Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Garrison Benson, and it’s about something every GM is familiar with: figuring out how to GM, what works for you, and what doesn’t. Thanks, Garrison! –Martin
Most folks get into role-playing through friends and family. They start out as nervous players in (say) their weird cousin’s game, and eventually, if and when they feel confident, they take the plunge into game mastering. Then there are those rare few who, living among populations devoid of GMs, spontaneously start role-playing. (It’s like how some species of West African frog spontaneously change sex from male to female in a single-sex environment. Geekdom finds a way.)
I belong to the latter category. I first took an interest in tabletop RPGs a few years ago, but at the time I didn’t know any other gamers. That made me the default GM. I’ve since stumbled haphazardly through running complex and unfamiliar games with new players, while learning some valuable lessons — usually the hard way.
November 2012: “Find out what everyone house rules,” or “The time I had everyone roll 3d6-in-order ability scores and random starting hit points, then killed off thirteen player characters in six hours.”
One of the first game systems I delved into was Labyrinth Lord. I figured I’d try the game rules-as-written before I bothered tinkering. Seems reasonable, right? For Labyrinth Lord that means random ability scores, random starting hit points, and death at zero hit points. My players lovingly crafted their characters, taking their time drawing amazing little portraits, calculating their encumbrances to the pound…and then waded into a bloodbath. They attempted multiple dungeons designed for first-level characters, all populated with single hit die monsters. The survival rate was less than 20%. (Luckily I’d had the good sense to give each player more than one character.)
Later, I asked around on some OSR forums and realized that almost everyone house rules ability scores and starting hit points. A lot of people ignore encumbrance altogether. If I ever again manage to talk anyone into playing an OSR game with me, I’ll use pretty generous house rules and start them out at third level or so. More generally, next time I try a new system (especially one that’s been around a while), I’ll look around the community first and see what “unwritten rules” almost everyone uses.
February 2013: “Kick off campaigns with one-shots,” or “The time I planned out a really epic campaign arc but didn’t get around to planning anything interesting for the first session.”
About a year ago I started an Adventurer Conqueror King campaign for new players, which I hoped would last several months or years. I spent hours and hours plotting out the long game: the names and quirks of regional leaders who the PCs must eventually join or usurp, the baddest monsters in the land, and a fascinating archaeological mystery (to be unraveled across months of play). I had a lot of great ideas…and I saved them all for later. The first session (which I spent very little time prepping) was a romp through a dungeon that managed to be at the same time boring and lethal. The campaign lasted two sessions before ending in an anticlimactic Total Party Kill (see below).
Looking back, I should have put the majority of my time into session prep, not campaign prep. I should have thought of the first session like a TV pilot, a chance to show off my grand vision and test audience reactions before investing the time in fleshing out a long-form plot. Nowadays I plan first sessions like one-shots, cramming as much awesome stuff as possible into a single night’s gaming. In my experience, that provides a much better foundation for a long campaign (which players want to continue) — and more importantly, it’s fun in its own right even if it ends up being just one session.
February 2013 (again): “Cheat in the players’ favor, stealthily if possible,” or “The time I dropped a green slime on a new player’s PC who had no access to fire.”
This is the story of the TPK I just mentioned. I rolled a green slime for a wandering monster, and didn’t read the full monster description until after it was all over the fighter’s back. (Turns out, you can only kill green slimes with fire or cure disease.) The dungeon walls had some kind of magical luminescence, so the PCs weren’t carrying torches. I wanted to give them access to fire without it seeming unbalanced, so I had a band of baddies walk in with torches…and shortswords. Long story short, everyone died.
I’m glad I didn’t secretly fudge the numbers — I wouldn’t want to give new players an inaccurate sense for the system’s mechanics. But I should have done more to help them. If I could do it over, I’d have an NPC cleric show up and cast cure disease, give them advice about slimes, and then proceed to create messy story complications that prevent him from becoming too useful. (Maybe the cleric, while not a direct threat, would have motives in the dungeon that unavoidably conflict with those of the PCs.) I could have turned an un-fun, essentially unfair situation into a cool story hook, and made it look like that was my plan the whole time.
March 2014: “If you can’t strike a balance, then make it easy,” or “The time I went to a convention and realized that all the fun GMs let their players succeed.”
