Notes to the GM – What a Player Wants

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0366

A Brief Word From Johnn

Characters Finally Arrive at the Temple

When my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign started, players were asked to craft a motive for their characters to go after the Temple and its minions. A year and a half – 28 game sessions – later, we’ve finally arrived at the doorstep of evil. It was a sweet moment of character achievement, and

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

The Temple has not been idle. They’ve been smart with the resources meted to them by their divine masters, though faction in-fighting has blunted their designs somewhat. It should be a tough slog though, fraught with peril and all that.

Singularity Sky a Good Book

Just finished Singularity Sky by Charles Stross. It’s a great sci-fi book and I recommend it. The author’s ideas are big and it was a lot of fun trying to wrap my head around them. The story takes place in the 25th century, and humans have mastered FTL and nanotechnology. A backwater colony comes under attack by an alien foe, and the fleet of the New Republic races through time to save its peoples. Everybody has an agenda though, and those out to save the colony could end up being its worst enemies.

Not to spoil the book, but everybody dies in the end. Oops, that’s not true. I was thinking of my Temple campaign there for a sec. Never mind.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Notes to the GM – What a Player Wants

This week’s article is a bit cheeky. They are from a player’s point of view, in the form of notes or requests to the GM. They are actually from myself to myself, and apply equally to players and GMs, who can lift out tips and reminders as desired.

The idea for the format came from an interesting article by Paul Robertson, “Tips for GM’s, From a Player’s Perspective.” Read his tips at the Arcadian Guild website:

I’ve also been given permission to archive the article: Tips for GM’s, From a Player’s Perspective

Get Started Quickly

I come to play. I can socialize anytime, through any number of devices, programs, and technologies. Face-time with friends is important too, but how often are we able to get the whole group together to game? Let’s take advantage of this rare moment and do what we came to do. There will be time to chat during the game (quietly, or away from the table) when it’s not our turn, or when we take breaks.

I do not mind in the least if we have some pre-session banter, but as soon as you’re ready to get started, let’s go. If you need help with anything, I’d be happy to help clean up, organize, or set something up for you.

Black Box What’s Outside My Character’s Perceptions

I trust you. I know that, when things happen, you’ve got reasons: creative ideas, rules considerations, plot ideas. You don’t need to defend yourself or justify gameplay by revealing what’s going on behind your screen. Please try to present the game to me as my character would experience it.

Rather than say, “He makes his saving throw by 5, so your spell misses,” I’d rather hear, “The creature swiftly dodges and grins at you as your blast passes harmlessly by.”

Put all the gamespeak, rules, and metagame information in a black box and hide it from me when I’m in character. I enjoy the game a lot that way.

There will be times when we need to discuss things player- to-DM, and that’s ok. It’s part of the game. But don’t hesitate to inform me of what’s happening in-game using description. I trust your GMing and the calculations and rulings you’ve got to make.

Be Decisive, Not Defensive

I would like fair, consistent refereeing. I do not mind at all if you rule against me, as long as it doesn’t feel like you’re being arbitrary for some temporary advantage.

We share a rule set – a common set of expectations and understanding – and I would like to point out when I feel rules aren’t being followed, are being broken, or are being forgotten. You are welcome to change the rules, or disagree with me and keep the game moving, but please allow me to voice an occasional opinion, be objective, and then make a decision.

I’d be happy to record house rules or interpretations for you so we can refer back when needed. I’m also fine with modifying and tweaking these things over time as long as we can do this before my character decides what to do.

If my character does something unexpected or not covered by the rules, I’m happy if you take a moment to consider how to game it out, but please don’t cancel or invalidate my action just because it’s unusual. I’d be happy to suggest possible rulings if you get stuck, and sometimes even a 50/50 roll is fair. If you think the odds of success are low, and my character would perceive that, please let me know.

Come Ready, But Not Necessarily Prepared

I do not mind at all if you make things up as we play. That’s part of the fun! Don’t feel pressured to craft up perfect encounters for me. Instead, trust me to explore situations and seek out things that will interest me and my character.

Sometimes this will catch you unprepared, but I’m confident you will think up something. When you can’t, I’d be happy to offer suggestions or ask more questions to give you a better idea of what I’m looking for. Don’t put pressure on yourself to have everything planned out, or to have perfect answers all the time. Let me help, especially when it prevents all my options and interests from being blocked because I do something that’s not on the menu.

