I fought the Law and the Law won

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What if I’m no good at Games Mastering? How do you know when you’re doing it right?

Now, I’m not going through a crisis of confidence, nor am I fishing for complements; it’s an inevitable period of soul-searching that every GM reaches at some point when they’ve been playing for a while . When I posed this question to Judge Blythy (the co-host of the GROGNARD files), he inevitably confirmed that I was wonderful … “one of the best” and that I should stop worrying and just get on with it. He would say that, wouldn’t he? We’ve been playing together for years. He doesn’t know any different. When we counted how many GMs we had actually played with, we realised it was only 8 different people.

“Know your Players” is the first of Robin’s Laws of GamesMastering. Robin D. Laws provides a systematic process of how to tune your games to make everyone around the table have fun. The truth is, I know my players too well. Like long term lovers, I know how to press their buttons, how to tease them, how to get them to a climax in a satisfying manner. It may not be a spectacular climax, but it does the job.

Over the past 12 months I have played with more players than I’ve ever played with before. Thanks to the podcast, I’ve become more RPG promiscuous and have run a campaign and a series of one-shots with different players; people that I don’t know in ‘real’ life. Many of these new virtual friends have not played since back in the day, so they’re flush with the excitement of rediscovering the hobby.

Now that I am practising my tried and tested technics on new players, I’m using my tabletop ‘love-making’ with people who are able to judge me against others. What if my finely honed pleasure-making talents are not compatible with other players?


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Last month, The RPG Academy posted their Actual Play podcast of the RuneQuest game that I ran for them. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of AP podcasts – they’re not something that I enjoy listening to (with a couple of notable exceptions) – but, as it’s the first time I’ve seen myself GMing. Hence the reflective mood.

The Academy guys were very appreciative of my GMing in the recap episode, which was very generous of them, given they were resistant to the idea of percentile games. They didn’t like RuneQuest much, but they had fun, so in their own words, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right.”

Robin Laws makes a similar Golden Rule in his book of advice: “Role-playing Games are entertainment; your goal as GM is to make the game as entertaining as possible for all participants. If you and your players are having fun, you are a good GM.”

There you go. Blythy is right, I am wonderful.

Hang on, before I get carried away with blowing smoke up my own fundament: there’s always room to be better, maybe there’s more fun to be had, if only I was a better GM.

I know my strengths and I play to them. Fortunately, I’m a naturally laconic person, so I’m not the kind of GM who hogs the game. My instinct is to get the players talking and working as much as possible. I foster cooperation and participation at the table and players naturally seem to want to work together towards a common goal. I also have the ability to ‘sell a scene’. I take a lot of care to describe the action with a cinematic eye combined with other sensory details like smell, sounds and taste.

I’m an impatient player and that translates into my GM style. Sign up to my game and you’ll expect pace and action to keep things moving. I like to make sure that PCs are absolutely clear on their options, so they don’t waste any precious time prevaricating.

Don’t waste any time… there’s the problem … there’s the blindspot.


When I listened to the play back of the RPG Academy podcast, I couldn’t help but cast a critical eye towards my deficiencies as a GM. I sometimes get so keen on driving the story forward that I’ll wave away the rules.

I know that there’s a general feeling that GMs should give a ruling rather than consulting the rulebook however, there’s merit in precision, there’s a delight in making a rule work for you, a triumph in turning the tide by the tight application of a spell. Too often, I’m guilty of waving things through because they suit the moment, or help the narrative progress.

Blythy has been running Storm King’s Thunder (D&D 5e). He has a much tighter style than I have (he’s not the rules lawyer for nothing) and I can see how the power-play of the rules draws out more player engagement. The participants are enjoying the thrill of building their character meticulously and applying their esoteric feats at the most opportune moment. Blythy has shifted the balance by saying, “get the Player’s Handbook, understand your character, make it work, because I’m not doing it for you.”

In Robin’s Laws, crunchy rules hand power to the players, as they are shifting the balance away from the GM and activating their ability to change the outcome of a game.

I like crunchy rules, but with the players that I’ve been playing with over the past 12 months, I’ve known the rules better than the players. I’ve encouraged them to get on with the story and leave me to worry about the rules. Ultimately, this has allowed me to have more control over the outcomes and the players flailing around at increasingly mad cap schemes to turn situations in their favour. They don’t know the rules, so they’ll give anything a punt, and I’ll let them run with it!

That’s where I went ‘wrong’ with The RPG Academy guys. If I’d taken more time with their character sheet ‘on screen’ rather than sending them a brief summary over e-mail, they’d have been able to work the crunch in their favour and applied a more tactical approach.

Similarly, with The Traveller Adventure, which was a tremendously entertaining experience, if I’d have taken the time to explain the rules more fully, a more rigorously tactical approach may have been adopted. My vision was to have an earnest version of Space 1999, in the end it was more like Red Dwarf meets Dark Star: “I want to pilot the launch into the enemy ship and eject prior to impact,” could have been, “I will deploy my Tactics – 2 and ascertain the space-craft’s vulnerabilities.” Maybe.


My next assignment is Luther Arkwright at ConVergence. It’s a reprise of The Fire Opal of Set that originally appeared in IMAGINE using Mythras rather than Traveller. I’m going to look over my shoulder, check my blind-spot, and take some time to familiarise the players with the rules, so they can understand their powers, to understand the influence on the game.

Thanks to Robin’s Laws I can spice up my well practiced RPG-life and make things fifty shades … player.

-Dirk the Dice

There are still tickets available for ConVergence at Stockport on 18th March. Why not join myself and Blythy and see if I reach the peak of GM enlightenment.



Author: Dirk

Host of The GROGNARD RPG Files podcast. Talking bobbins about Runequest, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, T&T, AD&D and others from back in the day and today.

2 thoughts on “I fought the Law and the Law won”

  1. Oh my goodness, you are an actual legend!
    You even drew a little picture!

    Being a good DM is like being a good parent – of course you could always be “better” in different ways, but everyone has their own style.

    Did people have a good time?
    Then you are a good DM.
    Did they not have a good time?
    Then they are terrible players :- )

    If you care enough about ensuring your players have a good time, then that’s probably 90% of the qualifications right there. The vast majority of “bad” DMs I have played under over many, many years have been more interested in either following the rules*, or in making everyone share their vision of what makes a fun game.

    *Judge Blythy is not a rules lawyer. I have been DMd by rules lawyers, and he is not one of them. His Stormbringer game at Grogmeet showed excellent use of the rules to promote a particular experience, but excellent flexibility when required. If he had handwaved the lethal critical rules the joy of Andrew Jones’ ability to survive (see podcast past) would have been missed. But when it mattered he was happy to let player fun beat clunky rules.**

    **PS Your table was also having an awesome time based on what I could see – ergo you are a good DM. But we can always strive to be better!

    PPS If you want an official review and Amazon star rating you’ll have to let me play in your game sometime…

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