One of the several sins of which I am a fan. The other is using the fuck word which is evidently my favorite word tonight. #sorrynotsorry
Gamemastering feels out of control. No matter how prepared you are, no matter your improv skills, knowledge of the setting, rules ken, and how well you know your players, they are going to out-think you, throw you curve balls, and just end up being obstinate. Corralling roleplayers is like herding cats, and no matter how smart you are, it's almost certain that the combined intelligence of your players is greater than yours. This article was inspired by the latest Two Nerds Podcast about running a game, and, in the spirit of this being a blog about Gamemastering, I figured I'd lay down some fat wisdom from my time as a lazy and seat of the pants Gamemaster. Here's the golden rule:
Save yourself time and work whenever you can
I swear I'm prepping for next session. Serious.
You can totally work yourself to death planning a game. One of the biggest DMing pitfalls I've ever fallen into is making an entire world down to the minutiae of naming random NPCs and giving them more backstory than your players will ever afford their characters. The worst part of this is that making a world on that level is awesome. Seriously, so much fun. All of the fun. I have entire worlds in binders all over my bedroom, because it's cathartic and neat. The issues with this are sixfold:
1) Your players will never love your world as much as you do, or at least for the reasons you do.
2) They will inevitably fuck it up.
3) You will never get them to experience everything you want them to.
4) Even if you do, they won't experience it exactly the way you want them to.
5) They won't take it as seriously as you and will make fun of something you thought was awesome.
6) You should be more attached to the characters than the world.
The last point is the most important. Having a DM rooting for the NPCs is a surefire way of pissing players off and derailing a game. The PCs are the heroes. They are the focus of the story. Everything else is the stage on which they...well, do whatever fuckery PCs do. Therefore, the story should focus on what the PCs are doing, where the PCs are, and what their goals are. That doesn't mean that outside forces shouldn't pressure them. If there weren't outside forces pressuring them, there would be no need for a DM, but you don't need to plan High Priest Whothefuckcares's last words as he dies to the great evil that the PCs are going to fight about three months in gametime later. Just having a plot point that "this badass demon killed a high priest and is going to LOL about it to the party" is good enough. You don't need to plot the demon's exploits pre-encounter. Just make up a list of like 5 bullet points (such as "tempted the Murder Queen, Ivanna Killemal") and just have him ramble random impressive sounding shit. You don't need a paragraph, or, heaven forbid, a five page paper on each little thing. Your players won't notice. They want to kill the fucking demon (and possibly take his stuff, depending on genre).
Now, here's the rub. You're the DM. Your players expect you to have full knowledge of the world. Most will expect you to have detailed the world in exacting OCD details, and, for the most part you want them to think that, because it has the fun effect of making it seem like you know what you're doing. Players fuck around more when they don't think the DM knows what they are doing. It's like they sense uncertainty and push boundaries, because that's human nature. There's a very delicate line between not having a clue what's over the next hill, because you didn't plan it, but having something to do in case the players decide to run over there.
Your reaction when your players run completely off script.
That is why you have lazy play aids that make it easy to improv when invariably the game goes somewhere far away from anything you ever imagined or planned. The easiest one, and the one I use the most is a list of (semi) random names. It is something I need to bust out again for this current game I'm running, because, even though I'm usually great at coming up with names on the fly, I ended up naming a taxidermized chimera Barry. Now, that didn't end up so bad, because it added a sense of Douglas Adamsian whimsey to the already...whimsical I guess...theme of the game so far, but imagine getting into a throne room to meet a really important king and just being all "I dunno guys, I guess his name's Herbert." It's not good.
A key aspect of the name list is to not make it unpronounceable or redundant. Broadsiding players with Xxanadrizzithinia'tkul the barmaid is not cute. Go with easier names like Deor, Geoffrey, or Sophia that are (or at least similar to) real world names that people may have heard. They're pronounceable, easily remembered by players, and you'll remember it too, because you need to. Your players will remember everything you think they won't, so make sure you remember it too. Also, while Deor son of Beor son of Jeor is cool, don't overuse it (redundancy). If every NPC in your game has a name that starts with the letter "A," your players will notice and call you out on it. It takes some work for the list, but it will save you so much work in the long run.
