Role-Reversal: GMing other GMs

From Jinx Strange

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0471

A Brief Word from Hannah

Be Excited About the Book of Rituals

Goodman Games’ Book of Rituals is now available for preorder. Why am I saying you should be excited about it? Check the list of contributing authors!

That’s right: I have a couple of rituals in the book. I can’t tell you exactly what they are since the book isn’t out yet and that would be spoiling the fun. But let’s just say that if you think a supplement full of rituals has nothing in it for your fighter or your ranger, you are very wrong.

And if you’d like to make something cool and lasting, whether your small village’s healer or the terror of kingdoms, there are some rituals you might be interested in as well.

And that’s just the ones I wrote! I can’t wait to see what all the other contributors came up with.

Book of Rituals:

Roleplay Media Network

If you can’t get enough RPG discussion (and why else would you be reading this right now?) then there’s a new way for you to get your fix: The Roleplay Media Network.

It’s billed as “a community for RPG bloggers, podcasters, vidcasters, and their audiences,” and I’ve found that to be true so far. I’ve had some interesting conversations about gaming, marketing, underwater deathbots and life in general, and met a lot of cool people.

There are nearly 400 members as of this writing, which is pretty impressive for a site that’s only been around for a few weeks. Time will tell whether it continues to grow at this rate, but I can say that it’s already a useful tool for networking and just plain having fun talking about gaming.

Role-Reversal: GMing other GMs

How is gaming with a GM inherently different from gaming with anyone else?

Fundamentally, it isn’t.

The same game rules apply; the same expectations of manners, courtesy and participation are all relevant. On the surface, running a game for someone who has run games of their own shouldn’t be any different than with someone who has not.

That being said, it can still be a nerve rattling task to have to perform in front of your peers. Imagine a dentist giving a lecture on dentistry to fellow dentists. He’s going to feel pressure to be knowledgeable and on point by virtue of being in front of people who know what to ask, and how to decipher the answers.

GMs are not a special breed, subject to rigorous, individual training, who are then issued forth from GM Academy armed with grid paper, pencils, and voluminous technical knowledge unavailable to the unwashed masses.

They are people just like you or me (and include you and me) who have tried on the GM hat.

Getting to the meat of this week’s tips, I’ve answered some questions you might have when going into a new game with a fellow GM.

What if I don’t know the new GM?

That’s okay. Chances are favorable you didn’t know anyone you’ve gamed with at one point or another. The very fact that you don’t know their gaming experience can actually serve to calm your nerves a bit; are you more likely to be intimidated by a known factor, or an unknown one?

Just treat them as you would any new player. Ask them a few questions about what they like and don’t like, and toss the fact out the window that they’ve run games before. You’re new to each other, so establish your relationship on the only lines that you have: As player and GM.

What if my game isn’t as good as his?

For something to be competitive it generally has to be quantifiable.

Unless your group keeps a Fun-o-Meter at the table (and if you know where to buy one, please send me a link), then it’s unlikely anyone is measuring your game by any strict standards.

It doesn’t matter if you run the same kind of game as your friend. If you know what the group enjoys then you can figure out how to break the Fun-o-Meter by taking a page from Charles Darwin, and using a little natural selection of your own. Favor activities that engross players, elicit emotional responses and keep the players interested in what’s going on. Dispense with activities that leave them stacking corn chips and fiddling with iPhones.

There are hundreds of tips in the archives on how to run a fun game. Dive into some back-issues and quit worrying about how your buddy runs things. This is your show.

What if the other GM knows more about the setting than I do?

Bone up on any setting you’re going to be running consistently. It’s just a good idea.

Admit to yourself there isn’t always time, especially on the spur of the moment, and think small. Use what you do know; keep the scale of the session local, small and don’t try to cram every bit of lore into the first session.

You can run a great session inside a single room (or tavern, or hospital ward, or geostationary space research vessel) with the world in which you’re running it being virtually indistinguishable from any other of the same mechanics. This option will buy you time.

Use Mister Lorepants over there to your advantage. If it doesn’t interrupt the flow or mood of the game, ask for input occasionally. Think of him as your tour guide, and have him help flesh out the map for your adventure. It’s okay. It doesn’t make you any less of a GM.

