Monthly Archives: January 2021

Updating the 35-Year-Old GM’s Ten Commandments for Today

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. Since then, play styles and advice for game masters have evolved. How well have the commandments stood the test of time? Roman numerals count off the original commandments; my updates appear in boxes.

I. Do not consider the players as adversaries.

The article explains, “In role-playing, the situation is not one of GM vs. players: It isn’t a fair fight.”

In 1987, many GMs framed players as adversaries. Now, everyone sees this as a bad mindset, but today’s advice goes farther.

1. Be a fan of the characters.

The Dungeon World (p.162) game recommends thinking of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you enjoy. “Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.”

As a fan, GMs still get to test characters. In Your Best Game Ever (p.93), Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

II. Never say “You can’t do that.”

The original article cites two cases when a GM might make the mistake of telling players, “You can’t do that.”

  • When players want to attempt something very difficult or even impossible.
  • When players want to violate their characters’ alignment.

“The point of this commandment is that it gives the players a degree of control in the game—one that adds desirable unpredictability. This makes the GM ‘play’ the adventure rather than just direct a prewritten script.”

Sometimes as GMs, we imagine our games will follow a particular path, all according to our plans. Perhaps we devise a clever puzzle or challenge and want it to work so players can appreciate our ingenuity. Perhaps we lay twists for future sessions. Sometimes we favor a game that sticks to the comfort of familiar rules rather than one that strays into untested judgement calls. When the game veers from plan, we feel tempted to nudge or even wrench it back on course. Remember this temptation, because the GM’s 10 commandments will suggest ways to avoid succumbing.

When players try some stunt that might launch the game in an unexpected direction, let them. “If a player attempts a difficult task, have him make a difficult die roll.”

The article acknowledges that some tasks are impossible, and then suggests giving the player a clearly impossible die roll such as a 7 on 1d6 to avoid saying, “You can’t.”

Usually players who ask to attempt something impossible are confused by the situation in the game world. For example, they picture jumping a 3-foot wall when they actually face 25 feet of stone. Asking for a roll of 7 on a d6 just feels like mockery. Instead of this suggestion, substitute guidance inspired by my 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break.

2. Whenever players attempt a difficult or risky task, make sure the players know the odds and the likely result of failure.

For impossible tasks, you can say, “You can’t.”

As for a character who violates a good alignment by attacking innocent people, the article suggests letting in-game consequences result. “Don’t tell him he just doesn’t do that sort of thing. Let the local constabulary enforce his conscience.”

In 1987, Dungeons & Dragons emphasized alignment as the one rule that limited a character’s behavior. Characters whose actions failed to match their alignment faced punishment. However, as long as characters remained true to their evil alignment, then torture and murder just rated as good roleplay. By the ethos of 1987, any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. Now, gamers focus more on how disruptive that sort of play can become.

3. Decide with your group about the sort of game everyone wishes to play and insist that players create characters that fit that game.

As a game master doing the heavy lifting, you deserve at least as much say as the players. If you want characters in your Curse of Strahd game to play do-gooders who help folks, rather than evil types seeking an alliance with Strahd, ask players to imagine characters who fit that campaign.

As a player, your first role-playing obligation is to imagine a character who can cooperate with the rest of the party to achieve the common goals of the game. (See A role-playing game player’s obligation.)

III. Don’t overplan.

“Overplanning prevents the GM from meeting the actions of the players with flexibility and interferes with spontaneous creativity.” This commandment circles back to avoiding the temptation to limit players to particular path. “If the GM prepares extensively for the players to do A, B, or C, and they do D instead, he is faced with the temptation to dismiss a good plan as irrelevant to play.”

The commandment still holds, but in The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers a more useful refinement.

4. Prepare what benefits your game, and omit what does not.

All GMs and groups are different, so what you need to prepare to run an RPG session varies. Mike’s Lazy Dungeon Master argues that most game masters benefit from less preparation rather than more, and then describes the steps most likely to benefit a session.

For me, preparation lets me reach past the “stereotyped situations” that I might improvise to find more evocative ideas. Lazy Dungeon Master (p.21) recognizes the same dynamic when it recommends preparing secrets for a session. “Sometimes thinking up ten secrets is hard. But as you wrack your brain for those final few, you’ll often come up with the most interesting ones. It sometimes takes great mental effort to dig deep into one’s mind and find the diamonds buried within.”

The article gives the example of a GM who spends 12 hours designing a dungeon lair just to see the players find a way to skip it. Dungeons rate as higher-prep scenarios. To avoid such wasted design, ask the players to outline their plans for your next session so you can prepare with more certainty.

IV. Keep adventures within reason.

This commandment recommends two types of restraint that seem unrelated to me.

