I noticed on Drive-Thru RPG today that a new RPG product had come out based on the Legion of Super-Heroes comic book: the Future Heroes RPG. Future Heroes RPG is a role-playing system set in a future much like the LSH.
Instead of the United Planets, the action takes place in the Core Worlds. Where the Legion only had a few associated minor groups like the Legion of Substitute Heroes and the Heroes of Lallor, the Core Worlds appear to have numerous superhero teams.
I’ve just bought the product and been reading it tonight, but I like what I see so far. I haven’t had time to get into the nut-and-bolts of the system, but I like the setting material I’ve read before. I absolutely love the fact that there’s not one monolithic robot type or robot race, but several civilizations of artificial lifeforms which have evolved beyond their original parameters–or might have entirely different origins altogether.
Excuse Me While I Talk about Myself
In my main campaign, the subject of “biosynth” rights come up often in space adventures. You have the Biosynth Movement (peaceful), The Biosynth Revolution (terrorist), and a number of singular figures spread throughout the galaxy. They don’t mind being called androids, but they hate being called robots, and they prefer biosynth, which implies they are living beings, though synthetic. I can’t remember where that term is from, but maybe I came up with it myself (probably not). Point being, I like that the Future Heroes designer sees the proliferation of synthetic races as likely.
I’m reading through Future Heroes right now and I’ll give an update when I know enough to review it. What I liked is the fact Brett Fitzpatrick took inspiration from my favorite superhero team as a kid: The Legion of Super-Heroes. This is the second such RPG supplement I’ve seen inspired by the Legion, so I thought I’d give applause for both. I should mention I’m in no way affiliated with either Starbright Illustrations or Skortched Urf Studios–I just admire their work. I wish I had the guts to publish some of the roleplaying ideas I’ve had over the years, so I like to applaud those who do.
About The Legion of Super-Heroes
The Legion of Super-Heroes takes place 10 centuries ahead of present-day, in the 31st century (or 30th century back when it debuted in 1958). The heroes are teenagers, each with a different power, each from a different world in the United Planets.
The Legion members were introduced as friends of Superboy and, back in the early years, they often visited Superboy in Smallville of the 1950s. For years, the Legion’s comic title was “Superboy & The Legion of Super-Heroes“. Their story ran in DC Comics for over 50 years and they’ve had a title throughout most of those years, though the Legion universe has undergone at least 4 different iterations.
Why the Legion Was Great (for a Kid)
The LSH was great because it contained a lot of silly Silver Age humor (Matter-Eater Lad, Arm-Fall-Off Boy) and maintained that quirky sense of humor through most runs, but also had cosmic storylines, high-flying combat, a good deal of romance, a seeming cast of hundreds, and frequent tragedies.
Since the Legion tended to have between 25-30 active members, the membership was no stranger to casualties. Ferro Lad died saving the Earth from a Sun-Eater. Invisible Kid was crushed to death by a monster name Validus, the most powerful member of the Fatal Five. Both Tenzil Kem and Brainiac-5 went insane and were confined for months, even years. And since these were teens giving their all for the cause of peace and utopia, this added a certain extra pathos to the sacrifices.
I loved the huge cast. From what I’ve read of behind-the-scenes pieces, artists hated drawing the Legion, for the very same reason (too much work). One danger of the reading the Legion was, if you had a favorite obscure character, they might not be seen for many issues.
My favorite was always Ultra Boy (Jo Nah), because he had all Superman’s powers, but he had the limitation he could only use one at a time. That made him seem more human, somehow. It probably helped he was from the tough streets of the ghetto world Rimbor and never quite fit in. Brainy framed him for murder once and the other Legionaires wondered for what seemed like dozens of issues whether Jo actually murdered An Ryd or not. When he started to unravel these mysteries, he got amnesia and became a space pirate. I know his various trials and tribulations had me on the edge of my seat…for several years.
Love Live the Legion!
The original story lasted from the 1950s into the 1980s, when the Crisis on Infinite Earths played havoc with their continuity, since Superboy never existed. This led to revisions in which Mon-El replaced Superboy in much of the continuity. Mon-El was a longtime Legionaire from Daxamite, but otherwise a Superboy analogue. The comic, written by Paul Levitz for the better part of 10 years, continued until Keith Giffin took over with his Legion-War. This would be the first of two stints on the title, including his controversial (with longtime fans) “5 Years Later” era.
I loved the Keith Giffin Era of the Legion (his second run on the title), but many fans hated it. Within the first 5 issues, Keith Giffin destroyed the Legion’s timeline…twice. In one issue, Mon-El had his final reckoning with the Time Trapper, a cosmic manipulator villain who acted as a foil for (and limitation on) the Legion’s and Superboy’s frequent travels through time.
But the next issue, the Trapper’s demise meant Mordru had no counterbalance and became all-powerful, so a cabal had to destroy that timeline and retcon Glorith into the universe as a replacement for the Time Trapper. It was great stuff, even though it went downhill after Giffin left the title. By the time Zero Hour destroyed the 35-40 year first run, I was giving up.
