You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve been thinking about character arcs in fiction and in roleplaying games. While I contend that RPGs don’t necessarily generate stories, characters still have a lot of the same qualities and requirements for us to enjoy them. In both fiction and RPGs, the basic formula for story is that the characters face obstacles and try to overcome them. And this is where one of the biggest differences between the two forms appears, because in fiction, characters can fail, but in RPGs, they can’t.

Now, I’m not saying that it is mechanically impossible for the characters in RPGs to fail. But, in the long history of RPGs-as-written, ((I’m going to be focusing on D&D in these examples, because it is the most universal touchstone that gamers have, and also really illustrates my point. )), the basic assumption is that, if they fail, they die. This is because so many of the obstacles a character faces in an RPG are combats, and the general expectation is that the combat will be balanced to allow the heroes to overcome their foes, so it is only bad dice luck ((And sometimes poor tactics.)) that kills PCs.

That mindset translates into other tasks in the games. Fail picking the lock? Well, try again. And again. And again, until either you open the lock or a trap kills you. Is that a disintegrate spell? Save or die. Tasks either can be repeated over and over ((“I do exactly the same thing that didn’t work last time, but harder!”)), or have immediate, irrevocable negative consequences ((“Natural one, huh? Well, I guess that medusa has a new fighter statue for her garden. What do you want to play next?”)). Combat encounters that turn out to be too difficult are viewed as mistakes in balance on the part of the GM, or as the result of bad dice luck.

What this leaves out of the mix is a staple of fiction: heroes suffering a setback.

Setbacks are what happen when you don’t succeed at what you were trying to do, but don’t die. They are complications – new obstacles that show up because of your failure. They make things harder, or may close off an avenue of approach to your goal, but don’t completely prevent you from achieving the goal.

Classic RPGs, like D&D or RuneQuest, don’t handle setbacks very well. Fail and you either die, or can just try again. More modern games, like 13th Age and Fate, talk about using setbacks and the concept of failing forward, and provide some mechanical support for the ideas ((Especially Fate Core and it’s derived games, and certain iterations of Cortex Plus.)). And there are a few games, like Drama System or the *World games or Fiasco, that live for the setback. The setback is the key to their success.

So, let’s talk about how different games handle setbacks.

13th Age

13th Age is described by its authors as a love letter to D&D. It has a bit of an old-school feel, coupled with some more modern elements of narrative games. It deals with setbacks in two different ways: negative icon relationships and the “fail forward” concept.

Negative icon relationships are sources for setbacks. By default, the GM rolls some dice at the start of a game to see which icons ((For those unfamiliar with 13th Age, icons are the powerful NPCs and their factions that control the setting, like the Dragon Emperor, the Diabolist, the Elf Queen, and the Archmage. They all have their own agendas, and PCs frequently get involved in those agendas, for better or worse.)) are important in this session and, if it comes up with an icon that one of the characters has a negative relationship with, that’s going to cause problems. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of a setback that I proposed above, but it does introduce new obstacles to the game based on player choices. If the characters are already in the middle of an adventure when a negative icon relationship rears its ugly head ((Or heads, as the case may be.)), the new complication feels very much like the setbacks I’m talking about. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of a quest to recover an ancient sword for the Crusader, a character’s negative relationship with the Archmage comes up, and our heroes discover another group digging through the same ruins for the same sword, but they want to give it to the Archmage instead of the Crusader.

The “fail forward” idea is not exclusive to 13th Age ((I’m pretty sure the phrase originated elsewhere – I want to say in Sorcerer, but that’s just because a lot of new language that we use to discuss games originated there.)). It’s an idea and a viewpoint more than a mechanic, so it’s a little slippery sometimes to implement. On the other hand, because it doesn’t really have a mechanical component to it, it’s super portable to other game systems. The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure. Failure should just complicate things. So, if you fail to pick the lock on the back door to the guildhall, instead of just not being able to go in that way, maybe you get the door open, but a guard spots you. Or you can’t work the lock, but a guard opens the door from the inside to see what all the noise is ((Or, if you’ve got the right kind of group who will accept a heavy narrative hand from the GM, “Everything goes black. You wake up in a cell, chained to the wall. There’s just enough play in the manacles that your fingers can reach the big bump on the back of your head. You never even heard your assailant sneaking up behind you, you were so focused on the lock.”)). The adventure still goes forward, but now there’s a new complication to deal with – pretty much the definition of a setback.

