Frame: Freeimages.com/Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: Freeimages.com/Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke
I’ve been asked on more than one occasion what advice I would have for a beginning GM. It’s a question that troubled me; I’ve been GMing for so long that I thought I might have lost contact with the beginner. I have also resisted the topic because Campaign Mastery is more targeted at experienced GMs. It was only when something reminded me that the basics and fundamentals never go out of fashion that I found the touchstone to both problems. This 15-part series (which won’t run as a continuous block of articles) is the result.
I was once told by a veteran player, of more than ten years experience of weekly play, that he wasn’t creative enough to be a GM. I thought this a load of nonsense – anyone with enough imagination to roleplay has sufficient creativity to be a GM – and dug deeper. As it turned out, he wasn’t so much doubting his creativity as he was his ability to think quickly enough to be creative whenever things departed from a prepared script.
There are therefore three separate issues that were holding this player back: Ability to improvise, creative speed, and a lack of self-confidence resulting from awareness of the first two problems.
You Don’t Have To Be Creative (but it helps)
He wasn’t alone. Based on my experience, if you were to poll a bunch of GMs, you would find that more suffer from overconfidence than self-doubt (at least from time-to-time), but that an almost equal number suffered from weak self-confidence, a conviction that what they were doing was adequate for a bunch of friends but nothing that would stand up to independent outside scrutiny.
You see the same thing in all sorts of creative endeavor; everyone from writers to artists to musicians. So let me clue you all in on a little secret (read it in a whisper): creativity is overrated as a necessity for being a GM.
It may be more important when it comes to being a great GM, but not everyone needs to aim so high – and even there, I’m not fully convinced. Your job is not to be inventive, or creative, or original, though those are all assets; your job as GM is to facilitate entertainment. Heck, you don’t even need to be entertaining, so long as your time behind the screen enables others to be entertained by what they are doing.
There’s one GM that I know who has been behind the screen for longer than I have (and I started back in 1981) who, to the best of my knowledge, has not run anything but canned modules for that entire time period. His campaign still gets players. I’m not one of them for other reasons of GM style, but that doesn’t invalidate what he does.
In the meantime, if you can’t make it, fake it. Let’s look at how:
There are all sorts of ways to fake being creative, or to make yourself sufficiently creative to get by. I’ve broken creativity down into eight categories – there’s a lot not covered, but these eight are the essentials, and in this section I’m going to show you how to cheat at being creative in each of them. I’m not going to go into exhaustive detail in some cases because they will be dealt with in greater detail in a subsequent part of this series.
There’s an easy way to fake monsters – get them from a different sourcebook. If it matches your game system, so much the better. There are parts of Fumanor where magic ran wild, and a substantial number of encounters are drawn from Creature Collection I and II, published by Swords & Sorcery Studios. There are parts of the game world where things are just different, and over half the encounters are drawn from Monster Manuals II-V instead of the Core Rules Monster Manual.
Beyond this simple remedy, there’s something called “Re-skinning” where you take an existing creature’s stats and clothe it in a new description to suit a new environment, and maybe swap one or two of its abilities for something that is more appropriate. For example, Golden Lizard-skinned people from the Tuorn Desert might be Goblins with different skin color and something about them that’s been changed – maybe they’ve got Troll Regeneration or they burrow underground or something.
If that’s too far for you to go, try your hand at Mashups. Pick one creature and extract it’s description, and then pick another creature and extract its abilities and stats, and then get rid of any contradictions. An Example from the Pathfinder Bestiary: A Medusa is a “slender, attractive woman” with “strangely glowing eyes” and “a full head of hissing snakes for hair”. A Night Hag is ugly (implied by the name), has Damage Reduction, is immune to various spells, has Darkvision, has an array of spell-like abilities including Invisibility, Magic Missile, and Ray Of Enfeeblement, has a bite that causes the disease “Demon Fever”, and can haunt the dreams of chaotic or evil individuals. So why not a “Moon Medusa” who is pale yellow in color but otherwise matches the description given above, and who has all the abilities of the Night Hag – except maybe that it’s not her bite that causes “Demon Fever”, it’s a bite from one of the Snakes. That implies that the snakes can attack independently, so look up Snake, Venomous, and add a dozen of them to the package – maybe losing the Magic Missile for the sake of Game Balance. You then give this creature an environment to inhabit and amend the description to suit: “Moon Medusas” appear to be completely normal (and rather attractive) humans during the day, with their true form only being revealed at night. They spend their days appearing to be ordinary citizens or travelers amongst a population, and selecting a male to prey upon at night. The snakebites cause temporary paralysis as well as “Demon Fever”, enabling the Moon Medusa to feast on the victim; this feasting mimics the effects of a Ray Of Enfeeblement. By the time the victim recovers, the Moon Medusa has feasted and moved on, possibly taking his money as well. Moon Medusas are rare, and are usually encountered either in an urban environment or in transit between such environments.
