Maintaining Your GM - Roleplaying Tips

Maintaining Your GM

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #316

Maintaining Your GM

From Amy Driscoll

Tips for encouraging your GM to continue the game you’re currently enjoying.

With thanks to Colin “Relapse” Morris and Robbie “Head Wound” Eberhardt for constructive criticism.

A group of friends and fellow gamers asked me last year to commit to GMing a regular, long-term campaign. Long-term campaigns hold several attractions for me. There’s the intense character development, the simple plot wrinkles that snowball into world-shaking events, and the kind of campaign stories you reminisce about for years afterward. So I said yes.

After a year real-time of gaming though, I found myself dreading upcoming sessions. I was leaping upon the opportunity to postpone sessions and struggling to come up with the next session plan. In the end, I nominated myself for a break, and one of the players has taken over as GM for a few sessions. I still love gaming; I still want the game to keep going – I just do not want to run a session at the moment.

I’m not alone. I’ve discussed the burnout scenario with other GMs, trying to work out the causes and patterns leading to my current GMing antipathy. In the course of that, I’ve put together a few general pointers for players. There are already tips out there for burnt out GMs (believe me, I know), so these are focused on what a player can do to help their GM maintain enthusiasm and keep the game rolling.

Give The GM Something To Work With

Short test: Which character does the GM prefer to game with?

The GM knows Character A wants to bust up a local drug ring by finding the source and cutting it off. He also desperately needs to find the cure to a mystical infection ravaging his girlfriend, and to return to his village before his sister is married to the local bully against her wishes.

The GM knows Character B likes horses, wears a trench coat, and has a wicked left hook.

Answer? A, obviously. Not only is it going to be easier to plot out an involving session for Character A, it’s also going to be simpler to motivate the PC to get involved with conflicts. If the GM has to make up something on the fly to keep the game going, Character A is probably going to get a lead role because the GM knows what Character A wants.

Character B will have to tag along for the ride or head for the sideline.

Maybe your character is already a fully realized, well- developed person with hooks, flaws, and a background full of loose ends. Does the GM know? While you might have given a list or summary to your GM at the beginning of the campaign, you will need to update it every now and then as the plot and your character develop. If the GM doesn’t know about your character’s hooks, they will never appear in the game. And without those hooks, there’s nothing for the GM to use to attach your character to the plot.

If you can’t think of anything, try using a pre-existing sub-plot. Character A’s interest in the drug ring might have stemmed from a brief brush with them in a previous session. Now, the player has decided the character is desperate to bring an end to their perfidy. Great. The GM can flesh out the NPCs and add more background without too much trouble. This is significantly easier than coming up with a gripping new plot from scratch.

Give your character driving goals and motivations, and make these abundantly clear to the GM. Your GM will be spending more time on plot lines they know you are interested in, taking your character places you want to go. In turn, you’ll be making the task of session prep that much easier on the GM, which cuts down on GM burnout and builds up their enjoyment and anticipation for each session. They already know you’ll enjoy what they have in store for you.

Lend A Hand with The Technical Aspects

The less peripheral paperwork a GM must track in a session, the more they can concentrate on the game itself.

That’s pretty straightforward. If your GM is answering questions from other players, looking up references, checking their session notes, making up a new NPC, and trying to describe the scene before you, the plot is going to get continuity errors and the action will start to lag as they hurry to catch up. Performing some of these tasks for the GM is only going to improve the game for you, especially when the alternative is sitting around waiting for the GM to catch up.

  • Is the GM constantly handing over a source copy reference to the players? Get a second copy.
  • Does the GM keep referencing the same pages for specific information? Build cue cards with all that information, such as for your spells or combat specialties, and give a set to the GM to keep.
  • Can you help a player with a question? If the GM can avoid breaking off to help someone go over a technical aspect, the game is going to run more smoothly.
  • Offer to role-play an NPC in an encounter.
  • Start a game journal to keep detailed notes.

One of the best tasks a player ever performed for me was starting a gaming journal. The player kept a relatively detailed journal and published it in a Word document sent to myself and the other players later that week, so I only needed to take light notes in-session. Everything – NPC names, locations visited, what the players did and when – could be checked against the journal later. The journal also gave me a player’s eye view of the game. Was that last clue too oblique? Do I need to spend more time describing NPCs? What do the players think is really going on?

