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Rutskarn’s GMinars: Your Questions, Your Answers

By Rutskarn
on Saturday Jun 18, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games


I’ll be at a family reunion this week, sans computer, and chances are excellent I’ll have no opportunity to post anything till next Sunday. Here’s a spoiler for Battlespire to tide you over: The game gets weirder. This is very probably the strangest videogame I’ve ever played; the fact that its spider-lech comes from the nominal creators of Preston Garvey, an NPC who could be mistaken for a grudgingly-inserted Kickstarter backer, is more tickling than it really should be.

Now–as far as the GMinar series goes, I’m opening the floor for some reader participation.

First, I’m looking for your questions. If anything about these posts has been unclear or insufficient, if you’re looking for advice on a specific topic, or if you just want to know my position on some aspect of tabletop gaming or GMing, please post your questions below.

For the GMs in the audience, I’ve got some questions of my own:

  1. When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
  2. What’s the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
  3. What’s your proudest moment of GMing?
  4. How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
  5. What do you wish more GMs would do and why?

I’ll cover all of your questions, plus my own, once I get back. I mean, after I load up Battlespire and indulge my passion for taking bags full of bags out of other bags. I’m only human.

See you next week!



Comments (42)

  1. SharpeRifle says:

    1. heh I’ve never had a”breakage” for the better moment actually. Either the storylines were disposable or not world shaking in and of themselves.
    2.Oooo my worst judgement call came when I had only two low level players (both nonfrontline types) for a session. So I gave them a Lvl 2 Ranger to give them some oomph. Later when they arrived at the opening to the dungeon they were going through they said “HEY I know lets send Mikey down first!” sooo I decided to give them a minor lesson about sending people not under your control down into dark places ahead of you….without you being right behind them. He goes down into the hole there is sounds of a scuffle and a few minutes later he pops back up saying “Hey there was a doppelganger in there!” they head down ….see an unconscious dwarf…and proceed to CLUB HIS BRAINS IN. It went downhill from there.
    3.Having a full 6 person party absolutely happy with spending the entire night’s gaming session (4hrs) in the tavern. We got nothing plot related done but damn did we have a blast. It mighta helped that we had more than little beer ourselves though.
    4.I tend to “go along to get along” being much more willing to modify what I want towards whats good for the game.
    5.I can’t actually think of anything really…but I don’t get to be a player that much.

  2. AdamS says:

    Fellow GM here!

    1. It might sound egotistical to say, but I’ve never had a player actually break one of my games witha positive outcome. The players I’ve had have either been passive, accepting the world and its rules exactly as written with no pushback, or have destroyed the entire adventure and descended into catastrophic chaotic-stupid-evil within three sessions. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with the gamers I play with or a problem with my gm style.
    2. The worst judgment call I ever made was in a Mutants & Masterminds game. It’s one of my fave systems, and even though it’s a total crunchfest I know it inside and out. This is good, because it means I’ve always got a leg up on most of my players and I can challenge them in fun, creative ways. Unfortunately one of the regulars in my college rp club was a huge power gamer. He didn’t know the system like I did, but he knew where to go to find people who did. They built him an absolute monster of a character, packed with stuff I should have banned but didn’t, and he absolutely trivialized every challenge I threw at the group. Instead of taking him aside and discussing the issue (which might not have done the trick; this guy was pathological) I just decided to weaponize my own knowledge of the rules and got into an arms race with him. The game quickly disintegrated as every non-rp moment devolved into the two of us spamming broken bullshit at each other until all the other players quit. I still think back to the last session and wince; we were a hairsbreadth away from a shouting match.
    3. I’ll always be proud of the way I ended my first D&D campaign. I adapted the 4th ed Keep on the Shadowfell, which is pretty lackluster on its own, into a full mini campaign with new npcs, a subfaction of cultists who sabotaged the PCs in town while furthering their pwn agenda separate from the main villain and his cult, and punched up most of the big battles with more interesting conditions and customized stats. The finale as written is solid, with a nice variety of enemy types, but I retooled the whole thing, and added a mini-game for players who got sucked into the shadow rift that would normally cause instadeath as written. The main bad guy ended up fleeing into the portal, his god ate him, the pcs got to be challenged and still feel badass, and I still get people asking if I’m “the Keep guy” when I go back to the school for reunions.
    4. It’s made me a better player, or at least one who’s better at helping a mediocre GM run a game well; I tend to recognize when a GM wants a game to go a certain way, and using my particular style of subtle, friendly persuasion to get the rest of the party to go along with it. (Often without them realizing I made an argument at all.) Oddly, I think it’s made me enjoy playing less; I got so used to knowing everything, holding all the cards, that when I get “demoted” down to player I feel like I’m being handicapped. I *like* knowing everything about everyone, to the point where when I’m playing I sacrifice useful skills to get more in-game contacts and lore knowledge if that’s what it takes.
    5. I wish more GM’s would focus on the things that REALLY decide if a game lives or dies: group composition. On the game level, that’s making sure the party has clear goals (or in a sandbox, clear options they can choose from) a good reason to accomplish those goals, and a good reason to stick together. On the player level, that means getting players who get along, making sure you’re all on the same page re: what’s expected of everyone, steering clear of subject matter that might make your players uncomfortable, and keeping any arguments that start out in-character, in-character. So many fledgeling GMs don’t do this, and I’m not sure if you covered this in detail, but if you haven’t yet, you definitely should.

  3. Abnaxis says:

    Question re-post from the D&F post:

    So reading about this rule-set brought a particular player from my tabletop gaming group to mind.

    Basically, the best way I can describe this player, is that she is a “social gamer.” She's not big on numbers-crunching, doesn't have a head for rules, and doesn't really go for improvisation or role-playing. Rules-heavy games like Pathfinder and rule-light games like Feng Shui lead to roughly equal quantities of awkward moments when it comes time for “what the heck do I do now?” Broadly speaking, she's there for a pleasant afternoon hanging out with close friends who are all gamers.

    By my reckoning, D&F would be a problem for this kind of player once you get into the “make your own rules” territory of the game. Is there a way to get around that issue, or is it not worth trying? More broadly speaking, how do you make sure a player like this is engaged and has fun around the table? I mean, they're there for the people, so a pre-gen character with a cheat sheet might be good enough, but it seems like there should be a better way to make the game itself fun for everyone.

    Also, I wanted to add: the particular player I’m talking about is not new to gaming. I probably couldn’t count the number of campaigns she has payed in on my fingers and toes. She just doesn’t have a head for rules, or improvising, or drama.

    • Felblood says:

      So, what is the core of the problem? We can make guesses all day, but there isn’t really enough here to diagnose the root of the problem. That implies that you yourself might not have a complete picture of the big “Whys” that cause your problem.

      You need to talk to this person, and find the root of why they aren’t contributing creatively. Do it privately, so as to now embarrass them, but be completely frank.

      “We need to talk. This isn’t working, with you as part of the gaming group.

      We really like spending time with you, and we don’t want you to leave. Something has to change, so I need to know more about what’s holding you back. What can we change to make this better for you?”

      There is one piece of advice that I consider universal:

      In my experience, giving social players pre-made characters is counter-productive. It gives them an “out” in terms of knowing the rules, investing their time, energy and personal engagement. You need to tie these people to the game in a way that makes them feel important, not just mechanically, but personally. Try assigning these players to keep track of something for you, that players might otherwise ask of you.

      Unless you play with enemy HP totals hidden (usually a lot of work for little gain IMO) you can assign your social gamer to keep track of them. If people are asking them questions like, “Is 12 damage enough to drop the archer on the left?” a couple of times a round, they are more likely to keep their mind on the game and feel like they are making small talk at the same time.

      • Syal says:

        The first part is assuming they’re having a negative effect on the group as a whole. I got the feeling everyone was alright with the dynamic and the only problem was trying to play a more creatively demanding game without overshooting her commitment.

        My thought was give them advance notice about the rule-building end, and if they still don’t have them ready maybe change it so players make rules for other people’s characters.

        Maybe you could make buffing roles for her? If she’s there for the people have her character be there for the people too.

        • Abnaxis says:

          The first part is assuming they're having a negative effect on the group as a whole. I got the feeling everyone was alright with the dynamic and the only problem was trying to play a more creatively demanding game without overshooting her commitment.

          Exactly this.

          I mean, it’s not like the player isn’t enjoying the company, and she isn’t disruptive to the point of making the game un-fun for everyone else* (in fact, it can be kind of entertaining to see her husband–our usual GM–get flustered after the umpteenth time of explaining how the dice work). By all rights, maybe I shouldn’t try to fix what isn’t terribly broken.

          However, that kind of seems like giving up. I can see her get frustrated at least once a session, and I’d rather the game be more engaging for everyone. I wrote the question wondering if anyone else has come up with creative solutions.

          What I almost want to do, is give her a character with no sheet. Like, she says what she wants to play, GM makes a character to keep behind the screen, and when she wants to take an action GM just tells her what to roll with less puzzling over statistics. I’m only saying this though because cheat sheets seem to be unhelpful** so I’m thinking going the other direction might help. However, I’m not sure how well I would manage keeping my attention split like that if I was GM.

          *Also, we’re playing in her basement, and she usually does volunteer to play the cleric because that’s the sort of person she is.

