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Game Master Guide

The Role of the Game Master

Being the Game Master (GM) isn't easy, but it can be very rewarding. Here are the main responsibilities of a good GM:

Host. Welcome players to the table, answer questions, and moderate disagreements in a polite and civil way.

Time Management. Minimize distractions to keep the game moving. Pick up the pace when you notice that things are starting to slow down and the players are becoming less engaged.

Storyteller. Present interesting situations and problems to the players, and create an overall mood or sense of mystery.

(e.g. They visit a village where children are mysteriously disappearing in the night. The mayor is an old friend, but has been acting strange lately.)

Non-Player Characters. Play the role of NPCs with a variety of personalities and motivations.

(e.g. the local sheriff who needs help but is too proud to ask for it, a bartender providing rumors but is afraid to talk about certain things, etc.)

Danger. Pit the players against enemies and other challenges that stand in the way of their goal. (e.g. bloodthirsty cult members, poisonous snakes, falling rocks)

Judge. Interpret the result of die rolls in a way that is balanced and entertaining, and reward the players with an appropriate amount of XP or other cool stuff.

Fun. Remember that players have other things they could be doing instead of playing in your game. If you provide a great experience, they will come back for more!

Quests

Tone. Before you begin, make sure everyone knows what kind of tone is expected. (e.g. serious all the time, anything goes, etc.)

Scenes. Quests are made up of multiple scenes that take about an hour each. A scene could be a battle, an area to explore, a room in a dungeon, a visit to the tavern, etc.

One-Shots. At first, we recommend running quests that can be completed in a single session (3-4 scenes), especially if you are starting with a new group.

The logistics of getting all players together on a regular schedule can make it difficult to run successful long-term campaigns. Instead, try to run your game as a connected series of short quests that have their own conclusions.

Hook Them In. The first scene should start the players in the middle of the action, so you don't waste valuable game time in the "quest giver" stage. Essential background info can be provided via narration and flashback.

Dungeons. Dungeon quests can be run as a one-by-one series of rooms or key areas, similar to how they are portrayed in the movies. This is much easier than trying to navigate a map filled with trivial choices about which hallway to enter, etc.

Improv. It's pretty easy to run quests with very little preparation. Just set up the initial scene and improvise the rest based on the actions of the players. You can even ask them to fill in certain details during the game, making the story more collaborative.

Example Quest Outline

Intro Hook

The party is passing through the woods, when they come upon a broken down wagon in the middle of the road, with crates strewn about.

Scene 1:  Forest - Road

The party is ambushed by Goblins (Attack 2, Life 1) if they don't spot them first (combined Wisdom/Spot roll vs 4 Stars).

Scene 2:  Forest - Tracks

Track down the goblin lair, either by following their tracks  (Wisdom/Nature rolls), or from clues learned after the ambush.
Big Spiky Plant - poison spores  (Might roll or take 1 Damage)

Scene 3:  Goblin Cave - Corridor

Flying dart traps are activated by tripwires  (Agility roll or take 1 Damage)

Scene 4:  Goblin Cave - Final Lair

Final battle in a large chamber with a large bonfire in the middle.
Goblins & Goblin Shaman  (Attack 3, Life 4, Freeze Spell)

Monsters & Enemies

Stats. There is no official list of monsters in Fabletop. You can create your own using just two stats: Life & Attack (# dice).

Example Monsters
Goblin Attack 2, Life 1
Orc Attack 3, Life 2
Ogre Attack 5, Life 6
See the preset miniatures for more examples.

Challenge Level. On average, it takes 3 attack dice to inflict 1 Damage. Keep this ratio in mind when bringing enemies into a scene.

When in doubt, err on the side of making it easier at first. You can adjust the challenge level upward by bringing in reinforcements or adding a special power or tactic to one of the enemies.

Powers. Enemies can use special powers or stunts any time, but should usually wait one turn before using them again.

Example Enemy Powers
bite, claw, gore, poison, acid, breath attack, fire control, electric shock, lightning, freeze, shriek, roar, blinding flash, web, entangle, fly, levitate, teleport, high speed, tail whip, eye beams, petrify, regenerate, shield, reflect attack, shapechange, grow, disappear, posess, charm, fear, illusion, mistform, acid for blood, special effect triggered on death.

Special Attacks. Instead of rolling attack dice, special attacks have a specific effect or deal a fixed amount of damage. The targeted player rolls to resist or reduce the effect.

