How to Keep Your Story and Campaign Consistent

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0530

A Brief Word From Johnn

Assassin’s Amulet Unleashed

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I’m off now to prep for tomorrow night’s Riddleport game and to get a good night’s sleep. A well-rested GM is a creative GM.

How to Keep Your Story and Campaign Consistent

In RPT#522, Tristan made this reader tip request:

I am new to being a GM and have only been running a D&D campaign for about 6 weeks now.

Keep your stories consistent

I’m a high schooler and have convinced some friends who have never played before to play.

Due to schoolwork and activities it is hard to get everyone to come all together, which makes it difficult to keep a story going.

What should I do to get a story or campaign to stay consistent? And how do I manage PCs when they are gone?

Several readers wrote in with great tips. Thanks very much!

Tristan, I hope the following advice helps you out. Good luck with your campaign.

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Here’s A List Of Possible Reasons

From Dan,

Come up with a list of things a PC might be doing while his player isn’t at the session. Even better, make sure you can introduce the PC mid-game if the player shows up late.

For example, a PC can oversleep. To the remaining players, just say, “Binkie the Elf oversleeps, so you pin a note to his shirt and set off for the dungeon without him.” If the player shows up later, you can say, “A door behind you bursts open and you see Binkie leap out, into the fray, his sword drawn. Roll a d20!”

There are a bunch of other things that a PC might be doing without his player:

  • Scouting ahead
  • Guarding the rear
  • Guarding the party’s camp
  • Giving orders (“Go to the dungeon. I’ll supervise from here!”)
  • Simply missing (“Can’t find Binkie; let’s go without him.”)
  • On a personal adventure (“Binkie had to help his mom.”)
  • Being trained or training somebody else
  • Talking to the King or some other VIP
  • Taking the long way around
  • Tracking a monster
  • Sick or hung-over
  • Wounded or limping
  • Repairing equipment
  • Visiting an oracle or sage

If a player is gone for a while, you can briefly explain, “Binkie says, ‘The orcs have attacked my hometown so I must leave, my friends. Fare thee well!” Then, if the player returns, “‘Hail, my good friends! My hometown is safe and we can take up our fellowship again!'”

With some practice, a GM can become good at inventing useful explanations for the PCs of absent players.

By briefly using the PCs as NPCs, you can also keep the story going.

Even if the PC is vital to the story, with practice a GM can come up with some explanation why he isn’t with the party or needs to leave the party.

In time, you’ll be able to smoothly insert and remove PCs from the game with a variety of explanations. The other players will even wonder whether you planned them all along.

You can also use the excuses as opportunities to make your story fuller: when the PC returns, he can give a brief report about things that are happening offstage in your campaign.

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Create A Campaign Chronology

From Jeremy

A campaign chronology that says what each player did on a certain game date helps.

Developing some out-of-game email correspondence also helps. We send the dwarf and the wizard to investigate legends in the local village while we plunge on into the dungeon. Gives a good deus ex machina reason why the other characters suddenly reappear.

One meta game thing I’ve seen done is that the missing PCs are present but incredibly dumb. They’re guarding the rear, feeling poorly or are stone miniatures. They don’t contribute unless the GM needs a voice in the party, and they’re basically non-entities. But when their player returns they become active.

Another possibility is to revolve the campaign around any steady players that are always there and use the others are supporting guys.

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Work That Trapdoor, Baby!

From Loz Newman

One way to handle campaigns with sometimes absent players is to use it to your advantage. Set up an over-arching organisation, mentor or academy that “selects agents to fit the mission.”

The PCs currently at the table aren’t the only ones capable of fulfilling the mission goal. The story becomes broader, and thus can take hits and keep on coming back for more.

The mission goal is now set by the Organisation, and thus out of the players’ hands. In reality, the players set up their plans and – my, what a coincidence! – they exactly match the Organisation’s plans.

DMs may take the occasion to insert a bit of common sense or impose minor secondary mission goals improvised to give specific PCs a chance to shine.

Sometimes it’s a real stretch to justify why PC A is included, and vastly-more qualified PC B isn’t. Players should accept this as an attempt to give an acceptable in-game reason for an absent player’s PC not being around.

