Posts tagged GM Advice

Why Every Campaign Should Plan for an End


In my opinion, no campaign should begin without an end in mind. This may sound somewhat strange to gamers who are accustomed to playing games that continue on and on. But I think that without a planned ending, the campaign itself becomes weaker.

Prevent Jumping the Shark and GM Burnout

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

The party of heroes has just saved the world from the evil sorcerer! What’s next? Well, his apprentice, who is also his girlfriend, vows revenge on the player characters and has a plan just as sinister. And after she’s defeated, it turns out they had a son who wants revenge too. And he had an uncle who wants to destroy the entire universe once and for all. But as a consolation, he decided to resurrect the original big bad. And the resurrected big bad…uh…tries going back in time to prevent all of the heroes accomplishments from happening in the first place.

At some point, an extended campaign is going to either:

  • Jump the shark, in which elevating the stakes of the campaign takes a turn for the underwhelming
  • Lead to GM burnout where the GM has run out of interesting ideas and is no longer sure how to make the game interesting

Comparing to TV shows, Heroes had a phenomenal first season. And then a poor second season and a worse third season, then it got better in the fourth and fifth, but by that point, people had long given up. Imagine if Heroes had been a miniseries ending at the first season? The result would have been a much stronger, and much better remembered, show. Or to use a movie example, wouldn’t The Matrix have been a lot better if they’d just stuck to one movie?

Having an ending in mind prevents these fates from happening. The GM isn’t struggling to up the ante and in danger of running out of new ideas.

Players May Not Keep the Same Schedule

People have changing lives. They may be available on Wednesday nights for a while, but once they graduate from college, get a new job, or have a baby, they may no longer be able to maintain their typical roleplaying game time. And if people need to drop out because of life commitments, your campaign might fall apart. It’s hard to recruit players into an extended campaign that they weren’t around for at the beginning.

By saying up front that a campaign will last for so many months or take about so many sessions, you’re making it easier for players to commit to a game. They can decide for themselves if they’ll be available for the time. If things are getting hectic, they may decide to hang out for another few weeks if they know that the ending is drawing near. This also means that, worst case, if your friend is running a campaign that turns out to be terrible, at least you can push forward to the end that’s coming instead of having to slog through for an indefinite time or drop out.

Avoid the Firefly Phenomenon

Sci-fi fans around the world have shed many tears over the fact that Joss Whedon’s Firefly was canceled after 14 episodes, despite being an original and promising show. This has led to what I call the Firefly Phenomenon where fans of the series lament the fact that the show ended far too soon due to external circumstances and left a lot of great stories on the table. There’s been a number of excellent shows that have suffered a similar fate (my personal favorite being Awake), which could have been so much more, but were canceled early for any number of reasons.

You may have a fantastic campaign in mind, but if your “viewers” (i.e. the players) aren’t able to follow through for whatever reason (which might happen, as explained above), your massive, multi-year campaign will fall apart, possibly resulting in the Firefly Phenomenon. Your players, or you yourself, may have been really excited in the campaign, but if external circumstances might prevent the campaign from lasting so long, planning it to be shorter will be better down the road. And in my experience, it’s really hard to restart a campaign that has ended too early.

Create More Satisfying Arcs

Babylon 5 was a sci-fi television series planned from the start to last 5 seasons. There were planned arcs throughout and events that happened early resulted in a payoff much later. Contrast that to Lost or the revived Battlestar Galactica where things just kept going on and on and people were wondering if the writers really had an end in mind (did the Cylons really have a plan?). If you have an ending in mind at the start, you can have a definite beginning, middle, and end and wind up creating a more satisfying series overall. Not a “what direction are the writers taking us next” situation.

Allow for New Ideas

Contrary to what some D&D/Pathfinder players believe, there are a lot more roleplaying games out there than just Fantasy. If a campaign has an ending, it means that the group can move on to one of those other ideas and try something different for variety. After being supers, you change to spies and after spies you change to space marines. With an indefinite end, you’re playing the same type of character, well, indefinitely. With a definite end, there’s the option of trying something new.

I’ve had great results overall with campaigns with a definite end in mind and I think others would too if they tried it. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Coming next week: The Journeyman GM’s 100th blog post!

