5 Ways To Harness Game Master Assistants

From Zaboem

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0144

A Brief Word From Johnn

Mapping Document Volunteer Needed

This week I’ve posted a Tips request for more map links and I need a volunteer to help whip up a Supplemental Issue for them. The person will need to categorize the links (i.e. fantasy, map software, etc.) and write intro sentences for any links that need a bit of explanation so users are well- informed before clicking.

Estimated completion time: 2 hours
Format: Plain text, Word, or RTF
Deadline: Sunday, Oct 20, 3pm (with new links possibly arriving up to the last minute)

Feel up to it?

Update: 14OCT2002: A volunteer has stepped forward for this project and you’ll hopefully be able to grab this document soon.

Green Dragon Table Volunteer Needed

Remember the Green Dragon Bloodbath challenge from [ RPT#95 – Subscribers’ Challenge: Green Dragon Blood Bath ]? I received several submissions and had a couple of volunteers working at organizing, categorizing, and editing all the emails. However, real life got in the way and the volunteers were unable to work on the project. Would anyone like to tackle this?

Estimated completion time: 4 hours
Format: Plain text, Word, or RTF
Deadline: Sunday, Oct 27, 3pm

Update: 14OCT2002: A volunteer has stepped forward for this project and you’ll hopefully be able to grab this document soon.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

5 Ways To Harness Game Master Assistants

Being a game master can be lonely job, but there is no reason to horde all of the work yourself. This may be as simple as handing out NPC character sheets to players who aren’t busy or as thorough as sharing one’s Game Master status with a partner. I personally work with five types of helpers depending on the composition of the gaming groups I run. Each breed of assistant, as described below, helps the Main Game Master in a different, designated way.

Apprentice Game Masters

An Apprentice Game Master is another member of the gaming group who is often a player but sometimes slips into the role of Game Master for certain scenes. I have worked with Apprentice Game Masters (AGM) longer than any other type of assistant GM.One of my early experiences with RPGs came several years ago when I joined a large pbem Star Trek game. It was enormous, with almost thirty players all pestering the single, overworked GM with daily e-mails.

Hoping to join the game as a player, I schemed to pad my chances by offering to work as a sidekick to the Game Master. I suggested handling various side plots or a small group of players in a separate party. I was accepted into the game and within a week the Game Master retired and named me as the new GM.

I was quite shocked by the honor, but also realized that the game was in desperate need of restructuring or else it would be more than I could handle. My first action was to recruit a pair of my own Apprentice GMs from the pool of players and assign them the task of overseeing two specific small groups of players.

At the time I was mostly concerned that my unreliable internet connection and frequently crashing computer would interrupt the game. It wasn’t until much later that I began to fully understand just how much more useful the Apprentice Game Masters could be during demanding games.

Your AGM should be hand-picked by the GM based upon the player’s personal experience with the game system, setting, or previous GMing experience. Being an Apprentice GM does not preclude involvement as a player. An AGM could easily be playing one character while simultaneously running the game for other characters in another part of the setting.

A responsible GM is never more demanding on any AGM than on themselves. Frequent updates from AGMs is key too. Another good technique is to lurk in the AGM’s part of the game to make certain that the events in that part of the game aren’t creating story conflict with other parts.

Everyone benefits in this GM-AGM arrangement. The AGM gains valuable experience while under the safe and watchful eye of the Main GM. The players enjoy being more fully involved in the game and the GM gets some much needed relief. Everybody wins.

Although ideal for pbems, I’ve also found AGMs to be useful in large table top RPGs. In one particularly hair graying campaign of Star Wars, I was dealing with a large group of players (about a dozen) who were almost never content to wait for their turns. When two of the younger players suggested that their characters go off by themselves and spar, I happily agreed. Five minutes later, they came back to the table with one of the two PCs dead. After that incident, I started liberally appointing AGMs for almost every combat sequence.

Co-Game Masters

That same Star Wars campaign developed out of a unique situation on Tuesday nights when the local shop was kept open late for gaming.It all started when a friend of mine, Zach, ran an introductory SW game for myself and a few other gamers who were interested. The next week, I ran a game and allowed the players to use the same characters they had used from Zach’s game.