Bear in mind that simply asking, “Can I help?” is not practical. People will instantly react with, “No, I’m fine, thanks,” whether or not this is true. Come up with real solutions and implement them.

Make Your Own Entertainment

It’s a lull in the game – for you. The GM left the room with Bob to run a scene. You can wait for them to get back, check through resources, or talk about what’s good on TV. Alternatively, you could turn to Jess on your left and start up an in-character conversation. It might not be about what’s happening. It might be the general kind of conversation you could have already had somewhere on the road, or it could be about Bob’s character’s toe-nail polish. The point is you aren’t depending on the GM for your gaming entertainment. You’re building your own characters, practicing basic improvisation skills, entertaining each other, and maintaining the tone and flow of the game. And – gasp! – the GM didn’t have to be there for you to do it.

You could also:

  • Pass notes to other players
  • Write letters home
  • Pull small, in-game pranks
  • Play sports
  • Flirt
  • Mock each other
  • Lay some bets
  • Improvise a game of invisible cards

Try anything that doesn’t affect the basic plot but is reasonable to do when stuck with a wait. Make sure it’s in- game, in-character entertainment so it keeps everyone in the game zone. This should also have the side benefit of distracting attention seekers – the players that disrupt the scene the GM is currently running in an attempt to get more spotlight time.

Some GMs hate this. It’s moving parts of the story out of their control, or they feel it’s disrupting other players. Some love it. It can be a great relief when the GM realizes they aren’t the sole source of all entertainment for the game, and the players are able to entertain themselves when the GM has to concentrate on another player. Find out which GM you have and run with it.

Acknowledgement

Players get XP, treasure, sidekicks, and subplots. GMs get to see their carefully plotted groundwork twisted into destruction three minutes into the session. So when they do something well, tell them they did good!

Try to cite a specific example, and share your enthusiasm with them. “I was just stunned when it turned out the hot dog vendor was behind the blackmailing plot!” “I really liked the combat against the Jawa Flea Circus!”

Even if you’ve just had a less than stellar session, find something good about the game and mention it to the GM. They already know the session wasn’t as good as it could have been, and they need you to let them know you enjoyed it anyway.

Your enjoyment is one of the reasons they do this, after all. Like Pavlov’s dog, if your GM feels good when you game, they’re going to want to keep gaming with you.

Try using these tips to support your GM to help develop a long-lasting campaign and better sessions. Remember, a good GM is hard to find, and maintaining your own is the best way to make sure you always have one on hand.

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A Brief Word From Johnn

Cool Book Generator

From Bill Parrott

After reading your “Generating Books” issue, I was inspired to make   the process a little easier. I created an Excel sheet that uses the tables from the article. I also found online a full list of the Dewey Decimal System, which is now pulled from by the spreadsheet. Feel free to give the link to your users. It won’t do everything (such as coming up with a title or author), but the basic mechanics can be taken care of.

Here’s the link:
http://www.eternalsecond.com/3

Or, you can get it from the Roleplaying Tips site: BookGenerator

Cheers,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Standing Orders

From Leslie Holm

A PBeM, by its very nature, takes a very long time to play, and GMs are always looking for a way to speed things up. One way is to use standing orders.

According to Wikipedia, in military usage, a standing order is a general order of indefinite duration. It remains in effect until modified or rescinded. Standing orders are necessarily general and vague since the exact circumstances for execution occur in the future under unknown conditions. Some examples of military standing orders are to give the alarm in case of fire or disaster, to report all violations of orders, or to be especially watchful at night. Thus, a soldier knows generally what to do in many situations.

How does this apply to a PBeM? If a player gives the GM standing orders for his character, it speeds the PBeM up. For instance, Levin, with a +12 bonus to diplomacy, tells his GM he wants to talk in any non-threatening encounters. Thus, when the GM posts that the group meets an old man in the tavern, he can also post that Levin greets him. Now the GM can begin a conversation with the old man and Levin. Without the standing orders Levin gave at the beginning of the game, this conversation could take 3-4 emails, and over a week.

