The original thread for this ( http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=442760
) got a little convoluted and went off-track a lot because I posted an incomplete, unrefined article. That's never happening again. Yeesh. I've shortened, rewritten, and reorganized the article to get to the point.
Professional GM: Methodology and Theory
by Johnny Tek
For those of you who are unfamiliar with "Caravan of Blades", it was a short-lived idea for a pay-for-play DnD 4e campaign. I decided to close down the business on Day 1 because I realized I entered into it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong strategy. It wouldn't work and it would have been truly folly to continue.
I did put some effort into putting together a methodology (set of methods) designed to impress customers and provide a feel of professional theatricality. In theory at least. Hence the title "Methodology and THEORY".
Perhaps there are some game masters that already use some or most of the tools and methods described in this article. I doubt that most game masters use ALL of them TOGETHER though. At the very least, this article should give some helpful tips for spicing up a session.
This article is NOT about running a business or marketing one. It is about a set of tools and methods that increase the face value of a game master's services.
The extra GMing tools and methods described below, when used TOGETHER well, will add a professional, theatrical feel to a DnD 4e gaming session.
This is assuming that the game master already has all the gaming materials commonly used by game masters and is a good actor/storyteller. It is most important that the game master has a strong mastery of narrative and voice acting if the paid game master wants to put on a good show for the "customers".
To clarify, common gaming materials other than the rules books include dice, miniatures, dungeon tiles, washable map, game master's screen, and printed aids such as maps and reference sheets.
PART I. SPECIAL GAMING MATERIALS
Extra gaming materials, no matter how cheap the cost, can add significantly to the image of production value. Some can also be used to produce an added dimension to the gaming experience.
A. GAME MASTER'S MASK
Original Plan: The game master puts on a face mask looking like the phantom of the opera's mask, except extending to both sides of the face. This is done at the beginning of the session, AFTER greeting the players and welcoming them to the table. Don't forget to remind the players that this is for the purpose of theatricality and that the mask is "part of the show". Masks have been used in theatrical productions throughout history. Examples include kabuki shows, ancient greek dramas, and commedia dell arte.
Hindsight Observations: For some adventures, changing between a set of different masks may further enhance the experience. The masks can be decorated or designed for specific encounters or changes in story. The game master might not even put a mask on until the PCs encounter a special character that wears a mask in-game.
For example, in an adventure where the party is visiting the temples of the gods of earth, wind, fire, and water, the game master can switch between masks whose designs or decorations fit the motifs of particular elements.
1. Makes players uncomfortable if used with bad timing and/or gaming location.
2. Physical discomfort may distract from concentration on performance.
3. Stronger use of narrative and strategic combined use with pictures required to make it work.
1. Accompanied with strong vocal acting, well worded narrative and strategic use of pictures, the mask can create an air of theatricality. The game master becomes a game character in a sense.
2. The mask can be taken off at opportune times to enhance anticipation of facial expression acting if any.
3. Game masters with less expressive faces have an amusing crutch to compensate.
4. Game masters that do not want to tip off players to surprises or hidden plot with their facial expressions have a disguise to work with.
B. ACTION PROPS
In Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, players can spend "action points" to take an extra action during their turn or activate some other effect depending on their feats, class features, powers, or magic items. These are rare, special moments of glory that the players' characters experience as a stroke of luck, passion, or genius.
Original Plan: The game master uses bite-size plastic silver stars to represent the action points. Every player gets several that they can toss into a bowl when "spending" the action points.
1. Finding the right-looking, right-sized props that won't break too easily.
1. The props add a visual, tactile sensation to game play that reminds players that they have this resource.
2. It's childishly fun to toss them into a bowl. Two points! (the audience cheers)
3. Shiny objects used in game play add to the look of production value.
C. CAPSULE ROLLERS
When rolling dice, they can knock over other things on the table such as miniatures or fall off the table. This creates a disruption that interrupts the flow of a game. Remembering an old board game that had an interesting way of rolling dice by keeping them inside a plastic chamber, I came up with a simple and entertaining solution to this potential problem.
Original Plan: The 20-sided dice are placed inside emptied "plastic egg" containers from supermarket vending machines. One side is opaque and the other side is see-through. The opaque side must have a flat end. By shaking the container, the die inside "rolls" as a result.
