Category Archives: GM Advice

What is a GM anyway?

Of course I know what a GM is. . . What I am trying to figure out, is how to explain how to be a good GM in as little space as possible because I’m rewriting the GM’s section for 3rd edition right now. I have a few thoughts on this so I thought I’d share them in advance.

It’s easy to watch a GM do a good job and understand what a new GM is supposed to do. It’s somewhat hard to coherently explain what a GM is supposed to be doing on paper. You can use the tactic of listing things a GM shouldn’t do and by explaining what a GM isn’t, what’s left should be the right thing. Like chiseling away at a block of stone to get a statue, you could remove unwanted ideas and traits until you have what you want. But that’s not what I’d like to do. I’d like to explain what a GM is, not what they aren’t. Why? I don’t know, I just like to do things the hard way.

I started thinking about it yesterday and I realized that even the name “Game Master” really gives the wrong idea. A good GM is not the master of the game, any more than the president of the United States is master of Congress. A good GM adheres to a system of checks and balances and a starting GM is probably anything but a master in the sense of skill.

What about other terms, like referee and arbiter? I’m not fond of these titles either because they explain part of the job but not nearly all of it. They’re too passive, like the players are going to duke it out and the referee is there to make sure it’s all above the belt. No, it doesn’t begin to describe the job.

When it comes down to it, the original term Dungeon Master makes sense. That player ran the dungeon, they were “master” of it. Except DM doesn’t make sense for any other game and it makes less sense in the current kind of play RPGs see.

A Definition

Misnomer titles aside, a GM’s job is actually not that hard to describe. It’s their job to present rewards to the players and assign costs to  the rewards. The rewards can be money, allies, new toys, new abilities, experience, knowledge or anything else that the players might find motivating. The cost can be just as diverse. In fact a GM should have several costs in mind for various ways the players might try and get the rewards. There are often multiple potential rewards in a game and there are even more costs for each of them. A starting GM will most likely do best with one reward or a few and expand the potential rewards for their games as they become more skilled at handling the game.

Balancing the value of the reward and the cost of reaching for it is crucial to keeping players excited and interested in the game. When the cost is too great, the players will not reach out for them. If the reward is too great, their progress in the game will be too rapid and the excitement of a challenge will be lost.

This description works for linear scenarios or for sandbox play, so it holds up well. But it isn’t complete yet. This is the 30,000 ft view, someone being introduced to being a GM needs some more detail.


A GM has a host of tools to accomplish their goals. Each tool should play some role in delivering the reward or exacting the cost. The tools I can think of off hand can really be used as either the cost or the reward and it’s usually in using the tools that a GM can make their worst mistakes.


This tool is the narrative that the game forms overall. Playing out character roles is the main way that all players make the story. A measure of control to the story is one very common reward and it is usually thought of as good form to give the players as much of it as possible. By default there is a very low threshold for a player having control of their character and the actions the characters can take.

The main way a GM uses story as a cost is by giving the characters challenges to overcome. There are other story based costs such as losing the potential for a story arc but in almost every game there will be story based challenges that the PCs will try to overcome. Challenges may use other tools like NPCs or spending resources but the other tools are present because of the story (hopefully).

What can go wrong? – If a GM takes away control of how the players will deal with challenges or unnecessarily chooses the challenges the PCs will face they are said to be “Railroading” the players. The idea here is that a train cannot turn off the rails to go to a different place. If a GM constructs a story too tightly so that the players make no (or very few) meaningful choices they are Railroading.


Non-Player Characters are all the characters that come into the story and are not one of the Player Characters. The GM takes on the role of these characters.

NPCs can take the form of a reward when they are friends and allies. They take the form of a cost when they are foes.

What can go wrong? – Most commonly, a GM may make a “Pet” NPC. This NPC is used like they were a PC but has the power of the GM behind them. The pitfall here is that the pet NPC will often steal the spotlight from the players, denying them agency or control in the story. There’s really very little point in playing the game any time NPCs become the deciding agents of a story.


