Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bad Game Master Advice

Over the years I have received a lot of advice on GMing. Some of it has been good and useful advice. Much of it was horrid. Some was horrid because it would not work for my style of GMing while others were no good for other reasons. In this post I will discuss the bad advice I have received over the course of years of asking for advice. These thoughts are rough, and filled with my emotions, so the ideas are not as well put together as I had hoped.

I have not played or read the game but...

Alright, I have asked questions on loads of Forums, Google and Yahoo Groups, and various other places. Usually when I ask i am asking about a specific system and specific situation. I will at some point get a response that starts with this line. If you have no idea about the game, why would you bother to try and give advice on the game. I appreciate that they are trying to help, but often they do nothing but display their own ignorance of the situation and muddy the waters. It is not helpful when you butt in without knowing what you are talking about. When someone asks for a specific answer to a specific situation, vague advice unrelated to the situation is not useful.

Kick out the player

This...this piece of advice is so often given when someone is having a problem with a player. It is never useful advice. Never. I know, you are thinking that it might be a situation where they should kick out the player. I am going to have to disagree, you are wrong. If the GM is asking for advice I promise you he has thought about kicking the player out. they are asking for advice so that they can avoid kicking the player out(unless it is the GM looking to be "in the right" and wanting the internets to back his play, which is passive aggressive and problematic in its own right). Every GM is aware that they can kick a player out. Telling him this just wastes time. It is not advice, it is an edict. If they have put the effort forward to ask for help, give them some help. Talk the situation through with  them. Be a friendly ear, maybe they just need to vent. Try and suss out if it is an in character issue or a player issue. Sure there are times when kicking the player out is the only option, but giving this advice does not help the situation.

You are the GM and you are in charge

This is less a piece of advice and more an attitude I have seen in a lot of different pieces of advice. In fact much of the other pieces of bad advice  list here all stem from this premise to one degree or another. This drives me bonkers. The attitude is born of the finest intentions. GMs for years were viewed as the sole arbiters of story and fun at the table. In fact many tables still look to the GM in this way. Lord knows I have been running groups where one or more of the players has been conditioned to passivity. There are a great many ways this shows up. Usually it comes across as elitist or dismissive. You will come looking for advice and someone will come in and give a pithy sounding statement. It will be a blanket statement, like kick the players out, or punish the player for a character's action. It is the hardest of the problematic advice to point to directly, and yet it is the most pervasive and troubling. Often the advice will sound reasonable on the surface. It is only when you take a moment and think about what it implies does it really become a problem. Perhaps this should be its own post. I have a lot to say on the subject and right now it is too vague for me to really suss out.

Just Rule Zero It

Rule Zero does not exist, or at least not the way it gets used. Rule Zero as it is used here though is basically the GM can alter the rules when ever he pleases. Often it is worded a bit differently, but that is the gist of it. We need to avoid Calvin Ball. that is not to say house ruling is anarchy or any such thing, but Rule Zero opens the door. By placing house rules solely in the hands of the GM you are taking away the players influence on the game. But that is not the worst part of the advice to just Rule Zero it. The biggest issue with this is that it shuts down dialogue. When I come with a specific rules issue I am looking for a way to work within the rules to fix the problem. When you tell me to just make up my own rule and ignore the problem you are telling me that my problem is a wast of your time and that discussion of the problem is a waste of everyone's time. With this advice you are shutting the conversation down. Also this advice leads into one of my biggest pet peeves...

System Doesn't Matter

First of all, this statement is a lie. I mean that. the person telling you this is lying to you. They are probably lying to themselves as well. I know this is a lie. I can prove it. I was talking with my friend +Robert Hanz and he put it this way, "Find a (playable) system that a 'System doesn't matter!' guy hates (not FATAL).  Agree with him.  'Yup, system doesn't matter.  You're absolutely right.  No impact.  So, you're going to run your next game in <hated system>, right?'" When a person says that system doesn't matter what they are really saying is that they like things a certain way and their advice is to play their way. Or worse they are telling you that the GM can just ignore the rules whenever they like. If the GM can ignore the rules then this implies he is not playing the game. People who play a game do so by a set of rules. Those who break or ignore the rules(same thing) are called cheaters. If the GM is playing the game, then ignoring the rules is cheating. Cheating is wrong. Ask any five year old. The idea that it is OK to cheat is so endemic in GM thought that we have a name for the type of player who fights against GM cheating. This player is labeled a Rules Lawyer, and is generally looked down on. What is noble about cheating? What is ignoble about standing up to a cheater? If you get mad at someone who is demanding you play by the rules, what does that make you? If you start bad mouthing or punishing that player because they demand you play by the rules, what dose that make you? Don't cheat. Don't bully. Play by the rules. System matters. It is the only thing that is universally agreed upon at the table. You have the rule book. Everything else is made up together.

