Joyful GMing: Practical Advice for Playing Nice

I think the information in tabletop RPG rulebooks about what is an RPG and how to treat your fellow players while running a game could instead be distilled into some practical advice. In a table top RPG a game master may say, “The players sank my battleship!” And that is a great thing. Here’s why.

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Universe Ship Star Gates - Free photo on Pixabay - Pixabay

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Here's my version of an introduction to a tabletop role-paying games, with some advice to set the right tone:
  • Monopoly Rule: If everyone around the table knows the rules to Monopoly and sits down to play, is it ever okay for any player to roll for movement in secret? No. Why? Because even if that player doesn’t choose to cheat it both provides the temptation to do so and the appearance of actual cheating even if the player doesn’t actually fudge the roll.
  • Battleship Rule: If everyone around the table knows the rules to Battleship and sits down to play, it is ever okay for any player to place their ships in secret and record hits in secret? Yes. Why? The tension of not knowing where the enemy ship is and what ships are getting hit adds to the excitement and enjoyment of the game.
Would you play Battleship with someone you don’t trust? No. Why? Because if they don’t play fair, the game will not be any fun. No gaming is better than bad gaming. I’ll repeat rule -1 (the one before rule 0) along with two related rules:
  • Rule -1: No gaming is better than bad gaming. So find people you trust who are fun to game with and don’t continue to game with people you don’t trust and who treat you poorly.
  • Rule 0: The GM is the final authority on the rules of the game and has the power to create and modify rules for the world in which the game takes place. The world belongs to the GM and their players, and the rules of the world are determined by them.
  • Rule Wheaton: Don’t be a jerk.
As a game master, you have some principles to abide by as well: The GM is a welcoming and trusted presence. The GM is the arbiter of the rules. The GM (and the players as well) must not be a jerk.

To sum it all up, play nice.

How the GM Creates a Welcoming Game

I’m going to use some advice from Professor DM from Dungeon Craft to provide some rules for the GM:
  • As the GM, I cannot control the players.
  • As the GM, I cannot control the dice.
  • As the GM, I do not control the story.
A GM is a not a storyteller. A GM instead creates conflicts which sometimes in turn evokes real emotion in the players. The story arises from emergent play when the player characters come into contact with the conflict. And sometimes, when the game is going really well, that contact with conflict generates real emotions in the GM and players. A GM creates conflicts by carefully controlling the following options (there may be more, but I’ll start with these big six) which the GM does control:
  • The first scene of the night.
  • The environment including the world and NPCs at large.
  • The statement of the goal of a session.
  • The terrain.
  • Pacing.
  • Time.
In the next installment of Joyful GMing I will break down these options in more detail. In most cases, the things the GM does not control fall under the Monopoly rule (be out in the open with those parts of the game). The things the GM does control fall under the Battleship rule until revealed and those are the tools a skilled GM uses in conjunction with chaos (player choice and random rolls) to move a game along, create exciting conflict, and sometimes draw forth actual emotion from everyone around the table. The gestalt of all these actions become a story you and your players may well recount for years and even decades to come. Heck, tell your whole family. They likely will love to hear your gaming war stories!

You Sank My Battleship!​

Combat is a great example of the Monopoly rule. If all the players including the GM go into the fight knowing the rules (are all combats balanced or not, do the monsters and NPCs use the same rules or different rules, do the players roll all the dice, etc.) then everyone gaming should follow those rules.

GMs should roll dice in the open if the RPG calls for GM rolls. Fudging at the game play level shouldn’t happen. Some RPGs have most of the rolls happen by the players and fudging die rolls are impossible in these systems without cheating. So the GM shouldn’t fudge dice rolls in combat either in RPGs that call for GM rolls even if the PCs are losing.

The events surrounding combat, however, fall under the Battleship rule until revealed. Rather than fudge dice rolls, the GM could let the PCs lose but get captured (NPCs) or have another group show up that the PCs can try to sway to their side (NPCs again). Perhaps the terrain shifts: combat on the bridge makes the bridge collapse and the game shifts from combat to diving to safety and rescuing anyone left hanging from the bridge. The PCs and NPCs may even call a truce and work together to rescue dangling people from both sides of the conflict!

