One of the most important RPGs ever to be released is Apocalypse World by D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker. First released in 2010, it has spawned a whole genre of RPGs said to be “Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA)”, such as Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, City of Mist and Blades in the Dark.
Within the Apocalypse World rulebook is a section aimed as the Master of Ceremonies (MC), its term for the person running the game. It lays out that player’s Agenda and the Principles they need to follow while playing – and the MC is a player after all. These aren’t just considered recommendations or helpful advice – they are explicitly stated as “rules” to be followed.
They also happen to be, in my opinion, some of the most fundamental concepts you can internalise to become a better GM, in every single game you will ever run.
Apocalypse World lays out 3 simple but pivotal points that are your sole agenda when running a game.
- Make the fictional world seem real.
- Make the player characters’ lives not boring.
- Play to find out what happens.
Interestingly they are written as an exhaustive list. You shouldn’t do anything else.
Making sure the players win or lose isn’t on the agenda, and neither is telling a specific story or plot. You can run a scenario – even a prepublished one such as Descent into Avernus – without railroading your players through foregone conclusions and your game will be better for it.
- What the principles demand.
- What the rules demand.
- What your prep demands.
- What honesty demands.
The title ‘Master of Ceremonies’ reveals an important part of your role – you are a facilitator, the person who keeps things moving, and who makes sure that protocol is followed. Don’t consider yourself an adversary to the players, or someone more important than them. Do what is demanded of you in an unbiased and honest manner.
Apocalypse World lays out 11 Principles. These are designed to be fundamental ideas that you should keep in the very front of your mind while running a game.
Every decision you make and everything you say should be filtered through these principles. If what you are intending to do or say goes against a principle, then seriously reconsider.
Barf forth apocalyptica.
Think in terms of the setting, be excited about it and really push the setting into your descriptions and how you present the world to players. Immerse yourself in the setting, create mood boards, save cool pictures, read novels and watch movies that relate to it.
One of your greatest assets is borrowing liberally from existing media. Use inspiration to help you with your descriptions and tone. Consider how you might describe a castle the player characters are in; Is it just a castle? Or is it like Dracula’s castle, or Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings? Maybe it’s more like Howl’s Moving Castle.
Do everything you can to get your brain thinking in terms of the setting. This will make your role considerably easier, as you’ll be able to draw on the breadth of narrative content you have submersed yourself with.
Address yourself to the characters, not the players.
If you want your players to roleplay their characters, speak to their characters.
Consider the difference between asking Robert (the player) what he does, compared to asking Sir Benevor (his character).
This will get them thinking as their characters. It will help them place themselves within the fiction and think truly in terms of how their character would react rather than themselves.
Make your move, but misdirect.
Make the game world feel real and the things that happen seem as if they were part of the games fiction – not responses to dice rolls and mechanics.
Markus didn’t go last in the turn order due to a bad roll, he reacted slowly when swords were drawn due to being distracted. Trillin’s attempt to pick a lock didn’t fail because she rolled a 3, but because the lock was of an exotic origin.
Make your move, but never speak its name.
Because the things that happen in the game are a result of the games fiction and not dice rolls, it’s important to ensure that the information you feed back to players is based on fiction.
Your bonus minor effect on a good roll isn’t “Hindering the NPCs actions until your next turn”, it’s “Viciously cutting Lucatiel across the brow, the blood dripping into her eyes.”
Of course you can tell the players mechanically what is happening if it is unclear, but the mechanic should seem secondary and informed by the narrative – not the other way around.
Look through crosshairs.
Always consider killing your NPCs, burning down the town, blowing up the throne room. Avoid sacred NPC villains who always get away, and don’t worry about the status quos.
Be eager to allow big changes to happen to the campaign and its fiction. Just because you are playing a module don’t be afraid to let player character actions trump what is written in the book. If they kill the cult leader before the ‘proper boss fight’ then that’s what happens.
Name everyone, make everyone human.
If an NPC is nameless, no player will care about them. Name them and give them straightforward and sensible self-interests.
