Judging the Game

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Judging the Game

The gamemaster has many responsibilities, but guaranteeing that players have fun isn't one of them.

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I'm sorry, but what? Storytelling isn't important? You shouldn't worry if the players aren't having fun? What a load of bollocks. If you're not having fun playing a game ... why are you playing? What do you accomplish? It's not a job. You're not getting paid for it. It's a game.

A game is defined in two general ways:

o a contest with rules to determine a winner;
o an amusement or pastime;

I think treating a roleplaying game as a contest is entirely the wrong mindset to perpetuate, as the players shouldn't have to feel like they have to compete with one another to succeed, that just creates fights, bickering, and general bad feeling. If they have to feel they're competing with super GM NPCs with super bullshit-o armour on everything but their ass or similar folly, it just ends up with them finding a new GM.

Perhaps its just something in the old school gamer in me, the gamer that digested the 2.0 rules in all their hideous glory with THAC0 and White Wolf's pretentious little offerings which did something so brash as painting a setting, no an environment with atmosphere and such things. I think if you're saying that storytelling isn't important then you either have three circumstances happening:

A: You don't want to take responsibility for the fact that your players aren't having fun - which, granted, can be as much their fault as yours but they're not the ones narrating this story;

B: You're playing with people who probably would do better off playing World of Warcraft and eating a nice grind sandwich; and/or

C: You've honestly misunderstood the kind of player to which roleplaying games appeal. Here's a hint: we like stories, and character development, and feeling we're a part of that story.

I will agree with one thing though - getting your knickers in a twist over it is a bad idea. If it's not working out and it gets stressful, then take a break from the session and come back later. Your characters and NPCs aren't going to disappear in the meantime.

By and large you're right. The mantra of my games tends to be "No plan survives contacts with PCs." so what I like to do is present them with a situation (We need paperwork from the Church Library, but it's crawling with guards), and let them explore the options for resolving the situation. I sometimes have little back up plans in case the PCs have a collective brain fart.

As a result I tend to operate a game knowing where it'll start, and where I'll want it to end along with some of the stuff I want to happen along the way. However it's all subject to the PCs actions. One PC willingly gives his blood to a scheming demon for info? I suddenly have a sub-plot that is going to run throughout the rest of the game. Another PC is a hothead who keeps on nearly getting himself killed? I get to add a sub-plot where he finds a master who teaches him some prudence and new combat abilities. It is these things, which happen organically, that really grab Players' imaginations.

In that regard you're wrong, storytelling is very important, but it has to be storytelling that changes organically. That is very difficult to achieve.

Your discussion of agency was more revealing than any article I've read about agency in video games. Much appreciated. I believe agency is the number one factor in video gaming that makes it fun, although in many games that agency doesn't result in persistent consequences but rather immediate reactions. For instance, in Oblivion the video-games agency aspect would relate to the sluggish mouse-feel and how it affects combat, while the role-playing agency aspect has more to do with how you build your character's stats and how that also affects combat.

A lot of tasks a good GM does leads towards the party/players having fun. While it may not be expressly written as a rule or a duty, lack of story, lack of character choice/development, lack of enthusiasm/preparation, lack of action/intrigue/adventure on the GMs part can pretty much insure that people won't have fun and the game won't last more than a few sessions at best.

The GM has to be aware of what I call the meta-level of a player, is the group old vets of multiple RPGs, are there new people joining the group and if they're new, what systems have they played? You can dynamically adjust your GMing style to the make-up of the group and even down to the player level as long as no one becomes the "pet".

Caiti Voltaire:
I'm sorry, but what? Storytelling isn't important? You shouldn't worry if the players aren't having fun? What a load of bollocks. If you're not having fun playing a game ... why are you playing? What do you accomplish? It's not a job. You're not getting paid for it. It's a game.

A game is defined in two general ways:

o a contest with rules to determine a winner;
o an amusement or pastime;

I think treating a roleplaying game as a contest is entirely the wrong mindset to perpetuate, as the players shouldn't have to feel like they have to compete with one another to succeed, that just creates fights, bickering, and general bad feeling. If they have to feel they're competing with super GM NPCs with super bullshit-o armour on everything but their ass or similar folly, it just ends up with them finding a new GM.

Perhaps its just something in the old school gamer in me, the gamer that digested the 2.0 rules in all their hideous glory with THAC0 and White Wolf's pretentious little offerings which did something so brash as painting a setting, no an environment with atmosphere and such things. I think if you're saying that storytelling isn't important then you either have three circumstances happening:

A: You don't want to take responsibility for the fact that your players aren't having fun - which, granted, can be as much their fault as yours but they're not the ones narrating this story;

B: You're playing with people who probably would do better off playing World of Warcraft and eating a nice grind sandwich; and/or

C: You've honestly misunderstood the kind of player to which roleplaying games appeal. Here's a hint: we like stories, and character development, and feeling we're a part of that story.

I will agree with one thing though - getting your knickers in a twist over it is a bad idea. If it's not working out and it gets stressful, then take a break from the session and come back later. Your characters and NPCs aren't going to disappear in the meantime.

As a "player to which roleplaying games appeal", I disagree wholeheartely with your generalization. I am currently having amazing amounts of fun creating the story with fellow players in a campaign. Yes, there is fun to be had in revealing the story that a GM has laid down, but it's not the only one, and in this player's humble opinion, it's by far not the most fun.

Well, a good DM always prepares a good story in advance - a basic outline of what will happen, but he also must be prepared to improvise at every turn. The most fun we had with addies was botched rolls - you have a critical miss on your spot and suddenly the bandit you're after looks a lot like the mayor of the village ,half an hour later when the heroes break down mayor's front door they realise the mayor looks nothing like him, in fact he's not even the same race. Creating a good atmosphere is really important ,don't send the players on a series of meaningless fights like "you see a bunch of goblins, roll inits" invest some time in backstory ,have some NPC tell about about a secret cave filled with horrible demons whose howls instill fear in everybody who hears it - only the horrible demons are actually the weakest kobolds (not that they didn't beat the hell out of those heroes, amazingly), then when the heroes return to the village they pass even greater tell tales to the next batch of heroes in the tavern. In the end its also important to keep a certain amount of realism, DM shouldn't just make super-happy funland for the heroes and he shouldn't send them against a pack of tarrasques on their first level either, its about keeping the danger real but not impossible to handle and if they do screw up they have to face the consequences. Most players hate to see their character die but most players also prefer to have them die a glorious death than have them live a boring life.

