Friday, August 19, 2011

Building the Better GM

The game is afoot.  Hill Cantons has started the "Building a Better GM Challenge", and bloggers are answering the call.  It’s going to be hard to stop at just 3 techniques.

Of course, I'd really love to hear what techniques work from some of the old time great Dungeon Masters in the hobby, so it would be awesome if folks that have rememberances of gaming with Gary or Dave Arneson, or really any of the folks from the game's storied past, could share some observances.

Thats not to say there aren't going to be newer techniques from more recent games that have a place - I have a whole list of "new school techniques that I like to use, but I'll start with some basics.

Make a Calendar
A calendar implies that you're marking the passage of time - turns, hours, days, weeks, months.  You're tracking climate, the weather.  On the macro level, have future events happening in the larger world that are tied to the calendar.  During July, the border skirmish between Kingdom A and Kingdom B will erupt in war.  Nothing adds some basic verisimilitude to the world like a calendar and a list of potential upcoming events and weather; the list is very easy to generate in advance.  It's huge when sandboxing.

Use a Progressive Descriptive Technique
"In the room is a book case, with a number of shelves and volumes, and a large desk in the corner."  Keep initial descriptions brief so the players can direct their own attention, instead of front-loading the exposition.  Hold back the fact that the desk is a large roll-top Victorian style, locked, with initials "AS" carved in the front of the drawer - that's second level stuff that's important when they go and investigate it closer.

Never Fudge the Dice
Use lots of random tables and accept the results specifically to spur creativity.  Instead of making the wandering encounter in the Orc Woods have to be orcs, isn't it more interesting to use a random result (Halflings!) and then have to quickly improvise why the group is encountering Halflings in the Orc Woods?

NPC Back Stories are Irrelevant
Instead of writing about NPC back stories, jot down or two quick things about their appearance, manner of speech, physicality at the table, or favorite sayings.  NPCs need to "tell their story" in single servings.  Example:  you could write up a long boring back story about the abused tavern wench that's 99% likely never going to come up, or you could just write in her NPC description - 'look down at the table when this character speaks, don't make eye contact with any of the players' and suddenly you have a much more interesting NPC.  Everyone's wondering what's wrong with her?

Just a few I want to track, perhaps put in a part 2 in case another blogger doesn't pick them up:

  • Zak's 'Show don't Tell Rule'
  • When the action slows down, men with guns burst in the door
  • Advice on how to run someone else's published work at your table
    • Despite what some folks might imply, you can be a good DM without creating everything from scratch
  • Valuable stuff from the old school primer
    • The ming vase, the donner party, the moose head, abstract combat fu
  • And some controversial new schoolisms:
    • Better villains with cut scenes
    • Giving players some 'narrative control' from time to time



  1. These are great suggestions. It seems they would work very organically together. First you have the passage of time, either chronologically or character actions.
    Then, with progressive description and the random aspects, you have a fog of war.
    Details and backstories aren't important until the players investigate further. The observer effect.
    You might have these random details, but they only get woven together as relevent events when the characters interact with them.
    Holy crap, I hope that made sense.

  2. Reply is up:

  3. I really like the calendar idea. I'll admit that I fudge dice, though, when the roll interferes with the best experience I can provide the players, I ignore it. The perception that dice rolls are meaningful is absolutely essential to keep the "game" in roleplaying game, so I don't let the players know when I do it, and don't do it often.

  4. I find that the creation of backstory and setting are helpful to my ability to improvise at the table. Maybe the stuff I've invented will never come up. Maybe I'll change it if one of the players has a better idea. But if I have nothing but a bunch of tables and blank space, I find myself at a loss.

  5. Progressive description, absolutely. :)