Welcome to the fourth and final installment 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 presented the fifth and sixth rules which focused on Creating the World. In this article I will present to you my final four rules for a new GM. These rules all concern Being the GM. When taken together I hope that these rules provide useful advice to anyone seeking to try their hand at running an RPG!
10 Simple Rules for a New GM (Continued)
Rule #7 – You are in charge of the game.
Whatever your title–Narrator, GM, DM, etc.–always remember that you are in charge and it is your table. This means that you have the final say on what happens at your table and you are responsible for the fun and enjoyment of everyone at that table. That is an awful lot of responsibility as you are not only creating the setting and adjudicating the rules mechanics, but you also have to be prepared to rein in disruptive players, give appropriate rewards for in-game actions, and determine consequences for those actions. Invariably, you will make a decision that someone will disagree with. You may not have time to fully debate and discuss your reasoning at the table and you should not if it means that the game is being disrupted for everyone else. Firmly stand by your decision and offer to look into it further or discuss it more after the session. Keep an open mind, but keep the players on task and the game moving.
Taking charge of the game does not mean that you have to be an authoritarian dictator and you should not have to be. The group of players that is choosing to sit down at the table with you has essentially agreed to an unwritten social contract to respect your table and participate in your game session. However, there will occasionally be the immature player at your table that is there for some unfathomable personal goal known only to them. Usually, you will only run into these wildcard players at a convention or gaming store event or if a regular player brings in someone completely new to RPG gaming. They may not be vested in playing anything long term and just want to “kill stuff,” attacking neutral NPCs that your group encounters or getting into fights with other PCs when they don’t get their way. Or they bring in a character of their own creation that is a “paragon of virtue” who can do no wrong and never fails; the player contests any decisions that don’t go their way. Self-centered players like these were once referred to in an old “Dragon Magazine” article as having the player alignment of “Chaotic Stupid.”
If the problem player doesn’t want to listen to you and challenges all of your decisions, assert your authority and tell them that they don’t have to stay at your table. Encourage them to find a table and group that better fits their needs or, more directly, ask them to leave. Sometimes, your other players may take matters into their own hands and attack the offending PC. If they kill the PC of the offender do not let them roll a new character and don’t accommodate them in any way. Let them go and don’t worry about hurt feelings.
The worst thing you can do as the GM is ignore the behavior and hope that it will go away. I have played in a game session before where that happened and by the very end of that stressful session two of my friends and I declared that we would not be returning to play with that GM again. He had allowed one player to perform all manner of random, chaotic, and evil actions directed at both other PCs and NPCs for no apparent reason other than it was fun for the player to frustrate the rest of us. Granted our characters attempted to take retribution into our own hands, but then the PC paladin of the player that invited the problem player stepped in to defend him. We argued to the GM that the paladin should not be defending the actions of a PC with obviously evil intent. The player of the paladin countered that the problem PC was only chaotic neutral and not evil using his absolute alignment as a guide. We looked to the GM to weigh-in on this discussion and his response was to shrug his shoulders and agree with both of our points of view. This agreement that both our arguments had validity did not constitute action; it avoided the conflict and that was the final straw. My friends and I never did return to play with that GM again.
The point is that one player did stupid things, the actions were disruptive to the game and the story, and by the GM failing to act he ended up losing the faith of the players at the table. It was his, and only his, responsibility to provide an enjoyable gaming experience and he did not deliver. So by all means take action and don’t avoid doing so. If a player or two offer protest, then promise to review the rules after the session and get back to them. Focus on the session and the needs of the game and keep things moving while addressing problems that arise in an expedient manner.
Rule #8 – Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
In games as in life we all make mistakes. I could write a separate article all about the mistakes I’ve made from the minor to the colossal. No matter the scale of the mistake they all shared one quality; none of them ever ruined my ongoing game. You will make mistakes as a GM. Even experienced GMs make mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make them because that fear will hold you back. When you recognize that you’ve made a mistake, tell your players, discuss the best way to correct the mistake, and then continue the game. Put it behind you and keep going.
I made a very simple mistake while running my first play session using the newest Star Wars RPG rules from Fantasy Flight Games. During the first combat encounter I told the players to create their dice pools by comparing their skill to the relevant characteristic and that the higher of the two forms the basis of their pool; the ability dice. For example: a character with an Agility of 3 and a Ranged (Light) skill of 2 would start their dice pool with three green ability dice. Everything was right so far. Then I told them that they add a number of yellow proficiency dice equal to the lesser value. This would give them a dice pool of three green ability dice and two yellow proficiency dice…which is completely…wrong! They should have started, in the above example with three green ability dice and then upgraded two of the ability dice by replacing them with two yellow proficiency dice for a starting die pool of one green ability die and two yellow proficiency dice. The result of this mistake was that the PCs got a lot of very successful attacks during that combat encounter. Of course they did. They were each rolling 2-3 extra dice!
