Last week, one of the groups I play in decided to end our Pathfinder campaign, and after some discussion it was decided that BobÂ is going to run NumeneraÂ for us. It has been a little while since Bob has run something, and we got to talking about getting back behind the screen again, along with some concerns that Bob might have. Having just come back from my own slump,Â I thought I would share some advice with Bob…and you all as well.
A Little Background
Our group has 6 members (5 players and a GM). Of the five players, four are local and one is joining usÂ remotely via Google Hangouts. Bob’s last campaign was about a year and a half ago, when he ran some 4e using the Wizards published adventures for us. While Bob has been a player more than a GM, he is no stranger behind the screen.
I asked Bob to toss out a few questions and concerns about returning to GMing after a long hiatus. Bob had five things he was concerned about, and my responses are below:
Rust – It’s been a long time since I ran a game, how quickly can I get back in the groove?
Sure you are going to be rusty when you start. The good news is that GMing is like any other learned skill, and deep in your grey matter the reflexes are laying dormant. Once you start GMing, those reflexes should come back pretty quickly. One advantage you have is that your hiatus was just from GMing and not playing. As a player you have been watching other GM’s run things, and soaking it in.
Before you start running, I would recommend getting caught up on GMing advice. Obviously you should be reading Gnome Stew, but also check out G+ communities, podcasts, etc. The more you are reading and listening about GMing the more you will be thinking about GMing and that will also help to clear the rust.
This will be a theme for the rest of my answers: take it slow. Keep your first few games simple and focus on shaking off the rust from one or two areas a session. Give yourself a goal for each session: good NPC dialog, strong descriptions, running a complex combat, etc. Design the sessions to let you work on those areas. After a few sessions, when you are feeling comfortable, you can write and run what feels natural.
Learning a new system – Can I master the system fast enough to guide the players smoothly through the first sessions?
No one masters rules the first time they GM in that system. There are some things you can do to make rules mastery less difficult. First, learn the core system solidly. If you know the core system everything else will come quickly, plus if you have to improvise something, basing it off the core system will always be your best bet. Take the time to study the core mechanic: read it, read any examples, and test it out in your mind.
Next, make your own GM’s screen. It does not have to be a screen per se, it could be something like a set of reference tables. The important part is that you take the time to extract tables and rules from the rulebook and condense them into some format you can use. The act of creating the material will help to reinforce the material, and when you are running the game, you will have the reference material for use.
Finally, phase in the rules via the story you run. When you learn a new system don’t try to run a session using every rule. Rather, write your first sessions to introduce a few rules at a time. Start with some scenes that have the players trying out the core rule, with a few skill checks. Later in the session you can have a combat, but keep it simple: simple adversaries, simple terrain, no advanced combat options. As you get comfortable with rules, write scenes that will include more complex rules.
Remote player – I’ve never run a game with a remote player before. Can I manage the flow to keep him involved and entertained?
In a hybrid group its easy for the remote player to get drowned out by everyone at the table. Make sure that you are getting face-to-face time with the remote player during each scene. Periodically ask the remote player if they have any questions or need something cleared up.
When the table gets overly excited, often during combat, you will need to calm the table to make sure that the remote player understood what is being talked about, and that their contributions can be heard. During combat, take the time every few turns to re-cap what is going on at the scene level, before the remote player’s turn, to make sure that the player is fully aware of what is going on.
There are going to be times when there is a miscommunication or communication gap, and the remote player missed some important information. Don’t be afraid to rewind the game and let the player take back an action. It can be frustrating for a remote player to take a move that was ineffective or be forced down a certain path because of a lack of information or a misunderstanding.
I’m on my own – my best work was done using packaged material/modules. Will I be able to prep an engaging story?
Cracks knuckles. I think I can be of help here. 😉
You can prep your own material, it just takes time and imagination. The problem you will have initially is that you are not going to have good control of either of those things, and on top of that you are going to be juggling learning the rules, managing players, and kicking a campaign off.
Make it easy on yourself and use some tools that will help shortcut some of the work. For starters use EurekaÂ or a book or tool like it, to generate plots. This will take the pressure off of you to generate an engaging story right off the bat, and save you time in your prep since you just need to flesh out the plot into some session notes. Second, use something like Masks, Story Forge cards or another book/tool like it for NPC’s. This will give you interesting NPC’s without having to create them from scratch, and also save you prep time. As the campaign gets rolling, and the other areas of the game are under control, ideas will come to you and you can get into writing your own stuff all from scratch.
