Best Game Master Tips of 2010 – Part 1

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0509

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 interested.

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 a while 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 kind a 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 do.

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! Holy cow.

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 kick start 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.

  • g.tait
  • daniel.c….mn@g….com (2x winner!)
  • guedo7…@g….com
  • Donovan.Mc….@draftf….za
  • mike.mona…[email protected]
  • alex…@bou…
  • klydesdale…@tel….net
  • acedrum…@com….net
  • renemare…@coop….ca
  • mpolley…@gma….
  • jermw…@gma….

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 favorites.

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.

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.

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Quick Encounter Creation

From Johnn

Try this next time you need to create an encounter and have five minutes:

  1. Select a foe
  2. Give the foe a goal that opposes the PCs
  3. Give the foe a weaker friend
  4. Select a location
  5. Give the location a cool interactive feature
  6. Pick a reward
  7. Look on the internet for game stats for the foe, his friend, the interactive feature and the reward (if needed)
  8. Clone the friend if you need to make the encounter more difficult when it triggers
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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 describing things.

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.

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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.

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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 culture.

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.

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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 the unknown.

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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 feet ahead.

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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 to impress.

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Watch Your Blind Spots

From Monte Cook

Be aware of your blind spots (the kind of things you never do) and your own clichés (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 that regard.

Maybe someone else has all of their evil villains be spell casters. 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 It’s the kind of thing that will give your ideas you won’t have had on your own, and keeps things fresh.

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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 coordinated attack.

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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 being caught.

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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.

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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- psychotics.

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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.

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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 a punishment.

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.

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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 and tomfoolery.

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 used to.

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 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.

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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 formalized 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 great swords away purely because of this. The one he lost in the marsh was my favorite.

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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.

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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.

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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 campaign starts.

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.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

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:

  1. What went right?
  2. 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 of view.

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:

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 face 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 [email protected]

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