After that first encounter I realized that the stat blocks for the NPCs in the published adventure I was running did not have their dice pools calculated using the same method I had told the players. That was when I realized that I had failed to instruct the players to remove those ability dice that were upgraded to proficiency dice. I called a time-out and took a few minutes to glance at the dice explanation in the core rulebook and then explained my error to the players. They laughed and took it in stride as it was the first time for all of us using the FFG Star Wars system. They were mostly glad I hadn’t given their opponents extra dice as well! The lopsided fight didn’t have a significant bearing on the main plotline of the adventure so we continued on. We were then a little wiser and aware that the next fight may not go so easy for the PCs.
Sometimes, though, you may make an error that is not so easy to correct. I once misread the stats on a riot gun in the first edition Star Wars RPG by West End Games. It was a weapon that did only stun damage, but that was eight six-sided dice of stun damage per shot. In that ruleset that was enough stun damage to drop a Wookiee unconscious with one shot. I gave it as the sidearm of one of the first bounty hunters I created to send after the player group. Once the PCs managed to stop the bounty hunter and his partner from capturing and collecting the bounty on the party’s smuggler, one of the PCs claimed that stun gun for herself. She used it to great effect for several game sessions before I realized that the stun gun as presented in that rulebook was supposed to be a tripod mounted heavy weapon. Talk about letting the genie out of the bottle. I sat down and discussed my discovery with the player of that PC and we worked out a reasonable compromise; the weapon was a one-of-a-kind custom creation. This particular version had limited ammunition, could only be fired once per combat round, and was only effective at close range. In most combats thus far where the PC had used the weapon, she had rarely fired it more than twice and usually in close quarters. We agreed to a power pack for the gun holding five shots, short-ranged, and only fired once per round. That PC continued to carry that weapon as a secondary weapon throughout the thirteen years or so that we played that campaign and, once and a while, it was used to great effect, but it never unbalanced the game or destroyed the story.
As a GM you will make mistakes of all shapes and sizes. Some will be easy to correct and others will be more challenging. Just remember that mistakes can be corrected and it is okay to take corrective action. Communicate with your players, own your mistake, discuss how to fix it, and continue your game.
Rule #9 – Not all GMs are created equal.
As human beings we all second-guess ourselves and self-assess our abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. You will find yourself comparing your abilities as a GM to another GM and you may think you should give up being a GM as that other person is a “better voice actor,” or “more knowledgeable about the rules,” or “knows more about the setting,” etc. Realize that as a GM you may have strengths that you don’t see and, while the game at your table may look different than another’s game that does not mean that your game is inferior. The differences are a reflection of your personal style of being a GM.
That doesn’t mean you should never question yourself. Asking questions is how we learn and evolve in life as well as at the game table. You may find value in performing a self-assessment of your skills. Through this introspection you can compare yourself to another GM and recognize those areas where you may be stronger and see how that compensates for your weaknesses. Perhaps you aren’t very skilled at acting the role of an NPC during encounters and giving them individualized voices, but you compensate by giving your NPCs descriptive mannerisms and quirks that make them distinctive and memorable. If you like something another GM is doing and you don’t understand how to bring that to your table then just ask them. Gamers are a pretty friendly group and easy to talk to about our shared passions. It never hurts to ask and it will likely flatter the other GM to have you approach them for advice.
You can also solicit feedback from the players at your table. I did not like sometimes not knowing if my players all fully enjoyed the session. Sometimes they would all be excited and leave the game talking animatedly about what they had accomplished. Other times, it would just be that I would give them their skill points, everyone would write them down, say goodnight, and leave. On the latter occasions I wondered if I had made a mistake or had the players been bored or perhaps the rewards were a disappointment. I began giving my players a very short one-page survey to fill-out for me after my sessions that consisted of just 4-5 questions. I asked them to tell me their favorite part of the session, their least favorite part, whether or not they thought their character had enough to do during the session, and what did they want to see more of. I found that even on the nights with quiet and somber exits most of my players felt that they were getting plenty to do, all had one or two favorite parts, least favorite parts were often blank, and most of them would let me know when they thought we needed more infiltration missions, more space combat, or more chase scenes. Their feedback informed my session preparation and allowed me to tailor the story to what their likes were while also reinforcing that nothing was wrong with my game or my style. Everyone was having fun.
If you find yourself having doubts about being a GM, my advice to you is don’t stop being a GM. Instead, self-assess the strengths and weaknesses you bring to the table, ask other GMs for advice and tips to improve your game, and finally ask you players how you are doing. I think that you will find that you are the best GM that you can be and that your gameplay reflects your personality and individual style and that your players are satisfied. If the players weren’t happy they wouldn’t be returning, would they? Regardless if there are weaknesses present you will get better with practice and experience; have both confidence in yourself and patience.
Rule #10 – When all else fails…
…ignore these rules. Being a GM is a great way to explore your creativity, spend time with friends, and tell the type of story you want to tell. A chance to tell that story with passion, sweat, joy, and tears. The rules should never get in the way of that experience.
Following the “10 Simple Rules,” by the time you get to this point you have accepted your role, created your world, and you’ve gained experience behind the GM screen. You now “own” the game table and the story and you’ve embraced what is expected of you as the GM. In that, you will find a freedom to be…you.
Now, go out there and find your passion and tell some stories! Players are waiting on you. I know you will be great!