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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #358

Know Your Players Part 2 - Building Your Session Checklist


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Know Your Players Part 2 - Building Your Session Checklist

  1. Build Your List Of Player Preferences
  2. Create Your Session Checklist
  3. Check Off Pre-Session Successes
  4. Check Off In-Game Successes As You Play
  5. Perform Post-Game Post Mortem
  6. Set-Up For Next Session
  7. Related Links

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Using Projectors In Game
  2. Digital Projector Comments
  3. Co-GMing, Organization, Digital Projector Use

Print & Laminate Your RPG Maps Without Costing A Claw and a Tentacle

Laminate your campaign. Protect your maps from age and cola. Full color map printing up to 3'x4'. Also check out Endless Terrain Battlemaps - laminated 11"x17" map tiles to finally make outdoor encounters quick and easy.

For details, pics, pricing, and free quotes: Gamer Printshop

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Lunch Game A Huge Success

It's been a few weeks running a D&D game at lunch, and the experiment has been a great success. Though sessions are just 45 minutes long, we do get through one or two encounters each time. We play twice a week, and we're very focused, so progress is on par with my bi-weekly 4 hour Temple of Elemental Evil campaign sessions.

One player mentioned it was like speed chess - we play fast and furious, and everyone is becoming quick with the rules and their characters.

As GM, I've adapted by cutting back on description and GMing with a fast and loose style. For example, if a rule comes into question, we make a fast judgement call (I try to make it in favour of the PCs, if possible) and get a final ruling between sessions.

Also, things like searching and obvious character actions are performed, resolved, and described automatically. This does remove some interaction from the game, but it's the repetitive stuff anyway, and the speed factor maintains drama and excitement and the need for players to be quick on their toes.

Immersion and storytelling take a hit due to the short nature of sessions, fast gameplay style, and work environment, but that is countered by good action and good roleplaying by the players.

Hopefully we can keep the game going because, as always, the bottom line is we're having fun.

Gamer Printshop An Awesome Service

As you see in the ad above, Gamer Printshop is all about laminating, printing, and RPG tools. For folks like me who have a gamer supply fetish, this is a long-overdue solution.

Ages ago in school I paid a bundle and got a batch of maps laminated, and I learned this is _the_ way to protect your maps and keep them healthy long-term even after heavy in- game use.

Recently, I sent a batch of maps to Gamer Printshop from various products I've purchased, including World's Largest Dungeon, Ptolus, and Wilderlands.

I was worried about sending my maps through the mail, but it turns out registering and insuring the package was cheap, and the maps got to Michael over at Gamer Printshop intact anyway.

Short story long, they had my maps laminated and out the door the next day. They were packaged well in a tube (for the large maps) and a flat box (for the smaller maps). I was impressed with their service and prices, and I have no reservations about advertising them in the e-zine.

Next up, I'll be buying their laminated Heavy Woods Endless Terrain Battlemaps because drawing outdoor maps for encounters has always been a pain for me. I'll let you know how it goes when I buy them and try them in a game session.

Gamer Printshop

Get some gaming done this week.


Johnn Four,

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Kobold Quarterly: Small but Fierce

Mega-sized magazines are all very nice, but sometimes you just want the meat in a quick, fast read. Kobold Quarterly is a new RPG 'zine featuring the Ecology of the Derro, in- depth Greyhawk discussion with Erik Mona, the Princes of Hell series, design tips for treasures, clockwork mysteries of Zobeck, and much more. 32 action-packed KQ pages sneak into your mailbox four times a year for just $12, a special introductory rate for charter subscribers.

Adopt a kobold -- subscribe today at:

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Know Your Players Part 2 - Building Your Session Checklist  

In part one, we discussed how important it is to plan with your players in mind, and to build a checklist of in-game preferences and out-of-game habits per player so you have a handy reference.

Read part one: Roleplaying Tips Issue #352

This issue provides checklist building tips and processes. The main point is to learn what your players like so you can include more of it in your game. The checklist and other tips are just tools to this end. Use whatever system works for you, but be sure to think about your players as you design and GM.

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1. Build Your List Of Player Preferences 

Each player has a set of gaming preferences. If you can cater to these, and serve them up with originality, style, and enthusiasm, you will have an eager table of gamers.

The first step is to determine what preferences each player has. Trying to remember what a player likes at any given moment is tricky , especially while GMing. Solve this by crafting a list you can reference anytime.

