Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Far Too Many DM Tips - Part II

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Part II of my, well, annotated 87 DM Tips, a post originally made by NewbieDM, who, it turns out, is not a newbie DM at all. Rather, his blog site is aimed at the newbie DM and it is for that reason, I would wager, that a number of these entries read as they do.

Still and all, if you are going to give new DMs some helpful hints on getting into the hobby and getting proficient at entertaining fellow hobbyists in the way that we do, might I suggest you keep it simpler.

Largely, some of hints made in this latter half of the 87 aren't bad at all. The problem is they come in around hint #51 or so and I can tell you that a lot of people I spoke to never got that far. They got bored around 8-12 and went to look at something else.

Keep it short, simple and to the point. The other option is collect the ideas into a half dozen categories at most and explain them in more detail.

Anyway...The Final 43

87 DM Tips And Why Not To Do Some Of Them!
(Although Some of Them Are Good)

45. First question to start off your new campaign: “What kind of encounters do you all wanna see?” Chances are, you won’t go wrong.

That probably wouldn't be my very first question to start off a new campaign but asking your players what types of encounters they enjoy is a very helpful thing to ask.

46. We’ve seen orcs before. What is it about *these* orcs…?

OK, a mini-rant coming on...and it's only 'mini' because I have another 41 tips to get through...

We've all seen a statement saying, "My Orcs Are Different" or "Jazz Up Your Orcs".

Usually this is done in one of the following ways.

1. Awesome backstory fluff. No change in stat or abilities.
2. Different color, different look, they're called 'Ahoogas'. No change in stats or abilities.
3. There are no Orcs in this world. We do have big goblins that are exactly like orcs though and have no change in stats or abilities.

BLEEP you and BLEEP your Orcs.

Don't bother BLEEPing changing anything if they are the same damn BLEEPing Orcs in the end. Few things piss me off more about fantasy games then the fact that all their pretty prose doesn't mean squat when you actually encounter something, especially monsters.

We've seen Orcs before and we are going to see them again and you should just own up, be OK with yourself for using Orcs and who gives a damn about these Orcs if they are just the same BLEEPing Orcs. Say to yourself, "I am using Orcs and they are Orcs and I am OK with that". Don't give me stinkweed, call it rose petals, tell me the wonderful story of how you got them rose petals and just leave me with a pile of stinkweed.

Whew. Sorry. I hate it when fluff and rules don't reflect each other. I also hate Orcs.

47. Your story better hook me from the start. Don’t have my character walking in circles trying to figure out what to do to get going.

While the story and/or setting should hook you from the start, there are definitely some instances where that is not the case. For example, in my current Traveller campaign, it was up to the Players to get going on their own. I gave them a universe, asked them what they wanted to do in it and then asked they how they were going to accomplish that.

Player shouldn't expect the GM to motivate them. They should show some interest and get motivated.

GMs shouldn't expect Players to automatically motivate themselves. They should show them some interesting things that might get them going.

48. Once your pc’s catch their breath and think they’re okay–make sure they’re not!

Disagree. Sometimes.

One of the things I can't stand about a lot of today's action/adventure films, especially those with Superhero and Science Fiction themes, is that there is so much action, so many special effects, so many things going on and flying in your face...that none of it matters. It all starts to blend together into the visual and emotional equivalent of white noise.

Good cinema and good games understand build up. Their are moments of action, moments of drama and moments of calm that can often lead to moments of drama, action or simply tension.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan works for all the reasons Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't.

Allow for scenes where nothing major is happening. Take breaks from the constant avalanche of awesome you seek to unload upon your Players. Make sure that a drink in a tavern is sometimes just a drink in a tavern. Then, watch what happens the next time, when it isn't.

49. Build your adventure up towards its most important moment, the “oh shit!” moment.

Have an adventure climax. OK. I'll go with that.

50. Sacrifices have to be done by NPCs the players care about. Otherwise it’s just bullshit that players will laugh about.

