Mailbag – Problem Player, Magic Items Too Powerful, GMing After an Absence

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0590

Brief Word From Johnn

Free Storytelling Course For You

I shared this with Gamer Lifestyle subscribers yesterday, and I think you’d be interested too.

On the weekend I discovered an online, video based course on storytelling.

It even has a module on storytelling in RPGs!

And it’s free. So I signed up right away and read the curriculum again.

The course starts October 25, and the materials are posted online so you can catch up if you miss a lesson.

If you use my link, I get entered into a prize draw. But I enrolled before I discovered that as I think the course looks pretty good.

In past RPT emails and in other venues, I’ve spoken about the importance of storytelling. Use it at every opportunity as you GM.

The value of telling stories was reinforced to me at Toastmasters. Telling a good story not only helps you fit into groups easily, but it’s a leadership quality.

It’s such a valuable skill to learn.

Here are the details on the course if you are interested:

Click Here » The Future of Storytelling – Online Course

Today Is An Experiment

I have a big backlog of emails piling up. Some of you, I’m embarrassed to admit, have been waiting patiently for quite some time.

So today is an experiment about answering a few emails simmering in my inbox and sharing some GM advice with you at the same time.

I hope you like the tips.

If you have any thoughts on the format today, drop me a note (I just might be delayed a bit in responding :P).

Mailbag – Problem Player, Magic Items Too Powerful, GMing After an Absence

Reader Mailbag

Old GM Picks Up Screen Again

Hi Johnn,

My name is Fred, a 32 year old acupuncturist from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’m also a long term follower and subscriber of RPTips (since 2006, I guess) and had been playing RPG since AD&D 90’s era.

I’m gonna run a Pathfinder campaign, but it’s been six years last I took the GM spot. How do I approach this?

I’m kind of a control freak, I love to think ahead and foresee the many different routes players, NPCs and plots can take.

But I’m afraid this over-thinking and lack of practical GMing may stand in the way of the improvisation and player-made achievements.

What tips can you give me and other fellow old-new GMs? Which old school and modern techniques should I mix up? When do I use “muscle memory” GMing and when to fresh out?

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Hi Fred,

Welcome back to GMing! Thanks from every Roleplaying Tips reader for taking up the reigns again. Here are a few thoughts on your questions.

First, about being rusty.

  1. Keep things simple and let the players complicate the plot. Simplification is a hard skill to develop (but worthwhile in all aspects of life!).
  2. Try to say “yes” to everything the players offer. If you build on their moves, ideas and questions, you start to play a more relaxed game and you’ll have more fun.
  3. Think more in Lego terms. Create strong NPCs, cool items, interesting locations. And build a diabolical villain.

Game pieces with great design give you more campaign integrity in the long-term. You’ll feel more confident when you need to improvise.

Second, about changing gameplay approaches.

Worry less about old vs. new and instead create and maintain a conversation with yourself and your players.

Between sessions think about what stuff went well and what stuff needs improvement.

Ask your players to do the same and get their feedback.

Repeat the stuff that’s going well. And for the stuff that’s a bit rough, ok, now you go out looking for techniques and solutions.

If you begin by going online and building an inventory of potential techniques, you’re GMing to the standards of strangers who’ll never be in your game. Only you and your players should determine your GMing techniques.

Why start with theory? Instead, just play and improve with each game. When a problem arises, research to fix it, or just experiment to learn what works.

I see Roleplaying Tips and other sources of GM advice as a way to fine tune your game, not define it.

Keep GMing and let us know how it goes.

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Over-Powered Magic Woes

Jack asks:


In our campaign, I haven’t always been the DM. And when another guy was the DM he awarded a very powerful weapon to each character. Now I’m dealing with it as I am back to running the campaign.

One item in particular is a life stealer sword that gives the user the hit points he takes when he hits an opponent, almost making him invincible.

Do you have a way of toning down some of these weapons without making the players mad?

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Hi Jack,

Here are a couple of pointers.

Powerful Magic Items Should Attract Powerful Enemies

Create interesting villains and make a game of it. Whether you call it keep away or take away, it’s sure to be interesting and fun gameplay.

Try to use tactics to outwit and outmaneuver the PCs rather than brute force. For example, isolate a PC, surround him, hit to subdue. And if the PC falls unconscious, steal his magic.

Offer Choices

Look for ways to foil the PCs’ powerful items in ways that give players dilemmas, rather than just cancels their power.

This makes things a game instead of punishment.

For example, after 10 kills (or 5 or 2, whatever you think is good design) the sword drains the life energy of everyone in a 20 foot radius. That includes allies!

