I Love You, Elfstar, But Don’t Forget You’re Debbie Too

So I had another “comment that turned into a blog post” situation, this time in relation to a stream of thoughts in response to Dan’s point on my previous one.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the one recurring feature of genuinely “bad” GMing is indifference to player engagement.


The Vampire GM who only cares about their lovingly detailed plot is neither better nor worse than the OSR DM who cares only about their painstakingly documented dungeon, or the 4th ed DM who cares only about their perfectly planned encounter balance, or the Dogs in the Vineyard GM who cares only about their oh-so-challenging moral dilemma.

I think Dan is mostly correct here – at least, for definitions of “bad GMing” which mean “at least one person ceased to have fun, and it was down to refereeing practices which don’t involve blatant OOC favouritism or hostility or other behaviours which would be flat-out inappropriate regardless of the context”.

Certainly, I’ve witnessed a vast amount of bad RPG experiences that resulted from one or more participants in a game caring more about the game than they did about one or more of the other participants, and it isn’t even limited to tabletop GMing – players do this too. Consider:

  • Tyrant GMs remorselessly ploughing through with their predetermined vision for the campaign (whether that vision involves presenting an open-ended sandbox or a ramrod-linear plot or anything in between) regardless of whether their concept is tanking with the players.
  • Players making constant demands of a referee because they’ve decided that their particular ideas about the local LARP campaign is more important than the head GM having something resembling free time.
  • Entire factions in big LARPs being screwed over because the referees made a decision based on “what’s best for The Game” without considering whether the decision was disproportionately ruinous for any particular set of players.
  • Tables full of participants who do not give one shit about the other folk in the room because they’re there for the game and not the people.
  • A player feeling unwelcome in a campaign because another player latched onto something and wouldn’t let it go IC, and it’s started to dominate things OOC.
  • Hell, Dan and I were in one campaign which was dealt a fatal blow because a player decided they’d rather be true to their character concept than give the OOC convenience and patience of the rest of us due credence.

I’ve been on both sides of those situations and it’s never fun. It’s also such an easy pitfall to get into. You’re the referee – you’ve got to give a lot of importance to the game, right? And if you’re in an ongoing thing rather than a one-off mess-around, then you’re presumably invested enough in what’s going on to take the game seriously, right? So it’s just a little slippy-slope down from there to saying “I know Player 2 really dislikes this but I have to go through with it for the good of the game”, or indeed ceasing to see the other participants as people to interact with and starting seeing them as tools for enabling the game, and as soon as you catch yourself thinking that way you’ve got to get that bucket of ice water and immerse your head in it real deep until the bad thoughts go away.

People constantly get the wrong end of the stick about this stuff and think that being responsive to player desires and requirements and needs translates to being a doormat who gives the whiniest player big wooshy magic items that unbalance the game for everyone else because Player Whiny whined enough and that sort of thing. At the same time, there are complications. I do think bad GMing can sometimes result because people want to take player engagement and living up to the promises you made the players about a campaign seriously but aren’t sure what to do when it becomes clear that they players they’ve got aren’t enjoying the campaign as they envisioned. A referee in such a position might say “I can’t change tracks now, I promised these guys a sandbox campaign and I’m obligated to deliver on that”, and yeah, maybe we can say that the referee in question needs to get their adult on and just talk to their players and work their way through it, but on the other hand maybe the referee in question knows their players better than us and realises that if they open up the possibility of changing the campaign’s focus or style it’ll cause a shitstorm and a shouting match that’s best avoided; I can equally see a situation where a referee would like to change the focus of a game to help one participant enjoy it, but another participant says “Listen, you promised me X and you’re delivering it just fine and if you compromise because of Player 2’s snivelling I’m walking”.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” comes to mind. Saying “I am this sort of referee, I deliver this sort of experience” – or, indeed, “I am this sort of player, I require this sort of experience” – not only limits your gaming opportunities, it also limits the directions your campaigns can go in compared to if you say “Well, the campaign is going to mostly go like this, but since we all like a bit of that from time to time I’m happy to throw that in too to change the pace a bit if it feels like that’s what’s called for.” Or, indeed, saying “OK, clearly this sandbox direction is causing issues, how about I give your characters some more linear missions for a couple of sessions and we see whether that refreshes things”, or even “hey, why don’t we just play videogames or watch a movie since we’re clearly not into this to the extent I was hoping we’d be”.

