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Improve Your Game – Guaranteed

It’s been a while since I’ve ran a regular campaign. My group is seemingly unique in that every player is a GM, so stints between turns are spaced pretty far apart, even given that our campaigns tend to run aground in record time. My personal schedule isn’t very forgiving, so I’ve been dodging being the next GM in rotation for two years. The stars were right the last time the chair was up for grabs, however. The group wanted to play DnD 4e and aside from our usual 4e GM, who confessed she’d really like to play this time around, no one was interested in running a 4e game. I’d poked my nose far enough into 4e to see it wasn’t really my dream game, but that I didn’t actively dislike it either, so with some help from the group in world building [1], and armed with a DnD Insider account that makes encounter building a snap, I’ve gotten a few good sessions under my belt for the first time in years. Sure, I’m still in an epic fight with the prep demon, a longtime foe of mine, and sure I’m so rusty you can hear me creak when I sit down at the table, but no one’s thrown their dice bag at me in disgust yet so I must be doing OK.

In three short sessions running a game after my extended GMing break, I’ve learned a big “secret” that I suspect is one that many GMs learn quickly and then, like me, forget just as quickly.  It’s one of those “little things” that’s easy to overlook, but well worth making sure you never forget.  Not only that, but it’s system neutral, and it’s guaranteed to improve everyone’s game, from novice, to grizzled veteran.  Ready?  Get a pen.

The best way to improve your game, is to run a game.

That’s all. Well, not all, but that’s 90% of it. It’s far too easy to sit back and “armchair GM”, picking apart the way another GM runs their game, reading GMing theory, and yet never actually running a game. And while learning via observation and theory is good, it leaves out a huge factor in the equation: YOU. The way you personally work, the quirks you bring to the game and the table, has a huge dynamic impact on the way the game runs and how you apply all that theory you’ve been absorbing.

Let’s take a look at my new game for an example. Treasure distribution in 4e is supposed to be a fairly painless affair. Every challenge your players overcome, they get one of the treasure parcels from the list of treasure parcels for their level. Players give you wishlists beforehand so you can cherry-pick the magic items to put in treasure parcels just for them. To date, I have not yet remembered to place treasure in my adventure notes. That’s right! Not one single time. You’d think after the first time or even the first two times, it would pop into my head during adventure planning, but every time my players defeat a challenge, they turn to me expectantly and say “So what treasure do we find?” and I say “Oh shit!”  I think deep down inside, they love that moment…  Maybe not.

Point being, I read GMing theory all the time, and not once, have I ever seen anyone address the “How do I not be an utter n00b and forget treasure in my notes?” issue. That’s because it’s an issue more or less unique to me. A lot of GMing issues are like that. They’re not some big philosophy issue. They’re not game-breaking or universal, they’re little details unique to the game group and GM in question, and you’ll never know what yours are unless you actually sit down and play.

And then there are those issues that are big philosophy issues. Sure, I know I’m supposed to include at least one challenge, hook, or background element for each of my players in every session. Sure, I know I’m supposed to include a clue to a world secret or a scrap of lore in every session. Do I? No. Usually not. Why not? Because I forget, or I don’t see an opening for one, or I’m pressed for time. That’s the whole reason that you need to run to tackle the big issues too. They take practice to master, not just academic understanding of how they’re “supposed” to work.

Since running is the only way to shake your personal little issues to the top of the game, and to get practice on the big issues you want to incorporate into your game, the best way to make use of your game time to improve your game is to take notes. These don’t have to be complicated. Just a sentence or phrase on a 3×5 card while you play of things you’d like to address later on. “Remember to include treasure in notes” or “No one thinks poo jokes are funny” or “rogue doesn’t seem interested in combat”. Then, when prepping for the next session, you can look at your notes and make sure you’ve addressed them line by line. If a note needs to be addressed during actual play, keep a sticky note handy or put something in your adventure notes: “Be sure to use good tactics here.” or “Ham this guy up.” Once you seem to have an issue licked, you can remove it from your list. Don’t worry. You’ll always have something to work on.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Improve Your Game – Guaranteed"

#1 Comment By katre On June 2, 2009 @ 7:44 am

It’s not just you. I ran a campaign last summer. I worked out all the treasure parcels. And I _still_ forgot to hand them out. I ended up bunching a lot of treasure at the end and apologizing profusely to my players. They were forgiving, but it’s still mortifying to remember.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On June 2, 2009 @ 7:46 am

Great article Matthew! The part about flaws being unique to GMs is spot on. I know I tend to forget a lot of things my first game or two back in the GMs seat, but then, the more I run, I get my rhythm back and remember everything that I should be doing.