Don't let this be you.
Making lists of names for small towns, cities, marshes, forests, etc can also be useful, and maybe make a terrain feed list as well. Terrain feeds are just a list of terrain types (forests, swamps, plains, deserts, etc) you want to use, and then listing what can adjoin each other (forests can be next to swamps and plains, deserts can be near mountains and plains) so that you don't have a swamp in the middle of a desert, because your players will ask a lot of questions that really don't have a lot to do with the plot. Also, lists of professions/shops in a town can be useful. Some of these lists can be adapted to roll on for random results if you are so inclined. All this saves you from having to plot every aspect of the world out as you go and allows it to grow organically as the players decide to visit things outside the normal tourist attractions.
I have said that you should not detail the world in exacting minutiae, because your players won't care about at least half of it. There is, however, a surefire way to make up world stuff with your players that they will actually care about and will matter. Not only that, you can make them do almost all the work for you. Just meet up with them and discuss their characters' backstories. Discuss, collaborate, delve, and write shit down. Not all the players need to give you a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) or complete plot. All you need is one, and then the rest of the players can give you some random crap about the backwater town they came from that you can use to flesh out the world. It's also helpful to hook in reticent roleplayers. If the guy who is hesitant about roleplaying is put into a situation where you tell him that the town they're in has a festival his character remembers from his farming village in his childhood, then he has a hook he can latch onto. This will also inform you of where the players want a game to go. If you plot a big save the world plot and the players want to dungeon delve, you can pick up on that from the meet up and re-calibrate.
Now, meeting up with the players sounds like a bunch of actual work as does remembering the stuff they come up with. The first part shouldn't be so bad. I'd assume that you actually like the people you play with. You're probably friends with them in real life. That means you should spend quality time with them (says the man who plans to spend at least the next 24 hours only interacting with his computer and cat), and like most people, talking about mutual interests is a normal thing to do. Just pay attention. I pretty much make a rule to only take one page of notes per character.
The one page rule is also another good jumping off point for just about everything. Notes for the session: one page. Notes for each character: one page. Notes for the plot: one page. Notes for the session recap: one page. Notes for an encounter: one page. Don't even feel that you have to use the whole page. Here are my notes for last session:
1) Have Aaron find priest. Goblins eating priest's legs. Priest tells Aaron to follow girls.
2) Brandie and Eric on train. Dark cloud comes in. Dragon and [expunged because my players read my blog] ride in and blow up train. Brandie and Eric need to find party.
3) Caelin and Tracy need to meet party.
4) Maybe fog rolls in and everyone gets lost in woods and finds each other? Only use if necessary.
5) House in woods. Has talking Chimera heads stuffed on walls. Special books on shelves. Mini elemental in stove. No one home. Chimera heads refer to "master" if asked.
6) Oh yeah, Tanya the bard needs to find them then disappear at some point for [expunged because of aforestated reasons].
7) Goblin and goblin dog stats for a prepared encounter (more on stat blocks later in article).
8) Another mini encounter with a single being that I never used, because the players roleplayed a lot and we ran out of time.
All of this was one page front and back (more like half a page on the back) and that was only because I wrote big so I could read it easier. I had space next to each encounter to keep track of initiative and hit points and other expendables. I didn't even get to my whole second encounter, and we played for four and a half hours. My after game notes
are technically this blog consist of one solitary sheet of paper that I scrawl on as the session goes on.
