Game Master's Handbook

Guiding the Game

So you have your world, and you have your scenario. It’s time to start playing your GUTS+ game! Much of being the Game Master is creating the illusion of knowing where things are going and being one step ahead of the players, but if you know how your world reacts to different actions, then you can always know what happens next and always be ahead. As the GM, you also have the power to stop actions that you don’t want to happen, but be aware that doing so can make your players feel restricted.

SOIL

As the GM, you are both the gardener and the place from which your game’s story grows. Whether you want to grow a beautiful story flower or a towering epic tree, it’s important for you as the GM to cultivate your SOIL skills:

Signposting

To ensure that your group of players always knows what options are available to them, it is important to become good at signposting.

Signposting is the skill of explaining details in such a way that the players know how to interact with something or know that something can be interacted with to learn more about it without explicitly telling them. This can be as simple as only describing interactable or interesting items in the room or as complex as describing the room in full detail but making the interesting items more tantalizing than anything else. It can also be something like an obvious tick in an NPC’s dialogue.

As long as the players know what is available for them to do, you are doing signposting right.

Outlining

Outlining is the key to not burning out as a GM. In a lot of games, you have a map and a game world and story all planned out. It takes a lot of work and time, and it can all fall apart if your players insist on going a way you hadn’t planned for. On the other side, if you build a story that clearly follows a very linear path, your players will feel like they don’t have any agency in the game. This can all be solved without over-planning every element of the game and getting exhausted.

Outlining is the skill of taking specific story beats and locations and stringing them together so loosely that the path to reach them does not matter and feels natural to the players. It also includes creating enough intermediary spaces to allow players to explore freely without feeling like they are being railroaded, even if they partially are. Using your outline, you can move the world around the players, creating the path you want the players to follow while still allowing them to explore freely.

Let’s say, for example, that you have a start location, a middle location, and an end location that you want your players to visit. If you create intermediary spaces where your players can wander if they need to, then you can place your middle and end locations anywhere your players go. So if the players want to go east, then you as the GM can know that the end will be that direction. If they double back and go a little bit farther west, you can simply move that end location to wherever it needs to be. In other words, all roads lead to the end.

This obviously becomes tricky when you have a clear end goal like an evil scientist’s tower or a corrupted guardian giant that’s visible from the distance, but if you’re creative enough, you can either convince your players to go confront it or otherwise make the path they take always curve toward the end location as they keep moving.

Improvising

Improvisation is an important skill to have because it not only lets you better utilize your outline, but also allows you to quickly react to whatever your players do in the game. Being able to take a cue from the player and launch a reasonable response will create many interesting and memorable scenarios.

Learning

“Learning” refers not just to understanding the rules of the GUTS+ System, but also to learning who your characters are and what has happened so you can bring consistency to the game world.

Interpreting Outcomes

Ensuring that the game continues moving at a comfortable or interesting pace is another important part of being the GM. In order to keep the game moving at a favorable pace, it is important that you are able to not only use your SOIL, but also know how to interpret player rolls and how to fairly determine the outcomes of situations.

Assigning Rolls

As your players interact with your world, they will hopefully try to make their characters do different things. Whenever their characters try to do something that could potentially not work our or could cause problems, they need to roll some dice, and it’s your responsibility to tell them what they need to roll.

Because there are only 4 basic GUTS Qualities, it’s important to understand what each quality entails and what kinds of actions they generally govern:

  • Gumption: The character’s go-getter-ness—how well the character does things that require a “push” rather than fine skill; things like feats of strength or jumps to clear a gap or things like that.
  • Utility: The character’s handiness—how well the character does something that requires skill or fine manipulation; things like tying a knot or building a tower out of building blocks or things like that.
  • Thought: The character’s brains—how much the character knows, their general awareness of their surroundings, their overall smarts; things like trying to get information in from a book or noticing someone sneaking up on them or things like that.
  • Slyness: The character’s ability to go with the flow—how well the character does things that require social precision or grace; things like trying to hide or persuade someone or things like that.

For example, if someone is trying to build a bridge out of scrap wood, you would make that player roll Utility to see how well the bridge they built performs its job.

Once you understand the GUTS Qualities, you can move on to looking at your players’ characters’ custom Qualities. For example, if the character in the bride-building example above had a custom Quality “Bridgebuilding” or “Construction” or something like that, then it would make more sense to have the player roll that. Depending on the character’s background, maybe you even allow them to roll Utility + Bridgebuilding to give them a better chance at success! It’s your choice, but it’s important to know what custom qualities your players’ characters have in case they don’t speak up.

Note: if a character attempts to do something that would be impossible for them, do not allow a Check roll. For example, if a computer-illiterate person tries to hack a mainframe, they wouldn’t even know where to start and therefore should not be allowed to have a chance at success!

