In order to make the best furniture that they can, a carpenter learns how to use several different tools, and then puts those tools in their toolbox. When woodworking, they simply pull out the tools that best help them get the job done – and with a greater selection of tools to choose from, they’ll make a better quality product.
It’s the same thing for gamemasters. Running a game requires having and using a few different skills. You don’t have to use all of those skills, but having a bigger selection of skills to choose from makes for a better night of gaming. For maximum enjoyment of the game, you should continually dial in your preferences by always trying different things and learning new skills (putting more tools in your toolbox). With a fuller toolbox, you’ll naturally adjust your style to one that better suits you and your group.
In this article, I’m going to tell you which tools I keep taking out of my toolbox, session after session. They might not be your preferred tools, but if you put them into your toolbox, you’ll simply have more tools to choose from to run a better game…
In any novel, movie, or TV show, there are plenty of key points that can make it a great story. Usually, most of these key points end up in your gaming session pretty easily. We have characters… they get thrown into the fire… and then they have to fight their way out. By the nature of actions taken and rolls of the dice, the story will include challenges, conflict, twists, tragedy and/or triumph.
Is the story interesting? Is it compelling? Does it make you want to know what’s going to happen next? And, is the outcome merely satisfying, or awesomely exhilarating?
Pretty much all of the tools that I pull out of my toolbox are specifically geared for helping me answer those questions, because being part of a great story is my main reason for gaming. And so, the most often-used tools in my toolbox are listed below.
- The characters are the stars. Yes, “things” happen, but how do those things affect the characters? Is the story affecting some random NPC, or is it affecting one or more of the characters? If you put a story element into the game, how and why will the players and their characters care? Always strive to affect the characters in some way, and they will always care. For example:
- If a farm was raided by orcs, is it a random farm, or does the farm belong to a relative of one of the PCs?
- Can one of the PCs know the big bad evil guy personally?
- If a new drug has hit the streets, is a PC, friend of a PC, or relative of the PC addicted to it?
- “Character” is the star. Hand out character quicksheets to your players. Stuffer Shack has a couple of them, and I’m sure you could find more on other RPG sites. They’re out there, because they are really useful. Basically, they are sheets that have a few questions on them that point to the character’s character (quirks, morals, personality traits, associates, etc.). They help define who a character is during character creation (adding depth), and just help them come alive. The two that I hand out are here and here. Quicksheets can be an amazing tool, but don’t ever make your players fill them out. After all, this might not be a tool that they prefer to use.
- NPC names. Every NPC has a name. For any NPC that you know the characters will face, make sure that they have a name ahead of time. I usually make these names interesting or uncommon, but I’ve also been known to do just the opposite and make a name very plain and boring. I just think that a name can help establish a personality, so that’s what I do. Also, have a list of random names that you can pull from at a moment’s notice. This can help give the impression that someone isn’t actually a random NPC, but one that you’ve given some thought to and might be important.
- NPCs have character. Every NPC that your player characters meet needs to have character. They need to be unique. If they have a name, they absolutely need to have some thing that separates them from the rest. When played by the GM, generic NPCs can easily all start to blend together. Avoid that by picking one thing that makes every NPC unique. Trust me – this is important, as it subtly adds deep layers of realism to your game.
- Is this NPC always sneezing?
- Does she have a facial twitch?
- Does he pick his nose?
- Does she always finish a player character’s sentences?
- Does he always talk with his hands?
- Does she always flip a coin?
- Does he get mad easily?
- Get scared easily?
- Have a scar?
- Cuss a lot?
- Cry a lot?
- Have a limp?
- Missing a few fingers?
- Have lots of friends?
- Lots of enemies?
- Completely non-descript?
- Practice your NPCs. I have heard a lot of fellow gamers say that they don’t do voices well, or that they aren’t a great roleplayer. Who cares? I don’t do it well, either. The thing that helps me succeed, though, is preparation and practice. I think the Boy Scout Motto is “Always be prepared.” It’s their motto because it’s a good one. Players will remember NPCs who talk or act a little differently, and will certainly appreciate you for it – so spend a few minutes before each session and practice your NPCs.
- If you know that the characters will be meeting an NPC with a particular accent, practice a few words ahead of time – then use those words and accent when playing that NPC. That’s it. YouTube search that accent, because that can help immensely.
- If an NPC has a specific temperament, practice a few lines ahead of time. Let’s say that their characteristic is Timid… “well-well-well I don’t know, you see, I just don’t know. Well I guess I can sell it to you for that much… oh-dear-oh-dear.”
- If an NPC has a specific quirk (like scratching his face while he talks), practice that in front of a mirror – really.
- How about an NPC that says “now” at the beginning of every sentence? Speak a few things aloud before gaming starts (anything) and say that word first, for every sentence.
- Or, you can always lean forward when playing a particular NPC. Practice that.
- Perhaps a particular NPC always speaks fast, or always speaks slowly? Practice a few lines ahead of time, every time.
- Continuity. Every one of these NPCs is unique. That’s great. But that barely matters if the player characters only ever meet them once. It gets tiring and boring for a player if every NPC they talk to is new. As a player, I LIKE interacting with recurring NPCs – you build relationships that way. More importantly, it helps weave a real world in and around the player characters, as opposed to the player characters traveling through the world in a little social bubble. Using recurring (unique) NPCs simply helps make the world richer, meatier, and more real. Meeting a new NPC means that a new micro story has begun – which is great. Bring back certain NPCs from time to time so that those micro stories can naturally unfold. Player characters start to care about what happens to NPCs when they see them over and over… so, bring them back from time to time.
