GM Tips For Roleplaying Game Sessions

GM Tips for Roleplaying Game Sessions

Running a roleplaying game is both fun and rewarding. Here are my best GM Tips and practices to run the best possible rpg sessions for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder RPG and other fantasy roleplaying games.

  • Tools of the Trade, or How to Create the Ultimate GM Binder
  • Player Agency, of the Secret of Saying Yes
  • Random is the Key
  • Go Generic, and Prepare to Recycle
  • Keep Lists
  • Collect a Stack of Maps
  • Battle Maps and Minis

Do you recall the 80/20 rule? This post is about getting the 20% right and worry about the rest later.

The First Rule of Dungeoncraft: Never force yourself to create more than you must.

Ray Winninger (Dragon 255, 1999)

The Tools of the Trade, or How to Create the Ultimate GM Binder

Staying organized and having easy access to your notes is key to running a fun roleplaying session and a long-running game. My tools of the trade are the following (in order of importance):

  • Scratch paper: This is the best bang-for-bucks for any roleplaying game. I can wing it if I forget the core rulebook at home, but I cannot play without scratch paper.
  • Rulebooks: Currently we play Pathfinder RPG, and I need the Pathfinder Core Rules, and usually the Pathfinder Advanced Players Guide and sometimes one or two Bestiaries.
  • Box of goodies: A box of dice, player character minis, the critical hit deck, pens and pencils and white-board eraser.
  • Moleskine Cahier Squared Journal: I keep a physical journal during play, and I always start a new journal for a new campaign. I use a wide margin for keywords like NPC names, locations, loot and clues for easy reference.
  • Gm Binder: The mudworld in portable form. See below.
  • Optional: Encounter Binder: Monster, NPC and loot archive. See below.
  • Optional: Boxes of minis: Boxes of today’s likely minis. I organize my minis in boxes neatly labeled “the horde,” “diabolic horde,” “soldiers,” and so forth, matching my Encounter Binder above. It helps me improvise, yet stay within my chosen theme.
  • Optional: Paizo Flip-Mat: Possibly the best investment you can make if you play with minis.
  • Optional: Tablet: Tablet for additional books, although rarely used as it slows down the game. I find that paper is much faster for me.

There are no real surprises here. The most personal item on the list is, of course, the “Gm Binder” and the “Encounter Binder.”

How to Create a GM Binder
Encounter and Gm Binder

GM Binder

If you google “gm binder”, and you should, or snoop around on YouTube you will find lots of creative people showing off their binders. There are lots of great ideas out there, and well worth a peek.

My GM Binder has five sections:

  • Current campaign: This is where I keep the campaign outline, such as it is. I keep printouts of story specific NPCs, items and details on ongoing plots, yet-to-be-introduced NPCs, treasure, and locations here. The goal is to organize the always-mutating story into a three-act story.
  • Sessions: The printouts of my scripts for previous and current the game sessions.
  • Setting: Printouts of the current setting, usually a city, region or kingdom.
  • Encounters: Encounters for upcoming games.
  • New dungeons: A collection of generic maps ready to use if I have to improvise.

Encounter Binder

The Encounter Binder is the full archive of old encounters. Bringing two binders to a game is excessive, and I never do that unless we play at my home.

I favor strong themes, which allows lots of recycling of encounters. I keep my encounters generic for easy adaption and improvisation and try to build strong monster themes.

Each encounter uses a two-page spread with headings like “Demon Cult (CR 1+) or Orc Horde (CR 5+).

Boxes of Minis

I store my minis in a dozen-or-so small boxes neatly labled matching my encounter binder.

This means that when I realize the characters are heading for the Demon Cult ruin, I can print out my two-page spread of stats, grab the box of demon cultists and a flip-mat, and finish encounter prep in less than five minutes.

Purple Worm mini.
Say hello to my little friend! Mini by Wizards of the Coast.

