Category: Game Master Tools

I saw an interesting question on a tabletop rpg forum I look at occasionally.  What do you do, as the DM, when the game slows down and your players are milling about without anything to do? How do you avoid saying, “What do you want to do now?”

Personally, I never have to say this to my players since I always give them more than enough to do.  In fact, I now have all 6 of my players regularly showing to the bi-weekly tabletop rpg I’m running, so I’m getting into the problem of how I keep them from all trying to talk to me at once! I can’t exactly say this is a bad problem to have!!

But, for new DMs, what can you do to keep your tabletop rpg moving?

Character Background Stories for Tabletop RPGs

In the last 7 years of DMing (and I’ve been a DM well over 10), I haven’t had to come up with any sort of fodder to throw at my players myself.  Instead, I make them provide it for me via their character background stories!

I require at least a half a page of basic info such as who their characters are and what their major goal is.  My other half found googled character motivation charts and when he isn’t feeling particularly creative, he just hands in one of those to me.  Good enough! I at least get the major motivations, which is fine!

However, I have a little carrot that I dangle out in front of my players.  I offer 1xp per page of character background they write (normal font, no double spacing, 12 point).  And because I give bonuses for well written stories, I get mini novels these days when there’s something my players really want to try mechanic wise, but don’t have enough points for! This provides me with countless hours of what my other half calls my evil DM chuckle.

Create a World that is Always on the Go

Just because the PCs decide to go to the inn for a little R&R, it doesn’t mean that the evil protagonist, lowly peasants, or other adventurers and heroes aren’t out there doing things.  Governments are still going to rule over their people, kings and queens will make proclamations and declare war, and gods will continue to move in mysterious ways.

My players found out the hard way in the last pre-Vampire Darkages game I ran, that just because they couldn’t make a decision, it didn’t mean other people couldn’t.  This came back and bit them in the butt more often than not.

Plot Hooks for the Win

This ties directly into creating a world that’s always on the go.  Throw out those plot hooks.

I’d say about 1:5 plot hooks I throw to my players I’ve actually planned for.  A lot of the time they start slowing down and stalling and some cultist, lone traveler, mage, and so on enters stage right and strikes up a conversation.  In my Vampire games, my fae always have violet eyes.  If I really want to stir the pot? I give my NPC violet eyes and watch the players squirm.  Or sometimes I’ll just throw a chicken farmer into the plot and watch my players try to figure him out.  If he’s in the game, he has to be important, right?

At any given time I’d say that there’s about 15-20 individual and group plot hooks floating around.  My players are learning how to identify the urgent ones that won’t wait for the to make a decision, the ones that they can ignore and those they can put on ice until they get some time to pursue them.  Regardless of what they do with the plot hook, they know that the world isn’t waiting on them to make a decision.

NPCs to Interact with the Characters

Notice how everything I’ve mention is kind of interconnected?

Since I’m running Vampire, I have a lot of NPCs that I’ve already populated the world with.  However, at this point, my players have met less than a quarter.  Some aren’t right for where they are in the campaign, some I created for specific plot hooks that haven’t been thrown into the mix yet or the characters haven’t gotten to.  Most of them are the “hey, this would be cool” ideas that I come up with at 10 at night and jot down and flush out.

Regardless of why they’re there, I have several NPCs I can use to get my players moving.  Since this is a Tremere Dark Ages game, Tremere is often the big motivator.  Nobody wants to piss him off and if they get summoned to his chambers, they know they’re in deep water without a breathing device.  A few of the players have contacts and allies I can use to get them going as well.  Vampire is a game that really helps the DM in this regards!

Be Descriptive with your Narritives

Something I’ve noticed from Con games, usually when a DM has to ask “what are you going to do”, they weren’t descriptive enough in the scene or it wasn’t put together well.  I generally run Paranoia at cons since it’s a really good system for one shot games.  But, I have it easy.  All I have to do is kill clones until the group decides to do something interesting.  This doesn’t exactly work too well in normal campaigns.

However, when I describe a scene in detail, make sure to include obvious things for the players to do, I never have to ask them what they want to do.  I may have to go to a round of players declaring what they want to do because they suddenly want to do 6 different things all at the same time, but I never have to ask them what they want to do.


