The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘random gm tips’

I can’t do a murder mystery because the PCs will just cast speak with dead.

I’ve seen this sentiment a lot, but it’s never really made any sense to me: The act of investigating a mystery is one by which you reveal that which is unknown. When we talk about PCs casting a speak with dead spell, we’re describing a situation in which the players reveal that which is unknown (i.e., they investigate the mystery), but then, oddly, we’re supposed to conclude that they can’t investigate the mystery because the investigate the mystery.

I think part of the problem here lies in an erroneous instinct that I talked about as part of the Three Clue Rule:

There is a natural impulse when designing a mystery, I think, to hold back information. This is logical inclination: After all, a mystery is essentially defined by a lack of information. And there’s a difference between having lots of clues and having the murderer write his home address in blood on the wall.

But, in reality, while a mystery is seemingly defined by a lack of knowledge, the actual action of a mystery is not the withholding of knowledge but rather the discovery of knowledge.

Let me put it another way: Strip the magic out of this scenario. Imagine that you’ve designed a mystery scenario in which there was a witness to the crime. The PCs turn to this witness and say, “Who killed him?” and the witness says, “It was Bob.” And it turns out Bob is just standing there, so they arrest him. End of mystery.

You wouldn’t conclude that you can’t do mystery scenarios because people can talk to each other right?

Speak with dead should be no more alarming than an FBI team taking fingerprints or a CSI team enhancing video and running facial analysis.


You may also see people suggesting that you “nerf” the spell to one degree or another. (Corpses that refuse to answer questions, for example.) Nothing is more frustrating to a player than having their smart choices blocked because the GM has some preconceived notion of how they’re supposed to be investigating the crime.

But what you can do is design your mysteries to the reality of the spell. Generally speaking, after all, people in the game world know that the spell exists, right? So they aren’t going to plan their murders in ways that will expose them. (Any more than people in a magic-free setting will commit their murders while standing directly in front of surveillance of cameras.) They will find ways to conceal their identity; they may even find ways to try to use the spell to frame other people. (For example, imagine a murder scenario where the victim thinks one of the PCs did it because the perpetrator used a polymorph spell.)


The same advice generally applies to other divination spells, too. The only divination effects which are truly problematic are those which allow you to contact omniscient beings and receive crystal clear information from them. Fortunately, these spells basically don’t exist in D&D (and most other games). The closest you can get are commune and contact other plane, but both are explicitly limited to the knowledge of the entity you’re contacting. (1st Edition AD&D actually had a lovely table for determining “Likelihood of Knowledge” and “Veracity”.)


Something I like to occasionally do during a session is to speak in tongues. It can be a nice touch of flavor to have one of the orcs the party is talking to turn to their comrade and whisper something in unintelligible orcish. Or to have an elf lord curse at them with silken invectives. Or have the strange, angelic being woken from an elder age quiz them in the stilted tones of a forgotten common tongue.

When I do this, of course, it’s not actually important that what I’m saying actually means anything. (If you actually know a fantasy tongue like Tolkien’s Quenya, that’s fantastic, but not required for this technique to be effective. And sprinkling in established words from a fantasy language as a sort of slang is a different thing, albeit also cool.) What is important is that the content flows, varies, and has a consistent tone. In other words, it needs to sound like someone actually speaking.

However, this can be difficult to smoothly achieve. To assist with this effect, I’ve created a tool I refer to as a Fantasy Lorem Ipsum: For each fantasy language, I have two pages of pre-generated text (which can be printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper). When I want to “speak” in that language, I can simply choose a location on the sheet and begin performing from it. You can also use these sheets to quickly generate handouts by copying and pasting a chunk of text. (You can then provide the “translation” separately if one of the PCs knows the language.)

Ancient Common

GM Screen @ The Alexandrian

The use of a GM screen can be a surprisingly contentious subject in the running of a roleplaying game. The critics consider them superfluous at best or intrinsically damaging to the dynamic of the game (due to inducing issues of trust and social separation) at worst. But I, personally, find them valuable more often than not, and I’d like to share my thoughts on how they can be used to best effect.

First, I don’t like the older style of portrait-oriented screens. Their height does, in my opinion, create an unnatural barrier between the GM and the players. They feel like a giant wall, cutting off the natural expression of body language.

