Friday, May 28, 2010

GMing Styles

The GM: The keeper of books, writer of lore, designer of intrigue, master of conspiracy, lord of the monsters, chief cook and bottle wash... The GM is definitely the lynch pin of the outfit when it comes to RPGs. A GM can take his players to new places, challenge their wits, or crush them with hordes from another dimension!

Certainly there's a lot of responsibility places in the lap of the GM, and heavy is the head that wears that crown. But what exactly are the responsibilities of the GM anyway? What's the GM's job?

The DMG 3.5, page 5, Says “Dungeon Mastering involves writing, teaching, acting, refereeing, arbitrating, and facilitating.” It goes on to include “writing adventures, Teaching the Game, providing the world, adjudicating, propelling the game ever forward.”

Ok, that's simple enough, right? What the book does not say, nor could it really teach, is exactly how these things are done. Sure, it's one thing to say "Provide the world", but quite another to actually do it.

There are several different common types of GMing styles.

Gentle pusher
The gentle pusher likes to hint at things, beat around the bush. He might casually mention that there's a need for an adventurer in the area, or maybe leave a few clues behind for the players character to pick up on. Sometimes the gentle pusher might create an NPC to help the players with a little crucial information and a rumor of a great reward for services rendered. The NPC might even tie in a little with the player's background, like a long lost uncle.

The gentle pusher has created a situation and left a door cracked open for the players to peek through after catching an alluring glimpse inside. He'll never shove the players through though, and should they either choose to walk by, or perhaps simply miss it, the gentle pusher will try to find another way to lure the players in.

The Gentle Pusher has a subtle way of guiding his players down a path toward adventure, mystery or any number of other types of fun. The hints are usually picked up on, usually with a feighed surprise by the veteran players, who may make comments about seeing it coming, but it's a plausible story line, so they go along with it happily.

The trouble with Gentle pushing is your players might simply miss a few clues, or worse yet, choose to ignore them. Maybe the adventure doesn't appeal to them, and they'd rather wait for the next offer (and much to a GM's chagrin, there may not be one prepared…oops!)

Spoon feeder
The spoon feeder is usually trying to tell a story they've already written. There's usually a pretty complete story line in place, and the players are playing characters that the spoon feeder already has plans for. He'll usually need the players to cooperate a bit for his storyline to proceed as planned, and will sometimes use NPC force to make sure it happens.

“The characters simply HAVE to be at this place at a certain time, or the great cataclysm won't happen, and it's supposed to. Guard seize them from behind, and haul them off!”

Assuming the story line itself is solid and enjoyable, this could prove to be a very entertaining campaign, and ensures that the adventure isn't simply passed up or missed by the group.

This style of Game Mastering can be very effective in teaching new players the basics about role playing. Giving them little wiggle room will also leave them very little room for error, and help them stay focused on the task at hand.

Some people get rather upset about being forced down a specific path. The more experienced players can tend to feel like a bit of a pawn, with little free will. Some players will feel that this is the GM basically playing their characters for them.

Hands off
The Hands off GM will provide all the things the DMG says he should, and leave the rest up to the players. Instead of leading a horse to water and not being able to make it drink, the hands off gm will make sure there's water somewhere, but leave the horse to its own devices. If he wants water, he's going to have to go look for it like everyone else.

The Hands off GM's will create a world, and somewhere out there, there will be adventure, however he doesn't feel like it should be his job to shove a storyline down the player's throat.

This style of Game Mastering leaves the players with complete control of their futures. They are free to do absolutely anything they want and go wherever they'd like to go. It's a sort of "choose your own adventure" type of book.

The risk of ending up sitting around the table looking at each other waiting for something to happen is pretty high. If the players are looking for something to be hinted at, or someone to walk in looking mysterious at the bar, they're just out of luck. The hands off GM isn't usually going to make things that easy. Also, a GM has to be prepared for whatever the players do and wherever they go which may lead to an Ad Lib (see below) style of play and mastering.

A relatively new player can already be intimidated by the rules and rolling a character. Being "green", they are left wondering at their own character's potential and limitations. It often falls on the GM to help new players understand their surroundings and get them involved. If left to their own devices, they could very well get the wrong impression of role playing in general. Worse yet, they'll find it boring ("All I did was sit around some smoke filled tavern getting an imaginary buzz and get asked what I was going to do. Where's my video game?") and get turned off to it before they get the chance to experience other types of GMing styles.

