The internet is awash in game mastering advice, tips & tricks, the 7 things to avoid and the 12 things to learn. Talking heads, blogs, and memes assault the mind of the aspirant with blurry calls to compelling story, yes-anding, wild facial expressions, existential stances, fruit-vendor accents and social norm-setting. We exist in a too-big buffet of too-greasy choices when it comes to game mastering advice. The seeker is left with no time, a messy game table, no pants on, scrambling to clean the bathroom before players arrive.
As usual, I'm going to seemingly denounce game mastering advice then offer some. I know, I'm annoying with this. "Don't buy a Nissan! But if you DO buy a Nissan, it's gotta be the Retro-cop 240z. So dope!" Yep, I'm a clod.
Easily the sickest 240Z out there. Something right out of Shinru City, 2440 AD.
Like game mastering advice, these cars are everywhere,
but the really juicy ones are nigh impossible to find.
To cut through the smoke and clutter, I'm going to offer TWO tips for the ever-seeking game master. These are the two things I see overlooked or mucked up more than any other. No esoteric stuff here, these are doable in any game right away, with no deep thinking or flair for compelling theater. These two classic oopses are so easy to fix in your GM habits, you can even roll in to a session clueless, low on energy, or behind on house cleaning. What's that? You don't clean the house before your players come over? Well, you're just a reptile. Turn off your computer and go back to your enclosure, ya mutant.
CLASSIC OOPS I: Muddy Rolls
Dice are fun. Rolling 'em is a good time, but when what you're hoping to roll is unclear, be it GM or player, the fun gets rained-on a bit. We've all seen GMs tumble a die to determine something without announcing what they're doing (usually followed by a bewildered pause and stare-into-space). On the other side of the table, we've all seen players narrow their eyes when an ambiguous success check has the die tumbling before the target is stated.
"What do you need to roll? Well, uh, just go ahead and roll.
What'd you get, an 11? Hey, how about that, you needed an 11, yeah, an 11.
Must be your lucky day, pal."
-GM Tommy Flanagan
In both these cases, the fun of rolling dice is clouded by haste and lack of clarity. The muddiness of it leaves even the best outcomes feeling flimsy. Even worse, without clearly stated intent, context, target values or stakes, players can feel they are merely shadow boxing, or being subjected to a creative ruse, with the dice as mere table props. Let's break down the fix here...
Muddy Roll Fix 1- Patience: Any time a die is to be rolled, by GM or player, it is imperative to be patient in the preparation for that roll. You like keeping a fast pace at your table, but a little extra attention to ensure the entire group knows what's being rolled, why, its target value, and possible outcomes/stakes will always pay off. "An attack roll, ok. With your bonus, and this guy's armor, you'll need a natural 11 or lower. Miss this, and this ogre will have a free shot on you, but land a solid hit and you could score a kill here." Does this statement eat up a little precious table time? Yes, but the rich feeling of suspense, clarity, and trust at the table will exponentially improve the feel of every single roll.
Muddy Roll Fix 2- Clarity: Making sure a player knows their roll target and stakes improves the feel of dice checks. When the GM rolls, though, the need for clarity is even stronger. Nothing gives players an uneasy feeling than a GM rolling a die with no explanation, then things happening. It feels like vapor or smoke-and-mirrors railroading. As GM, pause play, cut table chatter, and make clear what's going on every time you roll, even if outcome secrecy is important. "Ok guys, I'm going to roll a D6 for how many guards come around this corner. The characters won't know this outcome right away. A 6 here is going to be terrible, but a 1 could be an easy victory. Here we go." Now, instead of a vague tumble and scribbling of notes, players wondering what the GM is even doing, has become an all-hands suspense moment. Is the knowledge of the guards' roll kind of meta? Yes indeed, but it keeps the table focused on that 1D6 with all their attention and worry. If you employ secret rolls sometimes in your games, the rule still applies. "Alright, I'm about to roll a die behind my screen here. It's an unknown to the characters, but for posterity I will roll this, note its result, and set the die aside to be viewed when its effect is revealed. Everyone with me? Secrecy is important, but no fudging will besmirch this table, my hoopy froods!"