  • “He’s off chasing down a lead.”
  • “He’ll join you later.”
  • “He’s having / had travel problems.”

If the scenario is a follow-on to the previous campaign, this can be hard to explain. So, there is only one possible solution: a cosmic trapdoor swallowed him whole and spat out the PC who’s taking his place!

“He was teleported in by a friendly mage/Mad Scientist, but unfortunately the Resonantial mass-swap Zarkoff Hyper-curve Trapdoor-Rebound-effect exchanged him with PC A. Dang, we’ve got to get that bug ironed out someday! Oh, well, no help for it. Let’s get started, we’re running out of time!”

SUIM (“Shut Up, It’s Magic!”), which means “Don’t Waste Time Looking For An Explanation, Let’s Get Our Game On!” If logic gets in the way, it’s going to get steamrollered.

I used this technique during an eight-year-long Knights of Saint Seiya game, and it worked without a hitch, all the time, every time. The players and the GMs wanted it to work, so that all the players could get maximum in-game fun. And that’s the goal.

Long live the Cosmic Trapdoor!

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Let Players Run The Absent Player’s Character

From Biff

Most of my players are older and we have jobs and families. Sometimes work overtakes play, so we run into this problem often. What works best for us is to let the players run the absent players characters. I like to keep some things secret (stats, alignment) so I don’t give them full-blown character sheets but just the basics.

This helps me by allowing my players to have everyone still work as a team. And it takes a lot of the burden off of me.

However, I do not let players use the PC as fodder, and it’s known that at any time I can veto what a PC does under the direction of the group if it goes against the PC’s historical actions or I think the PC is being abused.

Also, I let the absent player know that his character will be played and that they won’t be getting any XP, but will still be along for the ride and usually the rest if the players share the spoils with them.

The alternative I’ve found is to run the PC myself, but that can get tiresome and frustrating because I have enough to keep up with running the game.

This has also worked, I might add, with a party NPC that was created in the early days of the game to give the characters some extra muscle and I just forgot to have him leave when the characters could deal with fights better on their own. Our party wizard usually runs the character so that, when he’s out of spells or in a fight he isn’t very effective in, he can still join the group and not just sit and watch.

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Give Them A Quiet Exit

From Stuart

When I was in high school, I just quietly had a character exit at the first opportunity, typically because I didn’t feel comfortable running someone else’s character. PCs always had individual goals, so it was a simple matter of facilitating a character’s exit and then allowing them to complete a personal goal whenever there was time.

I still prefer the quiet exit tactic whenever possible. In a more recent occult horror game, a missing player’s character mysteriously disappeared, returning with missing time and a synthetic kidney that helped reinforce the UFOlogy theme of the game.

You have a few other options, though. Some GMs take control of the character for the session, trying to make fair decisions while the player is absent. Others just have the character in the background (The Gamers by Dead Gentlemen Productions shows this trope in action).

Even though it’s not something I would be inclined to use, I think I may have come around to the Occam’s Razor approach used during D&D Encounters sessions. Since these are played at game shops and do have not the benefit of a guaranteed player base from one session to the next, any player absences are simply ignored.

The game continues with whoever arrives that session, and people who drop in and out are just brought up to speed at the next session. While this may not be the best option in terms of the narrative, I’ve found it actually works if everyone is amenable.

Additionally, it works nicely in situations where gaming time is limited and the extra narrative time necessary to explain an absence would be a liability.

Get your players together and discuss what’s best for all. Maybe they’re all right with letting you play their characters until a given character can make his or her exit. Maybe they’re all right with the idea of glossing over player absences. These are all things to consider.

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At The Will Of A Patron

From Chad

This is a chronic problem in face-to-face gaming. School, work or family obligations often interfere with regular attendance at scheduled gaming sessions.

Over the years , borrowing something I picked up playing Champions (where it can be purchased when building a character) and RuneQuest (where it was pretty much a given part of character background) I have developed a fairly genre-independent technique for addressing unpredictable player attendance.

