Campaign Creation: Beginnings and Broad Strokes, Part 2

In the first Campaign Creation post, we laid in a basic foundation for our campaign setting. Today we’ll expand that a little bit, focusing on the people around our characters.

At this stage of the game I’m not looking to build fully detailed non-player characters. In fact, I usually avoid statting out NPCs until I’m forced to do so by the needs of the session. That allows me some flexibility with my NPCs, and the ability to morph them into what I need at any particular moment. While that’s useful, beware turning your NPCs into “swiss army characters”; that is, no single NPC should be the solution to every problem. Once you’ve assigned certain abilities or details to a supporting character, those abilities should be fixed (although they can improve, just like any abilities can over time).

With that in mind, I’m going to drop in some supporting characters that will likely be the characters’ first contacts in the town. Normally I’d let the players tell me which NPCs to develop by seeing who pops up in their character back-stories. But since I’m building without a party in place, I’m going to develop the NPCs I think the characters will need right away. When I actually start the campaign I can still develop extra NPCs based on character history, or modify the ones I’ve already begun.

Last note, I’m going to use the same, “Good, Bad, Ugly” as I did for the campaign location, sketching in one NPC in each category for each of my four imaginary players. At this broad stage of creation it is still a great method for developing the basics of NPC relationships. Also, I think game masters can tend to focus only on NPCs beneficial to the characters, so this method pushes me to think a bit about conflicts that may be present before the characters even leave the village. None of these NPCs are my major villains (maybe), but they come into conflict with one or more of the characters in the course of their day to day.

The Good

Cynria is the mother of one of the characters, and also a member of the town guard. A caravan guard for many years, she married her partner (now deceased) and settled in the village to raise a family. While a supportive parent, she can tend to be over-protective and strict, even severe if she feels the situation warrants. Of late she has requested patrol routes that take her to the very border of the village and The Ruin, though she won’t say why. A good NPC for martial training, and an information contact for rumours and tidings from both the village and merchants.

Beorn, a dwarf, maintains one of the small chapels in the village (we’ll talk about those later), serving as a simple brother of the order. While fearless in the face of violence, no one has ever seen Brother Beorn raise a hand in anger himself. He can be found anywhere in the village, collecting stories from those that have braved The Ruin for a history he is compiling. An obvious NPC contact for any divine oriented characters, and could serve to provide historical information as required.

In addition to the basics carried by any general store, Vidan’s Mercantile carries an eclectic mix of odd items found in The Ruin. An energetic and friendly halfling, Vidan is happy to purchase any truly strange object adventurers bring her. She is even happier to sell these oddities, ascribing them a host of fascinating (and sometimes real) qualities. Brother Beorn and Vidan continually wage a war of words regarding the artefacts Vidan sells, Beorn maintaining they should be made available for study and Vidan agreeing…for a price, of course.

Rahjaq, a long-time ex-patriot from warmer climes, maintains both a local tavern and an apothecary.  While some find it worrisome the two share the same kitchen, there have been no serious mishaps, and most everyone come’s to the tavern to try Rahjaq’s special drink blends. And to see if there will be a repeat of the gaseous form incident.  Cynria seems to have a personal grudge against Rahjaq, and while there is speculation no one knows why. Despite this public antagonism, they have been seen talking together on several occasions, sometimes even amiably.

The Bad

Wenred serves as acolyte to one of the village’s less well attended churches. His tireless proselytizing has become tiresome, and he fails to see that he is part of the reason people worship elsewhere. If one of the characters shares Wenred’s faith, that character is never good enough in Wenred’s opinion. Any time they are together, Wenred will make his disapproval clear. If a character follows another deity, Wenred will insist on debating doctrine in an effort to show why his faith is superior.

Beomond can usually be found in the market, alternately looking for work loading and offloading various caravans or begging for alms. While many look down their nose at him as just another lazy, drunken beggar, the observant note that he never has the smell of liquor about him and never seems intoxicated. Unknown to most everyone, Beomond actually works for an organization intent on securing the best Ruin artefacts for themselves.  His somewhat innocuous presence in the market allows him to gather information on groups set to explore The Ruin (so they can be watched and targeted if necessary), or on caravans carrying artefacts away from the village (so they can be robbed as necessary). He will always be very interested in what the characters are doing, even going so far as to offer to be a bearer during one of their explorations, if his organization deems it necessary.

Too lazy to be an effective guard, but just clever enough to keep his job, Menforth uses his position with the town watch to collect “protection” fees.  These fees, of course, really only protect someone from him, and then only for a short time. Menforth has a knack for ferreting out merchants and adventurers who don’t want their business known, and extorting “reasonable” fees to keep their secrets. His twin knack of only choosing targets too weak or compromised to complain has so far kept him out of trouble, but someday that might fail him and he’ll be caught with his hand too far out.

Anrich can be found in any of the village’s taverns, swapping tall tales for cheap wine. No one believes any of his stories of a life spent adventuring, but none can deny he spins a great story; the drunker he gets, the greater they become. In truth, folks are right not to believe anything Anrich says. The drunken lush persona is just one more mask he has worn pursuing his greatest love: murder. Unknown to any in the village, many of the disappearances attributed to monsters or misfortune are the result of unfortunate meetings with Anrich on the hunt. Someday soon the village might discover his secret, or the special location where he keeps his trophies. But for now he enjoys making the rounds of the taverns and selecting his next target.

The Ugly

For this category, I’m sort of breaking my “no swiss army NPC” rule a little bit. But I’ve already thought ahead to who and what I want in the major villain of the campaign, and so I want an NPC to serve as the major foil to that villain. Because this NPC is going to be a major player, I’m just creating the one, but he/she will come in contact with each party member in a different way. Not martially powerful, this NPC will have to use cunning and guile to oppose the actions of my main villain, and will not be known to my player characters right from the beginning.

Aldmuel has resided in the village since its founding, though he was a local even before that event. One of the original mage-architects of the city (now The Ruin), Aldmuel’s power waned as the city crumbled; while still fairly powerful by mortal standards, his/her power is a fraction of what it once was. Aldmuel has remained, both to discover what laid his beloved city low millennia ago, and to oppose the darkness he has sensed beneath The Ruins. Aldmuel never appears as his/herself, instead adopting any number of guises to suit the situation. The player characters may well encounter Aldmuel early and often in their adventuring career: as the stable boy looking after their mounts, the tavern girl serving their drinks, the wealthy merchant or inquisitive sage commissioning a delve into The Ruin. In what he sees as a war fought in the shadows, Aldmuel will not hesitate to use the characters as he sees fit. Eventually, he may even resort to the truth as a tactic, and reveal him/herself to the party.

