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Help for the Harried DM

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Or, The Tom Sawyer Principle

It takes a lot of work to run an RPG campaign. And all of it falls on the shoulders of the GM. Thereís nobody else the GM could even call on for help Ė or is there? Letís look at a little concept I call The Tom Sawyer Principle.

Did you ever read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain? Early in the book, Tom skips school. As punishment, his Aunt Polly makes him paint a huge fence on Saturday, which is everyone elseís day off. Tom sets to work, but soon a friend comes along to tease Tom about having to work on Saturday. Tom sees an opportunity, and acts like thereís nothing in the world heíd rather be doing. ďLike it? Well, I donít see why I oughtnít to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?Ē

Tom continues to paint the fence in the most careful, absorbed way possible, as though it were truly a labor of love. The other boy gets interested in watching him work, and eventually asks if he can try it. Tom plays hard to get, and eventually gets the boy to trade an apple for the chance to join in on the fun. Soon all the boys in town are vying for a chance to do some of the painting. In the end, the fence gets three coats of paint, and not only does Tom avoid doing the work himself, he gets a pile of items in trade from the boys for letting them do the work instead.

So how does this apply to running an RPG? Well, as you know, running a campaign involves a lot of work between sessions as well as a great deal of concentration during actual play. If youíre running an adventure path, youíll need to keep track of what the party has done, where they have explored, what clues and loot they have found, and who they have met. If you run a homebrew campaign, youíll also have to design adventures, create NPCís, make maps, and furnish all the myriad small details that make the campaign world seem to come to life. In the meantime, your career, your education, your family, your love life, and any other hobbies you may have all require some of your time as well. Whatís a poor GM to do?

My answer to this dilemma is to hand off some of the work to my players. Not all the work can be delegated, of course. The players cannot design their own adventures, or decide how NPCís will react to the partyís actions. But thereís a lot of work available in the campaign that doesnít involve secrets the players must not be allowed to know.

For example, one of the players could take notes on the partyís progress during the game, removing one source of distraction from the GM. Another can keep track of the treasure, clues, or whatever is of value in the game youíre playing. A third can create and maintain an online repository for all this information. If a character is from a town for which there are no details, ask that player flesh the place out. If the party barbarian is from some far-off tribe, ask their player write up some details about the tribe.

Selling It

Tom Sawyer got his friends to paint the fence by convincing them that painting was fun. Luckily for us, we have a somewhat easier job - we have to convince our players that helping out on an RPG is fun. And if theyíre playing RPGís, that shouldnít be too much of a stretch. We have another advantage too: Tom didnít actually think painting was fun, so he had to convince his friends of something he didnít believe. We really do enjoy working on RPGís, so our enthusiasm doesnít have to be faked.

Still, itís unlikely that your players will just volunteer out of the blue to do something. Youíll need to get them started. I found that the key was to present it in a way that wasnít about me. They started taking notes about what happened each session so that they could remember what happened. When I ask a player what his characterís hometown is like, he isnít developing my campaign. Heís developing his character. Keeping track of the treasure helps them decide how to split it up. Having a website with all that information means they can look at it in their spare time, so their game time is spent slaying monsters instead of bookkeeping. All of that work helps you as well, but thatís not the selling point.


Iím a bit on the fence about whether itís good to offer incentives to players who wish to help out this way. The players will already be rewarded by getting to exercise their creativity. The whole group will benefit from having organized notes, lists of loot, and so forth. Those that participated will have the pride of accomplishment for helping make a better game for everyone, and the gratitude of all. For my players that has been enough. They have never asked for further rewards, and I have never offered any. But some GMís do give rewards, and the results can be superb. For example, have a look at the session logs written on this site http://shockandbloodloss.blogspot.com/. Their GM offered to give each playerís PC 100 experience points for each session log they wrote. In return he got some great session logs, each written from the perspective of an individual character.

In spite of that example, Iím still not a fan of giving in-game rewards. If youíre handing out experience, loot, connections, or other in-game incentives, the characters of those who participate will become more powerful at a faster rate than those who do not. That could too easily make those players who donít participate feel like second-class citizens. Some people donít have the time to become involved, or they simply donít enjoy doing those sorts of tasks. Whatever their reasons, choosing to not participate ought to be perfectly acceptable. This is recreation, after all, and nobody should have to spend their recreation time doing something they donít enjoy just to keep up with the rest of the party.

Whether you give out any other rewards or not, itís critical that you give them your heartfelt thanks. Thank them for their session logs and loot lists every game. Mention the website they built, and how helpful it is. Talk about how cool their ideas were for their characterís hometown. In short, make their work feel worthwhile and appreciated, and theyíre far more likely to help again.

I hope you find these ideas interesting and helpful. Iíd love to hear what you think. Have you found ways for your players to help make the game better? Leave some comments below, so we can all learn a little more. Thanks for reading!

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Tags: organization


  1. LordEntrails's Avatar
    I like it. It's something I've thought about before, but never in such a defined way. I will definitely be thinking more on it.

    One thing I typically do with new characters is to have the player give me the names and one-two sentence(s) about 3 different people from their character backstory. Just this little bit of detail helps me weave their character into the world, not just the story of the party.

    And then, when they encounter one of these characters, or someone who knows one of those characters, they are like "Hey, my backstory actually matters!"
  2. Phystus's Avatar
    That's a great idea! I think you've really struck a nice balance there by only asking for a few sentences. It forces them to do a little backstory, but doesn't demand too much from folks who don't enjoy writing. I hope you don't mind if I steal it.
  3. LordEntrails's Avatar
    Of course, steal away. That's what the best do!

    Yea, two of my regulars hate to write, so I'm happy when I get that much from them. Others, well, they might write a 5000 word backstory!
  4. LindseyFan's Avatar
    Inspiration. It's so benign, but the players love it[
  5. MarianDz's Avatar
    I like read your blogs "P[B][I]hystus[/I][/B]" and comments today are creative too ;o)

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