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”

x-wing crash

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.

Music!

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.

 

Visuals!

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.

How to Alienate Your Players

After reading Ten Secure Ways to Screw a Pen and Paper RPG Session, Richard, a fellow GM and good friend suggested that someone find an article for GM’s on how to alienate players.  This is my attempt at providing such a guide.  All of the cases below are real experiences that I have had as a player.  Hopefully we’ll all learn what not to do as a GM from these examples.

Provide a Hostile Environment

10) Host your game at a house without a working toilet or running water.

Bathroom breaks are for suckers!  No, you can’t have a glass of water, that would lead to the unnecessary aforementioned bathroom break.

9) Keep your house a filthy, disgusting mess.

Your players shouldn’t care if your cat is in the corner, playing with a dead mouse in a heap of trash. Those cockroaches crawling around your sticky dining room table add ambiance.  If they can’t handle a little mess, gaming must not be very important to them.

Stick to Your Vision

8) Railroad the hell out of your players.

The story that you have painstakingly mapped out in excruciating detail must be played out exactly as you envisioned it.  If the players find a loophole that allows them a glimmer of hope for freedom, squash it.  You can’t have them going off god-knows-where and doing god-knows-what.  Stick with the script!

7) Ignore the dice rolls.

While trying to railroad your players (see #8 above), if a player tries to do something that is not in your plans, make them roll a dice to see if their character can pull off that action.  Then overrule the dice roll.  “Yes, you critically succeeded on your dice roll.  Your character ALMOST makes it over the fence.”  “Yes, you critically failed while swimming across the lake.  You barely make it across the choppy water, but don’t drown.”

6) Deny your players’ requests, always!

It doesn’t matter if every single player at your table agrees that you need to make a change in your campaign, your house rules or general attitude.  Ignore them and deny their requests.  “No we can’t have more combat” “No, you must lose experience points when you die” “No you can’t have a mentor”.  Learn to say “NO” every time they ask you something, no matter how reasonable.

Keep Them in the Dark

5) Schedule your games at your convenience.

Don’t bother using a regular, repeating schedule.  Keep things random.  Make sure to let your players know about game date and time changes at the last possible minute.  This will keep them on their toes.  While you’re at being inconsistent in your scheduling, change your location for the heck of it as well.

4) Don’t bother communicating with them.

Your players will whine that they never get an email, phone call, voicemail, tweet, or face book notification when you’ve changed your plans (see #5 above).  By denying them the crucial information they seek, you are helping them develop their telepathic and precognitive skills.

Make Sure No One Else Has Fun

3) Don’t remove the problem player.

Consider it a learning experience for the problem player.  It may take years, but they’ll eventually catch on and improve their game.  Don’t bother explaining to the player what they are doing that is disruptive and ruining the other players’ fun though.  They have to figure it out on their own or they’ll never learn.

2) Play to Win

Show the player characters no mercy.  Then rub it in the players’ faces when your uber NPC’s and Antagonists win every single conflict and combat scenario.  You’re the Game Master because you’re the best at creating munchkin twink characters, right?

1) Run the game for your own amusement.

Who cares if your players are having fun.  You’re here to project your vision onto a captive audience.  Ignore the yawns, bored stares and dice juggling of your unenthusiastic players.  If they don’t get why your campaign is awesome, then they’re idiots.

Complete Campaign – Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 3

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.  In this short series I’ll be sharing a few examples from the Solo Ravenloft campaign. Hopefully you’ll end up inspired to try something different for your next campaign.

Random Awesome!

Since this was very much a sandbox campaign, I wanted the player to feel like he could take his character anywhere in the Ravenloft domains to accomplish his goals.  This meant that there were times when he drifted off in a direct I did not expect.  Rather than panic, I employed a series of automated and random tools to help me keep the game going.  I would record the results from the random generators for later use and to keep things consistant if the player chose to send his character back to those places at a later time.  Here I will review the sites that I found so helpful during that game.

Chaotic Shiny’s Tavern Generator

http://chaoticshiny.com/taverngen.php

This generator is very easy to use.  Just go to the website.  If you don’t like the tavern there, refresh your browser and a new one pops up.  I always found one that suited my needs within 4-5 refreshes.  The taverns generated will list aspects such as cleanliness, prices, a menu, patrons, bartender quirks and more.  I love this site and will use it for any future fantasy games that I run.

Thousands of Medieval Names

http://www.lowchensaustralia.com/names/medievalnames.htm

Very helpful for finding a quick and unique sounding name.  They have names from many countries, so that you can have NPCs from different domains have a certain flavor to match the area’s cultural influence.

