Readers Respond: Helping Workaholic GMs

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0235

A Brief Word From Johnn

Try FireFox As Your Browser

I’ve been using Mozilla’s Firefox at work and home for awhile now and highly recommend it. Its tab feature is awesome for surfing and using multiple pages at once. For example, as recommended by the webmaster, you can have several tabs open to various pages at The Hypertext d20 SRD for easier rules referencing.

Extensions and plugins are a breeze to install as well.

Mozilla Firefox

GMail Hooked Up

Thanks very much for all the GMail offers you sent! It’s much appreciated. My GMail address is:

johnnfour “at”

Be sure to get some gaming in this week!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Readers Respond: Helping Workaholic GMs

Last week’s article from Scott G. Zaboem struck a chord in many readers. Below are some great tips and advice from your fellow Tipsters on helping workaholic GMs.

You can view last week’s issue online at:
RPT#234 – Bad Gamemasters I Have Known And Loved: The Workaholic GM

Graphic of section divider

Beat Logic Problems With Religion, Politics, and Romance!

From Brent

I’d recommend GMs afraid of logic errors adopt the RPR principal. That is, Religion, Politics, and Romance. Should the PCs ask about a logic error, look to those three things for an answer.

Dungeon ecology a problem?

  1. Religion
    This area is sacred to Tiamat and she enjoins the monsters within it to avoid each other but attack pale, fleshy, humans immediately.
  2. Politics
    The monsters, much more human-like than you’d normally expect, have split into what can be described as factions or gangs. They war with each other, but not to the point of risking wiping themselves out.
  3. Romance
    The dragon and imp have fallen madly in love but their families have rejected the idea. As of yet, they are respecting their wishes, but stirrings of violence are afoot. Enter the PCs to slay the unhappy couple and their families.
  4. Romance
    Lady Whisper loved the site of terrifying beasties but not if they were fighting. Lord Garadal, hoping to win her heart, arranged for a “zoo” to be created by the local Zenowizard, who naturally enchanted the fiends to passivity. Though all three people are long since dead, the monsters remain and remnants of the charm, along with habit, keep each from slaying another. Of course, the death of one, mingling with the smell of blood, may finally break the magic’s hold.

Obviously, not all options are effective for every situation. ? But those three are so amazingly prone to illogic, or perceived as such from an outsider, that most gamemasters can come up with something on the spot.

Alternatively, you can simply respond with the single word “Politics” and let the players be a trifle confused while you formulate something in your mind.

As time goes on, and you become better and better at the exercise, your players will start to think you know more about the world than you do, which is almost always a good thing.

Graphic of section divider

Go With The Flow Or You’ll Snap

From Rick Cornejo

Having started as a workaholic GM and played under workaholic GMs, I have some simple advice: get ready to go with the flow or you will snap. When I first started out GMing, I not only drew world maps and made reams of NPCs, but I spent countless hours meticulously plotting out dungeons, the monsters to be encounters, and what was going to happen in the adventure following published adventures as a guideline.

I spent a lot of time building a world and planning adventures. It worked at first, but as the players and I became more experienced, they started doing unexpected things – veering away from my carefully planned adventures and encounters, sometimes not even going on the adventure offered and just doing their own thing.

My first instinct was to force the adventures on them, but I realized this would just result in no fun for all. I realized that, for my game to work, I had to have less planned events, more flexibility, and allow the players to change the world and do unexpected things.

What I did was collect numerous adventure seed ideas, and maybe write-up one paragraph synopses of the premise and NPCs. This way, I had a wealth of loosely planned adventures at my fingertips at every session. With a loose idea of what might happen in the adventure, it was easy for me to deal with unexpected twists and turns.

Game play actually became more natural feeling than the meticulously planned adventures. Player and GM enjoyment sky rocketed. And, instead of planned dungeons, I made the map up as I went on a piece of paper with a very rough idea of how big it might be and what might be in there.

Suddenly, my lack of preparation was the best preparation there was. The players liked the game better and so did I. Adventures had a lot of unexpected twists, both from me as the GM and from player decisions. The game world felt more natural. Did I give up my workaholic ways? Nope. I just channelled it into a better use.

Instead of wasting my time making dungeon maps and planning out adventure details, I made:

  1. Lists of magic weapons they might encounter or find.
  2. New monsters in a quick reference list.
  3. Reams of random and major NPCs, while still allowing for the not-made barkeep NPC to be pulled along with the party and made at a later date.
  4. Secret societies, knightly orders, gods, religious groups, and what not that could be encountered.
  5. A time line of the history of the world.

