Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #509
Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 1
This Week's Tips Summarized
Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 1
A Brief Word From Johnn
This time of year has a special RPG meaning for me. My
friend received D&D for Christmas when I was in grade six.
He got the Basic D&D book, dice, green character sheets and
B2 Keep on the Borderlands. My mom did not let me call
friends until Dec 27th to let my friends' families enjoy
their holiday time. So I did not find out what he got for
Christmas until the 27th.
When he told me he received this "weird game called D&D," I
shrugged my shoulders. We went on to play with other games
and toys. If I recall correctly, he also got a handheld
Galaga machine that year, which kept us entertained for
days. So the D&D books remained untouched.
On December 30 we were bored. Bored from the glut of free
time, too many choices and Christmas spoils. I was leaving
my friend's place to go home and picked up the red book. I
said, "Hey, can I take this home?" He said sure, he was not
I took it home and much to my surprise it was the crazy game
I had been questing for since grade five. I was ecstatic.
Rewind one year. My grade five class was blended with grade
five, six and seven students. A dude whose dad owned the
local fast food chicken restaurant brought D&D to class and
convinced the teacher to play it as a creativity class
exercise. He was in grade seven. Funny, I never had such
cunning skill in grade seven.
Anyway, we played on a Friday afternoon. The game broke down
immediately, the afternoon ended early. But a few of us
resumed playing at lunches. We played for several weeks.
Others in the school heard about our lunchtime game, some of
whom had played D&D before, so we grew to a group of 12 with
at least half as many standing over our shoulders watching.
My PC died by getting paralyzed from carrion crawler stings
and then being eaten for dinner. Then I had to give up my
chair for someone else waiting to play.
After awhile the fad ended, the game stopped and we moved on
to hockey cards. But the idea and interest never left me. I
had no clue what the game was called so I could get my own
copy. I looked around in stores but could not ask the right
questions of staff to get help. I kinda gave up the search.
Instead, I created a Stampede Wrestling RPG from what I
could remember of that weird fantasy monsters game I played
at lunch. LOL! The game was awesome. I had character sheets
for about two dozen wrestlers. You were either a good guy or
a bad guy. Using d6s from Monopoly, I created to hit tables,
gave the wrestlers hit points, and gave them basic moves,
special moves and signature moves.
The best part of this game was the ladder - the pecking
order of the wrestlers. Every wrestler who won their match
could take the place of their opponent on the ladder, or go
one spot higher - their choice. The game was split into
"cards," which were weeks. Only 6 matches per card. Each
card the #1 and #3 guys could fight. The other matches were
based on who won last week.
The goal was to be at the top of the ladder at the end of
the season for the final fight of the year to determine the
grand champion in a cage match. The top good guy and top bad
guy in the ladder would fight for #1.
I am not describing the game well, but I did not create a
very coherent game system either, as the rules were all in
my head. Heh. Anyway, Rick Flair won most of the time.
This game was the result of wanting to play that weird lunch
game I gave up searching for, and this was the best I could
Fast forward to Christmas of grade 6. My friend gets the red
book as a present and gives it to me to read. I start
reading and freak out. Here's the game I was searching for!
I consume it that night and call my friend the next day.
Let's play! He took the pre-gens and I ran B2. That year the
school holiday return date was late, like January 7th or so.
We played non-stop from December 31 until the Sunday before
we had to go back to school. Then we played after school and
on weekends. We killed the pre-gens and created new PCs. We
killed those and created more.
We played for years until we grew apart. I still play today,
30 years later. And I have someone else's Christmas present
to thank for this wonderful hobby. This time of year always
makes me think how it was the real kickstart to my RPG life,
which warms me even more than the burning log on Channel 10
that I'm watching as I write this.
Happy holidays everyone. I hope this time of year has fond
memories for you too.
Congrats To The Minis Contest Winners
I have contacted all the randomly selected winners of the
minis giveaway. Here is a list of winners to check just in
case you were selected and my email got trashed or filtered.
Contact me if this has happened.
Get some get done this week!
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Reader Tip Request: What is the most important thing you
learned about GMing this year?
