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Marvin

Questions and observations from a new GM.

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As some of you no doubt know, because I won't shut up about it, I'm about to run my first RPG campaign. Despite being a little jittery about having the whole production in my hands, I decided to design my own campaign instead of running an AP because I think it'll be more fun for me. And it'll let me cater to the characters' backgrounds and goals and the players' whims. Or so I figure. But I'm having a blast designing the first dungeon, still have to put the base-of-operations town together but have it pretty much in my head, and I've got stuff worked out for the future.

 

I've been running around asking everybody for their advice on things, though. So, yeah: What advice do you have for a new GM? I want to make things as fun as possible for my players. I'm also interested in any advice that'll make my job easier and more efficient--which, really, will make it better for the players, too, right?

 

I'm thinking I'll probably play it a little tamer with my delivery--no showing out with voices, like, as that's just more my speed, generally. Is that kosher?

 

Any tips for handling various things in-game, which I probably haven't foreseen?

 

Should I employ a GM's screen and make use of unseen rolls or keep it open? Should I allow secrets and so on--splitting the party out of the room when only part of the group should know something or if they want to have clandestine threads in the story? Help prevent meta-gaming?

 

What's the best way to go about a battle-mat kind of thing? The currently-raging Tact-Tiles looked cool but are a bit pricey for me. So I'm looking somewhere south of there. Possibly just a very simple rollup mat or some such. I was wondering about the Darkfast Dungeons KS (Since I'm in the vein of KS, here), if it's that customizable where I could just print them out as I want them, but even it doesn't deliver until January. And I assume some scenarios wll be outside dungeons, lol.

 

Are there any particularly great Pathfinder modules I should check out?

 

What Pathfinder books or supplements do you highly recommend, both to help me and to benefit my players? I'm working mainly right now with the Core Rulebook, GM Guide, Bestiary, and Inner Sea Guide. I especially dig stuff that expands the world or story options as opposed solely to character stats or powers or whatnot, if that makes sense. I'm aware of the stuff on Paizo's site, for a start, but it's not near all of it, I know, and isn't as good as having it in-hand, anyway.

 

Any advice on letting the characters establish a kingdom or some sort of government? Building cities? And then interacting with other kingdoms? Having wars on a larger scale? A couple of players in the group had expressed interest in the Kingmaker AP (which I declined just to run straight up, for aforementioned reasons and because they'd played it before, and I want to break new ground for the group as a whole; was I in the clear there?), and I definitely want to include elements such as that from it, so I'm hoping to find the best source for those mechanics and so on.

 

We're meeting for the first time this weekend. Discussing characters, making characters, seeing where we want to go, what we want to do. I'm taking my books (and a couple of players are bringing theirs) and dice and blank characters sheets and scratch paper--anything else I should have on hand?

 

And . . . other stuff. No doubt. That I'm only not asking because I'm not remembering right now or haven't discovered yet. ^_^

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I think the biggest thing to remember is that you're ALL there to have fun. Identify what turns your players individually on and cater some to each players likes. Some love power increases via equipment or levels. Some just want to have a unique power or knowledge that others don't have. Some want a great trump that they hold. Others want to be more or less important to the overall storyline (with respect to story depth). Others want to be really inspirational leaders of many people. Figure out what they like and find ways to put them in those situations. They'll have a blast and you're a genius.

Edited by Adrift
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  • Use a screen--you'll want to lie occasionally, for whatever reason. Don't abuse it though.

Trust your players not to meta-game to an unreasonable level. A little bit is to be expected, but if you can't trust them to do their jobs as players, there's no reason for them to trust you to do yours as DM. The occasional note is fine for small things, though, I think. (Also, it's a co-op game by definition; most secrets can be assumed to be shared to the other PCs pretty quickly anyway.)

My battle mat is a big posterboard thing (thick paper, maybe 3'x4'?) that had faint gridlines printed on it every half inch. I went over every other one in Sharpie, giving me a big 1-inch grid, and then had it laminated at Kinko's, so I can use Vis-a-Vis pens on it. Cost me less than $20 overall, and works like a charm.

Kingdom-building and such is a fine topic for an RPG, but D&D/PF isn't a great system for it, in my opinion. It's really designed for a small party of heroes running around killing small bands of monsters, and that's where it's most fun. That said, I'm sure a lot of people have had a lot of fun doing that with their D&D characters, so if that's what you and your players want, then go for it.

