RPT#174 – The Ten Commandments Of The Gamesmaster
A Brief Word From Johnn
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By Doug “Wraith” Lochery
Thinking of gamesmastering? Are you already a GM but struggling to run a game effectively? There are several principles that all GMs should adhere to in order to run an effective and fun game. These “commandments” are not absolute rules, but guidelines that any GM should aspire to for keeping his game on track. A lot of these commandments are common sense, but even experienced GMs need a little reminding once in a while…
- Thou Shalt Create
GMs must create…what? Everything, of course! In case it passed you by, the job of the GM is to weave some sort of story that the players participate in and interact with.
Why must a GM create?
Because without any creation the game will break down. What was that? You don’t have to create because you use a published game setting and adventure? GMs have to improvise along the way all the time because no published supplement can cover all the bases and players have a habit of doing the opposite of what’s written in the book.
I’ve never witnessed a game yet that the GM didn’t have to create anything for. To see what I mean, over the course of a typical game session a GM has to create:
- Interest for the players
- Atmosphere for the game
- A locale for the player’s characters to exist in
- A story\plot\direction
- Creatures\people for the characters to interact with
- Create personalities for those creatures\people
- Responses to the players’ actions.
Phew! That’s a lot of creation. Not all of these things need creating all of the time though, but you get the idea. Other than the usual in-game creation, GMs also have to create mundane things to do with the nuts and bolts side of the game.
- Spell rosters
- Reward tables
- Equipment lists
- Character sheets
- Adventure notes
It’s a lot of work. I suppose this commandment could also be entitled, “Thou Shall Not Be Work-Shy”. So, why do we do it? Because it’s satisfying and, for the large part, fun (see Commandment 10). There’s nothing quite like having all your friends immersed in an imaginary world of your creation all having fun along with you. As a social exercise, it’s akin to watching your children gleefully explore a new and completely safe planet. Believe me, when your players turn to you with wide smiles after a game and ask, “When do we play again?” all the hard work creating will be worth it. You’ve just got to believe in that as you slog your guts out creating.
- Thou Shalt Be Prepared
Be prepared–a good credo for anything in life and gamesmastering is no exception. A good GM knows the value of good preparation. When running a session for your players make sure that you have the required game content ready.
This will save you a lot of time and effort during play. No player likes to have the game suspended for half an hour while the GM looks up a disputed rule. And no GM likes to pause his game while the players all run off to the fridge for snacks.
In addition to this physical preparation, a GM needs to be mentally prepared. Do you know there’s a good chance you’ll need a special rule during play next game? Then mentally prepare by memorising the rule. Is there some interaction with NPCs coming up? Mentally prepare–review their personality, goals, intentions.
Do you know the date of your next game session? Mentally prepare–review your game notes and look forward to it. So many games crash and burn due to GMs running games when tired, stressed, or preoccupied. Don’t let it be yours. If you are tired, don’t worry, postpone the game or play something else (cards, scrabble, wargames etc.). Your players will thank you for it in the end.
A last note on preparation. As publishers and users of pre- published games accessories already know, you can’t prepare for everything that the players might do. So don’t try. If the players go off on a complete tangent to the material you have prepared, don’t worry! You can always go back to Commandment 1. And if you’re good at “winging it”, your players will never know that they threw you a curve-ball.
- Thou Shalt Be Glib Of Tongue And Quick Of Thought
Too often GMs rely solely on their notes. When the players do something they haven’t prepared for they just break down in confusion for a few minutes while they figure out what to do next. There is one universal fact that applies to any RPG player on the planet:
Players will always do the very things you don’t want them to do.
So what can you do? Improvise. Wing-it. Go with the flow. There are no rules to this, but remember to take notes as you go and always heed Commandments 5 and 6. Using your wits, any situation can be dealt with and any adventure can be put back on track.
When your players do the unexpected and go the wrong way, you have two approaches to use so that your game gets back on track.
1. Improvise a way to get the players to naturally select the path you want them on.
2. Abandon your notes and improvise the adventure.
Both these approaches have pitfalls and benefits; the trick to using them successfully is being comfortable with what you’re doing. If you opt to use option a), you must be careful to still allow the players freedom of decision. You must not force them to do what you want because that defeats the object of the game. Let them go where they want and do what they want.
Instead of forcing their decisions, change the adventure a little to fit their new actions. That way they still call the shots and you haven’t wasted the adventure. There are many ways of doing this successfully, but that is outside the scope of this article.
If you opt for option b), be sure to continually make notes so that you can integrate the party’s unexpected actions into the campaign. By making their new actions part of the campaign, the players will be sufficiently fooled into thinking that it was all planned in the first place and the fun will continue.
