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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #375

Why Do You Like Being A GM?
Motivation and Inspiration for GMs


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Why Do You Like Being A GM?
Motivation and Inspiration for GMs

  1. Dealing With Criticism
  2. Ask For Compliments
  3. Don't Ask For Feedback
  4. Don't Let Fear Stop You
  5. Make A List - Why Do You Like Being A GM?
  6. Bad Sessions Are Probably Great Sessions
  7. Make a List - What To Do Better Next Session
  8. Try A Different RPG
  9. GM Burn-Out Links

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Thread Bobbins Boxes For Token Storage
  2. MS Access or OpenOffice Base For Campaign Management
  3. Encourage PC Survival With Reactive Worlds
  4. Fief Book For Medieval GMs

Lose The Eraser With Turn Watcher

Turn Watcher(tm) is an easy to use Initiative and Effect Tracker for table-top RPG dungeon masters. It tracks spells and other effects, alerting you when those effects expire, automates temporary hit points and hit point boosts, tracks PCs, NPCs and monsters easily during combat rounds, and handles delayed and readied actions in a snap. Use it to perform secret Spot and Listen checks and even Will saves on your players without them being the wiser. Download your copy today!

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

New Articles Posted At The Site

  • "Putting The Fear Back Into Disease" by Mike Bourke A detailed article about all aspects of disease. A great resource for world builders questing for realism.
  • "Tips from the Trenches" by Rana Loreus A spectrum of GMing advice aimed to help new game masters.
  • "Colourful Combat Descriptions" by Rana Loreus Several tips on making combat thrilling and fun through good description.
  • "On Feats" by Mike Bourke An interesting article on how to group and analyze feats in your D&D campaigns. This will be of particular interest to GMs who allow a lot of feats or who want to build worlds and need a good system to organize regional and cultural feats.

Thanks very much to Mike and Rana for the fine article submissions and sharing their ideas and expertise.

Interview Shenanigans

Yax over at posted a short interview with me this week. It's pure fun and fluff.

Contest Closes This Week - September 26

There are only a few days left in the 5 Room Dungeon contest, which closes September 26. The details:

The Contest

Use tips from Issue #372 as a short format template for making quick 5 Room Dungeons. Send your designs to for a chance to win great loot.

Additional entry guidelines.

Example entries:


In conjunction with the fine folks at Strolen's Citadel, the 5 Room Dungeon contest gives you a chance to have fun wielding your creativity, help other GMs with your designs, and win any of the following:

3 x D&D modules
From: Goodman Games:

  • DCC #46 Book of Treasure Maps
  • DCC #47 Tears of the Genie
  • DCC #50 Vault of the Iron Overlord by Monte Cook

5 x Adventure PDFs
From: Expeditious Retreat Press:

  • 1 on 1 Adventures #5 Vale of the Sepulcher
  • #6 Shroud of Olindor
  • #7 Eyes of the Dragon
  • #8 Blood Brothers
  • Advanced Adventures #3 The Curse of the Witch Head

1 x D&D Icons Gargantuan Black Dragon
From: Legend Games

3 x MyInfo Personal Reference Software licenses
From: Milenix Software

Have a great week.


Johnn Four,

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Rule as the Sultan Rules!

ENnie-nominated adventure designer Wolfgang Baur is creating a limited-edition Al-Qadim-style adventure featuring gorgeous maps and original encounters. The adventures are easy to fit into any desert, urban, or waterborne campaign, and will feature at least six Arabian Nights adventures. Sign up today at the Free City, and shape the next Open Design!

Six Arabian Nights

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Why Do You Like Being A GM?
Motivation and Inspiration for GMs  

Here is an e-mail I received recently from a troubled GM:

"I've been playing D&D for about a year now, DMing that group for 3/4 part of that period. Because we live a fair amount apart from each other we cannot play every week, and therefore we lack a continuous rhythm. But that is not the main issue I'm mailing about. The thing is, I find it hard to motivate myself lately. I'm rather new to this, and one member of our group can be very precise about how things do not work correctly. Although both he and the others assure me I'm doing a good job, I find that I take that criticism very hardly.