Leverage RPG

What I’m going to talk about here is broadly applicable to all the Cortex Plus games. The Leverage RPG, though, gives the best and clearest example of setbacks in play. This is because pretty much the whole game is based on the assumption of competency on the characters’ part and the mechanic of the complication.

The basic assumption of the Leverage RPG is that your characters are not just good at what they do, they are among the best in the world. This is an important mindset for the game, because it makes it clear that a failed roll does not necessarily mean the character screwed up. It means something unexpected interrupted what would otherwise be the perfect plan. Trying to con someone out of the painting you need for the job? A fail doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t buy the pitch – it means that the painting is out for restoration work, or has been sold to someone else, or something like that ((Again, the idea of failing forward – adding a new obstacle, but not dead-ending the game.)).

A lot of the time, failed rolls generate complications. In fact, you can run a whole Leverage RPG session by building the story and the opposition out of complications that play generates ((I know this because I’ve done it. All you need is a basic idea of the job – the mark, the client, the basic situation. Stat out the mark with a couple of dice, as described in the rulebook, and you’re ready to run. Just make sure you have plenty of index cards or sticky notes to track the complications as they arise.)). Complications can be added any time a player rolls a one on one or more of the dice in a roll. You take that die, give the player a plot point, and either add a new complication, or step up a current one. So, as the game goes along, more complications – Mob Interest d6, Heightened Security d10, Broken Toe d8 – arise and make the job more, well, complicated. And interesting. It builds the twists and turns you expect from a heist game ((And from the TV show.)).

Fate Core

Fate has always worked on the idea that something interesting should happen on a failed roll, otherwise why bother rolling ((This is similar to Vincent D. Baker’s idea of “Say yes, or roll the dice.”))? The latest iteration, Fate Core ((Which is available on a pay-what-you-like model in .pdf here.)), standardizes that idea, and gives some more mechanical guidelines, starting with the idea of the four outcomes.

The four outcomes are Fail, Tie, Succeed, and Succeed with Style, but the idea of setbacks only really comes in on the first two outcomes. If you fail, you might still get what you want, but at a serious cost. Serious costs make the current situation worse – it brings in new opposition, or grants a benefit to the current opposition, or maybe puts a consequence on the player. If you tie, you get what you want, but at a minor cost – adding a detail to the story that is problematic for the PC, or possibly giving the opposition a minor benefit. These are perfect examples of setbacks.

The ultimate setback in Fate Core, though, is the concession. At any point during a conflict ((Usually when things are going badly and defeat looks imminent.)), a character can concede. This means that he or she loses the conflict, but gets to have some input on what losing means ((Usually not dying.)), and earns some fate points in the bargain. So, to steal the example from the book, if you’re in a fight, and you’ve taken a couple of consequences already, and the bad guy is still big and strong and unhurt, you might want to concede. You get to say, “Okay, he doesn’t kill me or take me captive,” and the GM says, “Okay, he knocks you out, spits on you, takes your sword as a trophy, and leaves you for dead.” And then you get three fate points.

Drama System

Robin D. Laws’s new game system, Drama System, powers his Hillfolk game, and it has an interesting take on setbacks. The core of the game is dramatic interaction, where your character is alternately petitioning ((Not in the formal sense, you understand. And often not directly.)) and being petitioned. The petition is one character seeking some sort of emotional concession from another character – I want him to respect me, I want her to love me, I want them to be proud of me, whatever. The other character can decide to grant or withhold that emotional concession, as they desire ((And the game builds in reasons for the granter to not want to give that concession.)).

What keeps this from getting bogged down in the standard I-will-not-lose, dig-in-the-heels argument stalemate that is so common in RPGs is that there is a drama point at stake, and you really want drama points in the game. They are a plot currency that gives you certain power over the narrative, and are incredibly useful and fun.

And you only get drama points if you don’t get what you want in the scene.

So, if you are the petitioner, you only get a drama point if the granter doesn’t give you that emotional concession. And, if you are the granter, you only get the drama point if you DO give the petitioner that emotional concession. The idea is that you will get what you want about half the time, and the other half, you get a setback and a drama point.

