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GMs aren't evil, just misunderstood. Art by Jesterlex.

Archmage's Guide to GMing

So, you enjoy your own pain and frustration enough to be a GM? Welcome to class...

This is written as a rudimentary guide to GMing. All material is copyright me, Archmage, otherwise known as Brian F., except where noted otherwise.

GM? Isn't that a company that makes cars, or something...

Uh, yeah. But in this context, GM stands for Game Master. It's a universal play on the old Dungeons and Dragons "Dungeon Master." So what's a GM do, exactly? Chances are, you already know this, but if you don't, welcome to the wide world of GMing. It's a fabulous hobby, reserved for the few left who enjoy weaving elaborate tales and screwing people over at the same time (aka, the terminally insane). Er, did I say that?

The GM:
  • outlines the plot and story, and keeps it moving.
  • makes judgements based on things like damage and success rolls, as well as the general "I do this. What happens?"
  • keeps track of the rules.
  • keeps track of the numbers, or at least most of them.
  • invents responses and reactions for NPCs (Non-player Characters) and also roleplays for the NPCs.
  • awards XP for various things
The GM roleplays NPCs, and may have other responsibilities as well.

Of course, the GM may have other responsibilities as well. This depends on the roleplaying system itself, and on the preference of the GM. Some GM's like to determine the result of everything that the players do, period, make interjections to their actions, and be extremely anal retentive. A balance is needed, if you ask me, between anal retentive, dice wielding, rule-book pounding GM and the guy that spends all his time winging it.

So how do you run a story? It helps to have a sketch, first. Usually, you should outline the basic NPCs, events, and such forth that will happen along the way. This sketch can range from a few sentences of plot summary to a detailed, well outlined, event by event basis writeup. You need to have some sort of basic plot, goal (even if the goal isn't immediately apparent to the PCs, and it shouldn't always be), filler events, and potentially an ending. It's just like writing any other sort of fiction story, except that you have to be somewhat more flexible.

If you can't think of any good plots on your own, don't fret. Many GMs have a form of writers block, or just lack outright creativity without some sort of inspiration. You can find a lot of good websites online that serve as GM resources. Many of them have things like presubmitted plot sketches, ideas for traps, NPCs, magical items, Javascript dice roller programs, downloadable catalogues, programs that generate random names for NPCs, draw maps, determine random encounters, whatever! Usually, it's good to take these sorts of ideas and then transform them to suit your own needs; it tends to be a bad idea to recycle old clichés over and over again. Unique, involving plots are what keep a good RP away from becoming a dungeon crawl!

So, how do I determine...(or, pass the dice, please!)

Dice are a necessary evil in RPs. Yeah, I love to play around with the dice, make jokes with dice, etc., but I really hate the things. Too much math, too much tedium. The fact is, they're really the only fair way to determine things randomly. If an event is critical to the storyline, though, don't use dice! The last thing you need to have to deal with as a GM is to plan some event out and have it ruined by an unexpected die roll.

Dice for combat and such forth are fairly self explanatory, since there's usually a clearly defined order to things. If you want to use dice for randomly determining events or difficulties, it tends to get a little harder, but not by much. There's a step by step process, and I'll use picking a lock as an example.

  1. Determine the difficulty of picking the lock. Suppose the difficulty is 14.
  2. Do a skills check (base stats for lockpicking + lockpicking skill + d20).
  3. If the check beats the difficulty, then the lock is picked.

If you wish to perform a check vs. a skill (for example, a STR check for kicking in a heavy door or an INT check for a perception/spot test), multiply the stat by 3 and add a d20 roll, then check this value vs. the difficulty. For example:

  1. Kamos wishes to kick in a fairly heavy door (difficulty 18).
  2. Kamos has a STR of +2, so his STR modifier is +6.
  3. Roll a d20.
  4. Is 6 + the number rolled > 18? If so, the door is kicked down. Otherwise, it is not.

In the case of failure with things such as kicking in doors, chances are, an appropriate "punishment" for failure would be something such as the PC injuring their leg and suffering a subsequent AGI penalty until they rest for a while.

