Roleplaying

Five Advanced Techniques for Experienced Game Masters

Part of a GM screen from Mage: The Ascension. It shows, among other things, a mage levitating multiple guns in the air.

Running Mage is an advanced technique all its own.

A lot of GMing advice is applicable across all experience levels. It’s always a good idea to know the rules and eat a meal before you run a game. But some techniques are not meant for beginners because they can ruin your game if handled poorly. On the other hand, they can also take your game to new heights. So if you’ve got plenty of time logged behind the screen, then read on, for these techniques are for you.

1. Create Characters and Relationships in Advance

A Lovecraftian monster attacking a helicopter. If you plan to include this in your game, it’ll be good if at least one PC can fly a helicopter.

Character creation is a cornerstone of roleplaying games. Players roll their stats or assign their points, and each decides who their character is. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be that way?

Another option is for the GM to create characters ahead of time and then give the players their choice of who to pick. You’ll want a week or two of lead time so you can do any reworking necessary to make sure every player has a character they like.

In addition to assigning stats, you’ll also create a framework for relationships between PCs. Here you’ll want to use a light touch. Don’t tell the players how their characters feel about each other. Instead, describe the history between PCs, providing a few hints about how those experiences might affect the relationship, but leave the final decision in the players’ hands. You won’t say that two detective PCs are best friends, but you will say they’ve been partners for 10 years and saved each other’s lives on many occasions.

The Benefits

By creating the characters yourself, you can ensure they are balanced, each with the abilities they need to be useful. You don’t have to worry about that one player who always power games, overshadowing everyone else.

At the same time, this method lets you get around unbalanced character-creation rules. For example, in the system Delta Green, increasing Firearms costs the same as increasing Archaeology, even though Firearms is way more useful. It would be difficult for you to completely redesign the character-creation system, but if you’re making characters yourself, you can give the archaeologist a few extra points to make up for their skills having less utility.

Establishing the PCs’ relationships ahead of time gets you past the major hurdle of new-party awkwardness. You know what I mean. The first few sessions of most campaigns are spent with the PCs being unsure how to relate to each other. Sometimes the awkwardness fades. Sometimes two or more PCs will develop such friction that it’s difficult for the adventure to continue.

But if you’ve already set the parameters for your party’s relationships, you can skip that awkwardness altogether. You can also make sure that the PCs’ relationships have just the right combination of affection and tension for an interesting story, rather than leaving that to chance.

Why It Requires Experience

Characters are the foundation of your campaign, so you’ll need a lot of experience to make them correctly. If you aren’t very well versed in your system, you won’t be able to judge if a PC is balanced or if they have skills that will actually be useful in your campaign.

Beyond mechanics, you need to really understand relationships between PCs if you’re going to craft them for other people. It might be tempting to create a relationship where one PC is the older sibling, with a history of one-upmanship, but that will destabilize fast as one player starts to resent the other. You must also know what relationships will fit each player. You don’t want to give a romantic pairing to two players who broke up last year.

Finally, your players must trust you to deliver a fun experience, and they can only build that trust over a long history of successful games. Be honest: if some GM you’d just met said they wanted to run a campaign but you had to use the characters they built, would you be excited? Probably not.

2. Don’t Plan an Ending

Art from Dogs in the Vineyard, showing a man digging a hole and a bloody hand on a book. What’s being buried? Why is there blood on that book? Let’s find out!

The best practice when it comes to planning sessions and campaigns is usually to have a general ending in mind and then make changes to account for the PCs’ actions. You wouldn’t plan specifically who is going to take the throne in Plotopia, but it’s perfectly reasonable to plan that the end will focus on someone becoming the next monarch.

But there’s another option, which is not to plan an ending at all. This method is best demonstrated by Dogs in the Vineyard. You create a location, be it a small town or a vast space empire, then fill it with people who have problems. These problems must be urgent, and they must make themselves known to the players.

Beyond that, you have no idea how the story will resolve. It’s all up to how your players react to the various problems that come their way.

The Benefits

For many players, roleplaying games are about expressing agency, and there’s no expression quite like deciding the ending completely on their own. If your players are into the world and prepared to shoulder a good portion of dramatic responsibility, they can achieve tremendous depths of collective storytelling. A successful, unplanned ending is something your group will talk about for years.

There’s also your own enjoyment to consider. While it’s very satisfying for a well-planned story to bear fruit, there’s extra spice when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You’re along for the ride just like the players, and you get to enjoy each twist and turn the same way. It can be a welcome change from working long hours on a story for someone else.

