A Game Master By Any Other Name.

Neat, huh? No matter what we’re called, we’re still at the head of the table, screen in front of us, running the game. Most of us manage a notebook or a loose pile of disheveled papers in front of us.

Is still running the game! Bwah ha ha!

Most TTRPGs refer to us as “Game Master.” D&D refers to us as “Dungeon Master.” Storyteller (aka World of Darkness) games call us “Storyteller.” Call of Cthulhu and Monster of the Week refer to us as “Keeper.” Dungeon Crawl Classics and Marvel Superheroes refer to our title as “Judge.”

Neat, huh? No matter what we’re called, we’re still at the head of the table, screen in front of us, running the game. Most of us manage a notebook or a loose pile of disheveled papers in front of us. We write down or even type out mounds of NPCs, location notes, tidbits about characters, and hastily scrawled monster stats. I usually have a pad of crossed out hp amounts and a coffee coaster behind my screen beside my dice tray along with heaps of dice, too.

I realized today I haven’t been giving out much GM advice here in my blog.

You can never be too prepared.

I’ve learned a lot in my many years in whatever role you want to call me. I’m usually that guy in the group with a pile of dice, a rulebook and a plan. Most days, that’s really all it takes. Plenty of GMs make it all up as they go. Some of us take copious amounts of notes. Others are literally doodling behind the screen making it look important. Maybe at least write down some NPC names to help keep track of who’s who.

My style is to be overly prepared. I like to have my NPCs drawn up. I like to have my maps already made. I usually have a specific outline or timeline of events built up well in advance. I have my miniatures sorted and ready to go well in advance of needing them. I make random d12 tables for when I have to improvise. I spend hours listening to classical music and prepping convention games ahead of time. (I miss conventions. *sniff.*)

One oddball piece of advice I give to almost all of my creative friends- keep a notebook or something handy to write down ideas when inspiration strikes. I have literally written out NPCs and plot outlines on restaurant napkins. Even if you scrawl out a few hasty lines in your phone’s memo pad, it’s better than forgetting it.

NPCs are key.

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Sometimes I generate a ton of characters just to get used to the system. It’s nice to be able to help your players or just hand someone a character in a pinch and say, “play this character. If you like it, keep playing it next week.”

Otherwise, some of my character heap become NPCs. Sometimes one of the BBEG’s lieutenants comes out of the character pile. Other times, the group’s loyal retainer over their entire adventuring careers started out as one of my characters.

I like to have a name for every character I think the group is going to interact with along with a few personality quirks to make them memorable. I try to come up with a voice and a pattern of speech for the ones I know the group will see more than once. I especially love it when the group adopts an NPC for multiple sessions.

Having detailed NPCs is part of the success of GMing. Even if the campaign flops. Even if we only run a few sessions before it all goes to pieces, I’d like to think some of the NPCs will stick with my players long after it ends. That, and it’s one of my favorite components of any game.

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It's not all about combat statistics. Most games involving NPCs rarely make use of those characters' combat talents at all. Sometimes I don't even spend time detailing them. If I do, I usually hand that character off to one of the players. It's one less thing for me to worry about and the character still contributes. 

For me, having 3-6 personality traits, quirks and ticks written down for an NPC is far more important that the attacks, damage, spells, etc. Sometimes key NPCs are pacifists, outright cowards, or designated non-combatants anyway. Not every NPC is going to fight, especially not to the death. 

So many elements to consider.

From Catacomb of the Wolf Lord.

More on NPCs in another article. We have a wide variety of other game elements to consider. Over the many years I have slowly started to get better about campaign/world mapping. Sometimes it’s a piece of typing paper with town/village names and arrows pointing toward other features with “2 days” written above the arrow indicating travel time on horseback.

Mapping larger land masses is kind of my weak point. Dungeon mapping is still one of my absolute favorite tasks. I lay all of my maps out on the table with dungeon tiles and pre printed blocks. Pretty much all of my maps are hand drawn otherwise.
I still use crudely drawn figures and old school D&D mapping annotations for the most part. It’s what I learned. It’s what I do best when it comes to maps.