Combat

Upon reviewing the Combat section in the Player’s Handbook, you’ll find that you are responsible for keeping track of turns as well as assigning the rolls your players need to make in any given situation. It can be tricky, but if you’re organized enough and keep good enough track of what’s happening in the fight, it shouldn’t be too challenging.

Using the Success Scale

The Success Scale is laid out in the Player’s Handbook as the scale that each rolled die falls against in order for you as the GM to interpret not only how successful the character is at whatever they were trying to do, but also what happens based on their success. A good rule-of-thumb to follow is that if a player’s dice have more than half showing a single number, that’s the level of success they should receive. In cases where there’s a wider split of values, success generally should weigh heavier than failure unless the circumstances suggest otherwise.

In many cases, it’s much more interesting to treat attempts as being successful, but use the dice as the outcome of that attempt—the character did manage to deactivate the machine, but it triggered an alarm that alerted the guards before they were able to shut it down completely. Ultimately, the interpretation is up to you.

Remember: only assign your players a roll if something interesting or consequential will happen if they fail. If there’s no consequence for failing, then it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.

Awarding Experience

Experience Points are necessary for your players’ characters to grow stronger. Whenever your character does something challenging, interesting, or maybe even something dangerous or unwise, reward them with Experience Points. The number of points you give for any situation is up to you, but keep in mind that a character can either increase a quality’s level by 1 or get a completely new quality when they reach 100 Experience Points. If they’ve done something challenging like reassembling a radio, that could earn 5 points, while something life-threatening like surviving an avalanche could earn them 20+ points.

If you’d like to target a reward to a specific quality, you also have the power to award Learning Experiences when the character accomplishes a particularly difficult task. For example, if they figure out in-game that someone is actually the bad guy, you can award a Thought Learning Experience when it’s confirmed. Likewise, if they have a difficult conversation or successfully negotiate something big, a Slyness Learning Experience can be awarded. It’s up to you when and how many, but this can help reward players for doing difficult things well.

Status Effects

Status effects are optional conditions that you can place upon your players’ characters to inflict them with challenges beyond injuries and strain. Read more about what status effects imply in the Status Effects section of the Player’s Handbook’s Playing the Game chapter. As the Player’s Handbook says, what status effects exist and what they mean in the game world are completely up to you!

Status effects can be intensified if they are inflicted upon a character multiple times. You can keep it simple by simply adding a number to the status or you can come up with words for greater intensities, for example “afraid” to “terrified” to “panicked.” The choice is yours, though having different words can potentially help your players know how to act under each condition.

To help you out, below are some examples status effects you can use and what their effects could be.

StatusEffect
AfraidThe character subtracts 1 from any Gumption roll
DiscouragedThe character subtracts 1 from any Utility roll
ConfusedThe character subtracts 1 from any Thought roll
EmbarrassedThe character subtracts 1 from any Slyness roll
TiredThe character can roll 1 fewer die for Gumption rolls, to a minimum of 1
NauseatedThe character can roll 1 fewer die for Utility rolls, to a minimum of 1
TinnitusThe character can roll 1 fewer die for Thought rolls, to a minimum of 1
Blurry VisionThe character can roll 1 fewer die for Slyness rolls, to a minimum of 1
Greater Intensities
TerrifiedThe character subtracts 2 from any Gumption roll
DepressedThe character subtracts 2 from any Utility roll
BaffledThe character subtracts 2 from any Thought roll
HumiliatedThe character subtracts 2 from any Slyness roll
ExhaustedThe character can roll 2 fewer die for Gumption rolls, to a minimum of 1
SickThe character can roll 2 fewer die for Utility rolls, to a minimum of 1
DeafenedThe character can roll 2 fewer die for Thought rolls, to a minimum of 1
BlindedThe character can roll 2 fewer die for Slyness rolls, to a minimum of 1

Note: these are just some examples of what kinds of effects could be applied to a character. You are free to create your own effects, use your own wording, and decide how long they last. Status effects are mainly a loose framework to add additional value to the game and can be applied however you see fit.

Removing Status Effects

Status effects should normally be removed within a reasonable amount of time after the source of the effect has gone away. If you have a reason why it might persist, by all means, keep the status applied to the character in question, just be sure to communicate to the player that it has not gone away.

Tip: It can be hard to remember what statuses you’ve applied to characters sometimes. Try to write down what you’ve applied to different characters in a place that you’ll see regularly so you can be reminded if the status needs to be removed.

LAST UPDATED: April 30, 2019
  • Add extra help for assigning and interpreting rolls
  • Add section explaining how to award Experience Points
  • Add small section pointing to Combat