Okay, that’s it for NPCs for now. This gives a good mix to start with, and as you can see, developing NPCs leads to fleshing out more bits of the setting. For instance, we now know there is a town guard, a general store, multiple taverns, at least two chapels or shrines, a blackmarket, and at least one criminal organization. Those details will be the first to get fleshed out when we turn our attention back to the setting later. But next time we’re going to turn our focus to The Ruin, and decide what creatures make it a dangerous place to spend time.

It also occurs to me, it’s about time to give this village a name. If you have an idea of what to call our little town perched on the edge of The Ruin, drop it in the comments. I’ll go through and pick the one I like the best, and the name giver may even win a prize, because I’m swell like that.

Campaign Creation: Beginnings and Broad Strokes, Pt. 1

Recent posts in the 30 Days of GMing Challenge got me thinking about campaign construction. Specifically, about how long it’s been since I built a campaign from scratch. I only have so much time in the day, so in recent years I’ve fallen back more and more on the use of pre-written campaign material when I start a new campaign. While I usually (okay, always) tweak it to better suit my players, it isn’t the same as building the campaign from scratch. So I thought it might be interesting to create a campaign setting, much as I would if I were starting with a new group of players. I also thought it would be helpful if I talked through this creation here, so you might pick up ideas on how to build your own campaign from scratch. I’ll post once a week or so on the topic, and go through the steps I use to get a home-built campaign player-ready.

And so it begins…

As I mentioned before, I usually tweak or build the campaign to suit my players and their characters. Since I’m building this campaign without an actual group, I’m going to lay down some base assumptions to get started. If you have a group and are working along with me, feel free to adjust as needed for your own table.

First, this is going to be a fantasy setting. While I enjoy other RPG genres, I have the most fun in a fantasy setting so that’s what I’m going with. Second, I’m working with the Pathfinder RPG in mind, though that will only really start to matter when I begin writing stats. Third, since I don’t have a particular group, I’m going to build with a “standard” group in mind: four characters, fighter, rogue, cleric, mage. I can always adjust the particulars later, for instance if I have a bard as opposed to a wizard I can change some NPCs to better support that class.

With all that in place, lets rough in the village. It doesn’t have to be a village, of course. I could start them off in a city neighbourhood or as part of a nomadic tribe. But if you’re just starting out, a village is a very manageable chunk of world to create. For the first little while my party will find adventure close to home, so it means I can worry about detailing the rest of the world later, and only as needed.

When I need to give a location some flavour, I use what I’ve termed, “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” method. The Good is some sort of tangible benefit the location bestows. The Bad can be some sort of threat to the location, or the location itself contains some sort of danger. The Ugly is one mystery associated with the location, which could turn out good or bad depending on what the party discovers about it. So using that I come up with:

The Good: The village is a minor trading point, as it is built on the fringe of an ancient and long-ruined city. While the actual population of the village is small, during “dig season” the village almost triples in size, attracting a wide array of adventurers and treasure seekers. While not extensive, resources to support adventurers (healers, magic dealers etc) exist.

The Bad: The village must keep a constant watch against the creatures and humanoid tribes (mostly goblins and troglodytes) inhabiting the recesses of the ruins. While this is easy during dig season, with all manner of adventurers and mercenaries present, it is becoming increasingly difficult in quieter times.

The Ugly: The ancient city is a massive ruin, and generations of explorers have yet to map even a fraction of it’s surface, never mind what lies beneath. The architecture is unfamiliar, and many have speculated the city wasn’t built with humans in mind. Occasionally, runes carved into buildings and monuments glow of their own volition, though with no obvious effects for weal or woe.

Just with those broad strokes in place, I have a location that is both supportive and interesting to my adventurers. The village allows me to narrow my scope at the beginning, while placing it on the edge of a vast ruined city gives me room to grow. And the village gives me the opportunity to weave very personal stories into the adventure, with the proximity of the the characters’ friends, enemies, and family. In fact, that’s what we’ll look at in Part 2.

Does this inspire you to start your own campaign world? Have any suggestions for mine? Tell me about either in the comments!

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty-two

We are close to the end of 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, closing in on the final week. I hope folks have enjoyed this. I had and am having a lot of fun, and with the exception of a minor hiccup last week, I like having a constant stream of posts. It is very likely I’ll go back to daily posting when the challenge is over, but for now on with the show!

A novel solution: what’s the best advice you have borrowed from a totally different field?

I freelance as an editor, and spend a lot of my working time with genre fiction. One of the best pieces of advice I received early on and spread around wherever I can is: show, don’t tell. In fiction this means instead of writing “He felt sad.”, which is static and frankly boring, you write something like, “His gaze lingered on her scarf by the door, and he choked back a sob. He poured himself another drink and curled up on the couch in the comfortable dark.” Both methods convey the character’s sadness, but the second method is both more interesting and conveys much more information without using a huge exposition dump.

“Show, don’t tell” can be applied to GMing as well. Instead of telling players how evil the villain is when he’s introduced, show him doing something despicable. It’s cliche, but have him punishing a subordinate as the characters approach. Have the vampire villain stop in the middle of his conversation for a “snack”. It’s much more interesting and exciting for your players than just telling them the villain is evil. It also opens up the chance to surprise your players with the villain. If she’s been acting normal up to that point, then suddenly stabs someone to death in alley, that’s a great “Holy crap!” moment for the players.

And it doesn’t have to be reserved for villains. You can use the technique for any of your NPCs to give them a bit of flavour and bring them alive. Don’t tell them the blacksmith is angry; instead describe him hammering more furiously. Don’t tell them the innkeeper is obsequious; describe how he instantly switches on a smile and agrees with everything the characters say. Giving your players these types of descriptions instead of just telling them what an NPC is like also makes their Perception and Sense Motive checks more useful. After all, how a character acts may or may not have a connection to what they actually think or feel.

Showing instead of telling opens up a whole new way of both providing and hiding information from the players. If you aren’t used to it, don’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the habit and rhythm of it. Just keep plugging away, and spend a bit of time practising your descriptions, and you’ll soon have a whole new tool in your GM’s bag of tricks.

What’s your best bit of advice from a different field? Drop it in the comments and share with the group. Tomorrow we talk about mechanics and story.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty-one

As we enter the final third of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, we start to look at more “meta” questions. Questions like…

What are your favourite books about game mastering?

