Mar 24

February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 4, Who & GMs


The February host of the 2017 travelling RPG Blog Carnival was the team at Tabletop Terrors, where they nominated a staple of RPG scenarios: the encounter.


This broad term gave me a lot to think about, and my initial essay needed to be broken up into a series. Thus, I am still pursuing the February topic, even though the month has finished.


The Tabletop Terrors site outlined the topic like this:


This article is part of the magnificent and prolific Blog Carnival, and the topic for this month is Encounters. This month other fantastic bloggers will be exploring things like inventive ways to come up with encounters, different ways to run encounters in play, and even explore using encounter concepts across multiple systems to surprise players and breathe new life into your game.




Story Elements

When improvising the content of the scene, the GM must answer the following questions:

  • When?
  • Where?
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?


The previous essay in this series answered half of the Who encounter question. These are the traits easily passed to the Players. Part four now considers those Who traits designed for the GM.



Who is in the encounter?

As noted last week, the third question for an improv GM revolves around the antagonists in the encounter. Who is here for the Heroes to interact with? The essence of a roleplaying game is an opportunity for the Players to roleplay with a GMC. The Who of an encounter is the main vehicle for Players to roleplay with the setting. Thus, the GM has six questions to consider regarding the characters they introduce into an encounter:

  • Role
  • Description
  • Name
  • Personality
  • Goals
  • Hooks


The first three of these traits are usually handed out to Players simply for the asking. However, the last three are written for the GM, and will only emerge through in-character interactions during play.




Personality of the GMC

Once a Hero knows a GMC’s name, then the next level of interaction involves a portrayal of personality. Here at the lower end of the GMC list, the traits shift from ones the GM tells, to ones the GM shows. Indeed, these final entries are more about informing the portrayal of the GMC.


I know GMCs are one of my weaknesses as a GM. I need to improve my acting and give the Players more chances to roleplay with the setting. However, creating GMCs is a complex process, and thus a challenge to an improv GM.


The simplest outcome is to portray a GMC as an exemplar of their role. The captain of the guard is gruff and suspicious, while the barkeep is friendly. This approach works for occasional characters, but a city full of grumpy guards and friendly barkeeps would quickly appear artificial. Personality from role is a good standby, but an improv GM needs a better solution for long-term play.


Personality from random-input is a classic improv technique. Here the GM needs random personality cards, or perhaps Rory’s Story Cubes, to quickly generate character prompts. This method need not generate a full psychology profile, but be enough to give the GM hints on how to play the character while also allowing for a broad range of personalities in a setting.


I often use Skuld Cards in this way.


Finally, the GM can rely upon a pre-generated pen portrait. I have a selection of these in my bundle of reference sheets. This provides me with about a dozen prepared personalities I can drop into the game as required. These individuals have all the depth I need, but require no interruption of the flow of the game.


I wrote about the aspects of a GMC I prepare here




The goals of a GMC are what that individual wants to achieve. Sometimes these goals need no careful thought as they are an extension of the GMC’s role. Thus, the palace guard wants to keep the queen safe, and the shopkeeper wants to sell goods to customers.


However, these role-based goals do not hold up well over time. The longer the Players interact with a GMC, then the greater the chance that the GMC’s personal agenda will emerge. This is the point where the GMC becomes more believable. After repeated visits, it is clear the young guard wants to impress one of the ladies-in-waiting, and the shopkeeper worries about her son’s friends.


The GM can make these goals emerge during conversations. This process gives the GMC depth and believability. Interactions with the GMC become more nuanced, as the conversation has scope to develop beyond role-focused topics. Now the GMC has a personal agenda to work towards, and a reason to act. This goal turns any GMC into an active agent, who helps bring a setting to life.


Finally, the goal of a GMC gives the Players another angle for their mutual interactions. Astute Players can win a GMC’s loyalty by helping them achieve their goal. Alternatively, Players can gain leverage over a GMC through threatening, blocking or generally impeding this goal. Many more story options emerge once the GMC has a personal set of goals.




In a lot of games, the primary role of GMCs is to hand out story hooks to the Heroes. Traveller, I am looking at you. These are quests given out by a patron GMC, which then provide motivation and purpose to otherwise aimless Heroes. This technique is as old as the hobby, and remains a useful tool for GMs.


If a goal is personal to the GMC, then a hook is a shared goal between the GMC and the Heroes. By taking this approach, we can move beyond the stale trope of GMC as patron. If more GMCs are involved in challenging situations, then they all could present interesting hooks to the Heroes. In such a sandbox-style game, the Players explore those areas of the setting which appeals to them, only to find adventure awaits.


To illustrate a more organic approach to presenting GMC hooks, contrast these two versions:

  • Traditional – the Heroes are approached by a merchant who wants to hire them to fight the thieves guild
  • Organic – the Heroes have a series of interactions with a friendly shopkeeper. Over time, they see the shopkeeper being intimidated by thugs, and later find the shop ransacked. The shopkeeper explains about the thieves guild protection racket, and the Heroes agree to help their friend fight back.


Both versions result in the Heroes confronting the thieves guild, but the second story is likely to have the Players more engaged. Now their victory over the thieves will feel more satisfying, and the risk of failure more frightening.




These GM-focused aspects of a GMC are not needed for every character. However, once the Heroes begin to interact with a GMC, then more of these deeper layers of the character will be revealed. Investment in these aspect will lead to memorable roleplaying, entertaining characters, dynamic GMCs and plots with greater Player investment.


However, the Who of an encounter need not always be a GMC. It is possible to build a fun encounter with a non-sentient Who. This faceless opposition is the topic for my next essay on Improv Encounters.


How do you personalize your GMCs? What techniques do you use to determine the goals of the GMCs? How to you present story hooks with your GMCs? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:



6 pings

  1. […] Something for the Weekend next week: Improv Encounters 4, Who & GMs […]

  2. […] Then part 4 explored the GM-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  3. […] Then part 4 explored the GM-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  4. […] February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 4, Who & GMs […]

  5. […] Then part 4 explored the GM-focused aspects of the Who question […]

  6. […] February ‘17 Carnival: Improv Encounters 4, Who & GMs […]

Leave a Reply