High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Games > Role-Playing Games > Tips for Game Masters

Tips for Game Masters

by Alan De Smet

You are a Dungeon Master, a Storyteller, a Referee, an Animator, a Marshall, a Director or whatever your favorite role-playing game calls it. You are a Game Master. The GM. It's hard but rewarding.

Most role-playing games have a little section of how to run a game. They discuss setting the mood, crafting stories, reacting to player surprises, and more. Great stuff. But none of them seem to give you concrete suggestions, tips to make your life as a GM easier. Any given game may have a suggestion or two, but certainly not a nice complete list.

Here is my collection of tips, appropriate for most role-playing games. Short and sweet. If you've got any comments, let me know.

The Golden Rule

Have fun.

Maybe you're breaking a "rule" from a magazine article or web page. If you're having fun, don't worry about it.

For every bit of advice, guideline, or rule for better GMing, there is at least one game in your city, probably with people you know, that would be ruined by it.

All styles of play are valid

Hack and slash is fine if everyone involved likes it. Interacting with store keepers is fine. Angsting away in the corner is fine. Backstabbing party members is fine. Using out of game knowledge is fine. Strongly plot driven games are fine. Open ended games with minimal plots are fine. Heavily planned games are fine. Games run entirely improvised on the spur of the moment by the GM are fine. If you're having fun... it's fine.

Conversely, if a particular element is hurting the groups fun, take it out. Nothing is sacred. Want to run a hack and slash Vampire? White Wolf appears to condone it. Other worldly horror in D&D? Why not?

Don't feel constrained to the style of game you think you should be running. The rule books are just a suggestion and your past experience is past. Do what's fun.

Be aware of what you and your players want. If you want something different from your players, something is going to have to change. Probably you, since you're the loner. Similarly, if a single player wants a different style of play, if it can't be easily integrated, don't force the issue. Sometimes players or game masters don't fit a particular gaming group. It doesn't make anyone wrong, it just didn't work out.

Given this, never deride another gamer's choice of game or style. If he's enjoying it, it's right for him. Whatever you play there are gamers who hold it in low regard.

Pre-Game Player Interaction

Run a mailing list

More and more gamers have email access. Use email to help organize your group. A mailing list with an archive of previous discussions can really help. You can set up a free mailing list for you and your friends at eGroups. Presumably you game as a social event, so use email to extend the social aspect a bit.

Send pre-game update emails

This is even easier if you have a mailing list. A few days before your game, send out a reminder message. Remind everyone of the time and place of the game. Ask people to confirm that they'll be there. This way you'll be able to plan for any missing people. If there are special details for this game session ("Bring $20 for the pizza fund"), this is the spot for them. If you run a regular game and need to cancel a session ("No game this week while I'm on vacation"), you can easily communicate it here.

While you're sending out the message, provide a two or three sentence summary of what happened last week. "Last week the group left town to defeat the dragon. While climbing the mountain to the dragon's lair, the group barely fought off some griffins. Now the group stands at the entrance to the dragon's cave." The reminder will get people excited for the next game and get them planning their actions. If your mailing list is being archived, these short summaries can be collected to form a brief history of the campaign to reminisce over.

Player and Character Questions

Characters tend to enter the game world as empty slates. Maybe the player writes up a twenty page history of his character's childhood traumas, but it's just words on paper. The player certainly doesn't know his character.

Play helps flesh out characters. After a few sessions you'll start learning about who the character really is. Does the character stick with his friends through thick and thin? Does he help people in trouble? Actual game play adds details to a character. Unfortunately many of the little details, the details that make characters human, don't usually come up in play. Details that can be useful. What does the character dream about? What did he think of his schoolmates? Who does he fantasize about?

Email is an excellent opportunity to collect these details. The answers will give you more tools to use and will give the players deeper insight into their characters. A week or so before a game session, email out a question. Attach some little reward to answering it (experience points, a re-roll during the next game, a vote on pizza toppings).

Let your players know that you are expecting short answers. No more than a few sentences. Too much information will drown you and drain your players of energy. They'll be more like to take the time if it only takes a few minutes. You certainly don't want your players to start resenting the questions. After all, it's only a game.

Pick a mix of questions, some simple (What type of hat does your character wear?), some hard (How does your character feel about the war?). If you need particular information for a future plot line, ask several months in advance (Who is your character's dearest love? What does your character have nightmares about?). Find out what your players like (What is your favorite movie? What radio station is your car radio tuned to right now?), what they don't like (What popular television show do you hate?) and what they fear (What movie scares you the most?).