- Irrational is a thing. Yes, any rational person would always act in a manner that is predictable, but when you add emotion and motivation into the mix, people start doing some pretty irrational things. Love, sex, money, power, anger, vengeance… these are all devices that will make any rational person do stupid and irrational things. If you insert a strong enough motivating factor, you can easily establish a plausible reason for uncharacteristic actions. Characters who are always rational are always boring, so occasionally injecting irrational characters and actions into the game will help create far more interesting stories. If some of your NPCs occasionally become irrational, perhaps your players will take the leap and occasionally follow suit.
- Write it down. Get a small spiral book. Write down the name of every sudden and random NPC that the characters meet, and the name of every place that the characters go to. Then, jot down any interesting notes about any NPC or place. Why? Because these can be used later in the story, or spawn other stories – and that helps with the continuity. Do this both during and after the session, but always make sure that it doesn’t slow the game down.
- Be on the lookout. Look out for opportunities for new or secondary stories. NPC interaction, character actions, character backgrounds, character contacts, etc. are rife with opportunity. Always look to pounce on these, especially during a pre-written module (which is often character-generic and not personal).
- Red herrings. A red herring is something that is specifically misleading or distracting – perhaps a clue that is false, or a random person/thing/event that is described, but actually meaningless. In RPGs, it does two very useful things:
- It gives the players more things to think about and question. It keeps them guessing. A good story and setting is not a single line of linear events that lead to fruition; there must be options to make and choices to take, and some of these options should lead to a dead end. Red herrings can take the story in many different directions, making the world (and the ability for PCs to make choices) seem more real. Also…
- It gives you an “out” if the red herring ends up being a more entertaining or rewarding storyline. Sometimes, when players follow a red herring, the story just ends up being more fun and interesting… who’s to say that you didn’t plan it that way all along, and it’s not actually a red herring? [Wink] I love it when the players “figure something out” and it’s an amazingly good game, and they thank me profusely for it – even though I really had nothing to do with it at all.
- Bloody the water. Every so often, throw in little tidbits about a side plot or your overarching story (or perhaps about your next story/campaign). If the endgame of your campaign involves a major big bad guy or event, throw in little tidbits here and there that elude to it. When you bloody the water, your players are naturally drawn into the story and setting a little bit deeper, enticing them to start poking around and taking action. It’s not a red herring, because these tidbits are actually tied to the story in some way (after all, the world doesn’t revolve around the player characters; it draws them in). For instance:
- There’s a new drug on the streets. It’s not important now, but it will be later.
- The mayor committed suicide. They’ve never met the mayor, but the reason she committed suicide is somehow tied to the corruption that the characters are dealing with.
- A dam broke and is flooding a nearby valley. Later, when a dam breaks in their own valley, they’ll wish they investigated the other one.
- Things change. Don’t be afraid to update or change the main story. This can have a huge impact on giving power to the players (what we call Agency, I guess). It’s just not that much fun if decisions are irrelevant, right? Make it fun for them. Make their decisions matter – let the story flow naturally.
- Spotlight. Know your players and their characters, and what they like to do. If someone likes puzzles, have a puzzle. If someone likes combat, give them combat. If someone likes to talk, give them someone to talk to. I’m not saying that you need to put them into situations where they will easily win or shine (which is just fine); I’m saying to put them into situations that they like. Every session, try to give each player character the spotlight. For that, you’re going to need to know your players, their characters, and how they like to play them.
- Internal Conflict. Often, characters are faced with conflict and choices, and the right choice usually seems pretty clear. But what if the player characters are faced with a choice that isn’t so easily decided on? Something like that can immediately start a conversation at the table. You could call this a “no-win situation,” and some people don’t like those, but too bad. Sometimes life is simply hard, and sometimes the world just sucks. I don’t always use this tool, but it’s a good one to pull out every so often. I think that to get the most out of it, you need to give the players a few minutes to discuss the problem.
- “If we leave now to hunt down the orcs, we leave the village defenseless. However, if we wait, the orcs will amass more numbers, and then attack.”
- “If we spend the time to get the child out of the trap, Marrek and his hostage will get away. However, if we go after Marrek and his hostage, the child will die in the trap.”
- Encourage players to help carve the story. Gaming is a team sport, so it shouldn’t all fall onto the GM’s shoulders. This puts story-telling in the hands of everyone, which will naturally make the game richer and owned by everyone. This tool is easy to implement and extremely effective, and thus one of my favorites. It always gets players involved.
- “Your attack takes the orc down. How do you take him out, exactly?”
- “On your last job, you failed miserably. What happened?”
- “Someone enters the bar… he’s a scrawny merchant. Brandon, how does Jake’s character know this person?”
- “As you guys are traveling to the next town, you stumble into a small village. Alyssa, your character realizes that she has been here before, but it didn’t go too well. Why is that?”
Perhaps you won’t find any use for tools that I’ve talked about above. Perhaps a few of them will strike your fancy. Either way, I guarantee that if you always endeavor to put new tools into your toolbox, you will always be running the BEST gaming sessions…