Gaming Advice for fledgling GMs


I'd like to write out the way that I run adventures and campaigns. A lot of people ask me to explain this and maybe this will help fledgling GMs. One could always hope, right?

The World

I start with a basic idea of the word that the campaign will take place in. By world, I simply mean the area of land that the story will take place in rather than an entire world. I usually start by looking up Physical Maps from different areas of the Earth. A physical map is one that shows forests, trees, mountains and such without cities, roads, or other man made items.

Here's a good example:

After I have a land, I start filling in cities and create borders. Before long I will have divided the land up into kingdoms, duchies, or whatever. I usually decide the scale of the game-to-be while playing with the map.

Once I have the map done, I design governments for each kingdom. I like to try and mix things up, so any given land may have two or three separate types of government. A monarchy bordered by a confederation which is bordered by a theocracy. Makes for some tense politicking and you can throw a war in at the drop of a hat.

Then I contact my players.

Character Creation:

I give the players the background and campaign information needed to create their characters. For example:

"You'll start in the human City of the Three Suns in the Kingdom of Light. This kingdom is a theocracy and all officials are members of the Church. The City of Three Suns is named so for the mountain that sits to the east. When the sun rises it shines through caves near the summit of the peak. These caves allow the sun to be seen through the mountain. There are three caves that pierce the mountain and when seen, divide the sun into three.

Three is a holy number and acts as a centerpiece to the whole religion.

The City of Three Suns the capital city of the Kingdom of Light. Situated at the joining of two rivers and surrounded by fertile plains, it is centrally located and is a center for trade.

Crime is punished severely here. If you get caught stealing you will be branded. A second offense will cost you a hand.

Women are accepted, but looked down on as inferior. They may own a small business, but will not have a voice in the church.

You can play anything that you want within this society."

I have the players submit a character background to me. Typically these are one full page long. I go over the background with the player and fine-tune the character to fit my world and the other characters.

These backgrounds detail where the character came from, who their parents are and how they met, siblings, and where and how the PC learned whatever skills that they have.

I never allow the term adventurers. No one can ever say, "I have all these skills because my parents were adventurers and they taught me all the good stuff." That is beyond lame.

People may go on an adventure. If someone goes on multiple adventures, then they may be called an adventurer. But "adventurer" is not a career nor is it a job description.

Your parents may have fought in Vietnam, survived a sinking ship, been stranded in the Alaskan wilderness for two months, and lived in Compton California for a week. These are all adventures, full of danger, and they make a great story. Someone who did all of these things may be called an adventurer. But their JOB could be an accountant, a cop, a teacher, or anything else. They just happen to have the bad luck to live an adventurous life.

When my players write backgrounds, I force them to make logical reasons behind their skills. A noble's son is not going to be a street savvy cat burglar without a good reason. Nor is an orphaned street rat going to know how to read. A brawler from the docks will not know how to use a sword and a mercenary may not know the appropriate manners required when eating a meal with his employer. But if the player can come up with a logical, well thought out reason, then they can have it.

When everything is satisfactory to both me and the player, I make their character for them. I do this for several reasons.

  • It forces the player to be detailed in their character description and background. If they play a thief, they'll specify a pick pocket rather than a loanshark or cat burglar if that's what they want to play. If they don't, then they may find that their character doesn't have the skills that they thought they would.
  • It completely prevents munchinism in character creation. It gives the GM absolute control over what the character is capable of while allowing the player the creative freedom to have the character that they want. All the characters balance out and no one feels slighted because each of the players is treated the same.
  • It gives me the chance to suggest certain traits or skills that may fit the game, the group, or the character story better.
  • I understand that some games, old school D&D for one, do not run on a point based character creation system. In that case, I would have the player roll up the character's stats before writing up a background.

    Getting Started:

    After the characters have been made I sit down and design three or four adventures. I use elements of the characters' backgrounds to draw them together and to set them on the path that I want them to take.

    I write the adventures with each character's skills, traits, enemies, and everything else right in from of me. Thus the resultant adventures are personal to both the players and their characters.

    Sometime during this process I develop an idea for the campaign. This idea may start at any time during the creation process but always happens by the end of the second adventure.

    So let's say that I have three players. Joe, Bob, and Mary.

    Joe has a mercenary thief. A big guy, he's good with a sword or spear and likes sniping with his crossbow. He's also a pick pocket, con artist, and gambler.

    Bob is a squire to a knight of the Church. The unwanted third son of a Count, he was given to the church on his fifth birthday. He has just barely been squired and is eager to prove himself in battle. Unfortunately, he has led a sheltered life and is pretty naive about things outside of the church.

    Mary is a confederate merchant. She has the innate ability to cast magic, but is unaware of this fact. She is incredibly good looking, charismatic, and intelligent. She uses the locals disparaging views of women and her looks to get the upper hand in almost every transaction.

    The first adventure that I wanna run takes place in a small frontier town. I have the church assign Bob's master to investigate disturbing rumors in that region. It is on the way back to the confederacy so Mary joins the party along with a couple of mercenary guards, one of which is Joe. As there is safety in numbers, the knight welcomes these additions even with the slower rate of travel.

