Friday, August 16, 2013

Jake's Rules Of GMing

So I ended getting into a couple of debates(ish) about GMing and it made me realize that I have never really set down my views on this topic in writing. I then took it upon myself to write out how I design a session of play. I do not do this to tell you how to run your games. Your games probably run fine the way you run them, Nor is my way the only way, or even the best way. It is the best way for me, though.

So first a bit of back story. The first game I ever played was WEG Star Wars. This was also the first game I ever ran. Those events happened simultaneously. I ran the game before ever playing it. Al of my friends had played the game before, but they made me run it. it would be two years before I ever got a chance to play in a game. So my first two years of gaming were reading game books and running games. Of course I was thirteen in Montana, so the games were not frequent. In total, over the course of 19 years of gaming, I have played less games than i have fingers. On the other hand, all of my characters were awesome. Its true, ask around. I'll wait.

Great, your back! Now, where was I? Oh right, my gaming style. Here goes, a primer for how Jake runs his games.

The adventure must be clear

By this I mean that there must be a clear reason spelled out to the players as to why they should get involved. as a GM it is often very tempting to add layers of mystery and complexity to a session. It is fun, it scratches that creative itch that GMs tend to feel when they are all alone designing the adventure. For me, when the urge strikes, I ignore it. nine times out of ten, the more complex and mysterious you make something, the less sense it will make to the characters. Give them a clear goal, give them a strong reason to attain that goal.

Plan the Beginning tightly, plan the Middle loosely, Keep a few ideas as to how it might End

This is less a hard and fast rule and more a suggestion. Most of the time I follow this. Occasionally I dabble with trying it another way. I stick with this so that I never get target focus. Target focus is when you focus on your goal so much that you crash right into it. When you are planning an adventure do most of your work on the hook and initial couple of scenes. Then have a few solid ideas where those scenes will lead. Then come up with the major NPCs and a bunch of minion stats ahead of time. All you need for the end is a couple of idea on what would constitute the end of the scenario. What things, when accomplished, would mean that the current arc is over? Then those are the endings. that is it. Let how it ends and when it ends come up through play.

Each step the players take should bring them obviously closer or obviously further from there goal

Never let the players feel like you are giving them the run around. I cannot stress this enough. When the players come up with a plan. When they set that plan into motion. The success or failure of that plan should be of direct consequence to their overall goals. Incremental increase is the same as no movement at all. When you have the plan only have a minor effect it feels like no effect. Also letting it have a big effect lets the players in on the story creation. They are in charge of that part. When you make it not matter all that much it feels like you are saying no.

Try not to say no

Ok this is another wibbly-wobbly one. I treat it like a hard and fast rule, though. I do this so that I do not have no in my heart. Often this advice is said as, "Say yes or roll the dice." Now when I first got this advice it blew my gourd. It changed everything. However, I kinda did that thing people do. You know where you go way too far with it. Sometimes you have to say no. Sometimes saying yes will make the game worse. Not often, but every now and again. So I tell my self to try to not say no. It is less absolute, yes. That makes it a weaker statement. But this post is about what helps me with my games. I don't need absolutes. I need things I can remember that will make the game better.

Allow for closure

This is just sort of an adjunct to the previous. This is to remind myself that there is a time for the GM to shut up and let the players have their moment. When they have earned their victory, let them enjoy it. Don't drop in with an, "actually..." or some such. In a crime novel this would be called the Denouement. I love me a good denouement, almost as much as I love a good montage, but that is neither here nor there. Let the players beet the bad guy. Don't make it easy or anything, but in the end let them take him down. If you are doing your job right, then they have earned it.