As a result, I asked them for feedback using a questionnaire. Again, they gave me a lot of things to work on but also gave a lot of nice words to keep me going. Yet, I still find that I'm no longer as motivated as I used to be in the beginning. I've got plenty of ideas to work on, and am actually looking forward to see what they will do next time, but somehow I find that other things in my life seem more prioritised lately. It is as if I've had an 'overdosis' of D&D and just need to take a break. I did that, we haven't played for about a month now, but I still am not that convinced about wanting to keep doing this.

Concluding, I've got a question: How to motivate yourself, as a DM, when you just seem to be less energetic about working on the new adventures. There are plenty articles about motivating players, but I cannot find articles about motivating myself, as a DM. Hopefully you know some tips regarding this issue."

- P. from Holland

Across the intarwebs I've seen GMs declaring their retirement, quitting, and throwing their hands up and walking away from the table. Many of them comment they still want to keep being a GM, but something is askew and they're giving up, whether temporarily or in a "selling all my books on eBay" kind of way.

There will always be GMs in different stages of life tackling new challenges, gaining new priorities, and stumbling upon new interests. These folk will come and go from the hobby, and that's natural and healthy.

However, if you are a GM who's burnt out or stuck, but you still want to be a game master, then the following tips are for you.

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1. Dealing With Criticism 

Handling critique takes up many volumes of self-help and management books on Amazon. If not handled well, it's destructive and can kill enthusiasm faster than a total party kill at the hands of flumphs.

If you are struggling with criticism of your GMing, here are some basic tips:

  • Don't let it get to you. Haha, that's easy for me to say, right? However, being less sensitive to criticism is a process and you can take action to overcome this GMing block. It does take time, but keep at it.

    The first step is to become determined that criticism won't bother you. Write yourself a note to this effect and read it often. Your sensitivity is a state of mind, an attitude, and therefore in your control. Write this note now.
  • Seperate the message from the messenger. Often, sensitivity comes from the relationship you have with the player providing the critique. The best thing you can do is seperate what the person is saying from the person who's saying it. Evaluate the message on it own terms, gain some objectivity (which increases confidence) and use the information provided to better yourself, if it applies.
  • It's just information. It's feedback, but not necessarily truth. You are receiving information, which deserves to be processed, regardless of source, objectively. Note that the information could be wrong or incomplete. It could be an opinion that does not actually reflect the truth.

    If you can make your first reaction to be moving into objective and information processing and evaluation mode, your GMing will improve and sensitivity to criticism will go down.
  • Quit reading into things. Don't look for more into the message than what's there. Mind games with yourself causes worry and stress, and erodes confidence. Use direct communication (see below) to uncover and verify any assumptions, hunches, or guesses you've made. In addition, it's not fair to the folk providing you feedback - probably with the best of intentions - that you read into things and create baseless motives or hidden meanings into their well- meaning words.
  • Use direct communication. Be up front and honest with people providing feedback. Ask questions until you understand everything to your satisfaction. Don't let unspoken words become seeds for doubt and GMing worry. Just ask. Did you mean Y when you said X? Can you explain a bit more on that point? Why do you think this? I didn't understand point X, can you try explaining again?
  • Take it on the chin. Adopt the attitude that you will get criticism during life from many sources, often unrequested. Sometimes they will be right, sometimes partially right, and sometimes wrong. Actions do speak louder than words. Improved GMing is the best response to criticism.

    Your best bet, unless defending yourself or being defensive will accomplish something positive, is to take all feedback, assess it objectively, and match it up with your goal of becoming a better GM.

    Take it on the chin, thank them for their input (they cared enough to provide it, after all) and then be determined to take whatever positive actions you can to enjoy your hobby even more and help your players do the same.

    It's often easiest to say thanks, walk away, and return with thoughts, ideas, and actions to improve your game at the table.

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2. Ask For Compliments 

If criticism is getting you down, ask for compliments as well.