I suggest starting with simple questions. Give the characters a bit of time to grow in the game before you ask deeper questions.

You might want to look at my list of questions for players and characters for some ideas.

In-Game Tools

Random NPC Cheat Sheet

I keep a list of about 200 random names. When the characters ask a random townsperson for their name, I can quickly pick one, cross it off my list, and use it. Just having a name quickly at hand makes the character more real.

Have mini-encounters ready

Players are very unpredictable. Maybe it's thirty minutes into a four hour session and they've zipped through all of your prepared material. Maybe they ignored your carefully crafted plot and decided to go bar crawling. For these moments, having some random encounters can really help. Build a list of generic encounters which can be tossed in almost anywhere.

Mini encounters should range from five minute complications (reunite a lost kid with his parents, challenge someone to darts) through mini-adventures to tie up a few hours (A character is a witness to a crime and is asked to testify, a child is kidnapped, a raccoon steals supplies during the night). Fill out the collection with a few medium length complications (The local bully picks a fight, a mugger tries to mug a character, an accident sets a building on fire, a wild animal attacks).

Keep copies of player character sheets

Having an up to date copy of a character sheet gives you a lot of power. If you need to secretly roll an ability score check for a character, you don't need to ask the player for the information. If you require that player's tell you all changes to their statistics, it's easy enough to maintain. Also, if a player forgets or loses their character sheet one week, you can keep them in the game.

Get a confidant

Find someone trustworthy to talk about your game with. Tell them everything you're planning for your game. Tell them what your players are doing. Part of being a GM is coming up with neat ideas, then keeping those ideas secret from the players. Given that gaming is about socializing, this level of secrecy can be hard. Having someone to tell helps you resist the urge to spoil surprises for your players. Also, your confidant can help you spot possible problems in your plans; your game is important, why not get a second opinion? The simple act of explaining your plans to another person also gets the mind working in different ways and can help identify problems or inspire new ideas.

Michael Zenke has further thoughts on this in his article "Brainstorming with Other GMs."

Relatedly, be a confidant. This is helpful even if the other GM runs a very different stype of game. Another GM's plans are great brainstorming material. For example, I'm not fond of "End of the World" plotlines, but helping another GM write such a plotline for D&D gave me some interesting ideas that I plan on using in Deadlands..

Never defend your actions

It's not uncommon for players to chat with their GMs about the game. It's also not uncommon for players to be a bit dissatisfied with part of a game. After all, you can't please everyone all of the time. However, when a player expresses concern about part of a game, listen to them and accept their opinions as valid.

Your players are your game. Without them, you'd be gamemastering for no one. Their opinions on the game are at least as valid as your own. You may disagree, but you can't discount their opinions. The game must remain a two way street. It's quite reasonable to want to explain why you made decisions the player may not like. Be careful to not cross the line from explaining to defending.

When you defend, you're encouraging the player to further challenge your ruling. This will just slow the game done. It causes the players to invest more emotions into the argument leaving them increasing frustrated if you don't rule as they hope.

Take responsibility

You are the GM, you create worlds. With that power comes great responsibility. If your players aren't enjoying your game, you are responsible. If you don't take responsibility, your players will leave. Like it or not, you're the leader. If you're unwilling to take this responsibility, you're on the wrong side of the GM screen.

Now, brief periods of unhappy players happen in every game. But, if most of the time most your players are unhappy, you need to change. (Mind you, this has nothing to do with making characters happy. It's possible for players to be happy and characters to be miserable.)

If you simply cannot give the players what they want (perhaps because you wouldn't enjoy it), then it's your responsibility to end the game. Players will often stay in a game they dislike because they like the people or out of a sense of responsibility. Free them to seek out games that they will enjoy more. If the group wants to continue hanging out, maybe you should look into something besides role-playing.

Part of this responsibility is realizing that you can't be all things to all people. Sometimes things aren't going to work out and you need to accept that. If you're determined to run gothic horror, but your players demand slapstick comedy, maybe you're not compatible as GM and players. Do look for a compromise, first! Are you sure you wouldn't enjoy running slapstick comedy? Maybe your players would be willing to give a session of gothic horror a try? If it doesn't work out, look at other options. Maybe it's time to turn over the GM screen to a player and join in as a player?

Sometimes the majority of a group works fine, but some of the players present problems. Perhaps the player hates the game or the genre, making it impossible for them to enjoy your sessions. Perhaps two players cannot stand each other. A player may simply be sullen at every session for no particular reason. A problem player tends to spread resentment through the group, places everyone on edge, and generally hampers enjoying yourselves. Whatever the reason, if a subset of your players are harming the game it's your responsibility to address the issue. It might be a minor problem that be sorted out; maybe it's time for a new character. But not every problem can be worked out. If you can't find a better solution, it's your responsibility to ask the problematic player to leave. Telling a friend that you don't want them in your group is very hard, but leaving a problematic player in your group is worse. This isn't about disliking someone, this is about the group as a whole not working.

