Thursday, April 25, 2019

GM Rules

I am a very good GM. Partly this is due to experience, knowledge of game rules and balance, and the fact that using Lego makes everything better. But those are nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves. The following principles are the core philosophy of how I run my games:

1) The character is completely and solely controlled by the player. 

I will never, under any circumstances, say what the character does, feels, says, or thinks. Player control of their character is absolute and sacred. They own it completely and nobody can take that away from them. This is the first rule. Violating it, in any way, means violating the authorship and agency of the players.

Some specific implications:

- Nobody else ever controls the character of an absent player. The default assumption is that they are away somewhere else doing something important or helpful.

- Nobody ever rolls Persuasion checks against PCs. I roleplay either good convincing arguments or bad arguments depending on how charismatic the NPCs are, and the players can respond to that however they see fit. If one PC wants to persuade another PC of something, no matter how minor, it gets role-played.

- By default, magical effects that cause emotions or compel actions are always presented as 'you black out for a couple seconds' or 'your body is being moved around by some other force'. Players can choose say things like 'I am scared and freaking out' but I will not say that. I simply report a failed saving throw and let the player decide what that means in their character's mind.

- I do not add any kind of storytelling flourish when describing any action done by the characters, whether it succeeds or fails. I simply report the result, and it is the player's job to tell a story about why the action turned out the way it did. At most I will make suggestions about how to interpret an event, but the player can always alter or veto those ideas.

2) The characters are competent.

The characters live in the world and know how to navigate it. More than that, they are rare and special people who are unusually competent at what they are doing. Most of the time, their background gives them years of relevant experience. They inhabit the world, and perceive and understand more about their immediate situation than the players. This means that character skill and competence should never be limited by player knowledge or the specifics of how characters state their actions. Specifically:

- Unless the player explicitly states otherwise, assume that any action is taken with all reasonable precautions.  Allow the player to roll skill checks to notice and avoid any problems or complications that might arise from the action.

- Always interpret any declaration of action in the most charitable way. If you are not sure what the player is trying to accomplish, ask them. Never, under any circumstances, do something bad to the character or things they care about that could have been prevented by the player stating their action in a slightly different way.

- Whenever a player announces any action that their character might know is a bad idea, tell them to make an Int or Wis saving throw. If they succeed, give them the relevant information their character knows about the possible negative consequences, and then allow them to change their mind and/or retcon their action if they want.

- If the characters spent time in town before the adventure, and knew what they were getting into, assume that they packed appropriate and useful supplies. Whenever a situation comes up that would be aided by possession of any cheap equipment that competent adventurers would normally pack, like chalk or empty sacks, assume that the character packed the thing. If a situation would benefit from an unusual or expensive tool, allow the characters to retcon that they packed or bought it if they pass a Survival check.

- If there is anything in the environment that might matter, like a trap or a clue, assume that the characters are actively and intelligently searching for it. Have them roll any relevant checks when they walk into the room, and tell them what they found.

This approach makes the game more fun and speeds everything along to the interesting parts. I hate it when the game bogs down in paranoid micromanagement of petty details.

It might seem that this approach contradicts the first rule, but it does not. The character's desires and intentions and personality are controlled by the player. But the player does not always have the information needed to make the best decision to achieve their character's goals, so I give them that info and/or assume that the details of the actions were appropriate on a successful check.

This does not mean that I am a 'nice' GM who never allows anything bad to happen. Very bad things, like character death or failure to prevent catastrophes, can and do happen because of bad luck (I roll all dice openly and always go with the result), or because the players made a hard choice about how to use scarce resources. But when that happens, the players know that the disaster was not due to miscommunication, failure of precision, or a bad interpretation, and therefore that no amount of pedantry could have prevented it.

3) I am not telling a story.

Trying to tell a story is the core of bad GMing. The GM trying to make a plot happen is a virus and a cancer that infects and destroys the game. It is the impulse from which all toxic behavior flows. It leads to the GM thinking "I don't care what your character's desires and abilities are, I want a particular thing to happen." The GM turns into a railroading control freak in the service of the story, and the players are reduced to spectators in a theater, while also being gaslighted into thinking that bad things happening in the world or plot are their fault.

4) We are making a story happen.

The GM creates the setting. The players create the characters. Plot, conflict, theme, tone, symbolism, etc. all emerge in a dynamic and unpredictable way from the interaction of these two elements and the dice roll results. The resulting story is far better than anything that any one of us could plan or create.

This cooperative storytelling is the whole point of the 'game'. If you want to play a strategy game, there are much better options available. The big rulebooks, with their extensive detailed descriptions of character abilities and the world the characters inhabit, are there to create a well-defined consenus reality that allows us to collaborate meaningfully in the creation of the story. The events of combat and the results of skill checks, guided by the whims of fate in the form of the dice results, are seed crystals around which interesting narratives form.

5) Small stakes make better stories.

There is never any excitement or drama in saving the world, or a place that is the permanent focus of the entire campaign, because everyone knows you will succeed eventually. But when the firstborn son of the party's favorite bartender is kidnapped by cultists, there is a very real chance that he will get killed or worse. And since nobody else with enough power to intervene cares about the guy, the party is the only thing stopping the family from getting ripped apart. That creates real drama and tension.

At high levels, the characters will have the power to affect thousands of lives, permanently alter the local balance of power, stop or start wars, and even save or destroy small civilizations. But on a cosmic scale that is still small. The party knows that if they die or fail, the world will go on as it always has, but that the things they care about will be ruined and nobody else will be able to make it right.

6) Character power and agency make better stories.

Dealing with power and options is a better and more interesting test of character than reacting to manufactured disasters. Many of the best moments in my games come when, after a year or so of shared worldbuilding and immersion in the setting, and after the characters have acquired real wealth and power and allies, and making it clear their characters are walking weapons of mass destruction, I simply ask the players what they want to do.

Or, if that is too open-ended, I can give a little nudge. For example, roleplaying the butler of a heroic high-charisma adventurer who has become famous, I say something like, "Ma'am, I really must request that you make a decision about how to approach all of these marriage proposals that are piling up. Many are from quite noble and august personages, and the uncertainty around your intentions is starting to have political implications."

7) The 'game' is actually a ritual.

I did not understand what was really happening in a role-playing session until I read this article describing what rituals are and why people need them. The players are coming together to create a shared space in which to bond, explore questions of identity, and create a communal experience that escapes mundane reality.

Please read the whole thing:

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