Happy New Year, Now Fix Your S$&%ty Game-Mastering
The start of the New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on your shortcomings and failures and to resolve to improve yourself. As such, I generally spend the start of the New Year playing video games. Self-improvement is wasted on those of us who are already practically perfect in all the ways that matter. But, I realized that I was doing the gaming world a great disservice by ignoring the folderol of the New Year. I may not need self-improvement, but there are others out there who do. Desperately. People like you.
So, I am going to start the New Year by helping you create a tool for self-examination, self-improvement, and communication with your players about your expectations and ideals. I want to help you write your Game Mastering Credo.
What is a Game Mastering Credo?
A GM Credo is a statement of your core beliefs, principles, and ideals. At least, a statement of those ideals that pertain to running a role-playing game. More directly, it is a list of personal rules you will strive to always follow. Think of it as your GMing Commandments. “Thou shalt always warn thy players of risks their characters take in ignorance.” “Never shalt thou fudge dice.” “Thou shalt never allow a PC to go unpunished for their own stupidity.” And so on. Whatever. These are PERSONAL rules. The things you, PERSONALLY, think are the important things that define you as a GM. Thus, it is highly PERSONAL.
As such, it can be hard to help someone write a GMing Credo (this is me excusing myself when this article ends up being a little thin on solid advice). Honestly, most of what absolutely needs to be said, I’ve already said. Look deep within yourself and figure out the rules you run by and write those down, focussing on questions such as:
- What does GMing mean to me?
- What is my relationship to the players?
- What is my relationship to the game?
- What is my relationship to the rules?
- What is my relationship to the story?
- How do I want my table to run?
- How do I make that happen?
These are hard questions, but they are worth asking and worth writing down the answers. But I’m not going to turn you loose just yet. I want to talk about why the Credo is useful, give you some advice for writing one, and then, I want to do something un-f$&%ing-precedented and share my own, personal Credo so you see an example of a good one.
But, I know some of you are sitting here saying “I don’t need a credo. I run a game based solely on player input. I don’t have any rules because I am a reflection of my players’ desires.” Well, smarta$&, that’s a f$&%ing Credo, isn’t it?! Every GM has principles, beliefs, and standards. Even if those principles amount to: “I will always kowtow to absolutely everything my players want and I will be a mindless robot and run the games only my players want without allowing anything of my own desires to intrude ever.” That is a principle. And by adopting it, you are technically violating it because it is a rule you follow that your players didn’t impose.Nice job breaking it, GM.
But seriously, if that is your thing. More power to you. You don’t need my permission to run your game wrong. But you can still benefit from putting all of your wrongness into a Credo.
How is this Credo Bulls$&% Useful In Any Way?!
Yeah, I hear you. If you are just writing down some stuff you already believe, how is that useful in any way? Why bother? And if that is your attitude, you can just get the f$&% off my website. GMing is not for the lazy-at-heart and I don’t give a s$&% what Sly Flourish tells you about that. The GMing Credo facilitates three important things: self-examination, self-improvement, and communication. And it does so very neatly through three different actions: WRITING the Credo, REVIEWING the Credo, and SHARING the Credo.
Writing and Self-Examination
An ancient Greek dude once said “the unexamined game is not worth running.” I’m paraphrasing, of course. But you didn’t come here to watch me show off my knowledge of philosophy and other useless liberal arts crap that qualify you to serve trenti mochacinno lattes at Starbucks. You came for solid GMing advice with occasional, censored swear-words and insulting analogies.
Self-examination is important because it is the first step in challenging yourself. If you really know what you believe and why, you can ask yourself if those are the best beliefs for you. And if they aren’t, you can find better things. And if they are, at least you understand them more clearly.
The act of WRITING the GMing Credo forces you to examine what you do as a GM and why. As you are writing it, you will naturally end up questioning some of the things you write down. “Do I really believe that? All the time? Is that really the best way to do it? Where did I even pick that habit up?” WRITING the Credo puts your GMing under the microscope. You can focus on the useful bits and shed the useless bits.
