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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #388

10 Easy Ways To Think On Your Feet Better


This Week's Tips Summarized 

10 Easy Ways To Think On Your Feet Better

  1. Answer Questions With A Question
  2. Plan, Scan, Action
  3. Make Puns
  4. Highlight Your Notes
  5. Breathe
  6. Build On Ideas, Don't Cancel Them
  7. Visualize
  8. Hit The Reset Button Before The Game
  9. Key Brain GMing Tasks - Retrieve And Combine
  10. GM Aids

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Use Obscure And Foreign Soundtracks
  2. Develop Your Races And Add History
  3. The Roll Of Heroes

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books


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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 

Volume 9: 5 Room Dungeons Ready For Download

The next volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

  1. Skanda Biologicals
    by Siren no Orakio
  2. The Spirit Never Dies
    by Ria Hawk
  3. Saving Plaque
    by Strolen
  4. Barrow of the Bored Berserker
    by DeeCee
  5. The Stone Labyrinth
    by Daniel Burrage

Download (PDF 1.0 MB)

Recent Plain Text Issues Online

If you've missed a recent issue, you can find HTML versions online here.

And recent plain text issues here.

RSS might be a good way to check what the latest edition is.


Johnn Four,

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Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters

This lavishly illustrated 96-page book gives roleplaying game fans a unique, behind-the-curtain glimpse into the making of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. The book contains essays and asides from the game's premier designers, developers, and editors. Through words and illustrations, it explores some of the D&D game's most iconic locations and monsters, sharing insights never before revealed in any previous game product.

Worlds and Monsters at RPG Shop

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10 Easy Ways To Think On Your Feet Better  

A reader recently told me this:

"I never feel very proficient at running sessions - I am better at prepping them. I don't think well on my feet - I tend to need time to consider things."

I don't believe there is a specific thing you can do to suddenly think fast on your feet, but following are several ways you can get better at it over time. A lot of these tips have appeared in the e-zine before, but these make a nice checklist. In addition, you might have read something in the past and said, yeah I knew that. But, did you put it into practice? Here's your chance to be reminded again and try it out on your current campaign.

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1. Answer Questions With A Question 

Good questions generate good answers, so this is not a mere stalling trick.

  • Record great questions you hear at work, school, and home. Repurpose the best questions for gaming.
  • Post the questions on your screen, in your binder, or where you can find them when GMing.
  • Yes, use the questions to stall for time while you try to think on your feet.
  • Use the answers, as well. A win-win.

After trying this tactic, you might notice though that many people who you think are quick witted actually just have a mental library of good questions they can fire back.

Player: So, I approach a random commoner and ask him about his lot in life.

GM: Hmmm, well, what kind of life would you expect such a commoner to lead?


GM: The commoner looks you up and down and grunts, "What kind of life do folk from your land have?"


GM: That's an interesting question. What kind of information are you looking for? What made you ask it?

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2. Plan, Scan, Action 

There might be a long space of time between when you prepare certain materials for a session and when that session starts. For example, the PCs might begin an unexpected side plot and you need to put your notes away for a few weeks, or a game gets cancelled and it's awhile before the next one happens.

Before each game, get into a routine of scanning your notes, plans, maps, NPC write-ups, and anything else you think will get triggered next session. Best time to do this is just before the session, but the night before works as well.

Write down any new ideas that come to you while scanning. Also note any trouble spots you notice, such as an NPC you missed developing. Clarify in writing anything confusing.

With a recent review of your plans in mind, you should be able to think on your feet a little faster.

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3. Make Puns 

It is said puns are the lowest form of humour, but I prefer to think of them as punishment. What they really are is a game you can play during any conversation that is sure to help you think faster on your feet.

As you chat with your victim, try to do word associations:

  • Think like a thesaurus
  • Break the subject up into components or related ideas
  • Take part of a word and re-use it
  • Think of other words that sound alike
  • Twist a word's meaning

The exercise of scouring your brain for suitable pun matter will help you get a head in your GMing over time. Puns can be music to your ears, and an instrument of learning.