 So this is my list of bad GM advice. As I wrote this it occurred to me that these thoughts are a little less polished than some of the others I have put out there. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I realize these might start some fires, so I ask that you try not to fan those flames. I would like to have an honest discussion of the merits or flaws of my thoughts. No name calling please.


  1. Kicking out the player *is* sometimes the right answer. But rarely. I've dealt with players that have no emotional control and have raged at other people nearly every game, to the point of shouting and throwing things, and were unable, when asked, to control their temper or behavior.

    Their actions were abusive, and made the other players uncomfortable. They were given the option to shape up, and they couldn't.

    And in abusive scenarios, sometimes people need to get the perspective from the outside that it *is* abusive, especially in geekier circles, where the "geek social fallacies" are often in full play.

    That said, good advice in that scenario is usually more like "Hey, this is what the guy's probably thinking/feeling. Talk to him about it, see if you can work it out. If you can't come to an agreement, set boundaries. If *that* doesn't work, then give him the boot."

    I also do think that the GM in most games with a GM *is* in charge. But that doesn't mean that he's the sole voice, or that he gets to run a dictatorship. It means that he's basically the tiebreaker.

    And it's not about authority or "the Viking Hat". It's in recognition that the GM's role is unique at the table. He's the one that's primarily expected to work in service of the game in a whole, rather than his own personal agenda.

    But again, yeah, "you're the GM, you're in charge" is probably bad advice. Good advice is "hey, figure out what's going on, and what will be best for all of the players. Talk with them and try to compromise. If a compromise can't be found, you'll have to make some kind of decision, but do so in a way that tries to take everyone's enjoyment into account."

  2. I liked your article... But I have to admit, I disagreed with a fair bit of it. Some of these sound, not like bad GM advice in general, but bad advice for your way of GMing. Most games, these days, have an equivalent of the Golden Rule written in them - that the aim is to have gun, and if a given rule gets in the way of the game, then change the rule. If that's not the developers giving explicit permission to "rule zero" it, then I don't know what is. There is no way any system can be comprehensive enough to cover every single eventuality or situation that everyone who plays the game will find themselves in - not even Rolemaster covered *everything*! So either you have to allow that the GM has to fudge and houserule in certain situations, or you have a system that's so generic and vague in order to cover everything, that it doesn't really give you a basis to do anything at all. And Rules Lawyers are a problem not because they know the rules, but that they frequently use them to bend every situation to their advantage, often at the expense of everyone else's. I can't remember the last time someone I perceived as a Rules Lawyer insisted that a certain rule be used, even though it completely hosed his character in the current scenario - he or she would be far more likely to say why there wad a loophole covering this exact thing in another rule book, so they could escape unscathed.

    Similarly, as the GM, while you are not the sole arbiter at the table, you are the final one. The buck has to stop with someone, and that someone is you. So saying that the decision is in your hands isn't bad advice: it may be trite and unhelpful, but its not wrong.

    And sometimes, system *doesn't* matter. Some advice or problems can be experienced by GMs no matter which system they're running in. Things like doing your prep, being prepared to improvise, how to deal with troublesome characters/players - these have nothing to do with a particular system. In a similar vein, I don't see anything wrong with someone who hasn't read the rules offering advice. They may be able to offer some insight from outside the box which, while it doesn't precisely answer your query, may give you an insight into how you might solve it. Unless your question absolutely demands a very specific mechanical solution, then there is no reason why a more generic answer, coming from someone outside the "fraternity", can't help.

    For me, there is no such thing as bad advice. There may be advice I choose not to take, or that wouldn't work for me and my group - but it might well work for others. In fact, presumably it works for those offering the advice, otherwise why would they be offering it?