That's a little bit of backwards logic don't you think. Most Players don't give a crap about NPCs. If a NPC dies, that's often when someone chuckles and says, "Heheh. Better him than me".

The real tip would be make your NPCs so likable, so important to the PCs that the Player would be upset if they died and would even be willing to jump in harms way to save them. THAT is impressive GMing. If a Player is willing to lose a PC to save a NPC in your world, you are doing something right.

51. Not everyone is a philosopher. NPCs have to be real.

See above. I think. I don't know what it has to do with being a philosopher.

52. Don’t make me do more math when I’m playing. “25 years ago” sounds better described to me than “in the year 235 of the Empirium”.

Hmmm. Many of my Traveller players would disagree. But then that's Traveller and we're focused on more of a D&D thing here. OK, still, one is easier to remember, one more evocative of setting. Know your Players and the type of game you're running and use whichever fits.

53. If you point out a place in your world, you bet I’m going to go there. Be ready.

Agreed! Wholeheartedly. And, if you don't want Players to go there, don't even frickin' mention it.

54. A good bad guy will make your pc’s cross a line they thought they wouldn’t.

Hmmm. Also agreed. These later ones are better than the first 44.

55. A good first impression will hook me. Make the opening of your game pop!

Wow. Agree again. Spot on!

56. Interesting worlds have interesting npc’s. One line of dialogue can make the difference.

Yes. As well as how it's delivered.

57. Your character’s power isn’t what’s interesting & important. But rather what you choose to do with it.

 OK, yes. I could get even deeper here but this is good.

58. Your players should be safe before they leave town, and when they come back to town. Otherwise they should always be in peril.

Well, I get what you are saying but as usual, I see things in shades of gray. To me there are degrees of everything. You should have a home base that is relatively safe. You are in less danger there relative to how much danger you are in outside of your home base. You are in a lot less danger there than you would be if you were in the middle of a monster infested dungeon.

So you are never absolutely safe but neither are you always in guaranteed peril.

59. Be fair. The hardest choice the pc’s make should be the right choice.

I agree with "be fair" but not entirely sure I understand the rest of this.

60. A good guy turned bad guy who we used to know hurts more than a bad guy we just met. Go for their gut.

Yes but don't over due it. It gets old.

61. You want your players “uncertain” about what’s happening, not “confused”.

Correct. I guess. A little confused once in a while is OK.

62. Nobody really screams “Nooooooo!”

In Star Wars they do.

63. When describing, you’re not “explaining”. You’re “convincing”.

Disagree. My job is not to convince you of anything. I am simply there to tell you what you see. I am not there to steer you one way or another but merely to tell you which possible destinations lie ahead.

64. Make bad player choices mean something. Up the ante.

This is actually a good tip for me. I am sometimes too easy on my current group of players. I need them to know when they've goofed.

65. It’s cool if a few npc’s joke around or act like jerks all the time. It’s stupid if they *all* do it.

Absolutely. Make each NPC as distinct as you can. If they are not reoccurring NPCs they don't have to be deep but they do need to be distinct enough that both you and your Players can tell them apart.




66. Know your BBEG first before you even know what he’s planning.

Sure. That makes sense.

Is that BBEG thing bugging anyone else? It's really starting to irk me. Seems lazy somehow.

67. When playing in a licensed setting, find a way to leave your mark in that world. It’ll make it memorable. I have my SW dragon. :)

Hmmm. I am going to silently nod on this one. I agree but I am personally wary of leaving too big a mark.

SW Dragon huh. Right.

68. Your npc’s need to speak a lot less than you think.

Some people have this problem. Some have the reverse. My personal take on it is that the NPC needs to talk as much or as little as that NPC would talk. Get into the character's head and react as they would react.

69. Don’t go for the predictable. That road leads down to evil cultists sacrificing people at the bottom of a dungeon.

Agreed. Unless you can put a twist on the cliche, then go for it. Lead them in with predictable and then get all unexpected on their a*^es.

70. Flashbacks in an adventure: A good one will raise a question while answering another.

Flashbacks, unreliable narrators and all manner of literary and narrative techniques are useful in gaming for a variety of reasons. Look them up and think of how you can make them work for you.

