GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.

All of my GMing rules posted so far are collected here.

GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.

PCs and Protagonists

In every story, the hero struggles.  Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself.  This is as true in wars between demigods as it is in an English country veterinarian’s memoirs.

In an RPG, though, that protagonist is a player character – with a player behind them.

That player is a real person, and that real person is investing real time in the game.  It behooves a good GM not to waste that time.

One particularly conspicuous way of wasting that time is for the GM to allow the players to spend time and energy struggling toward a goal, and then invalidating that struggle.

Denied Results

There are two main forms I see invalidation taking.  In the first case, the GM inflicts failure on the players, no matter what ingenuity or determination the players bring to bear.

This happens when the GM sets up a plot that can only advance if the players fail – a plot that halts if the players ever succeed.  A Lost or a Star Trek: Voyager, or a Gilligan’s Island, where every adventure is an attempt to get home, but where the simple math of the premise demands that all of these attempts fail.

I’ve seen this structure in RPG sourcebooks.  I have a sourcebook ready to hand that outlines a campaign about the approach and confrontation of a mighty and terrible evil.  Every adventure in this campaign is about some antagonist taking steps to advance the evil’s approach, and every one of these adventures requires the players to fail to stop these antagonists – or the campaign is over.

At every step, no matter how cunning or steadfast the players, they are guaranteed to fail.  Their efforts are wasted.

Denied Causes

The second case is where the GM allows the players to succeed, or to come close to succeeding, and then reveals the players’ cause to have been a hateful one.

There’s a video game I could name, wherein the player’s objective is to rescue the player character’s girlfriend from a distant castle.  At the end of the game, it’s revealed that the girlfriend is the PC’s ex, and she’s been actively trying to get away from him.

Again, the players’ efforts are wasted – wasted and soured.  You’ve just taken all of the time and energy the player put into that goal, and made it retroactively un-fun.

Frustration vs. Invalidation

I’m not saying don’t make things difficult for the players.

Knock them into pits, so they can fight their way back out!  Set them up against unbeatable odds, and then see how they beat them anyway.  Put the goalposts on the damn moon, and hand the players half a roll of duct tape and an empty egg-carton to get them started on a rocket.

Make them struggle.

But don’t waste that struggle.

GMing Rule #2. You are not here to tell your story.

All of my GMing rules posted so far are collected here.

Rule #2. You are not here to tell your story.  You are here to enable the players to tell their stories.

“Game Master”, usually abbreviated “GM”, is a generic term.  Some games actually use this term, while others choose something more idiosyncratic – “Dungeon Master” or “Keeper” or “Referee”.

A few games – especially games that came out of White Wolf – use the term “Storyteller”.  And I cringe every time I hear it, because it puts exactly the wrong perspective on the role.

A GM isn’t a story-teller.  They’re a story-enabler.  They’re a story-facilitator.  They’re a story-cultivator.

As a GM, you’re here to create a space, where a whole spectrum of stories are possible.  You’ll set most of the parameters for that spectrum – through the setting you select or create, the NPCs you employ, the obstacles and objectives you put in place.  But the unpredictable back-and-forth between you and the PCs is what determines, in the moment, what story actually happens.

If you have a particular story you want to tell, awesome!  Go write fiction.  If you want to GM, you need to abandon the idea of telling a particular story.

Because the PCs are going to do something else.  Whatever particular story you have planned, the PCs are going to do something else.  And maybe it’ll only diverge a little from your prepared story, or maybe it’ll have nothing to do with your prepared story.

When that happens, they’re not “messing up your story”.  They’re telling a story that isn’t the one you prepared, and they might be playing a game that isn’t the game you wanted to be playing.  In which case you maybe need to have a chat with your players about what kind of game you and they want to be playing, so that you can find the overlap and go to there.

Chat with your players about what they and their characters want.  Find or create some neat toys – setting, characters, treasures, monsters, wonders – that you’re going to enjoy playing with, that fit with those desires.  Then turn the players loose among these toys and see what stories they create.

GMing Rule #1. If everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.

This is the first of what’s intended to be a semi-regular series of posts, about my rules of running a good RPG.

Rule #1. If everyone is having fun, you’re doing it right.  This is the only valid test for whether you’re doing it right.

This is the most basic, and most important rule.  It trumps all others – both the rules printed in your game’s sourcebooks, and the rest of my own GMing rules.  All other rules are ultimately aides to adhering to this first rule.

This rule has a couple of key corollaries:

Rule #1a. If someone’s not having fun, you need to investigate.

The fundamental purpose of a game is to have fun.  If there are people at the table who aren’t having fun, then the game is failing at its basic function.

It might be that not everyone is on the same page about what sort of game you’re playing.  It might be that someone’s not happy with how something turned out – does something need to be retconned, or compensated for in future?  Maybe someone wants more (or less) combat, more (or less) intrigue, more (or less) romance.  Maybe someone’s character has a cool ability that they’re excited about, but they’re not getting to use.  Maybe the players have different comfort thresholds for violence, or sexual innuendo, or even foul language, and the game is tromping all over someone’s boundaries on that score.

No one should be in the position of enduring the game – if someone’s not eagerly looking forward to each game session, then you should investigate.

(How to facilitate communication on everyone’s satisfaction, how to avoid such problems and how to solve them, is a whole discussion on its own.)

Rule #1b. Don’t worry about any external notion of how the game “should” be.

The game should be how you and your players want it to be.  No one else’s opinion on the subject matters.  Changing rules, adding exceptions to rules, ignoring rules, or adding rules – these are all fair game, if they’re what everyone at the table wants.  Likewise, changing elements of the setting, if you’re working with a published setting.

This point holds a particular relevance for new gaming groups – new players, and new GMs:

Sometimes, people see RPGs (usually Dungeons & Dragons, in my experience) at a distance, are intrigued, but don’t have access to an established gaming group.  So they get their hands on the sourcebooks, gather some friends, and start playing, with no one bringing any prior RPG experience to the table.

And in some cases, though those groups are having fun, they worry – sometimes out loud, sometimes on the Internet – that they’re not doing it right.

Are you having fun?  Then you’re doing it right.  Even if you’re getting the rules wrong.  Even if you’re ignoring the rules.  The rules are there to help you meet the goal of having fun.  If you’re having fun, then that goal is met.