The Gamemaster’s Tool Box
So you want to be a Gamemaster
I am getting ready to help run a Dungeons and Dragons club at my kid’s school soon. As I was prepping for how myself and my buddy Doug wanted to bring kids in, the discussion came up of eventually getting a few of the kids to take up the DM role. You have seen me preach the virtues of systems like Hackmaster and Swords and Wizardry. However, the reality is the concepts in Hackmaster are probably above the average child’s head for gaming and the experience required to get through the harsh encounters is not something that can be taught as much as learned through trial and error. I was very tempted to take them down the path of Swords and Wizardry, but the problem was, a lot of parents are unfamiliar or clueless to the idea that there are more RPG’s out there. Dungeons and Dragons has been around since 1974 and a household word since the Movie E.T., the religious protests of the 80’s and infamous Michigan State tunnels incident of 1979. Notoriety can fix certain things in folks minds for good or bad.
So, Doug and I put our devious DMing minds together and came to the conclusion that perhaps starting them on Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition would be the best solution for all. The products are readily available, its name folks know and from all accounts, fairly easy to pick up. So I contacted my local FLGS and we await our sign up sheet to fill. In the meantime, I began formulating my battle plan. Running a game for middle school age children is no issue, it is a weekly occurrence at Casa Bishop. Teaching a few young devious minds to sit behind the screen is another story, however.
So, I have begun to put my thoughts down on what I would want to know as a Gamemaster. What were my stumbling blocks when I first began. Then it came to me, instead of just making notes for my own use, I would make a series of articles that focus on tips or stumbling blocks most Gamemaster’s face. So this my savage or gentle readers is my humble attempt to give a guiding light for the Gamemaster’s yet to come.
Where do you begin?
Okay so, you have your nice shiny new Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual. You have hopefully spent some time as a player but for whatever reason, the insane idea to step behind the screen is drawing you. Why do people decide to become Gamemasters? Well, sometimes it is out of necessity. Perhaps your Gamemaster has to move. Perhaps they are tired and need a break. Maybe, you have been playing and the idea to take a stab at it yourself is surfacing. Regardless, buying the books is usually the first step and a significant financial investment. Dropping between $90.00-$120.00 is pricey especially for a young gamer. To further this, once you get done reading through all the books, you still have to come up with an adventure.
Now, WotC, Paizo, and many others (often independent and in many cases better) produce a lot of content. The aspiring GM has a glut of products to choose from these days, all of which can provide an adventure for you. This can be a great option for the neonate GM, but the problem is making the transition from module GM to creation GM is still looming ahead. Most pre-written adventures might give you a shell of a town, some loose NPC information but they still expect you to flesh out the details. Players will quickly want to explore the small town. Can they buy weapons, armor or spells? Is there a local guard, or a mayor? Are the players in a bustling trade town or a one-horse podunk village?
It does not take long before the new Gamemaster is swimming in more decisions and characters then he/she knows what to do with. Never fear, with a few helpful tips we can help you to get over that first game hurdle. For the purposes of this first entry, we will assume you are running a stock adventure. So for the purposes of this installment let us focus on what you need to do with any adventure that is purchased. I promise I will cover writing your own adventures and how to stick a stock adventure into your own campaign in a later installment.
Buying that shiny new shrinkwrapped module
So, you spent some time at your friendly local gaming store perusing their shelves. Many different modules stood out but nothing quite caught your eye. So what should you look for when selecting the first module you wish to try running? Never fear I will provide you with a list. Newly minted GM’s should look for text in the description of the module that says:
- For level 1 + (this way you know it is for starting characters)
- Introductory (Introductory often means that it will have information to help the new GM such as rule advice, GM Guide page numbers for reference)
- Check to see if it is a stand-alone module or part of a series (You may want to make sure you can find all the parts if it an older module)
- Verify it is for the system you are using(this will not be as big of a deal as you get more experience under your belt but for now stick with what you know)
- Finally, make sure the adventure synopsis captures your interest – THIS IS PROBABLY THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP GIVEN TODAY!
Okay, so I bought the adventure what now?
The first read through
You are back at home in your comfy desk or table. Your nice new adventure is laying open before you. It seems obvious you would read it, but there are a few things I suggest to save yourself time. Grab a notebook and a pencil. Grab your phone or iPod or put the classical channel on your TV. Make sure you are listening to music that relaxes you. I am a complete metal head but Hammerfall or Avenged Sevenfold is not great for calm reading and thinking.
