My Gamemastering Credo, Revisited
The recent Keep On the Borderlands game I’ve been talking about so much has been taken up largely for the purpose of showing the ropes to a new player who wants to eventually be a GM and asked me to give them a working example. Get me, being all mentorey!
In any case, as I’ve been examining gamemastery from the ground up as part of this whole rope-showing exercise, I decided that now would be a propitious time to re-examine my Gamemastering Credo.
This was a concept I first heard from The Angry GM.  As the name implies, a Gamemastering Credo is simply an explicit list of underlying principles that guide you as you create, plan, and run games. I had a whack at it near the beginning of my last campaign, but we’re two years on now and both the group and the venue have morphed, as have my priorities. Time for another round!
- Specific trumps general.
- The rules provide a framework for interacting with the game world. The “book” (whatever book that may be) is the baseline, and any variations from that baseline (i.e., “house rules”) will be made clear before a player is required to make a decision.
- I will use game systems that use the minimum possible complexity for the desired effect.
- As referee, my job is to understand the rules, and to interpret them when there is ambiguity. Rulings at the table will be treated as house rules going forward.
- When I present a game to the group, it is a proposal, not a dictum. I will do my best to run the game the players want to play. Also: I am one of the players.
- The world is “my character.”
- I will not take away players’ freedom of choice without their consent.
- I will not create “guessing game” situations.
- I don’t know how any given scenario will end, and I have at best an educated guess about how the middle will go.
- I will not allow players to wander into deadly peril without warning.
- I will present multiple hooks that are reasonably easy to find. Player characters can always say “no.”
- Some players “build” a character; some “discover” the character through play. Therefore, I will not require back-stories, disadvantages, or similar character flags to begin the game.
- It’s okay to take the game seriously.
- “Spotlight Time” is the real currency of any game.
- I am running for the group, not for any individual player.
- The players and the characters are reflections through a clouded mirror.
- However: NPCs are speaking for themselves; they are not the GM wearing a mask.
- I will roll dice in the open.
- If there is a choice between the players rolling dice, or NPCs/monsters rolling dice, the players will roll the dice.
- I will not show you things you can’t have, although it may require effort to acquire it.
- If it takes more than three sentences to describe your surroundings, I need to simplify.
- I will override the game system if I feel there’s a compelling reason to do so.
- I will allow group override.
For instance, if we are playing a game where your party are members of an organization and given assignments, that supersedes the usual principles of providing multiple hooks.
A game system that cannot easily be played without computer assistance (or at most a pocket calculator), is an undesirable game system. I didn’t realize just how sick I was of 3.x/PF until I started messing with 5E.
House rules are always subject to evaluation and debate between sessions. During a session, if we can’t come to an agreement within a few minutes, I’ll pick a ruling and go on, subject to debate later.
This used to be multiple items on the list, but really it should all be in one bucket. Until we’ve all agreed to a campaign premise and its attendant house rules, it’s up for modification or veto. There’s no point in trying to run a game we don’t all want to play. If as time goes on, the campaign evolves, or the players would like to take it in another direction, that’s fine, as long as we’re all on the same page about it. Of course, you have to let me know what that is! I am occasionally shocked to find out there’s something that’s been bugging someone for ages and I had no idea. The whole point of the item above is that we should all be expecting more or less the same thing out of a game. Also, keep in mind that as the GM, I’m one of the players too. I can’t run a game I hate!
(Lifted from the Angry GM, but a good corollary to the above.) I create the world and I control it. I often invite input from others, but ultimately, I have to run the world and therefore, it has to be a world I want to run. Nothing becomes a part of the world without my say so. Just as one player couldn’t tell another that his elf has to speak in rhymes because obviously all elves do that, a player couldn’t tell me that there are Pokémon down in my dungeons if I don’t want there to be.
Player Choices and Scenario Structure
This one was kind of “baked in” to my last draft, but really deserves its own heading. In a good game, player choices are what drives the narrative. Although I can make educated guesses about the players’ likely course of action, if I have a set outcome in mind already, I might as well be writing a book.