Let them get the bad guy

Again related to the previous rule. I often will come up with an awesome bad guy. I mean, Doctor Doom level awesome. When that happens you have this idea in your head that you will get to use this villain over and over again. That he is going to escape and be a pain in the neck for years to come. Then the players come in, shoot him, chop off his head, roll him up in a carpet, and set him on fire. Then they salt the earth. So the next villain you give a bunch of escape hatches and stuff. That doesn't work. If you make your villain right, they will walk through fire and broken glass to kill that bastard. So you start to cheat a little. He's a super genius after all, so he has contingencies and all that. Then he just gets away. This is a bad way to game. You are now trying to force conventions from another media onto a game. Games are different from books, movies, or any traditional storytelling method. They create a different narrative. Games let you win. The mechanics are impartial(mostly). Once you start cheating to let the bad guy get away, you are telling the players that this game is really about the bad guy and not the PCs. This sets up a versus mentality. They will now start to derail your plot. in small ways at first, testing the waters. Then it becomes a viscous circle. Don't let this happen. When they come for the villain, make it a fair fight. don't let the guy escape unless it makes sense in the narrative.
This is a game, play by the rules if you don't the players will get upset

Now what I mean by rules is a little larger than you might be thinking. the rules are those written in the book yes. They also include any house rules that have been agreed upon by the table. Rules also include any sort of agreement as to how the game is going to play out. When you start breaking any of the rules, this is when you get mismatched expectation. The players expected one thing from you, and you are now delivering another thing. It doesn't matter why you are doing it. It doesn't matter that you are really making the narrative stronger. It does not matter why at all. You are now cheating. The players can no longer trust the rules because you are doing something that makes no sense in the game. Everything is up for grabs. I know it doesn't seem that way when you are doing it. I know that you can get away with it. I know that the players will never know. Except it is that way, you can't get away with it, the players will know, and it is a terrible habit to get into. Don't break the rules. They are the only thing everyone at the table agrees on.

Villains do not plan for failure

You know what separates the villains from the rest? Winning. They are winners. they plan to win. They break rules to win. Everything they do is toward a goal they are trying to achieve. They do not take the time to plan what if scenarios. They do not contemplate the thought they might fail. They look at their plan. they see all the obvious flaws. They expect to win. When things go south villains are making it up as they go. So when you are putting together the villains plan don't bother to think to hard on what they will do when the PCs start to ruin their plan. The villain did not consider losing. Why should you.

Make them suffer

Killing a PC causes the plot to stop. it is boring. There absolutely nothing interesting about it, unless the player initiates a glorious last stand moment. And that only happens once or twice a year. Do not kill your characters. Make them suffer. Cause them pain. Make them care about things they do not want to care about. Make them paranoid. Play with their minds. HURT THEM. A player character who is hurt has motivation and fear. With those to things I could run campaigns till the cows come home. Don't kill them, hurt them.

They win, whatever that means

At the end of the day, the PCs win. Whatever win means in a given setting, they will succeed at their goals to some extent.  I know you want to hurt them, but the pain is only their to make the victory that much sweeter. Oddly enough the smaller the victory, the greater the pain you should inflict. Think of victory as making up for all the misery. It is not about equaling zero, it is about increasing teh distance from the lowest point to the highest point. If you highest point is pretty low, then you need to go into the negatives to make a difference big enough to notice. That is what is known as catharsis(well not really, but I never get use that word enough).

So there is my basic guidelines for how I create and run games. There is a bit of detail work and balancing issues that come up for specific games and the like. However, this is how I play. Let me know what you think.


  1. I totally agree with the point on clarity. I've had several GMs who had long complex plots, but we either only played once a month or so, or completely lost track of loose ends. NPCs even started to distrust the party because we'd leave them hanging or fail to fulfill promises just because we forgot about them. It's hard enough when you have to think about your own character and other PCs, but worrying about the motivations of many NPCs all of whom are trying to decieve you is nearly impossible.

  2. Finally got a chance to read this. You and I have gone over this before. I still enjoy the idea that villains play to win, but still believe some of the best written antagonists I have seen in different media have a myriad of contingency plans. You and I align on just about everything here. I'd like to add one thought, though.

    You said you've been playing for almost two decades--same here. We know what works best for us. It happens with experience. But, over time, we find neat things to add to our bag of tricks. So, what works best for me right now, very possibly might change over the next year or 10.