Tag Results

Building Better Gods

“I’m the god of fire. I have fire powers” “Fire powers? What are you, a superhero?” We’re in the middle of a game and you need to make up a god. Because you know, we’re gamers, we have to create whole worlds, gods, civilizations on the fly. What do you do? The number one approach […]

Ben Robbins | November 17th, 2021 | , , | 2 comments

Eliciting Reactions: Cart Meet Horse

So we’re having dinner and she says “When I GM, how do I inspire awe in the players? I want them to look at something and just go ‘wow!’” GMs ask many subspecies of this question. How do I make them love some character I made? How do I scare them? How do I make […]

Ben Robbins | January 12th, 2012 | | 6 comments

Instant Names: Mythic Flavor

Another instant name trick, this one for making up mythic titles on the fly while maintaining a strong cultural flavor. We just played a pre-Conquistador Aztec game (and by “pre” I mean, “hey, what’s that white sail on the horizon?”) so we got to whip it out. And now I share it with you. First, […]

Ben Robbins | April 4th, 2011 | | 5 comments

Bears Are Not (That) Scary

It’s the Halloween season, so we return to that old chestnut: fear. I’ve talked a little about scaring players before, or more accurately, getting players to be willing to let themselves be scared, but let’s talk about fear itself. Rumor has it there is nothing else to fear. There’s pretty much two breeds of fear: […]

Ben Robbins | October 21st, 2010 | | 5 comments

Crisscrossing Players and Plots and Not Losing Your Mind

After West Marches I ran a long-term superhero game, New Century City. Unlike West Marches it followed the more traditional “the GM creates a situation and the players have fun with it” model, which was fitting because superhero games are one of the most reactive genres you can play: villains hatch schemes, heroes react to […]

Ben Robbins | March 22nd, 2010 | , , | 19 comments

Character Monologue: Tell Us What It’s Like To Be You

Our heroes have just come back to town after exploring the wastelands, and the GM asks Fred what his character, Skark the scavenger, is doing. “He’s looking around to see if he can buy some more shotgun shells, then he’ll check in at the weather tower to see if they picked up any new radio […]

Ben Robbins | October 13th, 2009 | , | 20 comments

Instant Names: the One-Letter Trick

This trick is really too simple to even mention, but when I bring it up at games I’m always surprised that people don’t know it, so I’ll record it for posterity. Say you’re stumped coming up with a name for a character in your average fantasy / sci-fi / not-modern-day-Earth setting. Here’s what you do: […]

Ben Robbins | March 1st, 2009 | | 6 comments

Making the Party: Wedge Issues

“You’re playing a grizzled veteran detective? But I’m playing a grizzled veteran detective!?!” Simple stereotypes are great starting points for character creation, but it also means it’s super-easy for two players to wind up with character concepts that look identical. Increase those odds by an order of magnitude in class-based rule systems (“but I’m playing […]

Ben Robbins | October 6th, 2008 | , | 5 comments

Treasure Tells A Story

If you’ve played in any of the basic dungeon crawling analogs, you’ve experienced that magical post-combat moment: treasure anticipation. There’s loot — you know there’s loot — but you don’t know what it is yet. Your brain is awash with the endless possibilities, visions of the shiny wonders that could be stashed in the ogre’s […]

Ben Robbins | June 26th, 2008 | , | 22 comments

Game Plugin: Instant Rivalries

[What’s a game plugin? Go read the working definition. Basically it’s a rules add-on that can work with any game system, so whip it out when you play D&D, Traveller, Ars Magica, Vampire, Fudge, whatever] The Instant Rivalries game plugin establishes relationships and dramatic tension between player characters in any game system. Rivalries can be […]

Ben Robbins | June 17th, 2008 | | 9 comments

Try Something New: the Indie Exploration Kit

Tomorrow the new edition of D&D is coming out. At first it’s going to seem very different from what you’ve played before, and in some ways it will be, but in more ways it will be the same. Compared to Third Edition D&D it may be a brave new world, a revolution even, but both […]

Ben Robbins | June 5th, 2008 | | 3 comments

Keeping the Peace: Applying Social Sanctions

There are a lot of things a GM does to run a great game: straight man, creative enabler, spinner of fantastic yarns, tactical challenger, person who makes all the funny voices… But there’s one job that I see GMs forget to do more than any other, and that’s keeping players in line. Oooh, shades of […]

