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Monday, October 17, 2011

Quality Game Mastering

Being a game master is like trying to orchestrate the construction of a plane while its underway, with a half of dozen first class passengers impatiently demanding their cocktails and amenities.  The weather sucks, the plane is bucking from the turbulence and you are losing and adding parts to the plane while you are playing stewardess, pilot and a dozen other roles all by your lonesome.

It can be a bitch or a pleasure depending on how you look at it.

I'm going to talk about my personal philosophy of game mastering.  Its nothing special or unique and its an amalgam of things I've learned over the years that work for me.  What it won't be is some kind of profound truth but you might find something worth adopting for your own use.  Or, hell, feel free to disagree and launch an mortar round via email to disagree.  It's good either way.

Moving along.

Let's start with getting ready.  Or prepared if you like.  Being ready to run a game is nothing akin to writing or mapping out everything you might need for the game night.  That's helpful, of course.  Its not even plotting out the variations of every encounter and their interests, thoughts and exquisite level of dialogue.  That's wonderful too.  Its more along the lines of figuring out what the hell you are going to do on game night and 10 games in advance.  Well, maybe not literally 10 games out, but far enough in the future that you can plant seeds to develop plots later and foreshadow future events.  You need to know your major plots and have them worked out ahead of time.  Or, you can forget about foreshadowing.  Not to mention plot development.  Its tough to plant that initial seed that grows into a dramatic plot outcome when you have no idea what the major plot is going to be.  The key point to remember is an outline of the major plot is needed.  Shove enough detail into it to know the major movements and parts of your plot without detailing every single variable.  Construct enough detail into your major plot arc so you can insert hints into the game at the right points.  Of course, its easy to say it but how do you do it?  Well, let me introduce a tool I use more often than not.  I call it the chain of circumstance.  I claim nothing new about it other than I find it useful for plotting.  In fact, its really outlining with a different purpose.

Start with a short, though no longer than a one sentence, description that defines a story point you want to occur.  Then, armed with this story point write another that you want to occur.  Feel free to write as many as desired.  Usually I cluster a series through a plot arc.  Let me provide an example.  Let's start with our players in Khurahaen City and the fact that several wagon loads of salt have disappeared.  So, let's write down “Salt”.  Since the salt is needed to a mysterious ritual, let's jot down “Ritual”.  Next, since an underground area is important to the salt and the ritual, let's write down “Underground”.  Next, since the underground will lead to the docks, note down “Docks”.  Lastly, noted down “Ship”, since its the focus for the finale.  To recap:


To add a bit to each of these, let's write down a few details.  “Salt”, equals several wagon loads of salt that have disappeared.  “Ritual” is for a mysterious ritual that requires nearly a ton of salt to perform.  “Underground” is where the ritual takes place and where after its finish the participants depart to the mud flats outside of Khurahaen.  “Docks” is the shoddy, run down warehouse that holds a cargo of undead and a floating ship full of them (roped to the floor) and a second ship at the docks.  “Ship” is a ship battle that constitutes the finale.

Now, with a few major plot points worked out, let's figure out to build the chain of circumstance to get players there.  Just like we noted down our main points, let's build a few minor points to connect the dots.  Given we are in a city, let's jot down a few likely ways to connect our first two plot points, along with some points to tie things together.  So:


1. Street Encounter (can be anything be provides into about the salt disappearance; leads to #3 or #8)
2. Rumors (provides info about the salt disappearance)
3. Duels aplenty (provides info about the salt disappearance and leads and leads to #10)
4. Barroom Brawl (players observe or participate; either way it leads to #1, #3, or #11)
5. For a price, knowledge (courtesan guild or a connection/contact gives up info on the salt and/or the ritual – for a price)
6. My destiny in a song (a street musician happens to sing the right song about a ceremony using salt to summon a being from afar…)
7. Wagon, wagon, where are thou? (Merchant who owns the wagon seeks out the players to find it for him)
8. A friend who lies in shadows (a concerned illicit contact or connection employs or passes info to the players about the salt or ritual)
9. Unknown assault (can be after #1, #7 or #8 and leaves paperwork talking about the movement of the salt caravan and hints of a plan to take it to the tunnels that are under the Mud Flats outside Khurahaen )
10. A woman’s advice (hires or passes info to the player depending on the chain thus far; she has a dislike for Cortosa, one of the chief ritualists for his treatment of her.  She will try wiles before coin but will see him dead one way or the other; she knows of the ritual but not the salt and can drop hints about the warehouse too if needed)
11. Omens & portents (spirits of the dead show the way)
12. The gods say… (the gods dip their hands in to stir the pot; for or against)

Let’s return to the premise we started with earlier.  This adventure revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a several wagonloads of salt.  This is key to understanding the beginning of the chain and its lead into the next ritual.  You can use any of the chain to lead the players from the Salt to the Ritual and as many of them as you would like.