Tangential thought: I think a major weakness of big-scale LARPs – or even smaller-scale freeforms once you get past ten participants – is that they more or less demand that the referees and organisers prioritise “the game” above the needs of individual participants. You can reach accommodations and agreements between the members of a small group much more easily, you can’t enter into individualised negotiations with every single person who attends a fest LARP, and you sooner or later find yourself faced with a situation where you can royally screw a tenth of the player base if you jump one way but slightly-less-severely piss off three-quarters of the players if you jump the other way. I know some of my biggest GMing mistakes have been in that context and it’s kind of why a) I don’t miss running such things and b) when I attend such things I tend to look to making my own fun in such a way that doesn’t heavily invest in aspects of the setting the GMs might nerf or rebuild later on.

Second tangent: I wonder whether games that get a visceral love/hate response from the gaming community do so at least in part because they give the impression of only caring about their lovely plots/dungeons/encounters/moral dilemmas? Certainly, a weakness of the 4E Dungeons & Dragons materials I’ve seen (the original core books – I didn’t stick around for Essentials) is that they certainly give the impression that painstakingly balanced encounters are the important thing, and the rest of the game is essentially set dressing there to provide a context for said encounters. On the other hand, are there many examples of games which succeed at implying a “big tent” that can accommodate a range of play styles with their core books? I’d suggest the 2nd edition AD&D core does a good job there but that may be my affection for that system showing. D&D Next actually seems to be going in this direction with the recent announcement of the different optional rules components they’re developing – there’s going to be a character optimisation-focused one, and a tactical combat-focused one, and one which covers domain management and all sorts of other activities that had previously been abstracted away in downtime, and even one for adding in storygamey narrative-sharing mechanics. If the core D&D Next stuff can really support such a broad range of add-ons I’d be genuinely interested in dipping into it.

There Is More Than One Agency, There Are Many Interactions

More or less everyone in RPG discourse – in which I include blogs, forums, podcasts, and other mediums where people waffle about the process of playing RPGs – agrees that different people want different things. Most of us also under-estimate how difficult it is to actually understand want other people want when what they’re after is highly incompatible with what you desire.

This has come up to a certain extent in my discussions with Dan on some recent posts concerning White Wolf’s recent output. It’s become quite apparent that part of the reason White Wolf’s decisions about how they design their games and arrange their books are so bizarre to me is that the White Wolf staff look for entirely alien things in their gaming products compared to what I look for. (I’d say “the White Wolf staff and their customers look for entirely alien things” there, but I’m not sure whether White Wolf have that many customers these days beyond a small rump purchasing stuff from the Kickstarters or via their print-on-demand division – it makes little business sense to disappear from game shop shelves and switch to an all-POD model unless you’ve decided you don’t want to cater to anyone who isn’t already a confirmed fan of your work.) To a certain extent I think they are still making mistakes – I believe Dan when he posits what White Wolf’s agenda might be since he’s always paid more attention to their output than I have, but I still think that what they present in their books doesn’t actually serve that agenda especially well.

What’s inspired this post, however, is Dan’s recent thoughts on the Quantum Ogre.

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Pendragon: Another Example of Character Generation Done Right

So, it transpires that the “beginners” I had previously agreed to run a game for aren’t actually as inexperienced as I had been led to believe, which at least meant I could go a little more broad in the selection of games I could suggest for them. In the end, we went with Greg Stafford’s excellent Pendragon, since the group wanted something fantasy-based and historically themed.

We just had the character generation session, and player feedback is very good. Pendragon is the only game I can think of which does the whole Forgey “let’s make a very focused game about a very specific range of characters for a tightly defined play experience” thing and actually makes it work for campaign play. (This is impressive considering that it first came out in 1985, but there you go.) The primary way it accomplishes this is by encouraging a focus on the player characters’ families; you usually only go on one adventure a year, with downtime spent dealing with the management of your knight’s manor, and whilst the effects of aging can be staved off for a while, sooner or later it’s going to hit you like a hammer. Since the Arthurian saga goes on for decades, this means player characters need to rear heirs who can take up adventuring once their parents are too elderly for quests.