The rules of the game define what a character can and cannot do. They are not usually a reward or cost in themselves, they are frequently the delivery system. To make sure rewards and costs happen fairly the rules have to apply consistently. Although many games give the GM license to alter the rules as they see fit, players may view them as their safety net that protects them from an all powerful GM. In our survey on game design, people universally wanted the GM to stick to the rules.

There are some circumstances when a rule could be a reward or cost. When a GM gives a bonus or a penalty to rolls they may be rewarding or exacting a cost.

What can go wrong? – Often the rules are the rules and a GM may feel the only way to reward a character or have them pay a cost is according to the written rules when in fact many of the rewards that an experienced GM will give his characters have more to do with story. On the other end of the spectrum a GM may not like the results the rules present and will skip them entirely to get the result they want. This can make players uncomfortable if they can no longer predict what will happen in the game because the GM decided to ignore the normal order of things.


Resources are things like hit points, experience points, money, food, fuel, vehicles and so on. They can be spent to overcome challenges or possibly to trade for other rewards the players want.

Getting access to more resources is an obvious reward while running low on or out of a resource is probably the most common cost the GM will use.

What can go wrong? – Being too stingy or generous with resources can spoil the feel of a game. Having to little in the wrong setting will be frustrating to the players. Having too much of some resources can remove the tension of a story, such as, having too many hit points can make a fight just an issue of outlasting an opponent.

That’s my thoughts on GMs at the moment. I may be making a glaring omission or two. When you read through this, was there anything that popped out at you as wrong? Is there a situation that you could think of where this would give a novice GM the wrong idea? Let us know in the comments please!

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Confessions of a Former Rules Lawyer

There are many kinds of problem players out there. Me? I was one of them. I memorized rule books and when my group wanted a stat on an NPC or how a power worked, they would hand the book to me and I would flip the book open to the exact page. In most cases I probably knew the information anyway but they wanted to see it for themselves.

I did this for twenty one games we had actively been playing. (I find it hilarious now when I forget rules that I wrote.) Why did I do this when I wasn’t the GM? One reason was that I just really like mechanics, I like well made systems. So to understand the ins and outs of a game is fun for me. (Sick huh?)

That’s the happy side of my player behavior but I would go further than that. I would also use my knowledge for evil, I was a rules lawyer! So why did I create chaos and strife at the table because of the interpretation of a rule? Why did I argue about minutia of words?

The first reason is that I was immature. I argued about a lot of things, I debated subjects endlessly. An argument was like a mental wrestling match to me and I enjoyed winning. All I can say is that it was probably the testosterone. How does a GM deal with that? One, talk privately to your rules lawyer about it. If it is a form of aggression that’s causing the arguments, then having a public debate is going to get them in a fighting mood. I can’t guarantee a calm discussion privately, but it should be at least better. Explain that the arguments are stopping game play and that hurts the other players.

The second reason was tactics. I would string together information on how “best” to beat an enemy. When the GM didn’t stick to the rules as I had understood them (sometimes it was a difference of how to interpret a single word) it would invalidate a strategy that I wanted to use. Frequently I’ll admit I was actively trying to break the system to my advantage. On occasion I just wanted to use an exploit to do something cool. This makes a GM’s job a little harder, you want your players to be able to do cool things because. . . it’s fun. You don’t want them breaking the game so that it can’t be played anymore though. In those cases you have to plug the hole with a house rule. Explain to your rules lawyer why breaking the game is bad. One successful tactic that defused me in the past was the GM saying that the exploit could be used this first time but it could not be used again. I would get the reward I was looking for, the GM would plug the hole, nobody’s perfectly happy but it’s usually good enough.

