Category Archives: GM workshop
This is probably the most irritating of all to include in a list of failed games because it failed the most, the hardest, and the quickest. The background goes as such. Thursday is our gaming night because it’s the only night everyone has free, and we routinely travel to other peoples’ houses to eat, game, and be merry. Originally the Thursday game was a rotating night, where a different person ran a different game every week, but after most of the original crew left, the replacements (read: Matt, Kevin and I) only had a Werewolf game running. After a long, long time, another game was brought in to act as a breather, with the GM being the guy whose house we went to every Thursday. While a decent all-around guy, immediately falling into the role of leader in Werewolf, he had been acting touchier as the weeks went on. We figured it had to do with some poor choices in Werewolf.
The game chosen was Scion, where the mortal children of mythic deities battle the minions of the Titans for control of the earth. Eventually, the characters will become demigods, and then replace their parents, who either die or “retire” after judgment day. We all immediately came up with some interesting characters—some more interesting than others—only to discover that the GM wanted everyone to start out as a non-epic mortal, something the rules don’t even cover. Ok, we can deal with that, though it would have been good to know earlier. It could be interesting. So, we started the game with a workaholic doctor, a computer engineer, a bureaucrat, and a sharky lawyer. The GM was not amused. Things started to go farther downhill after Kevin started to ask the GM when we’d “get to the scion parts of the game;” this joke was taken poorly. Matt and I, easily bored with the seminars and such, began to roleplay breakfast, which was likewise taken poorly. The GM was quickly growing frazzled with our lack of action—lack of action taken, in part, because our characters were, well, dull.
The crux of the game had our characters learning about our divine heritage by finding clues in Las Vegas, where we’d all arrived for an “Emerging Leaders Retreat” hosted by the umbrella company we worked for. The culmination of this meant we’d made an enemy, some really huge guy who worked as a mining foreman, and discovered enough hints so that we as players knew what was going on. We were then called into a meeting with the umbrella company’s VP, only to find him bound, gagged, and held hostage. Doing the only thing he could think of, the sharky lawyer made an ad-hoc Molotov behind the bar and chucked it at the big huge guy. Hilarity ensued, he killed the VP and tossed fireballs at us, a lot of cock-punching led to failure, and my bureaucrat improvised his own Benny Hill sketch, flailing around with a bottle of Cuervo, trying to hit one of the thugs with it.
From that point onward, the game went quickly downhill. We were ambushed by ninjas on several occasions, enemies who came out of nowhere, who couldn’t be hit, and who vanished as soon as it looked like we might not die. After a while, Loki came down to get us out of the country, who then (six sessions into the game) decided to let us in on the fact that the VP was a plant, and that our goal was to take down the umbrella company, and that now all the deities thought we were on the side of the enemy.
Normally I’d continue on describing the rest of the game, but let’s stop here and think for a moment. The GM plants an NPC who is of critical, plot-bearing importance, an NPC who cannot die for any reason whatsoever, and makes it so the only way to get him to safety is to follow one very specific path. Then, when we fail to see the path and thus avoid it completely, the GM kills off the character in one fell swoop, leaving the rest of the game to have the characters flail around trying to save themselves as they’re beset upon by high-end thugs, and into the mix throws plenty of NPC’s who berate them (e.g. Loki). First of all, if the NPC is so critical to the plot, Don’t Kill Him. Characters screw up all the time—it’s what makes the game fun, to some degree. The baddie could have started shooting at us instead of decapitating the NPC, thus saving the plot. Second of all, if the NPC who is attached to the load-bearing-plot gets waxed, you can always change the plot. In hindsight, the game was probably about taking down the company from the inside, but we didn’t really know this—yet, every NPC acted as if the characters did. Instead of switching the plot in this instance, the game devolved quickly because the players, to be honest, hated being treated like crap. Every “ally” verbally abused them for screwing up, every enemy was a nigh-invulnerable superman, and there was no real way out of the mess.
Which leads to point two. The players had already irritated the GM through a string of bad jokes, which weren’t meant to offend but did. For the most part, everyone apologized, or had made jokes so non-offensive that they didn’t know the GM was irked by them. This started a train of pushes and shoves: the GM bit back, the players sulked because they thought they were being treated unfairly, the GM felt they didn’t respect his game, the players started getting more pissy and sulky because of it. No matter what the characters did, they couldn’t succeed; even an amazing level of success meant that nothing happened. The GM became so embittered that he skipped a week, because he was so pissed about his friends being downsized at work that the first thing he thought of was punching some of his players. Once again, a lack of investment on behalf of the players, plus a percieved lack of investment which was larger than reality. Point three, don’t game when you’re mad.
