The normally convivial social activity that is pen and paper gaming has a dark side. Not dark like “murder/suicide pacts in the steam tunnels” dark. Actually not even “if there are girls there I want to do them” dark. But still - dark. I’m referring to the inevitable sand in the swimtrunks that every group has to deal with: The Rules. For some, they’re a bane that needs to be beaten into submission. For others, they’re a means to an end, easy stepping stones along the path to a good story. And for still others they’re a secret lover, the only one that really understands them.
The average gaming group will have a mix of all three of these player-types. Getting them to collaborate, amiably, is an epic-level challenge. With a brand-new edition of Dungeons and Dragons just released I’m gearing up to dive back into the fray. I’ve been organizing games for almost twenty years, and running herd on a group of possibly-surly gamers can get complicated.
Consider this a brief anecdotal guide to being a Game Master (GM). When I’m behind the GM screen, this is how I roll.
Running a game isn’t a task I take lightly. Coordinating these strange blends of murder simulator, poker night, and drama club can get hectic. The social friction, when it inevitably comes, is not pretty. I’m a veteran of multi-year campaigns, and I can tell you that nothing in the world is as deadly to a group as rule fights. I rank rule fights slightly below sleeping with the GM’s wife in terms of ‘danger to your group’s social fabric.’
Comparatively, we are now living in good times – the Fourth Edition rules are works of art. Back in the day, “GM Fiat” was not the sporty car your rules arbitrator drove to the session. The rules, at their core, were meant to simulate certain events as they happened in real time. In the mind’s eye two warriors of great skill might clash and riposte, but on the tabletop platonic solids were the weapons of choice. Those initial rules, mostly cobbled together from wargaming guidelines, had a lot of holes. Edge cases were common as the base components only covered a very specific set of circumstances. As a result GM rulings from on high, by fiat, were the law of the land.
On paper that sounds fine. The GM (likely one of the folks with the most experience in gaming) makes a call to move the game along. Fudging things to keep a game’s momentum going sounds like a fine idea, divested from reality. Problems arise when humans enter the picture. More problems arise when the humans in question are a combination of a) young b) socially inept and c) suffering from self-esteem problems.
One fine day a heated game-related argument forever damaged my nascent middle-school social group, and all over a piece of gear. The game was Rifts, a sort of post-apocalyptic appetizer sampler for tabletop players. Elves and orcs rubbed shoulders with power armor, drug fiends, and laser weapons. The equipment was a suit of powered armor that allowed the wearer to cover long distance by jetpack-hopping. The suit was popular among players for its low price and the long distances you could travel. Plus (in our mind's eye) it looked cool to bounce along like a demonic grasshopper.
My colleague, who I’ll call Chester, disagreed with almost every element of this piece of gear. Ches was a big fan of simulation, always worrying over whether adventuring parties had enough water and food. When he ran games, heaven help you if you left town without your jerky. As I recall, he had three primary reasons for why the “Triax Terrain Hopper” armor was a poor choice:
1.) A human who attempted to move quickly via the suggested means of locomotion would find his ankle-bones ground into powder.
2.) The 'hopping' mode of transportation wasn’t any more fuel efficient than simple jet-pack flight (and he had the math to prove it).
3.) The armor looked waaaay stupider that the SAMAS suits utilized by the totalitarian Coalition forces.
It might seem odd to mention this seemingly minor spat in such detail. This ridiculous argument tore asunder my first gaming group. Two relatively stable guys just couldn't see eye-to-eye on a tiny detail, and let things get out of control. Afterwards I would (more or less) go without pen and paper gaming until I graduated from college.That experience taught me some very solid lessons about people. When I run games now, almost every session sees me making use of skills I’ve honed since that pyroclastic nerdsplosion.
Read the Table
Probably the most important thing to remember is that tabletop gaming is all about having fun. End of line, full stop, etc. If everyone at the table is not having fun, ur doin’ it wrong. Now, everyone doesn’t have to have fun all the time and a moment of boredom doesn’t mean you should shoot your GM. It’s more important to look long-term. Do games end with players on the edges of their seats, excited about what just happened? Are there jokes, is everyone laughing, do you see smiles? Alternatively, are there a lot of lengthy pauses? A lot of vacant stares and rolling eyes? Read the mood at the table every session, and don’t be afraid to do something drastic.
Drastic action is something a lot of groups feel uncomfortable with. Like any ongoing activity, players and GMs get into a sort of lull where it’s just expected that this certain group will get together at this certain time and to X, Y, Z. If X,Y, and Z are stressful or boring for most of the players, why would they do this week after week? Because of the same reason Chester and I accidentally got into a huge blowout: they’re friends. No one wants to be exclusionary, the assumption is that everyone will get along, but that’s not always the case. Once you’ve read the table, decide if maybe a different group or a completely different way of playing might be in order. Don’t let “because we’ve always done it this way” ruin your experiences with friends.
To doubly reinforce this idea, make sure that everyone is actually showing up to play the same game. That is, make sure everyone’s expectations are matched up. If Jim likes hack n’ slash dungeon crawling and Bob wants to roleplay every encounter with the pointy things merchant, odds are there will be some friction. Set up your players to have fun by finding out what they want out of the game – in as many words. “What do you want to do?” is a hard question to answer, but even answers in the negative can help you shape your perfect game.
Fudge the Dice
My personal view is that the perfect game will include another important feature: a willingness to cheat when needed. Not the players – players should always follow the rules, if only as a courtesy to the other folks in their group. No, GMs should feel free to cheat to make the game better. By cheat, I don’t mean instakill your players on a whim. Cheating in the context of tabletop gaming should mean “a willingness to consider every situation on its own merits.” Did the players come up with a really good idea that you totally didn’t plan for? Why penalize them because you weren’t as creative as they were? Did the players accidentally take down a villain you’ve spent a ton of time on? Daring escapes are a villain standard!
Let the Ego hit the Floor
As a final suggestion, one learned through long and bitter experience, try to leave your ego at the door. That whole “having fun” thing applies to GMs as well, but the criterion for fun when you’re GMing is very different. If all you want to do is play with a certain group of players, you’re going to have to cater to their style of gameplay. If you want to run an epic campaign and all they want to do is bash some gnolls, seeking a middle ground will take some effort. By the same token, players will never be impressed by the stuff you spent a lot of time on. The encounter they’re going to talk about for weeks is the one you threw together in twenty minutes and mostly winged. Meet them halfway, realize that it’s their game too, and roll with the punches.
If you’re just joining the ranks of dice-rolling auteur, I salute you. The line of Dungeon Masters, Game Masters, Storytellers, Arbiters and Judges is a long and proud one. The only way to learn how to do it is to do it. So pick up that screen, throw down that d20 and ask your players in your creepiest voice … “Feeling brave tonight?”