Today, in flagrant disregard of my writing agenda, I started toiling away in the ubiquitously included "GM Chapter" of the rulebook. I know enough about my own writing processes to let my fingers type whatever they want to type. If they have something to say about GMing, so be it.
I found the clear articulation of a GM's Agenda and Principles in the *World games to be more than just good game design--they seemed like a Good Idea. When I ran Dungeon World, I wrote down the game's principles on index cards and put them in front of me. Whenever I was looking down to check my notes or roll some dice, they were there to remind me about what sort of game I was playing and what my players could expect from me. It became such a habit, I've started writing down GM principles for just about every game I've ran since.
Since justifying a game's existence (a heartbreaker in a sea of heartbreakers) is the author's central job, I thought it was probably important to write about the GM's principles, the game's themes, and my design goals. As such, I've included my list of GM principles for His Majesty the Worm.
There are two dozen different styles of role-playing games and no two tables play those styles exactly the same. This game has been designed to work well with certain overarching principles of game design and table talk. I’ve found it useful in my home games to be very upfront about these principles and keep them in my mind while I run the game—I go so far as to write them down on notecards and keep them in front of me as reminders. Of course, your table is going to be different than mine, but His Majesty the Worm benefits from the following “best practices.”
Rulings, Not Rules
Ultimately, no rule system completely encapsulates every possibility of player action—and that’s the fun of RPGs: there are fringe cases, strange situations, and unconsidered possibilities that inevitably arise during play. Having a GM be able to arbitrate these situations is one of the advantages of tabletop games compared to computer games. As such, all the rules of the game are a resource for the GM to use and adapt from, not a straight-jacket.
When unexpected questions arise, GMs can adapt the rules to fit the situation at hand. When that situation comes up frequently, the GM and the table can collaborate on turning that ruling into a more hard-and-fast rule. And, when hard-and-fast rules seem to fail the tests of common sense, verisimilitude, and fun, it’s the GM’s responsibility to make calls that change the rules for the better.
Sidebar: Arbitrating Rules Questions
OK, but what should be done if there is a genuine rules dispute during gameplay? One of the GM's duties is to arbitrate these questions and decide how the rule should be played. If you're still learning the rules, you might want to look them up every time until the flow of narrative and mechanics feels natural. If you have the rules down pretty well, but encounter a speedbump, we offer this suggestion: arbitrate in favor of the players, and look up the rule later. Don't slow down a fun combat with page turning. Just make a temporary rule that is beneficial for the players, and ask your best rules lawyer at the table to look it up after the combat is over.
Let Smart Plans Work
HMtW is not a game of balanced encounters. GMs don’t have to make experience point banks and dole out appropriate levels of monsters or treasure. The player heroes should find themselves alone in alone in a large, daunting, dangerous, and fantastic world. There’s no expectation that the players are ever in a “level appropriate” place.
The game—and the character sheet—are actually pretty simple. There are few numbers, and not a lot of special powers or abilities. Players should feel empowered to experiment and take risks, with all the rewards and consequences that that entails. There are no “spot checks,” only players describing where and how they’re searching. There are no “disarm trap” skills, only players describing how they move the knife across the tripwire or tap their ten-foot pole ahead of them.
As the GM, you can give difficult situations to the players with no idea how to solve them yourself. The players will surprise you with their ingenuity and problem-solving skills. When they come up with something surprising and cool, let it work.
Engage the Senses
The principles of “Rulings Not Rules” and “Let Smart Plans Work” only work when the players have a good sense of what is going on. Since the players are not actually in the shared hallucination, they need the GM to tell them as much information as possible about the environment their heroes are acting within. GMs should paint pictures with their descriptions, actually sketch out rooms when mental pictures are difficult to conjure, and be vivid about all five senses. GMs should not leave out any salient details about things that players can see, hear, feel, or smell.
“Engaging the Senses” flows from the idea that the GM is acting in good faith to the players. GMs should not fall into the trap of thinking that doling out half-secrets and hints are interesting. Information sharing games are only fun when information is actually shared. Maybe the information comes with a price (“You’re not sure if the dragon is truly sleeping or only faking it. You’ll have to move closer to get a better look at him…”), but when it comes time to pay the piper, GMs should give the players as much information as he can. “Gotcha” moments are not fun.
This is particularly true when players Bid Lore. If you accept a lore bid, you have a social obligation to speak generously to the player and give as much information as is appropriate.
Decisions in an RPG should be interesting, not arbitrary. It is essential that, during the Crawl, the GM provides meaningful choices so that exploration is fun and engaging. Nobody cares about taking the left path or taking the right path. The players don't have enough information to make an informed or interesting choice. A coin flip could determine the "best" way to go. However, you could put graffiti on the walls of the right path that says in Orcish "Undead ahead! Do not enter! Turn back! All is lost!" For the left path, you could hear the distinctively peacock-esque cry of the cockatrice. Now the players have an information to make a decision with: would they rather face a basilisk or the undead? What are they most prepared for? Could they lure the undead towards the basilisk?
When travelling, gloss over details or choices that aren't interesting. Don't describe every hallway or room. Players spend a turn winding through tunnels or rooms towards their ultimate destination, and the GM can describe their journey in a sentence or two. Only zoom in on the action when the players have meaningful choices to make.