Part I: Preparation
01.01.2019 What advice would you give a first-time GM? (Roundup)
No matter what you prepare, your own world, a premade module – never forget you and your friends at the table. For me the key on roleplaying and especially as a dungeon master is understanding what you want to experience. A good dungeon master knows which background should be integrated to captivate players and he prepares for this. Your group might enjoy living a stream-lined, “railroaded” adventure to find out what is the outcome, which is (in my opinion) totally fine. Especially a new game-master might be overwhelmed by the choices and options on table, so efficient preparation is key. I tend to use notes (Onenote is a digital favorite, while paper is my analogue favorite) of strengths and weaknesses for every character as well as some hints on background which I want to take into account during game sessions.
02.01.2019 What are your favorite GMing tools or accessories? (Roundup)
My favorite tool for character generation is Herolab. I tend ot use this for Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun and probably would use it for every other supported game as well. I think the pricing for the app, especially with modules, is high, but the quality delivered is really good. I enjoyed using this as player and dungeon master. The later for a character portfolio overview and management of the character sheets.
I also own a copy of Realm Works which I think is fabulous for world creation and in-depth preparation. In my opinion the best tool available to keep track on the wide picture, the storylines, especially when you’re having several interwoven. It’s a campaign management tool, allows a lot of portraits and map-management which I think can be a great success factor to visualize and help the imagination of your players which some “details”. The fog-of-war approach for dungeons is great, so you’ve 100% overview as game master and can reveal step by step more when it is discovered. It also helps with downtime communication, as platform for your players to get some information and jump right into your campaign.
Finally, for my last adventures I did prepare on Onenote which is in my opinion the most versatile notepad and I like the cloud functionality between mobile phone, tablets and laptop/desktop. It helps me structuring information, makes easy access for pdf, pictures and text. For me it’s an easy and quick tool, which I use when there’s no giant backstory, no large campaign and only few recurring characters. I also tend to use this as player, linking my herolab pdf chars with backstory and the ongoing adventure journal.
03.01.2019 How do you find players?
To be honest, I stopped searching a while ago. In the area where I live it was challenging but not impossible since Vienna is quite near. Since I’ve grown older I have to admit I enjoy playing with friends, those I know and I’m not hunting for new ones. With my current “2018-not-so-regular” round I’ve played for more than twenty years, some of them longer, others shorter. Some other friends back from my days at the HTL are also into the hobby. E.g. I had a blast with Ludwig and the newly formed Vampire 5th edition party and I really did enjoy dungeon crawling with Kathrin. I’ve tried playing with Karl again, but that didn’t work out for unknown reasons – probably me and my business trips (as usual). Anyways I think if you’re looking for a group, go to your local game-store (Planet Harry would be the best around Vienna) and – ask. The internet of course is also a vast resource but I think the former is much more personal and more likely to have you happy in the end of your search. One key thing that changed for me over the year: the game and rulework behind it got less and less important – the players and their personal style makes the game enjoyable – setting and rules are nice to haves but I’ve had fun in DSA with role-play-heavy gamers and I had a bad time with clueless rulessearchers in FATE. Pick your friends wisely, you might have the same experience and spend the next 20+ years with them, regularly.
04.01.2019 Do you use pre-published adventures or write your own?
I tend to write my own adventures, I’ve a (quite heavy) selection of adventures, adventures paths, campaign settings and use them, I’ve spent countless hours in taking ideas out, merging them into both digital and old-school DM folders. I’ve tons of maps (especially for Cyberpunk/Shadowrun) and love to use them. In the end-effect it depends very much on who I’m playing with, what their expectations and game-style are, but usually I end up with 30% written and 70% improvised dm-ing. If the term is correct, I would call it open-world roleplaying – a preference I have as player and tend to offer to my players as well. Meaning I have some basic plotlines, I evolve the world around them, whether they interact or ignore it and I prefer character based events and stories over third-party driven events. That goes best with a good chunk of improvisation, since your players will always surprise you. by the way the same is true for pre-published adventures, I only feel at home if the improvisation is working out, so if a character turns to Baldur’s Gate instead of Waterdeep during a pre-published adventure, I might give him one or two hints to stay, but would rather skip or adapt the adventure than force him at all costs to stay in the right “rail”.
05.01.2019 Stealing like an artist: what inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc?
I guess a lot, over the years I loved “stealing” some game inspiration from books like Markus Heitz’ Shadowrun compilations and I’ve also drawn some hints from Paul S. Kemp’s Erevis Cale Trilogy and various of Salvatore’s novels. What I think the best hints and treasures were are not so much on single ideas. Building a consistent storyline, background ideas that went deeper and not so straight hero or villain, black & white characters tend to be easier, but especially with the right group it’s all about the shades.