Players must understand your universe

Ultimately your game takes place in your universe. You may seek to accurately simulate "reality" in your game, but ultimately your beliefs about the world become the actual reality of your game. The players will often have slightly different beliefs. The game rules and setting often help coordinate these world views, but it's only a beginning. Players will always have an incomplete and inaccurate view of your game world. When the player's assumptions and your assumptions conflict you'll have problems and usually angry players.

The biggest clue that you may have a problem is when the players plan or take an action that seems obviously wrong. If the players are making plans based on some clearly mistaken assumption, let them know. For example, maybe the players are planning a stealthy infiltration using a small black raft to reach a cruise ship held by terrorists. That seems a little odd, since the terrorists have guards watching the water and it's the middle of the day. Asking, "Why don't you think the guards will see you?" would reveal that the players actually think that it's night. Having the players learn that it's actually day when the guards start firing at them will simply anger the players. Similarlly, if a player makes a clear mistatement of fact that should be obvious to the character, correct it immediately. ("Oh, there are lots of superheroes in the city!." "Ummm, no, it's pretty much you guys and no one else.").

If you ever think "Wow, they totally forgot to do something obvious; now I'll screw them over!" you've probably got a communications problem. Are the players planning on leaving their warhorses outside a dungeon for several days and you're planning on having them starve to death? Perhaps the players believe that they left the horses enough rope to graze. Planning on having the horses attacked by wolves? Perhaps the players believed the warhorses were capable of defending themselves against such wildlife. Punishing the players for having an inaccurate model of your universe isn't clever, it's just petty. Typically an inaccurate model of your game's universe means you made a mistake and need to try and rectify it.

Players must be empowered

Role-playing games are about making choices. If players cannot make choices, or those choices seem meaningless, you aren't really role-playing. Players don't need to be all powerful, but their decisions need to be important. Even hopeless situations can be empowering for the right group of players, so long as they can chose what they die for.

The source of many empowerment problems a GM falling in love with his story, his plot, his scene, or his NPCs. Role-playing games are not a book, it is not enough to show the players neat things. Typical symptoms of players being sidelines are "railroaded" games, invincible enemies, and any scene in which all the players can do is watch.

Avoid untouchable adversaries

Avoid pitting the PCs against an adversary that they can do nothing about. After the third or fourth time in which the player's actions have proved irrelevant against their enemy they will become frustrated. Challenge your players, but ensure that players feel that there is hope. Players don't need to be able to necessarily defeat their enemy, it may be enough to foil his plans. An enemy might be too powerful right now, but if there is a clear way to prepare to defeat the enemy in the future they will be satisfied.

Keep the players involved

Players should not watch climatic scenes. They should feel involved and essential (which is different than important). Players aren't tourists off to see wondrous things, they want to participate in wondrous things.

NPCs part of the party should not be supermen. Having NPCs in the group that are head and shoulders above the rest of the party is just frustrating to players. NPCs should generally should not be better than the players in any area the players are interested in. For example, if you have combat oriented PCs in your game, any NPC joining the group should not be as good at combat as the best PC. However, in areas the players aren't interested, it's fine for an NPC to shine, especially if he's much weaker than the PCs in the areas the players care about. For example, if no one in the party can track, having a highly skilled tracker join the party is fine.

Characters must make progress

The players must feel that they are making some sort of progress. Going for several sessions without feeling you've accomplished anything is draining and no fun. The progress doesn't need to be major, but it does need to be real and visible to the players. At the end of the session the players should be able to say "Thanks to that session, we're now this much closer." Don't constantly move the party's goal further and further away, that gives the players a sense that their accomplishments are meaningless. Players should feel that they are moving toward some sort of conclusion and that they are doing so because of their decision.

The world must acknowledge the characters

The players need to see positive results from their characters actions, otherwise they feel powerless in the grand scheme of things. The players need to feel rewarded, but the rewards need not always been experience, money, and new weapons. Players often find the non-tangible rewards more satisfying than simple money. Little details can really give the players a sense that they've changed the world. The character's exploits might be covered in the news, be it bardic song, newspaper, radio, television, or holovision. The characters might stumble across some children pretending to be the characters. Local people might offer the characters a hand, be it a warm meal if they're in the neighborhood or free drinks at the bar. A local community might chose to honor the characters, naming a street or building or day after them. An invitation to an exclusive party. Someone they respect might send them a letter congratulating them. A local noble might provide a letter of introduction.

