GMing: The User's Guide II
by Len Henderson

Okay, you have decided to become the pinnacle of role players, that mysterious master of the polyhedrons, the all mighty GM (Otherwise known as DM, story-teller, referee, fathead, etc. - the guy who runs the game, hereafter referred to as the GM).

So you have managed to grab more than one other person and have then proceeded to thrust them into great realms of fantasy and power, only to be greeted by yawns and looks of utter boredom after half an hour of battling the most ferocious beasts that the human mind can possibly conceive. After all, haven't you given them all +5 holy avengers? Aren't they all 6th level after half an hour of role playing? So what's the problem?

So here it is - GMing, the Users Guide II - how to identify the beginning GM.


  • Nothing is as it seems: The main advice that I can give you when constructing dungeons and scenarios, is to never use the same trick twice. Something is novel once, but soon loses its flavour, especially if it prevents the PC's from doing something they can normally do, or if there is no way to predict the new system. Rules of nature should be standard and non changing. Dungeons can be interesting and dangerous without needing to change the rules.

  • Dungeon Fillers: The person who created the dungeon has set so many traps that finding the way through is nigh on impossible. Think of the time and money needed to put in all these traps. Isn't it more likely that the creator will put one or two big traps at the entrance, and one or two near the goal? Think about the inhabitants of the dungeon. Have they put their own traps in that are more crude? How have they avoided the main traps?

    Other things in the dungeon include libraries, chairs, tables, chains, etc, etc. All the things that make the dungeon livable. How have these things survived the test of time? Why hasn't the library been burnt to the ground for fire wood? Are the chairs now used as beds by goblins? Are the once expensive tables now covered in bat guano? Can the PC's get through a door whose lock has rusted shut, and whose wood has expanded and has stuck it shut? If there are lit torches, who lit them, and who supplies the wood? Answering questions like this can add spice to any adventure.

  • Magical Traps: The bane of all PC's. The only thing I will say about these are: don't overuse them. Don't make them too deadly. PC's will start refusing even to attempt to go through doors with a sigil on them.

  • Every single room: Don't create dungeons that PC's have to enter and search every single room in order to complete the adventure. If a group ignores every room except the last, defeats the bad guy and immediately exists, so be it. Insisting they can't leave until every room has been explored is unrealistic and leads to frustrated PC's.


After slaying the orcs, the Hydra-Slayers continue down the corridor, only immediately to meet up with 6 trolls. Behind them, 6 giant spiders can be seen lurking in the darkness.

  • Environment: Okay, you have created your dungeon. Now spend a moment to think about how the creatures in the dungeon exist and coexist. Is it truly realistic for one room to contain a pack of raving orcs, and the very next to contain a pack of raving dwarfs? How do they live so near each other without having a genocidal war? Think about the ecology in the dungeon. Why are the particular creatures there, and how do they live? Do they prey on other dwellers? Where do they get their water? What about their waste? Don't always use the prime GM excuse "It's magic!" (if I had a dollar for every time a GM said that . . .).

  • Suicidal Monsters: We all know about this one. The group of monsters who fight to the last man. Is this truly realistic? If the PC's were getting their buts kicked, they would certainly retreat and regroup. Cowardly monsters like orcs and goblins should run screaming if several members of their party are killed. Intelligent monsters would retreat to perhaps ambush the party later. "He who fights and runs away. . ." Even unintelligent monsters should retreat when presented with a greater force. Only magically controlled or creatures with no intelligence do not retreat.

  • Disappearing Monsters: Okay, the monsters have fled, and then never bother the party again. Obviously they have been eaten by another monster, or have forgotten the PC's altogether. Creatures really should hold a grudge against the people that beat them. While the PC's sleep is a great time to launch a counter-offensive. What if the PC's flee combat? Isn't it likely that the monsters will be searching for them, with some of their mates?

  • Magical Item Carrying Monsters: The PC's have beaten the monsters, and then find some magical items on them. Why didn't the monsters use them? Finding a ring of red ruin on an orcs finger is great, but why wasn't the PC's been blasted by it? Especially things like potions can be drunk by the most unintelligent monster. Secondly, why are all the magical items resting in the monster's horde, instead of being utilised by the monster? If a troll has a +2 suit of chainmail, why the hell isn't he wearing it?

  • Powerful Monsters: My friend Greg is a prime example of using these. He says things like "Oh, this monster is XXX levels (Insert level over 50) has ZZZ (See levels) strength and YYY (See strength) HP" to leave the PC's quaking in their respective boots. If a creature is a plot device (and to be fair to Greg, he has some great plots) then use it once. Don't overwork the same trick. Remember: The same trick only works once. After that the PC's are thinking "Oh, dear, another XXX level, ZZZ strength, YYY HP plot device that we have to run away from. What time is lunch?".

