Lessons Learned from behind the GM Screen

From Scot Newbury

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0440

Lessons Learned from behind the GM Screen

As any GM will tell you, when you run a long-term campaign with the same group of players there are bound to be things you really liked and want to use again, and things that you’ll avoid at all costs in the future. Those are the extremes, and I’ve found there are some items that fall in between. Those are the subject of this article.

What follows are a few of the items I identified from my last campaign, what they were, what the problem was, and the lesson I learned from it.


Even before the campaign started I introduced a campaign newsletter. It included not only session recaps and world information but also group administration items like our schedule.

It was well received and provided a lot of valuable information, but it became difficult to maintain a consistent schedule of publishing for a variety of reasons.

Here’s a spot where a really good lesson can be learned: keep it simple.

My newsletter included, among other things, a full listing of NPCs the party had met. The listing only had the NPC’s name and a brief tidbit about them, but as the plotlines unfolded the list became inaccurate and less useful and I eventually removed it. This was a blessing because I didn’t have to maintain it, but a curse as I still needed that information and it wasn’t all in one place anymore.

The other major concern with the newsletter was the time factor. The newsletter only took an hour or two to compile and put out, which in the grand scheme of things is pretty small, but when you factor in that I was working for a high-tech startup and in the process of become a father to a set of twins, finding that hour or two became a challenge. There were some weeks (or longer) when the newsletter just wasn’t published.

Lesson learned: keep it short, simple and easy to publish.


I started off with a basic plotline and then began to add, and add, and add. There were multiple plotlines for each character, red herrings, ideas that sounded good at the time, NPC plotlines, and, the granddaddy of them all: I dropped a war in as a backdrop.  The more plotlines I added the greater the depth of the campaign. But it also meant the amount of work on my part and the players’ part went up as we tried to keep all of it in check and on track.

The result of all the extra plotlines was a campaign that became stagnant and, at times, lost focus. We had some good plotlines run their course, we also had many that were introduced, and after a session or two, got lost in the shuffle, never to be heard from again.

The bigger issue was, with all these plotlines, the main storyline and driver for the campaign became stagnant, which ultimately contributed to the downfall of the campaign.

Lessons learned: keep the number of plotlines down and keep them moving.


I think just about every GM out there knows the value of taking and keeping notes about your gaming sessions. I started off well, but over the course of time I faltered.

I had detailed, pre-session notes typed up and available to me during the game, complete with plot hooks, NPC and creature stats, trap and treasure information. My in-session notes had all the usual combat-related items, results of interactions with the various NPCs, plot hooks picked up, and any plot ideas generated out of the session.

After each session I tried to get a read on the session from the players, note what items I hadn’t used yet that could be used later, and the repercussions of any of the characters’ actions.

Things started out well, but over time my session note-taking dropped off. There were sessions where the extent of my notes was a comment about the monsters met and the round tracking. That doesn’t leave a lot to work from in the future and certainly contributed to the challenges with the campaign newsletter.

There was little to no movement on plot lines, so nothing was noted, and in some sessions I just didn’t put the effort in. I also started to rely heavily on my memory as opposed to writing things down. Fine when you’re playing 3-4 weeks a month; not so good when you take 1-2 months off.

Looking back on things, I think a fair amount of the issue was actually GM burnout. I liked the campaign, I liked running it, I liked the way the characters were developing, but I think the grind of being the GM was wearing on me.


This one might seem a bit strange to see here, as most would think being able to improvise is a good thing, and I would agree with you – until you start to improvise and royally mess things up.

Some of my players will probably read this, and I’m sure they will remember the encounters towards the end of the campaign. There were a number that were just too lopsided for the group to handle and I had to fudge some things, call off an attack, or have an NPC save the day. None of those are good for the players and, they were a result of running things off the cuff.

A number of these encounters were to satisfy the group’s desire for combat but were poorly planned, which is no one’s fault but my own. I hope to avoid this pitfall in the future.

The other major issue I had with improvisation at the table was a tendency to introduce things early without the necessary prep, or before the characters were ready for it.

The war, for example, was introduced a lot earlier than I had originally intended. As we were gaming, things were going along well but had started slowing down, so I decided to spice things up by introducing the war element. It was a good plotline to introduce and was well received, but it created logistic issues and impacted other plotlines far more than intended.

The result was a campaign that became more than I could effectively manage and keep track of. The result was more improvised sessions as I just couldn’t keep up – another sign I was burning out but didn’t see it.

