This entry is part 13 in the series GM Toolbox
GM Toolbox

What tools go into your GM toolbox?

Written by Michael Beck, with contributions and editing by Da’Vane.

GM’s Toolbox, looks at tools, tips, and techniques you can use to improve your games. Toolbox offers you a skeleton for running a campaign, rather than fleshed out tips. This series is presented in a discussion style, and we ask you to contribute with comments about your own tools, tips, and techniques at the end of this post.

There are plenty of things you can do beyond the core game as GM to improve everyone’s experience. There are points where roleplaying interacts with real life, sometimes with negative impacts on the game itself.

Some of the following are not just a GM-only job. However, your players often expect you to be responsible for these things, simply because you are the GM, and that’s reason enough.

In part I, we went over a few ways to improve your game experience outside the game using handouts and props, as well as a campaign newsletter.

In part II, we covered some of the issues around organising the actual game itself, including finding players.

In this part, we will cover the ways in which you can improve your abilities as GM.

Quick Ruling

Often as GM you have to deal with a situation that is not described by the rules or is something nobody else at the table knows about.

Skimming through the rule books for an answer is often not the solution you are looking for, because it takes too long or ruins the tension, unless you already have a fair idea of where to look for the rules.

So, you will have to do some ruling quickly. This ruling should fit the situation and be coherent with the core rules. There may be some extra wishes to this ruling, like not exploiting possible weaknesses in the system or making sure that the ruling provides tension while being fair when it is resolved.

Michael: In my experience, rule-light systems like Savage Worlds or Cthulhu bring you often in the situation of spontaneously deciding how things work. In contrast, systems like D&D or Shadowrun seem to have a rule for everything, but there is seldom anyone who knows all of these rules. So, in the end, you end up with the same level of detail in the rule-system.

The basic tool here is to avoid it, for example by preparing rulings and references beforehand. This keeps rule discussions to a minimum, especially if you are enjoying a high authority towards your players.

Nevertheless this is not always possible. Knowing the basic mechanisms helps a lot here. Check out the rules mastery for dummies articles on campaign mastery for good tools for quick ruling.

Da’ Vane: Preparation is key, and failing that, a good grasp of the underlying principles of the game system at hand are often useful, as this allows the GM to recreate any rules needed to keep the game flowing as smoothly as possible.

The actual rules might be slightly different, but if the differences are relevant then there is often some hint about the situation that would suggest to the GM a possible refresher of the rules might be useful to avoid the need for quick ruling in the first place.

As stated in my comments throughout the Campaign Mastery series, a GM’s power within the game should be more or less absolute, coming from a mixture of both the authority that being a Games Master following the rulebook provides, and the expertise gained from running the game and knowing the players, which is the very essence of GM mastery in the first place.

As GMs progress, they will slowly build up their expertise so this becomes more of their power, requiring less and less authority from the rulebooks, at which point a GM can pretty much play entirely by quick ruling everything, with rules systems only providing guidelines. This makes for a smoother game, which in the end is the best outcome for everyone.

Johnn: In my games I welcome rules lawyers. Instead of being threatened by them, I welcome their feedback during games and between games.

We have a group understanding that rules discussions end fast, suggestions are welcome, and I make ad hoc rulings to keep things moving.

We also have an understanding that a player can point out something anyone is doing wrong, including me, at any time. This helps us learn the rules properly, as a group, through gameplay. When I stand corrected, I always thank the player.

Knowing Your Players

Knowing your players can increase the fun your group is having at the table. Important questions here are:

  • Why are the players roleplaying (have fun after work)?
  • What are the players roleplaying (what kind of characters)?
  • How are the players roleplaying (power-gamers, deep character backgrounds)?
  • What is important in the eyes of your players (sticking to the rules, nice stories from your side)?

Michael: I try to watch my players closely during sessions. Often I’m too busy for that, but this is not good. There should be nothing more important as my players.

So I’m working hard on this one. Here again, Joe Navaro’s book about body language and nonverbal communication comes into my mind. As well as the classification of players by Robin Laws.

Da’ Vane: By knowing your players, you can tailor the game play experiences to them, as well as learn how best to handle any potential issues that might arise before they come up.

Most issues within games come down to a mismatch between player expectations and what the GM is presenting, so being able to better synchronise with your players’ wishes will make for a better experience for everyone.