The third reason was fear. It’s scary to have a GM wield unlimited power over you. I looked to the rules to be a kind of safety blanket that would protect me from unreasonable rulings. You have to remember we were teenagers and the GM was not always guided by the high principles that we’ve come to think a GM should be. A rules lawyer may be reacting because they feel they are being treated unfairly. They want to play the game, they just don’t agree that how it’s being played is fun. In this case the GM should think about maybe changing the atmosphere that they’re setting the game in. It may be that the GM is going for dark and gritty and the player wants heroic.

When it comes down to it, rules lawyers like systems. They like to have a protection and a tool they can use to influence the game. They’re probably a bit power hungry. As a GM, you may want to have a grievance system for you games. Let them write their complaints down and at the end of the game read it to the group. Vote on if the grievance should change how the rule was interpreted in the future. The grievance is the only chance the player will have to argue their point, they don’t get to argue it during or after the discussion. This is to avoid the discussion becoming heated.

I haven’t tested the grievance system, I don’t have any rules lawyers of my own at the moment. If you do, test it out and let us know if it works.


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Tabletop Crafting

Stargazer posted about the idea of crafting in a tabletop game a few days ago and it got me thinking. There are a few games that allow the player to generate their own equipment but very rarely is it assumed that the PCs themselves are building the item. They’re usually just a custom piece of equipment, and they’re usually for large items like starships.

Actually The Artifact has a system for crafting a lot of things in The Engineer’s Resource. Steampunkfitters has a super simple system for making your own inventions. The first RPG that I wrote had rules to make any category of equipment in the game. It was easier on me to give the generation rules than to make huge lists of equipment that my players wanted. There is one thing that I missed tying in with my crafting rules that I wish I had thought of and it was brought up in the comments of the Stargazer post. Except for the Engineer’s Sourcebook, all the crafting rules I’ve devised were supposed to happen off screen.

Lone Enterprise

Why is that? Why does crafting happen front and center on video games but not in tabletop games? Again the answer that immediately comes to mind was mentioned in the comments of the Stargazer post. One, it’s usually a solitary task in a video game. Does that make sense? In real life, are things usually made by one person? No, even if you’re a blacksmith you have assistants. If you’re a successful blacksmith you have several assistants. So any crafting rules should include the idea of multiple characters working toward an item to craft. Engineer’s Resource check, that’s exactly how the system is designed to work. Steampunkfitters, not so much, although it could be reasonably easily modified to allow multiple characters pooling points into an invention. SPF is also intended to be reflecting the DIY efforts of lone inventors so a collaborative invention fits less into the feel of the game.

Off Screen

The other objection is that in a video game the crafting process is slow and would not be very interesting at the tabletop so it’s best to have it happen in a time lapse while off screen. This has been my objection to focusing on crafting. Does this make sense? In some cases, yes it does. In a majority of the video game crafting the character spends time just working on the item and you don’t want to focus on that during a table top game. BUT! Another important aspect of video game crafting is that there are ingredients that the character can collect to make their items. What can we do with that at the table top?

One solution is to make it possible for the PCs to craft off screen slowly, or they can go after an ingredient (or part) as part of the game. Searching for a part that will speed up their progress or improve the quality of the crafted item draws in elements that a GM is going to feel a lot more comfortable playing at the table. The search, the negotiation, the reluctant seller, all are things that a GM may have used in the past when the PCs are looking for a rare game item. This doesn’t have to be any different.

In The Engineer’s Resource searching out an ingredient might ensure good quality, there are a number of points in equipment builds where  a flubbed roll could bring down the effectiveness of an item. Searching out a part could be used to prevent that problem. Another thing an ingredient might give is a reduction in the manhours needed to make the item.

In SPF acquiring an item might give the characters a Story Point boost to their invention, either existing or a new one that they’re working on. Simple enough.

Both are simple mechanically and could be implemented without any real additional rules.