The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing


When I play in a roleplaying game, sometimes I come across a bad GM. Sometimes, the GM is bad because they are inexperienced or there are circumstances out of their control. However, there are other times when GMs make mistakes that are, in essence, unforgivable. These mistakes ruin the game and make it no fun at all for a player. I’ve decided to label these “The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing.”

1. Unpreparedness

Not coming to the game ready to play. As a GM, you are the organizer, referee, storyteller, and entertainer. If you’re not prepared to do these jobs when you come to the table, then you and the group will suffer the consequences. Preparedness means something different to each GM (I for one feel like I’m completely prepared if I’ve got a detailed story in my head, while others feel that they must write everything down beforehand). This sin could encompass not bringing needed materials to a game (especially con games), as well as not reading the adventure beforehand, or even worse, not knowing the most basic rules to the system you’re running.

Personal Experience: I played in a con game, run by a member of an otherwise very well-respected gaming group, where the GM seemed to make up his own rules for Savage Worlds. Successful Fighting rolls directly deal damage? Enemies make Dodge Checks? The GM spends Bennies to make the players reroll? I’m convinced he looked at the rules for the first time just 15 minutes before the game.

2. Apathy

Not caring about the game you’re running. This is where the GM has little passion for the game and it shows. His or her excitement isn’t evident and the players have little reason to get excited either. In its most extreme form, the GM would rather do anything besides GMing. Generally this happens if they did not originally plan to GM or there was some incentive to running the game that was more important to them than the personal enjoyment of running the game.

Personal Experience: In my only game of Pathfinder ever, I walked in ready to play (I had heard that it fixed many of the issues in D&D 3.x and was eager to try it to see if it was the game for me). The game had loads of issues, but one of the worst was the GM who brought no enthusiasm to the game. He read the adventure text in a deadpan tone, didn’t bother to explain monster damage (he’d silently move figures, roll some dice, and then say “you take 9 damage”), and didn’t even try to allow for roleplaying. I found out at the end that the only reason he ran the game was to be part of Paizo’s GM rewards program. The game was so horrible for that reason (and many more) that I have never played a Pathfinder game since.

My personal experiences for Apathy and of Unpreparedness are both described further in GMs to Love, GMs to Hate.

3. Railroading

Dictating how the players should play the game. Most commonly, this is done by presenting a situation with a problem and only accepting a single solution, or otherwise failing to give them a choice on how to proceed. I should note that when I talk about it as one of the “seven deadly sins,” I’m talking about the more extreme examples. Sometimes it can be useful in a limited amount, such as in con games where you need to tell a story in a limited time period, but it’s best done if you at least give them other options (or use some techniques to give the illusion of choice). But when you’re running a whole game and dictating how the players should play every step of it, then you’ve gone too far.

Personal Experience: I haven’t experienced this one personally, but I have a friend who played in a game where the GM presented a murder mystery. There was one clue at each site with one way to find it and one interpretation of the clue and one place to go next. Interrogating subjects or trying alternate ways to catch the killer was vetoed, and there was nothing more to be done.

4. Lack of Focus

Not having the game at the center of your attention. This is when the GM is at the table, but their mind is not. They are being distracted by other things in the room, texting, or having personal issues in life that keep their mind off the game. It’s bad enough when a player is not paying attention to the game, it’s worse when the GM, the one coordinating the game, isn’t. Apathy could be the reason for this, although it doesn’t have to be.

Personal Experience: It seems that shortly before a con game of D&D 4e, the GM had some sort of relationship crisis with a girl he’d just received a phone call from. Apparently he didn’t have the willpower to force his issues out of his mind and, despite us telling him that he could cancel the game if he wasn’t up to it, he decided to go ahead and run with it. The GM’s mind clearly wasn’t on the game and there was one or two times when the game stalled because the GM didn’t keep the action moving. The game ended after one encounter of D&D 4e and the four hour game took a grand total of one and a half hours. Not the way I planned my con game to go.

5. Physical Neglect

The term “gamer funk” has been coined to describe the body odor that comes from a stereotypical gamer. This tends to be someone who is so geeky that they neglect personal hygiene and fails to shower or use deodorant. I also broaden the sin of Physical Neglect to include failure to get enough sleep and not eating right because those can have a detrimental effect on how to run the game.

