Category Archives: Games

Best Tips For Playing Prey

Prey is a big game. It’s long and it’s so puffed up with stuff that a lot of the time a player spends in its space station setting can feel more like a too-long chore list than a life and death journey to ward off an impending alien invasion. But Morgan Yu has a job to do. The enormous Talos I has to be saved and knowing what deserves her attention is the first step forward.

1. Don’t Expect Much From the Story

In its first hour, Prey sets up what looks to be a pretty decent science fiction story. For the rest of the game, it ignores it (until an unbelievably goofy post-credits twist ending). Players expecting to see the opening’s focus on alternate history and fallible memories develop throughout will be disappointed. Prey is better approached as a toy box. Its greatest accomplishments are in the many ways Morgan can choose to navigate the broken down space station, not in the story it’s hardly interested in telling.

2. If You Don’t Want to Fight the Monsters, Don’t Fight the Monsters

A last piece of guidance regarding tempered expectations: Prey is a lot of things, but a good shooter isn’t one of them. Though the player collects plenty of weapons—guns, grenades and super powered abilities alike—none of them are particularly enjoyable to use. Combat typically plays out as a panicked rush to find where aliens or turrets are attacking from then a blurry chaos of swinging wrenches or shooting bullets and bolts of energy at the target until it stops moving. For the most part, this can be avoided, especially in situations that require simply getting from one previously explored area to another. Prey’s stealth is a bit too messy to count on—the best way to avoid combat is to run as fast as possible to the appropriate elevator or airlock and leave the suckers behind.

3. Get the Robot Control Ability

Following the last piece of advice: get the ability that allows Morgan to hijack robots as soon as they start to represent a threat. The floating “operators” are one of the biggest nuisances of the game, spraying a constant beam of damaging laser when nearby. Being able to take control of them (and their evil cousin, the turret guns) so that they fight each other makes it easier to avoid a frequent annoyance. This ability is even more important later in the game when operators become, for a good long while, the most common enemy patrolling Talos I.

4. Upgrade the Shotgun

Even running from enemies or turning them against each other, getting through Prey still requires at least a bit of shooting. While most of the weapons aren’t too hot, the shotgun is pretty decent. Lining up a quick blast can tear a chunk off an alien’s health bar or, in some cases, take the smaller enemies out entirely. Morgan comes across a lot of weapon upgrade kits throughout the game. Make sure to apply most of them to the shotgun, the first and last choice in monster killing.

5. Transform Into Things

The only notable alien variety in Prey is the “mimic.” Most of the time it’s a pretty boring little creature that looks like a crab made out of tarry phlegm. But at others, it scuttles off into a corner and seems to disappear completely, turning into one of the many unassuming objects (coffee cup, gas canister, cardboard box) littering the space station. Once Morgan is able to access alien powers, she, too, can act like the mimic. It’s a great ability that makes hiding from enemies or moving through obstructed spaces possible. More importantly, it lets the player take control of an inanimate object and have it jump or roll around at the press of the button. At these moments, Prey turns into the Poltergeist game the universe has so far denied us.

6. Look Up

Talos I’s best feature is its high ceilings. Not only do they lend a sense of grandeur to some of the space station’s most lavish rooms, they often hide viable ways to access what might seem like blocked areas. The GLOO gun, which shoots out clouds of caulking, can be used to create ledges and ramps Morgan is able to scale. A stretch of metal grating might not look like much, but, as the basis for a makeshift climbing wall, it can turn into a pathway to a network of vents and structural beams that run across an entire area and above apparently closed-off areas.

7. GLOO Everything

The GLOO gun is both tool and weapon. It can be used to make paths to new areas, sure, but it can also gum up a gas pipe venting flame or a broken power terminal arcing deadly spikes of electricity into the air. Shooting bursts of it onto attacking mimics, robots and aliens also slows them down. Smacking them with the wrench or unloading some buckshot onto them while in this petrified state causes more damage than it otherwise would. The GLOO gun is handy in almost every situation the game can throw at Morgan. Keep it close by. Give it a pet name.

8. Go Outside

Prey’s interior space station design is sadly drab, but once Morgan heads through one of the airlocks that allow her outside it becomes much more visually exciting. When seen while floating around in zero gravity, Talos I seems like a more cohesive place. The moon glows nearby. Earth rises in the distance. Everything looks impressive and, more importantly, bizarre (a familiar view of space altered by the constant presence of a huge, human-constructed building) in a way that the rest of the game’s levels don’t. On a purely utilitarian front, finding and opening the airlocks also makes it quicker to get from level to level of the station. Zooming through space is far more enjoyable—and is usually less dangerous—than making the trek through the interior on foot.

9. Take Your Time

Talos I is big. It’s also overwhelmingly crammed with things to look at (and drawers to search through). Luckily, Prey’s story maintains a level of constant urgency so high that, ironically, it negates any real sense that Morgan needs to get things done anytime soon. Go to the next mission objective whenever you want. It’s not going anywhere and poking around the station is more rewarding anyway.

10. But Don’t Worry About Doing Everything

That first tip about Prey’s disappointing story applies to its side missions and scattered audio and text logs, too. If one of the many optional objectives seems dull, don’t worry about doing it. If a Talos I crewmate isn’t about to die, don’t worry about them. The narrative isn’t strong enough to make doing boring tasks worthwhile and Morgan will be tough enough to survive until the end of the game even if she skips some of the worst errands she’s asked to complete. Again, Prey is a toy box. What it succeeds at most is letting the player mess around with its many component parts. Take it on those terms.


Learn More About Tips for Game Masters

You are a Dungeon Master, a Storyteller, a Referee, an Animator, a Marshall, a Director or whatever your favorite role-playing game calls it. You are a Game Master. The GM. It’s hard but rewarding.

Most role-playing games have a little section of how to run a game. They discuss setting the mood, crafting stories, reacting to player surprises, and more. Great stuff. But none of them seem to give you concrete suggestions, tips to make your life as a GM easier. Any given game may have a suggestion or two, but certainly not a nice complete list.

Here is my collection of tips, appropriate for most role-playing games. Short and sweet. If you’ve got any comments, let me know.

The Golden Rule

Have fun.

Maybe you’re breaking a “rule” from a magazine article or web page. If you’re having fun, don’t worry about it.

For every bit of advice, guideline, or rule for better GMing, there is at least one game in your city, probably with people you know, that would be ruined by it.

All styles of play are valid

Hack and slash is fine if everyone involved likes it. Interacting with store keepers is fine. Angsting away in the corner is fine. Backstabbing party members is fine. Using out of game knowledge is fine. Strongly plot driven games are fine. Open ended games with minimal plots are fine. Heavily planned games are fine. Games run entirely improvised on the spur of the moment by the GM are fine. If you’re having fun… it’s fine.

Conversely, if a particular element is hurting the groups fun, take it out. Nothing is sacred. Want to run a hack and slash Vampire? White Wolf appears to condone it. Other worldly horror in D&D? Why not?

Don’t feel constrained to the style of game you think you should be running. The rule books are just a suggestion and your past experience is past. Do what’s fun.

Be aware of what you and your players want. If you want something different from your players, something is going to have to change. Probably you, since you’re the loner. Similarly, if a single player wants a different style of play, if it can’t be easily integrated, don’t force the issue. Sometimes players or game masters don’t fit a particular gaming group. It doesn’t make anyone wrong, it just didn’t work out.

Given this, never deride another gamer’s choice of game or style. If he’s enjoying it, it’s right for him. Whatever you play there are gamers who hold it in low regard.

