How to be a decent GM


"I hit it with my axe"

You know, I've gave you some advices on how to design a campaign, but nothing about actually rule efficiently during a game. I shall start this right now, for the next few installments, and I'll start with a very specific case, but something you will get in contact with.

You are probably familiar with the expression "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Well, come to think about it... tabletop roleplaying games give a lot of power to the players. Not real influence over the real world, of course, but more in the form of absolute choice. Whatever you'll do, a video game will always keep you between certain boundaries: it's very rare when a game gives you the possibility to kill any NPC you don't like, maim and burn anyone without repercussion, steal, do unspeakable things to women... Wait, am I describing Saints Row here?

You get my point. Almost every game will prevent you to do things that could probably destroy the game itself. But not tabletop RPG. There is no limit to what you can do in a game, except for your imagination. And that's why, without much surprise, that's what any newbie will do: do the most despicable things, just because they can. That's what I call the "newbie rage", a rush of freedom so strong the first thing they think of is to abuse it. I guess it's for a reason that most first character in the life of any player is a barbarian orc with a big axe. To kill things. It's easier than learn complicated things like magic, and doesn't require much more reflexion than any Beat 'em Up.

I could recall a few from the top of my head I've lived through. A friend played a paladin in a new game of D&D: as soon as he came into town, he tried to rape a girl just to become a Dark Knight (sorry, kid, but that' doesn't work that way). I've seen more than once a character outright kill an NPC who was supposed to give us a quest (because f*ck you old man, I don't want your damn treasure map), or to kill them right after, just to get their stuff for free. I've seen people try to steal every penny they could in any place they went, and they weren't even playing thiefs. And of course, how could forget the incredible episode of "Let's knock-out and sell the Jedi as a sex slave to pay our travel" (now on DVD!). Yes, I have played with very weird people.

And don't think it's an isolated event I've witnessed: it happens all the time. Hell, even I did it when I began to play. You could say it's a kind of immaturity, not in general (well, sometimes), but in the very specific field of the game. It's a quirk you'll probably never see once your players will really get in the mood, and "mature" as a responsible roleplayer after a few games. However, it's always possible the situation arise again, and in a very specific moment: when your players are bored. Yes, it happens that, if you play your cards wrong, one or more of your player feels so disconnected from the game they don't get any enjoyment from it. A mature response would to tell the GM about it, or just leave and play the Playstation, but some people will just wreck something to get some action done (and get a giggle while they're at it). And killing the wrong NPC or act like a complete fool at the wrong moment can just ruin your game.

And that's why, if you are a GM who plays with new players, you should be prepared to act to prevent anything from going too far. The problem is, you're playing a double role that's not always easy: you are the moral authority but also the game engine. The first mean you are in your right to punish such an irresponsible act, but the second part means you'll have to somehow get the player's action done anyway. You can't just say "No, you didn't cut the rope" up front. It would be like a video game who simply refuses to acknowledge that you're pressing buttons because he feels like you shouldn't do something. Plus, it would be considered like an argument of authority, something that is never a good thing and will bring conflict (and even more absurd actions).

So, you're kinda forced to accept that your newbie just hit the high priest with his axe. What to do next? Well, what to not to do next is a better question.

First thing, you shouldn't get into his game. Don't try to up the ante and react by an even more gratuitous act. It will leave the impression that you're abusing your powers, which are literally unlimited in a game you're mastering. On the same foot, don't let your player get a free pass to "punish" the troublemaker. Oh sure, it will be great fun for anyone... except the victim. I remember one of my game when we played pirates, and we had to punish our canon expert who purposely tried to shoot our own ship out of boredom. We did all kind of punishment/torture we could... and I, as the captain, was the one who dripped lemon juice on every open wound. Yes, we had fun for five minute, and the guy end up dead anyway, but the player then left the table very sour, and the mood was kinda killed for the rest of the evening. Not funny at all.

Second, if you are trying to punish him, do it in-universe and with logic. The punishment should be at the same height than the crime. You can't just pop up a troupe of guards that instantly kill the guy for every little stupid thing. You can't summon a dragon from nowhere to roast him alive. You would be not better than him in any way. As much as it pains me to make a reference to that game, but Grand Theft Auto had a pretty good idea with his criminality meter: a minor crime will get you some cops that try to arrest you, more will get you a few car barrage on your way, and when the army sends the tanks, you know you're screwed. But you didn't get the tank as soon as you hit that poor old lady to get her money, the punishment was gradual.

What you can do, however, is to play the crime's consequences during your average play. I stand firmly on the side that claims that every action as consequences. Even though it might screw your plans for the night, act in logic compared to your universe. The wizard NPC was killed to get his stuff instead of listening to his ramble? Very well, but it can be pretty hard to sell all that magic stuff and not looking suspicious. You shot that poor cashier for a free drink? Too bad for you there was a camera who taped the action, there will be cops at your door tomorrow. You didn't listen to the quest log and get some whores instead? Great, now you have STD's and I'm not gonna tell you where to go. And if the player ever protests, remember him of his acts and tell him you don't have to cope with his antics. Technically, being scorn like that should get him back on the rails. Of course, being a harsh GM like this must come with the gentler side: if your player apologize and make up for his reckless actions, arrange your scenario and allow him to get back in action.

Or you could do as I do, something I should brand "The Carebear Alternative(c)": if your player acts stupid all of a sudden, don't resolve his action. Stop for a second and ask for confirmation. If he persists, explain him the consequences of his actions, remind him that it would be a waste of time for everyone and he'll be the only one to enjoy this. In short, show him the error of his ways. If he persists again, then... go back and apply the previous paragraph. If the player is that thick, cold harshness might be the only thing he will understand.

Wow, that came out a a bitter entry, now is it? But it's a plague for a lot of new games, and I had to resolve such situations so many times, it needed to be addressed. I guess you have to forgive a young children for the mistakes he does out of ignorance, but still punish him if he persists. And trust me, when you're dropped into RPG without any previous experience, it's like trying to learn how to walk all over again.


I do your "Carebear Alternative" all the time. When a player asks to do something stupid, I say "are you sure?"
Augustine 7th Dec 11
I think I've heard about an ability from an RPG game somewhere called "Common Sense" that's basically the "Carebear Alternative" as a game mechanic - it requires the GM to inform the player when he's about to do something stupid.
SpaceJawa 7th Dec 11
Oh yes, I did see that ability in a few games. Sadly, it usually costs aptitude points that most players prefer to spend on other, more useful powers. But by any mean, go ahead, give newbies that ability for free!
Talden 7th Dec 11