          **Though I would say that the Shadowrun cheat sheet was a document of extraordinary legend

  4. King Marth says:

    1. When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
    A “complete” break hasn’t happened (not for lack of trying, see question 2) but I had one game where a “journey to the center of the mind” session for power-ups just before the final battle led to a character facing her inner demons, snapping at them, then realizing the culmination of her campaign-long descent into madness-fuelled superpowers wouldn’t have any happier ending than never returning to reality. Made for a poignant scene and excellent lead-up to the final fight.
    2. What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
    Railroading. My first campaign of significant length told a compelling story which the players liked despite lack of input on its direction, but especially near the end the seams started to give way. In particular, I ran a session where a trickster god insulted the players and remarked that it would simply wait for them to die of old age while it held them prisoner, before offering a sketchy-sounding deal that would end the world if accepted. The players did accept, and I hesitated for entirely too long to contrive a way beyond it, largely because I realized at that point that they really didn’t have any information or any chance to get the information to realize what they had agreed to. What made it suck was the hesitation; if I could have skipped to the “Bad end unlock, now here’s the way which continues” solution I eventually found then I could have at least had a nicer recovery from the corner I painted myself into. Other blunders from that game: Giving a player a background detail (at character creation cost) which never paid off, forgetting to mention multiple key clues and dropping a subplot halfway through as a result, making the final boss only beatable by MacGuffin (though the first stage was a real boss and a player got to land the final blow), retconning an epilogue wish from LiteralGenie to helpful mind-reading genie.
    3. What's your proudest moment of GMing?
    Running a short adventure which I had been stewing over and thinking about for over a year. Everything went smoothly including a party-split, the small handful of NPCs were mysterious (actually poorly-defined) but had clear motivations and were distinct, and the adventure had one nice overarching plot intersecting neatly with a side story that left a clear direction for theoretical future adventure.
    4. How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
    I very clearly announce what I am doing (and request the relevant roll, for skill checks) before throwing dice. Nothing more infuriating than someone tossing a d20, seeing a low value, and then declaring that they had obviously been using an at-will ability… except for someone randomly rolling and shouting a skill name and high number mid-description, hoping for treats.
    5. What do you wish more GMs would do and why?
    Recognize when scenes are over and move on. Not that I can do this myself, but I notice sometimes when playing that we’re going in circles or making small talk to pass the time and very little happens that session. It’s frustrating when a long session has little to show for it.

    • Smiley_Face says:

      Number 5 is an issue that I’ve often run into when I’ve played in the past. It might just be the people in the group, but I do wish I knew how to circumvent it as a player who wants things to actually happen.

  5. Zaxares says:

    Always great to hear stories from fellow GMs! :D

    1. When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?

    I can’t say that this has ever happened to me, because I’ve always been fairly good at making sure my players don’t go TOO far off the rails, or integrating some unexpected changes or results into future adventure directions (but it couldn’t be considered as breaking the world completely). The times when a campaign has collapsed or stopped suddenly utterly has always been due to player in-fighting.

    2. What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?

    This was probably the time when I agreed to allow a player to run a prestige class of his own devising. I’d reviewed the class and stripped out the abilities I thought were too imbalanced, of course, but I’d left in a feature that I thought wouldn’t be too powerful; one that allowed the class to gain a deflection bonus to his AC equal to his Charisma bonus. What I’d neglected to consider was the fact that the player later used all manner of Charisma-boosting buffs to increase his Charisma to ridiculous levels, making him all but immune to things like touch attacks (which tends to be the weakness of high AC tanks).

    This had the result of creating a Sorcerer blaster-type who could dish out incredible amounts of damage and yet remain almost untouchable by enemies. His character was the most overpowered member of the party by far, and it didn’t go unnoticed by the other players. You could practically feel the envy and resentment of the other players increase session by session.

    Of course, I’m not saying that custom classes should be banned outright; creativity and player freedom is always an important feature of tabletop games. But my experiences have taught me that it needs to be handled very, VERY cautiously.

    3. What's your proudest moment of GMing?

    It would have to be the time I’d created an epic level adventure designed as the culmination for a years-long campaign for my players. I’d made a suitably epic foe; a dracolich who controlled a mobile demiplane that he used to lay siege to entire worlds, consuming everything and everyone upon it to fuel his eventual ascension to godhood. And the player’s home world was his next target…

    The players ended up invading the demiplane, fighting past entire armies of fiendish creatures, breaking into a reality-bending fortress, defeating a quartet of epic-level foes that served as the dracolich’s champions, and then finally confronting the villain himself. But on the cusp of victory, the dracolich revealed that the demiplane itself was bound to his phylactery. Destroy him, and the demiplane would collapse in on itself and annihilate everyone within it, including the players.

    Of course, the players did the darndest to try and think of a solution out of this, but they ultimately couldn’t find one and had to make the ultimate sacrifice. I wouldn’t say they were exactly thrilled about losing their characters, but they agreed afterwards it was a suitably epic way for them to go out, and they loved the eulogy in a “history book” I’d written for their characters, describing the deeds of their heroes as faithfully recounted by grateful future generations, where their characters are worshipped as saints and legendary heroes.

    4. How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?

    It’s really, really hard for me to avoid metagaming when I’m a player now. I’m so familiar with all types of unusual monsters and magic items from my years of experience as a GM that as soon as the GM describes a monster or item, I know exactly what it is and what its abilities are. I never say anything or let slip information that might benefit the party, but it’s next to impossible to surprise or scare me in D&D games anymore. XD

    5. What do you wish more GMs would do and why?

    I don’t really have an answer here. Every GM has their own style and approach, which is part of what makes their games a unique experience. I will, however, urge all GMs to avoid the mistake of having an NPC in the story which is obviously their own self-insert hero. You know the type; there’s some powerful wizard or warrior who’s incredibly strong, handsome/beautiful and powerful who swoops in to save the party, is fawned on by other NPCs and generally can do no wrong. I know, it feels AWFUL nice, but trust me, your players are just sighing or rolling their eyes when you do this. :P

    • Abnaxis says:

      Incidentally, I think after reading everyone else’s “moments,” I must be in the only gaming group where nobody gets upset if their character dies fair and square. Hell, the first session I GM’d I killed a player and it was a hoot.* They said I was “getting off to a good start”

      *He critically failed a climb down a wet embankment (twice), right on the top of a demon-crab that proceeded to pincer his neck for four rounds (despite having a terrible chance of hitting him), only to finally escape its grapple just as one of the other players critically failed (twice) to land the final blow against the character. The crab then cut off his head and started feeding on his brains after a short “wait, that killed you? Oops…” out-take from me.

  6. Cuthalion says:

    2. Both of the bad GMing calls that come to mind were in online games.

    I still feel bad about the time one of my players had a fairly thick accent, and I asked him if he could understand us fine or if we needed to speak slowly. WHAT WAS I THINKING?! Yeah, he was like, “No, no, it’s fine,” and switched to text chat for the rest of the game. I embarrassed him, myself, and everyone else. Still feel kinda bad about that. >_>;

    Another time, one new player in a game with mostly strangers asked if his rider (i.e. mounted combat) character, who was riding a bear, could rape the bear. I should’ve seen that as an ominous sign. I told him the bear would probably kill him and figured he’d drop it. He did not; he made the rest of the session super uncomfortable trying to bone everything in sight, willing or not (I guess he thought it was funny?), and I was too distracted trying to run the rules to realize I needed to just kick him out instead of ignoring him.

    So, I guess both of my most memorably bad GMing calls were meta-game social issues with players and my interactions with them, rather than actual rules issues. Turns out that’s probably the more important side of the GM’s role!

  7. I’m only going to answer number 2, as I don’t GM much (I loathe being in charge, I find it really stressful and I’m already the person in the group keeping everyone on track (sorta) so more responsibility is NOT what I want to deal with).

    My worst call as a GM was during my sadly short Mage: the Awakening campaign. I had several players who were all about the story and one who was all about the numbers. The original idea for the session was that they were going to an old abandoned manor that was “supposedly” haunted but might also just be a good place to make their home base. It was a) really badly haunted by the kind of ghost that could turn entire walls and floors into whistling mouths (stolen from a ghost story) and b) would be a kickarse homebase if they could get the ghost on their side (finding out what it wanted, who it had been, that sort of thing). Numbers guy goes straight into tactical combat and I was not prepared. I HAD NO IDEA how to stat this ghost. I GM-fiat’d his character to almost dead and thankfully one of the other players covered my arse by reacting in character and pointing out that maybe newbie Mages shouldn’t try to defeat a 500 year old ghost without knowing at least something about it. Numbers guy stalked off, quit the game, and while I apologized the next time I saw him and explained that I’d basically panicked and was very sorry for doing that, the game died shortly thereafter.

  8. Gnoll Queen says:

    I have only really DMed like six sessions of the same game ever so i may be stretching this a bit but here i go:

    1. They investigated all of the supernatural locations out of my expected order. Like super out of order i think i managed to fix it but it did make me realize that how i had planned the game didn’t work for how the game was run. Also it helped build mystery much better than my plan Could have.
    2. The Worst Call ever made was mostly the fact that i was worried that i would tpk them and so most of the early villains where killed with barely any effort at all. Also this is less bad but i have the Bleach problem where if i am ever at a loss at what to do i add more NPCs instead of expanding on my current cast at all.
    3. I'm proud as an autistic kid with depression and no real social skills i actually DMed several sessions of a game so far. Also i don’t think my players realize i only do about ten minutes of preparation. Mostly because i got some charter sheets i use for some NPCs and i don’t think they realize that i just reuse them all the time? Also i sometimes shuffle them around and look at blank sheets and such to make it look like i’m not making everything up as i go along.
    4. I came thinking about how to clearly show what my character wants and will and can do? I wanted to communicate that quickly and easily because i had some problems with my players doing that in my game.
    5. I played in a few games where we did like a fiasco ending things for an intro. Like each character had a small solo intro scene for characterization purposes. It really really helped understand my character and the other cs characters.

