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Tips for Game Masters
- Don't Try to Win - Roleplaying games aren't about winning and losing. An adventure is not a competition between the GM and the players. There's no fun in that - the GM controls the universe and can't lose. It's your job to entertain the players by presenting challenges for them to overcome, rewarding them when they succeed, and telling a good story along the way.
- Don't Abuse Power - Players enjoy a logical, balanced game. Avoid making arbitrary decisions. You are the interface between the players and a virtual world. It's not your world, existing simply to show off your creativity as a designer. It is the setting in which enjoyable stories should take place.
- Tailor the Game - Run a genre and style of game that the majority of your players will enjoy. If all of your players love beer and pretzel games, don't run stories with deep moral or philosophical meaning. If they live for hack-n-slash, don't waste your time coming up with clever traps, intricate puzzles, or NPC encounters with social implications.
- Define Realism - Explain up front how epic or gritty the setting is. Will the characters need to worry about holding down a job, paying taxes on time, and avoiding parking tickets while being adventurers? Do they need to keep track of every dollar or copper piece they spend? Are you using strict encumbrance rules? Can the players purchase cinematic advantages for their characters? Do they need to start with mundane or extraordinary backgrounds?
- Detail Changes - When using a homebrew system or house rules, make sure to document them carefully. Explain the changes to your players before they create characters. Try to playtest before putting new rules into effect, and be prepared to listen to feedback.
- Dice Don't Rule - The dice are not more important than the story. In general, it's good to follow the rules and rolls, to make a consistent and fair game world. However, don't let a good or bad roll stand in the way of an entertaining story climax. Characters should die because of bad decisions, not bad luck.
- Don't Favor NPCs - The PCs are more important than any NPCs you create. Don't try to be a player in your own game through an NPC. Don't put a favorite fictional character in the game if you can't stand to see the PCs outshine or defeat him.
- Flesh Out NPCs - Every NPC should have a slightly different look and feel. Important NPCs should have different personalities, motivations and goals. Try not to stereotype your NPCs - villains don't always lie and heroes don't always tell the truth. Remember that a character may try to contact one of your NPCs again in the future.
- No Resurrections - Don't repeatedly bring back the primary villain. He is not Freddy Krueger. The players need to feel that there is a way to win, finally and absolutely. In most circumstances, it is also a bad idea to bring back a fallen PC as an NPC foe.
- Be Descriptive - Most of the time, the player's only window into the game world is through your words. Describe what they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. The details you provide build the scene, both tactically and emotionally. Instead of "big hairy monster", try "a massive man-like beast, nearly 8' tall, with bulging muscles, large black eyes, blunt claws, and thick fur like a bear in winter..."
- Don't Be Verbose - Avoid giving long, wordy descriptions of unimportant factors. Don't give a five minute long description of the NPCs exotic sports car, just because you love hot cars. Unless it affects the plot, reveal only the basic details.
- Have Variety - An adventure can include action, puzzles, combat, exploration, and social interaction. One game session may have 80% exploration and 20% combat, while the next could have 100% social interaction. A good variety helps keep all of your players entertained.
- Move the Spotlight - Give every character a chance to prove themselves by making them the focus of a subplot. A good way to do this is to bring up a disadvantage, a contact, or something dark from their background. Not only will they get an emotional kick, they'll have a chance to earn bonus XP. They'll also come to appreciate the extra work and stress endured by a party leader.
- Have a Framework - Not every adventure needs to be completely fleshed out, however, you need a framework. The adventure needs to have a purpose, such as finding a lost ruin, recovering an artifact, meeting an important NPC, defeating a monster, or discovering a vital clue. Come up with one or more encounters which will lead the PCs toward that goal.
- Avoid Scripts - Don't try to run your favorite book, movie, or TV show episode as a linear adventure. The PCs are not the characters from the show. They won't make the same decisions. They'll find their own solutions to the situations they're presented with.
- Provide Motivation - Few characters are carefree adventurers, willing to delve into the deadliest dungeon simply because it's there. There are safer, easier ways to earn money than slaying monsters. Make sure the characters have a reason to pursue the goal you've set in front of them. The plot should revolve around something that matters to them.
- Improvise - You can't plan for everything the players will do. You'll need to improvise places, objects, and people on a regular basis. Keep a list of common names handy. Try to draw from personal experience and media sources. Take notes on any story elements you invent - they may come up again later.
- Quick Combat - Unless your players love tactical battles on a hex mat with figurines, use cinematic descriptions of combat actions. Don't let system rules slow down the game to the point where one fight scene takes longer than five roleplay scenes. Reward players who give interesting descriptions of their actions by making them more likely to succeed.