71. Go back to your older discarded ideas. There may be something there now for you.

I agree with this. Also, sometimes your first idea is your best idea. It needs to be polished, not tossed aside.

72. Horror: Easier to shock than it is to truly disturb. Go for the latter.

Shock is easy. Disturb is easy and makes you feel icky afterwards. Neither works for me.

Creepy. Go for creepy. That mix of unsure and 'is-that-as-spooky-and-weird-as-I-think-it-is-or-am-I-doing-it-to-myself or is-it-even-weirder-and-more-disturbing-then-I think-it-is'? The GM won't confirm, so my own head now just keeps answering the question with weirder and weirder crap...

Yeah. Creepy.

73. If you can’t really describe well to the players where all the combatants are standing, this fight’s not gonna work.

Probably but if you're a Newbie DM, don't be discouraged.

Visualizing combat is tricky and can get trickier the more elements you add in. Use miniatures if you have to or those clear glass stones or poker chips or little pieces of paper. Whatever helps.

74. Give the pc’s something they’ve never seen before.

Yes. In light of that, something they didn't expect to see. Maybe something they have seen before, but not exactly the way they are seeing it now.

75. Don’t save your cool stuff for your *next* session. Your players aren’t guaranteed to come back. :)

This! Good point. I've made it myself in the past.

76. Your setting is interesting for how it challenges the players. Not for it’s history and its past. depends on your Players. And your setting. I have Players would love learning about the past history of the game world/universe. Why? Sometimes it offers challenges of its own.

77. Look at your first encounter. Now brainstorm a few ways to make it better. Move on to the second…

Not a bad idea. I don't really design things this way so it's hard for me to relate.

78. What’s the emotional anchor of each of your pc’s? Make sure you take it away from them.

Huh? Take away their emotional anchor? What the hell does that mean?

If you are lucky enough to game with a Player capable of putting a feeling of real emotion into their character, why would you want to take away the element of the character that is the catalyst or source of that level of role-play?

Is this worded strangely, am I misunderstanding or is this the dumbest thing I've ever read?

I have to be misinterpreting what he is saying here. Can any of my readers help me out?

79. The more your bad guy gets away with, the more your players will love him.

Love him, hate him. It's the same thing.

80. Let the PC’s breathe every now and then. Let them stop and emotionally feel something about their situation.

What? Wait, but you said #48.

81. A good bad guy, a BBEG, isn’t just out to make your pc’s day worse. No, they make it personal.

Ah but a BBEG isn't a good bad guy. He's a bad evil guy! ;)

It's great when it's personal. It doesn't always have to be or at least, start out that way.

82. How do you know you wouldn’t dm a particular genre well, if you’ve never tried it?

Agreed. Unless, you know nothing about it and have no interest in learning anything about it because all your exposure to that genre has told you that you'd hate it.

I would not GM Twilight: 2000 well. Nothing about it appeals to me.

83. Your job is to convince players that the challenge they face is important and makes sense in your story.

Wrong. Your job is to provide challenges with rewards that they may or may not find important. Said challenges can be in line with the campaign story or the personal stories of one or more of the PCs. You are not to convince them of anything. They decide what they want to do and why.

I am not sure the originator of this list has the same definition of convince as I do as he's used it several times in ways that make it sound like the GM is trying to sway the Players in a particular direction or to influence the actions they will take.

Let's see...

From a cross referencing of both the Free Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online:

con·vince  (kn-vns)
tr.v. con·vinced, con·vinc·ing, con·vinc·es
1. To bring by the use of argument or evidence to firm belief or a course of action. See Synonyms at persuade.
2. Obsolete To prove to be wrong or guilty.
3. Obsolete To conquer; overpower.

Yeah, see, no, no convince. Convince is wrong. We GMs provide, create, generate, describe and possibly even suggest challenges. We never convince.

