How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging-It, For Left-Brain Game Masters – Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0044

Part I with tips 1-5 is available at: RPT#43 – How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging-It, For Left-Brain Game Masters, Part I

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A Brief Word From Johnn

This issue is early as Sunday evening I’ll be sleeping on the couch with a stomach full of turkey: it’s Thanksgiving this weekend in Canada (eh).

There’s a new article you might find interesting at the web site titled “Running Adventures With little Preparation” by Brennan O’Brien. You can find it in the new Articles section.

The sister article of this 2-part series, “How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging-It, For Right-Brain Game Masters” is now on-line in the articles section. It has some great tips not covered here about roleplaying on-the-fly.


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Be Vague Until Absolutely Necessary

This tip has a couple of different applications.

First, the more facts you mention to the players the more information you need to track. So be vague and don’t give out names, dates, distances and other specific information until you really need to.

Second, keep as much story information to yourself as you can without ruining the fun and excitement of your roleplaying. Learn to leak out juicy plot, NPC and setting tid bits slowly, waiting for the best moments to reveal them.

For example, a while ago I set-up an adventure where the PCs were to fetch several unique and valuable items for an important person. That person needed the items for his bizarre experiments and was really depending on the PCs. Retrieving the items was critical to the PCs’ plans and the deadline was very tight.

I made the mistake of telling the players exactly how many items they needed to get, what the items were named, where they could be found (I even supplied a map!) and what their purpose was for.

Not only did that story become quite boring for me, but I felt locked-in with little story flexibility left to me. I was stuck. I should have kept more information secret and revealed it as the PCs’ needed it (i.e. after each task is completed the next is revealed along with need-to-know information and deadline just for that task).

Here’s another example of keeping things vague without wrecking your game. Re-read the paragraph above that starts with “For example…” You understood the general storyline right? And the description might even have made you curious about a few things. But what specifics did I give?

  • “a while ago”
  • “several…items”
  • “unique and valuable items”
  • “important person”
  • “bizarre experiments”
  • “PCS’ plans”
  • “deadline”

Nothing in that paragraph gives any juicy information or secrets away too early. If you can do that during your games then you have a lot more control, not just over campaign consistency, but over many things:

  • If the characters decide to do something different you haven’t locked yourself in to specific places and times. You can adapt better to play decisions and have your plot follow them around…even just in the background as realistic flavour if you like.
  • If a session starts to lose energy, reveal a new fact or secret and get things going again. By being vague you’re saving up ammunition.
  • If you get better ideas from listening to the players or from your own brain you can incorporate them seamlessly. You haven’t committed to unchangeable hard facts yet.

There’s many more benefits of being vague and then getting specific at just the right moments, but in terms of winging-it and consistency, vagueness means less information to track, fewer commitments to keep and greater private GM flexibility.

Copy Players’ Character Sheets

Always keep an up to date copy of each player’s character sheet in your files. You can use the information to streamline play (by needing to ask players fewer character-related questions) and you can make all sorts of notes on the copied sheets themselves, such as:

  • NPCs met, spoken with, made allies/enemies of
  • Secret effects such as curses, enchantments, blessings…
  • Character family & friend information
  • Character hooks and story ideas you get

By making notes in the margins and on the backs of the copied sheets themselves it is easier to keep your campaign consistent.

Use a GM Binder or Notebook

GM binders will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming issue. They are an excellent tool for keeping your facts straight while GMing.

They are a good place to keep notes in; you can create different sections to stay organized and for easy access during play (i.e. world info, story info, maps, NPCs…); and you can add charts and lists for in-game reference.

For example, for my new D&D campaign I used my favorite name generator to create two lists of names: Good Guys & Bad Guys. I copied and pasted the names into a 2-column Word document and used an “empty square” bullet style for all the names.

During play, when I need a name, I consult the Good Guys or Bad Guys list and put a number in the empty square (see Tip #2 from Issue #43) beside the name I use. I also have a list of random NPC personalities printed on the back of both names pages and put the same number in the box beside the personality I choose. Same with a physical descriptions page I have.

