The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘gm don’t list’

Go to Part 1

There are two different GMing techniques that can be referred to as “choose your own adventure”.

(If you’re on the younger side and have no idea what I’m talking about, the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, which have recently been brought back into print, were a really big thing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They created the gamebook genre, which generally had the reader make a choice every 1-3 pages about what the main character — often presented as the reader themselves in the second person — should do next, and then instructing them about which page to turn to continue the story as if that choice had been made.)

(For those on the older side: Yes, I really did need to include that explanation.)

The first technique happens during scenario prep. The GM looks at a given situation and says, “The players could do A or B, so I’ll specifically prep what happens if they make either choice.” And then they say, “If they choose A, then C or D happens. So I’ll prep C and D. And if they choose B, then E or F could happen, so I’ll prep E and F.”

And what they end up with looks like this:

This is a bad technique. First, because it wastes a ton of prep. (As soon as the players choose Option A, everything the GM preps down the path of Option B becomes irrelevant.) Second, because the players can render it ALL irrelevant the minute they think of something the GM hasn’t anticipated and go with Option X instead. (Which, in turn, encourages the GM to railroad them in order to avoid throwing away their prep.)

The problem is that the GM is trying to pre-run the material. This is inherently a waste of time, because the best time to actually run the material is at the table with your players.

But I’ve written multiple articles about this (most notably Don’t Prep Plots and Node-Based Scenario Design), and it’s also somewhat outside the scope of this series.

What I’m interested in talking about today is the second variety of Choose Your Own Adventure technique, which I suppose we could call:


GM: You see that the wolf’s fur is matted and mangy, clinging to ribs which jut out through scrawny skin. There’s a nasty cut along its flank. It snarls menacingly at you. Do you want to attack it? You could also try offering it some food.

With run-time choose your own adventure, in addition to describing a particular situation, the GM will also offer up a menu of options for how the players can respond to it. In milder versions, the GM will wait a bit (allowing players to talk through a few options on their own) before throwing in his two cents. In the cancerous version, the GM will wait until a player has actually declared a course of action and then offer them a list of other alternatives (as if to say, “It’s cute that you thought you had autonomy here, but that’s a terrible idea. Here are some other options you would have come up with if you didn’t suck.”)

It can be an easy trap for a GM to fall into because, when you set a challenge for the PCs, you should be giving some though to whether or not it’s soluble, and that inherently means thinking through possible solutions. It’s often very easy to just burble those thoughts out as they occur to you.

Choose Your Own Adventure BooksIt’s also an easy trap to fall into during planning sessions. Everyone at the table is collaborating and brainstorming, and you instinctively want to jump into that maelstrom of ideas. “Oh! You know what you could do that would be really cool?”

But you have to recognize your privileged (and empowered) position as the GM. You are not an equal participant in that brainstorming:

As an arbiter of whether or not the chosen of action will succeed, you speak with an inherent (and, in many cases, overwhelming) bias.

You’ve usually had a lot more time to think about the situation that’s being presented (or at least the elements that make up that situation), which gives you an unfair advantage.

You often have access to information about the scenario that the players do not, warping your perception of their decision-making process.

The players, through their characters, are actually present in the moment and the ideas they present are being presented in that moment. The ideas that you present are interjections from the metagame and disrupt the narrative flow of the game.

Because of all of this, when preemptively suggesting courses of action, you are shutting down the natural brainstorming process rather than enabling it (and, in the process, killing potentially brilliant ideas before they’re ever given birth). And if you attempt to supplement the options generated by the players, you inherently suggesting that the options they’ve come up with aren’t good enough and that they need to do something else.

So, at the end of the day, you have to muzzle yourself: Your role as the GM is to present the situation/challenge. You have to let the players be free to fulfill their role, which is to come up with the responses and solutions to what you’ve created.

As the Czege Principle states, “When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”

But more than that, when you liberate the players to freely respond to the situations you create, you’ll discover that they’ll create new situations for you to respond to (either directly or through the personas of your NPCs). And that’s when you’ll have the opportunity to engage in the same exhilarating process of problem-solving and roleplaying, discovering that the synergy between your liberated creativity and their liberated creativity is greater than anything you could have created separately.


