GM challenge: Best Practices

Ckutalik over at the Hill Cantons asked every GM’s three best practices. I wrote an almost answer years ago because, you know, I can see the future.  But I want to give better answers this time around. Or try at least.

  1. Strip mine your surroundings for ideas and turn them into archetypical subverted caricatures: I really really like creating NPCs out of people by making them a subverted caricature of the original to make them into a different entity. The same can be done with anything else: places, events, items. Caricatures magnify what’s important about the entity but the subversion gives it deeper, interesting shades. For example: I need a merchant city, so I pick Dunbarton, put it in the middle of Genoa and make it ruled by a never-seen immortal queen and her secret police. When I needed a shady broker I took my dad (a salesman) and gave him a gang of thugs. My demihuman races have Italian regional accents, but have magnified idiosincrasies (my halflings are more halflingish than yours, and speak Sicilian). Filthy Phil (a really stinky ragman and garbage-sifter in my current setting) is inspired to… well, I like dumpster diving (the best stuff you can get is free). The beautiful thing is that you can do this on the fly in games: players usually are fascinated by deep NPCs and they think deep NPCs must be important hence worth their time: oftentimes they just like them, especially if you play gonzoish adventures. Which gives me enough time to actually link them with the rest of the setting in (you guess it) subverted caricatures of existing relationships.
  2. Evolutionary game elements rock: the reasoning is that of the 10 campaign elements (npcs, odd objects, etc) you introduced in the last settings, players will pursue maybe 2. They will pursue the most interesting, because they don’t care about the others. So if you improvise you can just come up with a good/boring element ratio of 1/4, the players will kill the bad ideas by not caring about them. The morale is: stop fretting about the quality of your improv, just care about players’ feedback. If you only come up with amazing ideas, the players will pick only the most interesting so, instead of having gold and platinum in your game, you’ll have only platinum. Of course this works only if you are not a control-freak railroader. There is only trying, diversity is king, survival of the most adaptable and so on.
  3. Play with your players: the game is yours, but players live in it. I suppose you don’t hate them, so your goal is to have fun with them, not at their expenses. I’m not saying to indulge in monty haulism, but if you have a choice between doing what you want and doing something that your players find interesting (and doesn’t irk you), go for the second one: players will feel engaged (read point 2 above) and they will steer the game for a while, giving you overworked GM time for thinking about other stuff. It works best when a player goes like “I wonder if Mr X is obsessed with orchids because of an ex lover or something” and you apply point 2 and yeah, it’s because his mom loved them and he has an Oedipus complex. If your bud Dan feels supergood when his PC saves a young girl and gets closely but not necessarily sexually involved with her, you have a major player driver in your arsenal that you can use every time without fault: remember to apply subversion from point 2 above to keep things different. More in general, Intuitive Continuity works extremely well, if you don’t need to have your ego fed at every step of the game.

In general, I favour player centered design: it works with software, why not for D&D?

You know what’s awesome? A generator of Vancian spell names!

Go to the awesome Chris Pound’s Vancian Spell Generator Name Generator and enjoy (the link was broken for a while, now it’s been fixed). Also Noism covered the name-making Forge recently.

Here’s the first three I got:

Lehia’s immiscible defect MU2 Duration: instantaneous

Physically removes icky stuff from drinks, food and potions and compresses it in a solid, insoluble lump. Works like purify food and water, removes icky bits from badly done potions (making them useless) and mixed potions (if you used the potion miscibility rules, you can just pre-mix potions and make sure the brew is not baaad)

Paskobadi’s entire analysis MU3 Duration: instantaneous

Works like Unveil Arcana but on all the target item’s properties or spells.

Lehermari’s scarce guard MU2 Duration: 1 turn

Target 1d6 individuals at medium range will immediately check morale or leave the area, will also check morale at the beginning of a fight and will make an additional morale check at any time a morale check is needed for other causes.

New Monster: Bumble Dragon

Alice and I were bumbling about Speirs Wharf and were discussing the benefits of having a garden. She mentioned clover flowers attracting bumblebees, and then mentioned pondweed. I quipped that, from the perspective of a foreigner, English plant and insect names seem made up by three-years-old with not much fantasy:

  • foxglove
  • hogweed
  • pondweed
  • bumblebee: I love bumblebees. And I didn’t know that bumble was a real verb, by the way.
  • shieldbug
  • firefly

All of them are amazing D&D names for monsters and plants, of course.

So we started discussing/brainstorming the Bumbledragon. She never roleplayed, except when last week she played Horse in KNIGHT HORSE SQUIRE SWORD, a RPG we came up with at the last Glasgow Indie Gamers night I’ll tell you about real soon now. Bumble Dragons turned out to be some kind of fat, blue, absent minded dragons, not really good at anything, except thinking about magic and eating cheese. Now and then they set stuff on fire without realizing it, and spend all time thinking about magic, pie, cheese, tea and treasure to buy teh noms. A wizard in need of advice in spell research could bring tea and noms to a Bumbledragon and ask for council.

Bumble Dragon



DEFENCE: as plate

SQ: firebreathing (3d6), improv spellcasting (MU 5), random firebreath (1d6, 10% every turn), 3d6 bite damage

Bumble Dragons are flightless peripathetic fat blue dragons with small wings that go bumbling around thinking about magic: they don’t really interact with anybody offered food (automatic good reaction) or attacked, which will turn them into a nasty brutal fighting machine. They can attack with a nasty bite or breathing fire once a round or cast spells like MU5 without need to memorize spell beforehand or resort to a spellbook (usually leaving a spellslot free for a fly spell). They have lairs full of cheese and treasure to buy more cheese. They love cheese, tea and pie (especially cherry pie): if a magic user offers such food to the dragon and ask for aid in spell research, the dragon will contribute and in 3d6 turns will give advice sufficient for reducing research time by (2d6-4)*10%, with a small possibility of a setback. Every turn there’s a 10% chance that the dragon will belch a whisp of firebreath (1d6 damage), unless a teapot of tea (rooibosh, peppermint, rosehip and lotus are good substitutes) has been consumed in the previous turn. A big pie or wheel of cheese per hit per day will keep a bumbledragon satisfied enough to be considered some kind of specialist/henchmen/follower.

Quick map: Dwaven Outpost

Well, the the title of the post says it all: I was sitting all bored at the university occupation/squat and started doodling maps. I just had the stuff out and decided to share. Not as cool as Dyson’s but you might be interested. Also I don’t have fancy photoshops skillz as it’s early in the morning so image quality is teh suck.

Dwarven Outpost is meant to be a small dwarven/drow/trollish/duergar/svartalfar outpost/colony/sublevel.

Entrance is from the east, leads to a room with arrowslits and a trapped, locked door, then to a short corridor blocked by a portcullis. Pit traps before and after portcullis, then another trapped, locked door. It opens on the guardpost with annexed guard room on the west. Forges on the south, temple west, library northeast, workshops and living quarters north, with private rooms clustering around workshops. Northwest is supposed to be some kind of military highquarter, with stairs downwards to cisterns and underground river. Plenty of secret doors allow extensive freedom of movement and deep-strike ability in case of siege.

Strategic note: in case your players want to go rampage on the occupiers and invade try to leave a front less protected, letting some weak isolated defenders fall back, then surround the attacker via secret passages or other means. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but it’s always great fun trying to outmaneuver anyone with steel-clad dwarves.