This guide will not be about general GM tipps. There is plenty of content out there that does a way better job at that than I ever could. YouTube alone has hundreds of videos that can help you with that. If you are a brand new GM, especially if you have not been a player before, I highly suggest you start there to learn the basics of storytelling, game preparation, and handling your players. This GM guide will contain tips and tricks specifically helpful for GM Ishanekon: World Shapers.
A session zero, for those who do not know, is when the players and the GM meet at least once before the actual game or campaign to set boundaries, discuss the themes of the campaign, allow the players to build their characters together, and maybe get to know each other. Sessions zeros are generally a good idea before every campaign, no matter the system, but it is often overkill if you are only going to play a one-shot.
A session zero is essential for IWS, mainly because you need to set boundaries on what is allowed for character creation. Unlike many other TTRPGs that have built-in limits because of their focus on one type of setting, IWS allows for almost any type of character and has no such limits. The session zero allows you to tell your players what is allowed in your setting and to correct them if they accidentally deviate from what makes sense in your world. On the other hand, it gives your players a chance to defend their choices and allows them to explain how they might just make sense. This is also a great opportunity to make sure that your players do not exploit the Trait system.
If you skip the session zero, which I very much do not recommend, you must clearly communicate what is and is not allowed to your players.
You get to decide what exactly happens during a Cinematic action and how much damage or healing it does. This can This Table should help you estimate how strong you should allow Cinematic actions to be. Use these values if the players are using a relatively straightforward cinematic action. Do not forget to multiply the values by the number of characters that partake in it if it is a Cooperative Cinematic Action.
|Tier||Damage (Single Target)||Damage (AoE)||Healing (Single Target)||Healing (AoE)|
The Skill Check difficulty should be lower than that of a normal Skill Check. The players are using a limited resource, after all. This table has some examples that you can use to set the difficulty correctly.
|Difficulty||When to use||Examples|
|7||This should be the default if the players are not attempting anything that would utterly change the balance of combat use.||An effect that could be replicated by an Ability that they do not know, A strong combo, a powerful version of the signature move, using the environment in a creative way, …|
|10||If the player attempts something that would deal damage and apply a Status Effect, bump up the challenge somewhat.||Crushing an enemy beneath a heavy object to damage and restrain them, a psychic attack that stuns and deals psychic damage, breaking or cutting off an arm to prevent the enemy from using it, …|
|14||The player is trying to attempt something that goes far beyond the power of what an Ability of their Level could accomplish.||Trying to stand up again after lying unconscious on the ground, doing a shonen-like transformation to gain a massive power boost, charging an attack that would hit the entire battlefield, …|
|18||The player is attempting something that would win the combat against a strong foe outright.||Turning back time, asking a god to intervene, sealing away a powerful demon, …|
Try to adjust the result of the cinematic action according to the result of the roll. If they rolled a 6 maybe do not make it fail completely, but let them achieve a weaker form or let them only partly succeed on their goal. For example, if somebody is trying to rip out the hardened scales of a monster to reduce their Armor but rolls low, let them still reduce the armor somewhat, but do not let them deal any damage.
Remember that your creatures can also use cinematic actions. It is a great way to spice up combat or wrestle back control if the players are steamrolling your encounters. For balance reasons, I suggest halving the damage and healing of any cinematic action made by a normal creature.
Ishanekon: World Shapers gives you, as the GM, the responsibility when your players’ characters level up. I recommend doing so at the end of sessions, which gives your players time until your next game to level them up instead of bogging down the game because some of them might not yet know what they want for their next level. There is also the question of how often you allow it. This mostly depends on the pace of your campaign, but this table should help as a guideline.
I recommend the Moderate speed for most campaigns since it gives your players time to adjust to their characters’ new abilities and features while not holding back too much of their level progression. Slow and Very Slow are suitable for very long campaigns that are planned to last multiple years or if you want to keep the characters weak for story purposes. I would only recommend Fast and Very Fast if your players are experienced with the game and feel comfortable with its mechanics since the constant stream of new features and Abilities can overwhelm many less experienced ones.
Another good way is to give Level-ups at important story points. I would still roughly estimate how generous you are with those by comparing it with the rate in the table.
As a GM, you will often need creatures in games that are at least partially combat-oriented. You could improvise everything, but in most cases, it is better to have a creature with a full stat block ready. The Creature Search Engine has a collection of some creatures. Each of them can be anything from Level 0 to 15. But what if you cannot find the type of creature you need? There are multiple ways of handling that.
The easiest option is to reskin an existing creature. The panther, for example, could easily be used as an assassin. Just treat it like a humanoid and pretend their natural weapons are standard once. You can get a lot out of the current selection if you are willing to be a bit flexible in their interpretation. Each creature can also be exported so that you can import and modify them in the Creature Builder. This is a good option if you like the basis of an existing creature but need to modify a few details.
You can also build a creature from scratch in the Creature Builder. This requires the most work, but it allows you to create truly unique enemies for your players. Trying to follow the rules of creature creation can be a helpful tool to create balanced encounters, but as a GM, you have the full right to ignore those. Creating your own creatures that ignore the Trait point limit, have your own original features, or completely break the rules is a valid option if you have the experience to pull it off.
