Saturday, March 17, 2012

GM Tricks of the Trade

GM Pearls of Wisdom
Here are a few tips and tricks I have learned along the way on how to Gamesmaster 'sandbox' style games. I will very likely be adding to this list over time, so you might want to check back again later on as well.

Player Interaction
  • Make sure you understand your player preferences for game style and play, and make sure they understand yours.  You can look at the GM Badges List to get an idea of the many options available.
  • Let the game flow in terms of rules.  If you run into a rules issue try to avoid getting caught up in niddling over rules with players in-game.  Go with what you think is right as arbitrator of the game, and suggest letting the rule stand for the current game and do research on it afterwards.  Be willing to retrofit game events in case you happen to have been incorrect with a ruling, if necessary.
  • Be sure that if you have rules lawyers in your game, that they are an asset rather than a liability. 
  • Establish reasonable player expectations (what kind of game are we playing?)
  • Play the game without trying to Beat the Players and win the game for your NPCs, while still playing the NPCs as smart as they would be according to their own intelligence, levels or other characteristics that would come into play. 
  • Use GM Fiat wisely.  There is a time and place for Fiat, but it can easily be abused.  Try to be as fair as an umpire should be.
  • As GM, avoid falling in love with your own NPCs in such a way that you favor or protect them unfairly.
  • Treat all Player Characters equally.  If you have a significant other, or best friend playing, make sure that you treat all characters equally without any particular favoritism. 
Game Preparations
  • Know the rules of your game system system well.  It pays to study the rules carefully in advance of playing.  This is one reason why I prefer a rules-light system, myself.
  • Be prepared for each game.  Have your NPCs and monsters, and back story sussed out in advance.  If you feel unprepared it is sometimes better to postpone than play without proper prep.
  • Typically you want to make sure the odds against the player characters are not overwhelming (accidentally or otherwise).
  • You also want to ensure that odds against the player characters are not obviously too easy as well.
  • Try to create intriguing back story for the non-player characters, and the world itself.  You don't have to go too far with this, but it's good to know generally what the motives or the NPCs are, their plans and objectives, as it helps you to handle story aspects of the game more effectively.
  • There is a fine line between rich story, and over complicated.  When you have more than three hanging threads in the current story, it's a good time to start tying them together again before introducing new threads.  This helps with avoiding confusion, dissipation and contradictions within the story.
  • On the their side of the coin, overly simplistic scenarios can turn out to be too bland, so if you only have one thread, or sub-plot, it's a good time to introduce a second.  Often you can get sub-plot ideas directly from the player character's actions.  For example, did someone leave a wounded Kobold behind?  Maybe he follows behind the party causing troubles from afar.  
  • Monty Hall Dungeons can work, sometimes, but not often, so use them sparingly.  Used once in a while they can be a lot of fun, and rewarding for the Player Characters that survive it, but making them the entire campaign can wind up being uninteresting after a while.  Remain sensitive to the mood of the players.
  • Try to establish party unity in the back story or setting.  Perhaps the party are all members of the same family, or Adventure Guild, or army.  Building cohesion of the group in the back story helps the players to justify staying together rather than wandering off on the separate ways during the course of the campaign.
  • Know your world well.  Have a good familiarity and understanding of the map, the history, politics and economics of your world (within reason).  It helps tremendously with playing 'sandbox' style games where the Players are free to roam around as their inclinations lead them. 
 Gamesmastering Style
  • Allow Players to roam around your world and explore.  Let the story flow from the interests and actions of their characters, rather than trying to control the story according to a preconceived plot.  This is what is meant by "sandbox" style.
  • Allow the story to develop in a way that goes beyond mere combat encounters.  Encourage exploration, negotiation, planning, and relationships with non-player characters.
  • Play above board, meaning let the players know the odds of success for most actions, unless you have a good reason not to in a particular situation.
  • Play your Non-Player Characters with the with distinct personalities, voices and mannerisms.
  • Use descriptive narration to give the players a sense of the environment, including what they see, hear, and feel.  An example would be "The characters enter the edge of a cedar wood forest, shaded with dappled sunlight, beautifully scented.  Birds are singing, the air is warm, and a breeze is rustling the leaves in the trees around them." 
  • Pace the granting of treasures and goodies, including information about the world.  Let the players work for what they get and they will appreciate it more.
  • Let PCs die if they play their characters foolishly.  Don't bend over backwards to keep them from suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.   It makes them play smarter next time.   One thing you can do, however, especially for favorite characters that die, is to provide some means by which those characters may be able to be returned to the world of the living.  Other-world Quests are a good means of doing so.
  • Try to illicit emotions from the Players by using descriptive narrative to create moods, and Player Character relationships to create dramatic tension within the context of the story.  
  • Make your monsters scary, rather than 'Experience Point Bags' by describing them in ways that leave players mystified in various aspects.  Instead of announcing "there are four third level orcs in the room" you can use atmospheric descriptive narrative to leave it ambiguous at the start of the encounter... "When the door bursts open, Rothmon shoves his lantern through the door.  There are flickering shadows dancing everywhere.  From the north corner a dark faced orc with fangs bared is leaping toward the door.  Behind him you see two shadows emerging from the darkness wearing spiked helms, unsheathing glinting steel swords.  You hear a loud grunt and snarl coming from behind the door, but you can not see that part of the room."   Same situation, but as you can see the second one is much more engaging, and leaves the players as unsure about the exact circumstances as they would be in real life had they burted into a room under the same conditions.
  • Make your villains dangerous.  They are the plotters and planners of devious machinations, so play them that way.  However, don't give them knowledge of things that their characters would not know, such as which way the party went, if it is something the villain would not have knowledge of.  In other words, don't make your villains invincible.  Just play them like smart monsters that plan ahead, set traps, and the like - not like gods who know everything.
  • Throw a little romance into the game.  Let the NPCs occasionally show some romantic interest in the Player Characters.  This can add noble incentives for the Player Characters (your Princess has been kidnapped, etc), or provide points of humor during the course of the game (the Player Character who just can't score, etc).
Good Gaming to you!  Let me know if you have other suggestions that you might like to see on this list, and I'll be happy to tack them on.  Thanks Chris for inspiring this post. :)

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