I like to read the adventure once all the way through. Make a page in your notebook that serves only one purpose, to track moments in the adventure that excite you. We are not reading for game prep in the first read through. We are trying to determine those moments that excite us. This is important because it kind of helps you to understand the ebb and flow of the adventure climax wise. Just like a good movie you do not want your adventure to fall flat at the one point it is supposed to be exciting. Keep the list handy because we will return to it.
The second read through
Now comes the actual first prep read through. Our goal with the second read through is not to read the whole adventure but to read up to a reasonable point we feel the adventure will progress. So, first off most starting adventures usually offer a small town or city that the characters are from. Some adventures like the classic Keep on the Borderlands or Village of Hommlet offer you a full town rife with NPC’s. Not all adventures do this, and next installment we will cover how to embellish your starting village. Make notes on any standout personalities that are important to moving the plot through. Make sure you write the name of the NPC down so, later on, you can make a few notes on how you want to develop this NPC. I will also cover this in more detail in the next installment.
Our real goal with the second read through is trying to determine our stopping point. A lot can happen in your first game session and depending on your player’s experience level (real world not characters) you may not even get outside the town. Regardless it is always wise to plan for adventure to occur. I look for three things.
The magical list of three things explained
- What is the possibility of random encounters?
- With D20 systems I consider how much health my average party will have. Hit points and spell limits often dictate how often my players will be looking to circle the wagons and camp. You may not have characters yet so I have a trick for that. I take the number of players give them a D8 average hit points roll it up once for each player. This gives me an average hit point pool to judge how much abuse they can take. I am sure there are more technical ways to determine this, and once you have character sheets in hand it will be easier to get a better idea. So in the adventure, I am prepping for my kids I got an average of 48 hit points (5th edition gives players max hit points for their first level) total for 6 players.
- I look at the first few possible encounters and their damage potentials. Example: Each of the goblins in the first room of the cave system have daggers or short swords. As combat usually favors the players in 5th edition I take the player’s hit point estimate and double it. While the goblins have the potential to deal 6 damage, they also will be squaring off against players that have magic, especially cantrips, that have the potential to fry their little arse like Thanksgiving turkey. The goblins will be fighting against a fighter, paladin, ranger or barbarian characters with greater armor class and combat abilities.
Finding your first stopping point
I take the monster damage potential, of each encounter and use their Challenge Level to determine their damage potential. Once the damage is added up and reaches the players Hitpoint amount, I mark this as my stop point. The Stopping Point is the spot the players are going to truly begin to fear for their lives and consider turning back to town. I also consider the difficulty of each creature. Challenge level for a goblin is 1/4 in 5th edition. They are pretty weak. I often raise the damage potential as the CL rating goes up. So a 1/2 CL Hobgoblin with a longsword will on average deal 4 damage. I will illustrate my example below:
(In 5th edition challenge level dictates how hard a monster is. In general, a party of 4 adventures should have a tough encounter if the challenge levels of the creatures are equal to their levels.)
Stopping Point Calculation Example
My players in my example have an estimate hit point total of 48. They have a chance of one random encounter before arriving at the goblin caves.
4 of the 6 encounters offer the possibility of losing 22, 24 or 28 total hit points due to monster damage halved due to CL. This means they arrive with 24 Hit points total.
The first room has two 1/4 CL goblin sentries that are using spears meaning they can deal a possibility of 4 damage using my method (2 x 2 half spear damage): 20 Hitpoints total
The next room in the cavern has five 1/2 CL goblins with 3 short swords and 2 spears for a 10 possible damage average: 10 Hitpoints total remaining
Two Hobgoblins of CL 1/2 with longswords. They are a bit tougher dealing an average of 4 damage each for 8: 2 Hitpoints total Remaining
Your players are probably ready to toss in the towel and high tail it back to safety. Obviously, some parties will have potions or healers to soften some of this but they will also fear a random encounter on the way back. You should always strive to push them to their limits!
With your stopping point estimated, go ahead and read three or four encounters past it. Players are rarely by the numbers and may have greater success or different ideas on what path to take. Either way, a little extra prep is never a bad thing. Review the flavor text. Not all adventure authors are alike and some flavor text is notoriously dry. If you feel like it is boring to read, your players will feel it is boring to hear. Take this opportunity to put the flavor text in your own words. Reading the text what images does your mind draw up? Write the raw ideas down in your notebook as you are doing your second read through, and once done reading redo the flavor text to reflect your take on things.
Join me in two weeks for another installment in which I will cover fleshing out your starting town, writing interesting flavor text and more!
Until next time,
Keep rolling them bones!