Know More About Game Master Tips & Tricks

I am doing more planning than I have for years. Over the decades that I’ve been running games, I’ve become more comfortable with improvisation. I know my settings and stories well, and this has always resulted in fun games.

Two factors have changed my thinking. First and most important, several other GMs have emerged to run games, so we now rotate our stories. This pushes me to use my time well as the storyteller. It also regularly exposes me to other GMs’ stories and techniques, much more than I’ve ever had in my gaming experience.

Second, I’ve prepared some of my game’s material for publication, and this pushes me to be clear, brief and engaging in my development and writing.

All of this improves my game in countless ways, and I’m having more fun than ever!

Mistakes Are Not The End Of The World

From Tristan Knight


2010 marked my return to PNP gaming after a 15 year absence (and several aborted attempts in the interim). Despite having previously tried to get involved, I’d never managed to get a campaign up and running, either as a player or GM. Finally, my girlfriend decided she wanted to learn D&D, and I took the opportunity to dive into 4th Edition D&D.

I started thinking where I wanted the new game to go. With a small group (just my girlfriend and me at the outset) I decided we’d need some more characters, so I create a DMPC to help increase the party size.

A bit of work laid things out as thoroughly as I felt was possible, and I threw together a quick encounter to teach my girlfriend the rules of the game. She picked the rules up quickly, got a handle on tactical play in a matter of three rounds of combat, and pulled off a fantastically deft use of her eladrin ranger’s Fey Step power (though she botched the follow-up attack – the dice were not friendly that evening). And she was instantly hooked.

The next week brought another session and the creation of a major NPC. The week after, a second player joined the game. She had heard about my campaign concepts and I convinced her to play.

I made a few mistakes along the way: bungling rules, screwing up initiative, misinterpreting the use of powers and generally making a hash of the game. And yet the players loved it. They rarely caught my slip-ups without my mentioning it. They never knew until after the fact how I’d improvised parts of the game sessions. I’d spent hours kicking myself for making mistakes when none of it mattered.

So that’s the biggest lesson I learned: it’s okay to screw up. As long as the players enjoy themselves (and you don’t make too many mistakes) that’s the important thing. Even if you inadvertently make an encounter a little too tough and a PC nearly dies, you can turn a corner and make that former enemy into an interesting ally.

Now I’ve got about three hours before tonight’s session, so it’s time to prepare for our first game in three weeks…and remind myself that mistakes aren’t the end of the game – sometimes they can be a beginning.

Thanks for all the advice in RPT, and enjoy your games and the New Year.

From RND(axe)


The best thing I learned about GMing this year is to go big and let things happen. I think other GMs in your newsletter have described it as “don’t say no.” In other words, I don’t let my initial idea or written chapters of an adventure get in the way of the real adventure. And I don’t let the rules details get in the way of a great story effect.

To illustrate, I was GMing d6 Star Wars and the climax of the campaign came down to a retelling of the battle over Endor. I was pleased to say I fixed the canon of Lucas’ Xwing fighters jumping through hyperspace on their own without an aircraft carrier (the silliest mistake I ever saw) and all the players had no problem with the various fixes I made to the classic storyline.

The characters had duped the Emperor into his own doom over Korriban, and then set out to impersonate him on the new Death Star, thus setting up the DS2’s own weaknesses, which led to its destruction (and the saving of many worker slaves’ lives in the process).

Then, to my surprise, they invaded the Executor and confronted Darth Vader and the recently-fully-turned-Dark Luke Skywalker, slaying both of them and saving the Republic for its rebirth.

Grand heroism and great story were the watchwords those days. “You can’t do that” never passed my lips.

Allow heroism to take place and don’t let the rules or the mechanics get in the way of a great storytelling and a great night of play.

Return to Contents


2. Creating Emergent Stories

From Mark of the Pixie via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group

I tend to set a detailed starting scene, and have a few rough ideas of possible milestones and a handful of vague types of endings.

I find this focuses on the PC actions and choices – they determine the ending – but it helps make it a story worth telling. (I find some overly PC driven stories end up getting repetitive, devolving into long and dull shopping trips. Or they get dominated by the loudest player. But that might just be due to a minority of my players skewing things.)