If It Has No Impact, Be Ready To Skip It

As GM, you are always busy doing something during games. As player, I get a lot of brief moments where I can sit quietly and do some in-character thinking. I will use a bit of that time to think a few steps ahead. If I can draw a straighter line from where we’re currently at to where we need to go, I’ll point that out to my companions.

Unfortunately, this might result in bypassing some of your planned encounters and events. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to do that on purpose. I just want to keep the game moving along, keep things relevant for our characters, and maximize storytelling time.

For example, if we’re walking en route to our next objective, and we get caught in the wrong time and place and are attacked at random, I’d rather we just run away and continue pursuing our goal. As another example, if we learn of an A-B-C plan or route, I’d opt we skip A and B and go directly to C – unless there’s a reason why A and B are important.

If it has no impact, be ready to skip it. First, let me explore with you in-character some ways we could add impact. Let me help make something relevant or important, or at least interesting. If we can’t suss this out, however, then we might opt to choose the straightest path.

I Can’t Handle Much Homework – Let’s Game It Instead

There’s a lot on my plate these days, and unfortunately I can’t contribute much to the game between sessions. Family, school, work, friends, other obligations, and competing activities – you know, the usual. 🙂

This means I won’t have time to read the 200-page world document, and I’ll struggle to even get the 50 page player reference studied by next week. The group’s e-mails are stacking up in my Inbox. I also still need to level up my character, fill out that survey, and get you a list of character requests.

Could we do this stuff in-game instead?

Perhaps the NPCs we’ll be chatting with could give us nuggets of information about the area? Maybe I could reveal my goals to a mentor that I could quest for? Bits and pieces of the world could be revealed through locations, encounters, and treasure.

I’d also be happy to handle documentation requests when I’m not engaged in the current encounter. Is there a computer around where I can update my character on the wiki? Could I fill out the campaign survey now? Maybe I could roleplay with the other players about character goals and desires, and I’ll hand you a brief transcript at the end of the session?

Anything we can do to minimize homework and get stuff accomplished while we play would be awesome.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Post-It Time Travels

From Mike Bourke

A quick reader’s tip to follow your crafting a timeline article. When doing a time travel plotline, a timeline can be incredibly useful but far more complicated than usual. I find putting a draft of the timeline on Post-It Notes lets me rearrange them to make sure everything makes sense for each of the different perspectives.

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Timeline Calendar Excel Add-On

From Scott Kerns

I just wanted to drop you a note regarding the timeline tip. I run a 1st edition AD&D campaign, and have been making a timeline since the second session three years ago. I started out using Outlook’s calendar, because it was simple and available. I’ve looked hard for a more freeform tool, but haven’t really found one that suits my needs. I recently switched over to Excel and use a calendar generation macro and my own homebrew form. I like having a daily timeline, it helps my players and I keep close track of the daily “lives” of the party.

Here’s a screenshot:

The tool is free from:

It comes with a collection of calendars and can be used with a custom form like the one above. Here’s an example Excel file: 366 Timeline Calendar

I really enjoy the newsletter, although I would like to see some tips specifically for 1st edition, but I get something useful from every issue. Keep up the good work, and thanks!

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Plan For Encounters, Not The Encounters

From Jonas Dorn

Regarding the request in Issue #363:

“Could you put some advice in about roleplaying encounters? Specifically, encounters where players can make choices that are equally valid, so they have to think about what their character would do, not which way is best.”

Which way is best? From the question it sounds as if the players are not making choices in-character, and that they’d rather use meta-knowledge to further some goals that are different from what the GM considers best for the game.

I believe you have addressed well the requirements on the character side that make it possible to do in character choices, and ways how the GM can support this. I would like to point out a different aspect behind the question: motivation.

What do the players want? Some players are motivated by killing things, some are motivated by treasure, some are motivated by solving riddles, and a few are motivated by roleplaying. Almost all of them, however, like their character and want it to survive and to succeed. So does, hopefully, the GM.

Thus, the GM has a tendency to set up encounters in which the players can succeed. Furthermore, players will learn to read the GM, and go along with the “best” way, which is often the way the GM hoped and planned for. In other words, even if the GM tries to avoid railroading, it will happen unconsciously and the players will go along with it.

An example of such railroading is the standard battle encounter. The players travel along the road in the forest when a monster jumps at them from the shadows – and everyone knows it is time to whip out those swords and scorching rays. While it may be satisfying to kill the critter and collect the loot, it is a rather boring encounter role-playing wise. The same applies for roleplaying encounters, such as a king telling the characters to hunt the goblins that threaten the trade routes. Sure, the players could say no, but who is going to ruin the GM’s day by doing so?

