GM Lessons: Getting Unstuck

Switching to D&D has made my GMing life easier in many ways. There certainly is a reason why its the grand-daddy of role-playing games, having had decades to evolve and tweak to be one of the most user-friendly, but also deep systems. Its mechanics are the foundations for many role-playing video games too. One of the things I’ve personally noticed, whilst running the adventure modules, is that my players never get stuck. Sometimes they’ll need a little refresher about what their goal is, but nothing like the cheek-reddening experiences I’ve had before. When your players go from looking at each other confused, to scouring their notes, to nervously asking “what are we supposed to do?”, it can feel like a failure on your part as GM.

And its normally not. If the adventure module provides a plot or encounter, but doesn’t give players multiple ways to figure it out, then the failure is in the writers. Quite often, especially in Dark Heresy, the system that I cut my GM teeth on, the book will just assume players will ransack every room, inspect every item, identify every clue and interrogate every NPC…in a specific order. If the players walk past a room without a second glance, you’re left frantically trying to reroute those plot points they missed. Doing such is easier when you’ve made your own adventure, but here are some tips I can share for when players get stuck, or bypass vital sections of the game.

Game Master Player Characters

These are quite polarising in the RPG community. Its essentially when a GM will create their own character to play as the players do. They can be a vital in-character link to your players; a way of providing tips and information that doesn’t break immersion and make the players feel like they’ve been given a crutch. Conversely, it has been used by diva GMs who want to steal the limelight and glorify their own character in their own universe, outshining the players since they’re not omniscient in their world.

Either way, they can be so useful if your players get stuck. Through this character you can suggest routes, plans of action, remind them of their priorities, or something they previously discussed, or draw attention to things that you want the players to take note of. And it can always be useful to have someone in the fights too. If you don’t want to kill your players, you can have your GMPC join the fray and help turn the tide of battle…or he can be weak and be saved by the players, making them feel heroic. Some players are partial to keeping a party mascot around, such as a weak goblin. That can allow a GM to not only have a chance to flex those comedy and banter muscles, but create bonds with the players.

Enemies and Non-Player Characters

If you haven’t created a GMPC, then not to worry. Your world will have many characters that can assist or interact with your players! I try not to think of the other inhabitants of my adventures as we see them in video game worlds: standing in the same place, day and night, with a big glowing exclamation mark on their heads, telling the players its worth their time to talk to them.

 Remember: video game limitations don't apply to imagination Remember: video game limitations don’t apply to imagination

Instead, why not have the characters come up to the players? They missed some vital info about the treasure found in a cave? Well there’s a drunk soldier who just lost some mates trying to get it himself, and dares anyone else to go instead. Maybe the players missed a trapdoor (seriously why bottleneck your adventure on whether or not players will notice a HIDDEN DOOR) to the enemies lair, but she heard them knocking about upstairs and sent some minions to investigate. This is a good way to give your players a helping hand, but also punish them for making mistakes. They’ll appreciate a world where the enemy is dastardly and can outwit them if they’re not taken seriously.

Out-of-Character Advice

Given all of the above, you can just talk to your group. You’re all people, and you’re all there to have fun, so you can trade a bit of immersion for making it easier for you and them. One of the things I find myself doing is just acting like a game journal, since I know everything that’s happening, I’m in a great position to tell them “Hey, don’t forget about that wizard’s tower that you heard mysteriously appeared outside of town. Maybe there will be some useful stuff for beating the evil mage?” It may not be the main quest, it may just be something that is optional, or it can be something you prepped for a while and was really excited to run as an encounter. This almost seems like cheating. But would you rather GM a bunch of players who are umm-ing and ahh-ing about, getting frustrated?

One of the most important things as a GM is to be the players number one fan. You want them to succeed…whilst being fair and simulating your world to the best of your ability. Finding that balance is a crucial skill. Those are my main tips, but I’ll also recommend noting things like how familiar players are in your universe. If you’re playing sci-fi, will your players know what is possible and what is out of the ordinary? Maybe a flying skull is an everyday occurrence in your world, or maybe its a definite sign of imminent doom? You won’t know if players will interpret things as you intended, so don’t feel ashamed for helping them out. Just remember they should feel awesome and that they earned their rewards, so sometimes you have to swallow that pride, suppress the eye roll and just agree “yes, you totally kicked their arses, they never saw you coming…”.