When every guard is called Bob it rips back the curtain and shouts “THIS IS ALL JUST A GAME!”. Keep a list of random names to hand and when you use one write down who it now belongs to.
Each NPC with even a single line of dialogue is a real character, with a name and motivations. They want things, are afraid of things, and react in believable ways.
Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
Don’t be afraid to ask the players to answer narrative questions such as “What was the biggest threat to Vhron where he grew up?”. Then take the answer and build upon it. Make it part of the setting, make it your own by adding to it, then refer to it later in play.
As the person running the game you are typically expected to do all of the world building. That doesn’t have to be the case at all.
If Emma wants her character to belong to an order of knights devoted to St. Delvin, why not let Emma come up with the order’s ranks and creed? Not only does it mean less work for you, it will definitely make the player think more intimately about their character and the narrative fiction.
Respond with trickery and intermittent rewards.
If the players want something, don’t be afraid to give it to them in unexpected ways. Maybe they discover valuable new clues about the murderer, but only because they just killed a PCs sister. Or maybe the crime boss gets them into the noble’s party as promised… but as waiters, not guests.
Sometimes though, give them exactly what they want and how they want it. Keep them on their toes, so they never quite know if things will go exactly to plan or not.
Be a fan of the players’ characters.
Don’t take away things that make characters cool to their player. Destroying a wizard’s spellbook so they can’t cast spells for 3 sessions because you’re getting fed up with them blowing up every monster, or making all enemies ignore armour because someone has built a character with high AC, or having a lock be entirely unpickable because the rogue specialised in lock-picking.
These things are fine to do once in a campaign, but should be done to make play more interesting and challenge the players to come up with new solutions, not to screw over players.
Let player characters show off their expertise. Allow the wizard to fireball hordes of enemies once in a while, or throw low damage creatures at a highly armoured PC so they can feel invincible, or design a heist that allows the rogue to show off their abilities.
Note this doesn’t mean “Always let the players’ characters win” either. Part of your Agenda is to make their lives not boring, and sure-fire methods that always work and stomp challenge gets boring fast.
Think offscreen too.
Imagine what might be happening with NPCs not currently involved in the scene or session. What would they be doing? How would they react to what is going on?
Thinking about these things allows you to create a more realistic world. Responding to what happens in play makes what the players do more real.
The fact the characters saved a shopkeeper’s son last session should be important. Who would they tell? What repercussions would occur? Free drinks in the local inn, personal thanks from the mayor, their names in the broadsheet paper. All of these things show that the world is reacting to what the players are doing. If the shopkeep’s son had died, well things would sure be different.
Sometimes, disclaim decision-making.
Allow NPCs to do what they would really do, “Lucatiel shoots, regardless of the hostages.”
Let players decide the outcomes “The buildings on fire. Are you going to save the hostages or chase after Lucatiel?”
Decide something will eventually happen if not stopped “If the party doesn’t stop the cult, they’ll summon a demon that will destroy the village.”
Write down a stake and let future game play resolve the decision “Will Gwynn find a cure before the monster takes over his body?”
All of these things will help your decision-making feel (and become) more legitimate. No longer are you just arbitrarily deciding outcomes, instead you are letting either the fiction or the players’ characters determine outcomes.
Note that you don’t have to specifically tell the players your decision making process. In fact it’s nearly always better not to, unless you are deciding about something mechanics based.
So those are the principles:
- Barf forth apocalyptica.
- Address yourself to the characters, not the players.
- Make your move, but misdirect.
- Make your move, but never speak its name.
- Look through crosshairs.
- Name everyone, make everyone human.
- Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
- Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards.
- Be a fan of the players’ characters.
- Think offscreen too.
- Sometimes, disclaim decision-making.
All these principles are broadly applicable to every roleplaying game. Some will be more important to you than others, dependent on your personal style, or the system, or the campaign – but ultimately they are fundamentally solid ideas.
Write out the agendas and principles and stick them to your GM screen, or on a piece of paper next to your keyboard if you play online. Read them before you start play, and glance at them during the session and check if you’re adhering to them.
By using them you will improve in your ability and become a better GM, able to run games that are interesting, fun, fair, and satisfying all at the same time.