TI3.1: I have no plan and I must write; sharing and signposting GM tools

Oh happy day, we’re going to talk about something quite oft debated in hushed tones in forums and among other GMs. The art of planning and writing a session.

Believe me, it is an art, and like all arts, it requires you to commit to learning skills to do it:

  • Research skills
  • Organizational skills
  • Being comfortable with failure and always seeking feedback

Notice that I didn’t say ‘Writing skills’ as something I think it requires. I’ll explain my rationale for this in another blog post twinned with this one, with of course a customary tale of personal failure to accompany it. But we’ll start by addressing these points, starting with the last.

Why be comfortable with failure?

You’ve picked up a book of D&D, FATE or an Apocalypse World system game. You want to run a game.

Its your first time and you are excited. You put your heart and soul into learning a game, sit down to ask what your players want. You go away, you look up guides and methods, templates and structures. Or you might just wing it, confident that your chosen flavor of system will help you through with its advice. Either way, part of you thinks its going to be the best thing ever amongst all the nerves.

Game night. One of your players didn’t turn up and it makes your session run late. Only one girl sat at the table seems interested in role-playing as her character but she takes ages while taking turns and hogs the spotlight.

Another player just keeps asking you questions you don’t know the answer to. You think, ‘How the fuck do I calculate this?’ and spend ten minutes in a book because you didn’t prepare for that.

To top it off, in the last hour, the really nice but experienced player in the corner just slew the undead golem boss by burning down the room it was in with a huge amount of alchemist fire. You had no idea she would do that but she just did, and you’re now concerned that she’ll do this in every encounter. You check her character sheet and she’s actually got items she shouldn’t have on top of the two tonnes of alchemist fire she has, but you totally forgot to check in Session 0!

Here’s what I say to you. Don’t worry. Think about it after, learn from it and change your approach. Talk to your players about what you could’ve done better; even the player that got on your nerves has an opinion and it is valid (unless they’ve been a complete arse and ruined EVERYONE’S fun, then you need to be having ‘the chat’ with that person).

Never imagine for a moment that everything could be perfect. The second you think that, you’ll put pressure on yourself to make it perfect, when it never will be. And then your enthusiasm for GMing fails at the starting line.

Worse yet, if you assume that path of perfectionism it might make you not so receptive to criticism. That’s bad. You must always be open to constructive polite criticism, or even criticism that is laced with player frustration, no matter how much it personally offends you.

ZeRoller from the blog post ‘The SUE system: briefing.’ If you’re a GM and your solution to resolving player criticism is flatly telling them without discussion to ‘Deal with it.’, you might need to rethink your approach. Otherwise, expect the rest of your campaign to go terribly. Unless you truly are so conceited that you believe nothing you do is awful.

If you’re the sort of person that gets defensive even if people talk to you in reasonable tones, you’re going to find people will walk from your table. Sometimes en-masse.

It’s difficult, I know, but zen is achievable, and GM zen isn’t perfection. All it takes is trying again and again, until bit by bit, it doesn’t feel like perfection, but it does feel right. You’re wearing in a pair of shoes that don’t fit at the start of your GMing experience, so expect blisters and discomfort; and know they’ll be the best damn pair of shoes you bought by the end of your GMing stint.

So be comfortable with failure, start growing a nice thick skin and seek feedback from your players, from the wider community, from close friends who know the game you’re running. Because when you do and understand your mistakes, you’ll learn automatically. And suddenly, it’ll feel right. Not perfect, but right.

Seeking inspiration: Research skills

Research sounds like a boring prospect. It smacks of charts, of statistics, of theories and conclusions. Not so in Role-playing Games, a hobby so subjective that one game can be wildly different from the other because of what the creator wants to make or run.

So the first thing is to gather points of reference to the game you’re running.

A point of reference includes media such as books, novels, word of mouth stories, news and television. It enables you as the GM to provide ‘modeling clay’ for your campaign’s major themes and plot points. It gives you a filter to see the major story and themes of your game before you’ve even written it.

The lines already blur between media sources and RPG so this shouldn’t be too much trouble. In fact, some RPGs take masses of inspiration from different sources, typically books or series.

eclipsephase ref
Cross-section of the sci-fi RPG Eclipse Phase 1st edition reference list. Most corebooks nowadays have a reference list or a list of inspirations near the index of the book. If you’ve read any of these sources then you’ll definitely see similar themes in Eclipse Phase’s writing.

Chances are, you’ll have already noticed this by reading whatever core-book you’ve picked. Even if you have a generic system you probably want to run a type of game based on a genre or theme.

