View Full Version : GM:ing my first campaign, care to give me some suggestions?

2007-05-15, 12:27 PM
Hi everybody,
I've been lurking around here on the Gaming, OotS and Erfworld boards for a few weeks or so, but I've finally decided to join up and start posting some of my own thoughts and what-not.

Now, topic;
Up until (roughly) now I have only participated in one ill-fated CoCd20 campaign and another who's slugging along nicely and a few one-off adventures in various settings and systems (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, WoD and not much else I think).
However, last summer I started, again, reading the Wheel of Time series (First two times I read them in Swedish :smalltongue:) and I got my best friend hooked on 'em too.
We had another common friend who was also a WoT-reader and I remember an old d20-book for that setting, but I had previously failed to acquire it. This time I found it in the bargainbin and plans were made for my first run as a GM.
I obtained a few netbooks and assembled our regular roleplaying group (incl. the two friends mentioned before) plus two other acquintances who didn't end up playing.

We made characters and planned for like months or so, but whatever. I lead two sessions of our (now) 4-player group and it went reasonably well.
I botched an NPC ambush mainly by forgetting the surprise round, the NPC:s rolled low iniative and the PC:s rolled high and killing like, everyone xD
Atleast the Large character knows that being big means you're a bigger target, considering he's easily the best damagedealer too (smashing the lead NPC easily in one charge, but we both think it's just fun balance.
They also shot a bolt through the first recurring villain's back. It sure foiled his escape. Lowlvl NPC:s are fragging fragile. Fortunately for him, he was expected somewhere else and after they all we're dragged off to the local elite guards' prison, the villain was rescued on orders of his colleagues and later in-game, but backstage, has recieved quite a big scolding by those fellows etc. (more fluff, I'll elaborate later (and on demand ofcourse) as I would also like suggestions regarding the story, characters and such.)

What I also want help with is improving my technique as a DM and because this is virtually the same as D&D I would like some tips on what things to read up on which I might need, e.g. I read up on the grappling rules by the end of the 2nd session as we needed them then, it slowed things a little bit.
The only flaw I've discovered in myself is poor description. It comes down to saying things like, eh, "It's a big shantytown, the streets are very crowded and dusty" and basically the same for the town it envelops, just changing the first part a bit.
WELL, if you know what (basically any :smallredface:) advice I could use, please post it. I'll check back here quite often.

Thanks for your help in advance,

2007-05-15, 01:06 PM
I tend to the same problem of being weak on description.

The best advice I could give you is preparation. Having things worked out ahead of time makes everything easier. If they come to a town you need to describe, what is the culture there? If you work out a few details about the kingdom and what makes that region different from its neighbors, that is what gives flavor to your descriptions. Just work out a short chart of a few characteristics or mannerisms to help identify what culture someone comes from. Haircuts, style of dress, preferred weapons, how they address each other/strangers, treatment of foreigners, etc. Don't need all of these for each group, just enough as a cue for how to describe them.

And add colorful characters to the scenery- a loud and obnoxious beggar somewhere shouting for alms adds to the atmosphere.

The state of repair of buildings is something easy to describe. Shantytowns traditionally have buildings made from whatever is available. In a fantasy setting, they could basically be piles of hay crudely sealed with mud, with old moth-eaten blankets for doorways.

The transitional points between areas are where the differences should stand out. There should be armed guards watching at the gates to the inner city, keeping out the riff-raff. Smells you had been ignoring are suddenly gone. The buildings are made of stone or wood, and there are flowers in the windows. Wilderness is where civilization ends- no more houses/planted fields, fewer roads.

2007-05-15, 01:15 PM
early on DONT give your PC'S free reign of what they want to do.. this leads to chaos, my first campaign was spoiled by a half dragon in the party :(

2007-05-15, 02:21 PM
@ kellandros; That makes sense. I think otherwise I might be very prone to make that mistake that's described in the DMG, or something, where you only describe the important thing(s) in a room or so, making the players dive for only the thing(s) that get described xD