Since then, the Legion has been given several chances, always using their teenager status to try to appeal to new audiences. All of the later incarnations had their moments, though none had the charm of the original. Jim Shooter, who wrote the Legion when he was 16 years old (DC didn’t know that) even returned a couple of years ago after 40 years off the title to write a storyline or two. The latest Jim Shooter stories were for the universe where teens and adults were at a state of virtual civil war…not meant to keep the old-timer audience, since we’d now identify with the older generation in that rift. Whatever, Long Live the Legion!
One Bit of Legion Trivia
The appearance of X-Men mainstays Storm and Nightcrawler were designed by Dave Cockrum, an artist on the LSH between 1972 and 1974, but he designed them for the Legion of Superheroes comic. When Cockrum left DC Comics to work at Marvel Comics, he took those designs with him and helped Len Wein co-create Nightcrawler and Storm (and also Colossus) for the 70s revamp of The X-Men–I’d say the most successful revamp of a comic title in the history of comics.
As you can tell, I love the Legion of Super-Heroes, so I’m happy to see my favorites receive some love from RPG game designers.
About Starbright Illustrations and Brett Fitzpatrick
Starbright Illustrations has 10 other gaming supplements downloadable in pdf or print-on-demand on Drive-Thru RPG and RPG Now. Below are the 10 other supplements from Starbright that are available.
- Extreme Future 2nd Edition
- Realms Second Edition
- Mecha Clash
- Realms Area Guide 1, Metrax
- Realms World Map (Hyrope)
- Extreme Future Galaxy Politics Map
- Spaceship Owner’s Manual – Fuwalda
- Deep Space Encounters
- Mecha Flash
I’ve found Deep Space Encounters to be useful when brainstorming ideas for my pseudo-futuristic ideas. I mainly GM supers adventures these days, but it’s cosmic supers, so they get into space a lot. Extreme Future I’ve also used, though I’d like to run a campaign using the system. I’ve never bought Realms, but if my old sword-and-sorcery gaming group ever gets back together, I’ll be buying this pdf.
Skortched Urf Studios
Skortched Urf Studios has over 200 role-playing supplements found on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow. While I don’t have all of these supplements, new arrivals are automatically emailed to me when they’re released. I often end up buying these products. Psi-Watch is a modern supers setting inspired by the original run of Image Comics. Galaxy Command is old school 1970s space opera.
Otherverse America is one of the oddest game settings you’ll ever find. It’s set in the eary 22nd century, where an Abortion War is taking place in a divided America: the pagan Choicer Nation (pro-choice) versus the fundamentalist Lifer Super-Nation (pro-life). wow! Black Tokyo is only for mature audiences, since it’s based on Japanese hentai with elements of anime and manga. D20 Decade and Thinking Races are just some of the series of excellent setting material, while I got a lot of use out of Cruel Evolution.
- Psi-Watch Unlimited
- Galaxy Command
- Otherverse America
- Black Tokyo
- D20 Decade: The 1980s
- The Thinking Races Series
- Cruel Evolution
But the supplement I’ve used the most was Guide to the Known Galaxy. The concept of the life-chain I find fascinating and I’ve used at some length in one of my campaigns. The history of the True-Gray and Half-Gray I find fascinating. The bizarre history of the Third Pantheon and the strange primal worlds revolving around the Phallus I’ve raided for ideas…a lot. The author at Skortched Urf is clearly some kind of pagan, so this is a far departure from the Legion of Super-Heroes. But I can see where he’s coming from.
Anyway, I sound like I’m shilling, but I simply want to support creators who take inspiration from the same stories that stoked the imagination in my childhood.
I wanted to give my views on how to be a good gamemaster, because I’ve read a lot of bad advice online from writers whose players wouldn’t agree with their theories.
My theory of gamemastering is you try to create an enriching game setting which allows players to play the type of character that will fulfill them, while indulging yourself in whatever sort of world building that makes the game rewarding for yourself.
Before I begin, let me give a couple of GM tips in the form of “don’t do” suggestions.
The game is set up to pit the gamemaster against the player characters. There’s always going to be a natural antagonism, because you are playing the antagonists in the story. There’s no reason to highlight this aspect of your game. Spend as much time thinking about ways to spotlight your player characters’ abilities as you do trying to get around their key abilities.
Look over your players’ character sheets and make your scenarios a full exploration of those character sheets. While some players build killing machines and want to do nothing but exploit those abilities, you should find ways to reward those who play within the spirit of the game and put points in lesser-used skills. You’ll naturally come up with things for the power-gamers to kill, but the skill-based characters often get overlooked in these scenarios. Take a little extra time to highlight this type of refreshing PC and their players will appreciate it.
If you’re playing a storytelling game and your players take time to write up or discuss with you an NPC idea, try to make that NPC important. That advice goes double when you think the NPC is stupid. Find some way to make it work. For instance, I had a player character whose right-hand man had a really stupid name and not much of a back story. My knee-jerk was, “I wouldn’t hire this guy simply based on his name.”