My hands-down favourite book on game mastering is Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, written by Robin D. Laws and published by Steve Jackson Games. Sadly out-of-print in dead tree version, but still available as a PDF, this is my go-to game mastering book. I re-read it cover to cover at least once a year, and I’m constantly referencing it when I run campaigns. It is a great setting-neutral source for GMing advice, and I’d hand it out to every starting GM if I could. If you don’t have it, get the PDF. I promise you won’t be sorry.

If you GM Pathfinder, there are two books you must have: the Game Mastery Guide and Ultimate Campaign. I’ve talked about the Game Mastery Guide before, so I really don’t have anything to add. It is full of useful information you will be happy to have at your fingertips when prepping and running a Pathfinder game. Ultimate Campaign expands on that information, giving you suggestions and tips on: expanding character backgrounds; what to do in the downtime between adventures and how to make that downtime fun for the player; how to adjudicate things like magic item creation and retraining; creating and running a kingdom, in case your players have an urge to rule. Just about anything your players might get into during a prolonged campaign is covered in the pages of this book, and it’s a great resource for any GM. Heck, a lot of the information is presented in a setting-neutral manner, so even if you don’t play Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign is going to be useful.

Finally, if you are looking for a GM guide for world-building, the best one I’ve found is the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, published by Kobold Press. It features essays by gaming luminaries such as Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, David “Zeb” Cook, Jeff Grubb, Scott Hungerford, Chris Pramas, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, and Ken Scholes. It is packed with great meaty gobs of world-building tips, tricks and advice. The thing I love about this book is that there are some conflicting ideas on world-building, which means the book has something for you regardless of your personal views on world creation. This is another book I re-read often, and you need to have it one your shelf if you plan to create your own campaign worlds.

What GMing books are your “must haves”? Leave a note in the Comments, and we’ll see you tomorrow for advice from a different field.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty

Two-thirds of the way through, gentle readers. After today a scant ten entries lie between us and the end of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. I really hope you’ve found some of these posts useful. When this is over you’ll be able to read all these entries in one of two ways: either click on the 30 Days of GMing tag, or read them on the separate page I’m constructing to house all this advice. In the meantime, lets finish out the first twenty…

What was your best session and why?

I have one particular session that sticks in my mind, from a campaign I played in years ago. The session didn’t start out so promising; only three of the usual six players had made it to the game that night. But while we were talking before the game started, we discussed how funny it would be for the next session to start with some totally improbable situation, just to freak out the absent players. A little more discussion, and this went from “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” to “This is what we have to do!”. And one of the most epic evenings of play had begun!

Out of context here is the list of “six impossible things” we had to achieve in order for our plan to work:

1. Kill the fire giant chieftain and his mammoth animal companion.

2. Take control of the fire giant tribe.

3. Hollow out and reanimate the animal companion.

4. Using the animal companion as a sort of “Trojan Mammoth”, secure the bulk of our party inside.

5. Get safely to the Drow stronghold, potentially protected by the fire giant tribe.

6. Our vampiric dwarf cleric must use diplomacy to gain entry to the stronghold, allowing us to start next session not only inside the Drow stronghold, but inside a zombie mammoth.

Not exactly a short or easy to complete bucket list for the party. And frankly, we would have been happy to just get one or two items complete that evening, and carry on with the rest next session. But as amazing as it sounds we completed everything on that list in one 3-1/2 hour session of play. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will touch on a few points that contributed to our GM starting the next session with, “We start where we last left you guys, inside the mammoth. What would you like to do next?” Side note: we resisted saying anything about what happened that night to the other three players, so they started the session ignorant of what had passed. The looks on their faces when the GM started the session were everything we dreamed of.

Our GM ran with it – Our GM could have fought us any one of the points of our plan. They varied from the improbable to the downright ridiculous. But our GM saw how invested were were in this plan and rather than fight us, went along for the ride. That isn’t to say he made things easy for us, though I suspect there may have been a little fudging in our favour at a few points. He realized that, first and foremost, his job was to make sure we had fun. So rather than throw pointless blocks in out path, he went with the key improv philosophy of, “Yes, and…” and gave us an exciting evening of D&D. I GM that same group of guys now (with a few new additions) and there isn’t one of us that doesn’t still remember that session with fondness. And all because our GM put the fun factor first.

Discussion does not equal fun – For the campaign we were playing, six players was a perfect size. (Against the Drow, for anyone that remembers that 3.5 ed. gem) For most situations, anyway. But with six players a fair amount of session time can be spent just deciding what we were going to do. I can honestly say, if the other three players had been there that night we would never have come up with the plan, never mind pulled it off. That doesn’t mean they were bad players, or intentionally obstructive. But there can be a tendency during these group discussions to just go with the path of least resistance, in order to end the discussion and get back to playing. But with just three of us, plus a desire to “punish” the other three players for their failure to attend, we went from conception to planning to execution in a very short order. And when it came to execution, we still had all six characters at our disposal; our GM’s policy on player absence allowed for the characters to be played by proxy, either the GM or one of us. So we essentially had three brains controlling six bodies that night. Combine that with us being very brave and bold (especially the three player-less characters), and we were able to achieve in step in our plan in easily half the time it would have taken with full attendance. I’ve carried that lesson with me as both a player and a GM: sometimes it can be a bad thing to give the players too much time to discuss. There is often value in throwing them into the thick of it and forcing them to think on the fly.

The goal was fun – I think if our goal was more punitive towards the absent players, the GM would have steered us away from whatever course of action we developed. But because our goal was to: a) do something fun with our evening even though we were missing half the party, and b) “punish” the absent players by starting in a weird situation which ultimately served our campaign goals, the GM allowed things to happen. And I think that was my biggest take away from that evening: almost anything should be allowed to happen at the table as long as it serves to make the game fun. Fun is why we play; fun is why these are role-playing games and not works. That doesn’t mean that, as a GM, you have to allow the players to run with every demented idea they come up with. But, if their idea isn’t going to sink the campaign or harm another player’s character without their consent, and it will lead to the players having more fun rather than less, go with it. Our list of six things was a near impossible shopping list of tasks, and by rights we shouldn’t have pulled them off. But we did, and as a result we had an evening of fun still talk about years later. So the next time you’re GMing and you want to say no to your players, take a second to reconsider. Saying yes might just make for a memorable evening.

What was your best gaming session, player or GM? Tell us about it in the comments. And join us tomorrow for Day 21: What are your favourite books about game mastering?

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Fifteen to Nineteen

Never fear, I haven’t abandoned the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge. But last week became busier than anticipated, so once again you get a blog post covering the last several days. I promise, tomorrow we go back to one topic a day. Until then, pour yourself a coffee and enjoy.

Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative?

