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December 21, 2012

The Scout Motto

"Be Prepared" is the scout motto, and it's just as valuable a motto for the game table as the Appalachian Trail.  Even GMs who run their games extemporaneously, you'll find, have done quite a lot of preparation.

I accrue paper.  I write up handouts to keep the players from asking questions about things they should have written down.  I build props -- especially props of anything written.  I draw pictures and maps, and download graphics off the internet for handouts.  I learned from a fellow GM that if you show the players a photo of a person who you think looks like your NPC, that NPC sticks in their heads a lot better.  "Oh, it's that detective who looks like Wesley Snipes."

I also organize things.  I use folders, baggies, and tupperware to sort handouts, stats, maps, tokens, map tiles, etc.  Obviously D&D has a lot more junk than other games, so for a game like Vampire, I don't need the baggies and tupperware.  I'm naturally somewhat disorganized, being an ENTP on the Myers-Briggs scale; so I also tend to lose stuff a lot, even despite this effort; though I think my job has been making me better at it.

I know GMs who are very different from me as well.

Some GMs scribble relationship maps on scrap paper, make song playlists for their NPCs, or write short stories about them.  If you've designed a game about NPCs working against each other, it may actually be more valuable to write stories about them to get their quirks, personalities, motives, and mannerisms clear and cemented in your head than to write out stats, draw maps of potential battle zones, give them equipment, etc.  Far better, I think.  I mean, you can ad-lib stats, too, right?

What this says to me is that not only do we GMs have a personal prep strategy; we also tend to vary it based on the game.  Like all things we do, we should be intentional about it.  So think about what your game is about.  That should tell you the things you need to be ready for the most:

(Note: When designing a whole campaign, this strategy can help you pick a system!)

Is the game about daring adventure?  Then preparing skill DCs and combat stats is important.  You need the players to feel that sense of danger and you need to offer them risky strategies that really pay off, and that takes some real work.

Is the game about intrigue and scheming?  Then you need to get into the heads of your NPCs.  Maybe you write short stories, or write letters and prop notes in their voice.  Maybe you spend time finding pictures of people who look like them on a google image search.  Maybe you design a villain based on a Bond villain and rent the film to get the mannerisms right.

So how about you?

What's your preferred prep strategy?

Have you ever found yourself using a very different strategy because the game called for it?

December 10, 2012

Conceptual White Space

So you're trying to flesh out the setting of your game.  Maybe you're just trying to describe a sleek, futuristic office building that your Shadowrunners are breaking into.  Maybe you're trying to describe the barony that your medieval fantasy heroes are travelling through to stop some bandits.  Maybe you're describing a ruin that your pulp heroes have discovered in Axis-fortified North Africa.

I'm going to give you some quick tools to build verisimilitude with a high degree of efficiency.  That is, with these tips, you can make the setting feel rich and real without writing volumes; or if you're inclined to write volumes, you can still use these tips to make every word tell a story.

December 5, 2012

The Maltese Falcon

Hooks and character motivations are powerful things.  I want to use The Maltese Falcon to describe the difference, since that's what it's about.

This post has spoilers for an 82 year old story.  
Go watch or read The Maltese Falcon if you haven't -- it's short and won't take long -- then come back!

A lot of GMs use cliched adventure game tropes such as fetch quests, bug hunts, boss fights, dungeon crawls, matryoshka doll quests, and isolation scenarios.  These cliches are great!

Wait, what?

November 27, 2012

MET Revision

When I ran a Mage: the Ascension LARP, I wrote a version of Mind's Eye Theater that I could stand.  Actually, what I did was write a base system that was compatible with Mind's Eye Theater.  I'm going to describe it here.

Lots of people like the World of Darkness games.  The settings are fun and set up lots of hooks.  The hardest part of rewriting these games are that the supernatural powers that PCs have access to are all idiosyncratic -- they all have their own rules, and usually each level of each power has different rules.  Mage: the Ascension has 5 levels of 9 spheres with an average of 3 mechanically distinct rotes per sphere-level.  9*5*3=135.  That's too much for a rewrite.

Now, most of the powers' rules are passing-fair.  A minority need to be re-written or banned to make a playable game, and actually at that level of granularity, every GM is going to have different lists of what to ban and what to modify.  A lot of that can even be handled on a case by case basis by allowing a core menu of powers, and then allowing players to "apply" for a power not in the core set.

But the base system had to go.

