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The Pragmatic GM approach (being a GM is hard work)

Being a GM is hard work. There’s no bones about it. Sitting down and planning an RPG campaign is a huge undertaking these days, even if it is only for a few sessions. A lot of players simply think that a GM spends his time thinking up new ways to kill their PCs. Let’s be honest, there’s a tendency for the GM to be portrayed by some media as power-mad evil geniuses – and some are – but there’s no Evil GM school! You also need to be fairly tolerant of materialistic psychopaths (and their PCs).  Also GMs don’t kill characters, players kill characters, usually through their own actions (or lack thereof).

Being a GM is immensely rewarding but you may not get out what you put in. By far the biggest issue most GMs have is time, and I’m no different. When I was younger I used to meticulously plan my AD&D campaign areas: each location had their own encounter tables, local flora, monsters, a travelogue, and the maps were created in intricate detail, encounters would be richly detailed and described. Nowadays I just can’t afford that level of detail – over the next fortnight I’m running WFRP, AD&D, and Pathfinder. I’m also playing in a Pathfinder game. Yes, that is a lot and maybe I am over-committed, but on the other hand that’s with a number of different groups at ORC Edinburgh.

There is also a sense of frustration among GMs when they plan games and players don’t turn up or cancel. I’m no different, but I’ve found a way around problems like that. It may require a bit of work on your part as GM, and possibly on the part of your players, but you’d be surprised at how it can make things run smoother. I call it the Pragmatic GM Approach.

The Pragmatic GM Approach

It could easily be called “the GM with no time”, but “Lazy GM” also covers it pretty well. The concept is pretty basic but requires minimal planning and allows you to be a bit more flexible. I’ve mentioned some of these ideas previously in various posts on running RPGs, but I’ll cover some of them here again. Apologies if it seems I’m repeating myself!

Don’t plan everything. Seriously, don’t. Running a dungeon bash is easier than running a free-form game like FATE, but the players will still find ways to surprise you. Sometimes winging it is fun, but you should try and keep a basic framework in your head or notes – even if it is the various plot points. Micro-managing your games will also lose you players if you start rail-roading them.

Keep an ideas book. It can be anything ideas for an adventure, an encounter, NPCs, maps, or anything. A5 or A6 notebooks can fit in your pocket, great for scribbling in when the urge takes you. They’re relatively inexpensive too.

Write for the group, not for players. Consider your players and give everyone their moment to shine – even games with lots of battles should give the wizard (“I recognise this script/spell”) or rogue (“Get the damn door open!”) a chance to shine. Take your cues from them, but don’t ignore the quieter players.

Tailor encounters to the group. Random bandit attacks aren’t much fun, but they can provide some useful combat encounters particularly if there’s a bounty/ransom involved. A common theme such as a motif or NPC leader can also help provide some consistency. Perhaps a particular kind of monster is drawn to the PCs – their loot/magic items/weapons/blood/souls are of particular value. Then there’s always revenge for wiping about that goblin tribe for instance. Don’t be afraid to create and encounter that could see the NPCs wiped out if they don’t run: the whole CR thing is overrated. You can have a lot of fun where the PCs are essentially keeping a low profile or running away!

Standby filler sessions are great when players can’t make it for a single session. You can slot in a bit of a character-driven side quest that may or may not advance the campaign, or even play to the remaining group strengths – e.g a lot of fighting or special skills – like planning a heist or conducting an investigation. Some classes require a number of trials for PCs to advance so these can also work well. If you can try and have these on standby, just in case.

Finish game sessions on a cliffhanger. It means you have a snapshot of the party that you can then plan for. You can do a lot with this – downgrading or upgrading opponents, upping the numbers of their opponents, extending the plot, and planning for new PCs. Not only that, it encourages players to turn up to find out what happens next and gives a GM a chance to clear their head.

Get your Players to write up sessions, not you – if you’re using forums or other online media this is pretty easy. It also means that any absent players can get a quick summary without the GM having to explain what happened. This does sound lazy but the chances you’ve already put a lot of work in, and likely haven’t got time to do that as well. If a player writes it up as their character even better. Encourage Players to do it with XPs if necessary.

Let PVP (Player Vs. Player) happen. Seriously. NO, IT DISRUPTS THE GAME! I hear you shout in anger. Unfortunately if both players are keen on the idea you’re better off dealing with it, and going with the flow. If it kicks off let the PC wait their turn.Find out how the group are acting before the dice hits the table. Don’ t let it slow down the flow of the game and let the Players role-play it (not based on some arbitrary die roll) – but not at the expense of the rest of the group.

Extra books and mniatures are great but can be a faff to carry around. Either get your players to bring their own or try sticking some images onto counters or coins. Only consider 3D dungeon terrain and flip mats (and extra books) if you have room, and if you also have transport! If players want to use the rules from a particular book have them bring it with them.

Play Aids for the Pragmatic GM

Borrow images or maps, they can help cut out  a lot of planning time .I’ve often found floor plans from estate agency sales pamphlets to be useful for contemporary games for instance, and a nautical chart revealed the existence of the now-infamous Devil’s Hole in my Cthulhutech games. The internet has a wealth of images or maps that you can use – it’s often a good idea to print them out to use as handouts.

GMs screens are useful, if expensive, and there’s often a bit of blurb that you can paste extra information onto. Or you can make your own out of a ring-binder with clear plastic inserts. Most PDFs allow you to copy and paste from them so you can use these to copy any charts or reference tables. Use with care though.

If you have a digital version of a map, “white-out” portions of the map using an image editor like GIMP creating a “fog of war” effect. You can print it out and don’t have to spend  time drawing out the map of where the PCs have been. Or upload it to the net, like the ORC Wiki uses..

Create a basic local knowledge guide and map for your game area – perhaps detailing places and local rumour. They don’t have to be true though, and maps are always nice to have as play aids. Years back I created a travelogue for my AD&D game which talked in paragraph or two about each area, its distinctive politics or terrain and any local rumour (I believe the old Volo’s Guides were similar for AD&D). It also helps head off some obvious questions you may get.

If you can, record PC stats in a note book – things like thief skills or Perception scores, sixth sense abilities, etc. This way you can make rolls against stats without the players knowing something is up and helps add to the tension and drama if they don’t know there’s a test involved… or if they’ve failed to notice the bad guys sneaking up, the tripwire or landmine, etc.

Stand up sheets like the one I created for ORC here are my own innovation so that Players and GMs have a handy reference tool. GMs can see relevant stats, players can identify each other, and there’s no “what’s-yer-name- again?” – well, there wouldn’t be if I used them more!

Hopefully the Pragmatic GM approach is of use to you – feel free to comment with any other suggestions!