Points of reference can literally be anything, from a person, a great leader, a group, hell, even your backyard or a back alley near your house can be part of a scene with enough imagination and shuffling around. The point is, you use media as inspiration to construct your own ramshackle stories.

For vampire-related games such as Requiem, I have two points of reference that stick out for me. For my teens, The Legacy of Kain series and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The former is a broad, verbose series with the titular anti-hero character attempting to build and sustain vampire supremacy against the machinations of unknown powers, all the while making absurd gambles in order to achieve this.

Kain from the Legacy of Kain series. Throughout the games, Kain is depicted as an absolute bastard but ultimately the lesser of several evils in the world of Nosgoth. Still, despite being the hero by default, there is nothing pleasant about Kain. He speaks softly and has considerable character, but is brutal and manipulative. For me, he was iconic for all his ruthlessness, his swaggering arrogance, his eloquence and his raw vampiric power.

Buffy involved vampires, initially being your standard rampaging dangerous boogeymen, mooks to be mowed down by Buffy herself, but then becoming something with heart, something more personal, something with history and with needs and desires at times similar to humans.

This handsome fellow is, of course, James Marsters, who plays vampire antagonist turned bad-boy ally Spike in Buffy. His character underwent a lot of development throughout the series. His interactions with his vampiric sire and Buffy herself are particularly interesting because they paint vampires as more vulnerable and softer than your folklore vampires.

In more recent times I went further back and read An Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice for more inspiration about vampires as personally troubled monsters yet emotionally unstable and dangerous to be around, whether mortal or vampire.

Here, you see some close but traumatic relationships between the immortal characters, all to do with what being a vampire means, how it makes you timeless, immortal, dependent on manipulating and assaulting humans to gain sustenance. Vampirism in the book is a lonely existence, even being surrounded by your own kind doesn’t take the edge off.

Brad Pitt as Louis Point Du Lac in the movie adaptation of the above mentioned book. TTRPGs involve a lot of reading and writing but I fully appreciate not everyone is going to want to do that all the time to get inspiration. There are always multiple ways of consuming a story, from listening to audio-books to movie adaptations. Experiment and pick what works for you.

How do we use this inspiration? Simple, imitation is the greatest form of flattery and there’s nothing wrong with deliberately modelling characters and scenes off things you saw or read. Many of the Non Player Characters (NPCs) in our game took inspiration from the above ideas I had about vampires, and what made them distinct from mortals.

Vampires are humans in a tempestuous undead shell. It makes them super-humanly mighty, strong, even persuasive, but the fact they are deprived of normal mortality hurts them psychologically. They can’t die of old age, their bodies do not change with time and reset to the time of their embrace, things like sunlight and fire now have destructive effects on them meaning it isolates them further from normal interaction with mankind, the thing they covet because it staves off the loneliness. Imagine for a second how awful that existence must be and how each individual changes based on that physical truth. How would you react to being a vampire?

The front cover of a historical non-fiction book, Constantinople: City of The World’s Desire by Philip Mansell. As an example of using external sources as inspiration, I took the idea of a Pasha, an Ottoman noble, gave it a vampire makeover and put him in a game as a minor character. Pashas lived and died by how good they were at navigating the intrigues of the Sultan and his court. So what would happen if we made one a vampire? These are the sort of open hypothetical questions that can really give your NPCs weight.

That’s just characters though. What about locations?

I think these can be difficult to construct, especially if you’re aiming to make them a major fixture of the campaign. For example, if its going to be somewhere your players will be a lot, you want it to be relatively big, awe-inspiring for various reasons or the site of a great many changes to come throughout the campaign, or even well populated with a type of race or creature meaningful to your players.

A print of the Covent Garden Theatre, circa 1808. I chose this as one of the focal points in the vampire campaign, a well worn cliche.

So for example, the above is Covent Garden theater, which is now currently the Royal Opera House in London, present day. The great thing about TTRPGs is artistic license with historical elements; so long as your players aren’t too discerning and you don’t change too much, there’s a lot you can feasibly get away with.

In this parallel universe of Victorian London, this theater is owned by the vampiric prince of the city, who likes to see himself as a patron of theatrical shows both old and new (he stages pantos very often). The theater itself is where vampires and humans will secretly mingle, however the Prince strictly enforces a ‘no feeding on patrons in the theater’ policy. That is, until the Prince stages one of his rather unsavory after-parties in his expensive manor house nearby the theater… humans are fair game there…

Even small conversational topics can present inspiration for entire sessions. A friend of mine discussed long running documentaries and speculation that had been published on the nature of London’s underground tunnel systems, and the purpose they served to the government or other elites as escape routes or bunkers. That sort of thing is food for the imagination to exploit.

