The Rule To Making Good Rules And Other Useful Tips

From Tony Reeves

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0399

A Brief Word From Johnn

A Small Change In Format – What Do You Think?

Subscriber Danny East and I have been trading e-mails on ways to make the plain text version of the e zine lighter, easier to read, and better overall. This week, I’ve experimented by trimming section breaks a bit, and not putting individual tips in the table of contents. What do you think? Have any more suggestions?

No Favourite Tips – Bummer!

Last week I did a callout for favourite tips to celebrate issue #400 with. So far, there has been one favourite tip submitted. I empathize. There are just too many tips to choose from, they’re not sorted very well and are hard to find, and it would take a lot of effort to find and decide on a favourite one.

Based on the response, I think I’ll make #400 a regular issue. However, I did receive several great contest ideas, and am working on starting up a new contest. More contest ideas are always welcome, too.

It’s snowing here today. Several inches have fallen so far, and more are forecast. Seems to me this is perfect gaming weather! It’s time to go plot my villain’s next moves.

Have a great week.


Johnn Four

The Rule To Making Good Rules And Other Useful Tips

Published with permission from This article originally appeared at: DMTips

The following is an article I wrote for new DMs based on my own observations as a player and DM over the last 20 years. As a dungeon master, I live and die by the enjoyment my players receive from my games. As a player, a single rule, or rule change, can mean the difference between a good game and a great one.

I run what is considered an “open style game,” which means I get a lot of input from players. This works exceptionally well for me and has for as long as I been a dungeon master.

Feel free to use any of my ideas herein to help you. And by all means, if you have found any other easy or effective ways of doing things then please send an email. I’m always on the lookout for new or better ways of doing things! Meanwhile, enjoy!

Be Realistic

Have you had to make a quick rule on a situation you’ve never encountered before? Well, here’s help. I’ve always been a stickler for detail. So much so, that I always feel there has to be a bit of realism incorporated in my scenarios and campaigns.

To start, I always make it a point to arrive 30-45 minutes early, no matter where I play. Part of this is because I hate to be late to anything, but there are some added benefits you can turn to your advantage just by being there early.

I always set out my equipment first, brush up on any finer points of the game that I need to remember for the session (I have a terrible time remembering names), then about the time I’m ready, all of my players arrive. I specifically set this time aside so players can discuss rules, ask questions, or clarify any specifics the players need.

Since I have long-time and new players, this is a great time to discuss rules players disagree with, would like see changed, or have questions about. This is one of the most important things to do with your players because it allows you to develop trust. It also provides a bit of extra time to look up rules if I need to, in case a question comes across I don’t know the answer to before the actual game starts. We usually spend about a half hour doing this.

Respect And Be Respected

I’ve found the best referees are ones that I respected. Respect, when it comes to a DM, has to be earned. The key way to earn it is to follow a few simple steps.

  1. Always use the same rules for everyone. This also includes the monsters! Nobody likes a dungeon master who changes the rules all the time.
  2. Conversely, no one enjoys a rules lawyer, or someone who is always by the book for every circumstance, either.
  3. Be fair, honest, and open to player criticism. Allow players to voice their opinions, and when they do  it’s important you listen. That doesn’t mean argue with them.

First, you’ll never get anything solved. Second, you’ll have lost that particular player’s respect, and maybe even lost a player or friend. All of my players are also my friends. This makes it even easier to be open with them as well as take their criticism, even though it does hurt sometimes.

Admit Your Mistakes Even When You Are Wrong

This is one my players love the most, especially the one’s who haven’t played that long. My players believe that I rarely make a mistake, but when I confess to one, even if they didn’t catch on at the time, they feel as though I’ve shared something with them.

It doesn’t show them you’re stupid. It shows you’re human, that you care about the game for their sakes, and are making an honest to attempt to make sure the game is fair to all.

Another reason to allow players to point out mistakes is so you don’t forget them later. When a player tells you you’ve made a mistake, thank them for reminding you. After all, everyone who’s played a lot realizes how hectic it is to keep control of all the players for the duration of the game.