There are specific temporary exceptions to this. A character who’s been dominated by a vampire has very little freedom of choice, for example. But even then, when possible, I will present the player with: “You have been compelled to achieve goal X. How do you wish to go about it?”
This is a corollary to the above item. It doesn’t mean that I’ll telegraph the result of relatively minor choices (“turn right or left at the end of the hall”); what this does mean is that you will always either have the information you need to make an important choice, or knowing that you lack information, you’ll be able to get it, even if that’s by asking me directly. (Of course, if asked directly, I may answer with, “Perhaps you should look for clues.” That’s part of gaming, after all!) If you ever feel like a life-or-death decision might as well be the flip of a coin, I’ve done something wrong.
This is another corollary. I will create scenarios, not scenes. Scripted events (“if player kills cult leader while he’s chanting, summoned monster will go berserk”) may occur, but I will not force their appearance (“no matter how long it takes the players to get to the summoning chamber, the priest will be just about to finish his chant”). A scripted in medias res moment might be used to kickstart a campaign or a session, as appropriate for the campaign, but those will not be done in a way that takes away the players’ freedom of choice, as described earlier.
If players choose to put themselves in deadly peril, I will not shield them from it, either. Note that going to an adventure site (however that may be defined for the game at hand) is by default “being in deadly peril” unless you have reason to believe otherwise. In a combat situation, the opposition will be playing to win.
Hooks are there to provide some kind of structure beyond “You are here, and here’s a map, what do you do?” They are designed to help avoid “decision paralysis” and give you something to work with. They are not there to proclaim, “There’s the plot, go get it!” and then punish you if you don’t.
The issue of multiple hooks is also a matter of player choice: if you are completely free to do anything you want (as long it’s follow the only hook presented), you aren’t really free, are you? The consequences of following/not following one hook over another might be more or less desirable to your character– that’s just the way the world works. Deciding not to take the Ring to Mordor might suck for the world, but it’s still the players’ choice to make. But I have failed in my role as an impartial referee if there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of “What do you do?”
It’s important to note, not all campaigns work this way. Joining a campaign in which you are given a mission at the start of each adventure means that you have already agreed to accept and attempt to perform said missions from the start– or at the very least, refusing a given mission would represent a major event within the campaign framework. Thus freedom of choice is maintained.
(Names are still necessary for all characters, however. You are not playing chess pawns.) Be aware that this may leave your character seriously “underpowered” if the game system selected for a campaign builds such things into character creation (e.g., Savage Worlds). If all else fails, you could always use the 5E method and roll dice to pick something!
For those players who enjoy it, I will do my best to provide opportunities for your characters to pursue their own goals, tie their back-stories into the broader campaign, and so forth.
Again, this assumes that you let me know what those are. This is my favorite part of roleplaying games, so obviously for me the more the better; but it’s not everybody’s thing, and I don’t want it to be a requirement for participation the game.
Considerations At the Table
It’s also okay to not take the game seriously. The important thing is knowing when to do which. I will always try to create a coherent world that operates by a recognizable set of rules, but those rules will vary from world to world. The spooks in Ghostbusters are going to have a different level of “seriousness” from a cursed wraith in Dungeons & Dragons.
The real currency of the game is not gold pieces or experience points, it’s each player’s “moment to shine” at the table, and that must be distributed equitably. What that moment is, will vary from player to player. Some players love to chat up NPCs. Some players want to kick butt in combat. Some players want to make the other players laugh at their corny jokes. As long as any given player’s desires don’t invalidate anyone else’s, there’s no reason not to try to make it happen. However…
If this means saying, “Okay, that character goes off on their own adventure, please create a new character who will work with the group,” so be it. I will not start a session until the group has established a reason why the team exists and will work together. This can be as simple as “We are friends and want to go exploring” or “I own a ship and hired these guys to be my crew.”
