A few Fridays ago a number of the excellent folks within the RPG Academy Network got together to do our first ever YouTube panel. Titled “The RPG Academy Network: A GM Summit” the panel was dedicated to the minds within our Network discussing, and oft times debating, their different methods for being a Game Master. Through pre-prepped questions and some excellent audience involvement they were able to give some great advice. If you haven’t seen it (or heard it in my case), and have two hours to kill, I’m embedding the link right here:
Sadly, as you may have noticed, I was unable to attend the GM Summit so you didn’t get any of my right\wrong opinions on some of the questions. Well, I copied down the questions as I went along so I can answer them right here. Hopefully I can offer up some advice just as useful as my peers!
What is my favorite system and why?
Things began with this nice little warm up question, one I find very difficult to narrow down. Should I focus on pure nostalgia and go with Dungeons and Dragons? It has been the staple system in my core group and certainly the game I’ve played the most. However, I think if I really had to choose a system to dedicate the rest of my gaming on I’d go with Savage Worlds. I’ve spoken on it many time in this blog so if you’re a committed reader, you know I love it. It’s just the best little generic system money can buy, and it slips oh so perfectly into damn near any genre.
What are some tips on handling feedback from your players?
I think most of the group hit the nail on the head with this one by mentioning that if you are honestly looking for feedback you need to be ready to receive it. This doesn’t mean you need to sit there while someone lambastes your game but you should certainly take the time to consider if their critiques might actually hold some constructive value. In the past I’ve been very easy going with how I sought critiques and I get them but they are almost always positive in nature, I may need to be a bit more formal with my requests if I plan to get any true feedback.
How do you set expectations for your games?
I rarely run something that is limiting to my group. I choose a system and let them pick from all available options. The only time this will change is if whatever group I’m planning to run a game for collectively with me decide we want to run something very specific. For example I ran a one shot game where the players were all Bullywugs trying to protect their swamplands from humans. Obviously my players would need to know going in that they are restricted to that race. I can’t really point to a time where I sprung a long list of expectations on anyone. To me deciding the next game is highly collaborative.
For a first time GM how much should be planned/not planned. Thoughts on houseruling?
I am a terrible person to ask about planning anything. From day one my games have been highly improvisational, and I plan very little beyond a core concept of the first adventure. I will usually have an idea where that first game will go, and usually have a group of enemies set aside, but I am blessed with being very quick on my feet in game and few can even tell I’m flying completely off the cuff. True story, one night my entire set of notes for the upcoming adventure were the words “Giant Vultures seem cool”.
This approach is not for everyone, and certainly not a beginner, unless you have a solid knowledge of the game world you are playing around in. I’m hardly perfect either last year I had the players fight against a werewolf as a random encounter in my Eberron Campaign only to recall midfight that the Church of the Silver Flame had long ago eradicated lycanthropes (and all other –thropes for that matter). Most of the time I do a pretty good job though!
With this approach I usually take copious notes during my games and utilize the direction the players are driving the story to set up for the next adventure so I can avoid any plot holes by omitting some info (or an NPC’s name) the next time around. The best use for this method, if you’ve a solid grasp of it, is to use it during one offs. You don’t need to worry about plot holes there!
As far as “houseruling” I would avoid actively houseruling prior to starting the game. Meaning during PC creation and the like. During the game though, don’t be afraid to break a minor rule here and there to do what makes sense to the group if you can’t immediately recall how to do something. Just make a note of the confusion and come back to it during a break or something. Lengthy rule searching can bog things down and your table might even adapt the new style of doing things after all.
Improv Game, scenes from a hat.
I wish I’d been on the panel for this question. As mentioned above I love improv, I have a lot of experience with the theatrical improv scene on up to the collegiate level and honestly RPGs are a way I specifically scratch the itch I have to act and play an improv game. I think the creation of a game using a “Scenes from a Hat” method could be fun but it would really depend on the system and if the players are also game.
There are games that essentially do this anyway, Fiasco specifically comes to mind. You could easily draw a scene at random there and then the rest is practically random generation anyway. If you’re hell-bent on doing this with D&D recall that there are a lot of random generation tables in the DMG this time around.
What keeps a game from falling apart?
I’ve GM’d a lot, and I’d call myself a strong GM. This does not keep every game I run from falling apart though. Sometimes it just happens and you need to be prepared for it. It happened far less when I was a teenager and a college student naturally because a big part of the problem these days can simply be attributed to having to adult. You will never be able to fully stop this from happening and really you shouldn’t try. I feel people need to be honest with themselves whether they have time to game, and it is a commitment. If you feel shaky about the group just do short stories or one shots.
Beyond the unavoidable pitfalls of life keeping the player’s interest in your game mostly boils down to player investment. If even on player isn’t invested they have the capability to bring exciting moments to a dead stop and even sour the rest of the players’ excitement levels for the game. The next question seems like a good place to expound on this!
In a long Campaign how do you keep things fresh?
So how do you keep things fresh, for everyone, all the time? Well… you likely won’t but you can sure as Hell try! I really attempt to work a player’s background into the game early on and make their character’s choices from that background and in game going forward matter. It usually does the trick for some of the more story loving types, and it’s why I usually suggest at least a bit of a background (and love seeing the 3 pager backgrounds!).
There are players who are just there for the boardgame aspect of the game though and it is important to shake things up mechanically from time to time. If you run the same combat over and over (doesn’t matter if it’s against different monsters) you won’t grab these folks’ attention. Mix it up, be sure to have a fight that really showcases a certain PC’s style sometimes. You’ll catch their eye!
How do you deal with being thrown for a loop by the players?
I think you can likely surmise my method for this. It’s hard to be thrown for a loop when you go into a game expecting the players to do a lot of driving the story for you. I run into the opposite issue sometimes with newer groups that expect me to drive things exclusively so that’s something I personally need to be aware of.
Where do you start writing a campaign?
So my style doesn’t allow for pages upon pages of prepped material going into a campaign but I have gone into a new game with a minimalistic view of the story I’d like to tell. I might conceive of a big bad for example that I want to be the final showdown and then let the game organically include them. I sometimes make a bit of a plot point graph where I want certain events to occur and, as stated above, let the game pull me to them (or sometimes change them completely). I just don’t spend a lot of time on prep unless it’s an encounter, a trap, a skill challenge I want to add in, or maybe even an NPC. Even then I sometimes don’t know when those items will show up until it just feels right.
What’s one extra piece of advice for new GMs?
Take notes during the game, especially when something appears out of nowhere. Some players are really interested in continuity so if you called a last second crafted innkeeper Mac last session and described how he spit polished a glass with only 9 fingers gripping the rag you don’t want to accidently forget these facts. Some will certainly call you on it.
Most of all, have fun with it and be ready to be a bit self-deprecating. When I admitted my error with the werewolf my players started calling my campaign setting “SmEberron” (Smith’s Eberron) claiming, in a tongue and cheek manner, that I wildly detract from the setting all the time. I got a good laugh out of it as well.
Essentially Tabletop RPG’s are ultimately games. They can be very personal games and hold some powerful sway in our lives if you’re one of the die-hard fans, but if at any point you aren’t enjoying yourself, the majority of the time, take a step back and analyze why that might be. Things should be fun. As the flagship folks of The RPG Academy Network say “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right”.
You know what, I say one more thing. Bring folks into the fold, be open to new players. The impetus to grow our gaming community lies with us for the most part. So if you’ve a gift for sharing this awesome hobby of ours, do so please!
I can honestly say it has been a very rewarding experience for me!
Take care folks, have a blast, and feel free to hit me up with any other questions you may have!
Hope to see some of you at AcadeCon!!!