Know Your Players – Building Your Session Checklist – Part I

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0352

A Brief Word From Johnn

Superstitions Contest – Two Weeks Left

The quest for superstition ideas continues. A few entries have been sent in, and it would be great to see a few more. Up for grabs is five copies of Superstitions by Creative Mountain Games. I’ll add in three Roleplaying Tips GM Encyclopedias as well, for a total of eight prizes!

Check out the Readers Tips section for some example superstition ideas and entries.

One superstition idea = one entry into the prize draw. E-mail your entries to [email protected] and good luck!

No Issue Next Week – Easter Break

Next issue will be April 15 as the e-zine takes a rest over the Easter break.

Great New Article Posted

Attention educators and RPG club enthusiasts, check out this great new article posted at the site:

Starting and Running a Role-Playing Games Club” by Katrina Middelburg-Creswell

It’s a case study of a teacher who started up a thriving RPG club at her school. Katrina also shares tips, advice, and sample forms & documents to help you start your own club. Thanks Katrina!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Know Your Players – Building Your Session Checklist – Part I

Checklists are valuable game master tools. They are easy to craft – just brainstorm a list of items, and put them in order, if desired. With each use, you can change and update it until the checklist is complete and perfect.

They are portable – put them in your GM binder, on your screen, in your books, in your notes, on your computer.

They are also reproducible. Each time you need to perform a checklist-oriented task, make a copy of the list, perhaps on a Post-It, in Excel, or on a scrap piece of paper.

Checklists are like recipes for GMs. They give you a list of ingredients, what to do with them, the order in which to do them, and any related deadlines. I urge you to make checklists for any series of planning, designing, or GMing tasks, items, or processes.

One such recipe you might find valuable is the player session checklist. A key part to your games is providing the framework for players to show up and get what they want from each session. Each player has different likes, dislikes, and personal habits.

A player session checklist aids planning, design, and session preparation to help ensure encounters and gameplay has something for everyone each session.

There are many possible GMing checklists. The following tips are to help you serve your players as best you can through a player checklist.

Some of the items are organizational in nature. As GM, you have experience and desire, and by default, the responsibility to be organized and efficient where game sessions are concerned. Organizing players might feel like herding cats, but not everyone is gifted with being organized, so I figure if you can help your players in this department with little to no added effort, it benefits the game and group.

Learn Player Time Habits

Pay attention to the time trends of your players. Noticing consistent aberrations will help you develop a handling strategy and session preparation To Do items, which you can then add to your player checklist.

Are they often late or too early?

Late players are disruptive or might delay game starts, depending on how you run things. Determine who is often late and why – perhaps you can help the player be on time.

For example:

  • Forgetful players might benefit from a reminder. Checklist item: send player e-mail reminder the night before the game.
  • Traffic is bad. Perhaps you can change the game location, use Google maps to pick a better route, or tweak the game start time.

If there’s nothing more you can do to help players arrive on time, and one or more players are still often late, add a checklist item: account for player XYZ being late. This little reminder will help you plan session starts that aren’t dependent on the late player or their character.

Early players can be just as disruptive by interrupting your last-minute prep, or by adding to the pre-game chaos. Add a checklist item for early players about ways they can help, or to remind you to anticipate the early knock on the door.

Are they slow in-game?

Observe player response time and note where slow-downs occur. Again, you do this with an eye toward helping players. Perhaps you can craft a short player’s reference for the fighter who stumbles over combat rules, or build a spreadsheet tool to auto-calculate some things.

Maybe decision-making is tricky for them. If so, perhaps you can improve your descriptions, or design with certain decisions in mind to make choices clearer or easier to make with a particular character.

If you spot opportunities to help slow players, add any applicable, regular To Do items to your checklist.

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Learn Player Organization

This is a simple tip: what do players forget?

Checklist item: send the player(s) a reminder to bring their dice, books, character sheet, and anything else they tend to forget.

In-game organization is important too. Are players struggling amongst empty candy wrappers, chip bags, and dirty dishes? Put a garbage can nearby and ask an idle player to remove some garbage off the table, or to take some dishes to the kitchen.

Are books, notepaper, minis, and other game stuff at hand and accessible to players? Help players stay organized by keeping game reference and materials close, and also by providing space to store books and things away from the game table to give players more space.

Checklist item: clean-up and organize the game area.

Learn Player Preferences

This is the meat of your checklist. To deliver the best sessions, ensure each player gets what they’re looking for from the game.

Common sense prevails here. I’m sure every player would be delighted with endless heaps of treasure and experience points; however we all know that fun also includes challenge, drama, and sometimes loss or setbacks.

With that in mind, write each player’s name on a sheet of paper and brainstorm what you think they want from your game sessions, and what you think makes them enjoy playing RPGs. Keep these notes handy, and add to them whenever you get new ideas or observe new motivations.