Pre-Game Player Interaction

Run a mailing list

More and more gamers have email access. Use email to help organize your group. A mailing list with an archive of previous discussions can really help. You can set up a free mailing list for you and your friends at eGroups. Presumably you game as a social event, so use email to extend the social aspect a bit.

Send pre-game update emails

This is even easier if you have a mailing list. A few days before your game, send out a reminder message. Remind everyone of the time and place of the game. Ask people to confirm that they’ll be there. This way you’ll be able to plan for any missing people. If there are special details for this game session (“Bring $20 for the pizza fund”), this is the spot for them. If you run a regular game and need to cancel a session (“No game this week while I’m on vacation”), you can easily communicate it here.

While you’re sending out the message, provide a two or three sentence summary of what happened last week. “Last week the group left town to defeat the dragon. While climbing the mountain to the dragon’s lair, the group barely fought off some griffins. Now the group stands at the entrance to the dragon’s cave.” The reminder will get people excited for the next game and get them planning their actions. If your mailing list is being archived, these short summaries can be collected to form a brief history of the campaign to reminisce over.

Player and Character Questions

Characters tend to enter the game world as empty slates. Maybe the player writes up a twenty page history of his character’s childhood traumas, but it’s just words on paper. The player certainly doesn’t know his character.

Play helps flesh out characters. After a few sessions you’ll start learning about who the character really is. Does the character stick with his friends through thick and thin? Does he help people in trouble? Actual game play adds details to a character. Unfortunately many of the little details, the details that make characters human, don’t usually come up in play. Details that can be useful. What does the character dream about? What did he think of his schoolmates? Who does he fantasize about?

Email is an excellent opportunity to collect these details. The answers will give you more tools to use and will give the players deeper insight into their characters. A week or so before a game session, email out a question. Attach some little reward to answering it (experience points, a re-roll during the next game, a vote on pizza toppings).

Let your players know that you are expecting short answers. No more than a few sentences. Too much information will drown you and drain your players of energy. They’ll be more like to take the time if it only takes a few minutes. You certainly don’t want your players to start resenting the questions. After all, it’s only a game.

Pick a mix of questions, some simple (What type of hat does your character wear?), some hard (How does your character feel about the war?). If you need particular information for a future plot line, ask several months in advance (Who is your character’s dearest love? What does your character have nightmares about?). Find out what your players like (What is your favorite movie? What radio station is your car radio tuned to right now?), what they don’t like (What popular television show do you hate?) and what they fear (What movie scares you the most?).

I suggest starting with simple questions. Give the characters a bit of time to grow in the game before you ask deeper questions.

You might want to look at my list of questions for players and characters for some ideas.

In-Game Tools

Random NPC Cheat Sheet

I keep a list of about 200 random names. When the characters ask a random townsperson for their name, I can quickly pick one, cross it off my list, and use it. Just having a name quickly at hand makes the character more real.

  • Web based fantasy name generator
  • Everchanging Book of Names, excellent Windows program.

Have mini-encounters ready

Players are very unpredictable. Maybe it’s thirty minutes into a four hour session and they’ve zipped through all of your prepared material. Maybe they ignored your carefully crafted plot and decided to go bar crawling. For these moments, having some random encounters can really help. Build a list of generic encounters which can be tossed in almost anywhere.

Mini encounters should range from five minute complications (reunite a lost kid with his parents, challenge someone to darts) through mini-adventures to tie up a few hours (A character is a witness to a crime and is asked to testify, a child is kidnapped, a raccoon steals supplies during the night). Fill out the collection with a few medium length complications (The local bully picks a fight, a mugger tries to mug a character, an accident sets a building on fire, a wild animal attacks).

Keep copies of player character sheets

Having an up to date copy of a character sheet gives you a lot of power. If you need to secretly roll an ability score check for a character, you don’t need to ask the player for the information. If you require that player’s tell you all changes to their statistics, it’s easy enough to maintain. Also, if a player forgets or loses their character sheet one week, you can keep them in the game.

Get a confidant

Find someone trustworthy to talk about your game with. Tell them everything you’re planning for your game. Tell them what your players are doing. Part of being a GM is coming up with neat ideas, then keeping those ideas secret from the players. Given that gaming is about socializing, this level of secrecy can be hard. Having someone to tell helps you resist the urge to spoil surprises for your players. Also, your confidant can help you spot possible problems in your plans; your game is important, why not get a second opinion? The simple act of explaining your plans to another person also gets the mind working in different ways and can help identify problems or inspire new ideas.

Michael Zenke has further thoughts on this in his article “Brainstorming with Other GMs.”

Relatedly, be a confidant. This is helpful even if the other GM runs a very different stype of game. Another GM’s plans are great brainstorming material. For example, I’m not fond of “End of the World” plotlines, but helping another GM write such a plotline for D&D gave me some interesting ideas that I plan on using in Deadlands..

Never defend your actions

It’s not uncommon for players to chat with their GMs about the game. It’s also not uncommon for players to be a bit dissatisfied with part of a game. After all, you can’t please everyone all of the time. However, when a player expresses concern about part of a game, listen to them and accept their opinions as valid.

Your players are your game. Without them, you’d be gamemastering for no one. Their opinions on the game are at least as valid as your own. You may disagree, but you can’t discount their opinions. The game must remain a two way street. It’s quite reasonable to want to explain why you made decisions the player may not like. Be careful to not cross the line from explaining to defending.

When you defend, you’re encouraging the player to further challenge your ruling. This will just slow the game done. It causes the players to invest more emotions into the argument leaving them increasing frustrated if you don’t rule as they hope.

Take responsibility

You are the GM, you create worlds. With that power comes great responsibility. If your players aren’t enjoying your game, you are responsible. If you don’t take responsibility, your players will leave. Like it or not, you’re the leader. If you’re unwilling to take this responsibility, you’re on the wrong side of the GM screen.

Now, brief periods of unhappy players happen in every game. But, if most of the time most your players are unhappy, you need to change. (Mind you, this has nothing to do with making characters happy. It’s possible for players to be happy and characters to be miserable.)

If you simply cannot give the players what they want (perhaps because you wouldn’t enjoy it), then it’s your responsibility to end the game. Players will often stay in a game they dislike because they like the people or out of a sense of responsibility. Free them to seek out games that they will enjoy more. If the group wants to continue hanging out, maybe you should look into something besides role-playing.

Part of this responsibility is realizing that you can’t be all things to all people. Sometimes things aren’t going to work out and you need to accept that. If you’re determined to run gothic horror, but your players demand slapstick comedy, maybe you’re not compatible as GM and players. Do look for a compromise, first! Are you sure you wouldn’t enjoy running slapstick comedy? Maybe your players would be willing to give a session of gothic horror a try? If it doesn’t work out, look at other options. Maybe it’s time to turn over the GM screen to a player and join in as a player?

Sometimes the majority of a group works fine, but some of the players present problems. Perhaps the player hates the game or the genre, making it impossible for them to enjoy your sessions. Perhaps two players cannot stand each other. A player may simply be sullen at every session for no particular reason. A problem player tends to spread resentment through the group, places everyone on edge, and generally hampers enjoying yourselves. Whatever the reason, if a subset of your players are harming the game it’s your responsibility to address the issue. It might be a minor problem that be sorted out; maybe it’s time for a new character. But not every problem can be worked out. If you can’t find a better solution, it’s your responsibility to ask the problematic player to leave. Telling a friend that you don’t want them in your group is very hard, but leaving a problematic player in your group is worse. This isn’t about disliking someone, this is about the group as a whole not working.