    I'd throw in a couple of ambushes by bandits or an animal attack to tighten up the group a bit before throwing them into the meatgrinder... I mean adventure.

    Running Sessions:

    A couple of things to keep in mind while running sessions:

  • Keep out of game conversations to a minimum. Everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent, but try to tone it down otherwise the game will never get anywhere.
  • Don't be afraid to fast forward time. You do not need to roleplay out every single day of a three month trip. If nothing happens, skip it.
  • If the player wants to do something, never tell them no. Just pick a difficulty number and have them roll against it. The more off the wall the action is, the more difficult the roll.
  • When things bog down, throw in a fight. If the fight can be tied into the campaign, that's great. If it can't, oh well. Fights wake everyone up, gets their blood pumping, and pulls them back into the game.
  • BE SUBTLE!!!! Do not let the players know that you are manipulating them! Manipulate them all you want, the more the better, as long as THEY DON'T KNOW IT!!! There is nothing worse than the players having to play along with what you want. Railroading GMs shouldn't be running games anyways.
  • Do not give the NPCs (good or bad) anything that you do not want the PCs to have. Vorpal Swords of Dragon Slaying do not grow on trees! A ring of regeneration and a bag of holding can change your entire campaign!
  • Make characters earn the things that they have. Players and their characters will appreciate the +1 sword they received if they had to win a game of chess against the Grim Reaper to do it. Giving a character a magical item or money every time they kill something gets old fast. It also unbalances the game. If every guard carries a gold piece or three, then what is that gold piece worth?
  • When running an NPC, THINK LIKE THE NPC! It doesn't matter if the NPC is only gonna be played for five minutes rather than five sessions. Every NPC has a personality, motivation, needs, and desires. I knew a GM once who made a NPC personality random chart. He'd roll five times and the results would be the NPCs personality, mood, desire, need, and dislike. A typical roll would produce something like: Mothering, depressed, love, money, loud. This NPC has a mothering nature, but she's depressed. She wants to find her true love, but she is poor and hates loud men. Get it?
  • Money makes the world go 'round. Believe it. Make money worth something. In my typical world, a Farthing is 25% of the whole. A Copper Farthing would be $.25 because a copper is $1. A Gold Farthing would equal $25. A Piece is worth less than a Penny.

    A Copper Piece would equal $! And a Copper Penny would equal $5.

    A Silver piece Equals $20 but a Silver Penny equals $50.

    A Gold Piece equals $100 but a Gold Penny equals $500.

    Make characters earn money. Make them scramble to get enough money to buy that $650 sword. Don't just give it to them.

    When PCs start flashing money, play out the consequences. If you walk into a seedy bar and flash a wad of hundred dollar bills, someone is going to try to take your money.

    NPCs aren't stupid. Mugging isn't the only option that they have. Picking someone's pocket is easy if the victim is distracted by a partner. So is slipping a mickey into their drink. Rigged gambling can lighten their pockets, especially if multiple people are involved. As a last resort, mugging or burglary can be used.

  • Whatever the PCs do, have a logical consequence for that action.If a PC mouths off to the king, punish them. Throw them in a dark cell and forget about them for a few months. When they get out, drop some of their stats a bit. Their health will suffer after being shut up in a damp cold cell with no sunlight and barely enough gruel and moldy bread to survive. If their constitution drops by three points and it takes them nine months to get their health back up, then you will have made your point. No one mouths off to the king.
  • Don't forcefeed your players. Give them clues and let them figure it out themselves. Give them something good to start off with and then let them investigate. If they don't take the bait, then throw something else their way.
  • BE PREPARED!!! Have at least three or four adventure ideas ready to go at all times. Have a list of names appropriate to the culture that the players are in. Have recurring Generic NPC stats handy (City Watch, Pickpocket, Gang Member, Gambler, etc.). Have a list of building names (don't have ever inn in every town called the Frothing Otter and don't name every bordello the Horney Whore) handy as well.
  • Throw in random stuff in random places. Distract you players from time to time. The main campaign may be slow going for the first two thirds of the game. Throw in small adventures, side quests, and other random junk and gradually drop in a clue or piece of information here or there until the PCs realize that something much larger is going on.

    Even after the PCs tear into the main campaign, keep up the random stuff as long as you can. The random encounters will get smaller as the campaign gets closer to the end and will eventually stop. Let it end naturally, but don't stop just because the PCs have finally latched on to the main story.

  • Reward players for good roleplaying and inventive ideas that work! Even if your game system does not reward players for this, make sure that they get a reward! This will make them want to be better players and will make the game much more fun for everyone!
  • Experienced GMs, please feel free to comment or add to this!

    Sorry about that link. Try this:

    Sample Map

    That should be better.

    (scibbling like mad)...yes...npc list...3 ready adventures..
    - reading a signature is silly -

    The NPC list is a must! One thing I learned from my elder DM is how obscure NPCs can show up many (game) years later.

    I played one campaign of his where I took copious amounts of notes (I knew his DM style), and every time something came back around, the party turned to my mage. Oh yeah, I had the information, but they had to pay me for it (I was a NE mage at the time hehehehe) After several times of that, the other players kept better notes.