Rama’s Rules of Running an RPG

Article by Jason Rama
This is primarily advice for first time Gamesmaster’s, those noblest and most fragile of creatures (rather like papier-mâché Dodo’s). In no particular order:

  1. If you don’t want to be the sort of fixed-minded GM that makes roleplaying a lackluster experience for the players, then before you even start writing scenarios and settings, talk to the players about what they think a ‘fantasy’ game, a ‘sci-fi’ game or whatever type of game you intend to run is. You can then all agree what expectations or limitations the game should have, that way, theoretically at least; everyone stands a good chance of getting what they want out of the game.
  2. Always prepare your game well. Have contingency plans and spare scenarios ‘lying around’. These will save your bacon on more than one occasion. Never underestimate the speed at which players can resolve a scenario that took you months to think of. This particularly happens if you write a linear ‘plot’ for the players to ‘follow’,rather than a ‘scenario’ allowing for many projected courses of action. If you don’t tie yourself down to ‘making’ the players follow a story, you give yourself flexibility which allows everyone will have a lot more fun.
  3. Always write detailed background information on your setting. Plot can come from the players interacting with the environment. It is important to note however, that the background information and setting should be tailored to the players and player character’s motivations and desires, this will make it more enjoyable for the players to explore and adventure in your world. Always remember though, that you don’t have to use all the background information and detail for your players, take what you want, depending on what you need in the session.
  4. Always have control over the environment. Wherever you role-play make sure you have everything you need to set the mood; Music, lighting, snacks and beverages. These can become vital in long sessions as they set the mood and sometimes the pace of what you are trying to achieve.
  5. Always leave the players alone in the room before you start the game, for no more than 5 minutes, leave your selected music running and before you leave the room suggest to the players that they need to think about what they want to do tonight. This will get the players in the mood for the nights festivities. Be careful not to give them too much time to set definite plans, those should really be done ‘in game’. After all, players are supposed to role-play making plans. You don’t want the players turning up and handing you a dossier and saying ‘This is what we want to do, see you next week!’ and then leaving.
  6. Always recap what happened last time you played – this gives the players a chance to remind you of what you might have forgotten, and vice versa, but also to indicate to you, the GM, what the players are focused on doing in the session.
  7. If you want the players to visit a particular place, don’t give the place you have in mind a name. Give the player’s a selection of names to choose from and then just use the place you have designed, this is particularly useful for first time GM’s. For more experienced GM’s, open your scenario up a little, have LOTS of places your players can visit, with different cultures, customs and intrigues. Who knows what your players may uncover? Well, you hopefully
  8. Try and keep the group together as much as possible, letting them have their own storylines is good, but try and keep these instances as short as possible if you’re a first timer. Otherwise you may have players sitting around doing nothing for long periods of time and getting bored. If it is absolutely necessary to do this (The more experienced at GM’ing you become, the more likely this is to happen as player confidence grows in you), give the other players NPC’s that are with the ‘lone’ player to play, and brief them on their temporary character motivations. And if ‘solo’ scenarios aren’t working out or are not very interesting, then talk to the player involved and say ‘I don’t think this is working’ or ‘How can we make this more interesting?’ If two of you can’t resolve the problems, then it’s time to ditch that ‘strand’ and move on to the next one or back to the group.
  9. If you think of an idea of making your job as GM easier for you, then do it, particularly if it involves the players with the story more. There are various ways of doing this; Have players create NPC characters for the game and get them to play them (This can be tricky as players can end up talking to themselves!), get players to write journals of their gaming activities ‘in character’ and read them (This can be soooooo funny!), have players writing scenario ideas and background info for you, encourage players to provide you with research that they have done on your setting (This can save you A LOT of time), the list goes on and on.
  10. If you have created a setting that is unfamiliar to the players, give them a pre-generated character each and role-play a few sessions in this new environment, this will help the players develop ideas and understand the world before they generate their characters.
  11. Never underestimate the power of player paranoia, ideas, and gullibility. Exploit this whenever it is practical to do so. If a player is role-playing their character in a particularly ‘nervy’ way because the setting and atmosphere are creeping the player out, play up to it a little, one player really getting into the scenario like this often ‘raises the game’ of the other players and makes for a better experience.
