What do props and handouts add to a roleplaying game session? Special guest gamemaster Kyle Latino joins Chris and Andy to discuss the pros and cons of using handouts in your game.
Episode 4 appendix:
What do props and handouts add to a roleplaying game session? Special guest gamemaster Kyle Latino joins Chris and Andy to discuss the pros and cons of using handouts in your game.
Episode 4 appendix:
What makes a good DM screen, and what do they add to the game? Special guest gamemaster Matt Wilson joins Andy and Chris to talk about how they do (or don’t) use dungeon master’s screens.
Episode 3 appendix (AKA things that got mentioned):
Hosts: Chris Salzman and Andy Rau Guest: Matt Wilson Episode 3: How to Use a Dungeon Master’s Screen
Chris: Welcome to _Roll for Topic_, a podcast about GMs discussing issues at the table. My name is Chris Salzman…
Andy: …and I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: And we are joined this week by Matt Wilson.
Matt: Hi, how’s it going folks?
Chris: We wanted to bring a guest on just to get some other opinions and also just be able to talk to some of our friends about some things that they’re thinking about at the table as well. So, Matt, can you just give us a quick rundown of what games are you currently GMing? What’s your brief history with running games?
Matt: Gotcha. I’ve been running games for quite some time, since I was in middle school, which was, oh, 20-25 years ago now. I’m a one game at a time sort of person. Currently I am in — towards the later stages of — a long running _7th Sea_ second edition campaign that Chris actually is a player in.
Matt: And I am prepping as we speak for the next game I’m going to run, which is going to be a remixed version of Pelgrane Press’s “Eternal Lies” for _Trail of Cthulhu_.
Andy: Oh, fantastic.
Chris: Very fun.
Matt: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve had it for a while, I backed it, talked to Simon about it. It sounds… it’s got a really great response from the community of Cthulhu GMs, and I’m looking forward to put my own spin on it.
Andy: Are you running that with the GUMSHOE system?
Matt: I’m actually going to use the GUMSHOE Quick Shock system. It’s not really a second edition because they’re going to keep them both around, but it’s a many-years-later refined version of the system that Robin Laws put together for the _King in Yellow_ role playing game which is coming out in a couple of months.
Andy: Oh, nice.
Chris: Interesting. Do you know what are the major changes with it?
Matt: From my perspective, and we talked about a little bit about this beforehand, but I’ve been looking to streamline the mechanical engine of the system. And as Chris well knows, I, at this point in my GM career, *hate* rolling dice.
Matt: I’m just done with the whole thing of rolling dice, as a GM. I mean, I’m still going to roll if I want to generate something random. Randomization is fine, but the whole thing where I’m rolling a bunch of NPC things behind the screen and keeping track of all that. That’s just too much. It’s altogether too much for me.
Chris: It’s funny that you’re running _7th Sea_, a game in which your players have to roll more dice than I’ve ever seen.
Matt: I’m fine with the players rolling dice. You guys knock your socks out rolling dice. But it gets weird when I have to do multiple NPCs and roll dice for each of them and all that stuff. The Quick Shock system puts all of the dice rolling — it’s a player facing system much like _Numenera_ or the _Cypher System_ if you’re familiar with that — where the player’s roll not only dictates whether or not they succeed, but also the consequences of how much they fail by failure. And it also has a really interesting group resolution mechanic where the challenge of an encounter, say, is set up front, and the party as a whole needs a certain level of success.
Chris: Oh, interesting.
Matt: So the stronger players in that particular type of encounter can carry the weaker ones, but everyone still gets to narrate, like, how they’re bailed out by the machine-gun-toting murder hobo…
Andy: There’s always one of those.
Matt: …or the neurasthenic person mostly cowers behind the scenes. But yeah, it’s got a good mix of retaining the core GUMSHOE investigative mechanics with streamlining the dice rolling.
Matt: I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out.
Chris: Well, let’s dive into the main thing that we do here. Andy, why don’t you take over at this point?
Andy: So the way that we do this podcast is at the beginning of the show, we — or our guest — roll a D10 and we check on our table of random topics to discuss and that die roll determines what we’re going to talk about for the next 20-25 minutes. So Matt, if you have a D10, I’m going to need a straight up D10 roll from you, no modifiers.
Matt: All right, well as a _7th Sea_ GM, I have a profound amount of D10. I have selected my favorite crystalline purple and blue one here.
Matt: I have rolled a six. What manner of topic is a six?
Andy: Oh my friends. The topic you’ve just chosen is: “How do you use DM screens?”
Matt: Ah, the old DM screen topic? Nice.
Andy: Yes, indeed.
Chris: Yes, this is excellent. I think we all have many opinions about this.
Chris: Andy, you had actually indicated you were hoping that this one was going to get rolled, so why don’t you start us off?
Andy: Yes, I have a confession. And that is I… I have a GM screen problem. Marriage and having kids has somewhat dampened down this problem. But there was a period of time in my life where I was purchasing GM screens for every system I owned or even thought I might want to play at some point in the future. And just a week or two ago, I was cleaning out the basement trying to clear out some of my junk and there is, like, a two foot stack down there of GM screens going back to the mid- early-’80s. It was a little sobering to see all of those screens down there, I’ll be totally honest with you. I have a few GM screens around the house, you might say. How about you guys?
Chris: Ha ha! I need to know a lot more about your screens before we move on here. Are they all used? Or, is it just a stack of shrink-wrapped GM screens?
Andy: They’re mostly used. I’m not going to lie, there’s probably a few shrink-wrapped ones in the pile if I were to look closely. But no, I’ve used them, although I don’t necessarily use them for the system that they’re tied to. For instance, I have a lot of old White Wolf GM screens, and I don’t really run a lot of White Wolf games, I never have. As we get into the conversation, we can talk more about this, but my use of GM screens is not probably their intended use.
Matt: Intriguing. Intriguing.
Andy: Yes. So I’ll let your imaginations go wild with that. But, Matt, what about you? What’s your relationship to GM screens?
Matt: That’s a good question. Back when I was younger, the only GM screen I had was from the _HeroQuest_ board game. Are you familiar with the _HeroQuest_ board game? Who is the person that the GM was playing… Zoltan the Necromancer? Some beautiful ’80s, D&D-style villainous sorcerer leering out at people. I used to use that for our GURPS games. Andy, I’m exactly in the boat there with you. I didn’t need the _HeroQuest_ reference tables at that point in time.
Matt: But yeah, so I used that. For most of my GURPS games, I didn’t use a GM screen at all, actually. When we played in college, we’d come into classrooms and I’d use the lectern and the chalkboard, which was dope and I really wish that I had one of those in my house still, although it does make you feel an academic of some type. Since then, I bought GM screens for a number of my games. So, I have GM screens for _Call of Cthulhu_, _Trail of Cthulhu_, old _7th Sea_, other stuff… but I found myself constantly frustrated with them. So I bought one of those plastic doodads, and I wish I remembered the name of the company…
Andy: Like a customizable GM screen?
Matt: Yeah, exactly. It’s got pockets on both the inside and the outside and that’s actually what I use now when I use a GM screen. For the _7th Sea_ game, I have _7th Sea_ appropriate swashbuckling art on the outside and custom inserts on the inside to remind myself of things that I find interesting, but one of the constant frustrations with them is that you don’t often… what you need for your game isn’t the same thing as what the general pool of people might need. So that’s definitely an 80/20 thing. And frequently, you’re hoping to have at your fingertips the 20% stuff that you don’t remember. What I’m looking for in a GM screen, is to prevent me from having to stop the flow of things at the table and dive back into this 300-page book for an obscure rule, or table, or “what does that dueling system let me do again? I’ve forgotten.” So making my own with inserts and pockets was quite helpful.
Chris: Do you end up actually writing out what appears on each of those screens? Or, do you find a pre-made resource?
Matt: A mixture of both, actually. The internet is amazing. It’s full of every kind of reference table or GM advice, from thousands and thousands of people who have done this before. So I pick and choose. For _Trail of Cthulhu_, I mostly just had it for the art, honestly, and to hide die rolls behind, or whatever. So I would actually rotate between _Call of Cthulhu_ and _Trail of Cthulhu_ ones. It didn’t matter what was on the inside there, it was mostly just to have the evocative art. But there’s a lot of things to remember with _7th Sea_. So for that, I have lists of encounters, I could have lists of names for a particular nationality where the players are, dueling styles — forever dueling styles — are there.
Chris: Yes! I noted, I think last session or two sessions ago you actually didn’t have your DM screen with you.
Chris: So was that an intentional choice that you just didn’t…?
Matt: That’s correct. When we took a break in the _7th Sea_ game that I’m running right now — for October, to play spooky gothic horror games — I went without a GM screen for those, because again, the system that we were playing didn’t require me to hide any information from the players, all of the chancy things were in their hands. All the die rolls were in their hands, all of the decisions about what level they were going to engage with the gothic horror tropes was in *their* hands, not mine. So I had map printouts that I spread out on the table, but otherwise, I was just there to be the narrator.
Andy: So what would you guys say is the most useful GM screen that you’ve ever used? And I guess you could count your custom made ones. So tell us about the most useful one you guys have used and what made it so good?