The game constantly went on a state of hiatus and off-weeks, gaming once a month, though mostly because players weren’t showing up. The game saw the players getting bagged on by Loki, and the sharky lawyer become a rapist because Loki had drained all his willpower, with even more enmity from this—when several players emailed the GM asking for a serious hiatus until everyone mellowed, to which came a ‘from my cold dead hands’ response. Most of the characters’ roleplaying—feeling trapped in a gulag, with no escape—was seen by the GM as non-respect for the game. Disillusion quickly set in, with lots of infighting taking the place of earlier banter. The last game itself had the GM explode and stalk off, informing everyone that they shouldn’t be there when he got back. Despite several emails to save the game, the GM instead decided to quit gaming—his only hobby—because it was getting as stressful as work. When people called him on his outside life interfering with the game, the GM refuted the point, saying nothing was wrong, then going on to start every game by telling us how miserable it was. Nothing is wrong with that. What’s wrong with that is taking it out on your players, consciously or not, and even the slowest players were able to connect the dots for this game.
Hence, don’t game when you’re mad. The downward spiral created too much of a gap between GM and player, and kept going—despite several calls for a hiatus or for Kevin to run his McWoD game. This player-based call for closure was seen as disrespect for the game, to which the GM responded in kind; the whole rapist incident was taken very poorly by all involved. Reuben kept in character for his lawyer, which was seen as (yet again) hostility towards the GM, while Reuben saw the GM picking on him for fucking up. It could easily have been avoided by some communication, or some down time, but the GM reacted strongly any time someone brought up the idea of a hiatus, seeing it as a personal attack.
The main thing to gain from this, besides don’t game when you’re mad, is that players aren’t infallible. They don’t see the big picture, have no idea where the game is going, and generally don’t go there without clues. Let’s face it, players are dumb. Riddles and secrets are not something that everyone gets; I’ve learned that the hard way in my own games. Some groups need more prodding than others. And just because they don’t follow the plot doesn’t mean they don’t respect the game, it just means they’re playing their characters instead of mindlessly following an abstract. In this case, Kevin loved the Scion game, and everyone else had fun in it, though the GM was sure everyone hated it.
The overall problem with the Scion game was that it wasn’t a bad game—not a great game, but definitely not the worst game I’d ever played in. The problem was that it died such a vainglorious death without really becoming either a good or a bad game—sort of Schrodinger’s game, stillborn halfway up a slow incline towards greatness.
I feel kind of bad counting this game as a “failure,” since it was a fairly successful game, but since my roommate has once again lost all interest in Shadowrun I’ll include it as an example of how you can improve.
So, my roommate is a huge fan of Shadowrun. It’s the only RPG he played before college, and it’s been the only game he’s GMed–thrice, technically, with an improving (but still shaky) history as the attempts increase. The first game he ran was before he’d fully read the 4th Edition rules, so everything was hardcore difficult and the players were handed their asses frequently. That game died a miserable death when everyone got tired of flailing against the brick wall. The second game was run after my roommate had basically killed off another game, so the incentive to care about playing Shadowrun was diminished; and of the remaining players, two decided to hook up almost immediately and decided to spend most of the sessions playing grab-ass on our couch. (The mockery from the other three players is, sadly, less remembered than the grab-ass.)
So, a third attempt was made, which was the pinnacle of Shadowrun on campus. The first session had a wonderful flow to it—we hashed out the planning over dinner, and jumped into the action as elite cyber-soldiers infiltrating a convoy of medical supplies which is due to be attacked/hijacked by Mexican biker thugs. After wantonly abusing the vehicle construction rules and creating a flying brick out of our security van, complete with pop-up LMG turret and exploding toolboxes (think claymore mines using socket wrenches and washers), we got into the action. The game flowed quick and seamlessly after we got into the grove, with trucks exploding all around us as we skidded down a Mexican highway; it was handled with equal-opportunity attention as our three characters jumped around the battlefield during the attack. After stopping the internal threat of traitors, we ended the session for the night.