November 21, 2012

House Rules

House rules are changes to the rules of a game that the GM sets.  They're helpful because there's no such thing as a perfect game, and even great games aren't perfect for every adventure.  GMs house rule games for various reasons.  Here are some common reasons:

  • The GM is very familiar with the rules, and there are a few places he wants to improve them.  This is common in popular games, and you can find some common house rules for popular games online.  For instance, a common change to 3rd edition d20 games is to make character death occur at [Level+10] negative hit points.  Another example: Critical fumble house rules have been cropping up in just about every game.
  • The game has supplemental and optional rules, and the GM wants to make clear which ones are being used.  This is a house rule even though it's part of the original game.  A storyteller running a LARP using Laws of the Night may say "we are not using any rules out of Dark Epics," for instance.
  • The game has inconsistencies or unclear spots, and the GM wants to clarify the problem.  This is more common in games that didn't get a lot of playtesting (that would be most games).  
  • The GM wants to emphasize elements of the setting specific to the plot he wants to run.  This commonly means character creation house rules.  A Cyberpunk 2020 GM might give extra points to starting characters to represent that they're experienced characters.  Or he might say everyone has to play a Cop because they represent a team of detectives.

November 16, 2012

Resource Management in RPGs

To continue the 80s flashback theme from earlier this week, I want to start a discussion about resource management.  Specifically, I wanted to remind my readers that in The Legend of Zelda, the bow was actually pretty awesome...

...but you lost a rupee every time you shot it!

November 14, 2012

Cut to the Chase

The players finally all get settled and focused on the game.  They've got their sheets out and dice ready.

"So last week we ended with you going back to the town of Landing.  You stayed in the inn.  What do you want to do?"

Five faces glance around in confusion.  You wait expectantly.  Then impatiently.  Then you start to get concerned.  They're on a quest to slay the Resurrected Witch King, whose mountain is in the North.  All they need to do is get a map of the Northern Territories (and that's even optional!), set off on the High Road, take the abandoned Ore Road at the fork that goes through the Diamond Pass, and it leads to the Valley of the Departed.  They know this!

"I guess we should sell some of these items we don't need."

"Yeah, and maybe look for rumors about the Witch King."

"Oh, I wonder if the Priest of the Lost God knows anything he's not telling us."

"Yeah, he seemed shady.  Maybe after we sell the loot, we can buy a scroll of clairvoyance and spy on him."

"Yeah, but how do we know when he'll be talking about Witch King stuff?"

"I can use a disguise spell..."

You sigh in frustration.  They know what to do, where the adventure lies.  Yet they decided to go off on this pointless side quest?  Sure, you made the Priest of the Lost God shifty, but that was a long time ago.  Any information the Priest knows the players know by now.  This is going to be a wasted session...

November 9, 2012

Slow the Pace?

Should I slow the pace at which I post here?  I don't get comments, and I don't really heavily promote this blog yet.  Once a week would be easier on me.  Please post your thoughts in a comment if you actually read this.


November 7, 2012


Last night we played a board game and one of the players ordered pizza to share.  It made me think about gamers and food.

November 2, 2012


Hey, you know I've been blogging for a while and never talked about format!  By that, I mean scheduling, duration, frequency and scheduling for your game.

October 31, 2012

Man vs. Nature

As you can see, I'm late posting this week.  A hurricane threw me off schedule, but it gave me an idea for a post.  Or rather, a comment on a post from last week.

Last week, I posted an example of a situation in an RPG, and different approaches GMs could take toward it based on the idea of Creative Agenda from GNS theory.  This week, I had a lot of time to think about the question of man vs. nature conflicts -- house fires, hurricanes, surviving in the desert, etc.

Here's my advice on building such a scene for an RPG.  I'll tie it to the GNS post with an example.  Note that a "man vs. man" combat scene uses the same kind of creative process.  The difference is that the rules for noncombat challenges in most RPGs are a lot more mutable, so you usually don't have to (get to?) choose a system for those scenes.  There are still system decisions (stats for the enemies, terrain and situation modifiers, etc.) but they're a lot more prescribed for combat encounters than noncombat encounters.

October 26, 2012

Playtesting Asylum

So last week I guest GMed an indie-developed game called Asylum.  Now I didn't sign an NDA, but I'm going to act as if I had, out of respect to the designers.  I'll give some very general ideas and keep it brief.  After all, it's Friday.

October 23, 2012

PATV on game theory

In our continuing digression into game theory, let me propose an alternative to GNS theory for player motivations.  This one is directly applicable to running a game.  GMs, ask yourselves a question:  Why do your players play your game?