You can apply this to anything, from haggling to pickpocketing. In theory, you could even apply it to something like walking (o_o) but I don't recommend that...unless the floor's extra slippery or something due to a spell or other effect...

To determine if something damaging hits is in accordance with the rules outlined in the Phil's System Official Rulebook, which can be found on RPGWW. Here's how it's calculated:

    For spells:
    • Base skills for spell + spell skill rank + d20
      (ex. INT + WIS + MAG + Fire Spell Ranks + d20) Target's Cou + Cou + Int + d20
    • If Spell roll > Resist roll, then the spell hits.
    For physical attacks:
    • AT + d20 - X
      (X is 0 if thrusting, 3 if slashing, and 6 if chopping.) This total vs:
    • Target's PA + d20, so long as this is the first physical attack recieved by the target this round
    • If Attack roll > Parry roll, then the attack lands.
Damage, of course, you don't even need to worry about until the hit. Damage is pretty self explanatory, as the skill or weapon attack will usually have the damage listed in both technical (numbers + what dice to roll) and range (x to y damage). And that's it for how to determine most sorts of things, or at least, it's a basic explanation.

Paint a picture, and be the Picasso of GMs!

The name of the game is description. In all honesty, which would you rather hear?

    "A blast of whitish energy erupted from Daenj'r's open palms. Light flickered in the gloom as a burst of holy might struck the Dragoon in the torso. He reeled from the blow, teetering on unsteady legs. He looked up, revealing bluish skin and whitish hair beneath his obsidian helmet. He wiped a trickle of blood from his lip and readied an attack..."


    "Dragoon suffers 16 damage."

Of course, the numbers are important, but put them in parenthesis, or mention them after the description. If you aren't good at describing things, expand your vocabulary with some nifty adjectives, and try to avoid clichés. Describe a vivid scene for your players, one that's easy to imagine. That's your job, after all. Don't overdescribe to the point where it becomes horribly boring, but don't make numbers the focus. Since the numbers are, after all, just a representation of the event, they should not be the main idea.

The House Rules, otherwise known as "GMs and Their Quirks"

Yep, sometimes, things just don't make any sense. Or, the rules don't explain how to do something. Or, you don't like a specific rule. What do you do? You change it!

You don't have to do things exactly the way the rulebook says. Usually, it's good to do simple things like skill checks the same way every time, at least as far as the procedure. This way, you don't confuse your players (more on that later: sometimes, you want to confuse them). The important thing, whether you're changing the rules or keeping them the same, is to be consistent.

You can also add rules and define new ones. If you think a character in near fatal status should take penalties to hit and defend, determine what those should be. If you think a character should be able to deliver a coup de grace, or finishing blow to a weakened opponent to kill him or her, work that in. If you think that XP should be awarded for (fill in the blank) ________, that's totally up to you!

This, of course, is totally left up to the GM himself or herself.

Being Familiar With the System (Know Your Roll!)

This is more of a brief tip than a section, but whatever...

Know your system to the best of your abilities. Being familiar with the stats and what they mean, as well as what sorts of damage ranges and skills are within reasonable limit, makes you a better GM. It also helps out when you've got to make skill checks. If you want to make a check for something, or determine a new skill and what it's base stats should be, it helps to know the system. Knowing the system also cuts down on...

System Abuse--Twinks, Min/Maxers, and that damn Red Mage!

Let's start this chapter off with a review of a few definitions. Twinks, godmoders, min/maxers, munchkins, cheese-whizzers, whatever you want to call them, they're all the same thing. Twinks are the guys who try to beat the system. How do they do it? A quote sums this up perfectly:

    "Oh, it's quite simple, really. I took a variety of low impact flaws to add points to my character point pool. Thus, I maximize my powers and minimize my disadvantages." ~ Red Mage, 8-Bit Theater
Godmoders make baby Jesus cry.