I’m getting better about not railroading the players and creating more of an open, sandbox style environment for my players to adventure in. I still want to be prepared for when they stumble into a dungeon or town in the midst of whatever they’re doing. There are plenty of ways to do that.

One of the best pieces of advice I can ever give- Do what works best for you!

Listen to me or any other GM advice. Or don’t. It’s okay. As is often said in Law of Attraction circles, “You can’t get it wrong.”

Some GMs prefer various Virtual Tabletop formats and online map generators. Great! If you find a specific way of doing thing fits well with you and your players, awesome. Player feedback is a helpful tool as well. They want their game to be as much fun as you do. This tidbit applies to mapping, narrative styles, characters and the larger spectrum of the game as a whole.

Knowing all the rules and statistics is great, but

Making it up as I go.

If a rule is bogging you down, make the call and look it up after the game. You can always retcon the correct answer later. The important thing is to keep the game rolling forward.

Likewise, if a rule isn’t working for you, the GM, and your group? Toss it out. Make a house rule that does work for you. Welcome to creative freedom! Make the game yours!

Try to cut down on metagaming at the table as much as reasonably possible. Sometimes I wish certain players didn’t have access to a Monster Manual. This is why I try to find third party monster books or just create my own creatures.

Player: I do 18 damage. It’s dead.
GM: Nope. Still standing. Looks annoyed now.
Player: According to the MM on Page 37, they only have 18 hp max.
GM: Hmm. Here in my notes it says 24. Maybe this particular creature is a bit more buff than the ones you’re used to. OR it’s not one of those at all.
Player: Gulp. Who’s next on the initiative order? This looks grim.

Be kind.

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Players make mistakes. People make mistakes, for that matter. It’s going to happen. Someone calls out a spell they’ve already cast for the day. Someone rolls the wrong damage dice and has been for three rounds. A player forgets to write down their character’s health between sessions.

Please, above all else, be nice. Try to come up with a fair and equitable solution. Try to run the game you would want to be a player in. If it’s not a ruling you’d want to hear as a player, you might want to evaluate the call and try something else. Empathy goes a long way as a GM.

However, that does not mean you need to be a pushover. Just as a judge in the real world has to rule, please try to be fair and understanding, but resolute in your judgments. You ARE the GM, after all. With great responsibility comes awesome power.

One last tidbit for today.

There are a lot of things still to cover about narratives, campaigns, stats, and genres that we can go into later. The one last thought I’d like to leave before I sign off today- As a GM, you’re always going to have to deal with something not covered anywhere else. Scheduling, paying for pizza, printing extra character sheets, lending dice, and a lot of freaky, weird things (player fraternization is one of my favorites. LOL!) come up between games and out of the scope of the game. Just do the best you can with what you’ve got.

It’s never going to be perfect. Being in charge of the game is often more about human relations than characters and rules. Always try to listen and say what’s on your mind. Do what you think is best. Oh, and know when to step back. Remember, you’re in charge of the game, not the players themselves.

People. Am I right?

Thanks for stopping by. More to come. I appreciate you being here.

You folx are the best. Thank You!

Sandbox vs Structured

I don’t think this is a matter of better vs worse as much as preference. Please do what works best for you and your group.

Is it “Railroading?”

About a month ago, I had a discussion with someone about using a more open-ended story structure when writing RPG adventures. We came to the consensus, as many have in the past, that it’s probably better to treat one shot adventures (modules) as a closed structure like a play or a novel. Now, that’s okay for published works. But what about other events?

I used to run literally everything as a closed structure, only to hear comments about “getting run over with the plot wagon,” or “being tied to the railroad tracks.” I take it with a grain of salt at conventions because, again, that’s how they’re supposed to look. At home it’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow sometimes.

Yes, I have certain plot points I prefer the party would get to. Looking at my upcoming Power Rangers RPG series, I have a mix of both styles. Some episodes are going to be pre-planned, especially the two and three part season opener and finale along with some episodes scattered throughout. For everything else, there are random tables and asking the players what they want to do.

