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The GM Commandments

There’s an old article from Dragon magazine that’s been making the rounds in internet gaming circles lately: Rig Volný’s “GM's Ten Commandments:Ten Dos and Don'ts for Game Masters Everywhere,” first published in 1987. The Never Say Dice crew got to thinking about how we felt regarding this collection of advice from (relatively) early in RPG history, and what we might add based on our own experiences. We should note that, after we had this initial conversation, fellow RPG blogger DM David made his own posts about updating the GM Ten Commandments. We’re not saying that DM David can read our thoughts (we’re not saying he can’t, either), but since we took different approaches to the subject, we decided to keep it as this week’s topic - and encourage you to go check out his work, as well. After all, when has an overabundance of advice ever harmed the GMs of the world? (Barring the many lost in the bloody Edition Wars, of course.) - B

For reference, these are Rig Volný’s original GM Ten Commandments. You can read the reasoning behind each one here.

I. Do not consider the players as adversaries.
II. Never say "You can’t do that."
III. Don’t overplan.
IV. Keep adventures within reason.
V. Run the adventures in color, not in black and white.
VI. Try for consistency and realism.
VII. Don’t let the players argue with the GM.
VIII. Enforce statements.
IX. Encourage the players to play their characters.
X. Reward wit, quick thinking, and consistency.

Bugsy: I said these were written “relatively” early, but it should be noted that this was written not only after modern roleplaying had existed for over a decade, but during a major publishing glut when more games were being printed than any time before or since. This list, then, both draws on experience and is written broadly enough to apply to whatever game the reader may choose to run. Even given that variety, though, RPGs have since developed into forms that might have been unrecognizable to Dragon readers in 1987, such as narrative-centric diceless and GM-less systems.

Andy, how do you feel the world of RPGs has changed since 1987. What’s stayed consistent?

Andy: The world of RPGs has changed greatly since the mid '80s. Sure, there may have been a significant amount of publishing back then, but things have recently grown, as well. Streams of Dungeons and Dragons games have brought renewed and expanded interest in all roleplaying games. After years of vilification, the Satanic Panic of the '80s, the public assumption that gamers were all overweight-smelly-greasy-basement dwelling-virginal-failures... roleplaying games are finally cool. Or if not "cool," at least widely accepted. With this increased interest, there's been an explosion of independent and self-publishing across the board. It's also easier to play now than ever before. You can use a virtual tabletop, digital books, and a virtual meeting application to play with people from across the world.

What I don’t think has changed much is our reliance on rules and dice (or other deciders). We all need something to agree upon (or argue about). While the rules have changed over the years (looking at you THAC0!), our need for them hasn’t changed. I also believe most of us enjoy that bit of the random chance dice throw in. It's always a great feeling to roll a natural 20 at the critical moment in a game. Our desire to play hasn’t changed either, to escape to a fantasy world and delve into a story. We play and tell stories because, as a species, that's what we love to do. It doesn’t matter if it's historic, fantastic, science fiction, non-fiction, etc. - we all agree on/argue about the rules and tell stories. What do you think has stayed the same all of these years Bugsy? Do you think these rules need updating?

Bugsy: I do think Volný’s Commandments assume a certain approach to gaming, one attached to the original D&D structure and the kind of interaction that implies. This kind of gaming hasn’t gone anywhere, of course, but there’s a much wider range of experiences available now. I think updates would need to take into consideration the different ways the players and GMs (and players and players) can interact beyond the “top-down” authority these Commandments are based around.

Of course, trying to tackle something so mercurial might undermine the concept of “Commandments” altogether, but I do think it’s important to consider the different ways people approach their table, and the different ways they’ll want to play there. Since I can’t give a straight answer as to how the Commandments might be changed, why do we go ahead and add some of our own?  

Andy's  Amendments:

1. Keep it fair.
What does being fair mean? It means not showing any favoritism. It means we all agree to abide by the same rules, whatever those rules happen to be. It means a great deal of trust between players and the Dungeon Master. If you aren’t fair with rolls or rules, everyone around the table will eventually catch on. You won’t be trusted, and, worst of all, people will stop having fun.