Lesson learned: improvisation is a good thing, as long as you keep it in check and don’t go overboard.

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I’m sure there are other lessons, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind. Most of these were items originally well-received, but over the course of time fell short; a classic example of starting out with good intentions.

The main take away here is to pay attention to how things are going and how the GM is doing, because as you can see, when GM burnout starts to set in things start to slip.

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Readers, if you liked this article, you might also enjoy Wil Wheaton’s “a few thoughts and lessons learned from behind the dm screen

9 Symptoms of GM Burn-Out: Avoiding GM Burn-Out Part I

8 Tips for Recovering from GM Burn-Out: GM Burn-Out Tips Part II

Remedies for GM Burn-Out

– Johnn

Strolen’s Feature Article: How to Write Fictional Military Hardware

From Scrasamax

How to Write Fictional Military Hardware

Be it a tank, mech, aircraft, or warship, the same basic rules apply for writing speculative fiction about them.

Some questions to consider:

What was the problem the machine in question was designed to address?

Military hardware is expensive, and is built to fulfill a specific purpose. Sometimes this purpose is broad and proactive, such as building a multi-role fighter, a main battle tank, or heavy battlemech. Other times, this purpose is reactive, building a vehicle to transport a weapon system or fight a specific enemy vehicle.

What are the basic abilities of the machine, in terms of mobility, armor, and special systems? How do they compare to what is already available?

There are the crunchiest of the questions: how fast can the vehicle go, how much firepower and of what type does it mount, how far can it go on a tank of gas?

There are two methods to gauge these capabilities: technical based and plot based. A technical base gives detailed numbers based off of either real world statistics or their future extrapolation. The plot based system doesn’t use numbers other than in a flash and dazzle method.

To quote Michael J. Straczynski when questioned on the speed of an Earthforce Starfury, “It moves at the speed of plot.” The key to using a plot base is to remain consistent. If an A-wing is faster than an X wing in chapter 3, it needs to stay that way in chapter 16. If the pulse cannon cannot penetrate durasteel, it shouldn’t punch through durasteel in the next battle. Unless, of course, an explanation is given as to why this change is possible.

Were there any significant hurdles in its creation process?

One thing to consider are time tables, as a machine needed in a current war will be rushed as fast as possible. Other considerations include the cost of the machine. Another sort of problem that could come up are mechanical issues such as new technology.

There is a common conception that vehicle X was a golden child from the moment it flowed from a designer’s hand onto paper to the time it rolled flawlessly into battle. That is about as interesting as a dungeon crawl with no random encounters. Research and development is about finding problems and fixing them, be it computer aided, or drafting tables and prototypes.

Once the machine entered basic production, were there any problems?

Is the machine simple or complex? How efficient is the production and assembly process? Is the production facility in danger of attack?

When prototypes are built, they are few in number and are handled by specialists and designers who likely had a hand in the planning of the machine. Things change when full production is reached. Is production constantly slowed by supply problems, are there parts that are tricky to install or temperamental before being broken in?

What were the field trials and first combat outcomes?

Did the machine performs as expected, were there unexpected problems? Did combat in the field reveal unexpected flaws in the machine?

There are quirks and flaws in machines that aren’t obvious until the real deal is there. Computers cannot anticipate every aspect of a machine and its environment.

A side effect of this is that a machine might actually be mediocre or poor at its intended purpose, or might excel at something that wasn’t intended when it was being designed. A promising field trial can see a design fast-tracked into production, while a poor one can see a vehicle or weapon system pushed onto a back burner or even cancelled.

Once regular production was reached, were there variants of the machine created?

(Trainer, command unit, cargo transport, close combat, ranged combat, specific weapon version, etc.) How did these fair in battle?

It is very rare that a machine exists in only one

incarnation. What are the other variants of the design?

How difficult is the machine to maintain in ideal and adverse conditions?

How quickly can it be repaired? Does it suffer mechanical problems in the field; can it take a beating?

Maintenance in the field is more than simply refueling and reloading. Is the machine in question easy to work and functional in even adverse conditions like an AK-47, or is it temperamental, requiring special tools and care, restricted to certain conditions such as operating in dry weather only?

Logistics are big part of military action; does the machine need a steady stream of replacement pieces and parts, or is it one of the rare few that just needs a hammer, wrench, gas and ammo?

What is its service record like?