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Never UnpreparedÂ to learn the process of prepping a game, and techniques for streamlining your prep. Aside from the phases of prep, I would focus on the Time Management section, to help you better understand how much time is going to go into your sessions and how to plan your prep so that you are not under the gun. Then, take a look at the Templates section, so that you create templates to focus what you write down in your notes, shortening your prep time and making your notes more useful at the table. Later on after you have more sessions under your belt, then look at Prep-Lite to streamline your prep and give you back some time.
Overall confidence – I’ve run more stinkers than gems, and player confidence in my skills wasn’t high. What if I lose them early? Will I get another chance later?
First thing. Fake it before you make it. Players can smell a lack of confidence behind the screen, so push that down and use any bravado (true or false) that you may have and get the game running on that.
Second, confidence comes from victories, regardless of size. Start small. Your first instinct will be to try to crush a home run on the first pitch. Avoid that thinking. Just hit the ball and get on base. From there, get to second, to third, and then bring it home.
Make your first sessions simple, straight forward, and fun. Run them well, by knowing the scenario and relevant rules. Engage the characters by incorporating some of their backgrounds into the story. When it doubt, side on making things a bit easier rather than harder when it comes to opposition (skill or combat). Let the players have some early wins with the system as well, they will love being the heroes and badasses. There will be time later to present tougher opposition.
Get feedback from players right after the game, then take that feedback and work to improve your next session. Borrowing from my PM background, use three questions:
- What went well? – These are the kinds of things you do in future sessions.
- What could have been better? – Don’t do those things in future sessions.
- What surprised you? – Surprises are differences in expectations, and they can be good or bad. Find out what the surprise was, and see if you need to do something differently in future sessions.
With one game down, focus on running the next one, and the next one. As your confidence grows you can worry about big campaign arcs and complex plot lines, but first get those early wins under your belt.
Why Do We Fall, Bruce?
Getting back behind the screen after a long hiatus can be daunting. Have your GM skills faded away like your understanding of high school chemistry? Likely not, your GMing reflexes are likely intact but your GMing muscles have atrophied. Take it slow to rehabilitate those unused muscles and in time your muscles will match your reflexes, and you will once again be running great sessions.
As for the rest of you… Have you ever been away from the screen for a while, and how did you get back into the swing of things? What advice do you have for Bob before he gets behind the screen?
My two coppers –
1. Realize that you’re going to make mistakes. Even seasoned GMs get tripped up from time to time.
2. Run a short adventure. This helps build confidence.
3. KISS. This goes hand-in-hand with point 2. I’ve found that players can enjoy even the most simplistic of plots and sometimes complex plots invite more problems than payoff.
4. KISS for PCs. Stick with the main rulebook. Don’t allow stuff from supplements unless you have a good reason to do so.
5. Understand the base mechanics. Keep things in general terms – if you know what the thresholds are for easy, average, and difficult rolls then you have enough to roll with. You can bone up on the side cases as you go.
6. Acknowledge, Rule, and Follow-up. If a question about a rule comes up in play and the answer isn’t immediately apparent, don’t grind the session to a halt. Just make a temporary fair ruling and look the rule up between sessions or during a session break. You can implement the proper rule after you’ve had a chance to look it up.
What Walt said, special emphasis on point 4.
Also: Make (quick) notes on what you needed to know that wasn’t easy to find during the game. After the first session, revisit that home-made screen and add a page reference or brief summary of what that elusive rule was and how it works.
Here’s something I like to do: listen carefully to the players and try to run with it as often as possible. For example:
My players really want to track down the big bad. Wasn’t in my original campaign arc plans. So what. When they defeat the minion this week they are going to find a map to lead them to the big bad a little earlier than planned.
If they ask something like “Did he have a ring on him” after defeating an opponent, all of a sudden they do. Doesn’t have to be a super powerful magic ring, or maybe just an inscription inside they can use.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to throw everything out of the window, but when you can respond to their ideas and work them into your existing notes/maps, you’ll seem like a genius.
If I add in an element on the basis of player questions, I’ll sometimes acknowledge that that is what I’ve done. “A ring? *thinks a bit* Why not? Isn’t in the description but now you mention it it is an obvious thing for him to have. Yes, he has a ring. A big gold one set with a distinctive gem carved into a high-relief design etc etc”
I’ve found that doing this at the right moment can be a player reward bigger than XP or bennies. It shows that I’m listening to them, that I give weight to their views and that I’m on the same page (at that particular time) as they are in the global worldview gestalt mental construction.
And when you goof up a rule or monster, just do a do-over. I had a mistake last night and I have been running this particular campaign for over a year almost weekly.
I said “Oops” must’ve read that wrong and did a reroll. If their characters are improving a little all the time and making progress on the adventure, that is much more important than GM perfection.
