Enemy Mine: The Adversarial GM

Had an interesting experience the other day that led to some interesting conversations that led to some interesting musing that I thought I’d share.

Here’s how it started.

Imagine Games and Hobbies is running the D&D Encounters program here in Winnipeg. I do the organizing for them – ordering the packages, arranging the GMs, reporting on the games, stuff like that. I also ran a table through the first season, but couldn’t commit to it this season. One of the GMs wasn’t able to make it to the session this past Wednesday*, so I sat in for him. We were joking about how I was going to do my best to kill at least one of the players.

The game went well, and nobody died, though I had them on the ropes a few times. One of the players, who had played at my table last season, said, “I don’t like this. I want Barry back. You’re too mean.” And this morning, I had this little exchange on Twitter:

Me: Players in #dndenc last night as I was roughing up their characters: “We miss our regular DM!” I count that as a win.

The_Eardrums: @Neal_Rick so that’s what i’ve been doing wrong – all this time i’ve been trying to make it a fun experience for EVERYONE, not just myself.

Me: @The_Eardrums Yep. Make ’em cry if you can. Gamer tears are like candy.

And then I had a conversation with one of my players, with whom I work. She and I talked a little bit about the idea of the adversarial GM, and what that does in the game. It got me thinking and, because I can’t seem to have an unexpressed thought*, writing.

The Adversarial GM

There is an inherently adversarial relationship that roleplaying games set up between GM and players. The GM, after all, is the one who designs the opposition and, in many ways, personifies the conflict. It’s the GM who gets the yea or nay vote on whether cool plans work, and whether the characters succeed in their goals. When a monster kills a character, it’s the GM wielding the offending dice. When a character falls into a pit and gets impaled on spikes, it’s the GM who put that pit there. When a thief picks a character’s pocket, it’s the GM who made the thief do it.

The GM is the adversary, right?

Some games go farther to encourage this than others. Paranoia goes perhaps the farthest towards making the GM the bad guy, but Amber does a pretty fair job of it, too, and I’ve got to say that Blowback seems to do it pretty solidly, too. Most game talk about how the GM is supposed to work with the players to make a good, fun game, but in the end, the GM* is the one who comes up with the opposition, the conflict, the failures, and the consequences*.

When you walk into the dungeon, or start the shadowrun, or decide to investigate the haunted house, or whatever, you know that your GM is just waiting to lay some hurt on you. And you’ve got to use all your wits, resources, rules-knowledge, and luck to escape with your life.

It’s all crap, of course.

The Absolute Power of the GM

I’ve been gaming for the better part of three decades. I have run, and played, so many games that I can’t keep track of them. And I came to the conclusion long ago that the GM can kill the characters, using the rules and playing fairly, any time he or she wants. If you factor in the ease of cheating*, characters don’t have a chance. The GM can kill them on a whim.

If you accept the above paragraph, it’s obvious that the GM cannot be a true adversary, or the players would keep dying.

This leads to the tendency among GMs to want to be seen as tough but fair – if you play at the top of your game, you can beat the GM, but only if you play at the top of your game. It’s the player-on-the-other-side syndrome, as expressed by Aldous Huxley, who might as well have been writing about RPGs, GMs, and players when he wrote this:

The chess board is the world, the pieces the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. All we know is that his play is always fair, just and patient. But, also, that he never overlooks a mistake or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated without haste, but without remorse.

There are a couple of problems with this approach, though. Metagame thinking enters play in two equally dangerous ways: first, the idea that the GM will never pose a challenge to the players that they can’t overcome, and second, that there is always a right way to solve a given problem. The first type of thinking means that the GM can never scare the characters away with a challenge, forcing them to back off and find a different way*. The second type of thinking can lead to a lot of wasted time as the players try to find the secret WIN button to solve the problem.

All of this is also crap, of course.

The Hidden Power of the Players

In reality, the players exert tremendous power in the game, through their ability to walk away. If players leave the game, the GM loses power.If the GM is going on his ultimate power trip, demanding top-level tactical and strategic play from players who really just want to talk to NPCs and pretend to be nobility, the game’s going to evaporate. If the players aren’t getting what they want, they won’t play. That’s why a lot of early GM advice books talk about how important it is for the GM to make sure the players are having fun, even at the expense of his or her own fun.

This power is subtle, because it’s mainly social, but it’s dominant, because players tend to outnumber the GM. A group of players with a united vision of the game can impose that vision – and associated play style – on the GM, just by the way they play the characters, the things they decide to attempt, and the interest they show in the various plots the GM shows them. So, in a lot of ways, the GM is always at the mercy of the players, driven to perform for their entertainment. Of course the GM is going to be adversarial.

