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GMing Toolbox: Methods and Tools for Sessions

damiller

Explorer
So in this thread Game Master Traits @Yora made the following comment:

Third would perhaps be the ability to improvise smoothly on the fly. The key to which is being well prepared. A good GM does not prepare specific situations, but has a toolbox ready with methods and contents that can be applied in the moment without having much to think about it.

I am intrigued by this idea, and it is what I have been slowly moving towards as a GM. I have never been good at "memorizing" adventures and so welcome this idea to create adventures that are responsive to the players choices but that are not actual improv (which is a serious energy drain for me.) So with that in mind I was hoping to brainstorm with you all about what those methods and contents might be and I offer a couple I've really leaned on in the last few months/year.
  1. Leading Questions - I've always used questions of various kinds. But I avoided leading questions, partly due to my training and work as a teacher and social worker. I noticed that once I started using them as a tool in my RPG sessions my players responded very well, and the sessions kind of built themselves. I use the Leading Questions primarily when things have slowed down at the table and we need some action/decision to get back the energy. Since Leading questions are yes/no short reply they can jolt the players into action. And I like that regardless of the answer, the players have made a choice, and that seems to always lead somewhere good. When I took this technique to heart I would write questions ahead of time, but as I got comfortable with the concept I've found that just knowing about and how to ask leading questions has been more useful and a more flexible approach - ie responsive to the players choices in game.
    1. Conversely I noticed that because I was so used to open ended questions I would use those almost all the time and it often killed the energy of the moment. So knowing about and using leading questions has helped me to see the value (in running an RPG) of both types. I now use Open Ended questions if I want a pause, or to slow the session down (because it invites discussion) or Leading Questions if I want to get some energy back into the session. Of course there are all kinds of question types: Loaded, Closed, Probing, Funnel and now that I have wrote this forum post I'll be investigating those as well.
  2. PC and NPC Scene Work - I stumbled on this one accidentally playing a Super hero campaign. The first place I was introduced to it though was in Star Trek Adventures concept of Supporting Characters. The basic concept is that you have a scene where 1 or 2 (but not the whole group) of PCs interacting with NPCs and instead of the GM playing the NPCs, the other players run those NPCs. This works best in "low stakes" scenes. As a GM I give them the initial set up, maybe discuss some of the stakes, and then let them RP it out. I did that in a rather tense couple of scenes in a Call of Cthulhu campaign. I watched and listened and as necessary provided support for the players playing the NPCs. The results have been amazing.
So what might some others be? I can't wait to read what you'll write.
 

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Li Shenron

Legend
I think the following old-school idea goes more towards improvisation than responsiveness, but I like keeping around random tables of any kind to move forward when at an impasse.

My two key suggestions for using random tables satisfactorily are:

1) make your own or at least modify published ones rather than using them as-is: this way your tables are always appropriate for your current campaign/adventure and don't have stuff you just don't like

2) cheat yourself when using them: don't like the outcome? Reroll! Or don't even roll and just pick what inspires you from the list. True randomness is for when you really want to surprise yourself or have no preference, but random tables are really just "menus" to look at and use at your will
 

Yora

Legend
As I see it, the best use of improvisation is to create improvised content on the fly. Not to improvise fixes for something that isn't playing out as you had expected it to.
Improvisation as a GM tool is not to get the players back on the track you wanted them to follow, but to lay a new track right in front of the party as it is veering of into the unknown.
Improvisation is about continuing going forward after an unexpected turn, not about reversing and getting back to what was originally anticipated.
Improvisation is not about negating choices that the players have made.

Sometime improvisation can greatly benefit from having robust tools that determine some elements of a quickly made up piece of content without the GM having to make a decision on them. As an example, let's say we have the party run into a group of 8 goblins that where either randomly rolled in that moment or were marked on the map without further notes on details.
If you're in the situation where you have to make something up on the spot, with the players looking at you waiting to hear what's happening now, there is always a strong instinct to just go with the first thing that comes to mind and feels natural in that situation, because you don't want to let the players hanging for a minute or two while you make up your mind. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, your instinct is probably going to be "they attack". You can do that once or twice, but it soon becomes a persistent pattern and is pretty boring.

