When asked for his top GMing tip, Rob would normally make a Faustian bargain. Instead he reaches for a technique he has adopted relatively late in his d20-rolling career.


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He’s written several books and more than one chapter on the subject. In this Pelgrane Press video dispatch, GUMSHOE and DramaSystem designer Robin D. Laws distills it all down to his top game mastering tip.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Considering how focused roleplayers are on plundering and looting, it’s surprising how little stealing we’ve done from the world of improv. Like us, sketch comedy troupes use collective, on-the-spot creativity to make entertainment out of nothing. And they don’t even need d12s. Or whatever it is that we need when we say our hobby is like playing cowboys and indians, except with rules to guarantee that the dead stay down when they get shot.

Let’s hijack one of improv’s central principles right now. That fundamental principle is “never negate.” In an improv, you never merely cancel out another participant’s action. Imagine that you and I are performing an improv together. We’ve been given a location by the audience — a construction site — and that’s all we’ve got to work with. You start the skit by sitting down and miming as if you’re removing your lunch from your lunch bucket. Then you say, “Too bad we’re getting fired today, huh? And here I was, just a week away from retirement.”

Now, my mental wheels were already turning the moment I heard the words ‘construction site.’ I had a whole different direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to establish that we were merely amateur construction enthusiasts at construction worker fantasy camp. Maybe my idea was funnier than yours, but now that you’ve taken the lead, I can’t simply negate what you’ve done to clear the decks for my concept. The principles of improv forbid me from simply saying: “You are completely mistaken, Pete. We haven’t been fired at all. In fact, we are amateur construction enthusiasts attending construction worker fantasy camp.”

Instead, I have to set my thought aside and build on yours. Since I’m trying to be funny, I need to add a twist or reversal, or at least a set-up that my partner can turn into a joke. Such as: “Yeah, you kill one measly supervisor and they get all safety-oriented on your ass.” All of our mental prep work — all sixty seconds of it — is out the window, and we’re off in an unexpected direction, flying blind, creating in the moment. This process generates the energy and sense of surprise that makes improv seem funny — often much funnier than the exact same material would be if rehearsed it and polished into a finished sketch.

In the above example, I’m not negating you’re idea, but I’m not just accepting it and parroting it back to you, either. I’ve returned your serve while putting a new spin on the ball. I’ve said, “Yes, but.” Yes, we’re getting fired, but we deserve it — if anything, we’re getting off easy.

Few roleplaying game sessions present situations as open-ended as the very beginning of an improv sketch. There are game rules to take into account, PC backstories to keep consistent, and a certain amount of world detail and plot preparation you hope to preserve. Within these parameters, though, the ‘yes, but’ principle is a powerful technique to engage your players by rewarding their creativity while at the same time keeping them on their toes.

Let’s say you’re running a game in a landlocked fantasy nation with a vaguely ancient Bronze Age feel. A player building a new character, inspired by her recent purchase of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, really, really wants to play a pirate. Your initial response, based on the logic of your world and the prep work you’ve done, is simply to say no. It’s crucial to your geopolitical story arc that the kingdom be landlocked. That pretty much rules out naval piracy. However, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping that player happy, and having her contribute positively to the game, if you can give her part of what she wants. Say, “yes, but…”

“Yes, but in this setting the equivalent of the pirate is the bandit in the hills. The bandits in this world are the same unruly, rum-swilling outlaw types with stolen, ragtag finery and a perverse code of brotherhood you’re thinking of when you use the word pirate. But instead of attacking seafaring ships, they raid caravans from horseback.”

Maybe you hadn’t given any thought to bandits in your setting before now. Now you’ve allowed your player to help shape your world, by making your bandits into pirates with the serial numbers filed off. You’ve given her the feel she wants, while changing the details to preserve the campaign elements you need.