((I Read this article out to my boyfriend (whom I'm still trying to convince into creating an account here, and who happens to be the most competent GM i know, for the time being, that's what he says on the matter))

While the article displays quite impressive insight into the p&p business, I really don't like the rollercoaster analogy; While the artifact may or may not be on top of the lone mountain, there is no reason why a good gm shouldn't have two options available, depending on the players choice. The more you avoid a linear story (many streets lead to rome), the more you can allow players to actually decide important things, without killing off the story. (In fact in quite some adventures I've lead so far, I didn't know the stories end myself, and just started building up my ideas, based on the players arguing at certain decisisve points)

Also, since you mentioned it in the article - probably the most valuable advice I can give on the subject - DONT. EVER. BALANCE. If every fight is challenging but beatable, exactly balanced to the strength of the party,than fighting will get tediously boring, seing how the outcome will mainly be decided by dice. Within the borders of what the characters can anticipate (If a player fails to ask "does my character know x", its their fault), just don't balance stuff. A peasant with a fork should never be a threat even to a low level character, while a well known swordmaster can, should the players attack him, easily be too strong. Rather than well balanced fights, some npc-slaughtering and some fights that have to be avoided due to enemies too powerful add up to a way more intense athmosphere, even if some characters need to get beaten up on the way (Still reward "cool" stuff though - kill players if they insist on jumping down the pit of doom - let them succeed when they lead 299 badly dressed bodybuilders to stop a persian invasion)

paulgruberman:

As a "player to which roleplaying games appeal", I disagree wholeheartely with your generalization. I am currently having amazing amounts of fun creating the story with fellow players in a campaign. Yes, there is fun to be had in revealing the story that a GM has laid down, but it's not the only one, and in this player's humble opinion, it's by far not the most fun.

I did not say it's the only fun to be had, but the article comments that storytelling is the least important thing to a GM and I'm sorry but that just rings false to me. That's not to say it's the most important thing either, but I have noticed an increasing trend these days for players and GM alike to fall into this thing where they seem to be embracing the fandom of the game more than the game itself and that seems a little pretentious to me. It's not about who has a level 92 shadowhumper (apologies to Yahtzee) or some silly thing like that, nor is it about which GM can make their players cry out in agony having perished in an inescapible trap in the deepest reaches of the Shadowdark, as Penny Arcade frequently satarises. It's about having fun telling a story - or being part of that story. There are several facets to that story - character development, character improvement, getting those shiny things and achieving goals - and there are differing schools of thought as to which is most and least important, but the bottom line for me - and not coincidentially the thought I disagree in with the article's rebuttal thereof - is that it should be fun.

If it's not fun then really all you're doing is faffing about, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, if you're not having fun, what's the point? I guess I just fail to grasp that.

As an aside, to properly address your post, what is it which you would consider the fun factors then, aside from the story? You say that it is not the only important things and I am not in disagreement there, but it begs the question without properly answering it.

Hey Alex, I thought I'd just throw my hat into the discussion. Now I didn't read your first guide on GMing, but I plan on reading that directly after writing this. I've been playing tabletop games for almost 10 years now, comprising a good portion (a little less than half) of my life. I've been GMing for friends for about half of that time and it took me a really long time to really get the hang of it. It was only last year that I really got in my stride (appropriately enough, it was when I first started playing with people who could play regularly and for more than two hours without getting distracted). I always had that struggle of how to make it so that I have things written for them no matter what direction they choose. Inevitably they'd choose the direction I'd least want them to take and I'd have to improvise a little more than I'd like. I ended up with scattered notes and a lot of half-assed parts because of the sheer amount of choice I wanted to give the player.

Well... players don't always make the best choices. I actually railroad quite a bit. I usually have forks in the road that will give them that choice but they are usually two different means to the same end. I always have the illusion of choice present, but my party seems eager to go down the railroad I've set out because they seem to trust that I'm taking them on the right path.

Now this may seem a little bit controlling, but it is important to note that I have storytelling a higher on that list than adversary. I have a very large story arc plotted out. I have several outcomes to the story arc and I have many many ways of it being completed. But it is a story, and for me to tell that story to these characters through their characters, I have to railroad them a little bit to get them there. I'm not foolish, I have the overall arc, but what happens each session, or what could potentially happen in a session is usually written throughout each week.

I'll give you an example: Currently my party has been marked with the symbol of magical entity they accidentally released at the end of the last campaign. They have been in some kind of stasis for a year and in the meantime their entire country has been overrun with daemons. They really have no idea what the brand means or what happened in that year they'd been in stasis. A few days after waking, they meet a man [of previous political importance] who is traveling to a sage in order to seek guidance about what to do about the daemons. He has promised them that the sage will likely have answers for them about what their marks are and why they have them. the party is currently traveling with that man to that sage. He is leading them on the route he thinks best.

I haven't restricted their freedom at all, not really. I have given them a scenario and the circumstances point to a logical solution to a problem. The party could choose to stop traveling with that man at any point, they can do whatever they want. They've chosen to do the things I wanted them to, I guess because I made them seem like the best decisions.

I'm planning on opening everything up to them in a few sessions. By that I mean there will be a certain point in the story arc where I have certain pivotal decisions that need to be made that will determine their next destination and even what they'll be doing for the rest of the campaign. For now I'm driving them towards that moment, offering a fork here and there. It is as much practice for me in the GM seat as it is exposition for them. But it's fun for everyone playing. They think I'm a great GM, they've told me so on several occasions.