From the outset, as part of their individual backstories (or in the case of Tristan’s already-underway game, as a specific adventure hook) I contrive to have each member of the PC party be a member of some more-or-less-powerful organization to whom the character has a part-time obligation.

This organization, in exchange for being an occasional source of information and logistical support for adventuring activities, can in turn be expected to demand the services of one or more of the PCs with little warning or opportunity for avoidance.

The PCs can all be members of the same organization (this goes a long way toward explaining how they know each other and why they are hanging out together in the first place) or for experienced or bold GMs, different – even rival – organizations (cf. Paranoia’s obligatory Secret Societies, for example).

Professional guilds, fraternal orders, temples and sects make excellent benefactors of this type. I have had the most success with the technique in a science fiction setting using the vagaries of Traveller’s Scout Service to shanghai individual “Detached Duty” Scout player characters. I had steered all the players into choosing this as a background with tales of exciting adventure and the lure of a free starship.

This sort of thing worked just as well for RuneQuest, RuneLords and RuneMasters back in the day. When the pantheon calls, the faithful must answer promptly or else there will be a reckoning. The Powers That Be know what they are doing, no matter how important the current adventure might seem to the PCs at the moment.

This then provides a handy excuse for any player (or players) who could not participate in that week’s chapter: duty has called them away to attend to official business. Upon player return in a subsequent gaming session, they might even bring with them new characters and new plot threads.

This is an excellent way to bring new players into the group. Have the relevant someone concoct a brief backstory of how the newbie and the absent character went on this awesome mission together. They became colleagues, and oh, by the way, heard this interesting rumor or found a mysterious clue that seems like it might have something to do with what the rest of the party has been up to in the meantime.

This works equally well for introducing all types of new NPCs.

The point is to build (or in the present case, add) something into the background of the characters, both individually and as a group, that provides a limited benefit to their adventuring activities in exchange for an occasional time-consuming obligation. Then use meeting that obligation as the reason for a character needing to sit out a session or two.

The downside is that this forces a bit of extra planning on the part of the GM. Each gaming session needs to be a somewhat self-contained chapter. And it must end with the characters at some place or other from which party members might reasonably be split off or re-join.

The effort is worth it, though, if it keeps the overall story moving forward.

A steady NPC presence can facilitate continuity in this regard. It can be helpful to provide some puppet the GM can use to keep driving the plot forward, even if said plot tends to wander all over the map as such things are apt to do when player-characters are involved.

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d100 Spring Current Events

01-12 Nothing
13 Alliance Offer
14 Ancient Ruin Discovered
15-20 Banditry
21-25 Border Dispute
26-30 Bumper Crop
31 Charlatan
32-34 Clashes At Sea
35 Corruption Discovered
36 Crop Blight
37 Earthquake
38 Enemy Leader Rises
39 Extreme Manpower Shortage
40 Fire
41-49 Flood
50 Foreign Emissary
51 Founding Of An Order
52 Guild War
53 Heresy
54 Holy Man Emerges
55-56 Hunnar Raids
57-58 Important Birth
59-60 Important Marriage
61 Inactive War
62 Inflation
63 Inspiring Artist
64-65 Livestock Rustlers
66-69 Manpower Shortage
70 Meteorite Strike
71 Mysterious Beast
72 New Artistic Movement
73 New Resource Discovered
74 Organized Crime
75 Peasant Rebellion
76-80 Pirate Raids
81-84 Plague
85 Protest
86-88 Refugees
89 Shocking Crime
90 Signs In The Sky
91-93 Storm At Sea
94 Tornado
95 Treasure Found
96 Tribute
97 Unauthorized Conscription
98 Unexpected Guests
99 Volcano Erupts
100 Witch Hunt

