Sunday, October 2, 2011

Kicking the GM When He's Down

So in my last post, I wrote a bit about objective-less RPGs from the player point-of-view, and how frustrating it can be. Frustrating in that an RPG may present a lot of "cool things you can do/be" but in actual practice you (the player) get shut down in order to make the game playable. At least, that was kind of the gist of what I was writing though I apologize if I wasn't succinct enough.

However, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of my time I am running the game (i.e. acting as Game Master) rather than playing the game as a player. So one might guess that most of my frustration with objective-less RPGs has to do with how it affects the GM.

That would be a good guess.

Why would someone ever choose the role of GM? Because they are a frustrated (i.e. unpublished) fiction writer? Because they like to lord it over people as a de facto "god" of the fantasy universe?

I don't know. Really, I don't...I can say that there IS a degree of "control freak" to my personality, at least from an astrological perspective: having Pluto in the 10th house gives me a deep emotional attachment to be in positions of authority and control (or at least the appearance of looking like I know what I'm doing), and being a GM allows me to do that. It certainly helps fulfill the essential needs of my Capricorn Venus, too.

On the other hand, I've got Neptune conjunct my Ascendant ("rising") sign, so I'm able to adapt to other styles of play (including giving over control of a game) and that impatient Aries Mars in opposition to Uranus makes me want to break free of any responsibility I have to my players...maybe that's why I have a tendency to kill their characters at every opportunity.
; )

Who knows? It could just be that I'm an A-type personality that can only see things being done "my way or the highway." Maybe I don't take orders from other authority figures very well, and being in the captain's chair allows me to steer clear of conflict on that front.

Whatever it is, I do enjoy running games. I am a fairly creative person and being the game master gives me the chance to create worlds and adventures and fantastic (as in "fantasy") situations and the opportunity to make all sorts of NPC personalities (which I find fun). And I don't get so wholly committed to "my own story" that I care if PCs wreck the thing...I am really not into railroading player action to conform to any set plot.

But despite my enjoyment in that, being a GM is quite a bit of work. Just "knowing the rules good" isn't enough to run a game...there's management of the game, management of the player characters (sometimes management of the players themselves), acting as judge/adjudicator for odd actions/circumstances, pacing of the session, making sure everyone gets involved and has an opportunity to actively participate (this is part of the management thing)...

And all of that (which can, frankly, be exhausting, especially with more than two or three players)...all of that comes only after the preparation for the game itself. 'Cause it's not enough to show up to the game table with a rule book and dice and the knowledge of how to quickly find such-and-such table on page 136 (or whatever). No, it is the GM's task (in all RPGs that utilize a GM) to craft an adventure or scenario or plot or whatever a particular game chooses to call it: the GM is responsible for determining the particular opportunities and avenues open for exploration.

For some DM's this may be as "simple" as drawing a dungeon map and stocking it (random or not) with challenges and loot. For some (like Alexis over at Tao of D&D) it might mean creating an entire living-breathing world of society and customs and economy and trade routes and knowing how those things interact so that when players say, "I want to be a mustard farmer," he knows how many plots of land are available for cultivation.

Hey, but that's what we're signing up for, right? If you want to be the GM/DM then you've got to be willing to put in the time...even if it just means thinking up an idea an hour beforehand and jotting down some quick-n-dirty notes for how the plot/adventure will unfold.

When a game has a blueprint for creating game it the "mission" of Top Secret, the "dungeon" of Basic D&D, or the "investigation" of Call of Cthulhu, the GM has an idea of what the prep-work for the game will look like. Maybe not how to go about getting to the final product (different folks pursue the creative endeavor in different ways), but at least an end result...something to present at the game session. And because players know what they're getting into (due to the explicit instruction of what game play is about), they can get on the same page with the GM.

Top Secret players: "What's our mission?"
GM/Administrator: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it is..."

D&D players: "Any leads on potential treasure hunts?"
DM: "As a matter of fact, you've heard about this ancient temple..."

CoC players: "What's the recent mystery we've been hipped to?"
GM/Keeper: "Well, Bill's uncle has recently vanished; he was known to dabble in the occult..."

