This might be of use to someone. It might not.
What will follow is just a raw list of things I do and don't when running games. The list will be in no particular order I'll just list things as I think of them. This post in no way represents what I think the reader should be doing. This is a collection of things that work for me. there are no miracle "tips or tricks" in the post below, just seeds for thought or discussion.
- I try to avoid the cliches as much as possible, while still skirting them.
- If I do drift into the land of cliches I try to always use "this ..and" to make things more interesting. The person the party just rescued turning out to be a prince is a cliche. That same person being a prince and also the master of thieves guild, is more interesting. (If still a bit cliche.)
- Live at the table I don't use a GM's screen. I like to roll in the open that way the players know that I'm not fickle, dice are fickle. This carries over to Roll 20. I can hide my rolls on roll20, I just don't.
- On a related Note many times I will roll randomly to determine who in the party a monster attacks.
- Oldest advice in the book: If a rules dispute comes up I solve it right then and there with an agreement lookup the correct "by the word of the rules" answer after the game. Once the game is over and the question can be sorted out the group can decide how the situation will be handled moving forward. I try not to waste valuable game time arguing the finer points.
- I Ask everyone to know their spells, have spell cards, or some other way of referencing their spells. I just hate stopping to look up spells. I have found the D&D wiki's out there on the web are handy for quickly looking up a spell while playing online. I keep one open in a tab while playing on Roll20. Roll20 also offers features that integrate 5th edition and a ton of 5th edition reference pages right on their sight.
- I try to be clear about the tone of the game I want to run from the very start. Sometimes this works better than other times.
- I don't use maps unless the situation calls for tactical level thinking and character positioning. Maps slow things down. In fact other than campaign level, topographic maps I have developed a strong aversion to the classic dungeon crawl style maps. Not very "old school" of me but there it is.
- When a player passes an ability check I often ask "how did you do it?" What the player says next gives me a ton of material to work with.
- If I'm playing 5th edition I rarely use the passive investigation and passive perception rules as written. If an enemy is trailing the party I will have that enemy roll against the highest passive perception in the group. The same goes for traps and hidden objects. The players will often go places I don't expect so I will roll a difficulty to detect an item on the spot. I usually use (10+ 1d10 and a reasonable modifier) based on the environment the characters are in players are in. For example the traps in a thieves guild warehouse might be 10 + (1d10 +5) difficulty to detect. While the coin purse hidden in casually in a farmer's kitchen might be a flat 10 + 1d10 to accidentally notice. Why? Because I rarely have a solid number for "stealth" for every encounter. I also don't want to look up or keep a list of base difficulties to detect and or notice things. Again it's about spending the time engaging the players, not the rules.
- Yes. I try to engage the players more than the rules.. I think I just typed that, but it bears saying again. In fact I could have saved us all some time by using that as the title of the post. I think it's what put me off to 4th edition as a player. I always felt like I was engaging the rule book more than the DM. Not crapping on 4thEd, there's a lot of good design in that game, just not for my style of game.
- If a player lands the killing blow, I usually say, "ok how do you kill it?" Many great moments have come from that question.
- I feel combat should be quick. To this end I have steadily reduced the hit points of my more common monsters over the years so that one critical strike, two good hits, or three average hits will do in the vast majority of them. When the party runs up on an enemy that has a sizable pool of hit points it should feel special. The main bodyguard they fought in a thieves guild recently was obviously a totally different beast than the thugs they had dispatched earlier. The party knew it right away and started to get worried when he didn't go down quickly.
- I don't adjust the monsters for party level. I pretty much know what lives where. If the party fought orcs in the frozen mountains at level four, when they return at level fifteen there will still be orcs in those mountains. The orcs will not have mysteriously morphed into stone giants and ogres just to reach an arbitrary challenge rating. *
- I love random elements ( Just look at this blog), I often use random elements to help stoke my ideas during prep. I almost never use random charts during play. (Barring the occasional random encounter chart)
- I try to use as much from last game as I can in the next game. Meaning I like to repeat as many small details as I can, so that the world feels persistent.
- I like to name NPC's.. lots of them. It has become a joke at the table honestly.. "The sloop has a crew? Oh now Mark needs to think of twentyfive names." Random fantasy name generators are my friend. Once an NPC has a name a personality follows and the world seems richer for the small effort.
- I keep notes on player NPC interactions. That ship's crew above, if a player is rude to the crew you bet I will write it down and remember it the next time that player is trying to give orders during a stormy gale.
- I have a reputation for never giving out magic items. It's part of the story, but honestly the reputation is well earned.