Whether I’m running a pre-written adventure or something I’ve put together, I spend a lot of time figuring out the villain. If the player characters are the heroes of the story, they deserve a villain that challenges and, if possible, scares the bejesus out of them. I have three main tips for making the villain memorable.

1. The villain wants the opposite of what the characters want – Seems pretty straightforward, right? But many people forget this very simple definition of antagonist, and give their villain some esoteric goal the players (and therefore characters) don’t care about. Tie your villain’s goals into the things important to you characters. If a character has loved ones, the villain must threaten them in some way. If a character is after a particular item, the villain wants it as well. If a character wants a specific person dead to avenge her family’s murder, that person is of particular importance to the villain and under his protection. The more specifically you can tie the villain’s desires into the characters’ stories, the more memorable he becomes. After all, any villain could want to destroy the world, but only yours needs to sacrifice villagers from the characters home town (including the character’s family) to do it.

2. A villain is known by the company she keeps – Every memorable villain has had memorable lieutenants, someone to lead the minions into battle. Sauron had the Witch King and the Riders; Goldfinger had Oddjob; Emporer Palpatine had Darth Vader. Yes, each also had scads of less memorable minions, but the trusted servants all stick in the mind. Why is that important? Well, if the lieutenant is powerful and scary it offers you two things as a GM. First, if the characters haven’t encountered the main villain yet, they might mistake the mook for the boss. Which makes for a fine bit of surprise when they discover the truth. And second, when the truth is revealed the villain seems that much more frightening because she is controlling (even if just barely) the already frightening lieutenant. This reveal is particularly fun if the characters are still a ways off from being a match for the main villain, because it drives home how serious their situation is and what they might need to achieve to finally win out. Yes, it takes a bit more work, but trust me, exciting mooks make for memorable bad guys.

3. Pass the salt, it’s time to chew some scenery – You can be excused for not coming up with distinctive personalities for every goblin or thug the party encounters. But when it comes to the main villain, now is the time to pull out all the stops! The first time they encounter him, the box text should lay thick with description. The villain should have a distinctive voice and style, a way of talking and acting that is clearly theirs and no one else’s. Give them a catch phrase, a specific vocal quality (a lisp, a rasp, or a higher/lower pitch), or have them speak only in the characters’ minds. Maybe the room gets noticeably hotter/colder when they enter. Maybe there’s a distinctive smell that accompanies their arrival and lingers after they’ve gone; I had a villain who kept bees, and so a sweet smell would linger after he’d left a room. Maybe their eyes glow with a sickly green flame whenever they cast spells or become enraged (which they should become around the characters often). The point is, now is not the time to be subtle. Once the villain has chosen to reveal himself he should be larger than life and scarier than death. So pull out all your acting chops, and make sure the characters never forget him.

Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?

Investigation and mysteries can be some of the hardest things to pull off in a role-playing game. Too often GMs tie clues into the result of Knowledge checks, which can work if your party has the needed skills. But what if no one has Knowledge (engineering)? Do they just not get the architectural clue left by a previous builder?

One of the best games I’ve found for investigative scenarios is the Gumshoe System, by Robin D. Laws. In Gumshoe, the basic clue will always be found by a character with an appropriate skill. So if you took Art History and the clue is hidden in an old painting, you will discover that clue and keep the story going. However, you can choose to spend points from your skill to get more information and reveal even more important clues. Therefore the story never gets bogged down because there is always a way to find a clue, and your skills are still useful because they can get you additional information.

I’ve carried that same idea back to my Pathfinder games. I now modify Knowledge and Perception checks in such a way that beating a relatively low DC (5 or 10) will get you the minimum  information necessary to keep the investigation going. But achieving better results (beating a higher DC) gains the player more information and an edge on solving the mystery. After all, while some of the fun lies in discovering the clues, most of the fun in an investigation comes from putting those clues together. In order to do that, you have to make it a little easier for players to find them.

Putting clues together leads us into red herrings. I use them sparingly, because I’ve found through experience that sending players to constantly chase their tails is more frustrating than fun. So at most I’ll include a couple of false leads in the investigation. But I think they can be useful. Red herrings add a bit of realism to your investigation; every investigation suffers from the occasional bad witness or clue that goes no where. They also help point up the fact that other things are happening in your world that don’t directly involve the characters. But if you do use them, I suggest making them relatively easy to sort out. It’s okay to use a red herring to send the characters on a fruitless chase through the village, for instance. But don’t send them on a fruitless chase across a continent. Doing so will only frustrate your players and make them feel like their characters can’t impact the world around them.

To raise tension in my games, I find it useful to construct events that happen when the characters aren’t present. Like all good ghost stories, the most frightening things are the ones that happen when you aren’t looking, or just catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. In the same way, having the players encounter the results but not the thing causing the results allows you to build tension. If they enter a room and see that the stone wall has been pitted and scored, they may know they are dealing with acid. But from what? An NPC throwing vials of acid? Some sort of acid spitting creature? OMG A BLACK DRAGON!? Showing them effects without apparent cause allows you to use the players’ imaginations against them, and that can be a powerful tool.

Structure and time: how do you use flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives in your games?

Flashbacks – Flashbacks can be a great tool for spicing up the presentation of box text. While it doesn’t always fit, presenting key moments as a flashback helps tie the characters further into your world. For example, the party approaches the ancient tower they’ll spend a great deal of time exploring. At this point I could launch into standard descriptive text and ask for various Knowledge checks. Instead, I wait to hear the results of the various checks and using the results as a guide, I do a flashback for each character that provides information about the tower. So a Knowledge (history) check results in a character recalling a portion of a lesson from an old tutor. A Knowledge (local) check might flashback to the inn the night before, and an old codger recounting tales and rumours about the tower. Not only do you get the information across to the players, but you make their checks part of the world you’ve crafted, instead of just dice rolls. You’ve also set up possible NPCs for later; if the old codger’s rumours turn out to be true, maybe the party checks in with him before their next dungeon sortie.

Cut Scenes – I use cut scenes to deliver information or setting/plot flavour to the players, which their characters might not yet know. Often your players will wonder aloud about certain aspects of the campaign; what the villain is actually up to, who the next victim might be, and so on. While you can just keep your mouth shut and let them speculate, done properly a cut scene can give them a bit of answer to those questions, while tantalizing them by producing more questions. For instance, if the game so far has featured a series of brutal murders, you might give the players a cut scene featuring a young man leaving his workplace and walking home. As he makes his way down the darkened streets, a shadow detaches from a nearby alleyway and begins following the boy. As the young man turns at a noise behind him, there’s the flash of a dagger and the boy screams…! End scene. The next day, in game, a boys body is found and the players are presented with more clues to follow. As you are presenting “meta-knowledge” to your players, though, you have to gauge whether your players can handle having that information without warping their characters’ behaviour. I use cut scenes primarily as a treat for the players, so I don’t want their characters suddenly acting on knowledge they don’t have. In my example above, if the characters just start acting like the weapon used was a dagger when that hasn’t been established in play, then that is meta-gaming and not allowed. But, if the players use the cut scene as a spur to more closely investigate the wounds and the weapon used, which leads them to a dagger, then they are using “meta-knowledge” correctly.

