Losing in RPG’s, some say it’s not a thing. But aren’t there times when we feel like we lose in tabletop role-playing games?
Great episode gentleman! I enjoyed hearing the ideas on how to change, update, or improve your GMing style. As I listened I wondered if playing in games as a player and not the GM helps you add to your style? As a newbie, I have been trying to play in as many games as I can so I understand the systems I want to GM better. And at the same time logging away the techniques the GM is using to see if it would fit the style I am trying to form. I just received “The Hidden Necropolis” and look forward to running this and trying some new GMing styles I want to try. One other point I really found refreshing for this episode is you both have many years of GMing under your belt. And you are open to change if you need or want too. For me, this helps me to remember it is okay to change what you are doing if it’s not working for you. Thanks for your dedication and keep up the great content. Mike
I really appreciate those times when I’m a gamer, because it gives me a chance to remember what it feels like to be on that end of the table. @Idahogamer mentions learning from the strengths of other GMs, and I try that. I also learn from GM weaknesses. When, as a player, I sometimes feel that the GM is being intentionally ambiguous, withholding game information, or generally straitjacketing my character, I get to reflect, “Do I do that? Or do I do anything that might similarly feel like that?”
I also get to experience what it feels like to get attached to a character and the tension resulting from threats to that character and/or disappointment when that character dies or fails.
Then I choose to get over it and play as an example to the GM (who often is a player in my own games).
In fact, I hope soon to play in a game in which a player of mine is GMing. I’m going to try to model what I want in a player. I wonder how well it will work this other way, if my GM can recognize how I play and maybe apply some of that practice to his own. I’ll be playing alongside another player in my own game, as well, so he also can witness my example.
I can definitely appreciate learning from GM weaknesses, as @Gabe mentioned. One person I’ve been gaming with my whole life is always “in charge” whether they are running a game or playing, so I always make sure to involve the whole table in decisions.
I know people have learned from my mistakes, and the feedback they have given me has improved my approach. I think specifically about my old habit of stringing along a home brew campaign without a proper end point, until it would end due to scheduling conflicts or loss of interest. My brothers called my games “shaggy dog stories,” so I learned to tighten things up and have a game that comes to a conclusion: mission accomplished, characters retired, everyone going out in a blaze of glory, whatever.
Jim Fitzpatrick on Running for Money and GM’ing on the Fly
Catching up on some back episodes and had a few ideas.
The first one was about running on the fly, and of course I made a list in my head of what I felt comfortable running on the fly and why. After a lot of thinking I came up with four things you need to run a session: plot, setting, materials, system. Most of those definitions are pretty clear, but by materials I mean whether you need maps, minis, fancy dice, etc. I also started thinking about time, and I think “on the fly” means an hour or less. When I’m running on the fly, I want as many of the four elements as possible to stay out of my way. If you give me overnight to prep, I can run a ton of different systems and genres and get all four elements ready to go. But if I have an hour, I’m going to start cutting corners in some of those areas. For example, I can refresh myself on the basics of the Black Hack in an hour, but you’re going to get a canned plot. If we’re playing 5e in the theater of the mind, I know the system cold and we don’t need fancy materials, so you get a better plot and setting. The needs of the game dictate how I would use the limited prep time.
If I somehow found myself running a group of RPG newbies through a game with no notice, I would pull out Dungeon World. I know the system. Some basic plot, setting, and character bonds emerge during character creation, with no fancy materials necessary. Most of the four elements are taken care of at that point, so I feel like I could spin up a passable DW game in like 10 minutes. A lot of that is experience, but I feel like most GMs can get to the point where they can run at least something in 10-15 minutes if they play long enough and are exposed to enough stuff.
As for the running for money, it feels so wrong to me. The most I would ever do is take a barter or MAYBE a small cash payment, but never for an ongoing arrangement. If a buddy helps me move a couple pieces of furniture around, I might run him a game in his favorite setting as a thanks. If someone asked me to run a game for their kid’s birthday and offered me a bottle of whiskey or a 12 pack of nice beer, sure. I’m lucky enough to have a good job where I don’t need to count on game sales or GMing for money, but I think it would suck the fun out of the hobby real quick if I attached money to it. If it ever took money to get me to the table, that’s a sign that I shouldn’t be playing with that group for more than a birthday party.
