One rule to bind them all …
After 30 years of playing tabletop roleplaying games, mostly as a Gamemaster (let’s go with that as a good generic term for any game), and having read through hundreds of rulebooks, sourcebooks, manuals and guides along with countless forums and hundreds (thousands?) of hours of YouTube videos, I’m at the point where I’ve realized there is a thread that runs through all of the games. The Dungeons and the Dragons; in galaxies far, far away a long time ago; amidst mutants and other strangeness; across the Megaverse; winding down the adventure paths; and any other RPG-related references you can think of.
Are you ready to hear it?
When you’re at the gaming table in the middle of your session, take a look around. Are the players laughing or crying? Reminding each other about that NPC with the unusual helmet they ran into a few sessions ago? Getting angry at the monsters they realize are the very same creatures from their backstory who razed their village? Expressing genuine emotions not because the player is having an experience per se, but because their character is having a profound moment of some kind?
Congratulations – you’re following the only rule that matters: players at the table are having fun.
As a GM, following this rule is the single most important reason players are going to return to the table to take part. They will come back whenever you organize game day, not because they want to level up, get cool treasure or show off their awesome character build. That’s not to say those things aren’t enjoyable, satisfying or rewarding. What binds all of those things and more together, however, is having a good time on the road getting there.
I’ll use Dungeons & Dragons as an example to elaborate, and you don’t need to go any further than the first paragraph of the Introduction on page 5 of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook.
The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of sword and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.
That’s it. The remainder of the book is completely optional. The mechanics of D&D, or whatever game system you fancy, exist simply to give you a concrete reason to get together with friends for play time. Remember that, from when you were a child? “Do you want to come over to my house and play?” That was all there was to it. Tabletop roleplaying games give you a basic framework to recapture the ambiguous notion of directionless fun time.
Inspired by the rules
The more fastidiously you cleave to the minutiae of rules, the greater the risk you run of straying from fun purely for fun’s sake. Your brain unwittingly thinks within the confines of a system of rules, shifting away from the explosion of imagination yearning to come forth. Think of it this way: instead of looking to the rules to dictate what you can’t do, let the rules inspire what you can do.
I’ll give you an example. In the last session of my home game, the characters were investigating a series of mysterious disappearances. They were exploring a dwarven outpost suffused with all sorts of bizarre effects that caused madness and wild magic surges. Eventually, they discovered the source. The monk character’s player, who had witnessed all of his friends go through bouts of madness, theorized that it was caused by the strange things they’d individually seen. The player asked me if he could blindfold himself, and focus his ki to guide his senses, so he wouldn’t have to look at the madness-inducing alien creatures. Without hesitation I said of course he could do that. There’s no rule for something like that, no special monk ability that describes how to use your ki points in that manner. But it sounded cool to me, and the player had a lot of fun.
Essentially, the shift in perspective lies in allowing the players to participate in creating the world their characters live in. Whenever they roll dice or ask questions about their capabilities or surroundings, in essence they’re helping to bring the world of the game environment to more vibrant life. The characters are walking through the city and pass by a tall tower. One of them thinks it would be fun to try and climb to the top, and asks if they can scale the tower wall. They’re not asking if their character is skilled enough to scale the tower – they’re asking if the tower is the sort that can be climbed. See the difference? It’s subtle. Let’s say the character has invested resources into improving their ability to climb things. In light of this, of course they could climb a tower. But can they climb this tower? They roll some dice, succeed, and manage to scramble up the side. In the same way, the monk wasn’t asking if he could use his ki to sense his surroundings. He was asking if the shared spiritual energy of all living things was connected enough for his ki to focus on connecting with the others in the room.
De-prioritizing rules doesn’t only work for players though. It is an extremely useful tool for GMs as well. Following closely to the rules in the 5th edition D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide, a DM could spend quite a bit of time mathematically constructing balanced adventures. A certain number of encounters within a certain time frame, with exactly the right number and type of creatures to fit a formula, theoretically resulting in appropriate challenges for the party makeup. Many GMs follow these guidelines and others like them across various games, and they obviously work based on the hugely popular tabletop RPG culture. And that’s great.
Making it up as you go
As an alternative to that, try making things up as you go along. You can even put the work off onto the players without them ever realizing what’s going on. When you’re prepping for your next session, instead of parsing out every 5 ft. square of space in the dungeon, make a short list. On that list, put a creature to be mooks, a tougher creature to captain the mooks, and a creature to act as the boss. The boss could be a single powerful creature or a group, as along as they’re more dangerous than the mooks and captain. Also on the list, add a few hazards like traps or puzzles. Write down two or three vague scenarios.
From there, just play it by ear. Sit down at the table, describe where the characters are, ask them what they’re going to do and go from there. See what happens. Let the players talk amongst themselves while you listen. I guarantee, one of them will say something that will trigger an idea in your mind from your list. Before you know it, they’re on an adventure. You didn’t write one out. They don’t know you didn’t write one out. Nevertheless, they discovered someone in trouble, or an intriguing location, and they’re off. The players are now creating the story they want their characters to engage with, and all you have to do is narrate the results of their actions.
When things slow down and the players seem antsy, go to the list and have them encounter some mooks. Let them describe what they do next, and then throw a puzzle their way. At the risk of spoiling my secrets for any of my players who might read this, try out this technique. Give your players a cryptic clue, like describing a pile of oddly-shaped rocks and a bizarre pattern of dots scratched into the wall. Give them a few minutes to talk about it and try different things. Maybe they arrange the rocks in a similar pattern, or try to connect the dots. Trust me – they’ll come up with some unusual ideas. Once they try something that sounds cool to you, what do you know, that was the solution and the magical secret door opens, leading further into the unknown.
At a certain point, after you’ve gone through most of your list, let them encounter the boss creature(s). If the characters are trouncing the boss, throw them a curve ball. Reinforcements arrive, or part of the chamber collapses and separates party members. Give the boss a special attack that’s only accessible when they’re near death. By that same token, if the boss is much more difficult than you anticipated, fudge it. When there’s only one character left standing and hope seems lost, let them make the killing blow.
Taking notes (mental or physical – your choice) on the highs and lows of the session, your next list will be even better. Your hooks will be directly inspired by the things your players found most interesting. Your workload as GM is reduced because you’re not agonizing over mathematically constructing the perfect adventure for your players. There’s no need to anticipate your players’ actions and reactions either (which is great because if you consider a million possibilities, players with invariably do the 1,000,001st thing).
The best part is that the storytelling is shared equally. Players are contributing their imagination to the tale as much as the GM. A common pitfall for GMs is binding themselves to their own narrative, but now you’re letting the narrative emerge after the fact. The story isn’t being told until the session is over, and as for what happens next, who knows? Dice were rolled, monsters were vanquished and heroic deeds were performed. You got together with friends to tell a story and have fun, and really, that’s the only rule that matters, isn’t it?
Well, there is one other rule I should mention … stay nerdy.