Player Agency, or How I Learned to Say “Yes”

Player agency is important. Roleplaying games are a collective story, and the players must be able to choose their path. Recycling and adapting plans is fine. Maintain an illusion of choice at the very least.

Answering the players’ questions and letting the players make choices will also save you work. Research stuff that fits your players’ speculations. Build on what you have and add a couple of new names and locations to your bag of tricks. You may be set for another adventure with minimal effort if you are consistent and spend your time wisely.

By merely saying “yes” you create an illusion of the player solving a riddle and your story has improved from player input. It works brilliantly as long as the players catch you in amending the story – if they do it may turn on you and cheapen the experience for the players, so use caution.

Keep Lists

It is a good idea to keep a few lists of names and short descriptions handy.

First of all, it may be difficult to come up with good names on the fly. You risk ending up with bad names (“Bob the Guardsman,” “Saddam the Innkeeper”) or confusing by repeating names (Is this the same Elminster we met last week?).

Second, names indicate importance. The players will not pay attention any character or location you don’t bother naming. True, not everything and everybody is equally important for your story, but if you don’t put names on people and places, you deny them the chance of becoming important. You will keep people guessing if you can name your guardsman without flinching.

The list should include a short description and trademarks, but omit age, gear, and profession, as the situation will provide those.

In a previous post I introduced:

Aryanna Nostro, dark-skinned beauty with a nervous tick, quiet and feral looks

If I use Aryanna when the characters are looking for a potential smuggler, she is likely to be carrying leather armor and daggers, and hang out in seedy bars. If they find her when looking for a wizard, she might be carrying a staff and mage robes and shuffle around in a local library. Or, if the characters are looking for a city guard to report a crime, she may be patrolling the town square. Three very different characters, right? Keep the lists generic and open for improvisation.

Random is the Key

People tend to have their ways of doing things, a set preference, and this also applies to game mastering. Familiarity comfortable, but also predictable.

Try to shake things up now and then by using random elements. Use the random tables, if any, in your rulebooks. Track down some random generators online, or tables from blogs like mine.

I typically have a general idea when I start building a new adventure location, like “a ruin where the demon hid the evil-artifact-of-the-month.” I pin down everything I know about the place from previous adventure or established setting lore, then dig out random tables to help me come up with new ideas and force me to think outside the box.

Whenever I create lists of new NPCs, villages and taverns I start with 10-15 randomly generated from generators online, and they cut everything that does not fit my particular brand of fantasy adventure.

Stats and Encounters, Or How I Learned to Recycle

Game stats are boring, so obviously you want to get that down as efficiently as possible. You probably also want generic stats for more natural improvisation.

Stats

Some previous versions of Dungeons and Dragons included NPC stats in the core book or monster book. NPC stats are back in the current edition of the Monster Manual, although just a handful. This reference means that a reference to “Aryanna Nostro, hardened sellsword” tells me I will find her stats in the Monster Manual.

You’ll save lots of time if you take a cue from this way organizing whatever stats you have to create. I have built 5-6 different sellswords over the years Sellsword Recruit, the Sellsword, the Sellsword Veteran and the Sellsword Champion.

So if I quickly create two characters like:

Aryanna Nostro, Female Human Sellsword Veteran, dark-skinned beauty with a nervous tick, quiet and feral looks

Waldorph Schmidt, Male Human Sellsword Veteran, burly, exquisite beard, erratic memory, dreams of owning a castle

I’ve also established their combat capability and I know I have stats for a Sellsword Veteran in my Encounter Binder, conveniently on the same two-page spread as the other sellswords in case the character brought company.

The two characters may have the same stats, but that is not important, as the characters become the way you play them and how you use them in your story. Stats are just math on a paper to help you, not something to obsess over.

Encounters

Once you have a collection of monsters and NPCs, you will want to build encounters. It can be a simple as an orc warrior and an orc archer, and if you splice them together, you have a tiny orc horde.