Couple of good thought provoking episodes. Thanks for the signal boost on the Bus to H*ck, should be putting it up on Itch.io soon.
Dear Sean and Brett,
My name is Aaron and I’m a big fan of the show. I’ve listened to most of it, although I haven’t written in before because I’m only 22, and greatly lack the experience required to comment on the same level as ‘the regulars’ who usually write in. They’ve get in some great comments.
However, I think you’ve finally picked a topic that is in MY wheelhouse. Without further ado, here is my 12 step program to become a better improv gamemaster:
1) The first step is admitting that you have a problem. When I first got into rpg’s, I really struggled to find a consistent group. After a few very cliquish groups turned me down to play with them regularly, I turned to the task of forming my own group. This of course meant I was almost always convincing people to try the game out for the first time. Here’s how it pretty much always went down: “Do you play D&D?” “No.” “Well, it’s actually tons of fun. Wanna try it out?” “Sure.” At which point they expected me to teach them to play and get it all going right then and there. In the middle of lunch period, or on the bus ride to a choir festival, or after most kids had gone home after a party, or after we just finished a group project for homework. You must understand that improv GMing is a style of play that is not necessarily for most people. But for me, it was a necessity in order to “get my fix.” If it’s not your style, or you just don’t like it, then don’t worry about it.
2) Understand that improv GMing is a skill that gets stronger with consistent practice. You either do it a lot and get good at it slowly, or else you’ll only ever be okay at it or worse. Don’t hold yourself to a high standard right away. Plan to improve over time, and remember that as long as you’re not regressing you are moving in the right direction.
3) Brett made a good point (although it took him 20 minutes to say it) that improv GMing still requires preparation. It just looks different. For me, since I lacked a consistent play group and I didn’t have a lot of downtime outside of school, homework, music practice, etc., improv prep got done in the 5-20 minutes I had in between all the other things I did during the day. The last nine steps describe how to prepare. Generally, a few hours a week is plenty.
4) System Mastery. Improv GMing improves with system mastery. For example, I once tried to improv a game of Traveller after reading the rulebook once, because it felt straightforward and I was confident in my improv skills. Turns out my ability to teach the system to other players was too weak to keep the game flow moving. After about two hours, when it was finally coming together, two players quit. End of campaign. Know the rules enough to teach them quickly. Other than that, item and monster stats (or at least page numbers) are your bread and butter from here on out. Review them regularly.
5) Your back pocket is full of fun NPC’s/locations/homebrew monsters. Have a handful of basic NPC’s and locations (they mainly just need a name and physical description) That you can just drop on the table. They don’t need a full backstory or stats off the bat. You can make those up 5 minutes from now. You just need to avoid spending those 5 minutes trying to come up with “Ulfbert Korigson, a burly human in partial mechanical futuristic plate armor with thick sideburns and a shiny bald head, comes out of the kitchen and warmly introduces himself to you as the innkeeper, asking how long you’ll be staying.” (see what I did there, I just made that up.) Homebrew monsters do need stats, but they don’t need specific story purpose; they can just be something you thought was cool while doodling in junior high. If you’re players complain about your NPC’s, kindly invite them to DM the next session and show you how it’s done.
6) Your back pocket is full of quests. You can come up with simple quests (long, short, easy, hard, horror, hack’n slash, heist, 007, whatever) to drop anywhere/anytime. They can be loose in the details. They only really need to have 4 parts: an introduction (the most flexible part), a main goal (possibly a secret/surprise), a main obstacle/opposition, and a reward. Optionally, you can plan a big twist. For example, I planned a quest as part of a campaign where the dead fiancé of a character comes back as a famed assassin seeking revenge. We never got that far, but I later played a 5e oneshot set in the roaring 20’s. (instead of sword and sorcery it was magic and mobsters) The same player showed up with the same character. So I just filled time by bringing that NPC and quest back as a shorter side gig while they were robbing a casino in Paris.
