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.


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