  9. Jace911 says:

    A couple of my questions:

    1. Where do you tend to fall on a scale of simulationist vs narrativist games? I used to prefer the former in my early years for their structure, but as I get older I find myself drawn more and more to narrative-focused games. Is this your experience as well?

    2. When you set out to create a one-shot, campaign, etc do you start with the themes and craft a game around it or do you start with an idea or image and build the themes around it?

    As for my answers:

    When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
    They didn’t completely break the game, but the most recent example I can think of was the Star Wars campaign I’m running (currently on hiatus). I’ve always had it in my head to run an epic longform campaign in Star Wars with the same tone of the films, but my players kept pulling it more towards a slice-of-life dramedy punctuated by very personal moments. I never would’ve gravitated towards that on my own, but it’s made the campaign so much more entertaining, rewarding, and less stressful to write. Tl;dr I wrote A New Hope and they turned it into Guardians of the Galaxy, which was great.

    What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
    Pressing onward with a game when I and everyone else has reservations about whether we’ll enjoy it–communication before and during a game is a key skill.

    What's your proudest moment of GMing?
    That would probably be the first game of Delta Green I ran for my current gaming group, where all of them looked up at me simultaneously with a shared look of realization/horror. The “epiphany” is the biggest payoff of any horror medium for me and I felt a buzz of pride for pulling it off.

    How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
    I’m one of those people who fits much more easily into the former role than the latter. I grit my teeth at some player behaviors and then I turn around and do even worse in the rare instances I’m on the other side of the screen. Thankfully GMing has afforded me perspective on my player behaviors and I make an effort to curb the troublesome stuff and give the GM a hand in propoing up his game.

    What do you wish more GMs would do and why?
    My experience with other GMs is limited, but I wish (And this includes me) that GMs would be more willing to collaborate with players in crafting a story as opposed to presenting them with a fully-formed world for the players to explore. I find players are much more invested in a game when they have a stronger hand in shaping it both in-character and out.

  10. Tmacnt08 says:

    Okay, so I am a brand new GM. I have never played a tabletop roleplaying game before (except for one one of session as a player awhile back to prepare myself and get myself more acquainted with the game). I have always wanted to play and now I have group of people I already previously know who want to play the game. I didn’t even have to come to them, they saw me reading the 5e PHB and came to me. I’ve known them for almost a year and am comfortable around them. I have even come to accept that I have to be the DM despite I’m more interested in being a player. After all, I ended up bringing the group together and I am the one with the books. None of them want to be DM. 

    Now that I have that out of the way, I have to ask how to deal with in attentive people. Only one of my players are at all attentive and the others constantly sidetrack things to the point that we actually haven’t even started our first session since forming the group because one person in particular likes to bring out his card games and try to play videos on his phone at the table and after five months still has not even finished filling out his character sheet. And the others haven’t been able to figure out their backstories because they want them to tie into each others. I’ve pulled him aside, talked with him, taken hours out of my free-time to help him with his character sheet and he just never really tries, but claims he’s interested. 

    Another is almost as innattentive, but sidetracks much less. He’s a bit young, being 15, and has a really awful YuGiOh fan fiction and routinely attempts to try and insert his fan fiction into the other characters backstories as well as the world we’re creating. On top of this, the first guy especially, doesn’t seem to fully get what a tabletop rpg is despite me explaining many times over. He comes from a crpg video game background and tends to make everything about himself and doesn’t work well with the other players. He seems more keen on facing the other players and one-upping them than actually working with them.

    There is one last person, but his problem is a bit different. He isn’t so much innattentive so much as introverted and shy. He doesn’t really talk much, rarely shows up and usually won’t give us a direct answer on when he can show up. He’s usually nervous about it in a way that seems like he thinks we’ll kick him from the group or something and won’t just change the time to accommodate. I have made it clear that we have a flexible schedule and can make the sessions when he’s free. He is the one I’ve spent the least amount of time with before founding the group whereas I knew the others much better beforehand. What is the best way to reach out to him? 

    There is a fourth guy, but honestly I haven’t had a single problem with him and he has had his character ready for a month (though his backstory is incomplete because the others haven’t finished theirs) and is just as frustrated as myself. I don’t want to cut these people out, because I know them outside of D&D and they are my friends. Any tips on how I should handle all of this? Have you had to deal with anything similar during your years of playing tabletop games?

    P.S. Sorry if this was overly/unnecessarily long and/or pedantic. I thank you for your time and consideration with my question.

    • Syal says:

      As someone who doesn’t play D&D, or indeed hang out with people whatsoever, I feel fully qualified to answer this. I think you might benefit from having some individual sessions before you try to bring everyone together.

      Get the card game/phone guy out of a group setting and he’ll either focus on the game or make it clear he doesn’t intend to. You might need to have a hang-out session separate from a play session, invite him to one and not the other.

      Let the fan-fic guy deal with a setting for a while, maybe see how Yugioh stuff stacks up with D&D 5E. Might get it out of his system, might not. Depending on how the group feels you might want to just run something loosely Yugioh related.

      Third guy, there’s a few ways that can go. Maybe just pick a time without asking if he’s free and leave it to him to say it doesn’t work; it might just be he’s nervous making decisions. Or he might be uncomfortable in a group, so see if one-on-one goes any better. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to plan around him not being there a lot of the time.

      Buy the fourth guy a pizza.

    • Felblood says:

      Congrats on having the guts to start a game! That’s the first and often hardest step.

      I’m going to give you some real advice, but I feel like I should preface it with the Unhelpful Internet Jerk advice. This is really ambitious, especially for a first-time campaign. Maybe it would be wise to eliminate some of your objectives, so you can focus on the ones that are most important.

      I do have some input on how to fix your problems:

      From problem Player #1: Solving some of your other problems first will probably cure a lot of his indecision, but if it continues after your other problems are fixed, a deadline might be in order. If he doesn’t settle on Detail X before next session, you pick out 3 options for him to choose from. If he can’t decide, roll a d3 for it. Being the bad cop is not fun, especially for a newbie DM. Tell them that.

      “I don’t like to be that bad cop, but if you cannot do A by B, then I will have to C. Please do not make me do C.” A lot of the time, the moment you roll a 3, the player will come to the sudden epiphany at what they really wanted option 2. Let him have it. The important thing is that it’s done.

      For Problem Player #2: You’re designing this world collaboratively, but one of your players seems to be pulling the campaign world in a direction that makes you, at least, uncomfortable. Since it seems to be completely derailing the conversation, and we’re talking about the kind of fanfic that a 15 year old male writes, I’m guessing that he’s managing to skive out more than just you.

      You are facing the biggest task that any DM can face: You must mediate a debate over creative differences. As the judge, you should try to hold yourself impartial, but make sure they everyone, including Yu-Gi-Oh boy, gets to air our their position. Make it clear that nobody is going to be judged for feeling something, and get people to tell him, in simple terms, why his contributions are not fitting in. Make it clear that this is not a trial, but a negotiation, and that his creative contribution is something that you all value, however he must color within the lines and respect the creative input of others, in turn.

      Here’s a hypothetical example. Let’s say that two players show up with the following characters:

      Player One wants to be Kvothe Ramgar, Conqueror of Maidens. His Charisma is off the charts and no woman who has ever met him has evaded his charm, or his bedchamber, as he pursues his holy quest to woo all the women of the Earth. This is an unrealistic, masculine power fantasy, but we are playing DnD after all.

      Player Two wants to be Tsundere Icequeen, a beautiful but haughty lady, who catches the eye of every man she passes, but is saving her chastity for the one man who can truly reach the soft heart behind her stony persona. This is also an unrealistic fantasy about achieving social power and personal validation though sexuality, but if these characters have met before then one of those character bios is not quite correct.

      You can get these two players to co-exist, if they will both make some concessions. In fact if Kvothe is willing to accept that he’ll have to suck up a lot of Tsun, before he can expect the Icequeen to show him her Dere, they might find that they’ve found a dynamic for their characters’ interactions, which the world and the rest of the party can play off of.

      Once that’s done, you need to ask yourself if you really want to DM the RPG version of a Japanese rom-com. It’s okay, not everyone was cut out to DM InuYasha. Once the argument is settled you can stop being a mediator and start being a person with emotions and a stake in the proceedings.

      If mediation just isn’t working and negotiations break down, you might need to resort to my big gun. Token currency based negotiation. This system is great because it requires no fixed mediator, so you can play too. Get a box of poker chips or something to use as tokens, and give 5 to each player.

      Players expend tokens whenever they add something to the game world. (Aerith and Bob exist. Aerith and Bob are in love.) Whenever a player runs out of tokens, everyone gains 5 more tokens, and that player’s turn ends. Play passes to the left, and players can end their turn at any time, even if they have tokens, or have not spend tokens this turn.