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d100 Summer Current Events

01-10 Nothing
11 Alliance Offer
12 Ancient Ruin Discovered
13-20 Banditry
21-28 Border Dispute
29 Charlatan
30-32 Clashes At Sea
33 Corruption Discovered
34 Crop Blight
35-39 Drought
40 Earthquake
41 Enemy Leader Rises
42 Fire
43-49 Flood
50 Foreign Emissary
51 Founding Of An Order
52 Guild War
53 Heresy
54 Holy Man Emerges
55-56 Hunnar Raids
57-58 Important Birth
59-60 Important Marriage
61 Inactive War
62 Inflation
63 Inspiring Artist
64-67 Livestock Rustlers
68 Meteorite Strike
69 Mysterious Beast
70 New Artistic Movement
71-72 New Resource Discovered
73 Organized Crime
74 Peasant Rebellion
75-77 Pirate Raids
78-84 Plague
85 Protest
86-88 Refugees
89 Shocking Crime
90 Signs In The Sky
91-92 Storm At Sea
93 Tornado
94 Treasure Found
95 Tribute
96-97 Unauthorized Conscription
98 Unexpected Guests
99 Volcano Erupts
100 Witch Hunt

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d100 Autumn Current Events

01-18 Nothing
19 Alliance Offer
20 Ancient Ruin Discovered
21-24 Baby Boom
25-29 Banditry
30 Border Dispute
31-34 Bumper Crop
35 Charlatan
36-40 Clashes At Sea
41 Corruption Discovered
42 Crop Blight
43 Earthquake
45 Enemy Leader Rises
46 Extreme Manpower Shortage
47-49 Fire
50 Foreign Emissary
51 Founding Of An Order
52 Guild War
53 Heresy
54 Holy Man Emerges
55-56 Hunnar Raids
57-58 Important Birth
59-60 Important Marriage
61 Inactive War
62 Inflation
63 Inspiring Artist
64-65 Livestock Rustlers
66-71 Manpower Shortage
72 Meteorite Strike
73 Mysterious Beast
74 New Artistic Movement
75-78 New Resource Discovered
79 Organized Crime
80 Peasant Rebellion
81-88 Pirate Raids
89 Plague
90 Protest
91 Refugees
92 Shocking Crime
93 Signs In The Sky
94-95 Storm At Sea
96 Treasure Found
97 Tribute
98 Unexpected Guests
99 Volcano Erupts
100 Witch Hunt

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d100 Winter Current Events

01-20 Nothing
21 Alliance Offer
22-27 Avalanche
28-31 Banditry
32-36 Blizzard
37 Border Dispute
38-45 Brutal Winter
46 Charlatan
47 Clashes At Sea
48 Corruption Discovered
49 Earthquake
50 Enemy Leader Rises
51-58 Fire
59 Foreign Emissary
60 Founding Of An Order
61 Guild War
62 Heresy
63 Holy Man Emerges
64-68 Hunnar Raids
69-74 Ice Clan Raids
75-77 Important Birth
78 Inactive War
79 Inflation
80 Inspiring Artist
81-83 Manpower Shortage
84 Meteorite Strike
85-87 Mysterious Beast
88 New Artistic Movement
89 New Resource Discovered
90 Organized Crime
91-93 Protest
94 Refugees
95 Shocking Crime
96 Signs In The Sky
97 Storm At Sea
98 Tribute
99 Unexpected Guests
100 Volcano Erupts

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One More Tip

Game Master Philosophy

From Jeremy

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m not sure it’s useful as it seems awfully basic. However, it seems worth sharing because I’ve known a lot of GMs who never had a coherent background philosophy and it hurt their games.

What’s your philosophy of running a tabletop game?

Having a coherent set of guidelines for yourself as game master can help a lot in choosing adventures, monsters, traps and role-playing challenges for your group.

Use these simple questions to help define your philosophy:

  1. What sort of environment does your story take place in? Is everything random? Semi-random? Carefully planned?
  2. Does your environment support the characters, challenge the characters, or both?
  3. Do character actions have a meaningful impact on the environment?
  4. Does the environment have any laws that differ from the laws of our universe?
  5. Are your character’s regular joes or heroic types?
  6. Are the dice weighted in the character’s favor or is the universe unforgiving?
  7. Should the characters trust the GM? If not, why not?

There may be other major questions to answer as well, but the above is a starting point.

Below I will include my own personal answers to all of these. I do not claim that my way is the best or only way to run a game. But in my gaming group, we’ve found it is the way that works best for us.