However, I have been hesitant to add such stuff though. Well, I've been that atleast and that's probably mostly because the country the PC:s are in is described quite patchy in both official sources and the unofficial sources I could find.
And sadly, due to some hectic schedules (and bad planning on my part I guess) both me and my players were unsure when the first gaming session would be held. So I couldn't prepare as much as I wanted, I mostly prepared what would probably happen and the various "main" characters they'd probably encounter. Not very detailed stuff about the background unfortunately, neither much rulesreading like.
The story in short sentences with commas; an failed assassination attempt including poison, interrogation of captured assassins, the remaining murderers splitting up leading the PC:s to an ambush in the woods or an urban search, interrogation of subdued ambushers and finding a letter with orders that was supposed to have been destroyed, a search for the sender of that letter (Quite some detective work by the PC:s there) and PC:s find the required antidote and McGuffin and gives it all to the NPC caretaker.
Confrontation with the bad guy and the PC:s win but an inquisitive mob hears the screams and fighting and demands entry (I'll elaborate that at later point), the local guard arrests PC:s and the villain and his sergeant, they spend the night in custody but the villain "escapes" (is kidnapped) and the guard captain is not very keen on keeping good and honest people (the large character's race, the ogier, sounds liek "ogre", has a reputation for pacifism and complete honesty or at the very least, bad liars) and they arrive back at their camp (a circus).
Report back to their key NPC:s and one PC is given some private time with his boss' trusted underling so the henchman could give the PC a letter designated for him (the PC), but the PC is instead given a simple and confusing note ("You will not join The Priest") and gets pounced on by the underling.
After some wrestling, unsheathing and slashing with a greatsword, the PC drags the bloodied and unconscious henchman back to camp, much to the surprise of all passersby and the PC:s companions.

Aaaand we're back. The story part might've been unnecessary, but I like "talking" about the campaign. At least it gives some background and such.
I've decided tho' that I'll create and edit the setting however I want, damn the books! I'll use the books as guidelines, but if there's not much about something... I'll just make something up and stick with it reasonably consequently :P

Also, I've only a vague feel of how the campaign will unfold. The major plots are mostly set, but some stuff is still missing. E.g. the PC Noble, the face of the group, wants to later on command troops as the player believes this is an important aspect of the character but I'm falling short of ideas and can't decide between the few I've got.
The ones I've thunk of are; He could come home and levy the peasants of his family's village, but that won't likely be in a while. But that might be fine as the character is still 1st lvl and faraway from home.
He find (or found one, but where would he find capable soldiers?) a mercenary company and enroll there, perhaps eventually commanding all the warriors.
Related to the last example would be saving (or something) a couple of merchant guards in a caravan or somesuch and becoming their leader.
Lastly, he could simply offer food and training to the abundant refugees in the world.

But after these points, I can't come up with anymore.

Another question, I've commissioned a good friend of mine to draw nice things and such. What I've been thinking she would draw most would be key NPC:s and generic NPC:s outfits and such. She admits to being bad at drawing buildings though.
But anyway, if you'd have this opportunity what sorts of drawings would you like to see in your game to enhance the "feeling" you could get?


2007-05-15, 03:14 PM
The trick to giving balanced descriptions is to give enough information to paint a vivid picture, without dwarfing your players with tons of information. I base a lot of my locations on places I have been, things I have touched and walked through. This allows me to answer many of the random questions that come up ("Is there an alley?" "Can I climb up a fire-escape?" "How far apart are the vendor's stalls?")

If you haven't been somewhere you want to model a location after, study maps of it and absolutely make maps of your own. I have a laptop by my side at all times, and I pull up maps as we move from location to location. Even if they aren't using them, the maps help the players get a feel of where they are in a wider world, and it makes for a more realistic experience. Colourful, detailed maps give more to the players than a blocked out grid. Since you're using an established world, try to find sites that have resources that other players have made.

Another trick is to let them tell you what they want to find. When a player asks, "What do I see?" don't panic and rush to fill in that void. Simple descriptions can be better than hyper detailed ones, and you can get a better idea of how much they care based on what they ask. The first rule of writing is "Show, don't tell," and that can be done very well in role playing. I've had GMs do things like, "You make it to the church. Outside, you scan the crowds for your contact. A huge bear of a man is coming towards you. The giant is armed to the teeth. He's carrying this weapon and that shield and he's throwing the people selling stuff aside like confetti. He claims to be your contact, but he seems a little violent for an agent of the church. He tells you to follow him, but you don't want to. Do you attack him?"