What if the GM uses his mechanics knowledge to gain advantages?

It sounds like you have a Rules Lawyer on your hands, a disease not limited to GMs by any means.

I would hope anyone who has sat behind the screen would be especially respectful of not trying to pull this, and would only offer rules clarification to help the game run smoothly, but alas, I am a realist.

In this instance, you treat them no differently than any Rules Lawyer. There are already tips on handling this, among them:

* Doug Lochery’s article “The Logic Death Guide to Players”

* Mike Lawhorn’s “Two Types of Rules Lawyers: De Facto and De Jure”

My Player-GM is giving me a lot of feedback and it’s a little overwhelming

Sometimes people who feel experienced like to offer a stream of coaching and feedback to newbies in any activity. Sometimes this is to assert dominance through knowledge, and sometimes it’s out of a genuine desire to help and contribute to everyone’s overall enjoyment.

If the main point of the feedback seems to be to point out just how much you don’t know, you’re probably dealing with the former. If the subject seems to be a handful of tips and tricks of the trade, it’s likely the latter.

In either case, always try to take what you can out of any feedback and be open to suggestions and ways to improve your game. The GM who’s done learning how to GM probably isn’t going to run a very fun game for long.

Thank the person for their input, but feel free to put boundaries on it if it’s making you uncomfortable. “Thanks for the heads-up! You can be sure I’m reading up as much as I can as we go. I’ve got a lot going in my head right now, though, so would you mind saving your thoughts for the end of the session/week/month/campaign? If you think of something, just jot it down and give it to me at the end, and I’ll read it.”

I think my Player-GM might be hijacking my game

This is no good, and I’ve seen it happen. Sure, he starts out as a player, and everything goes great at first. As the action picks up, though, he starts throwing out ideas like:

PGM: “You know what we should do next? We should go charge the castle and try to get the orb back from the wizard!” Even though the wizard is your PC’s employer in this adventure.

With the party gleefully in tow, as they get to the castle: “You know what would be awesome!? If the wizard actually turned out to be our nemesis in disguise! And then we could take over the keep for ourselves!”

Party: “Yeah! I’ve always wanted access to the Forbidden Library and Mausoleum of Treasure!”

PGM: “Okay. So yeah, let’s do that, then. We break the gate down. What happens?”

Yuck, yuck, yuck. Now your party has taken a lot of creative license (that you didn’t grant) and absolutely ruined your story. Players will sometimes try to pull this, but I’ve never seen it happen so surreptitiously and easily as with fellow GMs.

It makes sense. They’re always thinking about plot and characters and interactions. It stands to reason in scenarios that they might occasionally think “Oooh. Here’s what I would do to make this situation juicier.” But they don’t know your plans, and railroading your game in such a meta way is especially poor form. I’ve used the following solutions, and all of them work:

  • Just roll with it. If the players are excited by this new possibility and are having fun, that’s the point, right? Plus, running with a plot twist that didn’t come from you can be a fun challenge.

However, this should always come with a caveat: “Okay, I like that idea, too. But just so you guys know, you can’t go tromping all over the plot whenever you feel like it.”

This lets them know you’re not a railroading robot and want them to have fun, but you’re still in charge. You’re being generous by letting this slide.

  • “Hey, hey, hey! When you’re running the game, you can make the villains whoever you want. Nicodemus didn’t give you all that gold just so you’d take his house away and mount his head in the library.”

Just put a stop to it outright. Have a sense of humor, but hold your boundaries. They’ll still respect you in the morning.

  • “Remember, if you guys have anything to discuss in-game, you should probably do it in-character.” Now it’s your PCs who are plotting a coup, not just your players.

With a nod to the will of the group, it’s your game, and you deserve to run it to fruition. You don’t have to railroad the party, but when they start reassigning roles to your NPCs and changing the world to suit their purposes, it’s probably time to put on the brakes.

I’m running a convention game and Johnn Four just sat down. What do I do?!

