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Rutskarn’s GMinars CH2: You Are the Illusionist

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Apr 30, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


Last week I explained the basic principle of GMing: above all else, and whenever possible, give your players something to do. Give them problems to solve, environments to explore, and opportunities to show off their character’s strengths and quirks and you’re well on your way to running an entertaining session.

Today I’m going to explain something that I think is nearly as important. It’s an idea I’ve never seen or heard comprehensively explained before, and call me paranoid, but I think there’s a reason for that. I think even such GMs as have figured out how to put this idea into words leave each other to figure it out on their own. I think there’s a fear, and a not entirely unreasonable one, that some secrets shouldn’t be given legs–some illusions should be protected at all costs. If that means failing to write down or explain some of the practices that contribute to those illusions, then that’s the price they pay.

I don’t really buy that, and this isn’t just any GMing trick–when you get right down to it, it’s the heart of your role as storyteller. I’m going to take the time to explain as completely as possible the artistic theory of GMing.

When I ran GMing classes for a club, my first lesson was always a practical demonstration; rather that talk theory, I ran a roleplaying session for my students and let them ask questions afterwards. I handed everybody a premade character sheet from an unfamiliar system–a few stats, some inscrutable skills, and strange magic items like “The Devil Mirror” or “The Ghost Summoning Rod.” After pausing to let them come up with cursory backstories, I thrust them into a fast-paced adventure involving a mysterious stranger, a war cult, a haunted tavern, and a magical vault. Magical talents were uncovered, the storyline twisted and turned, half the city burned down, and by the end of the session everyone’s characters had learned a few lessons, made a few bucks, and lost a few teeth.

As the session and chatter wound down I asked my player-students how long they thought the session had taken to plan. Responses varied from “about an hour” to “like three hours”; when pressed, players thought the most time-consuming elements would be figuring out the magic items, coming up with the villain’s hidden scheme, coming up with NPC names and descriptions, and detailing the setting.

So then I explained something to them that I’d never explain to my regular groups: that it had been a trick question, and that of course there had been no planning whatsoever. I’d dashed off premade character sheets with skills and items and even rules I didn’t understand yet, settled on beginning with the line “Your adventure begins in a tavern,” and willfully abstained from planning out one another detail. And none of my players knew. Because how could they? Besides quality, which is subjective, what difference did it make to them whether the story was invented a day before, a week before, or drummed up on the spot?

They’d done what players were supposed to do. They’d bought into the illusion that what I was narrating–what they were seeing in their minds eye and engaging with–was whole. That sitting behind my screen I knew everything about the setting, the rules, the villains, the schemes. They bought into the illusion that characters, plot points, and features of the world weren’t just popping into existence out of nowhere because it was interesting or convenient, but that there was something iron, something objective, for them to interact with. They bought into the illusion that the rules were objective and fair representations of character ability and not cheap abstractions of dubious quality. Maintaining these illusions, or at least the impression of them, is the key to making a good game a great one. They help players get immersed, make choices feel meaningful. But never forget that all they are, need to be, or even can be, is illusions. It’s impossible to actually know all the rules. It’s impossible for the rules to be completely fair and representative of reality. It’s certainly impossible for you to have visualized every character and possibility and life’s story and scheme and faction in your game’s world, and probably more trouble than it’s worth to have visualized even very many of them. The only reason to prepare at all is because you think it’ll help you sell the illusion betterOr at least, in a way that’s more fun to play.

Similarly, in many games, the only reason to follow the rules in nine cases is to cover up the tenth where you don’t.

Let’s say a group is playing an old, busted system that none of the players understand well. It’s one of those old overcomplicated overdesigned beaters with a different arcane rule for every situation. A situation emerges: the player characters are trying to sneak across the city and the GM has to resolve whether they’re caught by the city guards or make it to their destination, the city gates, undetected.

Now let’s say:

The GM picks up percentile dice, rolls. Flips directly to and studies a particular page of the rulebook. “Looks like nobody spotted you. So you guys arrive at the gates…”


The GM stares blankly. “Hang on.” Flips through to the table of contents. Flips through a few pages. Lets players talk amongst themselves. “Tum, tum, tum…no? Maybe in Chapter 9?” Finds correct table. Rolls, looks something else up. Rolls again. “Oh…kay…yeah, looks like nobody spotted you. I think. Yes. So, the gates…”

What’s the difference between these two GMs? The first GM’s players didn’t have much opportunity to reflect on their situation, since the stealth check was resolved quickly and seemingly fairly. Inasmuch as it left an impression it’s that the GM is informed and can probably be trusted to apply the rules knowledgeably and fairly in the future. The second GM’s players had a little more time to reflect on the situation. They’ll probably think well of the GM for taking the time to make sure the rules are applied correctly, but the pause also strained the illusion of the GM’s knowledge a little, which might lead them to question other rulings down the line.

All because GM #2 had to stop and look up some rules–while GM #1, who in this example also did not know the rules, picked up some dice and flipped to a random page and faked it. Because in this situation, preserving the illusion and keeping the game moving was more important than being strictly fair.

You won’t find many game books that have the guts to tell GMs “sometimes you should straight-up hoodwink your players.” And yes–sometimes, maybe even often, you really shouldn’t. Sometimes you should take your time and be fair. I’ve run entire campaigns where I’ve refused to fudge dice rolls, rules, or encounters like GM#1 did above because I knew the players had their hearts set on absolute rules objectivity–whether the rules made sense or not, whether it made a good story or not. And if you’re caught out in a rules mistakeAs I’ll explain later, you’ll never be caught in a story mistake, because contradictions are just twists you didn’t plan yet, you should absolutely admit it. But most of the time, the illusion of being knowledgeable is more important than actually being knowledgeable–and players will get more into a game that seems to be run diligently than a game that actually is but appears shakier.

There’s one last point I’d like to make, one that partially explains why I feel comfortable “leaking” this. Because like a crowd at a magic show, your players want to be fooled. The illusion is a big part of why they showed up–it’s the chance to elevate their in-character actions to something meaningful. Even if they’ve run a thousand games themselves and know the score they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, whenever possible, that whatever feature of your world or system they’re interacting with is something you have a satisfyingly complete knowledge of and authority over. And if you do screw up–relax. Admitting the occasional mistake, stopping to look something up, and clearly having to stop and think something through are all fine and natural parts of the game. If you ever break the illusion, all you need to get it back is time, effort, and goodwill. Only consistently mean-spirited, petty, or thoughtless GMs suppress their illusions for good.

No exercises for this chapter. Round table for GMs: Have you ever tricked your players into believing you planned something when it was an accident? Have you ever ignored a die roll that the players couldn’t see–and if you did, why?


[1] Or at least, in a way that’s more fun to play.

[2] As I’ll explain later, you’ll never be caught in a story mistake, because contradictions are just twists you didn’t plan yet

Comments (92)

  1. Nick says:

    I have on occasion improvised entire characters that got ‘adopted’ by the players and constantly brought back every time they visited the town despite having no initial story significance

  2. Ian says:

    I put together a Savage Worlds space opera game where all I knew was they were going to meet some aliens and have some engine trouble.

    I pre-generated enough characters for the party and then found myself with an extra player so I did a swift reform on the night and had an extra, the political officer. The players then got to pick which one they wanted.

    After several weeks the story nicely ended at a suitably dramatic point should we have wanted to play more and I took the opportunity to ask them which character they liked the most and would have wanted to play had they had first choice. I also admitted that one character was completely made up in 10 seconds and asked to see who they thought it was.

    Almost to a man they loved their own character the most and several commented that I clearly designed it with them in mind.

    They all thought the the ships navigator was the last minute addition because the story had revolved around political intrigue and not knowing who to trust the political officer had to have been crucial to my plans.

  3. NoneCallMeTim says:

    Making things up? Oh yes.

    WFRP first edition has a completely ‘on rails’ introductory scenario which is supposed to show different aspects of the rules system, and bring out character abilities.

    I have run it three times, and each time players found a different way, eg, knocking down a different door and camping out for the night in an abandoned building rather than the pub they were supposed to, or following a completely different trail somewhere etc.

    Entire sections of the town had to be improvised to get them back on track.

    Also, minor characters routinely get pressed into service to perform much larger roles.


    In Shadowrun, where target numbers for random things are fairly arbitrary, I tend to get players to roll dice, and if they roll high they succeed. It feels like their contribution matters.

    • Trix2000 says:

      That last bit is something I’ve always preferred as a concept, since every time I see systems specify things like “Difficulty Level” I can’t help but think “What decides how difficult anything is?”