Let's work out an example:

A player is challenged to a duel (#3).  Before the duel, the players see him speaking to several people, noticeable because of their heated conversation with the duelist and looks of anger towards the players.  Regardless of how the duel pans out the other people will attack (#9) or just get in a brawl with the players (#1).  The fallout could be the players finding out about the missing wagons of salt and an offer to track it down or the authorities pressing the players to do it for good will (or get thrown in jail).  No matter what you can keep piling on #1 – 12 to keep leading the players towards finding out and seeing the Ritual location.

Any where along the way you can drop plot hints.  Maybe you deliver omens and signs from the gods or perhaps tales from travelers or bits of conversation.  Whatever you choose, make it tasty.  Make it crunchy.

Make it something that players will salivate over.

For example, players love props.  Planning on having a duel in the game (#3)?  Find yourself a a glove, any glove, though a leather one would be best.  When it comes time, slap that down on the table with a resounding “Smack!”.   Passing information to the players or them acquiring it (#5/8)?  Make a handout; a scribbled note, jotted down message, a person's diary or something cryptic.  Something they can crinkle, wave about, clip to their character sheet, and manipulate, fold or mutilate.  Players love them.  Plus they do your job for you long after the particular event happens at the table.  They don't need explanation three games later and your players can't stick them with a sword, something I've seen many a player descend to when they are talking to nameless NPC #47 who just happens to have a tidbit of information for them.
Let's build some more on our potential adventure.  Throw in some quick detail and then build our next couple of chains.


No COC is necessary here as once to the ritual the players have little choice.  However, don't present it to them in that fashion.  Its demeaning one, and two, its better to let the players move along on their one impetus with little pushes from you.


Ditto above.

Remember we are in the Mud Flats if the plot has progressed as desired.  If the players took a different route, engage with points from the Salt list of circumstances to re-engage them.

1. In the Mud.  In the underground area is a campsite.  If the players engage the campsite, they'll find one of the people they are after has left to go to his warehouse on the docks.  He is transporting something powerful and dangerous.  They will have to find themselves a way to the docks.
2. The natives are restless.  The muddy flats is a wild place day or night and the Amarydion worshippers sling mud freely and love to wrestle and brawl.  Look around long enough and the players will find several ritualists who got sucked into the free-for-all.
3. Amarydion speaks. The priestesses of the mother ambushed several of the ritualists and while they were hurt they also captured several.

The tale should have its own pacing by now and pull the players along.  If they want to follow they will using one or a different path of the above.  If they falter and lose interest, re-engage with the COC defined in the Salt.  The idea is to get them to the docks.


The warehouse is shoddy and rundown warehouse.  Its dilapidated sides hold something interesting though.  Inside is tons of crates and ropes hanging from the rafters above.  Also inside is 3 dozen skeletons on the floor.  In the rafters is a floating ship roped to the floor.  In the ship is cargo of two dozen more skeletons.  If an melee breaks out below, they will join in the melee, dropping from above on any players.

Another ship also exists.  The cargo would not fit into the flying one (weight issue) so our main NPC shifted to a larger ship that can hold the weight.  If the players trail him to this ship they will find it has just /already left.  Otherwise, navigational maps and data in the warehouse will identify the ship and its destination.  If the players somehow miss this information, #8, 10, 11, or 12 from Salt will assist.

It ends with a ship battle between our NPC, his crew and the players.  As long as the players don’t release the Night Demon our NPC has stored in his crate (which he used the ritual to get) everything will be fine.  If, for some reason, it is released, it will kill all the ritualists and then turn on the players if they don’t run fast enough.

Oh, and while I'm thinking about this, if you are going to bring maps into the game, then make one.  It goes back to that idea that people love props and props help them suspend disbelief.  If you are going to give them a map, then by god make sure you actually give them one and don't just say "you've got a map".  As a player, that kind of thing is sure to piss you off if repeated enough.  Once in a while is understandable but continually do so is disappointing if not maddening.

Also, since I'm on the topic, if you make a map, especially a detailed on, even if just for you, do it in advance!  It goes back to preparation.  If you need a map, and you'll want them for some situations, especially if the layout is important or center point to the story plot.  If you are living a cliché and have your players in a dungeon, then you' damn well better have at least mapped it out. And cities.  Oh, cities are lovely if you actually map them out.  You can keep your players there forever if you want to, getting them involved in all the little things you decided to show them on your map.  Tourists.  Bah!  Or, worse, *shiver* they get involved in shopping trips!  As a word to the wise, never bog a game down with shopping unless the entire party is in agreement.

Okay, enough of that.