Players must understand your universe

Ultimately your game takes place in your universe. You may seek to accurately simulate “reality” in your game, but ultimately your beliefs about the world become the actual reality of your game. The players will often have slightly different beliefs. The game rules and setting often help coordinate these world views, but it’s only a beginning. Players will always have an incomplete and inaccurate view of your game world. When the player’s assumptions and your assumptions conflict you’ll have problems and usually angry players.

The biggest clue that you may have a problem is when the players plan or take an action that seems obviously wrong. If the players are making plans based on some clearly mistaken assumption, let them know. For example, maybe the players are planning a stealthy infiltration using a small black raft to reach a cruise ship held by terrorists. That seems a little odd, since the terrorists have guards watching the water and it’s the middle of the day. Asking, “Why don’t you think the guards will see you?” would reveal that the players actually think that it’s night. Having the players learn that it’s actually day when the guards start firing at them will simply anger the players. Similarlly, if a player makes a clear mistatement of fact that should be obvious to the character, correct it immediately. (“Oh, there are lots of superheroes in the city!.” “Ummm, no, it’s pretty much you guys and no one else.”).

If you ever think “Wow, they totally forgot to do something obvious; now I’ll screw them over!” you’ve probably got a communications problem. Are the players planning on leaving their warhorses outside a dungeon for several days and you’re planning on having them starve to death? Perhaps the players believe that they left the horses enough rope to graze. Planning on having the horses attacked by wolves? Perhaps the players believed the warhorses were capable of defending themselves against such wildlife. Punishing the players for having an inaccurate model of your universe isn’t clever, it’s just petty. Typically an inaccurate model of your game’s universe means you made a mistake and need to try and rectify it.

Players must be empowered

Role-playing games are about making choices. If players cannot make choices, or those choices seem meaningless, you aren’t really role-playing. Players don’t need to be all powerful, but their decisions need to be important. Even hopeless situations can be empowering for the right group of players, so long as they can chose what they die for.

The source of many empowerment problems a GM falling in love with his story, his plot, his scene, or his NPCs. Role-playing games are not a book, it is not enough to show the players neat things. Typical symptoms of players being sidelines are “railroaded” games, invincible enemies, and any scene in which all the players can do is watch.

Avoid untouchable adversaries

Avoid pitting the PCs against an adversary that they can do nothing about. After the third or fourth time in which the player’s actions have proved irrelevant against their enemy they will become frustrated. Challenge your players, but ensure that players feel that there is hope. Players don’t need to be able to necessarily defeat their enemy, it may be enough to foil his plans. An enemy might be too powerful right now, but if there is a clear way to prepare to defeat the enemy in the future they will be satisfied.

Keep the players involved

Players should not watch climatic scenes. They should feel involved and essential (which is different than important). Players aren’t tourists off to see wondrous things, they want to participate in wondrous things.

NPCs part of the party should not be supermen. Having NPCs in the group that are head and shoulders above the rest of the party is just frustrating to players. NPCs should generally should not be better than the players in any area the players are interested in. For example, if you have combat oriented PCs in your game, any NPC joining the group should not be as good at combat as the best PC. However, in areas the players aren’t interested, it’s fine for an NPC to shine, especially if he’s much weaker than the PCs in the areas the players care about. For example, if no one in the party can track, having a highly skilled tracker join the party is fine.

Characters must make progress

The players must feel that they are making some sort of progress. Going for several sessions without feeling you’ve accomplished anything is draining and no fun. The progress doesn’t need to be major, but it does need to be real and visible to the players. At the end of the session the players should be able to say “Thanks to that session, we’re now this much closer.” Don’t constantly move the party’s goal further and further away, that gives the players a sense that their accomplishments are meaningless. Players should feel that they are moving toward some sort of conclusion and that they are doing so because of their decision.

The world must acknowledge the characters

The players need to see positive results from their characters actions, otherwise they feel powerless in the grand scheme of things. The players need to feel rewarded, but the rewards need not always been experience, money, and new weapons. Players often find the non-tangible rewards more satisfying than simple money. Little details can really give the players a sense that they’ve changed the world. The character’s exploits might be covered in the news, be it bardic song, newspaper, radio, television, or holovision. The characters might stumble across some children pretending to be the characters. Local people might offer the characters a hand, be it a warm meal if they’re in the neighborhood or free drinks at the bar. A local community might chose to honor the characters, naming a street or building or day after them. An invitation to an exclusive party. Someone they respect might send them a letter congratulating them. A local noble might provide a letter of introduction.

Players need to see this sort of result with some frequency. Going without recognition can make a long adventure seem to stretch onward forever. If you decide to run longer games, remember to give the players opportunities for smaller successes in the middle. While tracking an ancient artifact, the characters might slay a monster threatening a town. Even something simple like a chance to randomly save someone from a mugging will do the job.

Minimize external plot elements

If player’s cannot change anything about a given plot element it is pointless to your game and should be de-emphasized. Having the PCs witness but be unable to effectively interact with a major event (say, an evil summoning or a mighty battle) is frustrating. If you need such a scene, focus on the player’s actions and on what they can do, not on the bigger picture over which they have no control.

Don’t force players into blind decisions

Don’t force players to make decisions when they have no way of judging the possible results. These blind decisions are pointless. If the decision doesn’t seem important the players will shrug and pick one randomly. The players won’t feel empowered, they’ll feel like they’re doing grunt work. The most common case is picking a corridor in most D&D games. Most of the time the characters don’t have enough information to judge which direction is best and will just pick one arbitrarily. Those players haven’t been provided an interesting decision, their decision might as well be resolved by a die roll. (That said, it is possible to make an informed decision in some cases. The players might listen at a door to guess what is beyond, a rogue might scout ahead, magic might be invoked to divine the results of going down each passage.)

If the decision is important the players will spend hours arguing over entirely hypothetical risks and rewards. All of the analysis in the world won’t make it a rational decision if you have no data. A slightly cliche example is two doors. All that the players know is that behind one is certain death, behind the other great reward. It’s a frustrating choice. A more realistic example is planning an attack against an a powerful opponent who has unknown defenses. If a Shadowrun or Cyberpunk group cannot get any research about a corporation they need to raid the only plan they can put together is to hope that things work out for the best.

Ultimately decisions need to be made with some level of understanding about the possible results. The information doesn’t need to be perfect, but something needs to exist. The information doesn’t even need to be easily acquired; finding enough information to make an educated decision may be a key part of the story.

Understand your players

Your players are paying careful attention to you as they try to understand the game world around them. You should paying careful attention to your players to try and understand them.

Think about what you are teaching

Like children, players must learn how to interact with the world. While the game books usually tell you and your players about the world and society of the game, there remain huge grey areas that must be filled in by you. Your interpretations and preferences will take the general shape of the world and add the details that make it livable. Maybe a game says that a specific ruler is “mentally unbalanced and cruel.” You’ll need to decide, how crazy the ruler is, how cruel is he? Does he have any good sides? Is his sense of humor normal, or twisted and sick? Does he have a sense of humor at all?

The world of the game you run really only exists in your head. The players won’t know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable until you teach them. Your players will see how your game world works and adjust their behavior to better conform. Expect your players to tend toward the path of safety and ease. As a result, you need to be aware of what you are presenting as safe and easy.

