Thursday, July 8, 2010

GM Etiquette

I talked about table etiquette a while back (the post can be found here), but some discussions with friends as well as just from reading various other blogs has got me thinking that there are some specific rules of etiquette that the GM themselves should follow. Now, most of these things are probably worthy of their own specific GM advice blurb, at the very least a quick fix, and that may happen. A lot of these are things you should do to be a better GM as well, but I'm going to lump some of the bigger ones together into this post, and if they get further treatment later on down the road, well then, so much the better right?

#1 - Be Fair
This is a simple one, but be fair to your players. Now, I don't mean the game can't get hard, nor am I saying that what happens in game needs to be 'fair' necessarily, but your interactions with the players themselves should be fair. If you make a ruling, apply it equally to everyone. Yes, that includes you and your NPCs. I don't care if your the GM, your rulings need to be consistent, and if they're not your players will pick up on it. If you have to break your own rules, explain why this situation is special. However, breaking your own rules should be something you only do as an extreme last resort. If your players can't trust that a rule you make will be consistent, the game will quickly stop being fun and become very adversarial. This is also where you start getting into a lot of rules arguing. So be fair with your rulings, apply them everywhere they should be and not just where you want them.

#2 - Don't Hyper Focus
Yeah, I know that the Paladin and the Warrior are played by your girlfriend and best friend. I know that what they are doing right now could be vital to the plot and is really super duper important. I know you find it oh so much smoother, or whatever, to run the scenes they're in. Thing is, not one of those changes the fact that the other 4-6 of us are sitting at a table bored out of our minds. Bad times man, very bad times. There really is little in the world that is as boring as watching someone else get all the spot light time. I mean, sure, if you are just observing the game it might not be that bad, but if you're sitting there with a character sheet and are supposed to be part of the game it just sucks. So don't hyper focus on one player, or one small group of players. Break off, leave them on pause for a few minutes and check in with everyone else. If they're not doing anything, that is their problem, but give them the chance to do something. Bounce your attention around the table, with the majority of your focus going to where the majority of your players are.

Time management is a hard skill to learn, but it really is one of the key differences between a good GM and a great one, so learn it and use it. Your players will thank you for it. Oh, and by majority of the players (for determining how much time you give) follow something like this. If you have 6 players, each one should be getting 5 minutes of your time, meaning that at most it is (and even this is bad) 30 minutes between GM interaction time for them. Now, if 2 players are together, then instead of doing 5 minutes for each, do 10 minutes for both. Or do 5 minutes for both, break away, then return (faster than you do for others) and do another 5 minutes. The idea here is to give time where players are together, it encourages the players to stick together for more time, and makes it easier for you in general. (honestly, if you can handle the players in 2 minutes you're doing much better and cycling very well).

The point though? Keep your attention moving around the table, and engage everyone who is in your game. Even if the Paladin is talking to the King while the Thief is just hitting the town to flirt with the pretty boys.

#3 - Listen to your Players
No, I mean it, listen to them. Ask them what they want, be approachable if they have concerns. Listen to them, go on do it now. If your players are having fun, they'll tell you, if they're not you need to be paying attention for the signs. If you think things aren't going well, ask people what it needs to be better. This one isn't so much etiquette on the surface as good gaming, but it comes into being etiquette when you realize that RPGs are a cooperative effort. Even if you wield a bigger stick decision wise, you shouldn't be ignoring the players. After all, without the players what would you be doing? Sitting around bored wishing you could run a game! (oh, and players, this works both ways. Without a GM there is no game either ;) )

#4 - Address Concerns
Another one that doesn't seem like etiquette on the surface, but if someone brings a concern to you then address it. Remember to be fair when you do so, and to get all sides of a story before punishing anyone, but address the concerns. You are the judge, the officiator, the authority figure for your game, so if someone comes to you with an issue you should do what you can to resolve it. Talk to the person who has the problem, see what it is, and what can be done - if anything - to fix it. If someone is bothered by all the out of game talk and tangents, then bring it up as a group discussion and get the general view of the game.

Oh, and if you do bring up a concern publicly don't say who brought it to you. That just makes it awkward for them and the group. If Tom comes up and tells you they think that Jim is cheating, don't go "So tom says people are cheating" just bring it up casually as "A couple of you have expressed concern as to the validity of certain die rolls, now I don't think anyone is cheating but on the off chance you are, please stop and let the dice fall as they may." sure people might wonder, but you didn't out anyone. You also are giving warning to folks that you are hearing about it, and watching, giving them a chance to stop without a whole scene.

#5 - Don't Run Over People
Yes, you are the GM, the authority figure, and your word is law in the game. However, try not to run over people. If someone is trying to do something, unless it is absolutely vital or pressing for something to happen, why not let them do it first? Especially if it is in game. Sure, that conversation around the campfire the PCs are having isn't moving the plot forward, but it's not wasting IC time either and if the Players are having fun doing it, then what is the harm right? Enjoy the chat, chuckle at it when it is funny, and let them have fun. It's not even wasting game time, as that bit of chatter is pure character development and bonding for the PCs. So let them have it.

As I said, obviously in some situations you do need to interrupt these things. But for the most part, there is no need to rush things OOC if people are having fun and enjoying themselves with the game.

#6 - Be Fair!
What, I already said this one? Well it must be really important than huh? Playing favorites sucks, it is even worse for the players when the GM is the one doing it. This is one of the reasons with the "GMs Girlfriend" and the "GM PC" have such a bad rap. because the GMs in question then play favorites. Hell, with the GM Girlfriend you almost can't blame them, I mean they obviously care about the person a great deal and want them to have fun in the game, it just happens. However, you also have a responsibility to the game and your other friends. So be fair, be consistent, and keep things going. The girlfriend will still have fun with the game (if she was going to anyhow) if you're fair and consistent, if anything they may have more.

Final Thoughts
I know there are more than these 5 things (6 if you count be fair twice), but those are the big ones that really just reached out  and grabbed me. As I said above, most of these are just things a good GM does, but they were worth mentioning together as well. Oh, and for the record, the normal table etiquette applies to everyone evenly, even the GM.

So have fun, and Happy Gaming!


  1. Good stuff. What I'm finding in my current game is that saying yes is vitally important. I'm very happy the latest version of my favorite game emphasizes this. You don't have to make a new ruling, you just have to say, as much as you feel comfortable, that yes, what the player wants to do can or does work. This has raised spirits and reduced arguments and explanations immensely in my game and I recommend it, along with everything else on this page.

  2. Yeah, that is a good bit of advice. I like how (I heard) John Wick say it. Say yes, say yes and, yes but, yes or, but say yes. Do whatever you can to not say no to a character. A player, sure, but a character should be told yes.

    Another one in that mentality is "Don't say no, just assign a difficulty". In general being positive and showing the players that they can make a difference goes a long way towards keeping arguments down. If they feel they are winning 80-90% of the time, they don't mind backing down the once or twice you put your foot down on something.