Tag Archives: GMing Techniques

Even Game Masters Get the Blues

So confessional time. Last two game sessions have been something of a bust. Why? Because I made the rookie mistake of crafting a solid hook behind a notoriously absentee player without a good back up plan.

head_meets_desk_by_cloudrivenIt seemed like a good idea at the time; the player has been begging for this since the game began, and I got multiple confirmations that yes, he would be present and had a good idea that he would be a focal character. Of course, those assurances amounted to pretty much nothing, leaving me with a cool scenario that the rest of the group doesn’t care a wit about. To top that off, I hear this same player will be absent for the next game session too (not from him, naturally, but from the other player who he will be traveling with).

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I don’t hold the fault with the player. He’s a good friend who I’ve known for a long time. More importantly, this is not unexpected behavior from him. Oh, we have plenty of contingencies to help prompt his attendance. (GM Tip: one of the best ways to assure player attendance is to include their husbands and wives on schedule announcements.) This is simply who he is.

No, I’m frustrated with myself. Because I know this about him. Like I said, rookie mistake.

So now I find myself having to jettison the whole thing in a dramatic way that will be satisfactory to the rest of the group. No problem there. I have a plan. Maybe I’ll salvage the whole thing and submit it to PCI for a Revelations round, or turn it into a hip pocket con event.

And before the chorus of “drop him from the game” begins, I don’t subscribe to that logic.  This isn’t a handful of people who showed up to a Craig’s List ad or some flier in my FLGS.  These are my friends.  If you know your friend is a flake and you invite him or her to play in your game anyway, you gotta take them for what they are.  You can’t get pissed off after the fact.  You just need to remember who you are dealing with and not let your muse convince you otherwise.  Remember, you are friends first.

Anyhow, a couple of very important GMing lessons to come out of this:

  1. Never introduce a plot you aren’t 100% ready to jettison immediately after your players taste it.  Always have 2 or 3 subplots you can pivot to at a moment’s notice, even if they are nothing more than one line hooks/ideas.  In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  2. Never built a major plot or scenario around your flakey player(s).  Even if money changes hands, blood is shed, contracts are signed.
  3. You’re never too good to make a rookie mistake.  Wash your hands and move along.

So what about you?  What’s your most reason forehead slapping moment of your GMing career?  (Players, feel free to dish on your GMs.)



The Monster that Ate…my Month!


I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few weeks.  I suppose I could blame it on the kids.  Or Spring Break.  Or family drama.  Or even laundry.  But, I’m sorry.  No.

It was 7th Sea.

7th Sea was the kickstarter that ate my month.

It started out innocently enough.  After AEG sold L5R off to FFG (acronyms!), lots of us old fans expected something might happen.  It wasn’t like it was a high priority of mine – I haven’t actively played 7th Sea since maybe 2004.  Not that I don’t love it!  The books have been regularly referenced since then whether I was playing Savage Worlds, Lejendary Adventure, or Witch Hunter.  So when the news broke that John Wick bought back the rights to the game, yeah that was cool news but nothing earth shattering.  I may have flipped through the old GMG once after that for old time sake.

The the mailing list got started.  Ok, I’m on board for that.  Then the countdown to the kickstarter.  Art looks nice.  What’s that?  A Quickstart adventure?  Ok, I’ll give it a look.

Next thing I knew, it was March.  The house needed cleaning.  The kids needed a bath.  The fridge was empty.  My wife was giving me that look.  And I was left to crawl out of the stupor that remained from a month long bing of kickstarter updates, commentary, stretch goals, and impossible, record-breaking pledge totals.  It was one of those moments where your players called six raises on a TN 25 skill check and damn, if he didn’t deliver.


11,483 backers

Yeah, I know.  You’ve seen the news.

So now it’s time to throw open the curtains, shake out the cobwebs and dustbunnies, and come out of hermit mode.

Count Rugen: As you know, the concept of the suction pump is centuries old. Really that’s all this is except that instead of sucking water, I’m sucking life. I’ve just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five, but I really don’t know what that would do to you. So, let’s just start with what we have. What did this do to you? Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity so be honest. How do you feel?

[Wesley cries and moans in pain]

Count Rugen: Interesting.

The good news is that since 7th Sea ate my kickstarter budget for the year, you aren’t going to have to suffer a lot of talk about Conan 2d20 or Kult.  Well okay, maybe Kult – but only after I get a better look at the AW-inspired rules system.  Assuming they preview it to non-backers.

