt a dice roll. That may even encourages the PCs to work together, devising a method to pull the lever and at the same time giving the idea that the PCs have the ability to influence events and objects around them. You can, of course, state how difficult the action could be. “The Orc Warlock is too far away for your longbow, but you can still try if you wish to” sounds much better than a “No, you are out of range”.

Even if you are not going to let the PC succeeds at the task, you can take the opportunity to add details to the environment. For example, instead of a flat “The lever is stuck”, you could have the PC to roll the dice, and on a success, have the PC to rip off the lever, revealing the pivot which has been long rusted and rotted away. This is vastly superior to a direct rejection.

Of course, if the PCs put in much sweat and effort in trying to achieve the impossible, you may want to consider rewarding the PCs for their persistence and creativity. You must also be prepared for unexpected moments. When if the PC rolls a critical success while shooting at the Warlock who is supposed to be out of range? What if someone comes up with an ingenious solution which you never thought off?

The second case when a GM will say “No” is to preserve the plot which he has in mind. For example, it may be the GM’s intention for the PCs to be ensnared by a net, and hence are captured, so that the next scripted sequence could begin. But PCs, being the ingenious lots which they are, may come up with various creative ways to escape from the net. So the GM rejects any attempts to escape, railroading the PCs.

While that is a valid course of action, it could be more fun to play along with the players, and subdue them in ways which they truly defeated, not just merely led along by a scripted sequence.

A personal example is during a game, a Sorcerer pretended to be a harmless old man. Along the way, he suffered a fall, and a kind NPC offered to help him back. One of the PCs, who is a healer, attempted to follow the Old Man back. But fearful that the PC may discover the Old Man for whom he really is (it is still too early for the Dramatic Confrontation,), I refused blatantly.

Now looking back, it might be better if I let the PC followed the Old Man back, and developed an interesting encounter which leaves the PC guessing and wondering, instead of just rejecting his action outright.

Usually, GMs who say “No” in such cases have a highly-structured plot and planned script in mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for those who prefer running a more open-ended, spontaneous game, consider twice before you say “No”. Instead, think, how could you turn the PC’s sudden and unexpected action to your advantage?

9.      Always have a Map for the Players

In the days of yore, players are expected to bring their own graph paper and draw their own maps. Not that it is a bad practice – it’s always good to keep track of where you are when you are exploring uninhabited tombs or dragon caves. However, maps do exists for a reasonable number of locations, and it may not be a good to demand players to map those locations too.

Take for example, a teeming, thriving port-city. Maps for such places are likely to exist, and so naturally the PCs would want to get their hand on one. Or perhaps the PCs find themselves in a remote village, and asks a local villager to sketch a primitive, but effective, map of the surroundings.

Since PCs are always asking for maps, isn’t it much better to prepare it for them before they ask for it? Maps which are reasonable to give to PCs include maps of settlements, of the region and the country. They don’t have to be vastly detailed – just to give the PCs a rough idea of where things are in relative to each other.

Maps are also usefully to give PCs a sense of direction. Imagine, at the beginning of a city-based adventure, the PCs have no clue what to go next. With a single glance at the map, the PCs can find out what are the prominent locations in town and whether those places would hold clues for the PCs or not.

10. Use the “Show, don’t tell” rule judiciously

Of the top ten tips for beginning writers, one of the most often stated is “Show, don’t tell”. It is an excellent guideline to live by, and helps to promote the atmosphere of the game, but there’s a minor problem.

In the game, the GM transmits information by speech, and at times it is hard for players to remember so many details. For a written material where the reader can back-track to re-read sentences, “show and don’t tell” is a good rule to abide by. However, role-playing games use the medium of speech to communicate, and hence keep it as simple as possible.

Don’t use “Show, don’t tell” on everything – use it for important, significant NPC’s or events. Beware of information overload! At times, sparse descriptions could invoke a vivid atmosphere as well.

Also, when using “Show, don’t tell”, consider breaking the descriptions into various segments, so that players can digest them easier and faster. Each description shall allow the players to draw one set of conclusions about the NPC, or the area.

A relative of tip #10 is this — Consider “Show and Tell” from times to times. Let say you have the players have a run in with a raiding party of “short humanoids with pale, green diseased skin, their fang-like teeth gleaming in the torchlight, with curved scimitars and barbed clubs in their hands”. Would the PCs know what those are?

It is unlikely that the players are not able to recognized goblins, but for good measure (and since goblins are so easily recognizable) you might as well tell the PCs what they are. Just keep in mind that for all your detailed descriptions, the PCs may just be unable to catch just what on heck you are describing, so be prepared to tell them as well.


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