What makes Gamesmasters act the way they do? Jonathan Hicks would like to know, but he can't be bothered to get involved with all that psychological rubbish. Let's have a look at some of the more common styles of refereeing instead. It’s much more fun.
Gamesmasters. The very words are enough to strike the fear of the gods into the heart of even the hardiest roleplayer. Why? Well, why do you think? The Gamesmaster (GM) is the one person with the power to allow your wellcultivated character to live- or die. It's ultimate power. It's the ability to spend a few hours with total control over your group of friends. Nothing compares to the feeling of having all the PC's by the proverbials.
But that's not entirely true, is it? Other than being a dining table god, the GM also has a major responsibility to the players. The GM has to supply an evening's play that the players will enjoy, and if the job is done well they come back for more. But that doesn't stop a few GM's from abusing their power every now and then. So what do you look out for? What are the traits that make the power hungry megalomaniacs stick out?
If you're new to roleplaying, then you may find the next few examples interesting. It may give you an idea of who to avoid. If you’re not so new to it all, then there may be a few descriptions you recognise...
The SMARMY GM
GM: Right, you've broken into the warehouse, and as far as you can tell the alarms haven't gone off.
PLAYER 1: I'll sneak to the crates in the corner.
PLAYER 2: I'll cover him.
GM: As you sneak across, you hit a tripwire and a laser hits you in the back, doing damage... (The GM rolls dice secretly behind his screen. As the numbers come up, a slow smile spreads across his face and he slowly looks up at the player. His eyes are twinkling.) Boy, that's gonna hurt. That's gonna hurt real bad.
PLAYER 1: How much damage did I take?
GM: (Shaking his head and pursing his lips.) Oooh, painful.
PLAYER 1: (Getting exasperated.) How much damage have I taken?!?
GM: Oh, do I pity you... etc.
Ooooh, it makes you mad. Fair enough, the player may have made a mistake or an error in judgement, but there is no reason to lay it on so thick. The Smarmy GM will almost sneer at the player as the misfortune piles up, or they'll make the odd comment, such as 'I wouldn't have done that'. Well, of course you wouldn't have done that, you know what’s going on! Needless to say, this kind of GM doesn't hang on to players long. It's fair enough the villains of the game laughing in the PC's face when something goes wrong, but when you get the impression that the GM is getting some sort of sardonic pleasure out of your misfortune... well, would you stay in his games?
The BLAND GM
GM: You walk out of the starport.
PLAYER 1: What do I see?
GM: The street. Some people.
PLAYER 1: Anything else?
GM: Yeah, some speeders.
PLAYER 1: Any taxis?
GM: Not that you can see.
PLAYER 2: Any chance of a little enthusiasm, GM?
(The GM shrugs.)
You kind of get the impression that they don't really want to be there. The Bland GM talks in monosyllables, doesn't inject enough energy or description in his GM'ing. In short, they're boring. How can you get that sense of being somewhere when every location is as dull as the last? Games don't last long if the player's imaginations aren't sparked enough for them to visualise their surroundings, or get a sense of individuality from the NPC's. The name of the game is entertainment, after all.
The OVER-THE-TOP GM
GM: The mist swirls around your ankles as you approach the dark building. The trees loom over oppressively, the branches clawing at the sky. As the building comes into view, you see that the metal walls are gnarled, twisting like some architect's nightmare, the sides forming and reforming, as the glass roof appears to oscillate with dark and bright colours. The windows are warped, casting bent reflections across the glade. The mist appears to be pouring from the single chimney the building possesses, flowing from it like something alive, covering everything around with moisture from it's damp touch. The ground underfoot...
(The players rap their fingers on the table and look at their watches.)
On the other side of the coin there's the Over-The-Top GM. In an almost direct contrast to the Bland ref., the OTT GM can go off on a descriptive tangent about a location, a character, and an object. Although it's good that whatever the PC's are looking at is well described, there is such a thing as overdoing it, and the OTT GM is probably doing the game more to show off his narrative skills than to actually get anywhere. Well designed and described places only work when your players are able to interact with them without
having ten pages of prose jammed down their throats every few minutes.
The COMPETITIVE GM
GM: You turn the corner and you see four guards lounging around the door to the hangar, but they have their blasters out. What are you going to do?
PLAYER 1: I'll throw my grenade and hit the deck.
PLAYER 2: I'll take cover in a door alcove and open up on the first one.
GM: Right. Initiative rolls... good. They get the drop on you. They're very good shots. They fire... two hit you, the other one hits you...
PLAYER 1: Hang on; I thought you said they were lounging around. Don't we get surprise?
GM: No, they're professionals, and you'd better deduct some hit points.
PLAYER 2: Shit.
