Many people frequently tell new GMs that everyone totally sucks at first and that you can only get better at the job by doing it over and over and learning from your mistakes. While actual experience is indispensible, I wouldn’t go nearly as far. There are numerous pieces of advice that you can understand even if you don’t have any practical experience yet, though you might come to realize their full impact only at a later point. In another way, simply keeping to do something poorly doesn’t make you any better by itself. You need to understand what actually went wrong and what parts of your GMing performance you want to improve. And while it’s usually not a problem to observe other players to get the hang out of playing the game, it’s not uncommon for GMs to be the only GM they ever get to see in action.
Over the last couple of months and recent years, I’ve found a number of very helpful hints that helped me a lot in understanding why my own performance did not end up entirely satisfying to me (though from what I can tell, my players are having a blast every time). Now the only thing I need to do is actually following my own advice, but I think these are some tips that could be immensly helpful to any new GM, or GMs wanting to improve their current work.
- Three Details Rule: Whenever the PCs encounter a creature or other characters, find a significant item or enter a new area, always give the players at least three details to describe the things they are seeing. It’s never just a group of goblins, a cave chamber, or an altar. Add some details. If you just say there are three trolls, the players will leave it at that as an abstract concept. But if you tell them that the trolls are wearing patchwork armor of scale and chainmail, two of them have steel shields with blue griffon symbols, and the largest of them stands a full head above the others and has a rusty greatsword in his hands, then the players begin the process of actually visualizing the scene. Probably not just the trolls, but also the environment in which they are standing. This is what you want them to do, so provide them as many clues as possible. If you think there is nothing noteworthy to mention, then still tell them three completely insignificant details, just to get them to start imagining the scene and not simply think of it in abstract terms.
- Three Clue Rule: Very good advice. Obvious connections between things are only obvious if you already know what they are. To players who don’t already know the whole backstory of an adventure, even the most obvious clue that should lead them to their next task might not be obvious at all. So if you want the players to make a conclusion about something and act on it, always place at least three clues that can be found by the PCs. Worst case scenario, they find all three clues and think them terribly obvious, but they still understand what they have to do next. But very often they won’t and even if they completely fail to find one clue and draw a totally wrong conclusion from the second one, there’s still a good chance they will find and correctly interpret the third one.
- Don’t Prep Plots: This is actually something big and complex enough to write entire articles about, but I hope to get the central point across in a single paragraph. What you want to avoid is telling your players what their characters are thinking about certain things and what descisions they are making. To some extend, it can never be entirely avoided. If you prepare an adventure about a dragon hunt, then the PCs have to agree to go looking for the dragon. If the adventure is about a princess being kidnapped, the PCs have to agree to go searching for her. Otherwise, there will be no story at all. But what happens then should always be left uncertain. The players may decite to negotiate with the dragon and help him ambush the other dragon hunters that will be coming and share the loot. Or they might find the kidnappers of the princess, but decite to collect the ransom themselves, release the princess, and a few days later present the corpses of the kidnappers and part of the ransom money to the king, and recieve a reward for catching the criminals. Totally not the story you had planned for, but still great stories. Never, ever tell the players they can’t do something because that’s now how it’s in your script. If the players want to take the story into a direction that is very different from what you have prepared and you don’t think you can’t improvise on the sopt, then tell the players that this will be it for this day and you’ll get back to them in a week or two once you prepared the locations, NPCs, and creatures they will encounter down that path they’ve chosen. Don’t take it too far, though. If the campaign is about a war between to kingdoms, they shouldn’t steal a ship and start a life as pirates on another continent. If they don’t want to play the war campaign, they should have said so before.
