Saturday, July 10, 2021

GMing Knacks: some tricks that save me time & headaches when I run games

 When running RPG sessions, almost regardless of the system I'm using, I've found that several little tricks save time or hassle and increase the fun at the table. These aren't original to me - I've picked them up from a variety of sources - and experienced GMs might not learn anything here. Still, I thought I'd share these ideas as useful bits to slot into your mental toolkit on game night if you haven't encountered them before. 


Many games and/or hacks of games include simple rules for 'mooks,' minions, and the cannon fodder players love to mow down on their way to the BBEG. Some kind of category of 'one-hit wonder' foes are common in simple games, and in not-so-simple games, too: 4e D&D, for example, included rules for minion versions of monsters that were identical to normal monsters, but had only 1 hit point. Such rules allow for foes who pose a threat to PCs, but die quickly and with minimal book-keeping. All good. Yet I've found that stacking up your 1-HP goblin next to your 1-HP peasant, 1-HP orc, and 1-HP ogre can get a little flat. 

The way I typically handle minions now is to treat them as killable in a single hit, still, but varying by how strong that single hit needs to be. So I'll throw down some truly puny cannon fodder, like kobold minions with 1 HP, that can be killed by any hit. Elsewhere I might present a gang of 3-HP orc minions that only take 1 hit to slay, but shrug off any hits that do only 1 or 2 damage. In my most recent sessions, my players faced a sinister group of fanatical, agile fighters who were just the gatekeepers for the really scary monsters. I wanted to highlight that the fanatics were no pushovers, but leave the number-crunching and bookkeeping for the monsters themselves. Solution? I made the fanatical fighters 6 HP minions. Any hit that did 6 or more damage took them out in one blow; weaker hits just inflicted flesh wounds as the agile fighters danced away. And I could throw hordes of them at my players without breaking a sweat over the math.

Note that an intermediate option exists, too: use these rules, but treat any minion that takes a hit too weak to kill it as Wounded. Any hit, no matter how weak, kills a Wounded minion. 

[EDIT: perhaps obviously, variable Armor Class offers another way to distinguish between minions, even at just 1 HP. The method I use is particularly helpful for games like Into the Odd or Dungeon World, where armor levels are less variable and tend to involve damage reduction instead of a statted Armor Class. In these cases, I factor armor into the Minion HP level and then ignore armor completely in the combat itself.]


I think I first saw this in John Harper's World of Dungeons. On first sight, I was like, "um, what's the big deal?" - but now I use this CONSTANTLY. 

Ready? It's super-complicated.

When a player asks you a question about the game world and you don't have an answer prepped, or when something unexpected happens and you're not sure how well things should go from there, just roll 1d6 and interpret high rolls as answers favorable to the player. 

For example: in our ongoing campaign, one PC has a magic sword that allows him to see through the eyes of a nearby creature. Recently, the party was traveling overland and noticed a dust column rising from a distant party of travelers, coming from a direction that was of concern to the party. The player with the magic-sword-wielding PC very cleverly asked whether there were any birds of prey flying overhead at the moment. I rolled a d6, got a high result, and confirmed that there was indeed an eagle overhead. The PC was able to get an eagle's-eye view of the approaching travelers. 

Don't get me wrong - I constantly make my own yes/no decisions throughout each game sessions. But there come times when I want to let go - 'disclaim decision making,' in the words of Dungeon World - and let something other than my own whims or preferences shape the options. Regular use of the oracle die trains my players to think creatively, without requiring me to nay-say or approve all their ideas. 

It also makes things a bit more fun for me as GM, because I'm genuinely more surprised at the stories that emerge in play. 


Of the three, this is perhaps the trickiest, but it really helps me. 

When I run PbtA games like World of Dungeons or Dungeon World, I appreciate the system's baked-in dynamism and the way it enables me to cut through a lot of things to grab a coherent narrative outcome. However, there are times when setting up the classic PbtA 3-fold "Success, Success with a Consequence, or just Failure and Something Bad Happens" scheme does feel a bit forced. In other words, there are times when I just want to know whether something worked, and I really don't want to be bothered to come up with some new, edgy, 7-9 mixed-results consequence.

