Tag: experience

RPG-ology #20: Pay Attention

This is RPG-ology #20:  Pay Attention, for July 2019.

When Multiverser was first going to publication, artist Jim Denaxas suggested that from henceforth everything in my life had become tax deductible.

My job today is to create worlds, and to find ways to import worlds to games—my games and the games of referees around the world.  Whatever I do in pursuit of that job is a business expense.

If I go to see a movie, I’m researching plots, stories, and sometimes fantasy or science fiction settings.  If I read a book, it’s the same thing.  The newspaper is a source of world ideas; so, for that matter, is the television.  But those are the obvious things.

I could go on vacation, and justify it as a study of other parts of the world.  How much more realistic could my development of a Greco-Roman culture feel if I’ve walked the Appian Way, or stood before the Parthenon?  Could I write as convincing an Asian setting without visiting China and Japan?  If we’re setting this in the mountains in the summer, a trip to the Poconos is helpful, but wouldn’t it be so greatly enhanced by traveling to the Rockies, the Alps, and perhaps the Himalayas?  I can visit the beach and learn much; I can visit Historic Gloucester, legendary Malibu, and even the black beaches of Hawaii and learn so much more.

And no world experience could be quite complete without understanding the food.  Fine restaurants offer the opportunity to understand the culture, my own or any of a hundred other nationalities and ethnic groups.  Concerts, whether longhair in my father’s more traditional sense or in my generation’s reactionary sense, add to my comprehension of a people, a place, a time.  And I could spend hours wandering around museums—natural history, science, art, culture, or technology, all great sources of ideas, information, background.  No matter what I’m doing, I am involved in research, finding ideas for worlds and stories and games.  And since that’s my job, it’s all tax deductible.

Well, I’ll argue that with the Internal Revenue Service another time.  Don’t get me wrong—I usually win when I’m dragged into court.  I just don’t know that they’d be so willing to accept my definitions of business expenses as I propose.  Meanwhile, there’s another point.

But in order to get to it, I’m going to wander away from it.

I took a Creative Writing:  Fiction class back at Gordon College.  At the time (probably 1977), I had no expectation of ever using it in life.  I hadn’t heard of role playing games, and saw my future as a musician and composer, not a writer.  (If you’re in college and you aren’t in some highly technical field that guarantees you a job in a lab somewhere almost before you graduate, the best advice I have is keep your options open, learn broadly everything you can about everything they offer, and keep your books and your notes.  If your degree isn’t something very specifically in demand, it isn’t your primary goal.  Yes, you are there to get a degree; but far more important than that, you are there to learn everything you can, to know what is taught, and to understand how to learn and how to think.  Those are the real things you learn in college:  how to think first, how to learn second, how to find information third, and the lessons themselves fourth.  The degree, a scrap of credential, only shows that you had the opportunity to learn these things.  It’s not the goal, but evidence that the goal may have been reached.)  I took this creative writing course because it sounded interesting, and I wanted to learn about writing; I thought I might one day write the next great fantasy novel, in the far future, but it certainly wasn’t on my list of career objectives.  Yet it has proved in several ways to have been one of the most valuable courses I took.

One of the basic requirements of the course was the maintenance of a writer’s journal.  We were to carry a notebook with us at all times, and every day to write something—anything—in it.  It could include descriptions of things we saw or people we met; plot ideas or story concepts; dreams and fantasies; drafts of bits of required papers; mental observations; images and similes and metaphors.  I started it because it was required; but I kept it up intermittently for years thereafter, and have three notebooks packed with such writings.  In there you’ll find story and world ideas for fantasies and horror and science fiction.  You’ll find my realization that mysteries have to be written backwards—that the author has to know who did it and how from the beginning, and then unravel it by presenting the clues available to the detective.  You’ll find the original notes which became my Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict article.  I wrote about the technical details of some of the jobs I had; I described landscapes and skyscapes from many times of the year in several parts of the world.  Co-workers were sometimes sketched as potential characters, and conspiracies were hatched.  I wrote a few entire short stories in those pages, and from these taught myself much.  In one, I examined the difference between what a wizard might have done and how his victim might have perceived it, recognizing that magic is less about what the user can do and more about what he can make others believe he did.  And you’ll find the moment I realized that Frank Herbert broke perspective to capture a moment, and the moment I realized that he and J. R. R. Tolkien held my attention by splitting the action in their stories between several stages and moving from one to another.  So much that I learned about people, places, plots, and ideas can be found in the pages of those notebooks.

