After thirty plus years of playing RPGs, there are a few tricks that I have tucked away into the old noggin. And, since its just sitting up there gathering dust, I have decided to share some of them with you.
Yes, whether you want me to or not.
For this first foray into GM Tips, I think I’m going to start with how to begin and end a session.
Why just that, you ask? Aren’t all those things in between just as important?
I mean, don’t get me wrong. They are important. But, you can kill or invigorate a night of gaming in the first, and last, 30 minutes of the game.
Tip: Give Players some time to socialize. If you give them a little bit of time (Say about ten minutes) in the beginning of the session, it will help the Players keep their head in the game later on. They wont have to keep looking for the next pause to tell everyone about the miniature that they found for only three dollars, or show off the pictures of how they painted the other day. They can do that at the beginning of the night and then focus their excitement on the game itself.
If you try to rush everyone into the game, I promise that you will find them distracted for the rest of the night. Let them have the time to catch up. then you can count on their attention and participation.
Tip: Recap Once this is done, bring everyone’s attention to the table by giving a Recap of the story so far, or at least the last session, to the point that the game left off. I usually have someone else give the recap, but don’t force it on anyone. Ask who would like to, but if no one volunteers, do it yourself.
This will remind everyone of where the Characters are and what they are currently facing.
I know, I know. You are a Master Story Teller and they should simply remember. Hell, they should have spent the past week in restless anticipation of the next chapter of your tale.
Yeah… but the truth is that we are human. With real lives in the real world. And things happen over the span of a week or more that can seriously distract from whatever is going on at your game table.
Tip: Start with ACTION!: When describing the type of game i run to most people, I explain it thus, “High Action meets Epic Level Fantasy.”. And, as such, one of the first sentences out of my mouth, when starting a new campaign, is usually, “Roll for initiative.”
This is my way of getting everyone’s attention from the very first moments of the game. Yes, I will slow it down (a little) and get into the role play and story telling. But I want to set a pace for the campaign. I want to get everyone’s blood pumping. I want everyone to establish, from the beginning, that they are ADVENTURERS! (Even though that doesn’t always mean heroes)
One word of warning when using this method however. Don’t make the battle last the entire session! Keep it between fifteen to thirty minutes. While battle is a great way to energize the beginning of a game, Battle Fatigue, can set in if it lasts too long. And that can kill the momentum of a game just as easily as a slow start.
Tip: Use Cliffhangers: I know I’m about to expose how old I am, but one of my favorite
Saturday morning cartoons, when I was a wee lad of seven, was Flash Gordon. (the one from the seventies. not the really old one from the thirties. I’m not THAT old) One of the things I loved about it was that, since it was in serial form, each episode would end with a cliffhanger.
We would be left worrying and wondering over the fate of Flash, Dale, and Doctor Zarkov. Was Ming the Merciless going to destroy them? How were they going to get out of this, seemingly inescapable trap? I couldn’t wait for Saturday. I needed to know if they were going to be OK.
You can do the same thing in your game. Have the session end in a perilous situation. It doesn’t always have to be an imminent battle. It could be a trap, like Flash and his companions. It could be someone being poisoned, someone betrayed, or a plot twist. To help you get started, here are some Cliffhanger options for you to try:
- Imminent Doom: The old stand by. Leave us walking into a chamber as a Red Dragon rears its head and intakes a deep breath. That’s going to make some people anxious for the next gaming session.
- The Sense of Foreboding: This could be something as simple as approaching shadows through the fog, a foretelling of one of the party member’s death, Hearing the trumpets signalling the opening charges of a war, or even a “Something isn’t right” kind of feeling.
- The Plot Twist: Reversals and plot twists are kind of a standard of story telling, so instead of burying them in the beginning or mid-session, why not end the session with one? Something along the lines of a friend’s betrayal (one of my favorites), The bad guy isn’t who you thought it was, or (and I love doing this to Parties who have gone a little “Murder Hobo” without realizing it) YOU are the Villain every one is hunting.
- The Discovery : Kind of like the Plot Twist, the Discovery is a moment where the Party obtains a key piece of information related to the plot of the campaign. The difference being that this is something the Party has actively been seeking and expecting. Things like, the magical weapon they needed to defeat the Lich, the Treasure that, once returned, will end the eternal winter set upon the land, or just the clue that leads them to the next clue.
- The Failure: Yes, sometimes, in a a great story, the heroes can fail. It’s a low moment in the campaign, where the Party has been working so hard to achieve something only to fail miserably. They make a HUGE mistake and kill someone they didn’t intend to, with no possibility of bringing them back. They could have stopped the evil plot, but they chose to wait for the armorer to finish crafting that custom armor. Warning: Don’t use this one too often. As it can make the Players think you are simply setting them up for failure and can create a GM vs. Player environment.
- The Decision or Vow: Ok, so I will admit that this is one you’re only going to use MAYBE a couple of times in your entire campaign. (Unless you have one of those Paladins that keep throwing out vows to everyone they cross. “I will avenge you!, I will bring you to justice!, etc) But it can be quite an emotional moment for your players, if used sparingly.
- The Dilemma: I have said before, that the main thing propelling your story forward is conflict. One of the easiest ways to create conflict is to force the Party, or even a single member of it, into a dilemma. This is where the party has to make a choice and/or discover the consequences of that choice. Examples can be: That king we defied in the first adventure now has a bounty on our heads, the person we put into power turned out to be a tyrant, Do I save my party or do I save my childhood friend?
- The False Lull: Think of this as the much talked about “Calm Before the Storm.” It’s where you end the session on a happy, relaxed, hopeful, or celebratory note. The key being, to do so in such a way that makes the Players say: “Oh no, this is too good to last.”
- The Promise: This is when you end your session, just before the Party reaches something they have been absolutely DYING to see or finally reach. It could be a cool setting, or a place that the prophecy has been hinting about. But remember, the key is to HINT that this is finally going to happen. But don’t actually do it until the next session.
However, should you choose to use Cliffhangers, let me also give you these last few tips:
- Make sure that the Cliffhanger actually concerns the Characters and thus gives the Players have something to care about
- Make sure to mix it up. Don’t use the same sort of Cliffhanger week after week, or your Party will grow numb to it.
- Occasionally, give them resolution and a moment to breathe. Let them spend a week basking in their success, before you pile the danger back on them the next week.
- Also try ending with an unanswered question, introduction of a new NPC, or the tease of a new direction for the campaign
Well, I hope this has been of some help. If it has, or you have any questions, suggestions, or requests for future articles, please leave a comment.
If you ever want to just chat about RPGs, hit me up or follow me @DMLeviathan on Twitter.
Have a great one…. DML