I think a certain degree of more structured adventures has its place in campaigns. Dungeon crawls are usually laid out A to B to C and so on. It all usually leads to that boss fight on Level 3 of the dungeon. Or at least back in the day that’s what we did. Nowadays players are somehow more sophisticated? Sometimes I’m still down to break down a door with an axe and smash an orc in the face with a mace. Dungeon Crawl Classics and other OSR games are truly grand for this playstyle.

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Choo Choo! Plot train comin through!

I also think it’s okay for new players and very casual players to experience a more structured playstyle. My family group falls into this category. My kids are new enough to gaming and their characters are new enough to adventuring, that the structure keeps things flowing along. My wife is a very casual player, and will go along with just about anything as long as we’re having fun.

My wife has managed to derail campaigns in the past. Her druid cast Comet Fall on a mill that my BBEG Vampiric Ancient Black Dragon happened to be sleeping under. Um… during the day. <poof!> Days of planning up in smoke. She makes good snacks for the group, though. Lol! I couldn’t exactly deprive the group of the victory. They were smart enough to find it without being discovered.

Ironically, the Dungeon Crawl Classics game that I’m planning is going to be mostly sandbox. Actually, I’m doing it as a Hex Crawl. Yes, there will be some premade dungeons and those are structured.

I wanted to add some good old flavorful exploration to my DCC game. Maybe they’ll run into some dinosaurs and other hazards normally found outside of a dungeon along with way. My main focus was to set a game in unfamiliar environs so the group has to explore. Survival will depend on it . They’re going to be in a completely untamed and unexplored (by them) world. As a GM, I’m not even going to know more than a hex or two at a time what’s going to be there.

Example of explored Hex Crawl area.
As I plan to “wing it.”

I think a lot of us in the community have determined a mix of both is best.

Okay, I could possibly be wrong. A lot of it depends on your group, too. If you’ve got a group that’s been together for ages, there’s a lot more leeway in what you can get away with. For example:
DM: I want to start a new D&D campaign on Thursday night at 5:00. (Let’s pretend there are no schedule conflicts…)
Player 1: Forgotten Realms?
DM: As usual.
Player 2: Standard character gen? 4d6 drop lowest. Reroll 1’s.
DM: You know it.
Player 3: Can I play a Warforged Druid Circle of Cenarius WoW homebrew?
Rest of the Group: Groan!
DM: Do we ever say yes to this?
Player 3: Regular Elf Druid, then?
DM: Yup.
Player 4: Got anything planned for adventures yet?
DM: Nope. Don’t need to. Lemme see all your backstories first.
Player 5: We doing a Session Zero for this one?
DM: Anything change since the last Session Zero?
(Everyone looks at one another.)
Player 5: Don’t think so?
DM: Awesome saucesome. Please have your characters and backgrounds ready next Thursday. See you at 4:30. Please bring chili fixins.

DMs with a steady group have an easier time running on the fly than pugs or one shots at conventions for example. They can build off of player character backgrounds. They can improvise. They can even pull out old material and rearrange a few things. A DM with a steady group can even do something off-the-wall occasionally like dropping the group into Ravenloft, and not get too much static for it.

If the group doesn’t know one another, Session Zero is pretty much needed if the group is going to go awhile. My sense of humor is pretty raw and a couple of my children might not have a language filter for example. My DM shenanigans might not run as well with some new players, so I try to stick to published mods early on with new players until we get used to each other.

Otherwise, my group who knows me will be on the lookout for crazy good homebrew artifacts, one PC being the designated harbinger of doom, and at least one person in the party becoming my pet weird luck magnet. That’s only a small part of it. Wait until I say, “Roll a d12…”

Established groups know they can mess with major global events in a campaign world and there will be ramifications down the line. Entire storylines might change. Certain well-known canonical characters might disappear entirely. It’s easier to flex and bend when people in the group aren’t likely to correct the DM on canon, too. Plus, my group knows me and my disregard for Spellhintster and Fritz the Drow.

My default advice is always do what works best for you and your players. If practically running off of a script is your jam, then by all means. There is no wrong way to RPG, and anyone who says otherwise obviously needs to examine their own choices. Some styles and techniques just work a lot better than others. Find your flow with your group and have lots of fun even if it’s a one-shot at a convention!

Please, stay healthy. Stay hydrated. Have fun this weekend. See ya soon.

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