Reviewing and Self-Improvement
Once you have your Credo written, you’ve only done one third of the job. You’ve interrogated yourself as a GM and made yourself answer for what you do. But you can’t just put it away and forget about it. It is important to REVIEW your Credo before and after your game sessions every few weeks. By doing so, you will remind yourself what is in there. More importantly, you will inevitably discover things you’ve done that aren’t in line with your Credo. And then you have to quit GMing forever because you are a failure at everything!
Ha ha ha. Just kidding. Look, nobody follows their beliefs perfectly all the time. NOBODY. No human being lives up to their Ideals all the time. That is why a great deity was once quoted as saying “to err is human,” and also why the way most GMs handle alignment is pants-on-head moronic.
When you REVIEW your GMing Credo and notice a rule you’ve broken or an ideal you’ve failed to live up, it is time to examine and reflect. Was this an accident? A one-time breach? A stupid call? A lapse? Those things happen. Forgive it, forget it, and move on. Breaking a rule once in a while is totally normal.
But if you notice that you’ve been breaking a rule frequently, then you have to think about why. First, ask yourself whether you truly believe in the rule? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you used to, but things have changed. Or maybe you never believed it as strongly as you thought you did. If that’s the case, update the Credo – remove or replace the rule – and move on. The Credo is a living document. It is a snapshot taken at one moment in time. Ideals change. People change. Credos change. Your Credo is not sacrosanct.
But don’t change it lightly, either. Remember: once upon a time, you thought the rule was important enough to write down and promise to never break. What changed? Why did it change? It is okay to change the Credo, but only after you ask yourself why it is changing.
On the other hand, you might discover that the rule is good, but you are not. You have been careless and you’re doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing. You’re not running the game you think you should be running. So, you need to fix it. What are you doing wrong? Why? What can you change to better follow the rule? Come up with a plan of action. And then, REVIEW your credo before every session for a few weeks to keep yourself focussed on getting back on track.
Sharing and Communication
Ultimately, your Credo is not just a pledge you make to yourself, it is also a promise you’ve made to your players. “This is the game I’m going to run,” it says, “and these are things I promise to uphold.” While the Credo contains your personal rules, it tells your players what they can expect of you. But it also tells the players what lines you won’t cross, what things are so important to you that you won’t run a game that crosses them. In a way, the Credo is the list of things your players have to accept if they want you behind the screen. I know it is unfashionable for GMs to think in those terms, but the truth is this: if you’re not running a game you love and you are not running what you think is your best game, you aren’t doing anyone any favors getting behind that screen. You are a human being and this is a hobby. Being a GMing is high-pressure and hard work. You NEED to make it work for you. And the best thing you can do for everyone at the table is to tell the players flat-out what you need to enjoy running games and to run the best game you know how to run. And if a player can’t live with those rules, it is better to know that up front rather than letting it lead to the inevitable conflict, burn-out, frustration, or lost friendship.
When you SHARE your Credo, you need to make sure your players understand that. The Credo represents the best way you know how to run games and enjoy running them. That doesn’t mean it isn’t open to discussion,
What Does a Good Credo Look Like?
I already said this Credo thing is personal and that everyone is going to approach it a little differently, but there are some good rules of thumb to follow and a few caveats to ensure you get the most useful Credo you can.
Rule #1: A Credo is a List of Rules and Principles on a Single Sheet of Paper
Your Credo should work as a simple, bulleted or numbered list of basic rules and principles. If it takes more than a short statement to put something on there, it is too complicated to be a core belief or principle. But remember that your Credo is a personal statement of belief. If you KNOW what something means, that is good enough. For example, one of the rules on my Credo is “I am a Dungeon Master, no matter what the game.” That means something very specific and personal TO ME. I know what it means. No one else has to. And I don’t have to explain it. Yet. There will come a point when we want to expand on some ideas because we want to communicate with our players, but now is not that time.