Instead, with a little creative description and a few laced implications, you can let your players make their own choices and mistakes.This scenario is much less intense and abrupt on the description, but it involves the players much more, and the payoff will seem much more worth it in the end.

GM: "You arrive outside the cathedral. The coachman sees you off, tipping his hat respectfully to the ones who paid his coin. Almost immediately, a tangle of elderly women sweep past you, hands raised to catch the coachman's attention."
Player 4: "What's the plaza look like?"
GM: "Like this." [photo reference of architecture] "The plaza is pretty big, and there are several vendors set up outside the cathedral. The brick is warm in the afternoon sun, and many seek refuge inside the church. However, to join them, you'll have to brave the gauntlet of the street hawkers."
Player 5: "Buy this! Buy that! Buy me!"
GM: "Exactly. You hear a variety of cries, selling everything from holy relics to love potions. One woman is pitifully insisting her fish is the freshest in the kingdom, despite the fact that the river is shallow and dirty here, and she clutches at Marius' cloak as he passes."
Player 1: "I give her a few coins. Is she grateful?"
GM: "She's fake-crying and bowing, blessing you."
Player 4: "Do I see our contact?"
GM: "You don't know what he looks like. However, a tall man is striding towards you, and the bustling crowds actually part for him. He is wearing the violet cloak of a royal messenger, though the fabric is ill-fitting and quite new."
Player 2: "Is he armed?"
GM: "Yes. He has a rapier and a knife in his belt, and with these two he seems more familiar."
GM: (as man) "Are you the ones come from the school?"
Player 1: "Yes."
Player 5: "Are you the one we're supposed to meet?"
Man: "Yes. Come with me. Time is of the essence."
GM: "He turns and begins to hurry across the plaza, back the way you came, towards the Golden Bridge."
Player 1: "Weren't we supposed to go to the church?"
Player 4: "We were supposed to MEET at the church."
Player 3: "Are we near any of the people now?"
GM: "You have reached the edge of the plaza. There are a few trees here, looking a little sickly. The ground is covered in refuse and you get the impression that the people who shop and sell in the plaza don't worry about going far to relieve themselves."
Player 1: "Ew."
Player 3: "I draw my sword as a free action and press it to the man's back."
Player 5: "What are you doing?!"
Player 3: "He's not our contact."
Player 4: "He hasn't done anything untrustworthy."
Player 3: "It doesn't matter. He's leading us away from the church. That's not his cloak. And he didn't show us the sign."
Players: *gape*
GM: "Roll initiative."

Much more satisfying.

2007-05-15, 04:07 PM
Yeah, description can be quite important, especially if you have someone like Manda's Player 3 who can put important details together and come to logical conclusions, taking competent and well role-played actions. In my games, player three in that example would have probably gotten a little bit of extra XP at the end of the game.

I think the most important thing is to be flexible, however. I started out running modules, and my players found, downloaded, and went through them after the game was done. By doing that they realized just how much of the game was on the spot improvisation as they did things the modules didn't have information on. They've more than once said that I'm good at improvising for scenes and coming up with descriptions on the fly, and they seem to enjoy that. They have also foiled my plans by turning traps intended to hurt them into advantages twice, and I've only played four games with these guys. I rolled with it; it was clever, and they reaped the benefits. You can never truly predict every possible action or possibility, as players are notorious for not sticking to the plan. But if you can be flexible and roll with whatever the players throw at you, you won't need to.

Sense then, I've moved on to actually designing my own games. I actually ran my first non-module game last night, and it was perfect. Two players went down to zero HP in one fight, but no one died; my players enjoyed very clearly being in danger, but still coming out on top.