Chris: I would say it’s just the customizations that are useful, at least for me. The _5e_ game I’m running… that’s pretty much the only official GM screen I think I own. And that most of it is just sort of useless until I added a full page of just random names on there. So then, when all my players are asking who that goblin was, I can quickly come up with a backstory with the name. Then they still proceed to kill or torture that goblin, but… I think when it’s printed by a company, exactly what you said, Matt, right there, they’re trying to give you enough for general information that it can be quasi-usable for everybody. But then it ends up just being not very usable for everybody, I think, unless it’s the first time you’re reading the information.
Andy: One of the most useful GM screens I’ve ever owned, did something that I don’t really see done these days and haven’t for quite a while. But eons ago, the old top _Top Secret/S.I._ role playing game had this GM screen — it was just your typical late-’80s flimsy cardboard screen, and I don’t even know if it had art, it just had terrible ’80s graphic design elements on it. But the thing that it did have, is it had player-facing information.
Andy: So in that game, it was somewhat important that you know different modifiers and procedures related to combat, and it had all of those frequently used combat related modifiers on the outside of the screen that the players could see. I loved that! I guess you could accomplish the same thing by giving players a cheat sheet or something in advance, but it was just nice having a reminder of the oft-referenced rules on the outside of the screen for the players to see. When I read games like modern systems, any modern system that has a highly structured approach to its mechanics, like _Apocalypse World_ variants or _Fate_ or something, such that you often feel the need to make a cheat sheet for your players, I think that would be the ideal sort of thing to plaster on the front of a GM screen.
Chris: Was the text on that readable from a distance? How much information density was on the players’ side?
Andy: It wasn’t ton of information, and it’s been a while since I’ve looked at it, but it’s like a medium-size font. So, sharp 13-year-old teenager boy eyes could read it okay. These days, I probably would not find it all that usable. I mean, if you’re sitting across a big table, it wouldn’t work. But we were all huddled around in a basement, a creepy little circle of gaming, so it worked.
Matt: Art is great for suggesting an atmosphere. But frequently, especially in a system where there are frequently asked questions, it would be good to have that displayed in some way, because cheat sheets are definitely something that I’ve struggled with knowing what the right level of information density is. It’s obviously a similar problem here. That’s a great idea though, because that’s one thing you could do with a customizable GM screen is put reference information not just for you, but for the players on the other side. That’s something I should consider for sure. I included a map of the game world on the outside of the GM screen for the _7th Sea_ stuff, but again it does have that problem of it’s a map, so frequently the players on that side of the table will hunch over and squint at it a little bit, and I’ll be, like, “Right, right! I get it, the maps not big enough.”
Andy: So why do you guys use GM screens, if you use GM screens? It’s okay to say that you don’t.
Chris: I use them because, at least in the D&D games that I’m running, they’re often going through a dungeon, so it’s helpful for me to have my notes on one side and then the visible map for them on the other. That said, a couple weeks ago I forgot my screen, so I had to improvise real quickly just with a folder and I realized that for the most part you could kind of get by without it. But it is a nice effect, too, I think, just to be sitting at the head of the table and you have this wall in front of you, where you are the Grand Master of the game. There’s something nice about the theatrics of that, I think, which sets the tone at the table, whether or not you hold the GM in high regard or not. If you have that separation between them and the player, it can help in some ways. But it was interesting, even a folder was enough to hide the information I needed to. It worked out fine and everybody still had fun. So it did make me start considering, “do I actually need this thing at my table?”
Andy: How about you, Matt?
Matt: I agree with Chris. They’re useful, for sure, if you have hidden information as a part of your game. The fear of the unknown, right? “We don’t know what’s in this dungeon,” for sure. Or, if you’re running any mystery or investigative game where you have your notes which spell out the mystery right in front of you, it is good to have a screen to conceal that sort of information. If you are playing in a system where you need to be making rolls yourself to determine what impacts your players are having on NPCs, or the NPCs are having on them, and you want to be able to cultivate an air of mystery and adventure around that, either for hardcore “you’re really going to try and let the dice fall where they may,” or if you’re fudging things for dramatic effect, it’s important to have that screen there regardless of which approach you personally take to NPC rolls.
Andy: Are you guys roll-in-the-open GMs, or do you like to keep some of your rolls behind the screen?
Chris: I do it 100% for dramatic effect. I will roll in the open if it’s something that they…. The most recent time I did it, they wanted to take a rest in a dangerous location in which they shouldn’t really have been, taking time to roll out their camping supplies. So for that I ended up just rolling on a random wandering monster table, on the table in front of the screen, and everybody hunched over and was watching that dice as it was bouncing around and landing. It was a really neat dramatic effect thing. But for the most part I just roll behind and tell them. Because, in D&D in particular, you can get really focused on what the number is on the die versus what the narrative effective is. The more you can remove — people just see numbers adding up and equaling things on a table — I think the better.
Matt: Yeah, I’m a 100% behind the screen roller. I go to some lengths to cultivate an air of trust between me and my players that they know that if I am cheating, it’s to make the story better. Nobody’s going to die in a random wandering monster encounter in my game. If they do die, it will be because they told me ahead of time they want their character to die. And it will be during a big dramatic scene in the stories. I view my role as I’m facilitating a story that will become better if the people telling the story don’t know where it’s going and what they’re up against at the outset. So I guess that puts me firmly in one of those “new age narrativist” role-playing game camps. Which is fine, but I’ve kind of always been there and I’ve always done the rolls in secret. I’ve always done this, even though my players for a very long time were convinced I was trying to kill them at every turn, frankly, because they died. Because in stories, characters die, sacrifices are made.
Andy: I’ve started moving away… as a lifelong roll-behind-the-screen person, I’ve been trying to at least moderate that tendency a little bit and start rolling a little more out in front of the players. You’ve brought up a number of the issues that can happen, especially in a game like D&D where you’re rolling everything out in front of the players. But what I found happening was if I rolled something, if I was rolling behind the screen for monsters, and they fumbled or something like that, I was finding the need to prove to the players that I had really rolled. It was such a dramatic roll, and it was so wonderfully in the favor of the characters that I found myself needing to prove to them by showing them the die roll. So I’d lift up my screen and show them. At some point, I was like, “if I am getting a kick out of that charge of seeing me roll a one for the ogre, I should just do that out in the open and we can all appreciate it without any suspicion that I’ve fudged that roll for the players.”
Chris: This is getting so off topic, but, whatever… Do you fudge rolls, Andy?
Andy: I do fudge rolls. It tends to be on damage-related rolls. I’m not completely loosey-goosey “only the story matters,” but I do tend to that direction. So I try to keep in an eye on character hit points and things like that. And if a goblin rolls some crazy amount of damage or stuff, I might rein that back in a little bit, to keep the narrative from getting derailed by something. I don’t know, I guess I do a small amount of fudging. How about you guys?
Matt: I do a fair amount but mostly in aggregate. What I was alluding to before we started to record, I’m weary of doing a lot of die rolls for…. If I’ve got, for dramatic purposes say there are 14 Goblins, right? I’m just not going to roll 14 dice, it’s too many dice. I’ll roll a couple of sets of dice, they’ll be broken up narratively, “the fighter’s taking on six of them, a cleric out there in the front lines is taking on more…” I’ll group and average rolls based on what I think the dice have told me about the general direction of that. That’s one reason why I have continued to look at systems where the GM just doesn’t do any rolling. Puts that roll in the hands of the players, that way it’s out in the open and those systems tend to give players tools to mitigate catastrophic failure on their own.
Andy: If you were playing a system like that, would you use a GM screen for its theatrical effect or for the art inspirational effect?
Matt: If there’s hidden information, I would certainly want one especially in the early going, I think, to have. I would like to have some representational or inspirational art out there. Whether or not it’s just on the table, as I did for the gothic horror stuff, or on the front of the GM screen, either way is fine. And if it’s any mystery game, then there definitely needs to be some hidden information, some concealed area for me to shuffle through the props or the story outline, even in a system where all the rolls are player facing.
Andy: So guys, I feel a need to pause here because one thing that’s interesting about GM screens, I think, is that they are a tool that has improved over the decades. I think it’s interesting, if you look back at the early GM screens were literally just card stock or paper. At some point in the ’80s or whenever that paper got thicker enough that it could stand up. I don’t know if you guys remember, a lot of those early GM screens that you’d have to prop them up with Mountain Dew cans or something to keep them from toppling over because they were just flimsy. Sometime around the turn of the century, some genius started this trend of GM screens with thicker cardboard, whatever the substance is, and these are wonderful! I feel that’s a piece of technology that improved over the years.
Matt: It’s still variable. It was probably four or five years ago now, when I picked up _Trail of Cthulhu_ and I got its GM screen. Again, for somebody who started role playing in the ’90s, that _Trail of Cthulhu_ GM screen was on 200 pound cardboard, very glossy, and beautiful art on one side, and it stood up on its own. But then sixth edition _Call of Cthulhu_ came out, and I got the GM kit for that and it came with the GM screen of its own and it was on board game boards. Tri-fold, textured, linen texture on one side and I was like, “Holy smokes! I thought the other one was deluxe, but now *this* is really the deluxe thing.”
Andy: It’s hard to go back once you’ve experienced that really deluxe GM screen!
Chris: Have either of you been tempted by a very fancy wooden GM screen? Have you seen those, like the bespoke Etsy ones?
Matt: I have not seen a fancy wooden one, though I’m not surprised they exist. I’ve been certainly sorely tempted by the extremely fancy wood dice towers, and dice rolling pads, and all of that. The hobby has definitely gone upscale.