“Yes, but,” can be a useful tool during play, too. Is there a magic item shop in your fantasy city? You’ve decided that there isn’t. Not only do you find this gaming convention too ridiculous for belief, but you’ve also established that the city is ruled by a rapacious robber baron. If such a shop did exist, he’d surely have confiscated its wares long before now. However, when the players look for a magic item shop, tell them why, and then hit them with a “yes, but”:

“Here’s what you learn after a few minutes of asking around: there used to be a magic item proprietor in town, but the Black Baron absorbed its contents into his treasury. Now it’s run by one of his stooges, even though it hasn’t sold an item in years. If adventurers show up to sell something, the Baron’s goons confiscate their treasures and give them the bum’s rush out of town. If they show up to buy, the shopkeeper wheedles as much information from them as he can, then reports them to the Baron. The original owner fled the city and supposedly lives in the cave network by the river. He and a number of other exiles are looking for adventurers willing to aid in the baron’s overthrow. Rumor has it that he squirreled a few of his items out of town before the Baron’s tax collectors swooped in. Maybe he’d still be able to arrange a swap for you.”

Though you haven’t given the adventurers exactly what they want, you haven’t slapped them with a flat no, either. You’ve provided both a plot hook to follow up on, and a way of achieving their underlying goal (buying or selling a magic item) that doesn’t violate your own tastes or campaign logic.

“Yes, but” can, on the other hand, assist you in improvising additional conflicts challenges into what would otherwise be flat, uninspiring scenes of information gathering. Does the spice merchant know anything about the abduction of the high priest, the players wonder. You decide that the answer is “yes, but”: he saw one of the perpetrators, but will provide the information only in exchange for a favor: the adventurers must first forcibly persuade a decadent young noble to leave his daughter alone.

Though you don’t want to go overboard with side missions like this, the occasional instance can inject variety into your session — and also provide play opportunities for players who are more interested in butt-kicking, infiltration, intrigue or puzzle-solving than investigation.

The usefulness of this technique, however you choose to use it, stems from its origins in improv. It encourages you to add options instead of merely foreclosing them. Most importantly, it inspires you to think sideways before answering important questions, preserving surprise not only for the players, but for yourself as well.

Game Masters. Most RPGs require them. Even the ones that don’t often have a facilitator or organizer. When it comes to selling RPGs, Game Masters are your bread and butter. A glance of the RPG products on my shelves shows me well over half them are GM-focused. While it is true player-focused books sell higher quantities per title, those intended primarily for the Game Master surpass them by the dollar (or pound). While many players might own a core rulebook or splatbook (and sometimes share these with each other), GMs tend to own most of the books for systems they run, and are among my best regular customers. To carry and sell RPGs profitably, I need Game Masters.

The GM is a different stripe of RPG gamer. There is no equivalent role in most board, card or miniatures games (though certainly there are games in these categories that need a facilitator or referee, there are rarely products published with that role in mind). Not every player wants to GM, and in many cases aspirant or prospective GMs are hesitant to try. The sad reality is there will always be more players than Game Masters. This can make finding them challenging.

The most obvious place to look is in existing RPG groups, where there will always be at least one. If you already have groups in your shop you’re in good shape. Game Masters are often the best evangelists for their hobby, and can enthusiastically help bring new players into their ranks. That’s where most GMs come from – players. Many times, the best GMs excel at kindling the spark of new GM-ship in people in their gaming group. Having great, memorable game moments naturally leads people to want to share that experience with others.

The truism for RPGs, that the best way to learn to play is to join a game and pick up the rules as you go also applies to the abilities required of GMs. In a similar way that online streamed play gives interested players a virtual seat at the table from which to pick up the ins and outs of an RPG system, so do many interested GMs gain insight into the skill set required to run a game by listening to asides and tips from online GMs. So, streamed games have been instrumental in growing both the number of players and Game Masters. And even as there are numerous great books about becoming a better GM, there’s not a class you can take to learn to become a Game Master.

Unless, of course, you create one.

Once a year in my shop, we host an event we call RPG Escape, where we invite designers, Game Masters, and authors to give panels and workshops on the unique art of creating worlds and experiences in RPGs. It used to be called the Gamemaster Symposium. We changed the name because we wanted people who were curious, but maybe felt a little too intimidated to call themselves GMs yet, to attend. People get ask questions about game and scenario design, and work through exercises in collaborative world-building, storytelling, and a little RPG psychology.