The session might start with the kidnapping of the PCs’ secretary by a detailed NPC villain for a well reasoned purpose (the $500,000 ransom demand is a ruse to cover the blackmail of her scientist father to provide a military prototype weapon).

This is probably done in medias res with the PCs shooting it out with the hired thugs as the black sedan drives off with her in the boot. (About a paragraph of notes.)

I will then have a few possible milestones, whether NPCs or events (about one sentence each). NPCs may include a criminal snitch who owes the PCs a favour, a cop who is looking for any reason to arrest them, a PC’s ex-lover who is now an FBI profiler on the case, the victim’s oddly secretive father.

Events might be a ransom call, a ransom drop, confrontation with the father, a chase scene (with a helicopter), the gunfight at the R&D testing range.

Endings are vague and range from “money, gun and secretary gone” to “money, gun and secretary safe” with lots of options in between (just a few dot points or keywords).

The PCs might work out the villain’s plot and foil it. Or they might not. They might be happy to get the girl back safe and not find out about the gun till later.

The end of the story is up to them, but having thought about likely endings, I can quickly and easily tailor the one they end up with to be more dramatic. If I do get blind sided, (you put out a contract on the kidnapper?) I can take 5 minutes and work it through.

Having this sort of framework helps me do that faster. (He might decide it is a bluff and continue with his plan, only to get a rude surprise in a later session.)

Because I haven’t put a lot of emotion into the story going any one way, it’s easier for me to avoid railroading (I actually find it helps me encourage the PCs to take different options). By having a rough framework with multiple endings I can adapt quickly to changes in direction.

I also have a safety net in case the players are having a brain dead night, as I can suggest the next move, introduce an NPC or instigate an event. For example, if they flag and don’t know what to do next, rather than leave them bored I can have the FBI profiler call.

I also have a rough worse case scenario in mind (lose money and secretary, villain gets money and gun). I know a TPK or destruction of the world is unlikely, so I can plot future games safely.

I can also see the bleeding edges (unresolved things) that can be used for future plots. Maybe the cop gets some evidence on one PC and will later pressure them to become an informant. Perhaps the father sees them work and decides to recommend them for future jobs. Maybe the embers of the lovers’ relationship rekindle.

These help ensure a continuing game. For example, the next session starts with the PCs being called to a crime scene where a presidential candidate has been assassinated, but the police are stumped because no known gun can possibly shoot like this….

I do a similar thing for campaigns. Lots of work up front, then a bit of work in the middle bits, and vague handwavy bits for the possible endings. The work up front tends to be collaborative for PC backgrounds. I give them a general starting position, any limits imposed by setting and starting position (i.e. no mages, if it is a no magic world), then incorporate and intertwine their backgrounds and the setting.

I find it works well.

Return to Contents


3. Use Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs To Create Cultures

From Rikard Molander

The Pyramid of Needs has been mentioned in Roleplaying Tips before as a tool for designing NPCs. In brief, the hierarchy describes what needs people have, and in what order they seek to fulfill them. If people are hungry, they won’t bother so much about safety, for instance, because food has a more important place in the hierarchy.

Since this pyramid describes universal needs, it can be used for designing cultures and places just as well as it can people. If anything in the hierarchy is unavailable or hard to get to the locals, that should have a huge impact on the culture. For example, a shortage of water should have a huge impact on how a given culture behaves.

I find it’s especially good for designing exotic locations. Just take something from the hierarchy and consider how to fulfill that need in some unusual or exotic fashion. Below, I’ll list some considerations each step suggests.

Physiological Needs

Food and health usually fall on this list. Particularly, food is interesting. What do people in this culture, or on this location, eat?

Mundane examples include bread or rice, whereas a twist towards the exotic or strange might involve pieces of giant mushroom, or slime molds that grow inside eerie glowing caves.

Health is less applicable, but might bear consideration – are there hospitals, clerics, wise women?


How do people live and shelter themselves? What kind of protection do they enjoy? Is there a guard force, a group of mercenaries, must everyone fend for themselves?

Housing offers a great consideration to add cultural feeling. It gives a much different impression if locals live in mud huts, lumber cottages or houses on poles.

You can twist this for an exotic feeling – the most typical example being the elven city in the trees, where the elves have solved their need for safety and protection by elevating themselves above the ground.


What brings the community together? Is it a religion? A love for music or alcohol? A war-leaders’ banner?