Relax! First of all, J4’s head is a cartoon doodle obscured by a GM screen, so you’re unlikely to recognize him to begin with. Secondly, should you end up at a table with the J-Man (or anyone you look up to as being knowledgeable and vastly experienced), you’re probably looking at a really great player to have, too.

Chances are good that if someone has been running games for a long time and finding people who can put up with them, they know a thing or two about how to have fun on both sides of the screen. For my part, I love getting to put on the player hat, and I get to so rarely.

I’m not the least bit worried about your proficiency with mechanics or the world or how well thought out I think your story might be. I’m just going to get into my character and be very pleasantly in the moment with you.

I will bring my big bag of manners, and an equally large bag of snacks. If you’re really sweating up there, I might pass you a helpful note, or try to help you along by having my character do something useful to you. When the game is over, I’ll thank you heartily for running it, stick around to hear your thoughts on how it went, and offer you what I liked about the game.

Give your fellow GMs-Turned-Players the benefit of the doubt! I’ve found they make some of the best players, as they draw on a good bit of sympathetic experience to your job, and nobody knows how to make a GM’s job easier than another GM.

Expect constructive and positive feedback, and even some thanks for letting them ride the roller coaster for a change instead of always having to stand on the ground and pull the lever.

As a GM yourself think about how you would act as a player for someone else. Not so bad, huh? If anything, you might be even more considerate, polite and on-point with what was needed from you. That isn’t an unreasonable expectation to have in return.

Relax, communicate, and as Johnn always reminds us, have more fun, especially if he’s at your table!

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Reader Tip Request

Roll vs. Role

RPT reader Brock writes:

I enjoy good role-play and developing my character’s personality. To me, that is still the primary reason I play RPGs.

On the other hand, I understand the perspective of the “ROLL-playing” gamers. I still want a “game” in the role-playing game, with some rules I can comprehend and try to leverage to succeed at tasks. I even enjoy the bit of random chance that the dice rolls add to the role-playing. Nothing like a good critical hit to give you an opportunity for good role-play!

So, I am both a ROLE-playing gamer and a ROLL-playing gamer.

Maybe an article discussing the different types of satisfaction different types of gamers get out of RPGs might make for an interesting tip?

What do you say, readers? How do you use ROLL-playing to add to the fun of the ROLE-playing aspect of your game? Let players describe critical hits in detail? Ask players to explain why their character failed when they botch a skill check?

On the flip side, how do you use ROLE-playing to affect your ROLL-playing? Bonuses to attacks that are especially cinematic? Free background skills if it fits the character’s backstory?

Let us know: [email protected]

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Change the Flavor Text (D&D 4E)

From Dennis “Wyatt Salazar”

A lot of people are okay with changing the flavor texts (the italicized portions beneath each power) of D&D 4e powers. Some people even think it inhibits creativity to have those flavor texts there.

However, these flavor texts are usually so simple and generic that it’s hard for me to think they could inhibit creativity so much as stoke a desire to change them.

It gives you a short description so you can imagine something in the ballpark of what’s going on in the power, and sometimes it tries to be clever and barely gives you even that. Almost the same thing can be said with the powers’ names.

Changing Flavor Texts

Changing flavor texts starts with the DM

Players won’t generally be encouraged to go above and beyond unless their DM is comfortable with it. Embrace the mutability of flavor texts and tell your players to be creative with their combat descriptions.

Don’t just “hit the goblin with tide of iron” because, if anything, haven’t you done that enough already? How about stabbing the goblin in the shoulder and then sweeping your shield to strike him in the face, pushing him back?

Think about your character’s power source and what your power is doing.

If your power is just “damage and knock the target prone” then you have a lot of flexibility as to how you do that.

Do you hit him so hard he falls over? Do you hit him in the legs, sweeping them out from under him? If you’re using Icy Terrain, it’s kind of a given why he falls – you froze the floor! But if you’re using a power called Knockdown Strike where the flavor text is you knocking some guy down, you have a lot of liberty.

Think about what monster you’re attacking

If you’re using a power blinding a creature with no eyes, that’s one of the examples often used of why D&D 4e is too abstract. Think of what the Blinded condition does – combat advantage, everyone has total concealment to you if you’re blind, you can’t flank.

