Sunday, February 7, 2021

Jojiro's GM Exercises

Jojiro put together a series of questions for GMs, and I shall answer them.

Question Set 1

1. Your players arrive in an abandoned city – the first thing they do is enter a home, asking what’s left of the pantry. What do you say to them?

"You find dust, cobwebs, old rat shit, and a pile that might once have been a sack of grain. There is also a mummified corpse with a large hole in its skull and a flintlock pistol in one hand. There is very faint smell - rot-sweetness, sulfur, burning oil. [Cleric], you recognize this as the smell of a demonic possession."

2. Your players want to talk to a city magistrate about an unpopular idea of theirs. In order to catch the magistrate off-guard, they approach early in the morning. What state do they find the magistrate in?

"He's on his way to his business for the city council. He does not appreciate the interruption, but he might be willing to delegate dealing with you to one of his assistants or functionaries just to get you out of his hair."

3. During character creation, a player mentions that they want a naturally blue-haired character. Not for any particular reason, you were envisioning your campaign setting without this possibility. How do you respond?

"Are you okay with playing a mutant or someone from way off the edges of the map?"

4. Read the following entry for a “point of interest”, and then refine how you would present it in a game in some way. You might change how you would describe it out loud, edit it in writing, add typographical emphasis (bold, italics, underlining) for a play-by-post game, etc.

In practice at the table, it would end up like this.

"In the glade there is an ancient shrine. Six enormous granite pillars, engraved with bas-reliefs of the ash drawf ancestor-gods and wrapped in ivy, surround a pool of simmering, steaming water. You can make out a bright orange-red form in the pool, about the size and shape of a crocodile. It spurts out a gout of steam and hrrmmphs."

Should they investigate the water directly, I would then say "[Wizard], you can identify the water as granting protection from fire if drunk."

If there's an ash dwarf or an anthropolgist in the group, I'll add "miners would stop here to bless themselves before going up to the volcano to dig for ore."

In my notes, it would likely just be

Ancient ash dwarf shrine

  • Guardian salamander
    • Harmless to anyone who treats it and the shrine with due respect.
  • Water grants protection from fire

5. Your players enter a dungeon you have prepared, and leave after being spooked by the monsters within. In truth, they are more than powerful enough to overcome the threats of the dungeon, and well-equipped to do so. One of the players asks you, “Do you think we’re ready for this dungeon?” How do you answer?

"Yeah, you should be good." I might remind them of something they've encountered that might help - jogging the PCs' memories.

6. One of your players has a spell, speak with insects. They use it to speak with a spider, at which point another player points out that it shouldn’t work. The first player is obviously disappointed, and looks to you hopefully for you to overrule the other player. You don’t remember the actual details of how the spell works, but your rulebook is handy if you need to look it up. What do you do?

"The spell is much more generalist than the name suggests, because the original form was "Cum vermes loquam" and made no distinction between insects, arachnids, worms, crustaceans et cetera. This is because the wizards who made it were basing their classification of life on the work of a philosopher who had already been dead for 1400 years and thought that flies had five legs. Fuckin' wizards, what are you gonna do.

Reflection Time 1: If a player wants something, I'll make up a setting reason for it on the fly. Certain classes get additional information just from observation. The abandoned city needs a reason to be abandoned and it needs introduced early to increase dread. 

Question Set 2

7. (response to 1) “There’s nothing in the pantry.”

This can be valid in some circumstances, but it's a missed opportunity to provide flavor / introduce other elements.

8. (response to 2) “The magistrate – only a petty official who has temporarily taken over this post, by the way – isn’t even tired – he’s an early morning sort of gentleman. Despite the early hour, the dawn’s rays still barely tickling over the hills, he looks well put-together. Not a hair is out of place on his head, and his sharply kept mustache suggests a morning ritual of wax-infused grooming. The man is already making steady headway into a stack of tidy paperwork as you arrive. You’re in luck, however – he seems to be in a good mood, which may make him more amenable to your suggestion than normal.”

Valid. A bit wordy, and not the words I would use, but it establishes the NPC well enough.

9. (response to 3) “Sure you can have blue hair! I hope you don’t mind if nobody else does though – I didn’t really originally picture that sort of hair, and I’ve got so much else to juggle that I probably won’t add a whole lot of world responsiveness to blue hair. It’ll just be an aesthetic thing to help you better picture your character, not much beyond that.”

Hard disagree. Blue hair is such an easy thing to handwave - a wizard did it! No reason to drag the person inf ront of the table and make huge sweeping changes. Give them some options and let them pick, and use it to add a little flavor or maybe a hook.

10. (response to 4) “The point of interest should be more direct, short and to the point. I don’t want to mention other shrines, since they’ll come up when they come up, and players can make the connection about salamanders being normal if they want to. Since it’s for a game, the phrases don’t have to be grammatically correct or complete sentences – they just need to convey information. For a play-by-post game, I also want the keywords to stand out, so I will bold them:”

An ash dwarf shrine. 1 salamander stands guard outside. Simmering pool of fire shield (1 day duration) inside.

Good stuff here, agree.

11. (response to 5) “Who knows? Haha.”

Disagree. Skittish and indecisive players make for boring sessions. If they need a nudge, give them a nudge.

12. (response to 6) “I would look it up in the book, and if it’s a regular question, I would add a sticky-note to that page so I could find it faster, to show my players what the rules say. Knowing the rules and when to look them up is important, and I want to lead by example.”

Disagree. This is boring, unfun, and is putting minutiae above the enjoyment and creativity of the players.

Question 13

13. Imagine, briefly, that the responses in 7 through 12 all came from the same GM, within the same campaign. Are there patterns that emerge about how this GM runs? Would you want the GM to be more consistent and predictable about anything? 

Dollars to donuts this DM did a whole lot of 3.5 back in the day and never unlearned some bad habits (mostly of overreaching when players decide they want to do something even a little creative, and of letting what is pre-planned get in the way of things actually happening)

Does examining this hypothetical GM change how you thought about your own tendencies, and your own patterns? Would you want to learn anything from this hypothetical GM, or not? Why?

Nope. Not particularly, because their methods don't jive with the little bursts of spontaneity I like to use to keep things fresh and moving. Yhough I might want to look at their old campaign notes - that's their main strength. and if they're a 3.5 GM as I think they are they are likely to have a lot of them.


  1. Making shit up at the drop of a hat to justify silly things players come up with is how Flavortown becomes a goblin neighborhood of the greater Funkytown Metropolitan Area, or how a marriage between men is known as a "warlock's wedding"

  2. I'm a fan of these sorts of question lists, both about DMing style and about sessions. It's all the joys of 'let me tell you about my character' with none of the associated people not caring. (And more seriously, it's a fun way to do some self-introspection about gaming style)