There is no such thing as a Strict or Lax GM.
Whoa . . . before you jump to the comments section to yell at me, let me explain. The idea of a strict or a lax GM is an oversimplification. GMing is way more complicated than that. There are too many facets of GMing to simply have the needle buried in one direction or the other. Sure, someone can be more strict than lax, but the idea someone is strict in every way possible as a GM is a bit more unlikely. That said, there are still a few of you that want to hit the comments now, but let me crack this open and explain in some more detail.
Previously on Panda’s Talking Games . . .Â
A few weeks ago on Panda’s Talking Games, Senda and I addressed this topic, and we got some requests on Twitter to put this into some kind of print form. So here we are. I am going to write out the crux of my argument here in this article, but if you want to hear this in some more depth, complete with outtakes, jump over to Misdirect Mark Productions and give us a listen.
Strict vs. Lax
As I am wont to do, let’s set some definitions for this article.
- Strict -Â demanding that rules concerning behavior are obeyed and observed.
- Lax – not sufficiently strict, severe, or careful; relaxed.
Don’t jump to the comments section yet. Yes, I know that you must know someone that you would say is a strict or lax GM, but wait. Here is the rest of the argument:
GMing Is Not A Skill
I know . . . it’s like I am trolling everyone with these headers. GMing is not a skill, it’s a bunch of skills. Somewhere I once said it was eight different skills, but honestly, I am not sure if that is true. It feels like it’s true, but it could be more. Regardless of its true number, GMing is a collection of skills that a GM performs during the course of running their game.
So a GM is not strict or lax, rather they are strict or lax in these different skills. Some GM’s may trend towards strict and others lax, but for most of us, it will be a mix.
For this article, and for the podcast episode, let’s focus on a handful of those skills, what they are and what strict and lax would look like.
- The mechanics of the game as written by the authors of the game.
- Strict: We do what is written in the rules, every time.
- Lax: The rules are a guideline that we can follow or not when needed.
- The place where the games take place: location, events, NPCs, etc.
- Strict: No. You can’t have that type of gun because it was not invented until 5 years after the time we are playing.
- Lax: Oh sure, your knight can have a katana . . . I mean a sword is a sword.
- The continuity of the story as it plays out at the table.
- Strict: No, no . .Â . it was the bartender, not the barmaid who threw you out. Come on . . . keep better notes.
- Lax: You sure Jonesy was dead? If he was, he’s not now. You just thought he was, but he’s here.
- The control you have over the table in terms of getting the game moving, keeping people focused, side chatter, etc.
- Strict: Everyone quiet, eyes forward, and pay attention – the game is about to start.
- Lax: Oh hey . . . hey . . . it’s your turn. Yeah, your turn – can you roll some dice for me?
Why does this matter?
It matters in two main ways: It influences you as a GM, and it influences what your players enjoy in a game.
Your GMing style is influenced by your strictness or laxness (Bob, is that even a word? – Yup! OML) in these areas. We will gravitate to games that accommodate our preferences, and we will run games in ways that suit our preferences. For example, I like to run games fairly strictly, but I also have limited time to read and learn games. The result is that I avoid crunchy games where I would have to work harder to keep all the rules in order, and play games with lighter rules that I can run with more control.
Your players have a preference for these areas as well. You may have a player that has a high amount of strictness for Setting, especially if you are playing Star Wars. On the other hand, you may be quite lax on setting, and not want to be penned in by canon. When you go to GM a Star Wars game, the player is agitated because you keep using non-canon information, while you are annoyed that you are constantly being corrected.
So understanding your preferences, and your players understanding theirs, can go a long way for figuring out what games to play, how to play them, and how your table should run.
If you want to know your preferences, you can do this exercise with your gaming group. List the four GMing skills I mentioned above, and any other skills you may think of (by the way if you do think of some, put them in the comments). Then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with a one being totally lax and a 10 being totally strict. Now everyone rates these skills. When you are done, share your scores and discuss any large gaps.
My own scores for these are:
- Mechanical: 9 – I love running games as written.
- Setting: 5 – I am a bit lazy about being orthodox to canon.
- Story: 9 – I love a tight story without any logical gaps or plot holes.
- Table: 5 – I’m slow to start my sessions because I socialize a lot with my players.
Where do you fall?
The idea of strict or lax is an oversimplification. GMing is more complex than that, with many facets. In each of those facets, we can be strict or lax, and that is what makes our GMing style unique. There is value in understanding this both as a GM and as a player.
So take a look, score yourself, and if you are inclined, share your numbers with the rest of us.
Good article, Phil. I like the way you break out strictness vs. laxity on 4 dimensions. I’ll look to use this in pre-game compact discussions with players in the future. These are questions with no “right” answers except that whatever everyone– players and GM– can agree on for the game is the right answer.
By the way, my preferred gaming style is not too far off yours. I’d score myself as:
Mechanical: 8 or 9. The rules are there for a reason, and they set fair expectations in everyone’s minds about how actions are likely to turn out. I fudge rolls occasionally for the sake of the story and I’m not averse to bending or changing rules for the same reason– with buy-in from the players, of course.
Setting: 7. I work within the spirit of the setting but am not a slave to it. Plus, a bit of anachronism is part of the fun. But no, you’re not getting a freakin’ space ship in my swords-and-sorcery game.
Story: 9. I run a long term game, so story is the most important thing. Events occur that are rooted in things that happened years ago in player time. I’ve built this game around great players who remember way more than almost anyone else I’ve played with in my time as a gamer now dating back… (gulp)… 35 years.
Table: 6. I like to keep the game moving forward though I’m not as tough as I could be to curtail side chatter and non-game interruptions. Partly this is because two of my early GMs were very authoritarian. It was like, “You will JUMP when I say FROG or I will NOT GIVE YOU XP.” I hated that as a youth and consider it show-stopper disrespectful as an adult, so I will not even come close to doing it with my own players.