Tabletop RPGs: 5 Principles: Preparation

Here is the first in my series of articles on what I call the 5 Principles of Great Gaming!

Why Prepare?
Even game masters that run adventures completely on the fly prepare.  It’s a matter of what they prepare.  In general, like any craft, the more second nature game mastering is to you, the easier and more fun it will be.  You can take as much time as you like to learn and understand things before you hit the table.

So, practice is critical, but what do you practice?  This section guides your training regimen.
Some of the suggestions in this section may sound extreme, but they are all things practiced by great judges.

Knowing the Scenario

  1. Know it Inside And Out: It is critically important that you have read and fully understand the scenario you are to run.
  1. Annotate: Annotate your printed scenario with pen and highlighter to help you memorize it, and reference it later.
  2. Memorize: You should be able to at least summarize the adventure without looking at it.  The more you memorize, the less you have to lose focus on the game to figure out what you are doing, and the less chance there is that you will miss something important. 2.    Get Your Questions Answered: If you have questions about the scenario, ask the author (if possible), another judge, or the event coordinator.
  • Sooner the Better: Have your questions answered before you get to the con.
    1. Fill in Missing Stuff: If maps, handouts, or explanations are missing, make them up yourself if unavailable elsewhere.
    2. Share the Knowledge: Ask the coordinator to pass the answers to your questions to the other judges of the scenario.
    3. Run Living Scenarios the Same: It prevents a lot of headaches if all the judges run Living Scenarios the same way.  It helps alleviate the inevitable player feelings of unfair treatment.
    4. Think of the Possibilities: Try and guess what the players might do, and what you might do in response.  If you can’t figure it out from the scenario, ask.
  • Know the Story: Beyond knowing the events of the scenario, you need to know the story of the scenario, so if player actions take them outside the proscribed events.
    1. Read the Background: Too often, new judges only skim the background of the scenario, and can’t explain how the scenario fits into the greater scheme of events.
    2. Understand the NPCs: Understand not only the game mechanics of the NPCs and monsters, but their motivations within the story.  When the players throw you a curve, you can put yourself in the NPC’s shoes, and make an informed decision.
    1. Know the Setting: The better knowledge and understanding you have of the scenario’s setting, the better you will be able to improvise in response to player actions.  This applies to the general setting, such as heroic fantasy, as well as the specific setting, such as the County of Urnst, or even Radigast City.
    1. Study the Setting: Read the information available on the setting you are running in.
    2. Pay Attention:  Pay attention when you are playing scenarios in that setting.
    3. Pick out Your Favorite Stuff: Pick out the things that make the setting unique and interesting to you.

    5.    Pay Attention In Slot 0’s: If you happen to get a chance to play the scenario before you run it, pay attention!  Keep notes, you will forget.

    1. a.    What Worked: Keep notes of the stuff that the DM did that you particularly liked.
    2. b.    What Didn’t: Keep notes of trouble spots so that you can fix them when you run it.
    3. c.    Annotate the Scenario: It is amazingly helpful if the group goes over the written scenario as a group after playing it, and compares what is written to what they just played.


    Honing Your Skills

    1.    Improve Continuously: The best judges are always striving to get better.
    a.    Pay Attention: Every time you play or run, think about what you and your judge could do to be better (have more fun within the context of the game).
    b.    Practice: Keep doing it.  Form a home group and learn from them.
    2.    Where to Improve: Identify where you need to improve, and practice that.
    a.    Player Feedback:  Actively solicit feedback from players, before and after the game.
    i.    Before: Find out what types of things they enjoy, and what they didn’t like last time they played with you.
    ii.    After: Find out what parts they liked the best, or remember most vividly and what they would rather have you do next time.
    b.    Comfort Level: If you are uncomfortable in an area, such as running spellcasting NPCs, practice until you do feel comfortable.
    i.    Expand Your Play: If you aren’t comfortable with the powers of a certain type of NPC, try and play that type as a PC.
    3.    Focus on One Thing: Each time you play or run, try to focus on improving a specific skill, such as characterizing NPCs, or giving equal treatment to each player.
    a.    Evaluate: Remember to evaluate yourself when your done to see how you did.
    4.    Bag of Tricks: File things that work for you in your notes or in your mind so that you can use them again and again.
    a.    NPCs: If you can do an accent or a facial expression particularly well, use it whenever you can!  A few spectacular characters are more memorable than a dozen good ones.
    b.    Encounters: Oftentimes you will need to create an encounter on the fly to handle players going off the track.  File these creations so that you can enhance them next time you need them, as opposed to recreating them from scratch.
    c.    Rationalizations: If you have an explanation in your mind for why a particular rule works the way it does, have it handy to forestall debate.
    d.    Maps: How many times will you need to draw a tavern, or a wooded road?  Either make a map and keep it with you, or practice drawing them so that you can do it fast, and make interesting variations.
    5.    Steal: If you see something you like in another GM’s performance, or in the media, steal it!
    a.    Keep it in Context: Inserting Ally McBeal dialogue into a fantasy game can break the mood unless you convert it carefully.
    b.    Mix-and-Match: Often you can disguise the origin of something by mixing it with something else.
    i.    Movie Pitch Formula: “He’s like Homer Simpson on drugs, but built like Arnold.”
    c.    Make it Your Own: Taking something you like and enhance it with your own style and talent.  You can make your own famous characters and lines!
    d.    Use Books:  Fewer people have read a given book than seen a given movie or TV show.  Read something new and different for inspiration.