Landscape-oriented screens, on the other hand, don’t have that problem. As the GM, I can see everything that’s happening on the table and the players can freely see my body language. As long as you’re playing with a table surface, there’s no meaningful disadvantage to the use of the screen and, in my experience, there are two significant advantages.


The most basic function of the screen is to block the player’s line of sight to my notes and maps. This is important to me not because I think my players are horrible cheaters who are trying to peek at my notes; it’s because I consider it a common courtesy. If I’m inviting people over to watch a movie, I don’t hang a poster with spoilers for the movie next to the TV screen and ask them to avert their eyes from it.

The same principle applies here. In fact, rather than inhibiting a personal connection between me and the players, I often find that a landscape screen enhances it: When you don’t obstruct your maps and such, players will often avert their eyes from your end of the table in order to avoid glancing at them.


I’m a pretty huge advocate of being able to simultaneously display multiple pieces of information in order to facilitate rapid referencing and cross-referencing while running the game. (This is also why I don’t like running games from a laptop: The search functionality can be useful, but being able to only look at one page of information at a time while GMing is like trying to run a marathon with your legs tied behind your back.)

Therefore, being able to position reference material in a vertical place (so that it doesn’t take up surface space) is, in my opinion, insanely useful. In addition, positioning persistent reference material for the system and/or game world on the screen creates a consistent spatial familiarity that makes referencing that material faster and more efficient. (Instead of figuring out where the cheat sheet packet is currently lying on the table, picking it up, and flipping through it, I instead know that I can reach out to my right, flip up a piece of paper, and look directly at the skill difficulty guidelines. After just a couple of sessions, I basically don’t even have to think about it any more. It becomes autonomic.)

My typical table arrangement when GMing is:

  • A customizable, landscape GM screen with four panels of information.
  • 2-3 pieces of paper displayed behind the screen.
  • One or more TV trays to my left side, which I use to hold my rulebooks and also display 4-6 additional sheets of information (which often includes one or more rulebooks flipped open to the appropriate page reference).

Without the GM screen, my quick reference material not only becomes less efficient, it also begins encroaching into the space I use for other reference material. This becomes a cascading problem, as useful resources get bumped out of circulation. With less information at my fingertips, it becomes more difficult to run complicated, interconnected scenarios.


GM Screen @ The Alexandrian

As useful as the reference material on a GM screen can be, the sad reality is that most published GM screens feature a lot of non-essential information while not including material that would actually be useful when running the game. As a result, I use a modular, customizable landscape (like the ones you can buy here or here).

IMAGES: Buying the PDF version of an official landscape screen is often a good way to stock the player-facing side of your screen. But in an era of Google Image Search, the whole world of art and photography is your playground.

Personally, I tend to avoid trying to find single mural-style images that will go across the entire breadth of the screen. Finding multiple images to make up a polyptych is easier, and it also gives you the opportunity to highlight multiple facets of the game / world / campaign. I also recommend finding images that depict things the PCs could theoretically see, rather than images of main characters who aren’t the PCs doing awesome things. (It’s more immersive and suggestive of the game world that way, while allowing the table to remain focused on the narrative you’re creating instead of some other narrative that’s being depicted.)

(In the past I’ve also played with stocking the player-facing side of the screen with player-relevant reference material. But I’ve found that reading the material at any meaningful distance is usually difficult and, for players (who usually juggle less reference material), it’s easier to just use cheat sheet packets. Your mileage may vary.)

REFERENCE MATERIAL: I design System Cheat Sheets for many of the RPGs I run, particularly those featuring complicated mechanics. These reference sheets can then be conveniently slid into the modular screen.

A major conceptual breakthrough for me was the Hackmaster GameMaster’s Shield, which included flip-up panels:

Hackmaster GameMaster's Shield - KenzerCo

Copying this same technique, I now use reverse-duplex printing to create sheets that I can tape together and flip up to reveal additional information behind them. This allows me to easily put 12 landscape-formatted sheets within easy reach. (And there’s no reason I couldn’t expand that to a third layer of information to give me 20 sheets, although I haven’t actually found a game so complicated that I would need to do that yet.)