Huh, well let's poke it one more time.  Actually, we need a recap.  So, let's sum it up our first real point.  Be ready to game master.  Be prepared.  Avoid "winging it" when you can and figure out, even if its in a rough form, what your plots are going to be ahead of time.  It doesn't matter if you do it in 5 minutes while you are in the bathroom as long as you have the story lines roughed out.  Also, use of props.  Some of the best role playing I have seen happened over a taped up box of cigarettes and a draped cloth sewn with random shapes.  The box was the center point of a plot to steal it and changed hands between the players and half a dozen NPCs back and forth.  Hearing everyone ham it up and get into the mood of getting their hands on the  box was the high point of the night.  The cloth was something a friend of mine dreamed up when he rescued a irregular bit of cloth that had been used for sewing practice from a refuse pile.  He draped it over a couple of different things, some of them sharp, damn him, and we came in and wondered what the hell it was all night.  He used it as a story element and had us intrigued the whole time (not to mention trying to sneak a look under it).  At points in the night we slid a hand under it to retrieve something and usually got our fingers pricked by something sharp (he was a bastard.  I mentioned that, right?) or slimed by something disgusting.

Point number...?  Hell, I don't remember and it doesn't matter.  Next point.  Be consistent and even in your game mastering.  Here is where preparation and keeping track of what the players do and what you do in the game world builds the illusion in the players' minds.  If they break down a wall, keep it that way until you send someone in game to build it back.  If Throon are badasses in your game, don't make them pansies the next game.  Equally, don't bounce the superlatives.  Players shouldn't encounter a coterie of Greater Demons one night and then be traipsing with goblins the next.  Use balance in your preparation and even in your implementation.  Be consistent or stand ready to give storyline as to why not.

Equally important in our recitation of points is drive home that you should reward your players.  It should not be a "you versus them" mentality.  They come to the table to blow of steam, hang out with friends or just do something beyond mindlessly watching TV.  Doesn't matter what the motivation is.  If they spend the time, make it worth their while.  I mean this in more than the real world too.  If the players invest a ton of their time in a part of your game world, reward them by putting your time into it as well.  Avoid instilling the feeling that everything is mercurial and transient.  Getting players attached to your games, feeling and thinking about the game world is one of those wonderful GM habits that spawn awesome games.

Okay.  Let's move away from all this work.  Which is what preparation really is.  Preparing well means time, which means effort and work.  Work, work, work.  Who the hell wants more work?  What about the now?  The know, the one we all came to set down and play?

Heh.  Let's talk about it.  But let's talk about some aspects of it that are critical and reactive.

Pacing.  Perhaps the most underused and underestimated implements in your toolbox.  Watch moves much? If you do, you'll notice that some movies seem to drag and others keep you on the edge of your seat?  Part of its story, but not just story content.  You can bore someone to death droning on about a scene if you are not careful.  Directors and their editing teams spend a lot of time providing just the right amount and usually hammer their pacing home with sound and visuals to tie you to it.

So, its like this.  You can spend a couple of minutes hiding behind your shield talking about the slime dripping on the ways until tit falls on the players or you can throw a towel at a random player and yell, "slime drips down on you from above!  What do you do!" instead and scare the wits out of them and shock them into action.  Tense or action scenes should run just like a movie: fast and sharp.  Be loud, abrupt and quick.  Don't give players a lot of time -- keep the pacing moving.  If a player stalls - too bad.  You snooze, you lose.  Keep your scenes moving to the pace of your action scene.  Give description the same way, drawing it back to minimal lines when things move quick and build in deep detail otherwise.

Key point.  Don't bog down.  Control when the game stops and slows.  Use your voice, body, props and god damned everything to enforce it.  Don't do a one-man stand up though.  Bring the players along with you.  Suck them in and make sure everyone is into what's going on and no one is standing alone.  If they are doing nothing, point at 'em, ask them what they are doing and make it affect the situation.  Everyone is at the table to play so make sure you build in the potential if not definite for a scene or cool point where they shine in the game.

Every session my job is to build the potential for one of those games that you'll remember 25 years after the fact like it happened yesterday.  I've a pocketful that I had the honor to be a part of as a player and more as a GM where I set the stage to make them come into being.  They take work though, just like I've mentioned above.  It takes investment in your players, the people, not the characters.  It means remembering.  All their characters, not matter how silly or trivial their life or death in game, should have an impact on the fabric of your game.  What they do, how they do it should send ripples across your world: reward their derring-do and punish their misdeeds.  Don't let them be non-entities; what they do should create consequences that echo past the action done.