Typically the world of a role-playing game is full of strife, lies, and backstabbing. Evil often wins. All too often the players learn that their characters should become paranoid, harden their hearts, and only take sure bets. Not the stuff of heroes.

The most common example is NPC’s breaking the PC’s trust. Having a friend or ally to the players betray them is a fun plot element. It’s a common theme in fiction, and it gives players an opportunity to wallow in a bit of angst. However, done too frequently, the players will decide that eventually most NPCs will backstab them and will stop trusting anyone. Now you can’t do the plot line at all.

Two similar problems are “good always wins” and “evil always wins”. If it seems like characters with unwavering faith never fail, the characters will lose their uncertainty and moral weaknesses. If the character willing to sell his soul always gets an edge, the characters will line up to start bargaining with the devil.

The answer is not to stop doing these plots, but to provide balance. Make sure that you show the benefits of behavior you want to encourage. Maybe one NPC betrayed the party, but look at the other NPCs who have been very helpful through thick and thin. Maybe Bob got supernatural powers for his dark pact, but as a result he is slowly losing his sanity.

Definitely make sure you are not repeating a message you don’t want players to learn. Certain genres tend to reinforce certain lessons. Cyberpunk games tend to encourage greed and selfishness. Horror games tend to encourage paranoia.

A good example of the worst case is Scooby Doo. Every episode, the Scooby and gang stumbled across an apparently supernatural creature. Every episode the creature was revealed to be someone in a costume. This scenario repeated dozens of times, but they never learned. Probably too many “Scooby Snacks”. Role-playing game players will learn after the second adventure and sucker punch the ghost five minutes into the third adventure. Scooby Doo is doomed to failure as a role-playing game.

FASA had problems with this in many of their early Shadowrun modules. There was a run of modules which all featured a plot twist in which the party’s Shadowrun employer betrayed the party. These modules all taught that shadowrunning wasn’t profitable, since your employer always reneged on the deal. Not such a good lesson for a game about shadowrunning.

Be particularly careful at the beginning of a campaign, or when adding new players to an existing campaign. During this time players are eager for lessons, trying to get a grasp on the world. They have no idea what sort of game you’re planning on running and take their cue from you. These lessons will run deep, so strive to set the tone and lessons carefully.

Related is your attitude to the dice. If the GM decides to “let the dice fall where they may,” players will become cautious, they’ll avoid daring feats. If the GM rewards daring feats and fudges the dice, player’s will take more and more risks.

Pay attention to your players

Presumably, you run your game with the intention of your players enjoying the game. It’s easy to get focused on what you enjoy in a game, and miss what the players enjoy. Fortunately, it’s as easy as paying attention to your players.

When your players are focusing on the game, you’re probably doing something right. When your players are reading books, chatting about unrelated topics, or simply not showing up, you’re probably doing something wrong.

You might even try simply asking what they’ve liked and disliked in your game.

Also pay attention to the lessons they’ve learned (see above). Sometimes players generalize patterns incorrectly (“Gee, the bad guy always gets away safely while we get battered. Maybe we should turn to lives of crime.”). Sometimes players miss obvious patterns (“Gee, the last four men with spider tattoos on their hands have tried to kill us, but this one seems friendly enough.”) Pay attention to how their characters are behaving. Listen to what players talk about and plan. If they’re learning the wrong lessons, figure out why. Perhaps there is a pattern you didn’t intend. Perhaps the cause and effect relationship wasn’t obvious. Perhaps you are too close to your own plans and need to step back. You’ll also need to see if you can take corrective action. Maybe breaking the pattern in a stunning way will do the job. Maybe you can simply tell the players out of character what’s what.

PCs may chose death over defeat

Avoid making players pick between failure and the death of their characters. When something important to the characters is on the line the players may pick death, leaving you with the choice of making them roll up new characters, or inventing implausible ways for the characters to succeed.

Players are generally portraying heroes. Fictional heroes don’t give up, even in the face of death. Fictional heroes usually succeed, in spite of the odds. These are the sources players will be following. (In some genres heroes strive in the face of death and die. In others the heroes aren’t actually heroic and will worry about saving their own skin first. If that’s the case make sure your player’s understand it!)

As an example, I began a Deadlands campaign with the destruction of the player character’s home town. The destruction of the town had to happen, it was the key plot element for the next year of play. The forces arrayed against the characters were clearly overwhelming. The characters almost died in a battle to defend the town that they could not win. They were prepared to sacrifice their characters. They only survived because I approached them out of game and asked them to back down. Not a great way to get the campaign off to a start.

Similarly, avoid backing the characters into a corner. If the players feel trapped, they may gear up for a doomed last stand, blinding ignoring an escape route. If the players feel trapped but shouldn’t, remind them of details they may have overlooked or forgotten.

Have unrevealed backplot and setting

Have more backplot and world info than you reveal to your players. The existence of the information will subtly give the game a depth and coherence. Humans seek answers to mysteries, so your players will naturally explore the edges of what you tell them the most. They’ll take whatever information you do give them and wring it for answers. Having hidden information gives you some breathing room if you need to improvise. Furthermore, if the backplot to something makes sense in your head, players are more likely to detect a pattern, even if they can’t determine it. Patterns make the world feel logical and survivable. Relatedly, don’t expose too much to the players. A sense of wonder and surprise is important. The players don’t want to slog through a fictional history lesson. Reveal just enough backplot and setting, but nothing more.

Never let the game stall

If the players don’t see any options for their characters, something has gone wrong. This usually manifests as the players sitting around doing nothing, or arguing in circles about a plan of action. Don’t leave them banging their heads against the plot for too long, it’s frustrating and pointless. The most obvious case is solving a puzzle or working around a trap, but it can manifest anywhere. (Steven Marsh has an entertaining story on the potential problems with puzzles in Pyramid.) Players might be stuck planning how to attack a powerful enemy, or how to engage in courtly intrigue. If the players didn’t figure out the solution in the first hour of staring at a given situation, they’re not going find a solution in the second, fourth, or twentieth hours. Once the players start feeling stuck their thoughts start going in circles, they become frustrated and less likely to see a solution.

If your players are stuck, you need to step in and move the game forward. The problem isn’t that the player’s need to do something, the problem is that you need to change something. Be sure they are stuck before you intervene; if a plan is slowly coming together, or the players are seeking more information to help their decision, go with it. Give players a bit of time to think, but balance it. Ten minutes is fine, four hours usually isn’t. If the discussion between the players goes in circle with the same plans being rehashed and shot down they’re probably stuck. When you hear the same arguments repeated for the sixth time you’ve let it go on far too long. Any discussion in the form, “That plan has no chance of succeeding,” “But it’s the best plan we have,” usually marks a stuck group. “We wait until something happens,” is a desperate plea for help.

Give players options

The first part of the solution is to avoid it in the first place. Avoid highly linear plots. If a particular plot point needs to be visited, or a particular enemy needs to be defeated, you create a risk that the players will get stuck. If your plot is more open ended, the players can try other option if one path appears to be a dead end.

If your game has a relatively focused plot it is important to ensure that the characters always have at least one semi-obvious way to move onward. This path needs to be practical. If the characters will not follow a particular path for any given reason (moral reasons, financial reasons), that path isn’t really practical.

But not too many options

Be wary of the other side of the coin. If you are running a highly open ended game with no clear goal or purpose your players may be blocking on too many options. Some people find a blank sheet of liberating, but many find it intimidating. Having an nearly infinite number of potential actions can be similarly intimidating. If you’re running an open ended game and your players regularly block you may need to create a bit more focus and a slightly more linear plot.