Ninja Matryoshka Dolls

One of the things I talked about in The Art of the Key is the conceptual organization of material from the general to the specific: What the PCs immediately see. What they might see. What they can investigate. What they see when they investigate X. This organization, in turn, naturally mimics the way in which the game space is explored during actual play. (Which means that the basic conceptual structure is useful whether you’re keying a location or improvising on the fly.)

I’ve recently realized that there is a specific elaboration upon this general structure that (a) I’ve been using in play for several years without really consciously thinking about it, and which (b) has proven to be very effective. I’m now referring to it as a Matryoshka Search.

Let’s say that PCs are exploring the bedroom of a serial killer. There’s a hidden trap door in the floor leading down to the killer’s mystic butchering chamber. The basic way of handling this scenario looks like this:

Player: There’s gotta be more here. I search the room.
GM: Give me a Search check.
Player: (rolls dice) 25
GM: You find a secret trap door in the floor.

That obviously works just fine. But what I’ll frequently end up doing instead is something like this:

Player: There’s gotta be more here. I search the room.
GM: Give me a Search check.
Player: (rolls dice) 25
GM: There are scuff marks on the floor around the legs of the bed.
Player: As if the bed had been moved back and forth a lot?
GM: Yeah.
Player: I shove the bed to one side and take a look.
GM: You find a secret trap door in the floor.

Instead of immediately discovering the item of interest, the character instead discovers an indicator pointing in the direction of the item of interest. The advantage is that it allows (and even requires) the player to receive information and then draw a conclusion. It’s a subtle distinction, but the result increases the player’s engagement and reduces the feeling that the GM is just handing them whatever information he feels like. I call it the Matryoshka search technique because it turns the interaction into a nested doll: One investigation “opens” new information, which can then be opened by another investigation in turn.

We could also look at this through the lens of the Art of Rulings: The GM is setting an initial threshold for player expertise activating character expertise which is fairly low. (All the player needs to do is say that they want to make a Search check.) But once the character’s expertise has given some sort of result, the GM hits the pause button, turns the interaction back to the player, and basically raises the required threshold. (“Your original declaration has taken you this far, but now I need more information.”) This can make the technique a good way of compromising between players who prefer a very low threshold of player expertise and GMs who want their players to engage more directly with the game world. It’s a naturalistic way of asking, “How are you doing that?” while still moving the action forward.

The Matryoshka technique works even when the indicator really only points at one possible conclusion, as it does in the example above. (Although even in the case of the bed being frequently moved there’s still the question of WHY the bed is moving.) But it can be even more effective if there are multiple explanations possible, requiring additional inquiry and thought before firm conclusions can be reached. As a very simple example, the GM might say, “Taking a closer look at the floor, you can see through the dust and grime clear indications of square-shaped seams.” Is it a pit trap? Is it a pedestal that rises up? Do the seams release poison gas or a force cage projected from below? The player is going to have to figure it out.

This technique is particularly valuable if you’re running the GUMSHOE system: Because every skill use in GUMSHOE is guaranteed to succeed, it can be very easy for investigation actions in the system to feel like “laundry lists” with the player simply naming the skills they want to use and then the GM handing them dollops of information. Matryoshka nesting of information can prevent the automatic successes from becoming lifeless.

Many people are familiar with the 5 Room Dungeon. It’s a simple little structure that you can very quickly pour content into, allowing you to create simple dungeon scenarios on the fly. Basically you design a dungeon with 5 rooms, and in those rooms you place:

  • Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
  • Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
  • Room 3: Red Herring
  • Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
  • Room 5: Plot Twist

Depending on the system you’re using and exactly what you stock each room with, this should produce about 2-4 hours of game play.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the 5 Room Dungeon: Partially because its structure is too rigid (which results in effective material, but also very predictable material if you use it too frequently). And partially because a remarkable number of people preach it as the one-true-way of dungeon design (which isn’t really the fault of the structure itself, but combines rather horribly with the first problem).

But what the 5 Room Dungeon does a very good job of demonstrating is how valuable it can be to have a simple structure like this in your back pocket. Not only does it let you very quickly (and very effectively) prep simple scenarios, it’s also incredibly useful when you need to start improvising during a session: You can very quickly brainstorm ideas, paste them into the proven scenario structure, and know that the result is, on a basic level, going to work.