The idea of treasure wish lists was intriguing to me, but then I read the 4e write up, and went a little dead inside. Still, the idea of wish lists is kind of awesome.

#3 Comment By wampuscat43 On June 2, 2009 @ 8:04 am

“every time my players defeat a challenge, they turn to me expectantly and say “So what treasure do we find?” and I say ”Oh shit!””

What IS it about this? I can’t do it, either. It’s easily the most frustrating thing about running the campaign. I’ve reached the point where I simply ask them, “Who hasn’t gotten an item this level yet? OK, you three roll to see who wins. OK, good. Now roll to see what level the item is (among the levels that haven’t been distributed yet). OK, now go pick something out.”

“And here’s d20 * d20 gp for your trouble.”

Sad, really, but every time I pick out an item they never want it, so this is just a poor substitute for a wish list.

#4 Comment By Razjah On June 2, 2009 @ 8:53 am

My thing is XP. Even in 4e with it right next to the monster I forget to divide up the numbers. In 3.5 D&D it was a nightmare. I would go through the Monsters setting up a mice encounter with some cool thing like moving terrain and then they ask for XP and I say…. how close are you to leveling?

Great article and one of the most true problems. I’ll need to use the index reminder solution for XP in my next GMing run.

#5 Comment By ben robbins On June 2, 2009 @ 9:10 am

The best way to improve your game, is to run a game.
Abso-frickin-lutely. [2]

#6 Comment By DNAphil On June 2, 2009 @ 10:26 am

Great article! For me it was things like Weather and Dates that I never thought about. All my sessions took place in some eternal spring day, where time never really moved.

The way I got around that, and the advice I would like to pass on, is that rather than trying really hard to remember to add weather and dates, I created a template for my sessions that included a box for Weather, and for Date. This way, every time I wrote a scene, there were those two boxes looking up at me, and requiring me to fill them in.

If you don’t write your scenes electronically, you can make a little card with a list of things you need to include, and put it as a bookmark in your core rulebook.

The bottom line is, that the chance you are going to make yourself remember some of these things, is slim. What you remember behind the screen compared to the next day is quite different. So rather than try to force your brain to hold that detail, as well as 1000 other things going on in your life, leave yourself a breadcrumb trail. Create a reminder or tool that helps you overcome the things you forget.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On June 2, 2009 @ 10:52 am

100% right on. The “take notes with reminders” idea is one I need to implement– there are always little bits that rub during the session… then rub again during the next, but never quite make it on the “must fix” list.

And I’m with you on the “know I should include individual background/challenge” elements, but never find a good place to work them in. Part of it is the setting, but a lot of it is spending too much time trying to make good fights and get CR right. (Which still doesn’t work very well…)

#8 Comment By pseudodragon On June 2, 2009 @ 11:14 am

For me, it’s NPC names. I love to roleplay and when the characters take a different turn than I expected while in a town, city, or other large gathering, I improvise. I can whip up a physical description and even have some idea of class and abilities for an impromptu NPC, but if one of the players asks what his/her name is, I freeze. I really should keep a list of suitable names sorted by gender and creature type handy during my games. The other bug-a-boo for me is the campaign world. I don’t design detailed campaign settings, either using a prepublished one or making it up as I go. It’s more about the story for me.

I do like the idea of tailoring encounters and treasures to the PCs. I start PCs out in my campaigns with one very minor magic item, a legacy or family heirloom, if you will. It usually has some distinctive property about it that sets it apart from the run of the mill magic items listed in the manuals. In return, I ask them to provide me with a modest background and at least one goal they have for their PC (i.e. to become rich and powerful and rule my own duchy, to discover obscure magic and create my own unique magic items, to free my sister from the slavers who took her three years ago, etc). This enables me to weave character-specific motivations and hooks into my adventures and, generally, keeps my players interested and on their game.

