Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: It’s Poetry and Math

(Originally posted on


What is it that makes movies so magical? The immersion, the suspension of disbelief, the power of the sights and sounds, often of things never seen or heard before. Roleplaying is all that and you take the reins. No longer the passive observer tied to the fate of a scripted hero, you have control. There is still the fire-breathing dragon and the gloomy dungeon, but you’re deciding to face it down or enter its stony interior. You decide what sort of person you are. It’s the ultimate casting call.

So what can a Gamemaster do to make roleplaying a special experience? Well, until we get thought-driven holo-decks ala Star Trek we have to work with what we have: friends, a table, cheetos, books, dice and little figurines. But that doesn’t mean that role-playing is just another kind of wargame where each player marks down hits and misses and moves their pieces around the game board. For those willing to invest their time and their imagination, a GM can create another world with sights, sounds, smells, tears and laughter, and people as real as any hero on the silver screen.

It all comes down to descriptions. Unless we’re a closet
Phil Foglio
, words are what we have to work with. And it doesn’t take very much to change the tone of a game from numbers to ideas and images. My initial series of Creative Gamemaster’s Workshops will examine different aspects of a typical fantasy campaign and where the Gamemaster can transform it into something really special.

May 16, 2006 – Saving Combat

Combat is the one place where a game of D&D (or most other games of similar complexity) can grind down to a mind-numbing series of dice-rolls, momentum killing searching through rulebooks, and flavorless drudgery of a game of Battleship. Here are a few suggestions that have livened up my table.

Speed Things Up 1: The 30 Second Rule: Nothing is more critical to maintaining momentum and capturing the rush of battle is speed. From rule lookups to indecision, each second without action is a game-killer. So what’s a GM to do? Well, start by enforcing a little discipline around the table. 30 seconds for your declaration is a very long time, especially since you’ve had every one else’s turn to think about what to do next. But the thought of being on the clock should hurry some folks up. Once you get rolling, you should find that no one gets near 30 seconds anymore since they’ll develop more discipline. The other advantage to this is that it simulates, in a way, the rush of combat. Warriors don’t have five minutes between actions to contemplate the universe.

Speed Things Up 2: Wizards know thy Spells: This is a hard area, especially when a player doesn’t naturally memorize the spell descriptions or doesn’t play often. But looking up a spell at the table during your turn must be avoided at all costs. The player has plenty of time while others are acting to check things, but if the others are quick (see rule 1) they’ll need to have the information at their fingertips. Use of one of the many spreadsheets out there that provides simple summaries of spell lists is a good start, reducing the need to reference the book. But perhaps the best thing you can do is have any spellcaster players do a little preparation, either right before the session or out-of-hours. Just a read-through of the descriptions of their available spells would get many spellcasting players far ahead. For complex or rare spells, the player should be able to explain the spell during their declaration, alleviating the Gamemaster from having to remember if the spell effect is 30′ radius or 40′ radius.

Crits and Fumbles: Critical Hits and Fumbles are the glory and tragedy of combat. While I don’t let description go too far in taking fate out of the dice, I do take advantage of Critical Hits and Fumbles as momentous or ignominious moments, the real highlights of a combat. For a critical hit, I can’t leave it as extra damage. The enemy must make a serious gut check and perhaps break morale. The blow should be spectacular and apt to leave a scar should the recipient survive it. The attacker’s style should gain the spotlight, be it the whirling attack of the nimble swordsman to the smashing assault of a maul-toting dwarf. Fumbles are never auto-kill but they put the fumbler in a bad way, losing her footing, his sword, giving up key ground, interfering with the attack of their comrade next to them.

Fight to the Pain: Is there anything more boring than fighting yet another foe to the death. In too many D&D campaigns, everything fights to the death: orcs, guards, muskrats. Sure its easier to be clear that a foe was defeated to award experience, and it gives the PCs a chance at loot, but it often doesn’t make sense. And I firmly believe that every bit of metagaming (allowing something to happen because it makes gaming-sense but sense in the reality of the campaign world) hurts the campaign. In every conflict, the Gamemaster should consider these things: Does the opponent want to fight at all? Will the opponent parley instead of fighting? Would the opponent run rather than assume the En Garde position? If the opponent is willing or needs to fight, how long will they do so? Until the first blood? Until they realize that the cause is lost? Until they see the skill and power of their opponents? Even with the greatest devotion, there are some things that will break anyone. Only a psychopath or a crazed animal will fight when all is lost. Well, a zealot might too, or, if in the greatest cause, a hero…

Break the Silence: While combat is grim, hot work, not everything is silent. There are certainly the groans and cries of the wounded, the panting of tired warriors, the calls to gods for aid and succor, encouragement of ones friends and discouragement of ones enemies. And, of course, the witty taunts. The players should be encouraged to play this up, but its most important for the Gamemaster to lead the way. Take a few minutes and prepare for expected battles. Make up some orcan insults. Know who the castle guards would call to in the heavens as they lay with mortal wound. Decide if the monsters would call to allies for help or bolster the ones beside them with words of leadership.

They don’t call it magic for nothing: For spells cast in combat, they should be well described and thought given to how they affect those who see them occur. Unless your campaign world is dripping with magic, it should still be impressive when someone calls fire from the air or the wizard’s hands crackle with eldritch fire of casting. To some opponents, simply realizing they face a wizard might be enough to cause surrender or flight.

In my next article, I’ll discuss some of the ways to keep magic from becoming mundane.

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