Following is a short recipe for creating a preferences list for each player. The goal is to come up with 7-10 ideas, options, and ways to make your games appeal even more to each player.

For example, Jeremy wants lots of combat and action that feels real, at least one roleplaying encounter per session, not too many rules, weird monsters or unusual foes, mostly fantasy but will try any genre, and potato chips. :)

Brainstorm Ideas

To start, get a scrap piece of paper or computer file for each player and write out all the preferences you can think of. Don't edit at this point, just get the ideas down.

  • What do they like?
  • What don't they like?
  • Why do you think they like gaming, in general?
  • Why do you think they game with your group?
  • What do they like about your GMing?
  • What do they dislike about the game, group, or GMing?

Don't panic if you draw blanks. If you are struggling to figure out a player's preferences, that actually represents a great opportunity. If the player has been showing up to your games thus far without you knowing why, then surely getting some reasons and serving them will entertain that player even more in future sessions!

Feel free to use player surveys or casual conversation to get missing answers. You can also use observation during games over time to flesh out player profiles.

Sort The Ideas

On final sheets or files, sort out the ideas into three groups:

  • Must Have
  • Would Like To Have
  • Uncertain

Must Have should contain all the preferences - requirements - needed to keep the player showing up to each game session. Some players are flexible and laid back, and won't have many items on this list - possibly none. Other players will definitely have a few deal breakers that you need to serve, such as game timing and location, game system, adventure elements, and encounter types.

The Must Have category becomes your mandatory checklist for each session. Hopefully it's short.

Would Like To Have is where most of the preferences will fall. This becomes an inspiring, planning, and GMing list of ideas you can use to spice up game sessions for maximum entertainment value.

The Uncertain group represents preferences you're guessing at, or don't think apply once you've had a chance to edit and think after your brainstorming. Put ideas here instead of throwing them away because often your gut was correct. Also, this section becomes a list of things you need to chat with your player about to verify, or a list of theoretical items to observe in future.

Trim The Ideas

If you end up with huge lists for each player, congratulations, you know your players well. However, the goal is to produce final lists of just 7-10 items for each gamer in your group. Long lists are unwieldy, will stress you out, and put a wrench in the process. You don't want to feel straight-jacketed yourself, either, by having to marry a whole bunch of competing preferences each session.

Also, you won't be including all 10 items for every player each session. For a group of 4, that would be 40 preferences to serve! As you'll see, you will pick a couple items from the list for each player each session, and use the remaining items as ideas for opportunistic GMing for bonus fulfilment.

Here are some suggestions for trimming your lists:

  • As you sort the ideas into the three groups, be efficient. Combine similar items, toss out redundant items, re-write for brevity.
  • Be as general as possible without losing any important specifics. If you drill down into too much detail, your lists will become too long and difficult to use. For example, last session you noticed Jeremy quite enjoyed the bandit attack encounter. You could write that Bob likes bandit encounters, but more generally - and just as useful - you note that Bob likes combat and action.
  • Separate out character-based preferences. If anything on your lists pertain to a player's PC, remove that and add it to your character preferences checklist.

For example, a player might want a +5 sword, but he actually wants that for his fighter character. If the player plays a wizard next time, will he still want a +5 sword? Thinking about a player playing different characters is a good way to cull out player vs. character prefs.

We'll cover character preferences in a future article. Right now, you want to focus on what the player likes. If you can't separate player from character, then fine, add the idea to the player's preferences list, but look for ways to pare this down in the future.

Create Core Group Preference List

Another great way to trim lists is to take out preferences your players have in common and put them in a shared preferences list, which I call your Core Group Preferences.

Assuming this list is short, try to serve up these preferences every session. Don't worry if you can't, or if you realize after a session you missed an item or three. These lists are meant to reduce stress - they're tools and guidelines, not commandments. They're to provide a roadmap to help you design and GM with your players in mind.

If after you've categorized, culled, grouped, generalized, and edited your lists and they are still long, then prioritize them so that the top 10 ideas are grouped at the top for each player. Your biggest lists will be in the Like To Have sections, and having the most important items near the top keeps you focused and organized and not lost in a sea of possibilities.

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2. Create Your Session Checklist 

Armed with lists of ideas for player preferences, create a session checklist to help you plan so each session is as appealing and entertaining as possible.

