The Strange Case of the Adversarial Gamemaster
Running a game is a bit of an odd undertaking. Almost all of us are introduced to the concept of role-playing games as players, initiated by a slightly more experienced player that wants to share the experience that he’d previously been privy to. Depending on the group, this person can remain in that role in perpetuity, so long as the group itself persists, or the mantle of GM can move around the table according to interest and specific ideas. My first D&D game was in 6th Grade, at the hands of another classmate. He’d been playing D&D over the summer with his older brothers, and with some borrowed dice and books, he undertook to teach a group of us what dice to throw and what all of the various terms meant.
Over the years, I’ve settled into the role of the primary GM of a lot of groups, even when I was living overseas with a weird group of international players. Part of it owes to my general experience with games, and part owes to my own interest in storycraft and the like. I’ve spent a lot of years studying how plot and foreshadowing go together, and being able to apply this background in the context of role-playing games gives me an outlet alongside the social aspects of gaming. There are times when I just want to tell a story.
My experience is not universal.
There are a lot of people that happen into role-playing at completely different angles, sort of sidling into it from other related hobbies. I know a number of gamers that have chanced upon the hobby through simple exposure at their local hobby shops, being that they were already there for some card game or another, whether it be Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic or Pokemon. Others come by it through miniatures or comics, as the overlap in a lot of areas requires that stores that specialize in one hobby cover as many as possible to keep themselves solvent.
These sorts of gamers have an entirely different mentality, the same as the theatre people and RenFaire groupies tend to bring their own collective strangeness to the table. If the person happened into role-playing through some other sort of competitive hobby, they have a tendency to bring this sort of idea to the table, especially if they’re behind the screen. In my experience, they’ve taken on an attitude of needing to win, and the role of gamemaster is just another facet of this, replacing their carefully constructed deck of cards or box of miniatures with the monster stats and base encounters of the game in question.
For the adversarial GM, everything is a contest, and it’s their job to make sure that the player characters are kept from winning when they shouldn’t. GM Grace is a foreign concept, and it’s inexcusable to fudge dice rolls to favor the players in a given situation, since they would not have properly earned their success. One GM I knew went so far as to taunt his players for their inability to deal with his unbalanced combat encounters and offered to run extra game sessions to ‘teach’ his players how to better survive in the meat grinder that was his game. This is a special case, I will grant, but I’ve seen enough seeds elsewhere to know that other people see GM’ing as another form of competition.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen into bad habits on occasion, where I’ll find myself frustrated by the way a major NPC was wiped out before they could add anything to the game. If I’ve planned out some sort of character arc for the adversary in question, it’s honestly pretty annoying when they’re removed from the table before the time I’ve invested in their creation has any payoff.
But you know something? That’s pretty much what they’re there for. Long years ago, I read a strange bit of gaming philosophy where it pointed out that NPC’s and monsters were constructed to exist for a single encounter and no more. Player characters have to have a continuum of experience, moving them from their origins through their eventual retirement, but the characters the gamemaster controls only have to make sense in the single encounter that they need to have with the player characters. This is simplified somewhat, since there’s a raft of assumptions that each NPC has to fulfill, but honestly, much of this can be hand-waved as needed. If I have an NPC that’s only going to be filling the role of shopkeeper, I’m not going to work up their hit matrices and the casual betrayal of their father’s legacy. I’m going to figure out how easy it’s going to be for the PC’s to wrangle a deal out of him, and then I’ll move on. Only if the players deem this guy more interesting is he going to have more work done for him.
My habits are my own, however. I’ve played in enough games and heard enough stories to know that such philosophical underpinnings are not the norm, and there are enough GM’s out there that use the gaming table as some sort of competitive arena, where their worth is measured by how much resource attrition is required for the session to be considered a success. There was a metric, somewhere in the core of D&D 3.5, where it stated that a normal encounter of sufficient challenge required 20% of the player character resources. This could include, of course, sacrificing 20% of the party, depending on how the GM in question read the rules. And if the party managed to get themselves killed, it was their own shortcoming, not that of the guy behind the screen.
None of this holds any water with my own practices, as I recognize that challenge is included in the games only so far as to give the players some sense of tension. Without the sense that there was an actual danger of failure, players tend to get bored and start looking for riskier things to do, so my own metrics keep that in mind, rather than looking for a way to kill a number of them off or judging if they’ve used up enough healing potions.
For my own purposes, I’m running the game to have fun and tell a story. And because it’s a role-playing game, the better part of the story is told by my players and how they react to the obstacles they find in their way. It really wouldn’t be much of a story if they all got killed off in the second act of a five act play.