Players can also give temporary standing orders for specific situations. An example would be combat. The group has encountered four mean minotaurs, and the GM calls for actions. Baeric might reply that he will cast mage armor on himself then fireball one of the minotaurs – so long as conditions remain the same. Obviously, should another minotaur threaten him or more enemies appear, he would amend these orders, but generally this will reduce the emails back and forth.

Following are some examples of common, permanent standing orders (to be given to the GM when the character is created). Obviously, some of them are only applicable to certain classes or genres.

  1. The bard will try to speak to any non-threatening beings met.
  2. The ranger will choose bow as his weapon of choice unless in close combat.
  3. The priest will try to heal any injured members as soon as the scene is secure.
  4. The barbarian will go into Rage when attacked.
  5. The rogue will always check anything for traps before opening.
  6. The paladin will detect evil before picking up any items, or when engaging newcomers in conversation.
  7. The druid will not approve of any nature-destroying actions, such as cutting down trees for firewood.
  8. The ranger will try communication with non-threatening creatures.
  9. The wizard will always cast mage armor before starting combat.

Secret Rolls to Maintain Mysteries

From Dan’l Danehy-Oakes

In a recent issue of Roleplaying Tips, Dwig offered a tip on how to avoid a knowledge check roll tipping the players off. It’s good, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Secret Rolls: The Rationale

There is a whole category of rolls the players should not be allowed to make for themselves.

Example:

Player: “I check the chest for traps.”
GM: “Okay, roll it.”
(Player rolls die.)
Player: “Shoot, I critically failed.”
GM: “You find a gas trap.”

The one thing that this player now knows for certain is that there is NOT a gas trap on that chest! So, as the GM, I will roll that check myself to prevent this kind of knowledge from leaking.

There’s actually a whole set of rolls I make for the players.

Say the party is walking down a corridor with a trap in it. There’s one stone that, if stepped on, sets off an incendiary bomb. If I tell them all to make luck rolls, they know something’s up; so I just do it myself.

This means I do more dice-rolling than most GMs. That’s okay. It also lets me fudge things to keep the game on track. If the party’s pretty battered already, I’ll probably just decide that nobody sets off the trap; I don’t object to killing a player character now and then, but wiping out whole parties in meaningless ways is no fun for anyone.

Who Rolls What, and When?

The basic answer: if there’s something the players could learn by making a roll then I will make the roll. I don’t tell them what I rolled, or why; I just narrate the result.

DM: “You walk to the end of the corridor without incident.”
Or:
Player: “I check the chest for traps.”
(DM rolls a die.)
DM: “You find a gas trap.”

This means you have to keep a complete set of PC character sheets. I use a spreadsheet with all the numbers I need for each PC. For a large party, this can involve a second GM whose main job is helping with all the mechanical stuff but who can also help keep things moving when the party splits for some reason.

Another advantage here is the more dice the DM rolls, the more the players are kept on their toes. Heck, sometimes I roll a few dice to no purpose at all, just to make them wonder what didn’t just happen. A nervous party is an alert party.

Probably the most important kind of roll for the DM to make is perception-type rolls. There’s something the players might or might not notice in their environment. If I tell them to roll to see if they notice it, you’ve alerted them that there’s something to be noticed. If I roll it for them, they just know that I rolled a bunch of dice. It might be to see if they noticed the hostile natives hiding in the bushes; it might be to see if the weather turns nasty; it might be just to upset them. They don’t know.

“But It’s _My_ Character!”

I had a player who objected to this practice. He made the reasonable complaint that, as it was his character, he ought to be allowed to make the rolls. I decided this was fair, and had him sit close to my side of the table. When the time came for a roll, and sometimes for no reason at all, I would tell him, “Roll XdY behind the screen.” He performed the roll, but didn’t know why. (I sometimes even had him roll for another character, though he never knew that.)

From this I learned the GM doesn’t need to make all the secret rolls all the time. You can use a second kind of secret roll–the players make their own rolls but you do not tell them what they’re rolling.

This works as long as there isn’t something they can learn just by rolling dice, and you can prevent that by having them roll meaningless dice at random intervals.

The D20 system has been a real blessing for this technique, by the way. Since almost everything the players might roll is on a D20, they can’t figure out anything from the type of dice they’re asked to toss.

