GM Advice: Why a GM Should KISS as Much as Possible

Have no fear. I’m not suggesting you transform your game into an orgy. After all, some things should not be role-played…

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


I’m a huge fan of keeping it simple (stupid), or KISS for short.  After all, Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” and I’m beginning to think he was onto something. (In fact I recently blogged about this in my Paradox of Choice post).

In today’s world, there is a natural tendency to embrace complexity. Complexity is all around; it beguiles us with the promise of a better outcome. But, ask yourself this: is the end result worth the extra effort a complex solution requires?

Perhaps, as a player your PC relies on a complex balance of feats, class abilities and equipment while as a GM you regularly run combats featuring six different kinds of opponents using options from a wide range of books. That’s fine as far as it goes — and if you are enjoying yourself I’m certainly not going to stop you — but often the simpler solution is easier to design and implement.

Running a simpler game has two major benefits:

  1. Quicker Design: Keeping it simple speeds up prep time immeasurably. Whether it means creating fewer — or easier to run — NPCs or crafting a less Byzantine plot you won’t spend so much time slaving away between sessions. I’m guessing your life is pretty busy, so this is a Good Thing. Focusing on fewer things — be they monsters, location descriptions, plots or whatever — means you’ll make better progress designing those things. Focusing on more game elements (or more complex game elements) means you must either spend more time designing or spend less time on each design. Neither of those options is ideal.
  2. Quicker Game Play: Building simpler NPCs or using fewer different types of foe in a fight speeds up game play. Using rules from one or two books means you’ll be using rules you know. This means you’ll spend less time looking up new rules options, feats, spells and magic items and more time actually playing the game.

Running a simpler game also has a host of minor benefits. These include:

  1. Lower Costs: If you agree to only allow certain books into your campaign it costs less to play. That’s rather handy if your players are at school, have just started a family, moved house and so on
  2. Lower Barriers of Entry: Running a simpler game makes it easier to integrate a new player. They have fewer books to accumulate and fewer things to read. This is particularly handy of the players is young or experienced. (As an aside, it’s also easier to run your chum’s PC if he can’t make the game.)
  3. Less GM Burnout: If prepping for the game is a doddle, the GM is less likely to burn out and give up. GM burnout is bad — it can lead to the end of campaigns and even cause groups to implode. Neither situation is exactly great.
  4. Fewer Arguments: Using fewer rules inevitably means everyone at the table has a better understanding of the rules. This means there are fewer arguments. Arguments can cause bad feeling and (inevitably) reduce the amount of time you spend actually playing the game.

Help Your Fellow GMs!

Do you have other ways to keep your game simple? Share what they are in the comments below and help your fellow GMs run quicker, easier games today!

Published by


Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

17 thoughts on “GM Advice: Why a GM Should KISS as Much as Possible”

  1. I agree with you about keeping it simple. That’s why I still prefer AD&D 2nd to any other systems I have played. It seems to be a good balance between roleplaying and skills I.e. basic proficiencies that do not take over the character.

    Also, I use MapTool, so the mechanics of rolling dice is minimized and leaves more scope to play the character.

    KISS is definitely the way to go.

    1. Amen to that. Sometimes less is more. Keep the rules simple enough and everyone has a good time at the table!

  2. This is good advice. I think one of the biggest things that can make it so people don’t like GMing is when they spend too much time on a game that gets “screwed up” then they feel like it is wasted work. In my games I write adventures is a way that is a situation more than a specific path. This way I can run the game around what is happening and not fight the players on how they are handling what is happening. In fact this has turned games into awesome experiences where I never would have thought the players would have done X but they did and it was great. It opens up the game and makes it more fun for everyone.

    Using the KISS method and the simple Fyxt RPG d20 system I have been able to get everyone at the table to GM at least some. Now that they see the benefit of it we have now trying to “get everyone in” that wants to GM. Instead of in the past where I had to beg people to run a game or two so I could take a break.

    Now I think it can be important to have the details of a situation, but the way in which it can be handled should definitely be KISS.

    1. KISS keeps the scope of the GM’s prep and the stress of running a game to a minimum. Congratulations on getting more of your group to run games–I’m not surprised you’ve had success with that strategy!

  3. I programmed my mini system Elthos RPG homebrew rules into a Web application named the Mythos Machine for many of the reasons you mention. Works for me. 🙂

  4. I posted this on the facebook, then realized it would probably be better to put it in the article comments.

    Even the seemingly heavy stat block games can be boiled down to comparison math. Just take the mirror of the player’s stats/interesting powers and throw in a modifier of (-2 to +2)* and you have a base range of below to above average. You can take it higher for important or epic situations, add descriptive and storytelling elements that show why the villain/npc/monster is different from the PC’s, and you can put together an enjoyable game. It makes for good improvisation and sometimes leads to places in the story you couldn’t have imagined.

    For example, the mutants & masterminds 3e is all basic math based around the PC’s PL of 10 with tradeoffs going up or down for the various avenues of action. If something hits harder, it’s harder for it to hit…etc. Instead of laboring over making the perfect villain stat block, focus instead on the story elements and the motivations of this dastardly entity.

    The math works itself out. Trade off 2 in one avenue for -2 in another. Then if you want a real challenge to the PC’s you start the villain at a base of PL 12. The game tells you to ignore the PL restrictions for villains you create, which is great in theory, but if you have ever run a M&M game you know how easy it is to throw something way out of the league of the group. This equals the TPK of most fantasy games, but in superhero land it equals a stompfest that you have to explain or deus ex machina the group out of….which is no fun for anybody involved.

    *For most fantasy games the +2 or -2 modifer works great…I just included the M&M example above to show how a seemingly stat block intensive game can be boiled down into simple math that just needs some flavor to make it rich for the players and GM’s alike.

    Apologies for the ramble….I took the concept of KISS and made it my own a long time ago.

    1. “Instead of laboring over making the perfect villain stat block, focus instead on the story elements and the motivations of this dastardly entity.”

      This is excellent advice. No one cares if the stat block of the master villain was slightly wrong, but everyone remembers when they foiled his dastardly plot. Sometimes, I think, we get so blinded my the maths of any given situation that we forget that.

  5. I agree with you 100%! I wish I had learned this sooner. I kept buying the new books, more spells, more classes, more, more, and now in hindsight, the players only really ever stuck to the core rulebook classes (and the Alchemist from the Advanced, only because it WAS cool). I should have kept it simple. I kept it simple in other ways, though, like combat, streamlining it as much as I possibly could.

    However, I still burned out.

  6. My high school biology teacher frequently admonished us to use the KISS method.
    He was right, and so are you, Creighton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.