I am a voice actor and the Dungeon Master
for Critical Role here at Geek and Sundry,
and today’s episode is going to
go a little deeper in the idea that
running a game is about improv
and the unexpected.
Now, running any form of roleplaying game
puts you in a position where you become
the ringmaster of possibilities!
You prepared a solid central story,
a cast of characters, a handful
of possible challenges, and some
juicy rewards for your clever players.
It isn’t until you start that adventure that
you realize how much of that plan gets jumbled,
wind-tossed, and sculpted into something
crazier and often cooler than you initially expected.
The key to providing such atmosphere
is being open to let the players take hold
of their own agency and
guide the story themselves.
While it may seem kind of scary
to follow the unknown,
you can find a level of comfort in
allowing this to happen while figuring out
how to get back on track–
or just following where the rabbit hole goes!
After you’ve worked on and
knocked out your main story thread and throughline,
I would recommend taking a little time
to loosely develop some side plots that may
lead back to the main story, possibly.
Here’s an example: your main plot involves
being hired to investigate a local lodge
of strange activities, leading the party
to a shore-side wreck-site where
the lodge turns out to be
a cult plotting a dark ritual.
Now, to the side of the story, you could develop
a brief element of a drunken fisherman
who’s trying to prove he’s not crazy for
seeing weird things at night by the ocean!
Or you could beat out a plot regarding
a private collector who’s seeking obscure things
for his collection that
are actually for this same dark ritual (chuckles).
Maybe a dancer whose lover was recently
replaced with a doppelganger who
is currently working for that same cult.
Now, these are all threads you don’t need
to fully flesh out, and they may never even
come to fruition, but even just
having them at the ready will help you
tie them in should the party deviate
too far from the main story.
Any that happen to get unused thankfully
can always be altered or recycled for future sessions.
I would also recommend developing
a number of stand-alone NPCs that
you can just have at the ready.
While they may not be important to the story,
per se, it’s always helpful to have a cache
of colorful characters that you can
just pluck out of the aether.
Maybe keep some sheets or note cards
with basic NPC information on them like
their name, their race, their sex and occupation,
any special skills they may have,
their disposition to the world at large,
their personality traits, voice type, goals, fears–
even equipment if you wish.
No need to put all these on there,
but what things you think may be
interesting and helpful to your story to pull out.
Now, even if none of these NPCs come
into play during your session,
they will still be there ready for use
for most future sessions as well,
so no time is wasted, and you’ll honestly
be thankful that you have the comfort
of these options at your disposal.
You can even keep a few stat cards
with various combat templates for
all types of common folk, just in case
a battle goes down and the party needs help,
or things go terribly, terribly wrong
and they end up killing a bunch of people that you wrote…
Because that’s what happens sometimes
in the game and you’re just like,
“All right, guys, kill them. It’s fine, they were important
at some point… But now I know,
at least, what they’ll do in combat…”
You can also create a few traps and encounters
that can be pulled and plugged into
your game at any given point in time.
Now, the traps can range from mundane
shop owners deterring burglars with falling barrels
and sleep glass to wall-mounted flamethrowers
and bladed pillars spinning through,
protecting some sort of underground vault!
That works too. Encounters that you have
prepared can be ravaging goblin packs,
a trained protector chimera of a certain location,
or even just a group of bandits that are
eliminating witnesses that happen to stumble upon their work.
Also, it helps to have a list of rewards or items
tuned to the party’s current power level that
you can quickly access. Following unexpected
story threads and directions can lead to
unexpected rewards, and you don’t want to stiff
your PCs because you didn’t really plan any loot.
You can quickly come up with
an appropriate monetary award, and equipment find,
or some sort of a social boon to
accompany an improvised PC success.
This might be a little scary, but for the moments
you really aren’t prepared for,
begin by just painting a scene.
When they enter a location you hadn’t
really considered, let your instincts inform
you of what you’d expect to find there and
describe the impact to your senses as you figure them out.
This includes sight and lighting, the smells
and sounds you would experience,
the temperature of the very air itself
are easy gateways to an immersive location,
and you can just let those details emerge naturally
as you come up with it.
Even if you aren’t sure where it’s going,
trust that, once the party beings to talk
amongst themselves, you can probably
scramble through your previous notes and
prepare to tie it to something you already have.
Please, you need to take notes!
Like, seriously, take notes–
you’re going to be so thankful you take notes.
Get a scratchpad, take notes, always notes.
Because as you make up elements of the story
and characters and spontaneous plot hooks,
you want to write it down to remind you
of the things you just made up,
or you’ll forget them in the next ten minutes.
They’ll just be gone, and the party will call
you back and be like,
“That guy we talked to 30 minutes ago,
let’s go talk to him!” and you’ll be like,
“What– I… Oh, yeah, I think his name is… Steve?”
You’ll see Steve come up a lot in my games…
It might not play out within the session right now,
but you can always flesh out those aspects
between the games and try to incorporate
them into the main plot down the road.
You’ll be very thankful that you took notes.
Anyway, I hope some of these notes and tips
have been helpful for you as a GM.
You can find more episodes of GM Tips
here at geekandsundry.com.
My name is Matthew Mercer, thank you for watching,
and I’ll see you on the Internet.
— Matthew Mercer (@matthewmercer) October 27, 2016
— Matthew Mercer (@matthewmercer) October 27, 2016