Hopefully you were able to sit behind the GM screen in 2010.
The best way to improve as a GM is a little self-analysis.
You can do this quick and easy during games as well as after
them. Just ask yourself two questions:
- What went right?
- What will I do differently next time?
You could dwell on errors, lost opportunities and the
negative. But that just reinforces the bad things in your
head. Focus just on what you did well enough that you want
to repeat, and what specifically you will try to do next
time to see if there is improvement.
You can answer this pair of revealing questions after each
encounter in your GM notes. Perfect for capturing ideas down
while the memory is fresh.
Then you can take a step back and look at the session as a
whole between games and answer the questions from that point
Make it your goal to repeat your successes and to always try
new techniques, ideas and experiments.
Speaking of goals, I recently posted my 2010 review and my
final grade for the year at Campaign Mastery. See how I did
at Johnn's 2010 Year in Review .
Right now, think back on what you learned about GMing this
year. What was the biggest lesson? Let me know.
For me, I learned to simplify. I wrote about my Loopy
Planning Method and used it to successfully navigate a
complex city campaign full of factions, plots and PCs. Read
about it at:
Roleplaying Tips Issue #488
For 2011 I will look for more ways to conduct a complex
campaign with complex rules (Pathfinder) but in as simple a
manner as possible.
I also experimented with technology. I think we have a
winner with a dual-monitor setup at the game table, where
one monitors faces the players. The iPad is also a winner.
The group also experimented with music. I think we've
settled on soundtracks and metal as preferred game tunes -
now that is something you would not find out without a
little trial and error!
So, what did you learn about GMing in 2010? Email me at
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Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 1
Best Game Master Tips of 2010, Part 1
I went through all the tips from 2010, RPT#475 to present,
and selected these as my favourites.
A couple of items that deserved a place here were entire
articles that I could not split up or take a chunk from. I
also excluded pure idea generators, such as the For Your
Game Column and recent contest content.
A couple tips I wrote. That is cheesy, but I truly felt the
tips were some of my faves from the past year, so I hope you
forgive the egomaniac in me.
I hope you like these tips. Some read a bit different when
taken out of their context, but I think that might enhance
this Best Of format. An older idea might strike you in a new
way and suddenly you are inspired and off planning.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the newsletter in
2010! Your efforts are helping game masters worldwide have
more fun at every game and play more often.
1. Focus Each Encounter On An Idea
From Monte Cook
Every good monster, like every good dungeon room, is
based around some idea. A medusa is built around the gaze
attack idea, and secondarily about killing PCs without
killing them (because that's what petrification really is -
it's like being dead, without all the baggage).
So figure out what the idea of the monster is, and focus on
that. Another way to look at it is, how will an encounter
with this creature potentially be new, interesting, and fun
in a way that an encounter with another monster might not.
If a monster doesn't have that kind of hook, you can give it
one by placing it in an interesting environment.
An owlbear isn't bad, but it's not the most interesting
beast in the world. Put a few in hidden caves on ledges high
above the PCs and have them leap down to attack, but not all
at once. This is interesting now, because the PCs don't know
how many foes they're facing, or where the next one will
suddenly appear, roaring and screeching from above. (In my
experience, things coming from above the PCs is always
scarier than if they're on the same level.) It's a little
thing, but it will make that encounter memorable.
2. Quick Encounter Creation
Try this next time you need to create an encounter and
have five minutes:
- Select a foe
- Give the foe a goal that opposes the PCs
- Give the foe a weaker friend
- Select a location
- Give the location a cool interactive feature
- Pick a reward
- Look on the internet for game stats for the foe, his
friend, the interactive feature and the reward (if needed)
- Clone the friend if you need to make the encounter more
difficult when it triggers
3. Discuss The Setting With Players
From D.L. Campbell
It might be a good idea to tell your players which world was
your starting point. In some cases, you may not think your
players have ever heard of the world you'll be using, but
you could be surprised as players don't always just read
what the DM expects them to.