      Obviously, that’s still the GM… but then that kind-of makes it sort-of arbitrary in service of his crafted experience anyways, so… why shouldn’t he/she be allowed to decide the outcome himself? It could be predetermined, or perhaps he/she might want to add some variety and unpredictability for himself (it’s more fun I think when things don’t go exactly how you planned) by considering the value of the roll. Maybe he’ll just think “high numbers succeed, low fail” and not really care about the specific values. Maybe he wants a middling result to have a middling effect.

      In a way, it lends some power to dice-less systems, but I think having at least some elements of chance makes things more interesting for everyone – even if the game is technically rigged.

  4. Aegis of Faith says:

    There was one time where one of my players was running what was basically revenge-driven elvish Batman and became convinced that one of my NPCs, a basically innocent local guide, *knew something* about the death of their parents.
    That NPC went from “here’s how you don’t get lost in the wilderness” to a fully fledged [character sheet and all] guest party member, with a running gag about everyone on the planet shipping them with the aforementioned Batman, who was secretly a spy for the main villain who the party hadn’t even heard of yet.

    That game also featured a flowershop girl who the party kept visiting for no reason. I ended up having to make up about a paragraph of dialogue per week because they keep just wanting to chat with her.

  5. LCF says:

    I’d go even farther than “you sometimes need to fudge a roll”. As a GM, you are painting the world to the players, your word is the Law, and your duty is Fun.
    Not !FUN!, just, you know, people having a good time, doing stuff, going places. For the players rules are rules. For the GM, they are merely suggestion (same goes for the rolls).
    Interactive story-telling is why we’re here.

    • Echo Tango says:

      “For the GM, they are merely suggestion (same goes for the rolls).”
      GURPS is a system that sounds really awesome on paper, and then you start playing it, and realize that following the rules as written will lead to half of your players having underpowered characters, and half of them being overpowered.

      For example, I ran a one-night sci-fi game, where my players had the choice between four pre-made races I’d dreamt up, and could choose to fill out their skills and backstory by themselves if we all decided we had enough time, or to also use some pre-made things for that half of their character. The people who were playing a human, fly-person, or chameleon-person were all either spending precious bullets, precious health in melee, or precious ability-charge points to do their once-per-day special or whatever. The guy playing the beetle-person then proceeded to laser all the enemies to death, even after I’d bumped up the cost of that ability the night before, because the rules on super-power* ranged-weapons are completely broken in favor of making that player strong, and the rules for super-power chameleon- or flight-abilities are broken in favor of making that player underpowered. Next game I run, I’m not even going to use a rule-book. :)

      * Or whatever it’s called. The symbol that means Xavier and the X-Men, instead of the symbol that means The Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch.

      • evileeyore says:

        “GURPS is a system that sounds really awesome on paper, and then you start playing it, and realize that following the rules as written will lead to half of your players having underpowered characters, and half of them being overpowered.”

        That’s not the “rules as written”. That’s ignoring that every single character in a GURPs game need GM intervention during chargen (and during all future exp spending) in order to keep them inline with the campaign expectations.

        GURPS isn’t one of those lesser systems where all the “balancing” was done by the rules writers, it’s a system that must be “balanced” by each and every GM.

        • Echo Tango says:

          I specified point limits, changed the cost of the lasers, and supervised the creation of everyone’s characters, especially the guy with lasers. Without being an expert in the game system, how the hell am I supposed to intuit how “unbalanced” lasers are? After all that effort, it was still unbalanced, so what’s the point of having the system at all? How many hours do I need to spend messing with random numbers, before I ditch it and just make up my own rules? Why am I doing the job of the people who allegedly designed the game in the first place?

          • Brandon says:

            As much as I love GURPS (in part because I once had an awesome GM who was not only a great storyteller but also knew the system and rules well and was very good at guiding chargen, but also letting people make bad decisions), it suffers the same problems many others do: when your system is that granular and nit-picky, there is no such thing as inherent balance. The designers try really hard, but there are just SO many moving parts it’s impossible to really get a handle on every possible combination.

            The way to deal with this situation in GURPS and similar systems is to also modify character builds in-game. If someone has a broken character power and you discover it later, work with the player to nerf it some. They might be annoyed you’re reducing their power level, so don’t make it worthless. But maybe reduce the damage just a little, or ask them to sacrifice a few extra points going forward. Or… Find enemies or situations (non-combat) where that power doesn’t take front stage or isn’t the most effective. If lasers are too powerful for your campaign, start equipping some enemies with armor or shields that are designed specifically to be extra effective against lasers, or that’s only effective against lasers. That’ll reduce the point cost for mook builds and keep other, non-laser players combat-effective. And heck, if lasers are really that effective in your world, folks would know how powerful lasers are and regularly take special defensive measures against them. Guns are deadly. That’s why police and military personnel wear vests.

            As long as in-game balancing respects the player’s character vision (and nerfing doesn’t end up accidentally making a power or trait useless), and as long as the challenges are tailored without simply being designed to overwhelm, your players will still enjoy the game, and you may come to respect some of the neat stuff you can do with GURPS that you simply can’t do with many other systems.

          • evileeyore says:

            “how the hell am I supposed to intuit how “unbalanced” lasers are?”

            The same way you would in any other system: How much damage are they doing, how often can they be used, and what drawbacks do they have.

            I’m betting the “lasers” were designed as a really inexpensive Innate Attack that the Player simply bought loads of levels in? So they were really doing massive amounts of damage compared to characters who may have have not made COmabt Monsters or even compared to the Brick.

            I hate to say this… but GURPS is not newbie GM friendly. And GURPS Supers especially confounds even experienced GURPS GMs with years and years of experience under their belts.

            And I hate to say this even more: For a first campaign, it’s best to run GURPS DF… that genre/style is designed to run exactly like D&D (D&D is designed for DM’s who don’t know what they’re doing at all, which is why it’s so easy and popular).

            As for this question:
            “Why am I doing the job of the people who allegedly designed the game in the first place?”

            As a GM you are always doing that job. Always. Some systems just make it easier to run prebuilt adventures using cookie-cutter characters (D&D/Pathfinder*).

            GURPS, HERO, Rolemaster, and few other systems put more emphasis on chargen freedom, allowing for adventures where not everyone knows how to be a Murder Hobo.

            * Though I admit to stealing those prebuilt adventures and altering them to suit all the time (or just using them as an idea jump-off point).

            • kdansky says:

              Just this week, the new expansion for Hearthstone came out. All the famous streamers and pro players did some analysis, and reviewed cards before they came out, as is usual.

              They are wrong so often, it’s not even funny. Last time, Dr. Boom was considered a bad card, and this card dominated nearly every deck list for over a year.

              This time, we’re just barely three days in, and already a significant portion of the (theoretical!) reviews done by the most knowledgeable players was shown to be incorrect.

              My point is: If you haven’t played the game, it’s basically impossible to tell in advance which powers are too good or too weak. I am fairly confident I could make five balanced characters in HERO system, but that’s because I played it twice as a GM, and four times as a player, for a total of probably close to 500 hours. But I could also make five characters that are absurdly far apart in power level (to the point where “sensible” 100cp character would handily crush a “sensible” 300cp character).

              It’s unreasonable to expect a newcomer to a system to be able to write balanced characters, that’s what the system is for! If the system fails at that, then the system has issues. HERO has a ton, GURPS has a ton too.

              • evileeyore says:

                “It's unreasonable to expect a newcomer to a system to be able to write balanced characters…”

                True. Which is why newbies should have an experience DM. Even in D&D, the DM should be experienced. Can you run D&D straight out of the basic books with “minimal” problems? Sure. And you’ll be very tightly constrained as to wait characters you get, because that’s how D&D controls the balance.

                That is not how the balance is controlled in HERO or GURPS.

                “…that's what the system is for!”

                Flase. That’s what the GM is for. Even in D&D I can create horribly out of balance characters. Rogues who fail at their jobs, Clerics who outpower every other class, Fighters who don’t need a party. Etc. Because while D&D is “better balanced” even D&D has it’s flaws, it’s weaknesses, it’s out of balance points.

                And that’s where a GM needs to step in and moderate for the balance of their game.

                “If the system fails at that, then the system has issues.”

                Congrats. Every system has issues. Every system has flaws. Every system needs an experienced GM. Some more than others, but even so.

              • Trix2000 says:

                The power of GURPS is more that it provides a good framework, rather than a complete system. It provides a LOT of nice ideas and useful tables and numbers that can make things sort-of even and “feels right”… but just using them as-is will lead to a lot of potentially pointless number crunching and tedium. Not even getting into how easy it might be to break things balance-wise.

                Which I think is just a natural consequence of trying to be so detailed while still remaining versatile enough to cover ANY kind of campaign you might want to run (it IS called a “Universal” role playing system). What they’ve come up with does a pretty good job having options and mechanics to work from in making any sort of campaign or characters you may like, but in order to really craft a good experience out of that it pretty much REQUIRES pruning and editing.