In short, I became a macro workaholic GM. I focused on the big picture of the game world and game, creating and collecting a lot of broad ideas, information, and characters that might never be encountered, but which could crop up at anytime. I gave up micro-managing the world and game, relying on the game action to fill in those details and events. All in all, the world and game has worked beautifully this way and the players who have gone on to be GMs have emulated this style to good success.

It takes quick wit sometimes, especially if the PCs start asking unexpected questions or doing unexpected things, but if the GM keeps their cool, is imaginative and confident- sounding, it works well.

For instance, I had mentioned in describing a city street scene in a “foreign” land that there were several priests of a particular god and how they dressed. One of the PCs decided to ask them about their rituals and beliefs. So I made it up on the spot, writing it down in a notebook as I had the NPC talk to the PC. The players love this because it gives them the sense that they are helping the game world to develop and grow, which they are. And it saves me the time of detailing every minor religious order, society, god etc., before a game session. I just do it in session as the group encounters things.

Graphic of section divider

The Graceful Bluff

From Patrick Benson

First let me say thanks for your E-Zine. I find something useful in every issue. It has made me a better GM.

In regards to issue #234 and the pressure to be realistic in your fantasy settings, I have a suggestion. When someone points out a flaw in your game world design, just acknowledge it as being odd and then continue gaming.

For example, I run an espionage campaign with a horror twist. The world is very much like our own modern world, but with some very sinister and dark forces at work behind the scenes.

Now, from time to time, someone will point out a loophole of some sort. A player might say, “How did that monster get past all those people in the building lobby without being seen?” While the truth may be that I just forgot that there were NPCs in the lobby, I just look at the player and respond with something like, “Well the monster did appear to come from the lobby, but there were no screams.”

The trick is that I then go right back to the scene at hand and leave the question hanging. Players then do the rest of the work for me. One might suggest that the creature can turn invisible, another hints that the NPCs may have been knocked out by a spell (or something worse), and another will theorize that there was a secret entrance that the creature used and that it never came through the lobby.

I then pick the suggestion that fits best, make sure to write it down in my notes, throw it into the game (“Yes indeed, there seems to be a hidden door just south of the lobby exit!”), and later reward the players for “discovering the secret.” Occasionally, I don’t even answer the question at all, and just let the players build up that paranoid tension that makes some games really fun!

The reason this seems to work is because players don’t want to ruin the game, and instead will eagerly accept the idea that the GM planned the loophole to be discovered as part of the adventure. I believe that, when players point out such loopholes, they are actually trying to preserve their suspension of disbelief by giving the GM a chance to patch things up.

Graphic of section divider

Call A Timeout

From Casey V.

Dare One thing that worked well for me as a “workaholic” GM was the in-game “timeout.”The time out was an acknowledgement of the “4th wall” you described. I would plan hours and hours for a game, trying to create a sense of realism that my players could respond to and interact with.But, they always found a way to the end of the world and they touched the sky (a reference both to a classic Star Trek episode and the Truman Show). They exploited the seam in my carefully laid plans and I had not prepared for the flank attack.

So, my answer was to call a “timeout.” I would literally pause the game, collect my things, and retreat to a back room for 10-30 minutes. I would review my notes, and restructure events to incorporate the new direction we had gone.

The players loved it. The timeout acknowledged their gaming skills, and it gave me time to reset the “4th wall.” I would also award bonus experience, new items, or important information, for their outstanding gaming (which they also looked forward to getting).

For all the workaholic GMs out there (like myself!), remember that the games are interactive and players are as important in creating the reality as we are. If you fight what they want to do, such as by throwing obstacles to keep them on your pre-determined path, no one will have fun.

Adapt, overcome, and improvise!

Graphic of section divider

Switch Up With Marvel Universe RPG

From Laurence MacNaughton

Scott G. Zaboem’s article about The Workaholic GM was fantastic. If anyone out there needs to switch games once in a while to let a burned-out GM recharge, I suggest trying The Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game. This slim hardcover book holds a wonderfully simple diceless game system. It’s surprisingly easy and fun, allowing everyone (GM included) to participate in the sort of deliciously overblown antics you’d want to see in a super hero game, without all the book- keeping.

It comes with stats for a bunch of Marvel characters, along with a full-size adventure, so it’s a perfect all-in-one emergency game kit. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Hulk, or Mystique once in a while?

Here’s a link to Marvel’s website, with sample pages from the book:

Graphic of section divider

Chat With Other GMs

From John Gallagher

Best advice I can think to give a workaholic GM is to talk to other GMs! GMs are the ones who best understand the task of running a campaign, and they can offer dozens of useful labor-saving ideas.Many game systems have listservs or forums where GMs can get help from all over the world. The GMMastery group ain’t exactly a bad thing to get involved with either.Getting help from GMs removes some of the problems of having players getting involved.