And every once in a while I go back through them, looking over the old ideas.  I wrote a few short stories for my sons’ teachers to use in their holiday celebrations in school, and dug through the books for color and descriptives that would make the scene more real.  They have proved quite valuable.

And that brings us back around to that point I mentioned a few paragraphs back.

Every minute of your life, every step that you take, you are surrounded by story ideas.

The clerk at the grocery store—look at her.  Is she young and pretty, and expecting a wonderful life ahead of her?  Is she old and tired, doing this to support her three kids?  You don’t know; but notice her, watch her, make some guesses.

There’s a gas station on the corner; they just built it last year.  What was there before that?  I drove through my home town a few months ago on my way to visit my parents, and realized that I did not recognize anything familiar but the road itself—if any of the stores were there when I was a boy, I did not notice these.  Each building can be part of your world, or an inspiration for part of it; and in a matter of only a few years, some will be gone, and most changed in some way.  Capture the present.  Make notes on the past, what you can remember of it.  No, I’ve never used downtown Ramsey in any of my game worlds (or, not yet, anyway); but the bits of it that I remember make good fodder for other worlds.

Look at the sky, the trees, the ground, the roads, the houses.  What month is it?  How many times have you run a game in which the season for the characters was different from that of the players?  Do you really know what summer looks like, smells like, feels like?  How July is different from August?  How summer rain and spring rain differ?  Can you convey that within your descriptions?  Can you convey the difference between December and January while sitting around the pool in June, and make your players shiver from the cold?  Learn the settings.

I read an interview with a successful French photographic artist.  In it he gave the obligatory word of advice to those who aspired to a career akin to his.  His was quite interesting.  Ignore the standard social convention, he said:  stare at people.  You must see them to be able to understand what they look like.  I would say the same thing:  stare at everything and everybody, at least in a figurative sense.  Don’t think of anything as mundane or insignificant; it is in fact the mundane and insignificant that provides the best color, and often the most interesting ideas.

Do you need a notebook to do this?  Probably.  Maybe right now you don’t—maybe you can draw from your current experience pretty well, and create things from what you know.  But there are many things I wish I’d written when I saw them.  I would have a much larger base from which to create had I done so.  I have many years of experiences which are faint memories now, good and bad memories lacking the detail for which I could wish.  I suspect no matter how thoroughly you preserve your observations, there will always be things you forget and wish you could remember—the pleasures and pains of life, the family gatherings which seem so routine at the time and so poignant later (“the last time we saw Grampa alive”), the daily activities of school or work that you would rather avoid but which will not be here forever.  Life is packed with these moments, stories, people, places.  You don’t need me to give them to you—you just need to preserve them and shift them into new combinations.

So in a sense this entry in our series has been about keeping a notebook.  But it’s more essentially about keeping your eyes and ears open, paying attention and noticing things around you, and finding a way to keep those observations for future use.

This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited:  Pay Attention, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.

Previous article:  Treasure Auction.
Next article:  Living In the Past.

