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10 Ways to Run a Better Tabletop Game

Human BooksWe’re keeping it quick and clean this week; enjoy these suggestions on how to run a tighter tabletop game and then get ready for Halloween!


1. Get a GM Screen.

Don’t want to spend any money on one with some sweet artwork? Fine – put together some simple word documents, print them out and use two manila storage folders (or some cardboard for the super-thrifty) to make your own. Not only will the quick reference material prove essential, but this keeps anyone with prying eyes (including those you most love and trust, apparently) from seeing the hit point totals of a creature or what an NPC’s roll for a Bluff check was.

2. Keep a Running Cast List

Do you remember that surly bartender from the inn way back at 2nd level? I bet the PC he refused to serve does, and you don’t want to give away any indication that you don’t. Make a Running Cast List and every time you hand out a name, write it down (and include a short stat block or a note or two about what the NPC is about).


Vikmordere Ship3. Let the Players Captain the Ship

Nobody likes throwing out hours of design and development, but you have to remember that tabletop roleplaying is a collaborative engagement. If you wrote up a campaign for the great north, but they absolutely refuse to go there, then don’t. Go ahead and provide incentive to steer them where you intended, but if they insist, make those obstacles into an adventure all their own until you can adapt what you’ve got or present something different for your players to sink their teeth into.


4. Snacks

Everybody loves snacks.


5. Ambiance

I’m not saying that you have to game in a dark basement, but you should try to. Whenever possible, have some background music or sound effects playing. If they’re in the swamp, get some chirping crickets, or if in a cathedral, get some chanting from somewhere. The effect this has on a group is readily apparent for something so easy to provide.


Unloading the Ship6. Voice Acting

Even if you aren’t any good at it, you should be doing this. You are the game world – bring it to life. If nothing else, it makes it easier for PCs to differentiate who’s who in a multiple NPC conversation without breaking character and provides both the GM and the group a mnemonic device to remember that fictional individual.


7.  The 2 Rule

This guy comes straight from the mouths of some of Paizo’s very best. It’s a general, situation-based bonus/penalty to ensure game fluidity. Find some reason for why the PC would have failed or succeeded on the check, then dole out those one or two integers to make the story move along. More details on that in the link above.


8. Play to the Entire Crowd

Obviously the party bard will take second seat in some combat situations, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be busy. Make sure that your encounters are keeping the attention of all the players – if they aren’t, include a lesser enemy to harry them and increase the drama. If their contributions aren’t needed for victory, they aren’t going to feel compelled to make them.


Snowy Forest9. Keep Random Encounters Random

Don’t stop doing them entirely, make sure to scale them (to a degree – some ambitious and overzealous goblins can be just that) and don’t make them predictable or a constant occurrence. Not all of them need to be monsters either – earthquakes, hail and freak snowstorms happen.


10. Have Fun!
Make sure to enjoy yourself! Happiness and good times are contagious – if you’re engaged, focused and excited, your players will be as well.


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7 thoughts on “10 Ways to Run a Better Tabletop Game

  1. But Mike you forgot the most important one:
    Kill someone once in a while, just to cheer yourself up 🙂
    No seriously some very good advice if you ask me.

  2. I’m a sucker for story. I’ve had characters I spent hours creating background and personality for abandon the party, purely because /that’s what they would do/. It used to drive my old group insane.

    So I won’t kill for the fun of it, no matter how enticing it might be! I will, however, kill if the story reaaaally calls for it. With a conversation afterward, of course, where we decide what happens with said PC once they’ve passed on. 😉

  3. Finally, someone who does character voices. So many people find it odd that I stand up, act out roles, and do different voices for every character and even most monsters. I really love to get into the true spirit of role-playing and incorporate many elements of acting into my games. While I strongly encourage my players to do the same it is not required (want extra XP? At least do your character’s voice!)

  4. Good character history – I have a questionaire for each of my party members, detailing history, short term aims and long term aims. It helps me put side quests and adventures that personalise long term campaigns and it keeps players interested, as well as activities between quests.

  5. Oh man, absolutely. I think my players have specifically started looking for goblins and kobolds, solely so that they might get to hear me do some NPC talk.

    And yeah, Ely – character history. We just did a round of that, and I took the time to individually sit down with each player separately to determine their backgrounds. Totally worth it.

  6. Character history is an excellent tool, and a very good reason to fudge dice, I mean I wont save Timmy the Thief from Thieftown, but a young necromancer with his stitched up Blink Dog familiar, I would fudge a die or two for, because there is more potential in a character with a solid background.

    Mr Ely, I wish my group would do that, I mean if they all did it, some do and some don’t.

  7. I’m lucky I have a very experienced group that I usually play with, and who humour my foibles – at least one of them is the son of another member and has never known anything different. But it’s something I lay down to every group I run for, even using different systems. It increases the satisfaction, makes DMing easier and occasionally allows me to drop in something where the players say “what the hell!!!”. I’ve also found that rewarding a good character history coaxes players to try a little harder – a skill point here, a hit point there, a little extra starting gold or even a DM-sanctioned bonus trait is worth the extra effort.

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