This event connects people together, forming new gaming groups and potential support structures among people with shared interests and varying levels of expertise. It breaks past barriers like fear of putting yourself out there, or not being ready, through a welcoming encouraging group activity. It’s one of the best things we do in the shop.

During the rest of the year, we also host GM Roundtables and Game Master Classes. At the Roundtables we invite experienced and new GMs to an evening in our private room. This is usually a small group. We put out snacks and shut the door. There’s a suggested topic, maybe “scenario building”, “game balance”, or “when player personalities clash”, but there’s no requirement to stick to one subject. Everyone has a chance to vent, listen, and offer up advice if asked for. It’s private and confidential, and feedback has been positive. The Game Master Class fits neatly between the GM Roundtables and RPG Escape in terms of size, and more closely follows the format of the latter, with a short panel featuring local GMs, followed by breakout sessions of tabletop play, accentuated with tips and explanations of the processes of running a game. The Master Class is more aspiring GM-focused, while the Roundtables better serve GMs who have recently taken the plunge.

For the RPG campaigns that routinely take place in the shop that tend to run for shorter durations (eight or fewer sessions), we try to encourage taking turns running for the group. Often times this will result in the next GM trying a different game or game system where they are more comfortable with their relative level of expertise or ownership. From what we’ve witnessed over time, a good way to start this practice is to suggest keeping a backup game in reserve to run when the regular game experiences a hiccup or off night. As more players in a group try their hand at running, it increases the likelihood that others in the group will want to take their turn, and before long there may be a game group that started by playing 13th Age under one GM, moved to a session or three of Little Things (from the Seven Wonders story-games anthology) with another, with yet another jazzed to run The Fall of DELTA GREEN in a few weeks.

These are just some ideas we have tried. Maybe you’ve had success creating GMs in other ways? My friends Paul and George do RPG Labs to demo new systems at their shop, Games & Stuff. My friend Dawn streams games from a studio in her store, The Game Annex (something we will be doing in the Adventure Game Society as well). Try some of these, or come up with ideas that better fit your store (and share them in the comments), and let’s foster healthier RPG play and business for all our shops!

Brian Dalrymple owns The Adventure Game Store & Dragon’s Lair  in South Florida, USA.He is a founder of The Adventure Game Society. Find him on Twitter @AdvGameStore

Blood_splatterImprovising telling but subtle details on the fly is tricky, especially if the players catch you off-guard. They’ve suddenly flown to Iceland to follow a lead you hadn’t prepared, and now you’re scrambling not only to get back ahead of the Agents, but also get a handle on where the overall campaign is now going. With all that to think about, atmosphere and description suffer, and your NPCs become bland stick figures who meet the PCs in, I dunno, an office or somewhere.

Using motifs – ideas that recur in different forms throughout the campaign – can help with this. It’s the classic “constraints breed creativity” trick  – if you’ve got to somehow associate Random Icelandic Dude with blood in the players’ minds, that’ll give you a starting point to riff from and get you off the blank page of the mind. Maybe he’s a farmer, and he’s just slaughtered a lamb when the PCs arrive. He’s a surgeon. He’s wobbling and pale because he donated blood this morning. He’s got ketchup on his face. Anything that suggests blood works.

There are two other benefits using motifs. Firstly, they’re a device to add a feeling of cohesion and consistency to a work. Used properly, they make a campaign with a lot of side trails, dead ends and random weirdness seem more like an actual polished story in retrospect. More importantly (from the rat-bastard GM point of view, as opposed to the lit critic in me), motifs are great for retroactive revelations. If, later in the campaign, you need to reveal that the Icelandic farmer is a minion of Dracula, you can retroactively decide that the blood on his hands was human blood from the hitch-hikers he killed! That bat beating against the window at Hillingham House wasn’t a bit of spooky atmospheric description – it was Dracula himself, spying on the Agents! Every motif can be a trapdoor. Everyone’s a suspect.