On the other hand...when I run a more traditional game with a binary task-resolution system (like pretty much any form of D&D), I find myself appreciating the system's greater mechanical precision, but sometimes I really start to miss the dynamism of the PbtA approach. 

So...what? Just switch back and forth between systems all the time? 

Well, yeah, that works, but there's another way to handle this too. 

At some point over the past few years, I had a really empowering insight: since I know how to run games in multiple systems, and I have some understanding of the consequences of fiddling with pieces of said systems, there is no reason not to carefully jump back and forth as needed. 

To put that more simply: just because I'm running a PbtA game, the U.N. Game Police aren't going to kick in my door if I occasionally call for a straight up-or-down task resolution roll. And if I'm running some vanilla OSR game with traditional mechanics, nothing stops me from whipping in a more complex and dynamic roll when it seems appropriate.

As I thought over my options, I realized that at different times when I call for a roll from players I'm actually interested in answering different questions. 

A lot of times, I really do just want to know: so...did it work? In those cases, a traditional, binary pass/fail roll is called for (the normal kind of D&D roll). 

At other times, I'm interested in a more holistic sense, asking: so...when you tried that thing, how did it all work out for you? PbtA pros will normally talk about task resolution vs. conflict resolution. To be honest, I'm not fully convinced by this approach; for some reason, I've found it much more helpful to just ask myself, "am I asking whether it worked, or how well it worked out?" When that subjective, looser, qualitative element is important to me, then I need some kind of variable-results roll. 

All this theory stuff aside, it's actually pretty easy to mix these elements within a single game. 

In my PbtA games, I sometimes just tell players to roll a save, 2d6 + STAT as usual, but treating an 8+ result as a Pass and anything lower as a failure. For example, in the Isle of Dread campaign we just finished, I wound up treating rolls to test for tropical diseases while traveling overland as pass/fail affairs. I just wasn't interested in messing around with intermediate results when all I really cared about then and there was "did you get sick, or not?" Who cares whether my system really said that was called for? I'm running the table, not the game's author. 

In more traditional games with binary task resolutions, it is trivially easy to adopt a PbtA-style mixed-results tests instead, so long as your roll only requires a single die. If your player is rolling a single d20 (or other die), make them roll twice. Two successes = a full success, one success = success with a consequence (or 'partial success,' depending how you're thinking about that), and no successes = failure and something bad happens. [If you're running something with a dice pool, this probably gets trickier, but dice pool systems often have variable levels of success built in, anyway].

To sum up this third point: a GM is free to ask what they want to determine at each point in a game, and it really won't break the game to swap in some unusual approaches when they're better suited for the moment.


I hope these tips prove helpful to somebody out there. They have saved me time and hassle, and made me feel more empowered and capable at the games table. What tricks save you time and enliven the GM experience? 


  1. Very good. I tend to make up 'mook' rules on the fly, according to system (or just judge 'near enough is good enough'): yours is a nice concrete one that I can attest works well in BRP & D&D style games, but I expect it would work well in quite a few games. (2) I have been doing for a long, long time, and I would find it hard to run any game without. At (3), I share you feeling about wanting to mix these two approaches up to deal with different questions, and I do so when running my own games, but your framing it as explicit permission to break the rules of someone else's game is an idea I've never had... thank you! I very much like your approach for binary checks in PbtA games (does it remind me faintly of an older SciFi game?). I'd need to think about what will work for me going the other direction, as I mostly run a 1d6+1d6 Degree of Success home brew, and I dislike the extra handling involved in adjusting the dice pool. HOWEVER, what (3) really provokes in me is a question: Where is the published game that implements this? It's a really nice piece of design permission, running against the prevalent 'core mechanic' paradigm, which I will think about for my own nefarious purposes. Thank you.


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