4 GM Tips

You can never have too much game mastering advice. Just as you can never have too many monsters, too many successful adventures, or too many times the villain reappears and says, “Ha, you thought I was dead, did you?”

You can never have too much game mastering advice. Just as you can never have too many monsters, too many successful adventures, or too many times the villain reappears and says, “Ha, you thought I was dead, did you?”

The below is a list of all-purpose game mastering tips which you can apply to any game system you want. Not all tips are created equal, and some are downright a bad idea in certain circumstances. Always remember to use your good judgement as a GM before doing anything radical.

1. Create a good Villain
. Nothing says, “I’m a kick-ass GM,” like creating the ultimate villain. Your villain must be clever, sneaky, hard to kill, and a whole host of other nefarious adjectives piled into one dreaded, compound sentence. Your villain should, of course, be a recurring villain which means he’s more than 60% likely to survive at least one encounter with the pointy ends of the PC’s swords. Any villain who dies the first time he meets the heroes isn’t really a good villain, but a vaguely sissy villain. Okay, if he knocked them all down to 1 hp, then maybe he was okay. Keeping your villain alive for multiple adventures is no easy task. There will be a few more heads trying to kill him than keep him alive.

Having your villain operate ‘off scene’ is a good idea. It’s hard to kill people that aren’t there. At some point, he’ll have to actually face the PCs in person. Don’t let that stop you from sending in minions, henchmen, lieutenants, and ‘voice on high’ taunts for at least a few hours. This makes the PCs really want to finish him off. When he actually shows up make liberal use of invisibility, teleport, secret escape doors, fast movement, and other such cheap gimmicks to keep him alive for next time. If the PCs are really low level, that helps too. Another tactic is to have him trounce the PCs and leave them tied up somewhere, this virtually guarantees his survival. Having him ‘too busy’ to finish the fight and walking through a portal also works well.

Assuming you can keep your villain alive, he should also wear black, laugh evilly, and have at least a dozen really cool powers or items he can use for his nefarious purposes. All lesser evils will follow him out of respect and will be willing to lay down their lives so he can make his grand escapes. Thinking up a cool name for your villain is a great idea. Saying he has no name because no one survived long enough to tell it, works if you’re really stuck. Why do you think there are so many ‘Dark Lords’ around?

Good villains always have an air of mystery about them. This could be secrets from their past, hidden motives, secret agendas, vendettas, or whatever. If the villain isn’t mysterious, then he’s probably not that scary. A cloak hiding his face can be enough, but if his past is cloaked in mystery, that’s even better.

Good villains are powerful. This makes their chances of survival much higher, proves why the lesser evils should follow them, and it makes it way easier for you to role-play a megalomaniac with control issues. He’s partly insane, but that’s probably just because the GM had no idea why he was trying to blow up the world.

2. Build a good Campaign
. You could be the most awesome GM of all time, but if you have no players that won’t really help you much. What keeps players coming back to your games over and over again? Are they seriously bored? Is it the massive amounts of treasure and magic items? Do they love killing monsters? Is it the story? Do they love the weird characters they’re inventing all the time? Who knows? It’s your job to keep them coming back with cliff-hangers, cool stories, awesome rewards, and opportunities to build their characters. Trying to play at least one adventure a week is usually a good way to keep your campaign alive. Having the adventures actually relate to each other is good to build a campaign in the first place. Beware the players who like to kill off all their characters to build new ones all the time. This can not only mess with your campaign, but give them better odds to roll all those straight 18’s when you’re not looking.

It’s easy for a GM to enjoy his campaign, he made it all up, so he thinks it’s all pure genius. After all, who wouldn’t love 15 hours of being eaten by hairy beasts? However, players only have their characters, so it’s in your best interest to get them interested in their characters as soon as possible. A player who loves a great character is like a GM who loves to create a good adventure, they’ll keep playing until they drop. If one of your players hates his character or becomes disillusioned in him for the mere fact he’s died 15 times and is weaker than everyone else; it’s your job to fix the problem. Who knows how you’re going to fix it, but giving away artifacts and being heavy-handed is the general idea.

If your adventures are worth their salt, you should be able to plan good cliff-hangers whenever you want them (usually about 15 minutes before everyone has to leave for supper). Cliff-hangers generally involve all the PCs hanging over a cliff edge with a hoard of monsters bearing down on them…see you next week. Okay, there are other kinds. As long as the PCs want to know what happens next—and don’t know it—you’re in business.