The next session, however, is where all the bad parts kick in. First, our main enemy here is a series of motorcycle thugs, totaling eight guys on four bikes, who we easily dispatch despite the horrible dice system’s attempts otherwise. Even the NPC truck drivers got a couple of good kills in, so it’s over in about an hour. All in all, it’s a pretty easy fight, mostly anti-climactic compared to the rockets and grenades of the previous session. Ok, this is manageable, even if it is kind of a letdown. Scaling enemies is always a hard task, since it either turns out to be far too hard (like the second game, where the three night watchmen were more powerful than the elite ninjas listed in the book) or far too weak (like the marauding biker scourge, who’d managed to destroy every convoy yet… apparently those convoys were provided guards with cerebral palsy). We move on, deliver the medical supplies, and begin to interrogate the bikers we snagged. This dragged on for most of the second session’s six hours; one character was very integral to this, while Kevin and I were mere onlookers. After an hour of this, the GM found himself very irritated that Kevin was spending most of his time napping or reading Exalted books, while I was walking back and forth between kitchen and the computer.
Here we come to point one: if your players aren’t being entertained, don’t get pissed. It isn’t always their fault. It means they have nothing to do, and want everything to be sped up so they can actually do something. It’s okay to focus on one character more than others, but still, players who are uninterested are not having fun; if they’re not engaged, you’re not doing your job right. Kevin falling asleep was a product of Kevin having absolutely nothing to do, thus loosing interest, and then having his insomnia catch up with him. I quickly got involved in a string of Wikipedia searches after looking for something game-related, and had nothing to draw me back to the game—I could sit around all I wanted to, but there was nothing to actually do. At the time, it felt best to go make a sandwich and continued the Wiki searches, and that I’d com back whenever the game moved on, plot picked up, what have you. As a GM, it’s really annoying when people get sidetracked in a game… but without anything for the players to do, it’s really hard to blame them. I’ve found myself picking up the pace or otherwise throwing random bits at the players, especially when they’re getting chatty or otherwise losing interest in the actual game.
Second, for fuck’s sake, don’t split the party intentionally. I try to balance out split parties, especially when they’re doing something tactical or strategic, but would never think of making them split up—otherwise, it’s a long session of sitting on your ass doing nothing. People love gratification, they love being engaged and in the spotlight. Splitting the party means that only half the players are getting this reward, meaning the others will sit there sulking (ok, not really, but they’re still loosing their investment in the game), until it’s time to reverse the scales and talk to the other half of the group. This is still manageable…when there’s something for them to do, or if they even get a turn in the spotlight. In this example, Kevin and I were behind two-way glass, and while we bantered for a short while, watching Reuben roll a lot of dice (and fail his checks) was hardly engaging, so we wandered off. What made it worse was that we really had nothing to do—we had no “turn” to do anything during the entire session—and yet the GM was pissed at us for wanting to wander off until the game started up again.
Drawing off that point: know when to speed the game up. If you don’t want the NPC to give up information, just have the guy die, otherwise let the PC’s in on some hooks and continue on your merry way. Even Reuben thought it was getting a little out of hand, given both his disdain for the system and the continually failed skill checks. (This is further complicated by the fact that we were torturing to continue a plot which the GM considered already finished; in a case like this, either wave the NPC’s into a little black box of “Not in the Plot” as the players advance towards Importantville, or leave it flexible enough to jump into the plot the characters are making. I’d recommend the latter, especially since the GM didn’t really have a fixed next-mission for us anyways.)
Lastly, a final note: this was the last Shadowrun session, because (once again) the GM decided to move on to other things. He had definitely improved, and the first session was a load of fun, but he just didn’t want to handle Shadowrun again. This is probably a byproduct of “this game is not the game I played” syndrome, pretty common in new GM’s. He’d played Shadowrun 3rd for years with the same group, and constantly would talk about the old game’s characters, plots, memes, and whatnot. The game he was running here at college, the group he was running with, the idiocy and goofiness he faced, none of it was the game he’d grown up playing. “Different Game” syndrome often happens when a player/GM finds the current group for his favorite game is different from the group s/he used to play with back in the day. This leads to feelings of “it’s not the same,” which can be hard on morale and the drive to play the system again. Among other things regarding college and change, it’s something everyone needs to overcome sooner or later—we can’t game with the same group forever.