    It is much better to have that sort of creature or NPC as a sort of lurking in the background type creature, the main enemy over several scenarios, with the PC's sort of fighting his/her/its minions. Remember, why would these incredibly powerful beings even bother with the puny PC's? When the PC's get to 10th level, perhaps they might constitute a threat, but before that, why should he/she/it care?

  • Equal Monsters: Try not to have every monster in the opposition have exactly the same equipment and weapons. Most monsters scavenge their equipment and weapons anyway, and so will have a medley of stuff, which the PC's may choose from once they have defeated the monsters.

  • Mutants: We all know about this type of monster. It's the giant rat who is more powerful than normal, the bat who can crack walls with the power of its wing-beats, etc. Don't do this! Monsters should be standard, and unchanging. If you meet a giant rat in one adventure, it should have the same stats in the next. If you want a more powerful creature, substitute something else! Make up a new monster type, but don't modify monster stats, just because you need a more challenging creature. If all else fails, simply add more of the creature.


Searching the bodies of the trolls, the PC's find 1500 GP, 1200 SP and 1800 CP. Unfortunately, each PC was already carrying all the gold they could, and so they leave it on the Troll's bodies.

  • Too Much Treasure: Often beginning GM's forget why the PC's are adventuring in the first place. To gain treasure! Money, moolah, cash, etc! When the PC's have all the money they can carry, why the hell should they continue on the adventure? "That's it, we are heading back to the nearest town where we can hire an army to kill the orcs for us!" Treasure should be equal to the challenge that the PC's face. How the heck does an orc have 1000 GP if it can't defeat a bunch of lousy 1st rank PC's? Why should a group of PC's fight dragons when they can get relatively the same amount from killing two trolls? (A PC can only carry so much!) As a rule: if you find the PC's chucking away treasure, you are giving out too much. As with magical items, it is better to err on the side of less than more.

  • Boring Treasure: Getting 1500 SP is great! Unfortunately, it is also rare. It is more likely to be found in the form of gems, carvings, semi-precious stones, tapestries, paintings, blocks of metal, spices, etc. With a bit of thought, finding treasure can be a lot more interesting for both GM and PC. "Searching the lair of the Vampire, you find some 35 silver coins in a small brown leather bag, a silver statue of a lion (Worth 50 SP), a small block of gold with the stamp of Ar on it (Worth 5 GP), and a bag of some 20 semi-precious stones (Worth about 10-15 SP)." This is much more interesting that saying "You have found 145 SP" Especially now the PC's have to find buyers for their treasure or barter it. Finally, what the monsters consider treasure may not be in the PC's definition. A Troll might consider the wood carving his friend made for him more precious than gold. A less intelligent creature may be attracted to purely shiny things, rather than real treasure, and a non-intelligent creature may have no use for treasure at all.

  • Finding Treasure: Though many creatures are paranoid about their treasure, most are unwilling to actually carry it all around with them. A) because it is heavy and B) because it might be stolen. So they either keep it in their lair, or hide it. It may be the object of several hours search just finding the bloody things treasure! What if the creature has it hidden it at the bottom of a pit-trap?

  • One Size Fits All: This one is obvious. Is the chainmail +3 that the orc was wearing (you know, 5'2", scrawny) going to fit the Paladin (6'7", built like a tank)? Without extensive modifications, the armour that the PC's pick up may be utterly useless (and mind you, who would want to wear armour an orc has been in?).

Magical Items

The Hydra-Slayers quickly destroy the group of orcs with a combination of destructive spells from their respective rune-weapons. Searching the bodies, they found 4 +5 swords, but as each of them had at least 2 already, they discarded them. The other magical items were uninteresting.

Most GM's have a certain fascination with magical items, and give them out in order to equalise the battles against certain foes.

  • Too Many Magical Items: If PC's start chucking away magical items then you have given out too many. It is always safer to give out less than more when dealing with magical items! If you feel compelled to give out a magical item, try to make it more utility-type than offensive. Give your magical items a number of uses per day, or even a set number of charges. Remember, that the magic-users who create magical items are very high level, and will rarely need more than one of a particular magical item. Considering the rarity of high level magic-users, the difficulty of creating magical items, and the time needed, powerful magical items should be correspondingly rare.

