Roleplaying Tips GM Interview – Eli Smith

Eli SmithEli kindly volunteered to do a GM interview. However, he completed this ages ago and I’ve only just gotten around to posting it. Sorry for the delay, Eli.

How long have you been a GM?

6 years

What are your favourite game(s) to run?

Deadlands Classic, d20 Modern, Mutants & Masterminds, Pathfinder, A Song of Ice and Fire RPG.

How did you first get into GMing?

The first game I ran was a free D&D 3.5 adventure available on the WoTC website. My gaming friends and I had just started roleplaying a few months before. Me being the DM was a spur of the moment thing that was sort of pushed on me peer pressure style at about midnight on a Saturday.

I had a blast, and so did everyone else. We played until 9am Sunday and then went to breakfast at Denny’s. It was so much fun that we pretty much followed that routine every Saturday for the next two years.

How has GMing made a difference in your life?

Most importantly, being a GM has kept me busy writing all the time. I had always dreamed of being a writer but thought I would never have enough motivation to spend enough time writing to get good.

Fortunately, roleplaying kept me writing long enough after I had ‘given up’ on it for me to realize that I was writing all the time and had actually gotten decent.

What is your usual gaming schedule? (Session frequency, time and length.)

We play every Thursday from 7pm until Midnight. Me and two of my friends who also GM have a three game rotation, so I run my game every third week. This helps a lot with the burnout.

Where do you play?

We play in the dining room of my apartment. I move the normal table and chairs into a corner of the living room, and we pull out a few fold-out tables to play on.

I usually have the rulebook, a GM screen, a notebook, a pencil, my dice, a large easel pad printed with a 1 inch grid, sharpies of all different colors, gaming beads, and a tablet on standby if I need to google anything.

Do you use published material or create your own?

I create my own adventures, although I do pull a lot of tidbits from the creations of others. I find the game more successful if I am able to tailor an adventure to my group’s play style. Plus, I love to write.

What non-digital and electronic GM aides do you use?

The easel pad and gaming beads mentioned earlier. I also make simple props sometimes. The group is playing a team of special agents in my current game, so there are a lot of office memo’s, mission reports, archive files, and classified manila folders around the table.

Minis or no?

We mostly use gaming beads for minis. I also have about twenty wooden cylinders that are about .5” x 1” we use for the player characters.

For large scale battles that come up in some D&D games and just about every Song of Ice and Fire session, I have a bucket of small multi-color painted wooden rectangles, circles and triangles.

What is your biggest GMing stumbling block right now? What could you do to fix that?

Lately I have found myself skipping over details I had intended to cover in a session. Hints at the content of the next session, clues to help better solve a mystery, etc. I have been writing out a list of these things before each session and taping it to the inside of my screen. It helps some.

When was the last time you were a player? What insight about GMing did you pick up?

I play two out of every three weeks. Having the opportunity to play in game run by two out of the four people who play in my game is wonderful.

The three of us feed off of each other’s good qualities. Nothing is better than a friendly GM on the other side of the table as a player who is always able to see the structure of the game from a different perspective than a normal player, and who helps keep everything on track and running smoothly.

Describe your perfect gaming session with you as GM.

First, everyone has to be involved and having fun. After that, perfect for me is achieved if all the players have had a chance to showcase talents of their characters and their own, and I can say bye to everyone knowing that my session will be on their mind for the next three weeks.

What is the one thing you want to hear your players say after a session, other than “great session!”?

I like to know I have conveyed a mood well. So I always appreciate, “Wow, I really felt the tension there,” or the like.

Describe in a few words your GMing style.

I spend a lot of time prepping, especially enemy stat blocks, interesting locations, and NPC personalities.

I try to keep these three categories separate so I can assemble the right enemy with the right personality in the right place to fit the vibe of the game at that moment.

I let players motivate themselves and move the story along in a way they feel comfortable with.

Most of my sessions begin at the end, with me explaining where the PCs are at when it’s over, or perhaps by having a superior tell them what they need to get done. Then I let them figure out how to get there in the way that is the most fun for them.

What are the top qualities you look for or need in a player?

Punctuality, willingness to roll with the punches, personally motivated to participate, and willingness to roleplay or willingness to get drunk enough to roleplay.

Describe in a few words your group’s playing style.

Our best sessions are usually high on intrigue and adventure. Big personalities, big locales, and, if it comes down to is, big guns.

Describe in a few words each of your players and their playing style.

Fellow GM. Great grasp of the rules (useful player to have). Usually plays strong-willed moral characters with a flaw that keeps them grounded (drunkenness, overly agressive etc.)

Fellow GM. Always makes characters with well thought out personalities, usually plays someone attempting to rise above their bad lot in life.

Player Three. Plays wisecracking characters, usually an official with a dirty streak. (Whoring priest, gambling addicted mayor, etc.)

Player Four. Plays characters who begrudgingly serve their purpose in society. Usually have views opposed to the norm in radical ways. (Secular in an obviously god-filled world, fear of technology in future game etc.)

What is your best GMing skill or ability? What advice would you give to a GM wanting to improve in that area?

Preparedness. My advice would be to set aside multiple periods of time before the game (long enough to get something done but not too long to get sidetracked; 1-2 hours works best for me).

Set a small goal at the beginning of each prep period. It can be overwhelming to have to prepare an entire game in one sitting, and I find working through a series of smaller goals helps keep me motivated.

What is your typical session planning process?

I usually spend 4-8 hours in the weeks before a session preparing stat blocks, encounter locations and the like. I keep in contact with my players on Skype or in person, so I can pick their brains for where they want to take the game the next time we play, so I can better prepare a through line for the story.

What are your favourite online resources for GMing?

Although it might be cheesy to mention it in this setting, I have found a lot of useful information on It also is an understatement to say that the Pathfinder SRD is useful when running Pathfinder.

Google maps is great for place names and quick city maps. Need a name for the diner the player characters stop in on the highway while passing through Oklahoma? Just type in Diners near M Oklahoma and see what city names pop up as suggestions and pick one.

In my example, I went with Muskogee, OK and found the following diner names: Boom-A-Rang Eastside Diner, Paul’s Diner, Dust Bowl Diner and The Cattle Cove Cafe. I could go on forever (there are 581 results).

The point is not only does it help give you cool place names, but you can click the link and see pictures of the food, the logo and reviews to help clue you in to the atmosphere. Talk about immersion.

What pressures do you face as GM? (Do those pressures come from you or your players?)

I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well while GMing and find myself questioning a lot of the decisions I made when I review a session in my brain afterwards.

What can Roleplaying Tips do to help alleviate those pressures?

Roleplaying Tips has hundreds of neat ideas to help me prepare better, and I usually find myself scanning through the archives after a game looking for advice on ways to perform better in certain aspects the next time I GM.

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