Roleplaying

Why Roleplaying Games Should Support, Not Restrict, the GM

One climber helps another up.
I love reading roleplaying games. I have shelves of books and folders of PDFs that I’ll never have time to play, but I read them anyway because it’s fascinating to see what different designers come up with, from the cutting edge of modern roleplaying to the hobby’s distant past. In all my reading, one dichotomy has stuck out more than any other: rules that restrict the GM’s authority versus rules that support the GM’s endeavors.

At first I thought this was a new development, with designers finally questioning the game master’s role at the table. But further reading showed me this debate goes way back, with different systems coming down on one side or the other for nearly as long as the roleplaying medium has existed. Both approaches are intended to create a better experience at the table, but only one succeeds.

What Are Restrictive and Supportive Rules?

First, we need to define what these rules are, and that can be tricky because no one actually labels them!* Fortunately, there are a few common traits we can use to tell if a rule is restrictive or supportive.

Restrictive rules are usually phrased as things the GM can’t do. Sometimes, a restrictive rule will hand a traditionally GM-controlled aspect of the game over to the players. An easy giveaway is that many restrictive rules include some version of “the GM may not ignore this rule” in their text, but this isn’t completely universal. A few examples include:

  • In Legend of the Elements, the GM must spend a point of meta currency to advance the plot. If they don’t have one, they can’t advance the plot.
  • In Blades in the Dark, players, rather than the GM, decide what skill to use when they attempt a roll. That’s normally something the GM would decide.

Supportive mechanics, on the other hand, are written more like instructions. They tell the GM how to do something the GM might not otherwise know how to do, and it’s up to the GM to decide if they want to use them. A few examples include:

  • Torchbearer’s time-management system, which tells the GM how to keep track of the PCs’ supplies as they venture into deep dungeons.
  • Mouse Guard’s turn system, which tells the GM how to pace the action of the story.
  • Blades in the Dark’s job system,* which tells the GM how much money the PCs can expect to make per caper and how that money strengthens their gang.

Sometimes the line can get a little blurry. At first glance, Burning Empire’s limit on the number of scenes the GM is allowed seems like it might be supportive, since it’s supposed to set the pace of the game, like Mouse Guard’s turn system does. However, Burning Empire’s system doesn’t actually instruct the GM on how to do anything. It just says the GM can only have a certain number of scenes per session and assumes that will have a positive effect on the game. It also has a section saying the GM cannot break this rule, which is a key indicator of restrictiveness.

For a control sample, consider D&D, which has barely any restrictive or supportive mechanics. D&D gives the GM absolute authority and offers little guidance on how to use that authority. It’s entirely the GM’s show, for better or worse.*

Why Restrictive Rules Don’t Work

Designers usually have two broad reasons for restrictive mechanics. First, the restrictions are supposed to protect players from tyrannical GMs. Second, the restrictions are meant to make the game play a certain way. Those are both understandable motivations. We’ve all had a GM who railroaded us through a distinctly unfun plot or couldn’t seem to figure out what kind of experience they wanted to create at the table. Unfortunately, restrictive rules rarely accomplish either of these objectives.

GMs Read the Rules, Players Don’t

Based on how a lot of designers write their restrictive rules, it seems like they have specific scenarios in mind. The GM announces that the players have to go and fight a horde of goblins, even though the entire group would rather go to the royal ball, and then one player slams the book open on the table like a Yu-Gi-Oh card, takes a heroic pose, and proclaims, “You can’t make us go. Page 243 says it’s OUR turn to set a scene.” The GM is presumably consumed in the glorious light of player freedom.

There’s a problem with this scenario, though, and any other scenario where the rules prohibit the GM from doing something the players won’t like: a lot of players don’t read the rules. I can’t give you exact numbers on how many players do and don’t read the rules,* but I can tell you that generally the percentage of those who do shrinks with age. As players get older, they get more responsibilities, and they have less time to pore through rulebooks.

This is an inherent contradiction. It assumes that the GM is going to disregard their players’ wishes but that the GM will also tell the players about a rule that prevents this. That doesn’t seem likely. So instead of the players heroically triumphing, the more likely scenario is that the overbearing GM says what’s going to happen, and the players go along with it because they don’t know there’s any rule that says otherwise.

The GM Still “Wins” a Confrontational Scenario

But let’s assume a scenario where at least one player has read the rules in enough depth to know what the GM is and isn’t allowed to do. If they call the GM out on these rules, then the situation becomes inherently confrontational, assuming it wasn’t already. Once that happens, the players and probably the campaign itself are doomed.