Many GM writes down NPC and monster stats on index cards, which must great for mixing-and-matching on the fly.

I favor a text document, with one chapter for the stats and one chapter of the encounters. Chapter one rarely changes, as each entry in the stat chapter is unique, say “Human Sellsword CR 1”. Chapter two changes all the time with the same sellsword pasted into several encounters, such as brigands, caravan guards, or hirelings for a vile necromancer.

This organization is something like the Pathfinder Monster Codex and Villain Codex mashed into one binder. I would have built my encounter library around those two books I started today, or simply just used those two books and the Bestiary and be done with it.

The goal is to keep every encounter on a two-page spread for ease of use at the game table. It does not make this document exciting read, but it is super-useful at the game table.

Collect a Stack of Maps

It is a good idea to collect generic maps because you never know when you need one in a hurry. Create a Pinterest board (or have a look at mine), bookmark pages by good mappers and even print out a few to keep at hand in your GM Binder.

Battle-Mats and Minis

Battle-mats and minis help you visualize combat and dig into the tactical side of the game. They are also expensive, takes up space in your man/gal-cave, and takes time to set up at the gaming table.

Sometimes you keep it fast and dirty and get on with the story. So your mileage may vary.

I enjoy the tactical side of Pathfinder RPG and use Reaper Bones. The Bones are relatively cheap, bendable, unpainted polymer minis, and Paizo’s beautiful flip-mats for encounters with more than – say ten – participants.

The attack of the skeletons!
The attack of the skeletons!

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3 thoughts on “GM Tips For Roleplaying Game Sessions”

  1. This is really useful content! Would you be able to explain the layout of the chapters in your Encounters Binder? Are characters, monsters, environments, etc generic? or specific characters etc that have been encountered? If generic, how do they differ to the codex chapters? Would really appreciate a rundown of the sections as I’m working on putting one together as I’ve just started Dm’ing

    1. Thanks!

      So this turned into the beginning of a revised post, I suppose:

      Everything in the GM Binder is setting specific or will be once I use it. Everything in this binder has changed every 18 months with changing campaigns for years.

      This binder has existed in a shape or form since I started gaming until the rules got so extensive I had to move them to a binder of its own. Now GM Binder is purely for the story.

      Everything in the Encounter Binder is generic and has been slowly growing for the longevity of the rules set of my fantasy game. Everything I have built

      My Encounter Binder has 11 sections:

      Characters: This is not the actual characters (the players have them), but rather any new rules related to the characters, random tables, etc.

      Spells, Magic Items, Monsters: These three sections are homebrew campaign-specific to my world, which means might as well have been placed in the other binder, but I put them here because the designs use rules owned by others.

      Environments: Random tables and encounters for various environments. Into the Sewers and Into the City, previously posted on this blog, is lifted from this section.

      Monster Codex: Monsters with the advanced template, class levels, or otherwise changed published material.
      NPC Codex: A collection of generic NPCs alphabetically. Includes, for instance, a sellsword as a half-dozen different power levels.

      Strongholds, Dungeons, Groups: In this section, I’ve cut and pasted the NPC and Monster stats above into convenient two-page spreads.

      This setup has grown over the past twenty years because of the rules-heavy system I have been using. I’m likely to slim it down a bit for the future.

      Today, there are stat cards available for both Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, making the entire Encounter Binder redundant. I have both Gale Force 9 cards for D&D and the Pathfinder cards for Pathfinder, and both will be a time saver when I get around to playing fantasy again. Both are pricey, but especially the Paizo cards are top-notch.

      Another time saver is the return of NPC stats in the D&D Monster Manual and the NPC Codex books for Pathfinder. Neither was available when I started my binder, and I’m likely to do this differently starting fresh today.

      1. Wow, thank you for this. This is a really extensive explanation and I am very grateful for the time you’ve taken. This set up makes a lot of sense. I like the NPC and Monster Codex ideas. Thanks again! This is such a useful blog.

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