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GMing Commandments, Axioms and Conflict Resolution

In judging the Guest Post Contest [1], we arrived at a three-way tie between TT forum members brcarl [2], mephistus [3] and twwombat [4] for 3rd Place. This guest post presents all three 3rd Place entries (in alphabetical order by username). Congratulations, twwombat, mephistus and brcarl!
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Resolving Personality and Play-Style Conflicts in Character, by brcarl

A recent lesson for me had to do with conflict. Sadly this conflict didn’t have nice hard-bound rules to reference and dice to roll to resolve the issue. This conflict had to do with personalities and play-style. The most interesting part, however, is how it got resolved.

The group I was in at the time had three fairly hard-core role-players and two more socially-oriented players. As the GM, I felt I was doing a decent job of keeping everyone engaged and entertained, but I sensed some issues rumbling under the surface. As a point of reference, the group was made up a few guys who had played together a long while back, but the rest of us were new to each other. Thus none of us were good friends coming into it, but rather just a group of guys looking for some enjoyable time away from family and work.

During play we meshed well for the most part, but there was some passive aggression going on: making snide comments in character instead of confronting issues with OOC comments, PCs wandering off and acting strangely without explanation, role-playing an inappropriate catatonic fit in the middle of a battle, etc. At the time I didn’t have the brains to realize the issue was slowly getting worse.

One of the players actually took the reigns at the beginning of the next session. In character, he proposed that there were unspoken issues in the group, and in character we worked them out. It was a little tense at first, but the role-playing bent of the players provided an interesting “safety net” for conversation. I compare it to that psychology approach where child therapists use puppets to get kids to open up. I’m not trying to say my players were like children, but rather that they used their character’s personas as a buffer to vent some things that they would have had difficulty saying as themselves.

I understand this approach might not work for some groups. Heck, it probably won’t work for most groups. But if you’ve got a strong group of role-players who also seem averse to confronting issues directly, it may be worth a shot to see if you can provoke an in-character discussion to resolve things that are looming below the surface.

10 GM Commandments, by mephistus

After almost 17 years of playing and running games, I’ve come up with “10 GM Commandments.” Without carving them into tablets and carrying them down the mountain, here they are.

1. The game is not about the players versus the GM. It’s about the GM offering the players an idea and a spark to get them to tell their own story. Your job is to let them tell whatever story they want, even if it’s not the one you had in mind. Bend like a reed in the wind to the players’ story.

2. Bend, break, spindle, or mutilate any rule. If it doesn’t fit in with your style of running the game, change it no matter what. Any rule can be expanded or restricted if it will make things go faster and be more fun.

3. Nothing kills the mood of the game like a rules lawyer going off on a rant. Squelch it as quickly as possible before they get too obnoxious. What works best for me is a quick and simple, “That may be the rule, but right now we’re doing it this way. Please show me when we’re done.”

4. When in doubt, side with your players. There are plenty of rules that are fuzzy, not well defined, or come up in unconventional circumstances. If you can’t figure it out quickly, do whatever turns out best for the player.

5. Expect your players to forget to bring pencils, character sheets, paper, and dice. I collect the character sheets at the end of the session. If the players want one to take home, they can make a copy. I have a big bag of dice, a box of cheap mechanical pencils, and a whole binder of blank graph paper and lined paper. That way when the group gathers, the game can start right away because everyone has what they need.

6. Encourage the players to “play” their “roles.” This is the ever-important distinction between “My guy does…” vs. “I do…” and “My guy says…” vs. actually saying it yourself. If the players are doing that, they’ve suspended their disbelief and are getting into the game. Make the effort to call players by their character names and see how it works.

7. Be more enthusiastic than your players! Enthusiasm is definitely contagious. If you’re playing a canned adventure with pre-written dialog, read it over before the game and see if you can give it a little extra oomph when you deliver it. Better yet, rewrite it or just ad-lib the important points. Give your NPCs funny voices when you’re talking as them, or a weird face.

8. Be very careful about killing the player characters. If you’re playing a game where death is forever, you may want to consider never doing it. No one likes having their character die, especially characters they’ve played for a while and gotten attached to. In games with resurrection or post mortem options, make sure you give them every chance. Go so far as to ask the player if they want their character to live, and respect that answer.

9. Keep some semblance of organization. Off the cuff games are good for one-shot nights, but if a game is going to go on for months or even years, then something needs to be written down. I keep an outline of the general storyline, a list of important NPCs the players have met, and will meet, a description of places, maps of those places, and anything else important. I also take notes. If you can’t recreate what’s happened in your past games, then you’ll be in trouble when the players inevitably ask “Who was that guy we talked to back in the city who wanted us to come out here? What did he want us to do again?”