Instead of finding a way to kill the lame character and get a replacement I liked, I chose to make this guy a key plot-device character. I thought he was goofy, so I made him goofy enough to engage in local gossip and rumors. This made him perfect to introduce new plot elements. My player gobbled it up, while it served my purposes. Eventually, we found out his real name and why he had that stupid nickname, so this dumb NPC ended up being a success.
News Flash: Everyone Knows the GM is All-Powerful
You don’t have to point out to the gaming group you, as GM, are all-powerful and omnipotent. I’ve ran games for 20+ years, but a friend of mine who wanted his own campaign started explaining that to me one day (while I was a player in his game). It’s obvious to all, and no player wants to hear that. In fact, you should have as few demonstrations of this ability of yours as possible.
Yes, the game should be a tyranny, but an enlightened tyranny. Be like Galactus, working through beatable heralds, instead of always using your bully power as gamemaster to eat the gaming world. In roleplaying, omnipotent and omniscient beings aren’t all that clever (or interesting), because they don’t have to be.
Introducing the omnipotent opponent means you’ll eventually have to “let the group win”, which might make you feel big, but completely misses the point. Set up a really clever or really violent, but beatable, opponent, then see if the characters can win by being more clever or more violent. The key is beatable opponents, because your characters won’t be able to be “more omnipotent”–though that’s an idea for a superhero game (maybe). The point being, you should always have some idea about your big boss’s fatal flaw or the weakness in their plan.
Also: Don’t Be All-Knowing
Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. Years ago, I was a player in an Amber campaign and the throne suddenly was available (the “elders” died or disappeared or something). A couple of my fellow player characters entered into a conspiracy to fake one of our character’s deaths (framing a key rival), then reintroducing the perfect royal candidate, with all the right (fake) bloodlines and without any our bloody pasts. This worked perfectly–or at least it should have. But immediately after the coronation, we received a visit from a heretofore unseen NPC telling us they knew everything about our plan (and so on). Now, it was Amber, so we knew the victory wouldn’t be forever, but it would have been nice to have seen our plan succeed for a little while–even one session–to see how our team ran the world. Instead, the GM pulled the “I know everything” card immediately, completely ruining our fun. He had to assert he was the star of the show–not us.
Which brings me to the most important advice you’ll ever read as an aspiring gamemaster.
Make the Player Characters the Stars
Most of the gamemasters I read online seem to think they’re the stars of the show. But you can’t treat it that way when it’s time to run sessions. Everything can’t be about you.
A good gamemaster has to look at himself as a combination of writer, director, and producer of his campaign. You (the GM) play the secondary actors and the extras, but the players and their characters are the stars of the show. If you keep that in mind when writing adventures and (especially) when running sessions, you’re going to do well.
Here’s the thing: especially if you think the player characters are lacking in some way, you may feel the urge to introduce NPC characters who upstage the PCs or “show them how to do it right”. Believe me, I’ve felt the same way many times over the years. In the end, your players, however flawed they might be, are the stars of the show. Like it or not, you’re going to have to work with them. If you don’t like the direction they’re headed, let them know about it out-of-game and have them create a more appropriate character. If that doesn’t work, it’s not going to work, and you boot them.
Whatever’s on your mind, when it comes time for the game, you have your lead characters and those lead characters are the player characters.
It’s Your World – GM Advice
That being said, it’s your world, so make it interesting. Feel free to create the most interesting non-player characters possible. Make these guys count. I try to have them act like they think they are player characters in their own story, even if they aren’t. Some might be know-it-alls, intellectual bullies with good spy services, and even seem unbeatable at first glance. Heck, be convincing in their arrogance, but know that most of the characters you introduce are going to be beaten or outshone in some way, even if your characters are memorable. You should never introduce a character that would win an outstanding lead actor role, but strive to have plenty of NPCs who would be nominated for a “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” award.
Worry About Essentials – Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
I’m the same as every other GM: I think a lot of the ideas that player characters come up with for their PCs are dumb. In a group of 4 to 6 players, there is bound to be one that strays from the path. The character either doesn’t make sense for your campaign, they aren’t cool by anyone’s standards (but their own), or their character design is a power-gaming move that isn’t in the spirit of the game. You’re first instinct in these cases, like mine, is to reject these ideas offhand. Sometimes, that’s required. But it’s not required as often as gamemasters believe.
My suggestion is to worry about the ideas that screw up your campaign in some way, but work through the rest of them. If one of your players decides his character has a weapon that makes no practical sense, such as having a blade on each end that he somehow spins to do damage, just go with it. If he or she has a weapon made out of magical rum, go with it. For some odd reason, it’s important to the player their idiot character has a rum-sword. If that’s not going to ruin your campaign, give it to them. Laugh in your private moments if you must, but just ignore the nonsensical stuff.