84. If *you* don’t really love your BBEG, your players probably won’t either. Get him right. Make him memorable.

Yes, yes. Make your key villain awesome. This is a good example of where one entry called 'Make Your Main Villain Awesome', followed by a short paragraph on how to do that, would have worked much better than a dozen tiny tips that basically say the same thing.

85. Don’t apologize for your weird setting or campaign idea. Own it, explain it, and make your players love it.

Unless it sucks. Or you can't make them like it. Actually, if you have to make them like it you should probably run something else. If they won't try it their jerks but if they try it and don't like it, own up, cut your loses and look for another idea.

86. Don’t fret over eliminating large but unnecessary parts of your adventure. You created it, you can certainly destroy it.

Agreed but I wouldn't say destroy. I prefer to think of it as rearranging.

87. Your set-piece battle isn’t memorable. How fantastic your bad guys act and behave with the PC’s during the set piece, is.

Um, damn, hate to end on a low note but I have to disagree with you here. Yes how the bad guys act and what they and the PCs say and do matters a lot but if your set-piece isn't memorable you screwed up on the set piece.

If you think my Players don't remember sailing backwards into the Great Triangle at the Cornerstone of The World while their allies in a flying ship dropped a demi-god onto the head of the Tarrasque before it tore their ship asunder, well, I'm pretty sure they remember it.

Environment Matters. Tip 87.1

Barking Alien


  1. I think what he's trying to get at with the "emotional anchor" thing is that players should have something in the game that they care about and the GM should exploit that to create instant investment in the story. For example, Oswin the Ranger loves his aunt, so the GM has some goblins kidnap her.

    I think that's what he's going for, anyway.

    1. See, I think he uses the "take away" here and, IMHO, that sounds like great rid of or remove from the field of play. In your example Kelvin, a kidnapped aunt, is still in play. She can be searched for and hopefully rescued.

      The death of Gwen Stacy in the early Spiderman comics was brilliant. The periodic killing off of Aunt May is not. You need Aunt May and Mary Jane in Spiderman's life so you have something to constantly threaten him with and to tie up his time and emotions so he can't focus on kicking the criminals' keisters as easily.

    2. I agree that's how it comes across but I don't think that's what he means, if only because if that is what he means, it makes no sense whatsoever.

  2. This is kind of funny BA, you're sounding like a hard-bitten AD&D DM in some of these.

    Alright I can't resist so here are 3 that got to me:

    46. We’ve seen orcs before. -interrupt- Yes, so when I say "orc" you have a pretty good idea of what I mean. This kind of common frame of reference is a good thing, not a bad one.

    What is it about *these* orcs…? -interrupt- they're charging - roll initiative!

    (I'm pretty much with you on this one - if you mean orc say orc. If you mean something else don't just change the name and don't say "they're like orcs but..." I'm fighting through some choices like this in Numenera that surprise me so it's fresh on my mind)

    52. Don’t make me do more math when I’m playing. “25 years ago” sounds better described to me than “in the year 235 of the Empirium”.

    Really? If you're reading something out of an old book you found,or an old map, or some kind of proclamation it's not going to say "25 years ago". If you're talking to a sage he may well speak like this because it's how he thinks. How about a little atmosphere for this kind of thing?

    83. Your job is to convince players that the challenge they face is important and makes sense in your story.

    Are we playing D&D here? You're 1st level characters with no money. There's a dungeon over there with gold in it. You'll have to kill some monsters to get it if you want it. Some of you may die, but the rest of you will become more wealthy and more powerful. Thousands of awesome campaigns have begun this way over a span of decades.

    Oh and "your story?"

    This is also something I see with a lot of newish DM's - they feel like they are driving the "story" and if players stand around talking for any length of time , unless it's to an NPC, they are doing something wrong and need to have ninja's attack to get things "moving" again. I'm not "convincing", I'm not selling, and I'm not driving the action - I'm presenting the world as the characters experience it (as best I can) and how they choose to act or react to it is entirely up to them. The "story" is *what your players do*, not what's written down on the adventure or in your notes.

