A Monster for Every Season: Summer 2
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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    AssassinGuy

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    Default Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    Greetings all,

    First off, thanks for your thoughtful and useful responses. I am primarily a wargame designer but have wanted to branch off a bit into something different. To that end, I have been dabbling around with a Space Mecha Theatre game, think Gundam, Robotech, Lancer, Mekton, etc. Sure, there are big, stompy, space robots but character first!

    Anyway, I have been working on the GM (or Comptroller) section of the rules and decided to add the following tips. For context, the GM in this game has wide latitude to set the difficulty, timing, and modifiers for the game, so it leans more towards GM fiat than GM Economy based games. Both the GM and the Players use the same universal system of determining outcomes.

    These are the tips I have put in:

    The Most Important Rule!
    • The Comptroller is there to facilitate fun for all players at the table!

    Then, I put in these General Rules of Thumb:

    1. Never ask for a dice roll from a player, unless something interesting could happen if they fail. If failure is less interesting, do not create the risk of failure.

    2. Control the flow and pace of the game

    3. The Player Characters are the stars. Let situations break their way.

    4. No plan survives contact with Player Characters. Be like water and flow where the characters take the story.

    5. Always ask yourself, “What would make this more interesting?” and do that

    6. Move the Spotlight around

    7. Describe with all the senses; sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell. It helps them feel they are there.

    8. Whenever possible, let the player’s tell you, narrate their experience, and then reel them back in when they go off the rails.

    9. Character death is ever-present, but it should never be an accident.

    10. Rules are for players, and not Comptrollers


    So, what do you think? Did I miss some key ideas? If you were brand new to this, would these guidelines be helpful? Is there a key idea I am missing? Is there one that you feel should be removed?

    If you want, I can elaborate on any particular General Rule of Thumb. Thanks for your insights, since many of you have been doing this GM thing much longer or better than I have. Thanks for your feedback.
    *This Space Available*

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Bugbear in the Playground
     
    Batcathat's Avatar

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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    I would add something along the lines of "Always listen to your players' suggestions, but don't be afraid to say no when necessary". The problems of a GM not listening to their players should be obvious, but I also think a GM who bend over backwards to fulfill every player request can be a big problem.

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    When it comes to rule books you are documenting the end product of a design process. Make the intent and findings of that design process transparent to GMs and players alike. If you intend a specific open ended ability to be a Break Glass in Case of Emergency for designing a hero as seen in M&M, detail that in a way that makes it clear how it can be abused, and how the GM should approach it for players of good/bad faith. If you’ve included something that has to be super powerful because that’s just how the setting works, put in the sidebar that warns GMs how the game assumes the world will react differently to the character/party because they’re an X. If you’re including a mechanically narrow archetype that flounders when not provided opportunities by the GM (when compared to other archetypes that have express permissions to do X Y Z baked in) do make note that the GM will have to provide more levers for that character to pull if the player wants more agency.
    Martials’ concepts don’t evolve past the mundane
    High levels aren’t just lower levels with bigger numbers
    Martials have the tools they need for relevance

    Pick 2

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Dwarf in the Playground
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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    Quote Originally Posted by Easy e View Post
    So, what do you think? Did I miss some key ideas? If you were brand new to this, would these guidelines be helpful? Is there a key idea I am missing? Is there one that you feel should be removed?
    This may be more a philosophical than phrasing difference, but I dislike both "9. Character death is ever-present, but it should never be an accident" and "6. Move the Spotlight around".

    The former, because I think a Comptroller should create a space where success, failure, victory and death are all at least part of the fun, while desiring none of the in game states particularly. The latter, because it's an overused metaphor and doesn't actually support the kind of play I appreciate most, which is ensemble work.

    Honestly, I might recommend you toss all 10 guidelines for what I'm going write as a riff on jazz:
    The Comptroller is the energy core of any gaming table. From your words, props, NPCs and rulings radiates the groove, time and spirituality of the game, “infecting” the remainder of the table, helping them to play with the style and intent of the session. Players should have space to breathe throughout the session, but should be ready to chime in on-time and in-sync with the table. While each player should be featured, solos should generally be short and display true technical or thematic brilliance when they occur. The best parts of most sessions is when a groove is found where the interplay is interesting and the whole table is contributing. It's generally better to roll with the players (announce what the correct ruling would have been later, as necessary) and not roll with the dice (when their impact wouldn't be interesting). Any piece you write is merely a template from which the players will riff, be prepared to follow them, maintaining the rhythm and improvising as needed. If things become overly discordant, you're misplacing your notes, or otherwise just can't get it locked in, don't hesitate to call a break, get everyone resettled and take another run at it.