This is all part of the research process. Open yourself up to stories, anecdotes, myths etc. Inspiration is in all things, the only thing you must do is give it form in your characters and your settings.

And don’t worry about ripping ideas off. Nuance isn’t easy when you write about things and it may make you feel dirty for stealing from Intellectual Properties, but you’re not submitting a book to a publisher. This is a casual environment; players are unlikely to be offended by copied concepts for NPCs or locations. It’s what you do with them that matters to the players.

Creating Structure: Tools for organizing

This is absolutely the most important thing in setting yourself up to GM a game. Every GM’s toolkit and methods are different. This blog will outline some of my methods learned and borrowed from the community.

First, your tools. You need somewhere to write or type up details for the campaign or the session. You also need tools for reference.

Usually, it could be as simple as an A4 notepad, or a PukkaPad, or a A4 folder. I personally use something much more technical; I type faster than I write.

I use a laptop with Microsoft Onenote, Sumatra PDF reader and Firefox. I also use Discord VOIP for online tabletop gaming.

Onenote is like a massive virtual A4 folder, infinitely expanding. It helps me organize each session into little virtual binders. I have an example of my most up to date templates here, specific to Vampire of course, but there are some general tools you can use in there if you are at all inclined.

Sumatra PDF reader is for reading virtual RPG corebooks, which was actually recommended recently by this user, non_player, and I was immediately converted. It’s better than a book for a GM with a laptop in my opinion, as you can search quickly, select pages quicker and find things in the contents quicker. PDFs also don’t wear out like books, which is a nice bonus, and you get them pretty quick when you order them from places like DrivethruRPG. You can of course get physical copies for RPGs, but I tend to reserve them for players to root through at their own leisure if I’m playing in person.

Firefox I’ll use for quick and cheeky research if I need it, like rules arbitration or clarifying a rule through searching forums, as well as Youtube and music playlists to get me in the ‘zone’ for GMing.

Finally, if I am GMing over the internet, I will use Discord. It’s not traditional but it’s convenient to do online games, so long as you trust your players to keep similar records to yours.

That’s the toolkit for running a campaign, besides dice or specific bits and bobs like counters or poker chips, or pencils and character sheets for your players.

The RPG corebook you’ve chosen will generally tell you at the start what kind of tactile equipment you need to play and whether you as the GM need to use it. Traditionally its dice ranging from D4 to D20s, but newer RPGs use all sorts of games to simulate chance or resolution of actions. Dread for example uses a Jenga tower!

Creating structure: Templates to guide your writing

Here’s the nice part where I hand out collated stuff I’ve put together, as well as some general advice

First, mind mapping is your friend. It is so important to rough-drafting your initial concept, what you think might be important, what kind of characters you will make and what kind of organizations and places are present in your world.

My early mind-map of the Victorian London game. This describes the secret vampiric societies and what sort of assets I wanted them to have.

Mind maps aren’t set in stone. The organizations in the mind-map changed in what they managed and how prominent they are. Sanctum, for example, ended up not having nearly as much influence as I thought they would, and are more of a background thing for flavor. You might end up having settings and characters not mattering all that much, or changing completely! Keep notes, refer back to them! The important part is that you map your ideas to give you that space to plan.

Making a supporting cast

There’s usually two parts to making a non-player character:

  • Concept
  • Stats

You can do either one first for any character. Sometimes, giving a character a 5 in Strength will give you clues on where they got said Strength. Sometimes, writing up a shopkeeper and what he does for a living informs you how good he is at the ‘Craft’ skill or what traits he has. Either way, you need characters to populate your chosen setting.

For an early game, keep it simple, make characters related to the themes the player wants to explore or characters the players made up in session 0. One of your players wants a mentor? Make one! Another wants a rival? Do it, make a rival! You’ll get your players immersed much quicker if you follow their blueprints and ideas, and build upon them yourself, rather than putting in any old character that you like the sound of.