Check your assumptions

Keep in mind that players may be unaware of something that seems obvious to you. You create and control the world, within the game you are omniscient. Your players are not, they only know what you tell them. (This has been compared to the players exploring your world with a flashlight.) Players may have gaps in their knowledge. If players are blocking and you find yourself thinking, “Well, obviously they need to do such-and-such,” examine your assumptions. Why is that obvious? Check that the players share those assumptions. You may have assumptions about the game world that they don’t share. The players may have glossed over an important clue; it seems irrelevant to them so they forgot about it. As you consider assumptions ask your players to find out what assumptions they are carrying.

Avoid forcing players to meta-game

Another potential problem is that the player’s may be blocking for role-playing reasons. If your players are really trying to role-play, they may be ignoring or willfully overlooking information that they have (“My character was so horrified by the scene that they are repressing the memory.” “My character is a pacifist, and won’t accept the violent solution to our problem.”). Statements to the effect, “My character would never do that” for the best plans often indicate this problem. Left uncorrected a player will usually eventually sigh and do something that he feels is wrong for his character, essentially forcing him to metagame. If you run into this you’ve failed to write for your players and their characters. Obviously the best plan is to avoid writing your players into such situations. Providing multiple options is one possible solution. If you’re already stuck in the situation and there are no other options to suggest, you may need to ask a player to step out of character and take an action to move the game forward. While the player won’t like such a meta-game answer, the group as a whole will be glad that they didn’t spend four hours arguing without reaching a solution.

Offer hints

You can help the players move onward in a number of ways. For games with knowledge ability scores or skills, you can let characters make a check for have a flash of insight. “Make a Gather Information check. You got a 15? Great, you remember hearing that the prince was looking for help with a personal problem.” or “Make an Wisdom check. Good enough, you notice that the old man is speaking in a particular pattern, something about how he starts his sentences.” This is an excellent way to remind players of facts they may have forgotten or ignored or to tell them information they should reasonably have access to.

External forces

In many games, another option is for external forces to change the situation. A guard behind a puzzle lock may not realize the characters are there and may open the door for restroom break, giving the characters a chance to rush in. The character’s unknown enemy may send thugs to attack them; when the characters defeat the thugs, they could find a clue to the enemy’s location.

When all else fails, meta-game

Finally, if all else fails, punt. Just tell the players how to move forward. Obviously this isn’t satisfying, but it lets the players move on to hopefully more entertaining parts of the game. Asking players to meta-game is unfortunate but better than having them frustrated and seething. “You should go help the prince with his problem,” or “the combination is 3, 14, 15, the first few digits of pi,” may be the best way forward.

Stay at the table

Stay at the table and pay attention to your players. It sounds obvious, but when your players get involved in a planning session or are simply enjoying role-playing with each other it’s tempting to distract yourself. No matter how tempting don’t take a nap, don’t quick check your email, don’t break out the GameBoy. If your players do need something you need to be instantly available. If you haven’t been paying attention you’ll be caught off guard when they announce, “Okay, we’re going to do exactly what we just discussed.” Asking them to repeat the plan makes it clear that you don’t care. If they feel in the slightest that they are interrupting you they’ll get the sense you don’t care. If the players think you don’t care, they will stop caring. Even if the players are perfectly content to work among themselves for a while you need to keep on top of their plans and their moods. You need to intervene if they make erroneous assumptions about the world, if they begin to stall, or they’re just getting unhappy. To do this you need to stay aware of what they are doing.

Keep your group small

Stick with smaller groups; 4 or 5 is a typical number. The larger the group the less time you can devote to each player. As players seek to ask you a quick question they’ll feel ignored as you are busy fielding other requests. The most common case where this occurs is combat. The larger a group the longer the time between initiative passes; the players are spending more and more time watching and less time doing, the antithesis of role-playing games. Outside of combat larger groups tend to be louder and more boisterous, it’s easy for a quiet or shy player to be drowned out. A large group also encourages players to split up. A split group means you’re juggling your attention between then, making the situation worse. Spare yourself the grief, keep your games small.

Speed Up Your Gameplay

Use Microsoft Excel for note taking, map-making, and making combat tables with formulas for dice rolls.Use Microsoft Excel for note taking, map-making, and making combat tables with formulas for dice rolls.
After many years of GMing I finally came one day to Excel. Previously, I had only ever used this tool for bookkeeping and doing my bills. It had never occurred to me to use it as a GM tool. Now that I have, I can’t seem to live without it. From what I’ve found, this is a huge benefit to numbers based games. My personal preference is D20 based systems, but I can see benefits to a lot of other systems (even White Wolf with the bubble filled character sheets).
1. Note Taking and Reference
One thing I find makes my game run smoother is a short paragraph of pre-game notes, followed by a paragraph of post-game summary.
I have a separate section in my Excel file for each. This comes in handy for organizing loot for specific encounters and assigning XP post game. The biggest drawback I find is the manner that Excel truncates lines of text.
Solve this by formatting the cells for word-wrap, auto-fit the size of the cell, and you have a nicely packed paragraph. It’s also easier to remember things when you look at that box for XP and it’s still blank from the night before.
Blah Blah Blah. PCs did something cool. Gained Phat Lewtz and many XPsI also keep a shorthand form of each character sheet in my game workbook. This is handy when a player forgets their sheet or for quick reference when rolling secret checks. Since I know all of their stats I can make my true rolls without their knowledge, and then occasionally ask them for their stats to throw them off.
Another aspect of knowing the PCs’ stats comes in effect when a horror or suspense game is involved. Players find a certain safety in knowing they have X hit points left. Take the HP away from them and describe how they feel when they get hit. You might find the fighter is a lot less likely to jump into the fray with 1 hit die left when he knows how bad that knife wound feels.
2. Map-Making and Gridding
At first I didn’t think of using Excel for making maps. I searched and searched like many other GMs before me for a set of map making tools that I liked when I had the answer there before me all along.
After a little creative width and height adjustments, Excel becomes a nice and nearly endless sheet of graph paper. With all the symbols and letter sets available, it’s easy to find small icons to represent pieces of furniture and the surrounding area.
Making walls and doors is as simple as using cell coloring and borders.
Throw in a small legend so you know what all those symbols stand for and you have yourself a dungeon.
I have found this to be exceptionally useful for plotting out combat sequences and difficult maneuvers. All of my players are visual, and I use my little netbook to zoom in on small sections of the map so the players can see their locations.
For those of you who enjoy a physical copy, enable grid lines and send it to your printer.
I still draw my terrain maps by hand or use a layered paint software, but this is a quick and easy way to integrate your battle maps into your GM tool.
Here is a small section of a ship-wrecked freighter I created for my post-apocalyptic D20 game:

A warning to all those who love miniatures; map-making in Excel has significantly reduced the number of whiteboard maps I have drawn out, and I haven’t used my minis much since I started using it.
3. Combat Tables and Dice Rolling
Another great feature of Excel, though this one takes a lot more effort than the previous two, is the ability to make auto-calculating combat tables and arrays of dice.
It might be a little bit of work, but most of these can be based off of 1 simple function: =RANDBETWEEN(1,20). This one displays a common D20 random number.
Add in conditional formatting to highlight critical hits and fails and you have a quick way to perform combat and not even touch your dice.
I have simplified the table I use and you can download it to get you started (Excel 2007).
Here is what it looks like:

The full table I use has 3 blocks for different attacks and up to 10 monsters on the same table, all of their attacks and damage rolled simultaneously!

