Monthly Archives: March 2010

Want to be a Better GM? Ask Your Players

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rpg blog carnival logoHow do you know how good a GM you are? You’ll need to ask your players. Below is a questionnaire I hand out to my players from time to time to find out what’s good about my game and what needs to be improved. Please feel free to change, update, modify the questions to fit your game.

[This article is part of the March 2010 RPG Blog Carnival: How to be a Better GM].

GM and Game Evaluation Questionnaire

Please check all answers that apply. Feel free to add any commentary, answers, or smart-ass remarks ūüėČ .

1. Game difficulty

  • I think your game is much too easy for characters. No matter how stupidly we play, we always achieve our goals
  • Your game is much too difficult. If I wanted the brutality of real life, I’d watch the evening news.
  • I think your game is at a good difficulty level.

2. PC experience / power level

  • I like to play beginning characters, who are just figuring out their abilities and how to use them.
  • I prefer to play mid-level character who know their abilities and have some clout in the game world.
  • Really powerful characters are the most interesting. I like the challenges that come from having a lot of ability.
  • I like starting with low-powered characters and work my way up to the be as powerful as the game allows.

3. Gaming Group Size

  • I prefer small groups of 2-3 players.
  • I think medium-sized groups of 4-8 work the best.
  • I fell that really large groups (10+ players) are the most fun.

4. Character Death

  • I don’t think PCs should die. Ever.
  • It’s okay if the GM kills a PC every once in a great while, but only if they die heroically and during a hard struggle, or if their death can have some meaning.
  • I don’t think the GM should kill PCs, but if the PCs get themselves into a fatal conflict, the GM shouldn’t rush in to save them.
  • PCs should drop like flies.

5. Threat of Character Death

  • I like knowing that my character probably won’t die. It allows me to take more risks than I would otherwise.
  • I would find it more interesting if there were more of a threat of death over my characters head.

6. NPC Quality

  • Your non-player characters really help bring your game to life. We run into the most interesting and/or believable people.
  • Your NPCs are okay. Every once in a while we get a really great one, but the rest are a little cardboard. They could use some more individuality or development.
  • Your NPCs are totally flat and unbelievable. Where did you get them–a Dover paper doll collection?

7. Story Quality

  • The stories in your game are really good. The make the game interesting and enjoyable.
  • Why do you make your players think so hard? I just want to hit things!
  • Your game is too intense; couldn’t you lighten up a little? Do we have to have to do major soul-searching every game session?
  • Your game isn’t intense enough. Let’s have some depth and meaning here.
  • I don’t care about a story–it just interferes with my hitting things.
  • You have a story?

8. Game Session Mood

  • I like it when GMs vary the moods of their game sessions, like running a silly session after a particularly dramatic one.
  • I prefer it when the GM varies the mood within the game session, but keeps the overall mood of the game the same.
  • I like roleplaying to be serious and intense. The GM should never let up on the pressure.

9. Game Humor

  • Your game has too much humor for me.
  • Your game has too little humor for me
  • Your game has just the right amount of humor for me.

10. Game Pacing

  • The pace of action in your game is just right. Things are happening fast enough to keep me interested, but not so fast that the game feels out of control.
  • I think thing are happening way to fast in the game. I can’t keep up with it.
  • Your pacing is too slow. Please pick it up a little, I’m getting bored.
  • Your pacing is too inconsistent from one game session to the next. Please smooth it out.
  • Some more variety in your pacing would make your game more interesting.
  • Pacing? You have pacing?

11. Creating Characters

  • I prefer to create my characters one-on-one with the GM, even if it takes a few weeks to actually start playing. The mystery about the other characters off-sets the delay.
  • I prefer to create my characters a group so that we can balance our party.
  • I like to create characters with the whole group, but I don’t want to know much about the other PCs until play starts.

12. Background Information Sheets

[I always create a short background information sheet–one to two pages–that tells players how their character fits into the game world].

  • I loved the background sheets you created for our characters. It makes me feel like I have a real place in the game world.
  • I didn’t care one way or the other about the background sheets you created.
  • I hated the background sheets. You mean I have to learn this stuff about my character before I can actually play?