Twinks will try anything to beat the system. If they're mages, they'll take massive negatives in Strength, Stamina, any stat that doesn't directly impact their magic. The biggie is Charisma--a lot of characters take deficiencies, and enormous ones, in Charisma, just because they don't think it will impact anything they do. Most Twinks figure that the GM will just ignore Charisma. The way to beat this is to do what they didn't expect. Start making Charisma checks every time the PC talks to someone, looks at someone, opens their mouth, etc. When they start failing Charisma checks and get the other PCs yelling at them for ruining negotiations or even just plain conversations...they'll know they made a mistake.

The Twink rarely roleplays their stats well. A -5 Wisdom PC should NOT be giving a lecture on how to solve a puzzle, do math problems, or build a hydrogen bomb. A -5 Intuition PC should NOT be pointing out tiny runic carvings on walls, predicting how people will act, or warning the party of potential threats. You get the idea. In these circumstances, you just have to put your foot down. "No, Sir Edrick, you do not have any idea how to do that. You did not take that action." It takes things out of character, unfortunately, but it tends to be the best remedy.

Twinks also tend to metagame. Metagaming is referring to player knowledge in character, or referring to game mechanics. If the character mentions something about how the goblin he or she just struck has "probably around 30 HP left" or suggests that "I think the wizard's out of MP now, let's attack him," or discusses battle strategies out of character, he or she is metagaming. Metagaming ruins people's imaginations and makes the world you are creating seem less realistic. What's more, it just gets annoying.

Lastly, Twinks predict the system, planning out everything from "I want a +4/+4 Halberd of Gore" to "OK, I need to roll a 12 to beat that resistance roll," and even "Orcs have 50-60 HP, and usually don't cast magic. This'll be easy." The trick around this is changing the variables, especially for the second two issues. If the player thinks he needs a high number for some sort of roll, and that high numbers are better overall (if it's becoming a problem, like you think he or she is cheating in reporting rolls), then make it so that this time, low numbers are better. Mix it up a bit, so that the system is less predictable for the Twink, but only do this if it's causing problems. If they're predicting monsters strengths out of character, and what's worse, metagaming when they do it, change the monsters. Make Orcs something totally different from the fantasy sterotype. Make them fire breathing, or more magically inclined. Change Sirens from singing to having a Paralyzing Gaze. Just change a few variables to keep these kinds of predictions from happening.

How To Encourage Roleplaying (Without Taking Acting 101)

Encouraging good RPing is an important part of being a GM. It's up to the GM, of course, to judge what is good, what is IC (in character), and what is bad. Encouraging good RPing isn't that hard. Some things to try:

    • Award XP for exceptionally good roleplaying
    • Award a one time XP bonus for a creative, in depth, written character history
    • General positive comments
    • Be a good RPer yourself when RPing NPCs, and set an example
If a player just doesn't get it, he or she may just have a slightly limited imagination. It takes time for some players to get a good handle on RPing. Other characters just don't take RPing seriously enough, and are never going to listen to you. They may do something for a reward, but then forget about RPing and being IC later. These kind of players are just going to be obnoxious. The best way to handle them is not to. Either don't RP with them, or just ignore them.

A Brief Review

    • GMs move the plot along and determine the story flow.
    • GMs roll dice and determine successes and failures.
    • A good GM is descriptive and paints a vivid picture.
    • GMs amend the rules to make things make more sense to them and their players.
    • A good GM knows the system.
    • GMs handle disputes and prevent system abuse.
    • GMs encourage and support RPing.
Got it? Now get out there and have fun GMing...because that's what it's fun!

The Addendum That Isn't Really an Appendix--How To Spawn Demons From the Pits of Hell

Now, every GM probably has to deal with combat at one point or another, and one issue with Philsys is a lack of standardized monsters. The advantage to this? The GM has total freedom when creating them, and can do whatever he or she pleases, just working with a standardized set of rules.