Personal Experience: There was a GM who seemed unable to focus on the game and was somewhat…cranky. After about an hour and a half, his buddy stopped by and gave him a sandwich, which he ate voraciously. Afterwards, he did a lot better and was focused and entertaining. From what I could tell, he hadn’t eaten much at the convention and it was adversely affecting his ability to GM an enjoyable game.

6. Playing Favorites

Favoring one character over another. As a storyteller, there is a temptation to want to make certain characters be the heroes of the story, rather than having six or so characters equally be the heroes. Unfortunately, this results in players not having as much fun, as they are no longer the stars of the adventure. This comes in two flavors: Mary Sue characters where they are an NPC favored over the player charcters, or the Dungeonmaster’s Girlfriend where a certain player is favored over others.

Personal Experience: The worst time I’ve come across this is in the Deadlands Classic adventure Fortress o’ Fear, which is a below average ending to the otherwise phenomenal Heart o’ Darkness trilogy. The adventure is based around Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells, time traveler from the future who has a gun that is powerful enough to kill even Stone. Most of the scenario revolves around her bossing around the posse, then saving the day time and again by being so awesome she can’t be killed and doesn’t need to roll dice. This was perhaps the biggest reason why the adventure failed (although the backstory to the creatures in Devil’s Tower was just as bad). Completely excising her does make the adventure playable though.

7. Absence

Simply not showing up. Obviously, there are understandable circumstances for GM absence, such as personal illness and family emergency and if these are properly communicated, are fully forgiveable. But if the GM fails to show up with no explanation, then I say that they’re committing the worst sin of these seven. I would also include in this category canceling a game on short notice for a non-emergency reason. It’s fine to cancel for non-emergency reasons with enough planning so long as it doesn’t happen too often, but telling us you’re going to be absent mere hours before the next game isn’t.

Personal Experience: One thing I occasionally encountered in college was a GM canceling a game two hours before because they “have too much homework.” This always irked me because 9 times out of 10 the problem could have been avoided with proper planning. Generally I had done my homework ahead of time knowing full well that I’d be busy that evening, and so to suddenly have something I was looking forward to canceled because the GM failed to do the same left a bad taste in my mouth.

An Eighth Sin?

Interestingly, the Orthodox Church recognizes Eight Deadly Sins rather than the Seven that the Catholic Church recognizes (they add Despair). Is there an Eighth Deadly Sin that you think should be added to this list?

A Truly Magic Item


Today’s post is part of the May RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Keith Davies — In My Campaign. The theme is “Fantastic Creations” and there was one part of his blog post that really hit me:

Too often it seems special items are seen as simple tools.  Magic weapons give an enhancement bonus to attack and damage rolls, magic wands are basically spell batteries, and so on.  Technological oddities tend to be much the same, if not more so.

I’d like to see this change.  Magic items, technological marvels, mechanical servants, magical constructs, mental structures, they all can be fantastic.  In fact, I think they should be.

This pretty much describes how I think that magical creations should work. They should not be obligatory components purchased at MagicMart as part of the character Christmas tree, but should be special, revered, and fantastic. (And as a corollary, I don’t think that magic items should make those without them obsolete, as described here).

I could go in a lot of directions with this blog post, including talking about magic items in my Elder Scrolls conversion for Savage Worlds (shameless plug!). But instead, I’m going to show an example of a truly magic item by taking a detour from tabletop gaming to talk about one of the best adventure games of all time: King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow by Sierra Entertainment (and in case you were wondering, all the King’s Quest games had puns in their titles). There are several magic items in the game, most notably a magic map that lets Prince Alexander teleport between islands. But the one I hold as the gold standard is the “Mirror of Truth.”

There are two special uses for the Mirror of Truth depending on which ending path you choose. In one, you arrive at the wedding of your true love, Princess Cassima, only to find that not only is she going marry the evil Grand Vizier, but that she’ll happily give him your head as a wedding present! Just as the guards are about to kill you, you can pull out that Mirror of Truth:

“Look into this mirror, *my love*, and let’s see where your heart truly lies.”