In the end, your Credo should fit on one sheet of paper so you can print it out and keep it in your Dungeon Master’s Guide, Core Rules, GMing Notebook, Binder, or wherever you keep all your stuff that follows you to every game. It should always be with your GMing stuff and come to you to every table because your beliefs, principles, and values come with you to every table.
Rule #2: A Credo is System Neutral
Nothing on your Credo should be specific to one specific game system. If something applies only to one game system, that is a house rule. There may be some rules that aren’t applicable to every game system, but no single game system should be mentioned.
Rule #3: A Credo is Rules for You, Not Your Players
Your Credo should never ever address the players directly or state things you will require of your players. If you want to lay down House Rules or Table Rules for your players, do it somewhere else. If you think it is vital to have your players behave a certain way, think about what YOU can do to enable or encourage that behavior.
For example, one of the rules on my Credo is “I will never require a player to count squares.” This is an abbreviation for my principle that I would prefer to keep things moving by winging it rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of any game that I am running. That rules reminds me that, when a player wants to take an action, I need to err on the side of the player’s intentions and play it a little fast and loose so they never feel they have to “count squares” to avoid danger or penalties.
Write and Rewrite…
Beyond those simple rules, just start writing and rewriting. Give it a few passes, even if you are the sort of person who cranks things out in one draft. Reread it when you think it is done and ask yourself why you included this or that. Really try to get into your own head. And keep polishing until you have a solid list of short, punchy rules and statements that fits on one page that you feel really encompasses your ideas as a GM. Maybe you’ll fill the whole page with twenty rules, like I did, or maybe you’ll just have five tiny little statements and that is good enough for you. It doesn’t matter, as long as you own it and you can see your own smiling Game Master face reflected back at you in it.
…And Then Write Again For Your Players
Once you’ve finished off the Credo, let it sit for a day or two. Reread it one last time to make sure you are happy with it. And now, make a copy of it for your players. And now it is time to expand your rules. For each rule that you don’t think is clear to anyone who isn’t you, add a few sentences of explanation or expansion. It should not take more than a paragraph to expand each rule. Remember, you aren’t trying to explain every nuance and every possible corner case. You are just trying to help a reader understand the principle behind the punchy, shorthand rule that means so much to you.
Remember, you still aren’t addressing your players. The Credo is about YOU. “You will do this.” “You will not do that.” “You think.” “You want.” “You will create.” Talk about what the players can expect of you. Don’t impose rules on them. If you want to create a certain experience, talk about what YOU will do to create that.
And Now, My Credo
To end this article, I am going to present my own Credo. At least, I will show you the player version, with each rule explained in a little detail so the players know where I am coming from. I will also add a few parenthetical remarks about why I included something in the Credo or giving some advice or tips you can use when you write your own.
But, remember this: a GMing Credo is a personal statement about how YOU run games. This one is mine. This is not the best way to run games or the only way to run games or the way I think everybody should run games. This is the way I run MY games MYSELF. I am not giving you advice. I am just showing you who I am as a GM and what I thought was important enough to write as my personal GMing code of conduct. You might disagree. That is fine.
But, MY CREDO IS NOT UP FOR DEBATE. I can’t stress that enough. You can’t judge me or my games until you sit down and play in one. And I am not going to defend myself because you do things differently and think yours is the only way. If you want to argue with me about my Credo, remember that I have built it up over a long time with many groups and it works for me and my players. So, you’re going to find I’m pretty entrenched. If I didn’t strongly believe this crap, I wouldn’t have written it down in the first place. The point is: don’t bother starting a fight. It won’t get you anywhere and I don’t want to hear it. Got it? Good.
So, here’s my Credo. My 23 rules. Enjoy.