There’s one completely original beastie, with minimal creativity involved – but you’d never know it from the result.
Draw a blob on a piece of paper. Draw a more-or-less straight line through the blob leading to the other end of the paper. Somewhere on that line, put a dot. Crossing the first line at the dot is a more crooked line (no sharp corners). Congratulations! You’ve just made a perfectly serviceable map. You have a forest, or a swamp, or a mountainous region; you have a road going through it; you have a town on that road; and you have a river crossing the road at the town.
Anything more than this level of complexity in a map is merely a “nice to have”, not essential to a game. But if this is still beyond you, there’s an even simpler solution: steal a map from somewhere else. A canned module. A module from a different game system. A map that you bought on RPGnow. A screen grab from Google Maps. A map that you’ve found through a Google image search.
Maps are no problem.
Locations need to be a little more detailed. Reinvent real buildings for your layouts if you don’t feel confident in creating one from scratch. For example: This building is about 60′ x 40′. The doorway is in one corner. 2/3rds of the way down the building from the door is a counter. Behind the counter is a kitchen and storage area. Between the door and the counter are several windows, and a large number of small tables and chairs. Immediately in front of the counter is an open area railed off from the tables, but the rail does not extend the entire width of the room.
This could be a bar or tavern. It’s actually the Kentucky Fried Chicken near my place.
Once you have one location of this type, all you need to do is add or change one detail to get a different one. Instead of windows, there are shields, or weapons, or stuffed heads on the walls. On one side there is a set of stairs going up to lodgings. Instead of a lot of little tables there are two or three large communal ones. To one side there is a dartboard, or an alcove for the playing of Horseshoes, or a poker table, or a stage with a musician, or a comic. Change the look of the timber – reddish stained wood, or purplish, or dark-stained wood, or pale stained wood, or gray wood, or raw dark wood or brown wood or pinewood; planks or halved trees or whole trees or panels or seamless wood; visible grain or invisible or painted in any of a whole spectrum of colors; grain swirling, or vertical, or horizontal, or inclined.
Use a “critical element” checklist – vary each item on the list and you have a whole new location: “Walls, Lighting, Tables, Decorations, Barman, Entertainment, Clientèle, Accommodations” would be my checklist for a basic tavern. I might also add “Behind-the-Bar”. “Accommodations” covers where the rooms are, how big they are, and how you get to them. Eight or nine variables – even if there were only two options for each, that gives 512 combinations, but several of those variables have many many more options than a mere two – so the number of options is many many thousands, maybe even many tens or hundreds of thousands. How many different taverns will you need in the course of a campaign? Fifty, one hundred? A minuscule fraction of the varieties on offer, no creativity required.
You could even create a set of tables – I’ll offer such a set in the next week or two (I’ve already started working on it).
Again, there are alternatives. Instead of a map, search for an illustration. Look on RPGNow for a map that you can use. Get a map from a canned module. Look for blogs and websites that offer free maps for RPGs.
There are two essential skills to master, though you can work on both as you go:
- Using Google Image Search; and
- Adapting Period details to Game Climate.
Google Image Search
I started to write up a section on how to use Google Image Search but it quickly became clear that this one section would be as large as the rest of this article put together – not that it’s very complicated, there’s just a lot to say on the subject. In fact, it threatened to derail any prospect of getting the article done on time. I’ve solved both problems at the same time by excerpting the entire discussion into a separate article, also to be published in the next week or two.
Adapting Period details to Game Climate
So you’ve found an image using Google (or some other source) that you like the basic feeling of, but it has a rifle on the wall, and photos of WW2, and electric lighting. This is the skill of taking those details that belong to a different time-period to the one of your game, and replacing them with some equivalent from your game’s era without damaging the overall ambiance that appealed in the first place.
There are two aspects to doing this; the first lies in knowing what to change so that what you don’t want to change remains unaffected, and the second lies in taking into account other aspects of the description that do change as a result, and you need to be able to do both in order to be successful.