This technique appears to be particularly appealing to GMs who are interacting with players new to roleplaying games. The thought process seems to be that, because they’re new to RPGs, they need a “helping hand” to figure out what they should be doing.

In my experience, this is generally the wrong approach. It’s like trying to introduce new players to a cooperative board game by alpha-quarterbacking them. The problem is that you’re introducing them to a version of a “roleplaying game” which features the same preprogrammed constraints of a board game or a computer game, rather than exposing them to the element which makes a roleplaying game utterly unique — the ability to do anything.

What you actually need to do, in my general experience, is to sit back even farther and give the new players plenty of time to think things through on their own; and explicitly empower them to come up with their own ideas instead of presenting them with a menu of options.

This does not, of course, mean that you should leave them stymied in confusion or frustration. There is a very fine line that needs to be navigated, however, between instruction and prescription. You can stay on the right side of that line, generally speaking, by framing conversations through Socratic questioning rather than declarative statements: Ask them what they want to do and then discuss ways that they can do that, rather than leading with a list of things you think they might be interested in doing.


You can, of course, run into similar situations with experienced players, where the group has stymied itself and can’t figure out what to do next. When you’re confronted with this, however, the same general type of solution applies:

A few things you can do instead of pushing your own agenda:

  • Ask the players to summarize what they feel their options are.
  • In mystery scenarios, encourage the players to review the evidence that they have. (Although you have to be careful here; you can fall into a similar trap by preferentially focusing their attention on certain pieces of information. It’s really important, in my experience, for players in mystery scenarios to draw their own conclusions instead of feeling as if solutions are being handed to them.)
  • If they’ve completely run out of ideas, bring in a proactive scenario element to give them new leads or new scenario hooks to follow up on.

Also: This sort of thing should be a rare occurrence. If it’s happening frequently, you should check your scenario design. Insufficient clues in mystery scenarios and insufficient scenario hooks in sandbox set-ups seem to be the most common failure points here.

This problem can also be easily mistaken for the closely related situation where the group has too many options and they’ve gotten themselves locked into analysis paralysis. When this happens, it should be fairly obvious that tossing even more options into the mix isn’t going to solve the problem. A couple things you can do here (in addition to the techniques above, which also frequently work):

  • Simply set a metagame time limit for making a decision. (Err on the side of caution with this, however, as it can be very heavy-handed.)
  • Offer the suggestion that they could split up and deal with multiple problems / accomplish multiple things at the same time.

The latter would seem to cross over into the territory of the GM suggesting a particular course of action. And that’s fair. But I find this is often necessary because a great many players have been trained to consider “Don’t Split the Party” as an unspoken rule, due to either abusive experiences with previous GMs or more explicitly from previous GMs who don’t want to deal with a split party. That unspoken rule is biasing their decision making process in a manner very similar to the GM suggesting courses of action, and the limitations it imposes often result in these “analysis paralysis” situations where they want to deal with multiple problems at the same time, but feel that they can’t. Explicitly removing this bias, therefore, solves the problem.

You can actually encounter a similar form of analysis paralysis where the players feel that the GM is saying “you should do X”, but they really don’t want to. Or they’d much rather be doing Y. And so they lock up on the decision point instead of moving past.

Which, of course, circles us back to the central point here: Don’t put your players in that situation to begin with.

Go to Part 1

Eclipse Phase - The Fall of Earth

Infallibility is not, in fact, a requirement for a game master. Indeed, the idea that the act of GMing requires some sort of savant is a pernicious one which was, sadly, robbed the world of many fabulous GMs and many tables filled with happy gamers.

With that being said, one of the GM’s responsibilities is, in fact, to provide a certain level of rules mastery. How you achieve that level of mastery is largely dependent on your own personal study habits. For me, the typical procedure is:

First, read the rulebook cover-to-cover. If you haven’t read a rule at least once, then you’ve really got no chance of getting it right.

Second, prepare a comprehensive cheat sheet for the system. The process of organizing and compiling the cheat sheet is, by itself, a great way to get a grasp on how they work and relate to each other (and also sussing out those minor mechanics you would otherwise gloss over). Once you’re done, of course, the cheat sheet becomes invaluable at the actual gaming table, artificially supplementing your own knowledge. As we’ll see, being able to quickly and accurately reference information is almost as good as knowing it off the top of your head.