                I really like GURPS as a system because it’s a great jumping-off point and a useful catalog with a TON of information players can draw from to make characters… but it NEEDS a GM willing to do more than look at the tables and crunch numbers (which most good GMs should be anyways, IMO). So whenever I deal with the system, I always start out with “What parts are important and what aren’t” and go from there. Players can make their characters using the massive resources the system provides, and I can advise them on what may or may not work/be allowed based on my campaign’s specifics.

                As for balance, that should ultimately be the GM’s job in ANY system, since even in the more rule-heavy structured systems (does D and D count?) balance by the rules alone is… not great. Because when it comes down to it, what abilities and powers are useful is almost entirely dependent on the situation – flying is a great advantage, but what good does it do if the entire setting is underwater? So a savvy GM should be able craft things to be as balanced or as unbalanced as they like, regardless of the system (and how strictly they follow it).

                So I hardly hold balance as a negative or positive factor for GURPS, even though I do think it does provide a decent starting point for character power (with its point values). But as valuable and massive a resource it can be for SO many situations, it really needs GM work to be used properly. I’d argue EVERY tabletop system that isn’t a boardgame should be like that, but GURPS is perhaps the heaviest example… but one of the most versatile as well.

                I’ll also agree it’s not really newbie-GM friendly… sort-of.

              • Chuk says:

                I know Hero System combat takes a while, but 500 hours for six sessions seems quite a bit longer than usual. You guys are probably using the Speed Chart wrong.

          • Decius says:

            If your problem is that the character who uses lasers dominates the table, then maybe you need to offer some problems that cannot be solved with lasers.
            The cheap way is to nerf lasers. The good way is to provide problems that are inherently such that applying lasers to the problems makes them worse.

            • SyrusRayne says:

              Let’s change tack completely, then, from the discussion of the system itself.

              Instead, what are some problems that Judicious Lasers cannot solve? There’s the obvious social and political intrigue, subterfuge and break-ins. What else?

              How about combat problems, though? How do you “balance” combat in that way without making the Laser Wielder feel put-upon and singled out?

              Thinking about it, if I were the DM I might introduce some form of countermeasure that the baddies start using, and make explicit reference that it’s to counter the player’s character specifically. Not all players would appreciate it, but bringing it to the forefront like that would, in my mind, make the Bad Guys seem more competent and prepared (and potentially soothe the player’s ego somewhat, by showing that the baddies know they’re a big threat.)

              • Syal says:

                Fight in a Hall of Mirrors so lasers end up uncontrollably blasting around the room?

                • Blackbird71 says:

                  I assume you’re suggesting this with the presumption that within this world, lasers powerful enough to do damage will still reflect off of a mirrored surface (rather than burning a hole through it as it would in reality).

                  If that assumption is true, what would fighting in a hall of mirrors achieve? Because of the way light travels and reflects, if you aim your “bouncing” lasers at a reflected image of someone, you will effectively hit them. The light from your target bounced off of the mirrors to reach your eyes, and your laser will follow that same path in reverse, so shoot the reflection, and the laser bounces all the way back to the source.

    • NoneCallMeTim says:

      “Interactive story-telling is why we're here”

      Not so sure about that. There are a few players in parties that I run / am part of who like the turn based combat part of the game.

      They would be most upset about rolls being regularly fudged.

      • evileeyore says:

        Exactly. Some people want “Orc and Pie” (also known as “old school dungeon crawling”) and not “Politics and Romance”.

        For them the interactive part of the story telling is how the dice come up and how well they out strategize or out tactics the GM.

      • Decus says:

        The trick with those players is only fudging when they wouldn’t particularly care since generally speaking those players also like to win. So, for them, you probably don’t fudge your misses into hits–I’ve never done that ever anyway and thinking on it not sure why you ever would–but maybe if you’ve just rolled your third crit in a row or your dice would have exploded into deadly damage you tone it down a bit and just make it a regular hit because that sort of player won’t have any sort of fun if you took them out with lucky rolls. They’d spent hours and hours across their week, waiting for your session, planning and thinking and plotting how they’d win the next encounter and they’d feel very, very put-out if they’re taken out in the first or second or even third round due to lucky rolls on your part. On the other hand, if my crits were late into the encounter or the player at least had time to try their stuff I’m less likely to fudge because usually those players don’t mind losing as long as they had a good combat and would hate even more if I fudged away a fair loss.

        For other players, they live for that stuff! They love the drama of taking massive damage like that, they love to roleplay why/how it happened, they love the post-session recovery, they love it all! For them, you don’t fudge anything and just let your lucky rolls stand.

        • Abnaxis says:

          Speaking as someone who does like turn-based combat, and who plays with other people who enjoy the turn-based combat, I have to say that from my perspective you are way off base. Fudging dice so the player always wins ruins the fun, much more than fudging the dice to create a challenge.

          Generally speaking, the only fudging I’ve seen that was good for the game, happened because the GM was new to the system and way, way overshot or undershot the difficulty of an encounter. If you start fudging dice just because of outstandingly improbable results (either way) you’re interceding right when the game gets interesting.

          • Syal says:

            Probably best to just ask them whether they want to soften the more extreme results the first time it comes up.

            Don’t remember when it came up but someone around here had a story about a character firing a gun at the main villain who was well beyond its range, only for them to critically succeed, critically hit, and critically decapitate the villain. So the GM said, “Well, I thought this guy was out of combat but you just killed him before the story could get started, so is everyone okay with saying he’s wounded but still has his head?”

            • Sleeping Dragon says:

              While I respect that approach* I find it sort of illusion breaking. If the DM wants to maintain the powerstructure of the campaign there’s a ton of options they could use here: body doubles, second in commands, the villain being a figurehead for another person or some kind of cabal, someone filling in the power vacuum, even the villain being resurrected by either some exotic magic or technology (as the setting allows) that only they have access too…

              On the other hand the improbable achievement should be somehow acknowledged. Maybe it forces whoever is the power behind the villain to reveal themselves, or have the villain play their hand early or reveal some secret or weakness about them, maybe the person taking over is not quite as good at their job, or has less support, the situation…

              On the gripping hand the DM may actually want to have the players face consequences, especially if it was a random act of fancy (possibly in addition to the “reward”, so as not to discourage initiative). Might they have been seen?

              *and as long as everyone’s having fun there’s no wrong way of doing roleplaying games.

      • Trix2000 says:

        The key, I think, is to never let them know. That means fudged rolls need to be believable, which… they probably should be anyways.

        As Ruts said, it’s an illusion either way – they may or may not have agency, but regardless of what you’re doing in the background they better FEEL like they have enough of it or it won’t be as fun of an experience.

      • LCF says:

        Well, there also are people who want Doors/Monsters/Loot, kick ass and crush skulls, and it’s fine ; (I’d say “You meet in a tavern, now go plunder” is storytelling too, but I see your point).
        In this context, if we go for more arcade and less story, there is a lot less fudging. Needless to say, using GM fiat needs doing only when it lets the player have more fun, avoids Total Party Kill, that sort of things.

  6. MichaelGC says:

    It’s a bit like with videogame AI, where it can be more satisfying to play against more-limited AI which happens to be faking it well than against the really fancy stuff. Particularly if the fancy stuff is e.g. perfectly OK with you putting a bucket on its head.

  7. Falterfire says:

    So have you ever read something and had the slow dawning of realization that you are That Guy and that it was in fact your fault that everything fell apart? Because I had one of them realizations while reading this.

    I’ve been the sort of absolutely terrible player who tries to be a stickler for rules or who can’t quite get into the world and willfully pokes at the illusion. I feel the need to atone, and I want you to know that after reading this I’ve messaged a few of the DMs I’ve wronged and apologized.

    On the other hand, this makes me more confident in my ability to DM given another chance, so that’s good at least.

  8. Have I ever tricked players into thinking I intended something as a GM that I had not intended?

    No. I have the poker face of an overstimulated puppy. And a very different flavour to thing I improvise versus things I plan.
    Which is the big reason the only GMing I’ve ever done successfully has been at sessions where ‘being the GM’ is effectively like selecting ‘traps and NPCs’ as a character class, and I’m just another player at the table. And that works just fine for me, since I love (what would you call it? Flat-table GMing?) er – that. Also opens up the option to share a table between a couple of GMs if you’ve got a big enough group, which – when it works – can be super awesome.

    And planning’s not all that bad – especially if your natural instinct is to populate the world with exploding horses. In a political game about brooding vampires. (mua ha ha ha ha you’ll never see the horsepocalypse coming count stickface)

  9. evileeyore says:

    “The only reason to prepare at all is because you think it'll help you sell the illusion better.”