So is 7th Sea 2nd edition going to be worth the loss of nearly a month to such a vapid endeavor as checking the constantly updating river rapids of kickstarter commentary.  Jury is still out on that one.  Don’t get me wrong, I like some of the concepts, and I REALLY want to give it the benefit of the doubt.  I’m not a John Wick fanboy.  As much as I love 7th Sea, that’s the only one of his games that I’ve played and enjoyed.  My group tried L5R for a few months, and it just never stuck with me.  Guess I’m just not a Seven Samurai guy.  I’ve never played Houses of the Blooded or anything else in his post-AEG catalog.  So I’m not hard wired to love it, probably not the way I immediately bought into Dangerous Journeys or Lejendary Adventure (the only thing that keeps me from being a Gygax fanboy is I’m not a huge D&D fan, regardless of what my bookshelf suggests).

A lot of what’s cooked into 7th Sea v2 is just outside my comfort zone.  I’ve never played FATE, Dungeon World, Dogs in the Vineyard, or any of the host of contemporary “Narrativist” games (or Story Games).  Sure, Savage Worlds and Witch Hunter have borrowed liberally from those types of games, but they remain firmly in the traditional “roll to succeed” mode.  Yes, I’ve read Wick’s No Dice article.  I get what he’s trying to do.  And I think it’s really ballsy to stake those concepts to a million dollar franchise.  Yes, you really do need to read that article to understand what 7th Sea v2 is trying to do.  Will it succeed?  The proof will be in the play.

One thing that troubles me is that the people who don’t like it are very explicit about the reasons why.  The people who love it…not so much.  Maybe that’s just the nature of the internet.  “We played it and had a great time,” tells me absolutely nothing.  I play Hoot Owl Hoot and Count Your Chickens with my kids and have a great time too.  That doesn’t tell you anything about what the hell it is I like about those games, over even what they are (though seriously, if you have young kids, get them!  Loads of fun and easy to grasp and play!). There is one “positive” review circulating around, and its very informative.  It pretty much sums up what I’ve come to understand about the game:

It handles everything you have already been doing the same way you’ve been doing it for years.  It just slaps fancy jargon on the simple to make it complicated.

Seriously, let’s break down the whole Intent/Consequences/Opportunities anatomy of a Risk business.

Statement of Intent: have we seriously done this since the halcyon days of D&D?  Where you were supposed to go around the table, make clear what everyone is doing, and then lock them into those actions when the dice started rolling?  No, of course not.  “What do you do?  I want to do X.  Ok, roll this.”  I blame Apocalypse World and its stupid Move jargon.

Consequences: Yes, this is the big WTF moment in the rules.  “What?  You only need one raise to succeed?  Inconceivable!”  But it’s not.  When you think about it, the number of consequences is essentially your Difficulty now.  One raise is, at best, a partial success.  An easy task might be 1 consequence tops.  Standard difficulty appears to be 2-4 consequences.  Really dangerous stuff is 5+ consequences.  The big stinker here is dice predictability.  A player is almost assured to get 1 raise for every 2 dice rolled.  Assuming dice pools still top out at 10 dice (a big assumption at this point), you (the GM) should always prepare to offer 1, 2, or 3 more consequences than the player can possibly pay off on average.  This makes lucky rolls meaningful, and choices more interesting.  But really, its the same thing just presented in a different way.

Opportunities: Yes, the QS suggests they are front loaded into the presentation of the scene.  But that doesn’t have to be the case.  For the GM, Opportunities are macguffins to tempt the player into taking more consequences than he otherwise would.  You might even compare it to activating a Hubris (in 7th Sea v1) or a Sin (in Witch Hunter).  You get this cool benefit that will help you in the scene, but it comes at a price.  You don’t have to front load it.  In fact, they may well be better to introduce when the player is either too sure of himself or when they can’t make up his mind.

“Ok, so you have 3 Raises, enough to race through the burning room without stumbling or taking a lick of fire damage.  Did I mention the letter on the desk?  No?  Well…”

I expect, despite the amount of space devoted to it, Opportunities are going to be more for players to help other players.

Player A: “Ok, I spend a raise to disarm the villain’s henchman.  Can I catch his sword in my off-hand?”

GM: “No, but if you spend a raise, Player B can grab it off the floor.”

Player A: “But then I’ll take an extra point of damage from the fight?”

GM: “Yes.”

Player B: “Do it!”