Hindsight Observations: A cup would work just as well for all the dice but wouldn't add quite the same element of novelty as the capsule rollers.
1. Finding a supermarket with vending machines (easy).
1. No risk of knocking over minis and no falling off the table.
2. It prevents some of the methods players might use to cheat with their dice rolls.
D. STICKER BOTTOMS
In a large combat, it can be a hassle to keep track of which miniature is which if you are using a lot of the same miniatures to represent your monsters. This can lead to unnecessary lag in combat.
Original Plan: The game master places blank stickers on the bottom ends of miniatures and labels them with a pen or pencil. When a creature's hit points or conditions are updated, one can simply look at the sticker to see which creature it is.
Hindsight Observations: One might instead place a wipe-able clear sheet over the map and use markers but sticker bottoms have the advantages of pre-preparation and lightness of baggage.
1. Preparation time before sessions is slightly increased.
1. Removes fear of forgetting or mixing up the miniatures.
2. In a casual game, every person can bring in the same types of miniatures with proof of ownership marked on the stickers.
3. This sort of preparation adds to the appearance of the game master's experience and foresight.
4. Less lag time means smoother flow of game play.
E. EMERGENCY CHARACTERS
Character death may be inevitable, and rolling up a new character mid-session takes away from a player's participation and can slow down a game session.
Original Plan: The game master has pre-generated character sheets available in case of character death or disability. The pay-for-play campaign featured a "reservist teleportation" rule that replaced fallen characters the following round during an encounter.
Hindsight Observations: If used in a "GM-by-client" business rather than a pay-for-play campaign business, the client(s) should have input in the choices of emergency characters available if they opt for pre-gens rather than making backup characters themselves.
1. Preparation time before sessions is increased depending on the number of pre-generated characters maintained.
2. There must be a sufficient in-game reason for a replacement. This may require quick thinking on the part of the game master.
1. A player doesn't have to sit around doing nothing while waiting for everyone else to finish.
F. CINEMA STAND
Good pictures of fantasy artwork or photos of interesting scenery can help players visualize the environments and situations experienced by their characters.
Original Plan: The game master places a picture stand in front of the game master's screen that can hold up to 3 printed pictures (usually 8 1/2 x 11") or 1 or 2 larger pictures. Pictures are easy to find online.
1. Preparation time before sessions may be increased depending on the number of pictures searched and printed.
2. The pictures brought along need to be organized well.
1. The stand frees up your hands so that you can roll dice, reach for miniatures, write notes down, and sort through your maps and tiles.
2. Players can visualize the game world better.
3. You can add a "sky" or "background" that you can change up on the fly. For example, the PCs may be trying to defeat a monster before a clock mechanism on the far wall changes hands to a certain time. As the clock hand moves, the pictures can be progressively switched out.
4. If using the game master's mask, pictures can compensate for whatever might be missing from your facial expressions.
5. Picture swapping can be combined with good timing to produce dramatic storytelling moments.
6. The pictures can also be used to create a "stage" to put on a special mini-show, perhaps using puppets, miniatures, dolls, or action figures.
G. TILE ORGANIZER
[Author's Note: I didn't think this would be too important but then again meticulous organization does have an effect on the way one is perceived as a game master. Especially a paid one. I used translucent sealable plastic pockets for my map stuff.]
The way you organize map or dungeon tiles can greatly influence the amount of time spent putting a map together for a combat encounter.
Original Plan: The game master uses a stationary binder, stapling to each page a sheet of paper or plastic plastic so that it can open at the side facing outwards. Paper clips or similar devices are used to close and re-close the open end. Each page is marked with a number or symbol. Dungeon tiles are placed inside the pockets created by the staple paper and plastic.
The game master uses a set of folders or containers, each marked by a number or symbol. Dungeon tiles are placed inside them.
1. Organizing your tiles can be tedious.
2. Clean up can be tedious if you are sorting a lot of tiles.
1. When designing a tile map, the tiles can be referenced by the same numbers or symbols marked on the binder pages, folders, or containers. This makes finding the right tiles much quicker and easier when putting them together during a game session, at least for the first encounter using the tiles.
PART II: STORYTELLING AND IMMERSION
The gaming materials set the stage but the game master's storytelling and game coordination give the show direction. The players become the show, so tools for good direction are important to the success of the session.