    Or because you’re absolute ass at improvisation. I’ve been in a long winded discussion with people on another board about using Random Damage Tables, one group hates them, “it detracts from my ability to preplan every little detail” they whine*, “It makes everything fresh and new and stretches my superior GMing brain power you nonces” the other side chortles*.

    Personally I’m an improver. Heck, most of the time I don’t even bother coming up with a reason for why the “whatever” it is is where it is, doing whatever it is doing. Even after I’ve given someone an answer for that question… the “real answer” sometimes remains unrealized, left open in my mind for future possible changes if that would make for a better story.

    But I’m also in the “I don’t use Random Damage Tables” camp, largely because that would take time to roll on, and time to prepare in advance, etc.

    * Exaggerated stances for comedy sake.

  10. evileeyore says:

    Now to your two questions:

    “Have you ever tricked your players into believing you planned something when it was an accident?”

    Not deliberately. I’ve had Players that didn’t know 80-90% of the campaigns and games I’ve run are improved on the spot, but if asked I wouldn’t lie to them. And I’m not sure “accident” is the best term. My choices are intentional. Accidents come from dice rolls, not decisions.

    “Have you ever ignored a die roll that the players couldn't see”“and if you did, why?”

    I’ve ignored dice rolls they could see (all rolls are in open). Because sometimes dice rolling gets in the way of the story. The players seem to want the dice rolling though, so I keep it in, for their sake. Now that said, I ignore dice rolls seldomly. Maybe once or twice during a campaign (no hard limits though), and never to the detriment of the PCs. If I ignore a die roll it’s for the PC/Players benefit, to soften a blow, keep a PC alive, keep the villain from escaping, keep the story moving, etc. Also if I ignore a die roll it’s one where the Players either have no clue about the outcome or where “fudging” it up or down one or two pips would go unnoticed.

    • Trix2000 says:

      The other thing is that, while players seeing the rolls is good, they DON’T necessarily have to know what the number to beat was. That might depend on the group sometimes, though.

      But then the answer to “I rolled an 18, why didn’t I succeed?” might be “It was actually hard enough you needed a 20.”

      • Sleeping Dragon says:

        Or perhaps even more to the point: “How does he resist a roll that high? That’s above human maximum!” Answer nothing, maybe smile knowingly.

        Unless you’re playing Paranoia of course. “What maximum are you referring to citizen? That seems to be knowledge above your clearance level.”

    • Abnaxis says:

      You do what you want for your players and if they like it cool, but at every gaming table I’ve been at the players hate it when the DM softens the blow. Disastrous outcomes mkae better stories on the other end. In my very first session, I killed one of the PCs because the party rolled horrendously bad, and great laughter was had all around.

      On an unrelated note, I’ve never fudged a dice roll because I’ve only DM-ed for Numenera–and the DM doesn’t get dice in Numenera.

      • evileeyore says:

        “You do what you want for your players and if they like it cool, but at every gaming table I've been at the players hate it when the DM softens the blow.”

        I have three types of Players in this regard.

        Type 1 – The Roll Is Sacrosanct! If the roll says the Character dies, then well, it’s time to make a new Character. It is for this type of Player that I roll in the open (and even really bother rolling at all*) and only fudge results when it will go unnoticed.

        Type 2 – The Type Who Hates To Lose A Character! It’s for this type I’d bother fudging results.

        Type 3 – Doesn’t Care Either Way. I wish had more of these guys and one less of each of the other two.

        * He really pitched a fit when I showed to run with a long list prerolled** random numbers, so I wouldn’t have to roll, I could just mark them off as I went. It was almost like I was committing sacrilege.
        ** I used a computerized die roller that could generate thousands of results and just printed it off. It was so I could have a few “hidden rolls”, but Type 1 also pitched a fit about “hidden rolls”… so… well there we are.

        • SyrusRayne says:

          I’m some combination of all three. Sometimes I get really invested in a character and don’t want them to die. But with some characters (and some settings-systems, like the WH40k systems) if they die, they die. Really, the more character concepts I have cooking in my head (whether that’s personality or mechanical things I want to try,) the more I’m okay with my characters dying.

          I also think that hidden rolls can be useful, though! For one thing, they deny the player perfect information. Oh, he rolled a 16 to hit my 20 AC and missed, he’s got terrible accuracy! Fuck that, players shouldn’t know all the numbers.

      • modus0 says:

        If the players are aware that the GM fudged a die roll to save them, then that GM has failed to maintain the “illusion” that Ruts talked about.

        For me, if I just finished rolling up that character, and it’s the first combat in the campaign, I’d be rather perturbed if my character got killed simply because “the dice said so.”

        But if it’s several sessions in, and I somehow got my character into a situation where their death is almost assured, I wouldn’t feel to bad if the dice voted to send my character to the afterlife.

        • Scampi says:

          Well, then it seems my GMing in the past was doomed to fail to begin with. I absolutely SUCK at rolling dice. I’m not even sure if I EVER in my life succeeded to roll what was needed for a success “legally”. As pretty much everyone around the table always knew my horrible rolling skill (low luck stat?), it was pretty much an open secret that even the most meticulously overpowered NPCs would have fallen without defending themselves due to being failures with the amazing offensive skill of a disoriented headless chicken.
          In the past, my sessions would often seem like lessons in humorous slapstick and situation comedy whenever I ran with rolls and lead to situations like this:

          Me: “Your interrogator wants to know X. Roll for willpower to oppose his interrogation.”
          Player: “Oh no, I botched it. I guess I tell him everything about X.”
          Me: [beat] “Hm…don’t worry. I botched too. He doesn’t listen to you anyways.”

          On the other end, I fell victim to GMs who deemed it unnecessary to roll dice at all to kill my characters…at those occasions I wished I had even been granted saving rolls, even though I might have failed them…

  11. Spammy says:

    In a Battletech game I had my players looking for a conspiracy when I hadn’t initially planned for there to be one. I had intended for an incident to be caused by an accident, miscommunication, but they thought that there was a conspiracy underway and started investigating. Unfortunately scheduling ended the campaign before the conspiracy could be potentially revealed. I’m still not sure whether there would have been a conspiracy or not, I was intending on feeding them ambiguous clues to guage their reaction before deciding whether it would be better to have the conspiracy (and reward their suspicions with a dramatic betrayal) or for there not to be a conspiracy (sort of chiding their lack of trust since the campaign already had a pointless distrust theme going).

    • Decius says:

      Do both. The incident was caused by an accident, but the investigation turns up that someone falsified a background check, and when they discover that they are about to be arrested for that, they seek aid from the enemy.

  12. Doug Sundseth says:

    Your advice is great for a certain (large) pert of the player population. Many (most?) players are in it for the storytelling and not the game. But there is another part that is interested in the game as game as well as, or even more than, game as storytelling tool.

    IME, the people who write GMing advice are heavily invested in the style you espouse here, to the extent that they think it’s the only way to play the game correctly. It’s a fine way to play; it’s not the only valid way to play.

    “The only reason to prepare at all is because you think it'll help you sell the illusion better.”

    I think that overstates the case, but strongly agree that it’s not sensible to spend huge amounts of time on fiddly details that may not ever be seen. I have lists of names and lists of demonstrable characteristics and will pick one from each column whenever I need an NPC, business, whatever. Then I’ll write the information down in my notes for future reference so that I can remember that Georg Stark is a halfling weightlifter with a lisp and not an emo dwarf bard.

    • modus0 says:

      Going full improv might be best for those people who are terrible at being able to sit themselves down and plan out a bunch of details ahead of time.

      Going with significant planning would be the better option for people that suck at coming up with anything on the fly.

      I favor a mix; Plan out the major details, and improv of that, taking notes of anything that comes from the spontaneous for future reference, and in case it helps lead to more story ideas and avenues.

      Though I do agree with you that perhaps Rutskarn was a bit too dismissive toward preparing in advance.

  13. Mhoff says:

    No Rutskarn, some of my players read this blog! Now they’ll know all my seeeeeeecrets.

  14. baseless_research says:

    To the GMs and Rutskarn, I have never done a tabletop game in my life and my only exposure to it is on youtube where I watched a couple of sessions of itmejp’s channel. Would you say these GMs (Adam Koebel & Stephen Lumpkin) are too much focused on rules and not enough on good storytelling?

    Alternatively (and more useful for me) do you have an internet link to someone doing it “right”?

    • TMC_Sherpa says:

      There is no such thing as playing correctly, it’s all swings and roundabouts. As long as everyone is having fun, it doesn’t matter how you get there. I’ve played for GMs who were awesome at storytelling (That’s awesome at storytelling, I would say not GMing) but it was very clear it was their story so no one better mess it up. I’ve played with a guy who was a You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it type. It wasn’t quite everyone was arrested for public nudity because no one said they put on clothes this morning but it was very close. Some folks are happy playing under those styles of games and as long as everyone agrees they aren’t doing it wrong.