What with all the other work that goes into the game, having a clear-cut idea of play is a damn godsend. As a GM you are already put in a position of managing player expectations; for example, even if they know they'll be dungeon delving again, you still have to play up to (or down to) the challenge level they're expecting. Some players relish a kill-crazy scenario like the Tomb of Horrors, while other players get totally disgruntled with the inclusion of a single level-draining monster. As a GM of any game, there's a certain amount of adjustment that goes on with balancing things to players' taste (as well as helping them push their limits in this regard) long as you have a base or foundation (what I referred to as an "objective of play") then you can build on that.

For example, some veteran D&D players might find the whole dungeon schtick to be lacking after awhile. They get a handle on the best tactics for overcoming most challenges, and develop a nose for avoiding or ignoring parts that are too difficult (I've had players decide to skip going to a particular dungeon because it was rumored to be filled with undead and they were light in the cleric department...that's just smart play). But the DM can up the ante by adding political ramifications (as in, issues with the local government) or ethical dilemmas, or romantic entanglements, or religious/spiritual consequences to an adventure. A DM can create situations where these "non-dungeon" challenges need to be navigated as part of or in addition to a "standard adventure scenario." Lasting consequences to a campaign can come out of adventures, making the "dungeon" more than an isolated site of exploration...if the PCs somehow negotiate a trade route with the Drow (or ally with them to conquer the kingdoms of the surface world) you've got yourself a pretty interesting story rooted firmly in the foundation of "explore and evil subterranean society."

What if your Top Secret investigator gets captured by the terrorist (or other governmental organization) she was trying to infiltrate and becomes a turncoat, either as a character choice ("my character would probably break if waterboarded") or circumstantially (the enemy outfit somehow blackmails the character or bribes her with enough dough)? Then you add a whole new dimension to your TS game as the traitor may be sabotaging the rest of the "party" or playing "both sides of the fence" in future missions. Or what if one of the enemy agents turns out to be a "love interest" of the PC (as one finds in O So Many James Bond films) can this complicate the situation or jeopardize the job? Interesting things and neat role-playing opportunities can come out of a game, even with rather vanilla objectives like "go assassinate this bad guy" or "go stop this terrorist organization by infiltrating their base."

Within an objective framework there is opportunity for both the PCs and the GM to "mix things up."

But that's almost a secondary consideration for me...I mean, when running an RPG, I will almost always attempt to dig into a deeper development of character when given half a chance (though that's a whole 'nother post entirely). For me, the main thing is this: with all the other responsibilities on my plate, the last freaking thing I want to do is try to figure out what exactly players are supposed to be doing in the game.

Yes, I can usually come up with an idea based on the premise/setting of these high concept idea (as in, one) that players may or may not like depending on their own conceptions of "what the game is." But sustaining play? Long term? As opposed to a one-off single session.'s too much.

Call me lazy, fine. I prefer long term play to one-off games, and if I'm going to get to the "meat" of role-playing, it is far easier for me to have a frame or structure from which to hang the game...and I'm not just talking about system/rules. If I have a basic game "concept" than I can explore (or drive the player characters to explore) other things within that paradigm. Without it, they're just wandering and (generally) counting on me, the "game master," to come up with stuff for them to do, i.e. "adventures."

Does this sound like I'm denigrating the players' ability to be proactive? Um, no, not really. In my experience, players tend to take an active role in choosing the individual goals and agendas of their characters...though generally only after they've come to identify, develop, and understand the character, something that occurs (mainly) during play itself. And the amount of time it takes to create that rapport and idea of internal character motivation, varies not only by player, but by circumstance as well.

[and THAT's a whole different series of posts, too!]

And until players get to that level of comfort with their characters, where they can understand and internalize motivation and take a proactive stance towards what they do in the imaginary game world...until that happens, guess who the player is looking to for direction as to what they should be doing?

Yeah, the GM. And I, frankly, don't have time to tell you what you're supposed to be doing in the game...I'm trying to prep and run and manage and anticipate and improvise, etc...all those things I mentioned earlier. Players asking me, "what are we supposed to do?" How the hell should I know if the game designer doesn't tell me?