Ice Shaman:-- raises staff, causing a freezing wind to blast forward --
GM:Roll to resist (might)
Salius:Might + Elf →

GM:Salius is frozen in his tracks!
GM:You'll have to skip next turn, sorry

Stunts. You can spice up combat with more mundane enemies by having them perform an occasional stunt or tactic.

Example Enemy Stunts
kick, punch, head butt, grapple, disarm, hidden knife, throw weapon, charge, climb, jump, taunt, feint, take cover, call for help, withdraw, ambush, feign death.

Minions. Every once in a while, it's fun to let the players hack and slash their way through a group of enemies that are easy to defeat. Let them show off for a while before raising the challenge level again.

Tags. Use miniature Tags to introduce non-damage effects such as prone, disarmed, frozen, etc. It's up to you to decide how these affect the target (e.g. missed turn, required skill rolls, etc). As a rule of thumb, effects should only last one turn.

Skill Challenges

Combined Tasks. Players can cooperate to achieve difficult tasks, with the Stars from all rolls added together.

Salius:I dunno, this is a pretty big statue...
Bearick:Nonsense! We can move this. -- rubs hands together --
Bearick:Might →
+

Salius:Might →

GM:3 stars...
GM:The statue rumbles slowly out of the way... revealing a secret passage!

Long Tasks. For tasks that take extra time to complete, the GM might ask for additional rolls each turn, which are added together.

Leetwulf:-- cracks knuckles and then starts hacking the crypto --
GM:This is advanced stuff. It will take about 10 stars total.
Leetwulf:Wisdom + Hacker →

GM:A few minutes pass. You suddenly hear the motor of a car approach outside.
Zann:-- loads shotgun -- Looks like we have company!
Leetwulf:Guys, I need more time. Hold them off!

Opposed Tasks. If a player is directly opposing an NPC (e.g. an arm wrestling match), it is best to treat it as a normal roll (e.g. requiring 1-2 Stars).

Caution: It's a bad idea to roll dice for the NPC because the probability curve from rolling so many dice will lead to very predictable results. There will either be a lot of ties, or the character with more dice will nearly always succeed.

Persuasion. When the players try to influence an NPC (or group of NPCs) it helps to think of their attitude as a physical object: It can only move so far, and it helps to find the right angle to "push" on.

In other words, success will merely shift the NPCs attitude to a certain degree. It is not a charm spell that gives the PCs complete control.

Also, some approaches will be more effective on certain NPCs (the angle). For example, using intimidation on the local sheriff will probably be less effective than flattery or bribery.

Seeing Things. Let the players roll their own dice when checking to see if they spot something hidden. (e.g. hidden traps or signs of an impending ambush)

At first, this approach might feel less realistic than making the rolls in secret. But it is more engaging for the players, they are more likely to add relevant bonuses, and it can be a fun way to foreshadow impending danger.

Battlemat & Miniatures

The Big Picture. The battlemat and miniatures are your tools to sketch out the basic layout of the scene and the relative positions of each character.

There's no need to draw every detail or include every character in the crowd. Just use them to capture the important details and clear any misunderstandings of where things are.

Avoid Clutter. Keep the number of tiles to a minimum, so that it's easy for players to see where they can move, and what the key features are. Decorations can be described in your narration instead.

For example, here is a throne room with an antechamber lined with pillars:

Rewards

Experience (XP).At the end of each session, use the "Give Party" menu option to award 1-10 XP to everyone in the party (usually 2 XP per hour of solid gameplay).

You can adjust this based on how much was accomplished, how difficult it was, how well they roleplayed, and how quickly you want the characters to advance.

Money. Money doesn't play a role in most Fabletop games because the focus is on action and storytelling. But for some genres it might make sense to award money (e.g. payment for a completed mission), which can be recorded in the character sheet Notes. This mainly serves as a secondary measure of success.

Bonus Items. Most magic items can be added as Bonus traits. (e.g. a Ring of Shadows +2, which adds to stealth rolls).

Caution: Use these sparingly!   Even at +1 die, some magic items can be overpowered. Single or limited-use items (e.g. potions & scrolls) are a good way to maintain game balance.

Storytelling Tips

Keep it Short. The best descriptions are often the shortest. Full sentences aren't even necessary. Let the players fill in the blanks in their heads (and assume the worst).

GM:Fear is in the air...
GM:All of a sudden... an echoing SHRIEK!
GM:Then... silence.

Sound. "Sound effects" are a quick and creative way to provide description.