Experience Talks: Good Campaigns

Now that we have good players, heroes, and villains, we have to put them to work. A campaign is an ongoing series of adventures in a game world, made up of several ingredients. First, the campaign’s premise must be sound. Good campaigns are consistent with the world you adventure in and have clear and worthy objectives. A good campaign is built from a good premise. “What if” questions are good starting points for finding a good premise. What if aliens secretly contacted Earth governments during the Wild West era? What if superheroes were all created by a single time-traveler? What if the barriers between dimensions begin to break down? Take the basic premise, and follow it through in as much detail as desired. Read more

Experience Talks: Good Characters


Playing good characters is another important aspect of role-playing games. Although a good GM and good players can have a good game with bad characters, it’s much easier to have a good game when the characters are good. When players create heroes, it is far easier to have fun and eliminate many of the conflicts that often arise as a result of good role-playing. A group should be well rounded with well thought out backgrounds and personalities.

Read more

Experience Talks: Good Players

Experience Talks, Part I (WT&D Issue 1) discussed the contribution of the GM to a good gaming experience. Part II discusses the role of the players, characters, and campaigns in creating a better gaming experience for everyone. 

Good Players

Good Players are essential to any game, especially any role-playing game. A player’s attitude, willingness to adapt, and attentiveness can make the game more enjoyable for everyone involved. Several characteristics that are common to all good players will be addressed in this article. First and foremost is the player’s attitude, from which all their other qualities derive. Other traits that excellent gamers possess include adaptability, attentiveness, and a desire to help out wherever he or she can.

Attitude is the most important trait Read more

Experience Talks: Closing Thoughts for Game Masters

Over the past few weeks, Dave has talked about six roles the GM plays—Director, Writer, Referee, Host, Actor, and Tactician—and how each of those roles helps to make a fun and memorable game.

During the Game Summary

A good GM runs a smooth game by making his players comfortable immersing themselves in the game, by running a game that his players want to play in, and by making quick, appropriate decisions relating to his game world.

Some people are a bit more prepared than others.
Some people are a bit more well prepared than others.

Away from the Game

Another aspect of running a smooth game is to make sure everything that needs to be prepared ahead of time is already taken care of. Read more

Lands in the Clouds—GRIT


GRIT is the currency of the game for character advancement. It represents determined intent. You use it to buy all mechanical facets of the character, such as stats, skills, hit points, etc… GRIT can also be used to purchase instant rewards such as critical successes, use of GIFT techniques and other similar actions.

Starting GRIT: 100

Cost for starting Stats, Skills, Hit Points and Saving Throws is 1 per. A strength of 1 costs 1 GRIT, a Strength of 10 is 10 GRIT.

Cost for Feats is 1 GRIT per feat. All prerequisites must be met.


The Rule of Quarters

All Stats, Skills and Saving Throws (excluding adjustments for stats or racial bonuses) are organized Read more

Experience Talks: GM as Tactician


A GM also has to be the tactician for the NPCs. There are various ways for GMs to run the opposition in battle.

Reactive Tactics

The opposition can react based on what the players’ characters do. If the hero brick squares off against the villain mentalist, the villain speedster could intervene. If the hero swordsman prepares to attack the enemy wizard, the enemy archer could attack the swordsman first, or else attack another hero who may be a more dangerous threat.

Read more

Experience Talks: GM as Actor

GM as Actor

GMs also need to take on the role of actor. When heroes encounter villains, allies, or neutrals, they want for them to be interesting enough to be able to tell one from another. When the NPCs perform their heroic or dastardly deeds, they should remain feasibly consistent with what the players have already learned about them.

Cult of Personality

Don Knotts as Barney Fife and Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle

NPCs are people too! They need to have personalities. Often, by taking an existing character that the GM knows well, whether it’s Barney Fife, Ferris Bueller, or his own second cousin, he can use the existing personality for an NPC (without letting the players know about the hidden connection). This will guarantee consistency, as long as the GM keeps straight that Miles Brogan, barroom brawler, is actually Rambo in a different body and an Irish accent. Read more

Experience Talks: GM as Referee


GM as Referee

referee-1149014_640GMs also have to act as referee/judge when running a game. In other games that require a referee (such as football), the referees must know the rules in and out, and be ready to make a call instantly. GMing is a little different, since the GM not only enforces the rules like other referees; he’s also free to change them to suit the story.

