Game Mechanics: The Rules of Good Gaming

Game Masters in any kind of role playing game, whether it is LARP or Table Top, all have a common dilemma: Rules

Sometimes it is a question of what rule system to use, but more often it is a question of how to apply the rules to fit new and unique scenarios the players may present. This can involve ignoring a set rule for the good of the game or even inventing new rules to accommodate previously un-anticipated maneuvers.

While the overall value of the advice given in the old Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbooks and Dungeon Master’s guides has been debated over the years, there is one line that is in my opinion the most important line ever written about Game Mastering: “If something doesn’t work, get rid of it.” Essentially saying that if you, as the Game Master, don’t like a certain rule or it doesn’t seem to fit your game, then don’t use it. Ignore it.

That is one of the most fascinating and revolutionary aspects of Roleplaying, and what sets it apart from any other form of entertainment. You are not a slave to the rules of the game, and are in fact encouraged to change the rules to fit your own style.

But how should a Game Master decide which rules to ignore or what new rules to implement in his game?

I’ve asked players and Game Masters this question, and the most common response is, “it should be based on what would be the most realistic.” And that would seem logical at first glance. While most roleplaying games take place in an imaginary universe with some kind of magic or technology not available in our modern society, most people expect this imaginary world to operate in a similar fashion to the real world. The physical laws that govern the roleplaying world should make sense in terms of what we would expect to happen if this imaginary world were truly real.

But “realistic” is not actually the best choice in every case. Realistically in a medieval world, if you were to get stabbed, or even just cut somewhere on the torso, the chances of surviving would be quite a bit less than you might expect. There are many factors, such as infection, or inability to properly treat the wound, that could lead to death, even from a very minor injury. Imagine trying to represent this in a game. You would have innumerable tables with probabilities of various infections or outcomes from even a small scratch. It would technically be more real, but playing that game would be a lot more work than it would be fun. It would be an awfully lonely game, that’s for sure.

That’s why I propose a different strategy. What are we really trying to accomplish when we play a roleplaying game? We aren’t trying to simulate planet Earth reality, we are trying to have fun.

All decisions on the part of the Game Master should be based, not necessarily on what would be the most realistic, but on what would be the most fun for the overall group; the Game Master included. Often the fun choice is also the realistic choice, especially when it presents a good challenge to the players; but if everyone is having fun and enjoying the game, who cares if it is realistic or not?

That’s where knowing your players comes in. The most important skill a Game Master can have is the ability to read people. You just can’t package a campaign and rule set and expect it to be fun for every group. Each group is different and enjoys different things.

When I first got into Game Mastering, about 15 years ago, I went on a search for the “perfect rule system”. The one rule system that combined all the best aspects of every kind of roleplaying game but had none of their weaknesses. Needless to say, I never did find it, because there is no such thing as a perfect rule system. Just as every player is different, so is every group different. There just isn’t a cookie cutter system that will fit all of them.

Some players want a very realistic experience, some want to walk the planes and play with the very fabric of existence. Some want a challenge, some want to just waltz around destroying everything in their path with a wave of their pinky. So, you have to know your players and what they enjoy. An extremely valuable book that discusses this topic is Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering. It gives some very practical advice on how to gauge your players and tailor the campaign to their playing style. While it is written from the viewpoint of table top gaming, it’s principles are broad enough that any LARP game could be benefited by applying them.

Also, keep in mind that what players ask for is not necessarily what they most enjoy. It’s not something you can always determine by asking them. While communication about the game is always a good thing and getting feedback from your players is extremely valuable, sometimes you just have to watch them as the game progresses and see how they react. At what parts of the game do they seem really into it and excited? At what points are they bored or distracted?

Keep a mental note of these things so you can adjust future gaming sessions based on what you observe.

Another very important factor is setting aside your own ego and recognizing that a roleplaying game is a team activity. You can insist that the way you do things is the “right” way or “the way things should be”, but if no one comes back to continue playing or attendance is spotty, then you don’t have much of a game. Be willing to be flexible and adjust your campaign and your rules to fit your players. (This does not mean caving in to their demands and giving them whatever they want, it means adjusting your game to provide an enjoyable roleplaying experience for you and the players in your group.)

In the chest of every Game Master beats the heart of an artist; a heart that dreams of creating something truly great; and the road to that greatness is paved first and foremost with an honest look at those playing the game.

Have fun, and please e-mail me at [email protected] if you have any questions or if there are any topics you would like me to address in the future.

– David Pulcifer

David PulciferGame Mechanics: The Rules of Good Gaming