Category: Gaming Advice

Gaming Advice

Tips for Being a Better Gamemaster: Part 1

Okay, so here’s the deal…

I wanted to do a quick post about how to be a better gamemaster for roleplaying games. It’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years and I enjoy talking about it. After more than 20 years of playing RPGs, I suppose I’ve put in enough time to talk about gaming with some degree of authority. The original intention was to make a list of five gamemastering tips, get in, get out, and move on to the next thing.

Then I started writing and the first two points ended up being long enough for a single post. As anyone who’s ever texted me could tell you, this happens to me a lot.

So I decided to expand the list to ten points and sort of parcel them out over the next few weeks. I probably won’t do one every week, but I’ll keep them coming fairly regularly.

Tip #1: Listen To The Players

This one is first on the list of gamemastering tips for a reason. The players are almost always the best resource you have at your disposal. They will almost always tell you exactly what they want to do and what kind of game they play. All you have to do is listen to them, absorb what they say, and give it back to them with a bit of a twist. Honestly, it’s really amazing the things you’ll hear players say and do at the table. Oftentimes, they’ll come up with ideas or theories that are way better than anything you thought of. That’s fine. Don’t be precious about whatever plans you had in mind. Trust me, everyone will remember the game where you scrapped your entire adventure plot because something a player said much more fondly than the game where they dutifully chased down the threads of your plot thread for the 500th time.

Look, nobody is playing your game because they want to experience the storyline you’ve crafted for them. I’m sorry, they just aren’t. Any GM who tells you that their players love their games because of their great stories is either lying or has a group that spends most of the game on autopilot waiting for the next combat encounter because that’s the only time they get to make actual decisions. If you want to tell an epic story, go write a novel.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have plans for a story or campaign. I’m kind of infamous for more or less winging games off the top of my head, but if I’m being serious about a session or campaign, I’ll at least sketch out a broad outline of what could happen and come up with a somewhat detailed list of characters to meet, places to go, and problems to be solved. But part of being a good GM means that sometimes you have to throw out your plans because the players are interested in doing something else.

And that’s fine. It’s a roleplaying game, not open-heart surgery. Players will forgive you some rough patches here and there if the overall experience is enjoyable in the end. And if they get to do things they’re interested in doing, they’ll probably have a good time.

Tip #2: Keep Things Moving

Roleplaying games are all about momentum. There’s an ebb and flow to them that’s difficult to manage when you’re just starting out. Games can accommodate some bumps in the road and some detours, but let things meander on for too long and you’ll wind up losing everybody. There are generally two versions of this. In the first, the players are just straight-up bored or stumped. They don’t know what to do next and they’re becoming disengaged. People start checking their phones, they draw pictures in the margins of their character sheet, or they engage in totally irrelevant side conversations.

When this happens, you need to make something, ANYTHING, happen to get them back on the move. The famed noir writer Raymond Chandler once said that the basic rule of writing fast-paced pulp detective stories was: “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” This is especially true of RPGs. When in doubt, somebody in the tavern picks a fight with the characters. Why? Who knows? You can figure it out after the brawl.

In the second case, players get too wrapped up in their own planning to actually do anything. This is the situation where they spend an hour planning every last detail of a heist, right down the point of having a backup plan for their backup plan. There are two problems with this. First of all, it just becomes a big waste of time after the initial concept of the plan is laid out. They’ll never feel like they’re fully ready to actually get started. Second, they get so invested in the plan that if you do anything to throw a wrench into it, they’ll very likely get upset and feel like you’re pulling the rug out from under them. When they seem like they have a firm idea of what they want to do, start trying to push them out the door. They’ll be glad you did afterward because it means they’ll be able to get back to the game.

These are probably the two most important things I think every GM should keep in mind. But I’ve got plenty more gamemastering tips where they came from, so keep an eye on this blog for more tips that will make you a better GM.

Gaming Advice

Building Excitement for Your RPG Campaign

When I’m planning to start up a new roleplaying game group, I typically go through a gamut of emotions and thoughts.

  • What should we play?
  • What kind of game will the players like?
  • What kind of game will I like?

