Worst GM

I’ve played countless games on scores of different tabletop systems, and even in the least cohesive group, we always managed to do something fun or epic. There’s always engagement, creativity, and emotion poured into the game. And when there isn’t there’s bloodshed, glory, and a story to go with the scars.

Then there’s D&D.

Now 5th edition does have quite a few tools to allow the story teller to come out form people, but it lacks any firm facility to teach that. The rules run contrary to most sentiments of story, which are then learned through experience not through the game itself. Even the game play attempts to break story aspects one roll for initiative at a time. There are lots of great groups, but I would argue that D&D is a stumbling block that has to be adjusted to allow good stories.

Case in point, a 15 minute argument why barbarians can’t be blacksmiths. Yes, exactly how we want to start off the group, telling players that their imagination is insufficient because it violates a nebulous canon.

And thus was the start of me finding the worst GM yet. Now, let’s give him some credit. D&D has unreasonably long character creation designed to place balance over imagination. It’s in no way fun or engaging. In fact, every time I finish I feel as if I failed an intelligence check and traded my nice evening walking around a beautiful wooded trail for doing somebody’s taxes for free. It’s not this GM’s fault that Wizard’s has crit failed every single character creation experience they’ve ever set their minds to.

However, this does lead us to the first point. Games are not always engaging to a player, but the GM should be. It’s not eaves dropping or hovering to ask questions and give advice while people are working on their characters. In fact, I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone treat character creation like dealing a poker hand.

This went on to the point that setting and history was withheld until the end, yet all decisions were weighed against it once it was presented. Characters were actively changed by the GM to fit the history once player choice had ended. Another first for me actually. Characters are a reflection of the people playing and of the aspirations of their own fictional ideals. Good GMs try to understand them and work to build cohesive story, not dictate it and declare what’s wrong.

Now there are two schools of thought for GMs, and they can lie anywhere on the spectrum. The first is that players are the main characters of the story and that everything should go in their favor, and the second is that players are a nuisance that should be crushed and killed with the least fair encounters. The former extreme is no challenge and all childish fancy, the later is open conflict between the group because the GM is only in it to make people angry. So most people lie somewhere in the middle of this. Falling on either extreme is equally bad, but not irreconcilable.

Those who lean towards treating players like main characters tend to try to give people opportunities to use their strengths and reward that behavior. This is often unreasonable but it drives engagement. Those who lean towards crushing players tend to create complex challenges that will take teamwork and creative thinking to solve, even if they don’t speak directly to the players.

Without leaving character creation, D&D 5e has some of the former built in. Players have options to recover from pitfalls, like average stats and minimum level gains. This experience was different. Even the biggest grognard understands a stat reroll. And the common sentiment I’ve found in 5e is to suggest using common stats if the first is significantly below average. This one was met with disregard. There was just a blank stare mixed with anger as if I’d offended the Manchester soccer team and better agree quick before I get kicked out of the pub.

Bringing this onward to the game itself, somehow I found a third axiom, willing disregard for player actions. I’ve seen something similar before but never to this extreme. What happened was that only events that mattered to the GM would be resolved. The rest were met with dead silence or flat out denial without discussion. Actually, discussion was treated as insolence. Imagine sitting silently for hours waiting for the permission to interact with the group. That’s the third axiom. Good GMs encourage group dynamics, not cherry pick which to allow.

Now I’ve worked with failed characters before and had fun with them. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with forcing a player to play a failed character providing there is room for engagement. But how does one measure engagement, or feel engaged. It’s probably a long complex discussion but I can point out the common solutions. One is to separate interaction into time slices so each player gets a chance to say what they think. Others can interact, but it’s only one player’s turn to hold the talking stick. Another is to prompt players based on their character’s traits about what should interest them. Another is to ask open questions of “The situation is this, what do you do?”. Another trick I’ve seen is to encourage internal dialog as players by breaking game dialog for a moment.

Regardless of the solution or the most effective means in the group, the important part is that the GM tried. Unfortunately in this case that was not true. Not only was it discouraged with implications of wrong doing (such as constant reminders of what it means to be in character), it was actively dismissed with every player being given the roguish expectation of not being allowed to share player details with each other. Most communications were delivered with secret note passing and nods. Very few things happened to the group. They all happened to individuals without permission for the group to respond.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. How well a group interacts is the single biggest factor in any RPG. It transcends systems. Great group dynamics make terrible RPGs fun! Good GMs place group interaction above all else. Actually, I’ll go so far as to say every GM’s intuition makes them want to encourage group interaction. Being sociable should be a natural inclination and a minimum requirement. This was the first case I’ve ever seen where it was thought of as wrong.

