See chameleon, lying there in the sun…

…all things to everyone, run, run, away!

Welcome to the GM’s Roundtable of June Doom.  Pull up a pew, make yourself comfortable, grab a drink, whatever.  Just don’t spill tea with milk and 2 sugars on your new laptop, that hardly ever ends well.

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker:

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the syle and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

Should the PCs always be able to win.  Long story short: yes.  Well, yes and no.  If by “win” you mean “survive”.  So no.  Not every encounter is there for the PCs to be able to beat from the start of the game.  And it depends on what you mean by “beat”.  And “Encounter”.

Encounter:  Something the PCs have to deal with.  Orcs.  Locked doors.  Sections of wrecked starship exposed to the vacuum of deep space.  Koru Behemoths.

Beat: Overcome. Get around successfully. Defeat in combat.  Unlock.

So, you set up your challenges, your encounters, to drive the story forward. Sometimes those encounters need to teach the PCs that they have a place in the world – and they’re not at the top of the heap.

13th Age – amongst other games, or so I’m reliably informed – has a sweet mechanic that covers the eventuality of the PCs having their arses handed to them on a plate by a combination of bad dice rolls and monsters far too tough for them to beat right now: Campaign Losses.

Campaign Losses

Put simply, when the PCs are faced with overwhelming odds, when the dice are against them and they’re down to their last recovery rolls, they can always (*looks both ways to make sure no-one is looking, whispers*) run away.  Yep, those brave Sir Robins can tuck their tails between their legs and get themselves hence to a place of safety.  But this comes at a cost.

You didn’t defeat those Orc barbarians?  Well, bolstered by this success they’ve pushed onwards and overrun the next village, gaining reinforcements as they go.  Next time you face them, you’re in for a tougher fight.  Oh, and you dropped the Arch Mage’s wand as you were running.  You didn’t beat those skeletons?  That Necromancer now has a few more in his legion and has persuaded the Lich King that you’re worthy of his attention.  Didn’t defeat those demons?  They’ve managed to convince the local militia that you’re bad guys and they’re going to give you a hard time next time you’re in town.

Campaign Losses are a nice carte-blanche to deprive your PCs of resources and to give cool stuff to the adversary-level NPCs in your portfolio.

Encounters are one of the main ways the narrative is driven forward in most roleplaying games and they can serve a number of purposes:

  1. Give the PCs stuff – XP so they can improve, treasure/s, and information
  2. Challenge the PCs and let them know that defeating the Big Bad isn’t going to be a walk in the park
  3. Encourage the PCs to try a different approach to the problem.

For 1 and 2, the PCs should be able to defeat whoever they’re battling – moreso for 1, 2 should be a bit tougher fight.  For 3, well, that’s when you’ve got the opportunity to bring on the pain.

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

Want to see some other blogger’s takes on this subject? Check out the following (I’ll add post specific links as they roll out):

+James August Walls – X at

+Scott Robinson – Realism and Challenge at

+Lex Starwalker – X at

+John Marvin – X at

+Marc Plourde – X at

+Peter Smits – the sliding scale of difficulty at

+Arnold K. – X at

+Evan Franke – X at

+Burn Everything Gaming – Game Masters’ Rountable of Doom #6 at


Preparation is not a dirty word.

Crevice is a dirty word.
General Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth.


Okay, so Melchie was talking about security in that scene, but the principle is the same.

Welcome to the uncomfortable, damp, and only slightly being bombed dug out of the GM’s Roundtable of Doom for May.

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Marc Plourde:

There are many different skills that come together to make up a GM. The ability to think on the fly, knowledge of the rules, plotting, etc. What skill do you think is your weakest? What have you done to try and improve that skill? What advice do you have to offer others trying to improve that skill set?

Preparation.  My biggest weakness and something I’m trying to throw off completely.

Back at the Dawn of Time, or the release of AD&D 2nd Edition, whichever was sooner, I was a planner.  A preparer.  And a I had to have a complete collection. Didn’t matter what game I was playing, if I was running it I had to have every book released – even if there was nothing in that book I was going to use.  This very nearly cost me my marriage.

I would think through my games in detail, make notes, but – and this is the crucial bit – only plan out a single storyline.  When the players went with this storyline, things went well.  When they didn’t, my teddies were ejected from the cot and the game went downhill quickly.

Welcome, weary traveler, before you stand 2 doors.  Behind one is the path to the Sapphire City, behind the other is a tiger with a gun.

2 doors.  Easy to plan for.  2 possible eventualities.  But what if there are 3 doors?  Or 16 (one of which is made of marmalade.  Sorry, been listening to a lot of John Finnemore recently.  Very funny guy.).  Do you plan for all of them?

I found the answer on BBC’s “Only Connect“.  If you don’t know the programme, it’s a quiz.  Teams have to answer questions by finding the right connection between seemingly random clues.  Each of the first 2 rounds consists of 6 questions, the teams take it in turn selecting hieroglyphs and the choice of hieroglyph denotes which question they get.  So let’s say the first team picks the Eye of Horus.  They get whichever question was linked to that symbol.  Or “Question 1” as I realised it was.  It doesn’t matter which of the hieroglyphs they pick, they’re getting the first question in the stack.  And that’s it!