Why It Requires Experience

This technique offers more control to the players, and as such it requires players who are willing to take that control and use it responsibly. You’ve abdicated your duty to steer the narrative, and so you must choose your players wisely. Less-active players may not enjoy the extra work, and more self-centered players may not consider the needs of others when diving toward their preferred ending.

Assuming you gather a group that can handle this technique, your improv game will need to be in top shape. All GMing has some level of improvising, but without a planned ending, you won’t have anything concrete to work towards. As the story reaches an end point, you may need to do some serious tap dancing to make sure the whole group is satisfied, rather than just the player in the driver’s seat.

3. Pit the PCs Against Each Other

It’s got magic runes on the blade so you know it’s worth fighting over.

The standard format of a roleplaying game is to have the entire party opposed by one or more NPC villains. The party of adventurers all share enmity with the same lich, and they must work together to defeat it. This formula is tried and true, but it’s also possible to create a scenario where the PCs are their own antagonists.

The Burning Wheel adventure The Sword is a classic example. In this scenario, four adventurers find a magic sword, and each of them is determined to leave with it. They don’t start off wanting each other dead, but their goals are mutually exclusive.

If you want your PCs to oppose one another, you need only follow The Sword’s example. Create something more than one PC wants and let them at it. The McGuffin in question can be a piece of magical loot, or it might be the presidency of the Ashai Republic.

The Benefits

A downside of traditional roleplaying stories is that they must split the spotlight between a villain and three to six heroes, where a prose story would only need a single hero. It can be difficult to develop your villain while still leaving room for each PC to grow. But if the PCs provide their own opposition, then you don’t need to bother with screen time for an NPC.

On a more basic level, many of our favorite stories involve conflict between protagonists, where no one is a clear villain. A Song of Ice and Fire just wouldn’t be the same without the duel between Jamie and Brienne, and Battlestar Galactica’s first season is built on the political conflict between Adama and Roslin.

Emulating these conflicts between main characters can bring new depths to a roleplaying narrative. When there’s a dramatic confrontation, instead of half the emotional roleplaying coming from you, it’s all straight from the players. Inter-player conflict can also facilitate a more realistic world, where the PCs don’t all have to be part of a tight-knit adventuring group.

Why It Requires Experience

This technique requires PVP, which can easily escalate and lead to bad feelings. The Sword is a fun scenario if the conflict is limited to impassioned words and clever thievery. It’s less fun if the armored dwarf stabs everyone else to death in the first five minutes.

The opposite problem can also pop up, with players deciding the conflict isn’t worth fighting over and that they’ll just compromise. That’s a great way to approach a friendship, but it sucks all the drama out of a roleplaying session. You must be able to craft a conflict that is both compelling enough to make your PCs engage each other, but not so compelling that they think murder is the best solution. Even with such a conflict, you’ll still need to step in occasionally to make sure no one takes it too far.

You’ll also need to create a framework by which the PCs can fairly compete. Most systems are woefully unprepared for this, with the advantage in PVP going to whoever can convince the GM that the fight should take place on their terms. If you don’t want the losing player to feel cheated, you’ll need to whip up some limitations on when each PC can roll dice against the other and in what circumstances.

4. Center Your Plot on Romance

Title art from Monsterhearts. That looks… uncomfortable.

It’s fairly common to throw in a romantic subplot or two during the course of a campaign. Some systems even have mechanics for giving PCs a true or lost love. But that’s a far cry from centering your campaign on romance.

In a true romance campaign, the main action of the story will hinge on how characters express their romantic attractions. Some of those romances will feature PCs and NPCs; others will be player exclusive. This is the premise of systems like Monsterhearts, which draws heavily from urban fantasy TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Teen Wolf.

Regardless of whether you use a romance system or not, this technique means elevating romantic drama until it’s at least as important as action or political intrigue.

The Benefits

You may have noticed that romance is a rather important topic to many humans, which is why there are so many novels, short stories, films, plays, comic books, paintings, and puppet shows about it. Running a romantic campaign will allow you to tap into that same well of emotion and use it to fuel roleplaying at the table.

Romance is a great way to create powerful investment on the players’ part. If they are into a romantic plot, they will wait with bated breath as you reveal the latest plot twist involving their beloved. Impersonal tales of royal politics can be brought into sharp relief by the inclusion of a love interest, and divided loyalties cut deeper when the divide is between romantic partners.

A romantic roleplaying session can also serve as a safe space to explore queer relationships that are sadly underrepresented in other media. Not only is this a fun evening, it might even help someone who can’t always be themselves without risk of being judged.