Chris: Yes! Yeah I’ve looked at some of those. I’m a hack woodworker at best, but I’ve thought about making a GM screen for myself. And then I pause, I’m like, “do I really want that in my life?” It kind of says you’re very particular kind of GM at that point, I think, if you have a screen.
Andy: Chris, you can be honest. Let’s not lie, Chris, you do need that in your life.
Chris: I do. Yes.
Andy: That’s the sort of person you are, okay?
Matt: You need to get the woodcarving and the little scroll saw out, so you, too, can have a dragon head rearing up from either end.
Matt: I did make myself a dice-rolling box.
Chris: Oh, yeah?
Matt: I got crafty. It’s less useful than you’d want it to be at the table…
Andy: Are you familiar with a parody game called _HackMaster_? Came out around the turn of the century. It’s produced by Kenzer and Company, or I think that’s the name of the company. But I mentioned it because a) it was a parody game based on _AD&D_ first edition. And so they did a parody GM screen that had all of these extra foldout charts. It’s pretty hilarious. You should Google it just to see what it is. But I mentioned it because they’re the only company I’m aware of that ever made a *player* screen. So they also made a screen that you as a player could buy to put in front of your character sheet, I guess.
Andy: I don’t really think there’s a huge market demand for that, but it was pretty funny.
Matt: Nice! I’ve heard of _HackMaster_. I’ve never actually seen it played or actually held it in my hands, but I’ve seen it at conventions and stuff.
Chris: I’ve played some board games that have little screens for each player. That’s kind of fun. But I wouldn’t… I just looked up _HackMaster_. This looks adorable.
Matt: Isn’t the cover some parody of the classic D&D image of thieves going up a statue or something?
Andy: Yeah, exactly. Maybe we can wrap up in a few minutes here. Matt, you custom make your own GM screen so this might be an easy question for you, but what’s your ideal GM screen look like?
Matt: For me, what I want ready to hand is that 20% like we were talking about. Most GM screens are tailored to get the most common information about the system in front of the GM and that’s good when you’re just starting. But frequently, once you’ve internalized the basic rules of the system, what you need are the edge cases or the things you’re never going to remember, because it’s a lookup table. If I were doing D&D and I wanted to have wandering monsters I’d want that wandering monster table there.
Matt: Or, case in point, in the _7th Sea_ system what I want is a concise summary of the duelist styles so I remember what they do. Or, when my players have traveled to a particular realm, I want to have names of people who might be there and reminders for what sort of things are going on there in that realm. So what I’m really looking for in a GM screen is to cover the things that I need ready to hand that I’m not going to have just internalized from experience playing the system.
Chris: That’s tough, because as soon as you start note taking enough to write it down sometimes then you’ve internalized it.
Matt: Sure, but it’s got to be stuff that you might be, two hours into a game… not necessarily remember everything you’ve written down.
Andy: How about you, Chris?
Chris: Sometimes I think I wish I just had four iPads duct taped together.
Andy: For the low, low, price of 1500 dollars you could do that, Chris.
Chris: Yeah. What were you going to say, Matt?
Matt: I was going to say that’s actually really good. I think an adjacent question: Do any of you — we can come back to it — do any of you guys GM with a laptop?
Chris: I don’t because I would get way too distracted. I tend to just rule at the table on stuff. So, if I don’t know what the ruling is, I’ll just make it up and my players are comfortable with that. So, to me, if I had the laptop I would just be distracted trying to look up too many things. So, not for me.
Andy: I’m kind of in the same boat. There’s been times over the years where I’ve had a laptop or players have had laptops. I find if I have the option to stop the game and search for the grappling rules and waste a lot of time, I will. So sometimes it’s best to just not give me that option and force me to come up with a rule on the fly, I guess. I can certainly see, I can absolutely see scenarios where having an iPad handy would be really useful. But so far, I haven’t seen that in my games. How about you, Matt?
Matt: Yeah, I tried the laptop thing for a while. But like you say it was…. And, searching PDFs is a little laborious even still.
Chris: It’s not good.
Matt: It’s just not optimized for that. Paging around in them was not great. I rapidly realized they were just too much of a hassle to look things up in, in real time. And then, I don’t know, there’s something about taking notes by hand at the table that feels really nice…
Andy: Yeah, definitely.
Matt: …versus typing away or whatever. There’s also the temptation where you might have too many things. I’ve definitely played in a game where the game world was incredibly elaborate, a labor of love. It was all on the GM’s laptop and everything was there. Again, it was kind of a lookup problem where, he knew the answer to that question because he answered it for himself 10 years ago and had to go find it.
Chris: I’m just going to say real quick… I ran a one-shot of _Kids on Bikes_, which was really fun. At one point, when we were doing character creation, we needed to pull up… I only had one book, but six people needed it. So I pulled it up on the iPad, and then sent it to someone so they could have on their iPhone and stuff. It was the hardest thing in the world to use just the PDF on the iPad for searching through stuff. Because even in a game like _Kids on Bikes_, which I mean, I think the rules are less than 100 pages, and the character creation part is maybe 10 of those pages, you’re just flipping back and forth so much and you can’t quite do that with a PDF or an iPad right now. So there’s something, like you said, with paper. I do all my note taking just on note cards and sometimes then I’ll go write those up on a laptop later. But for the most part, just note cards, and then those get trashed if I don’t need them, or they just sit in the stack, and then I can reference them really quickly at the table.
Matt: In college, I took notes on a laptop for one of my campaigns, and I had the most labor-intensive write-ups I’ve ever done. Not that I’ve ever seen, but that I’ve ever done. It was, like, two-page reports after every session to my players, which is the luxury of being in college.
Andy: That’s for sure.
Matt: Very, very detailed. On the PDF front, it’s weird because I’ve played in a game also where the GM was blind. Great GM, he had his iPad or laptop and was somehow vastly better at finding information in a PDF as a blind person than I was as a sighted person. So it is great, they’re available in that form.
Andy: I was going to say, on thinking of interesting things that you see on GM screens, one thing I would like in my ideal GM screen is adventure contextually relevant information that’s about the thing that I’m running. So if I’m running D&D, I want a map of the dungeon in front of me, not in a folder or something that I have to flip pages to get back to the map on. In early first edition _Dungeons & Dragons_ modules, often the cover was detachable, and you could use it as a GM screen. It would have a map of the dungeon that that module was centered around right there. That GM screen was really only relevant to the one adventure, but you would use it with that adventure. You don’t see that so much anymore, but I have noticed that there are more third-party GM screens out that are keyed to specific, for instance, _Dungeons & Dragons_ publications, at least. A couple weeks ago, I was running the first part of that _Waterdeep: Dragon Heist_, and I went out and I bought… there’s a GM screen for just that adventure. It’s got information on it that is only relevant if you’re running _Waterdeep: Dragon Heist_, but it was kind of neat. It had some art that was super specific to the adventure on the front, and on the back it had random tables and stuff that were specifically keyed to work with _Dragon Heist_ and not some other adventure. So on one hand, it was $15 that I can only use for this one adventure, but it was kind of neat. It reminded me of those old GM screens that were specifically focused on an adventure.
Matt: Yeah, that’s tremendous, that’s a good point. We’re lucky enough to live in an era where these things exist, for one. I do love those old modules, especially any module that’s good enough to have stood the test of time has a ton of either third-party supplements like GM screens available for it, or comes with one now. I’m a huge _Ravenloft_ fan. I have, like, every version of _Ravenloft_ they’ve ever published.
Andy: That’s fantastic.
Matt: That first one with the cover that just comes right off, have the map on the back. It’s really great.
Andy: I remember that one because it had a 3D isometric map of the castle, right?
Matt: Yeah, I think it was the first isometric map that anyone had ever seen in that context.
Andy: That’s also something you don’t see every day.
Matt: No. That is also one of the cool things about having this quad-fold plastic one with the pocket is that that company, will, of course, host fan-created stuff, so any good or big enough module tends to have some fan who’s assembled their own inserts for it, uploaded them. Definitely customized a few of those for my own current campaign.
Chris: Well this conversation is making me want to go modify my screen more than I have already, so it’s very fruitful. Let’s go ahead and wrap it up.
Matt: Sounds good.
Chris: Matt, I did not let you know this ahead of time, but one thing we wanted to do with guests is allow you to replace the topic that we just talked about with one of your own choosing. So, if you have anything that you’re thinking about right now — and I’ll stall for you for a minute, too, so you can think — you can do it right now, otherwise you can send it to us later and we’ll throw it in there with your name and if ever comes up in the roll, we’ll credit you.
Matt: Okay. Let’s see…
Andy: There’s no pressure, but if you don’t come up with one you have to sing us a song.
Chris: Yeah. Oh geez.
Matt: Oh boy. Let me polish up the old pipes here…
Andy: The song has to be “Separate Ways” by Journey.
Chris: Ha ha! Specific request.
Matt: That’s a *very* specific request. I don’t know that song so I think I’m going to come up with a topic instead.
Andy: All right.
Matt: So one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot with tabletop games is atmosphere. What tips, tactics, strategies, dirty tricks do people have for suggesting, cultivating, and maintaining a particular atmosphere? Because the default mode — and you can edit this question to something much more reasonable, I’m about to get discursive — the default mode at a table is adventurous comedy, right? It would be a PG-13 cut-down adventure movie with a lot of heavy comedic elements, and that’s great. But, from time to time, you want to do something… you want to step out to do a gothic horror thing, or you’re playing a _Call of Cthulhu_ game. It’s great to have the comic relief, but you also want to decide on what the background level of atmosphere is. “Is this actually a game about cosmic terror? Is this pulp adventure? What mode are we playing in, and how do we bring all of the players along with us?”