Commandment 3 is not just for when the party does the unexpected. You’ll find yourself needing Commandment 3 whenever you roleplay conversations, NPC actions, and combat scenarios. If the players ask the Duke a question you hadn’t planned for you have to think on your feet. If the players use a sneaky tactic in battle that you hadn’t counted on you have to think on your feet.
All of this is Commandment 3’s territory and it’s advisable that you begin to practise the skills required of this commandment. Plan less in your games and improvise more to give yourself practise at this and believe in your own ability. This isn’t as hard as you might think. As long as you display confidence and don’t let your players know that you’re improvising, the game will go quite smoothly.
- Thou Shalt Bend, Break And Ignore The Rules When Needs Arise
Rules. They permeate any RPG. GMs are told that they must obey the rules and that players must play by them. This is a myth. As a GM, you are both custodian of the rules (refer to Commandment 5) and master over them (refer to Commandment 8).
Just as players must listen to you and yield to your authority, so must the rules. What do I mean? The rules to your RPG are made to give a fair and consistent mechanic by which the game can function. The RPG is meant to be a fun pastime for all involved. If those rules are causing the game to be less fun, then as GM you have a right and a responsibility to axe those rules or change them to suit. If you doubt that you should refer to Commandment 10.
There is another reason connected to the first why you should use Commandment 4. If some rule or other is getting in the way of the plot (and therefore, the flow and fun of the game), as a GM you have the power to temporarily ‘bend’ the rules to accommodate your schemes. BEWARE! Your players can consider this use of your power unfair, so you must use Commandment 3 when questioned and always bear in mind Commandments 5 and 6.
- Thou Shalt Be A Fair And Impartial Judge
Don’t worry. You needn’t wear a floppy white wig for this one. As a GM, you are in charge of the game. This position brings with it many powers that you could abuse to get your own way (especially of the Commandment 4 variety).
In order for the game to work effectively, though, you must not abuse that power. GMs must always be fair. It is your job to arbitrate proceedings and make judgements based on logic, common sense, and the rules of the game so that actions can be resolved and play can continue uninterrupted.
Sometimes, you have to employ Commandments 1 and 4 during your arbitration, but that’s fine. The purpose of your arbitration is so that the game can develop according to the actions and re-actions of the players and provide fun for everyone. In accordance with this commandment there are two sentences that all gamesmasters must remember:
1. Gamesmasters are not trying to beat the players.
2. Players are not the enemy.
Here’s where the impartial bit comes in. For your games to be fun the players have to feel like their actions influence proceedings. If you aren’t impartial in the way you deal with the proceedings of the game, your players will feel like you are ‘out to get them’ or ‘unfair’ and will stop playing. Avoid this by being fair with them.
- Thou Shalt Be Consistent
There are two ways that a GM has to be consistent.
The first way is to run fun and interesting games. Failing to do this will result in high rates of player absenteeism. A way of becoming consistently fun is to heed the 10 gamesmastering Commandments, especially Commandment 7.
The second way is how a GM resolves actions and rules calls. For example, if a GM is running a combat scene and he rules that on a roll of a 1 the character breaks his weapon but then rolls a 1 for an NPC and ignores the weapon break ruling, he breaks both commandments 5 and 6. He is neither fair, nor consistent.
- The GM asks one player to roll initiative but lets another get it automatically.
- The GM roleplays his NPC with a lisp one week but does away with it the next.
- An adventuring character with no change of clothing is wearing green one game but red the next.
- The characters can find herbs easily in the woods one session but are told that the herbs don’t grow in the woods the next.
A GM should be consistent with his rules and details to promote a feeling of fairness and to suspend disbelief. Make notes when you’re forced off the beaten track and deal with rules in a manner befitting Commandment 5. Players notice details, so if you include quirks and strange details in people or places one time, be sure to include them next time.
- Thou Shalt Listen To Thy Players
RPGs are about fun and each person has a different idea about what fun is. To find out what’s fun for your players listen to them. Ask them questions, watch their mood during different parts of the game, listen to complaints, and keep communicating with them. In this way you will find out what they expect and what is fun for them. Once you know what your players want you can put that into the games. Players will not come to your game if they don’t have fun so it is important to cater to them. Remember that no player’s ideas are more or less important than another’s. Listen well to them and keep them happy.
- Thou Shalt Stamp Thy Authority On Thine Own Game
This commandment might sound harsh or unnecessary, but you will come across players who will argue with you, try to bend and break the rules, be rowdy, pick on or annoy other players, and generally do as they please. While allowing the players freedom within the game is your responsibly, you do not (and indeed, must not) need to let them hijack the rules or the game session.
When running a game, you have authority to referee player relations and behavior. Unruly players ruin the game for others and you do not have to allow nuisance players in your game. If you accept your authority and responsibility, your confidence will be higher and ‘misbehaving’ players won’t be as difficult to handle.