      Players may expend tokens to prevent other players from having their way. You don’t think the most popular game played in the taverns of Fiddle Earth should be Magi-Oh Gi-therings? Play a token to block the addition. Somebody wants to block your cool flying castle idea? Pay a token to block their block. Players can continue blocking each other until one of them chooses to stop or runs out of tokens. If you don’t have enough tokens to block someone alone, maybe another player with a lot of tokens will help you out.

      Players can save up as many tokens as they please, and having a large stack of tokens can have a significant cooling effect. If somebody knows you don’t like one of their pet ideas, they’ll probably wait for you to run low before making their play.

      This might also be a great tool for getting Problem Player #3 engaged, as his passivity will reward him with huge piles of unused tokens. He may well find himself playing kingmaker to the closer matches.

      If that kind of collaborative story-telling sounds like more fun than DnD, you might like to know that I borrowed most of these mechanics from a great, RPG game called Universalis. Sadly it looks like their store page is down ATM, but it’s worth checking out.

      Whatever happens, good luck!

  11. Rolaran says:

    1. When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
    One of the first campaigns I ran was an international intrigue, cat-and-mouse style thing where the party was tailing a Moriarty-style criminal mastermind whose diplomatic connections meant that nobody could be seen openly taking action against him. They’d track him to a new exotic location, he’d throw some goons at them and escape while they were busy fighting through them, then send them a message taunting them that they wouldn’t be able to stop his next caper. Except that during one of these taunts, one of the characters noticed that his plan involved bringing his personal battalion across a nation they were barred from entering, something I had completely failed to notice- thereby turning this into an international incident and rendering his diplomatic protection moot. Cue the players excitedly discussing all of the nations, organizations and factions they could now call in to help thwart him. I ended up telling the players that I was going to have to end the game for the week while I figured out the political ramifications of this blunder. The next week became a real Battle of Five Armies moment as a roll call of basically everyone the players had worked with or befriended over the course of the campaign showed up to help thrash this guy- which was way more exciting and satisfying than anything I’d have come up with on my own.

    2. What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
    Probably the worst call I made was a time when one of my players had written a “running from my past” style backstory that included a brother he’d left for dead, only for him to survive and begin tracking him down. I dropped some hints that the brother was closing in, and the player managed to find a way to draw the brother out and demand a chance to parley. I wasn’t sure how the brother was supposed to be characterized, but I decided to wing it, and botched the result horribly- the player had a really good and fairly detailed idea for the brother’s motivations and personality (mostly remorse and anger at what had happened, and trying to understand why he’d been betrayed) but it was totally incompatible with how I’d portrayed the brother (egotistical and smarmy, more interested in ranting at the player character than listening to anything he said). That one was bad enough to put the campaign into a tailspin from which it never really recovered, and it could have been completely avoided if I’d been willing to take a ten minute break to touch base with the player about what he wanted from this character, rather than assuming that it was My World and I Knew What Was Best For The Story.

    3. What's your proudest moment of GMing?
    The most recent campaign I ran was a World of Darkness line with a heavy tonal emphasis on the idea that the PCs are generally powerful enough to solve their problems by force, but taking that path almost always ends up hurting the people around them, or other innocent bystanders. However, I had one player who had rolled up an indestructible combat monster, and seemed really frustrated that there were so many situations where he couldn’t (or shouldn’t) fight. At one point the villain organization managed to bind him with a Rage Anathema (basically a spell that amplified his aggression to superhuman levels). The player discovered that giving into the rage and going on a rampage was one way to break it, and decided to sneak away from the party with the villain organization’s address book and just mow them down until the rage wore off. So I ran a one-on-one session with him where I basically put on a heavy metal/fighting game soundtrack playlist and ran solo combat encounters until he got bored of beating them effortlessly. Then the next session was the rest of the party realizing he was missing, trying to track him down, and following the swath of destruction he had carved across the city. This gave me a chance to both let this player do what the character had been designed to do, and stay true to the idea that the PCs’ unchecked might was not the solution to their problems. In fact, the shift in perspective from heat-of-the-moment badassery (You lift the entire trailer and throw it into the ravine! You see the shock in the agent’s eyes as he falls…) to surveying the aftermath (The police comfort a woman looking at the wreckage in the ravine. Everyone in the trailer park feels a little less safe tonight…) gave the whole thing a jarring quality that really made those themes pop.

    4. How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
    I think I’m a lot more sensitive to when the GM has a specific tone or mood they want to establish with an NPC, location, or other story element, and I’m much more likely to reflect that in my own roleplaying. For example, I’m currently playing an irreverent, wisecracking, jaded kind of character, but the campaign is a mix of both situations where that kind of behaviour is right at home, and situations where there’s a note of optimism and hope that responding to sardonically would pretty much just kill. Where a younger me might have dropped a snark bomb anyway (because hey, that’s what my character would do!), now I usually have the good sense to either take a back seat during those scenes, or at least stick to a level of cranky quipping that won’t overwhelm the generally positive tone.

    5. What do you wish more GMs would do and why?
    I wish more GMs would take the time to think about what the players want from a given situation, from a character element, or from a campaign- and if they don’t know, be willing to ask. Note that that doesn’t mean being a doormat and giving the players everything they want- sometimes it’s more satisfying to use something a player really wants to keep them moving forward, or give them something to work towards. But every GM I’ve been disappointed with has either assumed they already know what the players wanted, or that their own ideas for how the story has to go trump player engagement (and I include myself in that- see #2). Conversely, the moments that have wowed me as a player are almost always when a GM can tell what I’m hoping to have happen, and made me feel like they want that to happen too.

    • Alexander The 1st says:

      Except that during one of these taunts, one of the characters noticed that his plan involved bringing his personal battalion across a nation they were barred from entering, something I had completely failed to notice- thereby turning this into an international incident and rendering his diplomatic protection moot. Cue the players excitedly discussing all of the nations, organizations and factions they could now call in to help thwart him. I ended up telling the players that I was going to have to end the game for the week while I figured out the political ramifications of this blunder.

      …If you ever need another online player, let me know. Or at the very least, teach me your ways of being able to handle that as a GM.

      That’s such a great detail to a villains’ downfall. The one blunder you made ended up being turning out to be giving your players that one nick in the villain’s plan that both made him not seem super cheating and invincible, and gave the players a way to approach a villain who manages to be frustrating in how he manages to get away with whatever deed annoys the nations around him.

      Like, that sounds really cool – but I have no idea how I’d plan around that myself.

  12. Blue Painted says:

    1. When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
    It was a GURPS game, with the party infiltrated behind enemy lines. They were supposed to head West, pass through the front lines, and get home with vital info. Instead they went East, going deeper and deeper into enemy held territory, which mean they met far, far more different types of people — as I piled up obstacles trying to turn them back.

    2.What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
    I did a TPK — in the same adventure — because they missed every single clue that the village they were raiding was booby-trapped. It “sucked” because it was my fault, I’d just run out of ideas.

    3. What's your proudest moment of GMing?
    Not a moment as such but a series of six or eight sessions where I had no plot, no notes, no scene and was winging everything with the players all pitching in to make it work.

    4. How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
    I try not to poke any plot holes and to run my character(s) so they at least try to achieve the stated/overt objectives of the game. I know how frustrating it is when the players fail to pick up on ten consecutive hints!

    5.What do you wish more GMs would do and why?
    Stop being a GM so I can take over? :-) I do like playing but I like GM’ing so much more.

  13. Narkis says:

    1. Hasn’t really happened yet to that degree, though I haven’t DMed all that much.

    2. On my first campaign. DnD 4e. I had the Wizards official character generator and gave it to my players, allowing them to make any character they wanted without restrictions. I didn’t pay any attention to what anyone of them could do, foolishly believing everything was balanced and they’d self-regulate. It didn’t quite work as I’d hoped. The PHB-abiding Paladin and Warlord were completely outclassed by the other two members of the group, both power-gamers. The Assassin would make short work of any single powerful monster I sent their way. The boss of their first dungeon, a wizard I was worried might’ve been too tough, died after casting a single spell. The encounter with a lizard (can’t remember the monster’s name) that was meant to challenge them on their way back ended with only the paladin bloodied, even after I frantically added its mate mid-combat in an attempt to make it actually challenging. And hordes of minions would be easily dealt with by the swarm druid, who gained enough DR in swarm form to blank low-damage attacks, and had a bunch of blast powers to deal with them easily. Together they handily dispatched in straight combat a veritable army of goblins and hobgoblins that was supposed to be overwhelming enough that should have forced them to retreat and hastily prepare defences on the nearby village. While the other players didn’t seem to mind, I was completely unable to challenge them in combat until the campaign fell apart in level 6 or so.

    3. On that same campaign. When we started, the warlord’s player was interested only in the mechanics of it, offering no backstory, uttering not a single IC word and generally not participating at all in the RP side of the RPG. Previously he had only played hack and slash computer games, and I though that was all he was interested in. This changed a few sessions in, however, when it all suddenly *clicked* for him. He unexpectedly spoke and offered a gold coin to a malnourished beggar child they encountered in the city’s back alleys, and then together with the paladin sought out and cured the child’s (hastily improvised) sick mother. That was the first moment I felt I was doing something right as a DM. Afterwards he became a decently active RPer, piping in and nudging the party towards the more heroic path, even taking matters in his own hands on a couple occasions. I’ve since lost contact with him, but I like to think he’s now creating backstories for his characters.