10. If you absolutely have to have your own character in the party as an NPC, nerf the hell out of him. At the very most, the character should be the same level as your lowest level party member. Preferably a level or two lower. It’s no fun to play a game where the GM throws the party against impossible odds that can only be overcome by the GM’s own special party member. The same thing goes for figuring out plot elements. If anything, your character should be a plot device, not the Cliff Notes to the story. Also think about killing or replacing your own special character frequently. Also, if you have to make a character, make them fill a role that isn’t filled by any of the player characters, and that the party therefore needs.

Those are the first 10 rules that come to my mind when I’m running a game. There plenty of other minor things that make a good GM, but those are the 10 most important to me. I guess there could be an 11th rule that says “Bring snacks. Hungry players and a hungry GM make for poor bed fellows.” But I’ve honestly never been to a game where that rule didn’t just resolve itself.

Wombat’s GMing Axioms, by twwombat

So you want to run a game. Good for you! Are you ready to be a rules authority, an impartial judge, a creative dynamo, an improvisational actor, a meticulous note-taker, a bastion of continuity, and an irrepressible font of good times?

Don’t worry — even the best-organized, Academy Award-winning, Type-A GM can’t tackle all of that in one shot. As the old joke goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.” Relax. Wipe away your fears and get your reading glasses on. I’m here to help with a non-exhaustive, ever-evolving list of tips that I call Wombat’s GMing Axioms.

First Axiom: It’s a game; it should be fun for everyone.
If you kill yourself to learn the rules and prep the game, how is that fun? Prepare something for the characters to do, but don’t go overboard. And yes, rolling up stats for the non-combat prisoner that the PCs rescue who will remain unconscious for the entire game is going overboard.

Make sure your players know what to expect from the game — if one of the characters will be accused of some horrific crime and tortured in graphic detail, talk it over with the players because that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. If any player has a problem with anything that happens in a game session, they should feel free to bring it up with you as a GM, if not with the entire group. Games should not cause stress; they should be a fun experience for all concerned.

Second Axiom: A game is storytelling by committee, so don’t get hung up on yourself.
If you spend all your time on one game element that may or may not ever come into play, or if you only allow your group to explore one particular avenue, or if you bend the rules so your carefully-crafted NPCs might live to torment your group another day, you’re getting hung up on yourself.

You’re the GM, so you’ve got to create more of the game than your players do. It’s natural to want to protect your creations (NPCs, special items, groups, even places) to a certain extent, but don’t get so attached to your creations that you protect them at the expense of your players’ enjoyment of the game. This ties in very closely with…

Third Axiom: Leave your expectations at the door.
You’re only a fraction of the equation at the gaming table. If your players decide to take their characters in a completely unexpected direction, don’t drag them kicking and screaming back to what you’ve planned or they’ll resent you in a hurry. Linear thinking gets you a linear game, just like railroad tracks. And once you’re riding those rails, you may as well be playing a computer game because the story can’t be changed by creative input.

There’s rarely one solution to a problem in real life, so why limit your game to your imagination alone? If your world is filled with magic, the characters can bend reality to their will, so your players will come up with something that you never even dreamed of. Your players are every bit as creative (and devious) as you are, so let them come up with an oddball solution that actually works once in a while. Which sounds suspiciously like…

Fourth Axiom: Trust your players and yourself.
If you can’t think of a game-breaking reason to not let something happen, tell your players “yes” to the crazy thing they want to do. As the Second Axiom suggests, you’re telling a story in conjunction with your players, so give them the benefit of the doubt. Talk to your players if you’re ever in doubt about anything in the game — maybe one of them will have an idea that will make your life easier.

At the same time, trust that you’re doing a good job and making your players happy. Part of that is confidence, both in the game and your ability to steer the game’s action, but part of it is trusting that you’ll make the right decisions as they come up. You will. Just ask your players.

Fifth Axiom: Keep breathing; it’s just a game.
Worry makes a brittle game; all it takes is one thing to go wrong and the whole thing shatters. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everything has to be perfect or everyone will hate the game, or you’ll hate your own game before it even starts. The perfect GM is a myth like the tooth fairy; there are only us mortals behind the screen doing the best we can in hopes of getting close to what we think is the ideal. Relax.

I’ll say it again: Relax. Let go. Step away from your life for a few hours and focus on the wonderful world you’ve created. Let your game become what it’s meant to be without you fretting over niggly details like the king’s advisor’s eye color. You’ve got the main adventure and an emergency side quest prepped, the players are comfortable with their characters, and the rules will take care of themselves. What could possibly go wrong?

Now go run your game.