2007-05-15, 04:37 PM
@ Gnome_Paladin; They do have some freedom, the campaign is set to mostly locations that they travel to and time might change/complicate things. E.g. I'll try to involve an encounter with some foreign invaders for flavor and stuff, but if the party wants to bring the fight to the funny-talking, stiffbacked conquerors, I'll make a some sidequest involving that and take note of the time that passes and the changes that happen in other locations.
I like to think that they can try anything they want, as long as they take the consequences of their actions.
It beats straight and obvious railroading, I just hope I'm up for the challenges that would bring :smalltongue:
@ manda_babylon; Oddly, I hadn't thought of using real photographs or something like that :P
I have drawn a crude map (I can't draw, I can only write) of the capital that the players are in, and they've seen the map between sessions but I don't know how much use it would be. It only depicts a general outline of the city, showing the extent of it's walls, the shantytown around it and the terrain. It's also simply keyed, mostly undesignated things :P

Contrary to that, I've made a more detailed map of the circus that's been used more and actually has no undesignated locations. I have also fleshed out many of the performers but I don't know why I did that. They've only seen a couple, and met even fewer. I might poke them in that direction by having the performers come talk to them after their performances. After all, they did save the circus boss two times, first by preventing him from being skewered by a poisoned dagger and secondly by coercing the unfortunate poisoner to make and administer the antidote.

Hrm, however, regarding maps I guess I could commission my friend to make some detailed and colourful maps as you said.
Hehe, yes, I am using an established world. The thing is only that the little corner of the world the PC:s are in is detailed veeeeery sketchy :P Hell, I had a hard time just deciding roughly how big the capital would be, basically because I can't find any type of census for that world's cities and such. So I've had to extrapolate from the sizes of the armies mentioned, but it should work out fine in the end though. I've settled on the world's biggest having around half a million inhabitants or some such and the rest of the world basically having a population density and the like of medieval european nations, say a couple of million people at most who are mostly spread out in small villages.

I really liked that illustration you made there, I think I did something half-like the first example even xD
I mostly "told" the players that the villain's reserve guards rushed the house from their barracks and, here comes the bad part, despite them hearing the footsteps of a dozen boots and their loud entry through the front door the PC:s didn't have time to react.
I steamrolled them, railroad-style :smallbiggrin:
In my defense, I was a bit miffed that they offed their first recurring villain so easily. He didn't die, but I thought he would have been able to outrun the PC:s while his guards distracted them.
Oh well, if he was a wizard he could have cast contingency and teleport and all sorts of stuff, but this is a low-magic setting. Even the most powerful heroes and villains probably wouldn't be able to find any artifact enabling them to teleport. Hell, with the core rules in that setting, you can't even find/make "magic" armour and swords, and only swords, would be enchanted and carry at most only a +2 enchantment :P

It has just been a few replies and I've learned/started thinking about a lot, it's exciting to think about what else I could learn from such a big pool of knowledge as the GitP-forums :smallbiggrin:


2007-05-18, 02:50 PM
Don't hurt yourself over the maps. It's not as daunting as I originally thought it might be. I tried various methods of map-making in the beginning, and settled on a simple style that allows me to whip up a map in, literally minutes.

Here are some examples of the kind of maps we use:

The dorm the players live in:

The third floor of the bad guy's place, which was invaluable when they split up during a kidnapping/rescue mission:

The map of the school, which is always up when they're running around it:

The map of the city - it's just a real map that I glossed over with an ultra-simplified key:

Each of these maps was made in ArcSoft PhotoStudio, by simply drawing and copy/pasting squares and then labeling them.

It's much easier to plop this in front of your players than to describe something in elaborate detail:

If your players are anything like mine, if they're looking at this image while they are planning a raid, they will whisper: (Though, this led to me establishing the rule, "If the GM can't hear what you're saying, you're not actually saying it.")

If you need help making maps, I do do commission work, for $2.00 a map, or more, depending on detail, for gamers in my local area. I've never done stuff for people over the internet, but I'm willing to try. If you need more advice, that's always free.

My boyfriend recently started his first campaign, and he did fairly well. He asked me what the worst thing he did while GMing was, and I told him to always remember to give the players time to role play. His problem was that he would try to give us a description, memorably attempting to describe the building we were arriving at five times, only to be cut off by in-character bantering and discussion.

Occasionally, if the role playing is running a little too long or getting too silly, you can clear your throat and say something important. If my players are getting out of hand, I generally get their attention by rolling a D20 several times and pretending to make notes on a piece of paper. Trust me, everyone will want to know why. Eventually, they will ask what you're doing, ans you can smile wickedly and announce "Wandering Monster." That will ensure all eyes are on you.