Player A: “Ok, I’ll spend the Raise…”

See most of use would already do that.  I do it all the time.  Except it usually comes in the form of spending a hero point, or a benny, or allowing Player B to make a difficult roll on the fly.  7th Sea v2 just now puts an economy to it: a raise.

Now, I suspect it will be the dice probabilities that will cause 7th Sea to sink or swim.  Because if things are too predictable then the game loses that fantastic quality.  I don’t like being killed by lame, but the real memories from the gaming table that last were when you made that incredible lucky roll.  The sharp bell curve that results from 7th Sea v2’s mechanic really minimizes the chances of those sorts of moments.  And if it feels that way at the table, that players are just going through the motions, it’ll have an impact.

But there is a big difference between what you see on the page and how it plays at the table.  Just ask any Savage Worlds player with a d4 in a skill.




Winter gives way to Spring

Last Friday, with the death of the dreaded Fire Wyrm of Polch (a caterwaul actually; not really a dragon as Petrov was quick to point out), our cadre of players put the wraps on the Winter of Discontent storyline of our Witch Hunter game.  All seven players were on hand for it, which is probably why the fight only lasted three rounds (and why I never really got the chance to retreat).  So monster dead, human sacrifice averted, all in a good day for a group of witch hunters.

Now they head west for England and a whole new hot mess of trouble.

Funny though that when all your players show up, they find things to do that reveal problems in the rulebook.

Eldritch Blast

I’ve heard that during one tournament round, it became popular to use the Eldritch Blast rite over a ship’s cannons in ship to ship combat.  So it really doesn’t surprise me that there are big differences between 1st and 2nd edition when it comes to this Hermetic rite.  The thing is, our resident hermeticist player (who is a pretty smart guy in his own right) and your’s truly (no comment) had a devil of a time working out some of the details of the rite. Don’t get me wrong, the rite isn’t broken.  The description is just…lacking.  Usually I find that blending the text of the two editions gives me satisfying results.  So here are my revisions.  Revised text is in red.

ELDRITCH BLAST (Basic; Hermeticism)
Mastery: 2
Time: 2 rounds/1 round
Defense: Avoidance
Roll Required: Yes
Duration: Instantaneous
Strain: 4
Description: For those with a meager understanding and control of the arts, this rite is by far the most dangerous and difficult to control. The magus opens herself to the mystical energies swirling around her and begins to absorb as much as her body can contain. This usually manifests as a bright nimbus of light surrounding her being. When she has as much she can possibly hold, she releases this power in a crude, unfocused blast into a shared or adjacent Area, aimed in the general direction of her target.

Make a Hermeticism (Education) roll against your target’s Avoidance.  The blast has a DM of 2, plus any bonus successes rolled.  Armor reduces damage from the blast as normal.  All other beings within the same Area as the target (friend or foe alike) are also struck by the volatile energy and suffer 2 dice of damage as well.


  • Increase the Mastery by 1 to ignore the target’s armor value.
  • Increase the Mastery by 2 to increase the DM by 2.
  • Increase the Mastery by 2 to focus the blast so as to target only 1 creature with this rite.
  • Increase the Mastery by 2 to extend the Range of the blast from 1 area to a number equal to your Hermeticism skill rank (max. 5).


Can you intimidate a monster?  The rules for this are…confusing at best.  A target with Malice against you (you think?!) is actually damn hard (-6 dice penalty!) to intimidate.  I get why it would be that difficult to charm someone, or command troops in battle who loathe you and everything you stand for.  But intimidate?  Yeah, that just doesn’t sit right with me.  So…revised text is in red.


Where Charm and Command produce a desired action through reasonable words, Intimidate does so by instilling fear in the subject. Intimidate may simply be based on appearance or a certain mannerism, but it can also be a direct assault against a target, such as torture, physical abuse, or threats of either or death.

Intimidate rolls are made against your opponent’s Discipline Defense.  Each bonus success rolled has the effect indicated on the Intimidate Success Table (Table 2-8, pg 111). If you do not roll enough successes to beat your target’s defense, the roll fails and complications may apply as indicated.  If the target is a minion, or otherwise undefined, his defense is equal to his Threat Rating.

You may use Intimidate to affect multiple targets. To do so, roll as normal, but you need one additional success for every two members in the group.

More for Minions

Minion Talents

In addition to the minion talents from the core book and the Grand Tome of Adversaries, these are some homebrewed minion talents I’ve been using in my game to give minions a bit more bite.  They are designed with the idea that no minion will possess more than one such Talent, so use a light hand with them.