Only change their character concept when the concept is actually going to ruin the story or wreck the world you set up. For instance, if you have a story about an intricate set of noble families who plot and intrigue against one another and one of your characters decides to play a barbarian from 2,000 miles away who “hates nobles and becomes violent at the thought of intrigue”, tell them that’s not going to work very well. Or if it’s open-ended game and they decide to play a character with “Drain Omnipotence”, obviously set them straight. Otherwise, ignore the stupid stuff and find a way to make their character an important part of the production.
GM Tip #1: How to Spotlight Player Characters
When a character is finished and submitted, take a look at the character and see what your player is getting at. Try to figure out “what makes the character tick”. Why is one of your players playing this individual and what is it he wants to do?
Once you have an idea what this is, include story elements that highlight that aspect of the character.
You’ll have players who enjoy “roleplaying”, becoming another person for a short time as an exercise in escapism. You’ll have members of your group who are in the game only to clown around, show off, and get attention. You’ll have players who only want to acquire things, build up experience points, and make their guy a bad-ass. And you’ll have gamers who just want to use their skills, win fights, and be an action hero.
Figure out what each person wants and then find a way for them to have moments to shine during each session. Give them what they want, because here’s a secret to good gamemastering: the players aren’t just the stars, but they’re also your audience. That’s a weird dynamic, being both the stars of your show AND your audience, but you have to keep both those things in mind. You have to keep them entertained, while also giving them a chance to be grab the spotlight.
GM Tip #2: Don’t Let Them See the Strings
Of course, you don’t want them to figure out that you’ve written your adventure to do these things. You don’t want them to be able to say, “Oh, this is the scene where I get to use my Climb skill.” You want to keep things fresh, to keep plenty of surprises happening, and to keep your options open.
In fact, instead of planning that one moment where a character gets to be the hero, always have a short list of ideas for each character. The fact is, most gaming groups are completely unpredictable, and they’re never going to do things exactly the way you planned. As sure as you tell yourself, “This is where Throngar the Barbarian uses his Animal Husbandry skill to tame the wild dogs,” Throngar is sure to roll a barrel of pitch amidst the dogs and try to set them on fire.
GM Tip #3: Be Flexible – Roll with the Punches
That may be the most important advice a GM can learn: you have to learn how to improvise. Nothing is ever going to go the exact way you planned it. The quicker you can get that through your head, the better off you’ll be and the less you’ll worry about it.
I said earlier you were the writer of the story.
That’s true, but you have to look at your playing group as a kind of editor who makes major revisions, or perhaps co-writers who make their valuable (if sometimes unwanted) contributions.
Heck, view them as the lowbrow demographic that forces you to make changes to suit the execs, sometimes impinging on (if not ruining) your artistic vision. Whatever the case, understand that roleplaying is not a book, a movie, or piece of fan fiction. It’s your story, but not 100% your story.
That’s what makes roleplaying dynamic and keeps it fresh for everyone. No one person is 100% “in control” of things, even the gamemaster. Sure, you are all-powerful within the context of the game, but contrary to how it’s portrayed by outsiders, roleplaying is a highly social game that requires its gamemaster to make certain concessions to the group dynamic. Embrace that, because it’s a good part of our hobby.
GM Tip #4: You Are the Game Universe
You might think I’m telling you to be an easy-ass who lets his players get away with everything. That’s not what I’m saying at all. While I’m not a bloodthirsty GM, I think most of my players view my games as challenging. They view me as a stickler, sometimes even a hard-ass about certain things. That’s because, despite all the advice above, I do view myself as the arbiter of the laws of nature in the worlds I create for gaming.
If somebody wanders too far astray, it’s my duty to serve the cause of realism and make them pay for their foolhardiness.
What makes roleplaying different from a bunch of kids playing cowboys-and-indians or cops-and-robbers in the backyard is the fact that, even though it’s a fantasy game, there need to be consequences for players’ actions. Roleplaying is a game with rules, not pure make-believe.
Beyond the rules of the game, though, each world you create needs to have its own set of interior rules.Call them the “laws of nature” or the “laws of physics” if you will.
There has to be an internal consistency and an understanding that there are certain boundaries players don’t cross. You set those boundaries, hopefully at some “realistic” point, which makes the action believable within the context of your gaming world. The gamemaster is the all-powerful being, but only insomuch as he or she keeps the players and their characters from being all-powerful beings.
If player characters can do anything and get away with anything, it becomes make-believe, no different than kids playing in the backyard. I remember reading about one D&D editor getting a note from a gaming group that they needed to publish a new pantheon book, because their gaming group had killed all the gods in the old one–a classic case where make-believe took over. This gets into the “suspension of disbelief” business, where the players have to view their characters as facing a real threat or they don’t buy into the story. You have to make the characters buy into the game. If they refuse to do so, it’s almost impossible to be a good GM. You’ll need a new gaming group to achieve that.
GM Tip #5: Create a Wider World
Let’s talk for a minute about filling out the setting of a campaign. Background is a huge part of creating an evocative, believable story. If you only create “Point-A to-Point B” sessions, the players tend to feel like they’re being led around by a ring in their nose. That’s no fun, at least for the narrativist gamers. This type of gamemastering makes you seem like a story tyrant where the characters are nothing more than figures you’re moving around a board.