I agree with your last point entirely. Your methods and mine may be totally different. That's why I've spend the last couple of years writing my own system. Implemented that system and have been tweaking it here and there. I also agree that the role of judge is very important. I guess I'm just a sucker for storytelling. Choice is a hard thing to write, and so I guess I try and avoid too much of that aspect. Does that make me a bad GM? Not according to my players. Maybe according to others.

EDIT: My prioritization of the GM's 4 main duties would likely go as follows:
World Builder
Judge
Storyteller
Adversary
Bear in mind that, like you just said, I do not think any of them are unimportant. They are all crucial to me, but I place them in this order of importance.

EDIT2: I now have a desire to read Gygax's book.

MDSnowman:
In that regard you're wrong, storytelling is very important, but it has to be storytelling that changes organically. That is very difficult to achieve.

Thank you for your comments. Please note that I have listed Storytelling as one of the four basic functions of the GM. So it's not that I think Storytelling is unimportant. It's that I think it's been overemphasized to the detriment of the other functions. That has left a lot of GMs confused into thinking that their job is to be an amateur novelist when their job is to run a game. It's a testament to how ingrained this "GM as Storyteller" notion has become that even saying that other functions of the GM are more important is considered apostasy.

I wonder if when current generations read Gary Gygax's 1st Edition DM's Guide, where he spends very little time on story and a considerable amount of time on judging, world-building, and controlling adversaries, whether they also think he doesn't know what he's talking about.

If your players are not having fun, then you really have failed as a DM. I remember games where I got level drained, died, broke my favorite axe and was unable to damage the enemy, but I still had a great time in all of those because my DM made it fun.

As a DM myself, I understand that I shouldn't make a campeign where every roll needs to succeed. It's just plain silly to have to destroy your game world because your players have an unlucky day. This is where storytelling and being able to improvise comes into play. Never underestimate your players ability to roll with the punches as well. While some of them might do exactly what you expect them to do, sometimes they will just do something so incredibly insane that you have to let them do it to see exactly how well it goes.

I remember a game a few years back where our party broke into the enemy city, and then split up into five groups and went for different buildings. It took about eight hours to cover 10 rounds (second edition rounds = one minute each). Most of us made it out of there alive, but it could have gotten pretty ugly. You simply can never tell when your party will do something crazy like that. You gotta be ready for anything. Chances are, the inn they are staying at tonight WILL catch on fire, and you have to be ready to issue consequences for their actions.

Finding that right balance between challenging and unfair is something you will have to work on too. I remember a few games where I went too far and put the players against stuff they couldn't even hurt. It's not really that fun if you gotta run away from random encounters.

Also, remember that even though you are the DM and the players adversary, you still have to roleplay the NPCs like they weren't all powerful. Many players misuse player knowledge as character knowledge. As a DM, this is especially important to keep in mind of. If your players keep running into ambushes set in their path by the big baddy, there better be some pretty good reasons why (spies, scrying, careless PC's) or you are just being a dick and not actually roleplaying your villians.

Oh, I guess I should say it: As a DM, you should be having fun too. It's your story you are weaving, and they are the active participants in it. Always remember that dice rolls are nice, but you should just ignore them entirely if your players have a good idea with solid roleplaying to get past a challenge.

Caiti Voltaire:

paulgruberman:

As a "player to which roleplaying games appeal", I disagree wholeheartely with your generalization. I am currently having amazing amounts of fun creating the story with fellow players in a campaign. Yes, there is fun to be had in revealing the story that a GM has laid down, but it's not the only one, and in this player's humble opinion, it's by far not the most fun.

I did not say it's the only fun to be had, but the article comments that storytelling is the least important thing to a GM and I'm sorry but that just rings false to me. That's not to say it's the most important thing either, but I have noticed an increasing trend these days for players and GM alike to fall into this thing where they seem to be embracing the fandom of the game more than the game itself and that seems a little pretentious to me. It's not about who has a level 92 shadowhumper (apologies to Yahtzee) or some silly thing like that, nor is it about which GM can make their players cry out in agony having perished in an inescapible trap in the deepest reaches of the Shadowdark, as Penny Arcade frequently satarises. It's about having fun telling a story - or being part of that story. There are several facets to that story - character development, character improvement, getting those shiny things and achieving goals - and there are differing schools of thought as to which is most and least important, but the bottom line for me - and not coincidentially the thought I disagree in with the article's rebuttal thereof - is that it should be fun.

If it's not fun then really all you're doing is faffing about, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, if you're not having fun, what's the point? I guess I just fail to grasp that.

As an aside, to properly address your post, what is it which you would consider the fun factors then, aside from the story? You say that it is not the only important things and I am not in disagreement there, but it begs the question without properly answering it.

I think you've misunderstood, story is still important, it's just not as important to having fun as many may think. As an alternative to a preordained plot, the world can be created, the background (culture, events, etc) set, and the players can be set loose as adventurers, not actors. The story is the story of those players as they interact with the world. The GM still adds his own telling to the story through events that happen along the way, but when the party decides to stand and face a dragon, it's because they want to, not because the story won't advance until they defeat it.

I feel obliged to thank you for the advice you've been giving in the articles. To me, a relatively young GM, they are invaluable and allow me to see where exactly I am going wrong and what I should change for the better. And it really is as you say. If I try to railroad the characters the fun factor tends to drop down significantly and when they are simply let loose to do what they want, with appropriate consequences of course, the game gets better. Not to say I don't have a story, plot or something planned. Maps, charts, potential NPCs, loot, locations, items, puzzles, riddles, encounters, everything needs to be planned out in advance and whether it gets used is all up to the players. If something I worked hard on gets skipped just because the players decided to go the completely opposite way then I salvage what I can and recycle it for use somewhere else or in another campaign or even because the enemies that were at that certain location weren't killed they did something else and so on.

Anyway, I'm rambling too much. This is just a big thank you from a guy that signed up simply to reply here. (Also spent half an hour finding a name which wasn't taken.)

