Preface: When to Ignore the Advice in This Guide
Just about every GM’s guide, from the chapter on the subject in official books of major RPGs to the “how to GM” posts that get submitted to Reddit by someone who’s only been doing it for six months, will mention that the GM should change rules and ignore advice whenever it’s appropriate. Which is basically just the author completely sidestepping all responsibility for the actual quality of advice. “If you follow our advice and it turns out badly for you, that’s because you didn’t follow our advice to not follow our advice. Sometimes. Only don’t follow our advice when it wouldn’t help. Do follow our advice when it would help. So, tautologically, anytime you mess up it’s because you didn’t follow our advice.”
It’s obviously true that no guide can ever encompass the entirety of all situations faced by every GM who ever reads it, and despite being the length of a short novel, this one isn’t even getting close, so there will certainly be times when the advice in this guide does not apply to your specific situation and should be ignored. The question is, when? And the answer is, when you have a good reason to. That sounds tautological, but if you can explain to a hypothetical observer why the rule isn’t going to work for you, then you’re probably in a situation where it’s best to ignore it. All skills have a dogma to them, and true expertise always comes from understanding the limitations of the dogma and when the dogma doesn’t apply to your specific situation. “You have to understand the rules before you can break them” is a cliche because it’s true. If you have a reason to break a rule, and it’s not a shallow non-reason like “that’s not how we do things here” or “I like it better this other way,” then you’ve probably found a limitation of the rules and you should probably break that rule. This is true not just for the rules given in this guide, but for rules in general.
Introduction: What Makes RPGs Fun?
What does it mean to have fun? That’s not a zen koan, it’s an analytic question for anyone who wants to get better at making a tabletop game more fun, as a designer, player, or game master. Rolling a natural 20 is fun, and being part of a well-executed plot twist that reveals friends as enemies and enemies as friends is fun, and masterfully executing an intricate plan to topple a kingdom using nothing but twine and Color Spray is fun, but all of these are fun in extremely different ways. If you want to run a good game, you’re best off starting out by determining what kind of fun people are interested in having, and if we’re going to give good GM advice (we intend to), we first have to establish what kinds of fun we’re encouraging.
In game design, fun has been codified into eight distinct elements which you may recognize from the Extra Credits episode or the Angry DM article about the Extra Credits episode. These elements are fantasy, narrative, challenge, sense pleasure, fellowship, expression, discovery, and abnegation. Any game that tries to be a perfect combination of all eight is going to fail, in part because some of them are opposed (we’ll get to that later), but mostly because you just can’t juggle all eight of those balls at once (this metaphor is somewhat imperfect because really good jugglers totally can juggle eight balls at once, but even really good GMs aren’t going to keep all eight elements of fun running on all cylinders for an entire campaign), and trying to do so will dilute your efforts away from things you’re good at and towards things you’re not. Every game should strive to be really good at two or three of these things rather than being kind of mediocre at all of them. The three we’re focusing on in this series particularly are the first three we listed: Fantasy, narrative, and challenge. This isn’t because they’re the best kind, it’s because an effective guide needs to have focus and those three are the ones we happen to be best at.
The first element we’ll be focusing on is fantasy. Fantasy here refers not to the genre, but rather to the idea that you are immersing yourself in a life other than your own. In other words, that you are playing a role. The power fantasy is the most common fantasy in role playing games, but by no means the only one. A game broiling with political drama might see characters regularly forced to compromise their principles and sacrifice one thing to get another, and that’s not much of a power fantasy at all, but it still has players playing a role and immersing themselves in the world. Whenever we’re talking about immersion and about how the world should react to players, we’re talking about fantasy. Our prioritization of fantasy is also why we endorse designing more open-ended scenarios over more linear ones. Running a believable world is our highest priority, but it’s only slightly ahead of our second element.
That second element is narrative. Narrative is a good story, and it’s one of the elements of fun that doesn’t require an interactive medium at all. Compelling character arcs and surprising plot twists are the bread and butter of movies and books. For narrative we will mostly be discussing pacing, theme, and character arcs, as anything else is almost impossible to set up in the chaotic environment of a collaborative, improvised story. In an interactive medium, narrative and fantasy can often be opposed to one another, with character arcs cut short or pacing disrupted because of player action. We prefer to err on the side of fantasy in these situations. A single missed beat or aborted arc won’t destroy a narrative, but a single asspull to prevent that usually will destroy immersion, exposing the reality that you can (and, evidently, will) ignore player choices or sensible worldbuilding whenever you think it’s important. Even players who agree with your decision are still agreeing with a completely out-of-character artifice, and have thus been yanked out of the moment.
The third element is challenge. This is not to say that we advocate running the Dark Souls of D&D or anything, and indeed GMs who pride themselves on killing players often tumble down the slippery slope of setting narrative, fantasy, and basically everything else on fire, a sacrifice upon the altar of their “fearsome reputation.” The element of challenge is not about any particular level of challenge, it’s about objectivity. Total objectivity is impossible, because the GM is a human being, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t strive to be more objective. A GM who tries to be more objective is giving players more power over the narrative, because they are not invalidating their successes (for example, allowing the plot to be derailed if the players are clever enough to skip a step the GM thought was unavoidable or come up with a completely novel approach to the problem) nor their failures (and when all roads lead to success, players paradoxically have less power, because the GM has decided in advance what the results will be regardless of player action, so even though those results are good for the players, player input is still being ignored). The fun of challenge is to look at a kingdom saved, a villain defeated, and peace restored, and knowing that this happened because you made it happen, not just because you showed up and fate mandated you could never lose.
A special mention to Fellowship. Fellowship is the element of fun that comes from hanging out with friends, doing something together, and just enjoying their company. Fellowship is perhaps the most important element of fun to a tabletop RPG, and the reason we’re not discussing it is because this is not a video game, and there are no matchmaking services to worry about. We don’t have to figure out how to design our LFG system to try and encourage good PUGs, because our assumption is that you are playing with people you like and if you don’t like them you will stop playing that game. As such, effective Fellowship is presumed to be something you’ve already taken care of.
Prioritizing these three elements over others is done because we have to prioritize something or else we’ll dilute our advice to the point of being too broad or too complicated to be useful, and we personally prefer to play and run in campaigns that put the highest value on these three elements. There’s nothing wrong with playing a beer and pretzels game in which the GM quietly cheats the players into inevitable victory (a game that relies on abnegation), nor with a game in which players contribute as much to the setting as the GM (a game that relies on expression), this just isn’t a guide to that kind of game. This guide is on creating and running a campaign in which players are immersed in the role of heroes whose choices have important consequences, both for good and for ill.