- Pace the Story - Don't give blow-by-blow descriptions of the boring parts of the story. For example, let the players provide a list of shops they visit and supplies they purchase. Don't make them roleplay walking down each aisle and up to the cash register.
- Be Dramatic - Major events in the story should be memorable. Something that impresses or intimidates a character is likely to seem larger-than-life. If a PC dies, make sure it's a particularly tragic or heroic death that fits into the storyline.
- Never Railroad - Never make the players feel like they are being pushed towards a specific outcome. The ending of the story is in the player's hands, not yours. Win or lose, it's up to them. Guide them toward key plot points as gently and subtly as possible.
- Don't Break Them - Remember that the characters are simulations of real people. Don't be sadistic and push them too far. Prolonged exposure to horror, pain, fear, torture, or misery will break anyone.
- No Monty Haul - Avoid giving your players wealth and power too quickly. If something is acquired easily, it isn't cherished treasure. Extremely powerful characters are difficult to design plots for.
- Limit Cake Walks - Without a sense of challenge, the players won't feel that they have accomplished something amazing when they succeed. The occasional easy mission can make the PCs feel powerful and show them how far they've progressed. If every mission is easy, there's no thrill of victory.
- Avoid Grimtooth - Don't abuse traps. When traps are overused, they seem like arbitrary attempts to kill characters. The story bogs down when the PCs have to check every door and chest before touching it. Trap placement should be logical. How does the wizard move around in his own tower?
- Avoid Linchpins - Be careful with clues and puzzles. The players will not be able to notice and solve all of them. Make sure that there are several clues pointing toward the same fact. Don't put puzzles in a story that take more than 15 OOC minutes for the players to solve.
- Give Some Hope - The ability of the party to prevail should never depend upon the success or failure of a single action. Even if the PCs can't stop something bad from happening, at least give them the chance to lessen the negative effects. When the players work hard, they should achieve something.
- Check Game Balance - Make sure that the PCs are equally powerful when the game begins. Compare the PCs to the monsters, traps, and NPCs you plan to put in their path. Do they have the power, skills, and equipment they'll need for a chance to succeed?
- Vet the Characters - No character is officially in the game until the GM approves it. Make sure the players created their characters properly. Every PC should have a useful role in the party. Look for character concepts that may clash with your main storyline or lead to inter-party conflict.
- Remember Traits - Pay attention to the merits and flaws of each character. These traits should have an impact on encounters. Don't let a player make a powerful character by taking several major flaws that never come up. Let a character shine when there's a chance to use his merit.
- Be Their Eyes - Pay attention to the character's passive detection abilities. Don't make them ask what they sense every scene. If a character can see ghosts at any time, without using a device or casting a spell, check to see if he notices whenever one comes within line of sight.
- Allow Change - Let players change merits and flaws during a campaign, as their characters develop. Players should be able to work towards resolving a flaw, or gain a new one if something traumatic happens.
- Know Their Minds - Understand the short and long term goals of each PC and player. While you are running adventures to forward the main plot, there should be room for subplots that center on these goals. Get feedback from the players to improve your storytelling skills and tailor the story to your audience.
- Offer Bonuses - Award experience points based on participation. Reward players for extra effort. If you give bonuses for solving puzzles, coming up with good plans, interacting well with NPCs, and resolving plot points, no single character will be the perpetual "party leader."
- No Favoritism - Reward players equally for equal effort and participation. Don't favor a particular race, class, concept, or party role.
- Allow Creativity - Let the players come up with alternate solutions to encounters. They may think of something clever that you didn't. Try to be realistic. The green key may open the green door, but a grenade will probably blast it open too. Few things are more frustrating for a player than trying to guess the GMs one-and-only answer.
- Party Harmony - Don't allow inter-party conflict to create bad feelings between players, or turn the focus away from the plot. A roleplaying game is not a first person shooter. Even a party of rogues can find logical reasons to be civil to each other.
- Avoid PC Puppets - Except in rare circumstances, the GM should not control a player's character. If the PC is charmed, explain to the player how they should roleplay until the effects are over. Don't run a PC while the player is gone - if necessary, let another player get permission to do so.
Types of Game Masters
- The Gamist - A GM who uses a storyline to bind puzzles and obstacles together. This is similar to early computer adventure games.
- The Simulationist - A GM who writes a story to present situations, allowing the character's actions to bring consequences and resolution.
- The Narrativist - A GM who has a story to tell, concepts to explore, and ideas to share. Events in the story serve to reveal the primary plotline.