Apocalypse World

As with Leverage RPG, above, I’m using Apocalypse World as a single example of the entire family of *World games ((Including Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Dungeon Planet, tremulus, and others that I probably haven’t heard of.)). Setbacks are really the core of the system, and they are what drives the narrative and even forms the structure of the story. Whenever the PCs fail at a roll, the MC makes a move against them ((As hard and direct a move as the MC wants. Not as hard and direct a move as the MC can. This is a vital distinction in keeping the game flowing. And the characters alive.)), and then asks, “What do you do?”

“Well, you fire at old Scrub, but the bullet goes wide, and everyone hears the shot. Scrub dives for cover, and suddenly, Sheriff is on the scene, and she’s yelling at you to come out with your hands up. What do you do?”

“You can’t get the old door in the rock to open. The random codes you punched on the keypad didn’t make the light go from red to green, like it was supposed to. Something happens, though: sparks start to crackle all over the surface of the door, with little arcs of lighting grounding themselves in the surrounding cave wall. What do you do?”

It’s the “What do you do?” that you always end your moves with that make this setbacks. You’ve made things harder, added more obstacles, and generally defeated the characters, but the fact that you have to leave things open for the “What do you do?” means that you cannot dead-end the game. There must be a way forward – all the players ((Yes, the players. They choose their next moves, and, if they roll well, whatever they choose is the way forward.)) have to do is decide what it is.

But good as the hard moves on a miss are, the really perfect example of the setback happens with a roll of 7-9. With that roll, the characters succeed at what they’re attempting,  but at a cost. Giving the characters a mixed success is good, but even better is making the characters choose between getting what they want and losing something else. This hard bargain creates some of the best setbacks in the game.

“Okay, you dive for cover, and roll up behind a burned-out car. As you fly through the air, you feel a tug at your clothing and, when you land and get your breath back, you see that a bullet went right through one of the ties on your pack. Half the contents, including your flashlight and the handkerchief full of bullets, are strewn on the ground out there, where the bullets are falling like rain. You’re safe where you are, but your gear is exposed and won’t last long under this fire. What do you do?”

Those are some fun setbacks.


Fiasco is another game built around setbacks. With the black and white dice mechanic, half the scenes ((Well, possibly a little more or a little less, if you use the default rule that the last die is wild.)) end in an unfavourable outcome – as setback – for the character.  And it’s the rest of the group who gets to decide that. Oh, the player can influence what kind of ending he or she is getting through roleplaying, but really, if there’s no more white dice, it doesn’t matter how good the play or the argument, things will end bad.

Of course, bad endings are part of the fun of Fiasco. The first two pieces of advice I always give to new Fiasco players – especially if they’re experienced roleplayers – are:

  1. Don’t get too attached to your character. Bad things are gonna happen to him or her.
  2. Don’t try to “win.” Instead, embrace failure and self-destruction, and revel in them.

Fiasco players, like Drama System players, are incentivized to accept setbacks, because they are such a core part of the game. And they’re a core part of the game because they’re a core part of the inspiring media. Remember that Coen Brothers movie where everything went smooth for the characters and it all worked out great? Yeah, me neither.

So, Why Setbacks?

Okay, so we know what setbacks are, and how different games handle them. Why should we care?

  • Setbacks give the opportunity for character development, showing how characters deal with frustration, loss, and things other than success. That gives us more insight into the characters, the world, and the story.
  • Setbacks also vary the pacing and shape of the narrative. If events are just a single string of successes leading to a climax, we tend to get bored. Periodic failures keep us interested by building in suspense – if we know the character can’t fail, we can zone out, but if it’s in question, then we focus in. It’s just more interesting to us.
  • We know that, in life, nothing is ever perfectly smooth. There’s always a few hiccups along the way, and sometimes we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward. And, if our games have the same sorts of things, we can more closely identify with the characters we’re playing. It feels more real to us.
  • It gives us the opportunity to do fun things in a game. Have the heroes captured by pirates, or chased away from the rich treasure by a fearsome beast, or get caught in the stolen car with the twelve sticks of dynamite and open bottle of bourbon. You can throw in the weird and unexpected, the frustrating and the fun ((Caveat: if you’re going to throw in the frustrating, you better throw in enough fun to compensate. Otherwise, you’re a jerk.)).
  • Setbacks provide a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the adventure. Characters had more obstacles to overcome to reach the end, and had to work harder for their reward. It makes the eventual victory ((Assuming there is one, of course. But that’s a topic for another day.)) that much sweeter.

And that’s why you should care about setbacks in your game.

For the Players

Okay, gang, I’ve just spent close to 3000 words telling GMs that they should screw their players over ((Well, no I didn’t, but that could be one interpretation.)). Now I’m going to claim that I did it all for you.