Another Tavern Table Idea

From Mike Bourke

re: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/readissue.php?number=315

Another “Bar Corner” idea: the players head for the corner to find it occupied by someone big, mean, and nasty who they don’t want to sit with in case they take offence. Hill Giants, Titans, a Mind Flayer, or whatever.

Bards

From Jason Lord

Bards are a great backup character and help round out a party, but they never shine on their own. The challenge has been to give the bard in my campaign a situation, every once in a while, a chance to do something no-one else can.

Idea #1 Eisteddford (Welsh word that means something like musical competition, I think). Have the bard get challenged to a musical competition by another bard. Money or prestige could be on the line, or even a magical item. Make several perform checks each with the highest result total winning the event.

Idea #2 Musical traps. There was an online article about a composer from Scotland who believes the markings on the roof of the Rosslyn Chapel – of Da Vinci Code fame – could be a music sheet of sorts to sonically activate a secret door somewhere in the chapel. Should be a bardic knowledge check, then a perform check, to open; maybe a set number of consecutive successful perform checks instead?

Random Cave Map Creator

From Chris Brinkley

While not editable, this map generator sure is handy. The author is working on new additions as we speak, such as support for multiple cave entrances.

The original thread on EN World can be found here:
Cave Generator Updated

And the generator itself:
http://www.gozzys.com/article.php?cm_id=11

RPG Podcasts

From De Master

Hi Johnn,

First, I’d just like to say that your e-zine has, for the past few years, made me a much better GM and a much better player. Keep up the great work!

Recently I discovered the wonder of RPG podcasts. For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s the definition: Podcast

The following podcast (Dragon’s Landing Inn), has lots of great tips, as well as interviews with people in the industry, reviews on new gaming products, ways to save money and still GM, and more:

http://www.dragonslanding.com/mambo/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1

I’ve heard that the following podcasts are worth listening to, but I haven’t had time to check them out yet:

All Games Considered:
http://allgamesconsidered.blogspot.com/

Round Table:
http://www.harpingmonkey.com/

Gamer: The podcasting:
http://www.somniturne.com/gtp/

I know there are many more RPG related podcasts out there (mostly for GMs). It would be nice to see what other good podcasts people have found.

Have a great gaming week.

World of Skell Podcast

From Skell DM Cob#37

Hey Johnn,

Just wanted to drop a line saying how great the e-zine is and let you and anyone else who might enjoy podcasts know that we podcast our D&D sessions. If someone can’t find a game to participate in they can listen to ours. Here’s the feed: www.worldofskell.com/RSS_feed.xml or they can go to www.worldofskell.com and find each game session audio in the POV section. Hey, it’s free!

Book Examples

From Thomas Lundin

Hi Johnn!

Thanks for a great e-zine. I liked the tips on books from issue #315, and I would like to give some more examples. Instead of books providing a permanent skill boost, try having them give a temporary competence bonus when consulted.

  • “The black tomes of Vazalo” (Spellcraft Necromantic) These books are necromantic in nature and give spellcraft bonus when doing research on necromantic spells up to lvl 2 (there are more volumes in the series for higher levels).
  • “Blades of legend” (Knowledge History +2 on swords) Helps the party identify certain magic swords.
  • “The conjurer’s ABC” (Spellcraft) and “Creatures of the planes” (Knowledge the planes). Gives a wizard the knowledge and ability to choose any neutral conjured animal or beasts to have either Fiendish or Celestial template when casting Summon Monster spells.
  • “Poisonous vermin and weeds” This book gives the reader the ability to recognize a poisonous plant or vermin (Knowledge nature +2), treat a poisoned wound (Heal +2) or make poison (Alchemy +2).
  • Knowledge history/local books give clues about the family/clan/buildings/sites.
  • Not every knowledge book is correct either–it can raise the difficulty check for tasks ahead as well.
  • There is another use for “useless” books (i.e. ones that don’t raise skill checks). I’ve a quest for my players to find a logbook that the merchants’ guild is looking for. The book-maker is accused of dabbling with the numbers of the goods coming into town. The players are not the only ones who are looking for the book. Guards and the thieves are as well, for different reasons of course. 🙂 Keep up the good work. I always seem to find an answer to my problems from the weekly tips.