Best case scenario is you make a copy of your original player preferences lists and put them in a spreadsheet. You make columns for six sessions or so, and then check off things as they get served up in each session. Over the course of half a dozen sessions, you can see if there are any gaps to fill, such as an important preference not being served recently, or one player has few checkmarks while another player has many.

There is a difference between planning and GMing. What you plan to happen is not guaranteed once play starts. So, it's best to track what is actually served up during sessions, not just what you plan to serve.

Another tip is to check things off as you GM if you are able to keep your checklists handy. Sometimes it's not possible because you don't have a computer at the table, or you have enough notes and books to keep organized. In this case, update your records as soon as possible after the game.

The advantage of keeping player preferences lists around while GMing is you can scan the lists for ideas as you GM. In addition, if you are faced with a choice (and isn't good GMing about making good choices?) why not pick a choice that caters to what one or more players like?

For example, you need to stall for some time, so you drop in an encounter. You could make the encounter combat or roleplaying. You see lots of combat checkmarks on your lists, so you opt for a roleplaying encounter - one that has slight ties to a character's background as well, because one player likes character backgrounds that come into play. Check, check.

Another trick is to put all your player preferences on one sheet, then align similar preferences on the same rows to help you hit multiple preferences at the same time easier. If two players like subtle plans, for example, match this up on your spreadsheet.

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3. Check Off Pre-Session Successes 

Though you never know in advance what's guaranteed to happen during a game session, it's good to make plans and best- guesses. While doing this, you can run through your player preferences checklists and check off any items that have been dealt with by your advanced planning.

The goal is to put as little pressure on yourself to come up with ways to appease player preferences while GMing. Your plans and designs will hopefully take care of making sessions appeal in specific ways to your players before the game starts so you can focus more on other things at the game table. If plans go awry in a big way, then use the checklists to guide your ad-libbing, ideas, and choices. Otherwise, pre-session is the best time to tinker and change things so they are more player-oriented.

In addition, hopefully several preferences have been permanently checked off due to choice in game system, world, and campaign. Further, adventures should take care of a few needs for a few sessions at a time.

Best case is you appeal to many specific player needs before you do any session or encounter planning. The other game parts take care of a lot of the stylistic and general gameplay preferences.

Figure out what you have left to plan for, or need to come up with during games, by checking off pre-session successes.

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4. Check Off In-Game Successes As You Play 

Armed with a fresh checklist of player preferences, check off fulfilled items as you GM. Keep the lists handy not only for checking things off, but for idea generation as well.

Some options are having two columns - one to check off planned successes and one to check off when those successes and others happen in-game. Alternatively, you can draw a line for each intention, and then draw a line through it when achieved while GMing.

You might also want to record the number of times a success is achieved for each player, as some requests can be filled multiple times.

Mid-way through the session, take a break and look over the checklist. Make what adjustments you can in the second half of the session.

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5. Perform Post-Game Post Mortem 

After the game, hopefully you have a record of what succeeded and what preferences were not met. You should also have a tally of what players had the most preferences fulfilled.

Take a few minutes to review the game session from a player preferences checklist point of view, and consider adding to, or making, a GMing log:

  • Session #, Date
  • What went right, and why
  • What went wrong or needs improvement, and why
  • For each player, did they have fun? Why? Do these match up with your preferences report? In other words, do you have the right preferences listed? You might need to do ask players between sessions about specifics to clear things up.

I want to reinforce that your list of player preferences, which becomes a sort of session request list, should be fairly short (especially after the rules, world, campaign, and adventure delivers fulfills several items). If it's not short, then your goal should be to cater to just a few of the preferences each session. If you fulfill more, great. Efficient time use and good, interactive GMing means you can't try to map out dozens of competing preferences, though.

The purpose of performing a quick check after each game is to assess feedback; to compare to your ideas, assumptions, and plans; to improve your planning and GMing; and to learn more about your players over time.

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6. Set-Up For Next Session 

After one session ends, so the planning for the next session begins. Hopefully, you can use your player preferences checklist as inspiration for planning. Try to spawn encounters from player prefs, and to improve encounter designs with ideas inspired from your checklist.

Review your post-mortem notes so you don't make the same mistakes twice.

Create a copy of your source checklist, or make a new column for the upcoming session, and start checking off fulfilled player preferences as you plan things out. These are not guaranteed to play out, but it's good to plan with player preferences in mind.

