Johnn Four, of Roleplaying Tips, encourages gamers to “Have more fun at every game.” Robin Laws wrote Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. Vincent Baker came up with the Lumpley Principle.

All three are concise, effective ways of summing up Johnn’s, Robin’s and Vincent’s views on gaming — and more importantly, they’re useful to the larger RPG community.

In thinking about what drives me as a game master, I realized that I have my own philosophy of GMing. It’s been very helpful to me (and still is!), and I hope it will be similarly useful to other GMs. It needs a catchy name, though, so I’ve decided to call it Martin’s Maxims for GMs.

This is a bit of play on Robin’s Laws, of course, but it’s also an homage: Robin Laws speaks with a great deal more authority on the topic of GMing than I do, he rocks, and he’s rocked for a long time. I’m not trying to equate myself with him.

Martin’s Maxims are a fun way for me to add to the discourse on game mastering — which is one of the main reasons why I started Treasure Tables in the first place.

First: Why “maxims?” Partly because I like the alliteration, but primarily because that word best expresses what I’m getting at. defines a maxim as:

A succinct formulation of a fundamental principle, general truth, or rule of conduct

Martin’s Maxims are about becoming a better game master. They’re intentionally general, because they can be applied to many GMs in many situations, and they’ll probably seem obvious to a lot of people (which isn’t a bad thing). That obviousness is part of what makes them useful, though — just like “Have more fun at every game.”

Martin’s Maxims for GMs

  1. Never stop learning how to be a better GM.
  2. When you run games, try new things.
  3. Learn from both sides of the screen.

A little while back, I saw a messageboard thread in which several posters mentioned that in terms of becoming better GMs, they were pretty much done with the learning process. My first thought was, “I’ve been GMing since 1989, and I’m not done with the learning process!” How can any GM ever be done improving their craft?

Like any sufficiently complex, varied activity, GMing isn’t something you master quickly — and because the state of the art, in the form of new games, new approaches and new theory — is always changing, there’s always more to learn. For me, that’s part of what makes it so much fun.

The second maxim covers a variety of “new things,” including games you’ve never played (or run) before, shorter or longer campaigns, different techniques for handling specific aspects of GMing (like building tension, or inspiring your players) — the whole shebang. If it involves gaming, and it’s new to you, then this maxim applies.

The fact that there are always new things in gaming, from fresh takes on old topics to just-released RPGs that make you go “Wow!,” is one of the best things about this hobby. You don’t need to try everything at once, or worry if you’ve been playing the same game with the same group for years and loving it — but keep an eye out for things you haven’t tried, large and small, and give them a shot.

Even though the third maxim is also about learning, like the first one, I find it to be distinct enough to stand on its own. I’ve never met a GM who didn’t also enjoy being a player, and many of us got our start as game masters by doing just that — playing the games we would eventually run. If you want to improve your GMing, though, just playing from time to time isn’t enough. It’s impossible to become a great GM without also considering things from a player’s perspective — and the best way to do that is by letting your experiences as a player inform your decision-making as a GM.

Take a moment and think about your favorite teachers in school. I’d be willing to bet that, along with other factors, one of the reasons that you liked them so much was because they seemed to remember what it was like to be a student, and they taught their classes accordingly. That’s certainly how it was for me. It’s not a perfect analogy, though — the relationship between GMs and their players is different than that between teachers and pupils, but the underlying concept is very similar.

That, in a nutshell, is how I think about GMing. (There is one caveat, though: This is a work in progress. I distilled a lot of my thinking about GMing into these three maxims, but if I come up with a fourth — or a fifth — that meets the grade, I’ll add it to this list.)

Do these maxims resonate with you? Are they things that you’re already doing on a regular basis? In what ways are they different from your own personal philosophy of GMing?

Update: Martin’s Maxims were updated in GMs, Put Your Players First, which adds that maxim plus two others.