Or perhaps the 10th victim awakens the sword for 24 hours, and the sword wants the PC to do bad things. It becomes an interesting tug-of-war for the PC and it gives the player a choice of delaying or triggering.

Give Items Quirks

In D&D you can give weapons egos and turn them into independent NPCs that conflict with the PCs.

There are other ways to make powerful magic “interesting” enough to give PCs pause.

For example, give the items detailed backgrounds. Then have history come back to bite the PCs in their butts.

First, create a rich background.

Second, give it to the players through interesting gameplay. Clues, books as treasure, legends.

You could even turn discovering the terrifying past of an item into an adventure.

Third, start gaming the consequences.

This longer-term approach gives in-game rationale for the negative side effects you eventually impose. It feels less arbitrary to players, and they won’t resent the consequences because you’ve turned it into storytelling.

Consequences could be a prophecy coming true, items losing their powers, bad things happening to the PCs – the usual plot stuff.

For example, take all the over-powered magic items of the party handed out by the other GM. Assuming there’s no conflict with details about the items already in play, you could say the items were all made by the same evil wizard in service to his evil god.

That would be a cool story thing for the PCs to discover.

Later on, you have the PCs learn the items can be used in combination for some super effects.

But wait. While the PCs quest for how to unlock these combo powers, they learn every use of their items has a chance to get the attention of the evil god. (Start rolling fake dice behind your screen starting next session every time players use their items. When ready to bring in the god’s attention, start rolling for real or just choose.)

And if the PCs ever use a super power, the god will notice for sure.

You decide what happens when the evil gaze of the god glares at the PCs.

But now you’ve got a great story on your hands, the PCs still have choices, and they can dig their own graves if they get greedy. Or, I could see some future magnificent sacrifice where a super power is needed for the purposes of good, and the PCs make that choice knowing the bad god or his minions will get summoned.

Meta Gamer Meta Pain

I have a player who metagames. No shock there. However, he metagames by asking questions: Did I find that answer? What can I do to solve this? Is this the name of the place where we got lost?

This wouldn’t be that big a deal, but I have a mix of experienced players and players with almost no experience. The experienced ones ignore him and the inexperienced ones don’t know what to do with him. He is easily the loudest person at the table and very emphatic with his conversation.

Another GM in our group suggests asking him questions to lead him out of the metagaming and back into regular gaming: I don’t know, did you find a name plate in the temple? Did you write down what you did there?

I’d rather not do this as it seems patronizing to me, but I’m out of ideas. Anybody got a better idea? I’d like to keep him interested in the plot without having to dodge or ignore the ‘tell me the plot’ requests.


Frustrated GM

Hi Frustrated GM,

Here are a few suggestions.

Respond In-Character

Focus on the character’s actions. Put the onus on the player to game things out.

This is not patronizing. It’s asking the player to play the game.

For example:

“What can I do to solve this?”

“Well, you’ve got a few leads, you could try chasing those down.”

You put action back into the hands of the player.

Ask The Player To Not Meta Game

In the past, when tired and irritated by meta gaming, I’ve said this:

“Ok, roll a d20. 18? Great! You’ve solved the campaign.”

Not my proudest or most communicative moment. 🙂

But now it’s an inside joke with my group and I’ll players to make a Win Campaign skill check when I feel they are meta gaming too much.

However, it’s better to be clear, up front and respectful. Work with the player.

“Hey Bob, that’s probably not what your character would ask, lol. It’s a bit meta gamey. What’s something your character could do to get closer to finishing the quest?”

If his behaviour is a problem, like being too loud, have a chat between sessions in private to work out what’s good table behavior or expected style of gameplay.

Use More NPCs

Encourage more roleplaying by having more NPCs around.

Reward good roleplaying. Have a Best Roleplayer vote each session, or use Pocket Points.

Bypass the player’s question to the GM and answer through an NPC instead.

Ask players to only speak out of character under certain conditions, like rules stuff.

What Is The Player’s View

Everyone has their own way of viewing the game.

Get to know the player better and listen hard to understand his point of view.

For example, maybe it’s the only way he knows how to play the game because he has a long wargaming background.

Some people are stuck in their own skulls. By that, I mean they never take a hint, they do not notice patterns, they’re not self-aware, and they don’t see what’s happening around them as a source of feedback.

If you take some time to figure out where the player is coming from, you will be better able to understand him and look for ways to have more fun at every game.

This applies to you too. And me. Everyone. When confronted with someone who has a completely different world view, we often see that as a threat or something uncomfortable. And we see the problem as being the other person, instead of it being partially our own reaction or intolerance.

So, just saying to take deep breaths, be ready to learn, and go with the flow as you work together to figure out how to make the best game possible.