Friday, July 25, 2014

GM = God Mode #001 - Welcome to God Mode

If you're reading this and you're a GM/DM, welcome to my entropic cosm of terror. Over the weeks to come, we're going to pierce the veil of this illusion of benevolence and accommodation that's the current trend in RPGs and put the MASTER back into Game Master. Being a GM is akin to being a Greek God, the players being the mortals subject to your whims and cruelty. If you are a player reading this blog, your sanity is forfeit as you will learn that you are but mere puppets dancing to the mad tune of your GM.

This week I'd like to shine the light on the topic of player responsibility in making their characters interesting for the game. When you GM enough games, you'll run into players who want to skate by with the nondescript loner orphan character with no ties to the world and no personal relationships to any NPCs. That character is BORING and will need to be re-done or subject to the not-so-tender mercies of GM editing. The other end of the spectrum are the Mary Sues (characters that are somehow tied into major events and NPCs even though they're just starting level 1 scrubs). That player ego masturbation background so ubiquitous it makes all gamers reflexively cringe at anything that remotely sounds like, “Oh, gosh! Let me tell you about my character!”

As Masters, it is our job to crush both ends of the spectrum into the conformity that will liberate their confused player hearts and minds. While the actual mix and quantities vary slightly based on game style and player count, I find a five element mix to work best. That is to say that PC backgrounds need five usable elements to be considered acceptable. Typically five is what the average player brain can handle on a consistent basis so I recommend staying in that ballpark. They will after all need some reserve in order to not go stark raving mad in face of the Machiavellian psychological and emotional torment engine that you plan to put them through.

So what is the typical mix of these elements that byzantine mastermind GMs should use? Years of testing on victims suggests that it works best with two intrapersonal, two interpersonal and one aspirational. That's a lot of terminology I know, but we must keep our methods of player manipulation obfuscated in jargon after all. Intrapersonal elements are those that are within the characters' minds such as beliefs, values and personal codes of behaviour. Interpersonal elements are their relationships or ties to other characters or groups in the setting. Aspirational elements are characters driving motivations and goals and are not necessarily always aligned with the goals of an adventure. In fact, some of the finest moments of GMing can be had when your players are soul crushingly wrenched by their characters' plights as these elements both help and hinder their adventures.

With that, I must bring this installment to a close. Would you like to see this expanded upon in future weeks? What other areas of Games Mastering would you like tips on? Questions? Compliments? Non-sequitur megalomania? Leave it in the comments below!


  1. That was a fun read. I think Gamesmasters ought to appreciate your first advancement of what might rightly be called GM Advocacy. It's a refreshing reclaimation of the rightful role and position of the Gamesmaster.

    After all, due to years of wishy-washy touchy-feely indoctrination by Pro-Player Advocacy Groups, many GMs, especially new ones, suffer under the impression that being a GamesMaster is tantamount to being a babysitter whose sole job is to coddle their emotionally hyper-sensitive and fragile Players by clearing a path towards Epic Heroism for them. We are instructed that no Gamesmaster should dare to assert anything resembling an actual challenge to their Ever-To-Be-Pampered Player Base. After all, we are told, if we don't do that then the Players will feel bad and never return to the game again. So we must comply with all of their wishes, or we shall surely lose that very thing that makes our Worlds possible - our dear beloved Players! Heaven's no, we can't let that happen!

    Pfffft. The best GM's I've ever encountered had absolutely no problem letting beloved PCs kill themselves gloriously (or otherwise) in the tide of battle. Total Party Kills did not daunt them. They were indeed, Masters of their Worlds. And we Players - leathernecks that we are, thrilled and delighted in the challenge!

    The philosophy behind this movement is tied to several false premises that have surfaced in recent years. The most pernicious and deeply seated is the proposition that Gamesmasters by design are Tyrants who must be overthrown in The Grand Revolution. This (absurd) assertion has lead to a myriad of fallacious propositions in its train. And in the process denuded many Gamesmasters of their most important role in the game... that of World Author. I could go on at length about this, but I will refrain for the sake of brevity. And of course I could go on at length regarding all the caveats I would also include related to why GMs should not abuse their power ("With great power comes ... etc."), but again, brevity is a virtue in this case. Thus, I will pass on all of that for now.

    It is refreshing to have a GM Advocacy. Even if GMs decide to play it soft, at least they will know that it is not *a Requirement* and that they have at their discretion the option to play hardball as much as they damn well please. So thanks! Great post.

    1. Yes, new GMs need to know that they are not the court jester dancing and singing for the amusement of the players. Your comment outlines precisely the alarming shift towards GM practices that are similar to the ones which create spoiled and entitled children. Masked within every GMs Velvet Glove should be the Iron Fist. While frequency of revealing said fist is a personal preference, every GM is best served to occasionally remind their players it is there.