Andy: That’s a fantastic topic. I run a lot of _Call of Cthulhu_ and within 45 minutes it is always “Laurel and Hardy versus Cthulhu,” basically, around the table. I’ve come to accept it and even love it, but sometimes I do wonder what would it be like?
Matt: “What would it be like?” Indeed. Like I said, it’s great, and there’s always going to be that adventure-comedy-slapstick element to it… I feel I’ve done a decent job communicating “swashbuckling adventure,” but as I contemplate going back into a _Trail of Cthulhu_ game, what I want from it is something I didn’t manage to get out of the “Masks” campaign, which was a particular tone.
Chris: Mm hmm.
Andy: All right. Let’s add it to the chart. That’s fantastic.
Chris: We’ll add it, and you’ll just have to come back on and keep rolling and see if you can get it.
Matt: Generate it myself.
Chris: Yeah, all right.
Matt: I’ll crash and roll it for somebody else. I fudged the roll, you rolled a seven. Talk about seven.
Andy: Oh we haven’t even talked about the possibility of fudging the role here, you guys. You know, the format of audio kind of provides a aural GM screen… so you’ll have to trust us that we’re not fudging this roll.
Chris: Yeah, yeah. Always trust your GM, they have your best interests in mind.
Chris: Okay, well, this has been _Roll for Topic_. Matt, thank you so much for joining us. This was super great! If we keep doing this, I hope you can come back on again sometime.
Matt: Sure thing. It’s been great to talk to you. I like talking about tabletop games.
Chris: All right, thank you so much. Thanks for listening.
What’s a GM to do when their best-laid plans are derailed by pesky players? Andy and Chris discuss the many ways roleplaying game sessions can go awry.
Transcript below provided by Barbara Tozier!
Episode 2: How to stop derails from happening?
Chris: Hello and welcome to _Roll for Topic_ an RPG podcast. This is a podcast where GMs discuss various elements of running the game. So let’s do some quick introductions. My name is Chris Salzman…
Andy: …and I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: Andy, what exactly are we going to do first here? We typically have a role at the beginning of the session. What is that that for?
Andy: Yeah, so what we do on the show, Chris, if you weren’t aware, is we roll a D10 and we look on a chart to find out exactly what topic we’ll be discussing. I have a chart in front of me numbered one through 10 and you’re going to roll a D10 and that’s going to determine what we talk about.
Chris: Okay, cool. All right, so I’m going to roll that right now.
[sound of dice rolling]
Chris: It’s… Oh, I got a 10!
Andy: A 10. Okay. Chris, what we will be discussing today according to our chart, is how to deal with session derails. So that that would be players going off-plot or players doing something that the GM was not expecting.
Chris: Well my players always stick to exactly what I was planning for. So I don’t know about you…
Andy: Well this is going to be a really short show then, because my players always do the exact same.
Chris: Yeah whatever I prepped is exactly what they seem to want to do.
Andy: That’s perfect. Yes.
Chris: Yeah, this is actually a really interesting one that we rolled on, because my last session was maybe you could almost call it 100% a derail. This was a session we went more or less completely off book. They just decided to… they were wrapping up a plot point and they decided to do it in a way I was not expecting, that involved most of the townsfolk.
Chris: In a town that they were in, pretty much all the NPCs that they had been relating with were at this public trial of the big bad evil person in the campaign that they were running. So they held this public trial and everybody showed up and so there was a lot of very cool interactions between different NPCs and different motivations coming out of the woodworks, and I was just kind of sitting behind the screen going, “Oh goodness, what am I gonna do? What am I going to do?” as it just got a little crazier and crazier. But yeah, it ended up being a really, really fun session. And they had no combat rolls whatsoever.
Chris: This is a _Dungeons & Dragons_ game so that’s sometimes rare for that to happen.
Andy: What did you feel like when you started seeing things going off of course, the course you had imagined it would take? Was that a scary feeling? Or were you like, “Hey, this is really fun. Let’s see where this goes.”
Chris: I think it depends on your GM style, right? I sort of like this thing as long as there’s a framework to fall back on. So if they had come to a brand new town for example, and we were introducing a bunch of brand new NPCs, then that would have been hard and scary. But since I had a good handle on what was going on in the town and who wanted what out of the trial, it just made for a lot of fun at that point. I think the other thing, too, that I always try to keep in mind is the players just assume that you’re on top of things most of the time, I guess, unless you’re very bad GM. They sort of assume that you have some vision in your head. So even if you don’t necessarily have it ahead of time, and you’re just inventing it on the fly, it tends to work out okay. It’s like… you’re like a duck on the water, right? You look calm on the surface while you’re paddling.
Andy: I think it’s important to take a minute and assure everyone who might be listening that *you* are not a bad GM. You’re an *amazing* GM. Take it from me and Chris. You’re incredible.
Chris: Yes. I mean that’s why we have the podcast, right?
Andy: A person who was a bad GM would not be listening to this podcast.
Chris: Yes. I guess I’m interested right… So that’s very fresh in my mind, that sort of session derail, I guess. That’s a very particular kind of derail. I’m wondering, the spirit of this topic might be more… players just trying something dumb or way out there. “Wha… What’s going on?” Do you have anything that you’re thinking about?
Andy: Well, I can tell you a story of me not knowing what to do with a player derail from my gaming history. I distinctly remember once introducing a new player to role-playing. He had not role played before. We happened to be playing the old _Middle Earth_ role playing game and I still remember very vividly what happened. I had a plot set up, and the plot was that the player needed to travel from one town to another: from point A to point B.
Chris: Seems straightforward.
Andy: Right? But then, of course, midway along that route, something would come up that would divert them off of their course, and that’s where the adventure was. So I don’t remember what the exact thing was, your classic generic adventure, as “you’re on the road to Neverwinter and oh, here’s the wreckage of a merchant caravan or something that was ambushed. And there’s the goblin track leading to the forest. What do you do?” The expectation is that the players will, of course, follow the adventure that you have planned, head off of the track and go have their adventure. Well this, and in fact, I think most veteran players know when a GM is hinting at them that “hey, this is where the adventure is, you should go down this trail.” But I was playing with someone who wasn’t a veteran adventurer at all. And he was like, “well, that’s not…” when he came across upon that distraction, where the heart of the adventure was supposed to lie, he was like, “well, that’s not what I’m being paid to do. So I’m just going to stay on the road to Minas Tirith,” or wherever he was headed and I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what to do. So, I just ended up saying after confirming that he was sure and I wasn’t even very subtle about it, “are you sure you don’t want to go follow that troll path?” or whatever it was. I ended up just saying, “well, that’s the adventure you get, that was it.” And I never played a role playing game with him again, and to my knowledge, he has never played another RPG.
Chris: Yeah, well, because he tried it that one time and it wasn’t very fun.
Andy: It genuinely was not very fun for anyone. And I guess I don’t blame him for walking away from that session going, “what the heck was that?”
Chris: I’m curious. You clearly had some time to think about this and think about what you did wrong, but what would you do? What would Andy today do if that happened?
Andy: Great question. I don’t, this will sound terrible, but I don’t exactly know what I would do in that situation. I think probably the main problem was that the player just didn’t have a big enough incentive to go off of the beaten path, off of the plan and into the adventure I had designed. He was probably thinking pretty logically, “Why on earth if I’m headed to city B, would I allow myself to be distracted by a bunch of goblins?” or whatever it was. So I think what I would do now is just make sure that if I am hoping to lure players off of the path they were expecting to be on, just to make sure that that lure has a strong enough hook, in either the personalities of the player characters or by some other means. That there’s a good chance that in fact they will be tempted to go follow the adventure path.
Chris: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s the D&D starter set for 5e, right? That’s the beginning part of the adventure, you’re traveling from one place to another and you run across the wreckage of an ambush.
Chris: Right. But you recognize parts of that ambush as someone that you knew. So, in that way, if it was just some random cart that was overturned, it’d be pretty easy to just sidestep it and keep going.
Chris: I’m wondering about the… a subset of this question is, I think, that a player just killing the momentum…
Chris: Totally. Have you ever had that happen where a player just gets really interested in something that just does not have anything to do with what the rest of the party wants?
Andy: Definitely. And it happens in all sorts of different ways, right? It happens with players just getting it in their heads to go left when you really think they ought to be going right and you’ve tried to seed in their minds that they should turn right. It also happens with players coming into the game with a different expectation for what they want to be doing. If what’s fun for them and what they’re looking forward to doing in the game is different from what’s fun for you and maybe the rest of the group, you’re going to be fighting those derails basically every time they are talking.
Chris: Have you had players like that, who clearly want something out of the game that they’re just not going to find out your table?
Andy: Yeah, definitely. I’m struggling to think of a specific example. I can’t really point to too many players in my gaming history that were just enormously at odds with the rest of the group. I think that almost every player, at some point in the career of their player characters, they’re just going to want to do something that’s a little different. Or that’s, I don’t know, they’re just going to get a little bug in their minds to go explore something, or do something, or make a choice or, be stubborn about something you didn’t expect them to be stubborn about. So I think that this isn’t just a topic of “How do you deal with the one guy who’s constantly derailing the game” and it’s more question of “Everybody is going to probably derail the game in a way that’s really unique to them. How do you as GM prepare yourself when somebody unexpectedly throws you a curveball?” What do you think about that? How about you? Does anyone spring to mind when we talk about player derails, as someone that you’ve played with who’s really constantly throwing this sort of thing at you?