    82. How do you know you wouldn’t dm a particular genre well, if you’ve never tried it?

    I'm not sure "genre" has all that much to do with it - I know people who love Trek and hate Star Wars or the reverse. Specific universes or games tend to be the issue here. I like "fantasy" in general but I have no interest in running Rolemaster. I like science fiction but I don't want to run Blue Planet. I like some anime but I'm not going to run that "Maid" game BA talked about last month. DMing takes some effort and you should spend it on the things you like, not doing community service.

    There are a bunch of these that read better if you think "superhero game" rather than D&D. So much focus on villain and BBEG - a lot of D&D games run without a real main villain, unless you want to go meta and view the dungeon itself as the BBEG but I'm trying to resist that. If I'm running a classic D&D or Traveller sandbox, or a Trek game, there may not be a strategic-level plot-pushing BBEG. It's just not necessary and a lot of these tips go out the window.

    Who's the BBEG of "Research Station Gamma"? Who's the main villain in "White Plume Mountain"? How about "Denial of Destiny" for Fasa Trek? Yes there are plenty of memorable villains in some adventures but even in plot-driven games I find that quite a bit of the time the interest is in the situation, not the villain driving it. Time of Crisis for M&M is cool for what you get to do, not the guy you fight at the end - he's no slouch but the adventure itself is fun, regardless of the villain.

    Back to you, BA

    1. Wow, so many things about this comment rock its hard to know where to start. You seem to have had the same issues as it jumps around numerically. lol

      First and foremost I am interested to know what made you say I sounded like a hard bitten AD&D DM. It would seem to me this is as BA like as usual, an unholy merger of the old with the new.

      On the subject of the (don't like writing this) BBEG, I think you nailed one of the things that's been bothering me and I couldn't quite identify it.

      D&D games don't always have a singular, overarching, major villain. Most of the modules didn't, though some did and some came close. The talk of a BBEG does sound more appropriate for a Superhero Comic Book RPG than a Fantasy one.

      That said, if the original poster is advocating having one, THAT is a huge tip of a very distinct style and would have been fascinating to read ("Who is your Sauron?: Why your D&D campaign needs a good nemesis").

      Huh. A future post perhaps. See, we actually did have major villains behind a lot of the early modules when I was growing up in the early days of the hobby. My friends and I were comic book fans who came from a movie and TV watching background. I started at 8 and hadn't yet read too many Fantasy novels so it was natural we thought in terms of Dr. Doom and Darth Vader.

  3. He meant convincing as, Convincing the players that the world is real. Providing suspension of disbelief. Not leading them.
    You aren't describing details, you are convincing them that that mountaintop is real, even with the dragon flying around it.

    con·vince (kn-vns)
    tr.v. con·vinced, con·vinc·ing, con·vinc·es
    1. To bring by the use of argument or EVIDENCE TO FIRM BELIEF

    As in belief in the world you are providing through the power of description.

    1. Ah, I see. That does make more sense.

      At the same time, in the second use of the term, tip #83, he states "convince the players that challenge they face is important and makes sense in your story".

      I can do all I can to describe an event, why it is happening and how many innocent lives will be lost if it is not prevented, but then I sit back and see what the Players want to do. I personally do not try to convince them of anything in regards to plot. I simply invoke a series of logically related occurances that culminate in some larger catastrophe and leave it to the PCs to determine what to do next.

      I have seen people meet the challenge head on, I have seen parties ignore the situation completely and go find their fortune somewhere else.

      It is probably one of the style traits about my GMing technique that throws the most new players off at first. If the world is in danger I am not going to make you save it (unless of course that is your job and you are shirking your duty. Then your superior/Patron may come looking for you if any of you survive). It is up to the Player and how they play their Character on what they want to do, what challenges they will and will not face and what choices seem right to make. There will be ramifications regardless but I do not control or even really steer the PCs toward a choice for the most part.

      Again, this only applies to genres and games where this style of play is applicable like D&D style Fantasy or Traveller style Science Fiction. Even our Champions world is a bit flexible in this regard, though the consequences are huge.