  • “Don’t engage in stereotyped situations.”
  • “Don’t cheapen magic, gold, or fantastic creatures by making them too common.”

The article cites examples of the “stereotyped situations” that GMs should avoid, including ultimate battles between good and evil, one-dimensional characters, and totally evil bad guys. As a counterpoint, Dungeon Master 4th Edition for Dummies (p.54) advises, “Don’t be afraid to make your villains totally evil. The worse they are the more satisfying it will be for player characters to defeat them.” Games that avoid overused tropes can feel fresher, but this tip fails to merit a commandment.

The second limit seeks to avoid D&D’s classic problem of magical loot breaking the game. “When a beginning party starts to collect scores of magical items, the members begin to obtain a degree of strength that is often out of proportion with their level.” Thanks to item attunement and better guidance on treasure rewards, today’s D&D game does a better job of avoiding this trouble, even without a commandment. (See Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it and What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?.)

As for the bit about cheapening fantastic creatures by making them too common, tastes vary, but in most D&D worlds “monsters are everywhere.” The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.9) gives advice for DMs who prefer to imagine worlds with rare monsters.

V. Run the adventures in color, not in black and white.

The article cites an example of boring play to avoid.

Player: We ask around to see if there’s a tavern in the town.
GM: There’s one a mile up the road.

Instead, the author recommends acting out the scene, complete with an accent for the NPC. In many situations, acting as an NPC creates a more vivid and dramatic game. Dungeon Master 4th Edition for Dummies (p.54) explains, “Whether an NPC serves as a walk-on or has a minor or major role in the story, play each one as an individual. Roleplay! Nothing makes an NPC come alive like roleplaying a key feature to give him or her personality and pizzazz. For major NPCs, such as the dastardly villain or the regal king who hires the adventurers, roleplay to the hilt. Even the lowliest kobold minions, though, really come alive if they have distinctive voices—even if all they ever say is, ‘I am slain!’ Ham it up, act it out, and make each character memorable in the scene.”

5. Roleplay your supporting cast as if you are a player and each NPC is your character.

The article’s example of getting directions leads me to a quibble: The example expands a two-line exchange between player and GM into inches of text, wasting time by exaggerating the importance of a minor moment. Because the GM gave the bystander so much attention, the players will keep talking, seeking the apparent importance in an inconsequential exchange.

Typically, an interaction without (1) a goal and (2) an obstacle only merits the sort of summary in the “boring” example. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. If the bystander happens to have more backstory to share, you might drop into character for a more colorful delivery. For a full scene, introduce a minor obstacle for the players to overcome. “I really shouldn’t say. The sheriff doesn’t approve of adventurers. Not since that last bunch.” Now the players need to find a way to overcome the NPC’s reticence, and the information shared seems worthy of attention.

Next: Can I update commandments 6-10 into exactly 5 more tips? Check back next Tuesday.

9 Best Collections of Inspirational Tables and Lists to Help DMs Create and Improvise

Never underestimate the value of a good list seeded with ideas or just evocative words. Inspirational tables include numbers for die rolls. I suspect the tables for traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws in the fifth edition Players Handbook developed more characters’ personalities, and therefor encouraged more role playing than anything in past Dungeons & Dragons history. And the table of trinkets on page 161 has probably been rolled against more than any other in the current game.

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.” (For more on how M.T. Black creates, see his book The Anatomy of Adventure.)

Use the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity. I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem unrelated, and then inventing ways to put the two thoughts together. (See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention and D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) M.T. Black uses the same trick to create. “Some of my best adventures had their genesis through the amalgamation of two seemingly unrelated ideas. So very often in this business, the magic happens through an inspired combination.”

What’s the quickest source of random thoughts? Tables like ones for adventures starting on page 73 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or for dungeons on page 292. You probably already have that book. Count it as number 10.

Random tables especially help give life to the parts of the game world that seem routine. Recently, I needed market square vendors colorful enough for roleplaying scenes. A few rolls on tables gave enough inspiration for me to imagine merchants that excited me.

For improvisation, random tables help me avoid the first thought that comes to mind—the thought process that lead to my introduction of a recurring NPC named Kendle Stick. Never again.

Books of this sort benefit from indexes that organize various tables. When I reference these documents from my tablet, I like hyperlinks from the lists of tables to the tables themselves. Alas, neither feature is common.

What are the best resources for DMs who want more inspiration than the Dungeon Master’s Guide can offer?

