Posted by: CJ | September 11, 2010

PAX: Rules Lawyers vs. Game Masters

Of the few panels I went to at PAX, the Rules Lawyers vs. Game Masters one had the most material that made me think. I’m still absorbing it.

The panel wasn’t actually a panel, it was mostly a presentation by a guy whose name I forget. I dont’ GM, but I teach and I’ve spent a lot of time around kids. So some of it was useful from that perspective. Here are the general notes about it that have been bouncing around my head.

  • The presenter works a lot consulting with game developers to make sure the game systems they use line up well with the experience they want their gamers to have. This is basically a gamer version of “incentives matter”, one of the most basic and fundamental tenants of modern economics. If you want to focus on stories and story telling, don’t use systems that are rule heavy.
  • Complimenting that, players should be rewarded when they work with the GM. The context this came up in was getting players to be more involved in the storytelling process, and using rewards as a way of incentivizing the players to get more involved.
  • The presenter also said managing expectations was a good idea. Before each session, setup some goal–even if it’s a funny or only half-serious goal–to help focus the group. And to let the group know what the GM is hoping for, so they don’t accidentally trample all over the GM’s plans.
  • On the flip side, GM’s shouldn’t over-plan. And they shouldn’t get fussy when players do unexpected things, particularly things that you were hoping they wouldn’t do. It’s a frustrating experience to have a GM that tries to play the game for you, and gets upset when you don’t let him/her.
  • On a very related note, GM’s should be flexible. Be able to run with with the players do. They’ll love you for it.
  • And, to complete the triad of loose expectations and flexibility, give the players power to choose what happens. Make it so the players are actively participating in creating the story, rather than experiencing it. The presenter had a cool analogy where he imagined all the players were creating threads in the story with the GM, and part of the GM’s job was to weave them all together into a beautiful tapestry.
  • He also talked about conflict resolution. When things get close to a boiling point, making sure to use “I” statements whenever possible. Specifically, don’t start telling someone else what they are or aren’t, or what they do or don’t do. You can’t possibly know that, and it’ll probably piss you off that you’re attacking a strawman.
  • To go along with the “I” statements, do “Yes, and…” responses instead of “No, but…”. This is apparently a time-honored improv strategy. Instead of arguing with someone over what they just said. Accept it, but not necessarily accepting the part of it that they were emphasizing. “You’re always picking on my PC’s!” “Yes, and I see that you feel frustrated.” Or some such. Make the person feel like they’re being listened to, even if you don’t completely agree.
  • Personal abuse is not to be tolerated, people that can’t meet those minimum rules should be given one very explicit warning, and then booted.
  • Some issues can’t be discussed during a gaming session. To really be explored, they must be outside the GM/player power dynamic and instead done as friend to friend.
  • Players that are more experienced/playing at a higher level/whatever, and that are being pains in the asses to both the GM and the other players, need to be deputized and given more responsibility. An experienced player with a level 1 thief that can somehow sneak attack 3 times a round from 30 ft away due to a completely legit rules exploit? Tell him to go make some NPCs for you to use in 20 minutes, or something like that. Give them some extra responsibility and recognition, and they might become great assets instead of annoyances.
  • In other cases, some annoying players will act out. And sometimes, the best strategy as GM–much like for some parenting–is to let act out enough for whatever reason, and then let them reign themselves back in and figure out a way to punish themselves. That saves you the trouble of fighting them and of finding some adquete punishment of your own. Of course, this only works with people that know what the boundaries are, when they’ve crossed them, and that they must find some way to restore balance.
  • One GM in the audience also had an awesome and hilarious policy. Anytime a player came up with a character that was clearly too awesome for use in the campaign, the GM took it as one of their NPCs with the guarantee that the players would face it later as an adversary in the campaign. That got the room laughing for awhile.
  • In general, it was interesting to hear the presenter talk about the social dynamics of this. Interesting mostly because there aren’t many presentations I see on social aspects where my degree of socialization and with-it-ness is around average or above-average. Makes it more interesting for me when I feel like they’re talking about my kind instead of about people desperately, neurotically even, trying to be the Cleavers.

I thought some of the analogies for teaching were great, but the places it breaks down are frustrating. Gamers can choose what game group fits them, and they don’t have to finish a campaign in a specified time frame. And where and how it finishes doesn’t have to be where and how you thought it would finish. Lots more flexibility in gaming than in modern education.

Anyways, fun use of an hour.



  1. This is actually really interesting. Not saying most of it is new, but reworded in a way that illuminates questions i had not thought of. Nice. Especially the bit about letting the ones that need to act out, act out then punish themselves. I do this a lot in class with some real success. Im blessed with a gaming group that is amazing and almost never need to deal with anything like it there.

  2. I know I’ve seen both you and my mom productively let people act out and then reign themselves in. So I sorta knew what the guy was talking about as he said it. But, of the various things he mentioned, that was one of them that I understand least. Part of me wants to say someone only feels a need to act out if, at least in their head, their life is kinda a mess they don’t think they can do anything about. But that doesn’t quite sound right to me. Sounds more judgmental than I prefer, too.

  3. You remember the eight intelligences thing. Well, there are a couple about talking things through either to yourself or others. that’s a lot of what the acting out is all about. they are arguing with themselves as much as anything. they will hold it in only so long. the trick is to allow them the when and in a controlled environment to be constructive with it.

  4. Insightful, interesting post–and I’m glad you think you’re blessed with an amazing gaming group; I’m usually trying to figure out which die to roll.

  5. The presenter was me! Sorry I didn’t find this sooner, but it only just now showed up in a Google search.

    I’m glad you got so much out of the talk, you were part of an amazing audience. I really enjoyed my experience.

    I’m particularly interested to hear you relating the concepts I talked about to teaching and education. I think that turning a classroom experience into a cooperative game could do wonders to address many of the problems faced by educators today–overcrowded classrooms, emotional regulation issues, bored students, etc.

    The game platform I mentioned I was working on during my talk is now on Kickstarter ( and I have had some interest from teachers in using it with students diagnosed with various developmental issues such as Aspergers and ADGD–specifically for teaching and practicing appropriate responses to common social cues.

    I’d be very interested in seeing it adapted to specific subject matter as well.

    Anyway, it made my Saturday morning to find this post. I hope that >1 year later, the presentation is still providing some food for thought.

  6. I think these are the reasons why MOOCs are popular, there is no artificial time pressure to learn. You do it at your own pace depending on your purposes for joining the course.

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