After all, it’s coming from an outside source, so GMs don’t feel like they’re giving things away by talking about their problems. And, the game-specific groups can give some very explicit advice, a host of ready- made NPCs, etc.

Graphic of section divider

Approach Your GM The Right Way

From Debbie Johnson Johnn & Scott

I am definitely one of those workaholic GMs. As Scott described, I meticulously write encounters, go out of my way to develop PCs individually, and make my story line and setting as realistic as possible. However, I haven’t yet (in almost five years of GMing) experienced burnout.One of the things that I do as GM to prevent that is to ask my players for feedback. I often felt unappreciated with my first group of gamers (of course, they were all teenagers, inexperienced, and, let’s face it, somewhat socially inept).

If you are a workaholic, you want to be recognized for the effort you put into it once in a while (and that’s why someone would ‘brag’ about spending X number of hours on preparation).So, compliment your GM occasionally. Tell her what you like about the game. Two things will probably happen: her confidence will build as she realizes that she runs a good game, and she will give you more of what you like about her game.Now, I also asked for criticism, but not every GM is able to handle this.

As Scott said, this is a tricky area. From a player perspective, I would recommend that you indicate to your GM that she can talk to you about the game (outside the game, preferably one-on-one). As she begins to confide in you and trust you, she will most likely reveal her own difficulties with the game, and then it would be appropriate to give advice. Any suggestions made in this manner, even if less than tactful, will be more acceptable.My problem was spontaneity.

I was so concerned that I would miss telling them something that they needed to know, or that me just talking wouldn’t be as good as my prepared speeches, that I would literally read to them. I wanted to be able to run ‘on the fly’ if the players took an unexpected direction, but I was afraid, so I prepared for every contingency. Until one of my experienced and easy- going players, bless him, helped me.

This summer, my teenagers graduated and moved on, so I had to scramble for new players. I have adults now (mostly college-aged), and one of them was insatiable. He had never played before, but he got completely into it. He pushed for more playing time, and because four of us had the time, I ran an average of 5 game sessions a week for a month.

You would think that I would quickly experience burnout, but it actually relaxed me. I didn’t have time to come up with detailed plans before the game, so I just made it up as I went along and, with the encouragement of the experienced player mentioned above, found that I could. This has opened up a whole new dimension of GMing for me.

I realize that this solution would be rare in these days of hectic schedules, but perhaps the idea behind it could be utilized. The main thing is to give your GM a break when she tries something new. As Johnn said, there are very few players who aren’t willing to give the GM the benefit of the doubt, so make sure that she knows it. If it’s a little unrealistic, go with it. If she gets stuck in-game, take a little break while she figures it out. Your new and improved GM will be worth it.

Graphic of section divider

Various Workaholic Remedies

From Eric Holmes Johnn & Scott

I identified with the Workaholic GM because I was, repeat was, one at one time. Scott’s article came real close to home, so I’ll weigh in with some of my own home remedies. Remember, burnout is prevented by game management.

  1. Your time is important…that includes in this order: family, job, and then hobby. Resign yourself to the fact that you cannot be the omnipotent and omniscient one, and that your world will have flaws. Therefore, get the players to help develop your world within your guidelines. Let them develop their “dream” result of their character, and then use it as an NPC. Let them design their “safe haven” lair, and then use it somewhere else….
  2. Because time spent in development can lead to burnout, limit yourself to number of days spent working on the game. Do you spend every evening prepping for a single session? Or can you limit yourself to just the evening before you play? Or one evening a week? Schedule the same time every week to spend on prep, even if only for ten minutes.
  3. How often do you referee? Every weekend, every other weekend, or once a month? Limiting the amount you referee can ease the burnout syndrome.
  4. How many different style games do you play? Can you take a break from being the GM? Can you play in another GM’s game to get away from yours? Are you running too many games? Can you play another side of the hobby, like board games or historical miniatures? Remember, part of burn out is being stuck in a rut.
  5. Limit the size of your campaign. It’s not Middle Earth, but “There and Back Again.” Not the “Lord of the Rings,” but the Halls of Edoras. The narrower your “span” in the campaign, the easier it is to control. This is a well known management technique.
  6. Feed off of what has gone before you. Are there some commercial products available that can be used as resources? Look at all the stuff available online. There’s gotta be something you can use there.
  7. Do you use figures? Do you paint all your monsters? I’ve given all my massed monsters a black wash, only adding some color identifier for the group and numbering each figure stand. Only special monsters and NPCs are fully painted. Initially, I used a fine pointed, permanent pen to mark numbers. Then I went to stick on labels from Avery with numbers written in.
  8. Get some of the players to help paint figures if you use figures. My daughter started painting with me when she was 16. Now she paints faster than I can and more often can do a better job than I. My daughter-in-law was the same.
  9. Photocopy, scan and print, cut and paste, become a graphics designer wannabe. There are no original drawings in my campaigns because I can’t draw. If I cannot have it finished in one hour, I won’t create it.
  10. When you find yourself dreaming about your campaign, missing favorite TV shows for the campaign, skipping meals, not talking to the better half, you are obsessing and going through burnout.
Graphic of section divider