Is it successful, or is it mediocre? Do its crews and pilots love or hate it? Does it have a reputation, or is it just another machine?

If the piece is being written after the machine in question is no longer in service, how well did it perform? How long did it serve? Some machines serve decades beyond their expected life spans while others are scrapped and replaced well before reaching their estimated service life.

Some war machines are remembered by their crews long after the machine is gone. Some examples include the WWII pilots who still miss their warbirds, to the more modern era pilots who rather hated their buggy, early computer-equipped aircraft.

Did it have any MVP time?

Was it pivotal in a battle or campaign, did it stand out on the field of battle, or was it just another iron mook?

Not every single machine or device is going to stand in the limelight, or be remembered by history. Was there any time the machine had its perfect moment in just the right place, such as the Mustangs that flew cover for bombers deep into the heart of Germany, or the cruise missiles that rained down on top of Iraqi targets from hundreds and even thousands of miles away?

To tell if it is an MVP moment, ask, would the battle have been won without the machine? If not, it’s MVP material.

Does the machine have any pilots/crews that stand head and shoulders above the rest?

A machine is only as good as the man piloting it, and the public loves a war hero. Are there any?

Without a crew – be it pilots, technicians operating via remote or any other sort of support – a machine is just a complex piece of metal. It takes the men and women of the armed forces to bring those chunks to life. Fighter planes have ace pilots, and in WWII Germany had Tank Aces, and in the various navies around the world naval ships can be cited for valor and bravery in the face of battle. What is the human connection between the machine and history?

Did the machine have a rival machine in the field of battle?

Some military hardware is only remembered for the fact that it dueled with a certain type or class of enemy.

Every hero has a villain. Batman has the Joker, the Fantastic Four have Dr. Doom, and so on. In wars, sometimes a machine is set apart not for its own ability, but for the intense rivalry with another machine.

WWII brought us the dogfights between Supermarine Spitfires and just about every fighter and bomber in the Luftwaffe. Korea was the birth of the jet engine and the appearance of the Mig and the rise of American jets like the Sabre.

Sample Failures:

  • The Unicorn. The Unicorn is a great idea that absolutely fails in real life. Most likely, the Unicorn is overly ambitious and exceeds the capabilities of available technology. The most modern version of the Unicorn is a cost effective flying car.
  • The White Elephant. Counterpoint to the Unicorn, the White Elephant is the machine that should have been cancelled but survived being cut by some touch of bad luck. The White Elephant is an absolute failure but made it out anyway.
  • War Pork. This machine might be very good at what it does, but it is entirely too expensive to put into production even in a limited fashion. These machines are usually psychological in nature, such as the Paris Gun. Other examples of war pork could be Airwolf, the triple engine jet from SWAT Cats: Radical Squadron, or the super-exotic gladiator mechs piloted in Battletech. Some other real world examples: the XB-70 Valkyre supersonic bomber, Howard Hughs’ Spruce Goose, the Maus superheavy tank.

Considerations and Clichés:

  • Alone on the Field of Battle – Machines seldom fight alone. A tank battalion will have support vehicles, ranging from ammo transports to fuel carriers to recovery vehicles. Long range strikers typically are paired with some sort of spotter or scout, and slower units have faster units to prevent them from being flanked. The mano y mano battle is typically only seen realistically in anime and westerns.
  • Irresistible Attack, Impenetrable Defence – It is too tempting to make machines that are described with the above attributes. The main problem with this is that there is always a race between competing ideals, attack versus defence, gun versus armor, fortification versus mobility.

Bigger guns bring about heavier armor, which in turn bring about even bigger guns. WWII saw this sort of gun vs. armor cycle between the Germans and the Russians.

In almost any mecha anime, the titular mecha has the best speed, defense and weapons, until the next season and the new mecha comes out to replace it. The best armor can be penetrated by a lucky shot, and the best weapon can fail with a bad hit.

  • Infinite Range, Infinite Ammo – Watching many movies and animes, war machines never seem to need to be reloaded with ammo or fuel. This leaves many encounters as nothing more than extended rock’n’roll automatic fire until someone makes enough lucky hits to take out their foe.
  • Handwavium and Ohmy-myeyeshavecrossed (OMMEHC) – opposite sides of the reality coins; it is easy to go too far in either direction. The trouble with handwavium is that too much appears lazy and forces the reader to stretch the suspension of disbelief beyond what is acceptable. Imperial star destroyers destroy “hypermatter” to fuel their engines and weapon systems. The system is a mix of handwavium and WTF?