If you find that you’re unable to put your foot down, the game itself will become bogged down by disagreements and arguments. Using your GM’s authority can put a game back on track after a little silliness or dispute. If things aren’t going anywhere during a game for whatever reason, the players usually see it as the GM’s fault. Don’t become a scapegoat for player failings–put your foot down and get on with the game.
A quick note about Commandment 8. If players are disputing a rules call with you, always employ Commandment 7 BEFORE you consider using Commandment 8. Sometimes the players ARE right.
- Thou Shall Involve Thy Players
You can’t have a game without player input. You should try never to forget that. Most GMs write adventures\scenarios for their games. Some GMs improvise everything. Whichever way you play, make sure to involve the players. I’m not just talking about letting them make decisions for the character’s actions (“Which way do you want to go?”, “Left”), I’m talking about giving them a place in the game and making them feel like part of the adventure rather than just a participant.
Games can become stale when players feel they aren’t part of them and players will lose interest. Because players are as important to the game as you are, cater to them. Making players feel fully involved with and integrated into a game can be difficult, but there are a few simple tricks that help.
a. Ask the players to provide a background for their characters. Make sure you use that background for adventure hooks, PC information, and locations for them to visit.
b. Talk to the players ‘in-character’ during encounters and ask them do the same whenever possible. To encourage this, give bonuses for good roleplaying.
c. Make a habit of giving players semi-useless information and history about the areas that they live, work, and adventure in. Telling the players that the Great Charge of Drake’s Cavalry took place on a field near Yarsbury may only be flavour to you, but is a small window into a much larger world for the players.
d. Occasionally ask players to physically act out actions that their characters are performing. Get them up and make them pick the front door lock with a paper clip, pick up the bowl and simultaneously replace it with the lamp to avoid the pressure switch, hide behind the door and grab the person coming in, or any number of other actions that characters perform. Disputed combat manoeuvres are especially suited to this tactic and everyone will get a good laugh.
e. Give the characters responsibilities, jobs, or property in the game-world; and occasionally threaten to upset the responsibility, sack the character, and attack the property. You could even make the players earn such things first through some form of adventuring. Making the players think about their character as having a ‘normal life’ as well as their adventuring one makes them think harder and get more involved with their characters.
f. Let the players submit ideas on game rules, locations, races, and so on, and use their ideas. It gives you great pleasure to create and your players are no different. Letting a player encounter a tribe of HeebieJeebies that he created is a sure way to make the player feel like he is a part of the game.
There are numerous other ways to make players feel more involved, but these are six of the best. However you choose to do it though, involve your players at every step whenever you can. It will increase everyone’s fun and make the game more memorable.
- Thou Shalt Have Fun
With all the work a GM does to make a game happen, this last commandment is often forgotten. The game that you labour so hard to run is not supposed to be a chore, nor is it supposed to be just a habit. The hobby of RPGing is supposed to be fun. If you aren’t having fun, then it’s time to stop roleplaying and try something else.
The other Commandments are tied to this one. Having fun is the most important aim to any RPG. If you heed Commandment 10, living by the others becomes easier and the game itself becomes a memorable experience for the GM and the players. NEVER forget commandment 10. As soon as you do, your calling becomes a ball and chain that burdens you and your skills at the art of gamesmastering will suffer.
So here we are at the end of the litany of gamesmasters’ Commandments. Heed what you have taken the time to read today and you shall be remembered by your players as being one of a most elevated class of people: A True Gamesmaster. And there’s no higher accolade than the respect of those you play with.
- GMing Evil Campaigns
From: Cat Hahn
Evil campaigns can be tough or a great deal of fun–it’s all in the approach. In my experience, there are a few things that are absolutely necessary for an evil game to work:
- Well-written backgrounds. Only with the appropriate ideas of their motivations will you ever be able to get the PCs to do anything.
- A clearly defined goal, be it the total destruction of one good-aligned church, or just hunting down the bastard paladin that killed the necromancer they were apprenticed to.
- A very flexible GM. An evil campaign seldom stays well- focused, since by definition, they do not resist their own impulses well.
- I’ve found that a lawful evil campaign is easier to manage than a chaotic one, but most players actually want neutral evil (every man for himself). That’s the worst. After all, it is the downfall of evil to devour itself? You also have to carefully define the definition of evil. Lawful evil villains are the ones we love and remember best because they had motivations we understood. Remember Vader?
If you want to play an evil trick on them try this. Let them have their evil, nasty, bad-ass characters. Let them do their evilness, destroy kingdoms, etc. When that campaign hits a stagnant point (and it will), suggest a new game. Set them up with 0-level commoners, describe the hideous lives they have had. When they get to a fever pitch of fury to know who’s responsible, pull out their evil character sheets…
The most successful evil game I ever played in was a drow campaign where the players were all nobles of the same (failing) house. They were evil as heck, but they were *motivated* to work together!
