What's your favorite RPG system and why?
The HERO (Champions) system. It is the only truly universal gaming system that I have found. While there are other universal gaming systems out there, they usually have some limitation to them. This often shows itself in the ability of either keeping things small or allowing things to go epic. The HERO system is designed so that the entire campaign can be normal people in a detective story, all the way to epic superheroes. It is able to do this because the game is an effects based rules system.
For example, the system doesn't have a "Fireball" spell per se. Rather, it says what does a Fireball do? A fireball creates a Area of Effect Blast of Energy, that is Shot from Range and is made of Fire. In fact, in the HERO system, the fact that it is Fire is almost secondary and only needed if someone have a vulnerability or resistance to Fire. This set-up lends itself to so many possible character options. But this also means that this system is not for beginning GMs. It can take considerable prep work and requires the GM to be not just familiar with the rules, but also have a knowledge of game mechanics. They do have a number of additional source books to simplify this for those new to game system. These are not required. I purchase them because I enjoy seeing how other GMs have set things up mechanically for their own use.
What made you want to become a DM/GM?
My family has a long tradition (going back generations) of interactive storytelling. When Dungeons and Dragons came out in the 1970's, it was quickly adopted into many of my family's social gatherings. I enjoy spinning a tale and so was naturally attracted to the role of DM/GM.
I absolutely love seeing the interaction that the players have with my tale. So much so that I generally only set up a base idea of what I want to see in the campaign, story arc, and session. That way my tale becomes largely Player Driven. After all, each of us has a tale to tell.
How much prep time do you conduct before a gaming session?
So this one is complicated. On average probably 4-5 hours, but that is because I do big projects.
For a normal session, I spend one or two hours. This is mostly just taking care of administrative data, deciding major plot points that I hope to get to in the session, and getting the correct miniatures and terrain prepared. As I mentioned above, I like my campaigns to be heavily Player Driven, so I play fast and loose with the session. It at times forces me to think on the fly, but I've had a great deal of practice. I rarely, if ever, utilize modules or prepared adventures.
For a major story point / plot completion, I have spent dozens of hours. I love epic fight scenes with epic bad guys on epic terrain. I love to create something new for major points in the story. Sometimes this is a cool new bad guy or place to fight.
Here are a few examples:
The Skeleton is part of a collection of three that I scratch built for a buddy's D&D campaign. The first is single skeleton. The second is a ogre sized skeleton made up of 5 regular skeletons. And then this one is constructed from 14 other skeletons, plus bits. The monster grew as the fight progressed.
The Pirate Docks were constructed by that same buddy and me for the same campaign. (and yes, all the cranes are functional)
I built the Dragon Temple for another friend's D&D campaign. He wanted something special for the conclusion of "The Horde of the Dragon King". So instead of a Castle in the Sky, we did a Hanging Gardens theme.
These all took a number of hours to construct.
So there are so many good memories, it gets hard to pick any out of the mix.
But the current D&D campaign that I am running was set up by some friends because they wanted to expose their kids (now teenagers) to the hobby.
Background: In days of yore, a tyrannical Giant empire ruled the lands around the inner sea. They enforced their will with a cadre of 7 Krakens. Through use of a demonic codex, the Krakens were imprisoned a thousand years ago. Now, various factions are attempting to wake the Krakens.
Enter the PC's. They have come into possession of the codex. They stand before the first of the seven imprisoned Krakens, the pages open to the ritual to destroy this weapon of incredible power.
"So this codex was able to control the minds of the Krakens?" YES
"So this codex is what imprisoned the Krakens?" YES
"So this codex has the power to destroy the Krakens?" YES, up close and in their imprisoned state.
Then from across the table: "Can this codex FREE the Krakens and put them under our power?"
And thus a complete plot change for the intended campaign. Instead of fighting baddies and destroying the Krakens to keep such powerful weapons out of the hands of those who would misuse them... They have decided to just put those Krakens into their own hands. They like to believe they are doing it out of good and the best for everyone. They have freed three of them so far and left a path of destruction and death in their wake.
Do you do anything to set the mood or atmosphere?
I recap. Like an old fashion serial. Last week on Dunderheads & Danger, the brave Sir Brown Shorts infiltrated the Goblin Stronghold in order to save the Princess. Captured by the guards, he awaits rescue by his compatriots.... etc...
What's one tip you would give to other DM/GM's out there?
The "Unbeatable Foe" / The "Unwinnable Fight"
DON'T, just DON'T.
If it is absolutely critical to the plot: still DON'T.
Sure, I get it, every Kung Fu movie-Hero wins fight to show he is tough, Epic bad guy enters and beats the Hero, Training montage, Hero comes back to beat the Epic bad guy.
So unless your campaign is a Kung Fu movie... DON'T. And even then, probably DON'T.
Players don't like to be pigeon holed or given NO OPTIONS. So your unwinnable fight can also include the "you've been captured and lost everything"... You will just piss your players off with using this trope over and over and over. So many prepared adventures use this as well.
Also, two other dangers crop up:
1- You always have some powerful NPC that comes in to save the day. It is probably your favorite NPC. He is probably even based on a former PC of yours... You are there to facilitate the world and the play, you are NOT a PC. They are the Protagonists, NOT you. If you want to play that badly, have someone else GM.
2- Or the players will beat your Unbeatable Foe and leave you trying to jump through hoops to save your plot line. My buddy, that I built the Dragon Temple for, likes to run prepared modules. Across multiple systems, every one of these modules has had at least one "Unwinnable Fight". I have NEVER lost this "Unwinnable Fight". Even ones deemed "Unwinnable" for the entire group, over several decades of playing in his games, I have ALWAYS soloed these fights and I have ALWAYS won. A 2nd Level Barbarian in D&D is not supposed to be able to beat a 9th level Fighter... But I did. The dice came up that way. They always do. I slaughtered the villain that was supposed to be the reoccurring villain for multiple sessions on our first meeting. Leaving my buddy to once again scramble to fix a problem I just interjected by slaughtering the primary villain for the campaign.
If you set up this "Unwinnable Fight", your players will either WIN or be so pissed at you that they quit.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Have fun. Role Playing games can expand your horizons. They can give you problem solving skills. They can make you annoyed at your buddy that always wants to have over elaborate schemes.
But in the end: PLAY FOR FUN. HAVE FUN.
As a GM, it is your job to facilitate that FUN for your players. If you are not having fun doing that, have someone else GM.
But as always: Have Fun.