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Friday, March 4, 2016

Happy International GM's Day 2016

Happy International GM's Day! If you are a fellow gamemaster, I thank you.

Last year, I shared a collection of GMing advice harvested from some truly stellar GMs. I even followed it up a few weeks later with another batch of excellent advice from some more great GMs. This was all great general advice, both for planning and running a game, and I am still learning from these ideas today.

But this year, I want to follow up on that general advice with some more practical tips. Rather than address the big picture of how to be a good GM, I want to share some ideas on how to actually do the work of a GM and be successful.

As was the case last year, I'll be relying heavily on the wisdom of some powerhouse GMs and game designers. I've gathered a handful of excellent articles and extracted something helpful from each. What I present might not entirely match the content of the article, but it's something helpful that I got out of the article. I'll link each article as well, so you can draw your own wisdom from them.

The 5 x 5 Method

Dave Chalker

Create 5 big goals. Break each goal into (at least) 5 possible steps. Then shuffle those 25 steps around and distribute them semi-randomly around your campaign setting. Make sure that the players have some idea of, if not the entire string of steps for each goal, at least the first few.

The idea is to A) make the world seem more alive by keeping things less linear, B) give your players a chance to explore the setting and become familiar with certain areas, and C) give your players the option to make strategic decisions about which goals to deal with first. If Goal X's step 1 (X1) is in the mountains, and Goal Y's step 1 (Y1) is in the forest, then the player's have a pretty binary choice. But, if Y2 is in the mountains, then the players feel that they can make a tactical decision to deal with Y1 first, then address both X1 and Y2 in the mountains.

You can read the full article at

The 3-Game Plot

Grant Howitt

One of the most disappointing things for a GM is a campaign that fizzles out. We put so much time and effort into campaigns, and it's very disheartening to see so much of that work wasted. I suspect that anyone reading this article can think of a game that they GMed or played in that simply ended—not with a bang—but with a whimper.

There's no guaranteed way to prevent this, but if you keep your adventures focused, you can at least mitigate the disappointment of lost work. And we can guess that briefer, less meandering story arcs are more likely to keep the players' attention. Yes, a long-term payoff is amazing, but it's pointless if it never happens. If you focus your arcs to three sessions long, you can string together related stories that interest everyone, and if you're clever, you can even link those arcs together with people, places, or things and still find the satisfaction of a that long-term payoff.

Violence and Creativity

The RPGGamerDad

Ok, this might be a little more general than the others here, but it's so integral to the usual role of a GM that I had to include it.

More learned folks than I have discussed violence in RPGs (and in media in general), and this isn't really the place for that discussion anyway. But since most RPG systems build the expectation of violence into their mechanics, it's not a subject that a GM can ignore. But consider how you and your players describe violence when you play. There's a big difference between "I slice off the goblin's head and the blood spurts in a fountain from the stump of its neck." and "The elven steel of my blade glints with a hint of magic as I swing my sword at the goblin."

The choice about what to describe applies to basically all aspects of RPG, but since violence is such a big part of many games, the way it's described is very important. The way you describe the swing of a sword makes a serious difference in the tone of a game. Look at the examples above and think about what kind of setting each fits into. If you have a high fantasy setting, but all of your descriptions are grim and gory, does that fit? It might, but don't assume that it does without considering the setting first.

You can read the full article at

5-Room Dungeon

Johnn Four

I'd be surprised if you haven't already heard of this, but if you haven't, then here's my interpretation.

To begin, break your adventure site into 5 distinct areas. Each area should be focused, though that doesn't necessarily mean it should be a single room. In general, this method works best for linear sites, but with some creative arranging it could fit into a more open layout as well.

Area 1 is the entrance, complete with guardian. Without a guardian, what keeps NPCs from coming here? The guardian can be a monster, a magical ward, a dangerous trap, or anything else that presents a challenge to pass this area. The point is to present the initial challenge and to set the tone for the whole site.

Area 2 contains a puzzle or social challenge. Especially if the first area involved combat, this gives the players a break and changes the pace just enough to stay interesting. This area could be overcome with mechanics interaction (i.e., rolling dice) or it might require the players to solve a puzzle or to negotiate with an NPC without referring to their character sheet at all.

Area 3 is tricky and can force the players to take a step back. After two successes, this area is designed to keep the players on their toes. Remind them that they are not invincible or all-knowing. It could be as simple as a trick that sends them back to the beginning or as complex as a false path that leads the players to believe that they have defeated the area—when, in fact, the actual goal still awaits.

Area 4 is the climax, and this challenge should build upon the themes established by the first three areas. If magic and illusion have played a large part in the area's defenses thus far, then perhaps a great mage waits here to battle the players. If traps, tricks, and guerrilla tactics have pestered the players from the beginning, then maybe this area is the final set of fortifications for the enemy. Whatever the case, this is the biggest fight of the adventure site.

Area 5 is the denouement, where the players receive their reward. Or, perhaps this is where the plot takes a turn. The treasure they seek is not only not there, but a map and note sit in its place, leading to another adventure. Or perhaps the theme of magic throughout the site comes to a head and is explained by the fountain of pure arcane energy that bubbles here. Either way, this area is the most important of the site.

The goal of the 5-room dungeon isn't to make your adventure sites small or predictable, but to keep them focused and manageable. Even for a massive megadungeon, it's easier for players to recall the whole thing if it's broken down into thematic, easily digestible sections of, say, about five rooms each.

You can read the full article at

And that's it for this year. Lots of practical advice to get you gaming and to help you be an efficient and successful GM.