Game Master Tips

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I thought as a follow-up to Jonathan's Game Master Theory thread, a place to park some GMing tips might be in order - no doubt there'll be discussion or refutation of some - but with the intention of just throwing some tips up there, so that there's a place to pick up tips from somewhere here.

Here's my opener:

Don't be so precious about your own ideas of what's really going on in the world that you ignore the ideas your players generate. Sometimes, the theories they come up with about what's really going on are more fun and interesting than yours, so shamelessly steal their ideas whenever they sound good (better than yours, more fun, more logical, better room for future development). They get to feel like they got it right, and you get to seem even more brilliant than of course you already are. :-)
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That's excellent advice! It even work on a smaller scale, like combat. The other day, I ran a one-off with pre-generated characters. I picked some random monsters to throw at them not realizing they could only be harmed by magic weapons. None of the characters had magic weapons, of course. Before I could figure out what to do, the players started searching through some sarcophagi assuming I had cleverly hidden magic weapons in them. "that's what I had planned all along!".
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Here's another:
Don't underestimate the usefulness of physical props and scene setting. Aside from figures, which lots of people use but which I find just slow things down unbearably, there are many other possibilities. If you're planning a meal in character, try to fudge the timing so you can eat at the time your characters eat. Get up and walk around sometimes, gesticulate the way your characters would while you are doing it. An occasional slammed palm (rather than a fist - makes more noise with less force) on a table top can really snap people's attention to you - as long, of course, as it's your table. If you have music on in the background, there may be times it would help to turn it off. Candles can be very atmospheric, but not entirely practical. All of these things (and many others) are great as highlights against a more routine backdrop - they lose their impact very fast if repeated too often.

Must add - Poker chips add a great tactile way of keeping track of things like Action points or Fate points, and give a real sense of impending doom when you suddenly realise you're about to hand over your last one....
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I love props! Here are some links for things I've used:

Campaign Coins
Game Mastery Cards
Fat Dragon paper craft dungeons
Hirst Arts Castlemolds
(some assembly required)
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And I almost forgot... Music is another under-used prop. There are a number of good movie and video game soundtracks that make great backdrops for a game. For fantasy games, the Lord of the Rings sound track or the Diablo video game sound tracks are especially good.
The trick to using music is having some good play lists set up in advance. You'll want to separate combat music from tavern music from exploring music, etc..
Being able to switch play lists or skip tracks without having to interrupt the game is key!
Keep the volume down, too. It should be noticeable without being distracting. Everyone should be able to talk over the music without having to raise their voice.
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One tip I give to both players and DM's was said best by Obi-Wan Kenobi, "Only the Sith deal in absolutes."

I stress to anyone running or playing in a game to avoid absolutes. Don't allow only one possible outcome in any situation.

For DM's, this means the players should have a freedom to come up with solutions that the DM maybe hadn't considered. Keep an open mind, and avoid rail-roading when the players get a little off track.


For players, this means they should never require absolutes, either. During roleplaying scenes, there should never be with-me-or-against-me scenarios. I've seen many sessions derail because one player wouldn't budge on his characters "ideals", drawing the game to a halt while the players tried to reason with him. Later the player might tell the DM, "All they had to do was bring up his father's failures and Davik would have sided with them". Well.. one, how the heck were the players supposed to know? Two, if you want to side with the players, then just look for the coolest reason given, not the coolest reason you WANT given.


Anywho, that rambled a bit, but I do think it's an important aspect of the game.
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Here's another one, of only rare applicability.

Mad people follow an internal logic; if you can't follow their logic as a GM, don't use them. It's not good enough to give as a reason for illogical nonsense "the NPC was mad". Mad makes people do things which make sense from a skewed world view, not just behave randomly.

In general, it's a good thing to avoid the use of Mad NPCs.
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If you're running another game in the same setting as before, or if you have two games running in parallel, make sure to take advantage of the chance to cross-polinate, bringing stories or changes to the world as a result of things other groups of PCs did.

a) Some of the things the players think of to do you'd probably never think of for NPCs to do
b) The players involved, if they recognise the exploits either from war stories, or because they were running those characters, will get a hell of a kick out of hearing about their own exploits, or seeing the follow-on effects of what they did
c) It feels more real
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Two words: moral choices. Think of the great computer RPGS you have played. Focus on those that truly immersed you. I suspect that had in common one element -- you mad to make tough choices (with neither choice unambiguously proving superior) that had a real impact on the game. Do you save your wife or you dear old mom? Do you save the orphans, secreting them from the city, or allow the children to fend for themselves while you bolster the gate defenses? Moral choices define a good game and, honestly, they're hard to pull off well.
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I like to collude with players, and it works especially well if you can do it by developing on a character background item they have provided.

One favorite roleplaying experience was a scenario I set up for Jonathan's character, but with his input and approval: I framed his character for murder. By bringing him in on part of what I'd planned, he had some room to play it to the best of his ability - eventually leading to the other players not knowing whether he was guilty or innocent or whether to believe him. I didn't share everything I had in mind, just enough to see if he had any objections so that I wasn't railroading him into a scenario he wouldn't enjoy.

It eventually led to one of the best sessions I ever had as a DM: one with a long period of in character interaction between the players where I didn't need to say or contribute anything.
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