- Failure is always an option: Related to my previous point, a big problem with over-scripted adventures and campaigns is, that the outcome of every scene is already determined, which also includes fights. If there is only one key to open a portal the PCs need to use and it’s in the poket of a sorcerer, then the PCs will have to defeat the sorcerer, or there is no plot. That means the GM will make them win a fight against him, regardless of how bad they play or roll. It also means they will defeat every guards or creatures that stand between them and the sorcerer. Otherwise there would be no story. This creates the implicit assumption that everything the PCs can encounter is defeatable, and the players are meant to defeat it. And that’s bad. There always need to be more than one route to reach a goal. Some potentially harder than others, and a few maybe even impossible. It falls to the players to decite which of the paths open to them they will actually try out. If they fail because they have not the right equipment or are currently not strong enough, the story does not end. There’s always the option to retreat and try a different one. But if there is only one way to get to the goal, then it must be a way that is 100% certain to work, and this is something the players should never start thinking. It doesn’t even have to be a choice between different monsters to fight. Some of the possible paths might not include fighting at all. And if they preserve their strength for later, they might be able to chose some paths later on, which wouldn’t be available to them if they had wasted too much of their resources before.
- Use time limits: There is a dreaded thing called the 15 Minute Adventuring Day, The situation where PCs use up all their daily resources in a single encounter or two and then set camp to get back to full strength. Might take them two weeks to explore a dungeon, but every encounter will be a cake walk. So why not? Yes, why not? Give the players reasons why they would not chose to do this. One method is using time limits. They need to find an object and return it to their employers within a certain amount of time, stop an evil sorcerer before he finishes the creation of some magic device, get out of a mine before it becomes flooded, and so on.
- Use random encounters: Random encounters have a bit of a bad reputation, and for good reasons. The purely random encounter is truly stupid and nonsensical concept. Creatures should appear in places where it makes sense for them to be, not just appear in completely random spots without explaination. But the “random” part of the term shouldn’t be about the type of monster, but about the time and specific location of the encounter. In many cases, there should still be a small amount of preparation be done beforehand. In most published adventures of recent years, NPCs and monsters have their rooms in which they stay and wait for the PCs to arrive and open the door. This is a bad thing, as it makes it a sensible choice for players to deal with one room at a time and then set camp to regain all their daily resources. Some encounters make sense to happen only in specific rooms, but most creatures and NPCs won’t stay in a room all the time but will occasionally wander through the corridors and tunnels, where they might run into the PCs or their trail (often a path of destruction). This could lead to them attacking the PCs at a moment that is not convenient to them, or to raise an alarm, that could have a number of enemies come after the PCs, which they are not able to handle (as failure is always an option). With random encounters and wandering monsters, players are encouraged to scout ahead, watch their back, and think about what trails they are leaving and what noises they may be making. Things that can all be elements of a great story, but often tend to get overlooked, particularly in published adventures.
- Only roll the dice when you really have to: This is not neccessarily a universial rule, but one that’s very important for the type of games I want to run for my players. As I see it, the game is about developing a story along the descisions made by the players, and both the rolling of dice and the existance of character stats serve as a tool to set limits to what the PCs can possibly pull off and to add uncertainty about the outcome of their choices. Some people enjoy playing with the dice and character sheets, and d20 games are a great example of a system that highly promotes such a play style. I prefer to use dice only as a tool to answer questions about which way the story will develop when it is not obvious what will happen next. Or put as an even more extreme statement, “when you touch your dice, you stop role-playing”. [Embarassing mistake here. That statement comes from a different article by Angry DM, which is a view he doesn't support at all. The article I meant to link to is this one here.] You don’t have to agree with such a bold statement, but there’s still something to consider here. When the outcome of an action is already clear, don’t bother with dice. If something seems so easy that everyone should be able to do it, just tell the players that their characters do it without having them to roll any dice. And when they want to do something that sounds impossible, don’t have them roll against a target number they can’t possibly reach. Just tell them it’s impossible. If something is within the realm of possibility, but might take a long time and many retries, don’t let the player roll again and again until it finally works. Just tell the player it will take the character a while but eventually he succeeds. Only when something sounds plausible, but there’s a real chance they might make things worse for them or they might fail to do it successfully within a certain time limit you need to roll dice at all.
