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This week’s blog post is both late and slightly random, no excuses beyond generally life getting in the way.

Although I played and GM’d in the past I count myself firmly as a new GM, over 20 years of leaving the dice to get dusty has all but completely eroded any chops that I had back in the day.  I’m therefore reading plenty and thinking lots about how to improve my game and the following are some, fairly random, thoughts about how I need to approach my time at the table and things I’ve found helpful.

Having read very mixed reviews of it I was one of the people that found Piazo’s Games Mastery Guide extremely useful, probably reinforcing my status as total newbie.  My eventual decision to buy it was based on reviews that said that for experienced GMs there really wasn’t much in there but for people who were new or wanted to up their game it had really good stuff in it.  I found the book changed my approach to my players and helped me really get my head around what I was trying to achieve.  The idea of writing a good story with my players (and blogging the sessions which is how this blog started) came from reading it and it’s chock full of really good ways of thinking about what the job of GM is.  It is largely system neutral so I lent it to one of my players runs GURPS games and he found it a helpful read.

An example of a really good tip I got from the book was standing up when running combat encounters in order to help players focus their attention and give a sense of urgency.  Having read that I tried it when next playing with the kids and was really shocked by the difference it made. They focused on the game far more, especially when it wasn’t their turn, and when they had decisions to make within the party my sitting down gave them space and a cue to take their time.  This idea of the need for drama and theatre at the table led me on to another discovery of my own.  My eldest son loves his electronic gadgets and had several dice roller apps on his tablet but I now have a rule that bans the use of electronic rolling for anything but character generation.  I realised that when he used the tablet he pressed the button and read off the result but when he rolled a dice, especially for something important, you could see the tension in him while shaking the dice and every eye was on the dice as it rolled waiting to see what the result was.  The theatre that dice give us is something I hadn’t considered but I now keep that in my mind when considering whether I want to roll something privately or publicly.

The first adventure I bought and ran was Retribution by Raging Swan and one of the free downloads that comes with it is a printable set of pictures for all the NPCs.  As the PCs need to be familiar with the NPCs that inhabit The Priory Of Cymer being able to bring these out at the table when the players were first introduced was a remarkable boon.  After a months unavoidable break bringing these out at the beginning of the next session immediately helped the players remember who was who and which conversations they’d already had.  Again the idea is very simple but the players quickly remembered which NPC was which, what they had said and formed solid opinions of them simply because they could picture the NPC and had their names by their pictures on the table.  The second session of Retribution ended up being entirely without combat and very roleplaying heavy, without these pictures I really think the game would have been very confusing.  My brother has always drawn and was recently chatting about what he could do with is art so I’ve chatted to him about drawing up some NPC pictures and possibly some  key locations in subsequent adventures (including ones I’ll end up writing) that need to sit in the players brains (he’s already drawn me an excellent tribe logo/symbol for a goblin tribe I’m working on).  Additionally I can see myself buying some of the excellent art packs that The Forge Studio make.

I blogged recently about how much mood mattered to me when I was preparing games and a recent article by Jeff Lees on Gnome Stew about how to help players experience emotions by describing the physiological effects the characters are experiencing has very helpful ideas that I am trying to introduce to my GMing. I could see the effect in action while explaining the idea to my eldest son, giving him the example of telling a player that their character could feel the hairs standing up on his arms and the back of his neck while his stomach tightly knots and his shoulders bunch tensely instead of saying he was frightened.  This is definitely a technique that I need to remember while at the table but currently I don’t remember nearly as often as I should.

One thing that really did help my game play on that first game night was not just having thoroughly prepared the adventure I was running but having read three or four other contrasting adventures as well. Thinking about how to handle encounters and scenarios I wasn’t running helped me to better understand what I needed to fully prepare and what either I could wing or the players would change regardless of what I did.

So is any of this coming together? Last session Retribution took an unexpected twist because I didn’t think something through when the players did something unexpected, a more experienced GM wouldn’t have made the mistakes I made and wouldn’t have been so flustered but equally I’d have struggled more without all the various sources I’d read and thought about.  A mixture of having read different ways of doing things, being aware of the mood I was trying to create and thinking about the adventure/situation in terms of linear, non-linear and unrestricted adventure types (stuff I took from the GMs Guide) has helped me to hopefully put together something between sessions that will get the game back to where I want it next week.  In the future I’ll try to think things through a little more carefully during the session and not make the mistake in the first place but at least I can work with it and work out how to recover.  If it doesn’t end up back where I’d like it to be (because I think the players will enjoy it more if it goes that way) then I know enough not to try to force it or to punish the players for not doing what I want.

Apologies again for the random nature of this weeks post hopefully it was worth reading and next week I’ll have the game log posted up in on time.  Once Retribution is finished I’ll work through my mistake last session and how the attempted recovery went.