Game Master Tips & Tools
Nuggets of GMing wisdom and philosophy from the Not-So-Old MasterA wise man learns from his mistakes, but a very wise man learns from the mistakes of others…
GM technique for dealing with NPC groupsI have a hard time dealing with groups of NPCs, especially large groups—keeping them all moving, and not forgetting about this or that one. I came up with this concept to help smooth out the process, and keep a nice “cinematic” feel.
GM technique to keep those secret dice-checks a secret
“Suppose the party is walking along a jungle trail. A jaguar is on a limb ahead. The GM should not say, ’There’s a jaguar ahead of you. Roll to see if you notice it.’ Neither should he say, ’Everybody make a Vision roll. Does anybody have Danger Sense?’ Either of these approaches gives too much away.”
- GURPS:Basic Set (3e); sidebar, p87
The GURPS book rightly suggests the GM roll this sort of check in secret, and only inform the Players of the situation when their Characters are in a position to know. This is the basic method of handling the matter. However, it takes time to roll checks for everyone in the party, and determine the results. It is also relatively obvious to the Players, when the GM starts rolling dice behind the screen and refuses to explain himself, that something is coming. For the more “superstitious” gamers, the affected Players are at the mercy of his “luck,” whenever the GM rolls on their behalf.
The following method was introduced by another GM in our group, and was adopted by nearly all others: before the game starts, have all Players roll and record a number of base dice-checks for the GM’s use (for GURPS, this would be raw 3d6 results). The GM merely takes the list, and when a secret check is called for, crosses the next one off the list for that Character. I recommend ten or so, depending on the situation, although in more recent campaigns, I’ve taken to figuring out how many secret checks I know will be called for in the upcoming session, and asking for a few more than that, to cover any surprises. Campaigns/adventures that involve a lot of sneaking or observation will obviously call for more. I later expanded on the idea, calling for these pre-rolls the week prior to the game to which they would be applied, thereby allowing me to apply the results ahead of time (in the case of checks I know are coming) and to have time to more creatively and deliberately describe the results (as I’m not terribly skilled at ad-libbing that sort of thing). In addition, I also call for colored dice to be used on these pre-rolls, to better aid my descriptions (see Colored Dice).
Reactionary GMingPlayers will often play Characters who are (tactical) geniuses, when the Players themselves are not (tactical) geniuses. If the PCs are ambushing a group of Bad Guys, you generally will do a Tactical Skill contest—but how do you represent the result, when the Players can’t come up with a clever plan of attack that befits their Characters’ abilities. In a “reactionary GM” situation, I would modify the Bad Guys’ plan or position based on the results of the contest, in such a way as to allow the Player’s plan to work (or fail). Say the PCs want to break down the door and rush in, guns blazing, and roll really well on the Tactics contest—bad plan, given the fact that the room is full of armed thugs who are waiting for them. Given the Characters’ Tactics result, it should work out to their advantage. So, instead of the Bad Guys being crouched behind bullet-proof tables waiting for some fool to break down the door, I could, for instance, have them crouched behind said tables waiting for someone to come through the opposite door, and the PCs would catch them totally by surprise. On the other side of things, a similar situation is when you (the GM) are running an Evil Genius™, though you are not one yourself (I hope?). You can’t come up with a plan to do the Evil Genius™ justice, so you “react” to the PCs’ plans in such a way, so as to seem like he’d thought of that already and was prepared for them. Some Players might not take too well to this idea. The trick here is to be subtle, and not let on that it’s happening. A GM generally does this sort of thing all the time, fudging dice rolls and such—the “Roll and Shout” method. Reactive GMing is no different. If you do it right, it should “feel” like one side is simply out-thinking the other. If possible, this is a good place to use Pre-Rolls to determine the Tactics results ahead of time, so you don’t have to ad-lib in a hurry (unless you’re good at that sort of thing).
