Back in 1987, Dragon magazine issue 122 published “The GM’s Ten Commandments: Ten dos and don’ts for game masters everywhere,” a list of tips that author Rig Volný likely wrote 35 years ago. In my last post, I updated the first 5 commandments into 5 tips for today. Can I update commandments 6-10 into exactly 5 more tips for a nice, round 10? That depends on they style of game you want, so don’t get the stone tablets yet. Roman numerals count off the original commandments; my updates appear in boxes.
VI. Try for consistency and realism.
The author of the 10 commandments writes, “If a fictional work has inconsistencies or is unrealistic, then it does not entertain the reader.”
If your magical Dungeons & Dragons world seems realistic, you might want to dial back the rats in basements in favor of fairies, giants, and vampires. Instead, game worlds aim for verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real. Often this includes genre emulation where the game tries to stay true to its source material. So a comic book superhero game might include unrealistic rules that ensure heroes never die and villains always escape until a future issue. D&D aims to evoke the fantasy yarns from authors listed in the game’s Appendix N.
Verisimilitude makes suspension of disbelief easier and immersion deeper. Dungeon Mastering 4th Edition for Dummies (p.121) advises, “Imagination is fabrication, and like any good fabrication, it should be grounded in truth. The more things from the normal, mundane, everyday world are true in in your game world, the easier it is for your players to imagine.”
“Anything that doesn’t fit expectations and forces the players to reevaluate what they know about the game—or the setting where the game takes place—drags the players out of active visualization and lets their natural disbelief come rushing back in.”
Still, this commandment aims for another sort of realism.
This sort of realism lets players make decisions based on a shared understanding of the game world and feel confidence that the outcomes will make sense. Dungeon Mastering 4th Edition for Dummies (p.131) explains, “Players expect that their actions in the world result in logical consequences. DMs sometimes fall into the illogical consequences trap by sticking too closely to the script. If the person who designed the adventure had no idea that the characters might figure out a way to get into the vault right at the beginning, it’s tempting to just say ‘you can’t get in,’ or ‘the treasure isn’t here.’ But the better answer is to reward the player ingenuity and resourcefulness with the success they earned, even if that ‘breaks’ the adventure and causes you to do some fast thinking.”
Much of the shared understanding that leads to plausible outcomes stems more from genre emulation than from realism.
VII. Don’t let the players argue with the GM.
This commandment comes from an era when the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules lacked ability checks and many other tools that gamers now use to decide between success and failure. Instead, game masters relied on judging the odds and rolling a die, a loose process that left room for arguments.
The article suggests a way to avoid debate. “Explain why a decision is made. When the situation has been discussed and weighed out carefully, stick to it.”
This recommendation remains sound, though today, most disputes focus on rules rather than a GM’s rulings.
The Pathfinder second edition Gamemastery Guide (p.28) puts this best. “Often the best ruling is the one that keeps the game moving. Avoid getting so bogged down that it takes you several minutes to decide what ruling you’ll proceed with. Take what’s close enough and keep playing. If necessary, you can tell your group ‘This is how we’re playing it now, but we can have more discussion between sessions.’ This gets you back in the action, puts a clear stamp on the fact that this is your decision in the moment, and empowers you players with permission to express their opinions on the ruling at a later time. When in doubt, rule in favor of the player’s request and then review the situation later.”
VIII. Enforce statements.
This serves as the GM’s “no backsies” commandment. “When a player says his character tries something, that character tries it.” In 1987, many game tables enforced similar rules, mainly to get more thoughtful play from players who blurt out reckless or outrageous actions, before seeing horror in the other players’ faces and attempting to rewind. In those days, D&D tended toward a more lethal style. Rash actions could get imaginary people killed. Plus, the no-takebacks policy leads to faster, more intense games. It leads to a particular style of play.
An opposite extreme allows timeouts for side conversations and rewinds for better ideas. This leads to looser style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. With this free style the potential for stalling and flip-flopping may frustrate players who just want to get on with the game.
Even for groups seeking and intense, immediate game, the “enforce statements” commandment suffers two faults: (1) the wording is unclear and (2) sometimes players ask for rash actions because they misunderstand the situation. Enforcing a no-takebacks rule means letting a character attempt something risky without knowing the odds, and that defies tip number 2.
Instead, for a similar game style, follow two guidelines.
When players talk at the table, their characters in the game world communicate basically the same messages, though perhaps in different words. See How Much Talk at Your Game Table Reaches Into the Game World?. When a player blurts out, “He’s lying,” the character voices something similar. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter.
Players can still talk tactics between turns. Perhaps they can even call out things like, “Don’t stand there! I’m casting fireball.” (Although their foes will hear the same shouts.) This guideline leads players to focus on playing their own characters without telling the other players what to do. It limits the ability of players to suspend instants of combat to workshop tactics.
These two guidelines hardly rate as commandments. Game masters can treat them as dials and decide how much enforcement suits the moment. For example, before a particularly intense negotiation scene or dangerous showdown, allow planning, and then tell the players when the action goes live and table chatter ends.
IX. Encourage the players to play their characters.
“Roleplaying is acting. The GM is most successful when the players are the characters. Give out experience points for good roleplaying and let the other players know why that character is getting extra points.”
Acting the part of characters heightens the immediacy of roleplaying games. It leads players to immerse themselves to the game world. It dramatizes relationships between characters. For good roleplaying, fifth edition encourages DMs to award inspiration rather than XP. In my experience, inspiration alone seldom encourages acting, but I’ve heard tales of players who make a scene whenever they need fresh inspiration. Top that, Shamu!
To encourage players to act in character, demonstrate that style of interaction using tip number 5: Roleplay your supporting cast as if you are a player and each NPC is your character. Make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.
For more help promoting roleplaying, see Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.
X. Reward wit, quick thinking, and consistency.
“Experience points should be awarded whenever a player has successfully exercised his gray matter. Both rapid thinking and long-term strategy should be rewarded.”
Today, fewer game masters opt to award and have players track experience points. Even the game’s designers fail to see the point. In games that do feature XP, I recommend awarding points for overcoming obstacles, without judging ingenuity. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling.) Instead, many DMs award inspiration for clever thinking, and that gives players a good feeling.
But rewarding wit and quick thinking goes beyond inspiration.
In Your Best Game Ever (p.161), Monte Cook writes, “When resolving actions, reward ingenuity even more than good die rolls or efficiently created characters. This means that for every challenge, there should be a straightforward solution and a not-so-straightforward one. It’s not your responsibility as the GM to come up with both. The players will come up with the not-so-straightforward solutions. You just have to be willing to go with their ideas.
“This doesn’t mean you have to let them succeed just because they try something you hadn’t thought of. On the contrary, the not-so-straightforward solution might end up being as hard or harder than the straightforward one. But you have to be ready to adjudicate the idea no matter what. If you don’t, and you shut down the players’ outside-the-box ideas, they will learn that the obvious solution is the only possible solution. Eventually, this will make for boring play because things will seem repetitive and too tightly structured.”