Chaya:
Anyway, I'm rambling too much. This is just a big thank you from a guy that signed up simply to reply here. (Also spent half an hour finding a name which wasn't taken.)

Chaya, I'm exceptionally happy to learn that my articles have been valuable to you. Thanks very much, and I wish you great success in your gaming!

You have used the logical fallacy that negative in game outcomes result in a lack of fun. It is my job to make sure my players have fun because if they are not having fun there is no point to running my game, if they are not having fun then we could do something else that is fun. That said I do not have to make things easy for them or not give them choice in order to do that.

If something will get in the way of players having fun it should be dropped from the game whether it is story elements, rules or any other aspect of RPing. But people can have fun making mistakes if they are feel like they are part of the experiance.

In a fight I am about to have in my game we have one player that far outstips the others in combat ability and can destroy the main villian very quickly. The main villian can also take him out of the fight instantaneously if she so desires. Neither result ends in fun for any party. Either he one shots the boss in turn one and everyone stands around doing nothing or he is taken out turn one, he sits around doing nothing.

Acording to your philosophy I should kill the player because that is the outcome that will result in the group feeling their actions count. Instead I will pick another course of action that will not end the fight straight away but will result on everyone having fun and being able to play their parts. I may have to fudge a dice roll for this to work but im going to do it anyway becuase I will not have the players enjoyment ruined by me rolling badly.

I'm not sure if im contradicting you in any way because after reading the article twice I still don't really know where you stand. You seem to be saying that GM's are not responsable for their players fun yet they should put systems in place that allow the players to have fun.

If that is the case then I do disagree with that, while you should put systems in place to allow people to have fun you should not stop there. You should be assessing things as they progress and determining how players are reacting to them. If the players are not happy with how the systems are working it is the GM's job to change them to make sure the players are having fun.

Kaihlik

Archon:

MDSnowman:
In that regard you're wrong, storytelling is very important, but it has to be storytelling that changes organically. That is very difficult to achieve.

Thank you for your comments. Please note that I have listed Storytelling as one of the four basic functions of the GM. So it's not that I think Storytelling is unimportant. It's that I think it's been overemphasized to the detriment of the other functions. That has left a lot of GMs confused into thinking that their job is to be an amateur novelist when their job is to run a game. It's a testament to how ingrained this "GM as Storyteller" notion has become that even saying that other functions of the GM are more important is considered apostasy.

I wonder if when current generations read Gary Gygax's 1st Edition DM's Guide, where he spends very little time on story and a considerable amount of time on judging, world-building, and controlling adversaries, whether they also think he doesn't know what he's talking about.

I have seen a lot of starting GMs fall into this trap. I did, myself, when I was starting out. Then, I actually grew a brain and saw that getting around a table with friends is about collaboration, not one particular person hogging the spotlight. RPGs played with more than one person, be they around a table, in a big hall with everyone dressed in funny costumes, or channeled through the Intertubes, are more akin to stories told around a campfire, where everybody can participate and there's plenty of light for everyone.

You tackled this subject in an extremely thorough and intelligent manner, and I hope that if I should ever be fortunate enough to write an article such as this, I can cover half of this material half as brilliantly as you did. This is fantastic work, Alex. Thank you for sharing it with us.

paulgruberman:
- snip -

I think you've misunderstood, story is still important, it's just not as important to having fun as many may think. As an alternative to a preordained plot, the world can be created, the background (culture, events, etc) set, and the players can be set loose as adventurers, not actors. The story is the story of those players as they interact with the world. The GM still adds his own telling to the story through events that happen along the way, but when the party decides to stand and face a dragon, it's because they want to, not because the story won't advance until they defeat it.

To put it another way, the GM is the entire behind-the-curtain crew of the production, setting up scenes, presenting potential obstacles for the players to overcome and ensuring there are rewards to be had afterwards. The players bring the personality of their characters, a particular style of play and an ever-growing list of tactics and tricks to the table. What happens between these individuals is the story. That means that no one person at that table is any more or less important than another, and that includes the GM.

Let me first say I enjoyed reading this article. It was very insightful and well argued. I do however disagree on many points.

I do believe that it is the job of the GM to make sure people are enjoying themselves. To do this you should use all your ingenuity and guile. Whatever gets the job done should be used. While I agree that you cannot take full responsibility of the enjoyment of your players you have to make sure that they have a good chance of it. Agency is not necessarily this thing and that is where our philosophies diverge greatly. Good GM'ing starts with the player. It does not start with the story, the rules, the characters or the world they inhabit. It starts with the players. Each player plays role-playing games for different reasons (some might be similar but they are never perfectly the same). They enjoy different things and different styles. Some like intense role-playing perhaps with some semi-live (or semi-LARP or whatever you want to call it) and others only show up to roll dice. Some like to be in the spotlight and others like to observe. Some like combat and some don't. The list goes on and on. Because of this the most important part of mastering (GM'ing) is to know your players. This is of course hard with a group of complete strangers, but with some experience you should be able to at least read some of the players.

After you know your players you can then tailor your game after that. You can make sure there is political intrigue or other role-playing intensive situations for the "role-player", combat for the combat-monster and some situations to get to look cool for people who like that. For the observer you can present a compelling narrative. And here we come to it. Not every player has a problem with "railroading". While choice can be fun it is not the end all answer to enjoyment. A compelling story, a cool scene, an insurmountable obstacle and even the very lack of choice can all create the enjoyment and escape that we crave. There does not need to be a choice for the players to feel they have an impact. It is just the easiest way to do it.

