Ten helpful guidelines for keeping your game at its very best.
By Rig Volny - JUNE 1987
To fully enjoy role-playing gaming, everyone must play by the rules. Perhaps one major flaw of role-playing games is that the most important player sometimes forgets that he has certain rules that must be obeyed. The Game Master, Dungeon Master, Administrator, Fate, or whatever you call him, is the most important element in the game. For that special someone in a campaign, these Ten Commandments are presented as a guide for improving everyone’s enjoyment.
I. Do not consider the players as adversaries.
This is the most common problem among starting GMs. The GM often spends long hours designing ingenious traps and encounters for the players to stumble upon. If the players quickly neutralize or bypass these clever entrapments, the GM often has the feeling that he has been beaten, and thus feels the need to “get back” at the players. In role-playing, the situation is not one of GM vs. players: It isn’t a fair fight. To keep throwing bigger monsters at a party until the score has been “evened” is no challenge for the GM. Likewise, it is no fun for the players.
Learn to enjoy the successes of the players’ party by creating NPCs that travel with them for a short time and share in their adventures. Most GMs provide a guide or some such person for the players at one point or another in the game, but very few of these guides take an active role in the campaign. Don’t take charge of a group of PCs via the guide, but do give the NPC his or her own distinct personality. If a group of players intends to shortchange the guide on some loot, put up a fight. For the short time the guide is with that group, be a part of the adventure.
Another way to enjoy an adventuring party is to help them. When a tired and severely wounded party runs into a giant, it’s time for a little good luck. Say the giant is allergic to the halfling’s feet and can’t stop sneezing. Not only will the GM have created an entertaining and unusual encounter, but both the GM and players are allowed to enjoy the game more.
Just rolling dice until helpless players are killed is pretty dull. This does not mean, however, that every adventure should be made easy for the players. Nevertheless, if the GM puts his players in an impossible situation (one they could not avoid), then he had better help them out.
II. Never say “You can’t do that.”
Don’t just tell someone their character can’t do something and give no explanation. Find other ways to enforce reason in the game. If a player does something which is out of character, fine him experience points. If a player attempts a difficult task, have him make a difficult die roll. If a player attempts a clearly impossible task, give him a clearly impossible die roll. Consider the following example: Player (a 4'-tall halfling): I jump and catch the top of the wall (a height of 25’).
GM: Roll a 7 on 1d6.
If a Good character attacks an innocent person, don’t tell him he just doesn’t do that sort of thing: Let the local constabulary enforce his conscience. That same player will think twice before doing anything of the sort again. By the same token, don’t overpunish for minor infractions of morality or the law. Don’t have a character summarily executed because he didn’t curb his dog. If a player tries something unusual, let him do it. If it’s not in the rules, make up a reasonable interpretation of his actions.
Player (just knocked to his knees): I throw sand in his face.
There is a long pause, after which the GM rolls to see if the player is kneeling on sand or rock.
GM: OK. His head is quite a bit above you. Roll your dice to hit at –2.
Player: I made it!
GM: OK. He’s blinded for the next turn as if he were in total darkness. The point of this commandment is that it gives the players a degree of control in the game - one that adds desirable unpredictability. This makes the GM “play” the adventure rather than just direct a prewritten script. If this rule is obeyed, relationships with the players will be better than if the GM denies them the right to control the actions of their characters.
III. Don’t overplan.
Avoiding this sin allows the GM to avoid many of the problems already discussed. For example, the GM spends 12 hours designing a temple complex so that the PCs will have an opportunity to kill a high priest with whom they keep crossing swords. The players, instead of sneaking into the temple as the GM anticipated, start a rumor campaign that ends with the king beheading the priest in question, The GM has clearly overplanned. The result is that the GM tries to think of every possible objection to an ingenious propaganda campaign - a campaign that even includes proof of treason. Failing this, the GM may try to “get even” with the players for all his wasted work. Several players will recognize this unfortunate experience.
If a GM avoids overplanning, he is less likely to run aground on Commandment II. If the GM prepares extensively for the players to do A, B, or C, and they do D instead, he is faced with the temptation to dismiss a good plan as irrelevant to play.
The bottom line is that overplanning prevents the GM from meeting the actions of the players with flexibility and interferes with spontaneous creativity. It should be easy to run an evening’s adventure from a page of notes and a small map or two. This style of Game Mastering forces the GM to use the same kind of rapid-fire thinking that is expected of the players. It also improves the GM’s enjoyment of the game.
IV. Keep adventures within reason.
Keep a tight rein on the players and the adventures. When a beginning party starts to collect scores of magical items, the members begin to obtain a degree of strength that is often out of proportion with their level. Powerful items mean that the players sometimes muscle their way out of situations that should require them to think their way out. This means that the GM must use creatures and situations to challenge the players — creatures that might normally be reserved for higher level characters. Don’t give in to the temptation of excess when rewarding the players. Don’t overindulge when setting up the challenges that the players must face. The GM must maintain control. The following are a few specific examples.
1. Not every campaign is the ultimate battle between good and evil.
2. Not every hillock has a dungeon in it.
3. Sometimes, the enemy is as noble and decent a fellow as any of the PCs (bad guys with style are fun).
4. Hacking monsters is OK, but people should be the major nemesis of the players. After all, people have higher motivations than a hungry ogre.