It's not a game; it's a competition to see if the players can beat the scenario he's designed for them. At least, that's the way the Competitive GM sees it. Roleplaying is not a form of entertainment, it's a set of rules designed to pit players against a GM's creations. If the players don't complete the goal set out for them, they've lost. Hmm. Now, I'm sure I've read somewhere that there are no winners or losers in a roleplaying game, and that the whole group is there for an evening's entertainment and to participate in a game where everyone can have fun. From what I can gather, the GM is supposed to supply stimulating stories for the players to get their teeth into.
Oh, that's where I've read it. It's included in every roleplaying game ever written.
The RULES LAWYER GM
GM: So, what was it you wanted to do again?
PLAYER 2: I want to pull my blade whilst grabbing the rope and leaping off the building.
If I've judged the length of the rope right, I should swing in through the window and right on top Baron DeGungey.
GM: So you want to draw your blade (flips through pages of rulebook and looks up penalties for drawing a weapon), leap off the building with the rope (looks up difficulty ratings for using a rope in the rulebook companion volume), aim for the window (flips through pages of another supplement for the strength of glass against a swinging human body), and land on Baron DeGungey (consults the book for stats and then quickly noses through the grappling rules in the rulebook). Right, roll for your leap.
PLAYER 2: (Looking at her watch) Actually, I've got to go now.
Nothing is more frustrating than waiting for a ruling from the GM whilst he ploughs through tomes of rules to locate the adjustments for your roll, or to try and find a rule that covers your action. The rules of a particular game should be treated as guidelines because trying to find a reference to every player action takes up too much time. It's also impossible to allow for every idea a player has, but does that stop the Rules Lawyer GM? Oh, no. He'll spend the time looking for that particular rule that decides on the outcome. Even if the rule isn't included in the book, there are several supplements to choose from, no doubt. And even then, the rules will have to be interpreted from an amalgamation of
several different rules if the rule isn't there... see what I mean? This is the exact way to stunt a game. GM's should be able to make rulings on the spot, not ruin the pace of a game with their noses in books.
The EGO-TRIP GM
GM: The door to the starship swings open.
PLAYER 1: What do we see?
GM: The figure that strides confidently down the ramp is dressed in dark armour, giving an evil look. The gun slung over one shoulder is huge and powerful. Yeah, this one looks as though he can handle a fight. Mean and moody, with a touch of danger, that's what you can sense.
PLAYER 2: I don't suppose this is your old PC from last year's campaign, is it, GM?
Let's skip this one quick, because it is one of the most annoying. The ego-trip, or ‘Mary Sue’, GM will bring a powerful NPC into the game, maybe even his old character from an old campaign, and will run it as one of the group, saving the day and rolling high. And why? Well, this GM gets a sense of pleasure from showing up the party with a character that fits all his ideas of a good PC. You have to ask the question- whose pleasure is the game being played for?
The FAVOURITISM GM
GM: The hatchway looks unlocked, and you know for a fact that the computer centre is down there.
PLAYER 1: I'll make my down through the hatch.
PLAYER 2: I'll draw my pistol and get my flashlight out.
GM: (Ignoring player 1) You pull your gun and descend through the hatch.
PLAYER 1: I thought I was going first.
PLAYER 2: I'll check the floor for booby traps and sensors with my infrared.
PLAYER 1: I'll head over to the computer bank.
GM: There doesn't seem to be any traps or alarm systems, but your eyes do detect a heat trace in the corner.
PLAYER 1: Hello, GM? What about me?
This kind of GM is not too common and good job too. The Favouritism GM will pretty much give most attention to the player whose character he likes the most, or to the character whose player he gets on with better. Players have gone to a lot of trouble to turn up for a few hours of gaming, so can you imagine their frustration at being dealt with for a few seconds every few minutes? The ignored players are the ones that don't return to a game because they don't like the thought of sitting around while other players hog the game. I mean, it's alright for the GM; he'll constantly have a hand in the game. It's not much fun watching others have a better time.
See any you recognise? See any you would avoid at all costs? Do you see any you can relate to as a GM? The examples are nothing but surface observations. It would be way too difficult to postulate on why the GM does certain things in certain ways to certain characters or players. Not only would it relate to how the GM's mind works, but it would also have links to the relationship between GM and player. Once again, the diversity of the roleplaying hobby has bred different views on how a game should be run, but all games should have a common factor - that it should be entertaining to both players and GM's to further the enjoyment of participation and the growth of a healthy campaign. Fair enough, the examples may make you point your finger at your GM and shout, 'That's you, that is!'
Just think about the similarities between the script and paragraph and your own games for a moment. Do you think what the GM is doing will ruin the game? Will it stunt the growth of the campaign? If the worst comes to the worst, will it cause animosity between friends? Maybe, as a player, you are used to that kind of GM'ing, and may actually enjoy the way the games are being run.
The examples can be used for three things - as a reference for new players, so they can think about what kind of GM they want to game with, or avoid. For experienced players, so they can be aware of problems in their game. And most of all the GM, who can look at the example and question himself... am I like that? What will happen to my sessions if I don't correct the problem?
It's also a bit of a laugh, so players can point the finger at the GM and say, 'that's you, that is!'