The main remedy for this is to plan for the encounter instead of planning the encounter. If the GM wants one outcome (the players should save the beggar from the bullies, and the beggar will then reveal to them the location of the secret passage), the players will be consciously or unconsciously nudged toward that outcome.

Instead, set up the scene, and allow the characters to act. For example, when they want to rush to the beggar’s aid, have them held back by a bystander who warns them of the consequences of offending the local mafia, and who tells them the beggar belongs to the tribe of the G’hanye (who are, as the players know, guardians of the secret passage), and should therefore not be helped. Of course, this only becomes a dilemma if the game is lead in a way so they know their actions have lasting consequences.

To make matters more complex, give all the NPCs a motivation and a plan they will try to bring to fruition.

For example:

  • The bullies might be paid by local merchants to keep the beggars off the street, which the bystander doesn’t know, and they might thus be unwilling to fight for their lives about the guy.
  • The beggar might be an “Eye of the Guardian” – a spy for the tribe trying to spot the PCs who have been reported searching for forbidden knowledge. The beggar might thus want to attract the attention of the PCs and lure them into a trap.
  • The bystander might have had his brother abducted and killed by the G’hanye for trying to find out about the secret passage, and he would want to try and protect the strangers from a similar fate once he learns their plan.

With such a set-up, a GM has to play the NPCs as characters, not as decoration, having them make decisions to further their goals. Thus, rather than determining the outcome of the encounter, the GM defines the plans and motivations of the NPCs and has the environment react to the actions of the PCs.

Such a style of play means a GM needs to improvise and let the PCs do things the GM has not thought of. It should be fine for the players to ruin the GM’s day from time to time. This makes GMing a challenge, but also highly rewarding. It also prevents railroading, because the GM doesn’t know what the best outcome is going to be, and there will be no biased signaling (this shouldn’t mean that there should be no signaling at all, or only confusing signaling – the NPCs should always behave according to their motivation, and according to the information they currently have).

Furthermore, if not everything is planned out in detail ahead of time, the GM can easily start to incorporate the ideas of the PCs/players. While they speculate about what is going to happen if they do A instead of B, they might be coming up with ideas that fit the NPC’s motivation better than originally planned. Stealing ideas from players is going to make everyone happy: the GM has a better plot, and the players will be happy to have figured it out.

P.S. re: Automatic Successes

I believe the GM should allow an automatic success whenever the PCs should not be failing. For everything else, especially if the players do something risky, the GM should have them roll, but at the same time try to be benign. After all, the rolls are there to find out whether a tricky action should succeed or not.

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Recorded Sessions For Your Listening Pleasure

From Logan Horsford

Here are MP3s for recently run games. I thought they might be interesting listening for other GMs or for people who haven’t played face-to-face before and are wondering what it’s like.

This is uncensored material (lots of swearing in parts, strong language). Pretty much the only editing I’ve done is when we are eating or smoking.

Sounds Heard During The Game And What They Mean

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Strange sounds you might hear during the game on Logan’s MP3s and what they mean. To make this make sense, play this sound wave and follow along with the text below.

  1. Cigarette break.
  2. We travel straight to the place in question.
  3. I am acting as though I agree with this old stick in the mud.
  4. Oh, my word, someone has need of the Lysol spray, please do it quickly lest we perish.
  5. I’m English.
  6. I am the best!
  7. I’m a confused English person.
  8. I don’t care either way.
  9. I brief the people sitting at the table on everything I just found out they were sitting here listening to.
  10. Threatening Logan.

The Disappearing Man

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Edge of Darkness

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Star Bright

The Haunted House (published module, available in the Curse of Cthulhu book)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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The Haunted House, continued (Sat July 14 session)

Note that part way through this one we had three gamers show up to play, two of which had never done this system before. So, if you are wanting to, you can learn a bit on how the system is set up. If you don’t want to hear the newbie walk through it, fast forward over that bit. During the introduction, I had to step hard on a newbie who was talking more than listening. Since my purpose is getting into the game quickly and moving forward, I didn’t feel bad about it. He took no offense and shaped up to do very well. I look forward to having them back in the future.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Yes, this coming weekend (the 20th and 21st of July) I am planning on running the continuation of this. I have no idea if it will get solved or if I will just be torturing the PCs, but I know they hate letting go of a mystery till they solve it.

If you enjoyed these and would like to get in on the game (in person, Hoffman Estates, IL), please contact me at [email protected]