- Use Side Projects To Deal With Attention Hogs
From: Tyler E.
In a bit of a twist, I’ll share some information from the Other Side. I’m a GM most days, and pretty good at running a story. However, when I start marking down my own character’s HP, rolling the dice for my own character’s damage, and defending my character’s actions, I don’t do so well. No longer having control of the story makes me a little nervous, and unless I watch myself I react badly.
The main motivator I’ve found for story hogs–players that demand more “screen time” regardless of their character’s depth–as both GM and player is a need for attention. We all want attention. GMs are closet (or not-so-closet) glory hogs, with our godlike whims and ability to destroy or create. Characters expect to be blown by the winds of fate but players do not. Players have their own motivations to play and to make the decisions they do for their characters. Some players have as unsteady a grip on their desire for attention as we GMs.
The worst story hogs I’ve seen were people who just wanted extra attention. No harm, no foul, just a desire to be heard. My own problems as a player stem from a desire to have others hanging off my very words–a habit from long- time GMing.
One way to deal with it is to give story hogs the attention they want. Sometimes players are skilled and will bring the other players with them into greater realms of suspended disbelief. More often, they will push the others to the side, veering off on side-quests constantly, a nightmare for any GM trying to keep the party on a single plot. These players usually have an active imagination. They see their characters riding in to the rescue with guns blazing, vivid images of heroism shining brightly in their minds. The problem is their execution–which leaves other players, and sometimes the GM, behind.
As an admitted attention-seeker myself, and from experience in dealing with others, the best way to keep them happy and get them out of your hair is to give them a side project. If the project is something the player can sink their teeth into they will spend hours happily doodling away or scribbling numbers while you run the rest of the party through character development or what have you. The player will be happy to get into combat and be a hero as usual, but once your focus shifts to another character, they’ll have something engaging to do. Most importantly, they’ll have something that impacts their character, which will capture their imaginations. The project depends entirely on the character, of course.
To give a personal example, my wizard character in a 3E D&D campaign was being a total pain in the ass, despite my best efforts to let others play. I kept having these absolutely brilliant ideas that unfortunately excluded the other characters. In desperation, my DM, an excellent fellow, gave my character the opportunity to make investments in the local economy. Now, 4 levels later, my character has a booming trade & mercantile business that the DM uses to provide the group with information, mysterious artifacts, and the infrequent filler quest. While other characters are taking the DM’s attention (those undeserving jerks ;), I merrily scribble down interest rates, profit ratios, and projected earnings. A question here or there about saleable items in new areas, and the DM keeps me satisfied for hours.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need to present a project that the character works on. It can’t have a real end-point, and it can’t be easily set aside. A new spell is a great idea for hoggy spellcasters, but they’ll have created their fabulous new spell sooner or later and be begging to try it every few minutes. Offer spellcasters the chance to join (or be a founder of!) guilds or societies, moving up the social ladder. They might not offer material benefits, but what better way to access new spells? Fighters may have the chance to design their perfect sword/axe/trout/whatever. If they ever finish (and some won’t), try armour, or a keep floor plans, sentry placement, etc. Tinker characters are the easiest to keep occupied; they love to design new devices, one every session. Hackers can work on the ultimate system/program, or build up a secret hacker group to call on in times of hacking need; let them deal with NPC generation for once, restricted stats and all.
Well, I’m sure the GMs out there know their players better than I do, so I hope I’ve helped. Good luck!
- Protecting Your Maps
From: Yogi Bear
When reading a tip from Markus about protecting maps, I remembered that I used a different solution (pun intended 🙂 once. There is a sort of liquid plastic in a can that you can brush onto paper (one side is enough, but it will curl– both sides work best) to waterproof it.
I had a can of the stuff once–I got it from an outdoor goods catalog (forgot which one–sorry). It was meant for protecting maps for use on boats or while hiking in the rain. I used it and it worked fine–soaked right into the paper without wrinkling it, and the surface was still semi- matte and sort of writable. If you spilled any liquid on it, even hot coffee (ouch!), it would bead and run right off without leaving a stain. This makes maps much more manageable than plastic sleeves, and you can have any format.
I still have a distance-gauging chart that I cut out from a newspaper and laminated with this stuff 15 years ago and it holds together fine; without it, it would have disintegrated years ago. The only drawback is you cannot use markers on it as they will leave traces. Maybe dry erase markers won’t.
- NPC Faces Tool
I found a site that can work with the My Virtual Model site to draw a face. It is like a police sketch artist with a collection of hair styles, face shapes, types of mouths, and noses. The site is habit forming. I can spend way too much time tweaking the face to see what a little change does to the overall appearance.