Buck’s Random Dungeon, NPC, Town, Treasure Generators

http://www.rpghost.com/dungeon_gen.shtml

Buck’s tried and true generators have been used by  countless GM’s for many years.  They are simple to use and come up with interesting things for you to use on the fly.  Every GM should have this website bookmarked for their fantasy games.

What I did not find useful:

3.5 character generators.  None of them gave me a ‘complete’ character.  The closest I could find were unequipped characters.  This resulted in the PC obtaining much more gold than he should have gotten.  Since I didn’t mind, I left it as such.  Many times it was easier to just use the NPC stat blocks in the DMG and just give the player character the appropriate amount of gold after the encounter instead of dealing with choosing equipment for the NPC’s every time.  I also recycled NPC’s very often by simply changing their description and main weapon.

 

Complete Campaign – Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 1

This weekend I will be wrapping up the first campaign that I’ve ever completed. EVER. I’ve learned a lot from the process and am quite thrilled at the idea of finishing a campaign on purpose with a fairly tidy ending (I hope). I feel that this was one of the most interactive and fun to GM campaigns that I’ve ever run. In this short series I’ll be sharing a few of the lessons that I learned along the way with examples from the Solo Ravenloft campaign. Hopefully you’ll end up inspired to try something different for your next campaign.

Communication – Have THE conversation with your players!

In the past I’ve TOLD players what a campaign was going to be about. I’ve given them an idea as to the theme or the nature of the campaign. I’ve told them the location or the setting information. It’s usually a fairly one-way conversation… This is totally wrong I realize. For the Solo campaign that I’m wrapping up, I made sure to ASK the player what he was interested in happening for his game. It was very much a two-way conversation. These are the important questions I’ll make sure to ask each player in the future when I plan on running a campaign: Continue reading “Complete Campaign – Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 1”

Fun, Fundamental, Functional, Flexible, Fast – The 5 F’s of Preparing Great Adventures

The following is a set of ideas to help any Game Master design fast, fun and functional adventures. Following through with these concepts will give you a flexible and fundamentally sound module. At the end of this article you will find a list of resources to help you create your own awesome adventures.

Fun

Your players want an interactive world that they can enjoy. If you’re busy railroading your players through a tightly planned adventure with no side path, they will know it. When your players want to wander off and follow up on some red herring, let them go for it. They found that red herring more interesting and you should give your players what they are interested in.

Your players want to go into the sewers and you hadn’t done any work on them yet? You can’t give it to them unless you are able to hold ideas lightly and take cues from your players. Don’t shoot down their ideas, follow through on them. That can be difficult though if your modules aren’t flexible and fast.

Fundamental

Simple means you can customize it later. You can toss in ideas that flutter into your brain or details that fit your campaign. Sticking to the basics for your adventure means that you end up with a small, light weight document. Small means you can throw it in whenever you want because you can play it in a single session. Sticking to the fundamentals also means that you end up with an adventure that is perfect for one-offs or classic style campaigns.

Functional

Clean design means that you can quickly find the information you need. Don’t clutter up the page with a myriad of details. Make the most important information take center stage by leaving out the unnecessary stuff. You need the basics, the skeleton of the adventure planned out to run a smooth game.

Flexible

Flexible means that it takes almost no work to adjust the adventure. You don’t have extra garbage to get rid of, so you don’t need to sort through to get to the diamond in the middle of the rock. You get the most bang for your buck with a modular adventure because you can reuse it so easily. Modular Design

Fast

Don’t make too much work for yourself! You should have a fun time too, this isn’t a homework assignment. Use the resources that make adventure creation a breeze. Keep these tools handy! You can make insanely swift, impromptu adventures with a few tools.

Resources:

The Big List of RPG Plots – Get your adventure off to a running start with a quick plot.

Creative Conclave’s The Lazy GM Products – Fully stated variations on many monsters and creatures for d20 D&D style games.

D20 Random Dungeon Generator – I’ve run a few impromptu adventures using these.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #29: The Adventure Begins– A fantastic collection of level 1 D&D 3.5 adventures.

Instant GM Bag of Tricks – Plot Seeds, Stock Characters, Props

Instant GM 2: On Your Mark, Get Set, GM – Adventure Hooks, Stock Characters, Props, Tips

The One Page Codex Deluxe – Generic Adventures that fit into any Game System!  An entire adventure on a single page.  FREE to download!

Play Unsafe: How Improvisation Can Change The Way You Roleplay – Learn to GM on the FLY and have FUN!

Random Tavern Generator – Always Handy

Story Telling Adventure System – A lightweight, modular system for creating encounters and adventures that work in any White Wolf game.  This sytem can easily be adapted for other games

What I Want from Published Adventures – Fantastic article on creating modular adventures that are flexible and reusable.