What Makes a Great DM?


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Grand Lodge

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Over the years, I've had the chance to take part in some really great games run by amazing Dungeon Masters. These guys and gals really knew how to run the game, engage players, weave an exciting story, and setup a dynamic battle. Needless to say, outlining everything these talented DMs did right would take pages and pages of documentation.

Here's one short anecdote: I had a DM once who enhanced his games by simply always remembering to determine what the weather was. It didn't matter if he was rolling it randomly, making it up on the fly, or reading it right out of the module text - we always knew if it was sunny, raining, hot, calm, stormy, whatever. It didn't even matter if it had effects on the game or not (obscuring vision, slowing movement, etc).

It's such a simple thing, yet it always got the players into character and helped set every scene. I never once thought we were all just miniatures on a white grid - we were daring adventurers trying to fend off rabid wolves during a thunderstorm!

So, for this thread, I'd love to hear what other little things good DMs do to take their games to the next level. Maybe the rest of us can incorporate these little tricks into our games to become better DMs ourselves!


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Pathfinder Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

One of the most important 'little' things I have seen great dms do, is employ different voices for important npcs. It doesnt have to go so far as elaborate accents worthy oscars, even just slight changes in inflection, or a change of pitch or tone. As long as its consistent it can really draw you into interaction with those characters. Particularly when you get to the point where the dm no longer has to say 'so and so says...' but just speak in the voice and we all know who is talking.


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Willingness to admit when they get a ruling wrong.

Openness to feedback.

A desire for everyone to enjoy themselves while still maintaining a story. (I've seen people who sacrifice one for the other. And I guess, for those groups, the fact that people are having fun is more important - and ultimately it is, but I feel story is important, too.) GM's are just as entitled to have fun as the players, so I include the GM in "everyone".

Balancing the needs of the many with those of the few, or the one.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

Learn and Listen, it aint rocket science:-)


He/she checks ego at the door...adapts to turns of luck...keeps the game moving.
and above all preserves the fun at the table.

And a heavy dose ham/class clown and struggling artist helps as well.


I do:

1. Different voices for NPCs.
2. In one game, I made preparing meals a major story element (it was based on "Lord of the Rings," and food is iconic in Tolkien) - vegetarians had to tell me what they were making, everyone else had something different, and they told me how they prepared it. I even made notes as to whether or not characters were getting enough Vitamin C, for instance.

Sovereign Court

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Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

The main thing I try hard to adhere to as a DM is trying to say "no" as little as possible and not letting the rules get in the way of a memorable scene. In a game as highly collaborative and creative as Pathfinder - or any tabletop RPG, really - is all about imagination, from both sides of the table. So, when a player says, "I wanna slide down the bannister on my shield, jump off at the end, and then swing from the chandelier all while hacking at the people below me," you can see where a strict application of the rules could really hamper that. So, when a player goes out of their way to be super creative, I think a good DM steps out of the way and helps them accomplish that goal.

Now, I've been a player in a group when the DM very much stuck to the rules, most of the time to the detriment of the group. I had a neat idea for a Paladin who had an irrational fear of water - due to the fact his sister drowned and his family blamed him for it - and he was haunted (literally) by her water-logged shade. He flat-out said no to the idea, because Paladins are immune to fear... I ask you: would it be game-breaking for a Paladin to have some kind of uncharacteristic flaw? I say no. This is why the above is so important to me. I felt really creatively stifled in that game, and there was no real good reason for it to have happened that way.

I'm not meaning to toot my own horn here. I actually learned this from the DM I try so hard to emulate. Thanks, Corey!

Grand Lodge

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Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

A good GM:
Doesn't forget that the players are the heroes.
Provides an exciting and challenging adventure with an engaging story.
Knows what his players like in a game, but also knows what he likes in a game.
Knows when to foil the heroes and when to let them be rockstars.
Accepts feedback, positive and negative, and adjusts his game as necessary.
Keeps the game moving forward.
Knows the whole point of gaming is to have fun.

-Skeld

Grand Lodge

Great stuff, guys! Some of you have some really solid philosophical advice, but what I'm really interested in is little, specific things a DM can do to enhance the game.

Here's another example: I had a DM who always showed up with wine. Not just drinks, not just alcohol, but specifically wine. It's one thing to have a beer while you role-play, but for some reason the attitude in the room changes when everyone has a goblet of wine in front of them. Worked like a charm!


Silly hats...I played at a place that had a huge array of historical headwear..so it made some characterizations more appealing when he had a helmet or a peasants hat on...

Well timed theme music and sound effects...I do that for my GM on roll20..i kinda DJ for him.

Yeah wine..mead..ale..and proper goblets..mugs etc to drink them in...some bread to snack on when they go to the Inn.

And keeping distractions to a minimum..phones, tablets etc..try to keep everyone engaged..and spread the RP around.

Lighting , keep it lit enough to see your books and sheets...but stay away from industrial lighting..keep it warm and soft..and candles are cool...just dont let the inevitable idiot that wants to play with the wax, ruin some furniture or such.

...hmm gonna go look around my lair for some other ideas.....


A GM must remember that when the group sits down at the table, it is to tell the story of how these characters succeed. All tension, reward, and even character death, is to further that aim. If the group decides to ditch the carefully crafted grimdark plot in order to explore the dreams of being an epic fantasy boy band, the GM must help keep it interesting to the players instead of shutting them down.

Keeping it interesting... I've been made to stand on a table at a con and sing/dance "I'm a little teapot" to save my character. Players were made to draw "progress reports" for their circus goblins by using a crayon in their offhand. The players of a barbarian Dwarf party had to stand up and act out their adventures in charades to a tribe of lizardfolk. I cannot fail to remember these, in the face of so many bland throw-away games.

Roleplaying is more than what you choose to say at the table. It is also what your GM has the player do; to stand up from the table.

In my experience, it is not the feedback from player to GM that is most important. It is the reaction a player receives when they talk about the game to one who was not at the table. The moment when you realize that another has envy for your frustrations as a player, is golden. That is when having four, three hour sessions of being tied to a tree naked for six months in game, with all the gear you can chew off said tree, realizes its worth.


Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I like to think that the greatest challenge I face is minimizing minutia and maximizing the party's actions as they impact the story. I run for some very experienced players who are good with rules, but I make an effort of not having to reference anything during play, even in PFS. Time spent on my tablet is time not spent interacting with my players. Part of this is preparation in general. I printed off spell cards for an enemy wizard for the last session so the rules would be immediately in front of me when I needed them. This meant better resource tracking and less tablet time to make the encounter keep rolling.

Same scenario had interesting floor mechanics involving levers. Rather than bogging down the game by shifting everything, I left areas that the party wasn't near alone until they went there and made the NPCs react in non-combat, non-interference ways to what they were doing. This let them continue to explore, think things were happening beyond their control, and yet not actually be impacting the players with any mechanical effects. Sometimes the story is its own effect, after all.

When playing under other GMs, I value these things, as well. The other thing is controlling table talk (something I'm historically bad at), which can distract and detract from the game itself.

Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Knowing and communicating with your players.


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Fairness, objectivity, intelligence, and creativity.

Silver Crusade

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The best GMs know that there is no such thing as a best GM because different groups want different things.

There are several suggestions above that I cringe at because they are absolutely NOT what I want to see in a game.

Keep it fun. Try hard to read the table to see what THAT table thinks is fun. Make sure that YOU are having fun or the game WILL suffer. Be flexible.

But beyond generalizations like that I don't think there any universal tricks.


Excel spreadsheets. Formulas to automate things.

Always helps me.

Sovereign Court

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Consistency in rulings and writing out all significant houserules beforehand and have them be available to players.


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Let's players drink their milk.


The great GM can make you lose the sense that you are playing with a game but instead get lost in your character and the story (when not lost in the character I play the rules instead of the game). The most important thing a great GM does to get the players into the game and character is to hide the nuts and bolts when the game is happening. A GM who is always looking things up, dithers over rulings, or otherwise breaks the narrative flow is never going to be great for me.

Mind you I'm by no means a great GM, and have only played with one great GM for a campaign and a bit by joining an established group before I was kicked out. I was told it was because the GM found 6 players too much to deal with, but I suspect it was because I was arguing rules interpretation after/before sessions, which was too much at variance with the group dynamic. My theory is that players who are into rules lawyering don't work out with great GMs because what distinguishes a great GM requires having the rules facilitate instead of dictate the game play.

That last sounds like I am saying there a type of wrong bad fun, but I'm not trying to, I find game sessions with 5 minute arguments about whether or not a spell has a LOE more fun than sessions where the rules are an afterthought. The fact that I have more fun with one style of gaming just doesn't blind me to the fact that it is the only one style of play and is not what I consider the best gaming.


In my experience, it is mostly beer. Couple cold ones makes anyone a better GM.


