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RPT Newsletter #020 | Ten Tips For Stress-Free Gamemastering

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
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Ten Tips For Stress-Free Gamemastering
From Kevin Davies | updated May 20, 2021

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #020


Like many gamers, when I first entered the hobby, I thought that it was desirable and even necessary to have rules to account for the outcome of every possible Character action or environmental condition. Thick rulebooks were the norm, although roleplay games were typically thin on descriptive and inspirational background material.

While Gamemastering a gaming group over a 10 year period, my outlook was altered by two factors: first, that many of the rules established by the games I played didn’t provide what I thought was an ‘adequate simulation’ of the actions I was trying to recreate in my adventures, and second, that so many rules inevitably led to numerous game stoppages requiring rulebook consultations and occasional player debates.

Additionally, I rarely had the time to prepare a detailed adventure in advance for the weekly session — I was forced to ‘wing-it’. Drawing on my experiences as a GM I’ve put together the following tips for stress-free and fun-filled Gamemastering.

Make Having Fun Your Goal
More than anything else, keep in mind that the primary objective of playing any game is for everyone to have a good time — the GM and all the players. The satisfaction of having spent your time well, in the company of people whose companionship you’ve enjoyed, and together experienced an adventure, is what it’s all about.

Give Everyone a Chance To Participate
Both the GM and players need to cut others some slack — especially if they’re new to roleplaying. Offer roleplaying suggestions where appropriate but don’t roleplay other people’s Characters for them. While you should not discourage the louder, enthusiastic players, they should not be the only ones who get to influence the outcome of the game; make an effort to involve shy or quiet players by asking each player in turn (after describing the current game events that pertain to their Character), “What are YOU doing now?”

Play With People You Like
You should not feel obligated to play with people you dislike or who dislike you. If you think you’ve given another player a fair chance to ‘fit in’ with your group and they continue to be abrasive or disruptive, tell them, in a ‘friendly way’, what they’re doing that’s upsetting and give them the option to change their behavior or leave the group.

There Are Two Types of Games:
Character Hostile and Character Neutral

Tell the players which style you’re using (or give them the option of choosing) before gameplay begins. Character Hostile games were common in the early days of roleplaying and most often take the form of ‘dungeon crawls’. A Gamemaster creates an environment full of nasty creatures hoarding lots of treasure, while the players, knowing full well that the GM is out to kill their Characters (and in some cases, the Characters are out to kill each other), enter and try to emerge wealthy and in one piece.

Character Neutral games are best for realistic scenarios and prolonged campaigns. The Gamemaster, rather than taking the side of the Creatures and Gamemaster Characters and competing against the player’s Characters, instead presents situations and conflicts that contribute to making the most interesting story possible. Situations which allow Character development and the accumulation of a ‘personal history’ should be pursued.

Use the Simplest Rules You
Can Find That Make Sense To You

I personally prefer a system where either a d10 or d100 is used for practically all rolls; occasionally I include d6’s for a smaller numeric range of inflicted Damage. All Skills are expressed as a percentage; all Stats (rolled against when no Skill is available or applicable) are factored up to a percentage.

Details of specific ‘current conditions’ can be included as modifiers to your action resolution rolls by applying +/- 5% toward the target number (Action Value) prior to rolling. Simple. Fast. Effective. The rules you choose will often reflect the seriousness of the stories you wish to roleplay. Humorous games, where Character death rarely occurs (though great pain and embarrassment is frequent), are well suited to a minimalist system — even diceless.

Serious games, where Character death is a real and ever-present danger, may require more specific rules, to convince the players that the GM is unbiased when they reveal that a Character has taken a bullet to the leg and must now suffer wound trauma. Use the level of detail that is right for your game. Be consistent and fair.

Only Roll Dice When Necessary
There are two situations where it is desirable for a GM or player to roll dice:
  1. When an action resolution result is required that can’t reasonably be provided by a direct GM response, and
  2. When you want to scare a player into thinking that you’ve got something up your sleeve and thus keep them on their toes — this is an artificial means that the GM can use to instill tension into a situation when the players’ roleplaying skills are not capable of adequately providing it for their Character.
At any other time you can simply provide a description of the outcome of a Character’s action attempt.

Don’t hold back a Character
If a Character’s desired action seems at all plausible (given the genre you’re playing) let them attempt it and use the outcome (successful or not) to stimulate the plot of the adventure. Some GMs will limit their players by stating that their Character can’t even attempt a specific act. This will only result in timid players and a less exciting game. Try not to deny Characters the opportunity to attempt things — let the players set their Characters’ own limitations based on their experiences of past failures.