Example: In one game, the GM had us write up Champions characters, but we may as well not have bothered. The game was run extremely freeform, and felt more like a Marvel Super Heroes game. My speedster had a 9 SPD, but in combat, it didn’t matter at all, since everything was handled descriptively, instead of taking it phase by phase. 

This took some getting used to, but it was kind of nice to play Champions while taking a break from the rules for a while. 

Example: In another game, I was mind-controlled to hate a demon that got stronger whenever he was attacked in hate. Since the mind control attack barely hit me, the GM offered me a chance to dodge. Surprised, I said, “Okay, what do I do?” He told me to roll the dice and tell him if I made it. 

I rolled 3d6 and got an average result, and told him that I guessed I made it. He told me that the mental beam just snagged me in the foot as I was getting out of the way and that I now had a medium dislike of the demon. This was a nice rule-bending that added a partial effect to mind control, which is normally all-or-nothing. 

I ended up attacking a structure behind him so that it collapsed and knocked him out. 

As a referee, a good GM should exercise fair, quick, consistent judgement, and should accommodate disagreeing players. Read more

Experience Talks: GM as Writer

GM as Writer

writing-1209121_1280…and then the elephant said, “Not with my trunk, you don’t!”

A good GM also acts as writer, whether he has written the stories himself or not. The situation is similar to a playwright who has created a script, yet has to endure the director’s differing interpretation, the casting director’s questionable role assignments, and the actor’’ mediocre performances. The end result of all this is often quite different from what the writer had in mind originally, but given good people, the resulting play can be greater than its original manuscript.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17) 


Writing a game scenario is different than writing a book or a play. The characters involved get to change the script as they go. It’s similar to improvisational theatre, in which the actors are (sometimes) given a topic, and they develop their own characters and plot as they go.

A GM can start with a great story, but what happens when the players don’t do what the GM expects? The GM has the choice of giving the players complete freedom to do what they want and go where they want, or of railroading the players onto a predetermined path. Or, of course, something in between.

A good GM finds the compromise that best suits his players and himself. This is not always easy to do.

Some GMs are great at improvising as they go. I’ve played with some GMs who can craft a wonderful story, and always seem to have the answer to what happens next, with only ten minutes to prepare (“We need to you GM tonight.” “Oh, okay.”)

But not all GMs have the gift of quick thinking. Some rely on fluid scripting. For example, a GM might set up a crossroads for the characters, and want them to take the left fork so that they will gain the ally they need before they take the right fork to battle the enemy. But then the players insist on taking the right fork, so the GM ensures that the ally just happens to be traveling the right fork on the way to battle the enemy anyway, and the party is fortified even though they did not do what the GM expected.

Example: In my Star Hero game, the heroes got caught in a hyperspace whirlpool, and got transported to a universe where magic works. There was a planet right in front of them when they emerged into the new dimension. As I had planned it, the planet was the inadvertent cause of the vortex, because it was drawing magical energy from hyperspace. 

My players found it odd that a planet was right there, and debated whether or not to explore it so they could possibly find a way back to their own universe. Eventually, they decided that even if they decided to go somewhere else to explore, whichever planet they landed on would end up being this Planet X which was in front of them, so they decided to land after all. 

I was relieved that they decided to land on it, since logically, no other planet would have been causing the whirlpool. I was a little insulted being thought of as a railroader, and if they had gone elsewhere, I would’ve had to probably postpone the session, since I had nothing else planned. But it all worked out in the end. 

Writer Summary

As a writer, a good GM needs to tailor the game to the players’ interests. By plotting a script that everyone wants to be a part of, it becomes much easier to keep the players following “their part of the script.”

Dave barely touched on the many writerly jobs the GM performs. Creating the plot is the cornerstone, of course, but there are characters to be developed and a world to build as well. In what other ways do the skills of a writer transfer to the craft of Game Mastery?

This article was originally published in The Way, the Truth, & the Dice. Due to the original article’s length, it is being serialized for this format.