Retroactive ChecksHere’s a situation that’s popped up in some of my games. Example: The PCs are in a bar/tavern where a non-descript stranger is present, whom they later encounter again, and may or may not recognize him from the bar/tavern. The problem is, as GM, you could point out the guy to the Players so they would remember him later, based on some dice-check, GM arbitration or whatever. However, by pointing him out, you tag this character as “important” in the minds of the Players, though their Characters may have no reason to think anything of him. My solution is the “retroactive” check. Simply put, when the PCs run into the guy later, then call for the Vision check (or IQ, to “remember,” or whatever is appropriate), retroactively, for when they were back at the bar/tavern, and tell the Player(s) if they recognize him. This method is especially useful if the PC(s) marginally fail/succeed at spotting the guy at the bar/tavern, and will only “put 2 & 2 together” when they meet him the second time.
GM technique to help “visualize” game CharactersThis concept was born of a completely unrelated situation. As the group’s primary (and only, to-date) artist, I was “responsible” for illustrating Characters for any of our games, in the event a pre-existing illustration would not do (or I was just bored). Relatively quickly, I began to ask respective Players to describe their character based on a “celebrity” (or composite of multiple celebs) or other known persons, to better help me visualize what it was that the Players’ intended. Initially, I merely tried to “resemble” them in my illustrations, but that soon gave way to attempting to draw actual “portraits” of those indicated celebs. That technique has evolved into the use of celebrity photos, pulled from the internet and occasionally modified or composited in Photoshop.
Initially, this was merely used for “illustration” purposes. As time went on, we gradually started to think of the Characters as if they were actually portrayed by their representative “actors,” exhibiting their quirks, expressions, mannerisms and (often typecast) personalities. This condition was a partial inspiration for my Apocalypse campaign, which was my first cinema-based campaign, where the “actors” portrayal of the Characters was assumed, by design, and included NPCs as well.So, to the point… The use of Actors aids the GM in his scene descriptions, through the Players’ own knowledge of the Actors themselves. For example: PCs meet a guy who says he is the captain of a ship, and wants to hire them as crew. If, in this example, I indicate that this “captain” is portrayed by Johnny Depp (specifically referencing his Captain Jack Sparrow character in Pirates of the Caribbean), it is easy for the Players to imagine the “captain’s” lightly-slurred accent, generally unkempt look, and swooning manner. If, in the same example, I say the “captain” is portrayed by Russel Crowe (specifically referencing his Captain Aubrey character in Master and Commander), it is easy for the Players to imagine his charisma, air of authority, and very “proper” accent and speech. A GM could go to great length to describe these elements to the Players without indicating an Actor, but by using Actors in this manner, the GM makes it much less work for him to describe and the Players to imagine. The benefit goes beyond just looks or voice. For instance, in several instances I based an NPC on John C. McGinley’s portrayal of Dr. Cox, in the TV series Scrubs, not only for the look of the character, but for his “constant sarcastic (and hilarious) beratement” of those around him—I, as GM, merely have to suggest that he is doing so, and the Players (that are familiar with the show) can easily imagine what’s happening without my having to “perform” myself.
In my own experience, I have used movie/TV actors, actors from commercials, musicians, athletes, and sometimes people known to the group locally—as long as (nearly) everyone knows the person being used, they will benefit. I sometimes will “modify” the Actor in some way, changing the hairstyle or color, making him taller or shorter, giving him pointed ears, etc. You can also combine them, using the “look” of one Actor (or reference), but for the background or personality, using another.
Another benefit to using Actors is that through the Players’ own opinions of them, or their usual roles, or the Players’ personal like or dislike of them, you can trigger a particular emotional response to the character he portrays. For instance, a Player might react differently to a damsel-in-distress if she is portrayed by a favorite “actress.” In the same manner, you can trigger Players’ feelings of distrust toward a particular NPC, if he is portrayed by an Actor well-known for a backstabbing role. An NPC portrayed by an Actor who generally plays “bad guys” will likely be assumed as such. This pre-judging of NPCs by the Players should be expected and compensated for (or used against the Players)—so choose carefully.