From Tom

Here’s a tip for you Johnn, which by the way came out of necessity. I recently started a new job and only have so many hours a night to work on an adventure.I have a ruined castle crawling with orcs and groundlings (Forgotten Realms Monster Manual). I only wrote out the encounters for these two groups, and made mini-notes in my map key for the rest of the rooms.So, the tip is to simplify.

Write only what you have to. In my ruined castle, the roof has collapsed (daylight streams in), the doors are all in the same condition (only need one “statblock” for doors), and there are a minimal set of encounters. In my mind, I can see the castle’s condition, so I don’t need to write out every room description.

ADVENTURE From Myriador Ltd.

Available now from Myriador: d20 Fighting Fantasy Adventures. Faithful conversions of classic adventures like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon and the whole Sorcery Series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Also available soon – The Fighting Fantasy Role Play Game -everything you need to play in one simple book, ideal for first time gamers.

For more information, visit our website at

The Roleplaying Tips GM Encyclopedia
BEST GAME AID – Gold Gen Con ENnie Winner 2004

Need advice fast? Inbox full? Hard Drive crashed? Missing valuable Roleplaying Tips issues? Fear not!

4 years, 200 issues, 2200+ tips, all sorted for you by Issue#, Tip Topic, Type Of Tip, and more. For information, screen shots, and ordering info click here:

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Electronic Organizing Of GM Information

From Michael Anderson

[Johnn: Michael sent me a list of tabs he’s created in an Excel file he uses to organize and maintain his campaign. I thought you might find this list valuable for whatever software you use, such as MS Word, Excel, MyInfo, Roleplayingmaster, and so on.]
  1. To Do List
  2. Loot List (list of loot the characters have not identified)
  3. City Management Rules (the characters are lords of a city–these are the rules for taxation and city costs)
  4. Naval Rules (these are rules for naval combat–I am still developing these, but the City Charter where the characters are is to build a fleet)
  5. Rulings (for rules I have to come up with on the spot)
  6. Ideas from Roleplaying Tips (ideas I like from your ezine and other GM media)
  7. Social Ladder Rules (I just added these-Great Tip!)
  8. Adventure Checklist Notes (Again from your ezine)
  9. Game Premise (the big picture)
  10. Iix History (history of the country Iix where the characters live)
  11. Surrounding Areas (these are notes on countries and areas that border the country the characters live in; I flesh those areas out based upon notes that go in here; this is an important Tab because, if a player learns something (through roleplaying or research) about a neighboring country, I need to record that so I don’t forget it; this is especially true if I come up with the info they just got ‘on the fly’)
  12. Myths and Fairy Tales
  13. Named NPCs (the NPCs who are the PCs enemies and allies in my story; also NPCs that the PCs have encountered and developed a relationship with)
  14. Secret Societies
  15. Gods
  16. Magic Ritual Rules (these are rules I have come up with for magic rituals)
  17. Unavailable Spells and Character Classes (I am keeping these out of the game for both plot reasons and balance issues)
  18. Allies
  19. Enemies
  20. The True Element (a plot point)
  21. The Iixian Manifesto (a plot point)
  22. The Wretched Army (information on the evil army–the characters are in a war against this army)
  23. Weather (rules for weather)
  24. Alternate backgrounds (I use a system that has a table where you randomly determine character backgrounds. I have replaced some of them)
  25. Societal Morays
  26. Soundtrack (a list of songs I play in certain situations and their location on my hard drive)
  27. Emails (a list of important emails I have sent to or received from the group)
  28. PC Info (this is a collection of several tabs; it includes pertinent info on each character: their backgrounds, stats, certain skills, etc.)
  29. Character Experience (a record of XP from every session; I added this tab when I found that one of my players got ‘confused’ as to how much XP they had)
  30. Dreams (I give a lot of information to characters via their dreams)
  31. Prophecy
  32. Development Ideas (developing plot points)
  33. Tunneling (calculations for how long a tunneling project took; again, Excel comes through as a great math tool)
  34. Sutrilu (a creature I invented–stats, attributes, and history)
  35. Solmeg’s Diary (a diary the group found)
  36. Wargame rules (from time to time, we do a macro ‘war game’ to determine the results of large battles)
  37. Character Units (these are the military units that the characters lead)
  38. Shared Vision (this is the description of a shared vision the characters had as a result of a powerful ritual culminating; I read this directly to the characters)
  39. Influence Resistance Rules (these are modifications to the rules my system uses for ‘influence resistance’ i.e. can a character know that they are being lied to, tricked into something, seduced, etc.)
  40. Artifacts (magic items play a large role in my game; I have very detailed notes on how each of them work and affect the players, down to how long it takes the Grazuul’s Consuming Collar to devour a character’s soul)
  41. Calendar (this includes all of the days of the year, festivals, holy days, etc.; I print this out and make notes on it to keep track of what each character does each day; again Excel comes through in a pinch as you can adjust the cell width and height on multiple cells to make them into calendar shaped boxes)
  42. Game Time Line (these are my notes from all of the previous adventures; this Tab also includes several possible directions for plot points the characters are currently following)
  43. North To Kindex (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  44. BrokenKeep (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  45. Leaix Bandits (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  46. Uad Ciud (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  47. 3 Pidgens-Dekai’s Return (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  48. VolUnderlayers (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  49. SecretIsland (these are notes on a particular adventure)
  50. ExportNPCINFOTo (my Excel-based NPC creator generates three flat files for export into my combat tracker; this is one of them)
  51. ExportSkillInfo (my Excel based NPC creator generates three flat files for export into my combat tracker; this is one of them)
  52. ExportSpellInfo (my Excel based NPC creator generates three flat files for export into my combat tracker; this is one of them)