      Dirt little secret No.3:
      Fun is, unfortunately, a horribly subjective term and humans are, for better or worse, social animals so it may not be obvious everyone is having a good time. In my opinion it’s important to have an environment where anyone can call BS or say Hey can we do more X next time? and not get jumped on for it. And then listen to the feedback. Sometimes you are doing things for a reason, sometimes it’s a (bad) habit, sometimes real life creeps into the game. I’ve picket on people because they pissed me off outside the game and the group was right in calling me out. I’ve also picked on people because of story elements they didn’t know about yet and moved up huge chunks of plot so the next session explained why it was happening.

    • evileeyore says:

      Is the group having fun? The you’re all doing it right.

      Is the group not having fun? Y’all are doing something wrong.

  15. Nidokoenig says:

    If you can’t trust a GM to bend the rules fairly, you can’t trust him to not be a cunt within the strictest interpretations of the rules. The image of the GM looking in the book and pulling out whatever he needs reminds me of the probably fictional story, that I probably heard of in the comments hereabouts, of Old Man Henderson, where a Trail of Cthulhu player with a bastard GM puts together a novel-length backstory to ensure that it’s not read by the GM, he can change it at will and he can sell that the character is one he’s serious about: https://1d4chan.org/wiki/Old_Man_Henderson

    I don’t really have experience with role-playing of the non-erotic variety, so I have no experience of a rules-based system outside of vidya. The whole job of being GM, or top, in my experience, is giving the other players what they want, and doing things that are fun within their credulity budget and within their personal limits, though as long as the right kind of messes get made nobody minds if you fumble a little.

    The main reason to have a set of rules is to raise the credulity budget and keep the party on the same page. Like Rutskarn’s Second edition story about the magic arrow that rolled Arrow of Elf Slaying when lobbed at a major NPC, that would be an utter bullshit eye-roller if it wasn’t the dice fucking with everyone.

  16. Cuthalion says:

    Have you ever ignored a die roll that the players couldn't see”“and if you did, why?

    I don’t know if I’ve ever ignored a die roll outright (I don’t usually hide die rolls anyway, though I sometimes don’t say what a roll is for), but I’ve definitely said, “You know what? That sucks, and it’s no fun. I’m going to give it to you.” I think I’ve done that both on my GM rolls and on player rolls where failure is less interesting and more frustrating. Some players are fine with this, others are upset because in their mental model, ignoring a rule (even to their advantage) is cheating.

    In all of those cases, it probably would have been better to not make the roll in the first place, since the outcome was, in retrospect, pre-determined. Players complain less when you ignore a rule without rolling it than when you ignore a rule after rolling it.

    Have you ever tricked your players into believing you planned something when it was an accident?

    I tend to be a very improv-heavy GM, so yes, all the time. I can’t really name any specific examples, but I often run with stuff when I don’t already have a conflicting plan that necessitates I correct the situation (and is clearly better in the long run). Sometimes stuff a player says will give me an idea or fill in a blank that I never thought of before, and players will be surprised when I later tell them, “You know that one time with the thing? That was made up on the spot / going to be different before you said X / would have happened differently if you had done what I thought you would.” I find my players often appreciate learning behind the scenes stuff, but only after enough time has passed.

    I do have one player who is very hard to GM for, because his immersion shatters very easily with any hesitation on my part or if I explicitly let the players decide what something is like. He tends to be higher-planning (or aspires to, anyway) when he GMs. I can respect that: he wants to enter a world and respond to it, rather than make it up and respond to himself. Much more difficult to GM for though, so I’ve been trying to plan ahead more lately.

  17. Teddy says:

    Ran a game for my friend’s bachelor party. Half the players had never roleplayed before, so I knew I couldn’t know what they’d expect. I brought premade characters and a stack of index cards with enemy stats, then brought them through what they thought was an carefully designed dungeon, making sure there were lots of enemies they liked, and only one or two that they didn’t.

    The part I’m proudest of, though, was when they captured a kobold and were interrogating him. He gave them the secret pattern to bypass an intricate trap room that hadn’t existed before they captured him – letting them avoid any more traps (because they didn’t bother checking for any, and it wasn’t fun), and also letting them feel like they’d one-upped me.

  18. In a good old DnD campaign, the party had undertaken a quest to secure food for a village whose crops had been suddenly and unexpectedly decimated by disease. My intent was for the players to journey to a city and try to secure supplies from the local Lord (the villagers of course suggesting this plan of action). The players were fully on board with this plan and set off. The plan was to be for them to reach the city and find the same situation there, no food is available, clues and quests abound, discover the mage trying to kill the whole kingdom, etc.

    As they were quite a fighty group, they conveniently came across an old tomb along the way (to break up the talky bits, let them have a spot of action) and sure enough, they decide to investigate. A pretty basic affair, some brigands camping out in there. The players punch some faces, get a bit of loot, and find the brigand leaders stash which contains .. *rolls dice* .. a magic item .. *rolls dice* .. a wondrous item .. *rolls dice* .. Murlynd’s Spoon.

    One bout of identification later and they know they have a spoon that can generate infinite amounts of gruel and feed (just about, this is gruel we’re talking about) any amount of people forever.

    The players immediately think that this must be the real way that they are “meant” to save the village and I’m sure not going to tell them otherwise. So the old plan of our fine heroes discovering the reason for the blight and going to track down a nefarious mage seeking to starve the kingdom is embellished with a new plot wherein a war breaks out over control of a spoon…

  19. Decus says:

    As far as NPCs are concerned I’ll usually write up very vague and simple backstories for all of them, going no farther, because it’s always uncertain which the players will really like and want to see more of and which will just kind of annoy them. Maybe that random guy in the bar is the prince trying to get to know and perhaps aid them in secret or maybe it’s the street performer outside or maybe it’s a princess instead of a prince. Doesn’t matter much to me! Just so long as they like the characters they’ll likely be interacting with the most everything is fine. Or maybe I want to use the one they like the least because they enjoy being annoyed by/clowning on them!

    They tend to think I plan everything in detail even though I’ve stopped doing that ages ago. Though, I will say that there’s a difference between “not planning” and “not thinking about at all”. Yes, you can use future developments to explain stuff that happened in the past. No, you cannot always do that in a way that will catch and keep your players invested in the story. To me that’s a good technique to keep in your back pocket but if you’ve already pulled it out recently maybe it should just stay there for a while. Every player has their own “ass pull” tolerance and while sometimes you can flawlessly disguise your pulls anyway the more you rely on them the more the ass cracks will start to show. Ain’t nobody want to see no ass cracks.

  20. Ramsus says:

    In just the last week of my play by post game I’ve fudged several rolls and numbers on my side to make a combat more interesting. For example something that happened today. A player had a swarm of insects crawling all over them and was stuck next to another enemy as well and were at terribly low hitpoints. They hit the swarm with a flaming sphere and had a conditional attack on another creature that would allow them to get away. Now my actual rolls and the numbers said the swarm passed it’s save and even if it hadn’t would still have been alive with 1 hp. My response was “but then they don’t do their crit thing so naaaaah, swarm dies, they get their nice crit and they don’t fall down in round 2 of this fight due to bad luck alone”. It’s a lot more interesting for them to feel like they escaped by a hair…. for now, than to have stuck to the actual numbers and have them just sitting there in despair knowing there’s nothing more they can do. And it builds up the tension for when they later might actually get knocked down after having done a few more things.

    As for tricking them into thinking I’ve planned things, yeah all the time in games. I pretty much only “plan” the large scale outlines of things and the next fight or two (and am prepared to abandon any and all of these things if needed).
    One example is that once upon a time I wound up doing a short solo adventure for each of the players in a game and then at a final one where the group was all together I figured out on the spot how to have them seem like they’d all been part of one connected plotline… even though in truth this only worked out at all because I’d just happened to use the same random NPC in passing because I thought it would be interesting for them to maybe say “oh yeah, I saw that guy too, what’s up with that!?” when they finally compared notes.

  21. Pyradox says:

    Once I led some players on a grand magical conspiracy adventure involving an assassination attempt on an Arch-Mage’s life. It lead them from ivory towers to goblin markets to the secret catacombs beneath the city, in which lay the tomb of the very first Arch-Mage.

    This arch-mage was a renegade elf who was the first design a school of magic based on research and experimentation, as opposed to the holistic, spiritual magic of the elves. His tomb was at the roots of a giant, corrupted tree that had been growing since his death, and was guarded by demon cultists.