I attended Gary Con last year. It was probably the best thing I could do to improve my game mastering. Getting to be a player for once, and playing under a wide variety of GMs, I was able to observe and take notes on when and why everyone had the most fun. One GM I played under had a really atmospheric world and some great original monsters and magic items, but the game was so brutally hard that it made everyone tense and frustrated the whole time. Another GM had the most clichÃ©d, uninspired adventure littered with +1 weapons and other bland magic items — but he let us succeed. My character waded in and slayed a bunch of monsters, and as I recall never lost a hit point. It wasn’t challenging, and it wasn’t an amazing story, but we got to be butt-kickingly awesome heroes. Everyone had a blast.
That summer I ran a space opera game in Fate Core for some friends — once again, mostly new gamers. At character creation I let them come up with pretty much anything. We wound up with a genetically enhanced chimpanzee linguist, a hallucinogen-producing tree monster, a clone of Amelia Earhart named Amelia Spacehart, and several other great characters who all flew around the galaxy together in a cabin strapped to the back of an alcoholic space dragon. Before the story even started, they were already having more fun than anyone had in any of my previous games. Then, throughout the campaign (which lasted two months before reaching a satisfying conclusion) I erred on the side of making things too easy. Yes, the game might have been a bit more fun with perfectly-balanced encounters, but for a noob GM like me, I have to say it worked out pretty well.
November 2014: “Cheat in the players’ favor, openly if necessary,” or “The time my Imperial Stormtroopers nearly TPKed a party in the first encounter.”
One time I tried out West End Games’ D6 Star Wars game. I ran a published adventure for beginning characters. My players were new to the system, but all had some experience with tabletop RPGs. During the first encounter — against four Imperial Stormtroopers — two of three player characters died and the other narrowly escaped. (As I set up the encounter, I thought I was following the previous lesson and erring on the side of making it too easy. I was wrong!) The surviving PC, severely disillusioned, made a very understandable decision to abandon the mission, quit the Rebel Alliance, and pursue a life of ease and pleasure. Then we played video games for a while.
I don’t think I could have fudged in their favor without it being obvious and contrived. But after the battle, I should have asked if the players wanted to roll back time and try the encounter again, or take a different course of action entirely. After all, they (like me) didn’t have a feel for the system’s level of lethality, and didn’t know how to effectively use their characters’ abilities. It would have been an entirely reasonable option. And after getting our bearings, we might have had a pretty satisfying adventure.
As game masters, we all make embarrassing mistakes. They often become funny later. (The above are just a select few of my many misadventures.) The important thing is that while we laugh at ourselves, we also continue to learn, grow, share our wisdom, and keep trying again.
What were some of your early mistakes as a GM, and what did they teach you? Let me know in the comments!
I think your characters always die is not because the enemies are too hard or the players too stupid, but because the enemies always want to just kill them all. Players don’t have to always win, but when they lose a fight it does not have to be the death of everyone. Allow more ways for the characters to retreat when they find themselves outclassed. If you have a hunting predator and he kills one character, it probably wouldn’t pursue the others if they flee, but just go ahead and eat the one it killed. And in the case of stormtroopers and the like, they probably would take prisoners if the players surrender. Then you still got lots of possible options to get the characters back to freedom before they eventually get executed. If they are just imprisoned for life or made to work as slaves, you got a lot of time and can give them plenty of opportunities until they succeed.
Simply ignoring rules and replacing them with a houserule is not something I would generally advice to anyone. There is a good chance that you simply had a wrong understanding of how the rule works and is supposed to be used in the game. 3d6 in order and encumbrance are not design failures. They have good reasons and its always best to only change rules if you disagree with the reason. Changing rules just because you don’t understand how they work very quickly gets you a game that is a random mess.
First, this. Always give an option to your players. When it’s obvious your stormtroopers are outclassing your players, get their leader to shout something like “Stop resisting! You are under arrest! You all come with us now and nobody gets hurt”
Second: an old lesson I learned is if you are going to fudge the dice, why roll in the first place? If the next NPC attack could kill a PC and you will fudge it if it lands, you shouldn’t be rolling it.
Narrate what happens, like my example above. Or maybe a deus ex machina of your choice saves the day. Whatever you do, if you already know the result prior to rolling the dice, there’s no reason to use them.