I just had a great experience with Excel the other day. My group has several GMs, and from time to time we switch off. Recently, I announced to the group that I would be starting my game again. It had been about 6 months since we last played that, so in order to prepare the group, I copied several tabs from my spreadsheet into a workbook that I sent to the players. Of course, I edited A LOT of information out, but with Excel, editing information out is very easy. I sent this info to my players and I got an overwhelming positive response.

Much of this information was stuff that I presented to them in previous games on scraps of paper or just by word of mouth. But now they have ALL of the information that their characters have learned about my world in one place. The whole process took me about 20 minutes because it was so easy to extract it from my well maintained GM notes.

Graphic of section divider

GMGen Free GMing PC Utility

From Johnn Eight

I noticed this post over at ENWorld and thought you might find this software useful:

GMGen 5.7.4 Alpha released (part of PCGen 5.7.4a)

GMGen has a series of plugins that do a variety of D&D/d20 things:

  • Character Sheet
  • Dice Bag
  • Doomsday Book
  • Encounter
  • Experience
  • Initiative
  • Network
  • Notes
  • Overland Travel
  • PCG Tracker

Roleplayingmaster has the same features+ as well:

Graphic of section divider

Tricky Magic Item Idea

From Manuel

Winged boots are common enough, but add a little pepper and they suddenly become a source of drama. Make them not fly at will, but instead only after 3 or 4 meters of free falling. And don’t let the players know how many charges are left… ?

Graphic of section divider

Classic Tip: Use Index Cards For Running Encounters

From Tom

In response to Issue #202 (Preparing To Run A Commercial Module), I have a tip for speeding up encounters. A while ago I started using index cards for encounters. I take each keyed encounter, and transfer the “text box” to the first side of the card. On the flip-side, I write down a mini statblock for any monsters/traps/NPCs, the spot/search/ hide/etc. modifiers, along with a page reference for each.

Example: 2 orcs hiding behind the crates; +1 to Hide and Move Silently; will attack when a PC approaches the west door; MM 203.

As for maps, I’ve always got plenty of graph paper kicking around, so I just pick a piece up and make my own copy of the encounter/room map.

This is a lot of extra work, but helps keep my game running more smoothly as I’m not flipping around the module looking for pieces of information.

I generally write up enough cards for 2 sessions’ worth of spelunking so that I have a chance to make adaptations to what the party has already accomplished (messed up :). The added bonus of using the index cards is that the players are never sure if I’m using a published adventure, or running something out of my head.

Graphic of section divider

The Historic Tale Construction Kit

From Varianor

Cool site. Particularly well done nav controls to look like the subject matter: [Johnn: thanks for the link Varianor. You can drag and drop images and text to create your own stories. You can save your stories too, so that players can swing by and read what you’ve created. A potentially great GMing tool. Check out the gallery section for examples.]