Hey Folks! MK here.
Allow me to introduce to you our newest guest blogger! I have had the honor of knowing and playing Tabletop Games on and off with Taylor for over five years now. His knowledge and dedication to the game is a solid asset to have on your side!
Taylor Hubler is a long time RPG player, with about 20 years of experience. He is also a published freelance writer (I can connect you if you want to hire him!) for the Pathfinder RPG through Raging Swan Press, Fat Goblin Games, and Flying Pincushion!
Without any further ado, MK Presents to you...
The Four Cardinal Rules Of Gaming
By: Taylor Hubler
I use these rules for my gaming life to try and avoid future issues or resolve current ones. These rules can apply to any type of gaming event, but because I am a hobby RPG player I used language like campaign, GM, and dungeon crawl. If you don't play RPGs, that's fine! Just apply the advice as if it was an organized board game night or a party game.
Most problems people end up having with games, especially long term games, stem from two main issues. Either there was a misunderstanding related to the expectations of one or more people or someone hasn't been having fun but nothing is being done to help them. All of the rules, except maybe #4, require communication as soon as something is a problem or even before it becomes one. This is the rule 0 of my cardinal rules: Always be willing to communicate. It doesn't matter if you think there will be conflict, because if you say nothing about a problem it will only grow and become worse. Also, be willing to communicate with the people most effected by the issue. If someone is a problem, it is okay to feel out the situation with other people first but you need to quickly bring the problem person into the conversation. Excluding them from searching for a solution, and keeping them in the dark, only breeds opportunity for resentment and further problems.
Rule #1: Always make expectations known, on both sides of the table.
Nearly all issues that happen at the table can be prevented by following this rule. This is the communicate, communicate, communicate rule. Everyone starts the campaign with their own set of expectations related to every element of the game. Most of them don't actually need to be, or rather shouldn't have to be, stated. For example, it shouldn't have to be said that cheating isn't allowed, or that nobody enjoys terrible body odor. However, sometimes important details just don't get said. An extreme example could be that the player starts the campaign with a psychic detective that focuses battling ghosts, but the GM has prepared a steampunk adventure with almost no undead or supernatural phenomenon. In this case, neither the player nor the GM expressed their expectations related to the content of the campaign, and made assumptions that will end up creating problems later. This happens a great deal with simple theme campaigns ("It's a pirate game!" or "It's dungeon crawl!") because simple themes can mean so many things. Is the pirate game going to focus on boarding actions or exploration? Is the dungeon crawl strictly hack-n-slash or does it deal with Drow politics?
This also applies to what the GM expects of a player and what a player expects of a GM. Will the player need more help understanding the rules? Is there a concern about scheduling, behavior, or transportation? What about music, food, and supplies, and who provides them? If anything related to a specific player needs to be addressed, always try to address it directly to them first and then move to addressing it as a group if needed. Of course, as expectations change, as they do, let people know.
You shouldn't see very many issues come up as long as everyone starts and plays the campaign understanding the expectations of everyone else.
Rule #2: If you aren't having fun, change things until you are.
This always includes leaving a group, or asking someone to leave the group. In extreme cases it means ending the campaign entirely and starting a new one. Sometimes, people have started a campaign with all of the expectations expressed, but unfortunately those expectations couldn't be met. Maybe the GM is too new to the hobby and took too much on all at once. Maybe everyone thought it would be cool to do a horror game but discovered they preferred a more standard kick-in-the-door dungeon crawl. It's fine! Make the change and move on. This also means that it is okay to change the expectations placed upon a player, GM, campaign, or some other element.
Most of the time though things can be changed with little adjustments. The GM should always take point in making sure everything works out, because one of the main roles of the GM is to make sure everyone is having fun and on the same page at the same time. If a rule needs to be changed to make things easier, faster, or more balanced, change it. If a character was built for crafting but it turns out there aren't enough resources or time, let the players change their character. The music selection seems to be annoying or ruining the mood? Change the music or remove it completely from play. People showing up hangry? Organize a community food fund for pizza or push game back a bit so people have time to grab food.
The key to this rule is to admit as soon as you are not having fun. If you are a GM, admit it to the whole group. If you are a player, admit it to the GM. Work together, and make the change that is going to let everyone have fun. As always, do it respectfully and calmly.
Rule #3: If you are ruining someone else's fun, change things until you are not doing so.
This includes walking away from a campaign if you are a player or ending a campaign if you are a GM. This is the hardest rule to follow because you are often blind to your own sins against others. GM's and players can both be guilty of ruining the fun of other people. Hopefully everyone is following Rule #2 and speaking up when they aren't having fun, but the main key to this rule is admitting your fault and making the change. For example, maybe a GM has been making all of the encounters super deadly and the players feel frustrated with losing characters or spending all of their resources raising dead companions. Maybe a player is too aggressive with their role-playing, or is hogging the spotlight. In each of those cases, as soon as the problem is known the guilty party just needs to make the change needed to fix things.
The worst offenders of this are people who have been told that someone isn't having fun and refuse to make a change. Ignoring a problem won't fix things either. This isn't to say that you need to sacrifice your fun for everyone else's, but you have to at least be willing to make compromises.
Rule #4: Your Experience Isn't Everyone Else's. Respect That.
This is the rule that allows you to break #2 and #3, but only rarely. Sometimes people do something that just bothers you. They aren't doing it on purpose, they aren't malicious, and they aren't trying to cause problems. It is just how they are. Maybe they are getting a little too excited about something, or too passionate. If it is a problem for you, try to talk to them about it but keep in mind that they may be doing this because that is just who they are. The person who is super quiet and secluded in their little corner, only speaking to say their actions but still showing up for each session could be having a great time just hanging out with everyone. As long as they are contributing and not ruining the campaign, just respect that. Maybe it can be a little annoying when the slightly autistic guy is trying to offer you character building advice, but as long as he is being helpful and not overly disruptive just respect that.
This also applies to the different types of play styles. Not everyone wants to be a power gamer, just like not everyone wants to be a storyteller. Some players want to play around with the rules or want a technical challenge to work out while the guy next to them happily role plays with an NPC. Don't push someone to be the type of player they don't want to be, that breaks Rule #3. At the same time, gauge yourself and try to make sure people get their own preferred moments. Don't take an hour to role-play a single scene while the guy who loves combat is silently sitting in the corner itching for action.
These rules are, of course, not the only rules of gaming, they are just the four that should always be included and reviewed. There is a set of rules that I have that are rules that shouldn't have to be said, like don't cheat, be excellent to each other, and don't be a jerk. Then there are rules that change with the games, groups, and situation; always go left or only one piece of pizza until everyone has had a chance to get some. These cardinal rules, then, are the rules to use if you want to avoid problems and drama. They can be applied to all games, not just role playing games.
So the next time you find yourself on a message-board looking for advice for the most recent bit of drama in your group, look over these rules. Did you make your expectations clear? Where their expectations clear? Is everyone having fun? Are you the one ruining the group's fun? And, lastly, is this related to something you just need to learn how to respect? Ask the questions, apply the rules, and then all should be well.