Now I have an NPC’s name, physical appearance & personality linked on paper by ID number, which I can assemble onto one NPC page after the game session. The important thing during play is using the forms to quickly track information as I use it.

Using a GM binder this way helps me keep my facts straight when GMing on-the-fly.

Use Specially Designated Index Cards

You have to be really left-brained to like this tip, I’m afraid. 🙂

I find when winging-it and making notes, that information eventually gets spread out over several pages. And if I need to look up something specific like an NPC, magic item or town for example, I have to do some paper shuffling and cross-referencing.

So, I use index cards for NPCs, world information (i.e. gods, cities, special places…) and magic items. I have a standard format that I generally use like name in the top left corner, statistics on front, description on back, etc. And I file everything by first name in a card file box which makes it easy to lug them around and sort through.

Using a single index card sure beats paper shuffling. And it helps you keep your facts straight if you get into the habit of filling cards out as you play with the information you invent on-the-fly.

Quick tip about using index cards: feel free to leave sections on the card blank to fill in later when needed. Don’t feel compelled to have to fill out a complete NPC profile, for example, in mid-game. Just record the info you’ve made up and leave the rest for later.

Keep An NPC Log

I do this as a regular part of the campaign journal I write after each session. An NPC log is a fantastic tool for you to track the people, monsters and villains in your campaign. It’s excellent for on-going reference and consistency in mid-game.

Here’s what you can track, without a lot of note-taking in mid-session:

  • NPC/Monster name
  • Status: friend or foe
  • Last known location
  • Session date or number encountered in
  • Plot hooks, loose ends, encounter possibilities

After each session I send an e-mail to my players with an NPC log in it. I also take that log and add it to a master campaign NPC log which I printout before each session.

How can you use an NPC log?

  • Keep names & relationships with the PCs straight
  • Scan it during the session for ideas
  • Reference it to find recurring NPC possibilities (why introduce a new NPC, which means more details to remember, when you can bring back an old one?)
  • Look for patterns and natural groupings of NPCs for story ideas, conspiracies…
  • Handy reference for character needs (i.e. training, “go see Brogan, he has what you’re looking for”)

Review Your Notes Before Each Session

In fact, review your notes as much as you can. The more often you think about the events and people in your campaign, the more likely you’ll keep your facts straight and game master with consistency.

See the article “How To Maintain Game Consistency, While Winging-It, For Right-Brain Game Masters” for more tips on reviewing sessions.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Winging-it Tips

From Scott Dunphy

I have been a subscriber for a couple of months now and I really appreciate your hard work and keen insight. I also enjoy winging it from time to time. Some of my best adventures have come from letting the story flow from the players with only minimal guidance from me.

Tip 1: Place minor plot leads related to established NPCs, organizations, monsters, and villains throughout several sessions of your better scripted material. Once the characters return home from that crypt they finally purified or the castle siege they finally abandoned, simply sit down at the next session and ask them what their characters are doing. If you have dropped the right hints and hooks, they will have about 20 things they want to do – right now!

Just let them run around and have the NPCs react appropriately to the characters. This usually leads right into the motivation for the next session’s adventure. The players enjoy this technique because they feel more in control of the story line and it helps the DM to know what types of adventures they hunger for.

Tip 2: Keep common regional monsters and standard NPCs (enemy soldiers, wizard guild apprentices, etc) on index cards that you can quickly reference. This allows you to spring an encounter geared toward what the PCs do or where they go without having to dig through expansive notes. If you also have a common name sheet prepared, these encounters appear planned to the unobservant player (most of them).

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From Aki Halme

Consistency and winging it are not mutually exclusive. Inconsistency means taking liberties with the past; winging it means taking liberties with the present / future. Wing it now, then keep notes and bear those in mind when winging again.Another idea would be the lego approach. Prepare stuff that is bound to come in useful, even if you don’t exactly know when and where.

Stuff like dungeon pieces, rooms, buildings, interesting NPCs, plot sketches, story hooks, monsters, legends, encounters, etc. That way you can do whatever you please, and look entirely prepared as half the work has been done beforehand.