The players didn’t realize it, but they were quickly gelling into their own cohesive party and sculpting the roots of a campaign themselves. What they accomplished that night actually had nothing to do with the adventure I had planned for them, but everyone was having fun.Zach and I both realized that we had a campaign up and running with no particular Game Master. I couldn’t do it on my own due to my random work schedule at the time, and Zach was undecided about what direction he wanted to take the game. We agreed to be Co-Game Masters (CGM).

We ran the game on alternating weeks while frequently meeting to compare notes and help each other with our story arcs. By checking our egos at the door, we managed to craft a much more enjoyable campaign together than either of us could create independently. Even years later, that campaign still stands out in my mind as my best campaign ever.

Here is another take on CGMing. A few months later I was playing with a completely different group when a similar situation presented itself. We were in a gap between campaigns with one GM out of town and another not yet ready to launch his own epic yarn. Systems Failure, a new game at the time, was out and the entire group was interested in trying it. The problem was that no one felt confident in running it.

I didn’t think my grasp of the rules was strong enough. Another player, Jason, had no Game Master experience at all so he was uncomfortable with running the story aspects of the game. I suggested we run the game together as a single-night experiment and a group vote decided it.

Jason and I soon found an entirely different working relationship than the one Zach and I developed. He handled combat, rolled all of the GM’s dice, and roleplayed certain NPCs. I was in charge of the narration and controlled other NPCs. Together, we devised an adventure for the group and hammered out various details. The resulting session was reasonably good. Although the adventure itself was rather ho-hum, the CGM experiment was a complete success.

The CGM is a complete and equal partner, unlike the Apprentice Game Master. Each team of CGMs must design and agree upon its own working relationship. This is *not* a recommended relationship for game masters who are emotional about their own campaigns. Similarly, a Game Master set in their own style probably won’t find a CGM relationship appropriate either.

The Party Cop

I’ve encountered disruptive players before and have also been part of groups that resented too much man-handling of their characters by the Game Master. These two characteristics are manageable enough alone but in combination can tear a group apart. One of the sneakier tools in the GM’s arsenal for dealing with problem groups is the Party Cop.

By designating one particular player to police the party and beat down (in character) offending PCs who seek to disrupt the campaign, the GM can control his group without personally dirtying their hands. Following a beat-down, the offending player is usually shocked to be taken out of the game by a formerly sympathetic fellow player.The offending player will usually either rein in their disruptive behavior or leave the group without being asked.

That’s a powerful tool.

Party Cops are a unique class of players. Although I have never used a Party Cop myself, I have seen, in retrospect, several games in which I should have done this. I know one Game Master who swears by them.

Choosing a Party Cop can be tricky business. A Party Cop should be the most trusted player available. Due to the often secretive nature of the Party Cop, this player must be even more trustworthy than an AGM or CGM.

The Party Cop should also be ruthless enough to act without hesitation when needed. If I expect a particular group to be troublesome and have a trusted player in the ranks, I will certainly designate that player as the Party Cop.

Once chosen, the GM then helps the Party Cop power up his or her character. The Party Cop’s character should be powerful enough that both conspirators are confident this PC can handle any other PC in the group with a reasonable chance of success.

A targeted PC taking out the Party Cop through a single lucky die roll would be disastrous. It does help, however, if the Party Cop is given some in-game reason to not use the PC’s full powers against anyone except the other party members.

Sometimes empowering a Party Cop’s PC is as easy as allowing the player to bring in an already established and experienced PC while the rest of the party uses new characters.

Let me clarify something–empowering the Party Cop is *not* unfair to the rest of the players. This is simply part of the dynamics of the GM’s campaign.

Next, there are some other decisions to be made. The GM should decide whether the player’s status as the Party Cop is known to the other players or secret. Also, the GM must decide when the Party Cop should take action. The GM also decides whether the Party Cop has authority to judge when to act and when to take action without direct orders.

On the other hand, the GM might instead instruct the Party Cop to hold fast until given the order to lay down the law. If this is done in secret, the GM should instruct the Party Cop to listen for a secret phrase that means to take immediate action.

Lastly, the Party Cop should know whether the GM wants the offending PC to be merely humiliated and admonished, beaten and scarred, or outright killed and removed from the campaign. These questions are all matters of the GM’s personal style and the style of game or setting in which the campaign is played. Each GM should find his or her own level of fairness, consistency, sneakiness and/or brutality.