Know More About The Perfect Gaming Environment


2. Put players who are known to talk off topic more than
the others closer to the DM. In my games this increases
their attention span.

3. Minimise distractions by playing in a room without a
phone, TV or radio, or in a room that isn’t a thoroughfare
through the house.

4. When playing spooky scenarios try using theme music
and/or a little scenery dressing. I have a (plastic) skull
goblet and some old looking candlesticks which worked quite
well. You can also buy fake cobwebs in a spray can.

5. Consciously involve PC’s whose players are furthest away
from the DM, especially when they are being distracted by
something or are talking off topic.


From: Kender

I’ve actually spent many years trying to come up with the
perfect gaming environment, and although I have not achieved
said perfection, I have one pretty good so far.

We have an area (within 10 feet of the kitchen, in case
someone needs a Mountain Dew) about 15′ long, 9′ wide in
which is “The Table”. This is a massive oaken table
surrounded by chairs. At the back of the area, against the
wall, is the GM’s seat. To his right, is a bookcase full of
reference materials, and gaming manuals. In front of him,
are all his smiling players. (This has the added benefit of,
since the GM can’t get out without displacing a section of
those seated at the table, people bring him drinks. :))

Behind, and just over his seated head, is the white-board
which he can diagram maps, battles, and such. The light over
the table is a dimmer-kind which allows mood lighting if
need be.

Now, just to get the GM his own mini-fridge….


From: Dark Druid

I have found that it is a good thing for the GM and the
players to sit on the same level… the physical special
relationship seems to mentally bring the players into the
world. However, I have found that classic “table-top gaming”
is often awkward for me for two reasons…

1. Unless you have a separate gaming or recreation room,
family members and friends will wander in and out at will,
thus creating a distraction and often times prompting
younger siblings to ask, “What are you playing? Can I
play??” …and

2. When people sit on the floor in my family room, they seem
both casual and involved at the same time. Sitting on carpet
really isn’t that bad, and when a player is not needed in a
certain scenario, they can simply go and sit on the couch…
comfortable and distant but still close enough for them to
listen to the story.


From: Martin S.


I read about the Perfect Gaming Environment problem and have
experienced something similar. I dare to say that brightly
lightened rooms do disrupt any atmosphere. So I would
recommend candles (If available and usable without dangers),
or a table with a low-hanging or dimmed lamp. As there is
usually less to see than normal, players will automatically
get more into the gaming atmosphere.


From: Rick K.

I have decided to write again to discuss the perfect gaming
environment. I think when people are a little packed in it
is best. For some reason, being a little close, and not
being aware of much beyond the table makes it easier to
focus on the game. For example, the best games I’ve ever run
were in a seahut in Kosovo. We could only use about half of
it, and had beds, lockers, a tiny table, and a TV packed into
the area. We also had a chair for each person and, at one
time, as many as 7 players. The wall lockers sort of hemmed
us in, further reducing distractions, and there were no non
gamers present, except Hassan, the Nigerian Tiger, but he
was always asleep, anyway.


From: Logan

ALWAYS around a table. That is one of the most basic
premises – always around a table. Intensity is for $%#$^ if
you are not around a table.

To get to a more detailed answer: The table size and shape
are very important and vary widely. The best table is one
that gives the players some room while keeping them fairly
close to the GM. I have always envisioned a half circle
table with the players sitting around the curved side with
the GM sitting on the straight edge – but who has money to
go blow on a big table like that?

So you have to make do. The players need to be close enough
together to keep intensity up but not so close that they
move into OOG territorial disputes; it WILL happen – I just
toss in a knife and let them fight it out. I personally like
my computer at the table with me – both for
making/consulting notes and playing songs at the appropriate
times. [OT: Speaking of songs, any GM who has not
downloaded a LOT of stuff from Napster (etc) is really
missing the boat. Morality/ethics questions aside, it is a
hot resource for building intensity.]

And that is what the table set up (eg get off the
couches/floor/separate chairs scattered around the room) is
all really about – building intensity.

The chairs and room around the table should also be noted –
the chairs should be semi comfortable at least (not a
lazyboy but not a metal folding chair either) and there
should be enough space for the players to get in and out
from the table for all the bathroom breaks, kitchen runs,


From: Garry S.

My perfect gaming environment…

A local hotel has hosted several gaming conventions, the
perfect environment is one of their conference suites. You
have a large table, comfortable swivel chairs, a bathroom
steps away, and a small fridge for pop and snacks.

The comfortable chairs mean a long session is not fatiguing
due to player and GM discomfort. A large table means you
are focused, but not pressed for space, you can spread
things out. The fridge and bathroom mean that you do not
lose time to overlong breaks while people seek food or

While my games are sprawled around the living room due to
space constraints, I long for such a game room and have
plans to build it in my basement. The only things I would
add to that setting would be a white board for sketching
things out, and light controls handy to the GM’s seat.
Variable lighting would be a wonderful feature to have. So
much in the way of mood altering can be done simply by
changing the lights in a room.

My main problem with changing the lighting, for example,
candlelight for a dark mood, is that both my players and I
are getting up in age, and we like lots of light for
reading. Setting the room with candles might set a mood,
reading the dice with a flashlight so destroys that mood.
Light fixtures that would allow me to change from normal
white to yellowish lightly, or even flicker bulbs and to
vary the lighting would allow the mood, but allow the mood
to move on. As the party moves into the evil would you can
slowly lower the light, and set the mood. When they move
from the evil wood you bring the lights back up indicating
that the evil has passed.. Multiple lighting is a dream
option. Expensive to set up. But a remote controlled
rheostat can be had for much less money, and might be a good
investment in room used largely for gaming.


From: Serge C.

Hello Johnn,

In all those years of gaming, the best experience that I had
were when the environment were close and empty of anything
that could take us out of the games. I remember a cellar
that one of my friend were renting. It was so low (5′-9″)
that we had to move bend in half to move. There were a wall
of old rock and no electricity. We had to play with candle
all the time. It was the best place to get into a game.

I was the game master in a LARP (live action role playing)
of vampire the masquerade. And with a few players, we
decided to make a game at an old house in a remote place. We
got there early in the day and got the house all set up in
the gothic mood we didn’t use anything else then candle to
light all the house (and you have to be careful with that).

When a player got there, the whole house was in game. We
were 14 in that house. Where-ever you walk in, there was a
special mood and someone to talk to. It was great. We had 6
hrs of intense gaming that time and it was one of the best
LARP events that I ever went to.

When there’s nothing to take you back into reality, you’ll
be more involved in the game.


From: Sean H.

Hey Johnn,

First and foremost, thanx for doing this newsletter. I look
forward to getting it each week to get me inspired for our
tuesday night gaming sessions. Especially because it’s my
turn to GM for the next few months.

You asked for gaming environment tips. Here’s some stuff
that’s always worked out well for my group that’s been
running for the past eight years.

We always play out in the garage, for starters. It takes us
away from the distraction of room-mates and/or family
members traveling through the gaming session. I also find
that it gets players more into character because they’re not
worried about what the *other* people in the house are
thinking of them when they are speaking in character and

Add to that garage a really large table that would not fit
comfortably anywhere else in the house. Our current gaming
table is a massive old thing from a local thrift shop that
we refurbished. It comfortably seats the GM at the head of
it, two players on a side and one at the far end. Not only
does this give the players enough room for their required
gamestuff, but also has plenty of space for the snacks and
drinks that are essential to any good gaming session. Also
a CD player with suitable music played at a non-distracting
level is almost a necessity. Oh and most importantly… no
phones. The house phones are inside and left to the others
in the house. Cellphones are to be turned off at all times
during the session.