13. Character Advancement Knowledge

  • I don’t like any ambiguity about my character. I want to know how much experience I have at all times.
  • I don’t mind not knowing how much experience I’ve gained, number-wise, but I want to be told when my abilities or powers increase.
  • I like not knowing exactly where I stand, experience-wise. I enjoy finding out about ability and power increases through game play.

14. Adult Content in Games

  • I would feel comfortable role-playing “adult scenes” (sex, etc.) with this group.
  • I would feel okay about role-playing adult content with the GM (i.e., with an NPC) or with the player involved, but I want to do it in a one-on-one situation.
  • I don’t think sexual and other such situations should be role-played at all. Just acknowledge that it happened and move on.
  • I don’t think the game should contain any adult content at all.
  • Is hitting things adult content?
  • What a question! I’m not sure how I feel about it; I think we should discuss it as a group.

15. Power Balance.

Your game gives too much advantage to:

  • magic
  • combat skills
  • psionics
  • class abilities
  • other [please specify]:

16. Power Restrictions.

Your game puts too many restrictions on:

  • magic
  • combat skills
  • psionics
  • class abilities
  • other [please specify]:

17. Event Balance.

Your game could use more/less [please circle your choice]:

  • magical events
  • combats
  • power contests
  • NPC enounters
  • non-combat skill challenges
  • other [please specify]:

18. Player Input

  • You don’t let the players have enough input in how the game runs. After all, it’s our game too.
  • You let one/more of the players bully you too much. You need to be stronger about making executive decisions.
  • You expect too much input from the players. We don’t want to have to make every decision–that’s why we have a GM.
  • The amount of input we have is just about right.

19. Mid-Campaign Rule Changes.

I would rather you:

  • Discussed the situation with the group so that we can have a say in how things are going to work from now on.
  • Do whatever you want. It’s your game.
  • There should never be any mid-campaign rule changes. You should always play by the rules you set up in the beginning, even if they don’t seem to be working.
  • I don’t mind some mid-campaign rule changes, but if they’re going to affect my character, I’d like a chance to change my character so that my character idea stays consistent with the new rules.
  • Make all the changes you¬† want as long as it doesn’t hinder my ability to hit things.

20. Rule Questions.

On the occasions when you can’t remember a particular rule, I would rather you:

  • Look up the answer, no matter how long it takes.
  • Only look up the answer if you feel you absolutely have to.
  • Never look up anything during play. I’d prefer you make a decision, any decision, as long as you don’t slow down play.

21. Bad Rulings.

When you realize you’ve made a “bad call” in a previous session, I’d prefer you to:

  • Discuss it with the group before you begin the next session and come to a group consensus about how to run similar situations in the future.
  • Tell the group you made a ruling you’re unhappy with and explain how you’d handle it differently in the future, but not allow any changes to the events of that previous session.
  • Tell the group you made a ruling you’re unhappy with and allow the party a “do over” with your new ruling.
  • Don’t tell anyone and just run it differently next time. Every situation is different, after all.

22. Adherence to Printed Rules

  • GMs should always go exactly by the rule book at all times.
  • Each GM creates an individual version of the game universe. The books are really only background and guide-lines.
  • Make what ever rules you want, as long as it doesn’t harm my ability to hit things.

23. Adherence to Source Material,

If your game is based on pre-existing source material (such as Dr. Who, Serenity, Amber, etc.):

  • I don’t like it when you deviate from from the published background material. You should follow pre-existing material exactly.
  • I like it if you’re not tied down to published material. It makes your game more interesting because I don’t know what’s going to happen.
  • I don’t mind some deviation from pre-existing source material, if there’s an in-game reason for it that we, as players, could potentially find out.
  • I don’t care about pre-existing source material. I just want to hit things.

24. Internal Consistency

  • Your game is internally inconsistent. Please keep better notes so aspects of the game world don’t suddenly change on us without warning.
  • Your game is very consistent. New information builds logically on old information we already know.
  • I don’t care about consistency. I just want to hit things.

25. In-Game Time. Time in our game is:

  • Consistent. It makes sense, even if the GM plays with it some; there’s always an in-game reason for any inconsistencies.
  • Inconsistent. In one session, it takes us two weeks to get from our fortress to the capital, in another it takes us two days. What gives?

