GM Advice: The Game Master's Ten Commandments

Lo, my children. The Dice Gods have given unto me ten commandments for every Game Master to live by!

I. Thou Shalt Be Prepared When Thou Approacheth The Table: Before you even arrive at the table, be sure that you have your notes, plot hooks, encounters and maps ready to go. Have the story you want to run in your head, or at least the basic idea of your story. Bring your books, your dice, and paper. You will need all of this. Your players look to you as the example. If you don't have your shit together, how can they be expected to have their collective shit together?

 "All of it. Together."

II. Thou Shalt Not Stare At Thine Computer Screen All Night: This is a big pet peeve of mine. Technology has advanced since the days of Chainmail and the Red Box, and for the most part it is a good thing. However, there are drawbacks. The most annoying of which is sitting down at a table and watching your Game Master avoid eye contact for an entire session as they stare at their laptop. Its impersonal in a game built on personal interaction. Print your notes, make an outline, keep your books handy, hell, even keep the computer off to the side for quick glances, but for the love of the Gods, lift your head and look your players in the eye. They'll be terrified, but they will thank you.

 "Yeah. Just like that."

III. Knoweth When To Flub: Some Game Masters operate without a screen, rolling their dice all willy-nilly out in the open. There is nothing wrong with that, operating with total transparency, and letting fate decide the fate of your player characters and your own antagonists for that matter. That being said, it's not how I roll. My greatest DM secret is that my dice do not dictate my story. Coolness dictates my story.
If the players have been ransacked by an ettin, and the beast has been trouncing them soundly, and the cleric,in a last ditch effort, beseeches her Goddess to give her the strength to hinder their foe-I am most likely going to flub my roll for said ettin's save when the bane spell is cast. Why? Because good encounters, be they in movies, books, or on the table, are an artful shift back and forth, with both sides of the conflict gaining an advantage, and losing it. That is how I roll. If you crunch the math just right, you can maim them down to 1hp without actually killing them.

 "Dance, puppets. Dance."

IV. Thou Shalt Not Look Up Rules Mid-Game: You are the Game Master, and while you are not infallible, it is generally accepted that you know the rules of the game you are running. Should an event arise where you find yourself stumped, make a judgment call. It need not be set in stone. You can always look it up later. Nothing stops a good encounter dead in its tracks like pausing to flip through a book to find an obscure rule about flanking underwater.

"Look it up faster! LOOK IT UP FASTER!"

V. Thou Shalt Challenge Thine Players: No one likes being brutally murdered by falling rocks, and running around knowing that your Game Master is going to take it easy on you is just plain boring. You need to find that perfect balance of letting them think you are out to kill them, but in actuality, you have no intention of it. Find ways to challenge your players, be it through social encounters for your combat oriented characters, or combat encounters for your social characters. Think of ways to prey on your players' weaknesses and play up their strengths. You want to shine a spotlight on them, but you want them to know that the spotlight draws attention.

"Right there. Good. Now hold still, the dragon will be here soon..."

VI. Thou Shalt Engage Thine Players: There are few things I dislike more at a gaming table than a Game Master so engrossed in their own story that they can't hear the players (I know I am going to catch some flack for this one).

You may have encountered this type; the extra-prepared GM who has a small novella written about each room of his dungeon and knows the one and only way out of every situation. While there is nothing wrong with knowing your world and its history, they leave no wiggle room for player ingenuity and shoots down creative suggestions from players. This Game Master cannot adapt to a changing story because they are too enamored with their narrative that they don't care to listen to what his players have to say.

It's the GM's game and GM's story, so the GM will run it any way they want. That, my friends, does not make for a fun game. Stay loose, improvise a lot, and really listen to your players. Talk to them. Open up a dialogue with them, because they are the best random generators you have at your disposal, and they will throw you a curve-ball every time.

 "By law I am required to make one sports reference per year."