Now I would like to go into your four points in the start of the article. I think the idea of prioritising what roles that are most important is wrong. The most important role of the gamemaster changes a lot depending on what group your are with, what story you want to tell, what genre you want to play and not to mention what system. In some situations being the judge might be very important but in others the role of storyteller might take precedent. Personally I think this is especially important to understand for new aspiring masters (ok from now on whenever I say master I mean gamemaster. It is the jargon of my gaming community) especially if they have no one to teach them the craft. Knowing the rules is good but don't despair if you can't remember them all. As long as you know that core of your system you can arbitrate the rest. Getting more comfortable with the rules comes as you play. Don't worry if your "world" is not perfectly fleshed out. With practice you will get better. Storytelling is not as hard as it sounds. Just remember that your players are as much a part of the telling as you are. An important thing to remember is that you are not the enemy of the players, nor of the characters. You may control their enemies but they have motives and reasons of their own. It is not your objective to defeat the players (though it is perfectly ok to gloat from time to time). It is your job (in conjunction with your players) to make sure the group is enjoying itself (including you).

I don't like the adversary part. I am sure you just mean that it is the job of the master to control the antagonists (aka the bad-guys) but adversary smacks of conflict between the players and the master which there should not be. The monsters and npc's the characters defeat should not be the masters minions but rather plot devices to move the story along. The controller would be more fitting in my head if not as poetic.

What I am trying to get at in a somewhat roundabout and incoherent way is that mastering can be impossibly complex. The shear variety options and possibilities are staggering. This is why cutting it down to "this is the right way to master and this is the wrong way." is oversimplifying in the extreme. I am in the lucky situation of being a part of a community where every single one of us have been masters and players at one time or another. I am a part of group where we rotate as masters. The number of different styles and preferences are overwhelming and this doesn't even count the things I have seen at conventions. The point of course is that the most important thing for a new group of players to remember is to do what you enjoy. If there is something you don't enjoy - change it. The Golden Rule reigns supreme.

The Golden Rule: If you don't like it - change it.

Kaihlik:
If that is the case then I do disagree with that, while you should put systems in place to allow people to have fun you should not stop there. You should be assessing things as they progress and determining how players are reacting to them. If the players are not happy with how the systems are working it is the GM's job to change them to make sure the players are having fun. Kaihlik

Kaihlik, how would you handle a player who got killed, by poor choices, and then complained it was not fun? Or a player who lost his magic item to a Rust Monster?

Because the problem with "fun" is that it's subjective. One man's "fun challenge" is another man's "obnoxious obstacle that destroys his fun". One man's "glorious death" is another man's "permanent loss of my favorite character". If you are willing to dump rules, story elements, and die rolls to ensure fun, what do you do when different players in the same group feel differntly? If Steve thinks dying gloriously is awesome, while John thinks its awful and ruins the game, and both die to dragon's breath, which way do you rule? Or do you fudge for John so he lives, but let Steve die? Would you run the game on "hard mode" for Steve and "easy mode" for John?

Jako, thanks for the thoughtful posts. I agree that GMing can be exceptionally complex, so any How To guide can be at best one way How To. This is my way! My argument for empowering player agency is precisely becuase I think it IS all about the players. I'm arguing for maximizing the agency of the players and de-emphasizing the GM's "story". I would argue that players enjoy agency more than anything else -- it's simply how they choose to exercise their agency that varies, i.e. do they want to talk, fight, etc. As far as Adversary, I mean that you are responsible for controlling the adversaries. But I strongly disagree that adversaries should be "plot devices to move the story forward". I would argue that "the story" is what emerges from the deeds of the players and their adversaries within their environment. Again, I'm not a huge fan of the notion of "the story" as something that exists outside of the context of the interaction of the players in the game. The notion of emergent story versus directed story is very important, and I'll address it in a later article.

BlueInk, thanks for your very kind words! I am flattered very much.

I disagree with the roller coaster thing, the biggest advantage of tabletop games is the freedom, you don't have to give people the illusion of choice when they have actual choice. I prepare for a single session and basically have an a, b, or c of paths that they could possibly take.

For example one of the early missions of my shadowrun game, the players were presented with a mission in which they were to take out an organized crime lieutenant by someone being abused by them. If they did a proper investigation, they would find that their client is actually someone in the organization trying to push them self up in the ranks. Then they can take him out instead for a higher prize and a new ally with the people they didn't kill. If they don't look in to it, the they end up making a recurring enemy of their targets adopted daughter. From their I can start planing out their next sessions based on how they did the mission. Also if they do something really out of left field like kill a primary villain early or blow up a city, I'll just figure out the repercussions by the next session.

I also somewhat disagree with the idea that you can never lie about your rolls. Yes they should have some sort of punishment for doing something stupid, but death should be significant. If I'm running a long form game, I'd only want 1 or 2 player deaths max, at the same time I have had problems with my players starting to feel a sense of invincibility so the line have to be drawn somewhere. The thing is I've sometimes lied about dice both in favor of the PCs and the antagonists if I really had to, I reserve the right to cheat for the sake of the overall game, it is what the GM screen is for.

I try and not judge fun on an encounter by encounter basis the experiance should be fun if not every single moment. You should attempt to be accomodating to a player while letting them know where you stand on issues like character death so they know where they stand before hand. If someones view is too incompatable with the rest of the group and me then maybe they shouldn't be playing with the group. If someone can't accept a characters death that results from a natural evolution of the game maybe they shouldn't be playing at all.

If people are dying because of poor choices then I should talk to the player about it and discuss ways of them not repeating their mistakes. If John doesn't want to die to a dragon why the hell is he standing beside Steve who is trying to draw its attention. Yes I can't ensure all the time that everyone is going to have fun but that doesn't mean its not my job to try.

Maybe its just me but in my experiance players are capable of accepting the consequences of their actions both good and bad and as long as the GM is doing his job and keeping everyone in mind, have fun. I've never had situations where the players are immature enough to complain about their own mistakes (oh and rust monsters are lame devices to use in any game).

I make sure people are having fun by making sure every player has a chance to contribute and by looking for areas that simply are detrimental to the game to remove. If a plot element looks like it will fall flat and break suspension of disbelief then I will drop it. If the grapple rules don't allow an epic chase to result in the bad guy being tackled to the ground then I will change them.