This also makes it easier on the players when they make a mistake, especially if they’re new. They’re not as likely to take it so personally if they do happen to make a silly mistake. It serves to make a friendlier game, because no one picks on anyone else. That’s one thing I never allow and neither should you. It only creates hard feelings between the players, and that’s not what your there for.

Keep Combat Simple, Understandable And Orderly

As player and DM, I’ve noticed that combat is what gives most DMs headaches. It seems to be when the most peculiar actions occur, when most arguments start, and when things are the least controlled and most disruptive.

First, you need to establish order. I do this in several ways as you’ll see shortly. The way I do things is specifically designed to keep things in my control, keep it easy while still keeping the flow of the game fast, and also makes sure everyone has their turn.

To begin, when a combat sequence starts, I call out for an initiative roll either by the party (one person rolls for the party, which generally is the case) or by individual, whichever way the situation dictates.

As soon as I call out for initiative, the players inform me of what actions they’re taking if I don’t already know. Always make sure you know what everybody is doing. If I have questions or suspect someone did not get a turn, then starting with the player to my immediate left, I begin to ask questions of everyone, going clockwise around the table until everyone tells me their actions, whether they’re moving, fighting, casting spells (and, if so, what specific spell(s) are being cast and the casting).

As I go round the table and the info comes in, I make a note and establish which segments the spells go off in the round, based on who wins initiative. This is a very effective method to control multiple spell users, as it keeps it all straight for you.

In addition, if a mage decides to cast more than one spell, he or she can, so long as I know the details. I just have to write the info down so I remember what segment the spell falls in.

Whoever wins the initiative, of course, goes first, but the following is always true whether I go first or if I let the players. I let all the players roll for their attacks, and damage at the same time, except for spells, spell like effects, psionics, etc., unless the spell falls in that particular segment.

For example, a magic missile that has a one segment casting time. Usually the spells will go off at different times than the physical attacks, so I watch the entire melee round carefully, and when I announce the spell goes off, the player(s) responsible gives me their to hit roll (if necessary) and any damage applicable. I roll the saving throws for the monsters and tell the mages their effects. Note that a spell caster could potentially cast a spell ten times in one round, and it has happened that that many, and more, spells have been thrown around in one of my high level adventures.

Anyhow, in all cases except magic, I start with the person on my immediate left, go through the players one at a time for the physical attacks during the correct segment in the round, they give me their damage, and I state the effect if any on their opponent.

After they attack, it’s my turn and I assign them their damage. I make all of the monster rolls one at a time to keep it a bit more fair. This allows me to adjust the numbers as necessary. More on this later.

This continues in an orderly fashion until the entire melee is over. Keep in mind that we use casting times, but even if you don’t, it still makes things easier. It sounds like a lot of work, and in a way it is at first because you’re not used to it, but once you do things in this manner, you won’t want to do it any other way.

I know it sounds a little harsh to make the players take turns like this, but most players will understand if you explain why you’re doing it. In reality, if you point out that not only is it easier for you, and also assures that everyone gets their turn, then the players will agree.

One other thing that makes things easy is the use of miniatures. With miniatures, you can have the character move their piece to show where their character is. You can draw out room dimensions, and show the spell effects in great detail. It creates a much better visual picture overall, and this helps.

You might find you don’t use quite the same way of keeping time in the round, initiative, etc., the same way I do, and really it doesn’t matter. The main point is you get the data in an orderly manner in a way you can interpret it easily without disrupting the flow of the game.

The only other thing of importance is you do your melee rounds the same way every time. This will help keep player confusion to a minimum.

Special Situations Require Special Rules

Sometimes players just plain don’t like a certain rule. If you look in the beginning of the 1st edition D&D books, you’ll see that even Gary Gygax said the rule books are only guidelines, and the main thing is to make sure the players had fun.

There are a lot of ways to circumvent problems.