    I'd probably also add something about opening the floor up before and after every session for players to praise things they really enjoy and to briefly mention things that might be modified.
    Whatever else may be in their orders, a picket's ultimate responsibility is to die noisily.

  5. - Top - End - #5
    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    Remind DMs they are not the players' enemies. Bad guys will want to kill the PCs. The DM should never want to. There's a difference.

    Be mindful of a PC being uberpowerful that breaks the game into unplayability because of quirks in the rules. It is absolutely fine and a game feature that a PC is powerful using the rules as intended.

    It is ok to enjoy yourself and laugh with the players when a mistake on their part leads to a humorous result or failure. Do not laugh at the players when they fail nor engineer their failure on purpose.
    Quote Originally Posted by OgresAreCute View Post
    "Welcome to Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition, where the DCs are made up and the rules don't matter."

  6. - Top - End - #6
    Troll in the Playground
     
    Telok's Avatar

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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    In general you can expect people to be really terrible at math & risk anaylsis. They also don't have the same assumptions about how to run the mechanics of the game that you do.

    I've had DMs who thought 3 chances at 30% were equal to a 90%, other DMs who still think the D&D 5e normal DC for all tasks starts at 15, and there are people who think the Warhammer magic system has a 1% (or more) chance to TPK the party every time they cast the least powerful spell in the game.

    You can't assume that people will reverse engineer anything, work out probabilities, understand what any particular bit of rules is for, or intuit how to best use your system from general statements.

    The only solution I know of is to put in a section that explicitly lays out the assumptions that the game is based on, the normal ranges of rolls, the expected success rates, and so on. Explicitly tell people what you expect a "normal person" npc to look like, what you expect a starting pc to look like, and what you expect a world class expert or olympic athelete pc/npc to look like. Tell them what the % chance of those characters making the "average" roll for your system is, and be explicit about what they need to roll for. Use bold fonts, italics, underlines, make it blink if you need to. If the world class expert can only hit your "average" on 80% of attempts you need to be absolutely clear on what that "average" task is. Use examples.
    "And this, too, shall pass away."

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  7. - Top - End - #7
    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    WolfInSheepsClothing

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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    As a slightly different look at this:

    RPG philosophy writ large is not the best thing to have in a GM section - besides being open to debate, we can place an assumption that the people GMing are at least mildly experienced with RPGs as a whole and don't need pontificating OR don't have the experience to contextualize broad philosophical guidance into your game.

    What matters is how YOUR game plays best. What's it about, really, and how do the mechanics and flavor make that happen. Billions and Liar's Poker would have different rules and different "here's what we see the best practice as for the GM" despite being about nominally the same subject matter. I would say that generic tips do nothing, tips for how your game plays are useful, particularly with examples.

    That may be an explicit breakdown of how power works - if it's that type of game. It may just be a short introduction to the less well known topic of how hedge funds are organized internally and how that relates to what the players would do. It could be a reminder that while this is a game about insider trading, don't get bogged down in specifics of the books. Or do, if that's how your game is designed

  8. - Top - End - #8
    Barbarian in the Playground
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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    I'll go point by point first, and then go into some general remarks.

    Quote Originally Posted by Easy e View Post
    The Most Important Rule!
    • The Comptroller is there to facilitate fun for all players at the table!

    1. Never ask for a dice roll from a player, unless something interesting could happen if they fail. If failure is less interesting, do not create the risk of failure.

    2. Control the flow and pace of the game

    3. The Player Characters are the stars. Let situations break their way.

    4. No plan survives contact with Player Characters. Be like water and flow where the characters take the story.

    5. Always ask yourself, “What would make this more interesting?” and do that

    6. Move the Spotlight around

    7. Describe with all the senses; sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell. It helps them feel they are there.

    8. Whenever possible, let the player’s tell you, narrate their experience, and then reel them back in when they go off the rails.

    9. Character death is ever-present, but it should never be an accident.
    This shouldn't be in the DM section, it should be in How do you play this game section. Many, many rulebooks make just this mistake, they put the guidelines on how to handle game flow into a section of book that is not read, and often frobidden from being read, by most of the players playing the game. You can see how that would be a problem. Even things like minding the pace of the game shouldn't rest on DM's shoulders exclusively, and it pays to let the players know why DM may whip them forward like sled dogs on occassion.

    Pretty much everything that covers how to run an adventure should be in a section meant for all players.

    Quote Originally Posted by Easy e View Post
    10. Rules are for players, and not Comptrollers
    This is just wrong. If someone invites me to a game of DnD and tells me it's 5e vanilla, I fully expect the rules of 5e vanilla to be used where applicable. If I'm then told that my familiar can't be used to scout things out in the middle of a game, that's a problem and creates a bad experience. House rules are fine, but they must be communicated ahead of time, and addig them should not be done via DM fiat alone, but rather by group agreeing on them.