Use motifs as modifiers –  instead of coming up with a new NPC/Location/Object, take an existing one from the Director’s Handbook and work the motif into your description. Associate one or two themes with each major faction in your campaign. You might push the Dracula-Blood connection, and reserve Rats for Edom’s spies and thieves.

 

Major motifs lifted straight from the novel:

Blood

Associations: Vitality/health/strength/lifeforce, family & lineage, hearts, passion, wine (through Jesus Christ), stains (guilt), injuries (‘shedding blood’ as a badge of honour).

People:

  • Visible scrapes, bandaged wounds (“cut myself shaving this morning, you see”)
  • Red jewellery or clothing (“in the Whitby gloom, her red scarf looks like blood gushing from her pale neck”)
  • Small bloodstains on collar, cuffs or shoes (“one of the kids had a nosebleed – the washing machine didn’t get it all out”)
  • Eating a rare, bloody steak (“my doctor says it’s bad for me, but who wants to live forever”)
  • Breath smells metallic (“she’s beautiful, but her breath turns your stomach when she gets close to you”)
  • Phobia of blood (“It makes me feel faint – please don’t make that Medic roll in here.”)
  • Drinking red wine (“a rare vintage, laid down by my grandfather”)
  • Cuts themselves while talking to the Agents (“she gets so pissed at you she knocks her glass off the table with an angry gesture. As she’s picking up the pieces, she cuts her finger open on a jagged fragment.”)

Locations:

  • Bloodstains on the ground in or near the location (“looks like someone had a fight outside the office last night – the ground’s dark with dried blood that wasn’t washed away by the morning’s rains”)
  • Dark red walls (“you can almost hear the decorator saying it’ll make the room feel warm and cosy. It makes you feel like you’re inside a hunk of raw meat.”)
  • Red stains or marks. (“The old pipes spit out rusty, reddish water.)
  • Inherited property. (“It’s been in my family for generations. This place is in my blood.”)
  • Sound like a distant heartbeat (“some piece of machinery in the basement’s making this rhythmic hammering noise, thump thump thump thump, and the vibrations go right up your spine and echo in your ribcage”)
  • Nearby medical facility (“there’s a blood donation van parked in the car park of the community centre across the street”)

Objects: 

  • Reddish colours, stains or markings (“the diary’s written in dark red ink”)
  • Bloodsucking things nearby (“after wading through the leech-infested marsh, you find the buried box”)
  • Emotional reactions (“your blood runs cold when you look at the portrait”)
  • Inherited object (“to think that Quincey Harker once wielded this knife! It fires up your blood!”)
  • Evocative hiding place (“you find the diary inside an old winepress in an outbuilding”)

Bats and Rats

Associations: Filth and disease, nocturnal predators and scavengers, hiding in holes and caves, unclean animals, eating insects

People:

  • Rat-like features (“she’s got very prominent front teeth, like a rodent”)
  • Skulking demeanour (“he’s in a corner of the bar, so well hidden you nearly miss him.”)
  • Gnawing or scavenging (“he starts burrowing through the piles of reports and letters on his desk. It looks like this guy’s a total packrat.”)
  • Disconcertingly good night vision (“even though you’re hidden in the dark shadow of the hedge, he looks right at you and sniffs the air, like he can smell you”)
  • Pet rat or bat (“I found it in the garden this morning. Poor thing was starving. I’m feeding it with an eye-dropper.”)
  • Taste for cheese. (“It’s an excellent variety of Edom. I’m sorry, Edam.”)

Locations:

  • Visible mouse hole in the skirting board (“You can’t help but notice a small hole behind the desk, littered with chewed scraps of paper”)
  • Mouse droppings on a surface (“the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned in years. Mouse droppings and worse in the cabinets.”)
  • Scratching in the walls (“you try to sleep, but there’s a mouse running around the walls near your bed. It sounds like it’s trying to claw its way inside your skull.”)
  • Rats crawling over garbage. (“There’s a back door in a garbage-strewn alley. Rats look up at you with brazen curiosity as you pass, utterly unafraid of you.”)
  • Animal brought in to keep the rats down (positive spin: “a small terrier bounds into the room, something tiny and furry caught in its jaws. It shakes its head violently and there’s an audible snap a the rat’s neck breaks. The dog drops the body at your feet.” Negative: “a white cat, more like a furry rugby ball than anything else, snores lazily on the couch, ignoring the mice darting across the floor”).
  • Bats crashing into windows or beating against them is a classic, and always good for a jump scare. Players are a cowardly and superstitious lot.