The perfectionist, as a perfectionist in any environment has to have it all. They've got an intricate storyline, plot hooks, intrigue. They've woven tales and intertwined all of the characters' back stories, putting Easter eggs about, here and there for each of the characters to find. Players can't help but get involved.

The perfectionist knows the characters back and forth, and knows the kinds of interests that will lure the character out of hiding and into the forefront of adventure, but also knows the characters' fears, and will weave those in, giving the player a chance to reconsider stepping into the spot light.

All aspects of all encounters have been calculated, weighed and balanced, to ensure that everyone at the table gets the maximum level of enjoyment out of the game.

The Perfectionist can weave powerful tales that players of all levels of experience can relate to and enjoy. There's excellent story line, mixed with a balanced level of battle, treasure and level advancement. No one aspect of the game is more important than anything other. The perfectionist has all the bases covered. This GM style can be rewarding, memorable, and exhilarating for both the players and the GM.

As with anything else, perfection is a very taxing goal. The perfectionist can keep things together for only as long as his will allows, and almost inevitably, he will burn out. There are a lot of balls to juggle, and keeping them all in the air is extremely impressive, and extremely difficult. With GM burn out, sessions can continue to grow further and further apart.

The Ad Libber
The Ad Libber likes to live in the moment. He’s got a vague idea of what he wants to do, he’s read up on the characters backgrounds, and he’s borrowing style from here and there. He’s going to throw a couple of hints in at you, and if you miss the plot hooks, he’s going to avoid losing more precious time, and some burly NPC is going to kick the players down the intended path when the situation calls for it. The Ad Libber is tends to stay away from intricate plots of political intrigue.

The Ad Libber prefers not to plan out too much in advance, as things seldom go the way he expects, thus resulting in wasted time. He doesn’t do flow charts, he doesn’t do a lot of brainstorming about what might happen, he prefers to react to the situation, just as the players do.

The Ad libber is always prepared, and yet, always unprepared. Preferring never to plan too far in advance, the Ad Libber is almost always ready for the next session. He knows there’s going to be a bit of goofing around at the table, and a couple of melees will eat up any extra time at the end of the night if necessary.

The Ad Libber has to be careful that his lack of planning doesn’t create too many plot holes. It’s easy for an Ad Libber to make up something off the cuff only to have it conflict with something he made up in a session prior. This can sour the player’s taste for the campaign, and sometimes look like the GM doesn’t care enough about his own campaign to spend a little time on the development.

As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to each profile and not every GM is only just one of them all of the time. There is usually a healthy mix of each in a single GM depending on what is called for given the situation and the types of players she has. On occasion, a GM HAS to be all of these in a single game session! The trick on each of these personalities is knowing which is called for when and having players that cooperate with the intent.

So, which one are you most like…and perhaps which are you striving to be?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

First time D&Ders

(Note: Through out this post, I use "he" and "she" interchangeably when talking about a character.)

I roll a what? A d20? Which one's that?? Ok, I got a 4. What do I add? I didn't hit? Why not? But I have a bonus to hit I thought? I do? But I missed? Can I roll again? Why not? When can I roll again? Ok.

It's your first time at the gaming table. You've heard your friends talk about the game, and you understand what they're saying when they talk about the foes they've fought, but you get a little confused when they mention their critical misses and failed saving throws. Testing the waters of D&D is somewhat involved and the first game you play may seem like a hurdle.

For the best scenario, try to get close friends or family members in your gaming group. As the new player and new group member, you may feel intimidated. If you're surrounded by folks you don't know, you're more likely to avoid asking questions. This is only going to make the learning process longer and more difficult. If you can't find people you know to play with, let your group know that you're new, and ask a lot of questions!

First, don't rush out and spend a lot of money. Pick up maybe a set of dice for yourself, but do your best to borrow someone's player's handbook and get familiar with it. See if you can get that and a character sheet, and have one of the folks from your group sit with you during character creation.

(Oh, and if you need a 3.5 character sheet, click the link at the top of this blog!)