Chris: Yeah, although oddly, the more that I think about this, it was in a good way. I think there are derails where… so some people just want to watch the world burn, but other people, they want to explore something that you haven’t really thought of, or bring something to the game that you haven’t thought of. So a couple players that I’m thinking about in particular will ask me about something that I haven’t thought about. In that moment, your decision is either,
“Oh, well, there’s nothing there because I didn’t think about it.” Or, you can say, “oh, maybe there’s something there because, I didn’t think about it. Well, let’s see.” Oftentimes, if that happens, and I’m just totally at a loss for how to answer that question, if someone’s like, “Oh, well, is there a secret passage in this room? Or is there, some…” Whatever it is, “is there’s something that I haven’t seen in this room?” I’ll just ask them to make a roll at that point. Then you can buy yourself a minute, which is always nice, but then, if it comes up with a good roll, well, why not reward that creativity? There’s obviously a point at which that can go too far, where people are just searching for stuff just to see what happens when they roll. For the most part, I think players understand that tension that they’ve introduced, if that makes sense…
Chris: …where, it’s like, “Okay, well, I’ve just asked for something that maybe the GM hasn’t fully thought through, let’s see what happens. If it’s nothing, that’s fine. If it is something, great!” I would just add, I would rarely gate some sort of big thing behind that curiosity. It would just be a small flavor thing is usually what I try to do.
Andy: How much pressure do you feel as a GM to roll with the derail versus saying, “I don’t know, that’s not something I planned or thought about.” Would you, could you ever say to a player “I don’t know what the name of that person is,” or “I don’t know the answer to your question or, to what you’re doing. That’s not what I planned, let’s skip it and move on.” Could you ever say that? Or do you feel pressure to try and fake it until you make it?
Chris: Yeah, I feel some pressure to fake it. But I think that’s a good pressure. I can be creative within a framework pretty well, and if I have that framework too solidified in my own head, it can be very hard to break out of that. But if a player breaks me out of that, then it can be a good extra thing, extra flavor to add to the game. There’s this one session that really sticks out in my mind, that I ran during one of my lunch games, where they had decided that they wanted to go up to another city. They wanted to stop exactly what they were supposed to be doing and go do something that was totally separate from what they were doing, and I was a little scared. I was like, “Well, if you do that, we’re going to introduce this whole new city and this is just getting so off the beaten path from what you’re trying to do.” What I ended up doing was I gave them a choice in the game because they were trying to clear out a goblin stronghold such as what they were supposed to be doing. While they were on the road up to the other city, I had some goblins show up off in the distance. So then it was their decision. “If you want to keep going down this path, sure, we’ll figure it out but also, I’m reminding you very specifically of this thing you’re supposed to be doing, this thing that you are saying no to right now.” Thankfully, they took the bait, if you will, and went up towards the goblins and things went off from there. But it was an interesting moment because that was something that’s, of course, not written in the adventure for what to do if they decide that they’re not going to go to the goblin stronghold. So I did think a little bit on my feet and it ended up being a really interesting combat encounter, too.
Andy: One thing that’s occurred to me as we chat here is that when we say the word “derail,” we are suggesting the presence of a rail, right? I know gamers have lots of different feelings about “railroading as a thing” adventure. So where on a scale between… on the one hand, you have a very tightly defined plot that you are expecting the players to go through, and that you plan to nudge them along to reach a foreordained conclusion or plot points. If that’s on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end of the spectrum is a “there is no story but… here’s a region full of NPCs with plot hooks and you make your own story.” Where do you fall when you come to a game session?
Chris: I definitely fall on the pre-written module end of things, but flavoring it as they’re going through. Partly that’s just because of the time that I have available to me to play. I think if I had more time in a more regular group that met for hours at a time, maybe once a week, I would be more open to the, “well, let’s just kind of see what happens” sort of thing. But since, for at least one of my groups, a couple months can go past before we can meet back up, it’s very valuable to have everything written down by someone else who’s thought through the whole thing. Because otherwise, you come back to the session and it’s like, “Well, okay, what’s my character’s name first of all?” And then “What were we doing?” If you have a module you can kind of jump back into and say, “okay, well, we’re roughly here and… if you’ve forgotten stuff I can just look it up.” It sort of puts more burden, I think, on the GM for holding the state of the world in their head if you’re doing pure homebrew, hundred percent homebrew. That’s not where my gifts lie. Some people are really good at that, but it’s hard enough for me to juggle three NPCs let alone everybody that they might… What about you? Where do you fall?
Andy: Yeah, I share your general approach, I think. I have a lot of fondness in the abstract for the open world, very little pre-written plot. “Let’s see where your character motivations and interests take the story.” I’m very attracted to that idea, but in practice I don’t really run games like that very much for many of the same reasons you do… Most of my games these days are with busy adults, or with my kids and their friends. And there could be a big gap between game sessions. For instance, when you have busy adults who are committing to get together once a month for a game session, that time is precious, that time is not being spent with their family or their work or whatever it is. And as a GM, I feel a little more pressure in sessions like that to make their time be worth it. This might be a misguided idea but if we end up kind of futzing around to no effect for three hours in one of those once a month sessions, that kind of feels to me like I wasted people’s time. That might not be the right way to think about it, but that’s certainly how I feel. So I feel a little pressure in those cases to have more of a plot that I can keep moving. When you don’t meet as frequently, I feel like you just can’t afford some of those filler, more aimless distractions and sessions that when you’re 13 and playing four times a week, you can easily indulge.
Chris: Yeah, it’s almost like, if you have the written module, you can introduce that next big event that moves things forward. You always have that written down. I think, at least in D&D, that’s the game that I’m playing right now most heavily, it can tend to be a very silly game, just by the nature of it.
Chris: So if you can balance the rails of the pre-written adventure with the silliness of the party kind of bumbling through and making jokes and stuff, it’s a good counterpoint to each other. So you have this very serious plot going on, but then you also have “the dwarf fell over and dropped the mace.” Or they just want to make jokes all the time, or make fun of the evil guy. So that can be… that to me is a good balance between those things where I think I would have a hard time if you had that sort of silliness of D&D, but then also you have to indulge in their kind of weird, weird jokes because that’s the plot points you’re being given.
Chris: Which I can imagine… teenagers playing, right? That can get quickly get pretty off color, and gross.
Andy: Of course, yeah.
Chris: But with adults, I think the opposite happens. It’s just kind of like boredom, and “well, there’s probably something else I’d rather do with my time than this.” Where’s the line? When you’re talking about a derail? Where’s the line between someone just constantly joking, and then really fully derailing the whole session?
Andy: I think most groups probably have at least someone who’s more inclined to be joking around a lot. It probably just depends a lot on the character of… the personalities in your group. I mean, as a GM, one of the things you have to be constantly doing is reading the table. I think if you know your players pretty well, it’s usually pretty clear when things are starting to go a little awry. Have you had this pop up in some of your games?
Chris: Yeah, I think so. Where you just have to gently step in or forcefully step in, “okay, this is the thing you should be focusing on.”
Andy: We’ve talked, I know you and I have talked in the past about filler content, and that I think there are some situations in role playing games that tend to lend themselves to being deraily. I find things start to derail when players are given a little bit too much time to figure out what they’re going to do next, a little too much time to plan what their next move is or how they’re going to tackle the next challenge, or, to debate how they’re going to respond to a job offer. I find that sometimes, if you aren’t putting a little bit of pressure on people to keep the pace going, keep the momentum up, people’s brains are… they’re just naturally going to start drifting around and you can find yourself getting off track. Sometimes maybe it’s just a matter of saying, “all right let’s wrap this up,” “let’s all…,” “let’s focus,” “this guy needs an answer now” or
“the sun is about to set,” “it’s time to make a decision.” Maybe some in-game ways like that prompt people to, like, “okay, let’s get back on the road.”
Chris: Do derails happen in dungeons as much as they do in town?
Andy: In my experience, not so much. Although no… for me, most of the derailing happens in between the adventuring part of a game. Once they’re out in a dungeon or, once they’re in an environment like a dungeon there’s a lot of constraints that you as a GM can use to put pressure on them to keep moving or to keep on course. It’s those more open-ended things like when they’re interacting with NPCs around town, or they’re going shopping, or they’re hanging out at the inn after their adventure. It’s those times like that, where there’s just less inherent structure in the scene, that I think you’re more likely to have people start getting it in their minds to do something that you weren’t planning on them doing.
Chris: It’s tough, because the character work part of the game that tends to happen, at least in my experience, in towns or when it is a little bit more downtime. It’s like you want to have some of that, but then the adventuring part, it’s a little bit harder to have a heart-to-heart conversation between two players about whatever they need to talk about. But that has me wondering about introducing some of that into dungeons a bit more, if there’s a way to do that. Or even just within town, giving some harder limits about what’s ahead of them rather than just being totally open. “You’re in town, here are your tasks, we’re going to rapid fire take care of them.” Or, “the town’s on fire, you only have a certain amount of time.”
Andy: Yes, absolutely.
Chris: Or something’s happening like the town guards, or the king’s guard is coming down south so you have one day to prepare what you’re going to do in that one day. Because then you can still have some of that ability to sit down and talk, but then there’s also some “you gotta keep moving.”
