The ABCs of GMing
The ABCs of GMing is an ongoing series by contributing writer Joe Bouchard about the different skills and ideas needed to run a successful tabletop game.
With every tabletop group, there’s always a disparity between what the GM and players think in terms of XP, gear, scope of skills/abilities, etc. There are always going to be differences of opinion over such things. Just because you are the GM, or a rule is stated as such, doesn’t mean you can’t find middle ground with your players and cut them some slack. Extra leniency should be given for creative ideas on how to use a skill or why a player should possess a specific piece of equipment. However, this shouldn’t be taken as a one-way ticket to players’ gravy train. There are times to bend some things for your players and times when you need to stick to your guns. Negotiation with your players is therefore key. Here are a few tips on how to do exactly that.
There are players who have some fantastic, out-of-this-world epiphanies that lead to nearly absurd questions regarding their capabilities and what they can or can’t do. Sometimes these ideas are pretty lame, such as trying to use a jump check to leap 4 stories. But what if a player wants to use some sort of urban design skill to map out a way for them to use fire escapes and window ledges to parkour their way up 4 stories, followed by some crazy acrobatics check to actually do it?
By all means, give your player a chance to make it happen.
The line between creativity and outlandish behavior isn’t as thin as it seems. Remember, tabletop games are a fantasy in and of themselves, regardless of how realistic the setting might be. Acts and deeds that are in some ways inconceivable yet somehow possible should at least be entertained. How much help you want to provide your players in getting to that idea, however, is up to you. Personally, if a player starts pondering out loud about how to do something extraordinary, I may interject with some leading questions to help them consider what they want to do from a game mechanics standpoint. But I draw short on overtly suggesting how they could. Even if your player has more experience with the game system than you do, you are still the GM, and your style and flavor for the system make such possibilities vary. Let your characters be creative and help foster that creativity, but draw a clear line between creative probability and outright impossible.
Hear Your Players Out
Being a hardline stickler over everything is not fair to your players. Regardless of rules, gear, experience points, or any other facet of a system, your players are going to have wholly original and unique ideas that may not fit within the confines of your game. No system perfectly encompasses every possible option, and your players will have ideas that aren’t necessarily addressed by the rules. In these circumstances, it’s foolish and lazy to just dismiss an idea solely because you can’t find source material for it. You should know your system well enough to be able to work out something that covers these gaps.
That said, be realistic. Gather the vision from your player as to what they are trying to do, and make sure there’s a clear definition of what this newly-created concept will cover. Ground rules are important: you don’t want to provide them a rule, mechanic or piece of equipment and then let them abuse it by applying it to other situations it wasn’t intended to cover. Additionally, be sure that alternate applications don’t overwrite other rules of the game. Some players will take that inch you give them and try to run as far as they can with it. Be sure that whatever you’re agreeing to allow is limited and for very specific situations only.
It’s Alright To Bend the Rules
In previous articles, I’ve talked about being flexible with the rules. From changing NPC stats on the fly to adjust for difficulty, to possibly fudging your own dice rolls to help save a PC. With regards to negotiation, this flexibility refers to your players wanting to do something specific that they may not be qualified for.
For example, within the Shadowrun system there are specific skill types. The two most prominent ones are active skills (those based around execution) and knowledge skills (which are self-explanatory). One of these active skills is Demolitions, which allows you to build bombs. Difficulty ranges vary depending on materials, the type of tools available, the complexity of the bomb, and so on. Yet there is also a complimentary knowledge skill called Demolitions Theory, which provides a player the knowledge of how bombs are designed and how they work without actually having the acumen to make them.
In Shadowrun, there’s a clear skill structure distinguishing concept and application, but that may not always be the case in other systems. That’s where bending the rules comes in is. Sometimes there are abilities or concepts that do not fall into one specific skill umbrella, or they may fall into multiple. In my games, if you have a skill that may not be the ideal choice for what you want to do but it’s comparable, that skill is permitted – albeit with a small penalty as an adjustment for not quite having what it takes. It may make it harder for a player to get something accomplished, but it still gives them a chance.
Create Something New Together
Reiterating the previous point, be sure to work with your players when a concept falls through the cracks, and the earlier it’s addressed, the better. While some of these ideas may come up during gameplay, these things often come up during character creation. No game system can contain the whole of human creativity, but with enough knowledge and sourcebooks for your system, you should be able to create stretch ideas and abilities to let your players have what they want.
However, unless otherwise agreed upon, don’t let these new ideas conflict with the existing rules as written or you could end up unbalancing the game. Use a careful hand when creating unconventional concepts, and make sure your players understand the application of these new ideas, but don’t be afraid to bend a little for them. Games are often all the richer for it.
Next time, we’ll cover “Organization” and how to keep your materials prepared for easy reference. In the meantime, have you ever bent the rules a bit for the sake of a better game? Tell us over on our social media pages!