Monday, 10 December 2012

Rules that Tie the GM’s Hands

A while back, I espoused what I thought was a fairly simple concept.  Although I know it is not for everyone, I strongly believe that it will make the average GM better.

While I've written longer essays on the concept, it can be embodied in three simple rules:

1.   If you don’t want something to rely on chance, don’t roll for it.  I.e., if your game absolutely requires that the PCs succumb to sleeping gas, don’t allow a save.  Certainly don’t allow a save with some penalty under the belief that no player will roll a 20!  Likewise, if you absolutely cannot stand by a roll that gives a PC 24 points of damage, don’t roll 4d6.  Or make the roll “4d6, to a maximum of 20”, etc.

2.  If there is something that you can’t accept occurring, don’t make it a possibility.  Most of the time, this will mean not making something a consequence of failure if you cannot accept it occurring, so that you don’t change events to “force” a PC win.

3.  If you do roll for it, abide by the dice.

It is my thought that, if you follow the first two principles, following the third will be easy.  There should be no reason to fudge a roll if the result is one you can accept. 

Now, my thinking on this concept is that there is an implicit contract between the players and the Game Master that the decisions of the players will matter.  And, in order to make those decisions matter, the Game Master will present a world, present options, and allow the results of the players’ choices within the options presented to play out.

I believe that this is the second most fundamental contract between the players and the Game Master.  The Game Master will not change the scenario so as to thwart the players when they make good decisions.  Nor with the Game Master change the scenario to cushion the consequences of poor decisions.  I will go further and say that the Game Master should not ameliorate the consequences of good or bad luck, either, as (1) luck has a tendency to ameliorate itself, and (2) total failure does not generally revolve upon a single unlucky roll – the players made decisions that led their characters to this pass.  If you let the good things happen when players gamble and win, you should also let the bad things happen when players gamble and lose.

The contract at your table may be different.  It may be explicit or implicit that the Game Master will not let you lose.  It may be that death is off the table.  It may be that the Game Master is going to tell you a story, and that you are only going to make choices that allow you to remain within the framework of that story.

If that is the way you want to play, that’s cool.  Really.  In fact, you can play in all three of these ways and still never fudge a single die roll if you don’t want to.  Those first two rules support the third rule.  Being knocked to 0 hp can mean that you are knocked out, if that is the game you want to run.  It can mean that you are just unable to fight.  A monster reaching 0 hp can mean that it is slain in a gruesome way, or that it simply runs away. 

You can alter these rules to do whatever you want them to do, and you can be honest about what you are doing.

That is what I believe is the most fundamental implicit contract between the Game Master and the players.  When I am running a game, I will present the world as honestly as possible, within my understanding of how your characters would perceive it.  I may roll a die that doesn’t matter to indicate uncertainty – which I believe is part of verisimilitude – but if the roll says the monster did 6 hp of damage, I will neither pump it up nor deflate it to make what I want to have happen occur.

In fact, with very few exceptions, I will roll the dice where you can see them.  And those exceptions are only where the characters themselves experience uncertainty.

These are not, IMHO, “rules that tie the GM’s hands”, despite the fact that some seem determined to present them that way.  I can’t imagine any scenario which I cannot present using these rules.  I certainly do not feel that my hands are tied.  I have a hard time imagining anyone who has ever gamed with me entertaining a notion that I stand for dis-empowering the GM.  I am the GM, far more often than not.  I run games that I want to run, in the way that I want to run them.

But neither do I imagine that players have no right to judge my GMing, or my methods.  I expect their trust.  If the experience is worth playing, then play, and don’t bitch and moan that things are unfair when things go against you.  I get to judge you, too, and if I find you wanting, you are gone.  I have no interest in running games that are not fun for me.  If you want to play in my game, you might have to suck it up once in a while.

If you don’t want to play in my game, walk.  There will be no hard feelings.  I get to judge whether or not I want you in my game.  You get to judge whether or not you want to be there.  I will be as honest as I can about what I am running, and how, to help you make up your mind.  I don’t want you there if this is a game you won’t enjoy.

I cannot fathom how this becomes “rules that tie the GM’s hands”.

Something that is not for you?  Sure, I can see that.  Your game won’t be for me, but I can see that my game might not be for you.  But “rules that tie the GM’s hands”?  I can see that, if you are just starting, you might not realize that 4d6 damage can result in 24.  I can see that, if you are relatively inexperienced, that you might not understand how to create an adventure, and you might feel a need to modify your work as you see the unintended consequences of your design choices. 

I can see those things.  Folks grow as GMs, same as they grow as players.  I have a hard time imagining any GM of even halfway decent calibre, though, who would feel like his hands were tied by not rolling for things he didn’t want to leave to chance.  It begs the question – just why would you feel your hands were tied?  What is it, exactly, that these principles prevent you from doing?  


  1. In my most recent series of posts, I chose to 'roll in the open' by using Invisible Castle and linking the results. There was no reason I had to do this - rather, it's something I elected to do.

    1. Thanks. I agree that there is a big difference between saying you "have to" do something, and saying that, if you wish to, your game will probably be improved.

      I will grant a priori that there are people out there for whom this advice does not apply, and for whom that "probably" is wrong, but I do believe that it is true in the vast majority of cases.

  2. The last time I GM'ed I innovated by rolling out in the open (all rolls, actually, even the ones that the players should be uncertain about). It actually made the game btter, in my opinion.

    1. I was in the "don't fudge" camp for a long time, but it was the advice in the Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg that moved me to the "roll in the open" camp as well. Having been in that camp for a long while now, I find it to be great advice.