Etiquette and Protocol
Gaming etiquette could be the single most important aspect of running a campaign. I will not rehash old stereotypes such as bathing before a game or eating all of the host's food. Instead, I have a slightly different perspective on gaming etiquette. I have discovered a few simple rules which could seriously affect a campaign for ill or good. While some people may grumble about a few of them, a player will respect a firm GM over a weak one no matter how much grumbling happens in the background.
Gaming etiquette could be the single most important aspect of running a campaign. I will not rehash old stereotypes such as bathing before a game or eating all of the host's food. Instead, I have a slightly different perspective on gaming etiquette. I have discovered a few simple rules which could seriously affect a campaign for ill or good. While some people may grumble about a few of them, a player will respect a firm Gamemaster, GM, over a weak one no matter how much grumbling happens in the background. The following rules should apply to any group of role players.
Respect and Patience: I am sure everyone has played with a group who includes a few people who would rather talk among themselves than concentrate on the game. These people usually only get into a session once the combat begins. This can be maddening and distracting to those people who actually show up for more than fighting. Personally, I have found the most effective way to end the problem is to subtract experience from the offending people. I attach a note to the character sheet showing the total experience he would have earned had he paid attention, then I show the negatives for each offense. It works wonders in quieting down the more talkative types. In any event, players should be cautioned before the game begins to respect the people around them. If a character has chosen not to participate, then the player should know enough to read quietly or pay attention to those who are playing. With a little patience, the GM will get back to that character, and if the player did not like sitting there, then that person will choose to participate in the next activity.
On the other hand, a GM should not actively leave out a player. The last time I played a character (a paladin), the GM decided to send a sneaky team into an evil lord's fortress. I was left out due to my clunky armor and forthright manner. Unfortunately, the sneaky team decided to stay there for nearly four hours. I was a good player and paid attention to all that happened, but I did not get to play much that session. Respect goes in both directions and GMs should remember not to have a session which will exclude some of their players.
Nothing But The Law: I have never encountered a role playing game that lack rules, or a group that lacked the holy rules lawyer. The lawyer fights those who do not pay heed to the rules. They champion the weak and challenge the GM when they believe a rule has been misinterpreted. They have purchased every sourcebook, familiarized themselves with all the errata, and makes sure characters fit 100% within the rules, no matter how much more powerful the character appears than all the rest. While a rules lawyer can be helpful, they can also spell doom to a group. I will never say people should stand for a game where the rules are applied badly, or not at all, but a strict rules lawyer can severely hamper a game.
A balance is needed to run a smooth gaming session. While a GM should always have read the spells a player will use, or the feats a fighter has chosen, there is not enough time to become a master with every obscure rule. A GM cannot focus on the rules to the detriment of the story or the game. If a rule takes longer than 60 seconds to find and interpret, then it is best to fall on a side which favors the players. In this way, the group does not have to sit through a 15-minute discussion and lose interest in the game. On the other hand, if a ruling does not need to be immediate, then have someone look it up and deal with it at a later time.
Finally, never argue with a player in front of the group. It erodes the authority in the GM and will cause the entire to group to unravel, especially if you are seen as a weak GM. A player who seriously disagrees with a GM should take them aside at some point and discuss the matter when it will not affect game play. In a worst case scenario, the rules lawyer may become so disruptive that you need to ask him/her to leave the group. This is fine. If one person is stopping an entire group from enjoying themselves, then there is a problem. If all other avenues of compromise are closed, then never hesitate to drop a player.
Meta-gaming? Not again! No discussion about gaming protocol could be complete without covering the tricky topic of meta-gaming. Personally, I never heard the term until a little over a year ago. Before then, my gaming group happily played without this headache. In my opinion the concept came from Live action role-playing, LARPs, which stressed complete immersion into a character. LARPs tend to pit the players against the storytellers who actually become the NPCs. Until this time, players never thought of the GM as an enemy; however, LARPs seem to have carried over into the tabletop world and influenced players to think of GMs in a different light.
Simply put, meta-gaming is an overt attempt to beat the GM. The players want to win and throw down the evil plans the GM has cooked up. Instead of PCs versus NPCs, the game devolves into player versus GM. Meta-gaming has never been about player knowledge versus character knowledge, despite what people insist. The best way to stop meta-gaming is to have a discussion with your players. Talk about the issue and make them feel it is not a contest. I have found it useful to have each player write a brief character history. In this way, both the player and the GM will have a good idea of what the character does know. If a GM works with a player on their character, then a player feels that a GM has an interest in the character, thus making the GM an ally.
Should meta-gaming remain a problem, there are a few tips for stopping it before it ruins a game. This may include changing the name of any monster you decide to use; forbidding anyone but the GM to bring a Monster Manual to a session; or looking for new creature collections with unique monsters. Of course, my personal favorite remains writing each NPC using only character races. In the event I do use a monster, I always add levels, change the name, or change the description. The final solution is either talking with the offender privately or subtracting experience for each instance a PC meta-games, and keep a log for the player so they know it's not right.
Things such as not showering before a game can be deadly in a confined space; however gaming etiquette goes much farther than some people consider. Some problems can tear groups apart, and I think those are sad days for our hobby. Every time a GM quits in frustration, or a player decides gaming is no longer fun, the hobby diminishes. Gaming should be an evening of fun and excitement and I hope this article helps those who may need it.