06.01.2019 Worldbuilding–what’s your process?
My take on worldbuilding is – get some NPC’s to start, if necessary create a pantheon and a map to start with. Decide on the size and then, for me, it’s all start at the first city and some surroundings. Depending on your plan that might be all you ever need. I’ve fully adopted this “quick” route especially for Planescape and planes-hopping games. No need to fully draw this picture if you only need a glimpse on it before you go on.
07.01.2019 How do you prep for the start of a campaign?
I talk to the players. Honestly I think this is the most underrated and at the same time most essential preparation for a campaign. You can always look into regions, countries, planes, nscs and many other things, but nothing beats talking to the players. One by one tends to work best for me, to narrow down expectations and concentrate on the key points and bringing them into the joint first session to make them part of the unwritten manifesto for the campaign. Of course players (or you yourself) might change your mind, but that way the starting direction should be aligned and most likely you’ll have a lot more fun than just starting a campaign. I think this is true for both self-written as well as pre-written adventures.
08.01.2019 How do you prep for each session?
Depends very much on the game and whether I’m used to the players or not. For a campaign I tend to have outlines for the plot and a good selection of maps. Depending on the genre I’ve more material available and can start with a good selection or do my research through my shelf and the internet if necessary. If time allows, which hasn’t been of late, I love to give a wrapup for myself with all NPC actions taken since the last episode. One of the most important tools is our joint overview of the last session, makes sure everyone is on the same starting point for the session.
09.01.2019 Player “homework”: what do you ask of your players before and between sessions?
Nothing, honestly. It’s great if they find time, but I’m totally happy if we manage a game session nowadays. Given additional “homework” seems rather unnecessary to me.
10.01.2019 What are your tips for running a low/no prep game?
Pick a playstyle and setting that suits your personal preferences. If you like high-fantasy, I would expect that your necessity for prep in this setting is low. When you like action games, I imagine you know combat rules and how to set scenes to make them interesting. Prepare some core milestones, pick some NPCs according to your players background to get them (en)tangled. And most importantly – enjoy.
Part II: At the Table
11.01.2019 House rules: what are your favorite hacks, mods, and shortcuts?
Wow, I would say for pathfinder that’s wound-points. For Shadowrun that’s an easy take on security and simple-rolls for hacking. In general I like rules-easy and speeding things up to have more time for ROLE-playing over ROLL-playing.
12.01.2019 Table rules: how do you keep players focused on the game?
We have an easy entry by wrapping up recent events from the last game with everyone present. Until we have a dinner-break usually that keeps most of us focused. If anyone has to take an urgent call, that’s fine – with most of my rounds at least. We’re all grown ups – so everyone is able to focus on the game. If he has other tasks (family, work, …) that’s fine with our groups.
13.01.2019 Rise to the challenge: how do you balance encounters in your system?
Usually – I don’t. I try to give players information on the opponents, but since I try to run more of an “open world” approach, I also think that you cannot attack everything in your line of fire (or shouldn’t for that matter). On the other hand, I try to give also an idea on the scenario and with rising levels or competency the team gets more choices for harder encounters, harder uses for skills and even the “roleplaying” tends to get a little bit more challenging when I know players found their way into their characters for a long-enough time.
14.01.2019 How do you facilitate combat? Any tips, tools, or cheats?
Well, I would say initiative tracking is one important key. A constant reminder of having players prepare their action before it is their turn, so they have an idea when it is finally their turn. As DM I think it’s incredible important to be fluent with picturesque language, infecting the rest with it – that heavily contributes in my understanding to raise the bar for everyone with getting deeper into the story and especially during combat with helping everyone to visualize what comes to pass.
In Shadowrun I love the cheat sheets, the more complex and more options a rulesystems gives, the more I rely on aforementioned helpers.
Finally I think maps are important. As DM I appreciate it if you bring a minature to the table, but having a map allows for using dice or coins or even gummy candy as your hero. Especially for a combat heavy game that’s great, leading everyone to see what they’re able to see, what is in their line of fire and whether the fireball will effect their companions before it actually came to 72 damage and is distributed to more than your enemies.
