Melissa’s Customized Session Cheat Sheet for Game Masters

In my experience, having a 1 page cheat sheet for each session has benefits that far outweigh the time that it takes to build it.  I recommend creating a unique sheet for each session, a new cheat sheet for that specific game.

Plot Hooks – You should create hooks for every session, not just the first adventure.  You want to get ‘buy in’ for each game so that your players and their characters really care about what is going on in.

Locations/Encounters/Scenes – Depending on the structure of the game system you’re using, having a bullet point list of the locations such as dungeon rooms, waypoints on the road or unique places can be a loose guide to keep your game on track.  If you’re running a more crunchy dungeon delve style of adventure, having a list of probable encounters is just as valuable.  As a storyteller, I find that having a list of possible scenes provides me with a loose framework for the story.  Bonus Points: Create a scene tailored to put each player in the spotlight. Continue reading Melissa’s Customized Session Cheat Sheet for Game Masters

3 Warning Signs that Your Campaign is about to Crash and Burn

We’ve all stuck to a campaign that was well into its death throes. It can be hard to give up on a story that had a lot of work put into and characters that took time to create.  Sometimes shooting a dead horse is a mercy.

No One Shows Up – if your group meets together regularly and suddenly you have schedule conflicts, take a hard look at your game.  Is the reason it’s hard to fill the gaming table due to a lack of interest in the campaign?

Your Players Don’t Care – if the pre-session banter takes twice as long as usual,  your normally attentive players are more interested in their cell phones and almost anything starts a non-gaming related discussion, your players aren’t into your game.

You Don’t Care – It takes a lot of time and effort to run a campaign.  When all of that work feels exhilarating and you can’t wait to run your next session, you know your game is a hit.  If going through your session notes, creating story hooks and figuring out what to do with plot holes is unbearable drudgery, there’s no reason to continue.  If you’re not enjoying the campaign, your players aren’t either.  They can sense that you’ve given up on it.

This advice is easier said than done.  I’ve run my share of dud campaigns and it can be hard to throw in the towel.  In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re only 3 sessions in or 30 sessions in.  If no one is enjoying it, acknowledge it.  Discuss with your players what went wrong and move on.

Complete Campaign – Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 4

After finishing up the first campaign that I’ve intentionally completed, I have contemplated the lessons learned.  This was the most character driven and story intensive game I had ever run.  Today I’m covering the Audio and Visual aids that made the campaign feel more real.


Battle music consisted mostly of movie sound tracks.  Since the Conan The Barbarian movie sound track simply rocks, that was queued up the most often for serious combat encounters.

Bard music was a must for the taverns.  Deathsong had her own music.  I used the songs by ……… for my vampire bard npc.  Every time this music came on, it became apparent that Deathsong had taken the stage.  There was a small bit of electric guitar on a track or two, but I joked that it was a magic guitar.  It also matched her miniature pretty well.

A few well placed howls announced the arrival of werewolf antagonists.

There was some generic “exploration and dark mystery” music that I used throughout the game as background music.



The large Chessex Battlemat that I bought worked great.  It was so quick and easy to use.  Along with the Reaper Mini’s that I had painted, the battlemat gave combat and encounters some much needed spacial structure.

I made ancient letters, notes and scrolls for the game.  These were NOT a big hit with either my player in the solo game or the players in the group Ravenloft game.  I was surprised.  Most of the time players would briefly look at a letter and hand it right back.  I had wanted them to be excited about the clues in the letters and keep them with their character sheets but they just didn’t drum up any enthusiasm.

There are two more parts to this series, coming soon!

• Tall Tales – Why not let the character do that?

• Epic Endings – How to make the final game memorable.

Prep Lite Workshop Notes

This is a workshop I ran based on the ideas from The Prep-Light Manifesto on Gnomestew.

The Prep-Lite Manifesto

Why have a prep-lite manifesto? The Three Goals
1. Create unpredictable, unique and interesting adventures
2. Use immersive names during the game
3. Keeping things fresh by changing up the scenery

Prep-Lite Basics

What does NOT go into a template
1. Detailed Descriptions
2. Dialog
3. Anticipating Player’s responses
4. Opening & Closing Scenes
5. Maps

What DOES go into a template
1. Overview
2. Opposition
3. NPC’s
4. Locations
5. Scenes

Why Adventure Templates are Awesome

A template forces you not to prep too much.
1. Over-prepping is a waste of time
2. Your game will be much more flexible
3. You are likely to make a better on-the-spot decision anyway

…but also not too little
1. A template is a thing you fill in with the elements of your adventure
2. If there’s a spot to fill something in, you fill something in.

