The first time I’d ever taken the GM seat for an RPG campaign, I kept all my campaign notes in a college-ruled notebook. On the inside cover I wrote three rules. These rules were to be my guideline for preserving the flavor of the kind of game I wanted to run. Since I had little experience as a GM, I wrote them out of my body of experience as a player. I based them on what I found fun, and I wanted to keep that perspective as I shaped adventures for my players.
Over the many years I’ve been gamemastering, I’ve added to those rules, and I’ve re-worded them, but the core of their message hasn’t changed. Recently, a friend has found himself as a first-time GM and asked what those rules were. And so, I thought it was fair to share with everyone.
1. Don’t kill player characters lightly.
To contextualize this, I was running a game that had no resurrection. There were no second chances. Combat was dangerous, and when you died your character was gone. Roll up another one. And if that’s the case, make death mean something.
PCs were never there to just get caught in a trap they couldn’t have seen coming. They’re not Red Shirts there to show how dangers worked. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t kill a player character, but it either had to serve a purpose, or they had to really have it coming.
How do you make a death mean something? Sometimes a player wants a change of pace. Maybe this character isn’t working out they way they wanted it, so rather than having their PC wander lamely into the distance, their departure would be heroic. It might have been self-sacrifice to save the party. They may have the chance to score a major victory at the cost of their lives. But one way or the other, the character could have the chance to go down in a blaze of glory.
That assumes the player wants the character to go. That isn’t always the case. That is, of course, why I said “or they really have it coming.”
If what they’re doing is a really bad idea, you really should give them some sort of warning. If there is no chance of success, they should have the chance to back down. But if they persist, let the dice roll, and what happens is what happens. If they patently ignore a dangerous situation, turn up the heat. If they still choose to pass on opportunities to change their gloomy disposition, then it’s their funeral.
2. Make their choices count.
The players are not here to just experience your narrative. This is an interactive activity where you can give the PCs some agency. Do your best to make sure that they are making choices that they understand and have real impact on how the narrative plays out.
Failing to make their choices count usually plays out in two ways. The first is by railroading players along a pre-planned path of how the narrative should go. Railroading is common enough that I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it, but suffice to say few people enjoy being forced in a narrative direction.
The second is by giving them a choice, but taking away their understanding of how their choices matter. A GM can lay out an adventure where the players can pick blindly between opening Door A or Door B. This scenario can play out a number of ways in a badly designed adventure. The GM can make the players choose whether they visit one town or another, save person X or person Y, or who to back in a conflict they just got introduced to yesterday. Whichever they choose it will irrevocably impact the way the adventure plays out. Which door they open may even set a chain reaction of events that determines the whole campaign. But these were never legitimate choices if they couldn’t foresee any of the outcomes. This doesn’t mean that a legitimate choice won’t have surprises, but they should have a chance to contemplate the potential outcomes, and choose accordingly.
To make the player’s choices matter, allow room for them to surprise you, and try to be flexible enough to follow the new path the players are taking the narrative. Perhaps they have a creative solution to a problem, and now the adventure you planned is a sandbox of potential assets and complications instead of an outlined sequence of events.
3. Their ideas are better than your ideas.
I once heard of a GM that completely shut down the players’ idea to raise a zombie army to storm a castle. The rest of the adventure was about following the GM’s breadcrumbs so they could raise a vampire army to storm same said castle.
That’s a lost opportunity.
Even though the GM’s adventure notes might have pointed to a castle, and pointed to a means to taking it, that adventure was still a failure. When the players had an idea, you find a way to say yes. Better yet, if they come to an independent idea and it is what so happened to be in your adventure notes, you let them think it was their idea. If they come up with a means to accomplish the task in the adventure notes, then you reward that.
I once had a group where I planned a set of complications and built in a solution. The castle they were trying to sneak away from was patrolled by guards flying on griffon-like mounts. Solution? Escape undetected through tunnels. In my mind, everything else in the sky was just window dressing to enhance the setting.
One of the players said, “Let’s find the rookery, and steal some mounts!” I had to build some mechanics on the fly, but what resulted was a fantastic evening of swoops, dives, falls, near misses, and someone catching another player in mid-air. Not only was it much better than a dungeon crawl, but also, anything that they can do to take ownership will be more rewarding than the loot, quest items, and XP at the end.
4. Everyone gets their time to shine.
If your group is at all put together well, they have a diverse set of strengths and weaknesses. Design your adventures so everyone has an opportunity to solve problems. This does not mean that in every single adventure everyone takes turns sharing the spotlight. If they are working cooperatively then everyone should be engaged. But every few adventures a PC should have their moment.
Maybe this is letting the gear-head repair a device that allows them to overcome an obstacle. Sometimes this is an NPC from the player’s past bringing the narrative forward. Sometimes this is just someone’s crazy idea that everyone else can get behind.
Just make sure that no one is left in the dark. Don’t just imprison someone for three-quarters of an adventure. Don’t leave them knocked out in the corner. Don’t let three hours of real-life time just pass by while a player sits at the table fidgeting with their dice. If they do something stupid and there is no choice but to capture them, let them try to escape. Let them meet a helpful NPC in a cell. If they’re out cold, at least give them a dream sequence.
5. Keep them challenged.
One mistake that I made early on was to give players all they ever wanted. At the end of every adventure they got experience, new gear, and sticker that says “YOU DID IT!” Every time. It got boring. Nothing is worse than perpetually having your cake and eating it too.
If they don’t have to work hard, then rewards don’t mean as much. If they don’t have high risks, then it isn’t as satisfying. The challenge is what makes it worthwhile.
A great example of how this works is in the TV show Firefly. The characters are almost always being chased by the Alliance, nearly out of gas, or getting one-upped by the quiet farm girl turned ship thief. On the show, even the basics are a struggle.
6. Let them have their win.
On the flip side of #5 is letting them have their reward. If the players are always struggling, then they’re going to suffer from drama fatigue. If the universe is a never-ending dumpster fire that they can never put out, they’re going to lose interest. Being on the run must be met with some period of rest. Constantly pushing should be met with having a meaningful victory. Once you have one chapter of struggles close, let them have their parade or throne-room medals. You can always set up another challenge the next session, and build to a greater level of tension in the as the next chapter unfolds.