Someone at the table might be a fan of an author writing
fiction in that world, or may have picked up an intriguing-
sounding sourcebook from eBay just because it was cheap. It
might not have come up because you haven't been playing in
that setting, but they could recognize it once you start
By explaining what setting was your starting point, but that
what they know may or may not be true, you can head off
misconceptions and assumptions. Don't let anyone insist that
the way things are in sourcebooks is the way they're
supposed to be.
Make it clear you are departing from the established version
as you wish. If players are very familiar with the setting,
you can add changes to well-known aspects just to keep
everyone on their toes.
For instance, many modern settings feature laser weapons in
addition to mechanical ones. Maybe in your version, laser
weapon technology hasn't been perfected yet - there are
prototypes only a few have, but they're unreliable. The
competition to perfect weapon technology and get the jump on
everyone else adds an element of an arms race.
Most worlds have some kind of well-known major city; you
could alter the details of that. Maybe you could change the
stage of development of the city. If it's at its height in
the setting, show it just reaching its peak or in the midst
of a decline. Maybe you create twin cities out of it,
dividing the sourcebook's material between two places and
adding touches of your own to flesh them out.
4. Combat Chess Clock
From: Eric Garcia
I'm running a D&D 4th Edition campaign, and because of how
tactical combat is I noticed it could drag when someone was
trying to coordinate a complex attack or even figuring out
which power to use. So, I've come up with a solution - I
bought a chess clock.
At the beginning of battle, I give each side a certain
amount of time. The PCs start at 15 minutes; the GM's time
is based on how many enemies and types of enemies are
present. If I'm not sure, I start both with the same time.
Then, combat starts. If your side is up, your clock is
running. The clock is only paused at the GM's discretion,
typically for rules clarifications. Once either side runs
out of time, characters on that "losing" side only get 60
seconds per turn for the rest of the round. The "winning"
side gets 90-120 seconds per turn. The winning side then
gets a free standard action at the end of the round, usable
by any character.
After that action, the clock is reset, modifying the GM's
time up or down based on who won and by how much time, as
well as what enemies have died. The goal is to have the
sides as close as possible in time usage.
It's worked out nicely for our group so far. Everyone is
more conscious of who has to act next. Since the time is
spread out for the whole party and not just any single
player, many player turns end quickly to save up time so
when someone does need extra time, they can take it.
And one extra action every 25-30 minutes doesn't unbalance
the game all that much. It's just enough to add a dash of
urgency to combat without removing the tactical nature of
the game system or singling out any one player.
5. Two-Word Culture Labels
From Loz Newman
One trick is mentally tagging an in-game culture with two-
word labels to guide your future presentations. For example.
Greek Pirates, Viking Merchants, Aztec Duelists, Syndic
Knights, Mage Smallholders.
I even once (during a massively multi-cultural world) added
the tags into the written recap of the world given to the
players to help them swiftly grasp the essence of each
The basic principal I'm trying to illustrate here is a small
effort, well spent ahead of time, beats flailing around any
day. AKA, Prior Prep Prevents Poor Performance.
6. Don't Block The Path
From Emmett O'Brian
When using standard NPCs, make it obvious they are a threat
to get by rather than go through. Avoid putting these NPCs
directly in front of where the players have to go, and make
it plain there is a way around them.
Do this by having NPCs that are not easily able to give
chase to introduce dangers players can attempt to avoid with
stealth and speed. For example:
- A guard in a tower is a threat, and is unlikely to chase
after the party, but he might summon other guards.
- A character hops on an unmanned vehicle (or removes the
driver) and speeds away.
- There is a way to block or slow NPC pursuit once PCs get
through a door.
Game masters are afraid of letting players avoid obstacles
because they worry players are getting away with something.
Truthfully they are but why shouldn't they?
It's because if the game is too easy it stops being an
adventure because there is no danger. Clearly then this
approach can be used to speed up a game and increase the
player's enjoyment because it brings with it an element of
7. Location is Everything
From Kate Manchester
Take a fresh look at the adventure. Set it aside for a while
(two weeks or more) and then re-read the adventure and re-
examine any included materials - maps, handouts, etc. Try to
see (or create) potential locations for ambushes and full
cover available to both the PCs and their adversaries, along
with any potential hazards.