There’s a simple creative writing exercise that develops this skill. It only takes a few minutes a day, so if you aren’t sure this element of your toolkit is up to standard, it’s worthwhile.
Get an image from somewhere. A building interior with people doing something mundane and ordinary in it is the best choice. You’ll be working with this image for most of the next week, so save a copy of it.
- Day 1: Write a description of the image, exactly as you see it.
- Day 2: Imagine what the same image would have looked like if it were set in the 1950s, or 1960s, or even the 1970s, changing the details without changing the overall “feeling” that the image conveys, i,e, the emotional context and associations. Now, without referring to the text you wrote on Day 1, write a description of that scene. When you’ve finished, compare the two descriptions, making mental note of what’s different and what is essentially the same in both.
- Day 3: Imagine what the same image would have looked like if it were set in any time period from the late 1800s through to World War II, your choice, again changing specifics that don’t fit the time period without altering the overall “feeling” that the image conveys, i,e, the emotional context and associations. Now, without referring to the text you have previously written, write a description of that scene. When you’ve finished, compare with the Day 1 description, making mental note of what’s different and what is essentially the same in both.
- Day 4: Imagine what the same image would have looked like if it were set in a fantasy (i.e. pseudo-medieval) setting and write a description, in the same way as on previous days. Compare with the Day 2 description, just for a change.
- Day 5: Imagine the same image set in some distant future. It could be in a Star Trek universe, or a Star Wars setting, or the sort of future that was imagined in the 1930s-40s-50s, whatever you like; it could be 50 years from now or 500 years from now. Write a description, same conditions as previously. You can keep it simple, or throw in a zero-gravity environment, as you want. Compare with the Day 4 description.
- Day 6 (optional): Imagine that the image is a painting and not a photograph. How might different art styles/materials – water colors, oil painting, tapestry, charcoal sketch – alter the way the image is presented? How can you retain the ambiance while changing the overall look of the scene so profoundly? Don’t bother writing anything, just spend the time imagining it in different ways.
- Day 7: Compare all five written versions. What’s consistent over them all? What’s different? How have the differences changed the overall scene? What could you have done better on Days 1 or 2 that you know how to do on Day 5?
- Day 8: Pick a new image and start over.
Two or three weeks of this – no more than 5 or 10 minutes a day – and you’ll be astonished at how quickly you build up those mental “muscles”. Then destroy all your written drafts – never let anyone see these baby steps!
There is only so far you can go without an independent assessment, so don’t keep this up indefinitely. Nor is it necessary for you to seek creative writing reviews or classes; your goal isn’t to become a novelist or poet, it’s simply to get good enough to convey a scene or setting to the players in words. Efficiency, economy, concision, and poetic nuance – these are all things that will either come of their own accord with experience or they won’t. Good enough is good enough, and your players will make it clear when your descriptions are vague or unclear simply through the questions they ask, the clarifications that they request, and the misinterpretations that they make, so they will provide sufficient review and feedback as a byproduct of the process of GMing.
Faking adventures is easy to do and hard to do well. I’m not going to go into detail about how to do so, for two reasons: First, there’s an entire article within this series to be dedicated to the subject of advice on adventures for Beginner GMs, and Second, I’ve already written articles on the subject – and linked to them in part 1 of this series. So it’s already been covered.
It’s the same story here. Quick-And-Dirty NPCs are so valuable to a GM, of any experience level, that I’ve offered several techniques in the past for creating them, and linked to those articles in part 1. So, while I have some advice for beginning GMs to offer on the subject of NPCs, I’ll save that for the dedicated chapter on the subject.
6. Dialogue, & 7. Expression
Dialogue is what an NPC says, Expression is how they say it – content and style, in other words. Dialogue itself can be divided into three subtypes or Modes: casual conversation, info-dumps, and statements for effect. While an NPC will have an overall style, that style may be modified slightly depending on which dialogue mode the NPC is engaged in.
The first piece of advice that I would give beginner GMs is to wrap their head around this principle thoroughly, then watch TV and note how different characters will change their “verbal expression” depending on the mode they are in. TV is a better choice than a movie because you see many different programs and characters in a relatively short time. Avoid documentary, news, and reality TV for this; stick with dramas and sitcoms. An evening or two of watching and analyzing what you see on-screen will thoroughly ground you in the theory and application of the principle.