As a player, I suggest you embrace any setbacks that come your way. They are another chance to show off how awesome your character is, in victory and in defeat. James Bond gets captured by the villain all the time, just so he can show off how cool he is when he escapes. Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite so that he can have his emotional moments with Leia and so that the rest of the gang can come and rescue him. The Fellowship of the Ring has to turn back from the mountain pass, and they get to confront horrible ((But very cool.)) evils from the dawn of time in the Mines of Moria.

Setbacks are just another way to let your character be cool. It’s an opportunity to add a twist to the story, and to reveal something interesting about the characters, and to earn a sweeter victory at the end. Of course, this depends on both the GM and the players accepting this idea, and then implementing it in game. The chance to add further problems to the characters’ lives is probably incentive enough to get GMs on board with this, but it requires players to jump in just as eagerly, and to reward the GMs with good play and good moments when encountering a setback.

If both GMs and players are enthusiastic about the way setbacks can enrich a game, then setbacks will happen and will be awesome, even if you’re using an old-style game like RuneQuest or D&D.


Watching the Watcher: GM Constraints in MHRPG

Cam Banks said this on Twitter:

I’ve had people question me why the Watcher doesn’t just have “full GM powers” in #MarvelRPG. Reason: Constraints are good.

As someone who’s just recently started running a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign ((Or maybe mini-campaign, depending on how you define such things. What I’m doing is running the Civil War event.)), this was kind of enlightening for me. I had been noticing that being a Watcher in MHRPG was qualitatively different than being a GM in a lot of other games, and hadn’t yet put my finger on exactly why.

And there it is: constraints.

Now, I’m a firm believer in Cam’s statement that constraints are good. Constraints can focus a play experience in a very particular direction, and dealing with constraints can help foster creativity as you try and fit what you want into the framework you’re using. The first aspect of that leads to consistency and the second to variety, the combination of which produces what we want in most narratives: something that is both inevitable and surprising ((What this means when you unpack it is primarily that we want things that catch us off-guard but remain internally consistent and do not strain our suspension of disbelief. I could – and have, when I was in university – go into great depth on this one subject, but it’s not really all that interesting. It’s just a good principle to keep in mind when working on any sort of narrative.)).

There are three main constraints on Watchers in MHRPG ((There may be more, and more subtle ones, but these are the three big ones that I’ve spotted so far. Scene definition as either Action or Transition may be another, but I’m as yet unconvinced of that, so I’m leaving it off the list. )) : open rolls, the doom pool, and the initiative system.

Open Rolls

What I mean by this is that every roll the Watcher makes happens right in front of the players. The players get to watch you build your dice pool – which works by pretty much the same method they use ((The only exception is using the doom pool instead of plot points.)) – and then they see you roll the dice, set aside the ones, and pick your dice for the total and the effect. It all happens right out in the open. Why is this a constraint? Well, because one tool in a GM’s toolbox is fudging rolls ((And yes, there are massive arguments over whether fudging rolls is a good idea or a bad idea. I will say that I find it a useful tool in some games, mainly to help control pacing.)), and with everything happening out in the open, you can’t get away with that.

Players get to see the dice rolls, and can do the math as easily as you can, so you can’t cheat to make things harder for them. On the other hand, you can’t cheat to make things easier for them, either. HackMaster has ((Or at least had; I haven’t looked at any of the new editions.)) a rule that states, “Let the dice fall where they may,” meaning that the GM should not be fudging rolls, and should let the dice decide if the characters live or die.MHRPGdoesn’t usually have life-or-death situations resolved by a single roll, but the concept of letting the dice decide is firmly enforced by the fact that they are rolled out in the open.

Now, there are still ways to manipulate the result a little bit, mainly by spending dice from the doom pool, but it becomes very obvious if you’re doing that. I’ll talk a little more about that next.

The Doom Pool

Lots of games give mechanical currency to players, allowing them to affect the results of dice rolls. Fate points, action points, luck points – in MHRPG, they’re plot points. Nothing all that new about that, though the game gives a number of interesting ways to use them, and gain them. Unlike most other RPGs, in MHRPG, the Watcher gets some mechanical currency as well, in the form of the doom pool.