Players need to see this sort of result with some frequency. Going without recognition can make a long adventure seem to stretch onward forever. If you decide to run longer games, remember to give the players opportunities for smaller successes in the middle. While tracking an ancient artifact, the characters might slay a monster threatening a town. Even something simple like a chance to randomly save someone from a mugging will do the job.

Minimize external plot elements

If player's cannot change anything about a given plot element it is pointless to your game and should be de-emphasized. Having the PCs witness but be unable to effectively interact with a major event (say, an evil summoning or a mighty battle) is frustrating. If you need such a scene, focus on the player's actions and on what they can do, not on the bigger picture over which they have no control.

Don't force players into blind decisions

Don't force players to make decisions when they have no way of judging the possible results. These blind decisions are pointless. If the decision doesn't seem important the players will shrug and pick one randomly. The players won't feel empowered, they'll feel like they're doing grunt work. The most common case is picking a corridor in most D&D games. Most of the time the characters don't have enough information to judge which direction is best and will just pick one arbitrarily. Those players haven't been provided an interesting decision, their decision might as well be resolved by a die roll. (That said, it is possible to make an informed decision in some cases. The players might listen at a door to guess what is beyond, a rogue might scout ahead, magic might be invoked to divine the results of going down each passage.)

If the decision is important the players will spend hours arguing over entirely hypothetical risks and rewards. All of the analysis in the world won't make it a rational decision if you have no data. A slightly cliche example is two doors. All that the players know is that behind one is certain death, behind the other great reward. It's a frustrating choice. A more realistic example is planning an attack against an a powerful opponent who has unknown defenses. If a Shadowrun or Cyberpunk group cannot get any research about a corporation they need to raid the only plan they can put together is to hope that things work out for the best.

Ultimately decisions need to be made with some level of understanding about the possible results. The information doesn't need to be perfect, but something needs to exist. The information doesn't even need to be easily acquired; finding enough information to make an educated decision may be a key part of the story.

Understand your players

Your players are paying careful attention to you as they try to understand the game world around them. You should paying careful attention to your players to try and understand them.

Think about what you are teaching

Like children, players must learn how to interact with the world. While the game books usually tell you and your players about the world and society of the game, there remain huge grey areas that must be filled in by you. Your interpretations and preferences will take the general shape of the world and add the details that make it livable. Maybe a game says that a specific ruler is "mentally unbalanced and cruel." You'll need to decide, how crazy the ruler is, how cruel is he? Does he have any good sides? Is his sense of humor normal, or twisted and sick? Does he have a sense of humor at all?

The world of the game you run really only exists in your head. The players won't know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable until you teach them. Your players will see how your game world works and adjust their behavior to better conform. Expect your players to tend toward the path of safety and ease. As a result, you need to be aware of what you are presenting as safe and easy.

Typically the world of a role-playing game is full of strife, lies, and backstabbing. Evil often wins. All too often the players learn that their characters should become paranoid, harden their hearts, and only take sure bets. Not the stuff of heroes.

The most common example is NPC's breaking the PC's trust. Having a friend or ally to the players betray them is a fun plot element. It's a common theme in fiction, and it gives players an opportunity to wallow in a bit of angst. However, done too frequently, the players will decide that eventually most NPCs will backstab them and will stop trusting anyone. Now you can't do the plot line at all.

Two similar problems are "good always wins" and "evil always wins". If it seems like characters with unwavering faith never fail, the characters will lose their uncertainty and moral weaknesses. If the character willing to sell his soul always gets an edge, the characters will line up to start bargaining with the devil.

The answer is not to stop doing these plots, but to provide balance. Make sure that you show the benefits of behavior you want to encourage. Maybe one NPC betrayed the party, but look at the other NPCs who have been very helpful through thick and thin. Maybe Bob got supernatural powers for his dark pact, but as a result he is slowly losing his sanity.

Definitely make sure you are not repeating a message you don't want players to learn. Certain genres tend to reinforce certain lessons. Cyberpunk games tend to encourage greed and selfishness. Horror games tend to encourage paranoia.

A good example of the worst case is Scooby Doo. Every episode, the Scooby and gang stumbled across an apparently supernatural creature. Every episode the creature was revealed to be someone in a costume. This scenario repeated dozens of times, but they never learned. Probably too many "Scooby Snacks". Role-playing game players will learn after the second adventure and sucker punch the ghost five minutes into the third adventure. Scooby Doo is doomed to failure as a role-playing game.

