Practical Guidelines for GMing

Remember the Dungeoncraft series of long ago? I was thinking about that recently, and I think there are some more secrets of GMing that deserve to be tacked onto the list. This is my compilation of GMing wisdom, with the middle two straight from Dungeoncraft:

Everything you create needs a hook.
Everything you create needs a secret.
Every secret you create needs clues.
Every NPC you create needs a motivation.

What are these guidelines supposed to accomplish? Let’s take a look.

Everything you create needs a hook. At it’s most basic, a hook is typically construed to mean “a way to get the party involved in an adventure.” Let’s expand it a little bit: a hook is a reason to interact with something. Since every adventure will presumably require the party to interact with a number of NPCs, monsters, traps, locations, and objects, it would be nice for them to have a reason to do so. So, each of these GM constructions should include its own hook, or have the hook provided by something else. A troll that attacks the party is its own hook; the hook for finding a long lost artifact can be provided by the scholar who tells the party about it. (But then, the scholar is going to need a hook too — unless he approaches the party, in which case he is his own hook.)

What problems does this approach overcome? Games that stall because the players don’t know what to do next, and reams of GM created material that went unused, to name a couple.

Everything you create needs a secret. The aim of this one is to ensure that there are always more things for the players to find out. It will make them feel that the game world has depth and prevent “nameless NPC #12” syndrome. The secrets don’t even necessarily need to be related to the adventure at hand. This one helps to make sure that GM created material gets reused. And it’s fun to run into NPCs you met long ago who become story relevant again.

Every secret needs clues. This one is pretty obvious: all those secrets you created will need to be discovered to add to the play experience. Also, they can be used to foreshadow later events. As I read recently, the “Aha!” experience is much more fulfilling when it’s preceded by the “Huh?” experience.

Every NPC needs a motivation. This is what makes the NPCs seem like real people, rather than cardboard cutouts — it’s another way to combat “nameless NPC #12” syndrome. These don’t necessarily need to be related to the adventure at hand either. They can just as easily come up again later, perhaps it conjunction with those secrets you created.

So, those are my four guidelines for GMing. They’re all focused on game prep, but they also make running a game much easier by improving the quality of the material you have to draw on. GMing tends to suffer from the snowball effect: small mistakes early on quickly turn into big problems down the road. By putting a little bit of extra work into your preparation at the beginning, you can avoid a lot of problems down the road — and thus save yourself a lot of work later on.

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