View Full Version : DM Help Returning DM looking for advice

2014-08-22, 11:40 AM
Hello, all

It's been a while since I've DM'ed a campaign, let alone play as a PC in one. I just picked up the Pathfinder core rulebook and plan on writing a campaign now that I've got a stable group of willing players. My experience as a DM is somewhat limited - I've piloted a couple 3.5 ed campaigns and a 4 ed campaign before, making pretty amateur mistakes but becoming progressively better as I taught more and more people how to play the game and as I paid more attention to what "made" and "broke" groups (note to 12-year-old self: don't get frustrated that players are doing something you didn't prepare for, don't turn the game into DM vs. PCs, etc.).

However, there's been a few concepts that I've always been shaky on that I'd like help with before I start playing again. I'd really like to see a campaign through for once and I think part of that is cleaning up parts of the game that I normally stumble on.

1) What are some good ways to discourage slipping into modes of OOC gameplay? I'm not asking that we all fully commit to acting out our characters. I actually prefer narrating my character's actions from a third person perspective. However, I don't enjoy breaking immersion because players are treating combat more like a game of chess and because players are confiding with each other OOC during dialogue passages. I want to encourage a game where players interact through their characters.

2) How do you guys manage the game when characters break off from the group? I've always found it awkward when we reach a city and the characters all go "uhhh...yeah, I'm just gonna go walk this way, see you guys later". Not that I discourage this, however, I find myself arbitrarily choosing one of the players to follow and end up spending way too much time focusing on what they're doing, while everyone else is sitting around, twiddling their thumbs. Do you think that using a timer would be effective in keeping the story moving for each of the characters? For example, everyone splits up in a city to do their own thing. I start with one person and give them 5 minutes. When that time is up, I switch to the next person and we keep going until everyone has taken care of business.

3) What are some good ways to manage travel? I've always just did fast forwards whenever my players were going from one area on the map to another. I always felt like this wasted potential opportunity to flesh out my world, as it turned the game into a series of set pieces. Should I have random encounters/events prepared to occasionally lead them off the beaten path? How do you handle food/eating (should we keep realistic track of how much food is needed to travel certain distances?)? Speaking of lapses in time, what is the best way to handle leveling? I really don't like going "ding! you leveled! Now everybody stop and spend your skill points.." and I'd like to find a more organic way to incorporate leveling and learning new abilities.

2014-08-22, 11:55 AM
I strongly prefer to handle leveling off-camera. If you level up, great, I'll letcha know at the end of the session so you can update your character sheet between games. That's my preference; hopefully other people will have some advice about handling more dynamic or progressive levelups.

As for travel, it depends on how they're going from A to B, and what's in between. I usually use some amount of random-ish encounters, and you'll know according to your world what's appropriate for a given place. So if my characters are walking from Little Town to The Dread Fortress of Horribad and have to go through the Swamp of Scary Things, even if there's no plot in the SoST I'll play it up, because it's a major spot on my map. If they're riding horses from Little Town to Other Little Town down a series of well-traveled roads, I might use that time to stage a non-combat or trivially challenging encounter to set up something for later; the players run into a merchant who's going to buy a shop in Big City, and after they save him from some CR 1/2 Orc marauders, they should visit when next they're in Big City. If they're using overland flight or something, I'll fast forward unless I have a reason not to. And if they're on a ship, it'll sink, because that's become a running joke at this point.

Broken Twin
2014-08-22, 12:46 PM
OOC: I find a great way to help keep immersion in your character is to have a few lines of their personality written down somewhere easy to see. Just the visual reminder helps people remember that it's their character reacting to the world around them, not the players themselves. Also, phones are collected in a basket and returned at the end of the session. If you're on-call, you let me know beforehand, and you can answer it if it goes off.

Splitting Up: I tend to get a general overview of what each character wants to do, then spend a couple of minutes on each PC while subtly looking for ways to have them cross paths with each other, or giving them a reason to group back up. The rules tend to get faster and looser the more split up the party is. I'm not gonna run your half hour epic fight while other people are waiting.

Travel: For the most part, I gloss over it unless something interesting can happen. Random encounters (kill and move on) are just time wasters. If you're gonna have something occur while traveling, make it something fresh and interesting. Show them a bit of your world, and/or dig in a subplot hook. As to food, they can either forage (via Survival checks) or burn rations per day. They can roleplay it if they want to, but I don't force them to.

Leveling: I stopped handing out experience a long time ago. Players level when they complete major plot milestones in my games. Leveling also takes place between sessions, and is assumed to take time in-game (weeks pass between sessions, for instance). If I'm running a PF game using micro-leveling, then it's usually only a couple of in-game days that pass between sessions. I may even allow leveling during the session if my players have a good enough grasp of micro-leveling.

2014-08-22, 02:02 PM
I don't have very good ideas on the first question. So I'm going to skip that.

2. Party splitting. This happens here and there in my games. Mostly I tend to give only a single encounter per group when split. Often times though, it tends to happen when someone wants to by gear or the like. Then I just give a quick summary. "You buy it at a shop off the kings way" or "You're unable to find any for sale."

I try to keep party splits as short as possible to avoid players being bored while they aren't at the scene.