FASA had problems with this in many of their early Shadowrun modules. There was a run of modules which all featured a plot twist in which the party's Shadowrun employer betrayed the party. These modules all taught that shadowrunning wasn't profitable, since your employer always reneged on the deal. Not such a good lesson for a game about shadowrunning.

Be particularly careful at the beginning of a campaign, or when adding new players to an existing campaign. During this time players are eager for lessons, trying to get a grasp on the world. They have no idea what sort of game you're planning on running and take their cue from you. These lessons will run deep, so strive to set the tone and lessons carefully.

Related is your attitude to the dice. If the GM decides to "let the dice fall where they may," players will become cautious, they'll avoid daring feats. If the GM rewards daring feats and fudges the dice, player's will take more and more risks.

Pay attention to your players

Presumably, you run your game with the intention of your players enjoying the game. It's easy to get focused on what you enjoy in a game, and miss what the players enjoy. Fortunately, it's as easy as paying attention to your players.

When your players are focusing on the game, you're probably doing something right. When your players are reading books, chatting about unrelated topics, or simply not showing up, you're probably doing something wrong.

You might even try simply asking what they've liked and disliked in your game.

Also pay attention to the lessons they've learned (see above). Sometimes players generalize patterns incorrectly ("Gee, the bad guy always gets away safely while we get battered. Maybe we should turn to lives of crime."). Sometimes players miss obvious patterns ("Gee, the last four men with spider tattoos on their hands have tried to kill us, but this one seems friendly enough.") Pay attention to how their characters are behaving. Listen to what players talk about and plan. If they're learning the wrong lessons, figure out why. Perhaps there is a pattern you didn't intend. Perhaps the cause and effect relationship wasn't obvious. Perhaps you are too close to your own plans and need to step back. You'll also need to see if you can take corrective action. Maybe breaking the pattern in a stunning way will do the job. Maybe you can simply tell the players out of character what's what.

PCs may chose death over defeat

Avoid making players pick between failure and the death of their characters. When something important to the characters is on the line the players may pick death, leaving you with the choice of making them roll up new characters, or inventing implausible ways for the characters to succeed.

Players are generally portraying heroes. Fictional heroes don't give up, even in the face of death. Fictional heroes usually succeed, in spite of the odds. These are the sources players will be following. (In some genres heroes strive in the face of death and die. In others the heroes aren't actually heroic and will worry about saving their own skin first. If that's the case make sure your player's understand it!)

As an example, I began a Deadlands campaign with the destruction of the player character's home town. The destruction of the town had to happen, it was the key plot element for the next year of play. The forces arrayed against the characters were clearly overwhelming. The characters almost died in a battle to defend the town that they could not win. They were prepared to sacrifice their characters. They only survived because I approached them out of game and asked them to back down. Not a great way to get the campaign off to a start.

Similarly, avoid backing the characters into a corner. If the players feel trapped, they may gear up for a doomed last stand, blinding ignoring an escape route. If the players feel trapped but shouldn't, remind them of details they may have overlooked or forgotten.

Have unrevealed backplot and setting

Have more backplot and world info than you reveal to your players. The existence of the information will subtly give the game a depth and coherence. Humans seek answers to mysteries, so your players will naturally explore the edges of what you tell them the most. They'll take whatever information you do give them and wring it for answers. Having hidden information gives you some breathing room if you need to improvise. Furthermore, if the backplot to something makes sense in your head, players are more likely to detect a pattern, even if they can't determine it. Patterns make the world feel logical and survivable. Relatedly, don't expose too much to the players. A sense of wonder and surprise is important. The players don't want to slog through a fictional history lesson. Reveal just enough backplot and setting, but nothing more.

Never let the game stall

If the players don't see any options for their characters, something has gone wrong. This usually manifests as the players sitting around doing nothing, or arguing in circles about a plan of action. Don't leave them banging their heads against the plot for too long, it's frustrating and pointless. The most obvious case is solving a puzzle or working around a trap, but it can manifest anywhere. (Steven Marsh has an entertaining story on the potential problems with puzzles in Pyramid.) Players might be stuck planning how to attack a powerful enemy, or how to engage in courtly intrigue. If the players didn't figure out the solution in the first hour of staring at a given situation, they're not going find a solution in the second, fourth, or twentieth hours. Once the players start feeling stuck their thoughts start going in circles, they become frustrated and less likely to see a solution.