My GMing Credo
- I Am a Dungeon Master
- I Own the Game
- Everyone Who Agrees to Abide by My Rules is Welcome at My Table
- Every Offense Deserves an Apology
- I Am an “At Will” Employer
- I Can’t Run a Game Without Trust
- I Will Always Be Fair and Consistent
- The Rules Are a Tool and They Belong to Me
- The World is My Character
- I Am Not on the Players’ Sides, But I Am Not Their Enemy Either
- I Will Not Take a Character’s Freedom Away Unless the Player Agrees
- I Take My Game Seriously and I Will Let My Players to Do The Same
- Adventurers Lead Exciting Lives
- Nothing Can Be Solved Through Inaction
- The Players and The Characters Are Reflections Through a Clouded Mirror
- I Will Not Create Challenges That Can Be Broken By Metagaming
- If There is Any Ambiguity At All, A Player Can Veto a Character Death
- Players Should Know All The Options their Characters Have
- I Will Never Allow a Character to Ignorantly Take a Substantial Risk
- I Will Never Allow a Character to Ignorantly Attempt the Impossible
- I Will Never Require A Player to “Count Squares”
- I Will Always Allow the Characters a Break
- I Will Strive to Never Require the Players to Ask What their Characters Know
I Am a Dungeon Master: I am not a Game Master, Storyteller, Watcher, Keeper, Galaxy Master, or any other title. I am a Dungeon Master. That is what I will always be, whatever game I am running.
(This is an example of a rule that really only means something to me personally. Like I said, some of these rules are very personal. It is not just about my title, and it is not just about the fact that I was raised on D&D and love D&D, it is also about how I structure and run my games. It is also one of those rules only I need to understand. So I will leave it at that. Suffice to say I could probably write a page on what this rule really means to me.)
I Own the Game: The game is mine. I get everyone together, I make it happen, I keep it flowing, and I am responsible for it. Whatever happens at the game is on me. If a player is unhappy, uncomfortable, or offended, that is on me, whoever caused it. I will never require a player to do any more than the absolute minimum needed to participate in the game. If there is work to be done, I am the one to do it. If I cannot handle that, I cannot run the game.
Everyone Who Agrees to Abide by My Rules is Welcome at My Table: My table will always be a safe, comfortable environment for anyone who wants to game at it, provided they follow my credo. I am responsible for keeping it that way.
Any Offense Deserves an Apology: If someone claims to be offended, they deserve a sincere apology, whether the offense was intentional or not. Only after the apology can the offense be rectified or discussed.
I Am an “At Will” Employer: All players are welcome at my table if they abide by my rules, but all players are also welcome to leave my table at any time for any reason. If a player chooses to leave my game or must be asked to leave, I will harbor no grudges or no ill-will and I will not speak ill of that player. A player will always be welcome to return to my game at any time provided they abide by my credo. Of course, if a player must leave the group due to violations of my credo, I am within my right not to welcome them back unless I feel the issue has been sufficiently resolved.
I Can’t Run a Game Without Trust: I trust my players. I will never accuse them of cheating, deception, or malice. I will assume all offenses are unintentional. If I discover I cannot trust a player, I cannot run a game for that player. I will assume my players trust me in the same way. If I discover a player does not or cannot trust me, they cannot be a part of my game.
(Most of the rules so far are about my relationship with the game and my relationship with the players and also explicitly state that I am willing to cut a player loose to keep these rules in place. I am not shy about admitting that. I’ve been through enough crap in my years behind the screen that I’m no longer willing to dick around. I’m here to have fun and run a great game. If someone can’t be a part of that, I can always find another player.)
I Will Always Be Fair and Consistent: I will apply the rules of the game and my world in a consistent manner. Players should always be able to rely on things working the way they have learned they will. If something works in an inconsistent way, there will always be a reason. “It is magic” is never a sufficient reason, by itself. I will apply the laws of cause and effect to all actions. If something happens in the game, there is always a logical cause.
(This is probably what most of my players would consider the defining trait in my games. I create a world and I bring that world to life. Sure, it is a fantasy world and impossible things happen, but in the context of that world, things work the way they work. If you learn a fact about the world, you can use that fact to your advantage later without fear it will suddenly not be true. This is something many of my players have cited as a reason they enjoy my games over the years, so it is obviously important. That is a good way to discover rules.)
