10 Simple Rules for a New GM (Part 2 of 4)

Welcome to the second of four installments presenting “10 Simple Rules for a New GM.”   These represent my thoughts on things a new Game Master (or Dungeon Master, or Referee, etc.) should know when considering taking on the mantle of GM for a roleplaying game.  These rules can be grouped into three core aspects regarding being a GM.  The first four explain the “Role of the GM,” the next two concern “Creating the World”, and the final four involve “Being the GM.”  Together I hope that they result in a GM that knows the story they want to tell, can build the world where they want the story to take place, and then own it.

Last week I gave you background on what led me to create this list of rules and I presented Rule # 1 – Pick a game system and genre that you really enjoy!  It was the first of four rules regarding the Role of the GM and I will complete that discussion here by presenting the next three rules.

10 Simple Rules for a New GM (Continued)

Rule #2 – You are not there to “beat” the players.  (Role of the GM)

Some GMs make the mistake of thinking that they are supposed to be trying to defeat the players at every turn.  In all fairness, this is often just a by-product of inexperience or a misunderstanding of the GM’s basic job.  Encounters and challenges should be constructed to further the tale and present things for the players to do during the game; not be constructed as insurmountable death-traps.  Conversely, players that never feel challenged become bored.  It is up to the GM to create balanced encounters and challenges that require creative problem-solving, cooperation, and a little luck to overcome.  This is where the best stories are created at the game table.

Character mortality is an expected part of most RPGs.  Combat will frequently result in injury to player characters and, occasionally, death.  Unfortunately, some GMs feel that a lack of any PC deaths is somehow a failure on their part and focus too much upon creating scenarios that are almost no-win affairs.  It is when the party has their backs against the wall, with the spectre of a Total Party Kill (TPK) looming, that the GM has a last chance to salvage the story.  This is when the GM needs to provide an out by giving the party a new resource to use to their advantage or by reducing the immediate danger facing the PCs.  No game session should ever end with a Total Party Kill, or TPK; if the characters are all dead then the story is dead.  Unless the game you are playing is a one-shot or one where player death is a big part of the story (i.e. Paranoia), a TPK is a sign that something went drastically wrong.

Encounters should be reasonably designed and not too easy or too difficult unless the story calls for it.  Remember, the players and the GM are both telling a story together and the players are the chief protagonists.  They should shine frequently and not be crushed into oblivion.  You owe it to them to give them the opportunity to be heroes.

Rule #3 – The story you tell is more important than the rules.  (Role of the GM)

The GM should be the unbiased referee who describes the setting, sets challenges for the PCs, and determines the consequences of actions taken by the players.  Still, though, the goal is to tell a story and there will be times when you need to fudge a die roll or veer away from the Rules as Written (RAW).  A random chart or table should not derail the story you are trying to weave.   If you find that the results of actions seem arbitrary and will mean catastrophe for the PCs and their ongoing tale, my advice is to fudge the rules for the sake of the story.

Many years ago I sat down with a group of college friends to try out the Star Wars RPG published by West End Games.  My friends had spent a lot of time creating their characters, equipping themselves, and writing their backstories.  Our first session was a pretty straight-forward attempt to test out the rules and experience the setting.  Near the end of the session, the player running the smuggler PC decided he wanted to test out space combat; he answered a challenge from an Imperial Customs corvette to prepare for inspection with “We don’t have time for the Empire right now.”  I ruled that the corvette’s captain would likely respond by having one heavy laser cannon on his ship fire a shot at the stock light freighter.  The player attempted to evade, but I still rolled a successful attack by the corvette and the damage it inflicted was substantial and resulted in a ship’s system being destroyed.  I consulted the appropriate chart and rolled the dice. The result I read on the chart said “hyperdrive destroyed.”  I knew that this would mean the ship being boarded and the entire party being captured and imprisoned.  It would also mean a very abrupt end to our little campaign before it even got started and all for the foolish action of one player.  I re-rolled on the chart and I accepted the second result which was “weapon system destroyed.”  I told the players that their ship was rocked by a blast from the corvette which vaporized their only laser cannon and resulted in heavy damage to the hull.  They quickly managed to make the jump to lightspeed and limp back to their home base for repairs.  There were still consequences to the actions taken by the smuggler and they were expensive for the party, but they did not end the game.

If the players are all having fun don’t let the Rules as Written (RAW), strictly interpreted, kill the story for everyone.  This doesn’t mean to overlook foolish decisions by the party.  A suicidal course of action may indeed have catastrophic consequences for the group and the story, but there is a difference between a random die roll deciding the fate of the story and the reasoned actions of the players.  If players are playing in character, using their skills and abilities correctly, and contributing to the ongoing story you may want to overlook when a game mechanic randomly unravels their accomplishments.

Rule #4 – Give all players a chance to shine.  (Role of the GM)

In any social setting, some people are more comfortable than others to speak and take action.  The game table is also a social setting and you will always find you have a player or two that are more likely to jump into the action, offer an idea, or be ready to make a perception check.  In contrast, you will also have players that are content to sit quietly until called upon to make a check or roll initiative.  This is where encounter construction can be a great tool to get all players into the action.  Stay familiar with the skills and abilities of the PCs and ask for a check from one of the quiet players every now and then.  Force them to step into the spotlight.  Maybe even write a story arc just for them based upon their background.

In my experience, this does two things for the group dynamic at the table.  One, it highlights the abilities and skills of the PC’s belonging to the quieter players so that the rest of the party learns what they are capable of.  Two, it makes it more likely for the outspoken players to include the quiet players in strategy discussions.  Instead of having a group of primary PCs with a cast of supporting characters, you end up having more of a cohesive team.

One of my college friends that played RPGs with me, Andy, was the quiet player that usually didn’t have much to say and mostly let his dice speak for him in combat.  Several of the other guys we played with were more outgoing and tried to lead our PC parties which often resulted in plots and counter-plots as they engaged in rivalries stoked by ego.  This was fine for D&D, but would not have been so suitable for a game like Star Trek which we played for a while.  When I announced that I would be starting a new Star Trek campaign I told my friends to create characters suitable for senior bridge crew and that the captain of their vessel would be an NPC.  At our first game session, I had the players all around the table and described that they were in the briefing room of their new ship being addressed by the Captain.  Up to this point none of them knew for certain what their ranks were or final positions.  The Captain started by introducing the assembled PCs to the First Officer.  At this time I looked to my friend, Andy, the quiet player and addressed him as “Lt. Commander.”  His face lit up and his jaw dropped; the grin didn’t leave his face for the rest of the briefing.  Andy did an excellent job and I saw more improvisation and role-playing out of him in those Star Trek game sessions than I did in any other game we played.  I had thrust him into the spotlight, put him “in charge” (within a few sessions the PCs had a new ship with his character as Captain), and he took to it with gusto.  He knew everyone was counting on him and he did not disappoint.


Come back next week for the third installment!

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Brian Wilson
Brian (aka Stayker) got started with RPGs playing and DMing the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (red box) back in 1979. He has played or GMed RPGs across all genres since then, but his primary focus since 1989 has been on Star Wars RPGs. His first d6 Star Wars campaign continued for 13 years of adventures in that galaxy far, far away. Brian currently lives in Wisconsin and he has a wife and three children. He has a 20+ year career in local government and previously served in the U.S. Army Reserve as a First Lieutenant. He has always wanted to be a writer and is very happy for the opportunity to write articles for d20radio.com!
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