15.01.2019 Memorable villains: how do you introduce and weave the antagonist/s into the ongoing narrative?
That’s one great topic. I think the art of dungeon mastering evolves more around villains and a good use for the various different kinds of antagonists against the players. Twisted or straight-forward, conscient or by chance, vile or righteous… A well laid out campaign usually needs sooner or later a villain, and I admit – I don’t always start with one. Especially in quick/no prep games, I think a villain should emerge from the scenario, maybe from a background of another player, mayhap from the innkeeper that was severely harmed by the ruthless brawl the characters got into and that destroyed much of what he worked his whole life for… More powerful ones are easier to evolve over time, since you only need to introduce henchman and every one you introduce contributes to the bigger picture, allowing the expectations and (in)fame to take a firm grasp in the setting before villain and protagonists ever meet.
16.01.2019 Investigation and mysteries: how do you use foreshadowing, red herrings, and keep the tension rising?
Oh, I love foreshadowings very much. As player and DM alike. I tend to carry various sets of tarot cards (KULT, Shadowrun, DSA, cats, cyberpunk….) and really like the use of divination magic. As player I actively ask for insights and as dungeon master I try to provide useful hints and ideas whenever my players are using the later.
Red Herrings can be okay / nice / useful, but I’ve probably used too many and with my players most often on their ways in open world settings, I don’t need more distraction than the world itself provides. Of course I copy – as mentioned before – movies and books, stories and plothooks – since I like crime – that tends to be a good inspiration to have a diversion from the main plot or villain. Again, I would recommend to use what your own players hand you – background story, family, friends, villains – it gets a lot closer to them and keeps them involved – continuously having the tension level rising by itself.
17.01.2019 Structure and time: how do you use flashbacks, cut scenes, and parallel narratives in your games?
That depends heavily on the scenario. We’ve instrumentalized “flashbacks” in early Shadowrun campaigns, I also liked dream / vision like inspirations quite well, if I was out of convenient standard options. I’ve the feeling cut-scenes are more of a pc-thingy and don’t use them at all, while parallel narratives are great. I really mean great – that’s a nice inspiration for my next gamemastering session – maybe I let some of the characters participate in more timelines simultaneously – one as old guy, one as youngblood and one at the height of their existence. I really like this idea.
18.01.2019 How do you handle rewards, be they XP, magic items, or gold?
I’m miserly as dungeon master when it comes to rewards. I tend to give XP, but both gold and items are specials that are not overused. Actually that’s pretty much the gamestyle that my main gaming groups have developed, in Pathfinder we’ve specific houserules to give the characters a bit more of the level advancements to eliminate the potential level gap when we compare challenge and encounter ratings. As player I also think crafting items is more rewarding than waiting for the right item to hit you by chance.
19.01.2019 What was your worst session and why?
A worst session is very hard to define after many years, but I remember that some of my early players pushed me quite heavily to prepare for an evil party. So I did that. The group insisted on playing a mid-high level party in Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 or 3.5 with some exotic picks (I remember at least one drow) – so we picked level 9. Specifically I remember we discussed a lot on challenges and I named the “rule”: understand your mechanics if you play level 9 chars. So I decided to test them with, what I deemed to be a challenging but far from hard. I send against the group of 5 or 6 level 9 chars a hound archon and 2 level 6 fighters…
…I also remember that after a couple of rounds we decided to call it a day since the three fighters drained the life from the villains. While I offered a half-hearted restart, I concluded for myself that the players are not able to play at that level. I guess that was partly correct, but definitely not well dungeon mastered. Actually I would say one of the worst things I’ve ever done from accepting that “group” – not caring enough for the various visions the players had about the game and finishing them off, I could do a lot better and would hopefully do better if facing the same challenge nowadays.
20.01.2019 What was your best session and why?
My best session as dungeon master – that’s one tough question. I guess one dreamland approach in Shadowrun was a good one, while my best campaign probably was the one with twin siblings in “Midnight”, a d20 setting where my mid-high level group was able to defeat the evil black dragon by full blown sacrifices. I understand now that I made some mistakes to make this more cinematic, but I remember fondly how present and active all players were during that campaign. What’s the best part? It went over several months, starting where I took the (DM) scepter from Thomas and leading almost all of the group back into the next game, handing back be-said chapter of infinite dm power.
Why was it special to me? Because I think one of my definite strengths as dungeon master is darkness, despair and horror. I hope I’m not wrong to say I can make the players feel their hearts beat louder and I revel in it, as well as leading them out and giving them air to breathe again. I like this game of emotions and hard contrasts within it.
Part III: Meta
21.01.2019 What are your favorite books about gamemastering?
My all time favorite probably is Johnn Four’s blog I followed him from the early starts with an excellent newsletter. It made me rethink a lot of my early sessions, and I think I learned more from him than anywhere else on that topic.