Don't forget about home court advantage. The PCs are usually
venturing into unfamiliar territory. Adversaries typically
have been living or defending the area for quite some time,
so they should be able to find their way around under low
light conditions, and know the location of traps, secret
passages and potential hiding places.
Use the environment to your advantage. If you're setting
your campaign in the desert, don't forget to remind the PCs
how hot it can be to wear body armor (or full plate). Watery
environments can be hard to move in while encumbered by
armor, equipment and treasure, and at times rather difficult
to cast spells in. Muddy forest floors can also hamper
movement, while the presence of dried fallen leaves can make
it hard to use Stealth to sneak up on the party of orcs 50
8. Make Friends and Win Favors
From Hannah Lipsky
You might not have enough cure spells to get the party up to
full health, but that doesn't mean you can't patch up the
bandit prisoner before you interrogate him.
A little mundane healing is just the thing for allies who
can't afford a physician on their own, captured enemies you
wish to sway with your mercy, and random peasants you hope
9. Watch Your Blind Spots
From Monte Cook
Be aware of your blind spots (the kind of things you never
do) and your own cliches (the things you always do).
As a simple example, I seem to always default to ogres. If I
need a vaguely humanoid monster, 9 times out of 10, I find
myself typing the word "ogre." So I need to check myself in
Maybe someone else has all of their evil villains be
spellcasters. Or the advisor to the king is always the
secret bad guy in their stories. Or they never use bards. Or
whatever. That's why I think it's always smart for DMs to
read adventure material written by others.
Look at an old adventure you have on the shelf. Search the
Internet for some DM's campaign logs. Subscribe to
dungeonaday.com. It's the kind of thing that will give you
ideas you won't have had on your own, and keeps things
10. Realistic NPCs
From Emmett O'Brian
Computer games have taught us that all NPCs are fanatic
maniacs that will charge the PCs without regard for the
fact that they just marched through hundreds of NPCs
exactly like them without a scratch.
In reality, unless the NPC is a robot or the equivalent,
after the first ten guys are taken down nobody is going to
directly mess with the characters unless they have good
reason to think they are better than the rest.
Even if the NPC is a robot, if it is being controlled by
anything with any intelligence, after the hundredth robot
they better be checking their repair budget.
This might lead to average NPCs fleeing in the sight of
the character or spending some time trying to set up a
11. Write A One Line Idea For Every Area And Region
From Mike Bourke
I like to write a one line idea for every area and region I
place on a map, and every culture, just in case I need to
improvise because the party has moved in a radical direction
(either geographically or in terms of plot).
My players are able to spot the delaying tactics and make a
big thing of my being caught short, largely because I've
been so successful at using these one line starting points
and thinking on my feet that I have a reputation of never
12. Surprise With Custom Creations
From Brandon Echols
First, it is clear there are no serious threats to the
characters as perceived by the players. They're metagaming.
The players know their characters are going to live, they
know all the traps and monsters, and they know they can roll
up a new character if their current one is killed. Thus,
out-of-game is knowledge brought into the game.
Easy solution: prompt them to question their own knowledge.
If they think they know how to fight trolls and ogres, then
make the next group of trolls and ogres different. You are
the DM. You are the final arbiter. Challenge what they
assume. Craft a new monster, invent a new trap, blast them
with a custom spell.
If the world is non-threatening, then make it a lot more
hostile. If you think you are too soft, then gradually get
tougher with them, and remember that you have to fracture
the sense of security of the player, not the character.
13. Alleviate Madness
From Hannah Lipsky
Most fantasy worlds are short on psychiatrists, but full up
on the mentally ill. Diplomacy only goes so far when someone
is foaming at the mouth or raving about conspiracies. Why
not use the Heal skill instead?
A good healer can calm down a madman for long enough to get
a few straight answers out of them, and a great healer might
even lessen the symptoms permanently. Healing herbs and
potions can act as sedatives or perhaps even anti-
14. Be Ready To Continue When The PCs Fail
From Tim W. Brown
Finally, I quote one of my GM friends. "Don't make them roll
dice if you can't handle their failure." The GM should be
prepared to carry on the game if the PCs fail at any point.