This segues perfectly into my hatred of stat blocks for encounters. Games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons (3rd edition specifically) have giant, complicated, involved, hard to read stat blocks for monsters. I really don't need to know a monster's move speed, skill modifiers, feats, ecology, and whatever if they're not going to necessarily pertain to the encounter. Honestly, I'm not sure that all of them should, because it's just more stuff to keep track of. I try to boil down my stat blocks to as little as possible so that I have fewer moving pieces for me to forget. Here's the stats for the goblin encounter I used last session:
Attack: Stick +4 1d4+1 or Smelly Potion +6
Once a PC has been hit by Stick or Smelly Potion, can cast Witch Bolt on that character
Attack: Bite +4 1d10+2
Once bite attack is used, doggie's jaw locks. If they hit, they are locked on PC and PC has disadvantage on all rolls.
There are five Doggies and three Weezards. That is all the encounter was.
That's all that I used for that encounter?
And honestly, that's more than I usually have. I haven't really played 4th Edition D&D, but the only time I played, we fought against minions. I have no clue what the actual minion rules are from 4th (if someone wants to enlighten me, that would be awesome). I know all I need to know: when I use them, I don't have to track hit points, and hitting a minion kills it because it has one hit point. I can throw lots of goblins at my players and feel okay about it. I know there's also something about saves (meh, I eyeball it anyways and write a random number and go from there usually) and using average damage for weapons, but I like rolling dice and don't want to deprive myself of rolling them. I usually roll far under average anyways, so my players should actually be happy. But the take home message is that I usually don't give enemies anything more than HP, AC, attacks, and a special ability or two. Tracking spells and skills and saves is just a lot of work. Saves can be important occasionally, so I'll block them out really quickly before I start rolling if they come up, but I usually don't do it beforehand, because they don't come up even usually in my experience. I also don't bother to balance things, because I use another awesome trick:
I make encounters open ended and start small and keep adding if necessary. I still had my goblin stat notes from the session before, and if they players last week had mowed through the goblin weezards and doggies in short order, the non mounted goblin reinforcements would have shown up. Another example of this kind of encounter is the zombie trap from one of my previous blog entries. On one hand, it can be a grinder of endless zombies. On the other, it can just be slow pressure to make an easy fight progressively harder. I use things like that less ruthlessly than many DMs I've played under. However, because it seems like the same kind of thing but isn't, I don't condone adding HP to a monster mid combat to make it hard, but a spellcaster could very well have a self healing spell or a healing potion, or, they could just run away, get cover, or just do something to make life difficult for the party. Very few of my monsters just stand and fight if the fight isn't going their way.
No. No the enemies are not...
Lastly, one of the ways to make life much easier for yourself, and a tried and true technique that I always have on hand is a seemingly random encounter that actually has some relevance to what is going on. For example, in session one of the current campaign I am running the players encountered a goblin king and his village, burned most of the village down, failed to kill the goblin king, and killed a whole lot of his people. The goblin encounter in session two seemed randomish, but the fact that the players left the goblin king alive means that goblin war bands, bounty hunters, and killers will be following them and showing up randomly until they deal with it. I can throw a goblin encounter in any time I feel things are getting slow. It can seem random, but it's not. It's a mini plot of its own. Just make up a few and hold them until you feel it necessary to throw in.
So yeah, lazy DMing is a lot of work, but it's not as stressful as managing main plots, reading pages of notes, remembering thousands of NPCs of dubious worth to the plot, exactingly remembering stat blocks and encounter tables, and various other bits and bobs that tend to bog the game down. It takes a lot of confidence and improvisation to run this way, but in the end, it feels closer to playing (at least to me) than bookkeeping, which is a step in the right direction (again, at least to me). My average session prep time is maybe half an hour to an hour a week tops with this method, meaning I have more time for Netflix, sleeping, and doing other fun things, because honestly, running a game should be fun, not another chore. Too many DMs burn out, and from what I've seen, most of it is due to over-planning and stressing out about the game too much. Cutting your stress as a DM and leaving planning to a series of in game decisions when you have some play aids to ease the decision making means that the job gets easier, meaning you can pay attention to your players more, do funny voices, and generally have far more fun. And, after all, that's what roleplaying is all about.