    4. I have seen behind the curtain. Now I can pretty easily spot the rails, the contrivances, all the illusions necessary to a GM’s work. It has definitely lessened my enjoyment as a player

    5. Allow the players to actually do stuff and succeed on their own. My previous two DMs were horrible about this, each in a different way. The first had a very strict hidden set of rails and his solution for the many times when we missed the “obvious” breadcrump was to allow us to waste time going in circles until we blindly managed to stumble upon the rails again. We lost in-game months travelling in the wilderness, having meaningless random encounters, visiting villages and cities, talking to people who knew absolutely nothing, scouring libraries and temples who held no knowledge at all about as obscure topics as “the lich who almost conquered the kingdom five years ago”, “the goddess who is worshipped by many and has proclaimed me her champion”, “the statue in the capital’s central square that is identical to the obscure race of evil minions we have recently encountered”. Each of those, along with many others, were questions never answered in a campaign that petered out at level 14, each wasting weeks or months of ingame time and hours of our lives before we simply stopped pursuing them. The second DM was more considerate of our time, though no less frustrating. It was a sci-fi campaign and we were all in a government ship that had an NPC captain and a squad of NPC marines who were better than us in everything. We were passengers in our campaign, never choosing our next destination, always ouclassed by the GM’s beloved marines, always failing if we tried anything more than observing and cheering them on. Needless to say it didn’t take long for us to start finding excuses for not playing.

    And my question: How to deal with a player who has a reasonable IC request that’s infeasible for OOC reasons? In my current campaign the party rogue is deadset on casing and systematically robbing the city’s noble quarters. Alone. The player is an RPG newbie who based his character on Garrett and would essentialy like to sort of reenact the Thief games. I’m concerned for two reasons: one, it’d be an opportunity for loot not shared with the others, eventually leading to imbalances. And two, it’d take too much of the party’s shared time for just one player’s adventures. What can I do to accomodate him without ruining the others’ fun?

    • Civilis says:

      Dealing with players personal character requests, usually things done ‘in town’, can be a source of frustration. The key ways I’ve found to minimize the amount of hassle are:

      One, minimize the amount of time you spend with just the one player’s activities. In this case, instead of role-playing out the burgling, simplify it to a (in D&D terms) Gather Information check to represent how well he cases the town, and a Stealth and Search check to represent how well he pulls off the heists for the night. Explain why you’re handling it this way. This applies to any player that spends too much time doing solo personal stuff while in town.

      Second, make it obvious that there are risks for the player in illicit solo money making opportunities; I’ve found players with roguish characters are notorious for trying to take game time to build their personal wealth. Perhaps the town has a Thieves’ Guild that would not take kindly to outsiders poaching on their territory. Perhaps there’s a prominent bounty board with a bounty on the last guy that robbed one of the locals. You can reveal this in the same Gather Information check that the player uses to case the town. If the player wises up, or is even satisfied with just taking a little extra spending money (they are playing a thief after all, you can’t take away all their fun), then leave it at that.

      If the player insists on recklessly continuing to take game time to rob every noble in town, you need to get the rest of the players involved, as the player is taking game time from the rest of the party. You don’t want to seriously hurt the party, but you want the other players to back you on pulling things into line. To start with, make things more difficult for the party without directly threatening them. Rewards are reduced because someone robbed the guy offering the party their next job. Everything in town is more expensive because the town is suspicious of outsiders due to the recent crime wave. Potential NPC allies are put to guarding houses. At this point, the thief should be making less money from his illicit activities anyway, as the potential victims start taking precautions. You still don’t want to take too much time, but low Stealth and Search rolls can now be accompanied by a HP loss because of a guard’s arrow or a missed trap. Eventually, the thief should get the message.

      If the other players are starting to get annoyed with the thief, especially if they make it obvious they’re not having fun, then you start getting nasty. You can have a higher-level party show up demanding to arrest the thief and only the thief. However, the best solution is to just put up a wanted poster in town with his picture on it and a high reward; the party will get the message.

  14. Heather B says:

    My question for Ruts (and you fine people in this thread): Have you encountered game commitment issues as a GM, and if so, how to rekindle the romance? I tend to plan epic storylines, run them enthusiastically for six months to a year, and then lose interest in running the game long before the story is over or the players are done. Then comes a period of a few weeks to a few months where game gets canceled for lack of energy, until we finally give up and play something else. I usually have a sheepish epilogue session where I tell my players where I was going with things, and answer their questions about the world and the story. They like the games I start, and are always disappointed when it doesn’t finish.

    When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
    My group tends to be pretty well-behaved. I actually wish they would try to break stuff once in a while, but mostly they want to be cooperative and do what they’re ‘supposed’ to.

    What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
    The first game I ever ran, I either failed to adjust a player’s expectations properly, or didn’t vet him as a player and shouldn’t have invited him in the game. It was a Call of Cthulhu game, and almost all of my players had only ever played D&D. I know there was some discussion of the thematic difference – big damn heroes who save the day vs. doomed insignificant mortals who will likely die or go insane – but for one guy that never clicked. The party was in Thailand, and he was one of the only characters who spoke the language. At a bar, a local made an offer to purchase one of his fellow party members. He began haggling in jest, either unaware or uncaring that the NPC was totally serious. When he eventually tried to back out of the deal he had just negotiated, I told them to roll initiative. At this point the player freaked out, screaming that I’d tricked him and it wasn’t fair, threw his dice at me and walked out in a huff. I later learned that player had serious anger management issues generally.

    But hey, free dice.

    What's your proudest moment of GMing?
    Not a moment, really, but the culmination of a devious plan. From the beginning of the game, I had an NPC who was blackmailing each of the PCs. The players had all kept their blackmailing secrets from each other in and out of game, until they were eventually drawn into a Clue-like scenario where they were all suspects in their blackmailer’s murder. The ricochets of suspicion and revelation of secrets was immensely satisfying.

    How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
    I’m much more appreciative of the work that goes into GMing. I like it, but I find it much easier and more relaxing to be a player, so I’m always appreciative when someone else is willing to take up the mantle.

    What do you wish more GMs would do and why?
    Take improv classes. Or something similar that exercises the muscle of making quick judgments on the spot. Most of the time, when a game slows down or gets sidetracked, it’s because someone did something the GM didn’t expect, and instead of rolling smoothly with it, the GM had to stall and shuffle through their notes, or the rules, until they figured out what happened.
    Also, take good notes. As a GM with a very poor memory, I’ve learned this one the hard way, but I still play a lot of games where the GM makes up a bunch of stuff on the spot and then forgets to write it down, leading to renaming of NPCs, retconning, etc.

    • Syal says:

      For running out of steam before running out of story, you should probably find a way to either shorten the story or break it into segments. Your main bad guy works through other people, and taking out his agents does permanent damage to his reputation and ability to get more help, so every couple of months PCs can take out the current troublemaker and you can call the main guy totally defanged if you want.

      Or set a campaign time limit; bad guy’s plan is time-sensitive, players have X sessions to stop it, and in the Xth session the campaign ends no matter what.

      Even professional writers get bored of epics, don’t overdo it.

    • Blue Painted says:

      I write a “time capsule” for myself as the adventure begins: “This is what you are trying to do, this is what the players want their characters to achieve.”

      Then I re-read it when the story gets stale and mostly find out that we’ve wandered of the point. It’s often quite easy to tighten up and re-plot from there.

    • p_johnston says:

      I actually run into the exact same problem with running out of steam. I don’t have a solution but just wanted to say how much advice on that topic would be appreciated.

  15. Zak McKracken says:

    Okay, here goes:

    I’m a long-time role player (AD&D and DSA*) though only very very seldom GM (pre-made adventures, they weren’t terribly good, though I think I did reasonably well), and I’m considering trying to persuade a couple of friends, one of whom has played one game in the distant past, the others never played and have varying awarenes of RPGs or even standard fantasy settings. To make it a proper challenge: I will probably not have much time to prepare, and it’ll be hard to get everyone together, so I should aim for something which we have a chance of finishing on one evening — so far I’ve never played any adventure that took fewer than 5 sessions or such.

    Question: Which system, and which strategy of devising an adventure would you recommend?

    * DSA: Das Schwarze Auge. A German tabletop system. Actually not quite bad but the pre-made adventures avoid no cliché, at all costs.

    • Civilis says:

      Friends recommend Fiasco as a good one shot quick-run system for people not familiar with RPGs. Never played it myself, but perused the rules. However, it isn’t much like D&D.

      If they have a good sense of humor, consider Paranoia. Players not knowing the rules is a plus. The pre-made adventures from the basic books (for every version I’ve seen) work especially well for those not familiar with the system. You will have to copy the materials to hand out to them. The game is not likely to go beyond a single session, and you can probably end the session at any point.

  16. Jason Langlois says:

    1) I’ve had players break setting/theme/story, but rarely for the better and usually in superhero campaigns. My D&D games tend to be pretty improvised, so they’re hard to derail though they have gone off in interesting directions – like instead of joining up with the lizardfolk in Saltmarsh, the PCs ally with the Bullywugs instead.

    2) Using a critical hit system in AD&D 1e from Dragon magazine as written, without thinking too much about it. Sucked because it let one of my PCs chop off Orcus’ hand, tail and head on three successive critical hits… in my defense, I was 12 and only a year or so into my DM carreer at the time.