  • Use what works with your group of players.
  • If a problem comes up during the game, and you don’t have an answer immediately, ask the players how they feel about the rule.

Experienced players, like some of mine are, can sometimes offer their own logical solutions right off the bat, although sometimes the solutions make no sense as well. Use your own judgment, in any case, but at least let all the player have a say, and listen to them all.

  • If possible, make a ruling as fast as possible so the flow of the game isn’t interrupted. There’s nothing worse than waiting for ten minutes for a referee to make a decision because he’s looking through 3-4 books for some obscure rule that you’ll only use 1 time in ten years.

The ruling only needs to last for a single session in most instances. You can almost always make an overruling later if absolutely necessary.

  • Generally, if I can’t make a ruling on the spot or within 5 minutes, then I will make a snap decision based on the circumstances and all other input, then finally I ask the players if it sounds fair, and make a promise to them to research it further.

Sometime before the next session, I do the research. At the beginning of the session I present them with either a definite answer or logical options to vote on. This is at the beginning of the following session before the game really starts.

It’s important, if you DM this way, that you never back out of a promise to research a rule or settle an argument.

  • Solving problems quickly will help show the players that you take the game and them seriously, and they’ll appreciate that.
  • Voting on problems is a good way to stop arguments since it gets all of the players input. Likewise, it stops arguments because everyone has a chance to affect the rule and voice their opinion.
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Be Prepared

To be prepared you have to know what you need. This depends mainly on you and how you DM, as well as how much you or your players have invested. In my group, the players sometimes have purchased pre-made modules and given them to me to run. Of course, I allow this, and after I run it, the player gets it back – I never highlight or otherwise write in them.

If you allow this you can assume that some players will read the module before they give it to you, thinking this will give them an advantage. This isn’t a problem for me though, because I always assume this and add things and give them a personal twist anyway.

Whether you run a pre-made module or create you own, make sure you know it well. The game slows and the players get bored if things begin to drag or move slow. This is especially true in modules set in a city. Make sure you know any new spells or effects, traps and monsters, so you don’t have to stop and research in the middle of a scenario.

Other things are dice and books. How many and which ones are up to you, and your financial situation. When I first started, I hardly owned anything but a Players Handbook, Monster Manual and DM guide. This required a vivid imagination, but those games were some of the best ever.

One item I won’t do without now, is a DM screen. These are a great way to put a ton of information right at your fingertips and can often be purchased cheaply. I laminated mine and it’s held up for several years. It also serves the purpose of hiding your dice rolls from prying eyes, so the players don’t really know what I’m rolling. (Yes, they listen to me and watch me very closely! They’ve learned that if they don’t, they might miss something very important or a deadly hint.)

Fudge The Die

As a player, I’ve seen times when my die rolls were absolutely terrible. It really stinks. I’ve also seen them be quite good and that’s another story. As DM, you need to make adjustments to your own rolls as appropriate.

If the players win every initiative ten times in a row, then change your roll from a six to a one. Even the odds a little to make the battles more realistic. If your die rolls all happen to be too good to believe, lower them. This is important with low level characters. I can’t tell you how many times I could have killed a character with just one lucky die roll! What fun’s that?

It’s so much more fun if the character is in a long, tough, one on one battle to the death, sweating over your next die roll and their own as well. You don’t have to do it every time, just occasionally when things seem to be going the wrong direction, or if things need livened up a tad.

Try it sometime and you’ll be amazed. It’s a wonderful feeling to hear the players brag how much fun they had, and also to hear them brag a little about that big battle with the bugbear and how he thought he was a goner.

Add A Little Humor

Add what I call the “human factor.” Some people might even call it the Murphy Factor. Everyone knows him. “Whatever can go wrong will.” “The best laid plans of mice and men..” Use this to your benefit.

For instance, a male paladin in one of my adventures years ago located a girdle of femininity. The item was cleverly disguised as a girdle of hill giant strength. The character put it on and POOF! He was a she. (For full effect, I passed around a note to all the other characters detailing her wonderful figure and her sweet voice.) The other players presented his condition to him/her via role play. It was slightly funny.