A. RALLY THE TROOPS
Combat can be the most exciting part of an adventure. A way to make it more exciting is to use some inspiring or comedic words to stimulate the excitement.
The game master makes a confident statement at the beginning of an encounter just after setting the initiative order. The following are examples of such statements.
"Brave adventurers, prepare for glory! The battle is on!!!"
"The voice of destiny calls forth. Will you answer it? The battle is on!!!"
"For king and country! For friends and family! For fame and wealth! For pony! What will you fight for? The battle is on!!!"
1. You must ever increase your repertoire of dramatic statements because using the same one too many times can get old very fast.
2. The more dramatic the statement, the higher the expectation may become for good combat game play. See Battle Challenge below for a way to spruce up combat.
1. The players will remember a combat encounter much more fondly if started with a particularly memorable statement.
B. BATTLE CHALLENGE
Even with clever map and terrain usage, a combat encounter can become bland or boring. Battle challenges offer a way to inject an added dimension of role-playing or problem solving into an encounter. A battle challenge may also be used to provide an alternate way of ending combat. Some encounters may feature multiple battle challenges that affect the encounter and/or story in different ways. With a properly designed battle challenge, the party can also fight against enemies that are normally out of their league.
NOTE: XP should be given for successfully fulfilling a battle challenge if XP is used. In some cases an arbitrary story XP reward may be given whether or not the battle challenge resolves in success or failure as long as it is resolved in some way. Such a battle challenge usually has an important effect on the story being told in the game session.
The game master announces a battle challenge during combat any time after the initiative order is determined, usually at the beginning of the first round. Sometimes it might be better to announce or imply a battle challenge in the form of clues (not too subtle though or else it could take uncomfortably longer to resolve).
The following is an example of a simple battle challenge.
The PCs are fighting against a group of tigers. The area where the combat is taking place is the floor of a gladiatorial arena. There is a special mechanized cage trap in the center of the arena floor.
Battle Challenge: Lure or force the tigers into the area of the trap and then hit the switch for the trap to close the cage. If the cage closes and there are no active tigers outside of it, the encounter ends.
The following is an example of a more complex battle challenge.
The PCs are fighting against animated dirt monsters. The area where the combat is taking place is a large four-walled room inside an ancient temple. The exits out of the room have been sealed, trapping the PCs inside. The dirt monsters are minions, but new ones will keep appearing from the ground until the PCs are dead or somehow escape. The creatures appear in following rounds to replace creatures that were defeated (appearing up to a set maximum number). There are murals on the walls as well a single dial on each wall.
Battle Challenge: Turn the dials in a certain order to open the doors of the room. The correct order may be determined by deciphering the murals.
[Special: New dirt creatures will appear within 3 squares of the correct lever in the sequence. This may be an alternate way to determine the correct order.]
The following is an example of a battle challenge that ends the encounter whether or not the party succeeds or fails. The encounter may end with a special cinematic narrative told by the game master. The content of the narrative depends on the result of the battle challenge.
The PCs are fighting against invading orcs. The area where the combat is taking place is inside the grounds of a castle. There are many NPC ally and enemy combatants on the map. Within close proximity to the party is a special NPC: the king of the castle.
Battle Challenge: Lead the king to a designated position on the map before he takes X points of damage or Y rounds have passed. The encounter ends when the king reaches the position or if the challenge is failed.
1. Preparation time may be increased if designing a battle challenge for an encounter. Battle challenges can be made on the fly though.
2. You need to make sure that a battle challenge is not too difficult to complete for the PCs. You should also take the players' knowledge sets and puzzle solving ability in some cases. They might be unable to understand a problem that you give them to solve.
1. The players can enjoy combat as more than just defeating the enemy, depending on the challenge provided.
2. If combat is taking too long, an impromptu battle challenge can provide a quick way to end it.
C. PARTY SUPPORT
Sometimes the party has a missing role or is underpowered against a certain type of threat that is coming up. Sometimes a character must accompany the party because of the story. The game master might introduce an additional party member by adding and controlling a non-player character but the players might not like the non-player party member taking up actions and the spotlight. There may be a temptation for the game master to spend more time focusing on the NPC than the PCs.
The Party Support Character (PSC) is a type of NPC that avoids some of the potential problems of a game master controlling a member of the party. In combat, the PSC is designed to support PC actions more than taking actions itself.