Andy: Absolutely. Sometimes a derail is the players’ way of telling you the kind of game they’d rather be playing than the one they’re playing right now.
Andy: I could probably come up with a good number of examples here. One area in which derails can be kind of dangerous is… I have run a lot _Call of Cthulhu_ in my gaming life. That’s more of an investigative game where players are looking for clues and trying to unravel mysteries. And in games like that, it’s not too hard for players to follow red herrings or to think that some random NPC you don’t even have a name for is the villain they need to know. That certainly happened. For example, I was talking about sometimes they’re kind of telling you the kind of game they would like to be playing: I remember one _Call of Cthulhu_ game, one of the characters had a background as being a psychic. And when they rolled up the character, I didn’t really think that the psychic character was going to be like a real psychic with actual psychic powers. I just thought it was a flavorful background. Once we started the game, it became clear that the player had envisioned their character as a psychic with psychic powers, and so they at all of the scenes they were visiting, the player was saying, “I’m going to touch the murder weapon and focus and what kind of vision do I see, or what?” And I had no idea! It ended up being kind of terrifyingly fun, as I switched from what I thought was going to be a pretty gritty straightforward detective mystery story to a psychic detectives following… Clearly the players were having a lot of fun with it, and they thought it was really cool that the player was getting these psychic flashes and I was just kind of madly making up on the spot these visions and psychic clues this person could be getting. I had no idea where it was all going to end. It ended up being really fun. That’s something I look at; in that was an example where the player just had a different idea of what was fun about their character than I did. I am glad that I didn’t say “Oh, hey. No, actually, you don’t actually have real psychic powers. That’s just a piece of flavor background.” I’m glad that I resisted the urge to do that, because I certainly had that urge. Instead, I just did this panicky “Sure! You’re saying you see a vision or you’re hearing voices or something.” I’m glad that I tried to run with it, even if I definitely wasn’t completely successful with it, because… I don’t know, people had more fun and it ended up being a neat part of the game.
Chris: It’s like there’s almost a difference between a derail that snaps you out of your thing that you have planned and a derail that’s just someone that needs to goof off for a minute because they need to blow off some steam.
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. One thing we didn’t do at the beginning of this discussion was define what a derail is, because there’s all kinds of derails, right? There’s derails because somebody won’t stop cracking jokes in your serious horror game. And there’s derails because the players just make an in-game decision that throws away a huge amount of the planning that you’ve done. There’s all kinds of ways that games can go awry and so maybe this conversation is at risk of getting a little too broad…
Chris: Yeah, so “derails can be good for the GM” is where we really came around. The question as written was “How to stop derails from happening?”
Chris: It’s like, “No. Let more of them happen.”
Andy: Yes, well we’ve really come around in just our short discussion here, Chris.
Chris: I have one little final story then we should wrap up. I was running a one shot one time in which the one shot was literally a train heist and a couple of the players did not want to get on the train. The derail almost actually happened, because it was “why aren’t you getting on the rails that I presented to you?”
Andy: Oh my goodness, Chris, this story. This story would have been perfect if they had actually literally derailed the train against your wishes. That would have been the perfect closer to this discussion.
Chris: Yeah, it really would have been. I need to revive that. That train heist was really good, and the thing that I learned from it was that I just needed to start on the train. Not trying to get them to get onto the train.
Andy: Yes. If you do have to, if you are really counting on the players turning left instead of right, you need to maybe start the game with them turning left.
Chris: Or you turn them left and then a quick flashback to before. All right. Well, let’s wrap up there. Again, this has been _Roll for Topic_. My name is Chris Salzman.
Andy: And I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: Thank you so much for listening. Bye.
Is it possible to run a satisfying game session in just one or two hours? In this inaugural episode, Andy and Chris share their experiences running game sessions with very tight time constraints.
Transcript below provided by Barbara Tozier!
Episode 1: How to run a game in two hours or less
Chris: Hello, and welcome to _Roll for Topic_ an RPG podcast. This is a podcast where we have GMs discussing various topics related to running games. Let’s do some quick introductions. My name is Chris Salzman.
Andy: My name is Andy Rau.
Chris: We are two GMs, we’ve known each other for a while, but we decided to do this podcast to get a chance to sit down and talk more specifically about one topic relating to, “Hey, you’re the GM. How do you keep this thing going smoothly?” So to that end, we have created a D10 table with a number of topics on it. This is… our hook here is that every time we record, we pull up that table, we’re going to roll a D10, see what comes up, and then we’ll use that as our topic. This helps us to not over prep, which is a good thing when you’re dealing with GMs.
Andy: All right, Chris, I’m going to need a D10 roll from you, please.
Chris: Ok, all right. Thank you.
Andy: No modifiers.
[sound of dice rolling]
Chris: Yes, all right. That is a nine. So what’s nine on our table?
Andy: All right, let me consult our table here, Chris. Today our topic with the result of nine: we will be discussing how you fit a game into two hours.
Chris: Ooh. Okay. Should we keep it narrowed to two hours? Or should we just be like, “How do you fit a game in one hour, two hours, four hours, et cetera?”
Andy: Yeah, let’s give ourselves a little leeway and say, “How do you run a really short tight game?”
Chris: Yeah. Okay. Well, I have some thoughts, but why don’t you dive in first.
Andy: This has been one of my big goals as a GM over the last couple of years, and that is getting the game experience down to just a couple hours and it’s entirely because of my life circumstances. Like everybody else, I don’t have as much time to game as I did in my youth. But the main thing is I’m playing more and more with kids, with my own kids and their friends, and I have discovered that over a couple of hours, you… the game really goes south with kids under the age of 12 or 13. So my daughter is 11, I play with her a fair amount with her friends. And I have just found that if I’m going over two hours, I start to lose them and they start getting silly and things like that. I have also found this and it’s makes for a much easier pitch for my kind of casual gamer friends who are not super enthused at the… who can’t or aren’t enthused about the idea of taking six hours on their Friday night. Like we used to, we start at 6pm and then people are heading home at like 1:15 in the morning. That’s not really something I can ask from my adult friends with kids and jobs anymore so…. Two hours is maybe a little too short for adults, but I have been trying to keep the games I play with my casual gamer friends somewhere in like the three hour vicinity.
Chris: That’s interesting. So you mentioned when you were younger you’d do six-, seven-hour sessions.
Chris: So if like that, I guess now I’m just really curious. Like, what was the longest session you ever played?
Andy: Oh, I don’t know. The longest session, and I’m reaching way back into the mists of memory that are clouded by nostalgia…. One of the first times I ever played _Dungeons and Dragons_. This is mid ’80s, I was introduced to _Dungeons and Dragons_ by my cousin who I was visiting for the summer. And he broke out this, “Have you heard of this, this thing called _Dungeons and Dragons_?” I had vaguely heard that it was satanic. He had a bunch of modules and I recall starting playing this on like a Friday afternoon and finishing on like a Sunday evening. Obviously we slept in there, but I’m pretty sure we just played D&D. This is unthinkable to me now. I mean, there’s no way I could do this now, but I’m pretty sure we played D&D for like 12 hours a day for three days. I never topped that experience. It was a heck of a jump into the deep end of role-playing, by the way.
Chris: I mean, that’s probably for your own health, it’s good that you haven’t done that.
Andy: Oh, yes, yes. Occasionally I’ll read about people, adult gamers saying like, “Oh, yeah, my friends that I rented a cabin and we went up and we played for 12 or 16 hours a day.” And that sounds really cool, but I also just don’t see how I could possibly hack that at this point. I have trouble sitting down and doing any one thing for more than an hour and a half or something, even playing a video game I love or something like that. It’s hard for me to do that.
Chris: Oh, yeah, I can imagine. A couple months ago, I got together with some friends, and they wanted to… I think a couple of them hadn’t played D&D before, so we ran through kind of a pretty basic scenario, which was fun. I ended up GMing for like, two three- or four-hour sessions in one day. I was just wiped out, I was a little bit sick, anyway. I mean, there’s just…, once you’re past 25, you can’t do that anymore, I think.
Andy: Yeah, for sure.
Chris: I just don’t have the stamina and especially once you have kids, it’s just like, yeah, the whole…
Chris: The whole concept changes.
Andy: I don’t know who said this, but I remember reading and it stuck with me: somebody, some game designer or somebody on a forum somewhere saying that role-playing is like “one hour of fun fit into four hours.”
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Andy: And what I found when I am playing in longer games, like at a convention where it’s typical for a game to occupy a four-hour time slot or occasionally even more, is that you do start, somewhere around hour four or hour four-and-a-half, you do start to realize how much of your typical game is this filler that’s not really that fun.
Chris: Um, hmm.
Andy: So part of the motivation for getting the game time down is to identify that stuff where nobody’s really having fun doing this. It’s filler content, it’s not really adding anything. See if you can at least tone some of that down, if not strip it out altogether.
Chris: Are there are there particular things that you’re thinking about?
Andy: So the bane of my games, the thing that frustrates me… I’ve been in groups where shopping ends up being this huge time consuming thing and this is not something I’ve ever really been interested in spending a lot of time in game doing. But obviously other people dig it and if anybody listening to this loves role-playing out there two hours of shopping for swords in _Waterdeep_ or whatever, more power to you. But what usually happens if it’s not shopping… anything where one player has a bug to do something, like they really want to buy a magical spell while they’re here in town. Or, if you’re spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on your one player tangent, it really starts to drag the whole momentum of the whole game down.