So perhaps it’s not blinding; you’ve inflicted a grievous wound instead that’s preventing the target from continuing to fight. You hit a nerve or vital point. It seems generic, but at least it’s now explainable.

Usually, each time I use a power, I describe it in a slightly different way

I play online and run games with a lot of narrative, so “using tide of iron” is by default not a description I want.

However, for extra fun I try to imagine the many different ways my attack could be described, and I jot these down. Though they’re all the same power, my fighter could have two or three different “techniques” that are different descriptions of a generic power.

This helps spice up the narrative. It’s good for At-Wills, so you don’t devolve into “I hit him with cleave” over and over when you’re out of other powers. Take some time to sit down and goof around with your powers like this and you’ll save yourself some boredom later.

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Arcane Examples

Magic Bullet Hell

A blast or burst or area isn’t just a singular “template” that is slapped onto the board. You can describe it as being a thousand projectiles flying out of your implement or your person, striking everything around. Most Arcane attacks target all creatures in the area, not just enemies.

This serves this description well: you’re firing so much magic over such a wide area you couldn’t possibly control what you’re hitting without the help of items, feats or other powers. All your magic is a series of different energy projectiles, sometimes launched in more mass than others.

Component Magic

You throw bat guano in the air and say a rhyming phrase, and a fireball erupts and flies out at your opponent. Read over the D20 SRD and find out spells which have components of some sort, or if you have old AD&D books, you can read over them and see if the spell descriptions mention components.

These can help you to give more flavor to your wizard. In your off-time, you could gain roleplay XP by looking around the wilderness or hitting up shops for components.

Rune-Based Magic

Words of power scrawl themselves in mid- air in front of you, weaving a message upon the face of reality in a dead language, which then glows and via its energies causes whatever effect to occur.

Or perhaps you write on your body a number of tattoos, lines, words and symbols that represent your magic, and by erasing or concealing a part of the message, you trigger the magic.

If your magic is innate, then perhaps the words are tied to your birthright, and you are the only person in the world who understands them. Or maybe it’s just a very difficult old language that you as a studious arcanist mastered.

Psionicist Magic

You think about certain things that trigger certain emotions, which in turn cause certain effects to happen. Anger is your flame, joy your flight, envy your acid, cruelty your ice. You can perhaps tap into people’s minds and make them feel what you want also.

If your powers are innate or granted, this is even easier to roleplay because your powers already come entirely from inside you, or are channeled through you. This is just your way to express them. If your powers are learned, you can be imaginative and still go with this as your method.

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Divine Examples

Hymn Magic

In the Spirits of Eden there are songs which have divine power, called Hymns. Hymns possess their power because of the spiritual events that inspired them, as they are often stories, and because they are sang in the Supernal tongue.

A Hymn prayer can be a few parts out of a song. You could write two or four rhyming lines of a poem for each of your powers, and the first time you use them you can give the little poem. The next few times, describe the power by its effects (radiant light and all that jazz) so you don’t have to say the poem too often – or if you’re adventurous, you can make up even more lines!

Prayer Magic

Literally praying to a deity to cause an effect is an easy way to roleplay your powers, and it’s better than just saying the power name and pointing at a mini on the board. Write down three or four one-sentence oaths for your powers, and give the oath whenever you use that power. Come up with new oaths every so often according to the situation.

Spirit Summoning

Lance of Faith doesn’t just shoot the enemy with light. It summons an ephemeral, beautiful eel-like spirit that dives through the air and wraps about your opponent, giving off radiant essence that enervates and renders it vulnerable to incoming attacks.

Spirits of Eden talks a lot about spirits, auras, chakras, and other supernatural things that link to the Divine, and in the setting you can definitely get away with saying your Sacred Flame casts out a small, flying salamander-like spirit, and so on.

The spirits you summon with these effects are ephemeral and merely effigies for the real things, so they are not a true summon (like a Summon-type power), but they are nonetheless majestic and impressive.

Just Magic

Sort of like the “magic bullet hell” and other Wizard examples, describe solely a magic effect. Your prayer causes your opponent to glow from within with radiant energy, burning his very soul. And so forth.

