How My GMing Style Has Changed and Where I Want to go From Here

This is a reflective post that looks at my GMing stint over the past 16 years and what has changed. I will be looking at many of my faults, realizations, and revelations.

On 05/12/11 I launched a series of posts on Zak Sabbath’s Vornheim City Building Kit starting with a review and diving into how I took that book and created my own world with it.

Here is the links to those posts:

Part I– Overview and System Decisions

Part II– Player Questionnaires

Part III– Creation of the World- Races

Part IV– Creation of the World around Vornheim

Part V– Final Bits and Pieces

Part VI– Player’s Answers to Questionnaires

Session 1 Recap

Vornheim Review

In the first post about my take on Vornheim I mentioned that the book woke up ideas/philosophies that have long been dormant in my brain. Some of these ideas that have been asleep have caused niggles in my gaming subconscious that proved irksome, but were hard to nail down as a single entity. These were issues that have spaced themselves out, so it was hard for me to identify them. Or traps I, as a GM, should have avoided, but fell into as time has gone on.

Reading Vornheim and what Zak stated and accomplished with it really drove a spike in my brain (and it hurt quite a bit) that got me to look at these niggling bits and pieces that I have been unhappy with in my games, myself, what was causing them, and where I wanted to go from here on out.

Also I have been reading many awesome blogs that have also been commenting on these niggles. I wanted to give them due credit as well.


Disclaimer: This stream of consciousness is not meant to offend anyone who plays a way I find dissatisfying, that’s your call and what makes you happy. I do not mean to offend any of my players (if they actually read my blog) by what I state here, it is just a reflection/critique on my GMing.

I have broken this post down into the following categories to make it easier to follow my train of thought:

Over-Cumbersome Rules

Many who look at this may already start to see a theme here: Old School VS New School. While that is definitely a theme in this post it is more than that for me.


I was introduced to role-playing when I was 15 by way of AD&D. My friend ran myself and my friend Brian through a game and we had a blast. He had 2 books: The Players Handbook and the Dungeon Masters Guide. He didn’t have any of the kit books, the monster manual(s), or campaign settings.

The DM had given me those two books because he had another set at home. I read through the books, created a quick world, kidnapped some people and made them my friends, and bam we were playing!

As the next few years went on my homebrew worlds became a little bit more detailed (or too detailed in some cases) but I always created my own worlds and my players always enjoyed them (probably because they didn’t know any better… the poor sods).

Eventually I made the switch to 3.x, bought the books, only to have to be told that 3.5 was coming out in 6 months, so I bought those as well. We kept playing in one of my homebrew lands using the new system(s). I started to develop a problem however, feeling that I was over-detailing my world and my players (this was a sandbox style game) weren’t going to many of the areas I had so lovingly created (which is their damned right! I wasn’t mad at them for this but I was disappointed because an area I was excited about wasn’t discovered or a NPC that I thought would prove interesting ended up with his head on a pike, etc). Time was becoming an issue as well due to college and a full time job, so I wasn’t able to dump as much effort into world creation/management as I wanted.

My friend was really excited about the Eberron campaign setting that was coming out and was pushing me to get it and run it. I read it and it was a damned cool setting. What got me was just how detailed it was (I had never even picked up a campaign setting prior to this). I started wondering if I had been doing my world creation wrong and felt inferior to the greatness of Keith Baker.

Second I believed that a authored Campaign Settings would minimize my work load. “What do I care if the characters never get to the Demon Wastes? Sure it’s cool, but I didn’t create it. I didn’t put in the effort.”

While I think that there is validity to the statement of a minimized workload there is also the “not knowing” and having to refer to the book multiple times.

After several years of running campaigns in Eberron, and a few others briefly, the idea of homebrew world creating became foreign, intimidating, and daunting. I now looked at what was in these authored settings and thought that I couldn’t compete and my players would not find my creations as interesting. Every time I started to step up to the bat to create a world I let myself get beaned and walked (wow.. I just made a sports reference… god).

Recently the homebrew has begun to seem more enticing and the established settings more restricting. The final break for me was reading the Freeport book by Green Ronin (which is where one of my current games is located). This is a good book which is richly detailed and has everything someone needs to make a good story, but I think it is too loaded with information. Roughly 300 pages is a huge amount of information about one city.

My dissatisfaction with established settings reached a pinnacle and I decided to venture onto the internet and look to fellow bloggers advice for doing homebrew to see if they could help me overcome this new fear I had developed.

Here are two amazing posts Sandboxing World Creation:
Bat in the Attic– This one is for pretty damned detailed worlds, but still really useful.