From: John Taber

Hi Johnn,

Wanted to add a comment about your perfect gaming
environments. I have to say that right now I have a really
great gaming environment. I just bought a house that has a
small cottage in the back. My wife and I had no idea what
to do with the place…gaming! I know this is not feasible
to a lot of people but the way I set it up might be. I’ve
added a white board, a pin board, a beat up CD player that I
got from a garage sale, and a nice school type table. I
picked all of this up really cheap. The white board is
great for fast pictures of layouts or riddles and such that
you want everyone to see. The pin board is wonderful for
charts and rule reminders. I play Hero system games so we
have things like speed charts and range modifiers on the pin
board right now. The CD player adds mood music. The school
table is nice because it is not too big. In fact it is just
narrowly larger than the thin side of our megamats. I think
a smaller table forces people closer and to interact. It
really makes a difference. Keep up the good work! John T>


From: Nick M.

I am a DM who travels a lot, from my hometown to where I
study and back, and that’s an 8-hour drive. So, I have two
different groups, one “here” and one “there”. With my
hometown group, we usually gather at someone’s home, and sit
on the floor, on mattresses on the floor etc.

This means that some people do indeed fall asleep during the

With my “there” group, we play at the lounge of a hotel.
Many irrelevant people come and go, and there’s usually a tv
playing, yet I’ve found that for the players, this means
making an effort to lean forward and listen to what I and
their partymates say. In essence, these outside distractions
only distract them from making irrelevant remarks and bad

Hope this makes some sense to you, because it baffles me…


From: Ed W.

Hi Johnn and all,

You asked about perfect gaming environments. Normally our
group meets in an unused room in a friend’s house around a
large tabletop with all our gaming needs in easy reach and
the kitchen just through the door but while good, this does
not match the one we used about 4 years ago. At that point
we had a large basement with a long wooden table. The table
was covered in cloths sporting interesting muted patterns.
Incense filled the air and the lighting was supplied by many
candles on the table each in an interesting candleholder,
everything from skulls to fairy statues holding the candles.
A small stereo was near the Referee to allow mood music to
be played at just the right moment and a small laundry room
just to the side allowed for secret conferences. It was the
best. You could really get into the feel of the game with
the altered environment.

Dealing With Stealthy PCs

A reader’s comment on team cooperation reminded me of a
constant obstacle to team play in my games: stealth.

In my first D&D group, we had two characters (a rogue and a
monk) who were excellent at stealth, while everyone else
wasn’t. Rogue & Monk would always go spying or looting by
themselves, refusing to take the rest of us because we
“would just screw up their chances”. The worst recon mission
separated them from us for two sessions; they got to do all
the fun stuff while we were stuck beating up random monsters
and waiting for them to return.

After that, I joined a Hackmaster group. Although stealth
hasn’t split up our party, it’s still dangerous. Our 5th-
level rogue died at the hands of the enemy because he went
scouting without backup. If someone was watching his back,
he wouldn’t be maggot food.

I need suggestions on how unstealthy characters can
accompany, escort, or watch stealthy characters on their
runs, keeping us non-stealthy types involved with the game
and giving the sneaky types the advantage of backup if
(when) things go bad.


1. From: Redwing
In RPGs, stealth is a talent awarded to a class at the cost
of another ability. In D&D, the rogue gains stealth but
loses fighter type combat skills. The key is that granting
stealth must be moderated for game balance. Otherwise, why
would anyone take the rogue class if all the other classes
had stealth. Of course there are ways to grant stealth to
adventurers who are not inherently stealthy.

As a player, you can use magic, technology, or even
innovative ideas (like inserting padding between armor
plates and suffering a movement penalty or purchasing
specially designed clothing) to gain stealth. Here is where
it is important for the party members to assist each other.
Most campaigns I see, the players place all their
enhancements on a single character and that party member is
solely responsible for success. I suspect that is
what is happening based on what you described about how when
rogue goes solo and encounters problems, they are trapped
far from the party. You can try to have the party work
together with stealth, but there are usually costs
associated, like the fighter and cleric stripping off their
armor or the rogue surrendering those items that boosts
his/her own stealth skills.

As a game master, many more options become available. Magic
or technology that allows the members to remain in constant
communication or even allow instantaneous movement to the
combat site would be of great aid to the solo scout in
trouble. Additionally, devices or items that provide a
fixed stealth bonus can be introduced. The rogue character
will already be more skilled than the item, so they will
pass it to another party member. Or, you may just provide
environments where stealth can be more easily achieved, like
in a noisy location that has numerous shadows available.


2. From: Noah
I can think of three distinct ways about this.

If the group can take things slowly (and most characters
have Move Silently or a similar skill of at least one point
because untrained rolls suck) then the whole party should
move at 1/4 or 1/8 or whatever speed is lowest so they can
maximize the stealth of the whole group. The rogue would
lead by about 30′ or more depending on circumstances, and
any opponent that may hear the group may underestimate it’s
forces by only hearing those who aren’t so stealthy.

The second option is to give every non-stealth character
some item, magic or otherwise, that will improve their
stealthiness. This way the entire group can follow at a
reasonable distance. A variation would be to give the most
effective backup person, a fighter or magic user depending
on the party, all of the stealth items. Another variation
would depend on non-stealth members of the party having
varying levels of stealth items so that each member follows
at a certain distance behind the rogue depending on their
modified ability.

The third option would be a complete turn around. Why send
the rogue ahead to be killed alone? Why not keep the whole
group together but trick any potential enemies into
believing it’s just a bunch of brutes. To do this just get
the stealth characters rings of invisibility (or even
better, a ring of greater invisibility, just 52,000 gp) and
allow him to do his thing around the party while the party
as a whole moves at a reasonable/cautious pace. This has a
nice side effect, especially if the ability is Greater
Invisibility, of allowing any invisible character with sneak
attack to deal extra damage again and again. This is
enhanced if the character also has the Combat Reflexes feat.
This is somewhat of a reversal since it focuses more on the
stealth characters becoming killers along with the fighter
characters, but it allows the whole party to be able to back
up the rogues and monks when they are searching. Although
it does detract from all out scouting.


3. From: Joachim de Ravenbel
I usually GM stealth as a group skill, the proficient
characters supplying their knowledge to the other.

You can see it that way : as long as a non-stealthy
character is in range (say 10 feet), he can benefit from the
proficient character (50% to 100% skill ranks or whatever),
duplicating the other movements and stances. Once he is out
of range, he doesn’t benefit anymore from it, i.e. he
doesn’t learn from imitating in a tense situation (which
should be the case in stealth).


4. From: Tyler
In Issue 230 someone asked how to incorporate stealthy
characters into the party without separating them.

The answer is to use modern recce techniques. Namely, have
the brawn of the party trailing a safe distance from the
stealth characters. That way, if there is trouble, the brawn
can move up to support the stealth, while the stealth
characters made sure there are no ambushes or enemies
lurking (the whole point of recce)

So, you could have your Rogue sneaking through the woods,
with the Paladin, Barbarian and Cleric stumbling along a
distance behind.