The players may roll well and kill your big bad in one round. We could call this the Players Sank My Battleship (and I’m Glad)! rule. When the GM loses one battleship he lets it sink, and then he creates another. As the GM, you don’t fudge dice rolls to save your NPC due to the Monopoly rule. However, that same collapsing bridge could carry away the corpse and leave the door open for a future return. And that falling bridge becomes the next conflict the PCs have to deal with. The players sank one battleship and the GM, following the Battleship rule, brings out two more!

TTRPGs: Play Nice to Win​

You don’t need me or game designers to tell you how to treat your fellow players and what games are. We all learned the rule in kindergarten to making friends and playing games: play nice. And the corollary: don’t invite others to play your games if they don’t play nice.

What GMs need are practical tools to help them become the fair embodiment of the rules, the bringer of conflict and possible emotion, and a friendly and trusted guide for all the other players. It is a wonderful balancing act perhaps akin to juggling roaring chainsaws while riding a unicycle inside a cage full of lions while clowns prance outside the bars. And doing it all with style and panache. And then the lights go out.

More practical tools to follow. Embrace the gaming lifestyle and game on!

Your Turn: What's your advice for "playing nice"?
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

TheSword

Legend
I heard a good approach from Jessica on the latest EN World podcast.

Essentially she said part of her role as a player (including DMs) is to help other players tell their stories and not to get in the way of them. I really liked that. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me, hearing that in the car. I do it as a DM all the time, but as a player… I can do that better!

If you focus on what other players are trying to do and help them do it, rather than upstaging, grand standing and undermining, I think you’re going to have a great group experience.
 

Reynard

Legend
I agree that folks around the table need to trust one another to play in good faith. Part of that is making sure everyone has expressed their preferences, goals, and play philosophy clearly. They don't necessarily need to align in all ways, but they need to be understood and the people involved should make an effort to accommodate every participants' preferences. if someone's preferences are difficult to accommodate, they may not be a good fit for the group.

Beyond that, what is or isn't under control of the GM is highly dependent -- not just on those preferences, but on the circumstances. Convention one shots are very different than middle of a home campaign sessions. The degree to which the GM has to control pacing is very different, and the degree to which the GM "carefully controls" anything is highly variably, not just between GMs or campaigns or adventures, but even between discrete moments of play.

I think the first and most important choice in the whole process is the choice of game to play. That, by and large, sets the baseline expectations and at least implies information otherwise gone unsaid in Session 0. Too often, i think, the wrong game is chosen because the group just defaults to their favorite RPG even when it isn't the right choice, or the GM chooses a game because they know it will fill seats more easily than a different system. I know I have run games with D&D 5E for exactly that reason, when the game really should have been a different system.

As it relates to combat and fudging: this is a thing that people argue about constantly. there is no right answer. Some people think the GM should fudge in order to produce the most entertaining outcome, while others consider any fudging as a form of cheating. For my part, I am of the opinion that once the swords and spells come out, all rolls are open and on the table and the dice fall where they may. The GM and players should be playing for keeps in combat, within the roles, motivations and personalities of the characters and creatures involved. But, others see it differently and consider a combat no less subject to the GM's storytelling responsibilities as any other part of the game.
 

Voadam

Legend
Tone and approach.

When going for joyful I think lighthearted and fun, so upbeat, action packed, with some humor. That can include reversals and surprise upsets including character death, but avoid things that make players uncomfortable, or disempower players or turn things grim and hopeless. Fail forward instead of just fail.

My goal for tone as a DM is generally a joyful action with some horror tropes and humor, but not grim or unpleasant, so Army of Darkness as a model, not Saw. Firefly is great, but not the episode where the Captain is injured and struggling with injuries the whole time.
 

aco175

Legend
  • Monopoly Rule: If everyone around the table knows the rules to Monopoly and sits down to play, is it ever okay for any player to roll for movement in secret? No. Why? Because even if that player doesn’t choose to cheat it both provides the temptation to do so and the appearance of actual cheating even if the player doesn’t actually fudge the roll.
  • Battleship Rule: If everyone around the table knows the rules to Battleship and sits down to play, it is ever okay for any player to place their ships in secret and record hits in secret? Yes. Why? The tension of not knowing where the enemy ship is and what ships are getting hit adds to the excitement and enjoyment of the game.
Either I'm not understanding or disagree with the Battleship rule. If I attack your grid and hit a ship, you are saying that it is ok to not tell me I hit because not knowing adds to the excitement? If I have no idea I hit your ship, I might as well be letting my cat pick spots on the grid to attack since there is no longer any tactics involved.