Character creation can seem difficult due to all of the necessary decisions. Start with deciding on race and class. There are probably races and classes in some of the non-core source books that are allowed in this campaign, but stick to the core book for your first time. Ask your GM what kind of campaign this is going to be, because depending on the environment, you may want to play a different kind of character. A Human Fighter can be frustrating to play in a subterranean campaign, since they cannot see at all in the dark!

In your off-time, you could make good use of resources such as the forums at,, and posting comments on this blog will certainly get you some answers!

Your character's attributes are the next step. These numerical values will determine things like how smart your character is, how fast he heals, how hard he swings his sword, and how likely he is to succeed in skill checks. There are many different ways to generate these numbers. Check with the GM on how they are asking players to come up with these numbers. It's very common for a GM to not bother going by the rules in the book for this.

Following the attributes, you pick your feats and allocate your skill points. This can be confusing so make sure you've got someone around to guide you. If you can't, just stick to the source books, and you should be okay.

Now that you've got your character fleshed out, you know what he wants to do and what he's capable of, you're going to need some equipment. Once again, there are different ways to figure out how your character gets his equipment so check with your GM. In some cases, the GM will say go by the book, in which case, there's a chart for each class that tells you how to determine how much starting gold your character has, and then you can spend it as you see fit. The equipment section of the Player's handbook has prices for all the gear in there. Make sure you've got yourself a weapon, and whatever armor suits your class. After all that's done, I like to spend my remaining gold on things like flasks of oil to keep my armor from rusting, a length of rope, perhaps a tinderbox for starting fires, and maybe torches. They're all pretty inexpensive things, so even if you never end up using them, at least you've got em!

With your character created, you can look forward to your first gaming session. As a first time role player, you may find yourself getting distracted at the table. If you're lucky, your gaming group won't cause too much trouble that way, but there are sometimes those who would rather check the score of whatever game is on, or read a magazine. Do your best to listen to the GM, and think about what he's saying. Don't get caught up stacking your dice either. I know it's fun, but you've got learning to do!

Another thing that you will notice around the table is that the people in the group do different things to "get into" their characters. A player might wear a certain piece of clothing, or even a piece of armor. The person might talk with a particular voice that they only use for their character.

You may also notice that your fellow players' personalities might be vastly different than those of their characters. One of the wonderful things about role-playing is that you can be anyone you want. If you usually shy away from conflict, for example, then you can play as someone who always gets in the face of anyone who crosses your path.

For your first game, though, do not worry too much about your character's personality. The easiest (and most common) thing to do for your first game is to play yourself as far as personality goes. If the situation would make you afraid, then let it make your character afraid. As a player, you have to learn to pay attention to a lot of things going on at the table. Focus on rolling the dice, accumulating experience, keeping up with all of your combat abilities, and other such game mechanics. Once you feel comfortable with the mechanics of the game, then you can think about how to make your character's personality unique.

By your second session you should have at least a fair grasp of the game's mechanics: things like how to deal with combat and what to do with your experience points. Depending on the campaign, you may even have gained a level or two. Now that you understand the game a little bit better, you can think about making some changes. Your GM might allow you to change your current character or substitute a new one. This might be a good opportunity for you to try a different character class, perhaps trading a spellcaster for a fighter, or vice versa. Alternatively, you might make the same type of character, but distribute the numbers differently; trade a higher strength, for a lower constitution, perhaps. This would make for lower hit points, but a more damaging swing of the sword. I would recommend sticking with the same character though, for at least five or six gaming sessions. Give yourself a chance to get to know him!

Watch what happens when your fellow gamers change characters. Watch for changes in their new characters' personalities, tendencies, habits, etc. The player might have a different voice, or different shirts that they wear, or perhaps a different set of dice.

Gaining a little confidence in the game mechanics? Try to add some personality quirks. Pick something that does not conflict with the group or hinder gameplay. For instance, giving your character an aversion to clothing might draw a lot of attention to your group, most of it negative. You do not want your character to get his or her group in trouble with the local authorities. An example of something minor that can add to your character's personality is a musical instrument. If your character plays the flute or harp, it adds a dynamic to the character's personality, and it just might earn you and your group a free room at the local inn or a little extra spending money.