It's easy to fall into (or stay stuck in) the idea that each
encounter is do-or-die.
The adventure (let alone the campaign) should not come to a
screeching halt just because players made bad choices (let
alone flubbed a few die rolls).
In a campaign, the GM should be ready to continue when the
PCs fail, whether in combat or in skill checks. If the only
options are the PCs win or we quit playing, the tension
becomes merely tension, rather than creative tension.
If the only consequence of failure is destruction, players
lose incentive to take risks and try new things. The game is
pushed toward a contest of min-maxing and engineering rather
than storytelling and character expression.
While some people may prefer one extreme over the other, I
have found my own preferences (and those of most people) lie
somewhere between the two.
15. Game Up Your Guilds
From Bryan Howard
I believe guilds get little attention in most games and are
only used as a hindrance and a way to lighten the PCs'
purses of their hard won gold. Guilds have existed
throughout much of history and should have more attention
paid to them.
Whether it is a simple potters' guild to a fighter or
thieves' guild, PCs and NPCs should want to be in their
appropriate guild. Being a member of a guild is a plus, not
Make choosing a guild a quandary. "This mage guild teaches
you how to cast spells without using material components,
but this one teaches gem attuning and how to store spells in
gems. Then this other one teaches you how to cast spells
with just a focus item. I can't decide which to apply to."
Also, guilds are great for adventure hooks. Requests to
steal or retrieve a stolen item, ensure a package arrives to
its intended destination, or fight in a guild war.
Just as there are benefits, there should be negatives. Yes,
you can learn to cast spells without using components, but
your training takes half again as long and you are forbidden
to use a magic item that recreates a spell effect.
16. Plan For And Reward Roleplaying
From Maggie Smith
Hey, Johnn. This is a topic especially close to my heart, so
I figured I'd weigh in. With a group of almost entirely new
tabletop players, I found there was an over-emphasis on ROLL
playing in the first couple of sessions.
The players didn't seem as interested in the non-encounter
parts of the story. During combat they focused entirely on
the powers and numbers. It was especially important to me to
flesh this out because my only experienced player is one of
those who keeps repeating the mantra that 4th edition is
like a video game, and I wanted to prove otherwise.
The first thing I did was plan a session with a lot of
ROLEplaying. It was a combination of clean-up from one
adventure and exposition from another, and I let them know I
wanted more flavor than usual.
I think it's hard to get away from the stereotype of casting
magic missile into the darkness, so they had been reluctant
to do anything that might be too literal. As a rule, we're
not a very serious group. Lots of drinking and metajoking
They surprised me with how they embraced it, though. As a
somewhat new DM, the players put me through my paces, asking
for elaborate descriptions of NPCs' actions (including a
raise dead ritual) and making me ad lib a lot more than I'm
They were equally committed, spending a lot of time
interacting with the environment and developing their
characters. When the session wrapped up, we realized there
had been no combat and only one skill challenge in the 8 or
so hours we'd been playing. That was a huge change.
The second thing I did was take tips you've published
previously and incorporated them into my game. I made a deck
of instant reward cards (using godeckyourself.com) with an
emphasis on combat roleplaying. An attack bonus for
describing the way you line up an arrow, a damage bonus for
describing the force with which you swing your axe, combat
advantage for the whole party because of the inspiring words
you use to rally your allies.
I also have other little bonuses, like if they take time to
describe setting up camp and foraging a meal, I might give a
small skill bonus for being exceptionally rested and
nourished. I have one that gives a diplomacy bonus for the
next entire day if a player does something selfless in
combat to help another player. I brainstormed situations
that might come up and what a logical reward would be, and
put it on a card.
I bought color coded popsicle sticks (I wasn't committed
enough for the weighted foam tokens) and let them pass those
out to reward each other for roleplaying, offering a bonus
in the next session to the person with the most sticks at
the end. This was a great tip, because it took a lot of the
burden off me and empowered the players.
Another tip, that I took from Gabe over at Penny Arcade,
ended up having an unexpected bonus for roleplaying. I made
a deck of random treasure, including about half wish list
items and half trash loot. Things like rat skulls, goblin
fingers, exotic feathers, toy wands, etc.
