Wednesday, April 10, 2013

GM as benevolent dictator

Some have said that benevolent dictatorship is the ideal form of government.  A benevolent dictator exercises his political power for the people rather than exclusively for his or her own self-interest or the benefit of a small portion of the people.  In essence, that's what most players want in a Game Master, right?  Even the title has the word "Master" in it.  The GM is the lord.  He can be a total douche - in which case most players will leave the game, or he can reign with thoughtfulness and care - such is the type of GM to which players flock.

There's a social contract between the players and GM.  The GM is given power by the players' consent.  When things go too far, individual players are free to withdraw their consent, effectively deposing the GM (usually as a group) or merely walking out on the game.

I walked out on a game once.  Right in the middle of combat.  The GM, in my opinion, had flaws such as uninspired adventure hooks, boring story, frequently focusing the spotlight on his super-awesome NPCs instead of the PCs, etc.  But the straw which broke the camel's back was this:  There was a combat on a train (this was Eberron).  I was in one train-car and the fight was going on in the next.  I and another PC were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't do anything until the car door was unblocked.  Half hour later of twiddling my thumbs while watching the other two players fight, I finally got through.  As I stepped into the "combat car", an opponent was waiting for me on the other side of the door.  The DM rolled for him.  He hit me, damage was rolled, I was knocked unconscious.  I appealed, but there was nothing the DM would do.  I was pretty sure combat would go at least an hour more (another problem with this particular game).  No healing in sight or way of regaining consciousness, I just decided to go home and watch TV.  That's pretty much what I said as I gathered my books and stood up.  I knew I wouldn't be back, and also realized that staying in a game I found consistently underwhelming was a tragic waste of my valuable time.

My friend, who was also at the table, gave me a strange look as I got up to leave.  The next day he asked why I left.  I told him.  He couldn't disagree that the session was shitty, for me in particular.  Two sessions later, he stopped going, too.  I think the DM was being transferred out of state and stopped running it shortly thereafter.

Anyways, this is just an example of what I mean.  There's a broad spectrum between absolutely loving a game and hating it beyond words.  Have you ever looked at your watch during an unbearable session, then pretended you just remembered you had to go do something else very soon?  If you haven't experienced a game that horrendous, then consider yourself lucky.  It happens sometimes.  Perhaps that's why gamers are reluctant to play at unfamiliar tables?  Luckily, I've also attended many games which were worth their weight in gold.

Some RPG systems (or various editions of those systems) try to adjust the balance of power - filling core books up with so many God damn rules that Game Masters can do little more than roll for the other side.  If GMs run those games by the book, then virtually everything has been decided in advance... from challenge ratings to spellcasting procedures, rewarding experience to magic items.  The GM is no longer master of the game.  Besides rolling dice, he's a voice over with a pencil.  No power emanates from his office, he has no authority to create.  He can do nothing but what the book tells him.  "GM" is an empty name for those sad individuals.

Is this good for the players?  Well, if their GM was a real asshole, then maybe it's better to tie his hands.  However, benevolent dictators are relegated to the trash heap, worse than useless.  Their love of the game, their imagination, ingenuity, and storytelling will surely be crushed under the bureaucratic red tape of rules upon rules upon rules.

That's another reason I prefer old school gaming, where rulings are more important than rules.  Benevolent dictators are allowed to wield their power to benefit the vast majority.  Face facts, terrible GMs are going to run mediocre games (at best) no matter what ruleset used.  "Upgrading" to newer systems of GM shackling won't help much.  Keep your GM in a straight-jacket, and his benevolence won't do the players any good.  All that standardization is crucifying him!

Ok, below is where you post feedback.  Do you agree, disagree, or want to share your own story?  I want to see your comments!  Thanks in advance, guys.



  1. I tend to agree with all your blogs, So I'll just agree again. There's no sense getting weighed down by rules, and I woulda got up as well, that's never any fun. A good DM would have had you have a backup character or given you one of his outstanding NPC's to play for a bit.

    I usually have one stand by NPC that's more of a henchmen type. In my current game I have a cleric, who's there to basically heal there asses when they get in trouble. Someone dies... here's the character sheet, I've already tallied up the XP for yah.

  2. I think my issue, and it doesn't totally go exactly towards this, but to try and not run a generic fantasy game, I need to start stepping away from that. I've always sorta stuck with it, Mostly because of the players that I've had in my games, which are few and far between and normally newbs. And what I mean by that is a very "swords & sorcery" kinda medieval game, where the dwarfs are feisty drunken gold miners, all the PC's are normally good, Elves are tall mysterious with bows and magic, etc. I think in the current campaign I'm going to have to try one thing new that will throw the whole thing on its side, and that just maybe a reference to your last post about being transported to a beach with a bunch of dead aboleth's or maybe the heroes stepping in a magic pool that transfers them somewhere else. Or maybe, something out of turn happens. The bad guys win! and enslave the world. who knows.