In order to keep things simple, it isn't really necessary to create entire stat sheets for monsters. Instead, monsters only need a few stats:

    • HP, MP, and TP
    • AT/PA and AC
    • Weapon/normal attack damage for any and all attacks (for example, if a creature can claw or bite, you must assign a damage to each attack)
    • Initiative
    • MAttack and MBlock (substituted for skill ranks etc when doing magic or resist rolls, just do MAttack or MBlock + d20)
    • Move (if using hexboards)
An example stat sheet looks something like this.
    Drow Soldier/Guard:
    HP: 55
    MP: 0-10
    TP: 20
    Damage: By weapon, 12+1d6 (mace), 16+2d6 (longsword), 24+2d6 (polearm)
    AC: 8
    Initiative: 8 + 2d6
    AT/PA: 16/10
    MBlock: 4
    Move: 6

Note that some stats have ranges instead of absolutes. Just feel free to make individual monsters slightly different in terms of statistics, or do whatever floats your boat.

Appendix A:
Glossary of Terms (What the hell was he trying to say back there???)

    • GM: The person who runs an RP. You've been reading about how to be one!
    • PC: Player character. The characters the players are RPing as.
    • NPC: Non-player character. A character who is not a player, like a shopkeeper, old man, or villan. RPed by the GM.
    • RP, RPing: Roleplay, roleplaying. A sophisticated form of "let's pretend," roleplaying entails "being" someone else, some sort of character in an interactive story.
    • IC: In character. In character actions are actions that a PC would feasibly take. An evil character, for example, would not be sweet and loving (not without some motivation anyway). It also refers to acting like one's character, i.e., acting IC.
    • OOC: Out of character. Actions which a character would not take realistically, or things that the player would do. Talking about XP is an OOC sort of dialogue.
    • Twink: A player who tries to cheat the system in an RP somehow. Synonomous with cheese-whizzer, min/maxer, munchkin, godmoder.
    • XP: EXP, XP, Experience points. Players need these for their characters to gain levels and become stronger. The GM is responsible for doling these out.
    • Checks: Die rolls used to determine success or failure of an action.
    • Metagaming: Referring to game mechanics, particularly IC. Referring to the strength of enemies in HP, gaining XP, or other related things.

Appendix B:
Reader Tips

It's come to my attention that I asked for submissions and thoughts about GMing, as well as suggestions from veterans, but it wasn't until the other day when I actually got something in the mail. This prompted me to start up this section, hoping that it would encourage more ideas and tips. What's next? It's really up to you, the RPers, as to where this goes...if you've got any tips for aspiring GMs or questions that might be answered about GMing, this is the spot you've been looking for!

So without further ado, I bring you "Tips for you, from you!"

Submissions are credited as they appear.

From Chrono_Catfish

The uber-K33n GMing Dicelord Trade Tricks (Say THAT ten times fast...)

Yep, so, as many before you, you have also fallen into the trap of wanting to be a GM. However, you're not sure where to start, or, is some cases, where to continue. However, you have nothing to fear. Setting up a campaign on RPGWW is painfully easy. The fact is, all you really need is some basic story-writing skillz. However, the job is made even easier by the fact that the players will do most of the work. All you have to do is give them a nudge in the right direction, and see where the story takes you. First, you need a premise, some reason the players are in this. Then you need to build on it. It's all right that the players have found the Black Grail, but what's making them keep it? How was it created? Who are these people who're after it? All that must be taken into consideration. Think about what kind of a challenge you want to give the players.

All righty, so you think that now you've got your GM skillz prepared for an ultima-k33n RP? You're wrong! Next, you need your major NPCs. But I've already got them, you whine plaintively? Do you have their CHARACTER SHEETS? Thought not. Now, you'll mostly be working on villains. However, does this signify unimportance? Can you just dash something off is a few seconds? If you said yes, you're wrong! Villains need personality, they need a background. You can work this into the RP. Villains should also always be stronger than any one player. If you make a weak villain, he's NOT going to be very recurring, is he? Think of the general encounter difficulty as well, and the kind of encounters. You could have a mainly combat campaign, or you could have the exact opposite. Note that for a non-combat campaign, you don't have to eliminate battles, just make them too difficult to be won by strength alone.

(Editor's note: Based on the fact that C_C titled this "Chapter 1," I figure he's going to write me a book...keep em' coming, we're waiting for chapter 2!)