Surrogate Players

“Who has a Dark Side character with him? Everyone who has a Dark Side PC, move to this side of the table. Your job is to try to tempt those guys over there to the Dark Side. You leftover players come with me. I’ve got some character sheets prepared for you. You’ll be the fighter pilots who are keeping the cavalry from arriving too soon.”These words were spoken by Mr. Derrick Chambers, simply the best Game Master I’ve ever seen at handling large groups of players. His secret was incredibly simple.

In order to keep players interested and too busy to conspire against him, he gave them others characters to play.On at least one occasion, this involved him recruiting volunteers to play the roles of the villains for the next scene. Derrick had no idea who these new characters were we had in the backs of our notebooks, but he knew us as players.

More often, a Game Master will need to provide idle players with NPCs. Yes, this does involve more preparatory work, but it can save the Game Master valuable gaming time.

A word to the wise, just because the GM can read their own chicken scratch notes doesn’t mean that the player will be able to read them. I try to keep at least one fully sculpted NPC with me to give to unexpected guest players and a few simplified character sheets for unimportant NPCs that I can hand out to idle players.

Party Scribe

A party scribe is a fairly old concept that deserves a fresh look.There are different flavors of Party Scribes. Ever since the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, some groups have seen the usefulness in designating a particular player to record the exploits and adventures of the party. The early scribes were historians. They primarily concerned themselves with playing their own characters and recording the events of the campaigns out of character (and less frequently in character).

Some groups with packrat tendencies found it necessary to designate a particular player to perform inventory scribe duties as well. These were another type of early Party Scribes — quartermasters.

After Y2K, the demand for a different type of scribe is forming. The problem is experience/development points. Many groups use a variety of different systems for different games and each treats experience differently.

For example, whereas old school D&D gave experience only for destroying monsters and winning treasure, Palladium’s system involves rewarding experience points for a great variety of tasks in a complex system.

Many of the newer systems involve more than one form of experience being rewarded as well. Storyteller System games like the Werewolf series have both basic experience points and three types of Renown points. HackMaster has basic experience points, Honor points, temporary Honor points, Alignment points, and Fame points.

Keeping track of all this experience has always been the hardest part of being a Game Master to me. If I try to keep a running tally of experience during the game, I only succeed in severely bogging down the pace of the game. If I wait until after the game to tally experience, I face a nightmare test of medium-term memory skills.

I’ve known many GMs to simply dictate when the entire party achieves a new experience level together. Personally, I don’t recommend doing that for two reasons:

First, many game systems weren’t designed for this. Elevating everybody’s experience level with a blanket prevents the GM from rewarding certain players and disciplining others.

Second, many systems don’t use experience levels anyway.

Here is my suggested solution–designate a particular player as the Experience Scribe. The Experience Scribe is a type of party scribe who simply records accumulated experience for each PC during the game.

Having an Experience Scribe does involve taking a little power away from the Game Master, but the liberating of the GM is well worth the trade.

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Now go forth intrepid young GMs, with your new allies, and give the players a campaign they will never forget!


Each issue contains articles, columns, reviews, news, and more for your d20 campaigns. Contributors include Steve Perrin, Chris Pramas, Matt Forbeck, Steve Kenson, Steve Miller, Dennis Detwiller, Mike Mearls, Andrew Hind, and Alan Kohler. The Editor is Dale Donovan, former editor of DRAGON. Check out the four free issues and other previews at www.d20weekly.com; you’ll get hooked!

Tips Request: Sources Of Free Online Maps

In a recent issue I buried a small request for sources of maps online that GMs could use for their own campaigns. I’ve received 12 links to date, which is great, but I feel there should be more links out there. My end goal is to have a document that everyone can download with a whole bunch of mapping related links in it. So, when you have a spare moment, please check your bookmarks and send in your mapping links.

Here are some categories of links I think GMs would find useful for which I’d love to include in the document:

  • Fantasy Maps
  • Sci-Fi Maps
  • Modern Maps
  • Historical Maps
  • Maps of buildings (any genre)
  • Maps for figs and miniatures use
  • Map software
  • Software pages with maps for download
  • Game companies with maps for download

If you have any links along these lines, send ’em in to: [email protected]


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

What To Look For When Buying Used RPG Materials

From Dan DeFigio,

There are several factors to consider when purchasing out- of-print gaming materials.