Evernote AppToday I want to talk to you about Evernote and the Evernote App.  Why? Because one of the things that a lot of Game Masters (DMs) seem to find daunting is tracking the information in their games.  Even as a DM who has been running games and con one shots for about 10 years now, I absolutely hate the paperwork and NPC tracking that comes with games.  This is, for a large part, why I have developed my own special style of DMing that consists of waking up on the morning of game day, jotting down about 3 sentences on a piece of paper, and finally throwing that out the window when it just doesn’t work because my players have different ideas.

However, with Vampire the Masquerade (oWoD), you can’t really do that.

Game day usually consists of me frantically writing up NPCs, printing out their disciplines, and having tons of paper that I have to shuffle through during the game.  Why? Because my players have collectively figured out just how useful the backgrounds Contacts, Ally, Mentor, Fame, Status, and Spy Network are.  This has lead to a collection of NPCs that populate the area where the characters are and each has to have their own knowledges, stories, likes, dislikes, ect that I have to keep consistent through the chronicle.  I hate it, but it’s the nature of V:TM due to the very political and roleplaying nature of the game.

I don’t know why I didn’t do it before, but last month I started looking into what other StoryTellers (the name of DMs in Vampire) did to keep track of all their NPCs.  Someone suggested a program called Evernote, which also comes with an Evernote App for Android devices (could be for iOS too, but I’m anti-apple so no idea).  I installed Evernote on my desktop and then the Evernote App on my HTC smartphone and it’s been love at first sight.

Yesterday I got a Nexus 7 tablet and immediately fired up the Evernote App on it and I’m very much looking forward to my Vampire Darkages game tomorrow, since I know it’s going to be a very ‘information’ heavy game with Contacts and Allies.

A Brief Rundown of Evernote and the Evernote App

In short, I believe this was originally meant to be used as a quick way to keep notes, lists, and as a collaborative tool (kind of like Google Wave if you remember that).  Evernote consists of a program where you make “notebooks” about different subjects, then you put notes in your notebook about that subject.

When creating a note, the editor is a pretty standard ‘see what you type’ type of editor.  So if you bold a word, you immediately see it bolded without having to type html or some sort of wiki/bb markup.  You can also insert tables and images.

Then, like most wiki’s or note keeping tools, you can tag your notes.  I’m finding this particularly handy in keeping track of which NPC belongs to what clan, who is who’s childe, and who can do what kind of disciplines.  It makes bringing the information up in games much quicker.

The Good about Evernote and the Evernote App

  • It’s free to download and use on both PC and the Google App Store.
  • The notebooks make it very easy to keep track of specific groups of things, such as individual Vampire Clans.
  • You can have a main notebook and “stack” notebooks in it (in tech geek speak, you have a parent notebook and can put child notebooks in it).
  • Tags make life wonderful.
  • Whatever you put in your notebooks on your PC will sync with the Evernote Apps if you’re logged in.
  • You can easily make checklists in your notes.

The Bad about Evernote and the Evernote App

To be truthful, I really don’t have a whole lot of bad things to say.  I think the most disappointing thing, for me as a DM, is that the collaborative ability of Evernote is a premium only feature.  I can make a notebook and invite someone to view it, but I need to have a premium subscription for them to be able to edit that notebook.  To be completely honest, I’d be happy to pay for that feature but the price is a little on the stupid side.

There are a few things to mention also, that the free version doesn’t allow:

  • Enough space for pictures and sound clips and whatnot.  You can put this in,  but you can only have a certain MB in your notes.  This goes up to 1GB a month if you’re premium.
  • Offline notebooks are only for premium members.
  • No way to ‘lock’ your notes on your phone, unless you’re premium.

The Ugly about Evernote and the Evernote App

The cost for Premium.  For someone in the EU this is 5 euro a month or 40 euro per year.  I wouldn’t mind paying 20 euro a year for this service or 2 euro a month, but that’s a little much.

Overall though, for something free, this is a very powerful program for Game Masters wishing to go paperless with their NPCs and game notes.  I’ve even officially ditched my workout notebook for the gym, now that I have a tablet, and moved all that info into a Evernote notebook.