The 40th anniversary of D&D gave me a chance to really reflect on how my GMing style has changed since I started playing. I’ve gone from teenage autocrat to adult sandbox GM, but lately I’ve noticed that my style has become a bit paternalistic. I’m starting to set the boundaries and define what people have fun at and what they don’t, and I think that’s a problem in some cases. I want to write and reflect on that a bit, because I think it’s useful for me and hopefully for you. So today, my don’ts. The things that, after this long, I’m just finished dealing with in terms of PCs. Some of these are justified, and some of them are just pet peeves, but it’s all worth thinking about.
You know the type. They might be the loniest wolf or they might not, but they’re always looking at people as pawns or tools, even when they claim to be heroes. Characters with low to no empathy are characters that have a really hard time forming meaningful relationships with the party, let alone anyone outside of it. Let alone motivating the narrative. I think the last thing any GM wants is the PC who says “Convince me to invest in this universe in any way.” Give me an inch to work with, give me some buy-in, and we can talk about what makes your character tick. But if your issues are so deep-seated that you can’t be friends with at least some of the six other people you routinely place your life in the hands of, it’s going to be pretty hard to tell an interesting story that actually involves other characters.
Don’t be a dick
There’s lots of specifics on how to be a dick, but it all boils down to this: deliberately placing a strain on one’s relationship with the rest of the party, either in or out of character. The PC that has to be carried, the PC that makes everyone else useless, the one who belittles everyone, the player who always has to have the spotlight, etc. Being a dick in a cooperative game means deliberately not cooperating. You want to have machinations and cultivate betrayal? Awesome. Love it. Let’s use those machinations to tell a better story, not stomp all over everyone else’s.
Don’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk
No one is born a hero. Lots of characters come out of their backgrounds with heroic accomplishments, accolades, and the respect of their peers, and I love that. We start at level 4, so people have had a chance to establish themselves a bit. But everything shakes out differently in play, and staying a hero means making heroic choices, choosing values over pragmatism and saving lives over personal gain. It’s a hard row to hoe, and I go a bit out of my way to test that heroism from time to time. It’s easy to say that others can see your character’s goodness shining through, but if you just walked past a burning orphanage to hit the bar, don’t expect anyone else to buy it for that long.
Don’t have a backup character
This is more of a legacy don’t. I used to have a lot of problems with players making backup characters and becoming so enamoured with those backup concepts that they’d lose investment in their current character. So teenage Jim made a call that still stands today, though in a reduced form: “If you have a backup character, you’re going to need it.” I developed a sort of supernatural sense for when people had put pencil to character sheet, and while I’ve never done a “Rocks fall, everyone dies” or consciously gunned for a PC, there’s a tendency for people to only remember the times when they had a backup character. Confirmation bias in my favour.
Those are really my only don’ts, though. Nothing about narrative control, lots of things about group relationships. These aren’t absolutes, but they encapsulate what I really care about when it comes to rpgs, which is a good group dynamic. If people are willing to work together and invest, we’re gonna have a pretty good game. When the wheels start coming off that particular bus, the group tends to spend more time keeping itself together than anything else, and loses sight of any kind of bigger picture.
These are also things that can be nipped in the bud through negotiation and reflection early on, both on my part and the part of a player. There’s a give and take to having a fun game, and these kinds of don’ts are the kind that are resolvable, rather than don’ts that are straightforward decrees.
Next week I’ll hit my do’s, and then reflect on some things I’ve learned in the past year working with new players. In the meantime, what are some of your don’ts?