Full-time DM, Part-time Prep


Lesson 14: Look everywhere for inspiration. Whatever inspires you (gaming material, or not), incorporate it into your idea mill.

Absolutely! For my undersea campaign I draw inspiration from reference books, documentaries on Discovery and NatGeo, and a plethora of websites like deepseanews.com, underwatertimes.com, and montereybayaquarium.org. I also keep saltwater aquariums from which I get loads of ideas. I’ll turn a goblin shark into a sea goblin, bubblegum coral into a forest of branching corals, and a tube worm into a water dwarf in a heartbeat.

I am one of those time-strapped DMs to whom you are referring. Offline I am married and have seven kids, my job, and a hobby farm to tend to. My last face-to-face game was in 1995 but I have been running play-by-post and chat-based games since then. My next game may very well use roll20.

I am fortunate not to have any rules lawyers in my game, as I tend to run things loosey-goosey, with an emphasis on story over stats. If the players want to spend the entire session chatting with NPCs, that works just fine for me.

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Once A Fool
Lesson 18: Embrace the surreal.

I've talked a little bit about how consistency is a friend to the DM who has little time for prep. That may, at first, seem to be at odds with the suggestion I'm about to present, but hang in there, it'll all make sense.

Don't get hung up on the notion of "realism." It's a highly subjective concept, anyway. In this thing we call the "real world," we have our own networks of illusion. In a world with actual magical illusions...well, it's an over-rated concept, is all I'm sayin'.

Now, that doesn't mean you should throw out verisimilitude. But, verisimilitude doesn't equate to "realism," anyway. What it does require is an internal consistency within the context of your setting—something you should be aiming for anyway, because it makes your job easier.

It is entirely possible to maintain an internal consistency while embracing surreal elements in your game, if these elements are an accepted part of whole. The benefits of doing so in a low-prep sandbox (a "streamlined sandbox") are profound, because trying to simulate "reality" is usually both a futile effort, and lots of work!

Don't get me wrong. Your rulings should be consistent and fair—that's the kind of consistency that helps your game run smoothly! Reality, though...just don't expect your players to see the same reality as you do!

Players have different viewpoints. If you can find a way to play with expectations, or play one set of perceptions against another, your game will be that much richer, and your players will probably be, at the very least, intrigued.

Players have faulty memories. Details shift over time, sometimes even the big ones. You can let this inevitability derail things, but consider incorporating these oddities into your game, instead.

I've run games set within dreams to great effect, but you don't have to go that far. It's a world of illusions. The players can never be absolutely sure what is "real" within the world and what is not.

Furthermore, your game is a story. You can evoke something of a folktale feel by presenting different versions of a story from time to time—or at least presenting the concept that different versions exist. The very nature of a folktale is that it has been passed along from one generation to the next through many people. Each telling necessarily has a different perspective. There is room in your game to do the same.

The important thing is, you don't have to do anything specific to make things feel surreal. But when something surreal presents itself, don't shut it down; work it into your game!
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One of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, once said "Plot comes from what characters want." The same advice applies to games and gamers. As a GM you need to know what your players want from the game. It makes your planning and prep much easier and more streamlined if you have this information ahead of time. If you know what the player's goals then the character's goals become almost automatic. The other two pieces of advice that I always give to prospective or new GM's - Remember you only have an obligation to describe to the players what their characters PERCEIVE and not what is actually there. A humble goblin becomes a terrifying monster when all the players have to go on is vague noises in the dark and shadows. The other is remember your goal is to evoke emotions in your players - not their characters. For example, many horror games have rules for simulating fear. That is stupid - if you scare the player you don't need rules for simulating fear in the character as the player will do that for you. To do this effectively you need to get to know your players. Your lesson on listening to your players is probably the most important one in the list to my way of thinking. A good GM listens more than they talk. I used to run a convention scenario to great effect. It was a locked-room murder mystery. I had a victim and four NPCs as potential killers. Each NPC had motive, opportunity, and an alibi. I never decided who the killer actually was - I just let the players figure out who it was and how they did it for me. All I had to do was sit back and listen, do a little role-playing, and let the players "catch" the real killer. It worked like a charm.
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Once A Fool
Lesson 19: Trust your players to solve their own problems.

We've all heard the phrase, "railroading," and the general consensus is that it is a "bad thing." But why is that, and how does a DM who's short on prep-time avoid it?

I'm not going to comment on whether or not "railroading" in general is good or bad; instead, I'm going to point out a few ways that relying on the practice will make your life as a DM (particularly a low-prep DM) more difficult.

First, players tend to push back when they feel they have no meaningful options. This means that the DM must put more and more work into keeping players' interest and excitement levels high. It also means that the players are likely to rebel, which, in turn, means that the DM will have to work that much harder to keep the game "on track." This is death spiral that ends in burnout.

Second, "railroading" is, at it's core, micromanagement. What often begins with the fear that the DM won't be able to deal with whatever unexpected complications the players come up with leads to over-planning to prevent them. Fear of the unexpected is a legitimate concern, but I promise you, your time could be better spent!

So what do you do to prevent it? Well, if you've been following along, I've already suggested a few things: Don't plot. Hook! If you remember that the plot is something that the PCs make out of the setting you provide, you shouldn't have any fear that the PCs will derail it—they couldn't if they tried!

Remember to listen to the players. If you do this effectively, it will be difficult to be truly surprised by anything the PCs come up with.

Furthermore (and, in my opinion, more importantly), remember that if the question is, “Can I do [something that's cool],” the answer is “Yes!”

So, what else can you do? Incorporate the unexpected! When something does throw you for a loop, don't view it as an obstacle; view it as a challenge, perhaps, but certainly an opportunity! This gives you a chance to do something fantastic! Roll with it!

Finally, have no fear! I don't care how smart you are, your players (collectively) are going to be able to come up with more (and, often, better) solutions to any given predicament than you are. You shouldn't waste your time coming up with a myriad of solutions for them, at all! At most, create one very general solution to use in case they get stuck. Above all, trust them to come up with their own and when they do, don't shut them down!
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Once A Fool
Lesson 20: Name the party.

The last few lessons have provided some general suggestions to build player investment in your campaign. In this lesson, I'll suggest something very specific—and also very easy. In fact, it might be the single most simple bit of campaign prep you can do!

If your players haven't already come up with a name for their party, have the world come up with one (or more than one) for them!

This gives the world a means of viewing the party; a name implies a reputation (which need not even be accurate!). A reputation gives the world a hook for relating to the party and that gives the players a means of viewing their characters within the context of the world. And also, of course, provides motivations for changing the world, which of course, lead to hooks, which lead to adventures...

All that from a simple name!
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