Oh, and I don’t play 4E precisely for the characteristics you mentioned. Everything is over scripted. PCs get treated like spoiled rich kids who develop special superpowers just for breathing. It’s too much! Give me a character that earns everything he gets and has to invest skill or feat points and experience to develop a new ability over time. That’s the recipe for adventure!

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 2, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

I agree entirely, and sadly I’m starting to slip into just another armchair GM. My excuse is my daughter, who was born about a year ago.

I’ve always hated the armchair GM, so I’m working the next campaign up, and should be well into it when Gen Con rolls around. Yay!

BTW, my D&D 3.5 weak points were selecting spells for the opponents, and calculating XP. As a GM, I avoided casters specifically so I wouldn’t have to read pages of spells. And I just started guesstimating XP, which also let me manage level gains around the storyline.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 2, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

[3] – I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I’m wrapping up one campaign with the next session, and then I have just 4-6 more sessions for my other campaign. Once both campaigns are done I am taking a break from GMing to recharge the batteries with.

So with that said, my advice to those who are waist deep with GMing duties is to plan an end to each of your campaigns and then take a break. If you can be a player for a bit great! If not, well let the group be on hold until you are ready to GM again (which when I tell my groups “Fine, we just won’t game until I am ready to GM again.” results in a volunteer suddenly stepping forward!).

Good advice, Matthew.

#11 Comment By BryanB On June 3, 2009 @ 11:16 am

It is amazing how “easy” game mastering is when one is sitting in a player’s chair. 😀

#12 Comment By Micah On June 3, 2009 @ 11:42 am

The real secret is that you can get 90% of everything wrong and it’s still a fun game. Forget treasure? XP? No stats for the NPC they decided to piss off and fight? No problem! Just make it up and keep playing!

It’s truly remarkable how robust the “fun” aspect of the game is. You can break just about every rule and the game keeps moving.

#13 Comment By LesInk On June 3, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

[4] – I’m right there with you on tracking dates. Nothing more embarrassing than realizing the lycanthropy character has never had to deal with a full moon because you keep forgetting about when that was or just telling him no to worry because you’re sure its still a few days off when it’s been 6 weeks of game time.

For what it’s worth, I’ve learned that one of the simplest things to do for a campaign is to buy a spiral bound notebook and just write down actions as they happen in the game. Short one liners, nothing too complex. To help with dates, I try to put the game date and the real date next to each other. A game may be 1 or 2 pages, but at least I have a compact log of what happened. I also usually write up a 1 page agenda/outline for the game which effectively serves as a form of checklist of what I’ve planned (which also indirectly helps with pacing of the game).

And as for the “Armchair GM”, don’t forget that we do need to take a break once and awhile and be players too.

#14 Comment By LesInk On June 3, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

Sorry, scratch the above statement about being an “Armchair GM”. I agree: Be a player when you play, not a GM.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 3, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

From Wil Wheaton on [5], re: this article:

“Great, simple D&D advice from Gnome Stew: To improve your game, run a game. [6]


#16 Comment By peter On June 7, 2009 @ 3:31 am

@ dnaphil

I used to have the same problem you had. always forget the date. But since I did send my players on a quest to retrieve a weapon before a specified date, they remind me every session what the date is

weather is something I need to learn and think about

#17 Comment By Sewicked On June 19, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

I finally bought a deck of weather cards, just to remind me to 1) have it rain or windy or whatever and 2) seasons change.

For my Buffy game it was easier. I had a weekly planner and noted down the weather, just a line or two, every day. That governed the weather for the game.

#18 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

I once noticed that sometimes it’s not fair how treasure gets divided because some encounters carry no treasure (a panther out hunting) while others gave more than usual to make up for the lack. One player might be there for one session where they didn’t find much treasure, then the next session they found a lot.

So I started making sure the treasure-to-monsters ratio was solid by the end of the night.

This was my bad habit. Life in unexpected, and in a game the unexpected is desirable. You don’t want to know that every urn your character kicks apart will have 1d6 GP in it. You don’t want to know that every monster you kill will have a lair a few steps away with a pile of bones and that Flaming Dagger you asked the DM for earlier.

So I’ve worked on it and things are unequivocally better. There’s a reason we wrap Christmas presents, you know?

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