The Rogue discovers a group of Trolls laughing and talking
around a campfire. He doubles back, brings the rest of the
party and they wait in hiding in the trees near the
campfire. The rogue says, give me 3 minutes, sneaks around
to the other end of the campfire. The party charges in at
the end of the 3 minutes and attacks the trolls (getting the
jump on them and catching them flat-footed). Once combat is
joined, the Rogue is free to dart in for back stabs.

Just because you are doing recce doesn’t mean you have to be
miles away and operating as separate parties.


5. From: KX
“Mission Control, we have a problem here”

Yeah, Jeff, tell me all about it. You are the best trained
Shadow here, skilled with all the aspects being a good spy.
You can move as silent as a wraith in the night, cloak
yourself with the very darkness it is, and if worse come to
the worst, you are a crackshot with the magnum.

“No, I’m confident about my abilities to infiltrate this
maximum security, highly guarded, and top-secret complex…”

I never have doubts about you Jeff.

“But this muscleman WHOM you have sent, with WHOM I am
stuck, and WHOSE purpose is to help me in this mission,
breathes so loud that even a Storm Trooper can shoot him in
the dark!”

Now we have a problem. And here are some suggestions. Some
work better for some genres. Fantasy games tend to pose more
problems, but with some creativity (and some magical
artifacts that replicate high-tech equipment), it can be
done. Some are for GMs, while some are techniques for the
PCs to consider.

1) Have Others Create A Diversion
The oldest trick in the book. Sun Tzu summarised it as, “If
you want to attack from the East, pretend as if you are
attacking from the West”. JRR Tolkien used it too – Aragorn
and Co. basically ran halfway round Middle-Earth to draw
Sauron’s gaze away from Frodo. Hence, have the non-stealth
members make themselves useful at doing what they are best
at – wielding big swords, unloading tonnes of rounds, or
setting off heat-guiding missiles, while the nimbler stealth
expert(s) sneak in.

2) Give The Non-Stealth Member The Expertise
Sure, the rogue can sneak undetected into the Alchemist’s
Guild, but how would he know which potion to take? You can
send the world’s most renowned Spy into secret lab but would
him know how to bypass the security system for the computer
which hold the vital information? Sometimes bringing the
other cumbersome and careless members is a necessary evil –
make it so at least those bumbling idiots have a purpose to

3) Make Stealth A Non-Issue For Non-Stealth Members
Sneaking is not the only way to infiltrate a compound.
Disguises and stealth generators (aka invisibility cloaks)
are some other ideas. But then what do we need the rogue or
espionage agent for? Well, they are not only good at
sneaking in. They are also needed to pick locks, bypass
security doors, disable traps, and so on. The others just
need to stay quiet and lend whatever aid that may be needed.

For disguised PCs, they cannot walk freely about either. The
GM can easily think of another purpose for the disguised PCs
as the rogue goes merrily wreaking havoc within the innards
of the bad guy’s base.

4) Use Time-Limited Invisibility
For the other non-stealth members, grant them the use of
some limited invisibility that will wear off after some
time. So now the party has two challenges – sneak past the
guards undetected and get there within a limited period of
time. If invisibility sounds extreme, it is not actually
that powerful. Invisible PCs still make noises and emit
scent. Invisibility might also fail in areas of powerful
magic or in the presence of powerful magic-users.

5) Use The Non-Stealth Members For Remote Aid
The rogue or spy is stuck within the enemy’s compound and
the other PCs are responsible for keeping him alive. Maybe
they have hacked into the computer and have a map of all the
levels, including where the guards are, and can warn the spy
off approaching dangers. Or they may be based within the
complex’s command centre, with access to all the security
measures, though they cannot switch everything off for that
will alert the guards.

Other PCs may need to venture outside the complex to
sabotage some security systems or to waylay an incoming
nemesis who knows that the spy is within the complex.
Frequent inter-cutting between the stealth action and the
other PCs’ actions, especially when you leave a cliffhanger,
can be very suspenseful and memorable.

The problem would be that of communication. In modern games,
that wouldn’t be a problem, with the advent of mobile
phones, communicators, and such. In fantasy games, the DM
may have to dream up psionic communication devices or the
players may need to resort to using smoke signals, whistles,

6) Make Stealth Sequences Short But Challenging
Unless you are designing for an all thief-party, there’s no
need to design a stealth sequence that spans an entire
session. Explore other methods of infiltration (the PCs will
generally come up with their own) besides stealth, for that
excludes everyone and is a risky venture.

Another idea is to make stealth sequences short and straight
to the point. Maybe a gatehouse is blocking the way. Fine,
the resident thief just climbs up a tree, leaps over to the
guard tower, pulls up the gate long enough so that the rest
of the party can sneak through, then drops quietly back
down. The sequence is over in less than 15 minutes, the
thief got his 15 minutes of fame and glory, and the rest of
the party are excluded only for a short period of time.

7) Stealth Is No Stranger
For many professions, being stealthy is no strange thing.
Modern soldiers are schooled in field craft and tactical
usage of weaponry at night. Policemen and investigators
likewise have need of such training. Along a fantasy vein,
wizards and spellcasters have access to spells that could
render them incognito.

If you are planning long, extended stealth sequences for
your campaign, consider making the Stealth skill a core
skill, or award some ad hoc bonus based on the character’s

8) Scouting Tactics
The PCs could pre-arrange a couple of things before sending
the scout ahead to find out more about the area ahead. Pre-
arranged hand signals can eliminate the need for talking.
For example, a gesture could tell the other PCs to take
cover or to come forward. Another one could be meant to say
that the coast is clear. This way, the PCs can linger
back while the scout ascertains the area is safe (this is
practised for modern combat).

For more dangerous missions, have the scout leave trails or
markings to indicate what is the best direction to go and
what dangers to look out for. Hence, the scout could set out
an hour earlier and the others can follow the scout’s
directions to find the safe routes. Sure, it sounds kind of
stupid if the scout meets some Big Bad Hairy Monster
somewhere and is killed with the rest of the PCs are being
led to their doom. But if the PCs are any cleverer, they
should have stayed home and remained farmers, clerks, and
what-have-you. At any rate, if the scout is imprisoned, he
should have time enough to leave a distress signal so at
least the PCs are but an hour behind him (assuming that the
scout goes at the same rate as the PC). With real-time
communication, the gap between the scout and the PCs can be
even smaller.

9) Consider Other Alternatives To Stealth
Leave stealth to the master of shadows. In some situations,
there are other ways of infiltrating an area. Disguises have
been mentioned and are one great tool, especially if you get
your hands on some uniforms or identification. There are
potions of invisibility, alternative routes, spells, and
magic. The druid could shapeshift himself into an
insignificant animal (say, a mouse, but then beware of the
cat!), the fighter can disguise himself as just a ‘passing
mercenary’, and so on.

10) “Conquer” In Phases
Do not send your scout on an overwrought and overlong
scouting mission. Instead, think of checkpoints which you
want to be scouted and the scout communicated to you that
the area is clear (see point 8), the party will move forward
and hide themselves, while the scout (or another one) once
more set out to next checkpoint.

The benefit is that if the scout is discovered or face a
problem, the PCs are not too far behind. The problem could
be that the entire party could be trapped but you risk
losing your scout. Hobson’s choice, they put it.

For GMs, one of the greatest sins is to leave out some
players from the game. Hence, when the party thief goes
snooping, give the others non-stealth based players
something else to do, like a diversion, or another
mission of equal importance.

For players, spend some discussing tactics and “what-if”
scenarios with the scout before you send him out. Scouts
need to know when to fall back and when to call for back-up
(and how to call for back-up).

Just my two copper worth.