Joyful GMing: Practical Advice for Playing Nice

Here's some practical advice on what's an RPG and how to treat your fellow players.

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

talien

Community Supporter
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.
At least from the player side, it goes back a looong time: https://www.enworld.org/threads/everybody-cheats.665485/
 

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Reynard

Legend
Supporter
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.
Right. If you choose to bring dice into the resolution, it means you want an uncertain outcome.
 

Arcanra

Villager
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.

I agree, and my groups have been doing that since we started with ODnD back in the late 70s. For us initially, it was a way to keep everyone honest, including the gms. Every group I've played with since all the way up to our current PF 1e group has done this, never using GM screens either. What you see is what you get and everyone gets to see all rolls.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.

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"?
Fantastic article. One of the few I agree with completely. Thanks for writing and sharing. Looking forward to more of this.
 

Fantastic article. One of the few I agree with completely. Thanks for writing and sharing. Looking forward to more of this.
Thanks! I really appreciate hearing your feedback. If you have any suggestions on what you'd like to see covered I can't promise I can cover it but I'm always looking for topics, ideas, and critiques.
 

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