Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The 5 Rules for GMing

I apologize that these have a strong fantasy flavor to them. I initially wrote all of this in a series of emails as advice to fellow GMs who run D&D or OSR games. I've rewritten it, tried to polish it up, and put it into a concrete list of rules that I can quote later primarily for my own edification and use. I've been GMing wrong for a long time, and I think I'm finally beginning to understand how a good GM operates.

#1: The rules, and the dice, are to be ignored whenever it is necessary.
When Joseph Goodman wrote "Let the rules bend to you not the other way around" he encapsulated a key philosophy in playing a tabletop RPG without actually giving it lip service. We're all here to have fun. If the rules get in the way of that fun, then they deserve to be ignored. Rolling for everything is bad too, because sometimes a character should just succeed. Every time somebody wants to do something, ask yourself "Would failure here be fun for them?" and if the answer is "No." then skip the roll. Climbing a tree to get a better view of the forest? Navigating the southern coastline? Studying to find a vital clue? Or even, examining the mountain range to find the best place to camp for the night and avoid an ambush? Ignore the dice and just get on with the game.

#2: No adventure survives contact with the players.
An oldie but a goodie. Don't construct an elaborate meta-plot meant to be uncovered over the course of a campaign, just chuck it all out the window. You might start with an initial plotline or story or threat, but if the players are smart enough to come up with something that seems like a reasonable (or better) explanation for everything you've already established then just change things up mid-game and use a twisted version of what they think up. No heavy lifting necessary, and the players will think they're brilliant for guessing something that turned out to be more or less "correct." Don't ever expect the players to follow your path or go for your bait either. Their ingenuity in the face of conflict should drive the story, not a list of bullet points you wrote five weeks before they all made characters.

#3: No lying, motherfucker!
You can have deceitful contacts, betraying employers, and allies with their own greater self interests. But the players deserve honesty. You can have secrets, but you can't have tricks. You can have traps, but their spider-sense should be tingling. You can have double-crosses, but they should know they couldn't trust that back-stabbing bastard! Always drop plenty of clues about the real intentions of your characters, you don't need to tell players outright what you're planning, but they should have plenty of opportunities to notice that something smells fishy.

#4: Don't make hard decisions when the players or the dice could do it for you.
You really want that noble to survive this assassination attempt. You don't want the players to fell your boss monster quite so quickly. You don't want the players following those gypsies to the west because what you have planned lies in the east. We've all felt these moments as GMs where what we have planned, or what we expect, is not happening the way we would like. Our story is being twisted, our awesome NPC is about to be killed, or our plot points are being ignored. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, now abandon those feelings. They're wrong. We're not sitting at this table to hear your story, or reach the foregone conclusion that you've decided between sessions, we're here to create a story together. In those moments you need to sit back and let the players' actions dictate the course of the story. Your prized NPC may die, but they have family that might seek revenge, don't they? Your dragon has just been killed and his treasure plundered, but nothing paints a target on somebody's back like spending a lot of money, right? If you abandon the story too much the action will begin to falter, and if the players aren't decisively plotting a course for themselves then you'll need to break out the dice and start cracking some skulls.

#5: Be a fan of the players' characters.
This comes from D. Vincent Baker word for word. Your job as a GM is not to be adversarial, your job is to make things fun and interesting. You can do this more effectively by giving them difficult decisions and adding consequences to their actions than you can by simply challenging them with dice rolls or taking away their stuff. Let the characters bask in glory and never deny them the success they've earned. When they've changed the landscape through their actions let those changes radiate out into the world. You're not playing from an "official campaign guide" so you can let your world adapt to the PCs in positive ways when they succeed and in worse ways when they fail, and even if you were using some "official campaign guide" that thing is just a guide not a bible. Put the fucking thing down once in a while! When the PCs do something important then every threat should be seeing them with fresh eyes, either appraising their new strengths and giving themselves pause or finding respect in their accomplishments and forgiving past grievances. Your world should be a dangerous place, but they don't need you constantly headhunting them too.

This is a personal preference more than a rule, and doesn't really need to be heeded
#6: Magic is unpredictably strange and deadly, let it be both without being crippling.
This is pretty self-explanatory, even if it is a longer rule, and a little confusing. Magic is the ultimate hammer for any nail, but it's a hammer that can only ever be swung wildly. If a player uses magic, they should get what they expect out of it, sometimes more than they want or expect. Fireballs should incinerate things, and set nearby objects aflame, and little contrails of sparks should shoot off of metal objects. IT'S A FUCKING FIREBALL! EXPLODE SOME SHIT WITH IT! Detect Magic should detect magic but maybe it's also detecting cheese around here, or detecting the last time somebody bathed. Invisibility seems to work but any nearby dogs end up curiously following them around. WARNING: If you're playing some version of D&D, magic is a scientific formula that players will rely upon with the precision of a calculator. Just tell them they're in a wild magic zone where weird things happen or some bullshit explanation like that. You might end up running an entire adventure where the PCs just try to find out where all of the wild magic zones begin and end, and man, if that happens, you should look at that as an opportunity to constantly fuck with them!


  1. I dislike the phrasing of your rule one, it implies that the dice can be ignored after they have been rolled. I feel that a good GM doesn't call for a roll when it would be boring. Shari told me about a recent game session where they were looking for a secret door they knew was there, and had to roll and roll and roll until they finally got a success. Boring!

    Instead, I would say the principle is Don't Roll if the Result Could be Boring. That's not you ignoring the rules for your own vision, that's you making sure the game is always interesting and never stagnates.

    There are some games that have rules in place where the game completely breaks if those rules go away, so I'm leery of any advice for a GM to ignore rules as they see fit. So I think it's important to follow the guidelines for the game you are playing as far as hacking and twisting are concerned. DCC is very much a Rulings Not Rules sort of game, and Apocalypse World tells the MC to hack it and make it their own, It's also important for the players to be aware of how and when the rules as written are going to be passed over.

  2. I agree with Willow on rule #1. Rules are important, and should never just be ignored. If they seem to be causing a problem, if they don't feel right, or if they tend to push things in a direction you don't want, then carefully consider why. Are you using the right rules for the situation? Are you playing the right game? How has the system failed you? It is better to play with rules that actually do what you want then none at all. And it's important to let the players in on what rules you're really using.

  3. Huh. I didn't think I had written it like that, and it sounds like you understood the basic principle. But the way you phrased that is more eloquent than what I wrote anyway.

    I think being slavish to the rules is bad. I guess #1 sprang out of telling people to handwave spell research, selling treasure, or scenes when nothing happens, like the one you described with Shari, because playing that out is boring.

    1. I think, being slavish to the rules is a goal. Not necessarily to any given rules as they are; but consciously choose to follow the clearly designed and firmly play tested rules that bring about the play you want.

      For example, spell research: What was the game designer thinking? What effect on play are those rules supposed to produce? Perhaps just handwaving them away is the best option for you, but there might be a rules variation that does the job better or add something that comes as a pleasant surprise. Work *with* the game designer. Be inquisitive. Get on the internet and ask them questions. Design your own, better rules. That's what the do-it-yourself nature of running roleplaying games is all about.


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