    3) When my son, after his first session of D&D last year with me as DM, asked “When are we playing again? What do you think is going to happen next?”

    4) I tend to look for the story angle the DM is using, and play to it if I can. I also try to shape my characters to directly engage with what the DM and other players are doing, rather than telling my own isolated story.

    5) Improvise and adapt adventure paths and scenarios to fit the PCs and game events. After playing in a few Pathfinder adventure path campaigns, watching the DMs miss hooks to directly involve the PCs, or just force the action to fit the presented storyline… it grates. When I ran Rise of the Runelords, I was on the look out for hooks and trails to lay in each “book” that would organically lead the PCs into the next chapter.

  17. FuzzyWasHe? says:

    So I’ve got a question for the mighty Rutskarn the great and terrible. Now in my circle of friends I seem to be the only one willing / able to run a campaign mostly due to time constraints and being the only one to have played tabletop RPGs before. Now despite me being the only GM they’ve played with they’ve picked up most stuff pretty fast; they don’t have any major stumbling blocks on the mechanical side, they can think up BS solutions to problems so that they never get within 100ft of danger, they don’t point out how ridiculous the various voices I do are, etc. But the issue I find is that while the party is out of town adventuring they can absolutely do lateral thinking but once they’re back in town the options seem to contract to only “Okay” or “I hit it with my ax”. I know it isn’t easy starting out and I’m not expecting to find the next Shakespeare in my D&D group, but if at some point now or in the future they want to do more subtle roleplay how can I help them conceptualize a character in their head without it just being me deciding the character for them?

    • Felblood says:

      “Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.”
      “• Sun Tzu, The Art of War

      That’s a bit dramatic, but it’s true. If you want players to go somewhere, you need to put out a little bait. Find something that the players want, and show them a path to it that doesn’t lead through the bottom of a dungeon.

      Start with some simple situations that provide small rewards for very little investment. An NPC approaches them, and essentially pays them to have a short conversation.

      Here’s a classic scenario: After the players save a town, have a smitten girl (or boy) from the town approach one of the heroes with a valuable gift. In return for roleplaying a short conversation with this NPC, the players get an extra reward for the quest they already did. Throw a swooning groupie at each member of the party, so they can all get something, or target one specific party member, if you feel like your players could keep their jealousy in-game. Two hot-blooded heroes competing for the lion’s share of the glory is a great intra-party conflict, so long as it’s the characters, and not the players, who are rivals.
      If nothing else, it encourages players to think about the way that the NPCs perceive their character, and how they want to present their alter-ego to this world.

      Once they manage to accomplish basic human interactions to the level of a three year old child, such as “Hello!” and “Thank you!” you can start to expect more. The leveling mechanics of DnD are in your favor here, because you don’t need to make the rewards smaller to send them searching for a stronger high, since a bauble that seemed substantial 3 levels ago is probably pocket change now.

      Confront them with a situation that demands an immediate response. Don’t present them with a guy wearing a sign that says “tomb-robbers wanted,” when you can have the guy sidle up to the bar and hiss, “Hey buddy, you ever robbed a tomb before?” Once you have players thinking of NPC interactions as actual conversations, and not as menus where they select “Yes,” or “No,” in response to “Accept quest?” these sorts of weird RPG-isms take on an altogether more sinister vibe.

      How would Sir Brightenor the Just respond to such an inquiry, as opposed to Jack Shady-fingers? Pick whichever PC will make things the most interesting, accounting for which players have shown enough progress that you think they’ll be more receptive and entertaining. Bonus points if that isn’t the character with points invested in social skills.

      The rewards don’t have to be loot either. In many parties the minute in the limelight and the fun of role-playing are the most powerful positive reinforcement possible.

      With role playing, you get out of it what you put into it, and once people start to get into it, it’ll be hard to make them stop.

      If something more structured is what your party needs, have each player fill out a questionnaire, like this:

      1. My character is _______ around strangers, so he ___________________________ .

      2. My character wants _________, _________, and _______________________ . (Examples: money, power, security, respect, social change, social order, his own wizard tower, a nice hat, tons of chicks, etc.)

      3. My character would never __________________________.

      It’s best to make the while thing fit on a 3×5 card and refer back to them when trying to tantalize your players. If they ignore a hook related to their card, show them the card and ask them if they want to change their answers. They don’t have to be married to the card, but they have to give you SOMETHING.

  18. Sean Conner says:

    1. D&D, 1st Edition (old school here) It’s not so much breakage as the players just managing something I didn’t expect. I carefully planned an encounter with a fairly strong fighter and thief (about two levels above the group). I even worked out how they do their thing (they had some magic items to steal items). The encounter didn’t even last one round as my two high level NPCs failed their savings throw vs. Hold Person and they were quickly dispatched as the evil people they were.

    I got back at the players though … the even higher level magic user that supplied the two NPCs was non-too-happy with the loss, and sent an even more dangerous person after them …

    The second time the group did something unexpected was going to a carnival that was mentioned more as flavor text than a real encounter and I had to create the entire scenario on the fly (see 3 below).

    2. Probably playing D&D 1st Edition. Most of the players aren’t too keen on the whole alignment thing (and frankly, neither do I) but I neglected to really tell the players they could ignore alignment (for the most part) and that caused some frustration with one player in particular (he was playing a Paladin, again, see 3 below).

    3. The Carnival. As stated, I had to come up with this on the fly and in a panic, I modeled it (very loosely) on the one in _Something Wicked This Way Comes_. Everything in that session was done on the fly. The games? Okay, let me rig them. The food? Enchanted such that you would want more (if you failed a save vs. Spell). They won a kewpie doll? Okay, it’s a small evil doll that will steal items from the party at night. All on the fly.

    It ended with the Paladin trying to justify backstabbing an NPC (“HE WAS EVIL!”), the cleric (of the same order as the Paladin) burning down the entire carnival (“THEY WERE ALL EVIL!”) and the two other players with … a flexible alignment, sneaking away (“Dude! This is messed up!”).

    It was a wonderful session that all the players loved. It was probably the best session we had (second, the Paladin finding an artifact inscribed with “Holy Faith” but that’s a story for another time).

    4. It’s actually the reverse for me. I was a player for far longer than I was a GM. And I had a habit of breaking storyline (every GM I played under has experienced that—the worst was short-circuiting a three module storyline halfway through the first one) and from that, I learned it’s best to just come with a world, some backstory and just toss out scenarios to the group and let them write the story. Too much planning leads to a rail road type story (and yes, I’ve had GMs that love the rail road story).

    5. Use the rules as a guideline. Stop with the strictly plotted stories. And if the player want to do something that the GM doesn’t want to happen, let the player do it and fail. Or structure the story such that it doesn’t come up.

  19. tmtvl says:

    Q: When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?
    A: I’ve had multiple plot-important NPCs get killed due to freak crits or unexpected logic, whenever that happens I like to run an official module to try and get the campaign back on track, and there have been very good modules, but I can’t name specific examples out of the top of my head.

    Q: What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?
    A: Once, when I was still green behind the ears, I ran a combat-intensive module in an older DSA version, where a simple combat would devolve into 8 hours of dice rolling.
    Needless to say, we never finished that one.

    Q: What's your proudest moment of GMing?
    A: Getting a great group together. It’s not something I’m responsible for, but it’s the best thing that happened in all the years I’ve been active, so…

    Q: How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?
    A: I never go off on my own adventures anymore, which I did do before I became a GM. I’ve since learned that trying to get in the spotlight is not needed to have fun with a game.

    Q: What do you wish more GMs would do and why?
    A: I wish there were more GMs,… well… I wish there were more players in general. RPGs are a lot of fun, so I want more people to be able to enjoy them.

  20. p_johnston says:

    Oh great and nerdy god of DM’s Rutskarn (or anyone else in the comments) bestow upon me your humble servant the gift knowledge. What’s the best way to get better at descriptions? I always feel somewhat lackluster when I describe things. It’s not that my descriptions are unclear so much as I wish they did more to bring the scene’s to life.

    In answer to your questions.

    1)My first ever campaign about halfway through ended up getting a huge shake up that was partially my fault and partially the players. I had made a habit of giving each PC a random cursed magic item. Something useful but with a distinct downside (I’ll list a few if anyone is interested). So one time I was having trouble coming up with an item and I just went through the DM’s guide. Decided to give the PC an Iron Flask. The description on the Flask was “This seemingly simple magic flask is actually an item used to trap beings of great power. Even though most flasks block such entities powers this one is leaking energy.” or something like that. I figured “theirs no way he opens it”, every other PC in the group individually told him not to open it. So at the end of the session the player asks if he can talk to me outside for a second. We talk for about five minutes and I come back in and announce to the group “so a Balor is now attacking the city….” Ended turning into one of the main recurring villains of the campaign.

    2) I don’t want to get into details to much because it still feels embarrassing. I ended up getting into a feud with one of my players. Rather then talk it out like adults I started to start taking it out on him in game. It was stupid and petty and ended up with a shouting match at the end of one session. Things are patched up now and we still play together but I wish I had just talked to him out of the game to get things sorted out.

