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The Lazy Man's Guide to Gamemastering

The Lazy Man's Guide to Gamemastering

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Published by Jeffry Willis
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Published by: Jeffry Willis on Jul 06, 2012
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12/26/2012

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The Lazy Man's Guide to Gamemastering
It's a common affliction of gamemasters to pour hours of their precious time into crafting astory to make their players awestruck, only to see them time and again decide to runobliquely to the carefully laid path before them. Some resort to the railroad, locking the cardoors and forcing the players along for the ride. Others react by trying to script carefullyplanned flow charts of how to re-direct the players back to their attempt at Pulitzerdom.Most throw their hands up and see hours of hard work just vanish.I make no apologies: I'm a lazy gamemaster. I've done the carefully crafted story thing onetoo many time, and frankly, I just cannot be bothered to invest the time. Further, I alsohave come to realize that your intricate plot is a disservice both to yourself, and to yourplayers. It is either therefore the conceit of wishing to impress others with yourstorycrafting acumen, or, as was my case, it's a lack of trust in yourself to be able to run agame "off the cuff". Coming to the table with nothing more than a handful of NPCs andsome vague ideas can be a frightening notion. It has the feel of walking a tightrope withouta net. It's also a completely unjustified fear.In this little missive, I'll outline the simple formula I use for my GMing style, ideal for boththe slothful as well as the time-pressed. I will demonstrate how to turn your vague ideasand handful of NPCs into tools to help your players craft a story they'll enjoy, as well aspoint out that you do indeed have a safety net you may not have considered.
Step One: The Campaign Idea
Before you can start GMing, you need to have a basic premise or idea of a campaign. Thetemptation here is to include loads of history and backstory that will make players' eyesglaze over. The goal is to try to make the world, and the campaign, seem real by making itdetailed. This is a common mistake. Nothing will make players feel more disconnected fromtheir character, and thus the world, than the feeling that everything is completely alien tothem, they have nothing to hook them into the world.This is your first opportunity to be lazy. Rather than explain all the intricate details, stealthem from media that the players are familiar with. Instead of explaining the elaboratepolitics of your nation of bored, decadent nobles, just say "This is nation is basically likeDangerous Liaisons" or "This character is alot like The Marquis de Sade". There's nothingwrong with explaining the Hyborean nation of Stygia as "basically Egypt, but they worshipan evil snake god, commit human sacrifice, and use dark sorcery". Sure, there's more to itthan that, but the players don't need to know that right now. They just need a hook toengage that information quickly. These things are all tropes, dense nuggets of informationyou can convey by engaging in a common frame of reference. I like to outright list the TVshows, books, and movies which are sources of inspirations for my campaigns, as theplayers then instantly understand what the game is about as well as their character's placein the world. And it's alot easier than writing pages and pages of background history thatyou expect them to digest.Once you've established the world using tropes, you then establish the premise the sameway. "This game is going to be kinda like Star Wars, with the players being rebels fightingagainst an Evil Empire" instantly lets the players know what kind of people they'll beroleplaying.
 
It's also the lazy way to explain things, because it involves very little work on your part.Lazy is better!
Step Two: The Plot
You don't have one, you don't need one, nor even want one. You should be too lazy for that.You have your premise from step one, right? Use that. If you know the game's premise is"rebels fighting the Evil Empire", then that's all you should write. Don't be tempted to fleshout the ways in which the players will thwart the Evil Empire. That's
their 
j
 
ob.Instead, figure out who the movers and shakers of your Evil Empire are: a sorcerer-king, hisapprentice, the arrogant military commander. Flesh them out with personal goals. What dothey want? What kind of things will they be doing in the setting to get what they want?Write that down if you want, but keep it simple. Write it in bullet points like:* Wants to destroy the Rebel Base* Wants to recover the plans to the Empire's secret weapon* Wants to finds his long lost son and convince him to join the Empire.That's enough for now. There could be subtext, like maybe his loyalty to the Evil Emperorisn't as secure as it seems, or he isn't yet aware his son is alive (and is one of the PCs)...but that can be figured out organically in play. For now, just some basic goals is enough.Muse on what kind of things they'll do to accomplish those plans. Maybe, say, capture aPrincess who is a secret member of the rebels and torture her to find out where the plansare. And the Princess is an NPC who has a goal too: hide the plans. So now you have astory hook based around those goals: secure the plans and rescue the princess. Come upwith a few more of those and you're ready to roll.One word of caution:
never 
l
 