GM technique to increase “story control” and encourage better role-playingAs I understand it (from second-hand experience), RPG tournaments generally use a roster of PCs created by the GM, chosen by the individual Players for use in the adventure. In non-tournament games, Players generally make their own Characters. There really isn’t a problem with that method, per se, though it does present some challenges to the GM when he doesn’t have full control over the Characters’ stories or general makeup. I suspect that most Players would balk at the idea of the GM creating the Characters for them. So why bother?
The fact that when the GM controls Character creation it makes it far easier to work in Character-related story elements is easy to understand. In the few instances where I have experienced this method (on both sides of the Screen), though, I have noticed something unexpected—actual role-playing of those Characters was much greater than otherwise. I don’t really know why, though I suspect it was due to the fact that by reducing the creative “responsibilities” of the Players, with regard to their Character, they could focus more on the role-playing aspects.
In any case, I highly recommend (and have done so, myself) leaving some XP room for Player customization of the GM-created Character, to allow them to “make it theirs.” For instance, in the Apocalypse campaign, the campaign standard was 150 points, but I created the PCs up to the 125 point level (more or less, depending on the Character) and allowed the Player to finish it. Always make more Characters than available Players, so there are plenty of choices. How Players choose which Characters to use can be done in many ways—use whatever method tends to work best in your group. In my attempts, I just showed the roster to all the Players and let them “argue” over it. As for any aspect of GMing, you must know your Players, and create Characters that you know they will enjoy playing, but at the same time, it is an excellent opportunity to encourage Players to try Characters they might not otherwise play.
GM technique using the internet to expand the overall role-playing experienceThe internet has revolutionized so many aspects of the human condition, and role-playing games are no exception. Here is a specific instance of how internet technology has affected my gaming group:
Message Boards: For reasons I have never been privy to, one of our group’s members initiated a (free) message board geared toward our RPG activities, called the Core Group Message Board. Using this forum, we were able to discuss Characters and plans for any of our campaigns—discussions that would have taken up a significant amount of game-time, otherwise. In fact, all those discussions we normally would have to set aside game-time to clear up could now be done during the week. The “perpetual” discussion online would help keep the game fresh in our minds throughout the week. It is a perfect outlet for those “writers” among us to post their interpretations of the stories, and keep record of what happened during the actual game. At one point, I used the forum to write out a pre-battle speech by one of my Characters, rather than memorize and “perform” it in-game, allowing me to achieve the proper “voice” and save valuable play-time (not to mention, avoiding any speech-related performance-anxiety). Later, in my own GMing turn, I would post pre-Session information setting up the Session’s events, specific session-related game-world stats, Character stories and timelines, and synopses of the previous Sessions events. Players could read all this stuff during the week, and make decisions, judgments and Character-related requests before the Session actually started. We could (and did) hold polls and discussions about house rules, and story-related preferences. Other GMs also use the message board to keep a week-to-week record of XP awards (and thereby, allowing them to calculate the XP awards later in the week, at their leisure). It’s also a good place for Players to post changes to their Characters as they gain experience, or deal with administrative/logistical issues outside the game session. I have since been discovering that this idea isn’t actually unique to my own gaming group, and plenty of other gaming groups already are using this sort of thing. It’s a great organizational tool, and I highly recommend using it if you don’t already.
Gamefic: The bastard-child of the ability to post game-related prose on the message board is a concept I refer to as “Gamefic,” which I “prototyped” in the S³M campaign (see “A Knock on the Door” thread). As a GM, it is particularly difficult to deal with PCs who go off on their own, requiring you to deal with the solo Player for a time, while the others sit idly by, learning information their Characters should not know. The Gamefic idea was engineered to allow a sort of “solo encounter” outside the normal game session, further expanding the adventure beyond the normal game-session and reducing the “solo” problem. In this prototype instance, I started the Gamefic thread, and requested the affected Player start the story by writing a sentence or two setting up the scene. Then we would trade off writing the story...I would write the NPC(s), and he would write his Character’s response (I used colored text to differentiate the two)—no doubt, just like a play-by-mail or instant-message game in most respects. Although the prototype story never required it, I could have called for dice-checks at any point, which could have been posted or rolled in person. This first attempt was a success, due to the player involved being a more-prolific and skilled writer than the others. The second attempt fizzled out due primarily to the Adventure being over (and interest waning), and the involved Player being a non-writer (no doubt, it will be picked up again later, when I get back around to that campaign). Still, I would have to declare the concept an ultimate success, and there will surely be more experimentation along this line in the future.