Consider giving your creatures resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities that make sense. This can make combat more tactical for the players. If you want to create a more animalistic fighter or something with built-in weapons, consider the combination of the Trait No Arms and the Greater Talent Natural Armory.
If you have difficulty balancing the challenge of encounters, use the Encounter Calculator.
Creatures too complex?
There are many ways to make creatures more manageable if they are too complex for you. You can assign a default strategy for each creature before the game starts. This lowers your mental burden during the game as you do not need to think about what to do with them for long.
If you find the number of Abilities your creatures have overwhelming, then you can just pick 1 (Fighter), 2 (Hyrbid), or 3 (Caster) and ignore all the rest. This allows different creatures to keep different flavors in combat and helps with choice paralysis.
Still too many features? You can create creatures that mostly contain stat-boosting features like Endurance Master, Great Precision, or Greatly Hardened Armor. These make your creatures stronger without adding any complexity. I would still suggest keeping at least one feature that does something else, or your battles could become rather monotone.
Dealing with Specific Strategies
Your players might min-max their characters to achieve extremely high values in specific attributes. This might lead to the dealing that they become untouchable. This is a list of suggested counter strategies to help you keep combat challenging for them. I suggest only occasionally using them and allowing your players’ character to shine sometimes. It does take the fun out of using a cool build if you only encounter enemies specifically designed to counter it, after all.
Remember that your creatures can use cinematic actions and reactions. They can counter any strategy when used correctly and lead to epic moments in battle. So do not forget to use them occasionally and spice up combat.
A character that invests in Evasion can become nigh untouchable by regular attacks. It can become frustrating when nothing you throw against a player does anything. You can counter it by using precise attacks or right out ignoring their Evasion. Try targeting them with DRs, Skill-based actions (Grab, Trip, etc.), or use crit builds. Using Abilities that have a guarantee to hit, like Spectral Bullets and Elemental Spark, can also help.
A high Armor target can absorb a lot of damage. On the extreme end, you might not even be able to deal any damage to them at all. Thankfully, countering a high Armor build is relatively straightforward. Deal a lot of damage at the same time against a target. You can achieve this with fully upcasted Damage Abilities or by using fewer but more powerful creatures that use the Path of Attack to make one strong weapon attack.
Poison and Psychic damage ignore Armor. The Lesser Talent Critical Piercer, in combination with a crit build, can deal massive damage against high Armor targets when luck is on your side. The Abilities Armor Piercer, Armor Erosion, and Spectral Bullets are also great at countering it. The Poisoned and Bleeding Status Effect is also great at slowly draining high Armor targets.
A character with high movement options might not seem very dangerous at first sight, but you will quickly change your tune once they start using hit-and-run tactics and keep running out of your creature’s range. This can get incredibly annoying if they use a ranged weapon. One way to counter it is to match their speed, but there are other, more subtle ways of handling them.
Use the environment to your advantage. You can box in your character through tight corridors and small rooms or even lock up their exit route to force them into close combat. Your creatures can also take advantage of full cover to force them out of their hiding places. Just be wary if the players get the same idea and both sides stay in their holes without actually engaging each other, creating an infinite loop of nothing happening. The game’s fun is more important, so let your creatures retreat or run into the obvious trap to prevent this.
You can ready attacks and Abilities on your creature’s turns, which are triggered as soon as the players run into their range. Make sure that the range of your Abilities and attacks is at least as far as that of the player. Otherwise, they will pepper them with shots while never actually triggering your attack. Does the problem player just stay in cover when you ready your attacks? Then add the condition to the readied actions that you will use them on any other player if the fast player never runs into range on their turn.
There are, of course, options if you insist on matching their speed. You can use creatures that invest in features and Abilities that increase your speed or allow them to teleport, but using creatures that are riding other creatures allows for a simple solution that easily fits in most settings. Even if the mount itself is not the fastest creature, it can still cover a lot of distance by doing nothing other than moving and leaving the rest of the combat to the rider.
Your players might have some powerful control Abilities, which they constantly spam, preventing your creatures from doing anything. Especially the Stun and Restrain condition can be crippling. There are some solutions to this problem.
You can always use a cinematic burst if a creature is prevented from acting. The only problem with this strategy is that only elite and boss creatures usually have enough Narrative Momentum to use it. But any serious challenge made of normal or minor creatures archives this through sheer numbers, and a large group of targets is hard to stun consistently. You can, of course, equip your creatures with Narrative Momentum Boost equipment or give them more Narrative Momentum through Traits if you still require them to do so.
Use creatures with strong DRs against the effects that your players are targeting for their stun-locking strategies. The strongest DRs of creatures are usually only very hard to crack.
You can use creatures that have immunities to Status Effects if your players use specific ones. Ghosts are usually immune to being Restrained or Grabbed, for example. You can also create your own creatures with the Trait Status Immunity.
Having a healer in the back that uses the Abilities Physical Cleanse, Mental Cleanse, or Superior Cleanse to keep your other creatures going is an interesting strategist option that can force your players to adapt to take out the healer first.