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Leveling The Playing Field

In a some games, not all characters are created equal. This can be a source of variety, giving the players the ability to play high power campaigns at times and low power campaigns at others. Each one can have it’s specific appeal. I find that when starting a new game players often like to try out the high power characters first and then slowly migrate to the more nuanced low power characters.

That works if the players pick all of one kind, either high or low. Sometimes it can even work if the group is split 50/50 between them. You can have the characters work as two teams, one defending the group and the other running the soft skills that are needed to solve a puzzle. Or the high power guys punch through a barrier to deliver the soft skill guys to carry out the main goal. But what happens when the group is truly not balanced? This usually happens when a very small fraction of the players (maybe only one) picks low power characters. Even if you do segment the plot to spotlight the characters, the small portion of low power characters will feel marginalized because they are ineffective throughout most of the game.

I have this problem at the moment. We made a group of PCs that were heavy hitters of a Raider, a Tank Pilot and a Train Operator. One player does have a Field Scientist which is a low power character, but none of the other characters cover the scientist’s skills so she can still be useful. Then another player joined the group with a preexisting character, a Scout. The problem is, a Scout is not very useful to this group. In a low power campaign a scout on a motorcycle is fast and is very useful for tracking. In this situation, the combination of the Raiders Delta and the Train make the scout’s motorcycle almost laughable.

The low power characters have to have a place throughout the game, not just a spotlight where they make one critical roll and then their purpose is complete. In the last game, I was able to get everyone out of their vehicles (willingly) because there was no direct danger to them, they were engaged in a puzzle. This works occasionally, but if all the games are like this, the high power characters will start to question why they have all this firepower if none of it will be useful. Characters have to be used in the way the players are expecting them to be used or they will get disgruntled.

The Protection Principle

One way of handling this is the protection principal as was mentioned before. One group of characters protects the other, but the protected group needs to be free to finish a job. This can work in either direction though, the low powered characters may have to protect the high powered characters so that they can stay high powered. In The Artifact, this could come in the form of vehicles having their computers hacked by an outside source with a Comm Officer protecting the vehicles.

In my case, the scout character is free to work while the others are busy piloting. By putting the characters that are busy in danger in a way that the Scout can help out with makes the player feel that their character is valuable. In this case the Train Operator’s train is the opening for the Scout to act. The inside of the train is large enough for the Scout to be able to use his skills and be valuable.

To have the protection principle work, there has to be a task which will take time to carry out. A group of characters can work through the task while the others defend them from distraction.

The Separate Paths Principle

Another way of handling a power disparity is to have two or more tasks that need to be accomplished each task is best handled by a skill set that is only available to some of the characters. This can be difficult to set up properly and can become boringly formulaic if not handled well. It also can make the player group feel less like a team if they don’t see their efforts as playing off each other. Lastly it can be a major disappointment if one group fails and blocks the other from succeeding.

That’s not to say this principle should never be tried. It can be exciting and a nuanced way of structuring a game. If the player’s separate paths reinforce each other, perhaps even allowing one group to occasionally bail the other out with a success, it can keep the group feeling like a team.

The Unprepared Principal

This is probably my signature method for challenging the player characters. I’ve often overused this principle to challenge the players so I need to back off from it a little.

This principle puts the PCs in a situation where the skills that they have are not well suited for the task at hand and they have to work around the problem. When done properly the challenge looks like the player’s skills and abilities will carry them through but at a certain point they become less or totally ineffective and a different set of skills that the characters do not have (or are not very good at) are needed to finish the task. This makes a situation that looked like a cakewalk suddenly much more challenging.

The reason I like this method (too much) is because it allows the players to be effective at what they are good at but then challenges them in ways they are not effective. Players can feel unstoppable one moment and hard pressed to complete a challenge the next. This often leads my players to generalize their characters and not specialize. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, dependent on your point of view. The main strength is it also allows everyone to contribute because no one is especially good at the task at hand, making the plot open to anyone to be the hero of the day.

Those are what I have in my bag of tricks, what do you use? What have you had a GM use on you?