Disciplined: In the company of a skilled Lieutenant or Villain, these minions receive +1d to all dice pools.  If the leader is slain, this bonus is lost.

Formidable: Formidable minions get +1d to all attack rolls.

Merciless: Merciless minions double all damage dealt.

Opportunistic: Whenever an opponent attacks and misses, or fails to kill at least one minion in this band, these minions may make an immediate counter-attack at –1d as a Trivial Attack Action.

Overbearing: This band of minions specialize in overwhelming their foe with numbers and wrestling them to the ground.  When attempting to bring down a lone target, these minions roll an opposed Attack roll with a +2d bonus. If successful, the target is considered grappled and pinned.  This tactic is opposed normally, but may not be reversed. Minion bands may not be overborne, though a single minion can.

Resilient: Resilient minions are treated as one threat rating higher (max 4) against attack rolls directed against them.

Swordsmen: These highly trained minions are skilled in at least one Fighting Tradition. An opponent who is not trained in a Fighting Tradition (ie. lacks the Basic Talent) suffers –1d to all attack and damage rolls against this band.

Treacherous: Treacherous minions always roll at least 4 dice, regardless of how few are banded together.

Unruly: This band of minions add +2d to all attack and damage rolls, but immediately flee after the first casualty suffered.


Wild Talents

Wild Talents are meant for animal minions (or lieutenants).

Poison: This creature is venomous. The potency of the venom depends on the creature. Usually, the target must suffer damage from the animal’s primary attack to be poisoned (a snake’s bite, a scorpion’s sting). When exposed to a poison, you roll Endurance against the poison’s potency. If you fail the Endurance roll, the GM adds the difference between your roll and the poison’s potency to its DM, and then rolls damage as usual.

Poison Potency DM
Scorpion 2 +3
Rattlesnake 3 +4
Cobra 4 +6


Morale for Minions

Sometimes the GM knows when a group of minions will break and run.  Sometimes it’s more fun to let the dice decide.

After the first casualty suffered, the band must make a D1 Morale roll. Roll dice equal to the bands Threat Rating x the number of remaining minions.  If they succeed, they stay in the fight.  Otherwise they flee.  The GM can raise the difficulty of the roll as he or she sees fit, though keeping it at D1 will reduce the amount of time spent counting successes and thus keep the combat flowing quickly (these are minions, after all).

When reduced to 2 or 1 members, mortal minions will automatically break and flee.

Bands with a Threat Rating of 2 or greater, or who possess the Disciplined Talent (above) will  defensibly disengage and withdraw in the most tactically sound manner.  Others will simply break and run.

New Years Resolutions for 2016



For 2016, here are things I’m aspiring to do as a Game Master, to improve my craft, my game, and my players’ experience:

  1. Front load fights in play!  Let’s get the blood pumping at the beginning of the game session, not when everyone is ready to sign off and go to bed.
  2. Use more tactics. Why should the players be the only ones taking Stances and making Wild Assaults.  The bad guys need to be using more of those tactics, too.
  3. More Sorcery!  I’ve never been good at using magic with adversaries.  This is the year we work on that.
  4. Pick up the Pacing! I’m going to try to include more quickly resolved encounters and hooks.  
  5. Punch up the Roleplaying with Intra-Factional Conflict.  None of these Witch Hunter Orders are supposed to get a long that well.  So let’s spice things up a bit with more roleplaying conflict.
  6. Watch Actual Play Videos from Roll20.  I have a lot to learn about making the Roll20 experience as good as it can be.
  7. Play an unrelated game on Roll20.  Same reason as above.
  8. Do more with handouts and rollable tables.  Quit worrying about Roll Templates and focus on the stuff that can really punch up the player experience.

There.  Eight things to focus on in 2016.  That shouldn’t be to hard.  And maybe I’ll get a blog article or two out of the effort.

Failed Save: Gamer ADHD

Please excuse the radio silence folks.  Some of my favorite blogs have gone on hiatus for the holidays, but I’m not done quite yet.  But between Thanksgiving, dueling cases of bronchitis, the third circle of Hell that is Sears Appliance delivery, and the regular list of honey-dos, it can be hard to collect your thoughts, let alone put them down in semi-legible format.  Hell, this simple paragraph has been interrupted three times as the little one struggles with his spiralgraph.


Anyway, gamer ADHD.  Lots of people struggle with it.  Lately, I’ve been battling an acute case of it.  Now, I have no interest in ditching my Witch Hunter game.  But it doesn’t help that most of the stuff they’ve been doing over the past two years, I scribbled notes on in 2013 when we started playing.

