Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Who is the master?

Jerry Stratton, June 3, 2006

I hesitate to write this article, because I’m not sure how useful my advice will be for people other than myself. A lot of game master advice is personal; it works for some game masters but not others, and it works for the groups that brought it into being but not for other groups.

Every game magazine eventually publishes a game master’s advice article, sometimes many of them. I’ve never found them particularly useful, so I’ll try not to repeat their mistakes. But I will make some of my own. Always keep in mind Gandalf’s advice:

Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.

Or listen to Thomas Ikeda and use this advice to hold your pants up.

But there is some general advice that is universal to games like Gods & Monsters. I’ve seen some good articles over at Treasure Tables, and I’d recommend them. I haven’t read it yet, but Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering comes highly recommended.

The number one rule is to have fun. If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing something wrong. What is it that you enjoy about being a game master? I enjoy creating strange situations and watching the players encounter and build on those situations. I’ve found a group that enjoys this, too, but in some game groups that would make me a lousy game master. When I’m in those groups I play rather than guide.

The number two rule is to assist the players in having fun. That’s it. If everyone enjoys game night, it’s a good game.

It’s all about the players

Know who your non-player characters are, and what their goals are. Every non-player character should have some bit of motivation that explains what they want. Beyond that, a few words about personality will help define how they attempt to get what they want, but knowing what they want is the first step. There’s a huge difference between a tired bear, a hungry bear, and a bear protecting its cubs.

Know how things got this way. Outline the history that resulted in the problems that the characters will face. Once you know the past, the future is easier to improvise.

Know who your player characters are, and keep the focus on the player characters rather than on non-player characters. For that matter, keep the focus on all player characters; if the focus appears to be shifting to a single character for an extended period, consider resolving that conflict with a single skill roll, ability roll, or saving roll; or consider drawing the other characters in to that conflict.

Find out what kinds of things the players enjoy. If they like to solve puzzles, put puzzles in the game: riddles, or architectural secrets that they have to figure out. Don’t skimp on clues: players can’t see everything you see, and don’t know everything that you know, about the adventure.

You’re not an author hiding things from your readers; you’re a guide showing things to your companions. Listen to their abductions, for example.

If they like coordinating battles, add in an invasion of some sort, or a Seven Samurai-like adventure where they protect a village, a family, or a small band of travelers.

If they like meeting strange creatures and having tea with them, make sure that there are strange creatures to talk to and fine beverages to drink.

You don’t necessarily have to ask the players to list out what they want and don’t want. Listen to them when they play their characters. Watch what they enjoy and what they don’t enjoy, and focus on the enjoyable things. Watch what they try to do. Listen when they linger.

Don’t forget to do things that are fun for you, too. If you enjoy irrelevant preparation, do that. There are lots of maps in my game that the players will never see. I drew them because I wanted to draw them. It’ll end up being the background information that the players never see but that informs my improvisation.

Likewise, I don’t mind when they don’t find the tea-stained documents hidden in the ledge beneath the water. I enjoy the mere fact of their existence. If they’re really cool, someone will find them and that will be the nut of another adventure.


Preparation of some sort is key. Adventure Guides always have to improvise. That’s part of the fun of being a game master. But don’t overestimate your ability to improvise. If you underestimate your ability to improvise, all it means is that you are over-prepared. But if you overestimate your ability to improvise, the game will grind to a halt as you take more and more time-outs.

Over time, you’ll learn what you need to prepare and what is best left for improvisation.

The biggest boost to my own game master skill came when I started writing flavor text ahead of time. Having the flavor text in front of me frees me to modify the flavor text, and it keeps me from describing the encounters as if reading from a bus schedule.

Creating the flavor text ahead of time came about because I started considering the adventure sessions as playtesting for publication. This change in mindset meant that I started thinking things through a whole lot more ahead of time. My game improved considerably—mainly because I started thinking further ahead.

Mentally play out the scenarios so as to identify what are likely to be the most important bits of information. As you play more and more games with your group, you’ll learn what they’re likely to follow up on. I will make sure that every important part of the adventure is outlined, and then I’ll fill in the outline according to how important it is.

Design simply. The players will probably make the adventure more complicated than you thought it was.


Prepare your notes so that all important information is easy to find, quickly. Flavor text is one example of this, but if things will be happening outside of the characters’ immediate knowledge, have a single-page timeline that you can look up.

Keep your maps large enough to show the right details but small enough to fit on your table, screen, or other viewing device. I loved my ten-page-square map of the Isle of Mordol; I still have it in a folder on my bookshelf. But it was impossible to tell where the characters were going or remember how they got there.


Relax, and remember that preparation can help you relax. Make sure that what you prepare is relevant and interesting. Good preparation helps not just by reducing the need to make things up during play but also by helping you improvise when necessary.

What works for me?

So, the above is all great advice, but it doesn’t really say anything. From here on, the advice becomes more specific, but of course that runs the risk of not applying to anyone other than me.

  1. What is fun? Players enjoy having their characters do things and affect what they encounter. They enjoy the tension between control and discovery.
  2. Pre-write flavor text. Flavor text is the best thing to happen to games since lich waffles. Flavor text can be written about places the players will see, creatures they’ll encounter, and events that will happen.
  3. Sketch or draw maps ahead of time.
  4. Sketch or create the major non-player characters ahead of time.
  5. Pre-write some things that non-player characters might say in response to what the player characters will ask. Flavor text works for dialogue, too.
  6. Name even the non-player characters. Name every encounter, whether it be an individual or a group. I don’t necessarily name every member of every goblin tribe, but I do name the tribes and the major characters in the tribe. In The Shopping Cart Graveyard I wrote that names give power to your enemies. But they also give power to your fantasies.
  7. Take notes during the game. Take them where you’ll see them again. Take notes about the map on the map. Take notes about the adventure on the timeline or map key. If you are using an open adventure, print a special copy for this specific session. If you are using a closed adventure or if you sketched the map by hand and don’t want to mess up the original, use a scanner or photocopier.
  8. Read the Adventure Guide’s Handbook, especially the Managing Game Sessions and Adventure sections. There’s a reason they’re in the front. Every encounter should have a history, a present, and a future, whether it’s a room or a monster. What was it for, how did it get this way, and what is it doing now?
  1. <- Random Dungeon
  2. Silver Sails ->