26. GM-Player Direction

  • We could use more direction in your game. We spend too much time stumbling around blindly.
  • You’re directing us too much. We want off the train tracks.
  • You give us the right amount of direction. We can choose our own path through the game world, but if we get lost, you always give us in-game assisstence.
  • I’m not sure what you’re doing, but it works for me.

27. Types of Adventures.

I’d like your game to have more or less [please indicate which] of the following:

  • Dungeon adventures
  • Wilderness adventure
  • City adventures
  • Combat scenes
  • Role-playing scenes
  • I like the mix you currently have

28. Intra-Party Conflict

  • I think they’re way too much intra-party conflict in your game. PCs should always work together and should know each others’ strengths and and weaknesses. Otherwise, how can we plan anything?
  • I like it when PCs are at cross-purposes to one another, but not to the point of harming another party member or making it impossible for the party to accomplish things together.
  • I love intra-party conflict. Bring it on! That’s what makes the game fun for me.

29. Session Rating.

In general, your game sessions are:

  • fantastic
  • pretty good
  • fun
  • better than being hung up by my toes for four hours
  • a few more like least ones and I’ll stay home an wash my hair
  • awful; I didn’t get to hit things once!

30. The Best Part

The best part of your game is:

  • the incredible detail of your game universe.
  • the fascinating NPCs.
  • the intrigue and politics.
  • seeing my characters advance.
  • the inventiveness you encourage in your players.
  • the fact the PCs can have major and permanent effects on the game world.
  • the interaction you encourage between the players
  • other [Please specify]:
  • There’s nothing enjoyable about your game.

31. Please add any information you think I should know.

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Change Your Hat, Change Your Character

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hatsI myself have 12 hats, and each one represents a different personality.  Why just be yourself?
–Margaret Atwood

I love props. I’m constantly making props for my games, from fake newspaper articles to treasure maps. Sure, you can tell your players what their characters fine, but then they’re seeing the prop through your eyes. You can’t help but put a spin on their findings as you describe them. Having an actual prop the players can handle allows them to form their own opinions without any “coloration” by the GM.

(Photo courtesy of / CC BY 2.0)

Why use props?

Props can also help you get into character. This is what I love most about them. Each of my characters has (PCs and important NPCs) has something that identifies them.  Not only does this prop help distinguish one character from another, the type of prop chosen says something about the character who uses it.

The¬† main props I use with my PCs are costumes. Every one of the characters I play has a “costume” that comes straight out of my wardrobe. Now, that doesn’t mean I come to the gaming table looking like a refugee from the local Renaissance Faire (though that can certainly be a lot of fun once in a while). Instead, I find something in my wardrobe that reminds me of my character.

For Galen, my 14th level human bard/sorcerer, it’s a purple tank top with a green shirt over it, his patron’s colors. On the other hand, Feynan, my half-elven rogue/sorcerer with a penchant for lightening, requires an orange tank-top. Rafe, a classic WoD mage, wears a black leather motorcycle jacket, while Naiya, a Tremere vampire always sports an antique rhinestone necklace. The one thing all these costumes have in common is that none of them cause anyone to look oddly at me when I stop at the grocery store for some snacks. Having a prop (or clothing article) helps me get into character before the game even starts.

Props as a GM tool

I find props immensely valuable as a GM tool, as well. Now, I don’t worry about a prop for every Tom, Dick an Haley in my game; only the major NPCs get props. But having a prop for each character allows for two things: 1) my players know immediately who they’re talking to and 2) it helps me keep my NPCs straight and helps keep me from getting sidetracked. Having something in my hand or on me reminds me to stay focused on that one character.

Types of good props

Hats make great props for NPCs because they’re generally quick and easy to put on and take off. Small trinkets, particularly if they inspire a physical mannerism, also work really well. Perhaps your NPC likes to stack coins, play with Chinese harmony balls, or roll dice. Maybe he always has a toothpick in his mouth. Or maybe she carries a walking stick or cane and uses it to punctuate her speech. Or perhaps he doodles while he talks or creates origami animals.

Using props

The main point when using props is to avoid overusing them or making them so obvious they upstage the what you’re saying. Usually, a prop in use should be subtle, something the character does absent-mindedly. You want to use the prop in such a way that it helps the players remember who they’re talking to, but without causing the prop to take center stage.