That last one is particularly important for me because I tend to have a short attention span when it comes to roleplaying games. I’m not the guy who runs marathon twelve-hour long game sessions or the guy who’s been running the same campaign for five to ten years. That level of intensity is way too much for me, and I start to lose interest in a game right around the time it starts to feel like work.

Get Hyped

When I do get excited about a game concept, I’ll wind up putting a lot of work into preparation, much more so than I usually do. The danger I encounter here is that the reality of the game sometimes doesn’t match my expectations or my hopes. Much like writing a book, the game is never as good at the table as it is in your head.

The truth is that the players are probably never going to be excited about the game in the same way you are. That doesn’t mean they won’t like it, of course, or that they’re not enjoying it if it doesn’t match the vision you had for the game. You have to allow players the space to find the game they want to play. If you’re doing your job as a gamemaster, you should end up in a place where both of you are having a good time.

But that’s when you’re sitting down at the table. Before that happens, you need to get everyone to buy into the experience and pull up a chair. And if you’re not excited about running the game, no one is going to be excited about playing it. Part of your job as a gamemaster takes place before the game even starts. You have to find ways to sell the game to your players, to get them amped up for the experience they’re about to have.

Fun For Everyone

This is equally important for new and old players. Newer players don’t have a lot of expectations; they’re counting on you to guide them through the preliminary process of preparing for the game. They want to know what to expect, but everything sounds new and exciting for them. The biggest challenge with them is giving them plenty of tastes of what’s coming, but not overwhelm them.

More experienced players, on the other hand, like to know what they’re getting into. They’ve played a lot of sessions with a lot of people and it takes a lot to surprise them. While new players are wondering if they’ll know what to do when the game begins, older players are wondering if it will be worth their time and energy. They’ll want to have a much clearer picture of what the game’s going to be about, asking for information that would be far too much for a newer player to take into account.

But the experienced player also wants to be excited for the game. They want to have that same sense of wonder a newer player has, so anything you share with them beforehand has to scratch both itches at the same time.

It’s Not A Homework Assignment

When I run a game set in an original world (something I’ve created), I like to put together a player handbook for easy reference. Now, you have to be careful about this. Players are looking for a game, not homework. I used to run games in a vaguely Nordic setting I called “The Northlands” (this was before Skyrim came out, I swear), and I wrote up an extensive treatment of the setting that I provided to each player. The booklet was an eleven page Word document that detailed the major races, regions, and cities. I thought it was a great resource that answered every question about the setting players might have.

Naturally, most of them didn’t read a word of the damn thing and I don’t blame them a bit. Well, now I don’t, but I felt differently at the time!

As I go about preparing a game for a new group, I’m faced with a similar problem: How do I convey vital information about the setting to the players without making it seem like homework?

The Value of a Player Primer

The answer I’ve hit upon is to make the primer I put together pretty to look at and engaging to read. By filling the booklet with evocative images that set the tone for the game’s setting, players will hopefully get swept up in the aesthetics. After all, you could pick up a Star Wars picture book and get a pretty good idea of what the movies are like just by looking at the images. Secondly, I’m trying to integrate the artwork with descriptive text that provides more specific detail if players want it. Newer players will probably focus mostly on the art since it sets a tone for the game they’re going to be playing, but older players will want the details that tie in with that aesthetic.

By combining the two approaches, I’m hoping to end up with a (brief) primer that sets the stage for the game and gets all types of players excited to take part in it. More importantly, the process of making it has made me more excited for the game and forced me to consider a lot of ideas I’d have simply discarded under other circumstances.

The Drowned Lands

hastur the king in yellow

So what will all of this look like? Well, here are a few examples. The game I’m running is an old-fashioned D&D game using the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules and incorporating extensive elements from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I’ve put together custom builds of the game’s classes, dressing them out with equipment and magic items that reflect the nature of the setting. This first image is a write up for a “Drowned Priest”, which is a cleric who worships Cthulhu. The second image is a work-in-progress page from a section devoted to the Great Old Ones, who function as the gods of the setting. I went all out for this, with a full-color image, a distinctive quote pulled from the Mythos source material, and a block of text at the bottom providing a helpful description (which I haven’t written yet). Even if the player knows nothing about Hastur the Unspeakable, they’ll remember this page and draw conclusions based on the image.