It’s not Princess Cassima, it’s the Grand Vizier’s genie in disguise! The illusion immediately breaks and the guards are ready to arrest the Grand Vizier for treason (of course, he runs away and you’ll have to chase after him to save the real Cassima).

Now maybe you’re thinking that the outcome was fairly predictable. It was a mirror that showed who a person truly was, even if they had a powerful magic illusion to disguise themselves. But the thing is, the mirror is not limited to just breaking illusions (or in D&D terms, being a Wondrous Item that grants True Sight on self). And that’s where the beauty of it lies.

In another possible ending path, Prince Alexander goes into the underworld to rescue Princess Cassima’s parents, who were murdered by the Grand Vizier. In order to win back their souls, Death gives Prince Alexander a challenge: Although he has heard every sad tale uttered by human lips and seen every atrocity the world has ever known, he has never once shed a tear. Alexander will win back their souls only if he can make Death cry.

Although the nearby spirits lament that it would be easier to turn fire into ice, you can have Prince Alexander choose the right weapon. Pulling out the Mirror of Truth, he exclaims “If your existence has been all you say it has, then Truth alone shall be my sword!”

“…but the Lord of the Dead is transfixed to the mirror, to the streaming of his life. Things long forgotten are once more uncovered. His enslavement to this throne while still a man. The years of watching misery and war, and growing ever more numb to it. The seep of his own humanity, the slow growth of a new thing all together: that which he is now. His is an existence that has no possibility of redemption, no end… And Death sheds a single gray tear.”

That is what makes this a truly magic item. Not fancy stats or cool special abilities for your character, but a sense of mystery and the ability to aid the heroes in truly epic tales.

I can imagine many other possible uses for a Mirror of Truth. Perhaps it shows abstract representations of oneself, or who one will become. Perhaps it shows the chains of damnation (like Jacob Marley had) that they unknowingly carry. Maybe it shows the truth about how one is destined to be king. Or perhaps it shows the inevitable death of the hero who wants to be immortal. The key is that it’s not completely understood. You can’t read the item’s statblock and know everything that it is capable of doing. It’s not that it’s undefined, it’s that it can’t be completely known. That’s what makes a magical item a truly fantastic creation.

Examining Player Personality Types


It’s no secret that players and GMs with different personality types behave differently at the gaming table. But it can be difficult to clearly identify exactly what those types are. Several groups have suggested different types of classifications for the players, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This week, I’d like to share a bit about two of them:

Robin Laws’ Player Types

Role-playing game designer and writer Robin Laws summarized several types of players in his excellent book Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. He identifies:

  • The Power Gamer, who wants to optimize and improve their character
  • The Butt-Kicker, who enjoys dealing with combat and beating up enemies
  • The Tactician, who likes thinking about complex plans with realistic solutions
  • The Specialist, who always plays the same type of character
  • The Method Actor, who immerses himself into their character’s role
  • The Storyteller, who games for the story
  • The Casual Gamer, who is there to hang out with people and games because it’s what everyone else is doing.

The big thing that Laws does with this is classify players based on their behaviors at the game table and what sorts of scenarios (e.g. more combat, more puzzles, etc.) the GM should present to satisfy each type of player. It doesn’t really explain what elements of a scenario a player likes, but it does a great job of helping a GM determine the structure of a scenario that might appeal to each player.


BrainHex is a fairly recent project that examines why people play games and what elements they are drawn towards. It’s more focused on computer games, but it does apply to role-playing games as well. BrainHex identifies seven classes of gamer play styles:

  • Seeker, who enjoys discovering things and exploring new situations
  • Survivor, who enjoys the excitement of escaping from terrifying situations
  • Daredevil, who enjoys the thrill of risk taking
  • Mastermind, who enjoys solving puzzles and creating strategies
  • Conqueror, who enjoys “fighting tooth and nail for victory”
  • Socializer, who enjoys interacting with other people
  • Achiever, who enjoys collecting things and completing everything they can

This one is interesting in that it describes gamer play styles, but has a stronger connection to the types of gameplay elements that each prefers. Most of these can be applied to role-playing games too, although it may be more difficult to create a role-playing game that satisfies a Survivor or a Daredevil.

With these two classifications, it’s possible to get a really good idea of what sort of game a role-playing gamer might enjoy. That’s not to say that they won’t enjoy other things, but it’s all about trends.