If your players are stuck, you need to step in and move the game forward. The problem isn't that the player's need to do something, the problem is that you need to change something. Be sure they are stuck before you intervene; if a plan is slowly coming together, or the players are seeking more information to help their decision, go with it. Give players a bit of time to think, but balance it. Ten minutes is fine, four hours usually isn't. If the discussion between the players goes in circle with the same plans being rehashed and shot down they're probably stuck. When you hear the same arguments repeated for the sixth time you've let it go on far too long. Any discussion in the form, "That plan has no chance of succeeding," "But it's the best plan we have," usually marks a stuck group. "We wait until something happens," is a desperate plea for help.

Give players options

The first part of the solution is to avoid it in the first place. Avoid highly linear plots. If a particular plot point needs to be visited, or a particular enemy needs to be defeated, you create a risk that the players will get stuck. If your plot is more open ended, the players can try other option if one path appears to be a dead end.

If your game has a relatively focused plot it is important to ensure that the characters always have at least one semi-obvious way to move onward. This path needs to be practical. If the characters will not follow a particular path for any given reason (moral reasons, financial reasons), that path isn't really practical.

But not too many options

Be wary of the other side of the coin. If you are running a highly open ended game with no clear goal or purpose your players may be blocking on too many options. Some people find a blank sheet of liberating, but many find it intimidating. Having an nearly infinite number of potential actions can be similarly intimidating. If you're running an open ended game and your players regularly block you may need to create a bit more focus and a slightly more linear plot.

Check your assumptions

Keep in mind that players may be unaware of something that seems obvious to you. You create and control the world, within the game you are omniscient. Your players are not, they only know what you tell them. (This has been compared to the players exploring your world with a flashlight.) Players may have gaps in their knowledge. If players are blocking and you find yourself thinking, "Well, obviously they need to do such-and-such," examine your assumptions. Why is that obvious? Check that the players share those assumptions. You may have assumptions about the game world that they don't share. The players may have glossed over an important clue; it seems irrelevant to them so they forgot about it. As you consider assumptions ask your players to find out what assumptions they are carrying.

Avoid forcing players to meta-game

Another potential problem is that the player's may be blocking for role-playing reasons. If your players are really trying to role-play, they may be ignoring or willfully overlooking information that they have ("My character was so horrified by the scene that they are repressing the memory." "My character is a pacifist, and won't accept the violent solution to our problem."). Statements to the effect, "My character would never do that" for the best plans often indicate this problem. Left uncorrected a player will usually eventually sigh and do something that he feels is wrong for his character, essentially forcing him to metagame. If you run into this you've failed to write for your players and their characters. Obviously the best plan is to avoid writing your players into such situations. Providing multiple options is one possible solution. If you're already stuck in the situation and there are no other options to suggest, you may need to ask a player to step out of character and take an action to move the game forward. While the player won't like such a meta-game answer, the group as a whole will be glad that they didn't spend four hours arguing without reaching a solution.

Offer hints

You can help the players move onward in a number of ways. For games with knowledge ability scores or skills, you can let characters make a check for have a flash of insight. "Make a Gather Information check. You got a 15? Great, you remember hearing that the prince was looking for help with a personal problem." or "Make an Wisdom check. Good enough, you notice that the old man is speaking in a particular pattern, something about how he starts his sentences." This is an excellent way to remind players of facts they may have forgotten or ignored or to tell them information they should reasonably have access to.

External forces

In many games, another option is for external forces to change the situation. A guard behind a puzzle lock may not realize the characters are there and may open the door for restroom break, giving the characters a chance to rush in. The character's unknown enemy may send thugs to attack them; when the characters defeat the thugs, they could find a clue to the enemy's location.

When all else fails, meta-game

Finally, if all else fails, punt. Just tell the players how to move forward. Obviously this isn't satisfying, but it lets the players move on to hopefully more entertaining parts of the game. Asking players to meta-game is unfortunate but better than having them frustrated and seething. "You should go help the prince with his problem," or "the combination is 3, 14, 15, the first few digits of pi," may be the best way forward.

Stay at the table

Stay at the table and pay attention to your players. It sounds obvious, but when your players get involved in a planning session or are simply enjoying role-playing with each other it's tempting to distract yourself. No matter how tempting don't take a nap, don't quick check your email, don't break out the GameBoy. If your players do need something you need to be instantly available. If you haven't been paying attention you'll be caught off guard when they announce, "Okay, we're going to do exactly what we just discussed." Asking them to repeat the plan makes it clear that you don't care. If they feel in the slightest that they are interrupting you they'll get the sense you don't care. If the players think you don't care, they will stop caring. Even if the players are perfectly content to work among themselves for a while you need to keep on top of their plans and their moods. You need to intervene if they make erroneous assumptions about the world, if they begin to stall, or they're just getting unhappy. To do this you need to stay aware of what they are doing.