Bring plenty of pencils.

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My group makes all rolls in the open, but a lot of things just come down to group preference.  If you do use a traditional screen though, it will contain all sorts of charts for you and some cool artwork for the players... that they'll lose interest in after five minutes.  Consider adding some useful charts or player's aids to their side.

 

I would recommend against splitting the party.  While it works in fiction, in practice you end up with a group of people not actively engaged in the game.  If you do it rarely it can work, but try to have something game related for those left out to be dealing with while you are out.

 

We mostly use a battlemat; it's not fancy but it works.  Generally the fancier it is, the more money you spend.

 

For the unforeseen, well, you can't plan for everything.  Some DMs like to have a few generic scenarios in their back pocket to pull out when the party zigs instead of zags.

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In no particular order…

  1. If you don't know a rule, don't spend too much time looking for it. If you can't find it right away, just make a ruling and promise to look it up later for the future.
  2. If you run out of prepared material, don't be afraid to improvise. If you know how your story is meant to unfold, go with it.
  3. Don't be afraid to end your session early. If you run out of material (prepared or improvised), just call it a night. Forcing it will lead to unintended consequences.
  4. For a battle mat, you can get poster-sized graph paper with 1-inch squares in pads at Staples or other office supply stores.
  5. When starting out, I like to make the players sit down together and make up the reason they're together.
  6. If you want to try doing voices, start small. Pick one important NPC or villain and do his or her voice.
  7. Before you kick off your campaign, ask your players what they want for their characters so that you know what rewards will be of most value to them.
  8. Don't be bloodthirsty, but do let the characters suffer the consequences of their actions.
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My DM was never much into secrets, he would just announce things to the table and let us police ourselve on meta gaming. When I DM'd, if I had information I wanted to give to specific players, I would write it up and stick it in an envelope. I'd also mark if it was something they could share or if they should keep it secret till I said otherwise. I also got the unintended benefit of it got the story going even if I was still setting up when it was time to start. By the time everyone had read their notes I'd be ready to answer questions and start. 

 

For a battle mat, I've tried several different methods.

I always lay down my Chessex Battlemat, having a whiteboard with a grid means I'm only limited by my drawing ability. The downside is if I predraw a location it's possible the players will know more information than they should. If I don't predraw, I'm limited by time of how much I can draw. Works good for when you have just a general or no idea of what the areas they might be going to look like. 

I have a few of the printed battle mats from various APs. Aside from their obvious use in their APs, they make great generic structures. The buildings and such are littered with furniture and other items that the characters might want to interact with. Downside is they are usually flimsy and if you don't want something in you world that is shown on the page it's hard to convince your players it isn't there.

I also have a collection of Wizard's Dungeon Tiles They are die cut card stock so much more durable than the printed battle mats. The are a lot more modular and can be mix and matched easier. If I have a large area to lay out, I'll lay it out the night before and take a picture with my phone. As the group moves through the area I can reference my phone to recreate the map. It can still be a pain to scramble looking for times if the party goes off the beaten path. 

 

Be sure to have some random level appropriate encounters planed (combat and non-combat) I always had a group of "wandering monsters" handy if the players were blazing through the scenario or just looking for a fight. 

 

I always use a DM screen, not for my dice rolls but for the other information I needed (monster stats etc) If my players question my rolls I'd show them the result or roll in front of the screen. 

 

Figure out what kind of players you have. make sure to include something for each type in your game. Since you're a new DM, keep it simple. Ruling a kingdom would be cool but it's very hard to keep it balanced on that large of a scale. Go with what you know. As you get more comfortable expand out. 

 

You win when the players have a good time. 

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I know I'm going contrary to some GM belief's but:

 

Roll important rolls in front of your screen, and lie when it helps the plot.

Make the players feel like they have agency.

Design plot like it's a novel, and take your ego out of the game.

 

I will never ever promote my own plot-RPG agenda again, but for this, follow my sig link if you feel like I do about plot being more important than the handbook.

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My hubby (and DM) uses a screen. He's let us know in no uncertain terms that he fudges rolls when it suits him. (To keep us alive sometimes, to hurt us more if he deems it necessary.) On the other hand, he also lets us see his rolls when he wants. Especially crits.