Parallel Narrative – Parallel narrative is a device similar to cut scenes.  As a tool it will be the one most familiar to the players, as it is used extensively throughout television. If nothing else, the inclusion of commercials turns every television broadcast into a series of cut scenes, albeit mostly bad ones. But where I will present a cut scene as a show the players can watch but not affect, parallel narrative involves one or more of the players directly. It is most often used when the party has split for some reason, as a way to keep the action moving forward while splitting the time evenly between the players. The key to running good parallel narrative, I’ve found, is always make the jump from one player to the next on a high point in the action. That can mean a cliff hanger (“The door squeals in protest as you open it, dust swirling at your feet. You see something move in the darkness beyond…and over to you, Bob.”) or waiting for the player to discover some important bit of plot (“As you finish reading the town ledger you realize it is the town reeve and not the mayor who was funnelling tax money to the cult. Think of what you’re going to do next, and we’ll go to Steve who just opened an unfortunate door.”). Make sure to mix things up. Too many cliff hangers dulls the effect; likewise, you don’t always want to give your players a lot of time to make plans without the rest of the party.

How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?

I tend to modify rewards, whether tangible (gold, magic items, property) or intangible (exp. points or story awards), to more closely suit my players as well as my campaign. Most treasure in a pre-written adventure, for instance, is placed with the standard blend of fighter/mage/rogue/cleric in mind. But what if the party’s main combatant is a monk? After the second or third longsword or shield +1 the party finds, that player is likely to get frustrated. So I look very closely at my party blend, then go in and modify treasure accordingly. That doesn’t mean every treasure pile is going to have things perfectly suited to each character, because that would be ridiculous. But it does mean that occasionally the party will fight a monk NPC who wields a staff +1.

As far as suiting the treasure to the campaign world, I’ll take a page from the real-world and try to modify the cosmetics of the treasure to match my setting. After all, not every item is equally valuable everywhere. Before the Chinese made it so valuable to the West, jade was just another greenish rock. The Spanish looted much of South America for Aztec gold, but to the Aztec other more useful materials, like obsidian for weapon making, were more highly prized. Paper money is a perfect example of this; finding a bag containing millions of dollars is great, unless those dollars are Confederate currency. So while I still include the ubiquitous gold and silver coins in my treasure, I might also include a cannister of rare teas, bolts of silk, and jade figurines, if my setting was more oriental in flavour.

Intangible rewards, like experience points and story awards, can also be modified to rely at least partially on the characters and setting. One of the easiest ways to do this is to tie XP gain to resolving a situation or encounter, instead of connecting XP to successful combat. I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the players in my Kingmaker campaign is playing a paladin dedicated to finding peaceful solutions first. Which means tying XP just to successful combat will undermine his character concept. So instead, I’ve tied XP to encounter resolution instead of encounter elimination. I still expect many encounters will end with combat, and XP will be awarded as usual. But I’ll also award XP for resolving situations diplomatically, without combat. That will make the player happy, because his character is actually impacting the game world in the manner he prefers. And it also allows me to show the other players that they will still be rewarded even if they don’t go all “murder hobo” on every NPC they encounter.

As a side note, treasure is one of the few times I adhere closely to whatever encumbrance rules the game uses. While it can be tempting to just hand-wave the party walking around with thousands of gold pieces weighing hundreds of pounds, I actually think it adds possible encounter and story ideas to a campaign. Do the characters leave and come back with a cart in order to strip everything to the walls, hoping someone doesn’t stumble upon their now unguarded treasure trove? Do they leave someone behind to watch things, and what happens to that person while the rest of the party is gone? Or do they pick and choose, trusting to Appraise checks to help them snatch the best loot? And what do they do with the valuable statue, easily worth tens of thousands of gold pieces, but standing eight feet tall and weighing a tonne? Like most things I try not to go overboard, and make most of the treasure found relatively easy to transport. But it can be fun, as well as an easy way to keep players from creating over-powered characters, if you make treasure a bit harder to manage.

What was your worst session and why?

I racked my brain for a bit, trying to come up with a specific worst session to talk about. And I have to say, so far I seem to be lucky since I have no real stand-out bad sessions. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had bad sessions, every GM has (and will). Just nothing I can single out as the worst. But I can single out one particular type of player guaranteed to give me a bad GMing experience.

The Diva.

All players like to be the centre of attention every once in a while. The Diva starts that sentence with “I” and ends it sentence after “attention”. The Diva is the player that must be involved in everything; every role-playing moment, every turn of combat, every decision whether the player’s character is present for it or not. They have to have their say, sometimes interrupting the GM and other players, and they get offended and pouty when they don’t get their say or the party chooses to ignore it. I used to call this player type The Asshole, but many times the player in question can be a really nice person, acting the Diva out of a real or imagined sense the party needs their guidance. But even if they mean well, the Diva still bulldozes over everyone else’s play experience, making things less than fun at the table. Nowadays I largely encounter The Diva  at conventions. I’ve successfully weeded them out of my home campaigns; either I fix the problem (preferred), or that player doesn’t get invited back for another campaign.

How do you deal with a Diva? Make sure the Diva is very clear about what they are doing at any particular moment, then hold them to that. This is especially helpful if your Diva always seems to be at the back of the marching order when the potentially trapped door is opened, but is miraculously right at the front when combat starts. Or across the room when the potentialy trapped chest is opened, but within snatching distance once the loot is discovered. I’ve found that using miniatures along with clear house rules about each player being responsible for moving their mini and enforcing the “playing where it lies” rule clears up most of this problem. For non-combat encounters, have the Diva’s behaviour reflected in their character. If the Diva is constantly chiming in with their opinion during another players attempt at negotiation, for instance, then that is what the character is doing. And if it’s annoying to the player and GM, it should be annoying to the character and NPC involved, affecting the DC of the Diplomacy check. And if the Diva is just so far out of control those tactics don’t work, it’s time to take that player aside and explain what’s going on. Sometimes the Diva isn’t aware they’re being a Diva, so talking to them about their behaviour can often bring it under control. In certain situations, like a convention game where you don’t have time to be subtle, go with this last step first. It may result in the Diva being sulky or even leaving, but it will keep the entire table from having a bad table experience.