I’ll use myself as a case study for this. I would consider myself primarily a Storyteller when I play (although I think I have a bit of Power Gamer in me). I took the BrainHex quiz and was identified as being a Mastermind, with Mastermind-Seeker being my subclass. Laws would say that I’m primarily there for the story and combat can bet itself in the way. BrainHex suggests that I like solving puzzles and forming strategies and I enjoy video games like Animal Crossing, Chess, Chrono Trigger, Fallout, Half-Life, and Zelda. The Seeker part of me also enjoys games like The Elder Scrolls, and Grim Fandango.

I’d say that these are pretty accurate classifications of me. I enjoy the story the most about a role-playing game and I do love forming plans or find the most satisfying ending to a story. I haven’t seen many puzzles in role-playing games, but I suppose I would enjoy them. Several games on the video game list are games I’ve played and enjoyed immensely, so I guess they are on the right track there.

So to guarantee that I would enjoy a certain scenario, it would have to be about the story with an emphasis on solving problems and strategizing with a bit of exploring new situations and possibilities. That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a different scenario (and I often do), it’s just that of all the situations I’ve seen like this, I almost always walk away satisfied.

In practice as a GM, I try to appeal to each player’s gaming style by making each session focused towards a different player. Sometimes that means including a plot hook specifically for their character, but oftem times it means forming a scenario with the structure and elements that they will particularly enjoy. Generally this works pretty well and it’s something that I think other GMs should try.

Multiple Campaigns in the Same World


Lately I’ve been catching up on TV shows like Alphas and Warehouse 13. The first is a show about a group of people tracking down people with extraordinary abilities (somewhat like the show Heroes). The second is about finding “artifacts” that are possessions of historical characters that have been imbued with mysterious powers. What I find is interesting is that although they have different premises and tones, those two shows, along with a third show called Eureka are all in the same fictional universe.

Fargo (from Eureka) and Claudia (from Warehouse 13) work together

The three aforementioned TV shows take place in the present day United States and occasionally there are characters from one show who will guest star in another show and be involved with that episode’s plot. For instance, one episode of Warehouse 13 had Douglas Fargo, a computer expert from Eureka, show up to perform a computer systems upgrade on the Warehouse (and help fight against a sentient security measure nobody knew about that accidentally got invoked). The same thing happened in Alphas where Dr. Calder, the doctor for the Warehouse, came to investigate a series of mysterious illnesses in a town (she was no doubt looking for an artifact, but it was actually an individual who had an “Alpha ability” that was causing it).

It made me wonder a bit if maybe campaigns could cross over. This could happen in one of two ways: two campaigns in the same setting cross over or two campaigns in similar settings cross over. For instance, you might have a Deadlands session where a member of the posse from the campaign you all played in last year shows up to help the current posse out (or clean up their mess). Maybe your Epic-level, plane-hopping D&D campaign might take a quick trip to the Dark Sun plane and run into the group you all played in the last campaign. Even little allusions might go a long way to making things interesting:

A newspaper clipping like this wouldn't be out of place in a modern-day game of any genre. (It refers to a previous campaign where the Watchmen-style superheroes had terrible luck and died in a car crash).

Obviously, the crossovers should be done only if the players are going to get a kick out of it (i.e. it may be fun for the GM to bring in a character from a previous campaign, but if the players aren’t going to care, then what’s the point?). Also, the crossover needs to imply that the two campaigns can somehow coexist in the same setting.

Also, the crossover shouldn’t disrupt the tone and flow of the current campaign. For instance, if you were playing a spy campaign and there’s a character from the mafia campaign you played last year, the focus should still be on the spy part. In other words, the problem should be solved by tactical planning and stealth, not by going in guns blazing like in the mafia game.

Finally, I firmly believe that the current characters should be the star of the story, not the guest characters. No matter how awesome they were in the other campaign or how equipped they are to solve the current problem, they shouldn’t be the ones to save the day. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a powerful NPC that overshadows the players, like Jackie Wells in Deadlands.

So to sum all that up, campaign crossovers can be fun, whether in the same setting or just similar ones. But the focus should still be on the current group. They should still solve problems their own way and they should definitely be the heroes.

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