Last week in the Roleplay Rescue podcast, I shared my thirteen Game Master “Rules”… and it has caused quite a stir in the community. Quite the way to begin 2021.
In Season 8, Episode 2, I wanted to explore the Rules that I have – over a lifetime of gaming and roleplaying – constructed around the concept of being the Game Master. As I stated at the beginning of that episode, these Rules are all open to challenge and, in fact, are already undergoing challenge. My purpose has been to rock the foundations of these GM Rules and share with you the journey into finding some that are more helpful.
What Are You On About, “Rules”?!
On the 9th November 2020, I was sent home from work and consequently diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety. Since then I have been in therapy – two different therapeutic approaches, in fact – and made good progress. Right now, I am in a Phased Return to work and learning how my brain works, perhaps, differently to the majority.
One of the approaches to my therapy has been CBT: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. As I understand it, within the theory behind CBT, our Thoughts lead to Emotions and, in turn, to Behaviours. Thus, what we do is rooted in what with feel and think. By extension, what we think is rooted in a litany of Rules. In common parlance, we might simply say that these Rules are our Beliefs. I go into this in more detail in Episode 2 but, in short, the fun stuff begins when you ask what happens when someone breaks the Rules as you perceive them?
Rules = Beliefs
Not everyone shares the same Rules as you do. A mismatch causes us to feel fear, to be threatened, and that can lead to anger.
You can work out the Rules under which you are operating by observing the behaviours that you display. It didn’t take long before I started to think about the Rules under which I operate as a Game Master. I began by looking at my behaviours.
Let’s be clear about two things:
Firstly, my roleplaying hobby has not been working out very well for a number of years; in short, I seem unable to focus on any game for very long and usually bail out long before session six, generally before even session three. I was curious as to why. This implies that my Rules are in fact not helping me to play.
Secondly, some of the Rules might well be helpful. What I am looking to identify, however, are the Rules that are no longer helpful. Helpful Rules can be checked out and validated. Unhelpful Rules can be challenged… and that is my intent.
Webster’s Thirteen Game Master Rules
As of the 2nd January 2021, the following were my Thirteen GM Rules. Since then, however, loads of very kind and honest listeners have called in – and some have messaged me on the RPR Discord or emailed – to tell me which of these Rules they consider to be bogus. Some of the Rules appear to have some validity. To me, the fascinating thing has been the range of opinion.
Here’s the initial list:
- Playing games should be a positive and enlightening experience for everyone at the table.
- It is the Game Master’s responsibility to make sure the players are having a good time.
- The GM needs to know everything about the game system and the game world before play begins.
- The GM should not force the players to play their predesigned adventure.
- The player is sovereign over their character.
- The GM should be prepared to handle any choice the players make.
- The GM should never look anything up at the table.
- Always make honest die rolls, no fudging be bound by the results.
- The monsters or opposition should always act in a rational and tactically understandable way.
- The game world needs to make sense to everyone at the table.
- Players expect you to be able to answer any question they ask.
- Players expect you to challenge them but ultimately to let them win.
- It’s wrong to kill the player characters.
I plan to share the reactions called in to the podcast in a future episode and use the comments to help me decide which of these Rules needs challenging and changing… and also help move me towards alternatives.
That said, the goal of CBT is to get us to change Behaviours. Thus, I will begin some Behavioural Experiments to try out some new Rules and, no doubt, keep you all informed in the journey.
Why post this here? Three reasons: 1) I thought it might be useful to the readers who don’t listen; 2) It gives me a handy list to refer to later on; 3) Perhaps you’d like to add your voice to the conversation. Constructive comments are welcome.
[…] Eventually, however, my energy for the realm petered out – not least because, when I look back on it, I was setting up huge expectations for myself as Game Master. The biggest of those was expressed more recently in one of my Thirteen GM Rules: […]
I mostly agree with everything her except #13. If the players are foolish or intentionally idiotic and the dice kill them as rule #8 always make honest dice rolls. Rule #7 is also close to impossible in some game systems. You have to take a peak and look stuff up sometimes in game to make sure the playing result is legitimate.
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I mostly agree as well. the 1st rule, being a positive experience for everyone, also applies to the GM. Which then for me negates rules 3, having to know everything. You should know enough to play the game, and can always look things up in-game if needed or just make a ruling and check on it later. Having to know everything is a lot of burden to carry. I play mostly sandbox worlds that I create (Traveller and the Fantasy Trip mostly, though I have bene running a few other games as per my blog). I make up a lot of things as we go along, mostly to support rule 1: have a good time. It has taken me a few years to be comfortable with that however! And I am an avid over-preparer as well. But for me, that is part of the fun.
And monsters should always have a reason but it may make no sense to the players: there can be wheels within wheels. Inside of an odd box with cryptic markings.
I have fudged the dice on occasion when it makes the story better but I generally try not to. This is also, why when we play face to face. I generally roll outside the GM screen so everyone can see the dice (and I also roll randomly behind the screen just to keep the players on their toes!)
Finally, “killing off’ characters has the wrong wording to me. As per Gerry above, if the players do dumb things and the dice dictate they die, they die from their own actions. A lot of games have mechanisms to bring them back, more probably don’t. I’ve managed to kill the same player’s characters twice now. First time he did something really stupid. The second time it was not something he did exactly, but I managed to roll some critical hits for the creature attacking him. But it turned out well in some ways: another player, a Goblin wizard, now has a zombie werewolf as a steed. Just make it a good death!