VII. Railroad Not Thine Players: This is an extension of the above commandment. Game Masters sometimes forget that the story they are telling is the players' story. You could argue with me until you were blue in the face, but it doesn't change the fact that the players are the driving force behind the story. The Dark Tower Series is a collection of books written by (fellow Mainah) Stephen King, but don't kid yourself, it's Roland Deschain's story. Without the players, you don't have a story, you have notes... lots and lots of notes. If you are gung-ho about writing a story that player characters can't interfere with, become a novelist. Mic... dropped.

 ", could someone pick that up? It's not mine."

But I digress. Because of the preconceived notion that "it's my way or the highway", these GMs can have pretty narrow mentality on how they think the story ought to progress. Players don't like the idea that despite their best efforts, no matter what action they take, they have no choice on how their story turns out, even if what you have planned is super-banana-pancakes-amaze-balls. A story is a player character's destiny. There is an end in sight, and to not be able to have any control over that destiny makes them feel small, and anything they do feel futile.

If the wooded trail in the Thornfang Forrest leads to the lair of the Green Dragon who has the princess in his clutches, and you require said fair damsel to complete the party's contract with the King, and they decide they want to go to the lake in the other flippin' direction (because... fishing?), do NOT go out of your way to make sure the lake has been mysteriously drained of water and filled with acid, and sharks, and acid sharks, and owl bears riding acid sharks that have been retrofitted with frickin' laser beams strapped to their heads. Improvise. Toss the damned dragon in the lake (short fishing trip), or in a cave near the lake. Roll with what they give you, it may turn out better than you hoped. Half of Game Mastering is floating in a sea of plot hooks that have never been nibbled.

"Here player, player, player. I've got a nice tasty quest for you!"

VIII. Thou Shalt Take Notes:You do a lot of things in a session. Your players likewise do a lot of things. There is a lot going on with trying to kill them, and them stubbornly surviving to kill your villains another day. You all should feel accomplished. But, while running an entire universe, some things tend to go unnoticed. That's why the Gods made... notebooks. Take notes of everything. New NPCs, treasure, magic items, plot developments, which players are plotting your inevitable demise. Keep notes near you of location names, random encounters, and a list of fantasy names for all the major races in case they decide to turn Random Peasant A into a major NPC. Notes make organizing your game soooooo much easier.

"Gonna file this under "T" for TPK"

IX. Remember Thine Players Are Not Foes Of Thee: This comes up a lot. Playing all the villains in a game can take a toll, and put you in the mindset as the party's real-life antagonist. That sense of regret and anger when players defeat that villain you were so certain was going to murder them relentlessly is really the villain within calling.

Do not listen to it. It does not bring tidings of cookies and hugs.

You should be proud that they were clever enough to destroy the phylactery of the dread lich Malnefarious (copyright pending) before throwing him into that volcano. At no point should you actively go out of your way to kill the player characters. Challenge them? Yes. Put them in danger? Absolutely. But never try to kill them. Murdering your player characters arbitrarily does not make you a good GM, it makes you a Dick GM. Don't be Dick.

Now, if your characters make a dumb move, like diving head first into a gelatinous cube to retrieve the shiny pendant... well, you don't have to be nice all the time.

 "Almost... got it..."

X. Thou Shalt Have Fun: You are playing a game. The very point of doing so is to have fun. Yes, your end of things requires a butt-ton of work and a (basic) understanding of the three to fifty books worth of rules, but it can be ridiculously fun. If ever it stops being fun for you, it will stop being fun for your players. Roleplaying Games are a shared experience. If fun isn't being had by one, fun is being had by none.
At that point, it is time to reevaluate things. Why aren't you having fun? Why aren't they having fun? Is the game no longer working for you? Is there a problem player? Address the issue, and don't let it fester. The longer you wait, the longer you go without all the fun.

You need that fun. Need it!

"Fun is mandatory."

Remember thy commandments, bring them onto your table, and live the life of a righteous Game Master. Go forth my child, and the blessings of the Dice Gods be upon thee. And fear not, for I have not let thine Players off the hook that easily. They too have a set of commandments to enrich their lives.

Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard 

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