- Make sure you understand what your players are trying to accomplish: Another great one from the Angry DM. If a player says his character is trying to do something and you don’t quite understand why he would do such a thing, then ask the player what he means to accomplish by it. Not just when you don’t have the slightest clue what the player is trying to do, but any time you are not completely certain you understand both the way the action is going to be performed and for what purpose it is done. You don’t want to end up with PCs throwing a rope from a ship, only to learn later that the player meant to hold on to one end and pull one of his buddies out of the water. It sounds obvious, but maybe he intended it to be a distraction for nearby sharks, tangle up boats that are coming behind them, or whatever other crazy ideas players can come up with. Train your players not to simply say “I do X”, but also to add “so that I can do Y”. Ask them a couple of times about their intention even for seemingly obvious things, and they probably get used to telling you these informations by themselves.
- The Mechanism of Suspense: I’m still not entirely convinced that you can do actual horror games in an RPG and create fear in your players, but you can create suspense and thrill. In the end, it always comes down to the characters not being in control of their situation. The feeling of not knowing if an action will be helpful or only make things worse, and the possibility that not doing anything at all could be the worst thing to do, is what fear and suspense is all about. The characters, and in the case of RPGs the players, have to be forced to make descisions while not having enough information to make the right one. As long as everything makes sense and happens according to the rules, you know what you have to do. Suspense is the result of not knowing what will happen because you don’t know what the rules are. As the Joker says it in The Dark Knight, “nobody panics, because it’s all according to the plan. Even if the plan if horrifying”. But if you have no idea by which rules the current threat is playing, you have no way to know for certain what you have to do. And that’s the source of panic.
- If it has a name, we can defeat it: This is basically an elaboration on the previous point. If something has a name, it means that it is something that has been categorized, which in turn means that someone has analyzed and understood it. And somewhere they must be someone who can tell the characters by which rules it is playing and how it can be defeated. If you know the name of the penomenon, you can research it and get advice on it. And that’s the reason the GM should never tell the name of something to players until the characters have learned that name in the game. Most villages have horses so almost all characters will have seen a horse and now that it’s called a horse, so you can simply refer to them as horses. In some regions goblins may be common and some of the PCs may have seen them before and had it confirmed by other people that those were indeed goblins. In that case, it might also be something the characters already know, so you can simply tell the players that they see goblins (but remember Tipp #1). But with many creatures it’s not that certain. A lion-like beast with wings and an eagle-like head might very well be a griffon. But there might also be other creatures that look similar, or maybe the existance of griffons is not completely accept within certain settings. In such a situation, don’t refer to things that are unknown to the characters by name. If the players insist on calling the creature a griffon, run with it and do so as well. Otherwise, do not confirm or deny the players assumptions until the character gain this knowledge.
- Use Encumbrance and Supplies: This is something that isn’t neccessary in all games, but I think pretty much critical to the Sword & Sorcery type of games that I love to run. Equipment and supplies can be quite heavy and slow down characters significantly. If you track encumbrance, players become encouraged to leave some of their stuff outside a dungeon when they go exploring, or not to take all the treasures they find immediately. Or maybe even risk leaving behind some of their food rations to be able to carry more gold. And you might consider getting a donkey or even a cart, that would need to be tended to, and might be too big to get everywhere adventurers go. It’s not very fun. Until the moment something gets lost. Then it’s a great opportunity for all kinds of shenanigans. In a game in which the wilderness and travel speed play an important role, you can’t really play without encumbrance. The big problem here: Almost all encumbrance systems completely suck. Writing down every empty vial or silver ring, and adding and removing food ration and torches every day to recalculate the amount of weight a character is carrying is such an annoying task that a considerable majority of groups simply ignores it entirely. But if characters can carry everything, they never have to chose what to leave behind, which I think is a great loss for the whole game. There is an alternative and much simpler encumbrance system at Pencils and Papers, which I personally love and fully recommend to anyone. I was never able to use encumbrance in any of my games before, but this way is just so much better and what little work remains seems to be completely worth the benefit of having carrying limits for characters.