The Ordinary Life of a GM: Getting Lost

rpgblogcarnivallogocopyIn what I’m hoping to make a regular occurrence, I’m taking part in the November RPG Blog Carnival. This month’s topic is Ordinary Life, and there is enough material there that I’ll likely have a few more posts this month around this topic. But today I’m talking about game masters.

Getting Lost and Coming Back

It happens to every Game Master.  You’re mid-campaign, and in an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere.  But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up.  You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it’s only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either.  And when the players lose focus…

It’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you, my struggling GM.  Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:

1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore.  Why are backstories so rich in plot?  Because your players are highlighting the things, people, and events important to their characters.  That significance allows you to build encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally.  Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn* Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring an age of darkness?  Now you have your player’s attention.

So go back to those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out.  Now look at your plot-threads.  Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory.  Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters.  Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again.  Take a tip from television; make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another.  The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.

What’s that?  Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign?  Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking!  Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:

  1. What is your characters most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
  2. Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
  3. What one thing does your character covet above all else?  What one thing does your character fear above all else?

Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.

2)  Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game.  The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet.  Then you do it again with another NPC, and another.  Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.

So don’t.  Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie.  Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a.  But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty.  Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think.  Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together.  Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.

3)  Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play.  No problem.  See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into you plot?  Perfect!  Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it!  The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?).  After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world?  Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.

Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things.  One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important.  Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes.  Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out.  Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well.  You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots.  And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.

So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and try these suggestions.  You can get untangled.

 

30 Days of GMing, Day Six

This is the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, coming to you live!

World-building: What’s your process?

The Pathfinder RPG is about 70% of my gaming these days, so not a lot of world building involved. More like “world fleshing out” (a topic for another post). But when I do use my own campaign world, I use something I’ve termed the “concentric circle” approach. You can also think of it as the “fog of war” approach, but I like my first analogy better so I’ll run with that.

Basically, think of your campaign world as being contained within a series of concentric circles, like an archery target. The bullseye is wherever the players are going to start in the campaign, and I mean “start” in every sense; physical location, where their characters fit in society, their community, and so on. Once I’ve figured out where the bullseye is, I build my world from the bullseye outward. The most detail and attention is paid to the parts of the world in the bullseye which is, not coincidentally, the parts closest to the characters. I flesh that out as fully as I can, often with the help of my players’ character backgrounds.

So what is considered inside the bullseye? In terms of physical location, anything of interest within a day’s journey of the characters’ starting point. In terms of community, any family, friends, or contacts the characters might have within that physical location. Social standing, the details of day-to-day life at the characters’ social stratum. So if a character is a noble, I need to figure out details of how the nobility works inside the bullseye (it may work differently elsewhere). If a character is a peasant, what is their life like and how does it affect the story?

The next circle out from the party gets less detail, but still gets filled in. How much is encompassed in each circle is largely up to you, but for the sake of argument let’s say in physical terms it’s 2-3 days travel from the party’s location. I’ll make sure I have names for all the locations, some handy rumours about those locations, main NPCs fleshed out, and so on. Again, not as much detail as the bullseye, but fleshed out enough that if the party suddenly decided on a road trip I could keep things interesting and answer most of the questions the players come up with.

I think you get where this is going, right? Each circle further out from the party gets less detail, until at the outermost circle I might just have names for the locations and that’s it.

Why would I create my world this way? Simple. No, really, that’s it: I like to keep things simple. The characters are the stars of the campaign show, so it makes sense to fill in all the details immediately around them, since those are the details they’ll encounter right away. Take physical location: if the characters start in the village of Homesweethomesburg, why spend any pre-campaign prep filling out all the details and nuance of Nevergonnagothereville, located hundreds of leagues away from the party? Slap a name on that city, maybe give it one or two details you can relate if they ask about it (“Nevergonnagothereville has a thriving doll-house industry and is renowned for Jacobi, a champion throat singer.”) Spend your time bringing Homesweethomesburg to life; give it character and depth, make it lived in.

There are benefits to this approach for both you and the players. You get to cut down on a bunch of prep that might never get used (though see later questions in this series on what to do with extra prep), and stick to campaign prep that immediately affects your group. And the players start the campaign in what feels like a fully developed campaign world. Well of course, because the characters only see what is immediately around them, and that’s what you filled out. Once the characters start to move away from Homesweethomesburg, however, the bullseye moves with them. Now you have new information to flesh out. But if you follow this model of world-building, you’ll only be building the parts of the world that matter to your players. Which is all you need.

What about you? How do you build a campaign world? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

30 Days of Gamemastering

No, I’m not GMing every day for 30 days. That would be amazing, but no. Instead, I’m taking part in the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge over at Triple Crit. Every day I’ll answer the GMing question of the day, and I’ll try to keep my answers concise. Since I’m a day late to the party, let’s jump right in and answer the first two questions!

What advice would you give a first-time GM?

Have fun and don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself. If you’ve been playing the game you’re GMing you likely have a good grasp of the rules, so trust that. If it’s a new game, don’t worry about knowing every rule right now. Instead, focus on setting things up so you can find rules quickly, thus keeping the action going.

Remember “Yes, and…”, and don’t block your players. If the players are excited about an idea or a plan or anything, and you can figure out a way to use it in the game, do it. It makes them feel more connected to what is happening, and actually makes you look brilliant for “anticipating” their desires. Always remember, of course, you don’t have to use their idea in quite the way they wanted/anticipated; leave yourself the option to surprise them, thus making yourself look more brilliant.

And write stuff down, even just point form notes. Trust me, it will save heart-ache down the line.

What are your favourite GMing tools or accessories?

I posted a while ago about my GM kit, so the easy answer would be “everything I carry in that”. But using my GM kit as the start, I’d say my favourites depend on what game I’m running. If it’s Old School, I just go with my dice bag and a pencil, like I did in the old days. But if I’m running something more recent, based on the d20 model, I’d say my favourite becomes the re-usable flip mats. Those were a stroke of genius for any GM needing to map on the fly.

Now if we’re talking computer tools, my laptop actually comes in as my favourite GMing tool. Not only is it an easy way for me to carry all my information in one place. It also runs my second favourite tool, Hero Lab. Not only can I use it to track combat and player progression, but it’s a handy tool for tweaking NPCs and keeping basic notes on the campaign.

Okay, first two questions down. You can expect me to pop an answer up every day until November 2. And I’ll even try to get regular posts in during that time; I have a few things I want to talk about, like Prairie Dragon Press™ and such.

How would you answer these questions? Drop your answers in the comments.