Condition is extremely important if you are a collector or trader. The condition of an item affects its value tremendously. Look for cover and corner wear, writing or marks on the interior, the condition and crispness of the pages, and the tightness of the binding.If you are purchasing your materials for game play or for campaign ideas, condition may not be as important, so you might seek out inexpensive items that show heavier wear. Scrutinize the description and photo of any item you consider purchasing on eBay–many sellers tend to exaggerate the condition of the items they are selling.

Below is a list of terms that we use at The Hero Factory to grade materials:

  • Mint: No discernible wear or blemishes, corners are sharp, pages are perfect.
  • Near Mint: Tiny amounts of noticeable wear in 1 or 2 places, very minor corner wear, pages perfect.
  • Very Good: Minor wear in multiple places, minor corner wear, pages may not be perfect. May contain bits of writing. Not collectible quality, but still in very good shape.
  • Good: Moderate-to-heavy wear throughout, but not badly damaged. May contain lots of writing. Pages may be discolored or dogeared/wrinkled. D&D modules with torn spines may be repaired with clear tape. “Good” should be thought of as “Decent” or “Not too bad.”
  • Fair: Excessively worn, but complete unless noted otherwise. Item may be damaged and/or repaired. Trashed, but usable.

We use a (+) or (-) sign to indicate a condition between ratings i.e. “Good(+)” is better than good, but not in as good condition as “Very Good.”


Many modules and boxed sets have multiple parts, and it is common to find that maps or booklets are missing when you do not buy from an experienced dealer. There is an invaluable index posted at http://www.flash.net/~brenfrow/index.htm that details the contents of almost every TSR product published!

Printing number

Some printings or editions of items are more valuable than others.

Some examples:

  • The AD&D Deities and Demigods book–the first and second printings of this rulebook contain two extra pantheons which were removed from later printings.
  • The first printing of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rulebook contains a rare original Neurosis chart that was removed from later printings.
  • There are supposedly fewer than 100 copies of the first printing of B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (orange cover), and when one can be found, it sells for hundreds of dollars. Later printings (green cover) are very common.


One of the down-sides to buying from strangers on eBay is that you aren’t assured of exactly what you’re getting, when it will be shipped, or in what condition it may arrive.

Some points to consider:

  • Packaging: Your order should be packaged to preserve the condition of the items. Can you imagine your reaction if a rare collector’s item were mailed to you in a flimsy envelope and arrived damaged?I once had a stack of collectible-condition magazines shipped to me wrapped only in newspaper (not boxed, not even in a manila envelope!) closed together with scotch tape, with a mailing label slapped on top. I’m not kidding! When you buy from an established, reputable dealer, you are assured that your order will be packaged with care.
  • Guarantee: A good dealer should offer some type of satisfaction guarantee. Beware of web sites that are cash/money order only, or show no signs of regular updates and site maintenance. Email response time to inquiries should be quick–48 hours or less. Shipping charges should be stated up front.
  • Speed: Buying from an RPG dealer is for those who know what they want and who want it right away. Many folks have expressed their dislike of eBay because even if their highest offer wins, they still have to wait days for the auction to close, more days for the seller and buyer to exchange payment and shipping information, and more time for the seller to ship. Many sporadic vendors are not very motivated to expedite the orders, and seem to feel no pressure to respond or ship quickly. Let’s see the hands of everyone here who has had to wait for almost a month to receive what he or she bid on?

The anonymous nature of the internet makes online purchases risky. Minimize your risk by buying your RPG materials from established, reputable dealers. Be a smart shopper–compare prices, and look for great customer service.

[Comment from Johnn: Thanks for the tips Dan. I’ve ordered from eBay and from online companies with mixed success. I’ve also ordered from Dan many times and have always received prompt, well-packed shipments, thus I thought Dan’s tips might be of value to you as he’s proved to me he knows what he’s talking about.]
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Designing Cultures Using Civilisation II

From Timo

One tip on culture design: use the computer game Civilisation II for observing how cultures and civilisations interact.

Later versions of the game have an editor where you can change many of the given variables to test out different scenarios, such as climate variants and civilisation personalities.

If you choose to have no human player at all, it’s fun to watch the civilisations interact. I think this game is great for helping to create a sort of “realistic history” for one’s world.