Long, long, long but so important.  If you've read this far, keep going.  You'll be rewarded.  In fact that's a key point I want to make.  Everything is worth exploring.  As player to GM, if you are interested in plumbing the depths of the Skull Tower, then by all means.  If, as the GM, I don't happen to have that built up, then its might task to remedy that shortcoming.  Its my shame that I have to admit that I've talked my players out of something because I wasn't ready to run it.  Rarely does it happen these days but from time to time, usually when I'm the most rushed, it walks into the game.  Usually I bash it in the head, bury it in the basement and make it into a murder mystery.  If the players want to make that run then let them.  If they want to go to the Sky Garden instead, get them there.  If they hear the politics in Falohyr near the Oakendark Forest are mighty grand this time of year, then off they should go into the thicket of plots growing there.  Reserve the words "Oh, that'll be boring", or "you can't or shouldn't do that" for some other event.  At the game table, the players should be driving the bus and if they find fancy in fishing for prismatic fish near the Sky Dark Mountains then who are you to dissuade them?

At the same time, you want to keep a measure of control on the game.  You just to hide it behind the thought that its the players' idea.  Let the players go where ever they want to and build your plots into that location.  This goes back to preparation.  If you want the players in Khurahaen next summer for the Salt plot, then drop hints while they are in the Whisper Trees investigating the White Roc Inn and the illegal goods trading going on there.  When they dig into the Misty Mountain politics and the nasty underhand acts of the Black Hydra nobles, slip hooks leading them back to Khurahaen.

Chuckle.  Now to contradict it all.  Nothing the players do matters.  The world was kicking and stomping before they showed up and its going to keep on doing just that.  In a nutshell, the world is in motion just as much as the players are and events are spawned out of the actions of the multitude of NPCs you've created as the GM.  Things happen independent of and unrelated to the players.  Some will affect them and others will pass the right by.  Of course, nothing happens without your say so.  You are the GM after all.  Still, build in the world a sense of time, activity and energy.  Players should hear about other heroes, villains and stories that had nothing to do with them.  They get started and solved all without them.

If you are still here then you've the constitution of a Tara-Khai.  Look, I've saved some of the most crucial nuggets for the latter part of this article.  Like making sure you run a fun game.  You can prepare, be attentive and reactive to players and all the other things, but if the game is boring, who is going to play?  Also, be unique.  As original as you can.  I'll never forget the first time someone snorted at the plot I was rolling out.  It both startled and angered me.  Still, its point was one I never forgot.  I was running something they'd played a million times and my version wasn't much more original than the original idea.  You have got to experiment and strive for originality.  Avoid clichés like the plague.  Stereotypes are the kiss of the death. Don't start your players in a bar or tavern.  Ug.  Or, in a little town with a set of ruins right nearby... Argh.  MMORPGs are full of this crap and it drives me bat shit crazy.

Look, nothing should be as it seems and everything should be plotted at least three levels deep and that should just be scratching the surface.  Spin plots and stories within each other so that they are like the little Russian dolls, one within another, ever smaller but seemingly endless.  Twist motivations, surface perceptions, and the truth.  Everything should be gray and reasons for the players to be, well, playing their characters possible.  Not that I'm telling you to do their work for them - this ain't a plug for the GM to do their back story. Its tough to be the hero, villain or just plain coward when someone else is playing the role.  Of course, that could be your plot.  Why the hell are the players where ever they happen to be in the first place?  Maybe the hero is the villain, though really the hero just cast as the villain; who is really a coward, you see, and the real hero the one who willingly chose to be a villain so the hero-villain-coward, could, well be the damn coward in the first place.  Maybe they did it for love, friendship or misguided loyalty, who knows?  That's your job.

Play the scenes.  I beg you for this one.  If you forget everything else, then do this one.  Everyone has expectations.  Dragons are tough, demons are nasty, elves are stupid and smell funny -- whatever.  Play to it and player expectations.  If they are looking for a fight, give them one.  If they want to eat croissants and sip tea with their little fingers turned just so, make it so, number one.  When Chorazmatt comes crawling out of the storm ripping the skies open over the Misty Seas, make her appearance memorable.  Due it justice.  Build a sense of wonder that lives on after the game ends.  You'll know you did it right if your players are talking about it four months later like it just happened.  I've references to games that I played more than 20 years ago that show up nearly every game. Things like that become part of the fabric of playing and seem to infect ever new player exposed to them.

Oh, another thing I'll beg of you.  Don't over-GM.  Let the players run free in their illusion of control.  You'll be glad you did.

I'll leave with one parting thought.  You can do everything I've mentioned and a hundred things I didn't that are right and good and still fail.   Luck is a fickle bitch and she's got the dice you're rolling in her fat little hands.  She'll bless or curse them at her will and while you can work the odds, she's the house.  In time, she'll win.  Even so, how much you bring back to the table is up to you.  That's something luck cannot control or win.   Cheers and good gaming.

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