(Also lifted from The Angry GM.) The characters are not direct reflections of the players. They do not have to say exactly the same things as each other. A character’s words and actions should be the players choices filtered through the lens of the world. But the characters and the players are reflections of each other at heart. If the players have stopped taking actions and are standing around talking, so are the characters. The characters may be saying different words and different characters may be contributing differently than the players are, but the characters and the players are having the same type of conversation about the same topic at the same time.
This will vary depending on circumstances, of course. I don’t mind inter-player “coaching” as long as it’s reasonable, so even if your character is unconscious or dead, it’s perfectly okay to suggest another player use ability X on creature Y or whatever. “Shut up, you’re unconscious!” is not my thing.
Like most humans, most NPCs are relatively honest, but there’s always the chance they may be wrong, they may be lying, or they may simply be making noise. But I’m not going to use NPCs to send you messages. As the GM, it’s my job to play “the rest of the world” based on what those people would do. If the barbarian hireling says “I’m bored, let’s go kill something,” it’s because the barbarian hireling is bored, not because I want to goad you into a fight scene.
I used to be a big ol’ fudger; I have since come to the conclusion that far from “making the game more fun,” this actually hurts the game in the long run, because the players can never know if they overcame a challenge on their own merits, or because the referee was “home cooking.” This in turn leads to the assumption that the PCs will win or lose due to GM predestination, which puts me right back in the role of having “written” the story before the players ever get to the table.
This may give the players metagame knowledge their characters could not reasonably have; I will trust the players not to abuse this.
For example, in a situation where the party is being tracked by a foe who intends to ambush them, rather than rolling the monster’s Stealth against the players’ passive Perception, I would instead say something like: “An owlbear has been stalking your party through the forest for an hour, and is closing in for the kill. Everyone make a Perception check against its Stealth to avoid surprise.” If the owlbear rolls really well and the players all roll badly the net result might be the same, but it will at least make the players active participants instead of simply receiving a bucket of damage out of the blue.
Note that this doesn’t mean I never roll dice. I’m not going to have players “roll their AC against the monster’s attack” for instance.
An artifact of the 3.x/PF system and its “magic economy” was that there were shops full of super-wifty magic items, that you could never be able to afford. The idea was supposed to be that you’d be inspired to go out and find treasure to get these things (and to restrict access to them until such time as they wouldn’t completely unbalance the game), but due to the “wealth-by-level guidelines,” the likelihood of finding the piles of money you’d need in any given adventure was vanishingly low.
That sucks, and I don’t want it happening in my games. However, as some of my players want the option of being able to take their bulging sacks of treasure back to town and buy cool new toys, the 5E assumption of “no magic shops” also doesn’t solve the problem. To that end, I will include opportunities for these “candy store” moments, but not include things you just can’t have on the shopping list.
This same principle holds true for other genres: if a player in a Star Wars game wants to get ahold of Boba Fett-style armor, I will find a way to make it available to them, and so forth. With the recognition that some players always just want MOAR BETTER STUFF, and that they may not always be the best judges of how it will impact a game, this may require metagame discussions to make sure the player’s wishes don’t interfere with the rest of the group’s or throw the campaign into disarray, etc. See also “I will try to run the game the players want to play” and “I’m running for the group, not any one player.”
Honestly, this is a note to myself. I tend to go purple in my room descriptions when I’m at the computer, and then regret it at the table when I find myself reading walls o’ text out loud.
If you’re in a fight with something that has a giant bag of hit points but that cannot possibly escape its doom, I’ll just say, “Fine, four rounds later it’s dead,” rather than make you sit there rolling dice. If we’ve had a long, grueling session and we all just want to call it a night, I’m not going to mess with random encounters as you trudge back to town.
Similar to the point above, if everybody agrees that something sucks, I will allow it to be altered. If everybody agrees that something would be awesome, I will let it happen. Note that “everybody” includes me.
I think that’s everything? As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s questions, comments, or suggestions.
 One of the most useful gaming blogs out there, along with Gnome Stew and a few others. His style is abrasive, which may or may not float your boat, but the content is rock solid.