Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Balancing The Stone

I was talking to Dave (one of many Daves) at Dreamation and he mentioned that he really didn't like it when GMs took certain actions to screw over players. Now, I'm a big supporter of GMs being mean, so I questioned this, and he gave an example of a GM looking at his players, realizing that they had no direction, and having a large price get put on their head to kickstart them into action.

I argued a few points for how that could make things more interesting, and the all important point that it's unreasonable to expect that bad things wouldn't happen to adventurers - dealing with bad things is kind of the point. Despite this, I had to concede when Dave laid down the killer point; that this had been done with no input from the players. The problem was not that it was mean, but rather that it was a betrayal of the implicit agreement between the players and the GM. That, I had to admit, was something of a problem.

Worse, it was probably an unintentional problem. The GM almost certainly was trying to create the kind of good, fruitful trouble that generates play, but he chose to do so in a way that the players took as a slap to the face.[1] That presented an interesting challenge: how is GM supposed to distinguish good trouble (trouble that drives play, engages players and makes for fun) from bad trouble (trouble that feels arbitrary and capricious, and fails to engage the players, possibly even upsetting them).

My advice was pretty simple. The trick is that the GM doesn't need to do bad things: instead he should set up the situation so that the bad things is balanced precariously above the players, clearly ready to fall. The important thing is that it's clear that the bad thing will happen if the players take no action, but they have the ability to stop it if they do act.[2] This serves to important purposes: first, it gives clear motivation for action, which may otherwise be lacking. Second, if the bad thing comes to pass (either through failure or choosing to pursue a different problem) it doesn't feel like GM fiat because the critical decisions and actions came from the players.[3]

Put more simply, if you kill a character's dad, that's a jerk move. If you tell them that an old enemy has come to town to kill their dad, that's an adventure.

1 - Tolerances will totally vary by table, based on taste and trust, but I suspect that more tables are close to Dave than they are to some of the pain-eaters I know.

2 - this is, by the way, totally oriented towards adventure gaming. Many of these assumptions will be entirely off base in other styles of play.

3 - Now, this is not to say bad things should never happen. Unexpected badness is the classic initiating event of an adventure, and players are ok with that because that's the nature of the genre. Starting a game with the death of our family and destruction of our village is totally in bounds, because we begin play _from_ that point. However, the kind of capricious badness that a lot of people expect in the second act does not have similar blanket exemptions. If everyone at the table already has the sensibility that expects it, then great, but if they don't then the darkness before the dawn just ends up looking like the GM taking a piss on the group.[4]

4 -This is one of those explicit divergences between tabletop play and the fiction it models. All that conflict and tension that makes for great stories has to ground out through your players. If they're not synced up with you, then you can expect to smell a lot of ozone and burnt plastic.


  1. For me the issue is when I anticipate the problem, take steps to ensure that it doesn't happen and announce vigilance at watching for any complications that arise that might make my measures ineffective but the problem marches through all the countermeasures I took to tweak my nose. I've had the same GM do that to me twice and it made me livid both times.

    I love and respect when a GM capitalizes on player stupidity to make bad things happen. I can even dig bad things happening to get the ball rolling, but I just cannot tolerate a GM using caveat to undermine a players efforts just to get at the things they care about most. Drama is important, but when you're violating trust to achieve it... well you said it.

  2. "If you kill a character's dad, it's a jerk move. If you tell them an old enemy has come to town to kill their dad, that's an adventure" I think that sums it up nicely.

    This is pushing the boulder to the top of the hill and letting it sit there in plain view of all. If the players do nothing, it will probably roll down and cause lots of harm, but the 'heads up' gives the players a chance to see it coming and respond.

    I think it goes without saying that elements that the players add to flesh out their characters (family, friends, hometowns) are open to use by the GM. If it's not understood, sounds like time to have a sit down. I'm talking about 'using' them in the put-them-in-danger option quoted above, not kill them outright.

    But what about the character that has no connections? This could be a player not wanting to give ammunition to the GM or a player with no time (or desire) to invest more time and energy in their character. What then?

    I suppose you can resort to the some 'thing' of value to the character was stolen, but this could be seen as much of a jerk move as killing the character's father. There is also the bribe of gold and riches if they do something for an NPC. Is killing the dad still a jerk move if the player has given the GM nothing with which to engage the character?

  3. When a GM says that an NPC is out to get the players, by putting a bounty on them, how is that a breach of an implicit agreement? Why would the players expect to have any input on this?

    A similar situation happened in a campaign that I once played in. The GM used the bounty to demonstrate to the players that actions have consequences. It developed into an interesting subplot.

  4. The catch-22 of the character with no ties is that they are usually responding to previous GM abuse. You can't 'fix' them, and trying to do so feels like denying the real problems they dealt with.

    Thankfully it's a group activity. The best thing you can do is engage the other character's connections and let him watch. If he sees that, over time, it's not just a trick to dick over the players, he might risk poking his nose out of the cave to try a connection or two. Reward this behavior, and you can eventually heal old wounds.

    This patient approach works equally well for scarred veterans and clueless newbies. Rather than trying to correct them, you just let them see the benefits over time and let them make the choice. As a bonus, that kind of audience will push you to make sure you really are using connections on a way to make the game more awesome, so everyone wins.

    -Rob D

  5. @Jeb if there's a clear chain of consequence, then it might be in scope, but if the GM just wants to shake things up, and the players have strong setting investments that this gut-punches, the lack of player buy in is a problem.

    The rough thing about addressing this is a perfectly spherical cow. Any example will be flawed because there's a way to make the idea work, so its important to remember that not every idea works in every situation, even if it's a great idea.

  6. @Rob
    I had not thought about it as being a reaction to prior GM abuse. That helps put it into perspective. Thanks.

  7. Hi Rob! I am the Dave in question (Berg). I think we are on the same page about what's desirable here. However, I do want to clarify exactly what it is that I was objecting to. It's an issue in a very specific play style, wherein the players want to choose their own (group) direction. They're happy to follow the GM's leads only so long as they don't HAVE to. From this perspective, well-meaning dramatic threats can come with a side of coercion if there's a high cost to ignoring them. To GM for players like this, I find that the key is to offer opportunities. Have some ideas of stuff they want, dangle a bunch of carrots, and see which one they bite. Hitting them with trouble is still great, provided that, at some point in the proces, they opted in. Having a price on your head is not an undue constraint of freedom if you just killed the prince!

    This may be a pretty niche issue, but it's a core component of some adventure design work that I'm doing, which I'd love to show you at some point. I agree that there's a lot left to be done in that area in our hobby!

    P.S. Great to see you, as always. Thanks for helping to run the roundtable. No matter how small or insular it is, I always love those.

  8. Excellent post. It really cuts to the core questions, "What is the role of the GM? and the related, What sort of social contract is in place at the table?"

    ~Adaen of Bridgewater

  9. Excellent post. It really cuts to the core questions, "What is the role of the GM? and the related, What sort of social contract is in place at the table?"

    ~Adaen of Bridgewater


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