Why It Requires Experience

In addition to being extremely popular, romance is extremely personal, and it’s easy to make someone uncomfortable even with the best of intentions. Ideally, a player will let you know if they don’t like something, but people aren’t always good at advocating for themselves. You’ll need to be extra tuned in to what your players are feeling, and you need to be ready to put on the breaks if a line is crossed.

Romances are also fraught with damaging tropes, many of which are so ingrained that they’re hard to recognize. It might seem really cool and dramatic to have a story where a gay love interest dies tragically, but it plays into the harmful trope “Bury Your Gays,” where gay characters suffer a much higher fatality rate than straight ones. And we’d need an entire post to talk about all the ways misogyny can creep into romance.

Romance is also just a tricky genre of storytelling, no matter what medium you use. In order to carry a story, romance must usually be combined with a second source of conflict, otherwise you get something like Fifty Shades of Gray. Keeping the romance balanced with the other conflict is a delicate business, and it’s easy for the romance to feel unimportant or melodramatic.

5. Make Your Magic System Free-Form

Title art from Ars Magica

Most roleplaying games have restrictive magic systems. Magic is either confined to tightly defined spells like D&D, or it is split into narrow domains like the four elements of Legend of the Five Rings.* But if you’re really looking to shake things up, you can run a game where the magic is completely free-form.

This is the premise of games like Mage.* In this system, magic is divided into different spheres, each of which has very broad applications. The Mind sphere, for example, covers just about anything a PC might want to do to influence an intelligent brain, be it their own or someone else’s.

If Mage isn’t your cup of tea, there are systems like Ars Magica, and free-form magic variants for systems like Burning Wheel. Or you could run a super rules-light system like Primetime Adventures and just create a free-form magic system out of whole cloth.

The Benefits

If your players are used to restrictive systems like D&D, a free-form magic system is like a breath of fresh air. Finally, those arbitrary limits are removed. No longer are they limited to creating fire only in a 20 foot sphere: now they can shape it into a line or into a flaming sword. The entire magic system is suddenly a sandbox from which anything can be built.

And build your players will. Free-form systems allow them to be as creative as they please. They might combine Space magic with Life magic to create a new species of hippopotamus that teleports anything entering its mouth. Or they might use Matter magic and Time magic to make an hour glass that slowly drains the life from whoever held it last. Free-form magic systems can handle both serious and comedic experimentation.

Free-form magic also makes it easier for players to imitate their favorite characters from literature and film. Harry Dresden certainly uses a free-form system, coming up with improvisations on the spot. Willow makes a show of learning spells, but it’s pretty clear she can put together new effects whenever she likes.

Why It Requires Experience

Free-form magic is extremely difficult to build a story around. Harry Dresden doesn’t have a mind of his own; he can be counted on not to come up with a spell to save the day until it’s dramatically appropriate, but your players are under no such limitation.

If your story involves a murder mystery, the players might just use their Time magic to look back and see who did it. If you put in ominous foreshadowing about a new enemy, players might combine Space and Forces magic to zap the upcoming bad guy with a lighting bolt from half a continent away. Unless you’re very well versed in the system and an expert at thinking on your feet, you may find that the only way to preserve the story is to invent some reason the PCs’ magic just doesn’t work, which is never satisfying.

Beyond the flexibility, free-form magic also tends to be overpowered. It’s super easy to combine one magical effect with another in a chain reaction that destroys the Death Star, or at least grants a bunch of bonus dice.


None of these techniques are easy, and they should not be attempted lightly. If one of them sounds interesting but you aren’t sure, try it for a oneshot first or maybe a two-three session mini-campaign. That way you can find out if you’re ready to activate hard mode before committing to several months of work.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Roleplaying Nerd

    Unless you’re talking about a free-form magic home brew for third edition Dungeons and Dragons, it’s thinking on your feet you should be worried about, not thinking on your feat.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Whoops. Sometimes you forget to take the Advanced Spelling feat.

  2. Adam J. Thaxton

    Speaking of freeform magic. In my home setting, magic is performed like a debate or diplomatic situation; you have to present your case to the object or item you’re trying to effect convincingly (which makes mind control and shapeshifting difficult and require cheating, you’d have to convince the very core of another being it should listen to you, and there’s layers of consciousness to get around). Good mages use the weight of their reputations and family lines as leverage – like the Pacific Islands concept of mana. I haven’t yet found a good system to model it, but I use Mutants & Masterminds a lot.

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