OMMEHC, quoting Austin Powers from The Spy who Shagged Me, is the usage of in-depth data. The problem with OMMEHC is that after reading a bit of technobabble, the reader has to consult some tech manual or Wikipedia to figure out what the heck the writer of the piece was talking about.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

The Page of Three

From Zachary The First

If you’re anything like me, you have a disparate gaming group when it comes to making up character backgrounds. Some write novels; others fall back on the one-sentence “_____ killed my ______.” (Common fill-ins for this include Orcs/Parents, Elves/Parents, Barbarians/Parents, and Raiders/Parents. Parents rarely make it to a child’s 16th birthday in the dangerous worlds of RPGs).

My solution to this has been what I call the Page of Three.

The Page of Three has the players list a few (3) basic things their character does well, does poorly, some beliefs held, and some instinctual behavior they posses. It also has them list three emotional attachments for their character. This actually evolved from the Beliefs and Instincts portion of Burning Wheel.

The Page of Three is one simple page, it allows the creative players to be creative without handing in a ream of background notes, and it provides a basis for expansion as they do develop the character (on their own time).

For players who detest background and just want to get to the adventuring, the “things you do well/poorly” portions give them some incentive to answer, and provides them at least with the framework of a background and character study.

I’ve found this method gives me plenty of plot hooks, gets us ready to game faster, and is a healthy compromise best done as sort of a fun, pre-game brainstorming session.

If you’re looking for something to get your players starting to think about character background without overwhelming them, try it out. It doesn’t even have to be the stopping point for pre-game character background, but it can be a good place to start. It’s always worked for me.

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Inexpensive Props Ideas

From Stacey Sprandel

Over the last few sessions I have run, I’ve been adding various prop ideas suggested by your other readers. It got me looking at the post-holiday clearance aisles at various stores. I’ve picked up some very nice items and food-related props for very little.

At Halloween, I’d found candy necklaces, ring pops, pixie sticks, smarties and gummy spiders to add to my fantasy game. I called the pixie sticks “alchemy sticks” for the sake of keeping in the spirit of things.

Here’s how I used the gummy spiders. My PCs awoke one morning and discovered a lot of little spiders invaded their campsite that night and they needed to deal with the vicious little things before they packed up to continue their travels.

As for the non-food props, I found some clear plastic mugs that could represent tavern mugs or were just useful for drinks during game play. I’m pretty sure you could find use for other holiday themed dishware, such as:

  • Christmas – enchanted liquid chiller or perhaps a draft of cold resistance
  • St. Patrick’s Day – an enchanted mug that causes instant sobriety or drunkenness
  • Easter – a draft of mental quickness or quick reflexes.

Another food-related prop: If you don’t want to invest in real bottles to fill with potions, look into Nip and Sip wax bottle candy. They come in packs of 5 and are colored differently, so you can choose a specific color to be your healing potion. I’ve found a generic brand at Walgreen’s for about two dollars a package. They are effectively the same thing but have the added benefit of being single loose bottles rather than molded as a 5 pack.

After Christmas, I checked out a local party store and found some ruby red plastic gems that were supposed to be tree ornaments, and small clear plastic stones that work just perfectly as uncut diamonds. This was also a great place to find cheap plastic coins, Mardi Gras beads, and other costume items, year round.

Hope this helps other GMs look beyond the dollar store for more cheap props.

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Screenless DMing and Plexiglass Grids

From John Lewis

I changed over to “No Screen” a couple of years back. I realized there is nothing on any screen I’ve seen that is very useful. I also love open rolling. My players also seem to like it.

One thing I’ll add. 4th Edition supports screenless DMing better than previous editions. The reason why? The game is mechanically more stable. You don’t have unexpected things happen, like a x4 crit, that instantly kills a healthy character. In 4E, characters can usually judge the situation they are in a little better. Plus, extricating yourself from a bad situation is easier.

I use a 2’x4′ plexiglass sheet over a grid poster to draw maps on with dry erase. Near the grid (under the plexi) I have a couple of game aides: a list of conditions and their effects and a master list of actions. Both are there more for the players than me.

When I DM, each character in my game has a designated color. I arrange colored magnets on my dry erase board for initiative. I also use extra colored magnets on the conditions summary chart to mark which characters, or creatures, are subject to which conditions. This keeps me from physically messing with minis, but the condition chart is right next to the map area and easy for everyone to see.