    3) I had set up my players to try and find out what why orphans kept disappearing from a certain orphanage. The plot actually ended up stretching over three sessions involved a Duergar crime lord, an evil necromancer, a necromantic iron golem, and an Oni. The entire thing winds up culminating with a Duel to the death, leading into a coup attempt, and a betrayal by a member of the party. The final blow was struck by a member of the party excepting a deal from a cult of mind flayers and blowing up an iron golem with the power of friendship. It was glorious. (if anyone wants the full story I will post it, but it would be lengthy.)

    4) I find that I tend to mess around more as a player. Don’t know what it says about me but my new normal reaction is to try and mess with the DM and see how they react.

    5) Honestly I’m a really easygoing, and lucky, guy. I have yet to play with a DM who I really don’t like.

    • Felblood says:

      Behold, the world’s shortest creative, extemporaneous speaking course.

      Buy a pocket thesaurus and a word of the day calendar. They’re old stand-bys because they produce results.

      When you notice yourself using the same word multiple times, assign yourself some homework to bone up on some alternatives.

      Write descriptive paragraphs. It exercises the same skills of constructing sentences, and choosing your words, without the time pressure. Feel free to go back and replace a word.

      Start out writing descriptions of objects you see in physical space. This will lead you toward the habit of including concrete details, which will make things easier for your players to visualize. Once you have that down, you can start writing descriptions of fictional items and people.

      Your next phase is to try to describe the same object twice, with two completely different paragraphs. It can be helpful to think of a different mood, and try to bring that out. Can you describe a common object in a way that makes it seem special in two mutually exclusive ways? Make a vase sound either sinister or harmless. Make a she sound either cheap or valuable. Describe a person so that they seem either creepy or pleasant. Don’t write things that are false, just learn to spin them to provoke a response.

      Once you reach the point that you can do that off the cuff, you’re done. Good job!

  21. SDedalus says:

    1. I’m more of a novice than an old hat, so I can’t think of anything good for this one. The closest I have is the time my friend convinced me to let him play a hyper-intelligent orangutan. In Call of Cthulhu. Jeffries Christmas, maritime lawyer and tommy gun toting ape, became a much-beloved PC with several poems composed in his honor.
    2. I love the Ace Attorney games and wanted to do something similar to them, a trial where the party must defend an NPC ally who’s been framed for a murder. The investigation of the crime scene was a lot of fun… but when it came time for the actual trial, only two PC’s could serve as lawyers. Having all ten players (yeah, ten players- it was a janky mess at the best of times) behind the bench would have been chaos, but this way eight people sat there twiddling their thumbs for two hours while the trial played out. It felt awful, particularly because I had put a huge amount of work into the quest and it felt wasted.
    3. So a minor NPC appeared briefly in the first session- a common crook who one PC (a very earnest young police officer) scared off. Fast forward thirty sessions. The party is fighting Steve Irwin atop his Doom Fortress (yes, the final boss of my Call of Cthulhu campaign was Steve Irwin- how this came to be is a perfect mix of hilarity, genius, and utter inanity) when flew in that same common crook, now a cape-wearing badass, who delivered an epic speech and gave the party the last McGuffin piece they needed to remove Irwin’s Australian Terror Field. We had been playing for seven hours at that point and everyone was exhausted- but everybody woke up when this NPC they had all totally forgot about was the ace up their sleeves.
    4. I have never gotten a chance to be a member of a campaign, so I can’t answer this one. I’ll be starting my first soon, and I think the first thing I’ve learned is to trust the GM to make the game fun. That’s their job- mine is to cooperate with them so they can do it.
    5. More GM’s should just go wild and do weird shit. Some of the best moments from my campaigns have come when I got bored and made something bizarre off the top of my head happen. A giant banana fell from the sky and destroyed a bridge. A character opened a crate to find a clone of herself sleeping inside. An obstinate clerk turned out to be a multidimensional hyperbeing. Players (at least my players) love to be surprised, they love running gags, they love it when a memorably weird minor character resurfaces months later. The GM can make literally anything he wants happen, so why stick to the same cliches as everyone else?

  22. Traitorman says:

    Prepare for a great wall of text.

    When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?

    1. I’d like to bring up two, both from the same game:

    So a little background. It was eight years ago in the latter days of 3.5. I was running the players through this vast, fantasy-world arcology. Almost like a fantasy Coruscant. Already the players decided to surprise me several times:
    1. They all chose to be evil.
    2. Instead of adventuring together, they decided to get right stuck into the massive political web, but still kept each other as (eventually) trusted contacts.
    3. They played their evil subtle. Sure, they were obsessed with benefiting themselves above others, but they also played nice with good-aligned people, made good on deals and generally were more reasonable and courteous than the good aligned player party in the setting. Thus, they were more well-liked.

    However, these two events take the cake:

    1. One of the characters was a rich merchant-rogue with a manor-house on the Arcology’s surface. He’d just screwed up an assignment for the thieves’ guild he was part of, and thus was in big danger of being cut loose and losing everything. He’d just discovered one of the other players, a messiah for the Astral Devas who’d appeared several thousand years too late to save his now extinct race. (That’s a long story). So our rogue character decided to sell this information to the head of one of the great houses of the Arcology, a Drow House that happened to control the greatest spy network in the city (and perhaps on the plane). Head of the house was the spymaster, an epic-level character herself, and the information network she controlled made her one of the most dangerous characters in the setting.

    So our rogue, at level seven, decided to contact her and try to sell her this information about this chosen one he ran into. I warned him beforehand of how dangerous she was, and that he might not even manage to contact her, especially not personally. He says it’s worth the risk, and then he asks me if he’d had contact with her before. Being unsure myself, I decide to let the dice gods dictate their prior relationship: the higher the roll, the better, with a 10 being neutral and a 1 being a strong emnity between them.

    I have him roll it.

    Natural. 20.

    Turns out they were old adventuring buddies and best friends, giving him easy access and favours with the most powerful information network on the plane. I have never had a campaign shift so much from a single roll before or since. I decided to roll with it, and the player – though giddy – decided to play it very carefully, never stretching the bounds or treating the NPC like a servant.

    And so he, and the rest of the party, were cemented on the political stage, and that was the end of most of my plans for them adventuring, lol. It was better this way, though.

    2. Much later, the (Lawful Evil) Astral Deva messiah had managed – along with the rest of the party – to get into the city’s senate (though they were in different houses), and he was doing a bunch of work with the oppressed Raptoran (from races of the wild, I had them be the descendants of the astral devas) population of the city, doing good and generally trying to increase the quality of life of the remnants of his race while increasing his own reputation.

    Well, during this he actually caught a someone spying on him and followed them back to their base. After a brief scuffle, our “hero” discovered a big plot point I’d been sitting on for a while: The Good-Aligned planed and good gods were tired of the war against good and evil, and were going to band together to destroy every non-good aligned plane in the multiverse. This was going to lead to an epic adventure where the party would need to infiltrate the conspiracy and try and stop the key players.

    …except the the astral deva player didn’t tell his party. Or anyone else. No, no. He just sat on the information for months in game, while he gathered as much info in the faction’s military plans as he could (which was a lot).

    Then just when the attacks on the planes were about to begin, this guy plane shifts and teleports right into Asmodeus’ throne room. Tells him that he knows of this plan, how it works, and which points the good-aligned planes would be hitting. In exchange for a suit of armour forged by the King of Hell himself, the astral deva player would tell him the plans and Hell could mount a proper defence. As the GM, I was flabbergasted. The other thing was that the player had timed it so that the attack would just be starting when he arrived. So Asmodeus managed to get one sneer out before all the reports came in from his subordinates of the attacks and in the interest of saving as much time as possible, he took the deal. Asmodeus, impressed at this manipulation, made the player Lord of the First Layer of Hell, demoting Bel.

    And then…what does this player do?

    He plane shifts to the Abyss. To Demogorgon’s court. In exchange for a sword forged by the Prince of Demons, he’d tell him…well, you know the drill. The attacks were underway by that point so Demogorgon just agreed immediately.

    I actually shook the player’s hand after that session, while secretly planning to have him get betrayed and outwitted by his new devil subordinates.

    Did I manage to do that? Well, by the time that campaign ended he was King of Hell, had conquered what was left of the Abyss, ruled an (extremely well off) tyrannical empire on the material plane, had brought fortune to the entire Raptoran race, and was married to Asmodeus’ daughter.

    So. You decide.

    He and the rest of the evil party managed to bring a golden age to the setting that lasted a thousand years, but that’s another story.

    Oh, and another player stole Ravenloft.

    What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?

    2. Back in mid-high school, I once killed off a player character while their player wasn’t at the session. It was during my very first campaign, and the players had taken the roving band of murderers thing to the extreme. The characters were broken, the game was broken, and everything was a mess.

    I was out for blood, but that was a pretty crappy thing to so, for obvious reasons. I shoulda just talked to the players or ended the game.

    What's your proudest moment of GMing?

    3. There’s many. I think it’d have to be my mutants and masterminds superhero game that I ran in my second year of university. All of it. Mostly because the game should not have worked.

    First of all, it was supposed to be a drop-in game at my university club without much of a plot. The trouble was that all the players enjoyed it so much that everyone kept showing up every week. That game had 12 players.
    Secondly, because I noticed that superheroes on teams had varying powers, I had each player roll a d20 at the start of character creation. The result was their starting character level. We started that game with the whole range from Level 18 to Level 3. On the same team.
    Finally, there was my lack of experience. It was only the third campaign I'd ever run, my first in the system and I hadn't GMed for about 3-4 years and all my other games had been failures.