Which is where for example the 1981 D&D Basic edition has some very useful tools for GMs. Four quick dice rolls to set the general parameters.

Encounter distance: How far away will the creature or NPCs be when the party sees them? Roll 2d6 X 10.

Surprise: Will the creatures see the party coming, or will the party spot the creatures still being unaware? Roll 1d3 for both the party and the creatures, a 1 means they are surprised. This allows for four possible outcomes: 1. The party and the creatures spot each other at the full spotting distance. 2 The party spots the creatures, which are unaware. 3. The creatures spot the party, which is unaware. 4. The party and the creatures both spot each other only when they are at half the spotting distance.

Reaction: How will the creatures react when they become aware of the party? In some cases, there is only one sensible reaction, like for hungry undead, or guards patroling their castle. But when it really could be anything, roll 2d6 to see:
2: The creatures immediately charge at the party to attack.
3-5: The creatures are hostile to the party, but will try to chase them off or arrest them.
6-8: The creatures are undecided and wait to see what the party is doing. Maybe roll again after the players have displayed their intentions.
9-11: The creatures don't want a fight. They might try to negotiate if the players' goals conflict with their own, or even retreat and leave the party be.
12: The creatures are friendly and might invite the party to rest at their camp or offer to assist them in their undertaking.

You still will have to improvise the encounter, but now you have much more varied starting conditions to work with than always falling back to the default "they attack". Most importantly, these rolls are suggestions for what you could do. Maybe you roll a 12 for reaction but really don't know how to treat that specific creature as friendly towards the party. In that case, just go with the suggestion for a roll of 11 instead.

The fourth roll is a morale check when the creatures do get into a fight with the party. That roll can be whatever you want it to be. It could be a roll of 2d6 against a fixed morale value of 2 to 12 that is part of all creature stat blocks, or you could make it a Wisdom saving throw, or whatever works for the rules you're using.
As with the reactions of creatures to the party, when it comes to how a fight ends up being resolved, the typical first instinct is to just let everyone fight to the death. You could of course always make the choice that all or some of the creatures decide to flee in this round, but that's often unsatisfying. It can easily feel like you always make the enemies run away when there's a chance the players might lose the fight, or that a villain always keep running away every time the players get close to killing him. A morale check takes this decision away from you and randomizes it.
Good moments in a fight for morale checks are the first time one of the enemies is killed or incapacitated (now it's no longer a brawl, this is real), when the enemy leader is killed or incapacitated, and when the enemies are down to half their original number. You can roll either for the whole group or for each enemy individually, or you might put the enemies into several sub-groups that roll morale together. For example, a group of 3 ogers and 8 goblins might make one check for the ogers and one check for the goblins. When the goblins fail and flee in panic, the ogers might still continue to fight on. (Though if the ogers flee the battle, it would make a lot of sense for the goblins to follow them even if they made their morale check. See, I'm improvising.)
 

damiller

Explorer
I think the following old-school idea goes more towards improvisation than responsiveness, but I like keeping around random tables of any kind to move forward when at an impasse.

My two key suggestions for using random tables satisfactorily are:

1) make your own or at least modify published ones rather than using them as-is: this way your tables are always appropriate for your current campaign/adventure and don't have stuff you just don't like

2) cheat yourself when using them: don't like the outcome? Reroll! Or don't even roll and just pick what inspires you from the list. True randomness is for when you really want to surprise yourself or have no preference, but random tables are really just "menus" to look at and use at your will
I love random tables, and modifying them is really a good idea to make sure they match up with the current events of the campaign.
 

damiller

Explorer
As I see it, the best use of improvisation is to create improvised content on the fly. Not to improvise fixes for something that isn't playing out as you had expected it to.
Improvisation as a GM tool is not to get the players back on the track you wanted them to follow, but to lay a new track right in front of the party as it is veering of into the unknown.
Improvisation is about continuing going forward after an unexpected turn, not about reversing and getting back to what was originally anticipated.
Improvisation is not about negating choices that the players have made.