I’ve got a similar structure that I default to whenever I’m looking to whip up something simple and quick. I’ve come to call it…


The 5 Node Mystery structure arose pretty much completely independently from the 5 Room Dungeon, but the repetition of the number 5 isn’t really coincidence: Five good, meaty chunks of interactive material is pretty much what you need to fill an evening of gaming. The interaction between five different elements is also roughly the bare minimum complexity required to create something more meaningful than a solitary random encounter. Nothing wrong with a random encounter, of course, but if you’re looking for the next step up — if, for example, you’re interested in what the random encounter might lead to — then this is basically what you’re looking for.

You use the 5 Node Mystery when you want a simple, fairly straight-forward investigation. It uses node-based scenario design and it works like this:

1. Figure out what the mystery is about. Was someone murdered? Was something stolen? Who did it? Why did they do it?

2. What’s the hook? How do the PCs become aware that there’s a mystery to be solved? If it’s a crime, this will usually be the scene of the crime. It could also be “place where weird shit is happening”. Or maybe someone or something comes to the PCs and brings the mystery with them. (Thugs kicking down the door is a classic.)

3. What’s the conclusion? Where do they learn the ultimate answers and/or get into a big fight with the bad guy? (Big fights with bad guys are a really easy way to manufacture a satisfying conclusion.) This will be your Node E.

4. Brainstorm three cool locations or people related to the mystery. Ex-wife of the bad guy? Drug den filled with werewolves? Stone circle that serves as a teleport gate? These will be your Nodes B, C, and D. (Hint: Brainstorm more than three items. Then pick the three coolest ideas. You’ll end up with better stuff. Also: Before you toss the other ideas, see if there’s any way that you can combine them with the three you picked and make them even cooler.)

5. You’ve got five nodes. Connect ’em with clues. The default structure looks like this:

5 Node Mystery

The basic idea here is that Node A points you in three different directions (although, remember, the PCs might find only one of the clues). Then those three locations point to each other and also point towards the big conclusion. Simple.

You’ll also find that the precise structure of the 5 Node Mystery is easy to modify on the fly. In some cases, you’ll find that the nature of the scenario will pretty much dictate the pattern of the clues. (For example, while working on the Violet Spiral Gambit — which was designed in a few hours using this structure — I discovered that it made more sense for the initial node to point to two locations and then have those two locations point to a third. Then I loaded up that third location with a bunch of different clues all pointing to the conclusion.) About the only thing you should avoid as a general rule are clues pointing directly from Node A to your conclusion.

There is a possibility in this structure, of course, for the PCs to go from Node A to Node B to Node E (skipping Nodes C and D). In some cases, the scenario will be modular enough that this just means the conclusion isn’t what you thought it was. (You thought the conclusion was a big showdown with a bad guy in the violet tower at the center of the graveyard. Turns out, it was actually a rooftop chase as the badly injured PCs try to escape the werewolves from the drug den.) In other cases, the nodes left behind the PCs will metastasize into new adventures — either because the werewolves end up causing trouble or because when the PCs go back to mop-up the werewolves they’ll find clues pointing them to other scenarios.


Seasoning your scenario with clues pointing to other scenarios is actually a pretty good way to start expanding from 5 Node Mysteries into designing more interwoven campaigns.

1. Design five 5 Node Mysteries. You might have some idea about how they all relate to each other as you’re designing them, but maybe not. Discovering how seemingly unrelated things are actually connected to each other is a great way to make both things richer and more interesting.

2. Arrange the 5 Mysteries into the same node pattern. In other words, Mystery A will have clues pointing to Mysteries B, C, and D. Mystery B will have clues pointing to Mysteries C, D, and E. And so forth. (If you didn’t already know how the mysteries related to each other, the process of figuring out how clues for Mystery D ended up over in Mystery B is the part where you’re going to figure that out.)

As you’re seeding your clues into each mystery, mix it up a bit. Some clues will be the “pay-off” for solving the first mystery: You’ve taken out El Pajarero, but who was he really working for?! But don’t fall into the trap of always putting the clues in the concluding node. Spread ’em around a bit.

And that’s basically it. It’s a very simple technique for you to use, but you’ll find that (much like the technique of the second track) it creates experiences for your players which are complicated, interesting, and ornate.

Game Structures
Node-Based Scenario Design
Gamemastery 101



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