How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging It, For Left-Brain Game Masters – Part I
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0043
A Brief Word From Johnn
Campaign consistency is a big deal for me because I’m on a quest to master the art of GMing on-the-fly. Also known as freestyle, ad-libbing, winging-it, and “flying by the seat of your pants”.
I think it’s important for you and I to become good at GMing without scripted or published materials because you never know what your players are going to do. Almost every session
I need to depart from my planned notes and make things up quickly for a new encounter, NPC, world detail, etc. Becoming good at that will definitely improve the quality of
A key to winging-it successfully is maintaining game consistency. It’s important to keep track of what you’ve invented and to play it correctly in future game sessions. Players are adept at picking up mistakes and inconsistencies. And your campaign as a whole will suffer.
I titled this issue “How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging-It, For Left-Brain Game Masters” because this week’s tips are based a lot on what I do, and I’m pretty left-
brained. By left-brained, I mean I like taking notes, making lists, using charts, being organized and analytical.
For all you creative, right-brained game masters out there who hate taking notes and making lists & charts, I’ve written an article for Fiction-Fantasy.net titled “How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging-It, For Right-Brain Game Masters” Guess what that one’s about?
I suspect you will fall somewhere between left and right-brained, so perhaps you should read the tips for both groups and pick the ones that suit you. The article for Fiction-Fantasy.net should be out this week, and I’ll confirm it next issue.
Focus On Tracking Key Information
Learn to track only the information that is critical to campaign consistency. If you do this, then any additional information you record or remember is a bonus and you can feel confident about your campaign.
- Names (NPCs, places, things…)
- Dates (Current campaign events, historical dates, future
dates & obligations)
- Passwords, command words, unique & special instructions
- Locations and distances
- Descriptions (NPCs, places, things…)
Tracking hard facts like dates and names always goes a long way towards keeping your campaign consistent.
Use a Numbered List For Cross-Referencing With Players
This is a great way to track stuff if you’re making it up as you go along. On a sheet of paper or an index card, write down important information as you invent it and number it in the left margin. If the information involves a player’s character, have the player write that number down on their character sheet for future reference.
- Diamond, 50 gps (treasure found, I ask the player to put diamond #1 on his character sheet)
- Belgorn: capital of kingdom
- June 21, 12pm: when PCs must return microfiche
Tips about using this method:
- Never repeat numbers. Always count upwards and don’t start back at #1 in the same campaign. You’ll find that you can number a lot of different information if you like this method, and using unique numbers makes all information easy to reference and track.
- Split your page or index card into 2 or more columns. I find most of my entries are brief and take up half a line or
less. You can fit more numbered items on a page/card if you use columns, which means less paper to worry about in the long run. (Use the back side too!)
- While you should track things as soon as you make them up so you don’t forget, pick the right moment when giving players numbers to record (i.e. Diamond #1 in the example above). It can ruin the mood if you stop play for book keeping. So, wait until the action or excitement is over and then do your player number tracking.
Use A Campaign Calendar
A calendar is an excellent tool to track information on-the-fly. If you use an imaginary calendar, create blank ones for two years ahead and one year behind your current campaign time. If you use a modern calendar, download a shareware or freeware organization program and print out calendars for two years ahead and one year behind.
As you make up information that’s relevant to dates, simply write it in the calendar for easy future reference. Use the one-year-behind calendar to track things like villain plans and groundwork, NPC travels and important events as you mention them, so you can do accurate calculation in future sessions if needed.
Also, create a general timeline page to track historical and scheduled future events. Your timeline only needs to track things on a time scale you feel necessary. For a modern campaign it might only be 10-200 years. For an ancient civilization you may need to track 10,000 or a million years.
Another tip, create two blank sets of your calendars and timelines. One set you use for private GM information. The other set you give to the PCs to track campaign stuff for you. At the end of each session take the players’ copy and add that info to your own. That way, you have 100% of the information to maintain consistency, and the players have only the information that they need to know.
Write a Campaign Journal
I take a few sparse notes during sessions and then flesh them out into a campaign journal, or adventure log afterwards. I send the journal to players before each session to refresh their memories and I re-read the journal as well for the same reason.
