Johnn Four runs Roleplaying Tips, one of the oldest and best-loved resource sites for gamers around. Roleplaying Tips is a free weekly e-zine that’s been running since 1999, and Johnn is both its editor and a frequent contributor. He has also written a column for Dragon Magazine, DM’s Toolbox, and is the author of GM Mastery: NPC Essentials.
Johnn graciously agreed to be interviewed for Treasure Tables, and I got a chance to ask him about his favorite issues of Roleplaying Tips, his approach to GMing and his upcoming projects.
Treasure Tables (TT): Thanks for giving me the opportunity to interview you, Johnn.
Roleplaying Tips was one of my main inspirations for starting Treasure Tables, and it’s a resource that I (and many other gamers!) have tapped regularly for years. With nearly 300 e-zines to draw from, what would you list as your 5 favorite issues — and why?
Johnn Four (John): Hmmm, good question.
These tips are just plain fun. 🙂
Practical and useful advice to help GMs be better organized.
I think Tip #1: Use The Five Room Model is a great solution for busy GMs and is underused.
Some low key, practical advice to help GMs with one of the most-used RPG elements — the NPC.
I feel these are great, easy to implement tips for making your villains fun and interesting for players and the GM.
TT: What was your approach to GMing like when you started working on Roleplaying Tips — and what’s changed in the 5+ years between then and now?
Johnn: Ironically, I GMed more six years ago before I started up the e-zine. 🙂 Writing, editing, the e-zine, and various other projects have eaten away at my time. There was even a two year period there where I did no GMing at all despite a great desire to — a record break after 20 years of consistent gamemastering. However, things have been back on track lately.
Nowadays, I tend to be a just-in-time GM in terms of planning and preparation. I try to craft re-usable elements to reduce prep. I also aim to create settings, critters, NPCs, and such, and let encounters develop in-game. However, I do enjoy planning out climactic encounters. Since I got back on track GMing regularly, I have also been using modules more often.
TT: In a recent post, Write Your Own Naughty List, I recommended that GMs write down a list of their own faults as a way to work on improving their craft. What do you consider to be your faults as a GM?
Johnn: The list is long. That’s why I need to continue with the e-zine because I need all the help I can get. 🙂 Top faults would be:
* Too much stuff going on for the PCs; too many hooks. Right now, a smith PC in my campaign is dying for a break so he can craft some useful items for the group.
* Experience points. I find those a pain to manage. Thankfully, my group lets me track them and I just let them know when they’ve levelled.
* Basic encounters. One problem with running encounters on-the-fly is that they’re not planned, tweaked, and organized. This sometimes causes shallow encounters, logic problems, and confusion.
For example, recently I ran an encounter that lead to a long escape tunnel. Unfortunately, the tunnel would have logically emerged 30′ up in mid-air. My players generously allowed me to change the map.
* D&D rules. I’m still unfamiliar with many feats, spells, and skill DCs, and rely heavily on d20srd.org and my players to bail me out during sessions.
* Holding back. I liked your post about not saving stuff for rainy days and GMing good ideas right away. I have a big story arc for my current Birthright campaign planned, but I’m too slow and subtle in revealing it, and I feel it’s not as compelling as it could be.
* Busy schedule. I was responsible for most of the missed sessions in 2005. 🙁
TT: Imagine that you’re chatting with three GMs: one who is just starting out, one who’s been running games for a few years, and one who’s been GMing for a very long time. What would be the single most important piece of advice that you would offer to each of them?
Johnn: Have more fun at every game. 🙂
That might sound trite, but I feel it’s true and that it’s up to each GM to determine how they can have fun, and what, if anything, is reducing their fun. For example, a new GM might lack confidence. Asking for player comments might help reassure them their players are enjoying things.
An experienced GM might be feeling burnt out, and they might consider playing for a bit, trying and learning new games, switching genres, and making time to read and be creative in non-gaming ways.
A veteran GM might be feeling an itch he doesn’t know how to scratch, and he might consider designing his own world or game system, or looking to open his mind to new (or old) ideas and change GMing styles or buff skills.
TT: Having distilled a lot of your experience into book form with GM Mastery: NPC Essentials, do you have any plans for a sequel? What topics would you like to tackle next?
Johnn: I have a few topics in mind for further GM Mastery advice. Titles are pending. It would be great to hear from GMs in the trenches about what they’d like to learn and get tips about to help them with their games. The cement is still wet and topics haven’t been finalized yet, so I’m open to requests.
TT: Neat! I’ll post a thread in TT’s GMing Q&A Forum called What should be covered in GM Mastery II? for GMs reading this interview to use to give you feedback.
Apart from Roleplaying Tips, are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Johnn: My job at BioWare keeps me very excited, happy, and busy. I’m scaling back on certain personal projects in 2006 a bit as things are heating up at work.
Last year, we released the epic RPG, Jade Empire, and this year we’ll be working hard on our upcoming revolutionary sci-fi action RPG for the Xbox 360, Mass Effect. I’ll also be working hard on GM Mastery.
TT: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with TT readers?
Johnn: GMs are the unsung heroes of the RPG industry. Sure, they do it for fun, but the time and effort they put into the hobby, the product support they lend to publishers, and the fun and enthusiasm they bring to their game table keeps roleplaying alive and thriving!
Without a gamemaster, refereed-style RPGs don’t happen. Because of you, a group of friends and players have a game day to look forward to, critters to battle, puzzles to solve, and foes to vanquish. So, if you GM for a group of friends, be it online or in person, give yourself a pat on the back, and know you have my thanks and support.
Remember, have more fun at every game. If you’re not having fun, take a step back and try to figure out why. Chances are it’s a solvable problem. Ask your players or tap the resources mentioned above.
TT: Thanks, Johnn!
What are your favorite issues of Roleplaying Tips? What did you think of this interview?