Needless to say, the player thought it was a bummer. That is, until they came to a door no one could open. He/She was the only one who hadn’t tried it. One comment from a certain stubborn dwarf was, “Go ahead, but I couldn’t open it and ain’t no wisp of a girl gonna do it!” I fudged the die a bit then, and then everyone at the table cracked up after the door swung open. The poor dwarf suffered to no end at being outdone by a girl. That girl is now a 15th level paladin.

That one scenario totally turned the situation around. The good thing was I no longer got to hear the moans and groans when something was cursed, etc., and it provided a bit of role play. Something even funnier happened later…. Remember the dwarf? He married the paladin girl!

Know How To Keep A Secret

Some dungeon masters are not capable of this. Nothing can ruin a player’s best laid plans (and fun) like a big mouthed DM giving away too much data to one or all of the other players. One thing I recommend is the passing of notes. This works so well that I’ve incorporated them into other aspects of our game as well.

My group always has either scratch paper or Post-It notes handy at all times. I use them to let a character know they’ve found a secret door, drank a potion of insanity, heard something, and for dozens of other reasons.

Merely hand the character a note that says, “Congratulations! You have just ingested a potion of paranoia. Please role-play this in the following manner until further notice: You are certain that someone is out to get you! You’re deathly afraid someone or something is following you. Whatever it is, it also means to kill you in most gruesome manner! Please also note your character doesn’t realize there’s anything wrong with himself and will argue vehemently with any who suggest otherwise!”

Pass a note like this and watch the fun start. A note like this can create hilarious situations and provide serious help for games starved of role play. If something occurs that is more than I want to write on a piece of paper, then many times I’ll lead the person into another room and have a private chat with them. A good example is if a character is killed (out of sight of the others) by a doppelganger. I lead the person into the other room and tell them all about it. This can be fun too.

Humor can take many forms and the better role players will use this to the hilt, which merely serves as an example to the lesser experienced. Notes also serve to make the players physically learn the secret, and this is where the DM has fun.

Monthly Musing of the Chatty DM

When You Have GMs As Players

A seldom talked about challenge of GMing is when you find yourself surrounded with other, possibly more experienced GMs as players.

This might not be an issue for gaming groups with alternating GMs, however, I’ve often seen players who would love to take a stab at GMing in an established group but back out at the somewhat scary prospect of having one (or many) more experienced GM(s) with a character sheet sit across from them.

Here are a few tips to make your first stints as a GM of GMs less daunting.

Establish The Ground Rules Of The Game

Chances are, all players around your table will know you have limited experience. You need to openly acknowledge that and not be insecure about the others stealing your game.

Expect a transition period where any former GMs adjust to the new role of player (i.e. relinquish control and let someone else do it).

If you feel the transition doesn’t go well and the game tends to get stormy more often than not, take the time to discuss it one on one with your fellow player/GMs to try to work it out.

In such cases, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve; be ready for some critical (and hopefully constructive) feedback on your game, and don’t let that force you out of GMing.

However, don’t hesitate to establish your space as GM. The others need to acknowledge that they don’t get to both play and run the show. Concessions must be made to your personal style and allow you to grow into your new role.

One thing that I’ve seen work to ease up these transitions is to ask another GM (preferably the one who GMed the last campaign) to act as a reference for rules and maybe help out at running the administrative aspects of the game.

In such a partnership, make it clear what you expect of that person and explain what parts of your game you want to be solely responsible for. Work out in advance how to handle GMing calls when the old GM doesn’t agree with a call you make.

In fact, you should do this even if you don’t plan to ask one of the former GM to help. The reflex of making (and challenging) GMing calls can become deeply ingrained in GMs. You therefore need a clear politic on rules discussions that you are comfortable with. It’s one thing to have a rule book say you have the final call and another realizing that respect for a GM’s authority is earned, not inherited.