3. For travel, I only like to have encounters that give the palyers something to do. They an be short, and often are. I tend to avoid combat encounters in most situations, unless that combat provides information to the players about their situation. Getting attacked by the flora and fauna of a thick, mostly unexplored jungle fits the scene better than wolves attacking along a trade route. I will use bandits here and there for a change of pace, or to let the fighting types get their dice rolling. I prefer though to have them meet peaceful travelers. Mostly for world building. My party has helped farmers repair their wagons, or find oxen or the like that ran off. They've also joined half ling caravans and drank and danced their way to their next destination. Even if I don't intend for an area to be particularly treacherous, I'll describe the forbidding mountains and the cold they deal with as they cross.

My main rule is that the less there is for the players to actively do, or the less they choose to, the faster in real time travel is.

As to leveling. All of that happens out of game. Your level for that sessions is pretty stuck, though I do give some XP here in there for the kinds of things powered by that. Scroll making in 3.5, karma in Earthdawn. Ect.

2014-08-22, 02:06 PM
1. Keep the game very, very fast paced. Never let nothing happen. Avoid letting the players just sit around and wait. Combat should be kept very fast. I only give six seconds to act(real time). So it's more like ''Joe it is your turn to act this round'' and Joe must immediately say his action. Even the slightest ''i need to look something up'' or question(other then one to clarify the scene) get the character to not act that round. I can say this is very effective. Skip a player a couple times and they will be ready and not doing occ things next time.

You also want to avoid one of anything. If the room has one treasure chest, then the skillmonkey will take care of it, while four other players sit and wait. But if the room has five chests....

2. I don't like breaking up the group. The five minute timer is a good idea and I have used that one before. What I do now is a 'pause'. Say the game is paused and let everyone go to the bathroom, desperately check their phone for a new message or get food....but then keep playing with a player or two as they do a side thing. We normally take about 15 minutes to do this.

Though it is a bit of a good idea to keep everyone together. If player A wants to go to X, just make it a ''only groups of three can enter tonight or whatever, so they have to go back and get the rest of the group. You can even go for ''sorry, no personal audiences today. The lord only wishes to see adventuring groups. And it does not need to be a 'big thing'...maybe the lord just wants to paint a picture of a couple random adventuring groups...

3. It is best to keep the game 'next door'. Everything as part of a game session of a couple hours should take place in the same place. It avoids the travel problem. A single 'county' is more then big enough. Then you just need to focus and add flavor to that county.

Few players like the ''lets take 2 1/2 movies to walk to Mordor''. Walking is boring. And encounters are too obvious: ''You walk for seven days and nothing happens...then up ahead''. This is why small, tight location work good.

It's fine to have encounters that take them off the path. It's part of the fun of the game. As long as you don't have a one track focused group. Then they will ignore it all. The trick is to make the side path exciting and or have something of value to make it worth it.

Ignore food and water.

Do the training. End the game session at a big city or other place they can find teachers.

2014-08-22, 03:14 PM
1) What are some good ways to discourage slipping into modes of OOC gameplay? I'm not asking that we all fully commit to acting out our characters. I actually prefer narrating my character's actions from a third person perspective. However, I don't enjoy breaking immersion because players are treating combat more like a game of chess and because players are confiding with each other OOC during dialogue passages. I want to encourage a game where players interact through their characters.

One thing to note is that different groups tend to treat this differently. Some have lots of OOC discussion, and some don't. So whatever mechanisms you decide on, make sure to start by discussing them with your players. Tell them the type of game you're trying to create, what rules you're going to put in place to try to encourage that type of game, and how those rules advance that goal.

Once players understand what your goal is, they're more likely to try to work toward that goal. And when players understand why certain rules exist, they're more likely to see them as promoting a desirable end than arbitrary or limiting.

2014-08-22, 03:39 PM
Thanks for all of the help so far. I'd like to respond to specific points, but there would be a lot of quoting involved. I'll just add and clarify a few things.

1) Just because I never mentioned it in the OP, the reason I'm kind of shaky on (what I guess should be) obvious dimensions of the game is because I've never actually played with other players who knew more about the game than me. Everyone I've ever played with was taught how to play by me, so I've never had the chance to see a "real" DM in action.

2) The problem of players focusing too much on OOC interaction is mostly the result of the majority of my players having never played a tabletop before. Some of them naturally pick up on how to play as their characters, while others (either because they're shy or confused) don't. I've always wanted to learn how to better immerse these players in the game.

3) Thanks for all of the traveling tips. It's been something that I was never sure how to handle, so it's good to know that everyone else (well, at least some of you) tends to just fast-forward these parts. I guess this reveals one of my main weaknesses as a DM - I'm not too great at improvising. All of my campaigns have either been largely story based, or, dungeon crawls. In either case, they've always been tightly scripted, with some fudging on the side for when characters do things I don't expect. It's been something that I'm slowly getting better at. I guess the thing here is to prepare less, and have quick references/cheat sheets/generators close by so I can improvise without it becoming obvious that I'm improvising.

4) The quick combat idea is great. Though I mostly play with new players who are still trying to grasp all of the rules, I think the time restraints will teach them to actually be thinking on their feet. Also, I'm still recovering from the hell that was 4E combat (entire sessions devoted to trying to kill groups of inconsequential dorks - yay!), so the speed will be a nice change of pace.