I agree with JakobBloch and have only just realised this is why I didn't understand where you stood before. I don't believe that Agency invalidates the requirement for GMs to ensure everyone is having fun. I don't believe that ensuring Agency results in players having fun, it can but it is not guarenteed.

Kaihlik

I think the article paints things as too black and white: agency or railroading. Success and fun, or failure and non-fun. And in parallel: success, or death.

And frankly, I really disagree with the notion of dice as essential tools of player agency.

Say that in a fantasy game there's a town with an evil mayor who's been wreaking all manner of havok and leaving the townspeople in a state of constant fear and dread, yatta yatta. With minimal prompting, the players decide to slay the villain and free the town from his reign of terror. They learn that the mayor will be vacationing at his summer home in a week, away from his guards and without his more powerful magic items, and concoct a quite ingenious plan to use earth-moving magic to bury him in his own wine cellar on a day when he's anticipated to be spending most of the morning there contemplating which vintages to serve to his guests at an evening's banquet. (This is all off the top of my head, so forgive me if it's a little weird.) The party's thief and wizard will magically jump over the summer home's south wall, avoiding the minimal guard, and putting the wizard in range to use the burying spell; the thief's skills as an escape artist, wall climber, and rope user are present as a back-up for extraction in case it isn't possible to get out in the same way.

Only... The party failed a couple of early rolls in gathering information and sensing intent. The mayor is actually a disguised demon, and far more powerful than they've been led to believe. One of the mayor's loyal henchman has been giving them the "information", including the summer house blueprints and schedule information on which they've been basing their plan. A ward cuts out the magic they're using to jump over the wall in mid-leap, causing the thief to fall and break her ankle. The wizard, trying to reach the point where he thinks the house's supports are, falls into a pit trap and dies. The rest of the party is ambushed by guards who they didn't know were going to be there when they try to stage a rescue.

This could all be the results of pre-determined "agency" and a couple of bad rolls. The players might have planned brilliantly, and be massacred by the measures that the DM decided earlier were in place all along.

Conversely, Thok the barbarian attacks the mayor in the middle of a speech with a weapon he doesn't know is magical, rolls a couple of critical hits while the guards fail their rolls, and runs away, holding the mayor's severed head, laughing his head off.

A good GM can fudge and still retain player agency perfectly well. The poor wizard in the original example takes something approaching the minimum damage from the pit trap and is able to concoct a way to warn the rest of the party before they're ambushed and rescue the crippled thief. That's about all it would take. And that, to my mind, is about what a good GM would do.

But more to the point, a good GM recognizes that failure can also be fun, and certainly shouldn't be fatal in most circumstances, especially when the players haven't done anything especially reckless and unheard of to warrant death. Some failures are the stuff that players talk about for years. The arrow missed the mayor, but the quick-talking thief convinces him that the unlucky guard who was quick to react and draw his sword was the real assassin, and the one the thief was aiming for. That time the party was taken prisoner and as a result learned the missing piece of the villain's plot that had been eluding them to that point. When the party's wizard failed to recognize the curse on the goblet until it was too late- which caused him to evade capture, because the bounty hunters weren't looking for a woman. Every time a plan falls to pieces and leads to brilliant improvisation.

I'm going to venture that most people who play RPGs do so not to play average people, but heroes. The guy who gets the girl, kills the villain, throws off a brilliant one-liner, and rides off into the sunset. Or the guy who goes down swinging so his friends get to live. Or pushes the self-destruct button on the inside of the bomb before it goes off. And while heroic actions certainly do have consequences- some of the best known heroes of mythology have spent most of their lives trying to undo or make up for the tragedies wrought by their mistakes- heroes should never be punished with untimely and unsatisfying death for doing nothing wrong, no matter what the dice say. The rules can be tinkered to a degree, but tinkering with the rules mid-game is even worse than tinkering with dice in terms of causing the players to feel disconnected from the world. The occasional dice fudge is not the end of all player agency.

One last thing... Of course the GM can't do anything about the fight a player had with his wife or the awful day she had at work, and there are even limits to how much the GM can do if one of his players is looking for something brooding and gothic, one is looking for a light and distracting story, and one just wants to roll as many dice, kill as many monsters, and gather as much loot as possible. But "could" have fun is still too light a word. The GM should make an experience where the player "should" have fun, all else being equal. "Could" seems to me to imply a set of expectations, outside of which there will be no fun, thank you very much. If the GM thinks the fun to be had is in investigating the caverns underneath the hills and the players think the fun is in swapping stories with the dwarven fishmonger, that's okay. If the time spent swapping stories means that the dread curse of Darak'Halam will have time to come to fruition and destroy the world because the players have a different notion of what's "fun" than the DM, who has it in his notes that this is what will happen on such and such a day... Well, screw "consequences of agency", frankly, the GM's the one with a problem.

Well to me RPGs are an in a sense an imitation of life, albeit a life in a far off ,amazing ,fantasy land but still a life - it doesn't have to be real but its at least should try to be realistic, and as we all know sometimes life is a bitch, lying about dice rolls is trying to cheat in life wether for or against the players. To me integrity is not something worth sacrificing for fun ,the players should know that just like sometimes good things happen to them so do bad things ,sometimes those bad things involve a party member dying and lying about dice simply makes his death insignificant. They do however live in a fantasy land and as such death is not necessarily the finish line ,i've witnessed plenty of adventures whose sole purpose was to find the right ingridients and a competent caster so as to bring their fellow adventurer back to life. Death is simply another story to brag about back at the tavern.

Archon:

The gamemaster has many responsibilities, but guaranteeing that players have fun isn't one of them.

This almost made me growl, but reading the article has sorted it out.

I've played with a number of GMs who run a story and the players are just incidental. Most of the "fun" I've had in those situations is from goofing off.
I've also played with a few that write the story in a line and freeform. And they are great fun, but a guilty treat, as you don't feel your character is growing.

The really good GMs have a plotline set, and allow each character to "breathe". If High Lord Thief wants to climb a tower, pick a lock and place a rose on the pillow of his beloved - he should succeed...and probably set himself up for a big fall afterwards.