  12. Warn players that their characters can die! Character death, I believe, is important to RPG’s. I always give the players a chance to do something fatally stupid once and survive, barely. However, you must always stress to the player that ‘they were lucky’ this time and that may be a more considered set of actions would have been appropriate. Then have all the players start thinking of concepts for a second character that they might play if their first character dies. This makes scenarios much more interesting, dangerous places. It won’t stop stupid ideas, but at least they won’t moan too much about the consequences.
  13. Make sure that your NPC’s are interesting characters. Don’t just have them there to provide players with information. Give them their own goals and agendas. A good NPC will be approached again and again by players for interaction value alone (if the character is interesting enough) rather than just for information. As a player, I have many NPC ‘friends’ for precisely that reason. If players ‘cultivate’ these relationships, maybe the NPC’s involved will look on the player’s characters as ‘friends’ too. How would the players react if an NPC friend were killed by an NPC villain? There might be devastating emotional consequences for the player’s characters. NPC villains themselves can make interesting characters to keep around. It’s not always necessary for the villain’s death to be the ending of the story – maybe the villain gets away, the next scenario could be the PC’s reforming as a group and trying to bring him/her to justice, or the villain might not turn out to be the villain after all, just someone who has been badly misinformed, how will the players handle this anti-climax and the supposed villains guilt at all the crimes that they’ve committed?
  14. Make sure that player’s characters have friends and family that they have written about or at least planned. No one exists in the world alone. These can be useful for the GM in terms of hanging scenarios from (“Mr. Mysterio? This is your daughter’s housekeeper. She’s been kidnapped by The Cult of Flatulence!”). They can also be used to motivate the player’s characters in interesting ways and create interesting storylines (“I’m sorry Miss. Edwards, I’m no longer Mr. Mysterio, I’m retired. I’m getting married. If you want help, ask The Wedge. What’s that? The Cult of Flatulence, the people who killed my daughter!!?? Postpone the wedding, I’ve got some ass to kick!”).
  15. Use props, drawings, maps, graphics, sound effects, music, etc. to accentuate game play, but NOT to dominate it.
  16. If you run out of scenario or ideas for one night, or you think the players have done enough for that sessions play, then cut the session short. Better to have a short, good session, than a long, patchy one.
  17. Always spend some time after the session asking the players what they thought was good and bad about the session, it’s the only way you’ll improve. Also, every couple of sessions, ask the players how they see their characters developing. This is a good way of developing plot.
  18. Never be afraid to ditch whatever plot or scenario ideas you have planned in favour of things the players are interested in. You may have spent months designing the plot and NPC’s for the story of the Martian Smurg Beast, but if the players are more interested in chatting up the barmaid, use that!
  19. Let players commit to stupid acts, try and subtly warn them they are about to do something silly, but if they don’t take the hint let them run with it. However, there is one proviso to this, stop the idea dead in it’s tracks if it means the whole group of characters are going to get wiped out (Player: “Mr. Mysterio decides to save the group by using his pocket flame thrower.” GM: “You’re on a petrol station forecourt!”).
  20. Most systems have some method of handing out ‘Experience Points’. These are generally handed out for role-playing well, staying in character, completing missions successfully. However, another good way of awarding experience (Particularly if you’re a first time GM) is to have players set short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for their characters. Short-term goals change from session to session, mid-term goals every scenario, and long-term almost never. It’s useful in terms of judging character success, and it also has the benefit of involving the players in what THEY say they have to do to EARN experience. Goals like this also have the benefit of not being bound to ‘solving’ the mystery or killing the ‘villain’, you can give your own experience ‘bonuses’ for that, they can be aimed at developing skills or obsessions that the characters may have (GM: “Mr. Mysterio gains 20 experience points for finally getting married with a bonus of 10 for apprehending the evil Cult of Flatulence.”).
  21. Finally, and this is one that I think most GM’s forget, have fun! It isn’t only the players that are supposed to have fun, the GM is too! If you get stressed by GM-ing a game, then don’t GM. I know lots of players who have tried GM-ing and have decided they prefer to play rather than GM. There’s nothing wrong with this, but make sure that in your group that there are at least a couple of GM’s. That way, you won’t spend the rest of your gaming life designing scenarios instead of playing them. Also, if you’re a player, support your GM. Help them out, they are a commodity to be valued. Playing one character can be hard enough, but playing a world?

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