Next, it’s time to learn how to use this theory to your advantage. This requires you to watch TV shows that you know reasonably well. Before you do, make a note of one or two major characters in each show that you are going to watch and describe their personality in a nutshell. Then summarize their general manner of expression in a word or two, and note the relationship between the character and the overall style of Expression. You can then watch the TV shows and note how the general style of expression impacts on the different Modes of the character’s dialogue, and how each Mode derives from that overall personality. Again, an evening or two’s TV watching – with the right preparation – is enough of a foundation.
When you create an NPC (as opposed to using an ad-hoc NPC), in addition to specifying the personality, think about how that personality and background will give a particular general style of expression, and then how you are going to refine that into the three modes. Write it down, both in your character notes and in the adventure. Highlight it. Then make sure that you check it each time the NPC appears.
It’s important that you choose a style of expression that you can deliver. Change the NPC if necessary. If you have any doubt, practice by watching your favorite TV shows, once again, and substituting your character for the character on-screen; work out how he would say each line of dialogue, then say that dialogue out loud (it’s probably best to do this when you’re alone, or everyone else will both think you’re being strange and will get annoyed for disrupting their ability to watch the show). Using a DVD that you can pause after each line of dialogue can also be very useful.
Focus not on what they are saying but on how they are saying it. Once you have that down pat, you can work on changing the content to what you want the NPC to say.
Actors have body language and camera angles and lighting and sets to interact with. Writers get to add as much descriptive text as they want in between verbal statements. You’re in what is effectively a radio play or a “naked” (without props or costumes) stage drama – you have to do 95% of it, or more, with nothing but your voice. And you often have to do it in a noisy environment, or while being disrupted by game admin, dropping in and out of character at the drop of a die.
At the same time, use your hands and body language as much as you can; it’s astonishing how much of a difference it makes to your vocal performance.
When you have an NPC that you haven’t built in advance. identify the NPC with someone that you’ve practiced on from a TV show. Don’t worry too much about racial or gender or profile stereotypes; think about character and personality. If Adam from Mythbusters is right for the Captain of the Guard, if Wolverine conveys the sense of danger that you want for a bartender, or Abby from NCIS has the frenetic energy that you want in a shopkeeper, use them.
Here’s another exercise for you to try: For a week, watch as many different TV shows as you can. Don’t watch more than one episode of any given show – switch from COPS to Bones to The Simpsons to The Blacklist to whatever – and just mentally catalog as many different characters as you can. You aren’t watching these shows for fun, this is research. Make the assumption that you already know most of the characters in your favorite shows, so ignore them and watch things that you normally wouldn’t and just stock up on characters.
You have to describe all sorts of things when you’re a GM. Strange Objects, Haunted Longboats, Funeral Pyres, Throne Rooms, Exotic Books, Weird Creatures, Frenetic Action, Faces, Mountains, Tunnels…. the list is endless.
Some of these you can prep in advance, and only think about improvising when you have enough GMing experience under your belt. You can practice simply by reading descriptions from your core rules to yourself – while thinking about why the things you’re reading have been described that way.
But there are some things that you can’t prep in advance and will have to describe from day one, whether you like it or not: Outcomes, responses, and reactions to player (and independent NPC) actions.
When a character attempts a skill check, you have to describe the outcome (including attempting to hit an enemy in combat). When events – or random chance – provide an unexpected opportunity or setback, the emotions of the NPCs affected have to be described. And when those not under the control of the NPC act, you need to describe how the NPC responds and reacts.
The first of these is qualitatively different to the other two; while these all have simple solutions, those solutions are not always easy to implement on the run.
In theory, it’s simple – you visualize the situation prior to the action, visualize the changed situation as a result of the skill check, and then determine what might account for the differences in in-game terms – then describe what you are imagining.
If only it were always as easy as that makes it sound, but complex situations can be difficult to see in your imagination. There are three tools that I use to get me through such problems, and these are all tools that the beginner can use as readily as an experienced GM. (NB: these presume that you have already determined whether or not the outcome is a success or failure).
- use the die roll as an index for the difficulty faced in achieving whatever the outcome is, regardless of the eventual success or failure of the check;
- imagine positive or negative intermediate stages en route to the success until you come up with a combination that you feel reflects that index of difficulty;
- construct your visualization starting with the character acting and enlarge your view of the overall changed situation one variable at a time.