  • What did you like about last session?
  • What was your favourite part about the last adventure?
  • What do you think are my weaknesses and strengths as a GM?
  • What could I improve upon? What did I do well last session?

Store compliments and positive feedback in a place where you can re-read them when you're feeling uninspired, worried, or down on your GMing.

My friend Murdock keeps game comment journals. He hands out a comment book after every game and players write whatever they like in there. He can go back and re-read all the compliments he's received over the years anytime he needs support from his friends.

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3. Don't Ask For Feedback 

Another approach is to stop asking for feedback. :) Seriously though, I realized that if my players keep showing up and seem to have a good time then that's the best feedback I could ask for. Doing surveys and probing can sometimes be narcissistic. It's better to just continue GMing and be confident someone will speak up if they're not having fun.

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Don't Let Fear Stop You 

Is there a possibility you have a fear of failure with regards to GMing? Such a worry would definitely make one hesitant to GM. Fear of failure can block action of any kind.

The great news is the more you GM the better you get. Use criticism as feedback to help you improve faster than if you had to figure things out just by yourself over time. Use fear to get angry at yourself for feeling scared, and just sit down in the GM's chair and do it.

Acknowledging fear of failing as a GM is an awesome first step to diagnosing lack of inspiration, enjoyment, and motivation to doing something you actually enjoy a lot. If you can pinpoint exactly what your biggest worry is, then you have even more ammo to fight the problem with.

The solution often lies in the wording of the problem or fear itself.

  • I am scared I will embarrass myself in front of all my friends.

    Possible solution: GM a one-on-one game or two before running a large group, or try a short online campaign where you can remain anonymous.
  • I am getting the rules wrong all the time. My players know the rules better than I do.

    Possible solution: Don't bear the rules burden yourself -ask your players to help and allow yourself to master the rules over time, hopefully through many fun gaming sessions. Note bad rules mix-ups and create cheat sheets between sessions. Ask your players directly about it - they probably empathize and don't hold rules errors against you.
  • I am a boring GM.

    Possible solution: Ask your players what makes games exciting to them so you know what to add to future sessions. Ask other GMs what makes them compelling storytellers. Make a list of what you could do better, and tackle one thing per session. Ask your players what they like about your GMing.

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5. Make A List - Why Do You Like Being A GM? 

In the face of adversity in a hobby, it's great to have a solid understanding of why you enjoy it and what you get out of it. If you aren't quite sure why you want to be a GM or all the reasons you like it, make a list.

Why do you like being a GM?

Before you throw your hands up in frustration, walk away from an unproductive planning session, or go to sleep after a troubling game, consult your list to get enthused again and motivate you to keep at it.

The list, if you have good reasons on it, is your bedrock from which your GMing activities should flourish: design, organization, preparation, running the game, post- session activities.

If you are blocked, or if something about GMing right now is bugging you, use the list as encouragement to make whatever changes you need to return to fun and thrilling times. You have the reasons why you like GMing before you - use this to cut a swath through fear, uncertainty, and doubt to make changes or plough throw difficult tasks.

After you GM each session, pull out your list and add to it. What did you like about GMing this time? If there's a new reason, add it and continue building up a good, long list for future motivation and encouragement.

Reader Poll

Why do you like being a GM? I'd love to share your reasons with Tips readers so we can all build and add to our lists. E-mail me with reasons why you like GMing.

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6. Bad Sessions Are Probably Great Sessions 

Ever had that feeling after the game that things didn't go well? Often, you're wrong. Things did go well; you just have a skewed perspective.

  • * GMing Gaffs Maybe from behind the screen there were some errors and accidents. You got the map wrong, you botched an encounter, or you forgot to plant an important clue.

    You are human. You will make mistakes, guaranteed. The more you GM, the more mistakes you will make. How's that for encouragement, eh?

    Your players won't notice your errors most of the time. Don't beat yourself up about it - your players certainly aren't worried. If an error does need to be addressed, game it out, call it out, or in rare circumstances, back things up and replay. No big deal.