 

For a battle-mat we have a foam board which we've marked with a one inch grid in sharpie. Super cheap, but it works.

 

For NPCs he has a few go-to voices he does (he has a really funny old pervy Asian guy voice) and sometimes he has one of us jump in as an NPC if he doesn't feel like talking to himself. That's pretty fun ^_^ I got a bunch of extra experience once for doing a funny voice for an innkeeper lady.

 

The other piece of advice would be to have a few different contingency plans in case your group goes in an unexpected direction. As Hubby likes to say, he'll come up with 10 different plans, and we'll end going the 11th way.

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Despite being a little jittery about having the whole production in my hands, I decided to design my own campaign instead of running an AP because I think it'll be more fun for me. And it'll let me cater to the characters' backgrounds and goals and the players' whims. Or so I figure. But I'm having a blast designing the first dungeon, still have to put the base-of-operations town together but have it pretty much in my head, and I've got stuff worked out for the future.

If you're having fun, you're doing it right. Go with what seems like a good idea. Realize that some things will fail, but some things will fail when you run adventures written by others. Don't worry about the stumbles.

 

I'm thinking I'll probably play it a little tamer with my delivery--no showing out with voices, like, as that's just more my speed, generally. Is that kosher?

Nothing wrong with that, especially if you get a bit embarrassed by the acting required to manage accents and ticks along with all the other information. Also nothing wrong with adding those things if you feel comfortable. When they're well done, they can add to the memorability of the game.

 

Any tips for handling various things in-game, which I probably haven't foreseen?

I mentioned this in another thread, but lists of names and characteristics are useful:

 

Garth Black - Fireplug-shaped, grumpy

Anna Torstensdottir - Ditzy act, but very smart, pretty brunette

 

Brass Tankard - Run-down tavern, frequented by laborers

 

...

 

Pick an appropriate one when you need it and make notes as to where it was used and any more stuff you add in play: (for Garth Black) "bartender at the Brass Tankard, German accent, saw the PCs picking pockets and plans a bit of blackmail."

 

Should I employ a GM's screen and make use of unseen rolls or keep it open? Should I allow secrets and so on--splitting the party out of the room when only part of the group should know something or if they want to have clandestine threads in the story? Help prevent meta-gaming?

I've gone back and forth on that. Currently, I'm mostly not using a screen because it makes it harder for me to see and manage the battlefield. When I'm not using a screen, I've been known to casually make the occasional roll on the side table I keep my laptop on if the PCs are a bit too close to death.

 

I don't worry about metagaming too much. Though I did make the group's scouts make a WILL save at the top of an uncompleted staircase, after which I just said, "You don't notice anything." They're guaranteed to spend a fair amount of time there next game, whether or not there's anything to see.  ^_^ 

 

Mostly, though, I just remind people that they're not wherever the action is when appropriate. It's more fun to watch other players squirming than to hang out in the kitchen.

 

What's the best way to go about a battle-mat kind of thing? The currently-raging Tact-Tiles looked cool but are a bit pricey for me. So I'm looking somewhere south of there. Possibly just a very simple rollup mat or some such. I was wondering about the Darkfast Dungeons KS (Since I'm in the vein of KS, here), if it's that customizable where I could just print them out as I want them, but even it doesn't deliver until January. And I assume some scenarios wll be outside dungeons, lol.

I use battle mats for outdoor encounters and mostly use Dwarven Forge dungeons for indoor encounters. The latter is a bit of overkill, but it's cool-looking, so it's worth it to me. Plus I have to justify the expense and time.  :rock: 

 

But I like tactical play. If that's not your thing, for some groups playing without a mat of any sort works great.

 

What Pathfinder books or supplements do you highly recommend, both to help me and to benefit my players? I'm working mainly right now with the Core Rulebook, GM Guide, Bestiary, and Inner Sea Guide. I especially dig stuff that expands the world or story options as opposed solely to character stats or powers or whatnot, if that makes sense. I'm aware of the stuff on Paizo's site, for a start, but it's not near all of it, I know, and isn't as good as having it in-hand, anyway.

I find the Advanced Player's Guide and the Ultimate Equipment Guide to be the most-used supplements, (though both are largely player option books). Value for money, they're right at the top.