To create a wider world, you’re going to have to allow time and opportunity for players to explore the world. Game sessions almost always take longer than you planned, so if something interesting seems to be developing that doesn’t fit neatly into your script, be patient and see where the action goes. The more you do this, the more comfortable and better at it you’ll become. Remember, as the dungeon master or storyteller, you can always get the story back on-track with a few GM tricks, so there’s nothing wrong with letting the player characters explore their world a bit.
You’ll have to show a little bit of patience to make this work. View conversations between the player characters as a successful scene, and don’t break into their talk to introduce new story elements or characters unless they are starting to break character and talk about topics outside the game, unless their conversation is particularly digressive, or unless it’s appropriate to the flow of the conversation. This is where you become more the director than the scriptwriter. When the scene seems like it’s over or needs to be moved along, cut to the next scene.
GM Tip #6: Foreshadow Occasionally
This can get annoying if you do it too much, but an occasional oblique reference that foreshadows something mysterious or hidden is a good gamemaster trick. You don’t have to know the full story behind these people, organizations, and creatures, but you want to have some idea of what this reference means, in case the characters latch onto your reference and start to pursue it immediately. If they do, reveal (through your NPC) as much as you do know about this reference, then change the conversation.
That’s where the GM’s powers are best used, to change the conversation or storyline by redirecting the players’ attention at the right moment.
Once again, you can use gamemaster techniques to redirect the action at a point where the story is starting to veer out of your comfort zone or control. You can always introduce a crisis point that redirects the players’ attention. Do this until the end of the session, then make a note to have their questions answered with more background information the next time you play. That is, have the answers they want, then let them pursue those answers at their leisure, whenever they get back to trying to learn the truth.
GM Tip #7: Listen to PC Ideas – Pick and Choose the Best PC Suggestions
Listen closely to what your player characters say and take short notes, if needed. Encourage your players to discuss among themselves or with other characters, and mine this dialogue for ideas. If a mysterious reference stokes a new theory from one of your players and it sounds more interesting than what you had planned, don’t be ashamed to seize upon that idea and make it a story element later. Playing groups often have much wilder ideas about where a story is headed than the GM does, and many of these ideas are downright ludicrous. A few are going to be really imaginative and interesting, so use them. Reward players for being creative and trying, even if it’s not the idea you had.
This not only lets you draw on more talent to write your story than you have alone, but it also does one other thing: it lets you reinforce the fact that the PCs are competent or know what they’re doing in ways that you could never devise on your own. Gamemasters are not above rearranging the facts to cover plot holes and make their villains look smarter or more cunning at times. Less seldom do they use those same methods to help the stars of the production, but they should.
You’ll never get credit for this benign trickery, but you’ll end up with a happier gaming group. This is always an advantage for you and your campaign.
GM Tip #8: Building Trust: Good Gamemasters Maintain Their Patience
Good gamemasters exhibit patience–and not just in waiting for the player characters to get through their scenes. They do it in an ultimately more important way: by not abusing their power as GM.
You’re going to get frustrated with the game and frustrated with your players at times. Things they do are going to hack you off or even infuriate you, especially if you put a lot of time and thought into a session and they are putting no thought into how they conduct their part of the session. But the best gamemasters maintain their patience in the face of these things, fight through their frustrations, and make the game work anyway. They don’t throw fits and kill the group (or some part of the group) for making them lose their patience.
Ultimately, being a good gamemaster is about establishing a level of trust with your players, so they feel they can build good characters and tell their stories without a bolt from the blue destroying all they’ve built. If you abuse your GM powers to their continual disadvantage, they are going to view you as some kind of angry god who punishes them for every infraction, and trust you about as much as they would an angry god. As the DM or GM, you’re putting them in mortal danger all the time, essentially trying to kill them repeatedly throughout the session. The trick is to be their antagonist without antagonizing them, to put them in danger without them thinking you “really mean it”.
GM Tip #9: Gamemaster Player Characters – Plot Device Characters
This may sound contradictory after what I said in “Make the Player Characters the Stars”, but I’m talking about doing this only in certain situations and only to enhance the PC’s enjoyment of the game.
Let’s revisit that other point: I’ve mentioned several times your PCs are the stars. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a really good cast of supporting characters. Every gamemaster is going to have favorite non-player characters, whether they’re minor, major, or somewhere in-between. It’s natural and healthy for that to happen.
Also, when I say the players are the stars, that doesn’t mean your NPCs should be dull or lifeless–anything but. Heck, it’s okay to create important NPC characters. This is especially true in smaller gaming groups of less than 3 players, where the burden falls on you to provide more of the dialogue.
In more intimate group dynamics, I have created what I call “GMPCs” or “gamemaster player characters“. These players still remain in a supporting role, but they are recognized as the boon companions of your player characters, invested with a little more reality than most other NPCs (to borrow an Amber RPG term). These characters tend to be plot devices and are recognized on some level by the players as such, but they’re mainly there to play off the PCs the way a larger group would normally–to be recognized members of the group.