"Just shut up and take the job my NPC is handing you." I mean, isn't that what it boils down to eventually?

Here's the real sample adventure from Hollow Earth Expedition (when I was referencing the film crew, that was the downloadable sample adventure from their web site): players are called into a meeting with a U.S. Army major who outlines a scenario similar to the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark; i.e. Hitler has organized a team to go after an occult artifact [in this case, an ancient location of power rather than an ancient object] and the U.S. government wants the PCs to go after it. The briefing knows nothing about the thing (or the Hollow Earth for that matter) except that it is believed to be in the North Pole.

Now how exactly does that work with the concept archetypes like Field Biologist, Big Game Hunter, Jungle Missionary, or Lost Traveller? Answer: it doesn't. The adventure lists the archetypes "best suited" for the scenario, but doesn't preclude others. Same with certain Motivations (the HEX equivalent of alignment, or in VTM terms "Natures"). Since the scenario can be used "as the introduction to a longer campaign" the GM is explicitly told to talk to the players about what kind of game they're expecting and what kind of characters they're interested in playing.

All well and good...except that without a standard concept of game play, whose to say player interests or expectations can be met or even reconciled with the adventure scenario itself?

I ran into this issue when running Over The Edge, a game with "unlimited potential" and no standard method of play. I wanted to run a kind of "everyman-gets-drawn-into-a-seedy-underground-world-of-blackmarket-intrigue" with the usual OTE weirdness. My player wanted to play a suave and street-smart arms-dealer. Um...

The problem with OTE is that there are so many reasons for player characters to be on the island of Al Amarjah, and such a wide-open method of character creation...even their own examples of actual play feature players that are "troublesome" (at least from the GM's perspective). From the players' perspective? I'm sure they were just working within the rules to create a character they thought would be fun to play.

My OTE game lasted one session. My Rifts "campaigns," some of which involved a LOT of prep work for adventure planning/plotting and strings of "events" never lasted more than two sessions. Most never lasted more than one. Ars Magica has never lasted more than two or three sessions, whether I was running them or not, even when all the players were very committed to playing the game.

And as I said, I prefer long-term play and the natural evolution of character development that comes out of that form of play. One-off adventures are fine for conventions and sample/example sessions, but part of the fun for me (and the reason I prefer "conventional" RPGs to most indie games) is seeing where a long-term saga/campaign goes.

And without a built-in objective it's hard to do that.

And I don't like "hard." Running a game is tough enough. I've got enough on my plate without needing to devise a method of play that A) integrates the players' expectations with my own, and B) provides a week-to-week reason for play in order to keep a campaign going without an overall objective of play.

Does it sound like I'm whining a lot here? Sure I am...because I just dropped $50 on a book that expects me to do the work that the designer could've/should've done. I said in my original post on the subject, that this kind of lazy design choice is a serious irritant to me; I don't mind doing the work of the GM, I expect to take that on when I take up the mantle and decide to run a game. But the designer needs to do more than say, "here's a neat setting and rules for 'doing things,' now figure out how you want to play." Pal, the GM's job already comes with enough stuff to do, already requires "imagination added," don't give me YOUR job as a designer on top of it!

I think many designers must make the assumption that people (GMs) will "just know what to do" when they pick up their book, and it's more important to spend time on detailing the intricacies of the world setting, figuring this information will act as a "springboard" to the GM cultivating a game. Eh. Such stuff gives me ideas of what I want to incorporate into a game, but doesn't provide the "roadmap" to play itself. And it's a royal pain in the ass trying to figure it out myself...a pain in the ass that I'm generally unwilling to deal with since I know from experience it doesn't get one's game very far anyway, without a clear set of objectives with which everyone (players and GM) can "get on board."

All right, that's enough for now...this post is getting overly long.