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4. Highlight Your Notes 

You don't need to keep everything in your head as you GM, and having clear, organized notes will help you retrieve information quickly.

Before the game, perhaps as you go through your note- scanning routine, highlight the important bits. Use a colour code for faster searching.

  • NPC names - blue
  • Hazards, traps, gotchas - green
  • Reminders, important info - yellow

Another trick is putting your most important notes at the top or the front.

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5. Breathe 

Keep the oxygen flowing to your brain as you GM:

* Laugh a lot.

* Take some deep, slow breaths every hour.

* Create a natural trigger during gameplay to remind yourself to take some deep breaths - perhaps each time a 1 is rolled on a d20, or each time you call for initiative.

You don't need to be obvious about taking deep breaths. For example, while players are taking their turns you can sneak a couple in while updating your game log.

Here's a short, related article:

How To Develop A Compelling Voice

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6. Build On Ideas, Don't Cancel Them 

This is good advice for improv, and it's a great tip for GMing. When possible, take ideas from any source (e.g. players, dice rolls, rules) and add to them instead of saying no. Say 'and' not 'but'.

Building on an idea means part of the work is already done for you. Often, thinking fast on your feet just requires an idea seed as something on which to anchor your thoughts. You might have discovered that, as soon as you have a seed or a direction, many new thoughts come tumbling out and you're unstuck.

If you make it a habit to say no, override ideas, or contradict ideas, you need to start from scratch each time, which slows the thinking process down and puts you on the spot. This can also result in receiving fewer ideas as your mind becomes closed to new inputs, or frustrated players stop trying.

The alternative - accepting ideas and building on them - creates positive momentum, builds player confidence, builds your confidence, and generates faster results in-game.

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7. Visualize 

Visualizing things lets you take advantage of your brain's ability to perform complex operations quickly. For example, while creating a room you build a short inventory list. With all the other rooms you're planning, it will be more difficult to memorize what's in this particular one. Also, a short description for each inventory item means you'll need to write quite a few words to cover everything off, which increases planning time.

Instead, you still create your inventory list of room contents, but you visualize the room as you craft it. You picture each inventory item in your mind and its place in the room. This also triggers thoughts about various room details, such as floor type, lighting, and layout. You don't need to write descriptions for each item in the room because you've imagined each in your mind for future reference.

Then, when the PCs visit the room during the game, the mental picture you created comes to mind, and you start your description off without needing to pause and study your notes first. The inventory list is still a great reference for completeness and consistency, but rather than needing to read through a lot of description text, you recall each item as you visualized it and provide some great descriptions on- the-fly.

Further, once the encounter is over, and for a long time afterward, you'll be able to recall this room and its detail without great effort. Should a player ask you about the room, or the group visits it again, you'll be able to snap off answers without pouring through old notes.

In this example, you've used your brain's ability to imagine a room and all its contents as a whole unit. This is much easier than trying to memorize a list.

Visualization becomes easier each time you do it, and it increases your mental faculties slowly over time. You can visualize while planning, during idle times such as when commuting, and even as you GM where you form your mental picture as you create or describe things.

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8. Hit The Reset Button Before The Game 

You need to transition from a hectic work or home day to GM mode. Otherwise, thoughts will seep in while GMing and distract you, capturing precious brain cycles. This interference might also make you seem a bit groggy at first, giving you a slow start that could set a general tone for the whole session if not corrected. Hitting the reset button clears your mind and gets you into the GMing mindset so you can pounce into the game, fresh and excited.

Here are a few ways to reset:

  • Take a power nap for 20 minutes or so.
  • Take a shower. Use the time to recall last game session and visualize what might happen in the upcoming one.
  • Exercise. If you have a regular lunch or morning workout, consider postponing it to before the game. Use this time for thinking about the game as well.
  • Exit out of worrying cycles. Write your thoughts down, make lists or action plans if needed, and put your worries away until tomorrow, when you can take action.
  • Quiet time. This is one of the best methods. Section off a half hour before the first player usually arrives. Use this time to draw maps, read notes, or read the module.
  • Clean up. Simple chores, such as preparing the game area so it's clean and free of distraction, keep the hands busy while the mind can ponder the game.
  • Do something creative. Get your mind focused on something different than the day you just had. Pick up a children's colouring book and colour for a few minutes. No, really, I'm serious. Bonus points are awarded if you can use your masterwork for a player's handout.
  • Draw maps, do some creative writing, play a video game.
  • Watch something interesting on TV. Tune into the cartoon network, try a science program or documentary, or plug in a favourite movie or show on DVD.