    Knowing the Rules
    Great game masters can run any game without knowing the rules, and make it look like they know what they are doing.  It comes from a lot of practice, and a deep understanding of what makes each game similar and different.  It also comes from a heavy reliance of the players to deal with the rules.

    But before you can get to that point, you need to learn the rules to a least a few games!  In today’s d20 world, you are in luck!

    1.    Read the Rules:  It is amazing how much you can learn by reading
    the rules yourself, as opposed to relying on other people to interpret them for you.
    a.    The Big Picture: Read lightly through the whole book, to get a good overview of what the game is about, and where stuff is so you know it exists and can look up the specifics later.
    b.    One Thing at a Time: It is often helpful to focus a deep understanding of a particular issue once you have the big picture.  For example, Trip Attacks, or Dragons (or both together).
    2.    Put it to Use: Use what you learn as soon as you can.
    i.    Home Game: Try out a new technique on your home group.
    ii.    Practice Scenario: Set up a practice scenario that helps you work through the rules.
    3.    Discuss: Going over the rules with other judges helps cement them in your mind.
    4.    Player Look-Up: Let the players look up the particular rule they are interested in abusing.  It is good practice for them, and keeps you focused on the game.  If they refuse, declare a ruling and move on.
    5.    Be Confident and Flexible:  You will get rules wrong.  It happens to everyone.  But come to the table with the attitude that you know what you are doing, but be open-minded enough to change your opinion on things if you see sufficient evidence.
    a.    Don’t Be Afraid:  If you get a ruling wrong, it’s easy to change your mind!  Don’t be obsessed with being right all the time, or be afraid of being wrong all the time.
    b.    Let Bad Rulings Go: If you have a ruling proven to be wrong, let it go, even if you prefer it.
    6.    Death & Level Drain Caution: The time when you need to be most sure of yourself, and take time to make sure everyone understands what is happening, is when permanent effects to characters (especially Living characters) are involved, such as death, level loss, or punishment by law enforcement.
    a.    Check Yourself: You should always be sure that what you are doing isn’t the result of a grudge, frustration, or malice.
    b.    Read and understand the rules surrounding Death, Raise Dead, and Level Loss until you can quote them in your sleep!
    c.    Be Prepared For Hell: If you kill a PC, especially a Living PC, be prepared for hell.  That isn’t saying you pull every punch, just be prepared for the result and be very sure of yourself.
    7.    Solve Arguments Quickly: Nothing is more frustrating to everyone involved than a prolonged rules argument.  The better prepared you are with the rules, the less this will be a problem, but players will always argue the rules, even if the designer of the game is running them (I’ve seen it!).
    a.    Two Exchange Rule: If you can’t come to a conclusion in two quick verbal exchanges, have the player look up the reference, being prepared to rewind their action if need be.  If they can’t find it by their next action, declare a result and move on.
    b.    Build Trust: By spending the time to learn the rules, and apply them fairly (see the Fairness section for more) you build trust with your players, so that they are less likely to argue rules with you, and more likely to have fun!
    c.    Don’t Get Run Over: Don’t let aggressive players run all over you with rules questions.  If they won’t look it up and show you the reference when they are arguing, declare a result that makes sense to you and move on.  Many times bad rule interpretations last for a long time because obnoxious players are spouting them at the top of their lungs!

