This is the fifth in my ongoing series of columns devoted to the art of gamemastering. In my first column, I laid out the four roles of the gamemaster (judge, world-builder, adversary, storyteller), with judge as the most important role. In my second column, I explained the agency theory of fun, and showed how by focusing on objective rules, honest dice, and player choice, you maximize the fun for your players in the long term. In the third column, I discussed how a gamemaster should weave a story based on what has happened in the campaign, rather than what he wants to happen, and offered a technique for building story webs for emergent narrative. In the fourth column, I introduced the gamemaster as Adversary, and cautioned against adversaries with god-like powers. Now we’ll turn to the question of who your adversaries should be, and how they should behave.
Adversaries Are Made of People!
It seems an obvious point, but the best adversaries are people (loosely defined as “sapient creatures”). People generally find the challenges posed by other people to be the most interesting; witness the rise in the popularity of online gaming.
Of course it’s true that not every adversary needs to be a person. Dungeon traps are classic adversaries: They pose challenges that test the players’ determination and cunning. Sometimes the environment itself is adversarial. Natural disasters, wilderness obstacles, and catastrophic weather can all pose challenges to the players, but a campaign where the main villain is, for instance, an earthquake is likely to be an uninteresting campaign. Add an Elder Elemental Cult actively promoting the earthquake and fighting against the would-be heroes, and it gets more interesting again.
Still, even when the adversary is a person, it needn’t be an enemy. An adversary just needs to be a character who poses challenges. The adversary could be a foil, who serves to bring the protagonists into sharper focus. The adversary could be an ally who causes more trouble than their worth, like Lois Lane for Superman. Or it could be a rival from the same side who makes the heroes stay on top of their game. The latter is an under-utilized, but highly effective adversary.
In my Classic D&D campaign, I created a rival adventuring party, “Imperial Vanguard,” that wandered the map and cleared dungeons in regions near the PC adventurers. I introduced the Imperial Vanguard by having the players find their next dungeon already cleared of monsters, with a bold flag planted bearing the I.V. standard outside the entrance. Because the two parties weren’t enemies per se – indeed, I.V. was technically an ally to the cause – the players could not simply confront and destroy them. That made I.V. even more challenging as adversaries. Without any possibility for direct confrontation, Imperial Vanguard suddenly became a factor in the party’s every decision: Where should we explore to make sure we get there first? How long can we afford to rest without Imperial Vanguard cleaning the dungeon out before us? And so on. For a long time, the monsters in our campaign were just the means to the players’ end of beating Imperial Vanguard.
Role-play the Adversaries, Don’t Wargame Them
Creating interesting adversaries is only half the challenge, of course. The other half is playing them. Playing RPG adversaries is harder than it seems. In my prior columns, I’ve railed against GMs who use their powers to railroad players into happy endings, fudging dice to make sure the players feel good, bringing nerf chainsaws to the Thunderdome. But it’s just as bad to go too far the other way. Especially when playing a miniatures-and-map RPG like D&D 4e, it’s all too easy to treat encounters like wargames, with every adversary acting like a playing piece that’s happy to sacrifice itself for the grand strategy. RPGs have wargame roots, so it’s only natural for the GM to sometimes feel like he’s playing a wargame. This is when it’s wise to remember that the GM’s wargame roots are as the neutral Judge, not as the Adversary. A GM who loses sight of this will inflict incalculable harm on a party he has totally outgunned.
For instance, he’ll run opponents who’d rather fight to the last man than surrender, because the GM wants to inflict a few more hit points damage to weaken the party before the next encounter; leaders who can never be surprised by the party’s tactics, because the GM allows his villains to know everything the GM knows; enemies who always attack as soon as the party splits up, because the GM doesn’t want to teach the players “never to split the party”; and so on.
The GM can always win if he wants to, but you don’t prove anything by “beating” the players. But you do create an escalating level of antagonism between the GM and the players. For instance, I’ve seen players ask the GM to leave the room when they plan their strategy, for fear the GM will cheat and use what he knows against them. I’ve seen players refuse to tell the GM how many hit points their characters have left, so he can’t have his minions target the weaker characters. Conditions like these are symptomatic of a campaign in which the game master has lost sight of his primary role (Judge) and gotten caught up in a secondary role (as Adversary).
The worst possible combination is an almost sadistic paternalism: The GM, relishing the pleasure of beating the players, uses the full scope of his powers to create and run impossible challenges, only to then fudge the dice to let the players win; usually letting them know he fudged it so that they can advance through “his” storyline the way the GM wants them to. This style of gamemastering was actually outlawed by the Geneva Convention as a form of torture, but the US and UK weren’t signatories to that chapter, and it continues to be practiced in some areas.
My preferred method of running adversaries is to role-play them. When I run orcs, they attack similar to Dark Ages barbarians: They attack in loose waves, berserk, initially heedless of casualties. If forced back enough by stout defense, their morale collapses, and they become easy prey to be mopped up. On the other hand, when I run were-rats, I attack only if I can ambush, retreat at the first sign of trouble, and surrender to save my furry hide if need be. And when I play a thousand-year old dragon, I plan carefully, move cautiously, and don’t take any risks that could cost me my next thousand years. And I never give the enemies knowledge they shouldn’t have.
For instance, the Cleric in our D&D campaign has a Scarab of Protection that makes him immune to death rays. Nevertheless, an evil lich who encounters the Cleric is likely to use his death ray on the Cleric, because he poses the seemingly greatest threat to the lich. The lich doesn’t know that the Cleric is immune.
Doing it this way sometimes means that the NPCs don’t behave in ways that would be considered tactically correct by a wargamer who knows everything I know. Sometimes they’ll surrender, even though if they’d have kept attacking, the monsters in the next room would have been able to defeat the party. Sometimes they’ll run away, even though running away is just about the worst thing you can do in a battle (historically, 90% of all casualties were inflicted when the other side’s morale broke).
This approach means the players can try kooky plans that would never fool the GM – but might fool the hill giants. It creates a more naturalistic, “real” world. And it can even turn fights into subtle clues to the nature of the opposition. “How did the were-rats know we were coming?” is a far more satisfying query if the answer is “because Steve the Retainer is a were-rat spy” rather than disassociated justification such as “this encounter will be more challenging if the player’s ambush doesn’t work.” The beauty of playing the adversaries this way is that it frees your players to participate in the experience as role-players, rather than wargamers, too.
Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.