Templates encourage modular thinking.
1. If you have 20 minutes, you can write a great scene
2. If you have an hour, you can probably outline the whole adventure
3. When you come back to the template, you know exactly what you’ve done, what’s left to write, and how everything fits together.

Save time on NPC’s with Wireframes and Skins
The Experience is not about the numbers.
1. Players experience NPC’s through what they do in the session.
2. Players do not see NPC’s as they are represented on paper.
3. In the heat of combat, no one but the GM sees the stats for an NPC.
4. What matters to the players is how the GM presents the NPC, and how they make it exciting through their descriptions.

Recycle NPC’s
1. Change around a few numbers.
2. Give it a different weapon or a different main power.
3. Change the NPC’s description and/or gender.
4. Your players will never know.

Wireframes, Borrowing a concept from Video Game Character Design
1. The Wireframe becomes the stat block
2. The Skin becomes the GM’s description of the NPC
3. The same stat block could be used over and over, and made into different NPC’s, by altering the description.
4. Some games do this already by providing some general stat blocks for different classes of monsters and allowing the GM to skin them.

Simplify unimportant NPC’s
1. If stats are not key to a good NPC, then how much mechanical detail is needed for an unimportant NPC?
2. An NPC is good at the things that his role requires, and less adept at everything else.
3. NPC’s can be reduced to two attributes: Important and Non-Important, and two skills: Important and Non-Important. This makes a wireframe that can be used for anything.
The Essence of Maps
Start with the locations, treat each location as its own set piece. List out the important locations with single word or short phrase descriptions.
Next, apply the spacial relationships between each of the locations. Don’t force the locations to line up nicely to one another, or even to conform to a shape, but rather show how each location relates to another. This will show which areas can be reached directly and which require the players to travel through another location.
The Interesting Locations
1. Purpose– every location has a purpose, it helps to define a single sentence about what the role of this room is.
2. Description– keep this down to the most important elements. Things that will jog your memory about the room.
3. Occupants– who is in this room? Monsters? Hostages?

Uninteresting Locations
1. The first way an unimportant room comes into play, is when the players ask if it exists.
2. Is it logical for this kind of building/area to have the room in question? If it seems logical, then it exists! If not, then probably not.
3. Players never ask for a specific room with out something in mind. Find out what it is; just ask them. Then decide if having this room makes the upcoming scene cooler. If it will, add in the room.

Spacial Relationships
Sometimes players chose to open a random door and entered a room. In this case you will need to come up with the contents of the room. You can take a few approaches:
1. Make up an uninteresting room– The players open the door to find a spare bedroom. Not every room is exciting.
2. Make up a new room with a twist– The players open the door and come upon the kids room where three little girls are having a tea party, and invite the players to come sit.
3. Make it one of the interesting rooms– The best part about not having a set map is that you can change the connections between each of the rooms on the fly. So now that random door leads into one of your interesting rooms.

Prep-Lite Philosophy

Prep-Lite is not a specific template or a specific way you take your notes, rather its a mind-set that relies on your personal strengths as a GM, and values your time by keeping your prep simple. It looks for simple efficiencies in bulleted lists and tags, and more complex time savers through abstraction of mechanical elements.
The goal of Prep-Lite is to give you the material you need to run your game smoothly and with confidence, without having you spend hours writing notes. It is also a system that grows and adapts, as your skills as a GM improve, you can drop parts of your prep. It is system neutral, allowing it be adapted to any game.

Many Paths To One Goal
The first thing I have come to learn about Prep-Lite is that it is not a single formula. There is a single goal: to keep your notes simple while being able to deliver the best game possible. How a specific GM gets to that place will differ from person to person.

GM, Know Thyself
Every GM has strong and weak areas. Knowing what you are good at and where you are weak is the key to knowing what should go into your Prep-Lite notes and what should not.