Three Rules For Effective GMs

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Some days, I think there’s only three rules you need to follow to be a good GM:
Reward Players When They Do Something Cool.  That doesn’t mean your players always get what they want – but if they make an impassioned, stirring speech to the cold-hearted Duke, begging him to free this wrongly-accused prisoner, then maybe the Duke still refuses… but the leader of the underground rebellion is emboldened to make contact.  Maybe that demon is immune to iron swords, but that doesn’t mean a pair of twin daggers to the eye can’t incapacitate him long enough to get a head-start on a hasty retreat.  If the players do something really nifty, find some way to give them an in-game benefit, because you want them doing cool things.  And the fact that the reward may be unexpected will just keep them doing it more.
Punish Players When They Do Something Dumb.  If every aspect of your world flexes to accommodate what your players do, then it’s like living in a world of marshmallow – it seems sweet at first, but eventually you get flabby and sticky.  So when they do something that wouldn’t work, have it fail.  Bad strategy to break into the villain’s lair?  Have ’em get caught.  A hack-and-slash approach to a combat that requires finesse?  Have ’em lose.  A cavalier attitude towards innocent civilians?  Have some innocents die, and their reputation tarnished.  Don’t go out of your way to punish them – also see: rewarding for coolness – but make it seem like there’s a distinct possibility that things could go wrong.  That encourages players to be invested in this world, since if they’re not careful, they won’t get what they want.
Inform Players When They Do Something Tedious.  Too many campaigns get wrapped around the axle in making elaborate plans that don’t matter at all.  If you know that this cross-country trip is going to go without incident, then the two hours they’ve spent detailing every barrel of beef jerky they’re going to load into the wagon is wasted time.  A good GM lets them plan for a bit, and then says, “Okay, you buy everything you need, and now you’re in Liberia.”  Likewise, if the players are spending a lot of time prepping a strategy against an enemy that you know won’t work and they have the in-game clues to know it won’t work either, then tell them how unwise their plan is and move on.
Your goal as a GM is to encourage your players to spend their time productively.  So learn to know when they’re spinning their wheels on things that won’t affect the game, and shove them out of the rut towards activities that will actually propel the plot forwards.  It’s not a bad thing to say as a GM, “This isn’t going to matter, so let’s move on to something that does.”  They’ll thank you for it, given time.


  1. jerilynn
    May 30, 2013

    Thanks for this! I’m getting ready to be a GM for the first time in, like, a thousand years, so this was super timely for me

  2. Jericka
    May 30, 2013

    My last GM was great in that we gamed for years on some of his epic adventures.
    However, we did spend time shopping very carefully, because, if we couldn’t document that piece of equipment or the food we were consuming, we didn’t have it when we needed it. In his campaigns, someone ALWAYS took foraging and cooking because otherwise, we starved.
    Sometimes I wanted a more lighthearted and less math centered game. I was the GM’s wife….and I still didn’t have enough pull or influence to have a more lighthearted game, with maybe some over-the-top but fun gear. I’d have to GM it myself, I think but, I don’t think that I am up for that.

  3. Nonie
    Aug 12, 2013

    For me, the complete FAIL was the GM who took the in-game money more seriously than the story. Okay, so where is your character staying tonight? What are they planning to eat? Do they have the money for that? You’re gonna just sneak into the haybarn? You wake up to see the armed owner and six of his burly hired men looming over you. …So okay, you had to take a part-time job to survive between adventures; why did you think you’d have time off just when the other characters want to go dungeoning?
    …What “fun”!
    And then the Champions rules came out. (Yes, I am that old.)
    Money? A default Hero System character has enough to get by on, with a bit to spare for luxuries. Choosing to be Poor or Destitute got you more points to build your character with. Alternately, paying points to be Well Off or Filthy Rich could make some things a lot easier, as Bruce Wayne could tell you.
    Wait, you mean game money is just an aspect of roleplaying, instead of the world’s most boring accounting simulator? Sign me up!
    So now I tell my fantasy gamers that unless they specify otherwise, their characters have adequate armor, weapons, clothing, and other gear; they own a horse (or, in my ex’s archepelagian game, a small sailboat); they’ve got enough to stay at inns and buy reasonably useful things like a chest or maybe a pack mule or a pretty pendant for their lover.
    But if they want to buy their own castle, a matched team of twelve white horses, or a galleon laden with trade goods, then unless the storyline just made them immensely rich, they have to pay character points for that level of wealth.
    Also? You don’t get to claim points for being Poor or Destitute if the other characters always pay your way; only if some vow or scruple prevents you from accepting that help.
    So no, I really can’t tell you how many Silver Pieces a sword costs in my world. Or even how many a sword of specific quality and size costs in a particular town from a particular smith or weapon shop. It’s irrelevant to the roleplaying we’re all there for.

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