10 Skills To Help At The Table

From Mark Knights

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0583

A Brief Word From Johnn

This is the last email for July. I’m taking a short break from the newsletter. But fear not, emails and GM tips will resume in August!

Meantime, would you be interested in learning something pretty cool?

I just enrolled in Learn to Storyboard: The First Steps of Visual Storytelling.

It’s $20 and starts July 18.

This online course is being taught by Leo Matsuda, Story Artist at Walt Disney Studios.

In it, we’ll learn how to come up with stories, how to structure them, how to thumbnail them and how to deliver them.

I hope to use what I learn to create better encounters and adventures!

To find out more, Click here: Visual Storytelling.

I hope you are having a good summer so far and are getting some gaming done!

10 Skills To Help At The Table

Republished with permission from http://www.thepathfinderchronicles.com/2013/06/game-masterings-10-rules-to-sit-at-table.html The Pathfinder Chronicles.

GMing an in-person game requires a lot of work and attention to detail. I have been asked to prepare a set of “skills” I would abide by to manage a game in the best way.

I had considered making it one rule: “Be Prepared.” But there is more to it than that.

I have broken that rule into many, and also added some to the general idea of preparation, such as what to do with in-game problems.

I list these rules here from ten to one in the order of importance to my table, with number one being the most important to me.

Creature Comforts

You might think this is the players’ responsibility, but it is really everyone’s issue. If a player has not satisfied all their needs, then they will be distracted at the table.

Work with your group to make sure their needs are met. This allows players to focus on the game.

Ensure there is a source of snacks and drinks available. Try not to play at dinner times and if you do, pause the game and share a pizza or something similar.

Have a chat about the game or share time to catch up on real life.

Find a time that best suits your players.

[Comment from Johnn: I use Doodle.com to find good times fast.]

Find a comfortable venue so players don’t struggle for space or find it too hot or cold.

If you enjoy a drink (alcoholic) with your game, make sure everyone is OK with it and don’t overdo it.

Make sure where you play is conducive to the game. If you are going to play Call of the Cthulhu, somewhere you can play by candlelight would be awesome, while the local park at midday might detract from the spookiness!

Minimize distracting background noise and allow everyone enough space to focus.

Know How Much to Prepare

Estimate how much you can cover in a game and prepare for it.

Then prepare a little bit more because the players will surprise you.

It can be hard working out how much to prepare, but you get better at it the longer you play with a group.

If using a prepared module, read it. Also, account for what you think the players will do and prepare for that as well.

In a homebrew campaign, design the amount you think you need and a couple of encounters extra.

[Comment from Johnn: I like to have a few encounters prepped in my back pocket I can drop in at anytime to stall for time, as well. As a bonus, it’s often possible to integrate these encounters into your plot.

After you run a back pocket encounter, build a replacement between sessions.]

Plan for Player Actions

The more you play with a group the more you will be able to predict their movements and strategies. This lets you prepare for their likely path of action.

In a pre-printed module, this might mean making extensive notes on ways to handle the actions the module hasn’t considered.

Props, Miniatures and Special Effects

If you intend to use props or miniatures, make sure you have them ready to go.

Nothing is more frustrating than a GM going through a case of miniatures in game time when this is one of the easiest to do as preparation.

Props are also a great way to bring your game to life, but make them in the days leading up to the game and make sure they are in your GM kit or bag. Have them in a handy spot too, so you remove any digging through folders when it is time to get the props out.

If you use music to enhance the game, or use software to enhance the tabletop environment, it pays to spend time updating this material prior to game day. Make sure your CDs or MP3 player is ready to go and your notes clearly mark when you will play what tracks.

Upload maps, handouts and images to the site/software/memory stick.

A lot of players are still averse to using technology at the traditional gaming table, but I say go for it. If it helps, use it. If not throw it away!

Handling Speed Bumps (or Problems During Play)

Dealing with speed bumps during play is part and parcel of the GM’s job.

Problems in play come from two sources: rules issues and player issues.

So how do we handle these issues?

Transparently and immediately.

Both issues have a major chance of derailing a game. It is important you handle both situations as they occur.

In my experience, ignoring a rule problem or a player behaviour problem will never make the situation better in any way, shape or form.


One rule that always gets us is how to handle a grapple in my Pathfinder game.

Although these are a good, simplified version of most grappling rules I have seen, they are still a little bit more complicated and rare enough in my game not to stick in my memory.

So, when a player has a question like, “What can I do when grappled?” I often go searching for the rules.

There are two things you need to keep an eye on in this circumstance, as stopping a game to search for a rule is a major speed bump.

If it has taken longer than a minute to find the rule, or you know that you do not know even where to start looking for it, make a ruling and tell the players you will run with that until you have the time to look it up.

Alternatively, get a player who is not currently in the action to look it up.