- Part of the above. I loath magic items that have no part in the story. The A-typical ring of protection +1 still represents a wizard working to create an item that makes the wearer either directly harder to hit due to magical intervention, or grants the ability to ignore glancing strikes during battle. (Those hits that would have beat the AC if it were not for the +1.) Further more that effect is constant and permanent. Any item that takes that much energy to create should have a story behind it.
- I like to add story hooks, and opportunities that have nothing to do with the present story arc. For example, the players took a job last game delivering a wagon load of furs.
- I don't ask players to buy any source material for games. If they want to get player's handbooks and all that jazz it's up to them. Those books are expensive.
- This goes against all logic, but here it goes. I have no issue porting my game into other systems. If the players want to try something new I have no problem with it. While bouncing around systems is not my first or best choise, in the end though I would rather learn some new dice rules over re-building a world I have been running for years.
- I don't do crap with encumbrance. I use the sniff test, if it smells like too much stuff to carry then I say something.
- Sometimes I skip initiative in favor of tell players the order based on the situation. Sometimes logic just dictates that one group has the drop on the other, Han shot first, and sneak attacks happen.
- If there is a powerful monster around I like to leave bread crumbs around for the players so that they don't just stumble on it and die. I can't imagine something like an owlbear could live in an area for very long without leaving some signs of it's presence.
- I forget attacks of opportunity all the time. My bad, I cut my teeth playing AD&D there were no AoO. The players kindly remind me when they are due one.
- I try not to direct players towards thier goals. I don't spoon feed the players , here is where you should go next kind of things. Though the players I game with right now are extremely good at picking a task and sticking to it. They are free to run off and do whatever, and if they don't investigate the path to the resolution of thier goals, those goals simply wait.
- On the point of waiting, I hope nobody thinks that while those goals wit the bad guys are just sitting on thier thumbs.. no way.. I always have an arc of plans for the bad guys. I think it might be what I spend the most time planning for my games. Those bad guys are always putting things in motion while the players aren't looking. Those plans bear fruit, or fail or change in the background until the players actually bump up against them.
- I don't conform treasure to the characters. This One time **, a dwarf with a missing hand found a magical 2 handed sword... just say'n.
- I have been running my games in this same world for a long time. I try to tie as much of what's going on in the game now back to what happened back then as I can. I think (hope) it injects the game with a certain feeling of history. Like when strider saves the hobbits at round top. Ole JRR knew what round top was before it was a ruined circle of stone on a hilltop, and he alludes to it. I hope to project that same feeling when for example the players explore a ruined city that a party of players years before them was around to witness become a ruin. I don't think it always works, but when it does, it's good.
- I always let natural 20's count for double damage on attacks. All those extra "threat rolls" seem extraneous to me.
- When I remember to I write down the players saves and armor classes so I don't have to keep asking.
- I don't drink more than one beer (give or take) when I GM. Sounds like sound logic right? I have messed that one up a couple of times over the years and the game suffers greatly.
- When I run a game if the players find something they can't read the only option they have is finding someone who can read it or getting to a library and making a check to see if they can translate it. Naturally if the players have a spell that helps with the translation, all the better.
- In fact I give many bonuses for investigations done in libraries in my game. In turn Libraries are rare and only the largest cities have them. I like to imagine the cultural impact a place like the Royal Library of Alexandria might have had on a city, a kingdom, or a people.***
- I have tried to break the bad habit of keeping track of how many hit points characters have. I shouldn't care. It's like a referee asking the scorekeeper how many fouls Lebron James has before making a call. I still goof this up sometimes.
- I encourage players to have clearly defined end games for thier characters. As in they should know what it would take to get eh characters to stop adventuring. Lets face it, adventuring is a tough way to make a living.
- I make resurection very hard to get. I think resurrection spells and the like are game breakers. I could write a whole blog post on that.
- Some of the old school monsters, like rot grubs and some other quick death, insta kill kind of creeps are just not that much fun at all. I don't use them. Unpopular decision I know.
- My game features mostly humans. I like the other races to stand out more.
- Sometimes when a player rolls a 1 on dammage I let them re-roll, Just because rolling 1's stinks.
- When a player has had a streak of bad rolls I like to go back to them, get them rolling again. I look at it like a good shooter in the NBA. Statistically if they have missed a few they are bound to make one (ok, not always). I love when a player has had a few bad rolls then nails roll during a big moment..
Ok I think that's it for now. I will think of other things and perhaps revisit this post idea one day.
As usual I hope there is something that passes as useful in this pile. If there is not please accept my apology.
*This one sounded "preachy" that was not my intention. I have always been puzzed by where were all these dragons and giants hiding when the players were lower level?
** At bard Camp..
*** With all that said one of my players burnt a library to the ground ...........................
** At bard Camp..
*** With all that said one of my players burnt a library to the ground ...........................