7) Your back pocket is actually a notebook. In the 5-20 minutes waiting to see the dentist, come up with an NPC or a quest and jot it down in your neat and well organized notebook. While reviewing the “I” section of the Monster Manual, you get an idea for a funny side quest to prank your players. Jot it down so you don’t forget it. Reviewing this notebook occasionally is 100% necessary, but it can also be fun just flipping to a random page mid game. Your quests and NPC’s are like legos for quickly building simple campaigns, or just quickly kicking off a new campaign. They all could be related, but none of them necessarily need to be. Remember, you’re the GM. If you say it exists, or happens, then it does. But if you don’t right it down, then you will forget it and it never will exist.
8) All aboard the improv express. New players (usually) need a little railroading to understand the game and what it can be. Some experienced players just like being railroaded. The first 5-10 minutes of gameplay are your opportunity to gauge how much THESE players want to contribute to the story and how much they expect you to contribute. Generally, just keep the details in your notebook loose and/or optional. This is where improv GMing becomes a skill separately from being a style. It takes a lot of practice to balance not railroading your players straight to Hogwarts, but still finding a clever way to introduce Snape and Dumbledore as mentor characters. If things don’t work out, don’t worry about it. The only end goal here is that players have fun and want to play again, not that Harry and Voldemort play out the cool laser duel scene at the end of the series that you envisioned. Step 8 basically is to not let GM power go to your head, listen to the players, and practice subtle/balanced railroading, which you will get better at over time.
9) Descriptions on demand. You have your legos to build a one shot or campaign straight out of your back pocket. But those legos are all just shapes. In the moment, you need to give the world color and make it immersive, especially when you describe how things happen or what an action looks like. This is where practice really comes in. You can literally practice giving improvised descriptions. You have 5 minutes sitting in the carwash or waiting in line at the grocery store. In your head, try to remember things from your notebook, and try to find as many different ways to describe and detail it. Practice being concise. Try changing the details, changing the setting, changing the genre, and see how you would describe it then. Practice adding extraneous details.
10) You can also practice NPC’s, locations, monsters, and quests on the fly. Although I do not do this a lot, it is worth mentioning, and I should probably try it more.
11) Other kinds of improv help, as well as brain teasers like word puzzles and riddles. Keep things loose in your practice and your games. Look for inspiration everywhere. Practice finding it anywhere. Improv comedy, improv guitar solos, improv free-hand drawing. Emulate the professionals you like. Consider why you don’t like other professionals. Expand your horizons. Part of becoming an improv GM is becoming more of a creator instead of just a greedy consumer. A really quick, spontaneous creator. It’s a muscle that you must train with love and patience and, of course, creativity.
12) Practice, practice, practice. The best practice is just diving right in and GMing a one shot. Asking for player feedback after a session is also highly, highly recommended. However, just practicing in your bedroom for a few minutes before going to bed or starting your homework is still part of the process too. Just remember to be consistent and use a timer so you don’t lose track of time. This step is very important, because I have experienced the frustration of not practicing and then in the moment falling on my face trying to describe the inside of a tavern just because I let myself get rusty. Just keep practicing and you will do just fine.
I hope this was not too long, and I hope it made sense. Thanks for the great content, and I wish you both good health for the coming holidays.
@llpartoftheplan on twitter
Carl Davis emails us about Trust in RPG’s
Without the commute, I’ve been running behind on episodes and finally came to your discussion on trust. I actually just published a short video on my Tabletop Tango YouTube channel (tabletoptango.com) that digs into trust. My focus is on how GMs can earn and keep the player’s trust. I’ll summarize some of the concepts I dig into below:
First, strictly follow the agreements in Session 0 — such as lines and veils, tone of game, and how rulings are handled.
Second, do not take away player agency. This is not simply avoiding railroading but avoiding informing players how characters react and making decisions for the players.
Third, you must be fair, consistent, and avoid favorites in how you run the game. We all have unconscious biases that might favor your best friend at the table. We, as GMs, need to recognize our own inconsistencies and strive to minimize them.
The video has a few more ideas but these are a few of the big ones.
As we know trust is hard to get and easy to lose so I make sure I follow these concepts to keep my players engaged, having fun, and trusting I have the best game planned for everyone.
Thanks again for the great show!
Carl Davis – ASavageWorldsGM
- Tabletop Tango
- Bundle of Holding, featuring The Dracula Dossier. 21 days from date of recording. 10% proceeds goes to Cochrane Reports
- Worlds without Number, kickstarter. Funded. 22 days to go as of recording.