[Comment from Johnn: This is a great tip, Jeremy. I think you just nailed it there. Find a way of playing that works best for you as GM and your group.

Don’t worry about what the books say or what others say. Find your own way that maximizes fun as per your unique group.]

This isn’t to say we’ve never had a total party kill or that I haven’t done nasty evil things to my characters. In fact, I’m rather famous for it.

However, I try to make my nastiness build the characters’ abilities or roleplaying potential rather than destroying them.

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Campaign Worlds

The campaign world should have some logical coherence.

Things happen for reasons, and the events of the current epoch, no matter how entangled, can be traced back to causes in the past.

This one is tricky. I wanted a world that made sense, had as few intelligent races as possible, and that explained odd habits of those races. I have backstory to explain the propensity of dwarves and goblins to live underground for instance.

However, I found that if I wished to retain fantasy creatures without altering every single one, that same logic went out the window.

For the most part, the history of my world informs the present, and it is less heavily populated than some worlds I’ve played in.

Periodically, the world faces dire trouble on either a micro or a macro level and heroes must step forward to right the balance.

Characters shouldn’t be only worried about their own skins.

I’ve found that if players have a large goal to focus on, they tend to have something to work toward even if they are stalled on personal goals or can’t think of any.

This provides a means to having such a goal, and it ties in with my character philosophy below.

Lip service should be paid to realism, but only when it serves the purposes of story.

If an unrealistic twist is necessary and a semi-realistic or magical explanation can be found to cause it, then realism should be thrown out the window.

One of the strengths of H. P. Lovecraft’s work as a horror writer was that he scrupulously held to a realistic depiction of his characters-until the big monster appeared and screwed everything up.

In the same way, much of the appeal of stories such as those by Robert E. Howard or J. R. R. Tolkien and others is an adherence to realism. There is magic, there are odd events, but the general world works as ours does and people’s motives are the same.

This rule gives characters a firm platform to work from and doesn’t leave them adrift.

Nothing should happen randomly.

I like random events and wandering monsters, but more often than not they confuse or screw up the characters. The wrong random event puts players on a false trail, and a bad wandering encounter can ruin an adventure.

I gave up on them except in special situations. If I want a random encounter feel, I create encounter points in an adventure with a random selection of events and creatures that can occur there. Then I roll to see which one appears.

This might seem like the same idea: random event or creature appears. However, because I choose to have it at this specific point, my characters have a means to retreat, I carefully screen the possibilities, and I have the illusion of randomness without having a truly catastrophic random event.

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The characters are heroes; they are larger than life.

I’ve played both sides of the screen on this one and with both sorts of characters. The regular joe bit is neat in that it shows the entire arc of a hero’s journey. However, there’s also wasted time and effort getting the skills and knowledge necessary to become a hero.

If the player is honest, the joe character isn’t immediately useful for adventuring life, and casualty rates can skyrocket. Heroes are more durable, more capable of dealing with what they confront, and often have abilities specifically geared to stop a particular menace.

We also play fantasy, science fiction and horror games to get away from our lives. Playing a regular person lost in a dangerous and scary situation is far too much like the real world for my taste.

Though they may face adversity, the heroes will win through in the end.

I admit it: I’m one of these soft touch DMs that try and save my characters. However, my players know that just because I am nice, I don’t hold back from doing evil and nasty things to them.

If they are stupid, I take advantage of it immediately. However, the story is about the characters. An author doesn’t suddenly decide to kill off a main character lightly. Neither should a DM.

Character deaths happen, and even total party kills, but these should be worked into the story if possible, and should be avoided at all costs, in my opinion. They cause more problems than they’re worth. They also spoil the fantasy for most people (see above).

The game master must create an environment of trust.

This doesn’t mean that heroes cannot suffer from their own stupidity, but it also means the game master should not set up impossible situations (without a good story-driven reason).

My players know I am not out to get them, I do not take out my feelings on their characters and I try to give them a way out of even in the most hopeless situations.