 

Any advice on letting the characters establish a kingdom or some sort of government? Building cities? And then interacting with other kingdoms? Having wars on a larger scale? A couple of players in the group had expressed interest in the Kingmaker AP (which I declined just to run straight up, for aforementioned reasons and because they'd played it before, and I want to break new ground for the group as a whole; was I in the clear there?), and I definitely want to include elements such as that from it, so I'm hoping to find the best source for those mechanics and so on.

I like that sort of play. You might be better off looking at the rules in the Kingmaker AP for inspiration, then rewriting for a bit more sense. Economics in any D&D-related game have always been absurd; those rules aren't much better.

 

But building up a castle or wizard's tower and having a long-term impact on the world is fun.

 

To some extent, it depends on the pace you want. If the end of the world is coming next Tuesday, there won't be enough time to manage that sort of thing. If there's population pressure out west and the excess is coming to take the land where your PCs are, a kingdom might work really well.

 

We're meeting for the first time this weekend. Discussing characters, making characters, seeing where we want to go, what we want to do. I'm taking my books (and a couple of players are bringing theirs) and dice and blank characters sheets and scratch paper--anything else I should have on hand?

One of the decks of character portraits that Paizo sells, or a good book of portraits of interesting people can be nice to help with inspiration. Not really necessary, though.

 

And . . . other stuff. No doubt. That I'm only not asking because I'm not remembering right now or haven't discovered yet. ^_^

1) The PCs should be at the heart of the story. Through their actions, the important events of the game should be resolved (one way or another). This doesn't mean that nothing else in the world is happening, but whatever you're presenting as "The Adventure" should be the responsibility of the PCs.

 

2) Don't spend too much effort preparing things that may or may not be used. You can burn yourself out quite easily that way. Instead, use things like the name lists above as tools for seamless improvisation. Less work for you, less stress, and I find that it makes for a better game, too.

 

3) Don't be afraid to use the "Magician's Force". The first time that the PCs make a limited-information choice, they pick the path that leads to the adventure. (Don't tell them that you're doing this, and don't force them down the path if they change their minds later.)

 

4) Now, if they've been told that the dungeon is the the east and they go west instead, you have a different problem. That should probably be resolved with out-of-character discussions with the players, "So what characters would you like to play next? Since these guys just don't seem the adventuring types ...."  :devil:

 

5) I strongly discourage non-cooperative PCs unless all the players want a backstabby sort of game. It's not fun to have the adventure derailed by that guy who was "just playing his character". Have that discussion with the players before you begin the game, so that everyone is on the same page.

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5) I strongly discourage non-cooperative PCs unless all the players want a backstabby sort of game. It's not fun to have the adventure derailed by that guy who was "just playing his character". Have that discussion with the players before you begin the game, so that everyone is on the same page.

 

Oh yeah, that's one of Hubby's rules. No evil characters. Simply because he's had too many games were people decide evil = dick and all the fun gets sucked out of the game. So it's good to decide if you want to allow that sort of thing.

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See also: Chaotic Neutral. Slitting prisoners' throats because "she has trust issues" is not condusive to a fun time for most parties. I'm considering, instead of banning evil characters, insisting the players play heroes. Not just protagonists, but the Good Guys. Your first and only priority can't be your own skin. Plenty of ways to make a character like that, but I'm tired of "antiheroes" who amount to "I do what I want!"

 

EDIT: Sorry, that got away from me a bit. The lesson to take away from this is that you need to have a talk about the kind of characters you're expecting to see from your players, and what kind of game they're interested in playing. Heroic fantasy works much better if the heroes are heroic, but other genres of game might better with other kinds of heroes. If everyone's on the same page, it's smoother sailing for everyone.

Edited by Slendertroll
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My gaming and GMing style is to be in-character as much as possible, but not more than people are comfortable with. The number one rule is always err on the side of fun, unless it will create an obvious problem for later, and that means, for me, that if people are more comfortable speaking in character, let them, and if not, that's fine too.

 

I recommend a screen. Especially when you're getting used to the rules, you'll want to fudge rolls from time to time. I fudge rolls mostly in order to avoid killing a character too quickly (I GM Savage Worlds, where a lucky roll can one-shot anyone), or sometimes to make sure my big bad gets at least *one* use of his cool power. As I'm getting used to the rules, howevever, I'm fudging less and less.

