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The Douchey DM » Advice » The Evolution of a GM part 4: This is how we do it.

The Evolution of a GM part 4: This is how we do it.

Here we are after four weeks and we’ve learned quite a lot about the things that have put me into the state of mind that I currently have involving GMing a game. Now I want to take a look at the nuts and bolts of my process. How I come up with my plots, lay them out for play, and how I work them during actual play to get the most out of them. Keep in mind that I am not a “standard gamemaster” from my experience. I am not rigid, I don’t push my players in the direction I want them to do into, and I just let them go where they want. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t drop hints, but we’ll get to that in due time.

The first thing I do is keep a journal of sorts. This isn’t a journal where I write my innermost thoughts and feelings; it’s a place where I jot down game ideas. In my case I currently keep a journal with two different things in it. Ideas for my current Pathfinder game that I’ve been running for a little over a year now, and ideas for other games that I would like to run at some point. This notebook is generally kept next to the seat in the living room where I generally can be found. When I’m watching television, a movie, chatting online, listening to a podcast or any number of other things that I absorb throughout my day, if I find some nugget tucked away inside those things that I think would make a good game I note it down on a single page. Later when I get some more time I might throw some notes down on that page. Ideas for how to expand the basic concept or twist it in some way, ways that I can push that concept into the kind of game I want to run.

For example I’m looking right now at a page where I wrote down “Warehouse 13” at the top. I have yet to see this show, but from the ads on television that I have seen it basically looks like a place where a bunch of weird and freaky items are stored and the main characters are responsible for the items. Each week they check out a different item and a new adventure happens. Now this show takes place in modern day and looks to include some very futuristic electronic goods. In my notes I have some information as to how to shoehorn this concept into a fun and interesting Pathfinder game. For those of you who are unaware the basic Pathfinder world of Golarion has a group of people called the Decemvirate who are interested in gathering artifacts, art, knowledge, and magic for the betterment of everyone. To do so they send out Pathfinders to raid tombs and dungeons so that they may find these ancient items. On this page I have a few things describing how the players of this campaign would all be Pathfinders assigned to go through these items and catalog them for proper storage. Along the way they occasionally accidentally set off some of the items… leading to fun and adventure.

Another page has a note that I haven’t had a chance to fluff out or work on yet referencing an original series Star Trek episode as well as a Deep Space Nine episode. It was an episode that I recently watched “Trials and Tribble-ations” which celebrated the then 30th anniversary of the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode from the original series. The only note on the page is “Trouble with Tribbles” which is scrawled at the top. I have some ideas about how I could put this into a Pathfinder game by creating my own monster that is very Tribble-esque and having it take over a town or village or something. I think it would be much more fun however, to shoehorn it into a Star Wars game. Too bad I don’t know how to play Star Wars or now anyone who does. Eventually I will flesh this idea out into something more and maybe even eventually work it into a game.

After my notebook I go into actual game prep. The first thing I do is decide who the major NPCs will be and roll them up. If I need statted up minor NPCs I will generally look online or in my books for basic statblocks and get those ready as well. For most minor NPCs though I will just scribble down a name, a profession, and a few words about their personality. From there I transfer my plot into an outline. I try to break the story arc into smaller chunks similar to the acts of a play. Within each Act I note all the things that will happen unless the PCs directly influence them, then all the things that will happen if the PCs fail to do specific things, and lastly, what probably won’t happen unless the PCs directly influence them. Within that I put notes about what I think they will do and how that will change things, as well as ways to influence them to go the direction I would like. I don’t force them to do any one thing, but often a hint or clue dropped at the right time will nudge them in the direction of a better story. I prefer to let my players run the story for the most part by their decisions. I guess you could say I run a sandbox game, but I prefer to think of my game with a little more structure than that.

Next I do encounter design. I try to plan three to four encounters per session, and I try to make at least one of those encounters non-combat. Of the combat encounters I will usually do one pretty minor combat, a harder one, and one that will be quite challenging. This doesn’t mean I stick to a formula, if my plot calls for it I may only have two encounters and they may both be roleplay encounters; it completely depends upon what your story demands. For the most part thought, that formula does seem to work for me and my players, if your players like more combat by all means give them more to thwack and less to talk and vice versa.

My final step is to gather all the information that I need for each Act and put it together. I prefer a nice sturdy paperclip for this purpose, but staples would probably be ok as well. This way you have what you need handy at all times when in a particular scene. If I have time and I think that a particular major NPC will pop up in multiple scenes I will make a few copies of that NPC for each Act, the sheet of minor NPCs I generally clip onto my GM screen. One of the newer things I have started doing is to GM with a laptop in front of me, and I think this helps things a lot during the game. I open up a few documents that I keep names one, one for each race, that has first names and surnames for both sexes. In my case, being a Pathfinder GM, I find it invaluable to have open so I can quickly run a search if a rules issue comes up.

Lastly, I recommend you look around for tools online or at your local game store that can greatly enhance your game. I use lots of things in my game that not only makes the experience better but also makes the game run more efficiently. Here is just a short list of the things I use:

• Paizo’s Gamemastery Combat Pad
• Paizo’s Gamemastery Friends and Foes deck
• Paizo’s Gamemastery Enemies deck
• Paizo’s Gamemastery Critical Hit and Miss decks
• Useless Trivia Man’s Muster Sheet(available at the Happy Jacks forums)
• Multiples of each die type in different colors
• Chessex Battlemat or other gridded eraseable surface
• Cardstock pieces cut out to represent various things(trees, bushes, etc)

The Combat Pad for me is completely indispensable, it’s the most useful combat organizational aid I have ever seen. The various picture decks are excellent as NPC portraits to help your players visualize certain NPCs and get them more engaged in the story. The Critical Hit and Miss decks are just amazing fun and really enhance the experience in every way. UselessTriviaMan’s Muster Sheet has become for me invaluable, especially combined with multiple dice. I have taken to having a muster sheet for my players and one for my NPCs and monsters. On the sheet I note next to each one what color die I’m using for them and try to use the same die all night. That way I can roll multiple rolls at once and keep the game moving at the same time. The battlemat of course is an old standby that most people use, but is not essential for every game. I use mine a bit differently though. I might sketch a map onto the mat but more often than not I try to lay the scene out using pieces of cardstock cut into various shapes like walls, hedges, bushes, trees, rocks, etc. This way the scene is much more fluid and can be quickly changed if needed. You never know when a fireball may burn off the dead leaves in a forest, showing you a completely different scene than the one you drew out.

Really I guess what I’m getting at with showing you my method is that it doesn’t have to take a lot of work up front. A few hours spent over the course of several weeks during your game can really enhance your gaming experience. You don’t have to spend your time planning out every moment of your game, and honestly you shouldn’t. This is cooperative storytelling at its best folks, let it be what it is and don’t force it into a different place. My next article will discuss how I run a game during play, and what you can do to help make your games more interactive with your players. So join me next time on Evolution of a GM.


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SirGuido has been a Happy Jack's RPG fan since the first moment he heard Stu on Kicked in the Dicebags. He hopes one day that he will get to meet all of these great people and play lots of games with them.

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