5. Nobody’s perfect. The characters that are the most fun to play are the ones with faults. They lisp, have bad feet, are nearsighted, and sometimes behave in a cowardly manner. These characters are unique, entertaining, and challenging to play. Just watch The Wizard of Oz for examples of entertaining faults.
6. There isn’t gold under every rock.
7. The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes, they aren’t even in the right.
These examples show two areas where GMs should tread warily. Don’t engage in stereotyped situations and don’t cheapen magic, gold, or fantastic creatures by making them too common. Instead of 40 chests of gold and jewels in that treasure trove, why not have a couple of statues, some paintings, and a chest or two of silver with a small bag of gold inside? This makes gold that much more valuable when it is found.
V. Run the adventures in color, not in black and white.
Player: We ask around to see if there’s a tavern in the town.
GM: There’s one a mile up the road.
Talk about boring! This is about as exciting as the Congressional Record. Spice up the dialogue a bit:
Player: We ask around to see if there’s a tavern in the town.
GM: Here comes a peasant you can ask.
Player: Hallo! You there, is there a tavern nearby.
GM (bowing profusely and speaking with a thick accent): Good morrow to you, fine sirs! Is it a tavern you be lookin’ to? Well, there’s one not fit for such fine gentlefolk up the road a ways. Just keep on until you come to a gibbet and go left at the fork. (The peasant holds out his hand and clears his throat.)
For the expenditure of a few extra seconds, the GM has added a unique flavor and texture to his world. Every area should have unique customs, dress, laws, and people. If the GM isn’t up to creating such a complete society, there are a number of helpful gaming supplements that are available. Remember to react to the players as an NPC might, not as the GM.
The point here is to allow the action to occur on the character-vs.-monster level rather than on the conversational (or argumentative) player-vs.-GM level.
VI. Try for consistency and realism.
Realism! Did he really say realism? Playing role-playing games to escape from realism means that players (and GMs) have missed an important point. The reason the game is enjoyable is because it is a work of fiction which the players have a hand in writing. If a fictional work has inconsistencies or is unrealistic, then it does not entertain the reader. If a thief is plying his trade with no visible means of support and isn’t sharing a portion of his income with some principal of the local government, realism is sacrificed and the game suffers. If a character is an extremely high-level wizard at age 22, even the credibility of a fantasy world is stretched. If a troop of 100 armored men march 25 miles a day for a week and are still fit for battle, realism (i.e., game playability) is going straight to the nether reaches of the Ethereal Plane. The player who has to wrestle with the realistic problems of being a general is liable to develop a faster wit and better gaming skills. This player learns to enjoy the game more because he has accomplished something by his own doing.
VII. Don’t let the players argue with the GM.
This one is a cardinal rule in Game Mastering. Still, when a player brings up a valid point, listen to him. Don’t dismiss what he considers an important factor as an irrelevant point. Explain why a decision is made. When the situation has been discussed and weighed out carefully, stick to it. If the GM is fair, rulings will cause no friction.
VIII. Enforce statements.
When a player says his character tries something, that character tries it. Remember our jumping halfling friend and the 25’ wall? That character should lose one melee round trying to jump the wall.
Player: I cut the prisoner’s throat and search the body. No, wait! I want to ask him some questions.
GM: Unfortunately, the prisoner is already quite dead.
This rule insures that players think about their actions and also lets the nonleader PC have a degree of spontaneous autonomy that can lead to some hilarious scenes.
IX. Encourage the players to play their characters.
Role-playing is acting. The GM is most successful when the players are the characters. Keep the conversation around the table between the characters. Use those NPCs. Don’t say more than needs to be said. Give out experience points for good role-playing and let the other players know why that character is getting extra points. If a player asks a question about game mechanics, that’s fine. But if he wants to know something about the setting in which the action takes place, his PC will have to question an NPC, not the GM.
X. Reward wit, quick thinking, and consistency.
All games have a standard for the awarding of points when it comes to hacking and slashing or chucking a spell across the room. But all too often, the sneaky little guy that fast-talked the party out of a big mess with the hill giants is left unrewarded. Experience points should be awarded whenever a player has successfully exercised his gray matter. Both rapid thinking and long-term strategy should be rewarded. Also, small numbers of experience points should be given for such activities as commanding a body of men, falling in love, or fouling up completely. People learn from their mistakes.
More important than the awarding of experience is letting the players actually use stratagems and ploys. If a player thinks of a way to reduce the morale of an enemy troop, let that gambit have a direct affect on the outcome of combat. Don’t dole out 20 experience points and ignore the effects of reduced morale; there’s no need to make it too easy for the players. But when someone comes up with a reasonable tactic other than the standard attack-or-die scenario, let them give it a go. Just sit back and wait for an opportunity to enforce Murphy’s Law. Remember: The more complicated the plan, the more likely it is that Murphy exerts himself. Even if the players try a stratagem and it fails, gaming pleasure will be enhanced by the effort.
A quick review of this article reveals the extensive use of words such as “pleasure,” “enjoy,” and “entertaining” The purpose of playing the game is to have a good time. If these Ten Commandments are followed, Game Mastering may not be made any easier, but it will surely be more rewarding for all concerned.