2012 My Three DM Rules
I have three key points that I try to put into every game and would suggest other game runners consider. The first is to ensure that players have fun and get what they want from the game. The second is that players feel like they are always taking actions and meeting objectives. And the third is creating a sense of Player agency. Some DMs might find these characteristics obvious, but they do not always happen, and when they don’t the game tends to not be as enjoyable.
It is always important that players get what they came for, but I want to clear something up right away. This does not mean that the player's characters get what they want or even survive. I started an annual tradition at my school to run a Horror LARP, and every year characters die. The first year, only two players survived and had multiple body parts hacked off by the end. The game started with about twenty. But the players had a great time, and they came back the next year.
Don’t be afraid to do horrible things to your player's characters, if your players are expecting it. In D&D, some groups go as far as to believe that the goal of the DM is to try to kill them in an antagonistic relationship, and that’s fine. But I would not want to play that game. Before all of my horror games, I let the players know what is at stake, so they are mentally prepared for character death, situations that are unsolvable, and monsters that are undefeatable with their current resources. In the same way, many parties would rather their characters have fun on their adventures, defeat monsters, collect artifacts, and imagine them to retire after years of looting and adventuring.
From my personal experience with a variety of players, I have found that people play for a variety of reasons. Some want to talk politics, others just want to hang out or meet objectives without fighting, and some want to kill monsters. I was talking to a prospective DM about her future game, and she asked if it was necessary that there even be monsters, especially since she was planning on running a horror game. I explained that it was not, if your players do not expect them, but I always have them. I had co-STed a game that almost did not have monsters in it, but in the end, we added them. Another friend added, “Of course there were monsters, Bruce was running the game.” To which I explained that I always have monsters, because I always have players that want to kill monsters, and I want to make sure they have a good time, too.
Know what your players expect before the game begins, and let them know the kind of game you intend on running. If everyone knows what kind of game they are about to play, then they can mentally prepare for it. And maybe you don’t need monsters. I have PCed entire sessions of 4E without any combat, even though a lot of people view it primarily as a combat system.
The second key feature of a good session is meeting objectives. Objectives do not have to be major game changers. There is a game theory in videogames that players like to meet small objectives on the way to larger objectives. This is the mechanic that makes players enjoy crafting in games, even if they are not fighting or meeting story goals. Each item is a small objective towards a larger objective.
When designing and running games, make sure that the PCs are consistently taking action, making discoveries, and moving forward. This could be as simple as defeating a monster or discovering an ancient text. It could even be having a conversation among themselves or the king who is giving them a new quest. Games hit the brakes and lose player interest when the players are able to take a step back and realize nothing has happened, or they are not moving towards any sort of goal. Keep this from happening by making sure there is always something new to discovery and break up the monotony. Sometimes, it is important to take a step back from the game yourself and remind the players what they were trying to accomplish, so they do not feel like they have become lost. Not necessarily what they should do, but what they are trying to do.
The feeling that the party is not meeting objectives can be magnified when players believe they have lost their Agency and become powerless. Agency is a subject that came up a lot while I studied film; it is the idea that a character takes action rather than action being done to them. When I run games it is critical that I allow player agency. I never want to tell a player what they “Have” to do or think. It is common practice for me to reshape the structure of a game, combat, or campaign world based on the decisions of the player characters. I may have designed an amazing bridge combat, but if the players found a creative way to sneak around or talk their way out, then I’ll just have to save that idea for another game.
It is possible to force *Cough* “Guide” players down a particular path, quest, or chain of events, but in those cases I believe that the DM must do one of two things. Ask the players to decide why they are in this situation. This is usually implemented at the beginning of a campaign or one shot. It is a question that helps players find their own motivation and can create a personal connection to your story. That way, they will feel like their character has an important connection to the situation you've created that makes sense, because they came up with it. The second is to make the desired outcome the most obvious choice. If you want the PCs to go stop a dark cult, tell them it might destroy the world. If their party isn’t a bunch of jerks, they’ll decide they better save the world. And if you want them to board a nearby ship, tell them they need supplies or a part from it to complete their mission. People are smart, they’ll figure out what needs to be done, but resent being told what they have to do.
In your future games, remember these three rules. Before even starting the game, make sure that you know what your players want from the game, that you have enough for them to do, and that you can ensure that it happens and the players discover it without feeling like they’re being forced down a narrow hallway. Then during the game, stay aware of your players’ feedback, ready to make adjustments or quick new objectives, and everyone should have a great time.