A good GM can run their game with nothing beyond dice, notes,* and their dulcet voice, but what if you want to add something extra? If you’ve already got a solid foundation in the basics of plotting, NPC characterization, and encounter balancing, then it might be time go that extra mile. GMs can employ a number of tricks to enhance their game, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. The key is knowing how to use them, so let’s start with the simplest…
When your PCs come across an important letter or passage from an ancient tome, hand it to them. The most immediate benefit is that the players have a copy of the information right in front of them. They don’t have to rely on memory or constantly ask you to reread it.
Beyond the practical considerations, presenting players with a written handout can add to their immersion level. It gives them a measure of control over the information, something they don’t have to ask the GM’s permission for. If the handout is really interesting, you might even get players to study it instead of pulling out their smart phones.
This is an especially handy technique when you’re giving out cryptic clues as part of foreshadowing. It’s all too easy for players to miss subtle references in your description. With handouts, they can go over the information to their hearts’ content.*
The danger is going overboard. Your players will lose interest if they have too many bits of paper, so stick to the important stuff. The PC’s overdue bar bill shouldn’t be a handout, but the court sorcerer’s treasonous letter to an enemy king should.
When making your handouts, err on the side of legibility and simplicity. That flowing cursive font you just downloaded might look pretty, but it’ll be wasted if the players can’t read it. Likewise, there are guides online that will teach you how to age paper until it looks like medieval parchment, but this is largely wasted effort. The content of your handouts is far more important than the presentation.
And remember, proofread your handouts! It’s all too easy for a dramatic reading of “the king dies tonight” to become a laugh inducing “the king dines tonight.”
A picture isn’t always worth a thousand words,* but they can get a scene out of your brain and into the imaginations of your players.
You might use images in your campaign for a few reasons. For one thing, description might not be your strong suit, but you still want the players to imagine themselves in their character’s environment. This works especially well in fantasy or historical settings. A quick google search will give you a never-ending tide of photos taken in medieval fortresses, and almost as many of their Japanese counterparts.*
Images can also be valuable for less well known settings that are harder to envision. How many of your players actually know what a Roman hill fort looks like? If your game takes place in a historical time period – or a setting based on one – pictures are probably available for you. Even more so if you’re running in modern day.
Outside of landscapes, you can use images to make sure everyone has the same picture in their head. If your game takes place on board a spaceship, showing the players a picture of said ship will not only get them on the same page but also help them understand what emotion their ship inspires. Is it big and mean like Galactica or a serviceable craft that’s seen better days like Serenity?
It’s also possible to find photos of people to represent your NPCs, but it requires a lot of luck. We have more exacting requirements on what a person looks like than a landscape, and the chances that they’ll be in the correct costume are slim at best. Of course, you could always create your own pictures if you’re good at drawing, but that’s going to eat a lot of time that should be spent prepping your story.*
For the most part, you shouldn’t be using props in your roleplaying game. The last thing you want to deal with at the table is a bunch of awkward objects getting in the way of your dice and character sheets. Images and handouts, being made of paper, don’t take up much space. Props, however, have a nasty habit of being three-dimensional, and that’s just a pain. Plus, many of the in-game items you’d think of representing with props are going to be weapons, and that adds sharp edges into the equation.
Unless you’re doing some full contact LARPing, props won’t add anything except distraction to your game, and players bring plenty of that on their phones. There is one exception, and that is really, really intense mystery games. If you’re running games where the players are intent on solving the mystery through their own powers of deduction, it can be useful to present clues as physical objects. This helps nail some of the mystery down in objective terms rather than trying to decode the GM’s description.
Food and Drink
If your group has time, eating a meal together before the session is a great bonding exercise. It’s even better if the food is somehow related to the game. It’s always a challenge for players to get into their characters’ shoes, and eating the same food is an effective method.