You could even use arcane flavor examples with a bit of a divine twist. Your psionicist magic is used not just to weaken enemies, but you can get into the minds of your allies and inspire them, sealing away their inhibitions. You can play down the divine aspect and just be a support caster.

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Martial Examples

Just Brute Strength

You’re just a brute, pure and simple. You cause so much damage, such pain and suffering, that your enemy can’t stand against you. You don’t knock an ooze prone – you leave it reeling in sheer otherworldly pain searing through its primitive, supernatural nervous system. You carve a dragon’s flesh with your axe, and cause it to become dizzied with pain. Describe in grizzly horror the wounds you cause.

Play with the wrong attitude about HP – it’s not about grazes and near-misses and wimpy morale. It’s about losing gallons of blood and carving skin all over the place, then patching it up with bandages and herbs and getting up like the gritty, manly monster you are and doing it again.

Precision Technique

You have honed a fighting technique to incredible effects. You are agile, fast and your strikes precise. You cut at just the right time and place to cause your opponent to become slowed. You exerted just the right pressure in the correct spot to unbalance your opponent and cause it to fall. You cause just the right amount of pain to be distracting to an enemy, or cut the right artery or nerve. This is really good for rogues and other non-strength-based martial characters.

You’re Cheating

You’re a cheater. You threw some pepper into someone eye’s as you were attacking and that’s why the enemy is blinded. You coated your blade with poison and that’s why the character is slowed (it helps if you bought some poison, even if it’s just the lame 5 ongoing poison damage cheap-o poison).

You can feint without feinting, because every one of your attacks is some kind of diversion or trick that’s going to come back and bite the enemy where the sun doesn’t shine. Just as planned.

Just A Bit of Magic

Your techniques, while martial, are also supernatural in nature. This works well in Eden, and probably badly in more normal settings. Maybe you were taught an ancient martial art, and you can strike the enemy’s body chakras or pressure points, or even cut through the aura around its body. Maybe your bloodline has a supernatural creature as an ancestor and you have a bit of demon blood or something in you, giving you the strength and speed to do improbable things.  You move so fast past people you turn their blades on them. You can knock down dragons by smashing them in the leg. You can stir up an ooze and daze it by hitting it right in the jell-o hips. Perhaps this only triggers when you’re in danger, too. Maybe you can’t knock down a statue by hitting it somewhere, like you can a dragon.

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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!

Nonlinear DMing

From Mike Strand

The ideal situation for a DM is one where every cool encounter you create is actually encountered and every cool NPC that you create interacts with the PCs.

Work Smarter Not Harder

I am a lazy DM. More accurately, I prefer to be efficient. If I’m going to spend my time developing a cool encounter, then the party is damn well going to run through it! If I’m doing my job well, the party won’t notice the railroad tracks. If I’m keeping the action tight and playing the “just in time card” appropriately, they will be on the edge of their seats and won’t care.

Seeming is believing

If I need them to run into an NPC, then the NPC will find them. Not that he will come and hunt them down, but he will be at the inn, sitting on the coach next to them, or wherever seems plausible.

I don’t get stupid about it. They do need to explore the town. There is not going to be a line at the inn of NPCs waiting to talk to them. The art of DMing is making it all seem like it is happening by chance, or even better, because of their clever play.

If I have an ambush set up, then they will get ambushed, whether they take a left at the fork in the road or a right. I call it non-linear, but it is really only non-linear seeming. I find it challenging enough to come up with truly interesting and unique encounters, and I don’t want them to start accumulating unused while I try to slap together an extemporaneous alternate encounter because they zigged when they should have zagged.

It Should Work Like Clockwork

You are creating a story. Do you think the author of a novel is really surprised when the detective reveals whodunit? Of course not, but as the reader you were. Running in a campaign should be full of tense encounters and edge of your seat suspense. Running a campaign shouldn’t be. Ideally, it should be a beautiful plan that you watch come together.