GMs Are Players Too

This tip might feel obvious, but GMs have the same preferences and motivations seen in other role players when they grab a character sheet. Some are Butt Kicker, looking for heroic mayhem. Some are Power Gamers who love to accumulate new powers. Others are Story-tellers, seeking to be swept in an epic tale which, for once, they don’t have to plan for.

Much like I would tell any GM, take the time to learn what motivates each of your players by asking them what would be the perfect game session (and then the perfect multi session adventure for them). Take a few notes per player, and try to insert at least one elements of each player’s list in each gaming sessions.

Disorient Your GMs

Use a different rules set for your game, or at the least, a completely different setting for your game. This will disorient your GMs a bit, giving you some slack while you settle in your new role.

If you decide to play with a rules set the GMs-turned- players are more familiar with than you are, make sure you shake things up: play in a unique game world you designed, or set it up in a place never visited by the group.

It might be worth exploring a sourcebook/adventure the others are unfamiliar with, and base your game on its material.

Start Simple

Your goal as a GM of GMs is not to blow away your players with a legendary campaign (such campaigns often grow from simpler, more modest beginnings). If you are new to the role of GMing, chances are your enthusiasm and breadth of vision for your game will greatly exceed your actual abilities to pull off all the things you think would make for a cool game.

Start simple; create an adventuring environment whose scope is limited and where the players (especially the former GMs) can adjust to you as the GM, and you can settle in the rules, setting, existing social dynamics, and your new responsibilities.

Build Up To Bigger Things With The Help Of The Other GMs

Unless they GMed by default (because no one else wanted to do it before you stepped up to the plate), your fellow players became GMs for a reason. Regardless of how well they adapt to their new roles as players, chances are they will miss some aspects of their old job.

This opens the door to possibly the coolest thing about GMing for GMs. You can harness this to help them build up your campaign up to something far greater than you could pull off alone!

Some GMs love to build worlds. While in your game, have them design aspects of your campaign for which you don’t have time but feel it would add to the fun of all to have there.

For example, in your fantasy game, an ex-GM is now a rogue who’s a member of your city’s Thieves’ Guild? Have him/her propose names for guild leaders, draw maps for the guild’s headquarters, and propose a few adventure hooks that could involve the freshly fleshed out guild.

Other GMs prefer to tinker with the rules. Discuss with them, outside of the game, how you’d like some sub-system to better address your needs for a specific scenario you are cooking up. Chances are you’ll find a receptive ear and many helpful suggestions.

In the end, you’ll have stronger buy-in into your game as it becomes a group effort while allowing you to create the stories you want and grow into the joys of GMing.

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Chatty DM is the ‘Nom de Plume’ of Philippe-Antoine Menard, a 35 year old geek with more than 25 years of experience GMing various Roleplaying games. Chatty runs a GM-focused RPG blog called Musings of the Chatty DM that’s been growing since the Summer of 2007. It focuses on the Craft of Game Mastering (with a focus on D&D), Tropes, Player Advocacy and Campaign Journals (from preparation to execution). It has a rich and varied community, and it is rumoured to house an Evil Overlord obsessed with the Crunchy bits of RPGs.

Make a plot out of this song title

From DJ Mindermast

A long thread with lots of plot ideas based on song titles. Neat!

Make a Plot out of This Song Title

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From The Kids-RPG Yahoo Group

A collection of gaming-with-kids related links:

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Nature Sound Environment Generator

From Joachim de Ravenbel

Atmosphere lite is free software useful for forest, ocean, storm, campfire, jungle, and other natural background sounds.

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Understanding Your Character: Building A Relationship Map

From Eric Martindale

A great article about how to create a relationship map.

Understanding Your Character: Building A Relationship Map

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Character Development: Static or Game-to-Game?

From Eric Martindale

Do your characters develop from game to game, or do they start every game the same and develop from there?

Character Development: Static or Game-to-Game?

Found a website or link useful to GMs?

Let me know about it: [email protected]