The party comes to 3 choices – 3 doors, if you will.  They debate, they cogitate, they question the guards (one lies, one tells the truth, one alternates between truth and lies) and they choose the middle door.  Whatever you’d planned to happen when the party goes through the first door they choose happens now.  If they’re in a bar and they need to get information from a patron, they get it from a patron – doesn’t matter who’s in the bar, the right person is going to be there.  And if they’re not there yet, they’re about to walk in the door.

This allows you to side-step entirely the appearance that your game is running on well-polished rails while keeping your game running on well-polished rails.

So far, my players haven’t noticed!

There are games out there that positively encourage this style of planning.  Any of the Gumshoe games from Pelgrane Press, for example, work on this principle – key clues can come from a number of different sources depending on where the players are and what they’re doing.  Oh, and their creature origin alternatives in Trail of Cthulhu are fantastic.


  1. Plan for the first thing you want to happen, not for every conceivable alternative.
  2. Don’t buy everything – you don’t need it.  And the games companies know this, that’s why the print runs for supplements and scenarios are significantly smaller than those for the core books.
  3. Listen to John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

I said before that I had to have everything to consider myself ready to run a game.  That pendulum has swung completely the other way.  I’m almost over-prepared if I’ve got my dice and more than a vague idea for what’s happening during this session.

Now go and read the rest of the Roundtable.  It’s well worth it.

+Marc Plourde at Nuts & Bolts #31 – Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #5 – Crossing the Divide

+James August Walls at

+Scott Robinson at

+Lex Starwalker at

+John Marvin at

+Evan Franke at

+Peter Smits at

+Arnold K.



Welcome to April’s “Gamesmaster’s Roundtable of Doom”…

There is a wide spectrum of lethality in RPGs, and there are GMs who fall on every possible point within it. These range from GMs who run campaigns where PCs can never die to the other extreme—GMs who delight in killing PCs. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How lethal are your games and why? How do you handle PC death if and when it happens?

I can only recall one fatality in my time as a GM.  Jeremy, the player of the Gnome Wizard in question, had botched an “Identify Magic Item” roll.  The Gnome believed he was in possession of a “Wand of Polymorph” with a single charge left.  Furthermore, the natural 1 rolled had conferred the knowledge that the transformation would turn the target into an adult white dragon.  The player, and the rest of us, knew it was a “Wand of Fire and Ice” and that pointing it at yourself and triggering it was, er, not advisable.

Come the fight with the red dragon, the party figured that they could do with a white dragon to help.  Several seconds – and another natural 1 later – the party was down one Gnome and up one Frosty the Snowman.

And that’s that.  One fatality.  It was planned, it was prepared for (Jeremy wasn’t going to be around for a few weeks, and deeper in Undermountain was a good place to introduce a new PC to the party).

I’ll fudge dice rolls, give players as many last-chance saves as they need to pull through.  Because killing characters, unless it’s really dramatically appropriate (or bloody funny or, preferably, both), isn’t what roleplaying is about for me.  It’s about getting the players together to tell epic stories – or just fun, silly, stories.  And you can’t do that if you’re spending a decent chunk of time creating new characters.  Or sitting around the table joking because your character has been killed and you’ve nothing better to do for the next half an hour.

I’d rather plan out a brief campaign, run it through to the end, leave the characters – and the players – on a high, itching to return to that world but looking forward to the next game.

It’s all about game tone.  DC vs. Marvel movies.  DC movies are usually dark, grim, gritty, and depressing.  Sorry, but that’s how they’re coming across.  With the exception of Batman Forever, there’s precious little humour in the DC movies I’ve seen.  A game with that sort of tone would have PC death as a very real option.  I don’t own any DC movies, they take themselves way too seriously (but I have a soft spot for Batman Forever, Jim Carrey’s delivery as The Riddler is superb and find myself quoting his lines often)

Somebody tell the fat lady she’s on in five.

Marvel, on the other hand, doesn’t take itself seriously at all.  The tone is lighter, jokier, more fun.  I’ve got most of the new Marvel movies and I love them.  PC death in one of these is unlikely – not impossible, but unlikely – and would be far more significant.

That man is playing Galaga! Thought we wouldn’t notice. But we did.

Or think of it like your favourite TV shows – they don’t have a revolving door cast, new characters ready to step in at a moment’s notice to take the place of the lead character who’s just been gunned down/disintegrated by aliens/eaten by zombies.  Character death is approached methodically, it’s planned for, it’s prepared for.  You don’t (usually) wipe out a lead character without letting the audience know what’s coming.

My games, for the last few years, have been universally Marvel in tone.  13th Age, Dr Who, the Strange/Al Qadim hybrid I’ve got planned…  Big Damn Heroes kicking arse and taking names.  Not that most of the Orcs, blobs, elementals, djinni, giant Egyptian-themed skeletons, or trolls have names.

I’m not saying my way is the best way to run a game, it’s certainly not the only way.  Given the opportunity to run, say, Cabin in the Woods as a one-shot, I wouldn’t shy away from killing off the players PCs.

The rest of the Roundtable has great things to say about player death. Read on!

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. We endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you’d like to submit a topic for our future discussions, or if you’re a blogger who’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at