9. GM Gems: A Tome of Game Master Inspiration
$11.99. 84 pages.

GM Gems devotes most of its pages to creations like 6 memorable caravans (described in 3 pages) or 15 unusual holidays (spanning 5 pages). All these nuggets suggest adventure hooks and reward browsing. My favorite tables include Memorable NPC Frills and Empty Rooms Worth Describing. The list of smell words appeals to both writers and 8-year-olds.

Sample roll from Short Encounters for Short Attention Spans. 32: The party finds an enormous tome written in Draconic with the title “Indigestion: What Creatures to Avoid.”

8. The Mother of All Treasure Tables
$15.99. 162 Pages.

While I like the idea of giving characters unique and evocative loot rather than lists of coinage, the chore of imagining such hoards exhausts me. The authors of The Mother of All Treasure Tables did my homework. Tables inside list treasure parcels by values up to 50,000 gp and even epic treasure.

Sample roll from 50 Gold Pieces. 25: A wooden box [1 gp] is as long as a dagger but twice as wide, and is painted black. Inside you find a thin bed of red wax that is dimpled with dozens of small depressions. Five gems are pressed into the wax: an azurite, a piece of blue quartz, a chunk of lapis lazuli, a freshwater pearl and a moss agate [10 gp each]. [Total 51 gp]

7. 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds & Plots
Free. 65 pages.

This document features a single list of urban adventure seeds and scene ideas.

Sample roll. 599: The PCs come across a tavern where an artist is trying to trade one of his paintings for drinks. The painting is truly bad.

6. d30 Sandbox Companion
$4.95. 56 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

The d30 Sandbox Companion presents a way to improvise a wilderness, sandbox adventure using the rarely seen 30-sided die. (Hint: Ask your phone to roll.) Surely author Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. ranks as the world biggest fan of the die that just won’t stop rolling. Some of the most useful tables describe NPCs, shops and shopkeepers, and name taverns.

Sample rolls from NPC Background, Eccentricities, and Talents. 30: Baker 21: father was a noble, had title stripped after “incident” 8: hates their life 29: whistles incessantly 24: talent for reading body language.

5. Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game
$16.95. 338 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Masks presents 3 to 4 characters per page, with sub-headings for appearance, roleplaying, personality, motivation, and background. The book divides characters into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find NPCs by traits like “Charming” and “Merchant.”

4. Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to inspire Game Masters
$16.95. 316 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Eureka presents 2 adventure plots per page divided into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find plots using tags like “Intrigue,” “Combat-heavy,” and “Betrayal.”

3. Dungeon Dozen
$8. 225 pages. Indexed.

Tables in Dungeon Dozen range from the useful ones (Also in Residence at the Inn and What’s on the Guard Monster’s Mind?) to gonzo (Occupants of the Colossal UFO Anchored to the Mountaintop). Everything seems evocative enough to supercharge your imagination.

Sample roll from Even the Doors are Weird. 5: Randomly opens and closes with damaging force.

2. Tome of Adventure Design
$12.60. 308 pages. Indexed.

The 400-something tables Tome of Adventure Design starts with help outlining adventure plots and villains, venture to dungeon tricks and decoration, and finish in cities and crossing planes.

Sample roll from Specific Tactical Situations. 77: Areas where spells have unusual effects; possibly weapons or movement also (underwater, for example).

1. GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing, Urban Dressing, & Wilderness Dressing
$13.99 each; discounted in a bundle. Linked tables of contents.

The GM’s Miscellany series rates as the best of the random-table genre. These volumes mix inspirational tables and a dash of advice into collections focused on dungeon, urban, and wilderness environments. A bundle that includes print and PDF versions of all the volumes offers the best value.

GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing. 216 pages.

Sample roll from Mundane Chest Contents: Wizard’s Chests. 95: The charcoal-rubbed papers in this chest appear to be of gravestone etchings.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing. 178 pages.

Sample roll from Market Stalls: Hooks, Complications & Opportunities. 4: An irate young man complains that he was almost killed by his last purchase. When pressed he explains ludicrous extraordinary circumstances.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing II. 118 pages.

Sample roll from Decadent Town: Sights & Sounds. 80: At least a dozen footmen and attendants clear the street to make way for a woman reclining on an opulent litter.

GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing. 122 pages.

Sample roll from Desert: Minor Events. 88: Two small scorpions are engaged in their own duel for a dead beetle.

How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks

Dungeons & Dragons plays best when players can only retry ability checks if something changed after the first roll.

For many ability checks, this makes sense because failing makes trying the same thing again impossible. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this example: “If the rogue loses a contest of Charisma (Deception) against the guard’s Wisdom (Insight), the same lie told again won’t work.” Typically, Intelligence and Charisma checks only allow one attempt.