In September/October, we went a month and a half (that’s three game sessions for us) where we just didn’t play.  Either I was traveling or we couldn’t make a quorum.  That didn’t help matters any.  During that time, a steady procession of older games got a second look (and sometimes more from me): Dangerous Journeys, Lejendary Adventure, Elric!, Atlantis and Omni, multiple flavors of D&D.  Even my old Darkurthe Legends books came out of deep carbon freeze!  Yes folks, it’s that bad.  Geez, you’d think I had a good idea for a fantasy campaign but…not really.

bullwinkleAnother problem is there just isn’t much going on in Witch Hunter circles.  It’s just…damn quite.  I’m no stranger to games with small player bases (Lejendary Adventure and TSR’s SAGA come to mind), but never this quiet.  Hell, even the creators and publisher are nearly silent on the game.  A lot of times, I worry that I’ve either become the loud mouthed know it all (who really doesn’t know much at all) or else that guy who sucks up all the oxygen in the room.  Either way, I do more harm with my contributions than by shutting up.  It can be hard to maintain a certain creative pace when your only encouragement is a “+1” in the Google+ group.

I know, first world problems, right?

I wish I had easy answers for how to beat this dire affliction.  It really does kick time management in the scrotum.  But here’s the thing: as long as my players are willing and motivated, I EASILY have another year of Witch Hunter in me.  Yes, some of the elements date back to my old 7th Sea game nearly 12 years distant, but a lot of it is fresh, new and cool.  Stuff that I’ve been wanting to do in a game for a looong time.

Updated Notebook Reference

I keep a gaming notebook.  An actual, honest to God notebook.  Not a binder (I keep one of those too, but that’s a different story altogether), a notebook.  I’ve kept one since I first began sketching out a Dark Sun game back in 1992.  It’s filled with everything you imagine it would: character ideas, villainous plots, adventure details, session notes, grocery lists, honey do’s, phone numbers, you name it.  It’s basically a take anywhere, scribble any time resource.

The notebook has gone through a variety of forms.  The latest incarnation, thanks largely to the character John Doe in SEVEN, is the composition notebook.  There are several reasons for this.  They fit together on a bookshelf or bankers box MUCH better than spiraled notebooks, and you can also get them for a song around Back to School time (around $0.50 for a 100 page, college ruled notebook).  I prefer a ruled notebook, but you can also get them with graph paper (…or BOTH!). Depending on how active the campaign is, they usually are good for a few months.  Then its time to start a new book.

Since I began running Witch Hunter regularly, the notebook has begun to evolve into something more than a sketchpad.  It’s a tool.  And that is where the Notebook Reference PDF comes into play.  This is something I’ve been using for the last three notebooks, but I suspect no one (besides me) has the slightest clue what the hell it is or how to use it.  So let me demonstrate.

photo 1 photo 2

See, these Composition notebooks all have basic tools on the inside covers, usually a calendar or mathematic conversion notes.  The Notebook Reference is designed to be printed out on full page label paper, available at any office supply store.  Cut out the margins and affix them to the inside covers.  Now your gaming notebook because an idea generator and GM rules reference.  Theoretically, you could put anything in there.  My design is still evolving, and would probably change based on the game itself.  But you get the idea.

And really, it works for pretty much any style of notebook as long as you are comfortable using the dimension controls in Adobe Acrobat.

Now yes, since I play online I do keep a bunch of stuff in Evernote.  But for my money, you just can’t beat a notebook and a pen to put ideas to paper immediately.

Oh, and you may also notice in the pictures above, I added a bookmark ribbon to my notebooks.  It’s a great use for that extra label paper you’ve cut away.  The latest version of the notebook reference actually includes a third page to affix to the last page of the notebook.  Simply position your ribbon and then affix the label and presto!  It’s better than tape!  Now not only does your gaming notebook contain a lot of story elements or even important game rule details, but it keeps your place for you.

I hope you enjoyed this little Game Master Craft moment.  I expect to see these things everywhere the next time I visit a convention (hopefully next year!)

For anyone interested, I’ve created a discussion group for Witch Hunter: The Invisible World on Google+.  Frankly, the activity on the official Paradigm Forums is depressing and the Facebook page is more centered on the Revelations Organized Play campaign.  So if you are a fan of Witch Hunter and active on Google+, please consider joining.  It’s new, and it’s lonely.