This is How I Roll (my d20)

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.

Action!
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.

Concordance
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?”

Comments

Fantastic article Michael. All this talk of DnD has got me digging out my old rulebooks and modules. Reading them has given me a huge rush of nostalgia! Living in rural MB, I never got the chance to play DnD but now I might seek out a group to play with, either locally or online.

Michael this is awesome.

and ...

murder simulator, poker night, and drama club

May be the single best description of table top RPG I have ever read.

Really great read. I'm not of an age where I can find nostalgia in table-top stuff. Nor did I find myself mingling with the people playing it. But maybe it's not too late, eh? Sounds like it could be a lot of fun.

Is there a 4th Edition Review coming? Anybody tried it out in their own groups?

I'm running a sort of Ice Mother Campaign (the world is covered in a new ice age and the only god worshiped by humans (the only playable race) is the Goddess of Ice, who slew the other gods and started her own ice age. The next time I DM straight D&D (I dont use XP usually in my campaigns since they can really lead to "What do I kill next for my XP fix" mentality) I was thinking of 4th Ed. but the changes seem so big and the needs for miniatures so strong that its hard to fathom switching to it (I've heard rumors that they didnt include several races and classes in the PHB for inclusion in a SECOND phb?!? WTF?) so I'd love to hear from anybody whose gotten their grubby mitts on it and delved deep.

Benticore
Out

Bah, nevermind, I just found the 4th Ed. Catchall.

I apologize for my pervasive tardosity.

Benticore
Duurrr

Thanks for the tips. I've been trying to learn what I can about DMing and PnP gaming as it looks like I'll finally be able to actually join a group (albeit online).

Also, board games + GWJ = awesome

Dang, that armor is so much cooler than I pictured it in my head.

Well written, but I find the "If there are girls there I want to do them" clip to be both hilarious and unfortunately very close to the heart of what old school DnD was like. With the advent of the modern MMOs Renaissance I can't imagine why anyway would want to go back to the Dark Ages of analog role playing, tapping out their moves in morse code.

Fantastic! Thanks for posting this! Good to see the ol' Tabletop Die-Hards alive and well.
Hearts.

I don't know how they did it, but I'm excited about D&D for the first time in 20 years. Jesus, maybe I need to move closer to a strip clup.

Benticore wrote:

I apologize for my pervasive tardosity.

Benticore
Duurrr

That's going in my sig, man.

Also - thanks for the great article, Zenke.

You forgot to mention - think long and hard about what goodies you give your players, it can really wreck your game - but you can save that for the 201 course.

Nice article, D&D was my first rpg, but haven't played more since then appart from PC games. Now I play in a spanish community with a sort of a special forum system that works really well for slow paced narrative games.

http://www.comunidadumbria.com

I think they are working on translating the site but right now all is in spanish.

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.

I was disturbed from what I heard at other tables during the recent 4e game day and what I've read online. There were lots of accounts of total player kills or information given out afterwards that the character (being 'real' in that world) would have probably known themselves and helped get through the adventure alive.

I came to the table ready to teach the new game and sell my excitement of it. If my 'winning' was going to come from the how the characters didn't get far I was going to be the only one having fun at that table and I might end up turning people against the very game I wanted them to be playing.

I'm not sure how much teaching I did but everyone said they enjoyed their game, that sounds like a win to me.

DragonStrike was hilarious. If you dig DragonStrike's video, see if you can find a copy of the First Quest CD.

Great read! My current (v.3.5) campaign is headed for the finish line, so I've been looking 4th Edition over too. I get the impression that there will be less rules arguments with it - not that my group has had any, mind you, but it's always a concern.

All of the skills you mention are important, or at least, really helpful. Knowing how to read your table is essential, but mine is an online, chat-based game, which makes it pretty hard to do. I usually have to ask "Are you feeling all right?" in an IM window or the like if a player isn't giving me much to work with. But, like at a table, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Joining or forming the right group is totally crucial - when I was younger, and had more free time on my hands, I'd play with anybody just to be playing. I turned to chat-based gaming just to find people with compatible tastes; now that I have, I actually prefer online roleplaying to table-based gaming. YMMV, naturally.

As I mentioned in the GWJ Roleplaying Group Thread, I went out and bought the Player Handbook on Saturday. If 4e is streamlined, I can't imagine what 3.5 must have been like. I'm trying to create my first character in about 20 years (for realz, yo) and it's taking me forever to figure out what I need to do.

Not complaining mind ya. I'm having more fun than I should, plugging in numbers

Michael~

Great article. Takes me back to games played with overly zealous rules lawyers and way over the top roll players. I am really looking forward to diving into 4e and think that the sharpening of the rules will really help you and all the other DMs out there moderate your player parties which on occasion what can essentially become a barrel full of bleeding Piranhas feeding on themselves.

Thanks again for the great read.

Why has there been no PC rpg based on the Rifts universe? That would be so great.

So tempted to pick the corebooks up. But I just invested in Deadlands and our campaign has been stalled for quite a while now. Maybe I'll check it out when the online component gets released and play with some Goodjers.

doodle_robot wrote:

Why has there been no PC rpg based on the Rifts universe? That would be so great.

Very true.