– Mike has been DMing for 30+ years and when he isn’t gaming he writes a column in the Brain Injury of Minnesota’s Journal “Headlines.” His book “meditations on Brain Injury” is available from He also officiates weddings and is a tireless advocate for brain injury survivors.

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Post Apocalypse / Dark and Gritty Music Suggestions

Contributors: Bill Honchell, e1ros, Tyler Elkink, S. Sanford, Jon Smejkal, Fabien Deneuville, Chris Boland, Lee Williams, Bret Boyd, Kerry Smith, Jason Barlow, Diana Cox, Brad Russell, Andrew MacLean, Caesar St John, Sean Mahoney, Tony DeCastro

Thanks to Fallout 3, 1940s music is likely to sound appropriate to many players; Glen Miller and big band jazz, the Andrews Sisters, Fats Waller, and early Frank Sinatra are all good bets. Unless you’re aiming for a Fallout 3 feel, however, they might be overly nostalgic.

Rock, and generally the angrier the better. However, a lot of music from this style tends to be distracting from a game; Metallica, Slayer, Sex Pistols, etc. The BubbleGum Crisis soundtrack, from a cyberpunk show with post-apocalyptic elements, might help. The Matrix soundtrack is similarly heavy with angry music; Marylin Manson, Rammstein, Rage Against the Machine, and The Prodigy.

For more atmospheric music, less distracting but still thematic, neo-classical and symphonic metal are forceful but do not demand the listener’s attention. Apocalyptica, Metallica’s Symphony&Metallica album, Yngwie Malmsteen, Stratovarius, and Blind Guardian are all good choices.

Search through electronic indie artists that create music with an industrial / postindustrial feel. However, they should not be too rhythmic or too hip hop or rock, as the post-apocalyptic theme suggests wasted lands, weird places and desperate feel.

Take the Wayback Machine to the age of Industrial music For example, look up the band Godflesh on youtube:

Industrial music, at its best, sets a heavy and dark ambience. This might be a bit much for the entire campaign, but for battle scenes you really can’t go wrong.

A little less heavy would be Godspeed You! Black Emperor. They’re an experimental band out of Canada, a lot of their stuff is instrumental and pretty ambient. Look them up on youtube: Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Moya.

Try songs like Dead Flag Blues, East Hastings, etc. They tend to stay low-key enough that you won’t have to worry about them overtaking your narrative, but definitely good for setting a scene.

Lastly, try old video games. Quake, Mechwarrior 2. If you don’t already have these games, you can probably either find the CDs in a bargain bin somewhere or find the music online. This is from back in the day when the CD the game was on doubled as the soundtrack, so just skip to track 2 and have at it.

Some other suggestions:

The soundtrack to Escape From New York.

The soundtrack to Hellraiser 2.

The soundtrack from the computer game Mass Effect.

From: Stratos – The Warlands Soundtrack

Here’s his catalog, some of which could also apply: Baileyrecords

The Hardware soundtrack: Hardware 1990 Film

  • Dead Hollywood Stars create some kind of western-like feel with electronic sounds. On their album Gone West, you will find tracks that can be of great impact, especially “The Way of the Fugu,” “Arid Zona” or “Jigsaw Motel”
  • Squaremeter’s latest album Nyx in 2006 creates an atmosphere of desperation and nihilism, using powerful sounds and drums. I recommend all the tracks of the album, especially Eris, Thanatos or Hypnos.
  • Silent Watcher of Dark Matter. Same style as the former with less vibrations and the use of more sound effects. “Sandstorm” or “Lux Aeterna” are good tracks, full of mystery.
  • DJ Krush, “Still Island with Suuzan Morita” or “Slit of Cloud with Akira Sakata” on the Jaku album.
  • Deep Dish; think of “Junk Science” and “Persepolis” on the Junk Science album.
  • Mana Junkie on
  • Tangerine Dream
  • Original Matrix soundtrack, Cool World Soundtrack, Gravity Kills, Lords of Acid, Rammstein, Crystal Method
  • From: Nine Inch – Nails Ghosts 1-4
  • VNV Nation
  • Space Station, Drone Zone or Doomed:
  • Kraftwerk, Alan Parsons Project, or The Grid
  • Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings