Posted in Tools & Techniques

GM Cues: Impressions, Aims & Pitfalls

No Plot? No Problem! is a great little book that describes itself as ‘a low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days’. It’s written by Chris Baty, the guy behind Nanowrimo, which I’m participating in this month for the fifth year running. Writing a novel in 30 days requires at least some improvisation. GMing often requires a lot. I’ve read this book each year but I figured looking at it from a different angle it may have some hidden insights into gamemastery. And I think I’ve found some.

The book talks about, among many other things, making two lists: one with all the things you like in novels and one with all the things you don’t. It’s not quite a pros and cons list, but close. It’s sort of a list of cues or reminders for yourself. I realised that doing the same thing for RPGs could keep us GMs on track, especially for on-the-fly or improv-heavy GMing.

I thought this idea was too simplistic at first to bother posting about, but I think it has legs. The Nanowrimo lists are supposed to help you identify what you like (and don’t) and write to that (or avoid it, respectively). If you have a theme for your game or just some goals (or pitfalls you’re prone to) you could make similar lists. I’ll give it a quick go now and see what we get.

Aim for…

  • Interesting NPCs with human motivations
  • Cinematic fight scenes
  • Fight scenes incorporating the environment
  • Situations where all answers creates interesting situations


  • Drawn out conversations without a story purpose
  • Lengthy, boring combat
  • Rolls where failure is boring
  • NPCs hogging the spotlight
Okay, so those were just some quick lists off the top of my head. But, put them on index cards in front of me while I run the game and I’ll have a few touchstones to call upon. We run into combat and I have a reminder that I want it to be cinematic with use of the environment, but not too long and never boring. It’s easy to forget some of these goals in the heat of the moment and easy to fall into traps you wanted to avoid. After writing the lists above, I also feel that for the aims and avoids I wrote, maybe I should make one index card for ‘social’ and one for ‘combat’, perhaps expanding on each a little.
For theme this method may be even more useful. If I have a Demonsea campaign I know I want a few things to be at the fore.
Aim for…
  • Exciting, swashbuckling high-seas adventure!
  • Demonic touches and twists to pirate tales
  • High adventure world, but with real and gritty consequences
  • Generic pirate adventures (remember there are demons too!)
  • Having everyone heavily involved with demons; make it subtle
  • The different cultures ending up just the same in roleplaying
Now this gives me some solid ideas to incorporate each time I play. Again, I probably have to revisit these lists, especially after play when I’m like ‘Oh, I wish I had done this there’ or ‘Whoops, forgot to do X’. Add those to the list. I’m using quick examples that I’ve made up as I’ve written this, but for themes some better ones spring to mind.
The Goblin Hole and The Shallow Sea are both modules for the excellent Dungeon World and feature lists of 20 ‘impressions’. These are things that evoke the theme of the area. The Goblin Hole has such gems as ‘a goblin with his hand tied to a ring in the ceiling’, ‘hairless, blind rabbits in hutches’ and ‘a talking bird skull on a string’. All of these are quick and evocative ideas that can be used to give the impression you desire or might spin into a full encounter depending on how the PCs react.
Using lists of cues, impressions, aims, or personal pitfalls to avoid can help you keep your game on track and coherent. It’ll help you hit the right notes and beats and keep in genre and theme. I’ll be trying it next time I run a game. Give it a go sometime and see how it works out.