Objects: 

  • Stored with rat poison (“you find the gun under the sink, behind some black bin bags and a box of rat poison”)
  • Unusual interest from bats (“as you leave the graveyard, you see a huge number of bats settling in the nearby tree. Suddenly, there’s a thump as one of them flies low and slams into your briefcase, as if it knows what’s inside.”)
  • Animal tooth marks on the object. (“The coffin’s been chewed by rats.”)
  • Animalistic decorations (“you can’t find a printer’s name or publisher on the book, suggesting it was privately printed. There’s a little symbol on the spine that might be stylised bat.”)
  • Evoke animal imagery when describing it. (“Thick grubby electrical wires, like a cluster of rat tails,run into a brass port on the underside of the machine.”)

Mirrors

Associations: Illusions, trickery and sleight of hand; deception; vanity and the ravages of age, espionage and double agents (‘wilderness of mirrors’), parallels and counter-examples, reversals.

People:

  • Seen first in a mirror (“he stops to look in his reflection in a shop window”)
  • Mirror shades (“the border guard is wearing mirrored sunglasses”)
  • Has a hand-mirror or very shiny surface to hand (“he has the annoying, childish habit of angling his watch face to catch rays of sunlight and bouncing them around the walls and into your eyes”)
  • Dopplegangers & duplicates (“you see an older, heavyset man with thick brows, wearing overalls. It’s only when you get closer that you realise it’s a different man. It’s not the Russian.”)
  • Mirroring body language (“she leans forward, copying your stance. Psych 101, creates a feeling of shared experience and promotes bonding and trust. Damnably effective when you look like she does, too.”)
  • Shadow duplicate of Agent (“The name’s Hayward. You must remember me. I was the year behind you at Cambridge, you know, and was on the Bucharest desk after you too. Our paths diverged after that, of course – I never left the Service.”)

Locations:

  • Prominent mirror in room (“the lobby’s huge, but the full-length mirror running down one wall makes it feel like you could meet an aircraft carrier here for coffee without inconveniencing anyone”)
  • Reflected or symmetrical structure (“her office is in the east wing, just across the quad. The only building is a copy of itself, so much so that when you look across the courtyard, you see three figures much like yourselves in the corridor opposite.”)
  • Still, reflective water (“The pond outside Carfax Abbey is long gone, but water pools on the Meath road in much the same place, reflecting the wintry skies.”)
  • Broken mirror or glass. (“The windows around the back are all cracked. Looking for a place to peer in, you’re momentarily arrested by the sight of your own reflected eye staring back at you.”)
  • Silvered or glassy surface. (“It’s art,” she says doubtfully.”The owners like it.”)
  • CCTV Cameras (“The security post has a bank of monitors showing all the feeds. You can see yourselves crouched in the corridor outside the post.”)

Objects:

  • Fake or duplicate item in same place (“he collects 19th century maps, so it’s only after sorting through a dozen Austro-Hungarian surveys of the mountains do you find the annotated version you seek.”)
  • Hidden behind a mirror (“searching the bathroom, you find a syringe behind the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet”)
  • Copy of original document (“the original files are gone, but you dig up a photocopy.”)
  • Wrapped in silver foil (“the inner crate is lined with some tin-foil-like substance, interleaved with swatches of ballistic cloth”)
  • Image of Agent or key NPC (“A sketch of your own face stares out at you from the first page. It must be a sketch of your great-grandmother. The resemblance is uncanny.”)

Other motifs from the novel: Revenants and the Un-Dead, Superstitions vs. Technology, Stories Told Indirectly