Favor Campaign over Characters
In most games, characters start fragile. A dead character should not end the campaign. Players are busy. An absent player should not scuttle the session.
Ensure that the game can handle drop-outs. Also, ensure it can handle drop-ins. Someone has intermittent availability. Work so the game would be fun for them as well as the regular players.
Let's call this Martin's Law. George R. R. Martin “Song of Fire and Ice” is a testimony to ensemble stories.
Favor Rulings over Rules
I don't want to remember a wide variety of rules. I want a light framework to help me adjudicate in a consistent manner. I want to avoid time spent looking up rules, but instead want to keep moving in a consistent manner. I want the players to get back to the adventure/story.
I also want to make sure players have tools that they can use to counter the sting of some of my rulings; Either giving them a bonus, re-roll, advantage, or way of buying it off:
- Fate Core has Fate points
- Burning Wheel and Torchbearer have Artha
- Dungeon Crawl Classics has Luck
- D&D has Inspiration.
- Eberron has Hero Points
Favor Description over Prescription
This is an extension of Rulings over Rules, but merits further discussion.
When presented with a problem, are do players limit their response to they have on their character sheet? Or do they start narrating how they respond and look to you for adjudication? Are the players engaging with the adventure or their character sheet?
For clever or amusing ideas, don't require a role. They described how they were looking for traps and how they would disarm it. Give it to them. Broadcast that you will be rewarding player skill. This is a core tenant of avoiding the grind in Torchbearer, and what the OSR builds on.
Also, throw them some Inspiration, Luck points, Hero points, or Fate tokens. Given them currency to further engage in the story.
In a DCC funnel I ran, one of the characters had a pound of clay and fashioned a terra cotta helmet in hopes of blending in with a bunch of terra cotta warrior automatons. Instead of requiring a Personality roll, I said it worked. If I had to do it over again, I'd also have awarded +1 Luck to the character.
Mighty Deed Die vs. Feat Trees
The Warrior in Dungeon Crawl Classics has a Mighty Deed Die. The Might Deed Die replaces your static bonus to hit. At 1st level, you get a 1d3 Mighty Deed Die. (2nd level it becomes d4, 3rd a d5, etc).
When you attack, you declare your Mighty Deed - trip the monster, blind it, dive between it's legs slash its underside etc. You then roll your attack add your Mighty Deed roll and your strength (or dexterity) bonus. If you hit the armor class and get a 3 or higher on your Mighty Deed die, your deed happens. The rules suggest the Referee to scale the degree of success based on the Mighty Deed result.
The Mighty Deed Die subsumes 3E and Pathfinder combat maneuvers: trip, disarm, sunder, improved grapple, etc. It guides play from the character sheet back to the table and story.
Favor Questing over Railroading
Put decisions on where to go adventuring into the players’ hands. Let them know if they want it, they can quest for it. Lost a limb? Give them clues about the promises of the Regenerating Muds of Lazul. Ask the players what their characters want. Let them pursue those desires by engaging in the world. But make sure the world is not remaining static.
Set larger events in motion. Create rumor tables. Think off screen. In other words, favor a sandbox world over adventure paths. The campaign is more than the actions of the characters.
I recommend three resources: