#1: When you begin a game, ground it in something very relatable. Set aside the plots, backgrounds, persons and monsters and for just a moment focus on the real. For instance, you can begin the game around a well, where one of the characters is drawing up an old iron-banded wooden bucket. The rope is in tethers, but somehow holds together. A bent ladle lies on the side of the well. Any situation where people can relate is good: tavern bar, sitting on a horse, wooded lane, etc. It starts the game on a solid foundation, making the whole wild experience that is going to come a little more believable.
#2: Never allow an NPC that is helping the characters to dominate the combat. It completely robs the players of their moment. Personally, I try to avoid having NPCs join the characters in their combats. Sometime it can’t be helped as the characters may hire a cleric, wizard or some other class, expecting them to fight. But even then, do not allow the NPC to save the day and dominate any encounter. They should be background noise at best.
#3: NPCs are a huge part of the game. Make sure you use them constantly. In towns, on roads, etc. Make the vast majority of them neutral to the characters or helpful…whether a merchant selling something or a farmer on the road giving them directions. This does several things for the game. It creates a real-world experience, as most people you meet in your daily life are not out to get you. Players become used to dealing with normal people and they don’t become so gun shy of all strangers turning every encounter into “IT’S A TRAP”. This in turn allows you to surprise the players with with the occassional, but rare, evil NPCs who actually ARE out to get the characters.
#4: Meta-gaming has earned a bad reputation in the RPG world, but it is not deserved. Sometimes you have to step out of the game to figure out what the players want to do next. As much as you recap last week's game at the beginning of a game (see previous email for that tip), don’t shy away from stepping out of the game and asking the players what they plan to do next.
#5: If someone does something at the table that is really unique, even if it’s a little odd, go with it. Don’t wreck unique ideas because they may seem unreasonable or aren’t supported by the rules. I watched a player once, whose ranger had been tracking a horse and rider for a while, enter the town and lose the trail. So, he tried to find them by sniffing the air, hoping to get a whiff of the horse and rider. With no particular scent ability, he should not be able to do this, but I thought, “Wow, that is really cool, thinking out of the box.” The game master said “No” without a second’s hesitation. A perfect opportunity to engage the character was lost. Even if you don’t acquiesce in their request, go with it. A better response would have been, “You pick up the scent, just faintly, so you are doubly sure the rider came to town.” The player is happy they achieved something, and are participating in the game and the other players learn to think out of the box, and to stretch their abilities.