The gmpc might be a king who is their patron, or a trusted minion who gets the job done better than the other henchmen. This type of NPC might be a peer who you have along (part of the time) that represents proper conduct, or who fills a role (thief, scout, mage) that most likely would be filled in larger gaming groups. The point being, this NPC is placed in the campaign to make things run more smoothly, provides a valuable ally to your characters, and serves your purposes as well. They act as plot device characters, in many ways. Eventually, the group is going to realize this character acts as a mouthpiece for the narrator or as your well-placed agent for important story points, and they’ll realize this character isn’t as easily swept aside as other NPCs. They should know this is the character you would play, if you took a week off from refereeing the game.
That being said, take care this character doesn’t become a “Mary Sue”, though. Creating Mary Sues who are untouchable is one of the most annoying things a gamemaster can do. This character should have their own motivations and personality, should be flawed like the player characters, and should be dead wrong at times. Also–and this is the key point–they shouldn’t be in the spotlight. Mary Sue characters tend to be an extension or avatar of the writer/storyteller to live out their fantasies, while ‘gamemaster player characters’ should be there to serve the interests of the playing group and the campaign as a whole. As always, it should be subsidiary to the player characters. Final Note: I would not suggest having such characters in groups of 4 or more players (due to time contraints).
GM Tip #10: Player Characters Should Perform Mighty Deeds
Over time, the player characters’ reputation should expand. It’s classic to have a character begin as a nobody, but roleplayers don’t play a character for months and years unless they want to get somewhere and be somebody. They are the protagonists of the story (if not always the heroes), and there should be some recognition for what they have done in the world–both good and bad deeds.
Long story short, let your PCs make a difference in their world, then make sure a significant number of people in that world notice what they’ve accomplished.
Back to GM Tip #5: Make Your World Expansive
If you are the “game universe”, so to speak, then you need to make your world as expansive as possible. I’ve always preferred something beyond the baseline dungeon-crawl, because I personally think video games do that challenge better, because of its visual advantages. Where a roleplaying game is better than a video game, though, is that it’s easier to create an expansive setting.
You’ve probably played the video game where you reach the end of the world, so to speak, where your character simply meets an invisible force field and can’t go any further. While a GM can’t plan for everything, I try to avoid is the moment in a gaming session where they meet the invisible force field in the world I create, where the group wants to do something and you have nothing planned, where you don’t have a backup plan and they know it.
I like to build a pretty detailed list of NPCs for any setting I’m running, complete with rough character sketches, motivations, and more background than I’ll ever use. But I also like to have a “Plan C” of names, personalities, artifacts, devices, and plot seeds I can dip into anytime the players wander beyond the confines of what I’ve built. You never know when or where that’s going to happen, but I’ve found you can create the illusion of a wider gaming universe, if you aren’t at a loss for names. If you trip over a name or use “Father John Smith” for the fantasy NPC or “Dr. Villain” for your superhero NPC, the players are starting to see the strings holding up the non-player characters. So I run off lists to refer to if I’m stuck for names and/or ideas. If you are convincing when you pull out the new list and decisive in how you run the new characters or present the new objects, they’ll never know the difference.
32 Resources to Inspire GMs
The modern name generators tend to have repetition of surnames and given names at a point, so I prefer to build lists from a collection of generators, to keep things fresh. That’s why so many such generators are on this list. The number 32 has no significance. It’s just how many I happen to use.
So you’ll know where I’m coming from, I ran sword-n-sorcery games for many years, but the last few years have been mostly Mutants & Masterminds superhero stuff. This list definitely reflects my needs these last few years.
- Seventh Sanctum – If you’ve looked up the term “random generator”, you already know about this site, but I’d be remiss not listing it. A lot of the generators are silly, but this is the biggest number of useful generators online. Includes fantasy and modern names, genre-specific names, substances, and artifacts, place names, evocative minion types, and all kinds of other goodies.
- Abulafia Random Generators – Huge list of generators, including Golden Age heroes, Modern superheroes, random world and US cities, arcane substances, arcane books, secret society names, and dozens of other idea types.
- Gaming Geeks Name List – Surnames by nation and ethnic type. This includes name ideas for every continent on the globe, and numerous regions or ethnicities on those continents.
- Online Name Generator – Good for building company names, business names, secret project names, and good old-fashioned modern name lists.
- Ultimate Random Name Generator – Big lists of 50 female or 50 male names, according to ethnic types all over the world. You’ll notice repetition after a while, but it’s still super useful if you need a list of Arab or Chinese or Russian characters quick.
- Serendipity – Generators for names, places, things, stories, and travesties. Best mainly for fantasy and sorcery based stories, but also with links to other sites. This site got hit by hackers and the owner is slowly building it up again, so be patient.
- Modern Name Generator – Another list of modern names, 50 at a time.
- Behind the Name – Customizable name generator, though this one pops out only one name at a time. I click on the option which allows for 3 birth names at a time, simply to increase production.
