Diplomacy for RPG Game Masters: The Fine Art of Wrangling Players

Role-playing has two types of characters – Player Characters (PCs) and Non-Player Characters (NPCs).

Player Characters

Players create their PCs for specific campaigns using rules for character creation and advancement. PC actions and reactions make a game work and, in the best cases, become memorable for all the right reasons. PCs should be able to advance in their chosen pursuits and make a significant impact on their world, for better or worse.

Many players become very attached to their PCs, so much so that what happens in-game can have consequences on a player’s mental health and overall well-being – positive or negative. When you run a game, your players are trusting you to take care of their PCs. It’s critical that you don’t let them down in this respect, as their enjoyment of your game and their willingness to continue playing at all hinges on that trust.

If you want your players to be invested in your game, to put themselves in their PC’s shoes and to live and breathe your story, you cannot be arbitrary, callous or careless with their creations. Besides, there is any number of other ways to put a scare into a PC.

‘Wolfstead, is that your Mother over there waving a dish cloth?’

Draco, Party Member

A new player may create an initial PC that, over time, chafes against their developing play style and causes them to lose enjoyment in the game. A more experienced player may have a high-level PC with a large emotional investment overwhelmed in combat. A player may sacrifice their PC deliberately to save others. Death happens in role-playing games, too.

I’m not in the business of making my players miserable; that’s not why I run a role-playing game. For me, letting a PC die is an opportunity to switch things up. Dying becomes a transitory condition on the way to a player-preferred rebuild of their PC, only to the degree they wish their PC to be rebuilt.

The God, Goddess or Immortal sponsoring a PC’s resurrection will impart their view of in-game events, provide the PC with exclusive knowledge, and give specific directions to the PC. These directions may or may not sit well with the PC, but this is a small price to pay to return to the land of the living.

If you treat your PCs like interchangeable pins on a board or kill them at the drop of a helmet, don’t expect your players to turn up to your game with anything more detailed than a cardboard cutout. That’s all they’ll be prepared to lose at your table. I respect my players’ time, effort, creativity, and attachment by ensuring their PCs stay dead only if that’s what they truly want.

For me, there are far trickier situations than handling PC death. One of my personal bugbears is two players in a relationship in real life who act out in-game. There are other players at the table who didn’t turn up to watch two other PCs making puppy dog eyes at each other. Or worse, acting out their players’ relationship issues in-game! This isn’t fair or even enjoyable for the other players, so a GM must moderate this behavior.

Non-Player Characters

A Game Master creates NPCs to support or oppose PCs, or to simply populate the game like bit players in a movie. NPCs can be any playable race or class, as well as any other creature, natural or supernatural, that appears in-game.

NPCs should be subject to the same rules for character creation and advancement as PCs, so interactions in-game are fair and balanced. If NPCs pull out spells, skills or abilities not in keeping with their race, class, equipment, and level, players will become disheartened. Game Master fiat is a privilege you should only resort to in dire need, not as a matter of course.

NPCs can range from a nameless set of generic statistics taken straight from the rulebook to a detailed creation with as much history and depth as a real person. It can be frustrating when you get expected NPC longevity wrong. I’ve had a lovingly crafted NPC die in the first round of combat, and a generic “Fighter, Level 15” taken home to meet a PC’s fully fleshed out and named parents.

‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Er …’

‘Well Ur, welcome to our humble abode! Here, have a drink.’

Herbert Patterson, NPC Dad

I’ve been a player and a GM for over 30 years. Many of my PCs from other games have become NPCs in my games. From my perspective, there’s no distinction – I still play my characters as I did before, and love them just as much. The only difference is I have to rely on my players to provide story surprises.

Luckily, my players are all very good at surprising me. Knowingly or not, they’re a constant source of “what the …?” from my NPCs.

‘You really want to charm the high-level succubus? I’ll just have your gobsmacked griffin standing close by so he can wing slap you upside the back of your head if you fail.’

The GM

Half of my job as a GM is deciding how my NPCs will react to unexpected and often hilarious comments or actions from PCs. This can quickly become all of my job when my players start egging each other on. I love it, but I have to think pretty fast to keep up.

For bit player NPCs, I’ll improvise reactions on the spot with just some supporting template stats to keep me on track. For NPCs I’ve played before, some over many years in other games, choosing a suitable reaction is easy because I know them so well.

For new NPCs with the potential to reappear frequently, I’ll craft a solid history and character study before I introduce them in-game. This provides me with a basis for any subsequent in-game reactions.

I’ll only go this far if I think an NPC might be destined for a close relationship – intimate, social, professional or familial – with one or more of the PCs. This is my way of repaying players for their time, effort, creativity and attachment. Their PCs’ significant others in-game are fleshed out completely, not just one-dimensional cookie cutter templates.

I have to confess to a degree of trepidation in making one of my fully crafted and well-loved NPCs available to “fall in love” with a PC. If my NPC’s heart is broken by a cavalier PC, I feel it too. The offending PC may find from that point on the Gods are out to get them. Not that I’m petty and vindictive, but … my baby is hurting!

‘Treating the friendly alpha werewolf like the family dog is not going to end well, just saying. Don’t come crying to me when he’s chewed holes in everything you own.’

The GM, again

That said, I know firsthand from a player’s perspective the unique satisfaction that comes from your PC making a successful, loving and lasting match in-game. It’s like watching one of your children getting married. I’m not going to deny that to my players, so I’m up for it if they are.

My only rule is that intimate encounters are “off the table” – i.e. not run in detail during a face-to-face gaming session. I’ll accept a simple, non-vulgar statement of intent from a player and then, if the NPC agrees, leave the rest to the player’s imagination. Which means, according to the Book of Erotic Fantasy, I run a “PG” game.

Off the table, I write erotic fiction, so a private “play-by-mail” with a consenting adult bounded by relevant Internet pornography and local jurisdiction law isn’t out of the question. I prefer role-playing an intimate encounter, but if you want dice-determined outcomes only, then this guide is a go-to resource.

Speaking of cardinal sins, I’ll mention one that has caused me some real grief over the years. Given that one of the tenants of good role-playing is fairness in victory and defeat, a GM who plays favorites in-game with their real-life partner’s PC is a menace. My advice to players disadvantaged by a biased GM is to get up from the table, say a polite goodbye and leave. It’s not worth the distress.

On the whole, though, I can say I enjoy being a player and a GM in equal measure. There are immense benefits to both activities, otherwise, I would have stopped decades ago. Things won’t always go as planned, or even well at all, but stick with it. Like much that you do in life, you’ll get better with practice.

Some of my players have stuck with me since that memorable first summer of gaming back in January 1984, so I guess I must be doing something right.