22.01.2019 A novel solution: what’s the best advice you’ve borrowed from a totally different field?
Well, I think I’ve got two examples born from similar words.
Once I take a lot of advice from MAKRO photography. Sometimes it’s great to have a more detailed look – and specifically some details are great to work with – ever looked for a scary monster, description for foreign fauna or weird behaviour input? Take a makro photo and you’ll find inspiration.
Secondly I borrow from online gaming. Macro- & micro-management. A beneficial factor if you as DM don’t focus -only- on micro or macro details. I think players, characters, backstories need attention, so does your world. My understanding is that a healthy mixture of outside influence, grand schemes and good timemanagement are equally important as are tiny plothooks, detailed narratives on roleplaying and the well-being of the group itself.
23.01.2019 What effects do the system mechanics have on the setting or story?
Mechanics are a guiding system, I like weather mechanics, I really enjoy random encounters, randomizers in general, but I won’t let the influence the setting or story a lot. If the wedding of the king will most likely fall victim to bad weather, there’s not a dice roll that will change my opinion on it. If I’m open world running and need an interesting encounter, a good mechanic will come in handy and will be used to the max. That’s my take on it.
24.01.2019 Canon vs. alternate universe vs. homebrew settings? What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?
Well I like detailed works like the forgotten realms, planescape, dark sun, the shadowrun 2050 – 207x setting, dark heresy, but I’m no canon addict. A good world is defined by offering the players and dungeon master a lot of options, while not narrowing them down too much. Honestly I enjoy source-books, I’ve read plenty of them and they just add depth to (NP/P) characters alike. They tend to offer plothooks and variation, they are source for motivation, isolation, inspiration and desparation – depending where you look and what you need. Homebrew can offer that, but of course you need to detail them and make the information available to players, that can be beneficial or not depending on your approach. I’ve used a mixed form that lead several times to good times. I pick a canon area (usually FR) and add a spot somewhere on the landscape, a tiny part of Calimshan that has not been approached too much and where canon was lacking. I set a small town onto it and e voila – here we start, there we go. In my opinion that’s a great approach.
25.01.2019 Problem players and drama llamas: how do you resolve conflict at the table?
Oh that depends so much on the “problem” players. We’ve had experiences over the years. I tend to follow my normal approach from everyday life. Talk about it, try to sort it out, give it a shot – make sure the group is involved in the solution – and if it works out – great, if it doesn’t – make sure that does not spoil everyones fun. It’s better to settle some basics everyone has to follow, if this does not work out – I guess it’s about finding a new group – one that shares the “problem” players feelings and requirements. In the end effect I’m convinced that one player group’s problem is another one’s everyday enjoyment.
26.01.2019 Are GMs bad players? How do you step back when someone else is running the show?
Actually I think good game masters tend to be great players. My understanding is, it’s not about stepping back but working together, drive the story, be a part of it and include others. That’s also my experience with other dungeon masters, usually they are talkative but they understand game dynamics well enough to share spotlight. They tend to know a bit too much about the world, but that’s most of the time also fine – as long as you make your rules clear, or in case you’re on the player’s side – accept the final word of the dungeon master.
27.01.2019 Have you ever co-GMed? Would you consider it? What are the pros and cons?
I’ve done that in my early days, I think it needs much more preparation and alignment, I wouldn’t consider doing this again anytime soon. It works best for larger groups, but I simply don’t think I’ll have the time to ever experience this again.
28.01.2019 Transcending the material plane: how do you GM online?
I do not.
29.01.2019 Teaching the rules: how do you sell players on the system while running a demo or con game?
I narrow down the rules to the necessary minimum, basics rolls, stats and preferably pre-made characters for games where we’re learning to give an idea and not fulfill 100% from the beginning. I’ve had the pleasure to run a legends of anglerre game on a weekend full of fun a few years ago at a tanelorn weekend. With the right amount of preparation you can meet a good deal of expectations, make for a fun session and hope that everyone takes a good deal of ideas, emotions and experience from it. So
30.01.2019 How do we grow the hobby?
Enjoy it ourselves, by sharing our thoughts and sharing feedback between each other, the internet will help doing the rest. I’m 100% sold that enjoyment and fun grows itself. I also feel that a lot of great kickstarter campaigns help on diversifying the content available – making existing worlds deeper, creating new ones and fill necessary spots that are still untaken. Most importantly I think we need to be positive, inviting others to join our approach, sharing our experiences and helping each other out with words of wisdom – so called “advice”. I for myself try to be a regular in some FB fan pages for pathfinder, shadowrun and the like and contribute my