This is the fourth 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 this column, we'll be discussing the gamemaster's role as the Adversary.
The GM is God - But He Plays Satan
A Google search for "the GM is God" yielded 284 results, but no results came up for "the GM plays Satan." Nevertheless, both are true. The gamemaster may be God, but he plays Satan! (Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, Satan's Game.)
In Hebrew, the word for adversary is "satan" and throughout the Hebrew tradition, the various military and legal adversaries of the characters are always called the Satan. Most famously, the Satan appears in the Book of Job as agent of God, whose role is to test the faith of the hapless hero. The Satan afflicts Job with loss of family, property, and health in order to tempt him to evil, but Job only gains character in the face of this adversity. The role of the Satan in this tradition is always to test the protagonists to his fullest extent, even though God, who has assigned Satan to this task, is secretly hoping the protagonists will succeed in overcoming these tests.
I believe role-playing games are like the Book of Job. The Gamemaster, as God, creates various agents and uses them as adversaries to test his players with various challenges. Playing as the Adversary, the Gamemaster tests the protagonist to his fullest extent and sometimes (playing as the Adversary) defeats them, even though the Gamemaster (being God) is always secretly hoping the protagonists will succeed in overcoming these tests.
Don't Make the Adversary into a God
Now that I've given you a framework of Biblical proportions, the first thing you're going to need to do is create some adversaries to play. And here's where you are most likely to make your first big mistake: You'll make your adversary too God-like, too powerful. God didn't give Satan the power to just arbitrarily kill Job, but all too often, GMs give their main adversaries the power to arbitrarily kill the whole party. The rules of many games contribute to this.