Very few restrictive systems actually give the players enough power to go toe to toe with the GM, even if it looks like that at first. For example, Blades in the Dark lets players choose what skill to use for any given roll but then gives the GM a backdoor work-around to declare the players’ choices invalid anyway. Burning Empires supposedly limits what the GM’s NPCs can do in order to make the game a fair competition, but if the GM is actually trying to win, they can make unbeatable bad guys every time.

Even if a system did restrict the GM’s power to the point that they couldn’t simply overwhelm the players, RPG tradition invests the GM with so much social authority that they can still usually do whatever they like. Short of a player with an extreme force of personality, the GM can simply lean on the power of their position to carry the day. Please note that this is not a desirable outcome for anybody. Setting up a confrontational dynamic between the GM and players ruins the game for everyone, no matter who “wins,” and that’s far more likely to happen when the rules treat players and the GM like adversaries.

It’s Impossible to Know Each GM’s Table

When restrictive mechanics aren’t trying to protect players from their own GM, they’re usually trying to tell that GM how to run the game. They approach the RPG like it’s a complex board game, where specific rules that everyone has to follow will create enjoyable results. Sounds great!

The only problem here is that RPGs are infinitely variable. The goal isn’t to reach a predetermined win/loss state like in a board game; the goal is to tell a good story. What a “good story” is will change radically depending on what group of people you’re talking about. Some groups enjoy lots of combat, and some prefer to never roll initiative. Others are all about putting on fancy accents, while still others only describe their actions in utilitarian terms.

Beyond taste, many groups have restrictions that will affect what kind of story they can best enjoy. Maybe they have unreliable schedules, so they need a story where characters can pop in and out at will. Maybe one of the players is a military veteran who avoids in-game combat for their own mental health. The list goes on and on.

With all those variables, it’s nearly impossible to create a set of rules that will work for any group, no matter how well they work in the designer’s playtests. GMs will always need to customize a system for their specific situation. Restrictive rules get in the way of that, and they make the system as a whole far less useful. A good GM can modify them anyway, of course, but now they’re fighting the system to do it.

Players Are Not GMs-in-Waiting

The final fallacy of restrictive mechanics is the idea that a set of rules can turn a group’s players into full-fledged storytellers. Designers usually attempt this by limiting the GM’s ability to advance the plot in the hopes the players will pick up the slack. There’s just one problem with this plan: it doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some players who are active enough to drive the plot in the GM’s place, but there are just as many, if not more, who aren’t. These players enjoy their GM-crafted twists and turns or derive satisfaction from solving a problem the GM puts before them. It’s hard to get that enjoyment when the player is creating the plot as well as experiencing it. In that scenario, the player is creating the twists and problems themself. They won’t be surprised, because they’ll already know the solution.

Alternatively, some players might just be tired after a long day at work and want to relax with a fun story. They simply don’t have the energy needed to actively build the narrative. Either way, asking the players to step into what’s traditionally the GM’s role will get you a lot of blank stares. Even if you can coax the group into action, the story will likely be dominated by the most active players, hopelessly fractured by a lack of cohesion, or both!

It’s a GM’s job to forge a group of disparate PCs and their baggage into a coherent narrative, and it’s just really hard to do that when the GM is restricted. The ironic part is that a good GM will already be taking their players’ wishes into account; they don’t need rules hobbling them in order to do that, and as we’ve covered, a GM who ignores their players’ wishes will ignore the rules too.

Why Supportive Rules Are So Important

Despite my obvious distaste for restrictive mechanics, I honestly believe there’s a lot of value in rules that structure how a game is run. The key lies in making those rules supportive rather than restrictive. That way, they help the GM instead of challenging them to a brawl in a back alley.

Supporting Mechanics Deliver a Specific Experience

I said before that no rulebook can tell a GM exactly how to run a game for their specific group, and that still holds true. It’s very important that GMs have the freedom to modify a game to fit their specifications. However, the rules can still offer guidance on how to create a certain experience, and this is incredibly helpful.

For example, you might want to run a hardscrabble game about space smugglers who can barely afford to keep their ship flying, but how do you create that experience? You could just do it all from scratch, but that sounds really hard. Enter Scum and Villainy, which comes equipped with rules to create that experience. It tells you how much the PCs can expect to make off each job, what kinds of upgrades they can buy for their ship, and how to handle their run-ins with the law.

None of these rules are restrictive. You can change them to suit your own needs, and the Scum rulebook is very clear that the narrative comes first. But now you can build that narrative on top of a solid space-adventure foundation. Scum’s rules provide the base fun, and then you spice things up with your story.