If he rolls a 1 on his first step up the tower though, you've got a player instantly trapped by the rules; so it's the GMs job to allow the player to shine - despite his shadow.

Maybe he trips and smashes into the tower, allowing a friendly guard to wander up to see what's going on. From there - the player - if he's smart, can work this to his advantage, despite critically failing the first roll.

One of the HUGE transatlantic differences I've ran into is the "boxed text" rules. In the US, the dice are the swords of Damocles. The rules decide the results.
In the UK, the results decide which rules to use. You want to parley with the Dragon? Sure... You want to bring the National Guard into Arkham? Sure...
You want to solve the American Civil War by peaceful methods? Sure...

Equally, the UK base will fight for peace, while the US will fight for war - often no matter what the "reality" of the situation is.

Admittedly, this isn't a hard/fast difference but it does show sometimes.

E.G. Lord Scargill was quite miffed to see Shub-Niggurath appearing in the centre of his house, at a party.
San Check gave me 2 points lost, but this bounder was pushing in.

I stood up (IRL) and yelled "Get that monstrosity out of my house!". 22 points of damage from an auto-hit. SPLAT.

I had fun there, despite being reduced to a gelatinous pulp (try a spatula), but the Americans I was played with asked me why I threw away that extra firepower. I just said that it's what the character would do.

GMs are there to provide a space for players to have fun, the players have to bring the fun - and a little extra for the GM as well.

paulgruberman:

I think you've misunderstood, story is still important, it's just not as important to having fun as many may think. As an alternative to a preordained plot, the world can be created, the background (culture, events, etc) set, and the players can be set loose as adventurers, not actors. The story is the story of those players as they interact with the world. The GM still adds his own telling to the story through events that happen along the way, but when the party decides to stand and face a dragon, it's because they want to, not because the story won't advance until they defeat it.

So essentially you're making the argument that improvisation is not a bad thing and certainly I do not disagree, I just disagree with the notion I get from the story that linearity in that kind of game is a bad thing. Done well, it isn't a bad thing at all. The same goes for 'sandboxing' it to borrow the video gaming term, really - done well it can be good, done poorly it just seems like the GM is making stuff up as he/she goes along.

The bottom line to me is fun. If a game Im playing is not fun, regardless of medium, I will find an alternative that is fun. Period. That goes for making a game (in the GM sense as well as in the 'I have the Source SDK and too much time on my hands' sense), as well as playing one.

Bottom line: This is something I do for entertainment. It should be fun for me. What is fun for me may differ from what is fun for others. Trying to paint it in broad strokes like the article does never really works, because different people are different from one another.

I agree with what i saw in judging the game. i mean fudging the rolls is like playing with all the cheats on a videogame fun for a few sessions then boring as all challenge is sucked away i don't agree with storytelling being last but then again i am a very inexpierenced gm for gurps(generic universal roleplaying system) most of my campain i just have a basic hack-o slash-o magic cast-o dungeon and let my players goof around (i allow magic by rhymes so cantrips as they are called are like a genies wish you may get what you want but probably not) i let my players do what they want and then improvise (i only do quick 1-hour games) and we all have fun. in my more serious games we follow what was said here i've had a few charecters die and they still come back (i don't know about d&d since i have an outdated book but gurps uses a point system that you can buy advantages stats skills and spells or take disadvantages to get more points) it's complicated to make a character in gurps then add in what the game world countrys are there specialists what the stores sell ect leads to a fun game that is complex but i love it. also they give basis for equipment worlds ect. but basically the gm can change anything he wants.

Yes, you really are responsible for making sure people have fun. Any rpg player ever knows this, and its sad that you got this published with that statement in it.

The_root_of_all_evil:

Archon:

The gamemaster has many responsibilities, but guaranteeing that players have fun isn't one of them.

This almost made me growl, but reading the article has sorted it out.

I've read a couple of Alex's articles that started this way. Something is written that makes me pop an eyebrow, if not begin to seethe, and then the more I read, the more I understand his point. It's a style that takes some getting used to, but the more of Alex I read, the more I agree with him.

ItsAPaul:
Yes, you really are responsible for making sure people have fun. Any rpg player ever knows this, and its sad that you got this published with that statement in it.

What makes you say that? Do you think that a good GM is one who controls every aspect of the game to "ensure" that people have fun? Is a game that's not fun because a player refuses to cooperate with the others and insists on things being done their way somehow the GM's fault? I'm curious as to why you think Alex's take on the matter is so very wrong, seeing as you've done nothing whatsoever to elaborate upon your argument.

Love the piece Macris.

I've been a DM for a number of years and a player long before that (been playing since the late 80s). I agree with your sentiments, although I do fudge the dice on occasion.

Yet, I have also tried to make it as fun as possible, but a lot gets in the way. Item fetisiation for instance can make the game un-fun for a player. If they lose something, or if they roll badly, or if they have to wait to act too long. I've seen all sorts of emotions, but when I don't railroad them, I allow them to get into crazy situations and it all works--those are the best games.

Archon:
snip

May I ask if you've ever tried the GURPS system? I ask merely because it's my favorite system (both to play and to GM) and I'd like to hear an industry expert's opinion on it.

And I'm afraid I have to disagree with your statement that storytelling is the least important part of GMing. This is just my experience, and I'm by no means the most experienced GM, but a good GM balances all the aspects you've mentioned. No one of them is more important than the other. Perhaps it's the mentality of my players (a bunch of FF nerds and Disgaea geeks), but they don't seem to mind a bit of railroading or traveling at the speed of plot if it adds drama.[1]

I will agree that it's not your responsibility to make sure your players have fun. The GM's responsibility is to build the world and tell the players what they experience, not keep everyone alive and laughing. And I like this "Agency Theory of Fun" you outline. It seems to fit with my experiences pretty well.