Have fun.

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Comments Disabled To "GMing Commandments, Axioms and Conflict Resolution"

#1 Comment By empty_other On May 2, 2007 @ 5:34 am

I’m trying, i’m trying (but it ain’t easy). Anyway, thanks for a few good pointers.

#2 Comment By Jeff Rients On May 2, 2007 @ 6:46 am

5. Expect your players to forget to bring pencils, character sheets, paper, and dice.

This is the only commandment I don’t wholeheartedly endorse. While I will gladly loan people pencils, paper, and dice, I don’t keep track of character sheets for games that meet on a regular schedule. I consider showing up with charsheet in hand to be a key sign that the player is approaching the game with the minimal level of maturity and consideration necessary to function in my group. To me, showing up unable to play because you forgot your charsheet is just as unhelpful as showing up to play basketball in a suit and tie. You knew there was a game, dude, why didn’t you bring your gear?

I’ll admit to letting my pal Pat slide on occasion, but he can recall his PCs stats from memory.

#3 Comment By VV_GM On May 2, 2007 @ 6:54 am

I do keep the character sheets at my place and provide extra pencils and dice for the players, but this is more for the sake of convenience since the games are played at my home. I agree with the advice, and with Jeff at the same time. You as a GM should be ready for the players to forget key items. Yet a player who consistently disregards being prepared for the game, whether it be in terms of gear or mentality, is a person who I do not want at my table.

#4 Comment By Walt C On May 2, 2007 @ 8:04 am

I generally keep the character sheets when I GM as well (I run one game at my house and one away).

My purpose is two-fold; first, I like to check over character sheets on occasion, since mistakes (whether deliberate or not) aren’t fair and can unbalance the campaign. In practice, I usually catch players shorting themselves more often than overpowering their characters.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s much easier for me to draft adventures and construct appropriate challenges when I can leaf through character sheets and assess their capabilities. Sometimes, this even helps my inspiration, as I’ll notice a little-used skill or ability and figure out how to work it in.


#5 Comment By brcarl On May 2, 2007 @ 10:25 am

First, thanks to Martin and the other judges for picking my article. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit off-topic, as I didn’t realize when I posted that the goal was “most important” lessons, rather than just some interesting tidbit.

Second, bravo to my fellow third-place winners. Good tips and follow-ups all around.

Regarding the GM keeping PC sheets vs. expecting the players to do so, I guess it depends on who you’re playing with. For most adult semi- to very-serious games, I would side toward expecting the players to come prepared. For younger crowds and/or socially-oriented groups, perhaps the GM is better off providing a safety net.

Another angle is to consider the consequences of your action (or inaction): if a player doesn’t show up with his PC sheet for the third time in a row, are you prepared to make him sit out, or perhaps even boot him? Have you confronted the person before to let them know that you expect them to show up prepared?

#6 Comment By Jeff Rients On May 2, 2007 @ 10:47 am

For younger crowds and/or socially-oriented groups, perhaps the GM is better off providing a safety net.

Those are legit considerations. I consider my current group pretty hardcore. They do things like buy me copies of books so they can use them for my campaign.

Another angle is to consider the consequences of your action (or inaction): if a player doesn’t show up with his PC sheet for the third time in a row, are you prepared to make him sit out, or perhaps even boot him? Have you confronted the person before to let them know that you expect them to show up prepared?

It hasn’t really happened to me, but I think I would start very simply. Something like “Dude, I make sure we have an adventure to play. All I ask is that you have your on PC ready to go. If you aren’t willing to make that effort, what does it really say about your interest level in this campaign?” I’d probably also bring up the sports analogy I used earlier.

#7 Comment By John Arcadian On May 3, 2007 @ 5:27 am

Very Nice posts. Bcarl’s gets into some of the meta elements, and twwombat and mephistus’s posts do the nice item list format with some very good information.

A lot of the axiom’s and commandments are things that Game Masters learn over time, but even the most advanced or rookies amongst us could benefit by printing those and keeping them with our game folder/cheat sheets/GM’s Screens.

#8 Comment By ScottM On May 3, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

I like these, all three entries. While your issue is kind of tangential, brcarl, it’s also very key. The game that crushed my enthusiasm for GMing for a long time was brought down by dynamics similar to your groups… that just ran, unresolved, until the group imploded.

A good lesson, shared well.

#9 Comment By Martin On May 8, 2007 @ 9:25 am

(brcarl) I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit off-topic, as I didn’t realize when I posted that the goal was “most important” lessons, rather than just some interesting tidbit.

It was a deliberately flexible topic, and your post was a good one. All three third place posts deviated from the “one lesson” model, but all three of them were packed with good advice.