    A great piece of advice I received was to make errors often - just don't repeat them.
  • It Was Boring Things went as planned, or they didn't, but you felt no spark or excitement during the session. Return to your list of why you like GMing to ensure you get that spark next session.

    In the meantime, your players had a great time. Remember that they don't know what you do. They have no idea what's beyond the next corner. You might know there's nothing (yawn) but to them it's all a mystery and that's pretty interesting.

    Another thing GMs miss out on is the roleplaying between characters. While you are reading your notes, crunching numbers, and thinking ahead to the next encounter, your players have their character sheets with all the choices and options to think about in front of them, and they have time to roleplay with each other. If your players do this, it's pretty fun. Hear that laughter break out because the dwarf just made a good elf insult? That's fun happening. The session is not boring.

    GMs also miss out on much of the social aspect during games. Again, while you are busy doing GM things, the players are all hanging out playing a game together. When I GM, even if I'm busy as heck and have a screen setup like a barrier, I still feel like I'm part of a game we're all enjoying. That's not boring.
  • It Didn't Click Stilted pacing can make you feel like a session wasn't fun. Periods of silence, drawn-out combat or roleplaying scenes, or slow story progression might make you feel like a session was poor. However, GMs perceive pacing differently than players do.

    Again, put yourself in the players' chairs. What would their perspectives have been? Were they eagerly anticipating their turn while cheering on their friends? Were they quietly puzzling over some story clues handed out last session? Were they thinking all sorts of game things, imagining scenes, coming up with another pun, planning out character advancement, or brushing up on some rules?

    Often, things don't feel like they clicked because you were so focused on GMing. You were heads-down, thinking, planning, plotting, reading, researching. You sometimes had no idea what should happen next and were frantically being creative with NPC roleplaying or making encounters up on- the-fly. To your players, the session flowed along and it all played out just fine.

    Nowadays, if a session felt off for some reason, I know that's just my perspective, and most likely the session was good. If I'm quite worried, I'll just ask.

'Course, some things are fun killers that do result in bad sessions. Player conflicts, being tired, a bad gaming environment. In these cases, you fix what is under your control, and you don't worry about what isn't. You don't bear the entire burden for making game sessions go well. Your players are also part of the equation and they need to be positive influences during game night as well.

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7. Make a List - What To Do Better Next Session 

Noting what you need to do better next game is a great method for constant improvement. With improvement comes greater confidence, more enjoyment, and increased motivation. Writer's block often disappears when you are certain next session is going to be great.

Write down each point of pain, idea for doing something better, and player suggestion. Recognizing what to improve often requires creating an awareness during sessions of what's going well and what isn't. You will get a feeling something could be done better (my notes are a mess, the treasure I handed out sure was boring, that NPC felt flat) and your job is to learn to recognize when you have that sense and to figure out its source.

Your improvement list also serves as a great session preparation checklist. Treasure boring? Take steps to ensure you have great treasure next game.

With limited time available, you will need to read through your list between each session and prioritize what you will and will not tackle for next game. Unless your list is short (congratulations!) you won't have the resources to tackle everything. Make a decision of what you can and will do, stick with it, and improve over time.

Your list ensures nothing gets forgotten, even if it can't be addressed for awhile. Look for items you can delegate to your players or get help with from other GMs at your favourite forums. Adding to - and reading through - your list often results in improvement just from the awareness of what needs tweaking. Nice!

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8. Try A Different RPG 

You've heard this advice before: play a different game if you aren't enjoying GMing or are getting burnt out. The key is to play something very different. There are many aspects to GMing and playing RPGs. Different games with unique designs offer you chances to explore and find a combo that inspires you.

The best case scenario is you find a new game that lets you GM exactly the way you want and you are excited, like the first time you played an RPG, all over again.

For example, one of my awesome volunteers, Erin Smale, publishes the Chimera RPG, which offers realistic campaigns, smooth game flow, and intuitive mechanics.