[1] Aspiring GMs, please note that I am by no means encouraging the overuse of Purple Prose, but your use of description really gives the players a feel for the world. If you use barren descriptions, just the facts, they won't do much or feel very immersed. Contrariwise, if you use too much description, you leave nothing to the imagination and prolong the sessions unnecessarily. Find a happy medium...not an easy task, I know, but take heart! I did it, so can you!

ItsAPaul:
Yes, you really are responsible for making sure people have fun. Any rpg player ever knows this, and its sad that you got this published with that statement in it.

My friend, you've charged into the High Court and spat at the King. What do you have to say in your defense so that his men do not strike you down?

Fun, ah fun. In the groups I am involved in, one loves to be brought to single digit hp, 1 hp makes them practically orgasm with delight. Another really hates to ever be defeated in any sense of the word. If an enemy is too powerful he calls foul, winges. Another is annoyed if an enemy ever has a similar ability to his, it offends him that an npc can break the rules a little in the same way that he does with feats and abilities.

They all love daring situations, hard combats, so that is what I try to give them. The essence of fun as they subjectively experience it, though, differs. A dm would go mad trying to please them all. So I don't.

ItsAPaul:
Yes, you really are responsible for making sure people have fun. Any rpg player ever knows this, and its sad that you got this published with that statement in it.

Sorry you can't make sure people have fun. They have to be willing. And, in a group there are going to be different opinions on what "fun" is, as others have pointed out.

I'd say everyone who continues playing in a game is having "fun". Why do it if not? Still, not everyone is going to enjoy a given games / gamemasters style. So, if you don't... move on. Find "your" game / style.

I pretty much agree with Archon on DMing. I started with original D&D in 1974 and am currently running the same homebrew camapign world using Pathfinder. I built my world. I judge the players actions in it. I'm the "adversary" when appropriate, be it an ogre, a stubborn official, or a harsh winter storm. And I've littered my sandbox world with scores of adventure threads and ideas as well as locations that involve adventure. Things players can pick up on and pursue or travel to, or not. Not a path they have to follow. My game has thrived on players choices, and the consequences of them. I'd personally place the "storytelling" bit further down the list because the story the players will chose evolves from the players, detailed NPCs, the environment itself as well as set "adventure ideas".

One additional comment, as player risk / mortality has decreased in RPGs some of the sense of risk / fun has diminished as well. I'm not saying you should kill PCs for fun btw. Just saying a sense of risk and danger adds to the fun of the game. That sense of risk is often provided by the occasioanl player fatality. Besides, that's what Raise Dead is for :)

My 2cp.

*edit* Enjoyed the article btw. Funny how I can see a "generational divide" in opinions. I'd say the majority of players who started in the 70s and 80s agree with you while the later players (started in the 90s with White Wolf or later) tend to be offended by your placement of storytelling in 4th place. Different styles of games and playing imo.

As one of the people last time who said making sure the players are having fun, I had to frown at your claim that "fun" isn't part of the GM's job, but on reflection I do agree with what you say. I suppose the GM's job isn't as much creating or providing fun, but facilitating it. Still, I do strongly believe that 'fun' is the overarching imperative of a GM's job. A game that isn't fun is a game that isn't worth playing. You can't please all of the people all of the time, but it's the GM's job to at least provide all players with an equal (and as large as possible) opportunity to have fun. I do agree with your ranking of a GM's priorities, but the concept of 'fun' is something that should be present in every layer of the cake, in one way or another.

I found the part about player agency very inspiring. While it didn't contain anything I didn't already apply in my own games, you managed to describe something that was a vague idea in the back of my head (less than an idea in fact - more like a general attitude) in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.

After that, things go downhill again. Not with the quality of the article (which is good), but with how much I agree with the article. Fudging dice is something I consider a tool in any GM's arsenal, and one of the many ways with which to enforce Rule Zero. Taking your example, the new player gets their character killed in an unlucky critical hit. In some situations, this is perfectly fine. Shit happens, after all. But there are also situations where, for whatever reason, the death of that character is simply not desirable. Whether it is because you don't want to scare away a new player, because you don't want to wait half an hour for the new player to roll up a new character, or whatever. Dice insert a very large random factor into games, and in some cases this goes directly against the concept of agency. Did the character die by stupidity/poor planning, or did they die because they randomly rolled a 1 despite their best plans? If it's the latter, die fudging can be justified. The overriding factor is fun: Does fudging increase or decrease the fun? This should be judged case-by-case, not in one sweeping generalization. Of course fudging should be used sparingly and with extreme caution, because as mentioned it's no fun if the players feel the GM has too much control over things that should be 'random', whether it's in their advantage or not. However, it's certainly not a bad thing by default if the GM knows what he's doing.

Pretty much the same goes for railroading and presenting 'faux' choices. This is often frowned upon, but they can be great tools. Sure, you should let the players make their own choices, and of course those choices need to have realistic, meaningful consequences. But there is no reason why you shouldn't let the 'rule of fun' influence the way you decide those consequences. Let's say the players are looking for the some BBEG who is going to end the world, who you've hidden in the Dark Dungeon. However, for whatever reason the players seem to believe the BBEG is hidden in the Secret Forest. At this point, there are several things you could do. You could force a hint on the players that they should really go to the Dark Dungeon, but no matter how subtly you do this, you'll run a serious risk of being exposed as a railroader. And while there's nothing wrong with being a railroader, there's a LOT wrong with being exposed as one. You could just let them experience the consequences of their actions by having them dick around in the Secret Forest for the rest of the session while the BBEG ends the world from across the country, too far away for the players to ever do anything about it. However, that wouldn't be fun. A better way to deal with the situation would be to change the circumstances. After all, as long as the players don't know about something yet, it doesn't exist. So within the bounds of what's reasonable, you're free to change anything you want. Maybe the Secret Forest suddenly contains the means to stop the BBEG. Maybe it has a portal that will take the party to another world before this one is destroyed. Or maybe the players were never wrong about the BBEG's location after all, and he was in the Secret Forest all along.

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