The Onyx Wolf: GM Tips

Nov 24

Hello and welcome to another article of the Onyx Wolf!

We have not been around for a while eh? Yes, mostly because I run out of ideas.

One thing I see people writing or video-ing about roleplaying games doing is the mandatory “GM tips” article so here is mine. It will be divided in at least two parts: the first will be a general overview of GMing, while the second will be more specific for the World of Darkness and Mage in particular.


Once upon a time, the structure of roleplaying games was pretty standard. There was one guy who was the Game master or Storyteller and a bunch of other people being the players. The GM would control the world and create the opportunities for adventure, while the players each would play just one character. This model is still around and it is the one I will be focusing on, but do be advised that it is not the only one by any stretch. Nowadays there are games that work without any GM, or have a rotating GM or even multiple GMs that work together. In more recent indie games especially, there is a bigger emphasis on giving the players the possibility of cooperating more fully in the storytelling not just with elements pertaining to their character, but also with stuff about the general story going on.

That being said, let’s focus on “classical” storytelling for now.


Even inside the classical model of one person keeping the game and many others playing it, there are many different styles of storytelling going on. We can loosely categorize them along two axis. We have “Structure —– Sandbox” on one axis and “Preparation —— Freeform” on the other one. Most games will fall somewhere in the middle of these axises,  usually favoring one or the other end. Some GMs like to mix things up and might keep one campaign very structured and another very sandbox-y or even mix things in the same campaign.

Let’s see what those axises actually mean:

Structure Vs Sandbox

How is the campaign outline? Is it like a series of scenes in linear succession and the characters simply move from one box to the next in a linear and unchanging fashion or is it more like a literal sandbox with some half buried items here and there that the players can interact with, but without any breadcrumbs leading them anywhere?

Most campaigns will fall somewhere in the middle. Having a structure and a coherent story is something quite common: the storyteller will probably have a general idea of what story he wants to tell and some elements are already in place, but keeping it entirely linear is usually a bad idea and is called, in technical terms, “Railroading” as the players have no say where the story goes next leading to frustrated players that will try in every possible way to get off the train, including wrecking it. It does not matter how good or bad your story is, the players must be protagonists and actors in it, not just passive onlookers. If your story does not tolerate intrusions, then write it down as fiction instead of keeping it as a game.

On the other end of the spectrum, a complete Sandbox campaign might lack a sense of purpose and goals… Why are the characters doing this? why should they bother?

As a rule of thumb, commercial adventures tend to be much more structured and much less sandbox-y as it is much easier to write those kind of adventures especially when you have no idea what kind of characters are involved. The best sandbox-like adventure I have ever bought is surely the “Kingmaker” campaign for Pathfinder, where the players are tasked with exploring a huge region of land and even create their own settlement. The adventure comes with giant maps of the area and many nice little boxes to explore, each with its own thing inside… and even with a “kingdom” system that let the players build whatever they want in their city and get bonuses from the various structures contained.

It is a great effort and the campaign is well worth the price, if you like Pathfinder, but of course each box is pre-arranged and so re-playability is quite thin once you have gone through the whole thing once or twice.

A combination of the two is very possible, of course. For example you could have a structured first Chapter during which the characters are trying to unmask a conspiracy meant to dethrone their king followed by a sandbox second Chapter in which the players become the ruler of their country and can now do as they please on the bigger world stage. What about the other axis?

Preparation Vs Freeform

While the previous axis was about the campaign in itself, this one is about the GM style of keeping games. A fully prepared campaign would be one in which everything has been written down, including the name of the innkeeper daughter, her favorite color, what kind of brandy the local liquor store carry etc. All details of the campaign are prepared before hand, all NPCs are ready, all locations are there etc.

On the other hand, Freeform is the opposite. There is nothing written down and the GM just make up things as he goes. Once again, most GMs will fall somewhere in the middle. Even the best of the prepared adventures cannot deal with the unpredictability of your players. Commercial adventures have a lot of material in them, for example, but no personal touches. So even in the case of a GM running a prepared adventure, there is some stuff to add or make up as you go. Your players might expect stuff from their character’s backgrounds to pop up or else they will feel like they are cardboard cutouts.

On the other hand, not having ANYTHING prepared will lead to a very chaotic adventure in which things may seems to happen for no rhyme or reason, quickly frustrating the players.

Each GM will quickly find out where on these axises they fall, but no matter your style, here are a series of tips that are always useful.