 

Meta-gaming isn't even a thing, for me. That's probably a topic for another discussion, but IMHO, the meta-game is often as fun as the game, and there's nothing wrong with enjoying it on multiple levels. I avoid keeping information secret for two reasons: 1) the other PCs are going to find out eventually, so why make it necessary to share twice? and 2) if players are trying to keep secrets from eachother, there is likely a problem. The only time I would keep information to specific players only is if I think the surprise will be more fun. (I had a GM who used to take a player into another room and info-dump on them. Everyone was bored during this, and the player usually ended up just dumping it all on the table as soon as he got back in the room. This was a huge waste of time. We're all experienced role-players. We can act on in-character knowledge. Let's just keep it going...)

 

3D terrain is cool. Tac-tiles look awesome, but you're right- they're spendy. Honestly, a plain roll-up mat has always been fine for me.

 

I've been a player in the Kingmaker AP for a while now. We're all enjoying it. I find the kingdom-building rules to be interesting, but it's a side-game I'm less interested in than the actual character-level RPing. I heard the newer rules are better.

 

Other advice:

 

Make sure the players are all on the same page as far as what the game is concerned. I recommend "The Same-Page Tool" : http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/the-same-page-tool/

 

Make sure there is some level of party cohesion. Most players can't handle a group working at cross-purposes. I recommend using the "Group Template" from the "Fear the Boot" podcast: http://www.feartheboot.com/ftb/wp-content/uploads/resources/2_GroupTemplate.pdf

 

Stuff I've learned from bad GMs:

 

As a GM, don't plan too much. Don't ever bank on your players following any path. This is *not* like writing a story, from your perspective. Instead, be ready to create the story around where your characters go and what they choose to do. This won't be easy for a beginning GM, so be patient and forgive yourself if it doesn't go well. You'll realize quickly what I'm talking about. Make sure you have a clear understanding of your NPCs and Villain's motivations, and an idea of what exists just outside your party's location, and doing this will be easier.

 

If your players decide to go easy on you, they'll be merciful and bite down on your plot hooks and not stray too far from your plans, but don't ever force them. Dungeon crawls are a good place to start for this. If everyone is cool with that, it'll be a good way to get a feel for the rules and the group before you start doing more improv.

 

Remember it's not you vs. them. You're all grown ups, and you don't need to be antagonistic (only your npc villains need to be). Assume they're not going to try to screw you over, and you aren't trying to do the same for them. If you display patience and flexibility, you'll hopefully get the same from them. If you make a bad call and a player suffers for it, then there's nothing wrong with re-writing history to undo it or somehing else to make up for it. Also, don't worry too much about being too generous as long as you don't think your players are going to take advantage of this. If they are- they're missing the part where this is a game, and should be about fun.

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I agree with The Dread Polack nearly word for word. (And I really like that "Same Page Tool", though I tend to use Hero Games checklists to the same ends when I use that sort of tool.)

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So much good advice here. A few things I really like from above are: keep the story player centered, otherwise I might as well read a novel by a better author; don't do secrets unless there is a really good reason and the secret is fairly short lived; "magician's force" is great, nothing is more boring than wandering around in circles trying to guess which direction you actually need to go; it is a cooperative game even between the GM and PCs, you're not out to kill them.

 

I recently picked up a book on Improv for GMs from drivethrurpg and I really like it.  I've only read the first few essays and I'm already thinking about in-game interactions and story planning very differently.  The FATE core book also has a very good and short section on GMing that is applicable to any game system.

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Be ready to improv, because the players WILL do something you didn't plan for. Sometimes it will go completely off the rails. 

 

I wouldn't worry about meta gaming unless you determine you have a problem player. 

 

There are lots of free maps and "tiles" on the internet that you can print and use.  Our game table is a 4'x6' sheet of cheap plastic laminated board sold as waterproof wall board for showers and baths.  When we game we write on it with dry erase markers. A hex or grid mat is a useful investment if you decide you like this hobby. 

 

Don't make them roll for actions you want them to succeed on. A couple of bad rolls and now you have to fudge it to get them back on track. Likewise, if it is a critical clue, don't make them roll to search each drawer in each cabinet in every room. Somebody just finds it, move the game along. 

 

Your job is to keep the game moving. Talking, joking, etc is all fun and good, and there is room for a lot of socialization at the table, but your job is to keep turning attention back to the game and to keep the action moving.  TV off, phones on  vibrate, no texting, etc. are all good table rules. 

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