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 actually 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.


As the GM, you are both the gardener and the garden 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 S. O. I. L. skills:


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 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.


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 return a reasonable response will create many interesting and memorable scenarios.

This is why creating fleshed out NPCs and knowing your game world well is so important and helpful! The better you know your creations, the better you will know how your creations will respond to any given thing.


“Learning” refers not just to understanding the rules of the GUTS+ System, but also to learning who your player characters are and their backstories so you can leverage the game world to include them better. It also encompasses keeping track of what has happened in your game so you can bring consistency to the game world.

Taking notes and planning interesting things based on your player characters interactions with the game world will make the whole experience better for everyone involved.

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 S. O. I. L., 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 out 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!

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.


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.

Awarding Experience

Experience Points are necessary for your players' characters to grow stronger. Whenever a 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 your players have just finished combat, you can award them with experience points equal to the total of the defeated enemies' quality levels. Outside of combat could be a little bit trickier. You can decide ahead of time how many points they’ll receive. For example 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. Alternatively, you can total up the values of their rolls during the challenge and award that if you don’t think it’s too much for the task!

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 Conditions

Status conditions 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 conditions imply in the Status Conditions section of the Player’s Handbook’s Playing the Game chapter. As the Player’s Handbook says, what status conditions exist and what they mean in the game world are completely up to you!

Status conditions 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 conditions you can use and what their conditions could be.

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 conditions could be applied to a character. You are free to create your own conditions, use your own wording, and decide how long they last. Status conditions are mainly a loose framework to add additional value to the game and can be applied however you see fit.

Status conditions can also be used to inflict a character with a non-Injury-level state like “hurt right hand” or “sprained left ankle” to raise the stakes of a situation by limiting the player’s use of a body part without making it extra serious. Injuries are much more dangerous than status conditions, so use conditions when a character is not in serious danger.


If you are using the Optional Magic System, then you should have seen that a failed attempt to use their Essence quality or an over-exertion of a character’s essence will inflict them with the “strained” status condition. If a character is “strained,” then they cannot use their Essence quality again without risking an Injury to their Head until the condition has been removed. Typically this condition should last one round in combat (i.e. they cannot use Essence for 1 turn) or whatever you deem reasonable outside of combat (eg. until a scene or location change).

If the character attempts to use their Essence again while “strained” and they succeed, they can perform their essence skill but do not lose the “strained” condition until they have waited the appropriate amount of time again. If they fail while “strained,” then they should receive 1 Injury to their Head.

Removing Status Conditions

Status conditions 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 condition 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 conditions 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 condition needs to be removed.


Injuries are no joke! Read up on what the Player’s Handbook says about them so you can understand just how serious they can be for a character. If a character receives 2 Injuries to any body part, they lose the use of that body part. Keep this in mind when the player tries to do something that an injury would prevent their character from doing. Injuries should only be applied when a character is faced with something dangerous or lethal like a collapsing cave or a foe with a sword, and they should not be given lightly.

Also keep in mind that if a character has a protective accessory or piece of clothing, that protection will spare their body injury twice (see Protection in the Player’s Handbook). Allow leniency with protection—just because a shield is strapped to the character’s left arm doesn’t mean it can’t also protect their head, torso, or any other part of their body. When a piece of protection has been used 2 times, any further injuries are applied to the character’s body part. Usually what this means is that the protection has been hit to the point that it has shifted into a position that it cannot be used from, and the character must take an active action (if in Combat) to re-adjust the protection before it can be used again. If the damage to a piece of protection is extensive, for example a knife cuts a padded glove, then the protection will need to be repaired instead of simply re-adjusted. In this case, the character must wait until after combat for it to be usable again.

Removing Injuries

The passage of time can by a tricky thing to simulate in the game world, but if you keep track of it well enough, you can help yourself provide a realistic timeline of when a character’s injuries might heal. As mentioned in the Recovery section of the Player’s Handbook, single a single untreated Injury takes 1 in-game day to heal while a double Injury/disabled body part can take up to 5 in-game days, and if the characters take the time to do something to help the injury heal, it can reduce the time needed by half or even remove it straight out depending on the treatment provided. Just try to keep track of injuries and use your best judgment to determine how much time has passed for an Injury to be removed.

If characters receive injuries during combat that would inhibit their fight but would just be painful afterward, you can downgrade the Injury to a Status Effect to help you keep track of what injuries are healing without it being an immediate danger to them. For example, if someone was hit in the arm with something large and they get an Injury, after combat you could remove the Injury and give a status of “Bruised Right Arm” with the description of “It will be easier to receive an Injury if damaged again”, with the consequence being that something less dangerous like getting kicked in the arm could inflict an Injury even if that arm was blocking the kick.

LAST UPDATED: October 28, 2019
  • Text and wording changes for clarity throughout