I’m a fan of keep to what you know which goes along with the KISS principle in a lot of ways. If you’re putting together your own material take an element from something you like and merge it with an element from something else you like. Just shave the serial numbers off and you get something original which will be vaguely familiar to your players and something your comfortable with because they’re things you like and understand.
I’m also down with looking at what the players are giving you and giving it right back at them in ways that challenge them and push them towards making decisions. Ask them questions and use the answers.
Do your best to make whatever happens at the table make sense. From what I’ve gathered from Numeneria it’s about a lot of different things. Just focus down to one or two of them to begin with. Maybe the exploration of an old giant structure far away from the town which has suddenly lit up every night at midnight for an hour. Then you can send them on a classic “Dungeon Crawl” in this structure where they need to discover the mystery of the Midnight Light.
Now you can just draw a map, populate the site, figure out what the mystery is, write down a list of clues you can give the players over time as they discover parts of the structure so they’ll eventually figure out the mystery, throw some cool futuristic stuff in there since it’s the ninth world, and let them have at it.
While I’m a fan of the pilot episode game being a showcase for what the game will feel like I don’t think it’s necessary. Your first story, arc, adventure, dungeon, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t have to be a banged out and wrapped up in a one session game. Whatever you decide you can lay it down for the group to play for a few sessions. Let the players and yourself get comfortable with their characters and the game in a familiar style of game. It takes the pressure off and if you push the discovering exotic and lost technology parts then you have a Numeneria game with a very comfortable base. You know X so stick to X, incorporate some of the Numeneria idea’s, and over time just keep sliding more Numeneria in there and expanding your game.
To add some small but relevant detail: Do things you like. You want your players to have fun, but don’t forget to have fun yourself. So what antagonists, NPCs or monsters would you love to let loose on your players? What setting do you love? Your own enthusiasm will infect the players.
Bob here – great tips and advice, thanks everyone! One thing that won’t be a problem is enthusiasm, as I’m really looking forward to running this game for the group. I’ll keep all of your thoughts in mind as I get ready over the next few weeks!
I didn’t contribute high enough to get the beta of Numenera, but I’ve read all of Monty’s and Shanna’s blogs. There is a sample adventure in the core book, so I assume you have access to that with your pre-release version?
Even if you don’t run it, read it over to get a feel for how Monte sees a campaign opener. Steal anything you like, ignore the rest!
Once the Kickstarter deliverables ship, they are including adventures for many of the pledge level.
Have fun, looks like a kick-ass game!
Remote Player question:
How do you guys do it? Is he just on the GM laptop so only the GM can see him?
Or is there a laptop at the table?
Any advice? I’m 2 remote, 4 local using Google Hangouts, and it’s the first time I’ve done remote.
I’ve been playing & GMing for a long time and I’ve been a GM more often than a player.
I recently had to stop GM for a time (moving to a new city, try to find new players, move back to original city…) and I’ve finally stated my new campaign, using a new & different system than D&D 3.5 (Shaintar & Savage Worlds). Since I had only read the rules (thoroughly) but no actual playing experience and my players had never played SW rules either, my first session was a crash course in the skill/combat rules. Before we started creating characters, I printed some pre-gen PCs and handed them out. Went over the varioues stats quickly and set up some minis and set up a fight between them and some bandits.
Everyone got their feet wet (including me) in how the basic system works. Then we began PC creation. Everyone was motivated and it allowed me to get a firmer grasp on the rules & the flow of combat which is always the moment where multiple rules come into play. Now, after only a few sessions, we are all comfortable with the SW rules.
*This Comment Contains some mild but shameless Self-Promotion. You have been warned.
Everyone’s advice so far has been spot-on. Especially the bits about being prepared to fuck-up.
Last summer/fall, I got back behind the Screen after months and months of inactivity. It started pretty well but I kind of screwed the pooch towards the end. Maybe my mistakes could lend you (or somebody) a bit of perspective http://violentmediarpg.blogspot.com/2013/04/one-of-those-posts.html .
I’d just like to add that you’ve got to be prepared to improvise. The PCs WILL at some point do something crazy or go in a weird direction (or a totally obvious direction you didn’t consider). It’s totally ok to say, “All-right fellas, give me a minute, I didn’t plan for that.” However, if you have to do that all the time, it can really bog the game down.
There are a ton of tools here on the Stew and elsewhere to help you improvise when the old brainbox needs a jumpstart. Should your mind happen to happen to jive to symbols like mine does, here’s a tool I created http://violentmediarpg.blogspot.com/2013/02/useful-symbols-quick-npc-dice-drop-table.html . It can be used to help generate any sort of improvised content. It gives you a concrete theme, a feeling, or an idea to latch onto and build upon.
Good Luck, Sir, and Have Fun.