DnD With Porn Stars– This one is more quick and dirty (no that is NOT a pun, although it is now) that will get the job done easy (double damn).

ChicagoWiz– A great bit of advice on prepping for Sandbox creation

So thanks the inspiration and foundation laid out by Vornheim and to a ton of great info I’ve found on the web, most notably on I have conquered that fear and have created my own sandbox.

Now let us move onto the next issue.

Over-Cumbersome Rules

I believe that 3.x was a reaction to the free form rules or possible lack of rules of its predecessors, just as Bebop Jazz was a reaction to the rigid commercial conformity of Swing/Big Band Jazz.

I remember playing AD&D and would come across a spell that would just state it did a MASSIVE amount of damage (Creeping Doom I’m looking at you) over a large area, but not how that damage was distributed.

3.x and on has a rule for everything. Jumping, running speeds, lighting, sleeping on a slope VS sleeping on flat ground affecting resting rates, and bowel movement speeds per race. The list goes on and on.

When I first got into 3.x, which was a only a bit before 3.5, I welcomed many of the rules because they did provide clarity and allowed everyone to know what was going on (not just relying on my arbitration).

However now I’m finding those rules hindering in two ways. 1) Rule Diving. Something comes up and I don’t know the rule, my reaction (especially at first but not anymore) and my player’s reaction was to grab the PHB and look up the rule.

Later on when I realized how much this was slowing/bogging the game down I started going back to making split decisions based on the stimuli and situation. However I now had to contend with rules lawyers who argued about a rule for jumping that they remember or blocking or holding their breath or whatever. A small debate/argument possibly would ensue. I would put my foot down, I’m the DM and this is my decision so deal with it.

Rules-lite systems are not perfect and not without their fair shares of hassles and complications (both mechanically and in terms of players) but I’m tired for having rules for everything and need to break away from that constraint.


This one is quick and pretty simple. I’m tired of tons of books being released with so many options, power creeps, and the like. I went crazy in my 3.5 days and bought SO MANY splat books because of new feats, spells, and classes. Most of then never got used or, or worse they did, and they introduced a mechanic I wasn’t familiar with and thus diving into the rules to figure it out ensued.

I have no problem with RPG books coming out, if they didn’t the industry would die! However I would like more constructive books with tools on world building, campaign creation, NPCs, etc come out that explore a huge amount of options, opinions, etc to be released instead of this constant stream of classes, spells, and etc.

That is one of the reasons I love Vornheim so much. It gives more useful information to building a City (even pre-established) and truly making it yours quickly.


This also can be called another name, “Player Entitlement.” Treasure Parcels, Standard Dungeon Treasure Rewards, XP bundles, or whatever. I’ve seen people espousing on blogs or in a few pick up games I’ve played in/witnessed since 3.x about not “liking” their magic weapon or wanting to find another one, or why haven’t they gotten more magical items, or whining about the amount they got in a dungeon, etc etc.

Now this may be a knee jerk reaction for me, but my first inclination is… “what the fuck?”

As a player you are entitled to fun around the game table with a couple friends, some shitty food, dick and fart jokes, and engaging in a (hopefully) cool story. That’s as far as the entitlement goes.

In a game I was in (AD&D) the DM gave me a dagger that did an additional 1d4 poison damage when I was level 2 or something. I remember I almost DIED getting that dagger and when I got it (by my own cleverness) it was the sweetest prize ever. I also had that dagger till I was about level 10. I think I had gotten one other magic item at that point, a cloak that did something minor.

It just never entered into my mind, or the other players for that matter, to whine about it. If the Magic User had gotten a dagger he would have been tickled pink as well. I just don’t like that books now-a-days advocate “material” rewards as part of the story. Are they a bonus? Yes. Are they awesome? Yes. Are they mandatory? Not in the slightest.

Players and Improvisation

These two go hand in hand for me so I’m just gonna squeeze them together.

One thing that I have had a really awesome track record at is getting people to try role-playing, enjoy it, and actually become a player. The other problem is that I tend to be the only one who DMs. I understand that it is a huge effort and is quite time consuming so I can see why people tend to shy away from the captains chair.

However what has ended up happening is that I have a pretty large gaming table. On a low day I have 3-4 players and on a high day I have 7-9 players. My preferred table is a max of 5, but I’m not gonna deny someone who wants to hang and have fun a chance to play.

