Becoming an Epic GM
Last year my husband finally decided that he was no longer able to continue running our D&D game due to time constraints. This put a number of us in a bind since we all loved to play, but were now short a GM. In the same fell swoop, it was decided that I should stay at home. Almost as a joke, I suggested that maybe I should become our new GM since I now had quite a little bit of time on my hands. I had never run a game before, in fact, I still felt like I had a lot of growing to do as a player. But the game had to go on. Thus, a brand new Game Mistress was born.
I quickly learned from my players that I had surpassed “normal GM” and reached “Epic GM” status. Epic GM? This is something I had never heard of before. And how did I manage that in one game? To me, it felt like I had blundered blindly through a couple of encounters, hastily made up NPCs, and looked through the rulebooks far more than any normal GM would do. “No no, it’s not that,” they told me, “it’s your approach!”
So what was it that I had done that seemed to be normal preparation to me, but is apparently lacking in other games?
Miniatures. Playing a game with miniatures allows players to have an idea as to what is going on around them, where and how a battle is happening, and how it all relates to themselves. This doesn’t have to be done with pewter miniatures ~ it can be done with coins, glass pebbles, Splenda packets, whatever you have handy.
Creating a playing board for the miniatures can be cheap and easy, easy and expensive, or somewhere in between. We started with a foam core board (easily found at craft stores, or even big-named store chains) and measured out 1-inch squares with a sharpie. Instant playing board! Just recently we upgraded to a mat that has both squares and hexagons, is three times as big, and can be written on in wet-erase markers.
Maps. This is a big one. Small maps given to players spark curiosity. Large maps made to play on make it easier to imagine the scene; gives the players concrete restrictions (What do you mean I can't go around it… oh wait, there’s a wall here! ); allows them to make decisions based on their surroundings. The first map I made for my campaign was a floor plan of the tavern they were staying in. They have gotten so familiar with it that I get in trouble if it’s placed the wrong way on the table.
You don’t have to be an artist to have maps in your games. There are lots of resources available online to assist or even provide suitable maps. Wizards of the Coast put out a Map-A-Week series of articles. There are a ton of free maps that can be used with a variety of RPG games. A bit of fiddling with printer settings will allow you to print them off at a usable size to play on, or you can use them to base a general structure on your playing field. We used to use everything from dice boxes, erasers, and Lego’s to form playable maps.
Another one of my favorites is Ye Olde Map Maker. This is an easy, two page online map making system, where you drag and place objects and walls to make a floor plan. No fuss, no signing up for anything, just instant map.
There are tons of map making tools available online, it all depends on what you would like to use, and how much you want to spend on it!
And finally, A working town. I had decided that my game was going to be a rich world full of options that my players could choose to follow, or not to follow, depending on their hearts desire. I wanted something open ended, something that seemed real, real enough that events were happening in other places despite what my players were doing. In order to achieve this, I needed to start with the town that the party began in.
The first thing I did was get an empty composition notebook and started with the tavern. It describes the people who run the place, complete with clothing and personality descriptions. It contains the prices of rooms, meals, and how often the minstrel comes around. I’ve made a note that the stairs are a bit rickety (and remind my players on a regular basis when they go up them). I keep track of things that happen there so that it remains a consistent force in the game ~ not something that I have to make up every time we play.
In this book I have each of the shops available in my town, each with a unique name, unique NPCs that run them (names, personalities and all!), and a short list of what is contained in the store with prices. Having that list makes it easier to keep track of how much things cost, plus my players have a habit of getting store credit, so it gives me a place to keep a running total of their balance.
I have created a map for the town (just a regular sheet, creating this at scale would be huge!), and have slowly been marking each one of the buildings for what they are. The map gets set on the table, and now I’ve been getting remarks like “I need to get to the stables. Ah man, that’s like a twenty minute walk from where I’m at,” and “Hey, I’m real close to Thaddeus’ place. I wonder if he has my potion in yet.” This also allows players to grow fond of the town, and gives you a great hook to bring them into an adventure. What hero doesn’t want to protect the town that they know and love from zombies/tyrant/freak planar destruction?
These three things made all the difference in the world when I started my very first campaign. I’ve only been running my own game for about six months now, and I’m still traveling on that somewhat hard but rewarding road of Epic GM.
Thanks to Celeste for this contribution!