The plan for the moment is to play a short campaign and then see how we feel about continuing, but there are still benefits to incorporating this family-based stuff in the game.  Notably, for characters beginning with the game’s assumed starting premise (knights of Salisbury in King Uther’s time), there is offered an optional system for randomly determining the deeds and cause of your father and grandfather. The players decided to go with this option and it went down really well, because it’s basically a method of giving them 75 years of backstory to give the action of the game some context without just tossing an enormous background document at them and saying “here, read this”. By making a game of the backstory, the players become invested in it, and even though the starting Glory you get from it tends not to be that different in the end (all the PCs are within about 100 points of each other), there’s still fun to be had from working out whose father was most prestigious.

I was worried that character generation would spill over into two sessions, but actually once this history part was done statting up the player knights was a brisk process – and I think it helped that we got some form of gameplay out of the evening through the history generator, even if it is mostly random chance. Each of the characters seems to have already developed a distinctive niche of their own, in part through the history process and in part through the personality traits system, and I think everyone is excited to see what happens when we unleash them on Dark Ages Britain – I know I am. I’ve said before that if a character generation isn’t fast, it should at least be fun, and Pendragon seems to get the best of both worlds – family history generation is fun, and generating subsequent PCs within a particular family is fast.


So, the most recent Roll20 session ended with the player characters in, not to put too fine a point on it, dire straits. A brace of lucky rolls on my part let a goblin patrol get a bunch of hits on the PCs; had we gone with rules as written, two PCs would be dead, but instead I went with these rather fun critical hit rules and the shit has consequently hit the fan in a somewhat more interesting way. Shim’s character now has a cool new scar, and Dan’s character has a broken left arm and a severed right arm.

This is possibly the nastiest thing to happen to the PCs in a tabetop session I’ve ever presided over (with the honourable exception of Paranoia) in terms of rendering PCs close to death or unplayability. Obviously in horror games there have been dire threats and direr consequences, but that’s a somewhat different thing from breaking a player’s character and having them roll up a new one.

This outcome was not planned; it stemmed from a combination of the players being steered into an area where the goblins would be patrolling by their guide, me making a roll to determine that the patrol would run into them, and a series of bad luck following on from that. The players were consciously taking a risk by a) pushing deeper into the dungeon and b) launching into combat when their magic-user was out of gas, but even so I don’t think they were expecting the trouble they got (and if they’d been a little unluckier this could well have turned into a TPK).

This outcome has me really excited as a referee.

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The Referee’s Bookshelf: Vampire: the Requiem

Hot on the heels of the core World of Darkness rulebook, I took in the core Vampire: the Requiem tome. I genuinely like the tweaks White Wolf have made to Vampire and think Requiem is a better game than Masquerade because of them, but I also think the book is quite alienating to people who just want to play Vampire with minimum fuss.

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Definitions & Demonstrations: TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons and Related Games

So, as promised previously, I am going to look at definitions of roleplaying and examples of play in RPG core rulebooks.

To be clear about what I mean by examples of play: I don’t mean the sort of examples you have covering how the rules are applied (“Player 1 fails his saving throw, so he loses 20 hit points and has to roll on the critical injury table”); I am talking about the sort of dialogue-based examples which are intended to demonstrate the flow of actual play. Given that the game is driven by dialogue, an example which makes that dialogue crystal clear is, I would say, downright vital (or at least very, very useful) in communicating how a game session actually works. A potential new player can puzzle this out without it, or indeed sit in on a session or track down an actual play podcast, but a good example of play means they don’t need to – and that helps smooth out the learning curve and help them quickly assess whether this is something they even want to try.

I’m going to kick off by looking at TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons, and a couple of the games TSR produced which essentially used retooled versions of the Dungeons & Dragons system. TSR were both the first outfit who were lumbered with the task of providing explanations of tabletop RPGs in printed products (rather than demonstrating the idea in person), and also one of the most wildly successful companies at getting people into the hobby in the first place, with various Dungeons & Dragons basic sets being many gamers’ first point of contact with the hobby. Was this success because of their explanations of how RPGs worked, or despite them? Let’s see.

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