    It is your job to make sure that you do everything you can to create an atmosphere in which people can have fun, and maintain that atmosphere despite player sabotage.

    Before the Game

    1.    Love the Scenario: You as the GM need to be enthusiastic about the scenario, or the players will notice and develop a hostile attitude toward you and the scenario, which is no fun for anyone.
    a.    Clarify: If you see something that doesn’t make sense and annoys you, try and get clarification from the author (if possible), other judges, or the event coordinator.  Oftentimes such annoyances are easily remedied.
    b.    Fix the Scenario: If there are things you can’t abide by in the scenario, fix them.  This is much harder to do in Living events, as there is an importance attached to running them the same for each group, but as long as you have the players’ best interest in mind, you should fix things.
    c.    Reject the Scenario: If the scenario is just too awful, and you can’t stand the thought of running it, reject it.  Only do this as a last resort.
    i.    Do this ASAP:  Don’t wait until the week before the con to declare the scenario trash.  You need to sign up to judge early enough to make this decision without compromising the convention.
    2.    Love the Setting: If you can’t stand Greyhawk, or Living City, why are you running it?
    a.    Let it Die: You aren’t doing anyone a favor by running something you hate.  If you dislike it that much, let it die!
    b.    Polish the Gems: Every setting has things about it that make it great.  Find them, and present them to your players with relish.
    3.    Find Your Comfort Zone: Find a style, a setting, and a rules system that you can love, and run it.
    a.    Learn Something New: Don’t forget to try new things on a regular basis so that you can find your new love!
    b.    Don’t Be Guilt Tripped: Don’t volunteer to run something you don’t like just because the con needs judges for it.  Find something you do like and volunteer to run that instead.
    i.    Player Exception: If you are an avid player in a Living campaign, you have an obligation to run it, in exchange for others running it for you on an ongoing basis.  If you can’t stand to run it, but you love to play it, are you part of the problem?
    4.    Be Passionate: If you are passionate about the game, the setting, and the scenario, that will come across to the players!
    5.    Don’t be a Prima Donna: Don’t make others suffer for your preferences and attitude.
    a.    Be Honest: If you don’t like running something, tell the coordinator.  Better they find out before the players come griping to them.  Make sure the coordinator understands your preferences, so that they don’t stick you with something you end up hating them for.
    b.    Keep Bargaining to a Minimum: Don’t come to the coordinator with devilish bargains about trading playing for judging.  It just pisses them off in the long run.  Tell them exactly what you’d love to run, and if they offer you something in return, accept graciously.

    During the Game

    1. Don’t Slam the Scenario: Whatever you do, do not sit down and proclaim that this is the worst scenario you have ever read.  If you feel that way, you should have either fixed it or rejected it (see above).
    2. Maintain a Positive Attitude: Keep up the attitude during the game by embracing and feeding off of the fun your players are having.
    1. Grab on to the Good Stuff: Find the players who are having fun within the context of the game, and encourage them.  Their enthusiasm combined with yours will be infectious.
    2. Nip the Bad Stuff Fast: Don’t let players bitch for more than one or two exchanges.
    1. Gloss Over It: Sometimes players are just grumpy.  Turn their grumpiness into a joke, and move on.
    2. Look for the Source: Why are they bringing the game down?
  • Is it You: Are you annoying them?  If so, can you change?
  • Jerks: Are they just jerks?  You need to take a firm hand.
    1. Don’t Punish the PC of an Annoying Player: It always comes back poorly on you in the end.  Tell the player straight that they are being annoying, and what they can do to fix it.
  • Take Breaks if you Need To: No one is happy when they are starving or have to pee.
  • Read the Players: Keep your finger on the pulse of the players.  It is your responsibility to spice up a flagging game, or cool off heated tempers.  Give them what they want.
  • After The Game

    1. Leave a Good Impression: Most players will remember the last 30 minutes of the game more than any other part.  Make them enjoyable.
    2. Don’t Rush: If time is running out, don’t rush the players.
    3. Clip: Cut something out, and play the end whole,
    4. Summarize: You can summarize things like combat, especially if the outcome is clear.  Don’t be anal about finishing a long combat, unless the players are super gung-ho.
    5. Leave Time for Paperwork: Make sure you leave plenty of time to fill out any required paperwork.
    6. Give Good Feedback:  Tell the players and the GM how much fun you had, what things were great, and how things could be even better next time.