BTW, the map editors of any game of the civilisation-series are a great inspiration. Just run the random-map function several times, make saves of them, and work on them until you have a game-world you like.

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Bluebooking Your Games

From Jen D.

After some false starts (due to players moving), I finally got a campaign going that is still going. After hemming and hawing for a few years, our group finally decided to give D&D 3rd Ed. a try and I volunteered to GM =).

Anyhow, I’ve decided to implement a bluebook into my game. Those familiar with Vampire: Dark Ages will know what that is automatically.

Basically, I told the group, “5 or 10 years is going to pass”. I emailed them all what happened during that time and they emailed me back what they did in response to it.

I think this is a good idea for several reasons:

  1. It proves that the campaign world doesn’t revolve around the PCs but they can still affect it and it can affect them.
  2. It promotes role-playing. So, what *does* your character do when s/he’s not slaying dragons and saving the world? (Three of the characters are getting married and starting families, for instance.)
  3. It advances the storyline, the world, and the characters in a balanced way. For example, my characters made 10 levels in a little over a year. I figure they can afford to take 5 or 10 years to soak it all in and realize their true potential. This way I don’t have a bunch of 20th level 22 year-olds running around.
  4. It gives a GM ideas, which is never a bad thing =). It also gives you an insight into what your players want for their characters.

Bluebooking is versatile too. For instance, I’m emailing out two bluebooks to each player. One is global: stuff everyone knows about; and one is private (i.e. family stuff). And depending on what your players email back, you can award them treasure, an item, skill points (my fave is knowledge points), experience, whatever.

Another bonus is that our group isn’t going to be able to get together for a few weeks. This keeps the campaign in their mind and gives me incentives to keep working on the adventure.

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Designing Cultures Tips

From Chuck D.

Re: RPT#142 – Challenge And Response: Designing Cultures For Your Game World Using Toynbee’s Principles

Loved Dariel’s article on designing cultures and I think GMs can take things one step further: come up with a system of values for the culture.

Toynbee started out by mapping myth to culture. But, the prospective designer can work backwards, using the broad strokes to zoom in on the little details that make for verisimilitude.

Here is a list of sample questions to build on this:


  • What qualities do they admire?
  • What qualities do they vilify?
  • What makes you disadvantaged in this culture?
  • Describe a mythic hero.
  • What will get you promoted in this culture?
  • What is a crime to these people?
  • How do lawbreakers get punished?

Material things:

  • What is something that everybody owns?
  • What is a status symbol?
  • What’s a typical meal?
  • What do they think of as art?
  • What do people do all day?

Let’s build on the example of Dariel’s Barracoans. We know that they are roving sea-wolves, as he put it. The farming and fishing there is lousy (though presumably enough to barely sustain them, or a blockade would quickly bring them in line). They are good sailors and good climbers. They value seamanship and mountaineering skills.

But what else? The boys gather sea bird eggs, but what do they do with them afterward? Do they eat them? Do people paint them? Do they chuck them at passing ships?

Either the Barracoans are misogynistic or egalitarian; Dariel makes no mention of women. Maybe they are sail and rope-makers, or maybe they even make the boats themselves!

As for a hero, imagine a young boy who is afraid of heights and who overcomes his fear to become a powerful sea captain. Or a boy born with one arm who learns to climb one-handed and nab bird eggs with his feet. Or, a common one: a girl who passes herself as a sailor-boy.

An isolated rocky place like the Barracoans’ home is probably windy and wet; maybe everybody has a rain jacket of some type, all in plain colors. They probably eat mutton or fish stew and grainy bread–every single day that they don’t hijack better food, that is. Whatever they eat, they probably eat it out of decorated bowls with ornately-carved utensils. Unless, of course, you’re a sea captain eating off of purloined china.

The effort is little, but the reward is big. By asking these questions, you might get a glimpse into your culture’s daily lives, breathing some life into a strong concept.

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Custom GM Screen Product

From Reginald C.

[Re: using restaurant menus for custom GM screens RPT#139 – The Art Of The Poker Face ]

Citizen Games [ http:\\www.citizengames.com ] provides an accessory called the MasterScreen for $19.95. It’s a sturdy, three-panel product (using chipboard material inside) with six clear vinyl plastic pockets to insert your own version of your reference charts and tables. There are some participating companies that provide their own support for MasterScreen.