Building a Better GM Challenge

From Hill Cantons. Quite coincidently, I’ve been thinking about pretty much the same thing the past couple of days.

Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?

1- Know the damn rules. You don’t have to have them memorized, but you have to know them well enough to be able to be internally consistent when you makes rulings on the fly – and those rulings really need to cleave to the combined spirit of the rules themselves and the campaign you’re running.

2- It’s a sandbox, not a sandpit or a litter box. I used to steal shamelessly from anything at the drop of a hat. Now, while I still steal shamelessly, I take the time to make sure it “fits” into both my DM-style and my campaign world. As a result, players feel free to run with their own concepts, knowing that I’ll work with them to make sure it fits rather than being stuck with a dead-end idea or concept.

3- I only just realized this a little bit ago, but I also think that what makes things work is being evocative. People are coming to play in your sandbox. Not just any old sandbox, yours. Make it your own, make it different, make it identifiable, give it a soul all its own. It doesn’t matter what that is, just let it be something you enjoy and are comfortable with.

What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?

1- The players will trust you. The rulings will “make sense” and enhance the game rather than bog it down. Plus, when you understand the rules, it lets you understand why the world wants to act in a certain way – because you understand the “grand unified theory” behind it all.

2- Understanding that a sandbox still has conceptual boundaries. Knowing what they are (for me) lets me relax and let the world do some the work itself. For example, my world has firearms and magic (plus things in the middle like darters), I know that why they exist and how they both fit. I can extrapolate, on the fly, from my “base principles” and make things up that I don’t have to shoehorn in later and explain away with handwavium.

3- It aids in the suspension of disbelief that is needed for TT RPG’s. It also softens the blow of bad things happening to characters and makes the goods things that much sweeter. It’s not a “magic shortsword” it’s “The Sword of Kas”. Players feel like they are in a world that they can do things in, where they can have an effect on things – which is, ideally, a spur to their own activities.

How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?

I read a lot. Fiction and non-fiction.

I role-play – both as a player elsewhere and as the voice/face of all the NPC’s in my game world.

I let players win. Yes, you can win in this game. My current players can hear about the stories of old characters who have now passed into the myth and legend of the world. Some of my current players played those legends, some of them have had the opportunity to meet those legends. Some characters win by “failing” miserably, and having to be put down by the rest of the party – and as a result live on in infamy…

I’m not cheap. I don’t really care that much how much magic players have (either item’s or powers). There is always a bigger elephant. I have yet to give a player anything, in 32 years of gaming, that I couldn’t bypass, steal back, destroy, or otherwise render ineffective if I wanted to. Most of the time I don’t care, and it’s a great way to reward players for success at whatever it is that they have decided to do.

I have a similar attitude about character level. I really don’t care, I think that the process of leveling up is fun and important, but I’ve run really fun low-level games and I’ve run really fun high-level games – if people are having fun, who cares? I have yet to run into a character with a level so high I still couldn’t say, “You explode” in response to a comment of they made in passing regarding the NPC they were interacting with. (and I did that once running a BYOC game at GenCon – nobody else blinked, they just healed him up, and the game went on).

I make sure I’m having fun. If I’m not having fun, my game suffers. That means my players suffer. So I have to make sure I’m having fun. I can look and see the times in the past where this was not the case, and I can see the effect it had on my game…

I have a well-designed, well-balanced world with lots of detail but enough blank spots and fuzzy edges that I can always add something new if I need or want to. The world isn’t there to trap me, or trap the players, it’s there to give us all the opportunity to tell some great stories based on the actions of the characters and how the dice roll.

Yeah, stories. If you don’t want to tell stories, play poker. This doesn’t mean there has to be a pre-determined narrative arc, but everyone likes to tell the story of what happened afterwards and brag about what they did. As the DM, give them some stories to tell! And please, most people don’t want to spend lots of time talking about how many of their characters have died trying to survive in your world.

Heh, I may revisit this whole thing at some point.


Categories: Campaign Development, Game Design, Game Play | Tags: | Leave a comment

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