Notice, though, that I said usually. Sometimes a prop is absolutely crucial to the story. If your players know that any prop you pick up when you’re speaking in character actually exists in the game, you can have an NPC play with it to bring it to the PCs attention. Or you can place it on the table in front of you and wait until someone asks about it.

Any of the techniques above can help your players (and you) feel more immersed in the game. Props are great tools for both players and GM. You can start small — pick one prop for you PC or for a major NPC. Think of a way that character would use that prop. You know you’ve really got it down when your players can tell who they’re speaking to without you having to say a single name.

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From the Basement: Tales from the Floating Vagabond

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floating-vagabond-coverSam the Bartender: Okay, you’re facing a small horde of Disgustingly Cute Furry Things and behind them are a handful of space NAZIs who seem to be driving the DCFT directly at you.
Rufus: Hey Guys! I’m not really seeing a choice here: I think we’re going to have to get through the DCFTs to get to the space NAZIs.
Callista: [Draws a sword]. Right!
Hairy: Aw, but they’re so cute…
Callista: Exactly. Sam, I’m going to cut my way through these critters to get at the space NAZIs.
Bartender: Give me Swing Nasty Pointy Thing roll. They’re all in one big pack, so make it a d6–you can’t swing without hitting at least one.
Callista: Actually, I’ve got Swing Nasty Pointy Thing With Panache. [Rolls d6] 3.
Bartender: You take down several of them with one swipe of your sword.
Callista: Did it do it With Panache?
Bartender: Give me a Look Good At All Times roll, d10.

Tales from the Floating Vagabond is an out-of-print Avalon Hill game that bills itself as a “Ludicrous Adventure in a Universe Whose Natural Laws Are Out To Lunch.” It’s also a pretty good description of the game. In what other game can your character have skills like Mess With Dangerous Goop, Chase Cars, or Make Wiseass Remark? Where else can you fire a Don’t Point That Thing At My Planet-sized gun or use a Guttern Exten-Do-Spear or a Weedeater (yes, the stats for it are in the book. It’s a classified as a Long Nasty Pointy Thing weapon).

In addition to the usual skills and stats, every character¬† in Floating Vagabond has the chance to get a Schtick. The rules describe a Schtick as “something a character does or causes to happen around him that is designed to add to the comedic content of the game.” Each Schtick has a major effect and may have a minor effect. The major effect is something that can actually help a player, while the minor effect is primarily for comedic purposes. Schticks range from the Schwarzenegger Effect that allows the PC to ignore wound penalties and effects (as long as no one sees him get any kind of first aid) to the John Doe Effect that causes people to mistake the character for someone else they know.

The mechanics of Floating Vagabond are simple: the GM (called the “Bartender”) assigns a difficulty to the task at hand and tells the character to roll a die that corresponds to that difficulty level. The higher the difficulty, the more sides the die has. For example: a Pitifully Easy task requires a d4, while a Nigh Impossible task requires a d100. The player (called a “Patron”) then compares the resulting number to his skill level. If the number is lower than the skill level, he succeeds. Otherwise, he fails. Combat works different from skill mechanics, but is equally easy.

Tales from the Floating Vagabond is a great game for those nights when you don’t have enough players for your usual game. Characters can be created very quickly, or players (excuse me: Patrons) can use one of the sample characters given in the book. The book also contains a short adventure: “Excedrin Headache #186,000.” Avalon Hill also published a supplement (Bar Wars) and a couple of modules for the game.

Heck, the Patrons could even translate their regular characters into Floating Vagabond characters. This game takes the “You’re sitting in a bar” cliched adventure start and makes it the basis for the game. The Floating Vagabond itself is trans-dimensional bar and most adventures in this game start from there. The Floating Vagabond’s owner installed a Random Dimensional Portal Generator on the door of the establishment. Which¬† means people can go through the door of a bar or tavern in their own dimension and end up in the The Floating Vagabond.

As I mentioned above, TF2V has been out of print for many years now, but it’s currently available from, as are the supplement Bar Wars and two modules: The Reich Stuff and Hypercad 54, Where Are You? If you act really quickly (before 8 March 2010), you can get all the TF2V items they carry at a substantial discount in honor of GMs Day.

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