2. Check in with your players!
This is something I think all of us need to do more often. It's something we can easily work in to the opening of our sessions or our closing thoughts. An old refrain from a GM I used to run under, after every game was "Questions? Comments? Considerations?" This is a great thing to do, but also remember that everyone might not want to be public with their thoughts. Make sure to check in with them individually now and then, too.

3. Your fun isn’t wrong.
This last one, like much of my advice, is for Dungeon Masters and players alike. There has been a joke the past few years in the gaming community “Your fun is wrong!” Don’t like the "roll" in role-playing much? Your fun is wrong! Want to play in a murder-hobo game? Your fun is wrong! (Unless I’ve read the crowd wrong, this is all in lighthearted jest.) I’m here to remind  you, that unless you’re harming yourself or others, your fun isn’t wrong. You may not be playing with the best group for you or running the game best suited to you, but you should be able to find a way to enjoy what you enjoy.

Bugsy's Bonus Bylaws:

1. Be patient with yourself and your players.
This is especially true for beginning GMs, but grizzled vets should keep it in mind, too. Things will slow down while you’re looking something up or working something out, and it’s easy to start panicking whenever you have to make your players wait. All too often, this can lead to making hasty decisions without thinking through the potential consequences, or losing great storytelling opportunities. This extends to players, as well - if it looks like they’re feeling bad about bringing the game to a halt while they decide what to do or how to do it, tell them it’s okay and that they can take their time. Our temporal awareness is all screwed up in times like these, and it rarely actually takes as long as it feels like it does. If everyone’s having fun, the group probably won’t even realize that they’re waiting.

This also applies to patience with yourself over the job you’re doing. We enter every game with the idea of what it should be like and how well things should go, but reality will never match that. There will be the moments of indecision and awkwardness. There will be times you miss chances to do something you wanted, and only realize afterwards. When you’re first starting out, the gulf between the games you run and the games you imagine running will feel enormous. As you learn more and grow as a GM, that distance will start to feel smaller. You’ll never fully bridge the gap, but the space between will feel more like a blank canvas than a yawning chasm.
2. Your table is a unique world.
I once saw someone say that Star Wars is the worst possible setting to run RPGs in, because everyone will come to the table with different levels of knowledge and familiarity with the Star Wars Universe, resulting in an uneven power dynamic. This has never made sense to me, because I’ve always seen the story created by a GM and players as belonging exclusively to that group. The game isn’t taking place in the Star Wars Universe, it’s taking place in your Star Wars universe. It may incorporate aspects of the films, novels, comics… or it may flat-out contradict them, it’s all up to you. This isn't to say the GM is the Unquestioned Arbiter of All That is Real, they’re collaborators just like everyone else. But they do have the added role of acting as editor for everything that’s coming to the table, piecing it all together into the story told through everyone's participation.

This goes beyond the game’s lore. Every group, every session will follow its own logic, its own emphasis on certain rules or mechanics, its own flow, and its own feel. No one, players or GM, should go in expecting it to be like other times they’ve played. This will be a new story and everyone will tell it together.
3. Everyone is there for a reason.
Something brought every person to that table, and something is keeping them there. While there needs to be a sense of cohesion, everyone can still want very different things from a game. One player may like crunchy combat. One may enjoy hamming it up as their character. One may live for addressing big moral questions. It applies outside the game itself, too. Who considers RPGs to be their preferred form of social engagement? Who wants fun rides and ripping yarns? Who’s there because their significant other is taking part? Who snuck into the comic shop to hide from Mall Security? These aren’t the things you need to base every decision around, but should be keeping them in mind as you present the players’ experiences. You won’t be able to give every player everything they want, but if you make sure to give everyone something, they’ll stay engaged, even when you might not be doing something they particularly care about.
Andy: There is still something to learn from the old Commandments, and they could probably use a few updates. I think both Bugsy and I prefer to make our own rules, though. The two most important things to remember are that the rules and commandments apply to everyone (including the DM) and to have your fun. That's what we are all at the table for - to have fun with our friends (or make new ones) by telling a story. Questions? Comments? Considerations? Until next week everyone, break some dice!

- A & B

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