(I’ve also talked before about how the hierarchy of reference can be used to progressively gain system mastery.)

Third, when I think it might be warranted (or fun!), I’ll also run “playtest” one-shots using the system. These are a great way for both the GM and the players to gain familiarity with the system and work out its kinks before diving into a long-term campaign. (For players, I’ve tangentially found that this familiarity often makes for a richer and more engaging character creation process. Knowing how a game works provides really valuable context for the mechanical decisions you make when building your character.)


Some may wonder why this rules mastery is important. I’ve even met GMs who, for nearly incomprehensible reasons, take great pride in being largely ignorant of the rules. (This seems related to the school of thought which maintains that the rules of an RPG are just kind of a pleasant fiction that the players improv vaguely around / the GM uses only when necessary to reign with an iron fist.)

First, presentation and pacing. Nothing deflates excitement or undercuts tension at the gaming table faster than, “Hang on, let me just figure out how the rules for this work.” The Art of Pacing mostly discusses macro-scale pacing, but pacing at the micro-scale is just as important: Keeping things flowing smoothly; maintaining (and escalating) the mood; sustaining player focus and attention. All of these things require the rules to flow out smoothly, cleanly, and accurately not only to minimize friction, but also because high quality rules that are effectively applied will enhance these things.

Speaking of which, quality rulings require both knowledge and comfort with the rules. Any master craftsman or artist knows the importance of being intimately familiar with your tools, and the art of the GM is no different. A good GM will make the rules sing, finding ways to combine and recombine them to achieve (and help their players achieve) delightful and unexpected things. But you have to fully understand your tools before you can start truly playing with them.

Third, consistency. In many ways, this is actually just a special case of GM Don’t List #1: Morphing Reality. If the GM doesn’t know the rules, then their application of the rules will become inconsistent and unpredictable. This inconsistency results in the game world acting in weird and unpredictable ways, which inevitably frustrates the players: They see a lock and expect that they’ll be able to use their Criminal skill to pick it because that’s what they did last time; but this time the GM decides (or realizes) that it should actually require an Infiltration check to pick a lock and the players discover that they’ve sent the wrong person to deal with the problem.

Finally, when the GM doesn’t know the rules — and isn’t using them correctly — it preemptively shuts down certain styles of play. For some players, these elements of play are very important; for others less so. But either way, their loss will generally result in a flattened and less interesting gaming experience.

Not infrequently when I’m discussing these issues, these styles of play will be dismissed by the narrow minded as just “goofing around with mechanical widgets”. But it’s not that simple. Yes, there are those who play roleplaying games, in part, to have the satisfaction of overcoming (or outsmarting) specifically mechanical challenges. But mechanics permeate every aspect of an RPG, and their effect can be felt in many different styles of play. For example, there is satisfaction and enjoyment to be had in building a character who is very good at something and then doing that job well (just like the satisfaction of any job done well). When the rules suddenly shift and the mastery that you should have had suddenly ceases to exist, that can be an incredibly frustrating experience for players.

(And, in this sense, you may realize that GM Don’t List #4: Thou Shalt Not Hack is, in fact, a special case of this general rule.)


As a corollary, it’s also important that GMs don’t habitually ignore the rules.

As I can already sense hackles rising across the internet, let me make it clear what I’m NOT talking about:

  • House rules. You’re not ignoring the rules when you decide to explicitly change them in order to better your game.
  • Variant stat blocks. If you decide to give an orc a +1 sword or bump up a troll’s Strength score, that’s not ignoring the rules either. (For some reason there are people who think so, or who categorize this as “cheating”. These people are, frankly, insane.)

Now that I’ve hopefully soothed some hackles and raised a different set of them, let’s delve into this a little bit.

The main thing to notice is that when you ignore the rules you are actually stumbling directly into almost all of the exact same problems that occur when you’re simply ignorant of them: Consistency necessarily deteriorates, which subsequently tanks the quality of your rulings and also creates the same frustrations from players depending on consistency in order to understand both the game world and their characters.

