10 House Rules from a Fed Up GM

William T. Thrasher

I’ve been a GM for almost twenty years and I’ve had plenty of dizzying highs, terrifying lows, and nougaty centers in the tabletop gaming hobby. This past weekend I experienced everything on that spectrum when I was volunteered to fill in a local anime convention’s vacant gaming track. The convention organizers didn’t underestimated the demand for gaming. They didn’t know any reliable GMs, but a friend of a friend new me. That’s how I found myself providing 14 hours of gaming activities per a day for three days. With the constant flux of young, old, new, veteran, and first-time gamers packed into a busy weekend, I started to make a lot of observations about player behaviors that just tick me off.

            Forget the problem players, forget the power gamers, forget the jerks, creepers, grognards, and forget “that one player”. I’m talking about bad habits I see becoming increasingly common among otherwise good, great, and excellent participants in this hobby. Bad habits that slow down the game, make more work for the GM, and could be fixed with a little effort and etiquette (it’s more than just an obscure Charisma skill).

            With that in mind, it’s time to clear the air and direct some free-floating hostility to no one in particular with 10 house rules for a fed-up GM.


1.     If You Don’t Have It, Ask For It!

All those books, dice, pencils, tokens, and other materials the GM has on his side of the table aren’t the communal property of the Glorious People’s Republic of Gaming. Those belong to the GM. If you need one of those things, ask! Don’t just grab something. That pen you snagged out of my backpack? That’s not for filling in character sheets. That is a $5 acid free archival quality sumi ink pen, and I need it to do my job! When I make gingerbread cookies do I reach into the nearest surgeon’s medical supply cabinet and grab a sterile scalpel to cut out the adorable anthropoid shapes? No I don’t. And this goes double if the thing you want to borrow is in my hand!


2.     Your Character Is As Fast As Your Uptake

When I’m counting down initiative passes and you don’t deign to declare your initiative is 12 until I make it down to 4, congratulations! Your initiative is 4. There’s a reason I asked for that roll and why I’m counting down everyone else is declaring actions. No amount of reflex catalyzer implants will make your street samurai faster than you. I don’t care if your character has a special talent that allows them to preempt all other actions. If you don’t declare your preemptive action on your turn because you weren’t paying attention then you aren’t preempting anything. And if I’m counting down initiative passes and only then to you remember to roll initiative, then maybe your character won’t be acting at all because I’m not stopping the count for you to roll dice and do basic math.


3.     Calculators Aren’t Cheating

Speaking of basic math, your mobile phone has a calculator built in. If you have trouble doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division in your head and didn’t bring a pencil to work it out on paper, then use the calculator. This one-shot dungeon crawl is only scheduled for two hours and they lock up the gaming room at midnight, so no one at this table has time to wait for you to stare blankly at your dice and do 1st grade arithmetic for 1d4 minutes when I ask what your damage total is. Math comes up a lot at these games, so have that calculator app ready. And if you’re the one player at the table without a phone (or a watch, or an actual calculator), ask one of the other people at the table to borrow theirs. They want your math done quickly too.


4.     When I Say “Write This Down”, Write This Down

Every game has that one little core rule that comes up all the time but everyone forgets isn’t referenced anywhere on the character sheet. So when I mention this rule during the intro and ask you to make a note of it somewhere on your sheet, make a note of it somewhere on your sheet. I have too many things to worry about to re-explain how initiative is rolled, how damage is calculated, how all rolls of 7 or higher are always successes, to every player every time it comes up. And when you ask me to explain it and I open the explanation with “please write this down”, that’s another indication that you should write it down. This leads me to my first sub-rule

            Sub-rule 4a: GMs, only re-explain the things covered by rule 4 three times. If you gave a player three chances to write down how their initiative was determined and they don’t, their initiative can be 0 until the end of the game. Unless you're playing that one game where lower initiative numbers are better. Then it can be 99.


5.     Unsolicited Dice Rolls Do Not Produce Results

It’s fine if you want to role a die or two “just ‘cause” when your character isn’t the center of attention. But if I ask for a roll don’t just point to the loose dice in front of you and ask for whatever happens to be on them to count. I’m not randomly rolling dice behind the screen and banking the best rolls for later. Neither can you.


6.     The Lamb’s Tail Rule

Your dice are designed to be random number generators. They don’t need your help. Shaking, rattling, and fondling your dice doesn’t make the result any more or less random and has no baring on the outcome. So when it’s time to roll, this doctor prescribes shaking no more than three times before letting them roll. Nothing is less exciting than watching someone shaking their dice for a prolonged period before a roll, and nothing wastes good playing time that excessive pre-roll rattling.


7.     Off The Table = Critical Failure

Sometimes dice just roll off the table. But when your last three rolls send dice flying off the table and across the room than you have problem. At this point any time a dice roll goes off the table there are no re-rolls, just treat the result like a critical failure.

            Sub-rule 7a: Aim you damned dice! There is no shame in rolling your dice in front of you, or in a dice tower, or in a small controlled area where you can read them. If your rolls are landing on other people’s character sheets, behind the GMs screen, or scattering to every corner of the table, you’re doing it wrong. The other players aren’t there to report the results of your errant rolls, and scrabbling around to gather up the dice leads to too many changed facings (unintentional or otherwise).


8.     Answer The Question The GM Asked

If I ask “was your roll successful?” answer yes or no. Don’t answer “I got a 2, a 7, and a 4.” If I ask “does anyone have a Perception score higher than 7?” don’t say “my Perception 3.” You’re creating a lot of responses I don’t need. Take a moment to consider what I’m asking and why I’m asking it. Don’t throw out a response just because you can, and just because I asked something of the players in general doesn’t mean you need to answer specifically. When the House calls for a vote on H.RES.298 it doesn’t help the Speaker if you turn in a ballot for H.RES.18.


9.     You’re Not The GM Anymore

I think it’s wonderful that you GM your own campaigns, and it’s adorable you think you’re a good GM. But you’re not the GM at my table. You’re a player. Don’t waste time telling the other players how you would run this game. Don’t waste time explaining how the campaign setting “really works”. Don’t assume that just because you would make the city ombudsman a secret cultists of Hastur that I did. Leave that burden behind and just play the damned game.


10.  If You Aren’t Playing Anything You Aren’t Saying Anything

RPGs aren’t a spectator sport, but for some reason mine attract an unwanted audience. The only people in the game that matter are the players, so if you aren’t one of the players you can shut the semprini up! No witty comments. No suggestions. No humorous asides. No questions. Every verbal interaction you attempt with myself or my players is distracting and wastes our time.




I know most of the items above are provisos, suggestions, and rants, so don’t bother pointing that out.