Still, the realization that DMs should avoid allowing rerolls surprised me because some checks naturally invite retries. Typically, Strength and Dexterity checks seem open to multiple attempts. Why not try to pick a lock again? The Dungeon Master’s Guide even includes advice for multiple checks. “In some cases, the only real cost is the time it takes. To speed things up, assume that a character spending ten times the normal amount of time needed to complete a task automatically succeeds at that task.”

That suggestion seems like advice for retrying checks, but at the core, it tells when to skip them. If a character can succeed and has time, then skip the roll. This guideline never explains how to determine whether characters have enough skill and talent to succeed. (Spoiler: I will recommend rolling a check.)

DMs aim to run an exciting game, and skipping rerolls helps. The outcome of a roll should launch—or at least nudge—the game ahead or into a new direction. Even a failure that blocks progress should inspire ingenuity. If a failure does nothing more than prompt a player to fish for a higher number, then the game stalls. Boring. Third edition even created rules to avoid such fizzles. A player could take 20 and spend 20 times as long in exchange for an automatic 20 on a check attempt.

For checks that seem to allow multiple retries, the take 20 rule answers the can-I question using addition. While fifth edition skips the take-20 rule, the math remains the same. If a character’s check bonus plus 20 meets or beats a task’s DC, then mathematically the character could succeed. But this take-20 math leads to unsatisfying play for two reasons:

If bending the bars of dungeon cells requires success against a DC 20, which the game calls “hard,” then anyone with an average Strength of 10 and time to spare gets loose. The same goes for a hard lock and an untrained thief with no aptitude. For dungeons to hold athletes and locks to deter thieves, the iron and the mechanisms need a DC 25 and talented beginners still get through. I think we can all agree that prisons work better than that. But we contrive DCs to create a fun and challenging game. D&D aims for heroics where the barbarian bends the portcullis and the rogue picks the lock, all before the approaching monsters arrive. So the game recommends DCs based on the assumption that characters only get one attempt.

Instead of using take-20 math to decide whether a character has enough talent and skill to succeed, the game usually plays better when one ability check decides. Knowledge checks already work that way. When players ask if their characters know the history of Netheril, a check answers without rerolls or taking 20. For any check where failure blocks a retry, one die roll decides whether a character can succeed. Can the paladin persuade the mayor? Can the wizard decipher the sigil?

Checks that decide what a character can accomplish date back to first edition and attempts to bend bars or lift gates. “The attempt may be made but once, and if the score required is not made, the character will never succeed at the task.” Does a failed check reveal thicker bars? Maybe. Such checks fit D&D’s long tradition of rolling to learn things about the game world, things like whether a door is locked or if the skies are clear.

Die rolls bring more fun than letting take-20 math or a DM’s ruling decide between success and failure. Plus, you only roll once so the game never stalls while someone fishes for a higher number.

Now that you know to never allow a character to repeat a check, I will weaken that principle by revealing exceptions.

One obvious exception: Sometimes a change in approach allows a reroll. If a character failed to move a stone, perhaps a lever will help. Gain another attempt.

The second exception requires a DM’s judgement, something right in the DM job description.

When characters risk paying a price for failure, allowing retries can create a more exciting game. If a climber can fall or if someone attempting to disarm a trap can suffer the device’s effects, the character can retry and bear the risks again. Often the price of failure comes from losing time against a ticking clock—a draining hourglass in most D&D worlds. In classic D&D games, every moment wasted raises the risk of wandering monsters. When attempting to break a door, the price of failure is often noise, whether it alerts wandering monsters or nearby guards.

Fifth edition allows for setbacks more interesting than damage or delays. Failure can mean that a character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.” For example, if a rogue blows a roll to pick a lock, the DM can decide that the lock opens but the attempt made a noise that leads to complications. Gamers call this failing forward.

The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game includes a “pushing the roll” rule that lets players agree to pay a price for a second failure in exchange for a retry. Players describe the extra effort or time taken to justify a second chance. Plus, they give the game master “permission to bring dire consequences” if the next attempt fails. You may steal this rule for your D&D game. The idea works especially well for checks with a potentially harsh penalty for failure. For example, a character who fails a first climb attempt realizes the cliff seems too treacherous and makes no progress. If the climber pushes on despite the risk, and then fails again, they fall.

DMs who ask for a check must be ready for failure. Sometimes even published modules include checks where a failure blocks the rest of the adventure—checks with no room for failure. At conventions, I have seen bad rolls test DMs who abruptly realized that a failure left the adventure no way to continue. These DMs switched to improvising new checks as a way to drag the group to success. When we kept failing, the damage control turned comical. Failing forward lets characters fail checks and still pass ahead, but search checks and especially knowledge checks can make inventing a setback a hard challenge for a DM.

Related: In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?