Chris: Yeah. Usually, if something like that starts to happen, I will either just say like, “I don’t care here. Just look through the book and tell me what you bought.”
Andy: That’s where I’ve come, like, “Here. It’s on page 43 of the _Players Handbook_. Just…”
Chris: “… tell me what you have bought. They have it in stock, sure.”
Chris: Sometimes what I’ll do is if I *can*, try to split the party and then you can bounce back and forth between people and give people some time to think and then also have a more interesting interaction for other people. But yeah, like stuff like that, you can just kill it. Or, sometimes what I’ve done is, “take a look in between now and next session and then tell me.”
Andy: Yes, absolutely. A lot of this stuff you can totally, you can handle it via email in between sessions. You can handle it… I mean, if you really do want to role play this out and I can definitely see some… I can definitely think of scenarios where you would want to take a player aside and let them role play out an experience that’s important to their character. Just meet an hour before the game and run through that with them, or have lunch with them during the week or something like that.
Chris: Yeah, that’s interesting. Are there other filler things that you’ve noticed that when you cut them out the game doesn’t really lose anything?
Andy: So the other big momentum killer for games that I’ve run and have been in is planning. I *love* listening and giving players the opportunity to plan how they’re going to tackle a challenge. So, just to come up with something like they need to sneak into a castle that’s heavily guarded and has various obstacles they’ll have to take into account in getting into the castle. I love, love, love hearing players plan how they’re going to do it. It’s super fun and it usually… and it’s also really beneficial as a GM to hear what they’re thinking of and planning. It often gives me ideas and how to run the encounter.
Chris: Oh, totally. Yeah, there’s *absolutely* a pack of goblins there. Sure.
Andy: Yeah, exactly. Yes. And you’ll learn. They’ll point out all the things you hadn’t thought about. And then you can pretend that you had thought about them. But, the downside I find: it’s really easy for these planning sessions to go on *forever* because, and it’s not it’s not like the players are doing it wrong or something, but it’s hard to know when you’ve planned enough and you can’t read the GM’s mind and know the level of detail that the GM is expecting from your plan. And so I have often found myself in games where the planning is fun for a while, and then it reaches this tedious point where like maybe two players are going back and forth about some dumb detail that, as GM, I know it doesn’t even really matter. I mean, I don’t want to say that it happens in every game but… that one and the shopping thing are like the two things that immediately popped to mind as “when does time get wasted and drawn out in games I’m in?”
Chris: When do you… so say you’re trying to hit that two hours, and you have a group that is just arguing about like, well, “should we go into the west door or the east door?” And you’re like, “they’re both the same door.” When you have that, are there any things that you do to speed them up?
Andy: Oh, so I wish I had, I wish I had an arsenal of good ways to kind of — in the spirit of the game — get players moving.
Andy: But, usually, honestly at this point in my life I’m more inclined to just say, “Hey guys, let’s wrap this up. Let’s call it good. Trust me whatever you’ve got in mind, you’ve thought about it more than I thought… you put more thought into this plan than I put into this whole adventure so we’re all good.”
Chris: Yeah, there’s something nice about just being very direct and honest. I’ve done that a couple times, in games where I’m just like, “look you can explore more if you want, but there’s nothing else here for you. I did not hide any more secret treasure in this dungeon. We can keep moving.”
Andy: Yeah there’s… that is a… well, I’ll hold that thought and get onto it, but I wanted to say, yeah, there’s some certainly unsettled but probably better ways to put a little pressure on people to wrap up the planning, and that is just to remind them that “hey, the hour’s getting late…” or, you hear sirens in the distance or,… come up with some way to remind them. And players being pretty cool, will, probably understand what you’re doing, right?
Chris: That’s, yeah, that’s actually a really good way to do it. So another thing that I’ve done, which I’m not exactly proud of, but is sometimes effective is just hold up my hand and start counting down from five.
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Chris: And then, when you get down to zero, then roll it on a wandering monster table, something like that.
Andy: That’s scary. That’s intimidating.
Chris: Or it’s just a bluff.
Chris: I hope none of my players are listening to this. But yeah, I mean, just straight up bluff. But, the thing is, you’re right, the people are just kind of going back and forth on something that doesn’t exactly matter. And that can be fun, but if you’re reading the table, and you’re realizing it’s just two players and the other three are sitting there bored out of their minds, it’s not good.
Andy: Something you mentioned called to mind another way that filler time ends up taking up space in your game. I didn’t realize until I started having this increased pressure to keep games to a reasonable length, how long typical combats drag on beyond the point where there’s any question about the outcome.
Chris: Um, hmm.
Andy: This is probably true of a lot of action scenes and encounters in general, but it’s pretty obvious in combat. There’s usually a point in any combat where it’s really obvious that the PCs are going to win. They’re over that hump, that initial period… they’re over that initial period of threat and maybe they’ve taken out the boss and they’re cleaning up the goblin guards or whatever. That’s not usually very exciting to play out, there’s no tension in the combat, why are we even doing it? I think you have to be careful with this, because it introduces a kind of a meta game aspect that can kill some immersion if you do it too carelessly. But I have started being a little bit quicker to say, “all right…, you guys round up the remaining bandits, and we’re done with the combat,” trying to move that along once it becomes painfully obvious what’s going to happen. Do you run into that situation?
Chris: Yeah, every once in a while. So the most recent time… I have a lunchtime game that I run (I’ll get into that next) but they were chasing a pack of — I think they were zombies — down a hallway, something like that. The cleric had cast “turn undead” and all the zombies were running away, and it’s just like “okay you’re chasing four of them, all of you are together at full health and you have a bunch of spell slots and stuff, so…”
Andy: There’s no question.
Chris: Eventually they got to a wall and I just said, “Okay, everybody roll your attack at the same time,” essentially. And then they did that and then obviously they all hit.
Chris: So combat was done, but I did allow them to still have that roll just in case it would have mattered, just in case they all rolled ones or something like that. So that was one thing I experimented with. Once you get to that point where everybody’s surrounding the last enemy like that, just go ahead and have them all roll at the same time and see what happens, rather than roll, wait… next person goes.
Andy: That’s a good idea. Yeah, once you reach that point you can stop this artificial turn by turn structure and just let everybody roll.
Chris: Yeah, especially when the boss is not intelligent in any way. So, if they’re fighting a gigantic skeleton, you’re not going to sit there and reason with it at some point when it gets down low on its HP… you can just jump to the conclusion. I think that’s okay.
Chris: The way that I run into this two hour limit is, I run a weekly lunchtime game, so at 1pm on Fridays we get together and play for an hour.
Andy: An hour. That’s pretty tight, that’s really tight.
Chris: It’s *very* tight. The way that I describe it is that it ends up being sort of like a TV show at that point, so you very quickly get to some sort of conflict, you resolve it, and then set a cliffhanger for the next session, next episode whatever you want to call it. But since you’re doing that you really don’t have time to spend a bunch of time debating about what your plan is. Because combat… because the session might be a single combat between the party and an enemy, and they might take 10 minutes to decide how they’re going to do it, and then it takes 40 minutes to do the actual combat, and then you have 10 minutes of wrap up. And, too, since it’s on a Friday during the work day, most of them are… some people are actually bringing their lunch with them. You’ll see you have some of that other stuff going on at the table, too. I’d say, though, it’s really fun, and from a GM’s perspective it does train you and teach you how to look for those cliffhangers and those story beats that are just a little bit more interesting than, “Okay, well, you enter the next room, you go to the next room, you go to the next room,” because you want things to have some sort of natural interest. I don’t do it right every time, but I’m getting kind of better at it. I’ve been doing this for about a year.
Andy: Yeah. You know, that makes me think that it’s something that you don’t really read. I don’t really remember reading in the _Dungeon Master’s Guide_ and stuff is this element of pacing. I don’t think most D&D, generally speaking, I don’t think people talk about D&D games in terms of pacing out the time you’re playing. I don’t remember reading about this in the DMG or elsewhere, but you really have to think about that when — you would *really* have to think about that with a one hour lunch session. If you have a… if you just had a dud of a session, everyone just… it’s an unsatisfying experience. That’s just kind of a waste of time that’s going to really drag your campaign down.
Chris: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ve definitely had some duds of sessions, too. It was like, well, “is anyone going to come back next week?” I hope they had fun, yeah.
Andy: How do you, besides just practicing, get used to it? How do you… you can’t naturally have a cliffhanger once every hour in a game without putting some real effort into it. So, can you describe what a typical hour long session looks like? Have you, do you design the adventures with this one hour thing in mind? Do you keep this in mind while you’re plotting out encounters?
Chris: Yeah, keep in mind whenever we’re coming to the table, It’s like “okay, what’s…?” It basically comes down to “what’s the most important thing to happen?” Where are they at, whatever they said as their next intention, then what’s the important thing to happen that can drive the story ahead. And you can make a cliffhanger pretty much out of everything. So if they’ve just finished combat, the next thing that can happen is they enter a room and there’s something that they really want to explore, but we’re done. So they just… again, they’re doing the starter set, which I think is designed a little bit better than some other adventures for doing this style of play. One cliffhanger example that I thought was pretty fun was there’s a spectator in one of the rooms in the way back of a cave. It’s an old, blasted out blacksmithery, so they opened the door… they finally figure out a way to open the door and inside there’s this giant floating green ball with a bunch of eyestalks and stuff.