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Friday Already?

If you’re like me, on occasion Friday sneaks up on you. I completely forgot to get a post ready for today but you know what, I’m okay with that. There’s a time honored tradition among GMs called “It’s the weekend already and I forgot to think of a game.” or something similar. Sometimes, we think that all of our games have to be these great masterpieces when, you know what? A lot of times the players just wanna roll some dice and get some XP. Last week we sat down to game, we didn’t know if we wanted to play The Artifact or Steampunkfitters. We settled on an Artifact game, the gang rolled up some characters and just for fun, the players asked me to decide what their characters classes should be. I picked a few characters type that I thought the players would enjoy but I tried to give them something a little different than their usual fare.

Then came making a game with those slightly unusual characters. I actually used an idea I wrote about here on the blog, so I guess I was pulling out one from the archives and not just coming up with something on the fly. I had to make the quest significantly simpler than I had at first intended because we spent some time making characters. In the end, I threw a little combat in there, at first just a warm up of a few E-Suits and then gave the players a real challenge of going up against a Demolisher. The starting characters were quite competent (really good rolls this time round) so I wasn’t too worried about them being able to handle the challenge. The “Treasure” ended up a fun reward too (see the earlier post for more).

What Went Right?

It was in general a fun game because the players know the setting and they were able to succeed in a bunch of tasks that they know are not easy. This gave them a feeling of accomplishment. The game was fast, I didn’t get bogged down in details which is my Achilles heel. The science stuff was all technobabble anyway and so I handled it all with character skill rolls which they were equipped for (One of the characters was a Field Scientist).

If There Was To Be a Point

The point I think I’m going for here is, other than an interesting treasure, there wasn’t any kind of twist in the game. There were no tricks and that was fine. I’m not going to win any award for the game writing but the players still had fun. Two of the characters are now insane but the players are fine with that. So the formula if there was one, would be a quick game with a little bit of challenge.

It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating. Simplicity and a little head thumping can be very satisfying.


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RPG Design Survey Results


So here it is, the RPG Design Feature Survey. There’s some really interesting results from this, I only wish the sample size was a bit larger. 32 people responded to the survey, I hope GMs and game designers find it useful when thinking about their games.


Each question is pared with a dysfunctional form of the question. For example “The PCs are heroes and unlikely to die”  being the functional form of the question while “The PCs are expendable” being the dysfunctional form. Each form of the question gets a different viewpoint on the subject. You may not mind the PCs being expendable but you’d really like them to be the heroes.

I include some analysis in with the data but it will take some explaining to understand it. Lets take an example.


Q7. System has rules for social conflict
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
I like it that way. 37.50% 12
I expect it to be that way. 18.80% 6
I am neutral. 28.10% 9
I can live with it that way. 9.40% 3
I dislike it that way. 6.30% 2
answered question 32
skipped question 0
Q108. No system for social conflict
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
I like it that way. 12.50% 4
I expect it to be that way. 0.00% 0
I am neutral. 34.40% 11
I can live with it that way. 28.10% 9
I dislike it that way. 25.00% 8
answered question 32
skipped question 0


Here’s the analysis for the example questions. It starts out with the two questions side by side. The A question is  the first question listed and the B question is the second question listed. The second line is the count result that got the most votes for each question. The third line is what the result text was. These results are used in the Kano model of analysis.

12 11
I like it that way. I am neutral.
Positive Negative
23 -17
Exciter FD
Trends Linear
Weighted Positive

That can be useful but I realized that this wasn’t the whole story so I looked at two more ways of comparing the data. There are a lot of  “I am neutral” results but they’re often less than half of the total number of votes. I needed to look at the votes that showed a preference either way. In the fourth line, the votes that are positive are counted, the votes that are negative are counted, if the positive votes are higher than the negative votes it will say “Positive” otherwise it’s “Negative”.