    2. I have to say, respectfully, that I think you've completely misconstrued the opposition here. I've seen this debate hashed many a time, and never once have I seen the player advocacy side demand or even suggest that DMs reduce the level of challenge. That's a myth propagated by their opponents who either don't understand or intentionally misconstrue the argument in order to score cheap points with the interwebz.

      Generally, the misunderstanding centers on the frequency of random character death. The player advocacy side tends to disfavor random character death. Generally, they don't actually disfavor character death outright, just random character death that occurs as a result of bad luck rather than bad decisions, intentional choices, or truly challenging situations. And generally, they disfavor it because (or more accurately when) it leads to inferior stories and weaker emotional connections between players and characters, not because they're afraid their players will rage quit. But that's not even the point.

      The real disconnect between the straw man and the true argument is that the frequency of player death has absolutely nothing whatever to do challenge. I'll say that again: challenge and deadliness are completely distinct concepts. You can have an extremely challenging game where no PC ever dies. You can have an easy game where PCs die all the time. Challenge is all about the probability of failure. Death is just one kind of failure, a particularly blunt tool in the GM's arsenal that can be devastatingly effective but also cause a tremendous amount of collateral damage (including to the tool itself, which is to say that the more you use it the less effective it is). A GM who calls for more sparing use of that particular tool is not automatically some wimp or court jester who wants to coddle his players and walk them down the garden path to epicness. He could simply be a craftsman who realizes that just because he has a hammer does not mean all his problems are nails. Those who accuse him of using his iron fist too sparingly would do well to look in the mirror, and consider whether perhaps there are tools in their own toolbox that could do with more use.

    3. Alright Tim (Can I call you Tim? I'm totally going to.), I think I get your assertion, but you're going to have to give me some clarification here. First off, I'm assuming you're responding to VB's original claim that
      "We are instructed that no Gamesmaster should dare to assert anything resembling an actual challenge to their Ever-To-Be-Pampered Player Base." But then you go on and rail against frequency of player death. While I agree with you entirely that you can have challenge without death, I don't think VB's point was to bring back, or increase the frequency of player death. In fact, I'm fairly positive that he'd agree with you that capricious character death brings nothing to a game, story or challenge wise.

      So what is VBs point? I think he reiterates it strongly towards the end of his post: "The most pernicious and deeply seated [false premise] is the proposition that Gamesmasters by design are Tyrants who must be overthrown in The Grand Revolution." His issue with player advocates is that they couch their rhetoric with the implication that a GM by nature is against the interest of the party and the story itself. He notes that player advocates are responsible for the propagation of the idea that it is the player's job to rebel and fight the GM at every opportunity. In order to allay these fears, the player advocates forward a doctrine that skews towards blindly giving the players what they want without them earning their rewards (gold, rep, sweet epic l00tz). Whether or not this is correct is an issue in and of itself. I personally cannot speak to it. In my own experience however, I have seen that people who take the player advocate position do tend to skew towards letting their players walk all over them. The idea being, "If I give them what they want, they'll know I'm their friend and not their enemy."

      If you operate with the mindset of, "How can I have them not be innately suspicious and mistrusting of me?" you are going to inevitably pamper them. Which is where the "Yes, and..." philosophy goes off the rails. On the surface it is a tool to give the players what they want while still exercising a modicum of control. "Can I have a warblade that is imbued with the spirits of my ancients who help me fight off the growing Darkness?" "Yes, and you can add that to your inventory." That is how the conversation tends to go. IMO the GM advocate should approach that question in a slightly different way, "Yes, and it's cursed w/ the blood of a thousand innocents and will slowly drive you insane as you realize your ancestors were horrifying maho mages." See, the former just gives the player what they want in fear of being seen as a capricious God who will block a player at every turn. The latter gives them what they want at a price. That is what the GM advocate is trying to reintroduce into the culture. Don't be a pushover. Don't fall back and let them have whatever they want. Involve consequences and elements that forward the plot. You can have a "Yes, and.." philosophy and still be a Master of your game.

      Worse still, this philosophy, when presented by others, wants to strip No out of the vocabulary of the GM. I say No plenty of times. Often in favor of the longevity of the player. "Can I jump off the rafter and stab that guy in his stupid face?" "Well, certainly you can.... but you did just watch him eviscerate a platoon of mercenaries in under 30seconds." Admittedly, that was hyperbole and the no was implicit, not overt, but do you really want to take that away?

    4. How about this bullshit instead, "I'm going to negotiate with the cultists by desecrating their sacred Idol thus proving I am beyond the power of their God's retribution." "Yes, and it succeeds." OR "No, they swarm you and savage your body over and over again before they sacrifice you as a heretic and blasphemer." The former is stupid, the later makes far more sense. Am I supposed to suspend the natural inclinations of a sentient being's behavior simply because the player really wants to do something? Or, would it be more fair for me to present the consequences of their actions accurately and force them to work with a new complication? Sounds like the latter makes a better story to me. Obviously you don't start w/ the gang rape, you let them fight their way out of it. To cave in and have the cultists fall to their knees in reverence would be the kind of garbage that would have me walk out of that movie.