You might also want to experiment with adding a small character flaw. Again, avoid choosing something that would hinder your group or the game play like a severe allergy to sunlight. You want your character to seem unique, not annoying. Make the flaw something small: a minor stutter, a slight nervous tick, maybe a fear of heights. Be creative.

Soon you will have a solid handle on the mechanics of the game and a decent understanding of your character's station in life. At this point I suggest thinking about some larger undertakings, such as generating a background for your character.

Where we came from and what we've done goes a long way in explaining why we are who we are. We wouldn't be who we are today without our background. Why is your character a fighter? Obviously something in his background afforded him the opportunity to learn how to use a sword, what was it? This is your chance to tell a story, and it can be as detailed or as vague as you'd like. Beyond simply being a story though, this is your chance to give the GM some ideas as well.

Your character's background will be wrought with this that the GM could use in the campaign. You're a fighter now because your father was a fighter, perhaps. Well, maybe your father had some enemies in his day, and they're coming back to look for the +2 sword he won in a tournament. They've been training for all these years, and they want a second shot at that sword your father had given to you, all those years ago.

Our characters are our chance to play sides of our personalities that we don't always get to explore in real life. Your devious mind might sometimes say it would be nice to have some more money, but you know you can't simply take it. (right!?) So why not roll up a rogue who might not be quite so worried about right and wrong? Whatever you choose to play, always remember the goal was to have fun. Make sure you've got your bases covered, and the sky is the limit!

Monday, May 3, 2010


Every player has come to a point during game play where they're presented a situation, and they're not quite sure how their character would respond. Would my character run, or fight? Would he take offense to that remark or simply ignore it?

It's simply impossible to anticipate everything your character may come up against, and from time to time, we're going to have to ask the group to hold for a moment while we collect our thoughts and figure things out.

Here is a survey I found online some time ago that I found incredibly helpfull in fleshing out my character. I can't remember where I got it, or I'd gladly give credit to the original creator... If you've seen it before, please comment with a URL or at least a name!

Player (you) Name:

What is the character's full name? Nicknames?

What is the color of the character's hair, eyes, and skin?

What is the character's general appearance?

What is the character's age?

Where was the character born?

Describe the character's family.

Has the character begun his/her own family?

Has the character ever done anything else (besides adventuring) for a living?

General attitudes & approach:

When or how was the character educated?

What are the character's political and religious beliefs?

What is the character's moral code?

Does your character have any prejudices?

How would your character handle an insubordinate servant?

What would the character die for? What would they be willing to sacrifice
the lives of their friends for?

Who is the one person your character trusts the most?

How would your characters parents describe him?

What was the best moment of the characters life? Worst?

What flaws does the character have? Is he quick to judge people? A slob?

What advice would you give your character?

List the 5 most important people in the character's life.

What is the character’s “big secret”, and what will happen if it is discovered?

"Hey, I've got an interesting job for you..." Name 3 jobs that your character might find interesting.

How will the character die? What would you consider a good end to a life well lived for this character?

What might someone seeing the character for the first time think?

Does the character have any goals?

What is the character's personality?

Any reoccurring mannerisms?

What is this character's "thing"? That is, what action, activity, saying, motion, mannerism, etc., would be considered their "trademark", such that if I were to do it, others would say "oh, now you're acting like [this character]"?

What is her first reaction to a situation?

What would be the ultimate magic item for this character?

What would be the worst curse this character could ever receive?

Are there certain things the character just cannot do? Get close to people; perceive himself realistically, etc. That is, what do people who know this character well criticize about them?

What does your character hate?

What does your character love?

How does the character perceive government? Those who are opposed to the government?

How did the character gain his abilities?

What motivates him to act as a hero now?

How did his peers treat the character as a child? His elders?

What does your character hope to accomplish by adventuring?

Why is this goal more important than his safety? (i.e., Why would you take up adventuring, rather than being a nice, safe accountant?)

What is the character's kryptonite? What is their weakness or what will paralyze them with fear?

What does the character do to relax?

Describe the characters ideal mate.

What is in your character’s pockets, right now?

What do they normally carry in their pockets that they don't have right now, but wish they did?

What is the silliest thing your character has ever done?