Feel free to keep appealing to preferences that make players happy, and keep an eye on any preferences that haven't been met recently. Also, try to expose players to new things in- game so you can gauge their reactions and possibly discover new preferences.

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7. Related Links 

Player Survey Tips Roleplaying Tips Issue #342

Getting Player Feedback Roleplaying Tips Issue #305

How To Awesome-Up Your Players Roleplaying Tips Issue #338

* * *

Stay tuned for a future Roleplaying Tips issue that discusses player preferences examples and tips for GMing them.

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Dragon: Monster Ecologies

This special issue of Dragon magazine contains 128 pages of the best ecology articles from the past three years. Drawing from the "Monster Ecologies" series, this giant collection features new rules, art, details, and encounters for some of the most fearsome and fantastic monsters in the history of Dungeons & Dragons.

As if a dozen and a half ecologies weren't enough, Gary Gygax, China MiĊ½ville, and Rob Kuntz recollect their favorite D&D monsters; we take retrospective looks at the beholder, githyanki, mindflayer, and displacer beast; and then we wrap it all up with a feature known as the "Monsters of Suck." And did we mention an index of every ecology ever printed?

Dragon: Monster Ecologies at RPG Shop

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

1. Using Projector In Game 

From: Brian Gragg

Hi Johnn,

I use a projector in-game. You can check out some pics I put together a while back at: Graggster Game Area

I love it. I've just started using RPMapTool and it's really nice. I have two versions running, one for me (GM) on my screen, and one for the players that is full screen on the projector.

Game Prep

I have a directory structure full of maps that looks like:


  • Buildings:
  • City:
  • Dungeon:
  • Wilderness:
  • Planar:
  • Ships:
  • etc.

So, if the PCs walk into a tavern, I just pull up a map from the Buildings directory that seems to fit and off we go. I've been saving maps for a while into this structure, so there's a lot to choose from.

With MapTool, you can just zoom in/out until you get to the right scale. I used to use my own scripts along with FractalMapper, and it was okay. But you do need a way to get the maps to 1" scale quickly.

Game prep only takes more time if I need to get a specific map made, or remove the secret doors/hidden areas from a map to make a player version.

We use the miniatures directly on the whiteboard the projector displays on. The board is also wet/dry erasable marker safe.


I think the projector speeds up gameplay since I don't have to stop and draw what is seen. With my computer off to the side, it really doesn't "put my head behind a computer." I only use the computer when I am switching maps or moving the map.

I also use it for handouts, which has worked great. It used to be I handed out a message, map, or some such and the players fought over who got to read it first. With the projector, everyone can see it (although someone invariably reads it upside-down).

I also put up pictures for players to see (i.e., creatures the players aren't familiar with before a combat), then switch back to the map.

I keep a directory for each game group and put links to the images there beforehand. That way, I have all the creatures, handouts, and maps I expect I'll need handy.

I have Irfanview (an image viewer) also running full screen on the projector. To show an image, I minimize the map, then drag and drop onto the Irfanview window. Couldn't be easier.

I can also drag images from a web browser straight to Irfanview. Note that both Irfanview and maptool are free programs.

I consider gameplay speed important and am happy with the results I've been getting.


  • Quick in-game maps.
  • Nice-looking maps aren't just for the GM to see anymore.
  • Show handouts and pictures to the players quickly.
  • Quick distance measurements (I've used MapTool for only 2 games so far, but the players are asking for me to use it to quickly show movement distance for their characters. You just drag the mouse and it shows, in 5' squares, how far a distance is.)
  • Easily move between areas on a map for combat that is spread out - no need to erase/redraw. In our last session, the group had to retreat, and it was a simple drag of the mouse and they were a couple hundred feet back down the map. It would have required erase/redraw otherwise.
  • Easily zoom back so the group can see the whole map.
  • Doubles as a movie projector. (Checkout my setup with the swiveling projector and the ceiling mounted mirror.)
  • Less game table clutter. (I play in another group that doesn't use the projector often and they use battle maps/flip mats. Every time we need to change the battlemap, everyone needs to get their dice, minis, books off and clear the area for the next map. With a projector, the stuff ON the table doesn't change. Books, drinks, snacks, minis, dice are all fine. Only the image changes.)
  • Faster gameplay (due to reasons above).


