Life's a Die, and then you bitch

A Gamemaster's Primer

Midori Hirtzel
Any Gamemaster worth her salt knows that there are certain tricks of the trade that make you (to quote a popular comic book character) "the best there is at what [you] do." In the interest of those who are considering taking on this much-hallowed (and often thankless) responsibility, I offer here some tips for good Gamemastering, learned from various sources:


This doesn't mean just the geography (in fact, that's the least of your worries). I'm talking about how things work: does magic work in your world, and if so, how? Who's fighting with whom? Who's in power, and how did she/he/they/it get there in the first place? And how do the players and their characters fit into the whole recipe?

If you can answer these questions, among others, you are off to a good start. Remember, though, that your rules need to be internally consistent, or you'll have a number of bewildered and upset players on your hands. Make the rules and stick to them (at least as much as you can!).


If magical teleportation exhausts the person casting it, then it should always have that effect, regardless of the means used to bring it about or the person casting the spell. This goes for NPCs, too! All things being equal, what effects a PC in a certain way will affect an NPC in the same way (notice, however, that I said, "all things being equal."...).


I'm sure everyone's been in this situation before: a character is doing extremely well, and perhaps even going to save the kingdom (or world, or universe), when all of the sudden--POW!!!--a lousy die roll ruins everything, and the bad guys are triumphant after all.

The best solution here would be to totally delete the use of dice altogether, but I realize that this isn't really feasible unless you are playing something like Amber. So, my advice is thus: if the results of a die roll interfere with the story, feel free to ignore it, or roll again. After all, the rules are only useful when they advance the enjoyment of the people playing (and running) the game. Which brings me to my next tip...


This is what one of my old GMs used to call "The Magic Pencil Rule." In effect, it states: "The GM shall adopt whatever she likes from the rules, and shall feel free to erase whatever she does not like." Or in simpler terms, take what you like and throw out what you don't. I've used this rule to good effect with the Mage NPCs in my Vampire game. Since the magic system from Mage: The Ascension is virtually unplayable for my purposes (along with being confusing and kind of ridiculous in my opinion--but that's a tale for another time), I've taken to using the system from Ars Magica, which suits my world much better.


Don't let the players run roughshod over you, doing whatever they please with impunity. This will create tension and disharmony among the rest of the players (trust me, I've seen it happen), and the game will suffer for it.

It sometimes helps if you have the other players enforce this rule as well. Often they will notice what you might miss, being responsible for every facet of the world. Also, sometimes pressure from fellow players to stop misbehaving will work better than that of the GM.

What about truly immature, petulant players? If you're lucky, they will see the error of their ways and compromise. or discover that the game isn't fun anymore after the GM has grown a spine. If neither works, you may have to request that they not participate again. Whatever the case, stick to your guns; it's YOUR game.


I guess what I'm saying here is that you should be able to GM off the top of your head. Face facts: it's an unspoken law of gaming that no matter how well you plot out the course of the adventure, down to the tiniest and most minute details, one or more of the players will do something that blows your whole scenario right out of the water. When that happens, you can do one of two things -- punish said player severely both in and out of character, then rant and rave about how s/he "ruined everything," alienating your other players in the process (this example is taken from a game I actually played in, by the way); or you can come up with another plot and continue the game.

Which do you think is going to encourage your players to come back?

Okay, so maybe the scene described is a worst-case scenario, but the advice still holds. Forcing players into a plot isn't fun for them or you. They resent being "railroaded," and you will have to beg or browbeat them into doing your bidding. Like I said, not fun for anybody.

If a player blows your whole adventure away, don't panic. Just take a breather, see if you can't come up with something else, and try to salvage what's left of your plan if you can. Maybe the encounter with the evil cleric can be changed to a fight with an anti-paladin down the road a bit. As I've mentioned in another column, retrofitting is perfectly acceptable when you GM.

I hope that these tips have helped any aspiring GMs out there, and given you some renewed hope; no, you're not alone!

copyright 1996

Original text copyright 1996 by Midori M. Hirtzel; title logo created by Jennifer Pleskow. Originally converted to HTML by Jennifer Pleskow; posted to Black Unicorn Wood by Midori Hirtzel-Church.
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