OH, and Mark Hoover. Corresponding with him has helped my game a lot, even after 30 years of playing.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

Cash, cold hard cash


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Weaves references and developments of your character's background, goals, and motivations into the adventures.

For example, if your character's goal is to punch a goblin god in the face, by 20th level the GM will have given you the opportunity.

Liberty's Edge

I'm certain this thread's going to come up with some great stuff.

My contribution:

Someone that's capable of understanding what his/her players want or enjoy and is comfortable flexing his storytelling to give his/her players the best experience possible. This has been, without a doubt, the most prevalent 'bad DM' flaw I've encountered in the past few years. Tabletop RPGs have so much potential compared to modern gaming (video games mostly) but a lot of DMs seem to be under the impression that deviating from the script somehow hurts the integrity of their game. This couldn't be any further from the truth.

Aspiring DMs out there: Give your players a great time and the story will follow.


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Also... snacks.


Feral wrote:

I'm certain this thread's going to come up with some great stuff.

My contribution:

Someone that's capable of understanding what his/her players want or enjoy and is comfortable flexing his storytelling to give his/her players the best experience possible. This has been, without a doubt, the most prevalent 'bad DM' flaw I've encountered in the past few years. Tabletop RPGs have so much potential compared to modern gaming (video games mostly) but a lot of DMs seem to be under the impression that deviating from the script somehow hurts the integrity of their game. This couldn't be any further from the truth.

Aspiring DMs out there: Give your players a great time and the story will follow.

Have to agree with that. One of the most important qualities for any GM is to be able to roll with the punches when your players do something that wasn't in the script. It only took my second session of GMing for the party to end up flying completely off the rails, tossing out 90% of the material I'd carefully planned for that game and leaving me GMing by the seat of my pants. Thankfully, I think I managed to rise to the occasion and keep the game flowing and fun for everyone involved. Heck, some of my fondest GM memories are from times when my players went off the rails and everything turned crazy.

Players: You know, the villain has a good point. Let's switch sides and join him!
Me: Oh, this is gonna get interesting...


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Rulebook, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber

Being able to perfectly replicate Spongebob's voice, i'll shut up... If you pay me:-)


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What I value most in my DM arsenal, and miss most when I've played in another game where it's absent: ability to improvise.

To paraphrase a particular political figure, as a DM there are known unknowns (what the die rolls will cause), and there are unknown unknowns (what will come out of the imaginations of your players). You can plan for both, but eventually a player will do something you weren't expecting or prepared for. If you can take that and either work it in, or spin a new story off of it, then by my standards you're doing well.

Think of it this way: I'm sure some of you have played Skyrim. When you talk to someone else who's played, if you discuss cool things that happened how often does it become a discussion about glitches/bugs? Unexpected touches of chaos can intrigue people. So, when a player comes up with that random kind of crazy idea, the DM who can roll with it can use it to make the story more interesting.


The one who remembers that 90% of good plans are hilarious if they succeed and twice as funny if they fail, and is willing to temporarily suspend physics for a laugh. Whenever we come up with a great plan we roll as few dice as possible.


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pauljathome wrote:
Keep it fun. Try hard to read the table to see what THAT table thinks is fun.

And even more importantly, if you can't read the table, ask them directly.


Time and the feedback of players who are interested in the DM getting better, especially if the DM is learning or transitioning from older rulesets.

I honestly didn't want to learn Pathfinder.....I know it to some extent but mastery may never come....


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Ok honestly I guess I agree with Scyth-lord there. I really respect GMs that are like "Oh, you're doing that..." or "you're going there..." and then they roll with it and make something up.

It doesn't even have to be all that great, but just the fact that you're willing to let players get away with stuff is awesome. I had one GM for a 4e game set up a scene where 2 groups living in the sewers converge on the PCs and a battle royale was supposed to take place. I'd done tons of research ahead of time and when the first group arrived I talked them into a temporary truce and negated the entire scene. My GM just kinda shrugged and went "damn, that's some nice roleplaying!" and ended the scene.

Another GM I had in contrast had us finish with what he'd planned early in a game session. I grabbed the map and literally said "what if we DON'T take the road back?" He looked at me as if I'd grown a 2nd head. I gave him a whole suggestion: supposedly there were hunting lodges and villages dotting this lakeshore so what if we cut through the wilds, went through these settlements along the lake instead of the long way back on the road, and maybe we learn a lot of local legends we investigate. This GM ended the game early rather than wing it and then ended the campaign altogether.

I think a great DM is the guy that rolls with what the players do.