Lastly, because I like to package things like this as if they were actual products, I’ve made a cover for the primer that will (hopefully) encourage players to open it up and have a look inside. The whole idea is to stir the player’s interest. Even if they read next to nothing, the layout and imagery will give them a sense of what kind of game they’re getting into.

Obviously, this approach won’t work for every gamemaster, but I hope it gives you a sense of how you can get excited for your game while building it up in your players’ minds as well.

Gaming Advice

Delegate or Die: Holding Your Gaming Group Together

As some regular readers might recall, last year I got a roleplaying group together with the ambitious goal of playing twelve different games over the course of twelve months. I’d gotten the idea from a podcast I used to listen to called Dice of Doom, but the real driving force was the fact that I have so many games I’ve never played. I post daily to an Instagram hashtag (#bensshelf) that features a different rpg book that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for years (along with my usually dour face) and I’m into the 40s at this point with a ton of my collection left to go. Getting the group together wasn’t the hard part, though. As different as the idea was, I found enough people who were into it to give the concept a try. We actually did pretty well for a few months, getting through three games featuring multiple sessions with the odd one shot or two along the way.

About four months in, however, life intervened. Due to unforeseen financial circumstances, I ended up having to take a second job and that pretty much killed my schedule flexibility. To be honest, I could have kept it alive, but I had to choose between my gaming group and my writing group. In retrospect, I’m not sure I made the right choice, but at the time, it seemed like a no brainer to focus on the writing group. The worst part was I had big ambitions for the gaming group, even going so far as to develop a podcast to accompany it. While the production values weren’t the best, I thought the podcast was pretty good for what it was trying to accomplish and I really enjoyed producing the series.

The moral of this story is that it’s really hard for a group of adults to keep a gaming group together. There’s just so much happening in everyone’s lives that unless a few people are committed enough to keep everybody else on board, the whole thing will fly apart. In some respects, it’s like trying to get a band together. The concept always sounds great in your head, but it’s a massive logistical pain in the ass once you try to make it happen. Most of the time, the burden of organizing a group falls upon the gamemaster’s shoulders, which sucks because this is also the person who has to do the most work during the game. I suppose it would be easy enough to offload that responsibility onto someone else, but it never quite works out this way. If I were planning to organize another gaming group in the future, I think one of the first things I’d try to do differently is delegate some responsibilities. Who’s making the head count to be sure who’s coming and who’s not? Who’s making sure food and drinks are available? Who’s keeping track of what happened in each game? This is all minor stuff, but little logistical things tend to add up and make life more difficult than it needs to be.

Managing a gaming group is real challenge that most gamers completely overlook. Poor communication is usually the biggest culprit for groups falling apart. Sometimes it’s just the uncertainty that causes everyone to drift apart over time, but in other cases it can lead to genuinely bad feelings. For most people, a gaming group is, at best, the fourth or fifth most important thing on their agenda. It’s a luxury hobby that can soak up a lot of time without much obvious benefit beyond simply enjoying yourself. Is it any worse than playing 18 holes of golf on a Sunday morning? Probably not, but there aren’t many gaming groups getting their session out of the way before noon on a weekend either. For most of us, the prime time for gaming interferes with social obligations for younger people and family obligations for older people. I’ve always thought that a weeknight is an ideal time for a gaming group to meet for three to four hours, but I’ve never found anyone who agrees with me on that count.

If there’s some advice I can impart here (both for myself and others), it’s to be realistic about what everyone wants out of your group and how you’re going to manage it. Don’t be afraid to be honest about setting expectations and assigning responsibilities. For gamemasters, you have to be willing to let go of some control if you don’t want to wind up managing absolutely everything about the group. Just because you’re in charge of the game once play begins doesn’t mean you also have to coordinate when and where to meet or sort out the menu. In addition to communication and flexibility, you also have to be honest with each other. If you don’t see yourself being able to stick it out for more than a few weeks, say that up front rather than slowly fading from the scene. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing this, mostly because I want to be involved even though I have very real conflicts in my schedule that prevent me from fitting in a gaming group.

Anyway, now that my work and financial situations are stabilizing a bit, I’m beginning to have thoughts about organizing another group. The 12/12 Project fizzled out around this time last year, so maybe nobody will notice if it picks back up after a year-long hiatus…