How To Develop A Compelling GMing Voice

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0546

A Brief Word From Johnn

Wired Reviews Faster Combat

Staff writer Chuck Lawton talks about his experience with my online course for game masters.

Titled “Earn a Masters in Dungeoneering From Faster Combat”, the review delves into the Faster Combat course.

He says, “Faster Combat is like the Missing Manual for being a GM.”

Check out the review at:

It’s such a thrill to see the course Tony Medeiros and I have built featured on Wired!

Combat Swipes File Almost Complete

Thanks to volunteer editors, I made great headway on assembling the combat swipe descriptions last week.

Everything has been laid out in my PDF software, InDesign.

Now I just need a couple hours to read through it one more time to check for any errors. Then it’ll be unleashed.

Stayed tuned for news in 1d6 days.

Now, onto this week’s tips.

Have more fun at every game!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

How To Develop A Compelling GMing Voice

Your voice has more influence during sessions than any other game element.

Think about that for a moment. This is a major GMing trait we’re talking about here that has power over whether your game is fun.

For example, consider these things that need your good, strong timbre at the game table:

  • Describing people, places and things, plus the action
  • Roleplaying NPCs
  • Discussing the rules and making judgments
  • Directing the game
  • Offering praise and feedback
  • Managing combat

And that’s only a partial list!

But those voice-based items make up a huge portion of your game’s content and its quality.

If you have poor voice and speech skills, your sessions will suffer for it.

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How To Develop A Strong Voice

A rich voice gives you confidence. It’s a bootstrap thing.

When you speak, people listen. That attention gives you influence.

At the game table, this takes the form of:

  • Players paying attention and listening to you
  • Players respecting you more
  • Better NPC roleplaying
  • Better game direction and management
  • More GMing confidence

Technique 1: Speak From The Diaphragm

Your diaphragm is located right beneath your lungs.

When we speak from our lungs, instead of our diaphragm, our voice raises in pitch and gets thinner.

Learn how to use your diaphragm to speak with more power, timbre and effect.

Step 1. Practice Deep Breaths

Our first goal is to figure out where the diaphragm is and how to fill it with air.

Once you know how it feels through breathing exercises, you’ll know when you’re doing it right when GMing.

Take several, slow, deep breaths. Breath in deeply through your nose and push out your stomach/mid-section as you inhale.

Don’t stick your upper chest out as you intake air. That’s not your diaphragm. And don’t stick your tummy out either.

The diaphragm cavity lies between your stomach and lungs and that’s what should “take in the air.”

Here’s a four minute video I found on YouTube that demonstrates this:

The first several times I did this I was not used to it and there was a little discomfort, so I did not breathe as deeply.

Keep at it and the area will relax and strengthen over time.

Step 2. Practice Speaking From The Diaphragm

At first, doing this is a bit like patting the top of your head with one hand and rubbing your tummy in circles with the other, at the same time.

The brain isn’t used to the coordination of speaking and diaphragm use, so you need to train it. We’re developing a new skill!

Breathe in and fill your diaphragm.

Then speak out loud while putting a little squeeze pressure on your diaphragm.

I think of it as tensing my stomach for an incoming punch or tickle while speaking.

You will need to try this a few times before getting it right.

This video describes it another way – using your lower voice register:

When I do it, my voice does not drop so much as become subtly deeper. This makes it project further and it becomes a bit fuller.

You might not notice a huge difference either. Record yourself and have someone observe – they’ll confirm the difference even if you do not notice it and are wondering if this is still worth doing.

Make it a habit to always speak from your diaphragm. It _is_worth doing. Your muscles will build in that area and it will get much easier and feel more natural over time.

Try speaking from your diaphragm at game sessions and let me know your experiences.

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Technique Two: Speak Clearly

Mumblers frustrate listeners. Mumbling also damages your self-confidence because it repels your audience and you pick up on these signals and feel worse for it.

As a great GM, you want to speak clearly so you are heard, understood and confident.

To do this, slow down.

Remember that what you say is critical to the gameplay experience.

It’s more important to be understood and enjoyed as a speaker than it is to rush through what you have to say to save time.

You might also be shy, and want to speak faster to get what you have to say over with.

In either case, you need to slow down to the point where it feels like you’re speaking too slow, and get used to that feeling with practice.

If you feel like you’re speaking too slow, you’ve reached a good pace. It will feel weird at first, but your players will appreciate it!

Pick up a book and read a passage out loud. Then read it again slower. Slow your reading until you hit that point where it feels awkward.

Read more at this rate for at least five minutes. Read to a mirror if you need an audience. 🙂

Now summarize what you just read without looking at the text. Your reading speed is slower than speaking speed. Once you get a feel for your ideal speed from reading out loud, switch to speaking without reading.