Great piece. I’ve got plenty of sessions I wish I could get back as a DM too, and it’s always educational to hear about somebody else’s. After a couple of botches here and there, I also learned not to be shy about just asking the players if I could have a do-over if things take a nasty turn. I’ve only had to play that card once or twice since, but it could be a real campaign-saver.
Aahh, the joys of being a newbie GM. Many kudos to you for picking up a game and running despite never having played. As you learned from your convention experience, one of the best ways to pick up tips and tricks on what works and what doesn’t is by playing in other people’s games.
Also, <3 Amelia Spaceheart.
One thing I find interesting about your experiences is the lethality of it all. My early experiences as a player back in the days of AD&D were similar, but I always attributed it to the attitudes at the time. Now I'm wondering if there's a degree of 'lack of experience' that contributes to it. I'm one of those gamers that believes character death should be reserved for dramatic, important moments and always hated death by bad roll. 🙂 It is a tough job as a GM to find a balance between making it challenging and still abiding by that concept, though.
While inexperience contributes, I think it’s old school adventure, particularly combined with brave heroes. As he mentioned, just about everyone homebrews a solution to disposable characters at low level–or uses a DCC funel to chew up many and praise the remainder.
Thanks for mentioning the stories behind how you learned what you learned. The parts of your headings starting with “The time I …” make your article a lot more interesting to read through!
I would like to second (actually, third, after Angela’s comment) the point about playing in other people’s games. I have learned a LOT from being a player — something I rarely get a chance to do. One lesson I have learned at conventions and organized play is the value of acting. I tend to be the GM with lots of in-depth plots and meticulously planned scenes… but I default to describing what the NPCs do and say. Yet some of my favorite GMs have been the ones willing to risk looking foolish before strangers and use voices and gestures to depict NPCs. It has made me aware of my strengths, but also of my weaknesses (read: describing rather than showing). So I wholeheartedly agree with your point that you can learn a lot by being a player.
At the same time, I would caution you about the temptation to roll back time. A story is compelling because character choice matters. If you communicate to your players that they can take back their actions, then they (both players and characters) have little to no stake in the story — after all, whatever I do I can always take back. The beauty of RPGs is that we make meaningful choices that change our (imaginary) world… and it is only fictional characters that suffer the consequences (thus absolving me, the player, of moral responsibility in this, the real, world). Yet for those fictional characters it is important that the consequences be real. The sense that actions have consequences is necessary for the narrative to strike an emotional chord.
It took me years to get over the idea that if I ran an adventure it had to be challenging, with no fudging. I wasn’t trying to be a killer GM, I just thought it was cooler if the characters succeeded in an encounter that tested their limits. Unfortunately, while this seldom led to a TPK, it did often lead to player frustration with overly long and difficult combats.
Interestingly,I got fewer complaints about these kinds of adventures when I was a kid than when I got older. (In retrospect, I think that some of my players from when I was in high school just cheated when things got too tough.;))
Anyway, as I have gotten older, I have increasingly moved towards combats that allow the players to show off their characters rather than “testing” them. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I have moved away from giving XP based on the “challenge levels” of monsters.
In the past, I played a lot of D&D and wanted the characters to advance as quickly as possible to the “cool levels”. Since we all had limited time, especially as we got older, this meant pushing the challenge level on each combat so that the players would get as much XP as possible.
My solution to this has been two-fold.
First, I have moved away from systems where levels are important, like D&D, to systems where the players START highly competent. There are many of these, but they include Feng Shei, PDQ, and many supers games.
Secondly, I am playing in systems that give XP for story advancement, rather than beating the toughest monsters.
I really don’t mean to rag on D&D, it was my first RPG, but has anyone else encountered the problem of making adventures too difficult because they were trying to level up the characters?
Again, great article, and thanks for reading this comment!
Can the players in your games pick their fights to some extend and have an option to flee, or do they have to defeat what they are presented with?
I would say that most of the time there is an option to flee. These days I usually make the point that not all threats are meant to be confronted – at least not immediately. For instance, in my main campaign world there is known to be a city of serpent men in the jungles to the South, and I made it clear that to go their (unless in disguise) would be suicide.
great article, I really enjoyed it, and your experiences mirror my own when I first started GMing. As for the whole TPK/PC death debate developing here, I think I will take a slightly different approach…
If your playing a realistic, gritty game (e.g. Godlike, Pendragon, GURPS-horror etc.) then player death is an acceptable part of the story. But you must state publicly to all players that this is the type of story you want to tell, and they must all agree to give it a go in advance. After that conversation takes place; if the PCs decide to walk down into the basement without throwing a grenade or two in their first, they are the the ones who killed their characters, not the GM.