Another fundamental element of an RPG is that creative solutions make up the bulk of the experience. In passing it’s humorously described as players always doing something so stupid that the GM won’t expect it. Creativity is the driving force behind immersion and interaction with the fictional world. Both the players and the GM should have the chance to be creative.

The poison pill in my case was the silent treatment. Creative solutions, no matter how stupid, should have an effect. They should never be met with “fail.” They should reach out and touch the world. Players need to know that they have impact. In fact this is the #1 lesson if you every want to join a play by post game. Players are part of the story, they are not simply experiencing it in serial.

The flip side here is that GMs should be equally creative, but not as an adversary. There should not be creative solutions that negate other creative solutions. There should be creative application of the unexpected. If someone accidentally floods the dungeon and destroys the only entrance, don’t hang up the hat and say “Come on, Carl! Mission’s a bust now!”. Equally don’t say that a wizard somehow made the dungeon waterproof. Either let them explore a flooded waterscape, or adapt the story to create an interesting world where this cataclysm took effect. If someone accidentally wakes up an island and it walks away, let the players continue in the world with consequences!

All this talk on creativity is to get to the biggest turn off of the whole experience. Performance is important. Players should be their character in their mind and even make fun voices. Same with the GM. Every NPC is an opportunity to take on theatrics. I’ve found that people in tabletop groups tend to love or participate in theater because of the similarities. And for theatrics I cannot fault this particular GM one bit. It was some of the best I’ve seen in a game.

The problem with this case was that creativity is 99% of role playing. Theatrics is the remaining 1%. You can’t place the best cake icing on a pile of moldy onions and wait for accolades. In fact, anyone dumb enough to be tricked by it will be more angry than those who saw it coming. This game was full of cases where scripted events existed only for a chance for the GM to do a performance, and no player action could alter that performance from its preconceived script. It was used as an excuse, or a blocker, but good GMs know that creativity is more important than theatrics.

I’ll close with a broken record. Player expectations are extremely important. Systems should thoroughly support their variety, and GMs should care about them. Group dynamics can work when people know what to expect. Obviously any of the issues I’ve stumbled upon could have been resolved with upfront honesty and communication. Even to the completely acceptable resolution of deciding not to join because the expectations don’t match. Care about the group, listen to their stories, and see what it takes to make things enjoyable for all, otherwise GMing is not for you.

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3 comments

  1. Just a note on where you say

    “Those who lean towards treating players like main characters tend to try to give people opportunities to use their strengths and reward that behavior. This is often unreasonable but it drives engagement. Those who lean towards crushing players tend to create complex challenges that will take teamwork and creative thinking to solve, even if they don’t speak directly to the players.”

    This seems like a bit of an odd juxtaposition. Because both effects sound good. I would want my game to both provide at least some opportunities (or allow me to create them) for exploiting my strengths, the success of which is a good enough reward for me. On the other hand I also enjoy complex challenges that require teamwork and creative thinking to resolve.

    I don’t think the use of the phrase “crush players” is quite right in this case. I would think a better way to put it, for me, would be “challenge players”. But this creates an odd dichotomy because the opposite of “challenge” might be “coddle”, but the first case shouldn’t be about coddling either. In fact, I think the same GM can get both results in the same game. It doesn’t seem incongruous to me that a GM could both challenge their players and provide / allow opportunities to use their strengths and reward those behaviors.

    1. Great points.

      That’s what I get for discussing extremes in generalized humorous tone. To elaborate the understanding is that GM’s a can go to one extreme and be cheerleaders for their players and want them to never fail, or they can go to the other extreme and try to be a roadblock for their success and try to make them fail at all costs. Wherever in the middle of both extreme’s a GM lies is a big part of the tone of a game. Most GM’s I’ve had are closer to the roadblock side but really invest in player stories and DO want them to succeed. Very few have gone so far as to remove any real challenge from the player, but it happens often enough in diceless RPGs and very rules lite games. Most fans of combat love the challenge and probably steer away from the coddling side of the equation.

      I didn’t meant to imply that challenge is bad. Just that too much challenge is just as bad as no challenge at all and that people should think of where in the middle they lie and why.

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