If you consistently find yourself ignoring (or wanting to ignore) a particular set of rules, that’s an indication that those rules are fundamentally broken (at least for the experience you want to create) and you should be looking to fix them (or replace them entirely), not simply ignore them.

A common example of this are grappling rules. (Across most systems, really, but infamously so when it comes to virtually all editions of D&D.) And the solution is, in fact, to apply house rules which make grappling appealing instead of a chore.

One particularly pernicious example of this which certain GMs endemically suffer from is, “I’m bored with combat let’s skip it.” (Or, really, any other aspect of game play. It’s just that combat seems most common here.) This usually takes the form of resolving 1-3 rounds of combat normally and then saying, “Eh. Fuck it. Let’s just sum up what happens and move on.”

The GM’s intention here is good: They sense that the game is getting boring and they want to fix it. But in doing so they systemically create a number of other problems:

  • Characters built to enjoy their spotlight time during combat are being punished.
  • Strategically clever and creative players often spend the first few rounds of combat setting up an advantageous situation that will give them a big, satisfying pay-off as the combat continues. By cutting combat off just as they finish their set up, the GM is perpetually blue-balling them.
  • Because they’re never certain exactly when (or if) a particular combat is going to be summarily dismissed, players become uncertain in their use of limited supplies. Burning a one-use potion or once-per-day ability only to have its use become irrelevant when the GM decides combat has become too “boring” to continue is incredibly frustrating.

All of these problems only get worse when the GM defines “boring” as “the PCs are winning”, while remaining fully engaged and excited as long as his bad guys have the upper hand.


“But it’s the GM’s god given right to change or ignore the rules at their whim!”

Sure. But insofar as we agree that this is a power which a GM has, I would argue that its use should be considered, deliberate, and, above all, limited. More generally on this topic, I would tend to make three final observations:

Calvinball is a really funny joke, but it is, in fact, a joke. There’s a reason why games have rules, and RPGs are no exception. System matters.

In my experience, the motivations GMs have for unilaterally ignoring the rules tend to be shitty ones. Virtually all of them, in fact, rhyme with “tailroad”.

But let’s assume that the GM has accurately identified a truly singular instance in which the rules should be ignored (instead of permanently changed) without letting their players know (instead of explaining the ruling they’re making and why it varies from the norm) in order to truly increase the table’s enjoyment of the game. Here’s my question:

What gifts the GM with the unique capacity to recognize when the application of a rule would be a bad idea for the game?

If you’d be equally happy with the other players at the table unilaterally deciding to fudge a dice roll or pretend that their skill rating is higher than it is or act as if their character has an ability that isn’t on their character sheet, then more power to you. But what I see at the table (and usually observe in these hypothetical discussions online) are hypocrites who simply feel that their opinion is infallible, but the judgment of everyone else at the table can’t be trusted.


In reality, of course, nobody is perfect. Nobody is a walking encyclopedia. (Or, if they are, it’s the result of years or possibly decades of experience with a system.) Mistakes will be made. Rules will be forgotten or overlooked. That’s okay. The GM has to become comfortable with their fallibility so that they can deal with the consequences when they arise.

So what happens when you forget a rule at the table?

I’ve already mentioned cheat sheets. Permanently bookmarking frequently referenced sections of the book also helps. (Post-It Memo Flags are great for this.)

Also: Use the expertise of your players. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Does anybody remember how much damage a fireball does?” There are far too many GMs who are so terrified of the rules lawyer boogeyman that they won’t take advantage of the communal brainpower of the gaming group as a whole. (I’ve also found that some rules lawyers behave better when they can apply their rules expertise in this way. Not all, but some.)

Another very effective technique, particularly in combat, is to delegate someone else to look up a rule while you move onto and begin resolving the next action. You can then jump back to the original action when the rules reference is ready. (The multitasking keeps the game moving forward through the rules reference instead of creating a dead space.)

Finally, if a particularly obscure rule is escaping all efforts to clarify it, don’t be afraid to make an ad hoc ruling while making a note to come back and check what the actual rule is during the next break or after the session. It’s okay to trade strict accuracy to keep the pace up. (It’s also, in my experience, a good idea to openly tell your players what you’re doing. It doesn’t hurt if you give the PCs the benefit of the doubt when making these sorts of rulings, either. Default to yes, after all.)