- Euro Names – Great for that odd eurotrash character or mad scientist, with oddball names from across the continent.
- 20000 Names – For more targeted searches, if you’re looking for that perfect first name for that key character in your campaign. Listed by nation.
- Guild Name Generator – Mainly for World of Warcraft type guilds and organizations, I use this for inspiration on world-building. You’ll have to pick through a lot of unusable names, but there are some gems amidst all the old rocks.
- Star Wars Name Generator – Generate up to 100 names at a time. This is for the Star Wars universe, but I’ve found it’s generic enough to get name ideas for all kinds of alien races.
- Science Fiction Name Generator – Includes Star Wars, Star Trek, Serenity, Cthulhu, and Cyberpunk. I especially use the Cthulhu name generator, which is good for creating slighty creepy or anachronistic modern names for any horror-themed campaign.
- Derange-o-Lab – Great for weird villains, minions, and device ideas for a pulp or superhero world. I tend to use this one for off-the-wall ideas. For my game, I need to sift through a lot, but your game might not be that way. With a little tweaking, you could use it for sword and sorcery games.
- Encyclopedia Mythica – Another resource for modern legends and cultural figures around globe.
- Comic Book Hero Names – Like all superhero/supervillain name generators I’ve ever found, you’ll need to sift through these to find a collection worth using.
- Google Translate – To translate words into other languages, including dozens of language options. You never know when your PC is going to ask, “Who is Senegal’s #1 superhero?” In a detailed superhero campaign, I suggest you have 1 answer for each country. I have a file I go to when the question arises. That’s going to be 200+ possible characters, but if you ever get stuck for ideas, you can raid the list and replace it later. If you really want to get ambitious, you can create a bunch for the countries which get mentioned often. One thing I don’t like about the DC and Marvel universes is the assumption the United States has a ton of heroes, but other countries only have a handful at most. In my main campaign, it’s well-known that the biggest collection of metahumans or paranormals is in China, which would make the most sense. And the Russians are famous for boasting they have a metahuman army of 3,000 super-soldiers, presumably from a combination of Chernobyl (I know, that’s Ukraine) and Cold War experiments. Anyway, I digress.
- Pretentious Hero Name Ideas – For those comics characters who have to be over-the-top and world class, here’s a Latin glossary.
- Computer Graphics Society – CGSociety is a resource of graphic art with galleries by oft-published CG artists. I browse images sometimes to spur creativity or get ideas for characters or scenes, usually in the most tangential and impressionistic ways.
- Deviant Art – Again, I find that browsing through the imaginative artwork on this site helps spur creativity sometimes, especially when I have a bit of writers block. This is another one that just about everyone knows about, but I don’t want to leave it off the list because most people reading know about it.
- Renderosity – Maybe not quite as varied (lots of female art) as CG Society or Deviant Art, but I’ve still used these character renders for inspiration before. Browse galleries and free stuff.
- Dot-o-Mator Domain and Company Names – Lets you put together one list of words with a second list of words, to build fictional corporation names. I’ve used it to create ideas for comic book names, along with amalgam comics character ideas. For instance, I’ve created lists of 15 Marvel characters and crossed them with 15 DC characters before, just to get new character ideas. Examples: Mordru + She-Hulk (Woman Gets Blood Transfusion from Powerful Archmage), Mordru + The Warriors Three (Trio of Sorcerers Travel Planes on Rollicking Adventures), Mordru + Taskmaster (Planetary Ruler w/Galaxy’s Greatest University for Villains).
- Cult of Squid – While it has name ideas for fantasy and modern, I find the place names to be most useful, again for either modern or fantasy. Include ethnicities from around the globe.
- 101 NPC Random Personalites – Generator for lists of random personalities for your non-player characters. Have a list of 101 of these for quick inspiration. Might require a little picking and choosing to make sense, sometimes.
- Kleimo Random Name Generator – Again, this is for modern names, but you’ll be able to set obscurity factor on them, so you can get up to 30 names at a time that are relatively mundane or quite oddball.
- Name Thingy: Ultimate Random Name – A constantly looping list of names. Click on “Options” on the left side of the page. Then choose “Thing” or “Technology” for the first word and “Man”, “Woman”, or “Girl” for the second word and you’ll come up with great superhero names. When you get tired of that type of hero name, change the first word to “Captain”, “Doctor”, or some color and the second word to “Thing” or “Technology” and see what happens.
- Superpowers List – Just the coolest thing ever…a list of superpowers from the traditional to the unbeatable to the bizarre. One good exercise is to translate these to Champions or Mutants & Masterminds.
- Synistar’s Personality Generator – Abulafia Name Generators – Another approach to the personality generator, done five at a time. This is one of a hundred generators on Abulafia, but one I’ve used a lot.
- Random Word Generator – Creativity Tools – One exercise they suggest is taking a random word and turning it into a superhero or supervillain idea. Run through a few of these, chunk the useless options, and build a small list of ideas.