However I need to get back to my smaller game venue. As much fun as large games can be, something is lost in them; the ability for real personal character explorations and stories. I’m not saying that they don’t exist or are impossible. I just think that in large groups, for a functional story that includes everyone there has to be sacrificing of some freedoms and spotlight time. It’s simple to develop meaningful stories that really hit home to a character/player when there are 3-5 of you as opposed to 9. The kind of stories and situations that I really enjoy engaging in belong to a smaller more intimate venue.

Another situation that has arisen is improvisation. I am pretty damned good at it, but I used to be way better. It is a skill that has rusted with time due to a lack of use (in some ways).

The people I used to play with in Montana are the “give them a lemon and they’ll open a restaurant” type. There was no end to some of the crap they would come up with. Our game table was dynamic with awesome action/reaction going on from everyone. They thrived in a sandbox/open environment.

Some of my players in NJ are of a different breed. The important thing to disclaim here is that many are casual or REALLY casual gamers and is not a slight against them, their play-style or anything like that. This is just a comparison of two different play groups.

I think that the problem with my rusting improvisation skills is two-fold. 1) The size of the table really does hinder the ability to go anywhere and do anything because nothing would really ever get done and there is too much downtime for each player. So things become slightly more linear or constructed.

I tend to construct my adventures down a plot point basis. If my players come up with something I didn’t think of or want to do something different or hit it from a different angle, awesome I roll with the punches, make shit up and we’re golden. Does this happen often? Not really.

2) Some of my players like being told what to do or can’t give me feedback and I have to push and prod to get something, which can be frustrating and demoralizing to me. I do not fault them, blame them, or wish them ill.

So Really is There a Point to Any of This?

I just wanted to expound what is going on in my gamer head because there might be people out there who feel the same way and it always helps to have someone else to relate to.. except with evil cults… That’s never good.

I also wanted to map out, for my own edification, as well as others where I’m going with gaming. I’m going back to my roots. I’m taking some of the new school mentality back to really quick and rules-lite systems (that don’t necessarily have to be OSR), like Savage Worlds, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and AGE.

I’m looking to once again play a more sandbox style game and rely more on my improvisation and intuition. I am cutting down on the large game table to once a month and upping my small game with my MT friends via Skype to twice a month.

I’m really looking to get back into that DIY feel that I had when I first discovered the hobby rather than relying on an abundance of books and telling myself that it is easier this way.

I really am looking forward to where this “new gaming adventure/rekindling of my past love being made anew” will take me. My love for this hobby isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I (although you may have hoped). I gotta keep challenging myself before I become set in something and stale.

Author: wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn.

7 thoughts

  1. You echo my feelings, dude. And hence my recent fanboy status for Castles & Crusades. More story, more action, more player investment, more fun. Less rules referencing and min-maxing. Less being like a Christmas tree covered in magical ornaments and a golf bag full of magical weapons for just the right monster.

  2. You’ve touched on a lot of hot-button issues, man. That, combined with the multiple requests I’ve gotten recently to volunteer as an Encounters DM, has me thinking that those issues are core to the current fractured gaming experience.

    Having deep rule sets that address so many questions means the DM and players can work together to adjudicate encounters. It can also be a crutch that shifts the focus from the action or narrative to the mechanics of the game. Some players enjoy that shift. Mastery of a rule set, or any kind of systemic process, is satisfying.

    Mastery of improvisation is a different skill set, and appeals to a different audience. DMs who “grew up” gaming improvisation-style may resist rule-bound systems, while players who have mastered a complex rule set may chafe at off-the-cuff rulings and DM fiat.

    Add in the calculus of group size and the formula for success becomes even more challenging. It’s hard enough to find people who DM well, let alone that are willing to adjust their style to suit very different play groups. What incentive is there for DMs?

    That’s where I think some of the resistance to 4e comes from. The system and in particular, how it was initially presented and marketed, seems to favor the rules-deep cooperative gaming environment where the DM becomes more of a referee than a “player”. I think the OSR movement owes its momentum directly to DMs who want more out of the gaming experience.

    You’re a GM who is searching for a system that works for yourself, and for your players. You’re exploring options and blogging about your experiences. I think this is an invaluable service because it contributes to a better understanding of the issues for those of us in the trenches. A gaming session should be a rich experience for the GM and the players. Making that happen is the result of effort from both sides of the screen. The rule set in use is part of the formula that forms an agreement between the players and the GM about the way in which you want to play.

    You can play improvisation-style with a rules-heavy system as long as players and GMs agree that it is not necessary to over-consult the books when questions arise. Likewise, you can draw on the rules framework of a rules-heavy system to help resolve issues in a rules-light game, if there is agreement at the table.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s