Mistakes will be made and sometimes your current mastery will prove insufficient for the challenges of the moment. But as long as you handle these moments with openness, clarity, and goodwill, you’ll come out on top. And, of course, the cliché is true: Every mistake is a learning opportunity. Every mistake can make you a better GM… if you let it.

Eclipse Phase - Fractal

Go to Part 6: Choose Your Own Adventure

Go to Part 1

Neuromancer - William GibsonA cyberpunk character concept I would dearly love to play some day is that of the uber-competent hacker: Case from Neuromancer. Batman’s Oracle. Edward from Cowboy Bebop. Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye. Luther Stickell from the Mission Impossible movies. Half the main characters from Ghost in the Shell.

In my ideal version of the character, I’m the guy who stays in the van three out of five times, providing overwatch and support for my teammates while they mount their raid.

So why haven’t I played this character?

Because what I’ve discovered is that a surprisingly vast number of GMs seem to consider the entire concept of using hacking to solve a problem to be some sort of anathema. So even when I’ve tried to play the character concept, I’ve ended up not actually being able to play the concept.

  • Hack the security cameras to scope out the interior of the building you’re raiding? Can’t do it.
  • Hack the security guard’s cellphone to track her movement? Impossible!
  • Play R2-D2 in a Star Wars game and hack an electronic lock? No way. Pull out your lockpicks!
  • Hack the rigging ports on the pursuit car to seize control of it? Obviously no one would want you to remotely seize control of a vehicle, so they would build a perfect security system that was completely unhackable, and therefore you can’t hack it.

(That last rationalization seems to crop up a lot. It’s like saying that obviously no one would want you to poke them with a sword; ergo it’s impossible to hit someone who’s wearing full plate.)

Quibble here and there with the plausibility of some of these scenarios in particular settings, but I’ve seen this behavior even in settings and games which include mechanics for handling these specific types of hacks! What I’m talking about is a systemic pattern of behavior in which the hacker basically can’t do their thing. It’s the equivalent of finding an antimagic field everywhere you go in a D&D game, except that I’ve found it to be a peculiarly ubiquitous attitude.

Of course, flat out denial isn’t the only way this manifests: Setting disproportionately high difficulty numbers or using roll to failure techniques are probably the most common versions, actually.

I’ve found this particularly pernicious in many convention scenarios: The designers of the game want to show off its breadth, so they include a hacker archetype pregen. But the volunteer GM running the scenario subscribes to the doctrine of Thou Shalt Not Hack, so the pregen is a trap and the person picking it finds themselves sidelined for four hours.

The worst case scenario is, sadly, one of my favorite games: Eclipse Phase. Wanting to show off everything that’s possible in this cool, kitchen sink transhuman setting, the designers regularly include an infomorph pregen: A character without a body who exists only as a digital construct and can only take actions through the Mesh network.

Combine that with a GM who doesn’t allow any meaningful action to take place through the Mesh network (which I’ve seen happen either first- or second-hand in no less than four convention scenarios) and you have a character who literally can’t do anything.

Many of these GMs don’t seem to be consciously aware of what they’re doing, so you’ll even find them saying things during character creation like, “Who wants to be hacker?” I used to hear that and think, “Okay! This guy is going to actually let me hack!” But, oddly, no. They recognize on a conscious level that a team of cyberpunk characters is supposed to have a hacker, but when it comes to actual play the hacker nevertheless finds themselves stymied at every turn.


Infinity the Roleplaying Game

I suspect part of the problem here is that a lot of GMs reflexively cling to the modes of play they learned running D&D dungeon crawls. Their expectation for how a facility raid is supposed to play out features people physically sneaking around and getting ambushed by security guards, and the hacker’s attempt to grab the security cameras disrupts that expectation. Their vision of the game world (inaccurately) doesn’t include hacking, so the hacker’s solution to any given problem comes out of left field, and the GM reflexively shuts it down.

This is, obviously, a form of railroading: A preconceived idea of not just how a specific problem is meant to be solved, but a broad preconception of how entire classes of problems are supposed to be solved.