This lets the Watcher manipulate the rolls much like players do, under the same sorts of constraints – the doom pool is currency that gets spent and earned in a manner very similar to ((And intertwined with.)) the way characters get plot points. One of the cool things about this is that it takes the place of fudging rolls as a tool for pacing and shaping the drama, but it happens out in the open, and isn’t cheating, because it happens completely within the mechanical framework of the rules.

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about using the doom pool is that, when you invoke it to mess up the players in a big way, they tend to blame themselves for letting the doom pool grow as high as it did. When players see you spending doom dice to mess them up, it’s a fair cop. And when they see you deliberately not spending doom dice, they get even more worried, because you’re obviously saving up for the dreaded 2d12 you need to end the scene, which usually doesn’t happen in the players’ favour.

The Initiative System

I’ve written about the initiative system in brief in previous posts. This post by Fred Hicks does the best job of describing the intricacies and subtleties of the initiative system ((One aside, here. I have found that, so far, many of the action scenes only go between one and three rounds. This makes it especially powerful to be the last character acting at the end of the first round, as long as you have allies that you can then tap to start a chain at the start of the second round. In a lot of cases, if you manage that, there won’t be a third round, ’cause you’ve already won.)). In brief, it turns play sequence into a tactical minigame, rather than a random determination. And it puts the Watcher on exactly the same footing as the players. Again, this means that you can’t fudge things, tweaking the initiative order in secret – but you can do some pretty hefty tweaking out in the open, right in front of the players. And it’s not anything they can’t do, themselves, so it’s not really cheating.

The Results of Constraint

These three constraints work together to produce a very specific play experience – one where the Watcher gets to feel like a player in his interactions with the rules. Normally, the GM kind of sits above the rules, and decides when and where to apply them for best effect. You can do that in MHRPG, too, but if you accept the constraints as written, you instead get down into the trenches on even footing with the players.

Why is that good? Not for the obvious reason of balance. I don’t believe balance between GM and players is really possible ((Or all that desirable.)). And the game does a good enough job of making the various mechanical pieces balance against each other using the dice pool mechanic, so that’s not really the issue.

It’s good because it’s fun. It’s good because it lets you play as hard as you can in an adversarial role when it’s time for the villains to act, without feeling like you need to keep anything in check. The constraints and openness mean that, if you pull out the stops and your villain completely trashes a hero, the players start to fear the villain and not the Watcher. They know you played it fair ((And I believe fairness is a very different thing than balance. Fairness, and the perception of fairness, is vital in building trust between GM and players.)), and just flat-out beat their characters.

It’s also a lot of fun because you are bound by the same sorts of triumphs and reversals that make the characters’ lives interesting. Roll enough ones, and even Dr. Doom is gonna have a bad day. It’s surprising, you’re stuck with it, and the player gets to have a moment of awesome that none of you were expecting, as he or she narrates what amazing thing the character did to pwn Doom. And when you roll amazingly well and the player rolls poorly, you get that same opportunity.

A friend once said to me that she felt GMing and playing in an RPG were, in a lot of ways, two different hobbies, and there’s some truth to that. Certainly, in most traditional games, the GM finds enjoyment in different things than the players do. With this sort of constraint system in place on the Watcher, you really get the best of both worlds – all the fun world-building, adventure-making, villain-playing good stuff that GMs usually get along with the dice-manipulation, hail-mary-throwing desperation, surprising reversal and triumph joy of being a player.

Both flavours of fun in one tasty game.

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

Take the Plunge


The following post is a little argumentative. What can I say? I feel strongly about this topic, and I’m feeling particularly stroppy today.

You have been warned.

I run a number of demo games, both at Imagine Games and at various conventions. I work the booth for Pagan Publishing at GenCon every summer. I talk to a lot of gamers all over the place.

And I hear one story more than any other:

“Yeah, me and my friends used to play roleplaying games, but then our GM moved away*, so we don’t game anymore.”

And while I nod sympathetically, inside I’m asking myself:

“So what? If you lose your GM, why doesn’t someone else take over? Was your GM the only person in the group who can read?*

Now, I admit my gaming group is something of an aberration, based on what I see elsewhere. We’ve got a core group of about a dozen, spread through different games, and in that mix we have three folks who run games regularly, one who does so occasionally, and another who wants to start. That’s a pretty high GM-to-player ratio in a group*. In fact, our gaming schedule is so packed that we have to take turns offering new games to the group, so that all the GMs have the opportunity to run if they want to.

But still. Is it such a leap that, if you like to play, maybe you should try to GM?