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Exactly, We are on the same page. I also agree on not knowing everything but maybe the game core mechanics. That is how you learn a game. Play it and if the need to look something up is there do it.
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First I encourage you to organize the game in whatever way that stays interesting to you, and that you can persist in a full campaign. The GM has to be motivated, and it is their burning love for a particular new game or setting that will help introduce it to players. I hadn’t GMed for quite a while but drew on past experience and pushed myself to write an original game for 17 sessions. It was mainly written up in flowcharts and diagrams and only then small point-form notes, and one or two sessions I improvised wildly with only an outline of preparation based on my past foundation, but it worked.
#3. The GM does need to know as much about the game as they can, but are people really serious about developing the tools to do that? Who has studied speed-reading? It exists, mainly only taught in private school and for leaders, NOT encouraged for the masses! Speed-reading can at least double your reading speed with no loss of comprehension. It works by correcting bad habits deliberately introduced into reading so the teacher could follow your progress, such as “reading aloud” (but do you have to sound out every occurrence of the word “and” and “the” and “of” in your mind? Cut it out!) Speed-reading is just the thing to swallow huge textbooks which many RPGs have become. But if not, the GM must study the main points and know where to find details about gear or spells or background.
#4. Right. Things can be fluid, don’t have to follow a particular plot, Just present a believable world. IMMERSION is what RPGers want; to be somewhere else, to take them away from the everyday. Don’t write up a huge script, don’t be the failed writer trying to drag people into your fixed writing. If you were really that good a writer, you would have sold a novel, wouldn’t you? Know what the worst RPG was? VAMPIRE the Masquerade, because the failed writers over there wrote “story arcs” about how the society of vampires was changing, and no matter what the GM wanted to introduce, they had to follow the over-arching story from those writing hacks back at HQ. Instead of being actual writers they forced their stuff on the GMs as game supplements which were historical “canon”! And some players decided to be boring Drama Majors and over-act in a game instead of summarizing their roles.
But there is a world, a setting which you have currently set up to be a certain way, certain plots are developing in it, how will the characters interact with that? They will take actions that are reasonable for characters of their training and temperament and belonging to that society, and you can use that to present, to suggest, the right course of action, but it is fluid and can’t always be forced in a certain way. If the players don’t turn into your elaborate sub-plot, wait a while and present it in another way later.
#7,#11 Oh, we’re humans, we’re not total-recall computers. Try to know your book and find information fast. The other main principle of RPGs besides furnishing enough description (in short running commentaries) is to KEEP THE GAME MOVING. Don’t bog down the game with exact rules interpretation and execution if it is faster and more fun to summarize a reasonable interpretation on the spot and keep the game going. You can correct yourself later and say you’ll use more perfect rules execution next time. Players won’t mind for that time.
#12, #13. There should be some element or some risk of character death. In the old-school games, rules were rigorously followed to emphasize that the game setting was much bigger than the characters and had mechanical forces of many orders of magnitude that could squash them. Early science-fiction stories presented vast problems and dangers in space that were overcome by pretty bland undetailed characters on the page, nothing but “capable men” (and, yes, they were only American males with strong names like Rick or Mick or Bannon), out to interact with space and solve the problem. It was only with big novels that changed into the lazy churning out of entire novel series that the characters had to be kept alive. Just like precious celebrity actors are not killed off before the movie is over (although Tim Robbins got killed off halfway through in Mission to Mars! Shocker!)
It is sometimes appropriate to kill off a character, if the player made bad decisions or were cornered into a bad situation. One “old school” GM playing generic versions of that most famous of games attracted large groups of 9 or 10 and said he had a character death every third session or so, but it need not be that frequent! Just be clear to the players beforehand of what the tone of the game will be and that it won’t preserve the characters as central movie-stars any more, but that all safeties are off! If a character dies, help the player recover and make another. Safe Spaces and do-overs do NOT help immersion!
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well said my gaming friend
HI Che, it seems some of my fellow gamers have waded in on the ‘rules’. After reading your rules I can see why the difficulty you have tried to work through and the repeated patterns you have discovered. If they serve you well thats good. It would be too much for me and Ive been gaming since around 1981. But for interest my ‘rules’
1: Each campaign has its own set of rules – both in system we use, house rules and how we play and how I referee each campaign. I feel that makes it more consistant with which genre and system and story the group and I play in.That includes if we play same system but different stories.
2: A common rule would be Have fun – everyone. If I would get bogged down in system then its out time for me.
3: Next common rule would be Referee has final say on how the world works- they make it up , the world will become a shared experience but as someone else has pointed out , apart from rouge die rolls, our side is going to fail – unless its a good experience to not do so .
4: Last common rule would be if players decide actions for their characters that are fairly apparently not condusive to their continuation they then die – in other words actions ( including inaction) has consequences.
I enjoy listen to your podcast Che , there are times I can empathise with your search and there are times when I wonder why torture yourself about something. Lastly just wanted to say I am a counsellor by trade but I am not thearapising (is that a word?!?) your words or actions just one ref to another. End of… and like you I am fond of ending gaming things with Game on!
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Thanks for your comments, Steve. My GM rules have changed greatly since I posted this but I do appreciate the feedback and ideas. Thanks for being interested enough to comment.
[…] it’s also worth stating that the commitment to keep pushing my own boundaries, and strip away the strange beliefs and behaviours I had built up over many years prior, has aided me in the execution of a consistent game. I could […]