The fifth line is a weighted result. I was thinking that a person that responds “I like it that way” or “I dislike it that way” will want to or not want to play a game based on the question, while everyone else may or may not based on other factors. So I made those votes count for two and ignored the neutral votes (cause they don’t really care). If the number is positive then people like the idea in the question, if it’s negative they don’t. Bigger numbers mean stronger feelings either way.


A – First Question B – Second Question
12 – Highest result count for first question 11 – Highest result count for second question
I like it that way. – What the most chosen result was. I am neutral. – same here for the b question.
Positive – Comparing the number of positive vs negative votes Negative – same for the B question
23 – A strong weighted positive result -17 A weighted negative result
Exciter – This is a Kano Exciter result. FD – this is just my note as to which form of the question comes first.
Trends Linear – positive result on one side, negative on the other, it trends toward a Kano Linear result
Weighted Positive – Comparing the weighted results.

Here’s the analysis key

Recap of Kano Result types

Mandatory Features

Mandatory features for a game are things that are required for the game to be enjoyed. These are things like a ruleset or consistency in applying rules. They’re things that, if left out will make the players totally dissatisfied with the game.

The interesting thing is, with a mandatory feature once the need is satisfied, no more satisfaction results. If you pile on rules that players don’t need to play, they aren’t going to be any more satisfied with the game. If important rules are missing or poorly made, the player’s satisfaction will be reduced.

Mandatory results included, sticking to the game rules, PDF costing $10, The GM having the final say and having combat rules.

Linear Features

Linear features are things that increase satisfaction for the players the more it is done. This may be in game rewards like money or experience (dependent on the game) or time for their character in the spotlight. The more you give them the more satisfaction they will derive from the game.

Linear features are the most intuitive features because their relationship is direct. More is better less is worse.

Linear results were, a unified mechanic, good artwork, simple vehicle rules, combat not being determined by equipment, not using miniatures and maps for combat, basing a game on alternate history, not diceless and not generating a character randomly.

Exciter Features

Exciter features are ones that the players like when they see it but don’t require.

The nice thing about exciters is that since the players don’t know they need them, leaving them out does not negatively impact the game but adding them in enhances their enjoyment.

Exciters were, PDFs for $1-3, social conflict rules, using some kind of points to influence a story, using the player’s description of a character as their background, using attributes, consistent rules application, a detailed setting for the game, a free game, A Sci-fi setting,


The reverse result means the player would like the opposite of the feature in the survey. I included the reverse results in the linear results but just reversed them.


Indifferent means the player is not interested in the feature either way. Especially with these results I look at the other methods of analysis to get a little more detail into how the respondents felt about them.


Vague means they have given contradictory responses and further more detailed questions on this subject may be required to resolve the contradiction. The vague results in this survey were because I messed up asking the question. Still  there is useful information in these results, they just can’t be used against the Kano model.

How’d it go?

I think the results are intriguing. I’d like to do more on some of the subjects that people have brought up because now I want to analyze those ideas. However, the number of respondents were much lower than I was hoping for and that’s a bit of a downer. Maybe someone a bit more prominent in the community could do this and get a more enthusiastic result. So will I do more? If you comment that you find this data useful or even just interesting, I will. If no one comments, I’ll just leave well enough alone.

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Play By Post and Email

So when it comes to doing it wrong, I was having trouble with Play by Post games. I could not wrap my head around how the game should be run. Pacing that you come to expect in a face to face game is non-existant. Involvement by players can be spotty because they start out wanting to play but life throws a curve ball and they disappear. System mechanics that have always worked intuitively in a face to face setting completely fall apart. I wasn’t able to find a handy dandy guide to fix my PBP woes but I stumbled on some answers, one of my players gave me some more and the rest got stitched together by some of the PBP players on

So what’s the result?