Okay, I promise, starting tomorrow we go back to one topic a day. Both for my sanity and yours. In the meantime, if you have anything to add or any questions about the topics above, please drop me a note in the comments.

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Eleven to Fourteen

Moving into days eleven through twenty of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, we focus more on how things run at the table. As a reminder, if you follow the link above and look in the comments section, you’ll see all the blogs taking part in the challenge. I encourage you to do so, there’s a lot of good advice being shared. In the meantime, since I took the long-weekend off, here are Days Eleven through Fourteen. It’s a long one today so strap in; regular length posts resume tomorrow.

Day 11 – House rules: what are your favourite hacks, mods, and short cuts?

The usual disclaimer: since I play a lot of Pathfinder, much of what I say here will refer to that game. But it is possible to apply it to other games as well, with a bit of modification.

One of my favourite optional rules for the Pathfinder game is Hero Points. When I’m not playing Pathfinder I really enjoy games where the player has agency and can direct some of the action. Hero Points allow for that in a Pathfinder game, as well as giving the player a chance to pull off the truly heroic action. For those not familiar with Hero Points (found in the Advanced Player’s Guide), each character can have a maximum of three at any time, and spending one allows the player to affect the d20 roll. The exact effect depends on whether the player decided to spend the point before or after the roll; bigger bonuses apply if the Hero Point is spent before the die roll. Players can also spend a point to get back a spell cast, use a special ability one more time, and a variety of other options. I allow their use in every Pathfinder game I GM, because I love encouraging the players to be heroic, to take the big chances. It always make for a more exciting night at the table that way. If I’m not playing Pathfinder, I try to find a way to introduce the concept of Hero Points to whatever game I’m running.

One of the few things I actually stole from 4th ed. D&D to use in other games was the idea of the passive skill check. While most skill checks require the character to actively attempt something (climb a rope, pick a lock, remember research), sometimes something is so obvious and the character so skilled that she succeeds without really trying. While an active check requires a d20 roll plus bonus, a passive check assumes the player rolled a ten on the die, plus skill bonus. The most obvious use of a passive skill check is for Perception, and I use it to gauge what the characters might actually see upon entering a room or situation. If their passive Perception score is high enough, they might actually notice the “hidden” door (or monster) right away, because it just wasn’t hidden well enough. But I also use it for skills like Sense Motive, and even Knowledge checks. Depending on where the DCs start on a Knowledge chart, for instance, a character may know the basics about something without really thinking about it. Only after pondering the situation, item, or creature for a bit longer (making an actual Knowledge check) could he potentially know more. Using passive checks has greatly sped up my game play, because I don’t have to bog down play with unnecessary dice rolling.

I also like to hack whatever game I’m running to find a way to reward players for staying on top of the story. I try to start each session by asking for a recap, or a “Previously on…” summation. If the players can give it to me I will find a way to reward them in game, either with additional XP or bonuses. These recaps also give me an idea of how I’m doing as a GM; if the last session wasn’t memorable or they players seem confused (when I don’t want them to be confused, of course) I know I need to make a change.

Day 12 – Table Rules: how do you keep players focused on the game?

I don’t use a lot of “set in stone” table rules to keep my players focused. After all, if I’m doing my job as the GM the players will generally stay focused because I’m holding their interest. And because gaming for me is first and always a social activity, I actually embrace the occasional lack of focus. I’m okay with funny asides, or “this reminds of the time…” stories, because for me that’s part of the hobby. Also, as a cunning GM, I’m always listening when players talk about things that stood out for them in other games. It’s one of the best ways to figure out what your players will like/hate, and add/avoid it in your game.

That said, I do take steps to minimize disruption when we play. I’m lucky enough to have a separate game room with a table and chairs, so I use that. Not only does sitting around a table suit my sense of tradition better, it also keeps the players focused on each other and the game. Moving from the living room to the game room also gives a concrete transition from socializing and catching up on the week, to playing time. I also have a general rule that, unless you need to look up a rule or find something for your character, no internet at the table. I’m always happy to watch the latest funny video, but only after the session. This one can be hard for players, especially with the ubiquity of smart phones, but it’s important for me as a way of limiting distractions. Like most of my other table “rules”, however, I don’t do hard-ass enforcement. But players who pay more attention to their phone or tablet than to me find they miss out on important information, and I don’t go back over it for them. Usually it only takes one or two instances of walking into a trap or suffering a surprise attack before the offending player turns off his/her device.

Sometimes as the GM you have to take the mood of the table. There are going to be some evenings where, for whatever reason, no one is really focused on what is happening. While you could try to grab control and force players to pay attention , I’ve found over time that sometimes you need to let the players have their unfocused sessions. Let them go in whatever direction they choose, even if that’s sometimes every direction at once. Gaming is a social activity, and sometimes your players are going to focus more on the social than the game. That’s okay. Let them. Enjoy it with them instead of trying to force them back on track. You may have worked hard on the encounters for that session, but those encounters aren’t going anywhere; tuck them away for next time. Have fun with your players, let them have their head, and you’ll generally find that next session they are back on task. If they aren’t of course, that’s an issue (and the subject of another post).

I also make sure to talk with my players about my “at table” expectations. Many, many issues can be avoided if your players know up front what you want from them as far as play behaviour goes. If you’ve been letting them check emails for three or four sessions, then suddenly freak out about it at the fifth, that really isn’t fair to them. Take a moment to talk about expected etiquette, it will save much grief later on.

Day 13 – Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?

The short answer to that question is: I don’t always. The long answer is, well, longer. How and whether I balance depends a great deal on who my players are and what type of game I’m running. For instance, I’m currently running a “sandbox” game where the characters are exploring wide swaths of uncharted wilderness. The characters are starting at first level, but they may encounter things in their exploration that no first-level party can handle. But because the players are all experienced, I expect them to know when to run away and save that encounter for later. If I were running the same game for brand new players, though, I’d tend to make sure the bulk of their encounters, while challenging, were within their capabilities. In each case how much balance I add depends on my ultimate goal. With my table of experienced players I’m trying to challenge them, so I want the sphincter-clenching moments of finding something they shouldn’t have or evading something truly nasty. Because they are more familiar with the game, I’m trusting them to put that knowledge to good use. But with a table of new players my goal is largely to teach them the game. The best way to teach the game is to play the game, so unless I really want them to learn character creation rules, killing them off just because they took a wrong turn would be counter-productive. So I balance the encounters a little more in their favour, letting them learn and become the more experienced players.