October 19, 2012

Example of GMs and GNS

You should probably familiarize yourself with GNS theory if you want to be a serious GM.  To compliment Ron Edwards' theoretical academic essay for you, my dear reader, I've written a concrete example below that should evoke and illustrate the three creative agendas.

October 16, 2012

Elysium Style LARP

As a follow-up to the Adventure Style LARP post, I want to talk about one aspect of Elysium Style LARP that confuses a lot of GMs: The plot.

October 12, 2012

Adventure Style LARP

I've mostly talked about tabletop gaming here.  I've been part of and written/run a good deal of adventure style LARP.  That's the sort where the PCs go on adventures, instead of fight each other to see who's in charge.  I'm not experienced enough at it to claim mastery, but I want to offer some very basic insights.

October 10, 2012


Sorry for the lull.  I was on vacation.  Later this week I'll post a guest post I did for Reinhart's blog.  For today, here's a guest post I did last month for his blog.


September 28, 2012

Running Social Scenes

When the statistic called Charisma was invented for the first time, a new layer was added to Dungeons and Dragons, and with it, to nearly all roleplaying games from that point forward:  a system for adjudicating social interaction with character statistics.

What social systems give us is a way to divorce player social skills from character social skills and, in some systems, by setting different levels to various social skills, somewhat define a character's personality by how well he takes to and performs various social tasks.  They also allow us to stand at a remove from repugnant or uncomfortable social situations, make a die-roll-based tactical game out of social situations, and create situations where the GM can point to the dice to announce a failed or successful social interaction regardless of how poorly he defended an NPC's position or how poorly a player defended his own.

September 26, 2012

September 25, 2012

Your Title

I was talking with game designer Reinhart about the name for a GM.  He said that the M in GM was too authoritarian.  To him, M is Master.  As in Game Master.  To me it's Moderator, as in Game Moderator, though I know that Game Master is the original abbreviation.  To most non-gamers, GM as a title means General Manager, which might actually be an even better use of the term for a roleplaying game.

September 21, 2012

I Heart Metagaming

Metagaming is the use of out of game information to influence in game decisions.  See

I love it.  I strongly encourage my players to do it.

September 18, 2012

Giving Back

Brief post:  What are your thoughts on a long-time player's duty to the game?

What I'm Up To

I suppose I should take a moment and explain what games I'm currently running and playing.  That way, if you're following my blog, you can use that for some perspective.  We all come with biases, after all.

September 14, 2012

Level One

Level One is a deeply ingrained concept in fantasy stories of a certain kind, to the point where roleplaying games, when they first began, started characters at "level 1" and advanced them from there.

Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.  And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.  Taran's arms ached, soot blackened his face.  At last he dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching him critically.
"Why?" Taran cried.  "Why must it be horseshoes?  As if we had any horses!"
Coll was stout and round and his great bald head glowed bright pink.  "Lucky for the horses," was all he said, glancing at Taran's handiwork...
- The opening scene of The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander

September 12, 2012

Spicy Character Classes

I'm going to be a player in a Pathfinder game soon.  I've noticed, making a character, that the system adds a lot to improve it over 3.5ed D&D.  But this is a post even gamers who don't care much for D&D will understand.  See, one thing Pathfinder did to improve it over 3.5ed D&D was to add a lot of flavor to each and every class.

September 7, 2012

Playtesting Next

Quick post!  We playtested D&D Next last weekend, with me as the DM.  I ran a whole level's worth of adventure for a 4-person party playing the bounty hunter, human cleric, wizard, and halfling rogue.  We played in the "theater of the mind" and it seemed to work fine.  I wanted to give some first thoughts:

Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Players want their characters to be fun, which means they should serve as capable tools for interacting with the world and resolving challenges presented in the story.  They should also be connected to the story through hooks to give them context and motivation.  These two layers actually oppose one another. 

September 4, 2012

The Pitch

 This was a lot harder to write than I thought…  The pitch is a discrete GM skill, but there are a lot of angles to write about it from.  And it’s a great topic for examples, so I found myself writing way too many.  Writing to a blog format is a specific skill, as it turns out, and I need to learn it!

August 28, 2012

Character-Driven Storylines

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Character-Driven Storylines

The best story hooks are the ones the players made for themselves.

Story Structure and Hooks

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Note: This was originally part of a larger "hooks" piece.  I broke it apart as I'm learning to write for blog length and keep my topics tight.