    Because if not, what is even the point of rules? Far too many designers and player miss this point and use this sort of thing as an excuse for badly balanced or thought out systems, it's okay because DM can rule 0 it away.

    The better way to phrase this, and to do this, is how we do it in historical swordsmanship - there are rules to how you fight with the sword. If you are good enough, you can occassionally break them to gain a specific advantage, but you cannot do this unless you know what the rules are and why they are what they are - and even then, breaking them often will get you stabbed. All of this, possibly except possiblythe stabbing, applies to TTRPGs as well.

    What should go into DM section?

    How to do things that are exclusive to being a DM. Aside from mechanical stuff (NPCs are sometimes created differently), there should be guidelines on things like "this is our basic formula for determining how much a spell/mech weapon costs" and so forth. If you are using anything other than straight dice, showing how their probability curve works is a good idea as well - far too many people think 1d12 and 2d6 are almost identical.

    The most important part, however, is creating adventures. This is what a DM will be speding most of the time on, and it is rarely discussed in any meaningful depth. Using tropes, how to create decent characters, how deep into backstories to go, making sure PCs have a stake, three-act structure and how to at least sort of adapt it so your adventures have a climax, this sort of thing. Maybe throw in a series of tables for random adventure generation, a la Planet Mercenary.

    And finally, some solid tips on how to keep all of this organized, for record-keeping as well as in play. Tools like Google Sheets and Notion are a godsend, but even tips on how to build a basic campaign databse out of word documents and spreadsheets will probably save beginning DMs a lot of pain.
    That which does not kill you made a tactical error.

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Barbarian in the Playground
     
    RedWizardGuy

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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    Quote Originally Posted by Easy e View Post
    The Most Important Rule!
    • The Comptroller is there to facilitate fun for all players at the table!
    And the Comptroller is also a player

  10. - Top - End - #10
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    AssassinGuy

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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    Thanks guys! Lot's of good thoughts here.

    I obviously can't post the entire chapter I wrote, because this is a forum not a book! Each Guideline has an explanation and some examples in action. My "inspiration" is the old West End Games d6 Star Wars rulebook as that had a great section about how to run a game!

    Some other things covered in the chapter are the three act structure, basic adventure plots, running NPCs, running interactions and combats, and other hands on information. However, these sections often refer back to the Most Important Rule and the Guidelines.

    Interesting, it sounds like some people in the DM section want the "Designer's Notes" on how they broke down the mathematics of the game. I don't recall as a new GM caring about such things? As a RPG vet who has a certain preference this is clearly a blind-spot in my design preferences.
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  11. - Top - End - #11
    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    Quote Originally Posted by Easy e View Post

    Interesting, it sounds like some people in the DM section want the "Designer's Notes" on how they broke down the mathematics of the game. I don't recall as a new GM caring about such things? As a RPG vet who has a certain preference this is clearly a blind-spot in my design preferences.
    What are Warhammer and Shadowrun without their settings and those assumptions? The mechanical rules exist to provide a transferable experience just as much as the setting. I can say “Shadowrun 3e in year 20XX” and people will understand both the character name drops and the mechanical significance of this and that item. If you want people to have consistent takeaways, give them the intent rather than leave it as something they might puzzle out.

    Are characters expected to succeed 33%, 50% or 80% of the time on a typical roll? Is there explicitly no standard expectations for such rolls? Each is a valid choice, but it’s best to make it clear which choice is supported by the game.
    Martials’ concepts don’t evolve past the mundane
    High levels aren’t just lower levels with bigger numbers
    Martials have the tools they need for relevance

    Pick 2

  12. - Top - End - #12
    Titan in the Playground
     
    Yora's Avatar

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    Default Re: Game Master Tips for an RPG Rulebook- Your Thoughts

    When players they want to do something that is nonsensical and stupid, they almost always are imagining the situation differently from what you tried to explain. And there is almost nothing players can do about it. Only the GM can notice that what the players seem to believe about a situation doesn't appear to match with what the GM intends. The players have no way to know what the GM is thinking and can't notice that it doesn't fit with what they assume.

    To avoid players doing stupid and pointless things because they misunderstood the setup, always ask the players what they think the action they just announced is going to accomplish if the action seems weird to you. Don't just execute the action and tell the players what damage they have just done.

    Nine times out of ten, when a player explains what a nonsensical action is supposed to accomplish, you'll see immediately how the player misunderstood the situation you wanted to describe. In that case, explain to the players what they are mistaken about, and usually they immediately understand that what they just wanted to do really makes no sense. This is probably the biggest thing I have learned in 20 years of running games, that I've never seen mentioned in GM guides.
    We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on very tall tower of other dwarves.

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