Next, write each player’s name on your session checklist. With your player preferences notes in hand, for each session, note how the game will appeal to one or more preferences of each player.

There’s no guarantee these preferences will be met next session, but your checklist helps you consider each player as an individual, and helps you figure out how you can tweak your game to be entertaining for all.

You might go through your player preferences checklist first, before you start designing and planning, so you have player needs in mind. It’s often possible to tweak a game element, such as an encounter, challenge, reward, or NPC, to better suit one or more players.

This is not new advice, but it is good advice that’s easy to do. In Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (great book, by the way), Robin categorizes players by type and emotional kick. In Rolemaster’s Gamemaster Law, players are categorized by personality. Other gaming products have classified player types and preferences over the years as well.

Document Player Preferences

You can use a grid, like Robin Laws, with player names down the side and blank columns for Type and Emotional Kick along the top. Beside each name, you write out what type you think the player is and what game emotion you think they thrive on (such as power gaming, method acting, or kicking butt).

I prefer making a free-form list of player preferences and tendencies, and keeping each players’ list in a separate file or in a running text document. Some players have more than one preference.

In addition, I find it limiting to assign an archetype, or some kind of type, classification, or label to a player. For example, power gamer, rules lawyer, fox, bull, and casual gamer are interesting terms, but they don’t exactly apply to any of my players.

I’d rather get specific for my checklist: likes, dislikes, preferences. However, types and labels are great starting points for getting a rough idea of the mix of preferences each player has, and then getting specific from there.

Observe Player Preferences

As you make your lists, you might realize you know the preferences of some players better than others. You are welcome to make guesses, but you should immediately start paying attention during sessions to get the facts on what they enjoy and what makes them bored, frustrated, or disengaged.

Conversations between sessions are also helpful in backing up your lists with data. Feel free to be direct and ask: “What do you like about gaming? Why do you game? What have been your favourite parts of recent game sessions?”

Observation also helps you double-check your lists. Did you figure each player’s preferences correctly?

Revise Player Preferences

During each session, or after, review your preferences lists and make updates and changes. Hopefully, you are refining things and getting to know your players very well.

Checklist Item: Design With Each Player In Mind

Before game sessions, write out each player’s name on your checklist and note what parts of the session you anticipate will appeal to them.

If a player’s section is empty, best fix that right away. If one player has a much larger list than others, that’s great, but it could be a sign of a poorly weighted session with too much focus or spotlight time. Just go over session plans quickly in your mind to ensure the session is balanced.

As you plan and prepare for next session, create or tweak game elements to appeal to as many players as possible. Each time you make a change so a player is being served well, note that on your checklist.

For example, one player might enjoy combat a lot while another likes roleplaying much better. You plan an encounter where the PCs must confront the owner of a printing press to learn who is crafting some hateful posters that are popping up all over town. It will require good roleplaying, because the owner doesn’t want to lose his well-paying customer; plus, the owner is a secret sympathizer to the hateful cause.

Player B: roleplaying = check
Player A: combat = no check

You have some options at this point. You can add in a combat encounter (short or long as per your game pacing needs) to hit Player A’s preferences next. You can add some thugs to the print shop so that Player A can fight while Player B interrogates, bribes, or tricks the owner to reveal his customer. You can make the print shop encounter short, to keep pacing fast so that Player A doesn’t get restless.

Next planned encounter is with the customer. That’s expected to be a roleplaying encounter as well, because he’s just an employee of a powerful politician who has been ordered to craft and distribute the posters.

You scratch your chin and consider the consequences of having two roleplaying encounters in a row and how that will sit with Player A and Player B.

The point of this example is the player preferences checklist helps you analyze and tweak session plans to try to make your games as enjoyable as possible. It’s a great tool.

GM With The Checklist In Hand

While you GM a session, keep your checklist nearby. As the game session hits points of player preferences, check off that item on each player’s list, or add the item if it was unplanned.

Halfway through the session, look at the number of check marks each player has. Players with no marks need some attention.

As you GM, make new preferences entries as you observe, to build up your master preferences list between sessions.

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Read Part 2: Know Your Players here, where I provide examples of player preferences to add to your checklists, and ideas for serving them in your games.

By the way, a player’s checklist is just one of three stakeholder checklists you should craft for your games, with the other two being Know Thyself (GM preferences checklist) and Know The Characters (catering to characters checklist).

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Superstitions For Use In Your Games

From Jody McAdoo

  • Saying a greater being’s (god/whatever) name gives it the ability to hear and act upon events within 100 ft. of the speaker. Careful who you call upon and what you say about them.
  • Inflicting harm to priests on holy ground is asking for their god’s wrath.
  • Being hit by bird droppings is lucky.
  • Wearing red hats on Tuesday is good luck.
  • The blood of a vampire will slow the aging process.
  • Werewolf teeth are good luck.
  • If you leave your tooth under your pillow, the tooth troll will leave you coppers.
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Scenario Writing Tips

From Kit Reshawn

Writing good adventures is difficult. On the one hand, you need to have strict control, otherwise things fall apart as your players do whatever they want and you have trouble coming up with things that are interesting. On the other hand, you need to have loose control, otherwise your players feel things are too boring or predictable and end up being pulled by the nose everywhere.

