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.
Consider Sauron, the classic dark lord of fantasy fiction, and compare him to an 18th level Wizard in D&D 3.5. In order to learn the name of the thief (a 1st level halfling) who had his One Ring, Sauron was forced to torture it out of Gollum. He then had to have minions ride on horseback to the local village, to ask around for this fellow, and when they thought they found him, they actually had to break into his inn and stab him with swords! In contrast, an 18th level Wizard in D&D could simply use Discern Location to find the ring, cast a quick Greater Teleport to its location, and then just Power Word Kill Frodo and take the damn thing. In other words, Sauron, who was a demigod, is way, way less powerful than a standard D&D wizard of not even epic level. That’s pretty problematic if you want to create a villain in D&D or anything like it! Sauron is Satan, but an 18th-level D&D Wizard is God.
If you’re running a game with a power level like D&D, and your arch-villains don’t deal with your player characters in a similarly quick and convenient manner, you owe it to yourself and your players to explain why. There are only two basic explanations available to you:
? The adversaries are stupid.
? The adversaries don’t have the power to dispatch the PCs.
In general, I think stupidity is a sub-optimal solution. It stretches the suspension of disbelief and reduces the sense of accomplishment by the players when they realize they only won because your villains were dumb-asses. It’s why Obi-Wan Kenobi’s victory over Darth Maul in Episode I and Anakin in Episode III is so unsatisfying: He only won because the Sith Lords were dumb-asses. (I hope Lucas reads my column).
Unfortunately, stupidity is all too often the fall-back for villains. Leaving aside the Darth brothers, let’s take Ariakus, the arch-villain of Dragonlance. According to DL14 Dragons of Triumph, Ariakus is a 23rd-level Cleric / 10th level Fighter with 18 Wisdom – as wise as a man can possibly be! And yet, according to DL14, “Ariakus is so confident of his supreme abilities that he has a tendency to be careless when estimating the strength of his enemies. He does not give them credit for their skills, and consequently his plans may contain flaws that clever opponents may capitalize upon.” That seems…unwise. And since Ariakus is both wise and powerful, we’re left with an obviously stupid explanation as to why he doesn’t just swat Tanis and Tasslehoff like the annoying gnats they are.
Some villains actually should be stupid, of course (all the ogres on the room, say “ho!”). But if your villain is supposed to be an evil genius, you should try to get rid of all of the following stupid justifications for his behavior: The villain is over-confident and does not see the heroes as a threat; the villain is too important to be bothered by the heroes, and dispatches minions instead; the villain is distracted by more pressing challenges; the villain is unaware of the heroes; the villain is toying with the heroes. If you haven’t already, you really should read the Evil Overlord checklist.
So if we aren’t going to rely on stupidity, how do we keep our villains adversarial rather than god-like?
The first is to change the rules. In my personal D&D 3.5 campaign, I substantially reduced the range and utility of all detection and teleportation magic for all characters for this very reason. Wizards are still deadly – they can blast lightning and hurl meteor swarms – but there are simply no magical spy satellites that can find people, and no way to beam across the continent. This has allowed me to have highly powerful villains that are still localized in their scope of threat. This approach works very well if you want to have lots of villains within a confined geography (it also makes hunt-and-fetch quests interesting again).
Another solution to the god-like villain is to leave him god-like, but begin your campaign with him somehow crippled at the outset. Over time his power increases, but so does that of the heroes. The early books of the Wheel of Time series did this beautifully, with a series of seals being broken, each break increasing the scope and power of the Dark one. This approach serves well for games with a leveling mechanic, since you can build a story web where the danger from the villain scales up as the heroes move through the web.
A third solution is to use a counter-force which checks the villain’s power. I recently used this approach in a Mutants & Masterminds campaign. The arch-villain Mindbender could telepathically locate and kill anyone on the planet – a potential problem for the heroes, who could have all been killed in episode 1. My solution was to have an NPC mentor with precognitive powers that functioned with more precision from imminent and closely tied threats. This made it impossible for the arch-villain to directly attack the party without giving away his intent and location in advance – as a result, the villain was forced to use convoluted plans that never directly aimed at confronting the heroes. These plans were maddeningly fun to concoct, and fun for the players to unwind. (Note that if I hadn’t limited the precognitive’s powers to being tied to specific imminent threats against the party, I’d have created the god-like problem in reverse – i.e. how do you challenge a party that knows everything.)
The Parable of the King and Courtesan
I will close with a parable of a wise king who was concerned that his son lacked the moral character to rule. As a Biblical scholar, the king was familiar with the Book of Job, and he decided that he would test his son’s character as God had tested Job’s. So the king found the most beautiful courtesan in his harem, and commanded her to attempt to seduce his son. To make the test challenging, he made sure the courtesan was beautiful, and told her that if she seduced his son, she would be queen. So motivated, she used all her charms on the hapless prince, yet when she failed to seduce the prince, the king was delighted. The lesson for gamemasters should be clear: While you might play the courtesan, you are the king. You don’t really want to fuck your players; you just want to test their characters.
Next column we’ll turn to the question of creating and play adversaries with personality.
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.