GM:You continue down the sewer tunnel.
GM:Slime is everywhere. -- drip drip drip --
GM:Something moved up ahead! -- splash! --

NPC Behavior Try to give NPCs different mannerisms, via speech or emotes. When in doubt, think of a TV or movie personality that you can use, without making it too obvious.

Mercenary:Not sure what you're getting at, mister. -- squints --
Bartender:I tell ya, I get no respect around here! -- shakes head --
Clerk:Hmmm... Yeah, I'm gonna need you to fill that out. Yeah...

Scene Props. Add interactive parts to the scene to make combat more interesting.

Example Scene Props
  • Balconies or catwalks to fall over
  • Hanging ropes/vines to swing on
  • Loose rocks or stalactites to fall at the wrong moment
  • Cauldrons to tip over
  • Stepping stones over water or lava

Common Mistakes

Saying No. Players come to tabletop roleplaying games for the creative outlet that they provide. Saying "no" outright to player actions and requests can undermine that creative spirit.

This is a very common source of arguments, which can seriously detract from the fun. You can mitigate this by trying to understand their intent, and suggest an alternative that you think is more balanced.

Or simply go along with it -- it might lead to something surprisingly cool!

Killing PCs. As mentioned in the Life & Death section, there is technically no PC death in Fabletop. But many GMs ignore this rule and do it anyway.

This hard core approach often sounds like a fun idea at the beginning of the game. That is, until it actually happens. Then, more often than not, there is an emotionally charged argument between the player and the GM that can damage their ability to play together in the future. Thankfully, this can easily be avoided.

Realize that death can be upsetting to players after having invested time into their character. A single game session can last twice as long as a movie. That's a lot of time to get attached. As a GM, it's easy to forget that, because you aren't personally invested in any one character.

It is also not fun to be excluded from a game. For this reason, nearly all computer games -- even realistic ones -- have respawn, and modern tabletop games do not eliminate players as a core principle. At best, taking the time to create another character and work them into the plot is a distraction.

Arguably, it is also unfair. Even the most experienced GM is unable to perfectly balance encounters, or describe every situation so that players are fully aware of the odds.

And lastly, death is boring! There are more interesting consequences for failure than death. Let PCs survive so they have a chance to redeem themselves and clean up the mess they created.

Long Introductions. It is tempting to start a quest with an entire scene dedicated to revealing the quest and narrating the backstory.

The problem is that, when you add in time for pre-game prep, an hour or more might pass before the players get to do anything interesting.

Instead, take a clue from the movies and start in media res, or "in the middle of things". An exciting opening will hook players in and get them to commit to the game early on. Find ways to reveal background info during the game, rather than revealing all of it up front.

Railroading. It's good to have an overall story arc in mind so you can react to PCs in a way that is entertaining and believable.

But too many GMs treat the players as pawns in their personal screenplay, where the outcomes are already determined and their decisions have little impact.

Rather than forcing them to stay on a narrow set of "rails", think of your quest as a wide river. Everything flows in a certain direction, but players have a lot of latitude in how they move forward.

Think of each scene as a collection of possibilities. For example:

Situation: The party is staying at a spooky inn for the night.

Things they might do:
  • Talk at length to the innkeeper and gradually realize he is acting strangely.
  • Retire to their room and hear the scratches of the zombies in the cellar.
  • Sneak into the kitchen and find the severed arms in the freezer.

They might do something you didn't even think of! But when this happens, you will be prepared because you aren't committed to any one outcome, and you have a variety of ideas to work with.

This approach can make your job as a GM more challenging, but also more fun, because you'll get to experience the same suspense your players do -- of not knowing how things will turn out!

Skill Bottlenecks. It's common for a quest to come to a halt while PCs search for an item or clue, or solve a riddle, or try to get past some obstacle.

These all-or-nothing situations can be very frustrating if the players miss their skill rolls. Feeling stuck is not fun!

Instead, this is a case for using Long Task and Combined Task mechanics explained in the Skill Challenges section. Let them roll in turns until they get the desired number of Stars.

Assume they will eventually succeed in order to keep the game moving, but apply consequences for rolling Skulls, entirely blank rolls, or simply taking too many turns. This could mean taking damage from traps, the risk of alerting enemies, etc.

Too Many House Rules. The simple and freeform nature of Fabletop makes it tempting to come up with extra rules that add realism and depth.

No doubt, this is a fun creative exercise for the GM. But in practice, a lot of game time can be wasted while you explain and re-explain how the rules work, usually for little benefit.

Remember that every rule has a cost. The less time players spend playing, the less likely they will return for another game.