Keep your group small

Stick with smaller groups; 4 or 5 is a typical number. The larger the group the less time you can devote to each player. As players seek to ask you a quick question they'll feel ignored as you are busy fielding other requests. The most common case where this occurs is combat. The larger a group the longer the time between initiative passes; the players are spending more and more time watching and less time doing, the antithesis of role-playing games. Outside of combat larger groups tend to be louder and more boisterous, it's easy for a quiet or shy player to be drowned out. A large group also encourages players to split up. A split group means you're juggling your attention between then, making the situation worse. Spare yourself the grief, keep your games small.


Start out with a bang

Starting a session "hanging out" or chatting is problematic. Often by the time players get into the game, the session is over. One solution is to start with action.

Consider ending the previous session just before some action starts. If you're starting something new, just give a handful of sentences setting things up, then into the fray!

Consider starting "in medias res", in the middle of the action. "Welcome to the session. Everyone got your new characters? Here's the situation: you were smuggling Death Star plans for Princess Leia. Stormtroopers have tracked you down. Now you're pinned down behind crates in the Mos Eisley spaceport. Roll for initiative!"

Starting out with a bang is even more important for one shot games and first games. In the absence of prior connection to your character, you've got nothing to work with. Sure, you've got a background, but chatting about something you cooked up on your own is boring. Simply having the characters hang out and chat wastes time. Real character is revealed in their actions, not their history. Let the players leap into action.

The Gun on the Wall

...it helps to remember that I subscribe to Anton Chekov's First Rule of Playwriting: "If there's a gun on the wall in act one, scene one, you must fire the gun by act three, scene two. If you fire a gun in act three, scene two, you must see the gun on the wall in act one, scene one."

Waste nothing.

(Quote from J. Michael Straczynski in a post to Usenet in 1994. I've chosen to quote Straczynski's quote because I can't find a definitive version of Anton's quote.)

Plan ahead. Keep things dense. Players have a knack for complicating and delaying things all by themselves, so don't feel a need to include lots of red herrings and irrelevant details.

Brainstorming Plots

Look to writing tips

Tips for writing books, short stories, movies, or television shows often directly apply to writing role-playing game stories.

I find David Siegel's "The Nine-Act Structure" an interesting way of thinking about plots. It's oriented toward film, but the lessons of "The Two-Goal Structure" and "The Nine-Act Structure" apply to most role-playing games.

"The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations" a useful place to start a skeleton of a plot. On a role-playing specific front S. John Ross distills RPG plots down into "The Big List of RPG Plots."

When all else fails, mix things up. Two simple plots mixed together, even if the plots are completely unrelated, can create a complex and entertaining story.

Take ideas from elsewhere

Seek inspiration from media: books, movies, television, whatever. If you know of a television series that is relevant, you may be able to find an episode guide of summaries. Pay attention to apparently unrelated things. The premise of the Area 51 video game (fighting into a facility to set off a nuclear weapon to stop an alien infiltration) gave me some interesting ideas for a steampunk western game.

Do Tarot reading

Serious Tarot card readings are silly, but they can be a useful brainstorming techniques. Traditional Tarot cards work great. Everway comes with it's own Tarot-style deck and a great set of "vision cards". D&D's Tarokka deck serves a similar purpose.

Don't worry too much about doing an official reading, you're just trying to get your brain thinking in new directions. Simply ask questions and draw cards. Traditional Tarot readings provide some useful questions (what is the past, the present, and the future), but ask whatever questions are useful. Some suggestions:

To interpret the cards keep your mind as open as possible. Consider both the traditional meanings and whatever comes to mind. While it is certainly understandable to interpret Death as meaning, well, death, it's useful to keep in mind that it traditionally indicates changes. Reversed (when drawn upside down), it can be lack of change, stasis. Look at the art an ask questions about it. Try to form a story about the image and look for themes and conflicts in the story. Some examples, all drawn from the Rider Waite Tarot deck, one of the most traditional:

You may find some traditional Tarot card imagery and interpretations at Mystic Games or Paranormality.com useful, but don't limit yourself to the ideas of others. You can get computer generated Tarot readings here; one advantage of this site is the variety of decks available. For more traditional art select the Rider Waite deck. If you're working on a horror story, the Lovecraft deck might be more to your liking.