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9. Key Brain GMing Tasks - Retrieve And Combine 

Your brain while GMing often does two things:

  1. Retrieve information, based on everything you've learned and experienced in your life. You will draw ideas and make decisions based on this skill.
  2. Combine two or more ideas into something interesting. This task is dependent on the first task, as the quality of thoughts and ideas you retrieve for combination will affect the new thought you create.

The pun tip helps you retrieve information faster in an associative way. You can also improve retrieval and combination in other ways:

  • Add more inputs. The more new stuff you put into your brain, the larger your library is that you can draw from: read, watch good stuff, have interesting conversations.
  • Experiment and learn. Be observant. Keep an eye out for cause and effect, consequences, relationships.
  • Be curious about everything.
  • Be curious about the game and what's happening in the game as you GM it.
  • Be creative, use your imagination. Do some creative writing. Start crafting that homebrew setting. Take up a new, creative hobby. Start a creative blog (and send me the link :).
  • Play good games. Some games have associative thinking embedded in them, such as Apples to Apples. Other games introduce new types of gameplay while stretching your brain muscles. Try Settlers of Catan. Use the Neverwinter Nights CRPG to game through thousands of community created stories, settings, and encounters.

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10. GM Aids 

Employ various GM tools to help you think better on your feet, especially if you get stuck or can't think of any ideas.

  • Reference Charts. Determine what you need help with and create simple reference charts and tables to spur ideas. For example, create a list of combat synonyms or description starters. Build a dozen generic NPC profiles, quirks, or roleplaying hooks.
  • Make a list of good questions. A good enough question will produce a good answer. Questions help you solve things, and leading questions give you proper context and a good mindset for coming up with a great idea or answer.

    Some general questions:
    • What would be cool in this situation?
    • What would be the most fun in this situation?
    • How can the foe escape to fight another day?
    • How can you reward a player in the current situation?
    • How can you reward a character in the current situation?
    Build a list of great questions and keep that list handy when you GM.
  • Random generators. Bookmark ones you like on the web or create your own using software or a simple chart on paper.
  • Idea cards. Create your own or borrow from other games. The cards you create don't have to be complex. The Chance cards from Monopoly are a great example. Torg had an interesting combat situation deck. Everway had great art cards to draw inspiration from. Tarot cards are excellent GM aids.

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GameMastery Module J2: Guardians of Dragonfall

A D&D exploration adventure for 11th-level characters. Auranorex, the greatest gold dragon in the world, is dead and his kin are looking for answers. To uncover the mystery of his demise, the heroes must travel to the one place forbidden to all mortals: the dragon graveyard.

Violating the dragon graveyard is a death sentence and the heroes must risk their lives if they are to uncover the secret behind Auranorex's fate. GameMastery Modules are 32- page, high-quality, full-color, OGL-compatible adventures. All GameMastery Modules include four pre-made characters so players can jump right into the action, and full-color maps and handouts to enhance play.

Guardians of Dragonfall at RPG Shop

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

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

1. Use Obscure And Foreign Soundtracks 

From: Mark Johnston

Soundtracks are a great tool for setting mood and adding drama. Sometimes too good. Music, especially music paired with powerful images, is an extremely effective trigger for memories. The downside is, if you're using a famous score, you're reminding players of that awesome scene in the movie, and distracting them from the awesome game you're running.

The solution is to use soundtracks from movies nobody has heard of before. One easy way to find them is to look up the filmography for a composer you like. Odds are, before they became famous, your favorite composers were doing perfectly good work on less-well-known films. John Williams did the score for 1941, a 1979 WWII comedy, and a lot of the music is suitable for comedy and action sequences, and could well be used for fantasy.