GM technique to create a properly “cinematic” campaign experience
GM technique to organize game encounters and events, for the mildly Obsessive/CompulsiveThe following is an example of a format I have used to organize my Adventures. Elements that end up not being needed for the Event will generally be left out (in the Example, below, I determined that the “Foreword” element was unnecessary, as the PCs’ actions in the previous Event were essentially being interrupted, and left it out of the notes). Most elements will, no doubt, require some explanation:
Generic Event Structure Examples
Download “clean” format, eventformat, for MSWord (.rtf).
GM resource for generating random campaign elements and charactersThe GMRT posted here is born of several elements. My first campaign attempt, for GURPS:Space, was intended to be run entirely by random dice-rolls, so as to allow my group-at-the-time (consisting of two others) to rotate as GMs, running the same campaign. The campaign idea was based on the computer game, Pirates!, which was a freeform “randomly generated” situation, and was to have the same feel. Over the years, that campaign has continued to evolve (now referred to as Steel Ships and Space Marines (S³M)), and although intended for a single GM, I have continued to develop the randomly generated elements to flesh things out. The second influence is a much later introduction of what is referred to here as “Prior History,” a well-made and useful random character background generator pulled from [Anime-based game, whose title I don’t remember]. The third influence is the “Career Path” work-history generation system from Traveller (original and D20), as well as the many other randomly-generated elements inherent to the Traveller system. A fourth influence is a superhero-based computer game concept I’ve been working on, that like Pirates!, would have been (and still could be) entirely freeform; many concepts for that game-concept have been incorporated.
GMRT(Characters) is a combination of the “Prior History” and “Career Path” elements into a single system, expanded to include table for generating character motivation and personality, including D&D Alignment. GMRT(Campaign) is meant to generate the overall campaign situation, in general, including the scale, number of enemies, other involved factions, etc., and is not nearly finished (I am including it here, as is, in case there is something there you can use). GMRT(Plots) is taken, almost entirely, from S John Ross’ “Big List of RPG Plots,” and made into a giant random plot-generation table, along with twists and such. It is my intention to include a separate GMRT file for each of my campaigns that would benefit; though technically “unfinished,” I do have one for the Sea Dogs and S³M campaigns (which are very similar in many respects, anyway). All these systems use multiple die-types (not just d6’s); for the Plots, I use a “d200,” which is simply a d20 for the “10’s” and d10 for the “1’s”—just like your standard d100. The only file I have here that I would call “finished” is the Characters generator, which may continue to be tweaked as it becomes necessary. At some point, I hope to have a computer program written to handle all this automatically.
I personally have used the Characters generator a great many times to generate NPCs, and used the Plots generator to give the NPCs goals and such. If used for PC background generation, I recommend starting Characters at around 50 points before applying the “Career Path” elements, which will grant more XP depending on length of career and luck of the draw, or doing away with the XP gains entirely and start at whatever the campaign standard is. Though intended for GURPS, the GMRT will work well with any gaming system.
GM resource for tracking Player preferences and interestsThis idea had its beginning when I was preparing to run the Outlanders campaign. I wanted to grant the PCs some new powers through their transition to the Otherworld, but I wanted to tailor those powers to the individual Players’ wants. Rather than depend on my somewhat-flawed knowledge of the Players, I passed around a short questionnaire asking what super-powers they would like to have. As I recall, I think I did it in such a way as to not suggest what I was really getting at, but they might have figured that out anyway, as I have given out Powers like that on at least one occasion prior—merely a Partial Surprise, if a surprise at all. Since then, questionnaires have been a regular part of my GMing technique (to some Players’ annoyance ;)).