The first means that if the character rolls a “15” (in a system in which low is better), then regardless of the eventual success or failure of the check being carried out, any success will be achieved despite things going wrong in a fairly bad way. Not as bad as if the character rolled a “17”, but pretty close to it. The second means that the events that you describe have to reflect those difficulties, so I think about what might go wrong without altering the actual result of the die roll, and keep coming up with more until I find one that fits. Quite often, it will be possible to go directly to something appropriate, but occasionally you may have to think about it for a few seconds, and with practice and experience this will occur more and more frequently. If necessary, take a five-minute break, telling the players that you need time to think about the way the situation will play out. It’s better to GM slowly than badly!
The third one means that in a complicated situation where a lot hinges on the outcome, determine one effect at a time – taking notes if necessary – and then think about the next consequence of the outcome, and then the next, and so on.
For example, consider a bar in the wild west, and an accusation of cheating at poker that has everyone leaping to their feet and pulling out their guns. The first person to react rolls to hit – and misses, badly. Unknown to this person, a third party suffering from shell shock is also playing cards at a neighboring table, and a fourth is about to throw a dart, and a heavy (the fifth party) is menacing the barman, and there’s a whole bunch of drunken onlookers ready to blow off steam. So, when the attacker misses quite badly, what happens?
- Primary effect (explaining the failure): when the person being shot at leapt to his feet and drew his weapon, he also knocked the card table over, disturbing the aim of the shooter, whose bullet goes wild.
- Second domino: the shell-shock victim leaps up from the table, screaming.
- Third domino: the dart thrower is distracted by the sound of the shot and his dart flies wildly, hitting the bar right next to the heavy, who’s distracted by it for a moment.
- Fourth domino: the bartender jerks in surprise, involuntarily throwing the shot-glass of whiskey he was about to try to use to mollify the heavy into the heavy’s eyes, momentarily blinding him.
- Fifth domino: a member of the crowd grabs a chair and breaks it over the back of the screaming shell-shock sufferer.
- Sixth domino: another member of the crowd breaks a bottle over the head of the intended victim of the original shot.
- Seventh domino: half the rest of the crowd dive for cover, the other half grab improvised weapons or throw punches at whoever’s next to them.
- Eighth domino: the bullet from the missed shot ricochets off something – a stone fireplace, perhaps? – and severs the rope holding the chandelier overhead, which comes crashing down into the middle of the room.
By breaking the scene down into smaller elements, and determining how each in turn will be affected by everything that’s happened as a result of the original action, the complicated situation in the bar advances a round. The next person to act might be the heavy, or might be the intended victim of the shot, or it might be the sheriff hearing the fracas as he walks to the saloon doors, or it might be the bartender; it doesn’t matter who it is, you determine what they are doing, determine the success or failure of the move, then work through the list of people present dealing with the consequences.
Responses and Reactions
The one technique works for both of these – getting into the head of the NPC who is to respond or react. But, like the Outcomes technique, that can sometimes be easier said than done.
To help me through such problems, I use a checklist – any one of which can either determine the way the NPC behaves or can pass the question on to the next item on the list.
- Does the character have a prepared or planned action that is appropriate? He will attempt to carry it out.
- Does the character have an instinctive reaction that is appropriate? He will attempt to carry it out.
- Does the character have a trained reaction that is triggered? He will attempt to perform it.
- Is the character primed to react by an extreme emotional state? He will do so, or attempt to do so.
- Is the character shocked, stunned, or surprised AND not a quick thinker? He will gape or otherwise display this emotional reaction.
- Is there a way for the character to (attempt to) take advantage of the situation? He will attempt to do so unless there is a compelling reason not to.
- Is the character facing potential imminent harm, and if so, what is the best move he can make to protect himself? He will attempt to perform it.
- Does the character have anything that he wanted to do? He will attempt to do so unless there is a compelling reason not to.
- The character will continue to do whatever he was doing before the triggering event, or will hesitate.
Again, by breaking the question down into smaller, more specific, possible responses/reactions and considering them one by one, in the sequence “Prepped – Instinct – Training – Emotion – Self-preservation – Surprise – Intelligent response”, you can quickly decide what the reaction is – then all you need do is work out how to describe that reaction.
Note that in some cases, it is plausible for training to come before instinct, and that training can include non-professional life experience – a character who was bullied at school might react in the same way as he did back then, if it worked, a character who was a bully might react violently, and so on. These can be considered conditioned responses as much as military, police, or other emergency training.