    The tree was the oldest living thing in the city, and lay at the heart of the leyline network which controlled the Wizard City’s many wards and enchantments. Magic in this setting was a “first come, first served” system where older spells trump newer ones, so if the cult succeeded, they’d be able to lower the city’s magical defences and allow demons to invade.

    In essence, they were using a tree to get root access to the city’s magical network.

    I thought it up on the spot, but to this day I have not told my players if the entire campaign, its central mystery and all that worldbuilding was just so I could make a bad tree pun.

  22. It depends on what I’m running, but I’ve kind of reached the point where the only prep work I do is:

    a. read over last week’s session (if we’re doing something where it’s important that I accurately remember what happened last week)
    b. write some enemy stats down on note cards (if it’s a stat-heavy system like D&D)

    I don’t really try to prep encounters any more. I just use the stats I have for whatever they run into, fudging a little if necessary.

    My players are absolute grandmasters at searching everything meticulously when there’s no point and glossing over the actual good opportunities to learn something, so I don’t even have targets for these kinds of rolls in mind any more. I just wait until they ask if they can roll something, say “sure, go ahead”, frown thoughtfully regardless of what they rolled, then rattle off something vague but intriguing, and off they go.

    It’s also been my philosophy that anything a player invests heavily in, they want to be successful at. I make them sweat when they try to use stuff their character isn’t particularly good at. They tend to remember it when it comes time to assign points later on. My housemate once made a character that had EXACTLY ONE POINT in EVERY SINGLE SKILL. And any time there was a roll, he’d insist on rolling. The other players would always demand “Do you have any points in that?!” and he’d answer “Yes!”

    It was downright ridiculous the amount of stuff he got away with on that character–not because he was particularly good at anything, but because he’d always charge into the breach whenever there was anything to do, and the other players let him. It was like the raffle of characters–draw enough tickets and eventually you will win.

  23. Jack Mac says:

    “Have you ever tricked your players into believing you planned something when it was an accident?
    Every so often, about a few things…
    However, my best stories, the ones that come out at (nerdy) parties, are all about the times when they did something *I* never saw coming, and I’m always honest about that. I think they like to know when they “won”, when they did something completely awesome and totally unexpected.

  24. Bubble181 says:

    Sadly, one of the players in our group (though, usually he DMs because… well, he gets tiresome as a player, and he’s the only one willing to put in the time to be GM, really) is of the stickler-for-rules variety. He notices if you fudge even a single die roll, and he’ll call it out – every time. “Hey, that orc had an AC of 15 just moments ago and now a result of 14 hits” – and sure, you can wave it away a few times (“Bob’s arrow hit just now damaged his shield and his AC has lowered as a result of that”), but then it becomes yet another rule he’s keeping track of. That he knows the D&D 3.5 rulebooks by heart (literally) doesn’t help, and is one of the reasons we now play 5.0 instead :P. You can always overrule him with “DM is God and my decision stands” but that gets old and feels unfulfilling. And yes, of course he always (tries to) make a character that’s somehow broken…And gets annoyed when the DM changes the situations/enemies to balance him better, since he feels he “did the work” to get a stronger/better/faster/whatever character than someone else, so he “deserves” to fare better in the game.

    • AdamS says:

      Oh god, I know your pain. Back at Uni, my regular player group was plagued by possibly the most trollish powergamer I’ve ever met. No fewer than three of my games were ruined when he turned up with a completely broken (but completely rules-legal) character, who proceded to destroy the entire plot within the first few sessions. And he either didn’t care or didn’t understand that he was ruining every other player’s enjoyment. And since I was a conflict-averse wuss, I never confronted him about it. I only managed to drive him off by running games with less easily cheesed mechanics, like FATE or mortals-only WoD. A shame, because I really like running high-action games when the whole party is on a roughly equal power level.

      • Tales like this are why I’m somewhat wary (as a 30-something woman) of contacting the local uni’s game soc, even though it’d be really nice to do some table-top RP’ing again. I dunno, maybe I ought to give it a go anyway – we only recently moved to the area and I’m getting slightly desperate for ways to meet people!

      • Nidokoenig says:

        Don’t think of it as confronting, he might just not know, being clueless or something. The powergaming instinct is pretty strong for some, you’re leaving power on the table if you can see it, and that bugs some people immensely. For that kind of player, if they persist after being told or find it hard to resist, can probably be pushed with some kind of buff for taking handicaps, like if they were a stableboy in their backstory, and they’re playing nice with their combat abilities, they can turn out to have changed the royal horses and have some social buffs trying to talk their way in, and other minor buffs to luck and coincidence. This does look at lot like a buff to charisma or fate, so I guess it could be a bit wonky for some systems that crossover with it.

        Nuclear option, tell them they’re too good to play without a handicap and make them roll 3d6, straight, or the closest equivalent for the system. Or talk with other groups, see if there are enough That Guys locally to get them together to tear shit up, mowing through Dynasty Warriors numbers of orcs to satiate them, so they’re relaxed enough for more low key sessions.

  25. Applause.

    (If you haven’t seen the “Shia LaBeouf” Live video before you should see it from the start first).

  26. Warclam says:

    I’m not sure it really qualifies as a trick, but I’m pretty sure it came across like I’d planned it.

    The party were looking for a faerie lord who had been attacking the city. From some fae contacts, they had three leads, and were following up on one that had holed up in some abandoned half-collapsed mine tunnels. The faerie lord (actually lady) had a bed of magical roses growing in artificial sunlight, which would resurrect a corpse placed in the centre. My plan was that the party””rather deadly folks””would slay Lady Rose, but that one of her hench-faeries would drag her body back to the rose garden for round 2.

    Well, they cut her down sure enough, but they also killed her frontliner minions. There were some that had hung back that came rushing out to gather their mistress’ body, and the party cut them down too. So much for that set-piece, I guess. Win some, lose some.

    So the party ventured deeper, having the place all to themselves. They found the rose garden, and a quick detect magic told them they were all sorts of magical. One stood in the middle of the garden to see what would happen. Well, magical resurrecting roses confronted with a living body… I guess they would grow upward to examine the wounds he’d sustained in battle to clean them out, and then retreat? Yeah, let’s go with that.

    My description of the blood-drinking roses freaked them out, though. So the guy that was examining them hopped out, and they decided to try a safer experiment: feed the roses a corpse. They trekked back to snare one of the dead faeries. Trying desperately to keep a straight face, I asked them which body they were taking. They decided that they would try Lady Rose’s body.

    Round two, fight!

    So, yeah, they wrecked my plan, then carefully reassembled it and sent it on its way.

  27. Cinebeast says:

    Reading these comments makes me desperately wish I had a tabletop group of my own.

  28. Abnaxis says:


    So during the last GM-inar, I mentioned how I finished DM-ing my first game and it didn’t go so well. I mean, the players liked the world and the twists, but the roleplay itself was lackluster at best.

    In part I still think that’s because I’m no good at “reading” and “thinking” at the same time, leading to a lot of stammering, and in part I think I just jumped in the deep end as far as characters go (Fun exercise: how do you respond if your players approach the semi-sentient antibodies of a godlike construct built hundred of millions of years ago by a long forgotten race–then ask for directions?). However…

    Here’s the thing. I have never, in my entire 31 years of living, encountered a person who is worse at maintaining a secret under duress or hiding their current emotional state than I am. The only lie I have ever been able to pull off is a lie of omission, because I don’t have to look anybody in the eye for that one.

    There’s no way I can pull off the illusion. Maybe I’m not cut to DM…

    • Syal says:

      (Fun exercise: how do you respond if your players approach the semi-sentient antibodies of a godlike construct built hundred of millions of years ago by a long forgotten race”“then ask for directions?)

      Ancient advanced race? Ancient advanced directions. “Travel two-dimensionally in a sub-spiral for 4 readjustments.”

  29. Tever says:

    I fudge rolls when combat is getting tedious. And I love critical failures; applying them to monsters, specifically. My players were in a cave once, and the monster, which was a little too strong for us, rolled a 1. I decided its pounding attack shook some rocks loose from the ceiling and cracked it in the skull for one or two d6 of damage.

    This one time, I was running Pathfinder. The module was 3.5. We had to fight like a million kobolds, then traipse around a mansion to catalog loot we didn’t get to keep unless we managed to win it in an auction later, and then fight a dragon. We’d been nearly party wiped four times by now because there were only two players, and no one wanted to fuck with this dragon. So our party leader, my GF, god bless her, said fuck it. The town is on fire, and the dragon is distracted. We’re getting our fucking loot and fucking off. And so we did. And that was how I learned to lighten up and just keep the illusion going.

    We stopped playing shortly after that because something new and shiny distracted us, but I was planning on having the survivors of that town come back for revenge later with a small army of everyone else we were fucking over.

  30. Daimbert says:

    I kinda did this by accident.