Obviously, this only works if the characters eat food that’s both palatable and available in real life. It works best in modern and near-future settings. If you happen to live near a really good Thai joint, then why not make the PC’s meeting place serve similar food? Your players will start getting into character before the game even starts. Plus, you get delicious Thai food, so win-win.
For many settings, serving tea at the table is fantastic. This caffeine-laden beverage is important in cultures across the world, so there’s a good chance it will be served to the PCs.* In some settings, the drinking of tea can be a highly ritualized and socially significant activity.
It doesn’t matter if your players are drinking the same kind of tea as their characters, just that they are sharing an activity. Having a cup in your hands changes how you roleplay. You can insert dramatic pauses by taking a sip, and staring at your adversary across a steaming mug is always fun.
One thing I do not recommend is drinking alcohol at the table, especially in large amounts. Drunk D&D might sound like fun, but in reality it’s a lot of sitting around in awkward silence as the sloshed GM tries to remember what a base attack bonus is.
Now we’re getting a bit more technical with our play aids. With free software and massive online archives, sound effects are easier to find or make than ever before. So long as you have some kind of mp3 player within easy reach, you can make your players feel like they’ve been transported into an old timey radio drama.
Well, maybe you don’t want to go that far, but sound effects can still be very helpful. If your game is structured like a television show, then why not throw together some intro music? You don’t need to play it before every session, but it’s a great way help set the mood at the table. If you’re going for themes of wonder and exploration, then you want something upbeat and inspiring along the lines of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A more somber campaign would benefit from an intro similar to that of Battlestar Galactica. A voice-over setting up the premise is optional.
Of course, where sound effects really shine is in horror games. Horror is all about atmosphere, and the actual sound of an axe grinding on concrete as the unstoppable serial killer advances will be far more effective than any description. To avoid repetition, it’s a good idea to get a variety of samples to choose from. At the same time, you want effects that are relevant to the story. Players will quickly lose patience with a stock creaky door effect, unless that effect signals an ancient tree spirit awaking.
No matter what sound effects you’re using, test them before the session. The effect will be completely ruined if you press play and it’s too quiet to hear.* A sound effect will lose a lot of its impact if you have to sheepishly adjust the volume before playing again.
Of all the items on this list, sound effects are the easiest to get carried away with. They’re time consuming, and you could easily spend hours trying to get the perfect pitch. If you find yourself doing that, stop. No play aid is worth sacrificing planning time.*
Scenes that take place away from the PCs can be used to deliver important exposition and are great for foreshadowing. Just one problem: GMs sound really silly talking to themselves. A menacing scene between the evil warlord and her advisor suddenly becomes a laugh fest as the GM tries to react meaningfully to their own words. This makes it difficult to have cutscenes with more than one NPC, which is very limiting.
The solution is to harness your players as a force for good! Well, a force for storytelling, anyway. Just write out a short script and hand it to one or more of your players to read. Much more enjoyable than the GM talking to themself. So long as you can write some half decent dialog,* these scenes will provide a nice change of pace for your players and stick out better in their memories.
When crafting these scenes, brevity is the soul of wit. Make them long enough to communicate what you need, which is rarely more than a minute or two. They should be as clear as possible. Read each line of dialog out loud to make sure it’s not awkward to say. If there are specific emotional inflections, note them. The player you hand it to won’t know what the original intent was, so make it obvious.
This method is especially effective if your group is infested with theater people,* a common overlap in roleplaying circles. However, it works fine even without them. Just take a few moments to think about who you’re giving a part to. A mild-mannered player who has trouble acting aggressively isn’t the best person to cast as the the Mad Sorcerer King.
No matter who you give the parts to, remember that scripted cutscenes should only be used when they’re necessary. The same is true for any other type of play aid. Some GMs write short stories between sessions, others use table top war games to run combat, but the basic rules are the same. Play aids are here to complement your GMing, not prop it up like a crutch. Use them only when needed, and your game will be the better for it.
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