The players took these items and put them to good use. In
the last session, the party was fighting a dire rat and the
rogue took out the rat skull and crushed it in his hand to
intimidate the creature. It was one of those great moments
when I realized that they finally figured out that balance,
and that you don't have to take yourself too seriously to
get into the game.
17. Make Roll Results Cinematic
From Andrew Glenn
How do you use roll-playing to add to the fun of your game?
I use the players to roll for random encounters in dungeons
and the wilderness, and once even got someone to roll for
the number of wolves that a vampire summoned. That adds to
the pressure and makes everyone groan or cheer when the dice
stops moving. In the case of the vampire, the player had to
roll 3d6 and managed to bring in 15 wolves against the
party. They still go on about that dice roll.
Also, although I don't have a formalised fumble system, if a
player (or monster) makes an attack roll and gets a 1 or a 2
then they have to roll again. If it's low again, say 1 to 5,
then bad things happen. Nothing too serious, just enough to
make them shake their heads and give everyone a laugh. We
had a barbarian in the party who kept throwing his
greatswords away purely because of this. The one he lost in
the marsh was my favourite.
18. Issues, Cut-Scenes, and Cliffhangers
From Mark L. Chance
Divide your game sessions into issues. Each issue should
focus on a specific, defined story (for one session stories)
or one part of a story arc (for multi-session stories).
The 5 Room Dungeon format is great for this sort of
plotting. Think of each 5 Room Dungeon as a single issue.
Insert subplots and cut-scenes between the "rooms" and then
tack on a cliffhanger.
A cut-scene is a break from the main action that advances
the story. Don't forget the "Meanwhile..." moments. Work
cut-scenes into your adventures.
19. You Are The Director
From Jared Hunt
If there is a single role on a movie set that most
perfectly mirrors the job of a GM, it's the director.
A director has to be a good negotiator. The writer
definitely had a vision, but the exact details of that
vision may or may not actually make the best movie. A good
director is able to preserve the vision of the writer
without sacrificing the film as a whole.
Similarly, actors tend to develop strong visions for their
characters. A great director allows the actors to delve into
their characters and give the best possible performances,
but he does it without allowing them to have a negative
impact on other characters or on the rest of the story.
Like writers and actors, players have strong opinions on how
the world should react to their characters. Sometimes this
is expressed by min/maxing. Sometimes it is expressed by
trying to monopolize the GM's attention. Other players
attempt to mold the game world by arguing the minutiae of
how rules should be applied.
None of these tendencies are innately bad. Each tells you
the players are committed to the game and their characters.
Thinking of yourself as the director of your campaign is a
fantastic mindset, especially during sessions. Directorial
responsibilities you might have as a GM include:
- How each decision affects the campaign as a whole.
- How the rules are applied to each game situation.
- Managing relationships between the PCs.
- Managing relationships between the players.
- Ensuring the story the group is telling will be
entertaining to the audience, where the audience is you
and the players.
Like a director, a GM can't control exactly how the main
characters will play their parts; but he can and should make
suggestions and reward actions that improve the story.
Now, if only RPGs allowed room for an editor.
20. Create Buckets
From Johnn Four
It's critical to have a place to capture all your
information. Your game notes system cannot be part of the
problem. You need a simple setup that works for you so when
you generate ideas, designs and plans there is a place for
everything, and everything is in its place.
Your buckets might be software, GM binders, index cards,
Post-It Notes, notebooks or some combination of these
options. No matter what, get this figured out before your
If you are mid-campaign and struggle with managing all your
game information, stop right now and flesh out your
information buckets system, else you will always be hampered
by this problem.
Return to Contents
Johnn Four's GM Guide Books
In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have
written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your
games and to make GMing easier and fun:
How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most
popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well,
plus several generators and tables
Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not
only expand your game world but provide endless natural
encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.
Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to
crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for
any game system and genre. This book will make a difference
to your GMing.
Looking for a new group or player in 2011?
50 ways to find gamers in your neighborhood.
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