That isn’t to say if they walk unprepared into a situation or behave stupidly I will not take advantage of it. I have sliced off character hands, turned characters into semi- vampires and done other nasty things.

However, my players know there are story reasons behind these things, and often the characters become better for it. The trust between GM and players is the most important thing a GM can ever earn. If there’s an environment of trust at the table, almost anything can be salvaged.

The actions the characters take can have a lasting impact upon the campaign world.

My players know when they accomplish something it will live on after them in the campaign world. Sometimes I’ll have a little fun with them, such as bringing a super-intelligent computer villain back into multiple settings as a magic-wielding maniac, the “god machine” of a primitive tribe of starship crash survivors, or as an ally against super-villains.

In a similar way, a friend invokes a shape-shifting assassin by name in his games whenever a tricky character seems ubiquitous and always two jumps ahead of the characters. It’s not that character, but his name invokes the sort of character we have to deal with.

If the players cannot change the campaign world, the GM is not playing fair. A cooperative story involves everyone, not just the GM and his world and his storyline.

Johnn’s Answers

I thought I’d take your advice, Jeremy, and answer your questions for myself for my Riddleport campaign.

What sort of environment does your story take place in?

A pirate city undergoing social upheaval as merchants and scholars now outnumber the crusty pirate crews. All that is overshadowed by the mysterious Cypher gate coming to life for the first time is living memory.

Does your environment support or challenge the characters?

PC Support

The PCs own a well-fortified inn. They rest here, gather intelligence from patrons and defend their resources from enemies in the stout building.

They also have a crime lord patron who provides money, contacts or items upon request – after some negotiation and payment, of course.

The PCs also have a growing reputation, especially in their own district. This makes sundry resources free to them, and makes use of social skills much easier.

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PC Challenges

The average NPC level of Riddleport is level 8. The PCs are level 7 now and are almost at the power level you’d consider to be normal for the start of a campaign. This means the characters have had to be cautious in their city dealings.

Everybody is a jerk. That sums up the NPC philosophy of this campaign. Truth is, in a city without trust it’s every pirate for himself. That means people are always on the defensive and always thinking about angling things for personal benefit. It also means you never trust the first answer.

Factions threaten the PCs at every corner. It’s only safe to travel in numbers and to watch your back in every encounter.

This makes typical city encounters that would normally be simple much more interesting and difficult. You can’t just walk into a tavern – you have to be ready to defend yourself against rivals and opportunity seekers.

Until now, the campaign was sandbox. So, another challenge was group decision-making. However, I’ve switched to doing more top-down plotting, which I also enjoy, for Season Two of the campaign at the request of my group.

Do character actions have a meaningful impact on the environment?

At this point, no. But they are free to do so anytime. If they want to burn down the city, or clean it up, or wipe out a faction, they can do that.

PCs in my campaign always affect recurring NPCs. However, so far that has not happened too much. The PCs’ boss now trusts them, for the most part. Rivals have changed tactics because of the PCs’ presence.

The ones controlling the puppet strings have just started noticing the PCs and are factoring them into their manipulations. However, this is in the background mostly, so not experienced by the PCs much to date.

This is a good reminder for me to change the environment more often based on PC actions, mostly through NPC relations and (re)actions.

Are your character’s regular joes or heroic types?

Heroic. However, being weaker than the average threat so far in the campaign, the PCs sure do not feel like heroes.

This is intended. But now that the balance of power tips in the PCs’ favor, the first seven levels of gameplay will hopefully feel like an origin story.

The players have gamed through the world-beats-us-up stage of the PCs’ lives. Now the PCs can start calling more of the shots. Should be fun for them!

Are the dice weighted in the characters’ favor or is the universe unforgiving?

The universe is unforgiving, but the PCs have all they need at their disposal to survive without having to rely too much on luck.

Encounters are mostly scaled to the PCs’ level. A few encounters are potential TPKs, but we as a group decided to give out-of-character cues whenever it looks like the PCs are about to face certain death. We also try to spare PCs of absent players.

I referee all rolls as made, and I do not fudge. I have fudged before and will again, but for this campaign I rule according to the dice. Therefore, I usually roll in the open.