On the other hand, if you playing a D&D clone, a standard Supers game or own equivalent of a Bond Film then yes, you should apply ‘the PCs are awesome and cant really die’ rule.
The plot immunity for PCs is a feature you should choose knowingly to tell the type of story you want to tell. Not a blanket ruling to apply to all games.
I think calibrating player expectations is huge. One thing I realized re: lethality is that most new players come with video games or fiction/cinema as their reference points, so the lethality level of old-school D&D and similar systems is completely unexpected. So, if a player makes a character picturing they’ll be as cool as Gandalf or Aragorn, and they get KOed in one hit in the first encounter with a goblin, then there’s a fundamental disconnect between the game’s fiction as it exists in that player’s imagination and its mechanics.
I haven’t tried a DCC-style funnel yet, but I really want to because it seems a gentle and entertaining way to introduce a more lethal system, setting appropriate expectations right off the bat. (ESPECIALLY if you use pre-gens – I think for new players character creation can create pretty strong attachment from the start, which you don’t necessarily want in a game with squishy low-level characters. It’d be better to build attachment over time.)
Not heard of the DCC funnel before; I can see the attraction 🙂 … but for newer players I usually stick to the plot protection concept – maybe its a mistake on my part, but I tend towards the idea that new players should ‘win’ when playing a RPG for the first time if you can fit it in (not always possible when new players join an existing group with on-going stories; a problem I have in my KAP game at the moment)
I agree with Borfaxer that the stories you told really made the examples and conundrums come alive. It sounds like you’re always learning, which is the best way to improve. While I wish I could knock it out of the park consistently, stumbling really calls attention to where I can improve.
I’m a brand new DM too. I’ve been trying to get a D&D campaign started with my friends for the past three years. I tried a couple times in the past, but the campaign fell through after the first session.
After reading every Gnome Soup book, in addition to some other major books on the market, I decided to start a 5th ed. D&D campaign. We’ve been playing for about a month in a half. I started small and simple. At first, we were having a blast, but that has been short lived.
I have one guy who keeps inviting all his friends without letting me know. So I’m planning encounters for 4-5 people and I have 8 players showing up (all of whom I donâ€™t know).
I have another player whose only goal is to give me a hard time about every little detail for the sole purpose of derailing the campaign and arguing. I mean, he’s finding issue with everything. Not to mention that his stats are all off and refuses to balance his character to conform to the rules and the balance of the party. His reasoning is that I approved his character when we first started–as I was wrapping my head around the rules and campaign development (which everyone was in agreement that we would start the campaign, and work out the kinks as we moved forward. So I have a supercharged Necromancer running around, dwarfing everyone elses intelligence.
So last night, my player brought in two new people to the table (again, I didn’t know about it). They came with 4th edition pregen character sheets and wanted to play pixies. Instead of choosing a pregen, 5th ed character sheet I had printed out–they started arguing that their character sheets were just fine and even suggested that I change to a 4th edition campaign structure.
I’ll admit, most of this is my fault–but as a new DM, I can’t realistically manage a campaign with eight people in it. But quite honestly, most of my players have been pure jerks. I’m also a very reserved, quiet person (not a type A). In many ways, I’m socially shy, but I like describing scene and conflict. So, this morning, I have decided I’m going to dissolve the group. I think I’ll hit up my local game shop and see if I can join a campaign–or meet some more like minded people to game with.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to rant–I needed to vent. It’s deflating when you spend hours upon hours on something, only to see it get washed down the drain in a couple game sessions.
I think I worked it out. I let the players know how I felt. We’re all new to tabletop RPG’s–we’re learning this system together. People were having fun, and started inviting other players out of excitement. This overwhelmed me, and my social anxiety went on red alert. At this point, I have about 12 players who want to play.
So, I suggested that we have two campaigns. One in the living room, one in the game-room. Two DM’s working together. At some point, the two groups could potentially come into contact with each other, either working toward the same goal, or against each other. Or it could be two very separate campaigns.
But I’m capping my game to five players.
thats great to hear 🙂