Be patient and ensure clarity every single time a die tumbles. You got this.
CLASSIC OOPS II: Dad's Keys
We've all been at the table when the GM has no idea how a scene is going to conclude, how to beat an unbeatable foe, or if that odd-looking gem will make a magical exit portal appear. This is a normal thing... the GM being surprised in play is part of the fun of tabletop, and allows truly emergent experiences no video game could ever offer. All that said, this moment is a common time for the second classic oops to occur. 'Dad's Keys' is a term I use for the moment a GM is flat-footed and cheaply gives in to an offbeat or super-convenient suggestion from a player (who is often kidding). What was a passing comment suddenly becomes a critical truth, and it feels flimsy.
Bill most triumphantly finds Ted's dad's keys, to the wonderment of a supportive Ted.
Getting what we want in life is great, unless it feels as if the cosmos, GM, or convenience of
time travel are merely patronizing us... then it feels... totally bogus.
Player: "Maybe this wooden hatch here leads to the bandits' hideout. If it did, it would make a perfect escape from all this mayhem! I'll crack it open and look."
GM: "Uhh... hatch?"
Player: "Yeah, you mentioned it when we first got trapped in here."
GM: "Ok. You lift the hatch by an iron pull-ring, and peer inside. Far below, a lantern is flickering... the unique type of lantern only used in the bandits' hideout!"
The flummoxed, tired, overwhelmed or overly surprised GM is sadly prone to this classic oops. Weary of providing answers and improvising ever-escalating situations, they sometimes just relent to an obvious McGuffin or catch-all solution proposed by players. This gives players a feeling of patronization or 'do whatever' implications that can ruin suspense, tension, and compelling story. "Nothing we do can hurt this damn dragon! I'll- uhm- smash this crystal sphere... maybe there's some kind of link. Huh? That killed it instantly? Oh. Uhh, ok. Woot?"
Dad's Keys Fix I- Roll It: It would be silly to call on GMs to just predict or guess at every needed truth in a session and 'be prepared.' This unrealistic expectation is sadly promoted throughout the hobby, even though utterly impossible. Does the hatch lead to the bandits' hideout? Rather than pretending to know the answer to this unexpected, high-stakes question, entrust the answer to a D6 YES/NO roll. 123 no, 456 yes. Use the methods above here, taking time to talk the table through just how heavy this next roll will be. "I didn't have anything planned beneath that hatch, guys, so let's just ask 'does it lead to the bandits hideout' ok? If I roll a 1, 2, or 3 here, you're all but trapped! Everyone with me? Yeah? Ok here goes..."
With a healthy habit of admitting ignorance or surprise, a total trust of the yes-no roll, and a great amount of clarity
on the stakes of such a roll, the GM can be prepared for any question, as long as it is binary.
At my tables, entire pillars of story have hinged on a single roll of this type.
Dad's Keys Fix II- Cold Stop: If timing and circumstances allow, sometimes the truly flat-footed, exasperated, or clueless GM can avoid the Dad's Keys oops with a more extreme measure: ending the session. Rather than offer a flimsy hole-in-one solution that feels improvised and obvious, just call the session right there. Not only does this give you a week or more to revisit your notes and ensure a great resolution to the scene, but builds suspense with players, who know their next session will start with a bang. The cliffhanger is a time-tested storyteller's ace, so don't be afraid to use it when you don't know what's next, or if that weird gem does anything at all.
No matter what GM challenges you face, including classic oopses, be kind to yourself! Be transparent with players, share your strengths and struggles openly. Never feel obligated to 'look like you know stuff.' Openly discuss meta-game aspects, call for brief breaks to get your notes clear, revel in each and every roll!