You can find many good journal tips here: RPT #7: Save Time & Get More Planning Done Through Campaign Newsletters
Enlist Your Players’ Help
Let your players give you a helping hand by documenting, handling and/or archiving your campaign information:
- Calendar duties
- Campaign journal creation & maintenance
- Campaign web site
- Campaign e-mail list
- Note taking
Also, at some point between sessions, think of anything that you don’t remember clearly about last session. Make a list of questions and then send them to your players to answer and clarify for you.
These techniques make campaign consistency a group effort and takes some of the load off your shoulders.
Next week I’ll have a few more tips on keeping your facts straight if you game master on-the-fly or if you need to depart from your plans & notes.
If you have any tips concerning ad-libbing, or GMing on-the-fly, please send them in. Not only would it help my GMing personally, but if the topic is popular we can help all the other GMs who receive this e-zine too. Thanks!
Send your freestyle, ad-libbing, on-the-fly tips to:
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Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Crime & Punishment in Harsh Worldframes
First off I really liked the article, it neatly expressed something I’ve only fuzzily comprehended in the past, and the mechanic looks rather helpful…[See issue #41 Law, Crime & Punishment in Fantasy Role Playing Games] But to my point. One of the problems I’ve often come up against in very authoritarian and brutal game worlds is how to justify not just killing the characters when they break the laws.
For example, in some societies you might wish to represent, justice may be swift and lethal e.g. Vampire, Cyberpunk street gangs or the kingdom of the “Evil Overlord”.
First of all, one might ask why not just kill the characters? Well, for starters, without the characters the story is over, and anything you’ve built up is over. Also, if you kill their characters the players will start to wrap them in cotton wool – it will get to the point where they won’t even walk on the grass. Not good if any of your plots rely on characters taking the initiative, or rebelling against the system.
This is well and good, but how do you then preserve the atmosphere of your game world, and avoid the perception that the characters can get away with anything? Firstly you need an in game reason to let them live. Here are a few that I can think of:
- They have friends in powerful places who the ruler cannot afford to annoy too much
- The PCs are more useful alive, perhaps there is a war and they need every sword they can get (for example)
- The ruler is in an unstable position and doesn’t want to create a martyr
- There are worse things than death (some of which are not so bad to roleplay, especially if you like angst)
- Maybe the PC is too high status to just kill (eg. ranking royalty, or a war hero)
At this point you have to work out what those in power will actually do to the offending PC, because they will need to do something, or else the illusion of control will slip, and your evil overlord (or whatever) will look powerless.
The best punishments I have found tend to be inspired by the middles ages, but you could pick any era or place in which human rights have held little sway 🙂
Here are a few that have worked for me, and if done carefully, they can promote rather than hinder roleplaying. Just remember, if you go to far your players may become over-cautious. Of course, if they are in need of more caution, go your hardest….
- Social ostracism of some kind. This seems soft, but when the society is small, and all important, and the character is prideful this can be very harsh. Have them mocked and insulted. Good for Noble concepts.
- Enforced servitude. Have the character forced to a term of service to the leader or whoever is relevant to the situation. Have them do horrible nasty things that they don’t want to do or are highly demeaning. (don’t upset the player!)
- For worldframes with a supernatural element, have them magically restricted or cursed in some way. Be wary of taking away all free will though, if you do that you may as well kill the character as far as many players are concerned.
- Horrible mutilation. Particularly in worlds where healing is easy you can deal out endless horrible physical punishments (in public is even worse) of the most medieval variety. If healing is not an option, think carefully about how what you do will effect the game, but here’s some ideas that are not too crippling; branding, cutting off a finger or toe, scarification of some kind.
- Public physical punishment, like the traditional ten lashes, can work well.
Example: In a recent episode of a Vampire: the Dark Ages game I run a player insulted and broke some of the property of the Vampiric ruler of the city, who I have been setting up as a particularly oppressive and cruel specimen of an oppressive and cruel society. Now the player had been roleplaying rather well in doing this, considering the context so I didn’t want to kill him (which is traditional in such circumstances).
Also, the ruler found his alchemical skill useful. Instead the Evil Ruler in question had his tongue cut out for his insolence (which he could easily heal, being a vampire) and stole his shadow with a supernatural power. The harshness of the NPC was maintained, and in addition the character now gets to worry about what the guy is doing to do to his shadow and how he is going to get it back – something that will be a future plot.