I think I can agree with all of those. I am looking to develop a way to be present at the table not a track for the PCs to always be on. I want to find a way to INCREASE player agency not limit it. But your post made me think about Improv as a technique, and specifically you mentioned being prepared.

For me what preparation now means is practice/practicing, and I am trying to find ways to practice my part of the session. And the tiny bit I know about Improv-ing is that they practice furiously. I am looking to practice out of game so I can improv in-game, instead of the standard idea of improv which is make it all up at the moment. Because I have done sessions totally impromptu and I simply no longer have the energy for that.

Here's another practice I noticed I am leaning towards as a GM:

3. Scene Break Down (because I figure, as a GM, there is at least 1 scene I KNOW will happen - usually the first of the session, and I should practice it)
  • I struggle to come up with NPCs in a way that helps me play them at the table. I think there are great systems for generating facts about the NPC, but WHO are they? HOW will they act in session, in a way that again, I don't have to "memorize" and that I can "improvize".
  • I wanted a way to practice being that NPC so when "show time" arrives they just appear without thought so to speak.
  • Well I was reading "Method Writing" by Jack Grapes and in one of the chapters he gives an overview of method acting. Basically it involves the actor deciding what that characters objective is, then breaking down the characters objective into specific actions. His example was about a scene where the character's objective was to be clever, so the actor could break that down into the beats/actions of flattering, accusing, gossiping, lying.
    • here is really neat sheet I found that I've used, its quite involved, I will probably just stick to objective/4-5 potential actions.
    • Scene Breakdown Worksheet
  • I've noticed that as I start doing this with NPCs I am learning more about them, and that they are easier to play at session time because I am familiar with them as a person.
At any rate, I am quite interested in developing practices that allow me to prepare to improv with my group at the table in a way that increases their player agency. I've been basically doing these things for years, and it I think my players would say they have tons of agency, but it is nice to think about these practices specifically.
 


Planning. Improvisation is necessary, but it works far better when laid on a solid foundation of prep.

A well-laid plot is what makes a long-term campaign come to life. I have whiled away many pleasant hours on a threadmill or my lawn tractor (the cleared portion of my yard is five acres) pondering developments and twists.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Planning. Improvisation is necessary, but it works far better when laid on a solid foundation of prep.

A well-laid plot is what makes a long-term campaign come to life. I have whiled away many pleasant hours on a threadmill or my lawn tractor (the cleared portion of my yard is five acres) pondering developments and twists.
I have done a fair amount of GM-thinking while doing yardwork, myself. It's sometimes easier to think clearly while doing something.

I also agree that it's important to have a handle on the present facts before improvising--the best comparison I've some up with is musical--it's like knowing what key to play in.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Planning. Improvisation is necessary, but it works far better when laid on a solid foundation of prep.

A well-laid plot is what makes a long-term campaign come to life. I have whiled away many pleasant hours on a threadmill or my lawn tractor (the cleared portion of my yard is five acres) pondering developments and twists.
For me the important prep - much of which can be done before the campaign even starts - is to lay down a well-defined setting with a solid underpinning of history and depth, at least as regards the area where PC-play is most likely to take place; the idea being to make the setting robust enough to handle whatever plots you and-or your players decide to throw at it both right now and three-five-ten years down the road.

With a robust setting, any improvising one has to do becomes much easier IME.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
I do a running What IF rule, where I ask that question after every situation, jotting a note for use in the future. Basically, it is for every action, there is a counter action . This also links events to the parties actions and players notice that. Examples: What if; The thugs the party just took out had family members? What if; The mob that was taken protection money from a tavern decided to do something for the party burning it down? What if; the body of the parties' fallen member, they left in the sewer, became undead, to roam about down there?

You can take the ideas and run with them and then create a Gossip Sheet for the players that lets the players know what is happening in the background. Examples: Players are told the thug families are up in arms and pushing for something to be done. The mob has put a price on their heads for the tavern fire. Undead are roaming the sewers and adventures are needed to clean it up.
 


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