To bring it to a RPG game, the DM rolls an attack and you are suggesting that the player not tell the DM if it hits since he moved his AC (ship) to where the DM not knows what it is. I do not care if the player keeps his HP secret. I do not mind wither if he models somehow how badly damaged he is to the others. My group places a red circle on the mini when they are getting rather beat up, both good and bad guys.

I do not think the DM needs to play the "Does an attack of 16 hit?" "No, ok does an 18 hit with my second attack? Cool" Next player, "Does a 17 hit?" "No, ok everyone we now know the AC is 18, so do we need to keep asking?" I would never do that with PC's AC. As the DM I could have cheat sheets with the PCs abilities and such, but should not need to.
 

Reynard

Legend
I do not think the DM needs to play the "Does an attack of 16 hit?" "No, ok does an 18 hit with my second attack? Cool" Next player, "Does a 17 hit?" "No, ok everyone we now know the AC is 18, so do we need to keep asking?" I would never do that with PC's AC. As the DM I could have cheat sheets with the PCs abilities and such, but should not need to.
Assuming I am not playing on a VTT that automatically determines the hit, I almost never bother to remember or write down the PCs' ACs. I just tell the player the roll value and they tell me whether I hit or not. The reverse is usually true, as well. The player tells me what they rolled and I tell them whether to roll damage. Sometimes I will tell them the AC to speed things up, though.
 

Either I'm not understanding or disagree with the Battleship rule. If I attack your grid and hit a ship, you are saying that it is ok to not tell me I hit because not knowing adds to the excitement? If I have no idea I hit your ship, I might as well be letting my cat pick spots on the grid to attack since there is no longer any tactics involved.

To bring it to a RPG game, the DM rolls an attack and you are suggesting that the player not tell the DM if it hits since he moved his AC (ship) to where the DM not knows what it is. I do not care if the player keeps his HP secret. I do not mind wither if he models somehow how badly damaged he is to the others. My group places a red circle on the mini when they are getting rather beat up, both good and bad guys.

I do not think the DM needs to play the "Does an attack of 16 hit?" "No, ok does an 18 hit with my second attack? Cool" Next player, "Does a 17 hit?" "No, ok everyone we now know the AC is 18, so do we need to keep asking?" I would never do that with PC's AC. As the DM I could have cheat sheets with the PCs abilities and such, but should not need to.

No, you record the hit in secret. You say hit and put a red pin in your ship, but the other player doesn't see you recording the hit because of the barrier between both sides of the board. The other player doesn't know what ship was hit or how many times it has been hit until it sinks. Because the rules make this part of the game, both players are fine with the mystery and it enhances the game via fog of war.

I picked Battleship and Monopoly because I thought the rules were fairly clear. Guess not!
 

Some people think the GM should fudge in order to produce the most entertaining outcome, while others consider any fudging as a form of cheating. For my part, I am of the opinion that once the swords and spells come out, all rolls are open and on the table and the dice fall where they may.


I think this is one of the big divisions in gaming.

I firmly fall in your camp. I hate when DMs lie about rolls and as a DM I roll in the open.

What's funny is back in the 80s and 90s I was worried about the DM lying to get high roles and kill me. Now I worry about the DM lying to get low rolls and coddle me.
 

I think this is one of the big divisions in gaming.

I firmly fall in your camp. I hate when DMs lie about rolls and as a DM I roll in the open.

What's funny is back in the 80s and 90s I was worried about the DM lying to get high roles and kill me. Now I worry about the DM lying to get low rolls and coddle me.
I don't see how you can roll as the GM and change what you rolled in secret. That is the definition of cheating in any game. I think the GM can choose not to roll in many cases but combat in nearly every system I know requires rolls and changing the results of a roll outside the rules is cheating no matter who does it.

I'm honestly curious where the idea of cheating on die rolls being ok actually came from. I don't know why a GM would choose to run a system that has dice rolling on their side if they plan to just disregard the roll whenever they feel like it.
 

I'm honestly curious where the idea of cheating on die rolls being ok actually came from

I'm going to blame Dragonlance.

I don't have ot in front of me but there is a lot of advice in that module to push the story and cheat as a GM. I can't say if it says cheat on rolls but I would guess it does.

Probably not the first place. But one of the most popular Modules back in the day with some (in my opinion) very damaging DM advice.
 

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