And let’s be honest, imbalance is more fun. It’s what players remember. Try it yourself; think back to every combat encounter you’ve had in a game. How many of the ones you remember were perfectly balanced? Now how many were gut-wrenching, “oh my god we’re all going to die!” encounters, where you barely won out in the end (or maybe didn’t)? Chances are you remember more of the latter, right? Sometimes, to challenge the players, a GM has to tip the scales against them. Whether you tip them a little or a lot is up to you, but I guarantee those are the encounters your players will talk about when the campaign is over.

That said, if every encounter becomes a life-and-death struggle, soon the players will either get blasé about them, or just give up. So I usually worry less about balance inside each specific encounter, and more about balancing encounters against one another. After all, easy encounters have their uses as well. Sometimes you want to remind the players their characters are indeed heroes; slip them an easier encounter where they can strut their stuff. I use these especially after a party has levelled up, so they have a chance to try out any new feats/abilities and get a handle on them before bigger challenges rear their head. Using a baseball analogy, these easy encounters are the practice pitches before I put them on the mound. Of course, once they are on the mound I try to make every encounter bottom of the 9th, bases loaded, and winning run at the plate…sorry, enough baseball. My point is, I tailor the encounter for the characters, but keep in mind what I think the players might need or want from the situation as well.

Day 14 – How do you facilitate combat? Any tips, tools, or cheats?

Earlier I said I try not to force focus at the table, but if there were an exception to that, combat would be it. I expect my players to be focused on what is happening during a combat encounter, and I am definitely less lenient about lack of attention. My biggest tip, therefore, is “Lead by Example”. If you want the players to be focused and ready when their turn comes around, then you as the GM have to demonstrate that same (or greater) level of readiness. For me, that means not fumbling through books looking stuff up; declaring a definite action for an NPC/monster when it’s their turn; always having something happen when it comes around to me. How I do that goes back to my earlier post about session prep. I make sure I have all the information I need ready and at my finger tips, so I don’t have to hesitate for longer than it takes me to choose an action and declare what’s happening. If I can be ready to go, especially when I’m running multiple creatures or NPCs, then it is only fair to expect a player to be ready on their turn with their one character.

To keep combat moving I also try to remind players when their turn is getting close, so they have a chance to look up rules and plan during their down time. That way when it does come back to them, they are ready to go and can tell me what they want to do right away. If they have questions about the situation I do try to answer them but I also remind them this is combat, and they don’t necessarily have time to notice everything in the moment. So I don’t really allow extended question-and-answer sessions about the environment, the monsters, and so on. I give a brief answer and then ask, “What are you doing?”. I always bring it back to the character’s actions, because that is what moves the encounter forward and I want the player focused on the action.

One of the tools I sometimes use are initiative cards, like those offered by The Game Mechanics. While initially created for D&D 3.5 they work equally well for Pathfinder. They allow me to keep character information in front of me during combat, so I don’t bog things down by repeatedly asking for things like armour class. And tying back in to my passive skill check rule, above, at a glance I can know what to tell players about their situation initially and what they’ll need to dig deeper to discover. They require a little more organization than using a standard initiative tracker, but not much more. I do recommend holding off on their use until the characters are a little higher level, though, unless you can laminate your cards. Otherwise you’ll spend the first few levels erasing and re-writing a lot of information.

My general, all-purpose combat tip is, Keep It Moving! Nothing sucks the energy out of an exciting combat like having to look something up, or dither about actions or results. When in doubt, make a decision and keep going, even if you aren’t sure it’s the right decision. Remember things like the 50/50 Rule (all things equal, the chance of performing anything is 50/50), and the +2/-2 Rule (when in doubt, apply a -2 modifier for something bad, and a +2 modifier for something good). Yes the game has rules, and yes you should know them, generally. But sometimes you forget, sometimes you didn’t look up that rule before play, and sometimes (usually) the player is doing something you didn’t consider. So just roll with it, make up something reasonable in the moment, and look it up after the game. Your main job as the GM is to keep things fun and exciting. Looking up rules is neither of those things.

Whew! Okay, that was a big chunk. I’ll try not to do that again, I promise. If you have anything to add or ask, please drop it in the commets!

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Ten

Ten solid days of the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge in the can!

What are your tips for running a low/no prep game?

As I said in an earlier post, I’m not the strongest improv GM. I’ve become better over time, but I’ve bolstered my meagre improv skills by being hyper-prepared behind-the-scenes. Every once in a while, though, I’ll end up having to GM on the fly, mostly because of a lack of prep time for a session. And that’s when I fall back on my hyper-preparedness. I’m going to talk about Pathfinder because that’s what I play the most, but you can file the serial numbers off and apply these to other games.

My first tip, then, is know your resources. I have PDFs of all my Pathfinder books, and I have bookmarked relevant pages in all my books. The two big ones for GMing on the fly are the GameMastery Guide and the NPC Codex. Between these two books you have everything you need to make up NPC encounters off the cuff, develop plots, and set the scene for your players. If you GM Pathfinder, I highly recommend these two books. If you don’t play Pathfinder, your game likely has similar resources available, so track them down.

Other resources that will help? Pre-made maps. If you have to put an encounter together on the fly, having a collection of pre-made maps is a big help. Not only is it one less thing you have to come up with, but the map itself can inspire your encounter. You can get them from a variety of sources: Drive-Thru RPG, old issues of gaming magazines, table-top miniature games. Paizo sells a line of flip-mats and map packs for a variety of terrains and locations. I have never thrown out any map I have ever found (I’m actually a bit obsessive about keeping them), so my collection is vast enough I can usually present a unique location on demand.

My second tip, and this ties back to my world-building style, is let your players help. This is the time to ask your players questions about their characters, what they want, what they think is going on, where they want to go. This takes some of the pressure off you, and helps gives you ideas for the session. And because the ideas came from them, you know your players will be engaged. Engagement is big when you are improving a session; your players will be a lot more forgiving of the evening’s rough edges if they are into the plot. So don’t be afraid to ask them to help you.

My last tip: keep the session moving. If you haven’t had time to prep, this is not the night to engage the players in long research encounters. If they’re in the pub, have someone throw a punch. If they’re stuck in a dungeon and dithering, a secret door opens and goblins pour out. Keep the energy up, keep the party moving forward, keep the players doing something as opposed to talking about something. Of course, if you have a role-playing heavy group, then switch it around; this is the night to have extended NPC interaction. Know your group, and run hard with what they love.

What tips do you have for running with no prep? Drop it in the comments!