So the solution to this problem is relatively simple: Don’t do that.

Conversely, however, hacking shouldn’t be a magic button that can trivially solve all problems. When that happens, it creates a spotlight problem where the hacker upstages every other character and flattens the challenges presented by the scenario.

To counteract this problem, there are a couple things the GM should do. First, check the potential consequences a hacker faces: They should be comparable to those faced by other types of action. (Just as the hacker should not find it impossible to hack an automated car; the hacker themselves should not benefit from a foolproof firewall.) Second, check your vectors: Make sure that “solving” the scenario requires a multi-step resolution and, importantly, make sure that hacking can’t be used to trivially solve all the vectors.

The most obvious example of this is, “I can’t hack that system until you plug in my remote router!” But it can become an easy trap to always design scenarios in which the team does a bunch of stuff and “unlocks” the hacker so that the hacker can then win the day. Look at ways in which hacks are invaluable at the beginning and in the middle of scenarios.

Also remember that you don’t always need to lock these things in: Players hot-swapping in vectors you’d never thought of to solve their problems is what makes the game fun. Generally speaking, the rest of the group will find ways to advocate for plans which feature the strengths of their own characters if you give them the chance. You can encourage that by creating scenarios which require multiple problems to be resolved simultaneously. Also experiment with using hard scene framing techniques to move the action “onsite”, which will discourage the players from lingering in remote “planning” sequences where the hacker (and only the hacker) is capable of taking direction action.

Infinity the Roleplaying Game

Go to Part 5: Not Knowing the Rules

Go to Part 1

Battlestar Galactica - Starbuck

GM: Okay, you come up over the horizon of the station and you can see the trench up ahead. Three rebel fighters go roaring past.

Annie: I signal my wingmen to follow my lead and drop in behind them.

GM: Sure. You fall into their 6 o’clock and hit the thrusters, zooming up behind them.

Annie: I target the lead rebel pilot and take my shot!

GM: He’s dancing around in the ray-trace of your targeting computer.

Annie: The Force is strong with this one. I pull the trigger!

GM: The walls of the canyon are really racing past you. All this amazing superstructure just whirring by in a blur.

Annie: Great. I take the shot.

GM: Suddenly that old YT freighter you’d planted the tracking device on earlier comes roaring out of deep space! It shoots! [rolls some dice] One of your womg,em explodes!

Annie: What?!

GM: What do you do?

Annie: I… take my shot?

GM: Your other wingman, distracted by the appearance of the new enemy, loses control! They smash into your wing, careen wildly, smash into the wall of the canyon, and explode! Your own stabilizers have been damaged and you go hurtling out into deep space!

This kind of resolution dithering – where the players have declared their actions, but the GM isn’t allowing them to actually take and resolve those actions – is incredibly frustrating.

Sometimes the dither is caused by the GM prematurely asking the players what they want to do – after hearing the proposed action they realize that there’s additional information that they want or need to convey. (Or, if they’re improvising, details or cool ideas which popped into their head during the time that it took for the player to respond.)

Other times the dither occurs because the GM is waiting for someone to say the thing he wants them to do: Something cool is going to happen when someone tries to open the door, so any other action people propose will be put on pause until somebody in the group opens the door. (This also naturally leads to a narrower case in which only actions that would disrupt what the GM has planned are ignored – you can do anything unless it gets between them and that door.)

Another common form of dithering occurs when a GM responds to a declaration of action by discussing other options that are available. For example, I was playing in a cyberpunk game where I said I wanted to hack an electronic lock. The GM responded by pointing out that I could also kick the door down or just send my slither-bot under the door or physically pick the lock or…

Ultimately, when a player declares an action the GM needs to resolve that action and then describe the new situation: They need to move forward so that the next set of actions be cleanly declared. (The only exceptions are if the GM doesn’t feel they have enough information to resolve the action or if the declared action appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the current situation. In either case, the GM should still be seeking the necessary clarification as quickly as possible and then driving forward into the resolution.)

