I’ve been running roleplaying games a long time. I ran my first adventure (In Search of the Unknown) back in 1978. Since then I’ve refereed a lot. I sat down last year and wrote up some guidelines for running roleplaying games. I wanted to get them clear in my own head, and I also wanted to re-examine what it was that I did. I searched the web for everyone else’s rules on the subject. Then I applied what I knew of small group dynamics from my job as an instructional designer, and I looked at the various rules for improvisational comedy, running business meetings, and other sources. Here’s what I came up with…
1. Have Fun
Above all, the game is supposed to be fun. If the guidelines below aren’t helping, don’t use them. The players are your friends. Try to remember that. Every gaming group is unique. Do what you and your players want to do, not what the game designer, module writer or anybody else says you should do.
2. Roleplaying is not wargaming
Roleplaying grew from wargaming, but they aren’t the same thing. Roleplaying is a collaborative enterprise, wargaming is competitive. In roleplaying, the players and the GM together construct a story of the players’ characters mighty deeds. In wargaming, everyone is trying to beat the others at the table. If a GM is wargaming, he has to stack the deck against the players, because six players can out think most GMs any day of the week.
There are usually wargamers in the party. They are the folks who want to shoot everything and ask questions later. Everyone loves a good fight, but unless you want to turn your carefully crafted world into a battle map, start training them in roleplaying. When they roll their characters, help them pick skills they can use to roleplay. When they pick fights, help them get into more trouble than they can handle. When they refuse to use their heads rather than their guns, kill them off. And if they keep doing it, look for new players. If you are a good GM, you should have plenty available.
3. The player characters are heroes
The game is not a simulation. The players are the heroes, and the center of attention. If they weren’t heroes, why the smeg would they play? The GM has to let the players enjoy themselves and accomplish the tasks that they were born for, within the limits set by the rules, and by the game setting
Have players who are new to the system or the world think up the coolest character they can, and then help them put that character together for the world. Reject a character that just won’t work in the world. Better they know that now than find it out slowly and painfully over the next twenty sessions!
If their characters should know something, tell the players. Help make the world more real for them. Don’t bogart knowledge of the world.
If their characters haven’t found out something, don’t tell the players. Make them earn the information they need to be successful.
To ensure that player characters don’t have to work very hard to defeat every shopkeeper or city watchman, I divide NPCs into four categories: Background, Colorful, Significant, and Legendary. Since I use a skill-based system where increases are based on time and experience, I know how fast the players can improve their skills. Player characters are heroes, and equivalent to Significant NPCs. Colorful NPCs are interesting, but they have only half the skill points. Background characters are the pawns of the game, with only one quarter the skill points. Legendary characters have double the characters’ skill points. In any adventure, there are only a few Significant NPCs, most will be Colorful and Background. Very rarely, a legendary NPC might be encountered. Since all NPCs have names and descriptions, the players should treat them with respect, but only a few are truly Significant.
NPCs have rights too. Just because the adventurers are mighty heroes, doesn’t mean they can ignore even the Background NPCs. Those NPCs have a tendency to organize, to lead lynch mobs, to request relief from the King, to poison food supplies, and even to cut the throats of certain unpleasant characters in the middle of the night. But remember to give the characters a chance to survive and learn from those encounters – they are heroes after all.
4. All the players are heroes
Within every party, there are some who are more assertive than others. You have to balance play for everyone in the party and make sure everyone gets their day in the sun. Don’t let one or two players define the world for everyone. Help everyone become a better player.
Make sure the game is fun for everyone. Make sure there is combat for the warriors, puzzles for the thieves, and magical conundrums for the wizards. In short, if a player likes to do something, put in the game.
Be sure everyone is using each other’s character names. Name tags are a good way to do that when a party is new or when new players join.
5. The play is the thing
As the GM, you are a facilitator. You put a lot of effort into either creating or learning about the world. You are responsible for getting the story started, and knowing what the gateway moments should be. Gateway moments are pivotal moments in the story that are essential to the plot. Players will rarely do what you thought they were “supposed” to do, which is part of the fun. They largely determine what happens between those gateway moments. Sometimes you will have to change the gateway moments or invent completely new ones because of the player’s actions. When the players veer from the expected course of play, accept their actions, and add to them. Move the game forward. Don’t block the action because the players didn’t do what you expect. Be flexible. Find a way to add to their actions. It’s those moments of improvisation when the best GMs shine.