30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Nine

Have you met 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge? No? Well please get acquainted…

Player “homework”: what do you ask of your players before and between sessions?

As you can guess from my previous post on world-building, I prefer to focus the world/campaign on the player characters. Like characters on a TV show, the action of the story should revolve around them. I also want the world to feel fleshed out, so I also include things that have nothing to do with the players. After all, in the real world there are lives and events going on all around you that have nothing to do with you. So I try to keep about a 70/30 split of character-focused versus “random” or unrelated plot.

At the start of a campaign I ask my players for some sort of background for their character. Many GMs ask for a straight-up written bio, and while I’m happy to take those not all players are comfortable writing what amounts to a very short story about their character. So a few years ago I expanded my request for background info to include things like:

  • character biography, written out or point form
  • map of your character’s home village, or farm, or city street
  • description of your mentor growing up. Could be a family member or the woman who taught you how to fight.
  • a description of both your best friend and nemesis growing up.
  • a sketch of family members, the home you grew up in, favourite pet et al

I could continue, but the point is, not every player is good at stringing together a story for their character. Giving them other ways to engage with their characters past and show that to you may get you more information than just the standard written bio. And things like these are just begging to be included in your campaign! If a player draws for me a map of their home village, do you really think I’ll pass up the opportunity to set some of the campaign there? That would be the worst of missed opportunities.

Once the campaign is running, I still encourage players to give me titbits about the world around them. For instance, in a one Pathfinder campaign I’m GMing the party’s gnome sorcerer works in a theatre. So I asked her to give me a general layout of the theatre as well as some folks that might work there. Homework like this does two things. First, it gets the player more involved in the campaign world, and gives you a glimpse of how they see the campaign world versus how you see it. If parts of the world fit their vision better, it is easier for them to immerse themselves in the campaign. Second, it takes some of the writing and creation pressure off of you. I could just as easily have drawn up the theatre the character worked at myself. But I’d be taking time away from other session prep to do it. Letting my players help gives me a chance to kill two cockatrices with one stone; I get interesting bits of character related campaign info, and I can focus on creating and running exciting events and encounters for my players.

A key component of this player homework for me is rewards. I tell my players flat out at the start of a campaign, if you give me some sort of character background you will get a tangible, in-game reward. You could just give an EXP or build-point bonus for it, but I try to connect the reward to some aspect of the character’s background. The more connected and specific I can make the reward, the better. For example, in a recent campaign I rewarded a wizard character with 250gp worth of scrolls, written by her, because her background talked about her learning at the hands of itinerant wizards. I imagined her character quickly jotting down what notes she could in the hopes of expanding her spell repertoire, trading scroll scribing for lessons. Another player in the same campaign is playing a paladin of the goddess of beauty, and his background (and player actions in-game, so far) focused on his attempts to find peaceful solutions, using combat as a last resort. His reward was to start the game with a potion of eagle’s splendor (to aid in diplomacy) and a potion of cure light wounds (for when diplomacy breaks down).

Other rewards can include: one-time or continuing bonuses to skill checks or saving throws; a situational bonus to item creation; actual treasure in-game (though don’t get out of control with this one); or anything else that might appeal to a player character. I’ve even hidden adventure hooks in seemingly over-generous rewards, like gifting the characters a castle or thriving merchant business. All sorts of interesting things can find you when you are tied to a castle or have to travel to keep your business running.

So don’t be afraid to include your players in the campaign building process. Engage them and reward them for engaging. You’ll find your campaign world starts taking on vibrancy and detail beyond what you expected.

What homework do you expect from players in your campaign? Do you reward them, and how? Leave a comment!


30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Eight

30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, etcetera and so on.

How do you prep for each session?

I know there are GMs out there that maybe don’t do a lot of prep between sessions. I respect GMs that can really work on the fly, because I am not one of them. I’ve gotten better at improv over the years, but I still need to do a minimum amount of prep in order to feel confident going into a session.

The very first thing I do is go over my session notes from the previous session. I’m looking for anything I said I’d have done by next session (XP totals, treasure lists, and so on). I’m also looking for any NPCs I might have to prep, and any indications of where my players are going next. Sometimes that’s straightforward; they’re still in the dungeon, so they’ll stay in the dungeon. Sometimes they have a bunch of options, though, and hopefully I noted which one they were leaning towards at the previous session.

Once I’ve gone over my notes I start putting together the things I might need for the session: NPC stats, location info, results for Knowledge checks. I read over the next portions of the adventure a few times to get familiar with them, assuming I’m using a pre-written adventure. If not, I review my adventure notes, and fill in any blanks I might need for the next session. I also assemble the physical items I’ll need for the next several encounters, like miniatures, maps, and player handouts. I like to have those things ready to go so I don’t waste playing time fumbling or searching for them.

I usually prepare one more encounter than I think I’ll need, and often two. Sometimes the players go in a direction you weren’t expecting and it’s great to be prepared for that. And sometimes the players breeze through an encounter you thought was going to take longer or be tougher. Either way, it’s good to be ready with the next, or alternate, encounter so they aren’t waiting for you to catch up.

About an hour or so before the session starts I prepare the playing space. I anoint the four sacred corners with the sacrificial blood…just kidding. A little Old Gamer “D&D is satanism” humour. But I do tidy up the play area, removing any distractions. I set up my end of the table with all my GMing tools close to hand. I set out the players’ minis, the map sheet we’re using, and character sheets if I held on to them. And I set out the snack bowls so we don’t have to waste time hunting for those later in the game.

One thing that I started doing fairly recently, I pre-roll about 15-20 times on a d20 (assuming we’re playing Pathfinder; I pre-roll for other games as appropriate) and note the results. This speeds up things like NPC/monster saving throws, skill checks, and surprise attack rolls a great deal. I use the same numbers for player checks when I need the check to be secret; for instance, an elven character’s Perception check for a secret door. This is useful, because sometimes you don’t want to give the game away by rolling a d20. Some players can’t help meta-gaming, and pre-rolling avoids that issue.

On my laptop, I open up the PDFs of all the resources I’ll need during the session, and bookmark the pages I’ll need for reference. As part of my NPC prep I’ll have noted any spells and abilities that were not familiar to me, and I’ll have those pages open as reference. If for some reason I’m not using my laptop (rare, but it happens), I use sticky notes to tab all the pages I’ll need as reference. Either way, I want to cut down on the amount of fumbling through books I have to do during play. Not only does it cut down on wasted time, but you come across as a more confident and in-control GM.

Then I sit back, sip my coffee, and wait for the players to arrive.

What do you do before each session? Leave your prep routine in the comments.