Andy: Yeah. Let’s hear it for the spectator, by the way. That’s, you know, beholders are kind of old hat now.
Andy: Spectators! That’s some good stuff right there.
Chris: Yeah. It was fun. So we ended there with the description of the room, and there’s this green floating thing that gurgles in your head, “Hello!” or whatever. So for them, the people that that knew D&D were like “oh my goodness, it’s a beholder,” because all they got was a description of the eyestalks and floating green mass and the other people were like, “what is that thing?” So when we hit the table then the next week, they knew exactly what they were dealing with.
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Chris: As far as a typical session…, so, once we actually all get there, which is going to take five or 10 minutes for everybody to gather, we do a quick check in if there’s any administrative things like, “Hey, who isn’t here, who’s coming next week?” those sorts of things. We do a quick recap. I’ve been having *them* do the recap which helps them set the stage…
Andy: That’s a great idea.
Chris: …although I know there’s lots of GMs that say “players should never be the one recapping,” but whatever.
Andy: Oh, no, I think that’s a great idea.
Chris: Yeah, so they do a quick recap, tell me what they think happened. I can correct them, if there’s anything that doesn’t make sense or whatever, and then we just hit the ground running from there. So they’ll, if they’re in a dungeon, they’ll probably get through a couple of rooms. If they’re fighting a big boss, they might just do that boss. Those sorts of things.
Chris: I guess what I should say is interesting from a GM perspective, because often if you’re sitting down for a three- or four-hour session, you’re not really sure where it’s going to go. When you have it broken down into one hour chunks you can be reasonably sure what the next couple things are going to do.
Andy: Oh, that makes sense.
Chris: Yeah, so you can almost split up your GM prep into these discrete blocks as well. Because sitting down, I mean, prepping for a four-hour session, you… you could just spend 30 hours doing that, but if it’s a one-hour session and you know that they’re about to face a spectator, then you’re just going to prep “What does that thing sound like? What can it do?” All those sorts of things.
Andy: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t had the pressure of running in one hour chunks but two hours is not too much additional time. What I’ve found is, it really helps when planning for a short session, like two hours, that you have to design an adventure… where it’s not going to be too hard to accelerate the final showdown or whatever…
Chris: Um hmm.
Andy: …if you are coming up on two hours and the players have not made as much progress as you want. I have *never* in my decades of running games ever had an adventure naturally wrap up early, no matter how simple or short I think I’ve written an adventure. It always just takes longer, and you think I would learn by now how to accurately budget time but I haven’t. So it means, for me it means if there are key items or key pieces of knowledge that the players are going to need to have to successfully complete the adventure, you have to get those out pretty early on because you just can’t count on that they’re going to get to the later game content in the time you have. I’m talking about something where it’s kind of important to wrap up the story in one night. If you’re going to be meeting next week and can pick up where you left off this isn’t as big a deal. But in a one shot or convention one shot or something like that…, I try to make sure that the key stuff is available for them pretty early in the adventure, or it’s stuff that I can easily move up if I can see that time is running short. I have definitely blown it and not been able to wrap up a short adventure in the time slot allotted. And it’s a real downer when you aren’t going to be getting together again anytime soon to continue and you had to quit right before the final showdown or something like that.
Andy: So you do have to think, is there… just keep in mind “I might have to move, to have this end satisfactorily, I might have to move the final stuff up rapidly.” So is that going to work geographically? Is that going to work in a plot way? So design your adventure so that you can do that.
Chris: That’s pretty interesting. So does it come down to things like, where every NPC is going to tell them “yeah that Watchtower over there is pretty creepy…”
Andy: Yes, I mean if you have to get blatant about it. Some of the cost of doing this is that sometimes you have to drop a little bit of that immersion and just herd people along. I don’t mean in a super restrictive railroading way. But people who are here to play a two hour game also understand that we all need to respect each other’s time. And so if I need to start having the NPCs get a little heavy handed with… then so be it.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I mean, we’ve all had the experience where you as the GM, you’re sitting there being like, “this is so obvious. How do you not understand how to make this connection?”
Chris: Or, “Why haven’t you explored this very obvious path?” But as a player, sometimes you’re not interested in that or otherwise you’ve just overlooked it, or you just don’t have the full picture in your head. So sometimes it’s very easy to miss that. And then, so if you’re playing a four-hour session, it can be very easy for the GM to just sit back like, “well, hour three they’ll pick it up.” But if you only have one or two hours it’s really got to keep moving.
Andy: The way this manifests most frequently in my games is basically redesigning dungeons on the fly to chop out extraneous side paths and things like that. So if they were going to have three different corridors they could go down, but time is short, well, I just take out two of them and there’s really only one way for them to go. Or I just make sure that whichever corridor they take just goes to the place they need to get to. That gets tricky though, because, and I’ve run into this recently: a well-designed dungeon won’t be a linear slog towards the end. And I think it’s important to not lose that. I think it’s important not to just impose total linearity on, for instance, a dungeon encounter. But when you have a nonlinear dungeon it means that players could get lucky or smart and figure it out quickly or they could turn left way at the beginning and then find themselves just spending huge amounts of time in this extraneous part of the dungeon that’s cool but isn’t bringing them any closer to the finale. So I don’t know I guess it’s tough. It’s hard, if you design the dungeon too small or too linear people can plow through it too quickly. If you design it too big, you need to be prepared for the risk that they’re going to roam off and you’ll either have to waste a lot of time or you’ll have to redesign it on the fly to channel them where they need to go.
Chris: Yeah. I don’t know how good you are at maps and cartography and stuff, but I have a really hard time doing that. When I’m looking at a dungeon that’s already drawn out and then also trying to draw it out for them on the table, I have just the hardest time making adjustments.
Andy: Yes. On more than one occasion players have tried to map out a dungeon, so I just kind of freehand sketch dungeons usually on a whiteboard or a battle map as they’re exploring. And I don’t pay too much attention to dimensions and occasionally I have had players who do pay attention to “exactly how wide is this room?” We’ll try to map it, and we’ll quickly find out my dungeon is this non-Euclidean nightmare that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.
Chris: Yeah, when you’re drawing kind of squiggly lines to connect two…
Andy: Yes, exactly…
Chris: …two rooms.
Andy: “But wait [doesn’t] the whole audience chamber have to be in between these two things?” and so look it’s, look it’s fantasy come on!
Andy: A wizard did it.
Chris: This was interesting. So I play in a _Seventh Sea_ game which is a very different style of game than _Dungeons and Dragons_. But in _Seventh Sea_, at least the way that my GM is running it, we skip over a lot of the exploring the dungeon part of it. And the thing that he said that really kind of stuck with me was, “well you’re all heroes, of course you would make it through the dungeon to the final encounter.”
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Chris: We had one session where we were in this very creepy dungeon. But we just kind of jumped to the final part of it, which was honestly the most interesting part of it. It wouldn’t have been all that great had we wandered through a maze slowly. Especially in that system which is just not designed for these small encounters with stuff. But it did make me wonder, if your players like the dungeon exploration part of it, by all means keep going with that. But if what they really like is the big interesting boss encounters, why not just give that to them quicker?
Andy: Yeah, that’s a great point! The pressure of time like that, it really makes you think, “what is actually fun?” What is actually fun?
Andy: And not in an objective sense. But what is really actually fun for my group? Maybe they do like the foot-by-foot tactical maneuvering through the dungeon, round by round. Or maybe they’re fine with just “Yeah, you make it through this dungeon, and here you are. And here’s the cackling boss at the end of it.”
Chris: It seems like the conclusion to “how do you fit a game into two hours” is just to strip away anything that isn’t fun for your party.
Chris: Which seems like the obvious thing but I think it’s very easy to fall back on “well I’ve got to have a shopping part, I’ve got to have these NPCs do these things, I’ve got to have dungeon exploration and a boss fight” for it to be a full session. But really when it comes down to it I think each session ends up being its own unique thing.
Chris: And that’s what keeps people coming back to the table over and over. It’s like, “Oh, what’s going to happen this time? Am I even going to roll a die this time, or are we just going to talk to the shopkeeper for a couple hours?”
Andy: I think that’s a really important point, but I think also that one of the challenges of running shorter games is there is value in some of that downtime, some of that not fun time. You have to be a little careful if you’re just flying from amazing scene to amazing scene. I feel like it might start feeling like when you play the boss rush mode of a video game or something, where, yes, you are skipping to the most awesome and amazing fights, but there’s other stuff in this game, the slower, less awesome stuff that contributed to the whole experience being a satisfactory one. In a short one- or two-hour game session, you might just have to give up some of that slow… that downtime or that slower, not as exciting stuff and just accept that as the cost of doing business.
Chris: Yes. Except that the purity of your game might be compromised. But, that’s okay…
Andy: Well, we can’t have that!
Chris: …because people still had fun and that’s kind of the point.
Andy: I guess that’s it? Yeah, that’s it. “Did you have fun?” That’s really all that matters.
Chris: All right, so we should wrap up. This was actually a really interesting conversation, as always went in different directions than I thought it was going to.
Andy: Yeah, I love this not knowing exactly what we’re going to talk about.
Andy: And yeah, at the beginning of this conversation, I think, “how could I possibly talk about this for more than about a minute and a half?” and yet here we are.
Chris: Okay. Yep. So yet again, you’ve been listening to _Roll for Topic_ an RPG podcast. I’m Chris Salzman.
Andy: And I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: Have a good day, bye.