    I was running an Amber Diceless game — my first as a GM — and sent them to a Shadow to look into a mercenary group. I wanted to highlight that in this Shadow the mercenaries were integrated into society and not some kind of shady enterprise, so I pointed out that their office was in the middle of town, right by the tailor shop. Due to conservation of detail, the players thought that that meant that there was something important about the tailor’s shop, and so went in to investigate. I didn’t plan for that, so I had to invent a tailor persona NPC to use. I decided to steal Garak from DS9 and use his tailor persona. They tried to figure out what they needed to do at the tailor shop — even down to getting uniforms made that looked like those of the mercenaries, which Garak pointed out might be a bad idea — and finally I think he suggested that they just do what I wanted them to do originally and just go TALK to them.

    Now, I had already introduced Osric in the story, and so as things went along I decided to turn Garak into Finndo and use him to drive the story along, Thus, this character that I ended up having to invent turned into one of the main story NPCs. Although at the end I think I told them that I didn’t plan that at all.

    • Corsair says:

      Isn’t that more or less what happened with Garak himself, he was originally just one of a number of unusual people on DS9 and ended up becoming more important than some of the main cast?

  31. Zaxares says:

    Here’s where I somewhat disagree with you over the benefits of “just winging it”. It’s definitely a useful skill for a DM to have, but the amount of time you spend on preparation I feel should very much depend on your own style and personality. For example, I am TERRIBLE at making stuff up on the fly. (I am very much a Lawful person by nature. I do not have a Chaotic iota in me.) I go “Um. Ummm… Ah…” and it’s very obvious to my players when they stump me. It takes me long enough to come up with a coherent response that it immediately break the illusions as you describe it.

    My solution to dealing with this is to write down not only descriptive text for dungeons, characters and monsters, but also to think of some responses for typical questions my players might ask. (In this, I have some advantages in that I’ve been gaming with the same group for years now and I’m quite familiar with the trains of thought my players usually go down.) You obviously won’t be able to cover EVERY contingency, but you get enough of the important stuff that anything you didn’t think of is likely to be minor issues or trivia that won’t impact the adventure at large. (For example, one time I had a player ask the Queen what was her favourite colour, because he was planning on surprising her with a gift later to curry favour. I totally did not expect that question, but I just randomly picked a colour and went with “Green”.)

    I think the DM’s familiarity with the rules also depends largely on the type of game they are running as well as the playstyle of your players. If it’s one that’s largely centered around collaborative roleplaying, rule minutiae is very much a secondary factor and one that can be bent or ignored in favour of drama and maintaining the atmosphere. If, on the other hand, you have players that are real sticklers for combat (and thus a level playing field) and one-upping each other, ensuring that you apply the rules fairly and consistently will be much more important.

    As far as fudging the dice goes, I have done it on many occasions where I deemed it necessary to keep the peace, maintain proper dramatic tension or even occasionally to save the party from certain defeat. One classic example is where the party storms into the Dragon’s lair at the end of a rousing adventure, ready to confront the mighty beast and defeat it in a battle that will be sung of by bards for centuries… And then the Dragon rolls a 1 on its save against the Wizard’s Death spell. Sure, your players will laugh about this moment for years to come, but it’s so much less of a satisfying conclusion to the epic battle they were anticipating than if they’d just squeaked through by the skin of their teeth. So I lie and say the Dragon made its save. (“Easily,” with a roll of the eyes.) The Wizard groans about it as the other players tell him “Told you it wouldn’t work!”. “Well, I had to try! You never know!”

    And yes, there are times when I’ve done the opposite. One time the party is struggling against another mighty foe and the dice just haven’t gone their way. This should have been a closer match, but bad luck means they’re absolutely getting hammered. So this time I turn the situation on its head and say that the enemy’s healer died to the Death spell when in fact he’d saved against it. Suddenly there’s the glimmer of hope. The tide of battle turns, and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. My players reveled in the close call for the rest of the night (and indeed, for many adventures afterwards. “Remember Fort Blackwall!” became a rallying cry for their party whenever things looked grim), and they never knew that it was because I went easy on them.

    And they don’t need to know. Because ultimately, your role as the GM is to ensure that your players have a fantastic time filled with great memories they’ll treasure for years to come. If sometimes that means fudging the rules either way, do it without hesitation.

    • Blackbird71 says:

      I’m in the same boat with regards to difficulty improvising, and yes it does mean that as GMs we need to spend a lot more time in preparation. Personally I like to have stacks of prepared information at hand: lists of names for NPCs (because you know if the players ask for a character’s name, and they don’t have one, that the players will assume they are unimportant) as well as physical descriptions to choose from, enemy stats for all occasions, etc. I keep a lot of this in easy reach where I can glance at it without much slowdown or interruption in the game, and it just makes things run that much smoother.

      It takes a lot of effort to get started, but once you’ve built up a good library of stuff, you’re pretty well set. Whatever doesn’t get used in one session is there for the next, and if you game long enough you can recycle used ideas with a few tweaks and changes. So yes, improvisation is a useful tool for GMs, but preparation is a useful tool to fill in for those of us who aren’t as quick on our feet.

  32. Chad says:

    Have you ever tricked your players into believing you planned something when it was an accident?

    I always try to get my players to give me detailed back stories, and will encourage them to use the 3×3 method (3 allies, 3 associates, 3 enemies.) I will then use their backstories and motivations to guide the “story.” I do try to keep things consistent, and as time goes on, I find myself planning more in advance, but most of the story ends up being an emergent property of the interaction of the character’s backstories, the character’s actions, and things the players say.

    Recently, I’ve been running a simple, silly dungeon crawl. As such, I hadn’t really given any thought to the “whys” and the history of the dungeon. It was just something I randomly generated using a combination of the 5e and 3.5 DMGs. And in keeping with the shallow randomness, I’ve been having the players roll the dice on the treasure tables whenever it was called for.

    Well, last week’s session, they rolled a Dragon Spirit Amulet which was of no use to any of the characters. I was tempted to retcon it to something useful, but instead decided on the spot that there was a half dragon in the sepulcher. A while later, they were ransacking the office of a bar manager of an abandoned pub in the dungeon and really wanted to find something in the ledgers about who these people were who built the mine and where they went.

    Naturally, these were things that I hadn’t given any thought to, but I always take it as a sign that the players are enjoying the story when they are vested to know more. And of course I had to give them more. So what started out as a simple dungeon crawl is evolving into a full fledged campaign.

    Have you ever ignored a die roll that the players couldn't see”“and if you did, why?

    At times I do admit to going with the rule of cool rather than what the dice say, but usually I go along with the dice, cause sometimes the “bad” rolls help to make a good story. Historically, the other GM in my group has oftentimes, when the dice said “The character is dead,” said “You are unconscious.”

  33. The only games I’ve run have been one-offs or 2-3 session arcs, and I have a tendency to be stupidly over-ambitious, then panic and wildly over-plan, so…. :( The only campaign I started ended after two sessions when I realised I didn’t have the skills to referee six D&D newbies effectively. Ironically, that was the game where I was accused of fudging something (the magical properties – or lack thereof – of some statues) that I really, really wasn’t. Which was weird.

  34. Gethsemani says:

    I’ve regularly “tricked” my players into believing (or rather, not correcting their erroneous belief) that I’ve planned stuff out when I actually winged it all. Most notably I once changed an entire session when the players went off in an unexpected direction and actually discussed a theory about the monster of the week (this was in New World of Darkness) that I liked more then my initial idea (which wasn’t even a monster).

    I also fudge die rolls regularly, but never to the detriment of the players. If the players are making a good effort or they are being unfairly punished by bad rolls I tend to let some bad rolls slide or at least mitigate the effects of them. My job is not to show the players how much I can punish them and make them suffer within the confines of the system, it is to make sure that we all enjoy the story being told by all of us jointly.

  35. Zak McKracken says:

    Ignoring Dice rolls: Frequently.
    Usually, players will not know their opponents’s stats, and half the time, neither do I, so I’d often just think of a number and use that. Except when the result leads me to far away from the result I’d like to get :)

    Faking rules knowldedge or planning: Have tried it a couple of times but was usually immediately found out. We had a guy in the group who knew the rules by heart, all of them. Kind of like Josh in Chainmail Bikini (only realized the name collision this very instant…). If I’d ever faked looking something up in the rule book, he’d know I was looking at the wrong page and point it out. If the story did not go as planned, It’s immediately show because I had to think about what to do next rather than know it directly ( still better than some other DMs we had who’d just look up what happens next…).

    I’d like to think that I got better at this over time, but that scenario Rutskarn talks about induces enormous awe in me. I want to be able to do that sort of thing and still make a decent story!