    The only true piece of bad advice I can think of giving anyone, would be "ignore advice given to you". Never ignore it - listen to it, consider it, then disregard it if you wish; but ignoring it out of hand could mean you miss a real nugget of usefulness.

    That said... This is just my take on things, and I could be wrong :-)

    1. My main point with this, and I understand that it was less than clear, was that these pieces of advice are very often useless and are not the correct way to go about giving advice. Much of these bits of advice are actually a dismissal of the question.

      Also you are completely wrong about "system doesn't matter". Any advice you could give in a systemless manner would be far better if they were tuned toward the specific game the asker was playing. Giving the advice to be prepared to improvise is one I have seen a lot, however improvisation is a skill and it is one few people practice, and fewer still do well. Prep is generally not asked for in a system specific manner, and dealing with troublesome players is a vastly different situation than dealing with troublesome characters. Characters are VERY much a system issue. Players are not.

      any way, I appreciate the response, needless to say I disagree. But I appreciate that you have a different world view and experience than I do.

  3. Getting into a nasty streak of agreeing with Mr Hanz. The kinder and more empathic GM's sometimes need a little support to be as confrontational as is sometimes necessary.

    I have played a LOT of Fiasco, which has no GM. Except that it does. I would swear blind that I was facilitating in the mildest fashion, but in games where I did not have myself or someone with GM-type chops in the mix went wrong. Is the GM a command-and-control manager? No. Do you need a person who's main job is looking after everyone's fun? Yes. Which makes you kind of the boss in many aspects of play.

    I also saw this happen in the opposite direction in completely freeform roleplay. The player who facilitated the most gradually migrated into a GM role, because when they nudged and moderated everyone had a good time and they knew that. He got respected and listened to. Softly, softly, but still actually in charge, much like the better kind of manager...

  4. My view of "rule zero":
    As GM, I control the 'verse and everything in it.
    As GM, I control the major story flow
    As GM, I work with the player to make a fun game.

    I have a narrative and somewhat cinematic style. I don't worry as much about carrying capacity and number of arrows.

    I change rules in certain circumstances to throw the players/characters off: tiny monsters who can't be killed, or dead-zone magic areas.

    And on the flipside, if something works cinematically, it's more likely to work (for players or opponents) despite rules that don't quite allow it. (Player reactions to a mind flayer "stepping out" of the ether, and attaching itself to a player is worth some action-count bending.)

    I have a standing "don't annoy me" rule. Which really means don't over-optimize and if you find something broken, only use it once or occasionally.

    Within that context, I feel free to change rules to maintain the type of game I want to run...but it's with the implicit permissions of the players who understand that I may do so--and my style didn't work well for some good friends, who like to optimize and know exactly what to expect.

    And on the flipside, my rule changes are not random or unfair. They are crafted to maintain a mood (one time changes) or to fix something that bugs me about the game (extended changes.)

  5. I'm going to swim against the current and say that I pretty much wholeheartedly agree with Jake. However, I think that's because we're approaching the question from a different angle to the esteemed fellows who have commented before me. Mostly, I feel, the point raised is not whether the approaches outlined above are ever helpful or necessary. To me, it seems, this discussion is about the nature of advice.
    Mary Schmich wrote that "advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth." However, having trained as a counsellor, and worked for some years as a Student Welfare Officer, I like to think there is at least one other form of advice; one that is less about the giver, and more about the receiver.
    I don't doubt that those who make the suggestions described in this blog post have the best intentions, but I believe that Jake is bemoaning their failure to address his concerns in a way that is useful TO HIM. A feature which could be considered the hallmark of good (or at least useful) advice.
    To my mind, the most critical requirement of "good advice" is knowing your audience. If a veteran GM clearly asks a direct question about a specific circumstance, he is unlikely to be assisted by non-specific, generic dismissals of the issue that amount to little more than platitudes. He knows he can throw players out, or make up rules... heck, I knew those things when I was ten.
    This blog post strikes me as an appeal to every would-be adviser, just to pause before responding and think "what does this person actually want from me?" And, personally, I think online RPG communities could only benefit from such a revolution. :-)