Transitioning from player to GM for the first time involves a major mental shift, and one of the first places that needs to manifest is when you are creating things for your campaign. There is an overwhelming temptation to put in place everything you ever wanted as a player. Fight that temptation with all your strength of will.
There is also a temptation to be even more hard-line than past GMs that you’ve played under “because they must have known what they were doing” and because they were the ones you’ve learned from. Don’t do that, either.
If there was ever anything in a game you played in that you, or another player, wanted something but the GM denied the request, study that decision and understand why it was made. Only then can you decide whether or not it was the correct decision, and let that be your guide. And don’t rule out the possibility that the decision was an error.
GMing is a tightrope between keeping players happy and keeping the game world in one piece so that they can be happy again, tomorrow (or smashing it into a million pieces if they will have fun putting it back together again!). There will be mistakes made – accustom yourself to that fact before you ever get behind the screen. Try not to second-guess yourself too much, but when it does become clear that you’ve made a mistake, own up to it and try to set things right – and above all, try not to let that particular mistake happen again.
These lessons and principles are especially important when it comes to creating things for yourself – new magic items, new monsters, new enemies, new characters, new campaigns. I once saw a new AD&D GM offer a first-level character a +10 longsword of Vorpel Dancing with Flame Tongue (younger readers might not know what all those terms mean – don’t sweat it, I’ll explain). Most columns would focus first on how inappropriate it is for such a powerful magic item to be in the hands of a relative novice character, or in the sheer wrongness of making such a powerful item in the first place; they both miss the other half of the story. A weapon this powerful – capable of independent action, self-targeting towards severing heads from bodies, burning with fire, and with a greater attack bonus than anything in the sourcebooks – not only shouldn’t exist in a campaign, but if it does, it should be the ultimate quest item, recovery of which ends the campaign because no opposition can stand against the possessor. (The GM’s excuse? He thought the item was “cool”).
I have also seen a GM hit a first-level party with a 20 hit-dice blue dragon with spellcasting abilities and two heads so that one could breathe “blue flame” at the same time as the other is spellcasting or using its breath weapon because the monster was “cool”.
It is all too easy to enter a Monty-Haul death-spiral with your first campaign. You make the PCs too powerful, and find that the encounters are too easy, and so they grow even more powerful. So you make the monsters powerful to the point of being ridiculous, overcompensating for the consequences of the original mistake – but doing so and following the standard guidelines for treasure placement means that as soon as the PCs win one battle, they again overtake even the overpowered monsters that you’ve created, and so it goes. Or perhaps the first mistake was making the monsters too powerful, and then “fixing” that mistake not by dialing the monsters down but by boosting the characters up in power level; the results are the same.
Self-censorship is one of the hardest skills for a GM to master. When you come up with one of these really “neat” ideas, show it to someone else and ask their opinion.
Character Classes: trouble of a greater magnitude
But the examples I’ve offered above are relatively easy to spot and fix; the real time-bombs lurk in character-class creation. There are so many combinations of character class and magic items that are possible that it’s almost impossible to ensure that a new character class, or more specifically, new class abilities, will not go out of control and unbalance the game. Quite often these problems won’t manifest until the character and class have been well and truly established – perhaps not until the character is quite advanced in levels – and it’s always messy changing them.
Thus is revealed a second balancing act that GMs must routinely negotiate: the dichotomous need for originality and the necessary conservatism required when it comes to creativity. To make your campaign distinctly your own, you need to be original, but at the same time, the creativity you employ has to be tightly controlled.
Here in Australia, as in many countries around the world, we have had problems with introduced species; any country kid down-under knows about the rabbit plague. Such things are always the result of introducing a species into a new environment without also introducing a predator or other control mechanism. And that is also the solution to this particular balancing act: Never introduce anything without also introducing a countermeasure of equal effect and slightly wider availability.
I’ve touched on this a little in the previous section. RPGs in general don’t describe balanced ecologies; a game system that incorporated a rules structure for doing so would be more than a little interesting. Instead, most of the entries describe the apex predator of one or more environmental region or ecological niche (or a creature that can at least lay plausible claim to such status), and assume that there is enough food available for them to live on.
Balance is generally assumed to result from the conflict between competing claimants, a compounding of lifespan, breeding rate, and competition for resources. One creature may be more powerful than another but its numbers are inherently limited for some reason; another is less powerful, but exists in greater numbers and can unite into social organizations.