#1 Slow it down

It sounds obvious but your play style has to fundamentally change to accommodate the pace. Be prepared to write more than you would just say. GMs have a little more experience with describing scenes at some length so it may not be a problem for the GM. Players on the other hand can be short and to the point because they’re used to having to state what they want to do quickly which is not a consideration in this situation.

#2 Players get to narrate more

This is really vital to a good game. The players have to have the freedom to narrate their own plot elements. As long as it doesn’t contradict what has already been stated, doesn’t take away another player’s agency  (including the GM’s over NPCs) and is reasonable, it should be allowed.

#3 Forget about initiative

With the time scales involved and the possibility that a player could suddenly be unavailable can bring an initiative order to a screeching halt. In PBP initiative order is who posts first.

#4 Take it easy on rolling dice

Rolling dice is slightly problematic. Players should just assume they should roll for their actions even if they’re confident of passing. Nothing brings PBP to a screeching halt like a player saying “I’m going to hit him”. Then the GM saying “okay roll” and the player not posting for the next two days.

#5 Have a post frequency

At the beginning of the game have everyone agree to check and post in a certain length of time. Usually a once a day is good. If a player slows down the game, give them a friendly warning. If it keeps happening, let them know you’re going to have to proceed without them.

#6 Use a static defense difficulty

This one’s going to play havoc with a lot of systems but it makes sense when you think about it. A static value is assigned to defense, now a player can roll and know if he hit the NPC without waiting for the GM to roll. He can then figure out damage in one post instead of three or four.

#7 Let the players know the stats

Be more open about stats and rolls, this way they can apply the rules themselves instead of waiting on the GM’s ruling. This greatly speeds play if you have players that are willing to heft some of the burden of the rules.

#8 Color code

Color code your IC and OOC conversation. I use dark blue for OOC conversation and regular black for IC discussion.

What other methods do you use? I’m finding that Steampunkfitters rule system fits these criteria very nicely.

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Lose Something?

Player: I’m going to light my torch.

GM: You look for your torch and realize that it’s missing.

Player: What? You can’t do that!

GM: You just got sucked up in a tornado.

Player: So?

GM: And then were dumped into a river with raging rapids.

Player: So?

GM: Don’t you think something could fall out of your pack?

Player: No way, I always tie my pack up securely. That’s not fair.

There are certain things that traditional RPGs just don’t handle very well. One of those things is losing equipment. Even the smallest coin seems like it should be safe no matter what happens because it’s written on the player’s character sheet.

Now usually it would be bad form for a GM to arbitrarily declare that a player just suddenly doesn’t have something. For one, it impacts the player’s agency. They feel like their influence on the game is reduced and even if they understand why the story is benefited by loosing an item, it still seems wrong.

What if the GM has a great story that would be based on an item being lost and the players trying to retrieve it? What if the item is effecting game balance and it really needs to go away? What’s a GM to do?

The Bargain

The nice thing about being a GM is that you can make your own rules when you need to. You don’t want to disregard rules, but players don’t usually mind a new rule especially if they think it benefits them.

One way to structure a rule to have a player lose something is to have it happen because of player agency. You will allow the player to choose to lose an item. It’s just that you don’t have to present it that way.

Player: Arg! I missed my roll by 1! The dice hate me!

GM: I’ll give you a plus one to that roll but it means you’ll suffer a disadvantage. (Trying not to grin too broadly)

Player: Wait, what does that mean?

GM: You’ll have to find out. It means you’ll pass your roll though.

Now the success of this bargain depends on how important that roll is. The player knows that an open ended bargain with the GM is trouble but if they really want success they may bite at your bait.

The next important step is to really give them a nice reward for choosing to go with your bargain. Narrate how passing that roll ended up being important to the group. This way when you spring the result of your bargain on them they’ll remember their success and say “Well at least it was worth it, I did save the group.”