Ben Robbins | April 30th, 2008 | | 5 comments

Be Interested

When you look out from behind your GM screen at all those beaming faces, there is a natural human tendency to focus on what is interesting. Chuck is doing cool stuff, so you pay attention to Chuck. You react to what he’s doing, which means the game world does too. The other players aren’t doing […]

Ben Robbins | February 27th, 2008 | , , | 5 comments

Yin & Yang of GMing

There are two conflicting urges in every GM, forces that boil like seething dragons twisting in the blood (and so on): 1) the urge to tell the players a story, impress them with your craft, be in control of the game 2) the urge to have the players do stuff, take control, be independent and […]

Ben Robbins | December 16th, 2007 | | 7 comments

Backdrop Plots: May You Live In Interesting Times

Detectives investigate a string of grisly murders around the city. That’s a fine plot for a game. It covers the basics by providing a clear problem, a potential for action, and a motivation for the players to get involved (they could be the detectives, the vengeful bereaved, or someone who may be next on the […]

Ben Robbins | September 25th, 2007 | | 12 comments

Rolling for Roleplaying: the Virtual Roll

Player: “… and after enumerating the logistical problems, I finish up by explaining that if the King invades now, he’s just repeating the same mistakes that doomed Badon IV when he marched into these very lands two hundred years ago, a fatal error that brought his glorious reign to an ignominous end.” GM: “Ooooh nicely […]

Ben Robbins | August 29th, 2007 | | 12 comments

Burning Spotlight

Players want play time. Forget about treasure, XP, or hero points: the only reward that really counts is getting to play. Would you sit out a game to get more XP? Would you play for half as long if you could get twice as much treasure? Maybe if some trade of less game now = […]

Ben Robbins | July 8th, 2007 | | 5 comments

Plot vs Premise: Running Crime Games

Crimes are a villain staple. Bank robbery, arson, kidnapping, and the ever-popular holding the city for ransom – it’s what villains do. But in games there are really only two kinds of crimes: those where the specific crime matters (plot), and those where the crime is just a setting for the action (premise). A classic […]

Ben Robbins | June 6th, 2007 | | 4 comments

Learn to Explain Failure

If you want to be a good GM, one of the most important things you can do is learn to explain failure. Player characters fail all the time. They try to leap onto moving horses (whoops, trampled), talk obstinate shopkeeps into extending small loans (taciturn glare, veiled threats to call the city watch), or bulls-eye […]

Ben Robbins | May 11th, 2007 | , | 13 comments

Situations not Plots

A sorcerer-wight has awakened in his barrow after his ancestral necklace was filched by a hobbit thief, and he has sent undead minions forth to sack the countryside and find it. That’s a plot. You (the GM) know it’s a cool idea, but the players aren’t going to see that until they put all the […]

Ben Robbins | December 24th, 2006 | , | 11 comments

Anatomy of an Action Scene

As we’ve already confessed, you are not going to remember GM tips at the table, in the heat of the moment. Things happen fast during a game, and it will come down to your personality and instincts (your GM reflexes) not pages of advice you read somewhere. Designing the game is another matter entirely. There […]

Ben Robbins | December 22nd, 2006 | , | 1 comment

Left Hand and the Right Hand

So a Second AI, independent of the adversary AIs, could make a whole new species of better video games. Good. But it also tells us something about tabletop gaming, and that's that the GM is really wearing two hats, or to use a better metaphor, playing the game with two hands. With the left hand, […]

Ben Robbins | November 26th, 2006 | | 2 comments


Normal weapons can’t kill the zombies. MicroMan doesn’t trust Captain Fury. The lake monster is really Old Man Wiggins in a rubber mask. These are Revelations. They are things you want the players to find out so that they can make good choices or just understand what is going on in the game. Revelations advance […]

Ben Robbins | October 25th, 2006 | , , | 3 comments

Run Club

GMs run games and players play. Some people do both, but more often than not everyone stays on their side of the screen. There are a myriad of subtle social forces that encourage things to stay this way (comfortable players, GMs threatened by others usurping their position, etc.) but we’re not going to worry about […]

Ben Robbins | October 17th, 2006 | , , | 4 comments