Off the Cuff #1: GMing Without Borders

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Off the Cuff


I love being a Game Master. I get to create adventures, facilitate fun gaming sessions, and generally be responsible for entire role-playing campaigns. It’s a challenge, but a successful gaming session is a badge of pride for any GM.

Game Masters come in several varieties: some like to run pre-written scenarios, some like to spend hours crafting their own amazing stories, and others like to run games completely off the cuff with next to no session prep. I’m the latter type. Lately, I’ve come to think of my free-form style as “GMing Without Borders.”

What is GMing Without Borders?

GMing Without Borders has several meanings, all of which are equally applicable. It means not running pre-written adventures and being forced to play within the confines of another person’s box text. It means not spending hours prepping NPCs and villains only to have your players turn your adventure completely on its head and ruin all of your hard work. Finally, it means being a GM despite physical limitations which may make other play styles difficult or impossible.

I adopted the terminology recently when analyzing the way I run games. I realized all of these things apply to me and my GMing style, and I thought other people may benefit from my experience as a borderless GM.

Working Around Limitations

I’m legally blind. It’s difficult for me to do a lot of things that sighted people sometimes take for granted. As it applies to gaming, that means reading text from a game book or taking full advantage of miniatures on a tactical combat grid. Scanning adventure text for statblocks, jotting down notes on cards, and keeping track of monster hit points on a piece of scratch paper are all things that are simply outside my realm of ability.

That doesn’t mean I can’t be a good GM, though. Instead of picking up pre-written scenarios and taking a few hours to prep them for play, I simply make my own worlds and settings. I come up with a few simple adventure hooks, see which ones catch my players’ attention, and go with the flow.

Avoiding Box Text

“Box text” is the pre-written dialogue used by many adventure scenarios. It represents exactly what an NPC says, how he says it, and when he says it. It’s helpful to GMs in that it gives them advice and insight on how the characters in the story interact with the players, but it doesn’t always feel natural. More importantly to this discussion though, it’s something that must be read aloud (or at the very least paraphrased) by the GM, and if you’re a GM with a print disability that may prove difficult.

Instead of reading box text to my players, I improvise what my NPCs say. Sometimes I do a better job of this than others, but I feel like it adds a bit more realism when I stammer and trip over my own words, rather than speak in elegant prose with canned responses.

Side-stepping Stablocks

When it comes to stablocks, I have several coping mechanisms. If I am running a complicated game such as D&D or Pathfinder, I bring a laptop to the table and keep track of hit points using Notepad. I also use Notepad to handle initiative tracking. I look up monster stats using or a similar website, and I almost never bother to plan my monsters in advance. Do I need a girallon today? Or maybe a destrachen? They’re all there at my fingertips. On the down side, the more monsters i add to any given encounter, the more browser tabs I have open and the harder it is to switch back and forth.

My other method applies more to NPCs and villains. Occasionally I find it really fun to stat up a big bad guy, but I usually restrict myself to one per session or fewer. I’ll sometimes design a big encounter for an epic battle, complete with many different villanous characters and their stats, but in most circumstances this isn’t necessary.

Instead of statting up every fighter, rogue, and random thug the PCs encounter, I simply pluck a few numbers out of the air and assign them as necessary. Are my PCs level 5? The barbarian they’re fighting should probably have an attack bonus of +9 or so, he carries a greataxe which deals 1d12+6 damage, and he probably has around 50 hit points. The barbarian’s wizard friend, on the other hand, probably has an attack bonus of +3, no weapon to bother with, and around 20 hit points. He’s 5th level so he has 3rd-level spells, and he’s a bad guy so most of what he casts is designed to blow people up. I don’t need to plan his entire spell list; just pull up a list of wizard spells and pick a few that he’ll cast, as he casts them. He’s only going to live for 3 rounds anyway, so why bother having 20 spells prepped?

The bottom line is that I don’t spend a lot of time and resources prepping encounters when they’re not going to be important to the long-term story. It means I have more resources to spend on other things, such as trying to figure out where I set my Mountain Dew.

Running Your Own Adventures

I enjoy a good pre-written scenario as much as the next person, but there’s a certain art form to running your own adventures. Some GMs choose to prep one or two sessions in advance, deciding it’s best to know where the story is headed before they begin play, but my approach is somewhat different.

I do, of course, love to write new settings and come up with interesting plots. That’s why I design and publish great games like Psi-punk. That doesn’t mean I saddle myself with a lot of notes about the upcoming adventure and how I want it to play out, though.

Rather than plan a session’s beginning, middle, and end, I simply plan its beginning and an end goal. I let the players decide how to get from Point A to Point B, and if they decide to go to Point C instead, that’s not a problem. If I did come up with a fancy villain ahead of time, I’ll simply insert him somewhere else in the plot (if it makes sense) or save him for another time — after all, they haven’t met the villain yet, so it doesn’t matter if I repurpose him.

The end result is a game that feels more natural and fluid. A pre-written game, even if it’s entirely your own, has difficulty feeling natural sometimes. You may prep a session in advance only to have your players derail your plot, and then you need to write or re-write next week’s session to accommodate. If you instead begin with a beginning and end with a nebulous idea of what you think you’d like to have happen overall, it’s easier to get your end point to fit into whichever situations your players come up with.


GMing Without Borders means running games off the cuff. Starting a session and seeing where it takes you. Being comfortable without going outside the lines.

If that seems like a scary or challenging prospect, fear not–in the coming weeks, I’ll have more advice on how to run your own free-form games that will leave your players chomping at the bit for more.

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