Author: John Fredericks

About The Author

John Fredericks

In the early 1980's, John was given the Moldvay Red Box set as a birthday gift. The Blue Expert set soon followed and the mania has yet to subside. Over the years, he has played and GMed various flavors of D&D, Star Trek, Star Wars and the odd superhero game. Most of his recent GMing has been online using virtual tabletops.

While not a current photo, John assures you that he has never looked better. Sad, but true.

He is the sole proprieter of Sharp Mountain Games on



Over the years I’ve had the privledge of running sessions where most of the players were new to the hobby. In this column, we’ll take a look at some strategies for planning out that first session. The goal in planning such a session is to showcase some of the essential features of the system, while giving them a successful and enjoyable session. Much of these ideas are not original to me, but hopefully it will be helpful to have them here, all in one place. FOCUS ON THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS When planning your session, make a list of all...

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Online games are a lot like old-time radio shows. Clear audio is a must for telling stories. Nice maps and tokens are great, as are all the bells and whistles provided by virtual tabletops (VTT’s). But without clear audio, you can’t have a game. In this article, we’ll look at some options for audio services, hardware choices, recording issues, and dealing with background noise. AUDIO SERVICES There are really two main options: dedicated audio services such as Skype, or the audio that comes with some VTT’s. Both offer audio and chatting options. Often you can chat to individuals privately,...

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Sometimes you don’t get a quorum. It’s no one’s fault: people get sick or have other real-world obligations (sigh). Still, it’s tough for both players and game masters (GM’s) alike to show up and realize a session isn’t going to run. One way around this is to prepare a back-up game for times when you only have 2-3 players. These can be a type of “hip pocket game” as described in Scott Martin’s excellent article: Hip Pocket Games. This article will offer a few suggestions for preparing a back-up game, guided by my own experiences. While some of the...

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Gamemasters don’t always get many opportunities to actually play. Recently, one of my players wanted to take a turn behind the screen and I jumped at the chance for a little break. Of course, the view of the game is different from over here. In this column, we’ll look at a few observations I’ve noticed from the players’ side. Hopefully I can learn a little from the experience to make me a better GM once I cross back over to the dark side. Remind ‘Em Often Even though our GM gives great descriptions of scenes and combat, I still...

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The day before our school opens, the buses do a dry run. That way they can iron out most of the bugs before the students ride. In the same way, a dry run of your rules or adventure can help you iron out some of the problems before you place them before players. A dry run consists of running through at least some of the intended scenario, alone, making notes for changes as you go. Before we get started, let’s stress that a dry run should NOT take as long as the actual session. Like everyone, GM’s are busy...

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Representational artists must consider the value scale when planning a drawing or painting. Without light, dark and mid-tones, a picture can look bland and flat. When actually executing the picture, the artist must decide whether to work light to dark, dark to light, or something in between. A similar process can be used when planning your sessions. In this article, we’ll use the painting process as a metaphor for game prep, and we’ll look at three possible approaches. LIGHT TO DARK Most watercolorists work in this manner. They put in their lightest values and colors first, then gradually add...

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How Many Shades of Gray?

Resolution mechanics are a lot like grading scales. Some are simply pass-fail, some have a few levels like letter grades, and some are even more granular like percentages. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the strengths and limitations of various levels of resolution. It won’t be an exhaustive, academic survey of every possibility. Rather, it will be a chance to think about success, failure, and what happens in between. If you ever decide to design your own system (or modify an existing one), you’ll definitely have to consider the question of granularity. PASS-FAIL Call it...

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The Online Edition: Is It More Work?

Is this going to be more work? If you are considering running an online game for the first time you may be asking yourself this question. The purpose of this article is to try to answer it, and perhaps put your mind at ease. We’ll look at the work involved before, during, and between sessions. In the big picture, it’s not really more work, just different work. Let’s take a look. BEFORE A SESSION Most of the work for online games has to be done beforehand. It’s very difficult to just “wing it” or run a pickup game online....

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IARR: One Format for Session Prep

Organization is one key trait for effective gamemastering. Every GM needs some kind of system to keep important information accessible during play. During session prep, a good format reminds us to vary our encounters. It may even help spark our creativity. In this article, we’ll look at the IARR method: INTRO, ACTION, ROLEPLAYING, and REWARDS. Each row of the chart contains information about a single, possible encounter within a planned adventure. THE DETAILS Take a notebook and divide the page into four columns as shown below. (Click on the picture for a larger view). Examples of what might go...

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The Perks of Being a Luddite

Word processing and web technology is great. It allows ANYONE to produce produce professional looking manuscripts and pages. However, they may not be the best tools for the early stages of session preparation. Sometimes all the bells and whistles, not to mention the potential distraction of the internet, can hinder the creative process. This article will be a love letter to the old school physical notebook, my preference for starting the planning process. I will look at the general advantages of a physical notebook (I like the marble kind with the stiff back), and how it fits into my...

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Three Tough Situations

Gamemastering is built on hope. We write our session notes, draw our maps, and paint our minis hoping for a great game. And sometimes things don’t work out. It’s happened to all of us. In this article, we’ll look at three tough situations, and how (maybe) to make something good out of them. It Doesn’t Run This happens to all of us. You’re all ready to run, and you don’t get enough players to have a session. Often it’s unavoidable, people are busy and sometimes real life has to take priority. But it’s still tough in the moment. You...

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Limited Prep Time

Can most of us run without prep time? Probably. Can we run well without prep time? Probably not. While prep time differs for different GM’s, we can’t eliminate it entirely. There are outlines to be prepared, maps to be drawn, statistics to be looked up, and so on. Sometimes we don’t have the time we’d like, and sometimes we don’t have the energy. So are there any silver linings in all of this? Here’s a few thoughts. Limited prep time helps us refine our time management. For example, I always carry my notebook with me (or use Evernote on...

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THE ONLINE EDITION: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

If you’ve been running online games for any length of time, well, you may have made a few missteps along the way. At least I have. Some were the kind of mistakes that any GM could make, and some were more particular to online games. So this column will be kind of a GM’s examination of conscience. Don’t worry, it won’t be a cringe-inducing tell-all. Just a chance to look at some major lessons I’ve learned over the years, and hopefully to provide you with some food for thought. Here’s some things I’ve learned: SAME DAY AND TIME, EVERY...

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Aerial Maps and Your Game

Recently I needed a forest road map for an encounter, and my creativity was running a bit low. The best I could come up with was the standard “road with trees on either side.” Online aerial maps helped me break out of the creative slump, and I thought I’d share some of my observations here. FINDING THE RIGHT MAP If you’d like to find an aerial map, you may wish to start close to home. Need a warehouse district for your modern game? I bet you know some areas in your town or from somewhere you’ve lived in the...

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A Tale of Two Games

I recently ran two games at our local gameday: fantasy in the first session, and Star Wars (using a VERY simple version of FUDGE) in the second. I wanted to sit down and evaluate what went well and what needed improvement in case I get to run those scenarios again. I’m not going to bore you with a blow by blow account (“Let me tell you about my game..”). Rather let’s focus on some of the big issues that come to mind, and may have application for your planning as well. Even if you don’t run these particular systems...

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