I’ve been a RPG gamemaster/dungeonmaster/storyteller for over 10 years (a short time compared to most out there, but I only got into RPGs during university), and since then I’ve picked up a few tips & tricks and general guidelines to running a game, which I’ll share with you here. I don’t have all the answers, I can’t tell you how to run a better story. That, as it is with everything else, comes with practice, with screwing up, making a mess, picking it up and doing it again.
Quoting Graham Chapman, Let’s “Get on with it!”:
- Know the rules!: As a gamemaster, you’re the rule-man, you decided when it’s time to roll what and how much, so it’s important you know the rules, at least the basics, the most common stuff you’ll need to ask the players to do. If not, you’ll waste valuable game time checking the books and you’ll be of no use whatsoever to new players to the system. Study up and have some notes on you.
- State your custom/house rules clearly: If you’re using any modification on the rules as written (RAW), make them clear for all your players when you’re starting or whenever they’ll come into play. As players, they’ll most likely go for RAW unless you’re clear about them.
- It’s your job to set things up not control them: I’ve had experience with gamemasters who control all aspects of the story, from the setup to the development to the end, leaving the characters with no input whatsoever, as if they’re watching a movie. No, as a gamemaster/storyteller, you only set up the story and ADAPT it to the players’ actions. They’re the masters of their own fate, even if that includes breaking your plot. In fact, you should be prepared for that eventuality.
- Keep it balanced: It’s something when you make things hard for players, but never make things too hard, from combat, to villains, to puzzles. If something is too hard for them to solve on their own, it has to be because they’ve already failed at something before, like failing to research everything about the place they’re exploring, leaving them without an important hint for the puzzle. Or maybe they’ve decided against hiring mercenaries DESPITE constant warnings by those around them. As I mentioned in the previous point, they decide their fate and higher difficulty should come from lack of judgement or lack of good dice rolls, and not by design. I mentioned I run a high difficulty game, yes, but I keep it well within the boundaries of what’s acceptably high, which in the case of combat, in D20, means an encounter with a Level of up to the group’s average Level + 3. It’s hard as hell, and players have to act intelligently, but it’s not impossible. I’ve played in situation with constant impossible odds overcome at the last second thanks to Deus Ex Machina, and they get old really fast.
- Prepare the important stuff: Have your important NPCs prepared, allies and villains alike. Don’t wing them, don’t just use them making crap up as you go along. Build character sheets for them, or at the very least do what I do, use notepad to write down their stats. Your players control everything, and you never know when the NPCs’ skills, resistances and combat prowess will come into play. If you can, keep a list of important things on hand, like the name of a city’s ruler, or the captain of the guard, or the name of each district, even if there’s very little chance of the characters going there. So when they do screw up your plans and go there, you’re prepared for it and won’t break the momentum looking stuff up.
- Lean on familiar stuff/common knowledge: It’s something I do. When I’m having trouble coming up with a description for someone, or just want to have the players to instantly recognize someone or something, I often use famous actors or singers as a baseline for NPCs, such as “It’s a Bald Christian Bale with an eye-patch” or “The cat-man looks like Lion-o from the Thundercats”. These types of comparisons can help you get the descriptions across more easily, or confuse the hell out of some people. I still laugh at one of my players’ reaction when I told him a character in a game was a Black Tommy Lee Jones. He couldn’t picture it, still can’t.
That’s all I can remember for now, I might remember something else later. And of course, the comments are open for anyone to add their own tips, tricks & guidelines they follow. If we build a bigger list, I’ll repost them all!