By maintaining this basic principle, most creatures that you can imagine can be accommodated. Consider the many variations on Trolls in my Fumanor campaign, for example, as described in Traditional Interpretations and Rituals Of Culture. Beginner’s problems with creature creations generally stem from one of two sources:
- a failure to respect the balanced-population principle; or
- under- or over-valuing a creature in terms of its power levels relative to the PCs at the time when it is encountered.
The first can be solved by introducing a new population-control measure – it might be a disease, or a shortage of some unusual dietary requirement, or a rival species competing for resources. The lesson of the cuckoo, an example of a brood parasite offers a wonderful solution – if not overused – for example. To a certain extent, this mimics what happens in nature from time to time as a consequence of overpopulation; in a nutshell, if there are too many of something, the population will eventually collapse in some form as a result, either as the result of a growth in numbers of some animal that learns to prey on the overpopulated species, or the gestation of a disease of some sort that spreads throughout the population, or simply out-consuming the available food. Such plagues are naturally self-limiting – eventually.
The second problem is more common and frequent. Over-rating a creature means that it is weaker than expected, and hence represents a reward give-away; under-rating a creature means that it is more powerful than it should be, which makes players unhappy about the size of the reward on offer.
When I create a new creature, I always start by listing what I want it to be able to do, and what is going to keep the population from excessive growth. I then locate in the official publications some creature that I deem to be roughly equivalent in combat effectiveness. From there, I apply the principles described in FFG’s Monster’s Handbook* to convert my comparison creature into my new creature.
* Limited numbers available through Amazon, I also found 5 copies on Ebay (search for “Legends & Lairs Monster’s Handbook”. Unfortunately, while RPGNow has listings for much of the Legends & Lairs series, Monster’s Handbook is not one of them.
The result not only helps keep the new creature’s abilities in balance relative to the target effectiveness, it helps me track what the end creature’s correct CL should be, which in turn enables me to determine what the correct reward levels will be.
I have two pieces of immediate advice for beginner GMs under this heading: Near enough is good enough; and don’t reinvent the wheel. Maps take quite a lot of time to produce if you are doing anything more than the most rudimentary job, even using some of the mapping software that’s out there, and there will almost certainly be better things that you can do with your time.
Of course, if a map is to be reused repeatedly within the campaign, you may be able to justify that expenditure of effort – but, quite often, maps simply lock into place things that you haven’t fully thought through yet, forcing future compromises onto your campaign.
I’ve offered two different approaches to the correct prioritization of game prep, I suggest Beginners try them both and pick the one that suits them best. The first is Fire Fighting, Systems Analysis, and RPG Problem Solving Part 2 of 3: Prioritization and the second is Game Prep and the +N to Game Longevity (ironically, they were published in the reverse order, almost a year apart). Choice number one is simpler, and so easier for a Beginner to use; choice number two is more effective and nuanced because it incorporates different standards of prep.
Beyond that, here’s a simple checklist that I use in creating area maps:
- Plan before you start – make a list of requirements
- Start with a rough sketch – I always make a rough sketch before I start, using pencil so that I can erase and correct
- High Ground – where are the points of elevation
- Direction of drainage – which way to the coast? Which side or corner of the map has the lowest elevation?
- Follow the water – 3 and 4 tell me which way the water will flow. Desired geology tells me how convoluted the path will be – there will be lots of twists and turns through rocky ground, and more gentle, sweeping bends in softer soils
- Nearby settlements & other edge elements – What do I know about the areas just off the map? Is there a settlement, ie a likely source of a road? Is there a forest or something known to be there from other maps? etc
- Water the forests and fields – thinking about what I want the land use to be, I ensure that those usages that need more water have enough, even if I have to add extra watercourses to achieve it. Once I’ve done that, I can put in the actual land use.
- Defensible positions – where are the most naturally defensible positions on the map? These are the most likely first choices for settlements.
- Desirable Resources – where are the natural resources; the nearest defensible position will have a settlement, and, if more than an hour or two away, there will be a smaller settlement at the resource itself.
- Resource Usage efficiency – the closer to the point of extraction a resource can be utilized, the more efficient (and profitable) that resource will be. Minimize overland travel, but extend river traffic because nature “does the heavy lifting” of transporting the extracted resource. There may be another small settlement at the embarkation point of the resources.
- Trade Routes – the larger the total size of any two communities linked by road or navigable river, the more important the trade route will be. Use the knowledge of the settlements identified already to plan the roads and paths. Remember that, as much as possible, passes will be through low ground between peaks, and that the rockier the geology and greater the elevation changes, the more twists and turns roads will have.