A good start is by identifying what your players want, and then catering for those desires with your encounters, while skimping on those your players find disinteresting. You aren’t going to get anywhere if you have a party that prefers tactical combat encounters, and you insist on giving them investigative puzzles to solve instead, or scenes with lots of roleplaying and storytelling.

If you have a mix of players who like a variety of styles, make sure they are all covered, and do your best to make sure they all get adequate time doing what they enjoy.

Don’t let a few players dominate the game at the expense of the others. If you can, try to find creative ways to combine different styles of play into a single encounter.

Fighting GM Burnout

Remember the time when you started your last campaign, fresh, enthusiastic, full of ideas? Well, as we know, this feeling will not hold forever. I think it’s quite natural that every GM has a burnout now and then. As such, it’s good if you have tools to get you motivated again.

Michael: I found a great tool for myself – The Funny One-Shot. Other possibilities for me are watching my favourite movies or lying on my back remembering my first roleplaying experiences.

Also thinking about some radical changes in your current running campaign may not only surprise your players, but also gets you motivated again, because it’s new!

I also like to listen to these guys sessions over at RPGMP3.com.

Da’ Vane: GM burnout can be a tough one, and the best means to overcome it is to have a change of pace, often by running or playing something else. Let someone else take charge for a while, so that all the stresses and responsibilities of being a GM can disappear, while you get back to actual gaming. You might even pick up some new tips and ideas to take back into your own game.

Johnn: Check out these articles to help if you have burnout:

9 Symptoms Of GM Burn-Out: Avoiding GM Burn-Out Part I

8 Tips For Recovering From GM Burn-Out

Remedies For GM Burn-Out

Playing With Fire: Dodging GM Burnout

Master Your Tools

There are tools suited for advance preparation and improvisational use. This is a nice place to talk about these two kinds of tools. The first tool is used before actual play, and it is allowed to take some extra time for better results.

The latter is used in minutes or even seconds during play, where the results are not so important, since the priority lies on the game keeps running.

However, one should never forget there is some possible conversion between the two types of tools:

  • A tool suited for advanced preparation can be used multiple times and the results can be stored somewhere for use during play as it is needed, similar to an improvisational tool.
  • An improvisational tool can be used during preparation and have the results tuned until it fits with the rest of the campaign material, similar to an advanced preparation tool.

You may find your tools are not doing their job well enough anymore. If this is the case, then you need a means to get new tools. It sounds simple, and you may be able increase your GMing skills simply by going through your actual toolbox from time to time and think about improving your tools or getting some new ones.

Michael: Well, you are reading this stuff here, so you actually already know about one tool I use to get new tools. Without further commenting, you can find a lot of new tips at roleplaying tips and campaign mastery websites, as well as on many other sites.

Da’ Vane: Games mastery is becoming a body of knowledge that is quickly rivalling that of any other social science, because it is driven by passion and enthusiasts who want to improve their skills and abilities.

It is also becoming much more academic, as more people are becoming competent and desiring to take their passion into a professional capacity. Combining this with the increasing popularity of gaming in mainstream society, of gamification within our daily lives, and the increasing important role of education and teaching, the role of Games Master will become even more popular and important.

Games started out as a means to safely explore situations and learn new skills through play, and this method of thinking has now gone full circle within the teaching community. The tools for learning to be a better GM are the same tools for learning to have a better life, and come from the same source.

So, everything you learn has the potential to improve the tools you have in your GM Toolbox, regardless of what its original purpose might have been.

About the Authors

Michael Beck considers himself a novice GM, but is encouraged in sharing his tips at www.spielleiten.wordpress.com (German language). Having played RPGs for roughly 10 years now, he accepts the challenge of living with his girl-friend, two cats, a non-finished PhD-thesis and two running roleplaying campaigns.

Da’ Vane, or Christina Freeman in the real world, is the owner of DVOID Systems, and the primary writer of their D-Jumpers series of products. With an academic background in science, especially socio-psychology, she is what many would regard as a “know-it-all.” However, the truth is that she doesn’t know everything about everything, but she knows a lot about a lot, especially about her passions which are games, stories, learning, and people. She is a consummate geek goddess, and yes, she is single if you feel like tracking her down and hitting on her some time….

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