New DM Handbook: The 10 Commandments of Tabletop RPGs

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New DM Handbook: Your Story Doesn't Matter
The Wheel Of The Year With Dungeons and Dragons

RPGsThese are my 10 Commandments of Tabletop RPGs. Some of these are based on personal experience, where others are based on observation. I won’t always indicate which is which, but I feel confident in my assessment.

Don’t be a dick

First CommandmentReally, this should just be a thing everyone lives by in every moment of every day of their lives. As a pretty big dick myself, I know how easy it is to be a dick, but there’s absolutely no need for it. Dungeons & Dragons is all about having fun, and being a dick ruins everyone else’s fun. Even if what you’re doing is fun for you, you have to be cognizant of the other players. Everyone may have to come to terms with what fun means for everyone (which hopefully was addressed in session 0), or at least be tolerant enough to allow everyone the occasional indulgence, but no one’s fun should be compromised, hopefully not at the extent of the cost of the party.

Leave the game at the table

Second CommandmentNo matter what happens in life, there’s no reason why the game should affect it. I’m sure you’re fully invested in your character, but your character shouldn’t be more important than other people, much less your friends and family. Whether someone makes a mistake, doesn’t do things the way you think they should, or they’re frustrating you, that doesn’t mean you need to take it with you. Leave it at the table. If there’s a problem, you can address it at the table, or in the spirit of the table, but always make sure that the table doesn’t carry over into the rest of the world.

Leave it off the table

Third CommandmentThis means a great number of things. If you’re in a relationship with another player in real life, that doesn’t mean you’re in a relationship at the table, nor should you shoehorn a relationship into the game. Try to resolve your issues with another player before sitting at the table, if you can. Leave your troubles behind. If you can’t leave it off the table, step away from it. It’s okay if you can’t. It’s better to resolve issues you can’t control, and it’s better to not cause problems that aren’t necessary. Maybe your party helps to resolve everything, but forcing a situation just to play is going to ruin everyone’s fun, and in the worst-case scenario could kill the party in the long run.

There are other players at the table

Fourth CommandmentMaybe you’re the most experienced player, or the most extroverted. Maybe you have skills similar to another player. Maybe you’ve become the de facto party leader. Maybe it’s something else entirely. It doesn’t matter. This isn’t a video game. There are other players at the table. Give them a chance to shine, or at least don’t take it away from them. It doesn’t matter if you’re better at something than someone, in real life or in the game, if another player would like a shot at it, afford them the opportunity. If they’re not proficient in something, let them do it when it’s not critical. Note I didn’t say when it doesn’t matter. When it’s not critical. That means only major turning points that can create total ruin. Even then, maybe they’ve thought of something you haven’t. Talk it out. Let everyone at the table decide. Even if you know it’s going to fail (save a critical success), this is a game of shared experiences, not a game of winning.

Always have a Session 0 for your RPGs

Fifth CommandmentSession 0 may not be literal. Especially as your party gets older, making it every week is going to get harder, and session 0 may be pushed aside by many. Maybe the session 0 is done via text chain, with the GM setting the overall precedent and tone. If not everyone can make it, the players that don’t make it have less of a say in party goals and style, but they still need to meet with the GM before session 1 in order to make sure they’re on the same page. Session 0 is also not literal in the sense that it may be rolled into the first session, or just a quick introduction and agreement of play before the one-shot begins. Session 0 may also exist for individual players being permanently inputted into a long campaign, or for new players, so the GM can properly introduce them to the game, world, and rules.

Wait for the right time

Sixth CommandmentThere are times when things need to be addressed right away, and others where it’s a better idea to wait. It’s hard to always know when it’s best to wait for the right time, but it’s extremely important. As a rule, just ask yourself how critical it is to the moment and how long it’ll take to resolve. This can be anything from rulings to player behavior to clarification. To me, there are three main categories for when you should resolve things: Right Now, During the Break, and Between Sessions. There’s no hard/fast rule of how to decide when best to address anything, but a good rule is to consider how important it is to address the problem vs. how much it’s going to take to resolve it.

It’s a Role Playing Game, not a Roll Playing Game

Seventh CommandmentDungeons & Dragons is a story. It’s a shared story amongst a group of people, more than what’s on the table. Even if you don’t know anyone else, it’s something you can take with you. If it’s just a lot of talking numbers back and forth with the occasional interruption of description, you’re missing the point. I get it. Doing it like that takes a long time. I ran my first session with three short straight-forward battles that took over two hours to complete because I narrated and acted out every attack and/or damage roll based on their outcomes, but damned if it wasn’t a lot fun. It took a lot longer between turns, and between rounds, than if we were just passing numbers across the table, but my players were enthralled by the whole thing. I didn’t need to worry myself with whether or not they were bored with waiting for their turn. They were excited watching me perform, and cheering each other on. When one got a final blow on an especially difficult enemy that frustrated them not by power, but by several rounds of rolls going in their favor on both sides of the board, everyone at the table was excited, and everyone got in on the fun of how she (my Dragonborn Paladin) described how she wanted the kill to go.

It may take a long time, and you may not get to everything you want as fast as you want to, but that’s not the point of the game. The game is to have fun and tell a great story. A great story at the table, and away from it.  Trading numbers just isn’t a lot of fun.

Play the same game as everyone else

Eighth CommandmentWhether you’re a murder hobo amongst heroes, or a paladin in the thick of thieves, everyone has to be playing the same game, or the party dies. It’s not likely as extreme as that, though. The difference more than likely is between Role Play vs Game. More specifically, whether the focus is on combat or on the story. Some people only care about story as a means of connecting waves of death. Others find themselves just as likely to do a pub crawl and RP with the townsfolk as they are to have to fight things to get to the other thing they need to go back to drinking. Everyone needs to be on the same page. The best thing really is to learn to enjoy the finer points of each other’s worlds, or at least to maximize them. Are you a heroic party that has a rabid murder hobo locked in a cage? Good. Murder hobos are pretty good at murdering, and not all quests, even heroic ones, are going to be clean. Sometimes a murder hobo is what you need. Same goes for paladins. Either play an Oathbreaker, an Oath of the Ancients (being that they don’t need to be that holy), or set them up as a front for your more nefarious activities. If you’re an RP player, make the fight another stage for character development. Be thematic with your skills and spells, and employ them in a way that fits with your character. If you’re all about the G, focus on the personal motivations for your character, and maximize them. RP is a great way to get better gear to kill more things with. Truth be told, dipping into other ways of doing things is a pretty good philosophy for life.

Find a way to make it work

Ninth CommandmentDiplomacy happens when everyone walks away from the table mad that they didn’t get what they wanted, but everyone still walks away with what they needed. This holds as true at any table, literal or metaphorical, and RPGs are no different. Everyone is walking into a session or campaign with a vision of what they want out of it. The trick is to find what everyone needs out of it. Dungeons & Dragons is a shared experience, so you need to find a way to share it with all of the other players at the table.  You won’t always be able to make it work, but it shouldn’t ever be for a lack of trying.

It’s just a game

Tenth CommandmentIt’s just a game. I know, but it’s just a game. There is, has, and never will be, a legitimate reason to take it too seriously. It’s not real life. This isn’t to say that you don’t want to be true to the characters, stories, or settings, but it stops being fun if you’re a slave to it. It’s not real life, so you can be adventurous, take chances, and be a bit disruptive. Also, if something bad happens, who cares? It’s just a game.

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Follow Joshua Brickley:
Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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