The philosophy here is that the PCs have many more options and resources available to them than a typical campaign. They have the ability to decide their fates through intelligence gathering, planning and tactics. They can buy what they want, hire who they want, ally or make enemies with who they want.

For all my campaigns so far, when it looks like a character is about to die, we do a quick audit. We recalculate all rolls, and we look at the situation as a group from all angles for a way out. We will retcon any mistakes to save the PC, and we will take advantage of any rule or situation to save a PC as long as the result remains believable.

That said, the campaign has taken four PC lives to date.

So, I’m not sure if this means the universe is unforgiving or not.

Should the characters trust the GM? If not, why not?

Wow, great question. Here’s my long-winded answer.

The players can trust me:

  • To obey the rules and listen to rules appeals without bias.

(I won’t make something worse or better for the PCs because I’m in a mood or am about to see a beloved NPC die, for example.)

To answer OOC questions fairly. If a player asks about how rules would apply to a theoretical situation, I’ll give an open answer about how I’d interpret things.

  • To get group input – and value it – about any issue.
  • To play by the rules.

However, we all also agreed I could use rules from books the players do not have access to, I can make up rules as long as I GM them consistently, and that I have final call on all rulings even if it’s a bad call.

  • PCs always get the benefit of doubt.

For example, when triggering any encounter, I try to figure out fairly when PCs might get a whiff of danger – I never wave my GM wand and say, “Too bad, the bad guys ambush you because that’s the way it’s been planned.”

Another example: when a PC’s life is about to extinguish, we really do look for any realistic way to save the PC in situ, even if it requires some GM narration or fiat. I ask the player if the death seems unfair. If the player says yes for any reason, we work together on creating a different result without putting sense of disbelief or fairness to others in distress.

  • Treat players with respect.

I love the control a GM has during games, but that control extends only to my portion of the game pieces and elements. If I get arrogant, for example, I’ll apologize and resolve not to be that way. If I make a bad call or a mistake, I own up to that and fix what I can right then and there.

The players cannot trust me:

  • When playing NPCs.

Though I do obey the alignment guidelines, NPCs will do and say anything to get what they want.

For example, a Good NPC and previous ally may still throw the PCs under the bus to save an important life or achieve a greater good.

  • When GMing fluff.

I give honest and accurate descriptions of perception rolls, skill roles and information gathered. But in this campaign, I look to skew all other details through the lens of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt.


  • If a character succeeds in a perception check, I will say, “the alley appears to be empty.”
  • I might have a foe fall, pretending to be dead, then ambush a PC next round.

This is how I normally GM, but for Riddleport I try to take this to an extreme.

  • When I whisper is your ear.

I often try to play the role of the Trickster in the form of the devil that sits on your left shoulder offering bad advice.

For example, I might ask, “Do you really want to do that?” in my best concerned voice to make a player uncertain about doing something that might actually result in something great.

Caveat: if a player is new and does not know I’m a jerk GM, then I explain things out-of-character in such situations until they learn my style. “The glowing eyes could just be a trick of the light. And I’m seeming to put extra weight on them in my description as a potential ploy to cause you to waste resources. Feel free to use a skill check or something else your character might do to call me on it. I’m not really telling you and your PC the eyes betray a killer magical power; I might be trying to trick you.”

I guess I draw the line in terms of in-character knowledge versus screwing with the players. I will not mis-state or mislead about any data or input a character successfully gets. But if there’s wiggle room, such as interpretation, then I abuse that.

  • When I offer losing as a reward.

One of the first encounters in Riddleport gave Crixus the pit fighter PC two options:

  1. Lose the fight: make the powerful vampire lord patron happy, lose a bit of pride.
  2. Win the fight: keep your pride, make the patron angry.

They call this a dilemma. In these situations, I expect the PCs to take option three. Order off the menu, change the assumptions, think laterally, or just be slippery.

Therefore, I assert you cannot trust the options I present as GM. Instead, I want players to challenge all aspects of the situation for victory.

It’s Your Turn

Learn something about your GMing style by answering Jeremy’s questions. If you feel like sharing, send me your answers.

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