I just read about the Building a Better GM challenge over on the Hill Cantons blog:
- Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
- What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
- How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
Hm, thinking back on how other games are being run in the area, I think that first and foremost I am a good host.
- I actually run as many games as I can manage instead of just talking about running a game. The worst way to run a game is to not run it at all.
- We have no kids that require our attention, my wife also likes to game, we have a big enough living room and a nice gaming table. No matter how hard you try, it’s going to be harder if family members need to sleep, babies need attention or the table is tiny.
- I pick dates for months in advance, use Google Calendars and send friendly reminder emails. This takes energy and discipline. If the weather on Sunday is damn hot and I’d rather go for a swim in the lake—no can do. I promised to host and that’s that. I’ll try very hard to make it happen.
- I try hard to resist changes to commitments made. If one player out of five can’t make it, that’s unfortunate. Starting an email discussion discussing alternatives risks confusing and annoying everybody.
- People will learn that I am dependable. I am a rock. When I am dependable, others will be as well. Avoid uncertainty and doubt.
When I was a teenager, a player told me that he loved my scenarios. There was always great scenery. These days, reading about Planet Algol or Vornheim, I feel humbled and don’t feel like I can claim great creativity. But I can claim something else: I improvise well.
- When I returned to role-playing games in 2006 and to D&D 3.5 in particular, it did not take long for me to realize that I desperately needed to save prep time. I decided that preparing one hour for a four hour session was the most I was willing to invest.
- Even if running D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, I stick to this rule and make up the rest. I don’t fiddle with stats. I either use a monster from the monster manual, or I make up plausible stats on the spot.
- I don’t plan where the campaign will go, but I always have around five plots on hold waiting for the players. Sometimes I’ll advance or end plots because by choosing to ignore the appropriate plot hooks my players are telling me that they don’t want to pursue these plots.
- I may not know where the campaign is going, but I have a pretty good idea of where it went in the past. I usually maintain a Campaign Wiki for every campaign. This helps me remember stuff that happened and allows me to improvise motivations, events and NPCs that fit into the greater picture. This also imbues past events with more significance and helps the suspension of disbelief.
- This last point warrants emphasizing. I may not prepare a lot before running a game, but I certainly will think about it a lot after running a game. (I called it postparation in jest back in 2009.)
- After six or ten sessions, you will need to prepare less and less, because you already prepared dungeons and towns and hex maps for previous adventures. You can return to old locales, old acquaintances, old plots and keep on adding detail. The lizard patrol you met is looking for the old lizard druid that you defeated a few sessions ago. The sage you seek knows how to unlock the portal you saw a few sessions ago. The pasha tells you to fight the blue dragon that took your magic items a few sessions ago.
- I make sure my players have a map of the region. As they explore, they get to add new places and people to the map. Having the map in front of them allows them to remember past events and makes it easy to point somewhere and go back to places they have already seen and visit people they already met.
- By picking up past events, places and people multiple times, the world seems to be rich and solid. I don’t have to improvise all the time. Whatever I improvised, I will take note of it after the session.
And lastly, I am very tolerant.
- I am willing take a lot of shit before kicking people out of my games. I don’t want to suffer a lot before making hard choices but I am often amazed at how long I am willing to make excuses for other people.
- I will run games in German or English as required.
- I will take the time to introduce people to the game at their own pace. I will make sure that more experience players don’t push inexperienced players around and I will not be impatient. Instead, I will offer them two or three smart moves to make when their turn comes up.
- When I don’t understand how players behaved at the table, I talk it over with my wife. Seriously, getting an outside perspective is important to me. Am I imagining things? Am I overreacting? I need to find a benevolent explanation for what they said or did. I don’t want anger to build up.
- I’m not good at confronting people. This is something I need to work on, maybe. Here in Switzerland confronting people involves loosing face, even though everybody claims that this is what one should do.
- I can handle all player types at my gaming table even if I have my preferences.
- I am willing to use different rules. In fact, I am curious about different rules. I have tried D&D 4, Archipelago, and everything in between. I am interested in all systems without having developed Gamer’s Attention Deficiency Syndrome. (I try to keep system purchases down and rarely switch campaigns to different systems just because something new and shiny has caught my eye.)
- Be benevolent, understanding, patient, curious—and firm. Make it a point to work on your social skills.
So, there you have it. I am a lousy encounter builder. I don’t use terrain a lot. In fact I like my combat to be very short. I don’t like thieves, I don’t like traps. I spent a lot of time learning the D&D 3.5 rules and know them well, and yet I can’t make character builds that rock in a min-max kind of way. I rarely do funny voices, my setting is vanilla fantasy of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy sort. But the three practices that keep my games running are the following:
- I am a good host.
- I improvise well.
- I am very tolerant.
(The collection of all the advice given by the various participating GMs has been collected over at the Hill Cantons as a free download.)
Tags: RPG advice