I just purchased the Dread RPG, which uses a Jenga tower as part of the mechanics! GMs over at ENWorld are raving about Castles and Crusades, saying they get the D&D experience without all the prep and rules overhead. One of this e- zine's sponsors, Expeditious Retreat Press, publishes adventures for OSCRIC, a system for old-school fantasy gaming. The Burning Wheel game offers mechanics where players help you with a lot of the world and story creation, in addition to providing a built-in story and encounter structure.

Perhaps GURPS is what you're after, with its universal system that allow you to GM any genre or setting without learning a new set of rules each time. The Amber RPG, based on the books by Roger Zelazny, offers a wonderful diceless experience. The new Stars Wars RPG offers refined d20 mechanics.

The point is to play something completely different. You've got to fill your creative well with the waters of new ideas and experiences. If you like GMing, but are feeling blocked or tired, give a new game a shot. Read the reviews and information online. Ask your fellow GMs. Then choose a new game, even as a one-shot or short adventure. You could also visit a gaming convention and sign-up for games you haven't tried before.

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9. GM Burn-Out Links 

Here are some tips and articles focused on helping GMs prevent or cure burn-out:

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Looking for a good gaming chat or an online game?

The OtherWorlders IRC Network was created by gamers FOR gamers. We are the home chat for EN World's 3e/4e news site, fantasy author Katherine Kurtz and to many online games. Come and join our growing family of gamers and make the OtherWorlders the best place for gaming chat on the net. We can be found on the web at (including a java chat) or via your favorite irc client at irc://

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Thread Bobbins Boxes For Token Storage 

From: Rich Miller


In the past you had a tip for holding counters in a film canister and then you asked about holding square tokens. I've been using 2 boxes that I found at a Michael's Crafts store that are designed to hold thread bobbins. They are very similar to this box.

These boxes cost about $2.00 each. Most of the spaces are about 1.5 inches square, and 1 of the spaces is bigger and fits large tokens like dragons (although they rest at an angle, not flat). I've divided the rest of the tokens up by theme. 1 box has PC and NPC races divided by race and sex, and the other has monsters divided as undead, orcs, goblins, demons, etc. My group has teased me about all the tokens I have gathered, but I'm having fun.

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2. MS Access or OpenOffice Base For Campaign Management 

From: Roger Nicholls

For those of you with skills in database software, I use MS Access. Start making use of it when you first build your campaign world. I use it to store events, secrets, dates of things, and more. Using your database you can then get it to provide timelines of towns, etc., by creating simple queries to run against the data. I've found it amazing how quickly you can start to create a detailed database with minimal effort.

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3. Encourage PC Survival With Reactive Worlds 

From: Crazy Nedri

As GM, you have to remember the world revolves around the players. This does not mean they should have everything go their way; far from it. The game is made by a bunch of monkey wrenches thrown in to stop the payers and twist up their goals. By this, I mean the world will be affected by the players, and it is important to make them feel like they are having an affect, be it negative or positive. The players' choices, actions, and relationships should change how people react and think of them. Sometimes, their reputation might precede them when meeting new people.

This also encourages players to keep their characters alive. We all have players who do not care much if their current character dies, because they have a new one already made up that's even better. If the long-lasting characters have affected their environment, then the rest of the party will hopefully follow.

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4. Fief Book For Medieval GMs 

From: Roman Gheesling


After seeing a number of book recommendations in the e-zine, it brings to mind an excellent book regarding day-to-day medieval life.

"Fief: A Look at Medieval Society from Its Lower Rungs" by Lisa J. Steele is an excellent overview of all aspects of medieval life as the average commoner would experience it. Fief covers the fundamentals of feudal hierarchy, architecture, animals and agriculture, temporal and ecclesiastical government, medieval society, population, and taxes.

I'm glad I bought Fief because it is an excellent reference and idea springboard when I find myself making my campaign world's governments and cultures too much like 21st century middle-class America.

Fief is available as a nicely illustrated, fully indexed, 100 page PDF e-book from Cumberland Games and Diversions. Get free sample pages, including the table of contents and the index.


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