I know a lot of GMs will say they are God Almighty and their rule is law, but who would want such a huge job? The GMs who think they are God have to entertain everyone, know every rule, and plan every possible plot turn. Their players become passive prats who add little or nothing to the game, and whom the GM rightfully learns to detest. Empower the players and your job will be a lot easier, and a lot more fun.
Be patient with the players as they learn. Be humble and give them the chance to shine. Be open to new ideas. And above all, communicate. They should feel free to ask you a question about one of their plans. They should not conceal plans from you because they think you will change the scenario in your favor to stop them.
6. Move the play forward
The game setting revolves around the GM’s decisions. The GM is the final judge of what happens in the game. That is not so much because the GM is right, but because the GM is responsible for maintaining game play, and does not have the time to argue about every small point. Players who are rule lawyers can slow down a perfectly good game. Respect the players and listen to them when it makes sense, but ignore them when they are killing the game.
Pay attention to what the players are doing or saying. Keep records of the party’s hit points, important equipment, unique abilities and perception skills. To make this easier, use effect cards that you play on certain players to let them know they are missing an arm, are paralyzed, slowed, etc. It will help speed up game play.
And remember, adventure is dangerous. No risk, no excitement. Heroes die all the time. If the threats in the game are to be believable and palpable, sometimes characters will die. Make it as fast and easy as possible for characters to re-roll characters and get back into game play. Don’t make them take beginning characters again if the party is high level. Don’t punish them for dying – a good death is part of the fun. Adventure is risky, but it is the spice of life.
7. The world should feel real
The game setting should be consistent. Consistency in the game setting helps make the fantasy world real, and helps the players believe that such a place might exist. It is your job to maintain that consistency, to describe in glowing colors the setting, and to control the behavior of everything outside of the players.
Giving more detail can help maintain the suspension of disbelief. Know what the world looks like. Draw a map or find a drawing or photo that can inspire your description
When asking questions, put the question in context and provide details. Rather than asking “What are you doing?” ask “the troll will be upon you before you can retreat. What will you do?”
Use a random name generator on Excel or on the web to have names for all the NPCs. Players will have to treat every NPC as if they might be significant.
When playing an NPC, act with your body, not just your words. Get excited or scared or disgusted at the appropriate moments. Help the other people at the table feel what is going on.
Hypothesize. If this is true, then what else is true? A fantasy world is not the real world. How would it be different given the changes you and the players have posited?
8. The rules keep you honest
The rules provide both GM and players a way to impose order on the story.
As the GM, you have to know the rules backwards and forwards. If there are too many rules to know them all, reduce the number of rules you are using.
On the whole, trust to the rules to keep you from overpowering the party or taking too much control of the story. If you roll something and it makes sense, use it. Often you will think of something in the middle of a session that you think would be fun or cool to add. Before you add that new element, be sure it keeps the story moving forward, the world consistent, and the players having fun. If not, try to work it into the next adventure.
Make sure the players understand the rules. If they don’t, help them when they obviously don’t know what to do. Do not take advantage of them using the rules.
The rules are what the GM says they are. If he says something is so, it is so. Suggestions for rule changes will be accepted after the game session is ended.
And of course, pick good rules!
9. Ignore the dice if you need to
Randomizers (dice, cards, rock-paper-scissors, etc.) are creativity tools used to keep game play interesting. Imagination is important too.
If that dice roll doesn’t make sense, consider ignoring it. If the roll will kill the whole party unnecessarily, or if it is just incredibly silly, feel free to fudge the result in the players’ favor. And never tell the players that you did it! Let them think they survived by luck alone – it makes a better memory for them.
Very rarely, and I do mean very rarely, you will be justified in increasing the challenges against the players. Only in cases of extreme player boredom should you do this, because it is very easy to go too far. Any GM can kill a party off; that doesn’t mean they should.
10. Learn from every session
After every session, make a couple notes to yourself about what went well and what didn’t. Why didn’t that part go well? Try to improve. Be open to change.