Monday, August 22, 2011

Answering Beedo's Challenge

Here is my contribution to the "Three Best DM'ing Practices and How They Work" challenge instigated by Beedo via Hill Cantons:

1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?

1. Play a ruleset you like.
I really don't want this to become a bitch session about rules preferences or an incitement to edition disputes, but I do believe that each DM should run games using a rules system that s/he is comfortable with and that s/he likes. My all-time worst DM'ing experiences were the result of ruleset mismatch; I was trying so hard to accommodate my players that I ruined the fun for myself. Since as DM you are the main person interfacing with the rules, you get to pick the rules. And you should always pick rules that inspire your imagination and get your juices flowing. If that means a lot of houseruling, so be it. Much as I think rules should "disappear" once the game gets going, that will only happen if the DM is super-comfortable with the rules and rulings s/he's chosen.

How to fulfill this practically? (1) Buy and/or download as many different rulesets as grab your attention and/or interest you. (2) Read them. (3) See how reading them makes you feel. Full of adventure ideas and far-reaching campaign possibilities? It's a keeper. Bored, off-put, overwhelmed? Don't bother.

Here's links to a few (free) starting points:

Labyrinth Lord
Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion
Swords and Wizardry White Box
Swords and Wizardry Core Rules
Lamentations of the Flame Princess "Rules and Magic"

2. Set the tone.
This one sounds ephemeral but I think it is incredibly crucial, not to be overlooked. As DM, you have an immense amount of control over the tone and vibe that exists at your game table. You are the one person everyone else defers to and looks up to for guidance, not just for rulings and world-description, but for everything. You are the boss of the table, and in that sense you serve as a de facto host of the gaming event, even when it does not take place in your own home or space. Therefore you need to be welcoming, inclusive, and, well, fun. Sure, you want to be able to spook your players at times and to always keep them on their toes, and those things require some restraint and a good poker face, but you cannot play things too seriously or be too subdued, or else no one else will feel comfortable acting zanily or bringing their full energy and gusto for adventure to the table.

My practical recommendation for this one relates to NPCs: play every one to the hilt.  Or, as David recommends in his second piece of DM'ing wisdom, "Ham it up." That's what Elminster would do! Even if you tend more toward the non-actor side, remember that your NPCs are the main vehicle (outside of location descriptions) through which you convey the feel of your game-world to your players. I would probably argue that, outside of the amazing things that occur due to direct player action, well-crafted and -acted NPCs provide some of the most memorable moments in an adventure or campaign. So my advice is to attempt to shed some of your inhibitions and "ham it up" a little.

3. Keep die rolling (and math) simple.
I know this one will put off the math-heads and crunch-lovers, but I was really inspired by something Ed Greenwood said at OSRCon: that the reason we're all here is to role-play, not rule-play. I like that way of putting it because while it does not dismiss the existence or importance of rules, it emphasizes that the real essence of what makes our hobby special is the synergy that takes place when everybody is there immersed in the game-world during a session.

One way I have been working to simplify die-rolling on my side of the screen is to fall back on two or three simple die mechanics that become my "default" or "go-to" dice when some unexpected event arises. In my case, the die I overwhelmingly reach for above any other is the single, trusty 1d6. With few exceptions, my rolls for on-the-fly occurrences and snap rulings are all made with the single six-sider. I think to myself, "okay, this has an x in 6 chance of happening" and then I go for it.

Another event resolution mechanic I use in a wide array of situations these days is the "Reaction Roll," a 2d6-based system originally intended for hiring retainers (see Labyrinth Lord p. 46). I use that mechanic/table for almost any situation where negotiating, haggling, bluffing, or persuading is called for and where the result is not immediately clear strictly from roleplaying it out. For example, if the PCs want to haggle with some unfriendly goblins, and yet after what the speaking PC says I am unsure whether or not the goblins will go for it, I roll a 2d6 reaction roll, factoring in the parlaying PC's Charisma bonus and adding or subtracting from the roll based upon the roleplaying dimension (i.e., what s/he actually says) as well. This has been working really efficiently for me, and is a good "go-to" for a guy DM'ing a group who likes to negotiate and bullshit their way out of a great many in-game situations.

So I guess my recommendations largely center on finding ways to make the rules disappear during game play so that role-playing can fluidly occur.  Those are the types of games I like to run and play in, so as DM I always try to create conditions that encourage and facilitate those outcomes.

Fight On!


  1. In my post on the topic I said that I was "tolerant" and willing to suffer through a lot before making uncomfortable decisions. One of the uncomfortable decisions I have finally (!) managed to make is to ditch D&D 3.5 for other stuff (Labyrinth Lord and Solar System RPG respectively).

  2. Man, I lean heavily on the d6 for spot rulings. The reaction chart idea is a good idea. After tinkering with lots of crunchy rules, I'm finding a d6 or two and saving throws or rolls against attributes cover almost everything, and at speed.

    Thanks for sharing.