I hear a lot of reasons that people don’t do it. I’m going to take some time to discuss some of the big ones.

“It’s too much work.”

I’m tackling this one first because it’s the toughest one. Running a game is more work than playing. You generally have to do more preparation, you have to keep track of more stuff, you have to juggle more things on the fly. It’s a fair cop.

But is it really too much work? I mean, at the height of running D&D 3.5 for a high-level campaign, I was putting in about two hours of prep work for every hour of play. Our sessions usually ran for about four hours once a month, so that means I was putting in another eight hours a month. That’s only two more hours a week, and D&D 3.5 is one of the most complex systems to prep for I’ve ever played* – D&D 4E, for example, has me doing maybe half an hour of prep per hour of play because of the great online tools, and games like Dresden Files and Trail of Cthulhu take very little prep time because the systems are simpler and easier to work with for GMs.

Now, really, if you don’t have the time to put in the prep time, you don’t have the time. Real life should always come first. But most people can probably shake free an hour or two a week – certainly, everyone who comes to the D&D Encounters sessions have already done so to make it to the sessions.

As for the work at the table, when you’re running it, well, all I can say about that is that it doesn’t need to be. If you start small and simple, you’ll gain the skills you need at a surprisingly quick rate, and can move on to bigger, more complex things as you’re ready for them.

“I’m no good at it.”

Here’s a secret: neither was any other GM, the first time they ran a game. Honest.

Running a game is a skill like any other. When you start, you’re not very good, but practice makes you better. You know what doesn’t make you better? Not running a game.

Tied to this idea is the thought that your friends are going to judge you harshly. Well, I don’t know your friends, but if they’re your friends, they’ll likely take it easy on you. If they’re not your friends, why are you playing with them? And if you’re worried about your GM judging you harshly, don’t. The second most common story I hear from gamers is, “I always run the game, so I never get a chance to play.” Offer to run a game, and your usual GM is probably going to be so stoked at the chance to sit on the other side of the screen that he or she will do whatever is necessary to help you and make sure you enjoy the experience. Because then he or she will get to play more often.

“It’s too expensive to buy all the books.”

I have two responses to this.

  1. What the hell? You mean you’re okay with freeloading off the one guy in the group who buys the books? Do you seriously not see the issue with counting on one of your friends to spend his or her money to entertain you? I hope you at least pay for the GM’s snacks. Then maybe he or she will let you borrow the books to run a game.
  2. It’s not that expensive. Suck it up.

Now, when I say that it’s not that expensive, what I’m really saying is that there are games out there for every price point, including a wealth of free RPGs available online. You can pick up complete new games, complete in a single book, for under $20 from small publishers. Electronic files of the games are available from many online retailers at a significant discount over the cost of physical books. And used game books can be found both online and in many game shops and used book shops. You’d be surprised how cheaply you can put together a solid collection.

“I have to learn the rules.”

Well – yeah, you do, but you learned the rules in order to play, right? There’s not much more in the way of rules to learn in order to GM in most systems. And you don’t have to learn them all at once. This isn’t an exam; open book GMing is fine. And if you take a little more time than you like flipping through the book to find the rule you need, well, see what I said above about running games being a skill. It’ll come. Just give it a chance.

“I’m too lazy.”

Nothing I can say to this one but, “You suck.”

Okay. There’s all your excuses shot to hell. But why should you run a game? Here’s a list. I’m not explaining them in detail because, quite frankly, if I need to do detailed explanations of the reasons, you’re just not going to understand them, anyway.

  1. Because it’s fun. There’s a reason I’m running four games currently. It’s loads of fun.
  2. Because it’s another creative avenue of expression. Sure, you get to do a lot of neat acting as a player, but you get to do more as a GM. And you also get to shape the entire world the way you want it. Which leads to…
  3. Because of the power. Even if you’re not using the GM chair as a throne to oppress your players, GMs have more control over most games than anyone else at the table.
  4. Because you owe it to your GM. C’mon. Give the poor guy (or gal) a chance to play for a change!
  5. Because it grows the hobby and the industry. More GMs = more players = more sales = more good games. The math is irrefutable.
  6. Because it’s fun!* Honest!

So, take the plunge. Decide to run a game. Pick out a game you like, and read it. Talk to your friends about it, and get them on your side. Start small, but start. Go slow, but go.


