Batgirl's Gamemastering Tips
A Dragon Age RPG Rules Rant
I started playing role-playing games when I was seven years old, with a new game called Dungeons & Dragons
, there was an eighteen year age difference between me and the next youngest player, our 23-year old Dungeon Master. Like me, the DM was new to the hobby having started with the "new" D&D. The other guys were all old school veterans. One or two were still bitter about the switch from the "old and better edition" a little ball of fun called Chainmail
. Ah, the 1980's, those were the days... Anyhow, I ran my first game as DM in 1990, rocks fell, everybody died. I tell you all this just to prove that I've been around a long while. I don't lay claim to being the World's Greatest Game Master, nor do I consider myself any sort of expert. But, I'm a crazy old coot and I like the sound of my own voice (er, keyboard). So, here's my thoughts on what I think a GM needs to do to run a simple game. Its a two step process. Let go of the book
and let go of the players
Let go of the book!
Most of the time in when I'm running a game, and I need to resolve an issue, I don’t use the rules; I make rulings.
It’s easy to understand that sentence, but it takes a flash of insight to really “get it.”
The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they “can” do it. As Gamemaster, I see myself as equal parts storyteller and referee. Outside of active play, my referee hat is the dominate one: I'll consult rules, errate, FAQs, and seek advice on the internet. But during active play, I don't have that time, so in order to get back into the storyteller role, I need my referee role to be minimal. Thus I put on my storyteller hat and try to use common sense to decide what happens when an issue crops up, or maybe I'll just roll a die if I think there’s some random element involved, and then the game moves on.
This works best in games where characters have fewer numbers on the character sheet, or have fewer specified abilities. In Dragon Age
characters can grow in a lot of subtle and nuanced ways. However, it does't much matter, for 90% of the game any given "thing" works pretty much the same as any other "thing," and its all written up in plain English, with a good index...
I try to make sure the players understand what their characters can do, before play, how any of their specific special rules work, and I try to make sure I have an idea of what every character can do. But the rules and the math doesn't necessarily matter during the game; as long as I have a clear idea of the character's concept I do not consult the rules.
Let go of the Players!
Step two of my GMing style involves throwing game balance out the window.
The Dragon Age
game is a dark fantasy world, with all its perils, contradictions, and surprises: it shouldn't be thought of as a “game setting” where reality somehow twists to always produce challenges of just the right difficulty for the party’s level of experience. The party has no “right” only to encounter bad guys they can defeat, no “right” only to encounter traps they can disarm, no “right” to invoke a particular rule from the books, and no “right” to a die roll in every particular circumstance.
Sometimes you fight enemies far below your skill level (and get to look like a bad ass), sometimes you gith enemies who are your equal in every way (and get to look like a bad ass), and on occassion, you are faced with an impossible to overcome foe... (and get to look like a bad ass!)
These sorts of situations aren’t a mistake in the rules, or a failing by the Gamemaster. Game balance just isn’t terribly important in old-style gaming. It’s not a tournament where the players are against the GM. It’s a story with dice: the players describe their actions, acting in my storyteller role, I describe the results, and the story of the characters, epic or disastrous, grows out of the combined efforts of me and my players. If things go well, I will be just as surprised by the results as the players!
The rules aren’t fragile, and the game doesn’t collapse if someone makes a little mistake or one character is temporarily more powerful than the others, or an encounter is “too hard.” Sometimes the GM will make a bad call. These aren’t tragedies. A roleplaying game is like the Internet – it doesn’t break if you push the wrong buttons. Game balance just isn’t a critical matter.
Now, when I say game balance I don't mean throw out classes and levels, the stunt system, or any other aspect of the rules as written. I mean during actual gameplay, you shouldn't worry about making sure everything is in some sort of esoteric balance. Don't worry, let the players go their own way and do their own thing. If things get to rough, they'll let you know. If things get to easy, they'll let you know. Roleplaying is an art, not a science.
One last point about game balance, though. Just as the players have no right to depend upon a rule in the book, the GM has no right, ever, to tell the player what a character decides to do
. That’s the player’s decision (unless there’s a charm spell or mind control power going). The GM in my style of game has much more “power” than many modern game systems will tell you they should have, and a GM following my advice may be tempted to dictate what characters are doing. If this happens, the whole game becomes nothing more than one dude telling a story while others roll dice on command. This sort of behavior severely damages the fun of the game. You don’t make chess moves for your opponent in a game of chess, and the GM doesn’t play the characters in a roleplaying game.