Resolution dithering often becomes obfuscated when the GM can jump between multiple PCs, leading to a muddle where the GM can get an action declaration from one PC, not fully resolve it, move onto the next PC, get another action they don’t fully resolve, and then repeat cyclically – kind of bouncing around the group without ever moving the action forward. This seems particularly prevalent with neophyte GMs (possibly because their lack of confidence manifests as an unwillingness to make the sort of definitive declarations required of action resolution), and the resulting quagmire can be difficult to diagnose.


What I refer to as the reverse resolution ring is a kissing cousin with resolution dithering and, for me, is even more frustrating to experience as a player.

For example, I was playing in a game of The One Ring. The GM would describe a situation – like a guard dog growling as the party drew near – and I would say something like, “Okay, I’m going to grab some of the fresh venison from the deer we killed this morning and I’ll toss it to the dog to distract it.” The GM takes note of that, but then proceeds around the table collecting action declarations from the other players.

So far, this is probably fine: Getting a collective understanding of what everyone is doing before figuring out how it would all play out together can actually be a really good technique for a GM to learn.

But where the reverse resolution ring kicks in is when a form of recency bias causes the GM to resolve the proposed actions in the opposite order from which they were declared (starting with the last person they talked to and then working their way backwards to the person who actually kicked things off). This is a problem because, at some point during those declarations, the other players will often say something like:

“Oh! That sounds good! I’ll dig some meat out of my pack, too!”


“I shoot the dog with my crossbow.”

The latter negates the original declaration by solving the problem in an alternative way. The former ends up basically stealing the original idea (even when the player saying it was just trying to support what they saw as a good solution to the problem) – the copycat gets to be the one to actually do the cool idea.

In either case, the GM is essentially stealing spotlight time. They’re punishing the player who took initiative, which is directly problematic because that’s demoralizing and unfair to the player affected, and indirectly problematic because it will eventually have a corrosive effect on the willingness of the entire table to step up. Even if it’s just a subconscious reaction, eventually you’ll end up with something that could easily be misidentified as analysis paralysis, but is actually just a hesitation to pull the trigger when it’s just as likely to end up shooting you in the head.

(It actually reminds me of something that crops up in live theatre: One actor will come up with a funny bit of business or line reading. Other actors will see it and think, “That’s hilarious!” And then they’ll end up duplicating the bit in their own scene, which can often happen earlier in the play than the original actor’s bit. These derivative bits are often not as funny and only serve to sap the riotous humor of the original – which is often built on the straight takes which are supposed to precede it. It’s the director’s responsibility to make sure that this sort of undercutting does not happen. But I digress.)

The reverse resolution ring can get truly cancerous when it turns into an endless ring: The GM goes through the ring once asking declarations, goes backwards through the ring resolving actions, and then – since they’re back at the beginning of the ring – they ask that last player, “So, what do you want to do next?” … only to then go forwards through the ring again getting everyone else’s declarations. The GM can even convince themselves that they’re “balancing” things – this guy went last, so let’s find out what he wants to do first. But that player is now systemically screwed, doomed to forever get upstaged by the rest of the group until something disrupts the current pattern.

In closing, however, I will mention the exception which proves the rule: A reverse resolution ring can be an effective technique when it’s used to model initiative. In other words, when the GM asks those with the lowest initiatives to declare their actions first and then resolves from highest initiative down. The “punishment” is now modeling the poor initiative result, and grants a strong benefit to those with a high initiative result.

Go to Part 4: Thou Shalt Not Hack

Go to Part 1

Eclipse Phase - Hack the Galaxy

I was playing in a sci-fi game and my hacker wanted to set up a dead man’s switch on the environmental systems in a space station: When the melee characters launched their assault, I’d pull the dead man’s switch. The GM had me roll to set up the dead man switch… and then roll every single round to maintain it… and then roll again to throw it even after I’d set it up successfully.

Eventually, given the endless series of checks, I inevitably failed.

Laying aside the fundamental misunderstanding of what a dead man switch is, the negative effect of this sort of thing can be quite severe in an RPG session. In this case, the group quickly realized that we should never, ever try to make a plan: If we just improvised something, it would be resolved in a single roll and we’d have a chance to succeed. If we actually put together a plan, on the other hand, it would just invite lots and lots of dice rolling until the plan failed.