  • "Sets" Of Magical Items: A group finding 6 of a magical item (one for each member) is not uncommon. Obviously there exists a manic-compulsive mage who has dedicated his whole life to churning out this particular magical item. Magical items should be unique, and even if the same magical item is found twice in a campaign, they should differ somewhat. The only exception to this rule is things like potions and scrolls, as they are relatively easy to create and useful, as well as being a one use type of item.

  • People Specific Magical Items: Have you ever met a magical item that will only work for a particular PC? Unless the PC is strange or different in some way (such as of royal blood, etc) anyone should be able to use the item. It is up to the group to decide who should receive the item, depending on the best interests of the party.

  • Boring Magical Items: Yes the party has received their +5 sword. It glows in the dark, detects the invisible, levitates at will, etc. It even has intelligence and personality. Magical items are special, unusual and precious! They should have an interesting history, and moreover a name. Instead of referring to it as "The +5 sword", having engraved on its blade the name "Everclear" or "Algennon" is much more interesting. The name should have something to do with its history, maker, or abilities. This could lead to all sorts of new story ideas. What if the original owner of Algennon is still looking for the sword stolen from him 1000 years ago?

    Make the item out of an unusual substance, make it glow in the dark, give it quirks! Having an agoraphobic +3 sword is quite amusing. You have to have a large argument with it in order to draw it in the first place. What if you have an Axe that just wants to settle down and live a quiet life chopping wood? A nagging halberd that continually tells its owner to clean up, not to drink, etc. The possibilities are endless,

  • Too Many Abilities: Drano is thanking his lucky stars. The amulet he just received not only regenerates 1 HP per round, it casts feather fall at will, magic missile, fire ball, Teleport without error, Wish, alter reality, etc, etc, etc, etc. Generally, a magical item is created to do one, or at maximum two things. Try to think of why the mage created the item in the first place. How much extra time and expense would it take to add extra features to a magical item? Did the magic user or the person paying for the item need the extra features?

  • Ease Of Use: Ever noticed how easy it is to pick up a magical wand and say "I activate it" and Boom!! It works. Mages are, as a rule, a very paranoid lot, and tend to have activation words that are secret so no one else can use the item. Gaining magical items are great, but once procuring them, the PC's should have to learn how to use them.


The PC's finish off the giant spiders in record time. Four of them advance to 6th level. Pretty good for their first adventure!

  • Too Much XP: As with treasure and magical items, it is better to be on the side of less XP rather than more. Make the PC's work for their XP! Make them role-play, and give out more XP for constructive ideas than simply killing off monsters. It should be worth more XP for avoiding monsters than fighting them. Sometimes the GM should make the monsters friendly, and part of the plot, so the PC's can learn useful things from them. Stay away from magic that increases XP or levels. It is pointless for a PC to gain a level by drinking a potion, as they haven't worked for it.

  • Deducting XP: A bad idea! This leads to frustrated PC's. If you need to deduct XP, except via combat with something like a Wight, there is something wrong with your GMing. If a group of PC's loses any XP more than once in 10 gaming sessions, you are deducting too much.

  • Not Enough XP: XP is the most difficult factor to decide how much to give. Too much leads to bored players, too little to frustrated players. Unfortunately there is no hard and fast way of knowing how much XP to give. It takes years of GMing to achieve the fine balance. Try to give out XP based on how difficult the situation is to solve. If the PC's fight some monsters, and win easily, they would not have learnt much. However, if they barely win by the skin of their teeth, they have learnt that much more, and therefore the situation is worth more XP. The best way of learning how to give out XP is to get the advice of a more experienced GM, and get him to tell you why so much or so little XP was awarded.

The Final Word

I hope that this article has given you some small help in learning how to be a better GM. Even experienced GM's (like myself) sometimes get things wrong. The best way to correct the mistake is to listen to your players, and ask yourself why your adventure doesn't seem interesting or is frustrating. After years of roleplaying and GMing, the best hard and fast rule that I can come up with is: be realistic. The closer the adventures are to reality the better they are! Even though the game is fantasy or science fiction, the laws of nature, physics, chemistry, etc, should all still apply. Magic, while obviously not real (I am not getting into a debate about this) should only effect the world in small ways. The more realism in the game, the more the PC's can relate to it. One day, if you practise this theory, suddenly the PC's will become more than cardboard, and take a life of their own in your adventures. When you find your PC's discussing with interest what happened last week, you can give yourself a small pat on the back. Eventually, it all boils down to the fact that it is for the PC's benefit that the game is being run. If the PC's are bored, disinterested, complaining, frustrated, etc, you have to change your gaming style! Listen to yourself, your PC's, other GM's, do what seems right to you, and continually update and improvise. Above all, have fun.

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