- Dungeons & Dragons Dice Roller – Includes d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d100 roll options. Also includes a customizable number roller option, and an automatic reset button. If you’re really lazy and don’t want to carry dice.
- Online Die Roller – Similar to the D&D roller. If you keep a laptop with you, you can open this tool and use it later, even if you don’t have Internet access where you’re gaming.
- Bride of Bigfoot Comic Book Names – I also have my own random superhero name tables blog that might be helpful, though it’s not automated. You’ll have to roll the dice yourself.
This doesn’t have to be a long process or take a lot of time. Make a list of a few story elements you might need (character names, business names, devices, places) and print off a list for each. If you’re feeling really ambitious, make a few notes beside each with ideas or associations each word or name suggests to you. These notes don’t have to be elaborate, but they might help when your characters suddenly want to know who the most feared underworld figure is or where they can pick up a magic potion.
If you’re playing in a sword and sorcery campaign, I suggest you always come armed with a book of artifacts or a list of artifacts, too. These don’t have to be elaborate, either, but many players like to know the treasure they’re finding, so always have some answer ready. Even if they are minor items, it should satisfy their greed. Otherwise, they are likely to get frustrated by a perceived lack or progress, or you might get stuck for an idea and blurt out something campaign-altering like “20th level Ring of Omnipotence”.
Once you have a handful of notes and resources of this sort, you’ll be able to create the illusion of a world much larger than is already set in stone. On top of everything else, a good game-master is a bit of an illusionist, too. Do your best to never get caught grasping for a name and that illusion is usually going to be preserved. If you let the mask slip, try to recover as quickly as possible and, like the baseball referee who sells the call and never admits (in-game) to a mistake, don’t reference your own screw-ups while the game is on.
Ending the Campaign
Most roleplaying campaigns–even the good ones–simply peter out with no end. Gaming groups form and break up all the time, whether it’s something outside-the-game like players moving out of the area, quitting due to work commitments or relationships, or from the dramatic stuff, like controversy. Point being, campaigns usually end without much thought.
But I wanted to talk about ending those few who do get a chance for a send-off. When players have committed to a campaign long enough that it has an ending, be sure to give them their money’s worth. Give them a good ending fit for their character. That means one they would want and not one you would want. You owe them that much, for putting up with your nonsense all this time.
That applies even when you’ve come to loath one or more of these characters, which happens sometimes. This is team storytelling, so reward members of the team for their commitment.
GM Tip #11: Have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End
Also, remember that a story has en ending. If your group is a pure dungeon-crawl team, then your campaigns might be an exception to the following advice. But if your role-playing campaign has storytelling elements, make sure the story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Players tend to fall in love with their player characters. If the campaign offers an enjoyable setting and/or storyline, then the players are likely to want your campaign to go on perpetually. Perpetual campaigns are always a bad idea from a gamemasters’ standpoint.
GM Tip #12: Never Do a Sequel – Avoid Endless Campaign
Several times in my time GMing, I’ve been talked into creating “sequels” or continuing stories for campaigns where the story completed. A few times, I got drawn into a continuous, open-ended campaign with no end in sight. In all cases, I ended up regretting drawing out the campaign. You’ll convince yourself you love your game world or certain NPCs in that world or the idea of the campaign. You’ll tell yourself that you have a brilliant new idea to pick up the storyline. I’m telling you, though: those won’t be enough. You’ll regret your decision.
Let me tell you this: endless campaigning does not make for better stories and better characters.
Roleplaying is not a set of novels. Usually, characterization of the PCs is not going to get deeper with a perpetual campaign. Your players aren’t undergoing the experiences of the PCs, so they are essentially staying the same. Playing open-ended games means they’ll fall into bad habits, get the idea their characters are invincible (thus ruining suspension of disbelief), and become jaded about the new threats. As a rule of thumb, about the third time a character says, “We fought _______ (former opponent), so we can handle ______ (new opponent)” or something to that effect, it’s time to end the campaign.
I’m not saying you should have mini-campaigns or short campaigns. Feel free to have long, detailed, complicated campaign stories. Just never let them convince you to start a sequel campaign, and never commit yourself to an open-ended story. You’ll end up hating yourself for it. Write or gamemaster for a character long enough, and you’ll end up despising them, like the author from Misery who wanted to kill off his most successful fictional character. Campaigns are dynamic and volatile and they only get more so as time goes on. Because of experience points, a campaign evolves and escalates until it gets out of control. So stop your campaign before it explodes.
The I-Ching of GM-ing
Anyway, that’s my little manifesto on running a role-playing game. Everybody has their way. Every gaming group has different needs. These probably won’t be much use to a DM and his group, especially if they prefer dungeon crawls. All respect to that type of gaming.
These tips and tricks have served me well in storytelling games. My players tend to enjoy their gaming experience. If GMs followed this advice, I do suggest that most of their groups would enjoy their experiences, too. There’s nothing worse in role-playing than having a cool idea for a character and having a bad GM that messes up any chances of you developing that idea, so make the world a better place and be a player-friendly GM.