Mastering as Game Master: Tips & Tricks Episode.051

Anytime I am at a convention or around seasoned GMs, I love to pick their brains.  I love talking about past games we have run and anecdotes, but really the parts I eat up most are the times GMs talk about a technique they did or a trick they pulled off without the players knowing that led to an amazing story conclusion.  Even newcomers just getting into the GMing world often have clever ideas that people who have been running rpgs for 20-30 years never thought about.  Like with any professional field, talking in groups with like-minded individuals will almost always yield improved productivity either through creative ingenuity or higher efficiency ratings.  These adjustments can add light years to your game.  Your experience as well as your players may very well improve and revitalize that campaign that is waning rapidly on excitement.


There aren’t enough seminars at conventions involving GM training.  It’s not that GMing is all that difficult with some practice, but there are things we don’t think about or realize and fail to utilize in our game.  Various tips, tricks, and techniques can spice your game up significantly.  There is a tremendous amount of information on improving your game online that can help anyone sharpen their skills.  If anything, it’ll stimulate the imagination and bring about new inspiration.

When you are running a campaign, it is important to make note of the insignificant things from time to time in your world.  Next time you are out in public, take a mental note of your surroundings.  Maybe an emergency vehicle is rushing to aid someone or a broken down vehicle alongside the road.  Someone’s flying a kite or riding a bicycle or painting in a park or riding in a hot air balloon.  These are things we generally ignore (perhaps not the hot air balloon), but they make up our realistic world.  If we were to remove those mundane things, we would immediately become aware of our surroundings and the odd obscurity of it all.  We don’t stop and listen to birds, but we take note if the birds suddenly stop singing.  Much like our world, it’s vast enough that a million things are happening at the same time, most of which does not pertain to you.  Someone is going to the store, someone’s going bowling, or someone’s working on their car in their garage.  Someone is visiting their nephew on his birthday.  They would not really fit or be needed in a typical campaign, but they carry the same premise understanding for what you can implement.  For example, in a gritty, sci-fi campaign, an emergency vehicle with sirens blaring flies by.  The players overhear a news report on a broadcast system – an isolated radio in an abandoned station, a department store, a passing vehicle, a town crier – of something significant and interesting happening elsewhere.  It can be a natural disaster, a huge political change, a large scale war, an epidemic, an alien sighting, the dead rising, etc.  These do not need to have any ties whatsoever with the campaign.  I’ve had players feel the rumbling of thunder on the ground approaching from behind that is caused by an enormous army on the march down the road they are traveling down.  One officer lets them know frost giants are on the move against a famous capital city far to the north, and they are on their way to reinforce the city.  The party could try to join or follow the army, but it wouldn’t be the end of their campaign if they didn’t if they were on their way elsewhere.


Don’t feel you have to go by the book on encounters.  If questing in rpgs were real, you would not experience a progressively more difficult group of monsters.  Just like if you go camping up in North America or the deep parts of Syberia, you’re going to encounter deadly animals from the very start and not harmless bunnies.  You don’t have to kill the characters.  There’s no need to throw adult black dragons at players just starting their campaign.  However, monsters can come in, wear down and toy with the PCs then abandon them when they realize they are uninteresting due to their weakness.  Think of it as a toy that a dog or cat plays with and grows bored once it realizes the ball does nothing but roll when they push it around.  It doesn’t fight back or chase them (and in the case of the party, the damage is insignificant to the monster).  This also helps you as a GM wear down players who seem to always be dominating combat.  Make them spend a few spells or lose a little health before the fight you really were planning to throw them at.

Before you begin a campaign, establish a “social contract” with your players.  This was an outstanding idea from Chris Perkins, senior producer for Wizards of the Coast.  Essentially it is an agreement between you and your players on a list of certain things that everyone has to abide by throughout the game.  This can be anything from “no threatening or attacks between PCs,” or “accepting and dealing with bad situations that happen to your PC without belly aching.”  It lays down the foundation of understanding of how you are going to run the game and what the players expect up front.  I enjoy putting PCs in bad situations; I especially love having them arrested and making them find a daring way to escape.  Without knowing prior to the campaign beginning that this can happen, players may get aggravated, frustrated, or irrational in thought towards the GM when something happens to their precious PC.  These will essentially be house rules, and I would recommend a clause that more rules can be added if the group finds a problem that needs a remedy in the rules or gameplay.


Many times, experienced players can role play without meta gaming even though they know the truth.  I picked up a hint from the GM when he slipped about something behind the door, but I know my character is reckless and careless.  Even though I played the character accurately to his background and personality, as a player I knew I was walking into a trap.  Yes, I’m okay with playing it right, but the surprise of my character getting pummeled by falling rocks in the corridor was lost.  This is where you as a GM can hide things that the players are “suppose” to know according to many mainstream rpg rules.  For example, don’t have players roll for checks on whether they are in danger or about to be if they proceed.  If the player is looking for traps, then roll for them privately.  Otherwise on a success they know there aren’t any traps, but on a failure they also might fail to find any traps.  If you roll poorly for them and tell them they do not find any traps, they will properly trigger the trap as their characters did not spot it in time.  Without this hidden method, they have to avoid meta-gaming, but they still will have their own, story-line surprise ruined.  This goes for any situation that does not involve an objective occurrence, only subjective.  Your character believes he is moving silently because he can’t hear himself, but a guard has incredibly better hearing and is listening to each step unbeknownst to the character.  Let the player find this out when he turns the corner and runs into a waiting guard.  If you have problems with your players meta gaming (i.e. players who aren’t wise enough to play the game truly), this can reduce that problem.

Instead of always rolling dice for situations, give the players activities to interact with.  Daring escapes from a burning building by having each player solve a maze on a piece of paper at the gaming table.  Time it and hand out incremental damage depending on how many seconds after the target time each player takes.  Trying to get through an interesting situation that usually deals with a simple roll of the dice and consulting a chart can be substituted out with a simple but challenging toy puzzle bought at the store.  It will stimulate their minds in a different way, break up the monotony of the game, and give them something to fiddle with for a bit.


If you’re lucky enough to get to a convention, or if you find some GMs at your local gaming store, keep your ears and eyes open for people talking about rpgs and running games.  Those are your GMs who you can pick their brains or just listen in on their stories and such.  Ask them about any interesting techniques they may have, situational problems you have face, or general ideas on handling a campaign.  Don’t worry or feel self-conscious of asking a stupid question ever when it comes to a fellow gamer.  The industry has always been a niche and we cherish and value fellow RP gamers when we meet them.  And among those fellows, good GMs are extremely hard to come by.  I can’t stress that enough as I often find people tackling GM duties at conventions and admitting it was their very first game ever to GM.  So pick their brains, ask the questions you need to ask, and make mental notes of any tips and advice they may have because generally it’ll help your game out tremendously.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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