Aaaaaaaaaaand we’re back!
The topic I bring up today is one that likely hounds every gaming group in some capacity or another — rules lawyering. If you say that there has never been a disagreement at the game table in regards to how a rule is interpreted, then you are lying to yourself (or you have the best group ever and should have my job). There are always players who do it, but GMs are more often the ones who have the final say in whether or not the game they are the master of is going to follow or ignore a certain rule (whether it be a house rule or in a rulebook). Its a bit frustrating to everyone if they are used to following one rule (that they liked) and then in another game, using the same system, it ends up being modified or tossed out the window.
This isn’t an article about picking and choosing rules, lets make that clear now. Its about the role of the GM, and what he/she should be doing in regards to those rules. Should they be the master of all rules, knowing the inner workings of everything that is being done in their game and making sure everyone is following those laws? Should they focus on the social aspect of the game, as an arbiter, making sure the party gets along and working with the players to create a fun and exciting atmosphere? Or should they follow a different path, one that blends together the two styles, or carves out a separate one entirely?
The Rules Master Argument
Or as I like to refer to them as “The Walking Handbook,” rules masters know (very nearly) everything about the system you are playing. They have memorized every power from the Player’s Handbook, know the DCs for every trap from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and can recite stat blocks from the Monster Manual. Chances are, even if you aren’t this kind of person, there is likely someone in the party who is. Their usefulness is undeniable, and in some games (particularly dungeon delves and other story-lite endeavors) they are undoubtedly the kind of GM that you want at the forefront of your game.
By the same token, they don’t really work that well with just about any other type of game. In a story heavy game, creativity and group cohesion are often the primary concerns. By forgoing the other traditional GM role of arbiter in exchange for focusing on micromanaging every minor detail that occurs in-game, you lose the party aspect that makes most games fun. If you leave everything up to the players in determining party cohesion, it can sometimes get quite messy. Players rarely want to do much more than acrue power, wealth, and develop their characters — entirely selfish endeavors. While this isn’t always true, constant vigilance is important if you would leave party management up to the players.
The Arbiter Argument
The arbiter isn’t given nearly enough credit, in my opinion. People don’t seem to understand how important it is that players get along, work together and enjoy themselves while playing a game. And having someone who’s personal goal it is to ensure that the players have fun seems to be the perfect individual to have as the GM, right? The arbiter is the type of guy to work out arguments, listen to your opinions, be open to all rules-related questions and complaints you have, and place judgement based on what the group as a whole thinks would be fun rather than look up every item. Where could it go wrong?
Well, the issue with the Arbiter is that it breaks the issue of balance inherent in most games. While arbiters seek to produce fun, lack of balance between character classes, powers, items, or whatever your game system utilizes, become far more apparent. While it might be simple at first, the problems tend to grow the longer the games go on, until that happiness the arbiter and the players were achieving starts to become clouded by the widening gap between individual players. While arbiters undoubtedly excel in a rules-lite environment, any game that involves combat at least once per session tends to get really bogged down and feels cobbled together. What more, an arbiter is less likely to utilize their creativity in making compelling scenarios or encounters. Some balance (in-game and out-of-game) is certainly required if you desire to play with the style of the arbiter.
More than likely most of you fall somewhere between these extremes, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I would argue that it probably works better than following any GMing philosophy to the letter. In theory, by being somewhere in the middle, knowing most of the rules and attempting to please most of the party, you likely make up for the failures of most archetypes. Or maybe even left or right of center, whichever way you want to do it, it likely works for you and the party. But there are other ways to follow through as well, with varying degrees of success.
The Crafter, or the World Builder, is another type of GM that I see somewhat frequently. They put the most time and effort into building their setting that it ends up overshadowing both the rules and players, essentially eliminating the argument altogether. These type of GMs tend to have just about everything set in stone when you enter the game world, and tend towards pseudo-sandbox style game play with a skeleton of a plot laid out in their head. I have played in many a game with crafters, and it can certainly be fun. But this style tends towards a less-established grasp of the rules, and little to no individual character development. Further, these GMs tend to create worlds that change very little, including super-powerful NPCs that always have something up their sleeve and cannot be killed in any way. Unless, of course, plot strikes.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Overlord, a GM that strives to fulfill every need at once, attempting to create a great setting (or use a well-established one and know everything about it), master the rules, and work with the group to create the best game experience possible. While this is certainly a noble endeavor, and the benefits are clear, the penalties for failing (and I have yet to see it succeed) are equally massive. In almost every case, the GM ends up spread way too thin, trying to make it appear that they have it all under control while their campaign is falling apart at the seams.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a “How to Suck Less as a GM” article if it weren’t for the fact that it has an underlying message: the dangers of all of these styles of GMing. All of them have inherent problems, and none of them are perfect in any way. No one person can fulfill the role of the rules master and arbiter simultaneously and perfectly. However, as a GM, you can at least be conscious of your style, its flaws, and attempt to overcome them.
How do you GM? Are you a rules lawyer, an arbiter, or somewhere in between? Let us know by leaving a message, and share your stories! Also, if you have an idea about a future “How to Suck Less as a GM” article, let me know. I definitely read all of your comments, and would appreciate to know what you think.