-Every PSC has at least one active support power that aids the player's PC in some way. The action used for the action is normally an immediate reaction or immediate interrupt.
-Every PSC has at least one passive support power that normally grants a bonus of some sort to a PC.
-During a combat encounter, the PSC can not perform attacks with its own actions, not even opportunity attacks. It can however move into position to support the actions of PCs.
-If a PSC is somehow incapacitated or inhibited (dazed for example), the PSC's support powers may be rendered inactive until the source of the incapacitation or inhibition no longer affects the PSC. This will largely depend on the game master's discretion.
[Author's Note: The PSC is still in an experimental stage. Tread with caution if you decide to make and use your own.]
Here is an example of a PSC.
Mercenary Human Ranger [Level 1]
[Medium natural humanoid]
Senses: Perception +2
Hit Points 21; Bloodied 10
AC 14; Fortitude 12, Reflex 14, Will 12
Str 11 (+0).....Con 13 (+1).....Dex 16 (+3).....Int 12 (+1).....Wis 14 (+2).....Cha 10 (+0)
Opportunistic Shot (immediate reaction) * Weapon
Trigger: A PC makes an attack.
The PSC can select 1 target hit with the attack if the target is within 5 squares of the PSC. The selected target takes 3 points of weapon damage or takes a -2 penalty to its next attack roll made before the end of its next turn.
Special: Every time this power is used, 1 arrow is subtracted from the PSC's equipment entry. If there are no arrows in the equipment entry, this power can not be used.
Supporting Stab (immediate reaction) * Weapon
Trigger: An adjacent PC makes an attack.
The PSC shifts 1 square. If the PSC ends its movement in a space adjacent to a target attacked by the PC, that target takes 3 points of damage or the PC gains a +2 bonus to attack rolls and defenses against the target until the end of the PC's next turn.
Every PC within 5 squares of the PSC gains a +1 bonus to Initiative rolls.
Every PC within 5 squares of the PSC gains a +2 bonus to Perception checks.
Languages: Common, Elven
Skills: Dungeoneering, Stealth
Equipment: Leather Armor, Shortsword, Longbow, Quiver, 20 arrows
1. The game master must be careful not to make a PSC or its support powers too powerful.
2. The game master must be careful not to focus too much of the role-playing on the PSC just as one would be careful with other types of NPCs and DMPCs.
1. The PSC can be easily used to round out a party's abilities without taking the spotlight too much.
2. The PSC adds a new tactical element for the PCs in which they can position themselves on the map to take advantage of the PSC's support powers.
D. DESTINY AND DISASTER
Sometimes an unexpected event occurs that results in a horrible consequence or the party is unable to overcome a challenge. Sometimes a game master ends up steering the story so that things turn out well or badly and that makes the players feel like they have no control over the story. This can ruin the fun of the game.
A solution might be to give the party a number of "plot twist" points or cards that they can spend for a possibly beneficial change in the story at their discretion, not the game master's. The game master must still create the change itself. This is where the storytelling ability of the game master may be put to a difficult test.
1. The game master must be good or well-practiced at improvising story changes.
2. The game master must be careful not to create a story change that the players will be uncomfortable with or removes too much of the challenge from an adventure.
1. The players feel more in control of their characters and the course of the adventure.
2. The game master has more freedom to throw dangerous and difficult situations at the players' characters.
E. SPECIAL TALENT
If you have some sort of special talent that can be used to entertain the players, that can be important to establishing a greater value to your services as a game master.
Juggling, sleight of hand, singing, telling jokes, playing a musical instrument, and puppetry are all examples of talents that can be used to enhance the storytelling of a session. This should be incorporated into the game master's performance in a way that makes sense. This should normally be kept short so that it does not take too much away from game play time but the players should be asked whether or not they want the "short" version or "long" version as well as told how long each would take to finish.
For example, the party could make a trip to a theatre or opera house where the player characters can enjoy a Shakespeare-style monologue or song performed by the game master in character as an actor or singer in the game world.
[Author's Note: This example is exactly the sort of service I was going to provide as an option. Later on, I might have also made a short puppet show available for viewing.]
1. The game master actually has to have a talent that can be used to entertain the players.
1. The players get more than just a game from their experience, which increases the perceived value of the game session.