An easy way to do that is summarize the passage you just read, to give you something immediate to talk about. Repeat until you achieve that slower pace.

Once you’ve got your desired pace nailed down and you feel more comfortable with it, go talk to someone. Match your slower pace during the conversation.

It’ll feel weird, trust me.

If you want to test, get that book passage and read it out loud to someone at your normal pace. Then read it again at your slow target pace. Ask them which speed they prefer. And ask them if your enunciation and inflection was better at the slower rate.

By speaking slower, you give your tongue and brain more time to form words.

End mumbling by speaking slowly.

Technique Three: Pause More Often

Filler words erode the effectiveness of your speech.

Um, so, but, like, you know – these are all fillers. You use them to buy a fraction of time to figure out what you’re saying.

These extra noises just put off your audiences.

Instead, you want to replace them with pauses.

Like the other techniques, this will feel weird at first.

You have to practice until it feels comfortable, because it does make you a better GM.

First, you need to become aware of what your special filler words are and how often you use them.

Each of us uses a different combo of fillers in different amounts.

For example, I say “ah” and “so” most often. “Like”, “you know” and “um” not so much.

Record yourself GMing. Replay a few minutes of the session afterward, and record how often you use each filler word. Add any other expressions you use that I haven’t listed here, as well.

You might be surprised how often you fill your speech with these crummy words. Notice how you make less of an impact when using them? It’s time to change this bad behaviour.

Next, pick one word. Focus on removing it from your speech as a filler word.

For example, I’m focusing on “so” right now. It’s ok to use it as part of a normal sentence, because it is a real word. But I want to get rid of its use as filler.

Just being aware and targetting one word at a time should improve your speech.

In the word’s place, use silence. Just pause. Form your next thought. Carry on.

Extended silence is awkward. Aim for a second or less pause most of the time. That should be long enough to move onto your next thought without needing a filler word.

Longer pauses are ok, especially when used for dramatic effect. But in our case here – standard GMing speaking – use shorter pauses.

In turn, as you eliminate each filler word and use pauses, your voice will improve because players will hear and understand you better.

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Improve your GM voice by speaking from the diaphragm, slowing down and ridding yourself of filler words.

These three techniques will let your voice and speech come through clearly:

  • Deeper voice that projects
  • Articulate your consonants better
  • Pronounce all syllables in each word
  • End mumbling through articulate speech
  • Be more confident

Keep recording yourself to measure progress and pick the next thing you want to improve about your voice.

Riddleport Session #31: The Book Of Battle

We played another fun session last Friday. Great sessions contain a lot of great roleplaying or action, but I’m convinced the best ones have a lot of plot advancement.

Story = fun.

And the story did indeed progress in Session #31.

In their quest for the Book of Battle, the PCs cleaned out a nunnery filled with monsters and undead placed as a trap by drow enemies.

We ended #30 with the PCs standing over a hole leading into the underdark.

We began Friday’s game with them slowly lowering the clunky paladin down into the darkness by rope.

Drow ambushers immediately launched a volley of poison bolts at the descending warrior, but no luck.

Thus began a fight in a long hallway that became a running flight of terror for the PCs….

After dispatching the drow crossbowmen, the party discovered they were in a long hallway 15′ wide with runic designs etched into floor and ceiling.

The mage cast Alarm to guard their backs and the group marched forth, deeper into the lightless tunnel.

Suddenly the party heard movement ahead. They spotted another drow ambush assembling and charged.

Here’s where it gets a bit funny.

I placed the drow as a lure for a Pulverizing Wall trap that lay between the PCs and their foes. I was counting on the presence of a foe to distract the group and cause them to abandon caution and trap checks.

It worked and Crixus got pulverized mid-charge.

The funny thing is, lately in the campaign I’ve had a hard time doing damage to the PCs. Armed mostly with NPCs, I have had a tricky time balancing items that’ll give foes good damage versus loot levels once the PCs clean up.

So, my pulverizing wall ends up nearly slaying the pit fighter, and thus became the most effective foe in several sessions.

The paladin’s player joked the wall was my best NPC yet. We had a good laugh.

And I made a note in secret about the paladin. 😉

The second funny part occurred just before Crixus’s near demise. As the pit fighter charged, the paladin tried to Incite the drow, who were waiting patiently for the PCs to advance.

It worked and one drow became enraged. Out of his mind, he tried to charge the paladin. This would have blown my plan, because the drow charging the pally would have triggered the Pulverizing Wall and revealed my trap.

Fortunately, the drow’s companions made successful grapple checks and held the frothing, incited drow back.

The pit fighter ended up charging and 50 of his hit points, as they say, became history. But the whole situation felt ironic – the drow possibly being tricked into their own trap!