  1. See, now that you provide some concrete discussion of specific things that bothered you and why, this makes a lot more sense to me. Sure, I hate that sort of thing, as well. Having a roadmap, though, is still not entirely essential (obviously Vampire: The Masquerade was sufficient to create an entire subculture of RPGers, so it can't be all that crippled - a lot of people figured out what to do with it). And games with clear roadmaps don't always work well (my favorite example of a game that is potentially awesome but not so great in actual practice is Shattered Dreams, which has a clear map to play - the players use their inherent mental powers to go into other people's dreams in order to fix their psychological problems, all of which are apparently caused by, or perhaps aggravated by, invading monsters - but doesn't actually work so well at the gaming table).

  2. The main thing I carry away from this is that it is really unfortunate the level of angst that this issue has generated for you, whether because it's hard to get the idea across or because it's cropped up enough to be seriously annoying in actual gaming.

    I can see how from one direction this can be a serious problem. But that direction is not how I approach the whole hobby, so it is difficult to connect with your frustration.

    I like what Justin Alexander has to say about prepping situations, and also the three clue rule. (

    I mean, granted, that happens once you've decided on what to do... but if you don't know what to do, if you get a game and really don't know how to work with a group to figure out what kind of story to do, there's a limit to what the game designer can do for you.

    I tend to take a system and use it for style and flavor, and subvert the content to do my own version anyway, often with objectives and plots the designers did not intend. So it's hard for me to understand the difficulty by the time the game gets to a table.

    Help me out: kicking the DM when he's down is because not only does the DM have to do a lot of work to prepare a game, but the DM also has to figure out what kind of story to tell?

  3. @ Faol: Yeah, just because a game DOES have an objective built-in doesn't necessarily make it a good game. I mean, I have a pretty good idea what "Witch Hunter" is all about, but I'd guess it would get boring after a couple-three sessions.

    As for VTM: if I had to make a snap judgment, I would say the rabid following is about something other than the game itself.
    ; )

    @ Fictive: The GM/DM has more to do than simply preparing a game session, at least if he/she intends for the game to last more than a single adventure scenario. "Kicking the GM when he's down" is giving him the work the designer should have done, preparing everyone at the table for play...which again is important if you want your game to last more than a single scenario.

    But, hey...don't feel bad about MY angst. Examining this particular issue has given me some good ideas regarding my own goals of game design (as well as a new tool to analyze/evaluate what I think about RPGs). For me, this is a good thing. I won't have to butt my head against the wall so much asking "why can't game X work when I really, really want it to?"

    Mr. Alexander's advice on prepping situations is similar to my own approach to adventure prep. As you point out, it works better when you know what the game is supposed to be about.

  4. tend to take a system and use it for style and flavor, and subvert the content to do my own version anyway, often with objectives and plots the designers did not intend<<<

    This strikes me very much as something similar to what I like to do with a game. In my current Knights of the Old Republic game with the SW Saga Edition, as a non-Star Wars fan, I wanted to do something OTHER than emulate the films (which the rules, and it seems the seasoned SW Saga gamers, want the games to be about. As if), and the KOTOR setting (far removed from Lucas hubris) offers a chance to go in different directions, at least with my take on it. Call of Cthulhu, Champions, even plain old D&D...I;ve always tried to do more offbeat campaigns with them (long before James Raggi put a whale in an iceberg and called it "weird fantasy"

    I've been very lucky to mostly get players who are not fanboy/girls of the various things I run. My current group are not Star Wars nuts. My Call of Cthulhu players from the 90's in my long campaigns were not Lovecraft readers. Most of my players in my "anything goes" Champions campaigns of multiple decades, where not comic book fans for the most part. If you are going to walk your own road with certain settings, it really really really seems to help if they are not all that familiar with the material.

    As far as DM/GM's job, I guess the least discussed but most important aspect to me would be we have to be the main focus of attention of several people for several hours. A lot longer than an actor in a play, and in most non-one man plays actors can get fairly long breaks from everybody looking at them and blathering at them, often fighting for the attention of the poor dude. Especially if you are not any kind of actor "hey look at me" type, or exhibitionist, is when it can in many ways seem like work. There have been times in my game where, because of a couple of players at least, I felt like an elementary school teacher putting in a long day in the class full of the "bad" kids.