Quick GMing Lessons Learned Playing Three One-Shots In Two Days

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0857

I rarely play. I almost always GM because I like that role best. But at IntrigueCon I got to log 14 hours on the art-side of the GM screen and I made notes based on my observations and learnings.

In a past Musing I discussed how GM details can derail the game. Right details, in the right quantity, at the right time help players make the best-informed decisions to act or reach consensus.

When the party finally decides what to do next, do not derail that with irrelevant new facts that cause players to hesitate and rethink their decision.

If you give players agency, then really do give up the reigns. Roll with PC actions instead of trying to steer them from the back seat with more details. (Use NPCs to do that, strategically.)

And here’s my biggest takeaway on the details front.

It’s About Taking Action

Focus on players taking actions and making the resulting consequences fun, instead of adding friction to decision-making.

The part in bold is where I see the error of my ways.

The GM trap is making everything a dilemma.

For example, should the PCs investigate the bank manager’s ties to the mob or scout the mob boss’s mansion?

In all likelihood, you and players want both to happen. So provide strong clues, NPC roleplay, and player hints to propel a quick decision.

And do not make this into an either/or situation for players.

The real first decision here is what to do first. Or maybe, whether the party should split and do both at once.

Therefore, provide all the essential details, facts, and clues in a concise manner to help your group reach this decision fast and with confidence.

Because unless your RPG system is called Endless Debate Club, the best gameplay comes from the PCs actually taking action and seeing how things turn out.

Mind you, players are afflicted by fog of war. That causes fear, uncertainty, and doubt. They’ll second guess, debate, mull.

If no group leader steps up, be a friend and help clarify. Recap, “This is what you know for sure, this is what you said your goal or intention was, and these are the main options you’ve discussed.”

You aren’t providing details the PCs don’t know. You’re not manipulating. You’re helping renew energy and intent via a little focus.

Make Rolls Matter, Else Skip Them

Another thing I do that I now realize is dumb is ask for skill and knowledge checks for inconsequential results — even with critical successes.

Just give out important information to PCs with high skills in those areas, or when players ask for it.

Give out it. Set it free.

I’m listening to a gameplay podcast right now and I hear this game-delaying situation happening again and again. Time spent orchestrating GM-triggered skill checks with no payoff. Not just a time-waster, but a game derailer by adding FUD to player decision-making.

For example:

Player: “What does my character know about goblins?”

GM: “Roll for me.”

Player: “Ok, for what skill?”

GM: “Do you have dungeon lore or monster lore or history or something?”

Player: “Um…..oh. Yeah. I do. How about Arcana?”

GM: “Perfect. Roll against that.”

Player: “What’s the difficulty?”

GM: “Hmmm. Well, goblins were fairly common where you grew up. So lots of stories and legends and stuff about then. So not too difficult to know something.”

Player: “Ok……. 20!”

Group: “Oh yeah! Nailed it.”

GM: “Ok. You know goblins are evil creatures. Their favourite meat is halfling and elf. <Laughs> They tend to attack in packs and try to overwhelm their victims. Goblins are stupid.”

All that build-up and rules chattery for those measly morsels? Game time wasted. And frustrating for players who might be expecting more. Especially with a crit.

I ask you, what do you have to lose by pausing for a second when the group asks about goblins, and saying:

You: “Hey Whizbang. You grew up near goblin territory. You know goblins are evil creatures. Their favourite meat is halfling and elf. They tend to attack in packs and try to overwhelm their victims. Goblins are stupid. Make a quick Arcana check for me please. Krug, you make a general INT check.”

Whizbang: “20!”

Krug: “15.”

You: “Sweet. A master told you once, Whizbang, that shamans are the spiritual leaders of most goblin tribes. Get to them fast to avoid their nasty magic and sow fear into the tribe. Krug, you heard that if you kill the leader of any goblin pack the rest will flee.”

Enable The Action

What would you lose by giving the whole party the general scoop on goblins, then rewarding a couple of good fast rolls with some tactical suggestions?

I think gameplay gets richer.

Now your players are wondering how to get to the shamans and leaders when they encounter goblins. This will finish fights faster (by your design) or encourage roleplaying where PCs might have just charged in prepared to grind it out.

This also creates two notable NPC roles in your game. No longer are goblin groups faceless masses. There might be a named and notable NPC amongst them!

So avoid adding friction to the decision-making process by hiding good information or calling for dice rolls where great results have little payoff. Learn from my mistakes and focus instead on driving gameplay forward by arming players with actionable details.