If the goal is that you just want an item to go away, it may even make sense to say that it was damaged when the character used the bonus to their roll and that’s what made the bonus possible. Maybe they swung extra hard and the sword broke, they fired too long and the barrel of their gun melted, they passed their defense roll because the attack hit the item and destroyed it or whatever works with the situation. Be creative with the situation, this is an open ended opportunity to make something memorable happen.

Experienced or paranoid players may need a bit of reassurance to take the bait. They know that things can go wrong when they aren’t defended by the normal rules of the game. Don’t be dishonest about it, try to let them know the stakes without giving away the game. If they reject your first offer, sweeten the pot a little. Give them something else, like a situation that goes really well for them in a fight. If this second attempt fails, it’s likely that player is just spooked by the idea and will not take it.

One way to fix that situation is to show why they’d want to take the bargain with a different player. Offer a similar bargain to someone else, play up how useful taking the bargain was and give them a reasonable disadvantage later on. It doesn’t have to be losing an item, in fact it may help to come up with several different somewhat serious impacts that the player that took the bargain could have to deal with. They have to be reasonable though or no player will ever take the bargain again.

How would you deal with this situation? Have you ever needed to have a player lose something? Would your players take up a bargain like that? Let us know in the comments.


Filed under GM Advice

Early Survey Results

I was trying to get this out yesterday but yesterday didn’t like me. I wanted to throw out some highlights of the RPG design survey thats running right now. Some of the results are what you’d expect. I put in questions that should be predictable so I could make sure the survey works the way I’d expect it to. There are some really interesting results.

I’m using four types of analysis on this data. First I’m looking at which selection got the most votes. Second I compare number of positive votes and the number of negative votes and see if the result is positive or negative. The third type of analysis weighs the votes according to how strongly someone feels about them. The fourth method compares the functional and dysfunctional form of the question and uses the Kano Model to pull some extra insight from the data.

So lets just hit the strongest results for now.

Social Conflict Rules

The first pair of questions to give a strong indicator to a GM or game designer is social conflict rules. The results show that while conflict rules are not needed for a game to attract players, they are something that most players like.

Q7. System has rules for social conflict Q108. No system for social conflict
I like it that way. I am neutral.
Positive Negative
18 -14
Trends Linear
Weighted Positive


There are a lot of dice questions on the survey. My thoughts at first would be that players don’t really care about the dice. In general, the results are heavily neutral but there are trends for specific dice. D20s seem to trend negative. So do d100s. D6s trend linearly meaning that including them is good for player interest but not including them is detrimental. Keep in mind though, this trend is not overly strong but it shouldn’t be ignored.

Q8. Game uses d20s Q19. Game does not use d20s
I am neutral. I am neutral.
Negative Positive
-9 7
Trends Reverse
Weighed Negative


There are some nice pointers on what players want on pricing. Free games are an exciter meaning that they don’t need to be free but players do view it as a positive. There has been some debate over the perception of free games in the past so that is a good result to have.

Players seem to like PDFs to be $10 or less. For a game book the price point of $30 is somewhat positive and results are neutral for the price being more than $30 but $50 is strongly negative. It would seem that $30-$40 is the limit of what players are interested in buying.

GM Control

With a good number of GMless games out there I was expecting a more tempered response to the question of GM Control.

Q37. The GM does not have the final say Q83. The GM has the final say
I dislike it that way. I like it that way.
Negative Positive
-25 26
Trends Linear
Weighted Positive

More To Come

That’s just a taste of what I’m seeing in the survey. Have your voice heard. Take the survey today.

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Filed under GM Advice, News

RPG Design Feature Survey

I’ve put together a survey of features that players and designers often talk about in RPGs. The idea behind the survey is to give recommendations to GMs and potential game designers on what to focus on when making a game. At the end of the survey I will be making the analysis of the survey public. This is done with survey monkey so I won’t know the names or emails of anyone that takes the survey, I’ll just get a list of responses.

So if you want to help independent game designers make better games, if you want independent designers to make games you’ll like. . .

Take the Survey!


Filed under GM Advice, News