And this, also, is crap.

We’re In This Together

Well, the three points above aren’t really crap, as you probably know. But they are incomplete in and of themselves. It’s a mix of all three of them that produce the power dynamic in a game.

Gaming, as I’ve said before and will say again, is a social activity. There is an expectation that people in a gaming group – players and GMs alike – will adhere to the culture of the group, behaving in a manner that reinforces the shared values and practices of the group. What I mean is that, if you’re playing with your friends, you still act like you’re friends when you’re playing.

Really, everyone has walk-away power. If the GM isn’t having fun, no more GM. If the players aren’t having fun, no more players. And the social pressure that shapes the nature of the play experience comes from both sides of the screen, so the GM has a big influence on the type of game – of course.

But there is an adversarial factor in the role of GM. Of course there is. There has to be for the game to work. But it’s a false adversarial relationship, because of the true goal of the game. What’s the true goal of the game? Well, it’s not to beat the monsters, or win the hand of the princess, or even to hang out and spend time with your friends.

The Evocation of Cool

In my opinion*, the true purpose of playing in a roleplaying game is to create a story that abounds with moments of cool, for various values of cool. What I mean is that the cool that I’m looking for in D&D is a different kind of cool than what I’m looking for in Trail of Cthulhu, and both are very different from the cool I look for when playing Fiasco. Hell, the kind of cool I look for with different gaming groups playing the same system will vary based on the group.

But I’m always looking for the cool, whether as a GM or a player. And I do what I can to bring moments of cool with me to the table.

See, as a GM, it may seem that you have the best position to produce cool at the table. After all, you control the environment, set the challenges, lay out the story development, all that good stuff. The players just bring their characters. But there’s a reason you’re playing a roleplaying game and not just writing your online novel: the true moments of cool, the best moments of cool, all come from an intersection of ideas between the GM and the players.

It’s not the shattered, ancient stone stairs over the pool of lava that makes that fight cool, it’s the characters leaping from platform to platform over the gaps while doing their best to fight off the phase spiders. It’s not the short audience with Odin that makes the trip to Valhalla cool, its the scene where one character tries to bluff his way to a better seat in the meadhall. It’s not the crystals growing inside one of the characters that makes the Chaugnar Faugn encounter cool, it’s the frantic use of speakers and high frequencies to shatter those crystals.

The evocation of cool is the responsibility of both the player and the GM, because only when both sides are working for it will it truly be memorably cool.

All The Sweeter

But let’s get back to the adversarial GM idea, because it factors into the evocation of cool in a special way.

As GM, you are expected to act as an adversary to a degree, simply because you are the one who produces the bulk of the conflict, difficulty, and challenge in the game. You pick the monsters, lay out the traps, set the mystery in place, do the NPC’s scheming, and generally work to make life more difficult for the characters. That’s part of your job.

And in order to maximize the cool, you need to make sure that the challenges are actually challenging, as well as making sure that they’re interesting. The players want the excitement of being challenged in game, whether they’ll admit it or not, both because it’s more interesting, and because they will value their achievements more. If you hand them a great reward, they want to feel as if they’ve earned it*, or else it doesn’t really mean anything to them.

What this means, though, is that you need to be able to judge their capabilities properly, and set the challenge at the right level. Often, this may mean having to adjust things on the fly, making sure that things are just difficult enough for what you’re trying to achieve, and no tougher.

Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t throw the characters an easy challenge from time to time. It’s vital that you do that, because it will emphasize both how much tougher the tough challenges are, and how much more capable the characters are becoming. In fact, having the bulk of the challenges be of low to moderate difficulty really underlines when you’re taking the gloves off.

Perils of the Adversarial GM

Yeah, so the GM has to act, at least in part, as the adversary. But never, ever, ever should you start to believe that you are, in fact, the characters’ opponent – or worse, the players’ opponent. It will kill the fun, both for you and for the players, and may even threaten friendships.

I’ve talked before about the way Amber sets up an adversarial relationship between the GM and players. While the general notions are fun, the game went, I feel, waaaaay too far in making sure the players knew that the GM was there primarily to screw them over. That bred such an atmosphere of distrust in the game – a game with no dice, so nothing could be blamed on luck – that, as GM, I felt constantly on the defensive about every decision or judgment I made. Players would always seek to find away around a negative answer from me, and I had to resort, far too many times, to the sorry answer of, “Because I’m the GM and I said so!”