I made another secret note about the paladin.

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Onward, the party triggered another Pulverizing Wall.

Again, I was relying on the group not being in dungeon mode after spending so much game time in a city environment. I also figured that a crushing wall trap would be regarded as a one-off.

In this vein, I placed a total of eight Pulverizing Walls spread 100 feet apart in this long, endless tunnel.

Much damage later, the PCs figured out the pattern and disabled all remaining walls.

Then the earthquake hit. It lasted six rounds, each round getting worse. It triggered during a final hall combat with drow and their pet magical spider.

As the PCs battled their foes, they suffered falling debris and being knocked prone by the shaking ground.

In the last round, a rift broke the tunnel in half, dividing the party. The PCs could see lava filling the rift 150′ below.

Finally, the battle and earthquake end.

The mage sent his earth mephit into the rift. The creature was confronted by several fire mephits playing in the risinglava, and the familiar fled back to his master.

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The party now raced through the tunnel, avoiding debris, hoping the lava will not spell their doom.

They finally reached the end – a massive cavern filled with a three-tower duergar fortress.

The PCs could see the fortress was on fire in places, that walls had cracked from the quake, and that drow were fighting drow inside!

The party also spotted an unconscious drow laying near the tunnel exit. A dagger buried in his chest, he was apparently trying to escape.

They revived the dark elf and interrogated him.

At first he refused to talk. But the party quickly provided leverage.

You might remember in my Session #30 report the PCs had made allies with a Devourer – a former nun seeking revenge on the drow who slew her. A Devourer traps a soul in itself for fuel.

The PCs told the drow he could die with soul intact, or his soul could be lunch for the Devourer who was still with the group travelling through the tunnel.

Accepting his fate, the drow revealed his clan was attacked by another drow clan lead by one known as Eclavdra.

He also told them the Book of Battle rests in the main building – the Fane – guarded by several drow champions.

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After scouting the fortress, the group crafted a quick plan and acted.

They turned invisible and flew over the roof of the Fane. Mephit stayed behind to monitor things from outside and alert his master telepathically in case of danger.

The quake caused several holes in the Fane’s roof, and the PCs used that to enter.

The Fane was chaos with drow fighting toe-to-toe and slinging spells at each other.

Using detection spells, the PCs spotted the Book of Battle, which was also invisible.

The group swooped down, broke open the crystal case and grabbed the book. Then they dimension doored out, and emerged 350′ above the city of Riddleport.

A storm was raging outside, which made flying difficult.

But the PCs managed to navigate just fine, leaving the drow to fight their own battle back inside the mountain.

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While soaring above, the group used their spectacular view to scan pirate city.

They spotted fighting in the streets on the north side. An army of flesh golems was fighting sea devils and pirates while residents hid shaking in their homes.

And in the arena, which is in the PC’s home district, they spotted an even more terrible horror.

Almost everyone from the neighbourhood was in the arena, and they were being slaughtered by dozens of wights!

The group immediately flew to the Colosseum-like arena. They spotted their crime lord, Rictus Killgrave, and Igwilv, his finance who is also a vampire, watching in glee from the Noble’s Box.

The group decided it could not fight 100 wights, plus Rictus and Igwilv if they should join the battle.

Instead, they decided to rescue three friends by swooping down and whisking them away to a secret cave to rest and plan.

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We ended the session there and chat. The group agree that Ascension is about to happen.

(The whole plot of the Riddleport campaign is that a god has died, leaving a vacancy.

Riddleport is the site where the Elder Gods will descend and pick a mortal and give him the Divine Spark.

All factions vie for getting their Champion Ascended into godhood.)

The players believe their crime lord, Rictus, is making his big move now by creating an undead army out of neighbourhood residents.

The drow seem temporarily neutered with internal strife.

The battle to the north with the flesh golems and sahaguin indicates other factions are making their play.

All signs do seem to point to something imminent. Is now truly the time of Ascension?

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How to Have An End-Of-Adventure Celebration Party

From Jeremy Brown and Jacob Truax

Human beings are social animals, and they tend to celebrate happy occasions. One such happy occasion is the end of almost any adventure.

Heroes return from destroying monsters, and they are fetedand hailed. However, this aspect of gaming is usually glossed over.

Jacob and I have tried many different approaches to running parties in roleplaying games, and have arrived at a system that seems to work best for us. This article will be d20 centric, but can be easily adapted for other systems.

Why Have A Party?

Parties introduce a change of pace that breaks up the grind of adventure after adventure. This helps introduce novelty into a campaign.

Parties are a great way to set up adventure hooks or allow PCs to gather information about key personalities in the campaign world.

At the same time, parties allow the PCs to become key personalities in the campaign world by intermingling with important people and giving them a chance to impress NPCs.