Kolokotroni wrote:
One of the most important 'little' things I have seen great dms do, is employ different voices for important npcs. It doesnt have to go so far as elaborate accents worthy oscars, even just slight changes in inflection, or a change of pitch or tone. As long as its consistent it can really draw you into interaction with those characters. Particularly when you get to the point where the dm no longer has to say 'so and so says...' but just speak in the voice and we all know who is talking.

Don't neglect body language either. I had GM in an Amber game who could make us cringe just by leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers.


Mark Hoover wrote:
I think a great DM is the guy that rolls with what the players do.

I agree with Mark. Over the nearly 30 years I've been playing this game I've learned to never rely on the players to follow the map or the plan you have in mind for them and to be able to improvise on the spot.

Grand Lodge

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Pathfinder Adventure, Rulebook Subscriber; Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber
thejeff wrote:
Don't neglect body language either. I had GM in an Amber game who could make us cringe just by leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers.

My players knew exactly who they had run into as soon as I raised my hand as if holding a wine glass.


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DungeonmasterCal wrote:
Mark Hoover wrote:
I think a great DM is the guy that rolls with what the players do.
I agree with Mark. Over the nearly 30 years I've been playing this game I've learned to never rely on the players to follow the map or the plan you have in mind for them and to be able to improvise on the spot.

At the same time, having a good plot going to start with can be important to. A fine balancing line to keep the main plot arc coherent and interesting and flexible enough to adapt to the turns the players take that you didn't expect.

Sczarni

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Not being the ulfen death squad


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Cackling

Silver Crusade

I've been told I'm a good GM. I'm not quite sure why though.


Mystic_Snowfang wrote:
I've been told I'm a good GM. I'm not quite sure why though.

Are your players challenged, entertained, inspired, and perhaps even enlightened a bit after your sessions? Those would be good indicators.


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I think that the willingness to listen to the players and admit when you are wrong is very important. Before anyone takes this the wrong way, that does not mean the GM has to bend over backwards to give the players everything they want.

Also being fair, and proactive with communication also helps. As an example if you don't like gunslingers, don't let me play one, and then nerf it out of existence. Just tell me up front so I won't play it. Personally as a player I don't care for the class. That was just an example.

Be consistent with your rulings.

Don't have all(a very high percentage) of your NPC's be jerks. There have been quiet a few times I wanted to stab some shopkeepers in the face.

Be somewhat flexible. Players are not always going to stay on the rails. If they go off the rails try to deal with it, and nudge them back onto the rails.<---I understand this is not easy for everyone.

Grand Lodge

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My personal trick to being thought of as a good DM is this:

Every character is made to do something. Maybe it's a combat maneuver or signature spell. Maybe it's a personality trait, like heavy drinking or puzzle solving. Whatever it is, make sure players get the opportunity to do what their characters were built for as often as possible.

Dark Archive

Dustin Ashe wrote:

Weaves references and developments of your character's background, goals, and motivations into the adventures.

For example, if your character's goal is to punch a goblin god in the face, by 20th level the GM will have given you the opportunity.

Unless of course players don't give you the means of weaving their characters into the campaign. This is why I strongly encourage my players to be detailed involving their character's motivations and backstory.


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Dave Justus wrote:
In my experience, it is mostly beer. Couple cold ones makes anyone a better GM.

I bring a 4L box of wine to most sessions when I GM... sometimes it's awesome, sometimes they take me home early, but it has resulted in some VERY memorable sessions.

My group even coined the term "Head-of-a-White-Dragon Drunk", in reference to a session I ran while hammered, resulting in the local King demanding (at the top of my lungs) "The head of a white dragon!" (a challenge far beyond the level 2 group)...

I apparently screamed so loud I woke up my housemate on the third floor, we were gaming in the basement. Good times. :D


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I have tried to emulate my best DMs/GMs, and the common thread is this:

a)Prewritten adventures are a crutch for experienced groups, I literally never use them.

b)Improvisation should be assumed. I make NPCs, design kingdoms, have an idea of what is going on in the world with or without the PCs actions... what they do shapes it, but the world keeps turning regardless. They pick their path, I don't.

c)We are all on the same team, I'm just there to narrate the bits that aren't controlled by them. I help them optimize characters (to balance the group, we play fairly OP games, tons of fun, they are currently collecting god fragments to resurrect a dead god, to fix the "great machine" so that their planet isn't destroyed)

d)Have all rules discussions either be a quick page reference in game, or else noted and discussed after game. NEVER stop the game to debate rules, under any conditions. If someones character is based that much on a single rule, they aren't playing properly.