    There were characters with different tones and everyone was power gamed insanely. One guy's "character" was an entire imperial guard tank crew driving a suped up bane blade from 40k that joined the game by driving into a cave on a mission in the 40kverse and came out through the wall of a bank in the superhero setting.

    Many of the characters were raging shitheads, and boy were their arguments both in and out of game. Lots of super villains were murdered. The police were called. They fought a Dyson Sphere.

    It was crazy, and against just about all GMing advice I've ever heard. It should have failed by session 3.

    …yet that game ran for a year and a half and by the end, all those power gamed raging shithead heroes had actually learned lessons, developed as characters, and had actually become a responsible superhero team along with a number of villains they had redeemed.

    In essence, that drop-in game with 12 players that had everyone rolling for starting character level on a d20 run by a novice GM had turned into an actually compelling superhero origin story.

    None of us noticed it until the last session, at which we were all stunned. That might be kinda cheating for the answer, because it's not exactly a "moment" and the players were just as responsible for that as I was, but it still kinda leaves me in awe to this day. And I'm still proud I helped work that gaming miracle, lol.

    How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?

    4. I think it made me realize that you can pretty much do whatever you want as a player…as long as everyone else is having fun including the GM. I might still be a power gaming shithead, but I always make sure my characters are generating more enjoyment for all the people at the table. Then everyone wins!

    Seriously, fellow power gamers: you want your GM to approve that questionable feat/skill/ability? Make it so they like your character. Be fun, and ask questions and chat with both the GM and other players to make sure they ARE actually having fun. Make sure you check in regularly. Give others the spotlight and take the chance to roleplay when you can. Make the gaming experience better for everyone there…

    …then they’ll be too busy rooting for you and having fun to question why your attack bonus is roughly double everyone else’s!

    What do you wish more GMs would do and why?

    5. Choose your players very, very carefully. I’ve been GMing for about 12 years now and I’ve run some very, very successful campaigns and one shots. I’ve also run some enormous duds. I’ve made incredibly detailed dungeons with set points for encounters, and I’ve run entire storylines with just a few prompts and half a stat block or two. All of that is secondary to your players.

    Choose good players. Make sure they’re good people, and that they are ready to sit around the gaming table for the same reason you hopefully are: to have fun and create a good story. Don’t be afraid to say no to people who might ruin it.

    Once you get those players, make sure you run games that you’ll all enjoy. If all your players want to do is kill goblins at the next instance, then don’t break out your huge tapestry-like political intrigue game set in fantasy Persia. If they want the latter, don’t run the former.

    Games live and die with your players. Choose them wisely.

  23. Hal says:

    1. When did your players, in completely breaking your world or storyline, make it a hundred times better?

    I’m not sure if my players ever “broke” my world, per se, but there was a time when they latched onto a minor NPC and he became a recurring character.

    You see, the players were fomenting a rebellion, and they were agents of subterfuge in enemy territory. At one point they found a high-ranking agent of the enemy army; instead of killing him, they just did their best to make his life miserable. (Rather easy, since he never actually realized who they were.) This delighted them.

    Of course, he kept showing up in the important locations they visited. Every time they heard his name, they had to work a way to bother him into the plans. It was awesome.

    2. What's the worst GMing judgment call you ever made? What made it suck?

    The Dresden Files RPG has rules for social interactions that very much resemble the rules for physical combat. This means that an important social event could very much be handled like a combat encounter. I wanted to see these rules used to their fullest possibilty, so I had my players attend a fancy party.

    It just didn’t go well. At all. They had a goal, but it wasn’t clearly expressed (and, indeed, mostly forgotten on their end.) None of the players invested in social skills, so their ability to “navigate” the social battle field, much less attain any goals, was severely hamstrung. They wanted to use their natural talents to achieve their goals, but I discouraged it too much. (Brightly lit ball room? You’re probably not going to be casting magic spells of any kind.)

    Ultimately, I just blew stuff up because the story wasn’t going to progress any other way.
    The whole scenario was a bust. The players hated it. I hated it. It wasn’t well conceived, or well received, either.

    3. What's your proudest moment of GMing?

    Remember the NPC from part 1 above? The players snuck into the castle this guy was occupying in order to retrieve a prisoner. I gave them a few choices of ways to sneak in. One was that the NPC was celebrating his birthday with a big fancy party (not the party in part 2.) The players could have snuck in as party guests, but instead opted to come in as part of a work crew helping to update the magical security measures around the castle.

    The players were found out by the keep’s wizard, but they quickly put him (and his arcane golem) down. They needed a distraction in order to break into the prison.

    “Hey Hal, you said the wizard kept using a rod to send commands to the golem, right?”

    Erm, yeah?

    “Think I can figure out how to use it?”

    And that’s the story of how the NPC’s birthday party was ruined by a rampaging golem.

    4. How has GMing affected how you approach the game as a player?

    I’m much more aware of the contrivances and conventions of GM storytelling. I’ve learned to recognize the ways in which a GM is trying to steer us, the places where he’s put in some effort vs. those places where we’re likely to catch him off guard. I’m much more likely to try to work with the GM in these instances, to try to explore the parts of the map he’s filled in, to participate in the story he’s trying to tell.

    5. What do you wish more GMs would do and why?

    “Yes, and . . .”
    “No, but . . .”

    Two phrases that a GM should really use much more often. The players want to do something the GM hasn’t anticipated. It can become dispiriting for the players if you always say “No” and leave it at that. Ideally, you would either say, “Yes, and” or “No, but.”

    This gives you options. “Yes, and” for those times when you’ll let the players try their wild plan, even if you have to attach some stipulations to it. “No, but” for those times when you have to shut it down, but you want to give the players some sort of concession in this, a different possibility to exploit, or a clue as to the way you’d intended them to proceed.

  24. The Specktre says:

    1) It hasn’t happened. I also haven’t even GM’d nearly enough games (only two, MAYBE three) for such a thing to come around yet.

    2) I threw my players in a cell in an attempt to create the sense of losing all one’s power and getting it back through their own ingenuity, trying to make them feel desperate, then relieved, then empowered. It was fine up until the point I realized I hadn’t actually figured out how they were going to get out of the cell. Everything they came up with was a loophole I hadn’t considered (the prep was abysmal). But instead of letting them have it, I panicked and shot every idea down until I had until I realized I had painted both of us quite literally a figuratively into a corner. I had to get them out in the most contrived manner possible. Not the worst thing that could’ve happened, I suppose, but it wasn’t satisfying for them and I certainly didn’t feel good about it.

    3) In another game, I was able to articulate a moment when a monster crawled out of the face of a statue rather well, making it really creepy, and having to end the session there for the night. Got lots of praise from the group and they couldn’t wait for next week. It isn’t much, but it’s mine.

    4) Hm. I’m struggling with this. In some ways, not much, but maybe it’s because I’ve so little experience under my belt. Well, I suppose it’s made me appreciate the amount of work that goes into building one of these things for players. I’ve realized how much these books need to be treated more like guidelines and lego bricks to be taken apart and put back together in a way that best suits the GM’s own needs and imagination. I think this says a lot, considering how much I am dependent on structures and (early on with anything) hand-holding. I guess this also ties into question 5 for me…

    … 5) Ditch simulations and verisimilitude, stop arguing over tables, and really empower their players. Let them play out their triumphs AND their mistakes.

    Question from me–and I’m looking for advice from ANYONE here:

    I’m working on a short Drunkens & Flagons campaign for some folks loosely based of a Witcher 3: Blood and Wine quest (where you have to rescue the, ahem, ‘family jewels’ sawn off a statue, for those who know what I’m talking about). Suffice to say, I found this quest underwhelming, and not as weird, creative, or funny as I thought it was going to be. In this version, the contractor comes to the tavern, shows you the statue, his predicament, etc., but the reveal at the end is that a nearby dragon (with the help of a third party(?)) took the fig leaf, basically, as a gesture of dominance over the city and the hero of yore, adding it to his treasure pile as another ‘trinket’. (The primary reason the antagonist is a dragon being that, in a test run, my lone player made up some BS about being a dragon slayer, and I thought I’d oblige him with an actual dragon.)

    My primary issue is that I have ‘A’ and I have ‘C’ in this quest, but I’m struggling to come up with a solid ‘B’. Originally, there was a warehouse in town and a portal, but… eh. Also how would a third party serving a dragon in this stupid endeavor? Do they stand to gain something? Would a dragon share the city’s riches? Or perhaps the thieves are kobolds? Or maybe the dragon is capable of polymorphy? But I feel like that’s something I can ultimately sort out myself. What are some good ways to get the player to meet the dragon? I figure it has to be short since this is meant to be done in an evening.

    Thanks to anyone for indulging me by reading this

  25. Sean says:

    Actually, I had a question that may have been covered already: what systems do you play regularly? Are there any systems that you wanted to try or thought looked cool, but never got around to trying them out?

    I’m asking because I’ve been DM-ing since January, and so far I’ve done the D&D 5e starter kit, and I’m working through a Star Wars campaign with some friends. But I’ve got a pretty big list of systems I’d like to try out: Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase, Pugmire… the list goes on. Just wondering if you’ve got a wish-list of games you’d like to try or haven’t gotten around to playing yet.

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