Overall, this asks the question, “What do the people of this culture have in common, that outsiders don’t have?”

Turn this into a great plot device by marking PCs as complete outsiders, or give one PC the spotlight by having him blend in well (such as a bard in a culture that loves music) or poorly (such as a teetotaler in a culture proud of its taverns and fine wines).

To design exotic cultures, have people bond over something unusual. Perhaps locals are unusually fond of clothes and fashion, and even street beggars wear dyed clothes of good make. Or perhaps they are all addicted to a fashionable drug, and scoff at (or worse) anyone who doesn’t take it.


Similar to the belonging category above, but different in that this doesn’t ask what the people flock around, but what they admire and look up to, as well as what they strive for.

Sometimes, they can be the same. In a country fond of music, everyone seeks to write the next popular tune.

They can be different things, as well. A culture brought together by a religion that preaches peace and brotherhood might still have fondly admired war heroes. A culture of savage warriors might admire the best poets even more than they admire the strongest warriors.

For an exotic spin, pick something unusual that people admire and look up to. Perhaps wizards are viewed as sacred and worthy of great respect, or people with red hair are seen as marked by the gods.


This is a tricky category, as it’s highly individual and addresses spiritual satisfaction. It can be seen as a philosophy or a way of life.

In practice, though, you probably shouldn’t involve cultures who allow for self-actualization on a broad basis. Why? Because you want your cultures to be sites of adventure, places with problems that must be solved, ideally based on one of the previous four categories.

Perhaps the water supply is running out (physiological), the community is threatened by bandits (safety), there’s ideological or racial conflict (belonging), and so on.

If you find yourself looking at the previous four steps and not finding any problems there, reconsider involving the location in your adventure – there’s a high risk it won’t be very interesting.


4. Another Way To Make Plots For Your Game

From Logan Horsford

Grab a pen and 100 3″x5″ lined index cards.

Anytime you come across an idea – whether large or small, write it onto a card. The ideas can vary from part of a plot to a name or manner of an NPC. The ideas you have can be more specific to your campaign.

The more time you spend writing these cards, the more ideas come to you. Don’t forget the professional writers saying “write crap.” See:

Once you’ve gotten a whole bunch (say 100, though it can be done with less) of cards filled out with these notes, shuffle well and deal yourself a few.

Let’s try five. I am going to use my deck here to see what we can come up with.

  1. Advertising – strange dancing pandas.
  2. Situation – social class disparity.
  3. Corpse – come across a dead or dying man. He may say something useful before dying or his pockets may contain useful stuff. Good foreshadowing.
  4. Contact/Bad Guy – Mr. Wei (pronounced “way”); stupid bowl shaped haircut. Maybe he commands tcho-tchos in space!
  5. Hidden secrets.

Last step: begin to brainstorm how these things can be connected. Before reading on, try to figure out what you can make out of these five things. . . . . (I know you didn’t pause to think about it – nobody ever does – but I thought I’d give it a try.)

Perhaps the PCs come across a dead guy in a panda suit. Doing research on the suit can bring it eventually back to the commercial. Perhaps the weird pandas are advertising a new restaurant chain (owned by Mr. Wei) that serves the tcho-tcho ‘other other white meat’. (For those of you that haven’t played Call of Cthulhu, that’s human.)

From there, you have to answer several questions. Why was he killed? Why was he killed wearing the panda suit? Why do the PCs care if some restaurant is serving up human? Could that be where a buddy of theirs disappeared to? From whence are they collecting up the humans? Instead of just rounding up homeless people (too stringy), maybe there is some other way in which they get humans. If you want to prod the PCs some more, maybe they are going for the equivalent of veal.

We have moved from a few random ideas jotted on index cards to an idea for an entire plot, perhaps even an entire campaign depending on how big the whole plot is. The quality of your plot will depend upon the quality of questions you ask while writing it up.

That was a thirty second think for me to come up with that. I’m sure I could do better if I began playing with it and revising it a few times.

Unlike adventure seeds in modules and such the things you would make notes of were things that struck you as interesting enough to jot down. Believe me, the more stuff you write down on the cards (one idea per card!) the more cards you’ll quickly go through.

This idea can also be used (by especially crafty GMs) to GM on the fly. I don’t think I’m that slick myself, but I have heard of others who can do it