I’ve been known to run a Dungeons and Dragons adventure with little or no preparation. When the party takes off in a direction that is clearly off script, I keep the adventure going without a hitch. When I run adventures at conferences, they move along smoothly and on schedule.
Very little throws me when I am the game master. I am the best. I have gamer superpowers.
In other words, I cheat.
The secret to this amazing organization is My Little Black Cheat Book.
This three-ring, 5-1/2 by 8-1/2 black binder sits unobtrusively in my gamer bag. It is chock full of pre-generated game information and captured ideas that can be leveraged when I find my self at wit’s end. It has numerous index dividers, so I can quickly look up what I need without giving away the fact that I am lost.
I probably have had too much time on my hands, but I spent much of that time creating random game information that can be used when I am in a pinch. Because I tend to push my players into corners without knowing where they might take me, a pinch is often where I find myself.
I also have a few cheat sheets. My favorite cheat sheet is the combat actions cheat sheet. In Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, there are so many different possible combat actions, modifiers and consequences that it is hard to keep track of them. I wrote down each action I could find, with respective modifiers and restrictions. This way, when I am running five orcs, fourteen kobolds and a pair of rust monsters against the party in a grand combat scene, I can pick the best combat action for each one.
Here are the cheat sheets I keep close at hand:
- Combat Cheat Sheet: A list of all combat actions, with modifiers and restrictions.
- Checklists: I have checklists for preparing an adventure for the game, for preparing the game session, of equipment for stocking my game master’s kit, for setting up the game master’s position at the table, for starting the game, and for the post-game wrap-up.
- Healing spells listing hit-point value.
- Combat spells listing damage caused.
- Commonly used spells.
- Wandering Monster Tables: Specific to Faerun that I have created myself, as I usually play in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting (I prefer published world settings, so that most of the work is done for me).
- List of Citizen Types: Taken from resource material about the different professions that existed in the Middle Ages.
- House Rules: I’d look pretty foolish if I forget my own house rules, yet I often do.
- Index to Resource Material: I have a fairly large library of source books, Dragon Magazines, old Dungeon Magazines, and adventures by different publishers. I keep track of new monsters, new magic items, new spells, new character classes, new feats, new traps, new weapons, and anything else that catches my fancy. With this index, I can go right to the publication and page that I need, although this only is useful when I am running a game in my own home.
The key to impromptu game mastering is in creating the elements of an adventure or chance encounter in advance. Without knowing what I need them for, I have pages of characters, situations, items and storylines all spelled out. I use them in order on the page when I can, to avoid hesitation. Here is what I create during the spare minutes I have between games:
- Character names: I have a list of names for each of the character races, male and famale. If I didn’t, all my NPCs would be named Bob or Nancy. Better to have Dorn Blowglass for a human, Taeghen Moondown for an elf, Dorn Gordrivver for a dwarf, Dalbral Bramblefoot for a hafling, Orlam Graetorm for a gnome, and Zwistden for a monster. Having names at hand keeps players in the dark as to which NPCs are the important ones. I even have names for pets and horses.
- Flowcharts: Boxes and circles with lines between them. These can be used to plot a story, use as a dungeon map, or establish relationships between characters.
- News: A list of random news items that players can hear from the grapevine or in communiques. Sometimes these are merely red herrings, sometimes these launch adventures for a session or for several weeks. Breaking news: An important diplomatic envoy has disappeared without a trace.
- Odd Laws: Every village should have a strange law or two to give it character. All too often, an awkward law can change how the party must address a situation. “No magic between 10pm and 6am.” “Dogs are not allowed in residential buildings.”
- Encounters: One-paragraph descriptions of an off-the-cuff encounter for the party of adventurers. These are good for quick one-hour sessions. Two ideas on my list: the party members must fight a bugbear in arena combat before an audience of armed goblins; two mimics have disguised themselves as mirror frames on opposite walls, and one of the mirrors in the would be frames is a Mirror of Confusion.
- Magic Items: By rolling up some random magic items in each category, I avoid the process of rolling on one chart after another when an unexpected magic item is needed. This keeps players thinking that the item was placed there on purpose. This is especially useful for when scrolls are needed.
- Spells: The problem with spells is that it takes time to select the right ones for each magic-using NPC. It is a process. My lists of spells have three spells from each level of each arcane class. I stick to spells that are useful in combat, as combat is when I need to have spells at the ready almost immediately. Other situations allow more time to select a spell list. I also have spell lists pregenerated for different personalities of arcane NPCs, as listed in Dragon #314, pp 96-99.
- NPC Traits: A list of personal mannerisms and personality traits prevents the problem of NPCs with the same silly voice. Unique personality traits also make NPCs memorable, and memorable NPCs keep the players attentive. The next three NPCs will be one who whistles a lot, one who is a passionate hunter, and one who is overbearing.
- Treasure: I list five treasures for each encounter level, pre-generated from the treasure tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. This is a great time saver.
- Traps: Creating traps on the fly is time-consuming. Having a dozen of these ready in advance is another big time saver.
- Wandering Monsters: It always amazes me how players know the difference between a monster that has a purpose and a monster that is just wandering by. The clue seems to be the fact that the gamemaster tends to start rolling a lot of dice trying to create stats for a monster. Having a list of pregenerated monsters ready by dungeon level keeps players guessing.
- Ideas: Any idea I get for an adventure, I write down in the black book. All it takes is a single sentence for each idea. When it’s time to start an impromptu game session, this is where I begin. Many of these ideas I lift from short stories and television. I find this list is also helpful when I actually get time to plan a gaming session in advance, with real maps and notes.
- NPCs: Generally, NPCs have walk-on roles. Thus, most game masters (me included) don’t spend much time creating them. A castle guard is a castle guard is a castle guard. But then, a player character will suddenly stop and, instead of simply bonking the guard on the head, will attempt to bribe the guard into answering questions. Sudden and unexpected opposing rolls are the gamemaster’s bane. The nice thing is that NPC stats are reusable. So long as each guard has a unique personality, no one will notice that they are drawing from a pool of six basic guards. Knowing this, I keep the stats from the first six guards I ever created under the 3.5 Edition rules for use over and over again. The same is true for shopkeepers, sages and priests.
- Tactics: I’ve learned that in each encounter within an adventure, it is wise to list the tactics the bad guys will use to attack the adventuring party. They may try to divide and conquer, or to draw out the strongest fighter and isolate him. Some simply make a frontal attack, others may use feints and deception to work a hidden cohort into a flanking position. Others may run for cover and pick up prepared crossbows. Having a plan makes combat much more enjoyable and easier to direct. Impromptu encounters also benefit from this type of planning, so a list of basic combat tactics makes the job of game mastering look easy. I just work down the list in order.
In future GM Helper posts, I will discuss each of these cheat book sections in detail, and perhaps giving a list of examples that you can steal for your own cheat book.
What are your secrets for running a game session on the fly?
By the way, I am looking to form or join a game group in the Denver, Colorado area, for a Pathfinder or Traveller game on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, as GM or as a player. Please contact me if interested.