Ready for the full on geek? I’ve been a Game Master of roleplaying games since the term GM related specifically being a Dungeon Master. From old school dungeon crawls to post-modern Storytelling, I’ve done it all and have roleplaying game books from more game systems than I can remember. I took a decade break from roleplaying but recently have gotten back into it and have had opportunity to speak with a few beginning GMs. In those conversations I realized I have specific knowledge that isn’t kept in those tomes of rules, er, I mean rulebooks.
Here are 17 tips you won’t find in any single roleplaying game rulebook.
1. Names are important. Giving your NPCs memorable names will make them more interesting to the Players. Every NPC, no matter how minor, is an opportunity to enrich your world and story. Towns, regions, rivers, and other key terrain feature also deserve rich and fun names. Have a list of five or six extra names for NPCs and places you may need to create on the fly. Keep track of them for later use.
2. Players love familiar faces and places. Reuse previous settings – revisiting the inn or space station from the first adventure in the seventh adventure will create a sense of nostalgia. The NPCs they briefly encountered before are now part of their history and can create a new layer of intrigue to a standard scene. Players love seeing the man they rescued in the dungeon or woods as a merchant, mayor, or skulking thief in the town. Don’t overdo it, because it will make your world feel small. Sprinkle these moments into your campaign and watch the joy.
3. Dice rolling is boring. On the surface, dice rolling is the fun of the game. Success and failure hang in the results of the polyhedrils. When one Player is rolling the dice everyone else is waiting. Waiting, in case you are unaware, is not fun. Keep dice rolling to the minimum. Start encounters quickly and end them quickly. Don’t make the Players chase down every last critter to finish the encounter. Save big combat scenes for achieving plot goals. Dice rolling, in roleplaying games, is the work part, not the fun part.
4. Offer distinct options from which the players can choose. The world is filled with endless possibilities which can lead to a lot of time spent deciding what to do. You need to help define paths the Players can take while making it clear they can come up with their own at any time. Be clear on the type of actions the Players can take and the general consequences of taking those actions.
5. Reward player cleverness, don’t punish it. Too often GMs feel they are playing against the PCs because they are setting up obstacles. This dynamic sometimes translates into the GM being overly loyal to the obstacles and trying to be more clever than the players. If the Players have discovered a loophole in an obstacle, don’t try to fix the obstacle in spite of the Players.
6. Don’t add crazy just for the sake of crazy. Make sure there is a reason for crazy characters and not just an excuse for an NPC or Player to act irrationally. No doubt, crazy has a place in good stories, but not every crazy psychotic character is a River Tam, a Walter Bishop, or a Tom Bombadil. Mostly they are great color, add an interesting encounter, but the minute the Players have to rely on this crazy character you’ve added a component to the game beyond the rules. Add such elements purposefully.
7. Be consistent. Randomness in dice is expected. Randomness in rule interpretations is frustrating. When you make a ruling on the fly, write it down, and unless there is a reason not to, stick with it. If you need to alter it, make a point to explain why it is being altered to the Players. If a dinner knife was able to reflect the laser detection grid one session but not able to reflect a similar laser system in another, there needs to be a reason.
8. Admit mistakes as soon as you can. GMs all do it. We will have an NPC say something or do something sending the Players into a whirlwind of speculation. If it was unintended, if the Players are going down an unproductive path, admit it wasn’t intended to be a clue or anything more than a casual comment or device to move the story to a different point. Unless of course the Player speculation has given you an idea for a plot, then keep quiet. The idea here is to make sure time isn’t wasted going down unintended dead-ends.
9. Plan one significant character moment for every two hours of play. Players are in the game to be entertained and rewarded. Rewards can come from character development or interesting story events and milestones. For their time, Players earn these rewards and if they don’t get them, they will grow frustrated, bored, and become disruptive.
10. Make each character a hero in every adventure. At least give that character a chance to shine. It is up to the Player to seize the opportunity and make it something great but you need to provide the hook for the Player. Make the moment meaningful, make it shorten the path to victory, or make it epic enough that Player will talk about the moment for months, years, decades later. Even if they fail, it will be a memorable moment for them to cling to.
11. Let the mundane events take place ‘off stage’. Unless there is some value to the story by having the Players roleplay buying equipment don’t spend table time doing it. There are all sorts of moments like this in every game where the Players are just trying to assemble the fundamentals (equipment, information, etc.) to get to the fun parts.
12. Take the game as serious as you want the Players to take it. This is a Golden Rule. If the GM goes off on personal tangents, then the Players will go off on personal tangents. GMs set the standard of behavior at the table.
13. Let the Characters’ strengths override the Players’ weaknesses. Not everyone knows how to survive in the wilderness so don’t expect the Players to describe how they will do it if their characters have the knowledge. Feed them the information they need to make their characters look good. We all play these games to escape the drudgery of our normal lives. Even intellectual challenges, like riddles and puzzles should have a mechanism that allows the amazingly smart character to solve it even if the Player can’t get the square block in the round hole. Clues, different configurations, or extra attempts can all be used to let the characters’ strengths compensate for the Players’ weaknesses.
14. Always keep a current copy of the Players’ characters. Inevitably, Players will forget to bring their character sheets and will attempt to ‘recreate’ them with bad results and a lot of lost time. Don’t let the Players know this is why you have a copy of their character sheets because they will stop being responsible for bringing their own copy. When a Player does forget, make a small show of ‘oh, how lucky! I happen to have a copy right here!’.
15. Manage time like it were a precious element. Everyone’s time is valuable and everyone wants to spend their time in different ways. Some people have no problem wasting other people’s time. As GM you are not only the arbiter of the game but also the arbiter of time. You control the flow. When you halt the game to read rules, the Players can devolve into personal conversations which can then impede game play.
16. If you aren’t having fun, no one will have fun. Don’t force yourself to run a game or a style you don’t like. Players will sometimes want to play specific types of characters reflecting their favorite characters from fiction. These characters may end up leading to types of stories you don’t enjoy telling. Yes, you will do a satisfactory job in running the game, but you won’t have fun which means you will start dreading each session instead of looking forward to it. You will spend less time planning, plotting, and developing.
17. You can’t make all the Players happy all the time. Stop trying. Your effort to appease one Player will alienate the other Players. As soon as you accept someone will not be thrilled about what has happened in a session, you will be able to make the game even better for those Players who are enjoying the session. Make it up to the odd Player out the next session. If it is the same Player over and over, a conversation about what the Player needs to have fun is needed. Have fun with that!