Play to the Characters
Try to get to know each Character’s distinctions and then over the course of the adventure provide at least one event or encounter specifically geared to their interests, skills expertise, personal traits, or weaknesses. If another Character takes the bait instead, go with it. However, if you’ve constructed the situation correctly, it should be clear that the party must address the situation through the targeted Character.

Go With the Flow
This is crucial to stress-free Gamemastering and difficult for some to apply. If you’ve established an outline or script for your plot in advance and the Characters take a sudden turn which causes them to omit a location or event, let it go. Remember, the Characters don’t know what cool thing they’ve missed — they’re responding to events as they’ve encountered them. Concern yourself with what ‘logical’ encounter or event the Characters would experience on their new course, rather than worrying about what they could have seen.

Let the Adventure Write Itself
If you’re GMing without a predetermined and detailed plot, pay attention to what the Characters say and do and use their successful actions (and failures) as windows of opportunity to introduce Gamemaster Characters and events (e.g., a crisis or opportunity requiring a quick response) into the developing story. When you confront the Characters with an event or encounter try to consider two or three possible outcomes to the situation and how they might impact on the plot.

Just ask yourself: “What 3 possible things could happen next?” Then, when the Characters act in response, you can smoothly present whatever events that flow logically from the situation. If the Characters act in a way that you did not consider, again, go with the flow and see where it leads. You will often be thrilled by the results.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Kevin Davies is the president and creative director of Peregrine, Pegregine.net. Peregrine produces the humorous roleplay games MURPHY’S WORLD and BOB, LORD OF EVIL, plus ADVENTURE AREAS miniatures gameplay surface, GRIT miniatures rules, and ADVENTURE AUDIO background music. We are always looking for new writers and playtesters.
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
Readers’ Feedback
James, a reader, asked me a couple of tricky questions the other day. I thought I’d share them here, along with my responses, as potential tips for your games:


I Was Wondering If You Ran Any Heavy Gear Roleplaying Games?
I started running my game & I need some help doing an Humanist Alliance anti-terrorist group.

Johnn: I have no experience with Heavy Gear unfortunately. I can ask my subscribers though: feedback@roleplayingtips.com


Is it Considered Pathetic To Use Movies for Misc. Plot Elements?

Johnn: It’s absolutely not pathetic. In fact, taking inspiration from books and movies is a fantastic way to build your stories and plots. It’s important that you disguise things though, such as names of people, places and things. And avoid the really obvious plots, such as stealing from the rich to give to the poor, etc. If the players catch on then the mood and atmosphere of your game could be ruined. A good trick is to take two plots and mix them up a bit.


What Do You Do With a Vengeful Player
You see, we run 3 games, my Heavy Gear game, a Whitewolf game & a MW3 game. But I accidently screwed up someone’s plot & let’s just say they didn’t take it well. I’m almost sure he will do something similar in spite. Should I just set his target numbers a bit higher or what?

Johnn: This is a tough one. I wouldn’t use roleplaying in any way as a weapon to “get someone back”. The whole purpose of playing games is to have fun, right? So, if possible, have a chat before you play next and try to work things out.

If you were playing in character and you accidentally messed their plot up I don’t see a reason to get upset at you personally as you were just playing the game. But if you had read their module or notes beforehand, or if you were playing a character who was particularly contrary or erratic, then perhaps you could start things off with an apology.

Either way, listen intently to what they have to say and try to understand where they’re coming from. Then ask them politely to try to understand your point of view. Then, hopefully, if everyone understands that mistakes can honestly be made, agree to have fun at the gaming table and try not to step on each other’s toes.

If there is anger, animosity or negative feelings within your group, and they can’t be resolved, then excuse yourself from their games and ask that they excuse themselves from your games for a little while until things can be worked out.


What Do You Do When a “YOUNGER” Player Wants To Join a Game Steered Towards an Older Group of People.
I always feel bad when I have to turn down a 10 year old kid who just wants someone to play with. But my other players always get incredibly angry if I let him in.

Johnn: Another tricky situation. My inclination would be to run one or more special sessions that would include the younger player on occasion. Make those sessions optional for your other players to attend so there is no animosity. I would also clearly explain to the younger person that you value their time and desire to play but that the group is not right for him to play with on a regular basis.