Here is the way I write things to avoid these problems. First off, having descriptions already written up is a good thing, as making descriptions on the fly is difficult. It is ok to write descriptions from a single perspective, because you can always alter it on the fly to match whatever perspective your players happen to be at when they see the description.

Descriptions should be about a paragraph long, and you should add in details that are unimportant (otherwise players only listen when you start giving details). Details are more important than most people think, because they make characters (and places) quickly identifiable to the players, and sometimes your players will find ways to make previously unimportant things become important.

Next, come up with a general plot idea, and then write up a plausible chain of events. What would happen if things went exactly the way you planned? Include how different characters will answer likely questions (Who are you? What is going on? What do you want? etc.) Plus motivations for all of the major NPCs involved.

Don’t think for a second things will go exactly the way you plan, or that all the questions you think are obvious will be asked by the players. Rather, all this preparation acts as a framework. You can get an idea of what an NPC will do in an unplanned situation by taking note of his motivations, and your plausible chain of events can act as a guide when changing how things are going to happen.

Have things ready to run a particular quest, but don’t be afraid to deviate. Let’s say your players want to get into a castle, so you thought they would go look for a person to smuggle them in with forged passes. Although that is a good way of running such an adventure, do not be afraid to let your players do something different, such as sneaking in by themselves under cover of darkness.

Most importantly, do not be afraid to make things you believe are unlikely or difficult more difficult for your players to accomplish. This does not mean it should be impossible (impossible things should be rare). Rather, you make whatever difficulty rolls they must pass closer to the maximum they can achieve. If they fail, so be it. They picked a difficult course of action and should have to take the setback. Failure is as much a part of the story as success, and if you never let your players fail then they will stop feeling tension.

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Mickey Spillane, Game Master

From Jay ~Meow!~

Mickey Spillane said, “I outline my story, decide who is who, what’s happening – and then I throw the first half of the outline away and start in the middle of the story. If there’s any information I need to add, I can do that in flashbacks.”

I find this is a good technique for story writing and GMing.

One thing I like to do is get a good framing mechanism – a good reason for the PCs to be adventuring. Among my favorites are the Private Detective Agency, the Police Force, and the Military. I have also tried a freelance salvage/security company.

This lets players know what the goals are. For police – they are informed of a crime scene or a dead body and sent to work. For them the story is already in action. Someone has been killed, something has been stolen or destroyed. Their job – find out who dunnit. Where are they now?

With the military, it’s “Report to the conference room for a mission briefing.”

With Green Jack’s Salvage – Green Jack, the owner, acquired jobs and told the PCs what he needed done. This had successes and failures – a job too vaguely stated leaves players wondering how to proceed and what’s expected of them.

In terms of a classic group of D&D adventurers – they need group identity and a standing group mission.

“The Order of The Stick” is a mercenary company hired on to follow Roy on his quest to defeat the Lich Xyklon. The group structure is mercenary; the mission is a long term quest against Xyklon.

My best friend tried to run a fantasy game where characters pulled out of different times and spaces were drawn into an FRPG world and given a quest to combat slavery by a demi- goddess.

However, once out of the demi-goddess’s temple, the mission was forgotten, the goal fell to the wayside, and the PCs scattered. This made Dennis cry, softly.

In another FRPG game, I basically recycled the “police force” idea and made the beginning PCs  members of a city guard (I stole this idea from a guy named Lee who GMed a rocking game back in the 1990s).

However, the players reacted with ambivalence to this – it didn’t exactly fit their expectations.

Another GM of my acquaintance took a random group of adventurers and had the hoary old man at the bar describe an ancient temple of amazing wealth.

Although the PCs joined this party for various reasons (my character joined to get cover for escaping the police, for instance) this set them up to all be standing in the ancient temple when the Ancient God appeared and geased them all to perform the quest the GM had in mind to begin with. That one was cool, actually.

As for Mickey Spillane, I discovered, with Green Jack’s Salvage, that Star Wars works well when you cut to a point where the story is already in motion: “You come out of hyperspace near the Planet Rodom – the reason for the loss of contact with the colony there becomes apparent as alien fighters vector in to intercept you. Welcome to tonight’s session.”

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Character Generation Idea

From Telas

There are some excellent character generation ideas to be mined in the indie game, “Spirit of the Century”. Basically, the players each write a brief description of an adventure their character has been involved in on an index card. The cards are shuffled and passed back out randomly, and the new person becomes a “guest star” in the adventure, adding a line or two. Repeat one more time, and it creates a cohesive group with a number of common background themes. There’s a bit more to it, but that’s it.