Saturday, August 11, 2012


When running a game, the GM's aim should not be fair play, but fun play. The GM and players both need to keep this in mind.

"…And They're All Full Houses"

The GM, because of his position at the head of the table behind the screen with all the charts and statistics on it, does not simply hold all the cards. In fact, what the GM holds is a big honking stack of blank pasteboards and a marker with which to draw on numbers, faces, and suits as he sees fit.

The rules of the game exist as a skeleton to give the game structure. The setting exists to put a skin on the skeleton. But the thing won't move on its own; it's the interplay of the PCs and GM (through NPCs and adjudication) that gets the game up and dancing. The cooperation between the two is like muscles, either pulling in the same direction to do work, or pulling against each other and getting nothing done.

Sometimes, though, the GM has to pull rank in this arrangement. It may be to apply extra resistance to keep the game from jumping off a cliff, or to make it move harder when it has to get out of the way of an oncoming bus. And once in a while these actions may break the bones of system or tear the skin of genre. At the very least, they may seem jarring to the players, who perhaps expected something to happen and instead got a completely different result.

As players, this is the nature of the beast. We should be tolerant of it when it happens, provided the GM doesn't abuse it. For make no mistake, it's not a privilege—it's a responsibility

The Case for Fudge

And no, I'm not talking about the game with the [+][-] dice. I'm talking about taking liberties with scenario, setting, or system to tilt the advantage.

And note that I'm not saying to whose advantage.

The Argument Against (Irresponsible) Omnipotence

I've been through this a few times: You do not want to make the game a contest of GM versus player. The GM has infinite resources, and the ability to put any monster anywhere. This spells a short term victory for the GM every time.

I stress the "short term" here. The decisiveness of the GM's victory is directly proportional to how hard it'll be for him to get players in the future once word of what kind of game he runs gets out.

But to have a GM, and not give him that kind of power… yes, there are GMless games, but they still rely on some sort of authority. If it's not some sort of rotating authority on the table (which means you're really playing an all-GM game), then the authority is baked into the system itself. If the game has a single GM, he has the authority, and therefore the omnipotence. This is unavoidable. What is avoidable is the unnecessary abuse of that power.

And yes, I am fully aware that said statement assumes there is such a thing as necessary abuse. Which there is.

The "Dramatic Tension" Tuning Key

Some games do a generally good thing (and believe it or not, D&D most often fits this description) by baking balancing factors into the encounter mechanics. You have a party, containing x people of levels ymin–ymax, you'll have an allocation of experience to spend on assorted monsters to create a well-balanced combat. In the case of more dramatic fights (like near the end of the adventure), the GM will get more points to spend building up the final boss or mob fights.

There are two dangers here.

If the rules say that a party of x members, of levels ymin–ymax should face one or more monsters worth zmin–zmax experience total, then your players will always be sure that their last fight is against one or more monsters worth zmax experience, what their treasures will be worth, etc. Over time, that will get dull.

I'm not saying that the carefully measured combat encounter is a bad thing. I'm saying that it can be a very stable, reliable thing, and that stability in excess is a bad thing.

Consider other instances of heroic fiction; they're not measured out so equitably. The main characters are pitted against seemingly impossible odds, opposition that can best be described as "monstrous," and usually expected to win despite all that. This builds interest. Contrast that with the carefully considered combat, where the ultimate bad guy is only slightly level-inappropriate.

Taking the heroic fiction into account, what you should end up with is a "final boss" that the PCs are woefully unprepared for, despite taking every preparation they could take. And yet, the heroes are supposed to have a chance to win. From here, I could launch into a new article about "non-standard combat scenarios," but I'll save that for another time.

Dice Insurance

Dice are often used in this sort of game to decide if various tasks complete successfully or unsuccessfully. They are impartial and ideally random. But they also don't give a flying donut about your game, and—you may want to sit down for this—they may decide poorly. Worse, they may decide boring.

The players don't have much they can do about this; generally, players can see what other players roll. Even the GM, who's rolling his dice behind a screen full of stats and tables, is expected to interpret the dice fairly. However, he's got that certain responsibility to regulate the challenge level: Keep things from going too well for the players (unless that's intentional), and also keep things from going too poorly for the players.

Thus, the GM should follow the dice when he can, and ignore them when he must.

GM Cheating ≠ Player Cheating

I'm not advocating just any old cheating here. The game—whichever one you're playing—was designed with rules and an intended way to play. The GM is the ultimate storyteller, whose job it is to keep the PCs' lives interesting and the players entertained despite anything that the dice or system say otherwise. The GM is supposed to manage the big bag of evil tricks and nasty surprises and pit the PCs against things that should ideally challenge them. And the GM is final arbiter, bearing everything he knows in mind.

Some players, seeing the odds tilted against them, may react by trying to tilt the odds back. That's really not the same. The GM, if he's doing his job right, is tilting things in his favor to make the situation more exciting, and usually on a temporary basis; he'll lay off if the players manage to get their characters into too much trouble. The player who's doing that same thing is usually doing so for personal gain, and not necessarily in the short term, either.

Unfair? Absolutely. But the two roles are vastly different. The player controls one character in the game. The GM controls, well… everything else.

If the players are going to trust the GM in any capacity, they're going to have to accept that the GM will try to keep the game lively despite any non-cooperation on the part of the dice and system, and trust that the GM will cheat fairly.

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