This gives the characters a chance to integrate into the campaign’s social hierarchy and gain social rank as they gain physical power.

And this avoids the typical D&D feeling that adventurers are in a separate universe from the common people and nobles of their region.

Parties also allow political gaming if your group likes intrigue. These social interactions provide a place to confront people without a combat.

The PCs can scheme with others. And sneaky characters can use the party distractions to try procuring valuable papers or items from NPCs.

Parties provide verisimilitude in that the characters see NPCs playing their social games, scheming, conniving, and intriguing against one another. This provide even more adventure hooks as PCs ally with one faction over another or become cat’s paws.

Pitfalls Of Parties

Parties differ a few ways from regular adventures.

As GM, you need to be more prepared and flexible. You should have answers to these questions:

  • Who’s at the party?
  • How likely are they to notice the PCs?
  • Why? Why not?
  • Will they be impressed by the PCs and their accomplishments?

Make provision for pre-planned happenings at parties.

What entertainments are there going to be?

What party games, dancing, contests, performances, drinks, party favors, fights?

These events and touches give reality, but also move the action forward.

Prepare NPC Information Instead of Encounters

Also prepare what the PCs might find out from gathering information, spot or sense motive checks, subterfuge, surprise or confrontation.

This requires a lot of flow control and time tracking.

Extensive notes will help you before, during, and after the party!

Much of the above revolves around having clear NPC personalities and agendas with detailed interests and motivations.

This will help you roleplay NPCs well and eliminate some ofthe difficulties imposed by the above issues.

Avoid Missed Opportunities

Do not get so caught up in your own scripts and notes that you do not pursue interesting lines of inquiry, PC interest in an NPC no matter how minor, or a chance to expand an NPC’s role.

Establish one interesting connection between PCs and NPCs or between NPCs in your notes.

But if the PCs find a connection during gameplay, go with it. It may develop a minor NPC in a way you would not have expected, or provide PCs with an ally that you never intended.

Be sure the party propels the campaign’s story and development.

The largest missed opportunity is to have a party and have nothing come of it that is of importance to the PCs and their story.

Skills At Parties

Below are unconventional uses of some skills from both D&D 3.5 and d20 modern for use in parties.

Appraise: Use this skill to estimate social standing of a guest by his clothing and accoutrements. PCs can also guess at the lavishness of a host’s preparations.

Bluff: Use this skill to enter hostile groups. Or cut an NPC out of a group for private conversation.

Diplomacy: Used this as Bluff above, or use it to form groups around a PC.

Gamble: This d20 modern skill is great for complex card games and other games where PC skills cannot directly affect the outcome.

Hide: Mingle with a group, find out of the way corners, spy.

Intimidate: Bluster your way into a group or form your own group.

Knowledge, Craft, Profession, Perform: Use these skills to impress NPCs with a character’s knowledge or skills with a craft.

Under this heading could come skills such as computer use, investigate and handle animal that would not directly benefit a party, but could be the topic of conversation.

You can also form groups of like-minded people with knowledge of these skills, or cut out a person who is knowledgeable in the field from another group.

Listen: Overhear conversations.

Sense Motive: Besides its obvious first application, you can use it to determine the hostility level of groups to a specific PC.

Spot: Covert interactions between NPCs. See persons skulking around up to no good.

In more active parties, movement or athletic skills can be of use as well.

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How to Run a Successful Party

Have detailed NPC notes that give:

  • Personality
  • Appearance
  • Interests
  • Agenda/ and Motivations
  • Level of influence
  • Gather information chart

When the PCs start asking about a person, you’ll be ready.

  1. Have gather information charts about probable topics of conversation and interests of the PCs.
  2. Have a set of notes or a chart that shows when:
  • NPCs arrive
  • NPCs depart
  • Who NPCs will speak to
  • Who NPCs will avoid speaking to.

Use this information to develop groups of party goers.

All parties eventually develop little groups and the game should reflect this.

An alternative way of constructing these groups is to have different combinations over the course of an evening with pre-determined groups at each combination point.

Figure out which groups are friendly to the PCs and which are not.

Sense motive can be used to figure this out.

Assign spot check DCs to NPCs who skulk around edges of groups or to see people talking to others they would be expected to avoid.

  1. Develop a chronology of minor events, games and happenings.

Who observes? Who participates?

Where possible make NPC skill checks ahead of time to save game time.

  1. Develop a chart of random tidbits PCs can overhear while moving about the party.
  2. Be sure to have exit strategies for villainous NPCs.

While parties are a lot of work at the front end, they can provide a bounty of adventure hooks and roleplaying opportunities.

Plan well and party hearty.

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Next issue, Jeremy and Jacob treat us to several examples of party games you can run for your group. Stay tuned to your inbox.