ove any NPC so much you cannot bear to see them die in ahumiliating way at the hands of the PCs. Because they probably will. Remember, you madethem, and you can always make another one that looks just like them. So don't getattached. Heck, if they become a problem, kill them yourself if you have to. NPCs are therefor the benefit of the players, not the other way around.
Step Three: Getting the PCs involved.
When it's game time, you show up with your NPCs and their goals, from which you've comeup with a few story hooks. The next thing to do is to screw with the Player Characters usingthose hooks. The first thing you need to do is look at the character sheets. See what kind of skills, talents, hindrances, and backstory the Players have come up with and use them allagainst them.So, PC1 lives on a farm with his family? Maybe your Evil Knight's troops, in an effort to findthe plans, aggressively question, torture, and even kill PC1's family. PC2 wrote "Enemy"down and as a hindrance on his sheet, and told you it's a powerful gangster he owes moneyto. So you have one of those gangster's goons come calling to put some pressure on him tofind a way to make that money he owes... or at least make some tracks. Then dangle amoney making opportunity in front of him, one that involves him putting some distancebetween himself and his enemy to boot. He can choose to take the bait or not... if not, well,we'll get to that shortly.The goal is just to use the things the players already told you about their characters, whichare things they want to be important in the game, and then have your NPCs' goals stomp all
 
over those things, leaving big fat bloody footprints on their most precious hopes, dreams,loved ones, and possessions. Then sit back and enjoy the show!And what if the players don't bite at any of your plot hooks? That's ok. They don't have to.But just because they do nothing doesn't mean our NPCs are also going to do nothing. Letthe consequences of inaction catch up to them. If they are in a city and hear tell of an EvilNecromancer nearby raising an undead army and they decide not to do anything about it,they shouldn't be surprised when, some weeks later, the city is besieged by an army of undead.Meanwhile, while your consequences are brewing, present additional or alternative plothooks as well, other story choices they can make. Let them figure out which align with theirPCs' personal goals and which they wish to pursue, and which they feel are not worth theirtime. Let them be proactive and come up with their own story hooks, if they're exceptionallycreative players. But keep your world in motion. Soon enough they'll learn that while theycan impact the world, the world is not sitting around in statis waiting for them to interactwith it. It's not an MMO where the contact stands there with a yellow exclamation point overhis head until someone clicks on him. It's a living breathing world with powerful peopledoing things that trample the things that are important to player characters.This of course implies there have to be things important to the PCs. You need to make sureyour player can explain at least three things their character deeply cares about or wants toaccomplish. At least one of those accomplishments should be long term. Once you havethat, you have all the ammunition you need.Also remember to steal ideas. Steal from everywhere. While an adventure module might betoo linear for a lazy GM (it's alot of work to read the whole thing and prep it all... and thenthe players go off the rails anyways), it may be just what you need for when the PCs decideto sneak into the dungeon of the Evil Overlord. Sure would be handy to have a dungeonready, wouldn't it? Grab your module or at least the map and you're done. Include the bitsyou remembered from the one time you thumbed through it. See a great movie or scenefrom a movie? Steal it. Read a great NPC in a book? File off the serial numbers and putthem in your campaign.
Step Four: Keeping the ball rolling
The great thing about this whole process is that you never had to write an adventure. Youdidn't need to prep a scenario. You don't need to start up the train engine and get everyoneaboard the railroad. You just kick the crap out of the things the PCs care about with yourNPCs then let them figure out what to do about it.So what do you do when the players seem stuck, can't decide what course of action to take,or disagree on how to proceed? Simple: you kick the beehive again. Put the pressure on.Follow the famous advice to have someone bust in the room with a gun. It doesn't matterwho. It doesn't even need to make sense: the players will make sense of it somehow, trustme (more on this later). Just do something to push the players into making a decision,taking an action, whatever that might be.It's important to note here that you're not pushing them into following a plot: you don'thave one of those, remember? Rather, you're just pushing them into deciding to doSOMETHING. What? That's up to them. If they choose to do nothing, there should beconsequences of inaction, like the Army of the Dead example mentioned previously. Perhapsthe city's forces may be enough to drive the dead off... perhaps not. But the PCs can

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