GMs Have Limited Time and Energy

Running an RPG campaign is hard. You spend a mountain of time and energy customizing content for each PC, building challenging encounters, and keeping your plot coherent yet flexible enough to avoid railroading. As the GM, you’re probably also hosting, which means you’re tidying up the place before guests arrive and maybe even providing snacks.

Supportive mechanics can lighten your burden. While no rules can run the game for you,* they can take over some of the work that would otherwise eat up your precious reserves. Maybe you want to run a gritty dungeon crawl campaign; you could keep track of everyone’s rations and torches by hand, or you could count on Torchbearer to help you out. Torchbearer already has robust rules for tracking how quickly PCs go through their supplies, so now you can spend that energy on something else.

It’s hard to overstate how much relief supportive mechanics can provide. When you only have a couple hours each week to plan a session, these helpful rules let you spend those hours where it really counts: the story.

Mechanical Consequences Are More Meaningful

How to handle failure has long been one of the thorniest questions in roleplaying. Good GMs know that failures should never result in nothing happening, but it’s really taxing to come up with an interesting narrative twist every time the dice don’t go a player’s way.* All too often, GMs end up slapping the PC with some meaningless consequence because they can’t think of anything else.

If that’s ever happened to you, then supportive mechanics may be the answer! The Mouse Guard method will always be my personal favorite, but there are lots of options. The problem of failed rolls has been around for a long time, and numerous game designers have taken shots at it over the years.

The benefits of failure mechanics are many. For one thing, they just take a load off the GM’s mind. It’s way easier to run the game if you don’t have to stop and think of some creative consequence every time a player fails their roll. Assuming the rules are well designed, they can take some of the sting out of failure as well. When consequences are arbitrarily handed out by the GM, it’s easy for players to feel picked on, but if the consequences are spelled out in the rules, then the process seems more objective, especially if the rules give some consolation prize for failure, like so many systems do.*

Perhaps the most important effect of failure mechanics is that they create a strong distinction between failed rolls and successful roles. Players expect to feel the thrill of victory when the dice go their way, and that thrill can be dulled if the GM is just handing out arbitrary consequences. When the consequences are known ahead of time, their absence makes a successful roll feel like a real win.

Players Want Mechanical Benefits

On the other side of the coin from failures, players also expect their successes to be meaningful. If they spend the time explaining how they’re taking over a rival gang’s boathouse so they can smuggle counterfeit money through the canals, they’d really like to get something out of it. GMs can always create narrative effects to reflect a PC’s success or hand out generic +1 bonuses, but supportive mechanics can offer so much more.

If the PCs take over that boathouse in a game like Blades in the Dark, the GM isn’t left to decide what it means all on their own. The game provides a complex system for tracking the PCs’ territorial acquisitions, what bonuses they gain, and what further complications will occur further down the road. Other supportive systems offer similar results with different specifics. In Torchbearer, the GM can reward clever thinking with extra time to explore a dungeon. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the PC’s family might receive extra income from a successful scheme.

Success means more when it has a mechanical effect. It’s taken out of the ephemeral narrative and written down in cold hard pencil marks. Mechanical success gives players the satisfaction of triumphing over adversity in a way that’s difficult to provide otherwise. The PCs work their butts off on smuggling jobs until they can finally afford a new shield generator for their ship, and every time those shields click on and reduce incoming damage, they’re reminded of their triumph.

What Rules Can Do

At its heart, the split between restrictive and supportive mechanics is an argument over what rules are capable of accomplishing. Proponents of restrictive mechanics tend to design RPGs like they’re crafting a system of government, with checks and balances put in place to restrict the chief executive’s power. While that kind of thinking is necessary when writing a constitution or corporate charter,* it doesn’t apply to roleplaying games. RPGs have no enforcement mechanism, nor is one desirable when the stakes are a night of fun pretending to be wizards, so any GM who’s inclined toward bad behavior will just ignore rules put there to restrain them. Meanwhile, GMs who just want to run a good game will find themselves needlessly hindered.

Rules can’t stop malicious GMs, but they can help GMs with good intentions be better. That’s the role of supportive mechanics, and I have seen it happen with my own eyeballs. Game masters who were mediocre at best in unsupported games became good, or even great, with the right set of rules to help them. Supportive mechanics are important at all levels, but they are absolutely critical for adult GMs who are just getting started. Those of us lucky enough to have run our first games in middle school had plenty of time to learn the ropes, but grown-up players have higher expectations. GMs who go before such players can find themselves discouraged before they even get started. But if those same GMs have the right support from the rules, they can run a fun session without the need for hard-won experience. That’s a win for everyone at the table.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

 

Comments

  1. Jasin Moridin

    As something of a laid-back GM who’s willing to wing it and build sessions around the players, restrictive rules have always felt stupid to me. Thank you for quantifying why.