The Rules Are a Tool and They Belong to Me: The rules are my tool to resolve the actions of the characters. The rules should never be an obstacle to the player’s free will except insofar as the game world itself would serve as an obstacle. All rules discussions filter through me and should be kept to a minimum and restricted to when they actually become relevant or between game sessions. I will never require a player to know more than an absolute minimum number of rules they need to help me resolve their actions and a player shall never be at a disadvantage for not knowing the rules. That said, I will always understand that certain rules will always intrude on options and freedom of the characters as they serve to define things that would otherwise be impossible or else to provide a structure for the game where abstraction is absolutely required.
(This is another big one. And one I think you should consider addressing in your own Credo. Why are the rules there? What do they do? And how do you use them?)
The World is My Character: I create the world and I control it. I often invite input from others, but ultimately, I have to run the world and therefore, it has to be a world I want to run. Nothing becomes a part of the world without my say so.
(Yes, there is a lot of “this is mine” in my Credo. Just how I roll. Feel free to roll differently. But don’t take this in isolation. You’ll notice soon that I discuss free-will as often as I talk about what I own.)
I Am Not on the Players’ Sides, But I Am Not Their Enemy Either: It is my job to create a world and to create a game. I will create fair challenges and empower the players to overcome them or avoid defeat. I will never give the players a victory they have not earned nor I will ever force a defeat on them that they had no way to avoid. I will never fudge dice.
(An alternative rule: Build Fair, Play to Win – which is my code for designing and running action encounters and combats.)
I Will Not Take a Character’s Freedom Away Unless the Player Agrees: When a player agrees to play my game, they agree to abide by my rules and participate in the world and the game. Once the players have agreed to play the game I am running, the characters are free to act within the confines of the world and that agreement. Whatever the characters choose to do, within the possibilities of the world and the game we have agreed on, there will be a game for them. If a game allows mechanics for temporary mind control or the loss of control, I will use them sparingly, as dramatically appropriate with the understanding that the free-will of the characters is the heart and soul of a role-playing game.
(See what I mean? Notice there is a sort of Session 0 idea wrapped up in this one. And that isn’t an accident. Before I start running a Campaign, I have to get the players to agree to that Campaign. I always do a pitch meeting. But “I will always do a Pitch Meeting” didn’t feel like a strong enough rule. So I kept beating it up until I found what was really at the core of it. But, as an example of how this works, for my Pathfinder Campaign, I wanted to run an intrigue campaign in a magical city-state. I told the players, up front, if they liked the campaign idea I proposed, they would be “stuck” in the city. That is, they had to make characters who wouldn’t leave the city. It was a restriction on their freedom, and therefore, I had to get them to agree. Simple.)
I Take My Game Seriously and I Will Let My Players to Do The Same: There are some things that ruin my ability to run the world or destroy my suspension of disbelief. There are some things that make me upset or uncomfortable. I am allowed to veto these things in the interest of making the game runnable. If there is something that upsets a player or makes them feel uncomfortable or ruins their suspension of disbelief, they may ask me to remove those things or mitigate them and I will do my best to comply or to explain why I cannot.
(If it weren’t for warforged, psionics, and that one idiot who always insists on playing a “comedy” character, I wouldn’t need this rule.)
Adventurers Lead Exciting Lives: The adventurers will never be completely safe and secure and their lives will always be filled with problems. As they solve one problem, a new one will arise. This is the nature of the game and it is unavoidable. All victories and all defeats are temporary until the one that ends the campaign. The best the players can ever hope for is gradually making the world a better place while extinguishing new and different fires.
(I once had a player ask – in frustration – why things always seem to go wrong. Because that is what the game is about. The players don’t get to just dick about living normal lives and running businesses. There is always a disaster coming.)
Nothing Can Be Solved Through Inaction: The characters can only accomplish goals or resolve problems if their actions would be visible on a movie screen. If the players refuse to act, refuse to make a choice, navel gaze, think, or turtle up to talk out problems, it should not be possible to fix anything.
