Wait! What? #6? Where did this come from? Where are 1–5? Sorry, folks. I’m late to the party on this one. It has not escaped my notice that, despite my focus on whatever I’m playing at the moment, the most popular posts on this blog have been pretty game agnostic. So I’m only happy to spout off more about GMing. I’ve been doing it for long enough, I should have SOMETHING to say about it. So I fell in behind this blog caravan a bit after it began. I may go back and revisit the earlier topics, but for now upwards and onwards!
Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.
We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.
Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?
So where to begin?
First of all, of course there needs to be a chance of failure. There is a reason they are called GAMES. A roleplaying GAME without chance is a terribly boring, pretentious affair. Some people may liken it to playing a computer game with a cheat code. But those who do that get off on the CHEATING aspect. Tabletop RPG’s don’t offer that sort of satisfaction. So a chance of failure needs to the there. Its a vital component for creating tension and excitement in play.
Now all that said, there are a few circumstances in which that chance of failure can make the play experience tedious and frustrating to players and GM alike:
- When failure brings the game to a screeching halt.
- When failure takes someone out of the game completely.
- When there is no room for alternative approaches to the problem.
- When failure is…lame!
Let’s address these one at a time, shall we?
1) When failure brings the game to a screeching halt
Progress in play should never be tied to a single die roll. Not only is this poor design, its poor GMing on top of that. This is one of the things that makes running a traditional “mystery” so difficult with RPGs. I heartedly subscribe to the GUMSHOE philosophy that the first clue should always be free. Success with the dice brings additional information. Failure should have the consequence of raising the stakes, heightening the tension. Failure should say, not this way, try something else.
2) When failure takes someone out of the game completely
Anything that drops a single character from play for the rest of the session is a big no-no in my book. I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times, don’t get me wrong. Kidnapping the character of an obnoxious player to serve as a sacrifice for an evil cult, trapping a character in an impenetrable bubble at the bottom of a lake. Just because you do it doesn’t make it a good practice. This goes double with character death, especially if you are playing a RPG with complex character generation rules (GURPS, for instance).
3) When there no room for alternative approaches to the problem
As I said in #1, failure shouldn’t be a dead end. If you can’t pick the lock, you should be able to try and kick it down. Can’t charm or cajole the information from a captive or informant, you can always try interrogation. Failure with no alternative means of redress is no better than failure that stops the game cold. Of course, as GM, it isn’t your responsibility to spell out the players’ options for them. Let them do the work. If they come out with something cool and outside the box, reward it with a hero point, a benny, or an XP bonus.
4) When failure is LAME
And by that I mean when failure adds NOTHING to the experience. It adds nothing to the narrative, doesn’t add tension or raise the stakes, doesn’t even offer a moment of levity other than, “What are the f**king odds?!?!” Think of it like that last hurdle in a side-scrolling video game just before the boss where you always seem to hurtle off the ledge because your timing is just a bit off. LAME! Usually, lame fails come from things that shouldn’t even require a die roll. Think about it. Which of these scenarios sound better:
- “You fail trying to climb the 15 foot stone wall. Take 3 points of damage and try again.”
- “You struggle to climb the 15 foot stone wall. After a few tumbles you make it over. Take 3 points of damage for your trouble.”
Every repeated roll costs you time you could be doing something else. And wouldn’t you rather your players be duking it out with that ogre horde in the next valley than trying to catch and skin rabbits to offset their provisions? Sometimes it’s better to either let the players win, or let them succeed with consequences. It’s the whole “yes, and…” / “yes, but…” approach to GMing.
Ok. Right. Right. Yes. Success. Failure. Yadda yadda. Get to the question, Mr. GM! Should challenges be measured against the party’s capabilities or not?
Don’t hate me, but when it comes to combat encounters, my answer is, “it depends.” I hate to admit but I’m a soft touch. I’m the sort of GM who will dial down an encounter on the fly if the players are having a rough go for no other reason than the dice aren’t going their way that night. I’m a lamb in wolf’s clothing. I am ashamed.
But hey, that’s for set piece encounters. Plus, remember Rule of Fail #2: Avoid failures that take people completely out of the game. And character death does that. It’s one thing when you are playing B/X D&D or Savage Worlds where a player can whip up a new character in minutes and jump back in. Any game where chargen takes a considerable time investment (say, like, Witch Hunter!), you should be conscious of character death. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen, but when it does it should be memorable! I have an unspoken rule in my games: character death should be spectacular! It should be an event!
No one complains when Lucifer shows up, rips the paladin’s beating heart from her chest and uses it as a grisly prop for a Shakespearean soliloquy.
Everyone complains when a scraggly band of goblins delivers a TPK.
Guess which one I’m more likely to cheat in favor of my players on? Does it cheapen their experience? Not that I can tell. This is why I like games with minion rules.
Now I’m more than happy to give my players all the rope they need to hang themselves with. The initial premise mentioned the random encounter with a black dragon. The players are 1st level. Sure, why not! As long as they don’t have to fight it (Rule #3), I’m perfectly happy to throw that at them. Let’s see what they do with it. Run away. Evade. Distract it. Parlay. These are all perfectly acceptable alternatives to a face to face confrontation.
Presenting an insurmountable challenge to the players does not make a bad GM. Demanding that they approach that challenge in the most disadvantaged way to be sacrificed on a capricious whim to fuel the GM’s ego is (damn, was that purple enough?). That breaks every single rule. I WANT my players to approach things with outside of the box thinking. If they do something stupid, that has consequences too. But I find that the people I play with are smart enough to rise to the challenge, and there is no shame in running away (or coming back with reinforcements).
So if they choose to fight fight that dragon on its own turf, on its own terms…well…sometimes Darwin wins.
But to measure every encounter against the PCs’ capabilities in some tedious game of resource management? Where is the fun and excitement in that?
That soft touch thing? I’m working on it.
All of this applies apply to my style of GMing, which is a witch’s brew of sandbox and matrix/funnel design. And there are always exceptions to these rules. Not all of them apply 100% of the time. However, upon reflection, I just find that when I don’t apply these points, the game suffers for it more than not. It doesn’t go off the rails or anything, but the player experience is rougher than I prefer. And, as a GM, player experience means everything to me.
Curious what others have to say on this topic?
- Strange Encounters (Scott Robinson)
- Starwalker Studios (Lex Starwalker)
- Dread Unicorn Games (John Marvin)
- Inspiration Strikes (Marc Plourde)
- Adventures, Planar in Nature (Peter Smits)
- Burn Everything Gaming
Interested in adding your voice to this cacophony of thought? It’s easy to join the chorus.