    • Michael Campbell

      I wouldn’t have said stupid. Just that the writer doesn’t understand the first task of the Game Master.
      Which is…liberate the player characters such that they actually have an adventure.
      Sometimes it will mean asking the players;” So, where do you want to take this?” And other times it means dropping the trail of breadcrumbs really close together and leading the players deeper into the woods.

      Explaining how to balance that dichotomy is the task of a GM’s guide, not capsizing the story by placing to much load on one side.

  2. Michael Campbell

    I should say that one failure subroutine that doesn’t get spotted by players is:-
    If failure took a “turn”.
    And wandering monsters are rolled for after some number of turns.
    Then a failure does have a consequence even if it feels like a failure resulted in a null-result.

    I guess in the end the advice for a GM should be a paraphrasing of the line from Starship Troopers.
    “You’ve got the job for life…or until we find somebody better.”
    So too rules should be.
    “Here are the rules. This is what the rules are for. Use them whenever you need them…or until you find something better.”

  3. cerabobble

    At the end of the second paragraph under the sub-heading “GMs Read the Rules, Players Don’t”, it seems unlikely that the players would ever “pore through rulebooks”. Unless maybe their pores pour through rulebooks?

  4. SunlessNick

    Another point is that not everybody roleplays for the purpose of telling a story, or to immerse themselves in their character (I’m in the immerse camp – which also means I don’t want to be thinking too much about constructing the story when I play).

    But to quote-as-well-as-I-can-remember a comment I saw in another debate on this topic, “I have fiction for when I want stories. What interests me about roleplaying are the things that make it different from telling stories.”

    Supportive rules work just as well for any of these aims.

    By the way, this thread at RPGNet might be of interest to you.

  5. Michael Campbell

    Actually a “GM can’t” rule is probably exactly as frustrating as “You can’t fire your bazooka at that pillbox. The rules for damaging structures, haven’t been written yet!”
    A.K.A. very bad design.

    • Jasin Moridin

      … THIS. Exactly this.

      I loathe the idea of just telling a player “No, you can’t do that,” instead of “Okay, go for it. It’s really, REALLY unlikely to work, but let’s see what happens,” and that kind of rule is trying to force that exact thing on a GM.

      On a related note, that’s why I like the WFRPv3/FFG-Star-Wars/Genesys kind of dice-pool system where you can be supportive of players trying crazy things like getting onto a ship to deal with a hostage situation by suiting up for EVA, standing on the outside of their own ship, and the pilot basically slingshotting them at the thing by accelerating in the right direction and then slamming on the reverse thrusters. If this seems an oddly specific example, it’s because my players pulled it in an Edge of the Empire game I ran. I gave them about three setback dice (for “this is not a good idea” factor beyond just the actual difficulty) and a boost die (for sheer moxie).

      • Jonny Wilson

        To quote Matt Mercer: “You can certainly try”, which I think is a fantastic way of expressing this.

  6. Quin

    One minor exception: Restrictive rules can be helpful in preventing inexperienced GMs from making serious mistakes. No supportive rule, no matter how strongly worded will do as much to stop some who doesn’t know better from doing something as if it were worded “Do Not Do This!”
    Say for example “Do not kill PCs without warning or a chance to avoid it.” You’d need a pretty niche game (Ghost Vegeance Pandas!) for that to be a matter of personal preference.

    • Jasin Moridin

      Or Paranoia. Where a huge body count (preferably multiple deaths per player!) is encouraged and should be played for as much black comedy as possible.

      And that largely depends on the setting. Heroic Fantasy, yeah, give the PCs protection from random unsatisfying death, leaving player stupidity and stuff with actual dramatic payoff as the leading causes of PC death. Gritty grimdark settings like Call of Cthulhu or Warhammer 40k, random deaths should be possible at least after the training wheels come off.

      I mention training wheels because for the first couple of sessions of any campaign, I take it easy on the players because it’s no fun for players or GMs to have characters die that early.

  7. Recursive Rabbit

    Finally started a Changeling: The Lost chronicle I’ve been sitting on forever. Still a new GM, but I’m on board with this article. A good game works on player-GM trust, and no amount of technicalities is going to rein in an adversarial or abusive GM.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Awesome, good luck! The Lost is one of my favorite RPG settings out there. I love imagining the Fae as cosmic horrors.

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