      Anyway, I've digressed quite a bit. The point is this and this only. A GM needs to be a dispassionate arbiter. If physics and nature favored certain individuals and allows them to circumvent their principles, what is the constant? Where is the baseline by which you can judge your actions? Player advocacy annoys me because it presents players with an alternate reality whereby they can't accurately judge the effectiveness or difficulty of attempted actions. If I jump off a horse galloping at full speed to skewer my enemy, I fully intend to suffer some damage from the attempt. If I don't, does that mean I can circumvent nature as long as I'm doing heroic things? Could I jump off a train at full speed and stab someone and get away with it? Where does the line of danger get drawn?

      So, now we get to frequency of player death. First off, VB only used player death as one example of many. He explicitly states that he's trying to keep the post terse, so it's a bit presumptuous to assume that he is automatically equating challenge with possibility of player death. But let's talk about it anyway.

    5. I put on a hard front, but I don't actually kill my players that often. In fact, I go out of my way to come up with a different consequence when they push to that edge. Capture, torture, arrested, whatever I can get away with. But when you pull something that has no possibility of safety net, I'm sorry you die. Those are the stakes. That's what brings so much tension and enjoyment to those situations. You want to try to jump the gorge and hope you can land on the other side? Well lets roll and find out. Oh, you don't make it? Well, it's a 900 foot drop, I think it's time to reroll. I'm not there to stop them from making stupid decisions. If they don't learn, they die again and again and again and again until they get it. Frequency of player death is cause players do stupid shit.

      Any GM worth his salt will recognize how to build a safety net into their situations. But they are under no obligation to implement them. There is all this outcry of, but it makes for a bad story. That's life. Life is dispassionate and cruel. Should a game be any different? I posit that a character who has survived impossible odds is what makes a story good. Those that take chances and manage to pull through when the threat of death was real and imminent. Not the guy who rightly should have died 13 times but somehow, always managed to get deus ex'd out of it. That guy earned nothing. His story isn't important or interesting. Where is the tension? The only way that guy is interesting is if he has suffered horrible repercussions for each of his death-defying stunts. Death 1: Lose an arm. Death 2: Lose an Eye. Death 3: paralyzed while your beloved is tortured before you. Death 4: Castrated and forced to work in a chain gang to build the necromancer his fortress of doom. Death 5: Forced to make a contract w/ an ancient God, in the process lose a little of your sanity. But at this point does it matter? Do we care how much he's been savaged? Isn't it a little silly now? I know he's gonna live, so why do I care how badly he gets tortured and brutalized. He'll sleep it off and be back in fighting form. Here, ladies and gentleman, I assert it's kinder to kill them and let them start anew. That guy failed, so what? Big deal. People die. Lets talk about those guys that lived. Why do I have to cater to your stupid little snowflake who's really not that new, inventive, or interesting. It's just going to be one orphan after another, just another in a long line of brooding assassins.

      See, I can be creative. Any GM can. Or they wouldn't be a GM. The real skill is in getting your players to be creative. Lose enough characters and you suddenly realize you don't want to make an orphan. Maybe you decide to make a well adjusted book-worm noble who reluctantly takes up the family sword when his older brothers are out fighting another threat and a new political rival looms on the horizon. Now, we're getting somewhere. If I kept his dumbass orphan alive, time after time, he'd never learn anything. He'd be playing the same stupid character 10 years from now.

      At any rate, that's how you straw man.

      (Triple post cause I rule that hard.)

  2. Great article, thanks for posting it. I returned to gaming (and GMing) a couple of years ago after about a 12 year break. In catching up on all the game-related forums and blogs I soon came across advocates of GMing philosophies such as "Yes, and..." and "Never say no" styles of gaming. I began to wonder if I'd been doing it all wrong ever since I first picked up the dice in 1979. But then I quickly came to my senses and today I am happily GMing both a 1e AD&D and a B/X campaign.

    1. Welcome back to the gaming community! While there have been great strides made in games design principles in the past decade and a half, there are some unfortunate ideas that crept into gaming (your aforementioned "Yes, and..." and "Never say no"). On the surface they seem harmless, but they support a dynamic wherein the GM is but a hardworking babysitter to Player Entitlement. That is where I feel those philosophies go awry.

    2. Eventually, I foolishly allowed myself to be drawn into a debate with one particular zealot of the "Yes, and..." crowd. I never once said that his preferred gaming style was wrong, I simply argued against his unwavering belief that no other gaming style was right. Of course, no one convinced anyone to change their mind and to this day the term "collaborative story telling" makes my skin crawl.