Another easy way is to pick a random country (well, stick to developed countries), and see what movies of your genre have been made there. I've seen tons of Argentine westerns, Korean action movies, Danish epic fantasy, Iranian cartoons, and Australian sci-fi with amazing soundtracks that are new to my players.

And, one of the best things about using scores from old, weird, foreign, low-budget, or otherwise obscure movies is they are super cheap. You can get lots in bargain bins and online auctions for a dollar a disc or even less.

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2. Develop Your Races And Add History 

From: Lord Dave of House Mina
Third Lord of the Clan of Klides
Loryan Nation East of the River Swift


I saw a mention of new races and thought, why develop from scratch? Some are already there. They just need a bit of development and history.

Half Elves

From the beginning they were a subclass, shunned by the elves and humans alike. Over time nature took its course and they began to gravitate to each other. Only then did they find their race was self-sustaining. From the 138 coupled halfelven families was drawn the true line of their heritage. From this they began plotting their own country and government. Within 10 years they marched on 3 nations and conquered parts of all three, holding their ground with force of arms. Declaring themselves the race of Loryan, they declared their sovereign nation.


I modified the halfelven race by removing some of their traditional racial traits, shortened their life span a bit, and gave them horsemanship, horse archer, and horse mage as racial traits/class. I also gave them a +1 for dex and -1 for strength.

Settlement: Semi-nomadic but with permanent cities/towns. This combines the elven love of nature with the human need for permanency.

Religion: Druid. With less for animal and more for other forms of nature.

Government: Triad formed by the 3 houses of Loryan. House Arack, House Mina, and House of Kalick. All families are descended from and loyal to one of these houses. From each house is drawn the Ruling Junta, which rules much like a socialistic society.

General Alignments: Lawful Good to Lawful Neutral, some chaotic's are in the mix but in low numbers. This doesn't preclude any alignment, but keep in mind they would be rare.

Political: Neutral to elves and humans; they have a liking for the halflings; they despise dwarves and gnomes, thinking them dirty and filthy. At war with the dark elves, but have shunned an alliance with the elves, and have had no contact with any of the sea faring or other races.

Trade: Caravans may pass freely with license from the House of Kalick. Without this license they are considered thieves, their are goods confiscated, and they are locked up or slain. Loryans trade wool, cotton, and exotic woods for iron, weapons, and some food goods.

Attire: They tend towards long togas or robes with bright colors in long stripes. Their horses are often decorated with ribbons and painted. They often braid the horse tails and wrap them with colorful ribbon.

Geographic: Open plains/low hill country. Wooded in some areas, most farms and industry are tied to their permanent cities/towns/villages. Migration is from the north in winter, south in summer.

Feel free to flesh this out even more and tweak it to your own campaign.

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3. The Roll Of Heroes 

From: Scott W Roberts, aka Myrystyr
via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group

Here's something I've been using for many moons now, and I thought I'd share....

I run AD&D, so this is sort of level-based, but it can easily be adapted to other systems - just insert "whenever a character gets to improve a skill/whatever" for "goes up a level."

At the start of the campaign, I printed out a Roll of Heroes sheet. Nothing fancy; just a lined page with three columns - Date, Champion and Comments - and a few clerical notes (Scroll#, Campaign, GM, Date Archived, etc.).

Whenever the characters go up a level, I ask the players if they've done anything significant since they last went up a level. If they give me a good enough story in a few sentences, I let them sign the Roll of Heroes and leave a comment.

Significant actions can include:

  • Reaching 2nd level
  • Learning something important about the world
  • Making new alliances
  • Defeating a nemesis
  • Fulfilling a special quest
  • Advancing the campaign storyline
  • Meeting a character goal

Think of it as a guest book for your campaign.

This coming game session, the comments in my campaign will have reached the bottom of the page, which is a good, metaphorical way of saying we'll be turning over a new leaf. I sometimes also write in a comment from an important NPC. It is a fun way of looking back over the campaign, seeing where we've been and how we got to where we are now.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.