  36. MrGuy says:

    One thing – if you’re going to make things up as you go, it really helps to take note so you’ll remember later.

    Nothing worse than a player thinking you knew the names and professions of everyone in town, then having them march back in and demand to talk to one of the NPC’s you’ve completely forgotten you made…

  37. Kaisius says:

    As the GM, all roads lead to where you want them to go. I’ve come to expect a certain amount of flailing about from my players whenever I want to get them from point A to B to C. I’ll have a line of inquiry for them to follow if they want, but if they start on an interesting approach of their own, I’m perfectly willing to let them be right.
    *EDIT* Ooo! I just thought of a better way to put it.: GMing is the fine art of letting the players have things your way.

  38. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I usually have a very rough roadmap of both the campaign and the current adventure. For the campaign I’ll know something like there’s going to be a war between two pantheons but it’s actually one of the gods playing both sides against each other in a gambit for power and leave it to the players to figure out how they’re going to act in these circumstances (though for anyone who played with me it’s pretty clear that “do not play a major role in the events” is not an option, and those that didn’t I tend to warn). For the current adventure say I know the party starts as a group of mercenaries, they start in a big city that’s quarantined because of a plague and the first arc is to get out of the city. If the players decide to faff around for a couple of weeks I can come up with adventures for them to do but at some point I’m going to make them want to leave for one reason or another. I can come up with a few ways they could do this at the drop of a hat but I’m not going to commit to any of them and plan them in excruciating details only for the players to ignore it and instead fixate themselves on chasing some rumour of teleportation magic just because I made an off-hand remark that it could theoretically exist but would be very difficult and dangerous.

    I do occasionally cheat on rolls but the only times I remember actually doing it was in the player’s favour. I hate killing characters or having a really fun plan go bad in a not-fun way because of a poor diceroll. I think it’s why I really like FATE’s “player can succeed but with a negative consequence” approach to failed rolls.

  39. topazwolf says:

    Have I ever tricked my players into thinking things were intentional? Oh yes. My favorite game in which I did this, I had a massive binder of notes with dividers and all kinds of pockets and stuff I would bring and set behind my sheet. In reality the binder was just filled with names, descriptions, and other information I might need at the drop of a hat. The very front had a small section on game notes, but that was mostly just about what I had told the players already and vague notes for the direction of the game.

    So when a player would come across a random table in a mage tower, I would flip to the page on table clutter (or really just clutter in general) and give them a random description of the stuff that was on it. I would mark that they have seen it so I don’t use the same description again. If the player than picks out some item from the description, I would flip to the corresponding page and give them another description or just flip the page and make something up if it wasn’t a complicated item. If they’re looking at an inkwell I don’t really need the same level of preparedness as a bottle of potion.

    Anyways, I normally find that players will latch onto strange stuff. So in the above example, the player was obsessed with the fancy inkwell and took it with them and got it identified later. As a reward I made it a magic inkwell that changed colors of ink placed within it. Being players, they later used it to mimic blood and other such utilities.

    Since I do this with just about everything in the game aside from key points (right down to thug #2) the players gradually build the game around themselves and think that I’m freakishly well prepared with my binder of infinite details. The act of flipping pages really sells it.

  40. SKD says:

    That is something I loved about the Storyteller/World of Darkness system created by White Wolf publishing. They actually set it out in the Storyteller instructions that you should not be afraid to fudge rules for the sake of drama or player interest. The story was the most important aspect, not the rules. The rules were there as a guide, not a hard and fast limit on what was and was not allowed.

  41. Halceon says:

    I once ran a Dread game where I had figured out the basic scenario of how the characters would get into trouble, but I had no idea what sort of trouble that would be.

    Ended up being so convincing, they had deep lore questions about my Big Bad.

  42. SPCTRE says:

    “But most of the time, the illusion of being knowledgeable is more important than actually being knowledgeable” – so in this way, GMing is a lot like one’s professional life. ;)

  43. Loa Vecre says:

    On tricking my players: Almost every campaign I’ve run has had at most minimal planning, and I generally prefer thinking on my feet to meticulous planning. I’ve checked with my players from on occasion, and it seems they’re still buying into the illusion and think I’ve planned it from the start.

    On ignoring rolls: These days I roll in the open (mostly as an exercise to improve my encounter balancing) but when I used a screen I would fudge or ignore rolls if the rolled result didn’t make any sense in the situation (a player’s clever plan would require an NPC to make a save, said NPC will usually fail regardless of the roll).

    Related to ignoring rolls: I am in the habit of occasionally making “blank” rolls: rolls that serve no purpose except for the players to see me rolling dice, to keep them on their toes.

    • Chad says:

      Related to ignoring rolls: I am in the habit of occasionally making “blank” rolls: rolls that serve no purpose except for the players to see me rolling dice, to keep them on their toes.

      I’ll have them roll spots all the time when I know there is nothing there for them to see for the same reason.

  44. Perceptiveman says:

    Just FYI, some people will FLIP OUT and/or be DEEPLY DISAPPOINTED if they discover that it all wasn’t “real” (aka, as far as I can tell, “Written down in some ‘binding’ fashion beforehand.”). I do not claim to understand this behavior, but it is definitely A Thing.

    Also, here’s the thing – improvisation is, basically, just doing prep “in the moment”; The advantage is that prep done this way is never wasted, because you never spend a ton of time working out something that never comes up. On the other hand, prep done this way is less researched, less considered, and done under pressure. CAN you fly by the seat of your pants all the time and still produce good results? Maybe. It depends on how good your instincts are. SHOULD you try to fly by the seat of your pants all the time? I’d say no. Anytime you can think of something in advance, you should do so, and make a note. Because that content is going to be more cohesive and consistent than the stuff you just make up.

  45. In my brief experience DMing in a PW of NWN, I had no chance to pretend or not an accident had been planned; but I did ignore one die roll. The reason for that was that I realized one result would bring many chances for the PCs to do something exciting that’d make then have fun and entertained, while the other might bring the ending much sooner and in the way there would be a lack for any PC to really shine with the use of their skills. And since there would not really be definite negative or lasting consequences for the first path, I wouldn’t be risking them thinking the good of that path wasn’t worth the bad of it.

  46. Kand says:

    I remember one occasion where bad handwriting caused a slight misunderstanding (5 orcs suddenly became 50 “rcs”) and the scout reported a noticeable army guarding a place instead of a small band.
    Well, instead of a small fight, the players recruited a dozen recently freed dwarfes to face this challenge and we had a proper battle.
    A totally planned for battle of course!

  47. Gordon says:

    See, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my current campaign doing the opposite; explaining how much of the “plot” has come down to random encounters and unplanned extrapolations from player actions. This is mostly to try and sell the “reality” of the sandbox, so it’s pretty much a means of accomplishing the same illusion from the opposite angle. My players are starting to understand how much agency they have, and how much the burden of action is on them.

  48. Mersadeon says:

    A bit late to the party, but still, here are some bits of improv I had to do:

    It was our very first session and we were all new to RPGs: I was running some old D&D3.0 beginner’s material, and specifically the well known low-level adventure where you have to get into a family tomb (the family name was “Hanan” or something like that). I wove a little bit of story involving a wizard hiring them in a tavern (they wanted to start off really “classic”, so I went for the cliché) – they were to acquire a piece of the bandages of the dead in there for a ritual, but the wizard’s archenemy, a necromancer, was known to be in the tomb, expecting to eventually duel the wizard. Well, here’s the problem: they took him alive. And threw 20 after 20 on their checks. So I had to make up this heart-wrenching story of how he had fallen to his evil ambitions and why he hated the wizard so much, involving love, betrayal, a cheating spouse and all that. They totally thought I had planned that out. One adventure later I flat out ignored a dice throw I had – it would have instantly killed one of them, and I wasn’t going to kill my lvl2 players just because 3.0 gives you no damn HP.

    I once had them visit a city which had a fair going – with circus tent and all that. It was really just supposed to be a good, slightly exotic place to start picking up clues or find someone to shadow or interrogate, but they suddenly went buck-wild on the idea of visiting a fair. I had to make up half a dozen competitions and attractions, eventually having to go so far as to invent a fat, eccentric and lavishly detailed goblin character who reigned over the circus that they could impress. It grew into this completely different plot, so I bent the rest of the plot to be woven into the fair.

    Just last week my Shadowrun group really complicated a relatively easy wetwork-run by being really creative – I loved it! It was the first time they really did *everything they* could to make it a clean run. But it also meant I had to make up a dozen names, a catering company, two bars, an small city block and an application process for said catering company. It’s also the first time not a single one of them was hit by anything – they got in and out without a scratch, no matter what small surprises I threw at them. Well, as they say: “A standard mission is 20 minutes of objectives, three days of planning, and 600 seconds of mayhem.”

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