Credo of the Game Master

All right, time to talk about gaming! Finally!

So about a year and a half ago, the Angry DM posted about GM Credos, a set of “commandments” that are significant to a Game Master in the running of his or her games. At the time, I had been preparing to run a new game myself, and so I indulged in the activity. I’ve decided to share my credo as it stands now, in order to a.) demonstrate why it might be valuable, and b.) invite critiques from those with more experience than me. I figured now is a good time to put it out there, as we just finished the first major arc in the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game I run.

(For the record, some of the language here might be similar to the Angry DM’s own credo. He offered his up as an example, and I found myself sharing some of his feels.)

  1. No matter what, I am a storyteller first. No, this has nothing to do with World of Darkness, I’ve never even played that system. It means that I’m not apt to use maps as anything other than a visual aid. I don’t do dungeon crawls, so leave the graph paper at home. I consider both combat and court intrigue to be valid methods of conflict resolution. Most importantly, if the rules are detracting from the fun of us creating our little story together, it’s my job to change them to better fit the game’s needs.
  2. The rules are the engine; I am the designer. This is based on another of the Angry DM’s posts (can’t turn it up at the moment). The rules of the system are a toolkit, and I’m free to pick and choose from them as I see fit. However, my choices and rulings in this regard must be consistent so the players feel comfortable with me running the game.
  3. The players’ first priority is fun. It’s unfair for me to expect the players put in any more work than showing up and playing by the rules and respecting each other. Granted, they may absolutely do so, and I will reward the individual enterprise of my players, but if there’s work to be done, I should be the one doing it.
  4. I will never allow the dice to control the tension in my game. The direction of the story is not determined by whichever side of the die is facing upwards. The direction of the story is determined by the players’ intentions and the strongest actions of the group.
  5. My story is never more important than the players’ narrative. I’ll always come into a game with a story I want to tell, but I’ll never let that story stand in the way of the story the players craft for themselves. They deserve an active role in determining how their story unfolds.
  6. The table is my responsibility, and those who respect it are welcome here. It’s my job as the GM to maintain a fun, safe, and fair environment for everyone. Anyone who understands this is welcome to leave and rejoin at any time. If anyone is uncomfortable or not having fun, I must seek a solution.
  7. Trust is the most important element of play. I have to be able to trust my players not to lie or cheat or act out of malice. They get the benefit of the doubt, in the case of all doubts. However, if a player is ever proven to be untrustworthy, that player is no longer worthy of my game.
  8. Respect is also the most important element of play. We can’t have game without respect for each other, both as gamers and as human beings. Every offense deserves an apology, which is the first step towards resolving a conflict and building respect. Characters may disrespect each other, but never players.
  9. Trust and respect command dignity. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my credo, but anyone who disagrees and is still willing to abide by it is welcome to play. If a player leaves, or if I ask a player to leave, I won’t harbor a grudge against that player, nor will I stand for any of the other players to harbor grudges.
  10. We use the world as a tool, but it is my tool. The most important trait for a GM is consistency. Players have to be able to rely on what they’ve learned, and “magic” is unacceptable as an answer by itself. The players should never be at a disadvantage for not knowing rules they aren’t expected to know. But for all that I’m willing to share, the world is mine. I may invite contribution and input from the players, but nothing becomes a part of it without my consent. I must love the world I created.
  11. I am not the tyrant of the table. I’m not the players’ enemy. I’ll never take control of a player’s character without permission. Their free will is vital to the experience. If there are mechanics that allow me to take direct control of a character, I’ll use them sparingly and only when dramatically appropriate.
  12. I am not the patsy of the table, either. I’m not the characters’ friend. The world is my character, and I have to consider fairly how the world will react to the players’ actions. I’ll build the world fairly, but I’ll play it to win. Poor planning is my responsibility; poor decision-making on the part of the players is not.
  13. We play a game, but I do not. I take my role as GM very seriously. The game is an agreement between me and my players. Anything that would disrupt that agreement — anything that would make us uncomfortable or break our suspension of disbelief — demands action from me. I’ll remove those disruptive elements, or I’ll explain why I can’t.
  14. The mirror is imperfect. The lives of PCs are interesting and dangerous. Things will always go wrong. Nothing will be solved with inaction (and may indeed get worse). New problems will come up when old ones are solved. However, while the players and their characters may be reflections of each other, they’re not the same person.
  15. The mirror is impermeable. The players and their characters don’t always share knowledge. If a character knows something, I won’t punish the player by withholding that knowledge. If the character has options the player doesn’t know about, I won’t allow the player to suffer without those options. If the character’s stated action carries substantial risk, I’ll inform the player. I won’t punish the players’ ignorance of minutiae, and I’ll let my players take breaks when they need them.
  16. Ambiguity is not death, but death is death. Death is always a possibility in my games. A player has veto power over any ambiguous character death, but the player must know how under the rules the character could have survived. When death occurs and is permanent, the player must accept it. If something in the rules changes the way death is handled in the game, I’ll discuss it with the players at Session Zero.
  17. The social contract binds us all. From written to unspoken, there’s always an agreement between myself and the players concerning the boundaries of the game. I might be the one to write it, but everyone has to agree to it without reservations. I can’t arbitrarily change it without first discussing the change with the group and getting their consent.

Some commentary:

  • Obviously my primary concern with games is ensuring that they’re fun and narrative in nature. I don’t mind crunchy rule sets, but as my credo makes clear, I prefer to let cool or unexpected story developments take precedence over mechanical concerns. Never, however, in a way that screws over the players. Screwing over the characters is fine, though.
  • #4 came at the suggestion of my GM when I first started running game and the players just kept on winning every roll. I was disheartened because it felt like they were accomplishing all their goals for nothing, which in turn reflected poorly on me as a GM. He gave me that advice, and running that game has been some of the most fun I’ve had ever since.
  • The real value for a credo, I think, comes from setting expectations. When your players have an idea of what to expect from you, they’ll become more comfortable in your games and willing to try actions or character concepts they might have otherwise ignored in order to “play it safe.” In this regard, I tend to disagree with the Angry DM that a GM credo is for the GM — I think it’s for both GMs and players.
  • I mentioned the social contract at the very end. It’s an idea I’ve come to respect and appreciate over the past year, and I’ll post more about it in the future.

Written by James

A paralibrarian by trade, James "Captain Raspberry" Taber studied story theory at UMass Amherst. His obsessive personality serves him well in gaming. If he approaches you, do not panic. Hold your ground and make noise. If all else fails, use your emergency banana.

Leave a Comment