*Or got married, or had kids, or enlisted in the army, or died, or whatever. Back

*Yeah, that last question is a little spiteful. What can I say? I get that way sometimes. Back

*We’ve also got a pretty high female-to-male ratio, with roughly half the players in any of the current games being female. But that’s a different topic. Back

*To be fair, Amber was worse, mainly because of the bookkeeping I had to do behind the scenes, and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG, though I loved it a lot, was a lot of work mainly because of the lack of good stats. Oh, and Serenity was a lot of work, but that was mainly my fault for setting the game up the way I did. My Hunter game is a long time between sessions, but that’s mainly because it takes me some time to come up with a cool idea for the next episode. Not the same thing at all. Back

*Yes, I listed that one twice on purpose. It’s an important reason. Back

When Did I Get Old and Wise?

Weird thing happened to me a few minutes ago. I got some e-mail from a friend of mine, asking me if I thought he was ready to GM a D&D game for his friends, and asking me for any tips.

I remember when this kid was born. I remember his dad, who’s a friend of mine, bringing him into the bookstore where I was working at the time, a tiny little thing in a snuggly, his dad rocking back and forth in front of the Science Fiction section. I remember first being invited to game with his parents while he slept in a baby seat on the living room floor.

(Vampire: The Masquerade, if you care. Man, did that campaign ever not go where I thought it would.)

I gave him his first jean jacket, complete with Illuminati badges on it.

(Have I embarrassed you yet, Kieran?)

And now the guy’s fifteen years old, in my Dresden Files playtest, a regular at my boardgame nights (where he is nasty as a viper if you turn your back on him), and asking if I think he’s ready to GM.

His parents and I joke about making sure we get into the same retirement home so we can still game together. I’m thinking it’s getting to be less of a joke.

Anyway, seeing as I have now been cast in the role of elderly sage, I gave him what advice I had. I thought it was not too bad, so I’m reproducing it here, for those who are interested.

Yeah, you could do it. No problem. I was GMing regularly by the time I was your age.

But it takes practice to get good. Don’t be hard on yourself if the first few sessions don’t go as well as you would like.

As for tips, I’ve got a few:

  1. Prep. Get the adventure ready beforehand. Know how you want to describe things. Know what you’re going to need to know to run the encounters. For example, if you’re using a Purple Worm in an encounter, make sure you know how the improved grab and swallow whole rules work. If the adventure takes place in a volcano, read up on the rules for hot environments. Some people make notes, some put sticky notes on the pages of the rulebooks they need, some just need to refresh their memories before play. Do what you need to do so that you’re not fumbling around during play to figure something out.
  2. Start small. Don’t send everyone off on an epic quest to slay the gods and bring about Ragnarok. Make an adventure that can be finished in a session or two, and don’t get too fancy with it. Evil wizards or rampaging goblin hordes are fine. Rescue a princess or clean out a cave complex near a trade route. Simple objective. Once you get one or two of those under your belt, and you’ve got the confidence, then start stretching.
  3. Don’t let them push you around. Remember that you’re the GM, and that means you have the final say. Having said that, make sure you listen to them. If you’re wrong about something and they’re right, admit it, fix it, and move on. If they start arguing with you, say something like, “Look, that’s the way it’s going to work this time. After the game, we can talk and see if there’s a better way.”
  4. Say yes or roll the dice. Remember, the players aren’t the enemy. The big secret of being a GM is that it’s only fun if the players have fun. You’re not trying to beat them; you’re trying to help them beat you. If they come up with a neat idea, let it work if it’s feasible. If there’s a good chance that it’ll flop, roll the dice. Pick something to roll against: a skill, a save, an attack, an attribute, whatever. When all else fails, get them to roll a straight roll against a difficulty of 10 – that’s just like a coin toss. But if you’re going to roll the dice, make sure you’ve got an interesting thing to happen if they fail. If failure would be boring, don’t make it a possibility. Just let them succeed.
  5. Always play fair. You’ve got the ability, as GM, to annihilate the characters whenever you want. There’s no challenge to it, and there’s no fun in it. Play fair. Set up the situation, then let the dice and the players decide the fate of the characters. If they beat the crap out of your boss monster in a single round, remember it, congratulate them, and move on. Remember their tactics for next time, though.
  6. Relax and have fun. Some people will tell you that the GM’s job is to make sure everyone else has fun, but his first job is to have fun himself. If you’re not having fun, the game won’t be any fun for the players. Just make sure you’re not having fun at their expense.