The solution is fairly simple: Let It Ride. Have the character make a single skill check that determines the ultimate success or failure of their endeavor.

Another solution is a complex skill check (making multiple checks until X successes are achieved). These tend to be very elegant in dice pool systems, and when you want multiple checks to be made they’re an effective framework for allowing that without the all-or-nothing of a single check ruining the entire attempt.


The flip-side of rolling to failure is the “roll pointlessly until you succeed” thing. For example, you’ll often run into games where the PCs need to unlock a door: There’s no time pressure and no consequences for failure, and yet the GM will sit there and have the PCs roll over and over and over again until they finally succeed.

One way to deal with that is something like the Take 20 mechanic: If you can eventually succeed at this, then we can assume that you will eventually succeed at it and we can move on. Letting it ride can also solve this problem by providing the opposite outcome: Your failure on this Open Locks check tells us you are simply not good enough to pick this lock at this time and in this way. (The single check determines your relationship with the lock and until you can substantially change the situation, your character is going to be stymied by that lock).


A somewhat related problem is when a multi-step action resolution gets broken down into too many discrete parts. This can take many forms, but the most cancerous form I’ve seen in the wild came from GMs who took the Search guidelines for 3rd Edition D&D way too seriously. Those guidelines specified that it took a full action to search a 5-foot square. That’s a useful guideline for combat (when you might want to know how much area you can search during a single round), but some GMs took this to mean that you needed to make a separate Search check for every 5 foot square. So if you searched a 10-foot-wide hallway that was 40 feet long, you’d have to make sixteen (!) separate Search checks.

This isn’t rolling to failure because each chunk is a legitimately separate task. (Failing to search in Square #1 doesn’t mean you won’t find anything in Square #2.) But it murders pace – which is either directly undesirable or undesirable because it discourages players from using the specialties affected by the problem.

The solution here is to collect the tests into meaningful chunks: Searching an entire room (or even suite of rooms) is obvious. Alternatively, if they want to search the dungeon hallways as they move along, let the result of the check ride until they either make a meaningful choice to do something other than search down the hall OR until that check result produces a result (either success or failure) that they can recognize as such (i.e., until that check either finds a trap or secret door or until it fails to do so and the trap happens to them or the ambush pours out of the secret door they missed).

Sometimes you’ll end up with a player who demands multiple checks. In some cases this is because they, too, are following bad mechanical advice (like the “make a check for every 5 feet” misinterpretation of the Search rules). In other cases, it’s a manipulation of metagame information (“I know I rolled poorly, so let’s have that only apply to this one specific area and then I’ll make another check”). Often it’s because they’re irrationally trying to manage risk (“I’ll only search this little chunk so that if I roll poorly the effects will be minimalized” — which doesn’t make sense because your odds of discovering any given hazard remain unaltered, but that doesn’t mean people don’t do it).

Most of the time your response to this is fairly simple: You tell them no.

The exception would be the rare instance where it’s actually effective pacing to stretch out the mechanical resolution. Like a slow motion shot in a film, these are the times when specifically highlighting each small, discreet, tension-filled moment serves to escalate the crisis and leave the table on the edge of their seats.

Identifying these moments is a gut-check, not a science. For example, I was just about to say that it would never be Search checks down a dungeon hall… but then I realized that there actually was a time that I followed a player’s lead in the Tomb of Horrors to separately search every single inch of corridor because that mechanical resolution was so completely right in capturing the paranoia and terror the group was experiencing in that moment.


On a closing note, let’s be clear that not every series of sequential rolls with a non-discrete outcome is rolling to failure. We’ve already discussed the situation where each individual check is a separate, meaningful accomplishment. But it’s also true that, for example, combat isn’t a roll to failure even though it involves multiple checks culminating in a single outcome of life-or-death.

It’s also useful to note that rolling to failure can be an effective choice if you’re actually looking at a situation where failure is assured and the interesting question is how long a character can stave off that failure. For example, how long can you say conscious in a vacuum? How long can you hold the door against the werewolves pounding on it from the other side?

The Tomb of Horrors

Go to Part 3: Resolution Dithering



Recent Posts

Recent Comments