3. Design cool Monsters. Assuming the players will be fighting hoards of monsters all the time, you’d better seriously consider making up some monsters yourself. Not only do the players know all the monsters from the published volumes, but new foes are just fun to create. I always like to put in at least one feature which sets them apart from other monsters, after all, why bother otherwise? It might be wise to figure out some weaknesses as well because players will always be looking for a monster’s weakness even if he doesn’t have any. If you forgot, saying, ‘his eyes look weak,’ is a great cop-out. Just about all monsters eyes are weak provided you can actually hit them. Beware, though, if you ever say something is a monster’s weakness you can expect the players to target absolutely all attacks at that weakness until it’s either proved to kill them or proved not worth it.

4. Keep Engagement High
. You could be doing whatever you want during a game session: singing opera, speaking in a funny voice no one can understand, miming whacking a player repeatedly over the head, muttering and rolling dice, etc. The point is, though, that if you aren’t keeping the players engaged, you’ve lost your audience. Whatever it is you’re doing, try to maximise its player engagement value. Better yet, figure out what engages the players in the game and provide more of that. Beware of handing out infinite amounts of money and magic items. This will almost always engage the players, but it tends to ruin your game at the same time. Much better, present them with loads of opportunities to get killed. If they actually care about their characters, they’ll have to engage just to stay alive.

Assuming you’re using the threat of instant death to engage the players, some things you should obviously have are: death traps, killer monsters, dangerous obstacles, people dying nearby (other than the characters), and so forth. If you do this properly, you can probably include some elements which aren’t dangerous at all, but by the odds of probability, the players will all be scared out of their minds anyway. This is where the ‘Don’t tell them everything’ rule comes into play. If the players walk in a room and you say, “There’s nothing dangerous here,” then they won’t be scared. If you simply do your usual chuckle and rolling of dice they’ll be scared until the ruse is up. This is why it’s good to occasionally have nothing happen for about 5 minutes and then throw in the killer element. If played right, you can have the players scared 24-7.

Pure fear isn’t the only motivation to keep your players engaged, obviously. Greed, power-hunger, and self-gratification are equally as powerful. If you allow the players the opportunity to: brag, showboat, grab loot, etc; you’ll have their full attention. Chances are, you’ll be annoyed if it goes on too long because it’s your job to laugh evilly. This also has a bit of a let-off effect. If one time the players beat a dragon it’ll be awesome, but they won’t have so much fun with the great victory against the ‘goblins’ thereafter. By the same token, a thief who steals a million gold coins won’t be jumping for joy the next time he finds a hundred copper pieces. The xp you need to level up increases for a reason. Pay attention to this motivational factor and use it properly. I.e. no matter how much they got last time or how big the monster was, there’s always a bigger one on the horizon. This way of ‘starting out small’ is almost required if you don’t instantly want to get into Monty Haul.

I hope you enjoyed this unusually small number of GM tips.

If you have any key pointers for your fellow GMs, feel free to share them in the comments.


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Phil Nicholls

First Post
Vary the Pacing

Hi Challenger,

You really never can have too many GM Tips.

I suggest varying the pace of the campaign by weaving flashbacks and interludes into the game; one or more Sessions with a different focus, using another set of rules, to add depth to the plot and ease the Players' acquisition of background knowledge.

For a longer explanation, see my Interludes post on TalesofaGM.com

Happy Gaming


First Post
Time Lapse

Here is little tip from me.

What to do when the great campaign is over?

The characters are high level with awesome gear and the world threatening villain is dead. The players are still engaged and want to play same characters.
One of the ways sure is to just keep on playing, but it can get old pretty soon. I handled this using a time lapse, starting a new campaign some 10 years into the future.

Player's characters are now older and if every one agrees they could drop a couple of levels from lack of adventuring and fighting monsters. Powerful items could be lost or sold and money spent. There is 10 years of background to fill and to implement into the new campaign.
Rogue of the party could have been arrested or become a leader of a guild. Wizards and priests could study old prophecies. Warriors could train new recruits in the army. The "lad" in the party now became a man and the warrior is an old man.
You can go through awesome cliches as, "After 10 years you take your sword down from the mantle piece, and as you grip the hilt your blood stirs".
Players could even reshape their characters but still keep the same identity. There is really a lot of potential.

Challenger RPG

First Post
@Phil Nicholls : Great suggestions! I really like the ideas of weaving flashbacks and interludes into the game and using different game mechanics. I definitely plan to check out your Interludes post ASAP. Thanks for sharing the web link!

@Fetfreak : I absolutely love that idea about the characters coming back after getting old. It's something that's never occurred to me, but it's brilliant. Many times I've had a campaign end with the characters getting too powerful and retiring. The 'great' heroes returning much-aged and a little out of shape for adventuring would be totally cool. It's even a great excuse for their priorities to have changed as well as their abilities. If a player forgot exactly what his character was about this would fit perfectly, too.

Thanks for sharing the great comments. I really enjoyed reading them.

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