And then help him organize his own game with his peers–perhaps teach him the rules, lend him the books, play with them a couple of times to get them started, etc.

No matter what, be honest with everybody involved and don’t blame anyone (i.e. “THEY don’t want you to play”). It’s always the best way to go.

For more advice and information on roleplaying with younger players there’s a great ezine called Kids RPG. The email address is: kids-rpg@onelist.com
 
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Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
These are great tips, Kevin. Thank you.
I'm personally never stressed but hyped when I go into a session I GM. Anxious maybe if everything will work out well. And then I quickly enter into a zen zone - or so it feels. I'm in the flow.

Most important in the above list is for me to "Go With the Flow". I have often many many ideas of what could how happen, but all that prep work is just background when I'm in the Zone. Important is then to listen to the players, to their intends and fears, describe moods and gradually pull them into an intriguing and tension-high experience, while simultaneously watching if every player has fun and putting the threat level at a bar that makes a difference. Mix heart-throbbing tension with amusing roleplaying, tricky tasks, and wonderful exploration, shake it a couple of times, and offer your guests a drink of memorable experience.

Stress is the fear to fail. But if you don't think about this as a GM service for the players, but as you enjoying yourself with the others, how could you become stressed?
 

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin & Master of the Archive
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
What Do You Do With a Vengeful Player
You see, we run 3 games, my Heavy Gear game, a Whitewolf game & a MW3 game. But I accidently screwed up someone’s plot & let’s just say they didn’t take it well. I’m almost sure he will do something similar in spite. Should I just set his target numbers a bit higher or what?

Response To Handling Difficult Players From Issue #20
From Tatsuki

“This is my first feedback to your e-zine, so let me begin by saying that it is a well put together, well thought out and informative letter, thank you for your time and energy in putting this together.The person asking mentioned that they were playing Heavy Gear, White Wolf and MechWarrior. these are all very cut throat type games.

If a player is vengeful, you should simply attempt to outwit the person and continue to foil his attempts at outwitting you. Especially if the Game in question is Vampire the Masquerade or Vampire the Dark Ages (both by whitewolf). In these games, that is half the fun. If you are truly afraid that the player is going to try to do something to your character because of your actions, then you must have a reason to think so. If it was a game in which plot foiling and the like are not the norm, and it was an honest accident, then you should simply state so to the player.

The player should be mature enough to say “ok” and let it go. however, if the game was designed around such actions, I suggest that you begin taking measures against the other players character, covertly, to insure your own survival. If you are the game master, never, ever set a players target numbers higher than the other players, that is not fair and will result in resentment by all your players, not just the one you are doing it to.

They will begin to wonder if you are doing it to them. remember that it is just a game and if the game becomes not fun, stop playing it. That’s all.

What Do You Do When a “YOUNGER” Player Wants To Join a Game Steered Towards an Older Group of People.
I always feel bad when I have to turn down a 10 year old kid who just wants someone to play with. But my other players always get incredibly angry if I let him in.

I have found that young gamers can be quite refreshing in their innocence to various situations. Why not try running a game for the younger people who ask you to play, you will find that they can have a great deal of fun, and so will you if you don’t make the scenarios too complicated for them.

I suggest the AD&D rules, as the game is much simpler than other more complex systems like Warhammer, Twilight 2000, and almost anything by Whitewolf Games (though Changeling the Dreaming with a bunch of 10 year olds can be really amusing). Try it. Make a game for them, keep it simple, don’t put in adult issues (like sex) and you will have a great deal of fun.

Furthermore, you will be enriching and shaping the minds of tomorrow, which can be rewarding in and of itself. you may even find that some of your constant more adult players will want to get involved for a light hearted break. In this case, i would suggest that you take them aside and inform them that you are running this one for the “kids” and though they are more than welcome to join it is their show, so let them have it. In other words, tell them not to overshadow the younger players with their more experienced role-play or tell the “kids” how to do things.

They will probably have more fun if they play a more supporting type character (ie not the party leader) and let the kids have some fun.

As a final note, for your readers, I am an Administrator at the Fantaseum Message Board which addresses all sorts of issues for the AD&D system, the Core Rules and CR2 expansion CDs and the Campaign Cartographer. If they have a gaming issue with one of these subjects or just want to check it out, the url is http://fantaseum.rpgconsortium.com/bin/ubb/Ultimate.cgi?action=intro
Again, thank you for all of your efforts.
 
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