Another friend and I had an ongoing problem for years that we had to work hard to overcome – it was a weird competitive thing that neither of us was aware of. When I ran a game and he played in it, I would do my level best to crush his character. When he ran a game and I played in it, he would do his level best to crush my character. It got to the point where the other players were convinced that we were going to come to blows over some slight in the game. The truly bizarre thing was that neither of us was aware of doing it at the time, yet it was painfully obvious to everyone else at the table.

What we’re talking about here, of course, is trust. You need an underlying atmosphere of trust beneath any adversarial relationship that develops between players and GM. The players and GM need to trust each other, and each other’s vision of the game, enough that they can strive together for those moments of coolness that make the games worth playing. Even if it looks like someone’s being a dick, if there’s a solid level of trust that’s been well-earned and respected throughout the game, that someone will get the benefit of the doubt* that there’s a non-dick purpose in it.

But abusing the trust, intentionally or unintentionally, will cause the trust to evaporate, and the adversarial relationship to blossom in the most negative way. These kinds of things can sneak up on you, and really sour your games. Remember, you’re playing the role of the adversary; you’re not actually the adversary.

There’s only one way to make sure this doesn’t happen, and that’s to talk. Check in from time to time, as GM or player or just as friends, to see how the game is going, and what people are enjoying and what they’re not. Don’t let things fester – drag them out into the light and fix them. It’ll make the game work better, last longer, and be more fun.


Those are my thoughts after my discussions earlier this week. I hope they make sense; I’m just glad to get them coherent enough to write. The subject is a tricky one, but I think I’ve sorted out my position well enough in my own mind.

What about you folks? Any thoughts? Let me know.


*Feel better soon, Barry! Back

*I heard that, Sandy! Back

*GM-less games, of course, spread that burden among the players. Back

*Of course, the GM also comes up with the allies, the celebrations, the successes, and the rewards, but mostly we overlook that, don’t we, players? Back

*Which is just a pointless dick move. Back

*Well, he or she can, but it tends to elicit cries of railroading. Which may need to be another article in the future. Back

*And it should be obvious by now that that’s the only opinion I truly care about. 😉 Back

*Here’s a neat idea for a game that I’ve seen work very well: give the characters a huge sum of money, or a magic item, or whatever kind of reward the game system allows, with no strings attached. If you’ve got savvy players, they’ll immediately start worrying about why, and you’ve got an entire scenario based on them trying to figure out what’s going on before the other shoe drops. Back

*For a while, at least. If the trust is not rewarded, the benefit of the doubt will evaporate. Back

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3 Responses to Enemy Mine: The Adversarial GM

  1. Committed Hero says:

    Part of collaborating in an RPG is that a GM should want the PCs to succeed as much as the players do. A corollary to this is that the more subtly this fact is given to the players, the better.

  2. Milo says:

    DnD encouters sessions have a different set of requirements from a GM when compared to long-running campaigns. To run a game where most of the players are happy for a half-dozen to a dozen gaming sessions, give the players most of what they want and allow them to make bad decisions with little or no consequences. To run a game where most of the players are happy for several years wort of sessions, the requirements and demands on a GM are more complex and involved.

    In long running games, in order to keep people coming back for hundreds of sessions, there needs to be some occasional tension with the GM in order to continue to experience a sense of fear, dread, joy, accomplishment, or urgency. If you don’t care for these things, then may I suggest playing a PC sandbox game in ‘God mode’; no tension, no fear, nothing unsafe, no sense of accomplishment, no investment.

  3. mrsleep says:

    The murderous grind.

    I’m currently involved in a a strange underground RPG that is played in one-session, mission-based games. Since the game rules have been adapted from White Wolf, your characters are extremely fragile and, get this, hunting monsters. Needless to say there are a lot of deaths. I have been involved in a total of thirty Games so far and have managed not to to lose either of my two characters. There is only one other player that can say the same.

    The downside to all of this is that there are times you really feel like you’re getting dumped on. After the third or fourth time a monster attacks you and you have absolutely no defense against it, you tend to get a bit jaded. The upside is that when you survive, you know that you’ve earned your reward.

    The point is that these Games are rough and you have to be both smart and lucky to survive. The primary GM uses boxed scenarios, mostly I think to dissuade us from bitching about a stacked deck. For us, this works. It’s a grueling, brutal game and we love it (hell, one of our players was bragging about how tough it was to a guy that played more traditional RPGs), but it is not even close to being for everyone.

    Not only does each game need to be tweaked to be what the GM and the players want it to be, but there has to be a propensity for cool.

    I have to agree with Rick on that point above all others.

    Points of Cool make the games.

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