(I used to have this terrible habit of creating mysteries that could be figured out right from the get-go and problems that were caused or exacerbated by the PCs so that the world would be better if the PCs didn’t get involved. That’s a bad way to run games. Things should always get worse if the PCs sit around and do nothing.)
The Players and The Characters Are Reflections Through a Clouded Mirror: The characters are not direct reflections of the players. They do not have to say exactly the same things as each other. A character’s words and actions should be the players choices filtered through the lens of the world. But the characters and the players are reflections of each other at heart. If the players have stopped taking actions and are standing around talking, so are the characters. The characters may be saying different words and different characters may be contributing differently than the players are, but the characters and the players are having the same type of conversation about the same topic at the same time.
(I could write a whole article about this rule and the next one. In fact, I probably will.)
I Will Not Create Challenges That Can Be Broken By Metagaming: No challenge in my game will ever revolve solely around the ignorance of the characters if I cannot guarantee the ignorance of the players. Therefore, the players should never have to worry about separating what they know from what their characters know. If a player knows something, somehow, the character knows it too. If a player’s knowledge ruins a challenge, that means I designed a bad challenge.
(Coming soon from The Angry DM!)
If There is Any Ambiguity At All, A Player Can Veto a Character Death: Insofar as there remains any ambiguity in the survival of the character, I will always allow a character to veto the death of their character. The veto will always be kept secret from all other players. However, I will always require the player to know whether – under the rules – the character should have survived or not. That said, if there is no doubt that a character died, within the rules, the player must accept that death. Death will always be a possibility. If the system or the themes and nature of the game prevent this or otherwise change the way death must be handled, I will always discuss the possibility and nature of character death with the players before the start of the game.
(Didn’t expect to see that one from me, did you. This was discussed when I did a guest appearance on The NPC Cast. Check out NPC Cast Episode 41: Deaded and then listen to every other episode. I love those guys.)
Players Should Know All The Options their Characters Have: If a character has an option, in the game, I will tell the player about that option unambiguously.
I Will Never Allow a Character to Ignorantly Take a Substantial Risk: If a character’s action would lead to something risky, dangerous, or result in a substantial penalty, I will always inform the player of the risk to the extent that the character would be aware of it. No character should ever be allowed to walk into danger solely through the ignorance of the player.
I Will Never Allow a Character to Ignorantly Attempt the Impossible: If a character’s action cannot possibly succeed and the character should be aware of that, I will not allow the player to waste resources attempting it.
I Will Never Require A Player to “Count Squares”: I will never penalize a character for the player’s ignorance of the rules or the minutiae of tactical combat. If a character states a goal and a means of obtaining that goal, I will assume the character takes the safest, most reasonable course to that goal that is most likely to succeed. If obtaining that goal is not possible without a substantial risk or penalty or if that goal is impossible, I will warn the player and allow them to back off. The same applies to absolutely every situation that occurs in the game.
I Will Always Allow the Players a Break: I will never refuse the players the opportunity to create a situation in which they (and their characters) can talk things out free of influence from the outside world. If the players need a break to discuss, review, recap, plan, or decompress, I will always allow them to create one, though it may cost them time, energy, or resources to do so.
I Will Strive Never to Require Players to Ask What Their Characters Know: If there is information relevant to a situation that any character should have, I will always strive to give it to the players the moment it becomes relevant. However, I will never forbid a player from asking if their characters know something nor punish a player for doing so. If I am doing my job well, the answer will always be “no.”
(These last few rules remind that if I don’t want the game to get bogged down with rules discussions and debates, metagaming arguments, and various minutae, I have to create a play environment that creates paths around those things. I am not forbidding my players from counting squares, for example. I am making sure I run a game where they are not at a disadvantage if they don’t. I will never trap a character into taking a stupid action or a dangerous risk because they didn’t read my mind or didn’t know some weird, corner case rule. And I don’t do that “are you sure *wink* *wink*” bulls$&%. I am the eyes and the ears of the characters in the world.)