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.