  • Clearly outline what kind of game you want to keep during character creation and make sure everyone is on board with the idea. Nothing is more frustrating that wanting to keep a certain type of game when the players wanted to play another one.
  • Listen to your players. I do not mean ask for feedback, though that is also  a good thing to do, but I mean to listen to them while they play. Listen to their ideas and what they think is going on. Does it make sense? Maybe what they come up with is a more interesting idea than what you had in mind, so do not hesitate to make changes on the fly to make a better plot and so a better story.
  • Obstacles are meant to be overcome. Having challenges in your game is good and sometimes the characters will fail, but obstacles are meant to be passed or then they would be walls, not obstacles. If a monster is tougher than you thought it would be, scale it down. Maybe it was wounded in a previous encounter or it has less willpower to spend. If the players are stuck on a puzzle because they cannot get the solution you thought was obvious, listen to them and if one of their solutions seems feasible, go with it.
  • You are not the players’ enemy. Roleplaying is not a competitive game, so leave your thirst for victory at the door, thank you. You are there to have fun and have the players have fun as well so do not keep the game as a some sort of race to see how many players you can kill in a single session. Of course, some players like a tough game, so that is fine, but see the point above.
  • Take your time during Character Creation. Often seen as a chore, character creation is incredibly important and should be done with care. Beside the mechanical part, which is important too and should leave everyone with a satisfying character, take good care of the background part. It often helps to have a series of questions of a personal nature to ask the players about their character. Several such lists exist in numerous books, but I find that the “Game of 20 questions” from “Legend of the 5 Rings” 4th edition is particularly good. For going the extra mile, the FATE system has this method of having each character have their own previous adventure highlighting what they are all about… and they get to have 2 other characters as their supporting cast during that story. It bind the party together and give them some shared experiences from the get go.
  • Cheat if you have to, but do it sparsely and always only when it is reasonable. This is a touchy issue and some people do not like it, but I think it is a fundamental skill of the GM to know when to cheat. You have a storyteller screen for a reason, so use it. It should go both ways, of course and should be kept to a minimum. So if the enemy you designed is threatening a total party kill and that was not the plan… make him miss a couple of times. On the other hand if the guy you designed as a challenge is having the worst luck of the world and is being just a wuss, make him hit a couple of times. Always do it sparingly and always when it is reasonable. The tough guy SHOULD be hitting a couple of times… he is crack veteran marksman. The mafia overlord might miss a couple of times, he is not perfect after all… Whatever you decide to do, however, never mess with the players dice rolls or their abilities. If some powers of them do not work on this enemy, there better be a really good reason for it.
  • Stories are character driven so have good NPCs that the players want to interact with. This, however go hand in hand with…
  • the Player Characters are the Protagonist of the story, not your super powerful Gandalf-like NPC. Sometimes you might need to use a Deus ex machina and have an NPC save the day, but always do it as a last resort and very sparingly. Better still if it is not a particularly important point of the story and the action reveal an hidden side of the NPC. For example, let’s say that the characters get ambushed by some mafia hitmen. The characters beat them off and the hitmen are now running away when the calm and collected history professor they had with them all along suddenly produce a big .358 revolver and shoot one of the fleeing hitman, killing him. This does not solve the situation as the characters already had beaten the enemies and instead reveal some unseen fact on this professor that is now revealed to be a good shot with a gun and has a cold side to him, maybe he is not all that he seems to be. This leads, however to
  • The NPCs should act realistically and the world should feel alive. Why is your Gandalf-like super powerful archmage sending the character on a trivial task when he could just snap his finger and do it himself? Powerful NPCs will exist in your world and they will use the player characters as minions; no problem there, but have some good reasons why they are sent and the big Cheese does not do it himself. Possible reasons could be “My enemies are watching my every move: if I leave here, they will be on me in an instant, but you, on the other hand, are insignificant enough that they might not notice”. Whatever reason you use, the characters should feel like everyone is doing something, not just them. Things should happen in the world without their action. If they postpone a certain thing because they want to do something else have complications arise because it has been overlooked. Maybe the haunted house’s ghost has grown in power and is taking over the whole neighborhood or the missing pets in the area were because of as fledgling vampire that was feeding on animal blood at start, but now he is stronger and people start disappearing, etc.

And that’s it for now. Next time, we will talk more of Mage specific tips.

– Volkmar

PS: Exalted 3rd edition has been delayed to January 2014. Oh joy.





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