e)You don't have to kill PCs to make them feel challenged. My current group LOVES curbstomping everything they come across. I design NPCs using the same rules as the PCs, I put HOURS of thought into them (because I like making characters) and they often die in one or two rounds of combat. It's okay that the PCs are the most powerful ones around, it isn't a contest.

f)Just cause the guy running the game can do anything he wants, doesn't mean he should. I rarely fudge rolls, for any reason. If my BBEG gets ganked on round one, so be it. I can always make more, just say that BBEG was actually a henchman for BBBBEG (bigger badder big bad evil guy). It's all good.

g)NEVER NERF MELEE FIGHTERS! I have a character in my game that can do over 250 damage in a single action, he basically ignores damage reduction, but WHO CARES? Casters are so scary I see no problem with this...

h)Always always always keep notes of the session/npcs names. I have had players refer back to npcs I introduced over a year ago, minor roles like farmers! You never know who will catch their interest.
I use an excel sheet with name/location/race/notes as column titles...

i)Allow players ideas to unfold. If a PC wants to build a kingdom and puts in the time, LET HIM. Not everything has to be a challenge, not everything has to encounter save-or-fail resistance. If they spend gold and years of ingame time trying to get a keep, let them have it. It doesn't affect combat.

There's more, it takes years to be awesome, but those are things I have seen and emulate...

Grand Lodge

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Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
alexd1976 wrote:
a)Prewritten adventures are a crutch for experienced groups, I literally never use them.

I'm an experienced GM (a very experienced GM) and I disagree with this one. Homebrewing can be great when you have the time to dedicate to it. Prewritten adventures are very useful because much of the up-front work is already done and it allows me to take that time and focus on other stuff. It's especially true here, where the prewritten adventures Paizo publishes have so much additional material available that other GMs have posted.

-Skeld

Grand Lodge

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alexd1976 wrote:
h)Always always always keep notes of the session/npcs names.

This is a fantastic suggestion! Some of my favorite moments while playing or DMing is when fan-favorite (or fan-despised) NPCs show up again.

Quick story: I was running a 7th Sea game (pirates, etc) and the group decided to anchor their ship and go into some underground ruins they found on an island. Thinking they were going to find too much treasure to carry, they grabbed six random sailors off their ship and made them follow along.

Cut to a while later when the group encounters a tricky floor puzzle trap that requires agility rolls to get through. The players all make it, but then I ask "what about your sailors?" They instruct the hapless NPCs to follow them and, lo and behold, every single one of them rolls so high they pass with critical success!

Right there on the spot, I decided that these are no ordinary sailors. They are, in fact, the amazing Flying Lambini Brothers, a troupe of traveling acrobats who only signed on to sail the ship to make ends meet between circus tours! From that point on, whenever the players needed some minor task done that required skillful movement (but wasn't important enough for one of them to do it), they could always call on the brothers to get it done with style.


Going the extra mile to build atmosphere, wether that's doing accents, using a background noise mixer to set the mood of the tavern, or making props.

Recently during a game on Roll20 (which we played without video chat), the party came across a group of lipless cannibals pretending to be paladins in a fort. The text for the encounter specifically said that their voices were strange because they were talking without lips, so I scrunchd mine up and tried to talk without using them.

It sounded pretty silly and everyone was laughing, but it did the job of clueing them onto something being amiss, and they appreciated it.

When I'm not GMing, it's usually my friend Rez, who is fluent and 3 languages and knows his way around a couple more, so needless to say he's really good at doing accents and can always jump into the German when we encounter a band of goblins that don't speak Common.


Skeld wrote:
alexd1976 wrote:
a)Prewritten adventures are a crutch for experienced groups, I literally never use them.

I'm an experienced GM (a very experienced GM) and I disagree with this one. Homebrewing can be great when you have the time to dedicate to it. Prewritten adventures are very useful because much of the up-front work is already done and it allows me to take that time and focus on other stuff. It's especially true here, where the prewritten adventures Paizo publishes have so much additional material available that other GMs have posted.

-Skeld

I used to feel the way Alex did, but then I bought Iron Gods and realized why these people are able to make a career out of writing campaigns and modules:

They are much, much better at it than myself or anyone I played with. I'm probably going to stick with Paizo's stuff when I'm running PF from now on and save my creative juices for systems that can more easily make use of it, like World of Darkness.


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Three things: adaptability, knowledge of the core rules, and learning to disregard the core rules in favor of fun.

And Mountain Dew. Lots and lots of Mountain Dew.

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