- Settlements exist for a reason – Most settlements will already have been placed, but where trade routes intersect or cross a defensible point, there will be another. Add additional settlements accordingly – then create a list (using map references) and for each settlement, list all the reasons it has for existing.
- Separation depends on travel times and traffic – small settlements tend to spring up a whole-number of days travel apart, perhaps even a half-day apart if there is a lot of traffic – and subject to the relative danger levels. These can be little more than a guarded caravan rest-point (charging a toll), or something more substantial. Since river travel tends to be faster (and comes with it’s own built-in campgrounds both on the river or at any point along the banks) there will be greater separation between communities.
- Size is proportionate to reasons and inversely proportionate to separation and danger- the more reasons people have for residing there, the bigger the community will be, but if there are a lot of communities close by, this effect will be diffused over several of them – and if the communities are attacked regularly, they will be smaller than would otherwise be the case unless there are a LOT of reasons to justify the higher cost of security and defenses. Use these facts to decide the relative size of the communities and their basic natures, adjusting the map appropriately.
- People transform landscapes – people need to eat – set up farms and farmland appropriately. Look at the other effects people might have on the landscape over time, as well.
- With all that design done, you’re ready to produce the map in its final form.
A place is anywhere something interesting might potentially happen. There are three considerations when thinking about places: what the GM wants to have happen there (potentially or definitively); what should logically be there, based on the settlement/community size; and the broader and local society. I employ the same one-thing-at-a-time mentality that I described earlier in addressing these competing factors. For more information, I direct the reader’s attention to Location, Location, Location – How Do You Choose A Location? and People, Places, and Narratives: Matching Locations to plot needs.
The starting point should always be, “what do I need?”. The second stage should always be, “what should logically be there?”. If you keep those two points in mind, you will be well served.
There’s a lot more that I could have written about creating other elements of a campaign, but they all have specific articles in this series dedicated to them, the length of this one is really getting to start getting out of hand, and much of the advice would simply be variations on the principles outlined above; so I’m going to boil everything else down to two final pieces of advice for beginners, and call it an article.
The Players come First
The first of those pieces of advice is this: Always remember that you aren’t a GM to indulge yourself or your own desires; you are there to facilitate the fun of others. In return, you can reasonably hope for their respect, and the vicarious thrill of watching them have that fun, and – as a fringe benefit – there will be parts of the process that you find enjoyable (there had better be, or you won’t last).
There are those who don’t enjoy GMing, even though they may be good at it. There are those who want to GM for the wrong reasons, whose games won’t last. There are those who want to do so for the right reasons but simply lack the ability or the self-confidence, or who simply cannot dedicate the time and effort required to do so – and, as I pointed out in the first article of this series, it will all take longer when you’re a beginner.
Keep It Practical
Being a GM requires dedication and making a commitment to those who sign up to play in your game – to do the job to the absolute best of your ability and circumstances. Your social life, your television viewing, your independence and freedom – all will suffer. If you aren’t careful, so will your health, if only from exhaustion and a shortage of sleep. For about a decade, I invested an average of roughly 60 hours a week into my campaigns.
It is incumbent on you to make sure it’s worth it. Always remember that your players have limited recreation time available, and they have chosen to expend it playing your game.
Not everyone can do the job, and do it well. There’s no shame in that – every game needs players. But these considerations are not black and white, yes or no; there is a gray area in the middle, where most GMs reside, the gap between the ideal and what can be practically achieved. Failing to keep the scope of your campaigns manageable is one of the most common mistakes GMs make – experienced or not. Keep your ambitions practical, and you are more likely to find yourself in the gray zone inhabited by a successful GM; as your expertise grows and develops, you will discover the capacity within yourself to do more in the time available.
Be aware, too, that your goal posts will have to move and change over time. Life is change, and what is practicable will have to change with your circumstances. Aim to start with small-scale success and grow from there; don’t attempt to be too ambitious to start with, or you will never get the chance to be a success as a GM, at any scale. Save those big ideas for when you are sufficiently experienced to realize them. And make sure that everyone has fun!
Wow, that was a big one – much more so than I expected when I started, or I might have split it into two! Hopefully, Part 3: Preperation will be a little more succinct! (After that, the series will probably take a break for a while… variety is the spice of life, as they say!)