Always remember to reward your players for a job well done. Give points for style, for wit, or for use of their skills. As Proven_Paradox noted, players who go above and beyond should get extra EX.

And, as Proven_Paradox also said, the key to running a good campaign is to be flexible. I have radically revised my core story several times to account for the crazy stuff my players have done. Roll with it. Let them impact the story, alter it, and have a say in the fate of the world. These are the best campaigns. However, don't just let their cool stuff count. If they screw up, let them know it. Make that count. My players have saved an important person from being assassinated. However, along the way, one of the NPCs, one that they liked and who trusted them, died because of their neglect. Now, they think more before they act.

If they keep destroying your villains, beef them up. Keep in mind that while it isn't fair to have baddies who are ten thousand levels above your PCs, there are more of them than there are of your villain. Tag-teaming a baddie is the best way to beat them. There's that motivational poster floating around on the Web that says, "A Fair Fight: It's Fun to Gang Up on Your Foes. ... Until the GM Does It." The real Big Bad shouldn't be seen or at least engaged until after you've had a chance to gauge what your players will do and how. Tailor your villain to be beatable, though maybe not killable. Don't make him invincible, but don't let them trash him right of the bat, either.

But never take your anger out on your players. It doesn't matter much at first, but it can very quickly get out of hand. I've seen too many games go sour because of fights between GMs and players, so always just take a deep breath and let them bring their doom on themselves fairly. Trust me, they'll always do something to provoke someone. And then, you smile your evil smile, pick up the monster manual or character folder, and say, "Roll initiative."

2007-05-18, 04:27 PM
DMing can be alot of fun. My advice? If you don't have the book it would be best to not allow it. That way players won't spring unwanted surprises on you. Other than that, go to town and have fun.

2007-05-18, 09:12 PM
I advice expecting EVERYTHING from your characters. Prepare for almost anykind of scenario and also prepare to pull things out of thin air. Your pc's can and most likely will do some of the most unpredictable things in your campaign. Such as one of the players in my campaign willingly becoming a vampire. v.v;;
At any rate, just be wary.

However, I need some advise too. I'm starting a Star Wars campaign. So-far I don't have too much planned except that it takes place roughly 400 years after the original trilogy, the sith have reformed and taken over a virtually unknown solar system, and the "emperor" decided to do away with the one-master, one-apprentice rule and shadowed the jedi council (therefore prematurely stopping the whining of my pc's who might all want to be sith v.v).

2007-05-19, 12:33 AM
I'd also suggest running a search in this forum for the thread on Nodes(Node based adventuring/Gaming or similar title). It had some interesting approaches.

Thing to remember is how to deal with situations that don't go as planned. If they miss a clue or follow a red herring too far, go wandering off in the wrong direction, kill someone important to the plot. Best thing to do is to rearrange the story, so that they still end up at the correct place- the encounter takes place in a different building/area instead or someone else fills in the missing info or takes over.

2007-05-20, 10:47 AM
Read and re-read the DMG. There are tables in there for almost everything you need to talk about in a game. You need features to spice up description? Use the Dungeon Features tables. You need city descriptions? Ah - you could do worse than downloading this web-enhancement (http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/we/20030719a): it has brief descriptions of almost every kind of place you'll find in a city or town.
You can adapt these sort of tables and articles to be specific to your game, too. The city guide doesn't have to be all about temples of P*l*r [avoiding Spoooky Wizards' lawyers] and thieves' guilds - they can be Byzantine Churches in Instanbul and Mafiosa safe houses in your CoC game, or whatever.
A handy thing to try to do is to have a descriptive phrase for each thing you mention. It's red. It's clean. It's old and worn out. It's been broken once and repaired by a good craftsman. It's slippery.

As far as adventure planning goes, I'd recommend reading a few of the WotC free adventures (http://www.wizards.com/default.asp?x=dnd/oa/20030530b). They're free to download. Each has a bunch of adventure hooks at the start of it. Think of how you can break each those hooks. How the party might just walk away from the adventure... How the character that the party is supposed to get their job from might get killed by the PCs before they hear his story...
With a bit of that sort of plot-breaking understanding, you can look at how you, as the GM, might get them to take up one of the other hooks, or how you might wright your own, more fool-proof hooks.