More Resources

Unfinished notes

No page on the web is ever really finished. I regularly add to this page. Unfortunately I haven't organized all of my thoughts yet. Instead of hoarding my notes for the day when I get around to organizing them, here they are, raw but hopefully useful.

Ruling questions

Never take view the players or the characters as adversaries to be worked against.

Know your players

Consider types of gamers. Consider just asking. See 4 types of online gamers. I see explorers, achievers, sight-seers, combat monsters. Explorers tend to take notes and draw maps. Combat monsters fight. Achievers place emphasis on achievement, either character statistics or in game accomplishments (titles, positions).

Give players fair warning

Ensure players have a sense of what they're up against. Otherwise the characters may blunder into their deaths not knowing they're outclassed. Equally bad is having the players run scared from everything.


Assume the players will foil any "must happen" plot element

Allow for anything to fail. If your plot requires that the villain get away the first time the players encounter him, you're setting yourself up for a fall. Players can be brilliant, especially when it comes to defeating your carefully planned scenes. When you're trying to create such a scene, you're pitting your own mind against the combined minds of all of our players. Inevitably there will be at least one small hole in your plan, and the players have a good shot at finding it.

Be prepared for any "must happen" element to fail. Have backup plans, villains, and plot twists to handle the situation.

Avoid putting everything on a single skill check

If the players must make an archeology check to continue on the plot, they will probably fail. Fate seems to like torturing GMs. Don't balance your plot on the assumption that bad luck won't happen. Have fall back plans. Can the characters call in a professional to decrypt the clue? Will another strike by the villain reveal more clues?

Exotic locales

Visiting foreign places is expensive. Seeing the interior of Air Force One is basically impossible. But it's cheap and easy in a role-playing game. Unique settings are a staple of movies and novels. Another superhero fight on a generic city street in dull. You're super heroes, have your fights on Air Force One, on top of the Eiffel Tower, or in the Capital. Dusty streets are a traditional place for a shootout, but don't forget from the back of a speeding train or stagecoach. Pick random locations: a race track, a lumber yard, a food court, a rock concert, your office building. Vary the situation: crowds of people, barren of people, news reporters nearby, fire, tornadoes.

Steven Marsh has even more good ideas in his Pyramid magazine article "Setting Up Setting Need Not Be Upsetting"

Ensure player/PC empowerment

Draw things out

Never rush your big scene, give cool things time to just be cool. Especially if this is a character specific subplot.

Bad: Meeting your estranged brother you never really knew who wants to kill you and holds your birthright: a family crown signifying your right to rule. Then killing him, claiming the crown and the family lands, a few hours later.

Good: Hearing that your estranged brother is looking for you. Seeing the results of his actions. Tangling with his hired goons sent to kill you. Almost catching him, seeing him with the crown. Tracking him down and finally confronting him.


D&D specific notes: what 13.33 encounters means


Stories are about conflict. While it doesn't need to be violent conflict, without a struggle there is not story. Make sure you have conflict and that the player characters are directly involved in that conflict. If there isn't any conflict you don't have a story. If the player characters aren't directly involved they are just watching a story, which isn't much of an RPG.

Are you using the right game?

Is your game system actually supporting the type of game you want to run? If not, your game will suffer. Maybe you want to run exciting pulp action, but if your rules set makes combat dangerous and frequently deadly you're not going get a lot of pulp fights with lots of risks taken. Maybe you want to run a gritty urban game where combat is dangerous, but if the rules don't make combat dangerous your players will happily dive into fights. Is your focus going to be on courtly intrigue? You probably don't want a game that has fifty pages of combat rules and a single page on social interactions.

This can be more subtle. Look at the assumptions your game creates. To take D&D for an example, the game system assumes that characters will build up a collection of magical items, replacing them as they become more powerful. That's a functional game, but it doesn't really match most of fantasy literature where each magical item is treasured. The system also tends to assume plenty of down time for wizards to copy spells and craft magical items, a weakness if you're planning on a high tension campaign where the characters are always on the move. D&D tends to reward heavy armor; the best fighters wear magical full plate mail armor. You can make a successful swashbuckler who runs around without armor, but you're clearly fighting against the system.

Here are just a few things to consider about your system and your expectations:

It's a widespread belief that rules don't matter. To an extent that's true. A good GM can work with almost any rules set. However, to do so you're spending time tweaking or outright ignoring the rules to make the game better. If the game better supports you instead of spending time thinking about that, you can think about other ways to make your game better.

See Also

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Credit should be to "Alan De Smet", must note the current copyright year (listed below), and must include a link to http://www.highprogrammer.com/alan/gaming/gmtips.html .

Contact webmaster - Copyright © 2002