Down the road, as I started working on the Dreamland campaign, I created the earlier version of this document, for similar reasons, which included a question about family members and their locations (necessary, as the campaign was using self-characters, and I needed to know who might “miss” them, were they to disappear). This time, though, it was not actually intended to be specific to the campaign, but more broadly applicable to other games (or GMs, for that matter), if “read” properly. As time went on, a few additional questions were added, resulting in the current document. Initially, I kept the individuals’ records a secret from the others, until all of them were complete, at which point all were allowed to see them. At a later point, due to the type of answers, given by a particular Player, that didn’t really “translate” to gaming, I decided against that policy.
The point? This questionnaire identifies game-relatable things the individual Players like or dislike, so as to more properly “influence” them in-game. I should mention that this questionnaire specifically addresses the feelings of the Players, and not the Characters—that’s a separate issue. I could use this document to, for instance, identify the sort of super-powers individuals would most appreciate being granted, the sort of Bad Guys they most enjoy (or hate) confronting, or the damsel-in-distress they would most likely be attracted to.
As GM, if you’re planning to use this Questionnaire, be prepared for mixed feelings about it from your Players. I had one Player who outright refused to fill one out, for reasons no one (including him) has yet to discover, and another who couldn’t bring himself to “limit” himself to a favorite of any kind. Different strokes, I guess… I do recommend you occasionally “refresh” the Questionnaires, as peoples’ tastes change from time to time, as they are introduced to new things; keep it current. I also encourage you to edit the list, adding or remove questions, as you should know your own group better than I can guess. I won’t try to tell you how to interpret the answers, though—you’ll have to figure that out yourself ;).
GM resource to give your game a “cinematic” flavor—tastes like popcorn ;)I initially created the Action Movie Cards concept for my original cinematic RPG system (still in progress), owing much inspiration to Deadlands, whose system uses “poker chips,” and the many systems incorporating “points” usage for extra in-game effects. The Cards could be used with any system, with only minor tinkering. The primary problem with using a point-based system, like my Alternative Character Points Usage house rules, is that it’s easy to forget you have them. With cards (or chips, or whatever), there is a physical representation of those points in your hand, which is easier to keep in mind.
To use them, you would have a deck of these cards made (I had a set printed on heavy card-stock at Kinkos, although I failed to get them printed as double-sided at the time); you need two sets of the page-1 cards, and one set of page-2—ideally, the 3rd page (the black ones) would be printed on the back of all the cards. At the beginning of the Session, everyone would draw a number of cards from a freshly-shuffled deck (number depending on how “cinematic” you want the game to be). All cards can be used for any of the purposes listed on the back, and as described on the front. Cards must be used during the current Session, and do not carry over to the next.
I made the Cards into a .pdf file, for ease of downloading here; good luck getting the backs to line up, though :X. They are originally in editable Illustrator (.ai) format, which I am also including. The individual card usages are written from the perspective of someone watching the show, and not producing it (in case you’re thinking of adding some). I have yet to play test these Cards, so if you decide to use them yourself, tell me how it works out. If you have any additions in mind, I’d love to hear about it as well.
Download actioncards, for Adobe Acrobat/Reader (.pdf)
GM resource for keeping track of everyone amidst the usual chaosIn GURPS, combat sequence is fixed, based on Characters’ Basic Speed. Therefore, if you know which Characters or creatures will be involved in a given combat (or similar Event) beforehand, you can plan out their combat sequence before the game. By using a sequence list, such as this one, during combats, you can always know who’s next at a glance, and can avoid the embarrassment of absent-mindedly skipping an NPC’s turn. I won’t go into great length here to explain this document, and the short-hand I employed (I’m sure you can figure it out ;)). In this instance, I used colors to identify PCs, and their allies. The “extra” bit at the end, marked “Long,” is the “Long Turn” sequence, based on IQ (highest goes last; see Long Turns).
Download combatsequence, for MSWord (.doc)