Ask Shaun

  • Dear Shaun;
    I really want to GM some ideas but I seem to have so many, I can't settle for one! I'm a little afraid of using a system because I don't want to screw over my RPers. What should I do to become a great GM?
    -- Sincerely, Will GM for Food
    • Dear Will GM for Food;
      Well, part of GMing IS settling on the idea that you want to use. You really should stick with one or two ideas that you like best at the moment, and save the ones that you don't use for a later date. As for using a system... if you're not comfortable with the system, then by all means DON'T. Remember that the important thing is to just HAVE FUN. If you follow that one golden rule, everything else will follow. And feed yourself, dammit. No one goes for the "Starving in Seattle" look. >:{
      -- Eating Hamburger Mac, Shaun
  • Dear Shaun;
    I love battles! Big or small they're really cool but I don't want to overload my RPs with them. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do?
    -- Truthfully, Swords and Daggers
    • Dear Swords and Daggers,
      Battles can be cool, but you always want to pay attention to what your players seem to be looking for. If they're looking for drama, maybe you want to make the battles somehow lead into, say, a dramatic search for the cure to an illness. Or perhaps they want intrigue in their RP, so you cut down on the battles and pull out the shady merchant princes.What I'm TRYING to say here is that you have to always adjust your RP based on what the players seem to want to do. If they're just not into battles that day... then you're going to have to look for ways to avoid it. If they don't want to do ANYTHING.... perhaps its time to pull out the cattle prod and set it on "OMG OW."
      -- I Got My SwordChucks Yo, Shaun
  • Dear Shaun;
    I like to use a lot of puzzles and mentally challenging thing in my RPs. I don't think they are too hard, a lot of them are just common sense, but my RPers don't seem to get it sometimes. I don't want to make things to easy but sometimes I feel like I'm leading around like sheep. Please help me!
    -- Sincerely, Little Bo Peep
    • Dear Little Bo Peep;
      You need to adjust your puzzles to cater to your sheep, really. That's a HARD proposition, but in general it tends to come down to one basic rule. Make puzzles with three solutions. The Easy way. The Hard way..... and the Way you Never Thought of. Don't be afraid to pull your RPers along when or if they get stuck working on a puzzle, and don't be too afraid to take any answer you didn't come up with beforehand. Sometimes RPers can be surprising and resourceful devils, they can. Yesss...
      -- My Preeeecious Preeeecious, Shaun
  • Dear Shaun,
    I don't feel my RPs are really unique. Sometimes I hear about others RPs or read about campaigns on sites, and they sound really good. It makes me nervous when I RP. What should I do? Paranoid?
    -- DND ADD
    • Dear DND ADD,
      Ever heard the saying "The greatest journeys all begin with a single step"? Well, you know it's really quite true. The only way to get that good is to START GMing or RPing. Pretty soon I'll be scared of YOUR grand exploits.
      -- Searching for the One GM, Shaun

board excerpts

The majority of RPGWW's GMs seem to have, intentionally or unintentionally, conditioned players to seek the "right" path through an RP. In other words, the path that fits exactly what the GM has planned out. It's not really metagaming. The players aren't doing things because they want to win or to gain an advantage--the players are doing things because they think it's what the GM wants. They want to make things easy for the GM. When it comes down to it: They don't want to risk messing up the GMs plans.

I have a problem with this. It's fucking boring.

I want my players to do things that force me to think and adapt. I want my plans to be "ruined" so I have to react to the players. We've forgotten that it isn't the GM who decides the path of the RP. It's the players. And so we've evidently gotten into the habit of scripting everything from start to finish. The GM dictates what happens, and the players try their best to go with the flow.

-- AM

...if plot X is taking place, and plot Y appears and fucks with X a bit...

Then what? Maybe plot X should change. You think people in America didn't have plans for September 11, 2001, before "Plot Y" happened? So it's a little extra work for the GM to figure out what to do. The GM can call a break, work stuff out for a day/week or two, and get back into the game.

-- Priam