As part of generating a character concept, you need to add colour to your NPCs, to make them feel real to the players. Del from NPC Cast, in one of their podcasts I can’t remember specifically, had a great template involving writing an NPCs goals, motivations and fears. I’ve adapted for my own use in making the basic concept of my character. This involves the following four headings:

  • Key Facts – Anything of import regarding the character you made (e.g. status, standing, class, role, meaning to the players, relative of who?)
  • Drivers – A catch-all term I use for the underlying feeling, emotion or force that ‘drives’ your NPCs on in their lives. Are they hedonists? Do they just want to survive? Are they motivated by revenge? This is the feeling you draw deep upon in key moments of your game, when you’re in the shoes of your NPCs, or if players make decisions that may affect them.
  • Goals – Usually written in SMART goal format, these are the goals, short-term and long-term the NPC might want to achieve.
  • Fears – I thank @npcdel for this often overlooked emotion in making NPCs. It is REALLY IMPORTANT to ensuring that you don’t make an infallible NPC that outshines and bores the hell out of your players. Everyone has fears, my fellow GM, and your Batman rip-off NPC is no exception. Fears give that extra spice to your NPCs; they give your players opportunities to exploit, plot hooks to introduce and drama that you can create for the group. A fearless NPC is a boring NPC,

As for stats, it can be much more fiddly depending on your system. The rule of thumb is to make it as easy for yourself as possible and never spend more time making a character if you don’t know how much interest your players will show in them. Your players only manage one character; whereas you’re managing like 20 in any given session, which is quite the balancing act, so you need to make it simple for yourself! Every system is different, so here’s some general advice to help you make character stat blocks:

  • Use existing tools in corebooks. Some systems give explicit tools for giving NPCs statistics. SUPERS Revised, for example, has a NPC/mook maker that makes it easier for GMs to make characters quickly. The tool itself just produces very barebones NPCs so you can quickly turn out a lot of stat blocks to draw on for each NPC should you need it.
  • Look on the internet and in communities. Here’s an example for D&D5th, an NPC generator, that involves selecting drop down boxes for different features and hitting generate! Existing GMs even have their own ideas and brainstormed their own methods. For the vampire game, for minor NPCs I use a method suggested by this user, XenesisXenon, for minor or initial NPC stats.
  • Make your own tools and templates! Below is an example of a full vampire character sheet for an NPC in OneNote format. This I’ll use for characters that are of importance to the player characters or parts of my story. I’ve made it so that it’s easy to navigate to and I can keep it minimized in a window to one side.
NPC stat
A character sheet for Lasenbury, the Vampiric Sheriff of London. I’m amused that my player likes Lasenbury so much that he’s prepared to guarantee him permanent plot armour by taking a specific merit called True Friend. This means I can’t kill the Sheriff as the GM without the player’s permission, neither can I betray my player with Lasenbury as readily without a damn good reason.

The above caption is an example of an NPC earning your PC’s respect, which links into my point about how much time you should spend making an NPC if it’s a new one. Lasenbury was adapted as I went along and I made a point of never shoving him down Rokki’s throat, unless it was warranted as part of Lasenbury’s duties. You might come to understand my thoughts on this process as I continue to blog, but for the moment, if you’re new to GMing, definitely remember to think about your NPCs in terms of how they relate to your characters.

After you have a respectable cast, or even during when you’re making characters, I go through a session brainstorming before I write it. I ask myself these four questions, also based on all total session information and anything else I may have gotten from my players:

  • What is the session’s aim? – What is the goal of this new session for your players/characters? Are you introducing them to the world? Are you trying to challenge them; to pit them against something tough, or something dramatic?
  • What will make this session fun? – Fun? Remember? You’re doing this for a purpose. What’s fun about your session? What might everyone enjoy? Is it a plot twist? Is it a major cliffhanger? A tense moment? Being scared? Think back to your Session 0 and think about what your players wanted out of your game?
  • What plot threads could I set up? – You want to keep that ball rolling, to give your players more things to be invested about. What’s going on in the local inn? Why has the King been imprisoning elves? These are things you can seed in the background of the main aim of your session. Stuff that you can foreshadow later on.
  • What could make this a bad session? – Reflect on past mistakes or things you know you might do that would be detrimental to your game. Or think about why it didn’t play so smoothly last time; was it cause of a player trying to kill every NPC that they came across? Or fighting with other players even? What kinds of things do you need to prepare for that could leave everyone with a bad taste in their mouths?

Then, finally, I write the session. I use the prep-lite manifesto by Phil Vecchione. This honestly is one of the best planning templates I’ve used, and I’ve used many approaches of my own making.  It’s best to take a read for yourself rather than regurgitate the details here, it’s a damn good tool and deserves being read.

Getting to part 3.2

I’ll continue this as TI 3.2 and I will actually describe a situation where I planned poorly and it backfired in my face. But I hope the above has been useful for any GM of any level.

Below is a simple link to my OneNote templates. I’ve included some other things as well which I use, including Ghoul, Mortal, Werewolf and Vampire templates for CofD games, and generic mook NPC template specific to CofD. I’ve also adapted the Prep-lite manifesto and my own session Brainstorm template, which is included in the file.



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