GM Tips: Be a Thief, a Cheat, and a Liar
"Merchant" by Dean Spencer
“Be a thief, a cheat, and a liar.” My freshman English seminar professor was talking about writers when she said this to a room full of hungover undergraduate students but she just as easily could have been addressing a room full of hungover GMs.
The advice was startling to me at the time (as it may be for you now) but I’m going to breakdown how this can be used to improve your skills as a Game Master.
Steal (and Reskin) - The idea here is that none of us write (or GM) in a vacuum. We all consume media everyday and so it’s not just fruitless to try to try to invent something new, it’s downright impossible. Instead, take what you love and put a fresh spin on it. If you love Breaking Bad, why not take the character concept of Walter White and twist it into a down-on-his-luck alchemist NPC who (to pay his bills) begins selling dangerous poisons to an assassins guild. Or maybe you love Red from Shawshank Redemption and so you steal his character and drop him into your world as a half-elf black market merchant who can hook up with the party goods that aren't strictly legal. Perhaps you like the underrated 90's classic The Edge about a millionaire and his employees who crash in the Alaskan wilderness and are stalked by a rogue grizzly bear. You could do this to your squishy 1st level party by having a teleportation spell go awry and suddenly they're in a strange wilderness with a nocturnal monster that is stalking them. This works best by lifting material from a different genre or, if you want to steal content for your fantasy game from another fantasy world, make sure its obscure enough that your players aren't aware of it. Characters can easily be stolen by changing their race, gender, and background.
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Cheat Your Rolls - As a GM, I am a BIG fan of cheating my rolls. Being a writer, I'm of the same school of thought as Matt Colville who also enthusiastically lies to his players about dice rolls. I believe that one of the most important jobs of the GM is to make the game as dramatic as possible. To me, that means that PCs should never die because of a random encounter but can absolutely die when facing a the Big Bad they've been pursuing for the last four sessions. A character death can be really upsetting for players but especially so if it happened because an Owlbear randomly attacks their camp at night and happens to get a couple of critical hits. Character death is much more dramatic and palatable when they die during a story climax doing something dangerous that the player CHOSE with the knowledge that death is a distinct possibility. For this reason, I recommend hiding your GM rolls behind the GM Screen at crucial moments. Make sure to make some rolls in the open so that the party trusts that you are sincere with the dice results (even if you aren't!).
Fake Player Choice - "Fake" is maybe a little disingenuous here. Perhaps a better way to describe it is to make player choice surface level. When you have a great dungeon prepared featuring murderous cultists in a wilderness temple who are preparing to sacrifice the kidnapped smith's son to their chaotic evil deity but the party instead decides to collect on a bounty to track down a group of goblins holed up in a ruin - don't worry! Just swap the monsters and flavor text. Instead of describing a neat granite-stone temple illuminated by blood-red candlelight filled with magic traps, change it to a grimy ruin filled with crumbling stone, lit by a poorly ventilated campfire, and filled with spring traps. Just swap the text and stat blocks but keep the dungeon layout and trap mechanics. The players will feel like they have complete agency and that you're an amazing GM for making such a cool dungeon right on the spot. This is a strategy I allude to in Prep Your Nouns.
As a GM, it's not about how much preparation you can do for Game Night, it's about how much preparation you can get away with not doing.
What the best piece of advice that you've gotten nor related to D&D that is actually really helpful? Let me know in the comments!