If the rule is a recurring issue, consider if a House Rule would be a more appropriate way of handling it.

Player Issues

If a player is being abusive of another player it is a problem. If a player is trying to control another character’s actions it is a problem. If a player is falling asleep at your table it is a problem.

There is too long a list to include here, but you get the idea.

Player behaviour that detracts from the game is a problem and you need to deal with it, because if you let it go the player will believe that behaviour is OK at your table. You need to be the authority and leader here.

Use common sense. Honesty and assertive behaviour is the order of the day.

Ask the player if they are OK to play if they are a little non-responsive or tired. Be prepared to pull the game if the conditions are not right at the time and resume at a later date. This can be annoying, but better to do it early than have the game dissolve all together over an issue.

Do not blame the character for insults, etc. Just ask them to stop the behaviour up front.

On every occasion I have had to do this I have received an apology and the game has moved on. If it recurs in a later game, do the same but talk to the player about what is really bugging them.

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House Rules

Games starting out with a new RPG are unlikely to feature any house rules, but over time each table tends to gravitate toward an understanding of what rules slow down play, so these rules often get changed.

In my Pathfinder games, I found the rules around grid movement for miniatures were forever frustrating us. Different shaped spells based on grid location, movement on grid, diagonal movement – all these things caused problems.

So I abolished grids for movement and instigated a system more traditionally found in tabletop war-games of simply using a measuring tape.

So, over time our table has come to a set of house rules to make the game more efficient and less bogged down by fiddly rules.

Ensure players know the house rules. When a new player joins, take the time to explain your house rules.

Keep a folder or document with all your house rules in one easy location. Make sure the house rule is written in clear and unambiguous language. Include the reason why you changed the rule.

Keep the document on you at all times, and make sure all players agree to the house rules as listed, including getting the new player to read the details and answer any questions up front as to why the rules are different at your table.

When you want to make a new house rule, discuss the reason openly amongst the table and only proceed if a majority agree with the changes. The rules are there as a guideline, but you should respect your players’ views on any changes too.

Finally, review your house rules. Talk to your players as you are getting set up about them and if they think they are still relevant. It may be you have changed the rules and it has affected the game in some unforeseen manner.

It is important to regularly (once every few months) revisit the changes and make sure they are still working the way you want them to. Listen to your players’ advice, as they are seeing the rules changes from a completely different perspective.

Read the Rules You Expect to Encounter

If running a game underwater, read up on the rules covering that setting. If the game might lead the players to a cloud giant’s castle, read the rules on aerial combat.

The monsters will have rules governing their use. Make sure you have read them before running the game.

If you know these things will occur in your game, there is no reason why you should be caught unprepared when the barbarian asks how does being underwater affect him when he swings his maul.

Know Your NPCs

Know your NPCs’ purposes for being in the game. This changes an NPC from being represented as a poor facsimile of a two dimensional cardboard cutout to that of a well rounded believable character.

Each NPC will have statistics that factor into their whole. If they are combative, make sure you understand all the parts of their statistic blocks so they can be represented as well as you can.

Most important NPCs also come with notes on their motivations, allegiances and weaknesses. Use this information from a holistic point of view to create memorable NPCs.

If you have memorable NPCs, you will have a believable and memorable game world.

Player Group Capabilities

Know what the player characters are capable of and attempt to highlight those abilities in the game.

If you have a group without a rogue and the module lays a trap at every corner you should find another way of delivering a threat to the party.

It is unfair to hit them with a ghost if none of them can use magic or have no magic items.

It is just as important to understand the group that is adventuring in your game as it is to understand the components of your game.

Your players will be playing their characters because they want to experience what it is like to fill heroic shoes. If your game does not allow them that opportunity, then they will be less interested in it.

Make sure everyone can shine in their character role on an equal footing. It may be the case that a player takes more of the focus for one game, but you can balance it out over time to make sure everyone spends their time in the spotlight.

Got the Basics?

Before you are even ready to sit down to a game, ensure you have what you need to play it.

If you show up without a rulebook or monster manual and you need them the game will fall over.

Don’t have your dice or forgot your notes? The game will be tricky.

Here are my absolute basics before I will even attempt to run a game in person:

  • Dice (or a dice roller app)
  • Rule books (or an app/pdf with the rules)
  • Notepad and pencil (or you guessed it, an app)
  • GM screen (if you roll that way)

If you can master most of these skills, you should have an easier time at the gaming table.

I am not saying it will be perfect all the time, but you will find things run smoother the more you can manage.

Managing these techniques is hard work. There is a lot to do if you want to be the GM. But it is worth it.

Just remember, at the end of the game have a wind-down chat and listen to what the players enjoyed and what they did not.

Adjust your play to suit the problems or say thanks to the things they congratulate you for. The more you practice the easier it will get and the better you will get at handling the sessions!

Good luck and keep rolling.