12/24/09

This is how you ruin my game, Part 1

There is this age old debate among people who play tabletop RPGs as to who is more responsible for the success or failure of a game, the GM or the player.

It has been said on many occasions by many people that while no one can define what makes a good game, anyone can tell you at least one thing that makes a bad one. Here I will seek to provide a few of those definitions, detailing behaviors from both players and GMs that detract from a game. As a bonus, I'll even try to throw out some helpful advice, both for the guilty parties and the innocent bystanders.

The Tyrant GM
"What, do you think your character is anyone special?"

I would like to start this description with a gaming story. I was playing D&D with a new GM, who after both of us had played under a pretty story-shallow game for a few years, promised a story rich adventure of grand purportions. I opted to play a paladin for the first time in my gaming career. After rolling up my character, I was informed that I was a squire to a low ranked knight. My fellow party member was a wizard, who was likewise informed that he was a lowly student under a no-name hedge mage in servace to another mage who was in survace to another mage who was in servace to the kingdom.

We get tasked with dealing with a small goblin infestation that is below anyone else in the kingdom's notice. We are given threadbare gear appropriate for our classes and sent out to earn our keep. Despite the situation, I came into this wanting to play my character as a chipper, upstanding paragon of goodness, chivalry, and rightousness, and took my duty with pride. We set out to face off with the goblins, a pair of lvl 1 characters. We encounter them to find that they are far more powerful than us, having a few mages and several high level fighters among their numbers.

We are quickly and mercilessly overcome, beaten to within an inch of our lives, stripped of all our gear down to our undergarments and taken captive. After being beaten and tortured, we are informed that we are going along with them to defend their base of operations from an orc raid, and that we will be expected to fight or die. At this point, my character is beaten, bruised, mostly naked, but still confident. Perhaps in the chaos my cohort and I might be able to escape, regroup, get back to town, and warn them of the legion of super-goblins dangerously close to town.

We are each given rudimentary clothes, I'm given a longsword and my wizard buddy got a light crossbow. We formed up with the goblin troops and prepared for battle. We were both a little worried. I was unarmored, and the wizard was unable to prepare spells without his spellbook. But, we were fighting along side some of the most crazy-powerful goblins we'd ever heard of, and under normal circumstances orcs were not much higher on the food chain. My character did not revel in the thought of fighting along side his evil captors, but he braced himself for the coming battle.

The orcs quickly and mercilessly sweep through the goblin camp, killing the goblins, beating each of us to within an inch of our lives, stripping us of all our gear down to our undergarments and taking us captive. After being beaten and tortured yet again, we are informed that we are going with them to attack our home town, and that we will be expected to fight or die.

My character's optimisim has started to wane at this point, but there seems to be a silver lining to this cloud. The orcs may not realize that we are members of the town's military, albiet low ranking ones. Once the battle begins, we can assist our old allies and hopefully overcome these orcs, who must be paragons of their people seeing as they managed to so easily defeat the super-goblins.

The day of the attack comes. We are each equiped with a stick and told to toe the front line. We march on the town. We are hungry, bruised, tired, and more than a little shaken, but freedom seems to be on the horizon. When the town guard shows up, we will help them, throw down our weapons, go with them.

We are given no such opportunity. The guard quickly and mercilessly slaughters the orcs before we have a chance to think about acting, then proceed to brutally beat us, capture us, take our sticks, throw us in irons, and charge us with treason.

The session after that, the two of us players reccomended we play a board game instead.

This was a bit of an extreme case, but the problem is an all too common one. Generally, this behavior stems from two major sources. The first being a misunderstanding of what a PC's abilities truly mean in regards to the rest of the world, and the second being a desire to keep the PCs from getting out of control.

One common problem I've encountered in various RPGs is a general misunderstanding of what a character's abilities translate out to in real life terms. Generally, PC's are larger than life heroes to one extent or another, be they modern day gunfighters, mideval swordsmen and sorcerers, or jedi knights.

If you were to ask your average player or GM what a 20 strength meant in a D20 system, they would probably tell you it means you get a +5 to melee attack and damage rolls. If they were really observant, they might mention that you can also carry 133 pounds of gear without being encumbered. Few, though, will mention the fact that a character with a 20 strength can lift 400 pounds OVER HIS HEAD! He can lift twice that off the ground and carry it, and push five times that along the ground. A character with 20 strength could push a 2000 pound boulder out of the road should it block his way. This strength is easily achievable by a first level barbarian, or by a half-orc PC lucky enough to get an 18 stat to play with [or desperate enough to buy one in a point buy].

GM's and players both are quick to forget the real life implications of how good the PCs are at what they do. Some GMs get REALLY liberal with their interpretations of what these numbers mean, and suddenly even though your character might have an five dots of intelligence in World of Darkness, the GM won't let your character be able to figure up the quadratic equation needed to solve the ancient riddle.

The second problem generally comes as an overreaction to the fear of losing control of one's game. The problem I speak of in the understatement of the role of the PCs. This problem comes up most often in established settings. Generally, when playing in an established settings, the players want to live adventures as epic as those of the main characters of the setting you are playing in. Some GMs, unfortunatley, don't jive with this thought process. This leads to a sense that the PCs are small fish in a big pond, and effectively makes them side characters in the overall tale of this world.

Now, I need to throw out a disclaimer real quick. Your level one ranger is not Drizzt. Your level one jedi is not Yoda. Even they had to start somewhere. The problem is when a GM does not allow you to get there. I have seen many a GM pull their hair out once a game reaches mid to high levels. The Tyrant GM's solution is to not let them get there by downplaying who they are.

There is a point at which your average RPG character hits the badass threshold. As a GM, you must be willing to accept this. Some GMs solve this by not running a game to it's endgame, but most players grow tired of playing lowly footsoldiers in the grand scheme of things. Your game's handbook has those nifty high level abilities in there for a reason, and most players are looking forward to using them. Your job as a GM at that point is to respond by providing them a suitably epic challenge, not to underplay there abilities.

Overall, the problem with this behavior is that it doesn't allow the player the satisfaction of being the hero. If you are trying to beat them, you are playing the wrong game. If you don't want your PC's to be the heroes, what is it do you want?

Join us next time when we look at an example of equally bad player behavior.

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