Hook Configurations

Now that I've explained why you want to use hooks, here's a quick introduction to how to use them to put together a campaign.  Hooks are used for every kind of story.  There are a few modes of storytelling that modify how hooks are used; but the individual hooks all work the same.  

The Linear Story

A linear story involves several discrete adventures linked together by and incrementally advancing a larger storyline.  Once the players' characters are strongly hooked into the overarching story, that story itself becomes the hook to the individual sub-stories in the campaign.  A classic epic linear campaign uses this format.
Sometimes the protagonists are hooked into the first story, then hooked into the overarching plot by the first story, in which case the red arrow would point to Story 1, and then the pink arrow above Story 1 would point upward instead of downward.  Frodo sees that the ring is killing Bilbo and volunteers to carry it to the Council of Elrond for him.

The Modular Story

A modular story is like a classic episodic TV thriller, where each week, a new situation challenges the protagonists.  You can mix modular stories and linear, overarching stories like TV shows do, with several standalone stories interspersed among stories that are connected together.

Each story stands alone.  That means each requires its own independent hook.  A "pick up" game designed to be played whenever the players have time or can't play their regular games; or a string of pre-published modules can work out this way.

Parallel Stories

The contemporary term for parallel storylines in a role-playing game is "sandbox" -- but that term is misleading.  "Sandbox" implies you can just do whatever you want; but this is true in any roleplaying game.  Just like in Grand Theft Auto, you can tool around aimlessly all you want in D&D; but the really cool stuff doesn't happen until you hook into a storyline.  So a "sandbox" RPG is really just an RPG with parallel stories.  The PCs are presented with more than one hook, and they can choose which hook to follow.  
The image only has two parallel stories; but there is no limit to how many stories you can get going at once.  However, too many parallel stories will just confuse your players.  You might want to stick with two to four parallel stories, and don't make them all linear story chains with separate overarching plots.

Mixed Configurations

You can and should mix all these configurations.  Take a look at the example below.  
This example gives us 17 stories, each 2-5 sessions long.  If you were to play every other week, this is a campaign that would last two or three years, if not longer.  If this was a D&D game, and you could fit 10 encounters into each story, you would have a campaign that took the characters from level 1-18.  Here's the awesome and inspiring fact about this example:

It requires just seven good hooks.  

Seven good hooks generate a campaign where at almost any point in time the players have three or four choices; and each option is something that directly resonates with one or more characters.  You can go through your characters' histories and personalities and connections and come up with just seven solid hooks that draw one of more of them into a story.  

"Step 23. Finishing Touches"

In just about every RPG's character creation section, the last step describes those finishing touches, where you give your character a backstory, friends, family, enemies, goals, and motivations.  This is where all the good hook material the GM is going to use comes from.  You may have the coolest concept for a character (usually step 1) with no connection to the story.  That will make that character pretty boring, until a fight breaks out.

GMs have a lot of control over that "Finishing Touches" step of character creation.  Typical GM tricks include writing up a list of questions for the players to answer about their characters.  Sometimes those questions are generic:  Who is your best friend?  Where would you go if you were in trouble?  Describe your character's family.  Is your character in love?  Sometimes those questions come with implications, different for every character, dictating one fact but allowing the player to customize it with a great deal of latitude, so it's not too heavy-handed:  Why did your best friend betray you?  Where did you go the last time you were in trouble with the law?  Why is your mother always getting mad at you?  Why do you want to win your ex back?  

GMs also guide these touches by giving the players the game's pitch.  I'll address The Pitch in another post.  In short, the more the players know about the game's story ahead of time, the more they'll be able to work in "Finishing Touches" that can be easily hooked by the sorts of stories you intend to run.  You can even tailor your list of character questions so that the answers give you the appropriate hooks.  You can use a mix of open-ended questions and questions with intentional implications to push players in the direction of your story.  Then even the most "left field" character concepts will wind up hooked in.

And worse comes to worst, you can always turn McDonalds or 18 Strength into a hook, if a player hasn't given you anything you can work with.

August 24, 2012

Sowing Hooks

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Somewhere between "writing hooks to characters" and "writing stories to characters" is writing "characters to stories."  Now, as a GM you don't get to design any of the player characters (short of doing draft or "pre-generated character" games).  But you can constrain the players' options.  As part of your pitch, you can require the players to work certain hooks directly into their characters.

The Case for Hooks

EDIT:  This post has been revised and re-written along with some other content.  The revised version can be found here:

Writing good hooks is the most important GM skill because they answer the biggest question in the game:  Why are we doing this?  Here's why hooks are important, and how to use them.