  • Cost.
  • Doesn't work well with weird maps (teleports and layered dungeons). Hand-drawn mapping doesn't work well here either. To overcome this, I just use the projector along with a map program and draw the map as they go through it showing what they see at the time. This allows me to scroll back to areas they had been in without the need to erase.)
  • Potentially added prep time to make maps. Quick and dirty maps take little prep time.
  • Requires a computer at the game table (and the projector, and a way to mount it so it projects onto the table).

I'm sure there are lots of more pros/cons to consider, but those are the ones coming to mind at the moment.

Bottom Line

I love mine! I got it for projecting maps for gaming, but the whole family has found they like it for watching movies as well. It was a fairly cheap, on sale model, around $600 at the time. I found I didn't need any high-end features. I got a large screen for less than $40 and mounted it to the wall for movies. It's great.

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2. Digital Projector Comments 

From: Keith Hays


We've been using one for about a year now. It adds a whole new dimension to the game. We're playing the Age of Worms campaign, and I've been able to copy all the maps out of their web supplements, paste them into Paint or whatever, and build room-by-room maps quickly and easily.

It wouldn't work for complex dungeons, but most of what we've had have been linear in nature or contain a small number of rooms, so it's worked out well. The one thing I've missed is being able to gradually expose areas of the map. I've tried a half-dozen different methods, and none of them work worth a damn.

It doesn't keep my head behind a screen - once it's out there, nothing else needs to be done until they exit the room - and is certainly better than drawing the rooms out by hand.

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3. Co-GMing, Organization, Digital Projector Use 

From: SvenHoek

Hi there Johnn,

We have an experienced group where everyone has been role- playing about 15 years (all of us being 30+). We run different campaigns in different games, and right now we're doing a 2 GM game where I, along with a friend, run the show.

Since there are two GMs we realized that we had to change our ways a bit. Using paper and pen wasn't possible (at least if we wanted to maintain some sort of order), hence we decided to use our notebooks along with some nifty software.

Our fellow gamers were a bit skeptical when we introduced the idea, and I shared their concern. After all, we risked killing some of the spirit by sitting behind our notebooks. Long story short, we did it anyway, and put a lot of effort in improving gameplay to prove them (and us) wrong.

We use software to synchronize story and timeline, organizing all stats of NPCs, drawing maps and play lists for music (categorized to fit the story). We even made custom sounds for bars, jungle, sea, streets etc, looping them as a background "noise" behind the actual gaming music.

We use software called MyInfo for the campaign and all information related to it. We store stats about NPCs, rules, and all information regarding world, towns, religion, tribes, races, etc. We also have PDF files with the character sheets and certain triggers they might have (for instance if player X has extraordinary looks, or player Y has a fear of heights).

Maps have been made in Fractal mapper until recently, but now we use Campaign Cartographer 3.

As for music, I have built an MP3 archive with suitable music and just play them in some random player (iTunes) and then use another player for the custom-made background sounds.

And, of course, we use a projector to display maps. The advantage of this is beyond excellent. There are probably easier ways, but we use Photoshop to add a black layer over the actual map. When the PCs explore the area, we just erase the black areas the PCs can see. On our screens we see the actual map. The major pro here is the old "cover the map with stuff so that the PC can't see what they shouldn't see" problem has gone to meet its maker.

We have used this technique for a few years now. The pros are numerous, especially when having two GMs. Our heads are not behind the screen very much (though obviously it happens). Since there's two of us we always make sure one GM is involved with the group while the other works the computer (when needed).

Map making does take extra time though, compared to writing by hand. On the other hand, that's because we want the maps to look cool. You can always do the map by hand and scan the image, and still benefit.

All in all, this digital step improved gaming for the entire group a lot. We perform better as GMs, and our players enjoy the game much more. I strongly recommend it.

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Drow of the Underdark

The essential guide to drow characters and drow society. At last, dark elves get their due! Drow of the Underdark is a 224-page Dungeons & Dragons supplement that provides the definitive treatise on the drow, arguably the D&D game's most evocative evil race. Everything you want to know about drow and their subterranean homeland - as well as some things you didn't know - can be found in this tome. This supplement is intended for players who want to play drow characters and Dungeon Masters who want to run D&D adventures and campaigns featuring drow.

Drow of the Underdark at RPG Shop