    1. Not only will this surprise and delight players (we all love to have our expectations subverted on a regular basis), but changes like those will give you many gaming ideas. That one tweak might provide ideas for an entire campaign. Go for it!

  3. I played in a Pathfinder scenario game at a Con once where the GM was a 12 year old girl. I give her mad props for attempting such a thing. All the men at the table were old enough to be her father.

    However, the game itself was awful. We couldn't hear her voice over the convention noises, and what we did hear was page after page of box text delivered in a high pitched drone.

    The worst part came when I asked her to repeat a room description (again) and she loudly read a passage describing a demon worshiping seductress rubbing herself and asking me to enter her bedroom.

    She allowed for no role playing, and hustled us through each railroaded encounter with maximum focus on getting to the combat. She believed her only role was to kill the party with the monsters at her disposal, and was genuinely upset when she failed to do so.

    My friend and I realized in horror that we had two more sessions signed up with her that weekend, which we quickly backed out of on our phones while taking a smoke break.

    1. I don't know who I feel more sad for...

      Hopefully, in the right environment and with a little more practice, she can become a great DM. Although, that demon worshiping seductress room description is funny. "Can you repeat that please? Yes, again!"

  4. Well said. I agree with nearly all of your points.
    Rules should enable and a GM to run the game well. Good rules instruct the GM how to make good decisions. They should present a clear procedures to follow. And they can do this without taking up 500 pages or unnecessarily constraining the creativity of anyone at the table.

    1. Thanks, Tim! Indeed, I think really talented BD type GMs can run a fun, engaging session with nothing more than a few hand-written notes and some dice. They don't need a rulebook... even though it's nice to have around just in case.

  5. Ah so many stories with rules crushing the game I have! But I will only tell a few.

    In my Megadungon The Black Stairs(it was one of the best things I have written for Old School Gaming IMHO)that was originally for LL/AEC was converted to Pathfinder because my players would rather drink raw sewage that even try old school. They all said it had that old school feel and it was going really well except that no one really was afraid of death because it is HARD to die in Pathfinder. Stirges?, Falling into a pit?, Poisons? None of these things cause fear anymore. The players were having a blast but I was working out of town during the week and would have to CRAM in the converted encounters for the Saturday game so it became LOTS of work. I suggested that we convert to LL/AEC because it was getting too much work for me and you would have thought I suggested baby murder by their responses. They felt free to complain but none of them can run anything. They sent me emails of anger and "Not interested" so I folded the campaign.

    Now I like Pathfinder IF it is being used for a bunch of small encounters or small dungeons but for a megadungeon for a working 40 something like myself I just don't have the time.

    Now 4th Edition, It could have been a lovely game! It had a very nice flow IF you were a tactical person. Even worse NOTHING dies quickly! Monsters take forever to die! I remember one night of gaming for 12 hours the group was bragging that "We got through six encounters wow!" I proclaimed blasphemy! and spoke that in the old days we could get through 10-20 encounters in a night.

    I would love to see a low HP mash up of Basic D&D mixed with 4th Edition. That will never happen though.

    1. Tell your players you will run Pathfinder for them with one caveat. The rules will be limited to the Beginner Box.

      There are even additional PFBB classes available online if you want more class variety.

      That 's the route I'm going to take.


  6. Maybe with D&D Next... Who knows?

    That's quite the tale, Eldrad. Too bad they didn't want to dial down the can't-be-killed factor, of which Pathfinder is heavily infused. I've had similar experiences. Trying to keep up with PC power takes all the focus out of constructing a worthwhile story. The GM can only do so much unless he's breaking all kinds of rules. Nightmare!

    I'd love to hear more about The Black Stairs. Just the title alone sounds awesome; probably right up my alley. If you wouldn't mind, email it to me. I'll email you my dungeon in return: Venger.Satanis at yahoodotttcommmmmmmmmm

  7. Here you go. Ask and ye shall receive!

    1. Cool, man. Thanks! I skimmed it, and the thing looks extensive and awesome. Did you run it yourself? If so, how many times? Was it a good time?

      If you want to see m dungeon crawl, then just email me.

  8. Will get the third level done soon. It will be a Nightmare level and may cause mental trauma.

    Yeah it was kinda played in S&W and LL/AEC for just a few sessions. It then was converted to PFRPG which is described above.

    It is a really FUN Megadungeon IF you play it as a mysterious place with bad memories.