In this series of articles I thought I’d look at certain games I’ve been a part of, and explore what could have made them better than the dismal piles they were. All GMs need to start somewhere, and not every GM is perfect, but bad experiences are as helpful in this learning process as good ones. So, for the first example of what not to do, I thought it’d be fitting to start with the worst offender…
Case Study 1 – D&D 3.5
On campus, there has been only one D&D game run with any consistency. On paper, it’s got a huge following, with upwards of a half dozen people showing up for each game. I first heard of the game playing in an Eberron game, where the GM for the case study game and I first met. He turned out to be a great roleplayer, good with staying in character, acting funny, and making fairly innovative solutions to some of our problems. After hearing him talk about his own game, I decided to sign up for the following semester—this guy seemed to be a great all-around guy, a good roleplayer with a firm handle of 3.5 rules. He’d also been GM’ing for over 7 years.
This was a mistake on par with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The setting was the White Wolf “Scarred Lands” setting, basically taking the concept of Dark Sun and applying evil gods as the root problem, and populated it exclusively with things that want *you* dead. To compound this, everyone in the setting is an evil dick, creating a cross between Ravenloft and Dark Sun that is, at best, somewhat interesting, and at worst laughably bad and pretentious. Ok, this is still manageable—I’m firmly of the opinion that you can have fun with nearly every system, and despite the setting’s flaws, it still wasn’t that bad.
However, the game itself was like flying into a brick wall at Mach 2. The 12 characters were too diverse, lacked cohesion, and inter-party conflict was ripe. We wouldn’t be able to handle a squad of orcs without breaking into six or ten competing groups of people who knew each other, but to compound this the GM misread his 3.0 CR’s and had us fight masses of creatures totaling a CR 15 or 18 or so—quite a challenge for a 5th-level party, even if they had good cohesion. Next, this problem was treated as the fault of the players, to the point where the GM decided to run “practice combats” worth extra XP to teach us how to do combat right. And to cap off the pie, he would frequently get irritated at the party’s lack of action, and take it out on them; for example, he’d frequently write out our current possible XP gains on the board, and would cross them off every few minutes or so. 200XP would become 100, 100 would become 25, and we’d finish the session with 11XP and some lint.
Next is the fact that we got so tired of “dead” monsters returning to life that Kevin and I started to decapitate everything we came across. At one point, after killing an undead anathema of some sort and preparing to draw and quarter it, the GM told us we couldn’t do it any more or we’d loose our alignments. Sure enough, the monster got right back up and killed us on the way out of the dungeon. (I should also mention that, as a “Chaotic Good” rogue, I was unable to either rob anyone, set traps, or otherwise do anything that mattered because my alignment would drop. Appearantly Chaotic Good means you get chin scruff, a cape, and have words like “dashing” applied to you, but you can’t get your hands dirty carrying filthy things like weapons or money.)
You can already see a number of problems arising, all of which can be countered with a simple sentence. We’re here to game and to have fun. None of this is fun for the players, who are getting frustrated by the lack of direction and help from the GM. Which brings us to said sentence: the GM is not your enemy. The GM’s goal in a game is to throw hurdles and challenges at the players, and shouldn’t be out for blood. If the party lacks cohesion, they should be thrown some low-level monsters to get a feel of working together, not get butchered by some of the most broken monsters I’ve ever seen printed. As a GM, you’re supposed to be challenging, but challenges can be overcome. Pitting seven level-1 newbs who hate each other against a combined CR 8 is not a fair fight, and leaves the players with nothing but irritation at your dick moves. I’ve found this game a great example of why the GM is not your enemy, in particular. Just because the setting is supposed to be rough and wild doesn’t mean that players either want or should die every few sessions; this GM loved his title of “Player Slayer,” and delighted whenever his d20 rolled 18 or higher. Instead of making something enjoyable, the GM delighted in killing people off constantly, since he knew they’d be back next week–even if they weren’t.
This leads me to point two. With the high casualty rate, constant ass-hattery, and GMing like he was playing in the game, none of the players had any investment, leading to a high rotation. Heck, the only reason so many people play in the game is because it’s the only D&D game on campus; only two or three people have continued since I dropped the game. Players who aren’t having fun, who see the pointlessness of the game, and keep seeing their characters die have nothing invested in the game—they could go start their own game to compete with the crappy game, as has happened. Without a feeling of necessity, there’s nothing to keep players coming back every week, and by Midterms each semester half the group had dropped out. This case study can handle it because it’s the only 3.5 game on campus, but not every game has this luxury. For this game, we were required to write a two-page back story and answer a 100 question quiz about our characters; this would have been fine if they didn’t drop off like flies. After investing that much time into a two-month run, there’s nothing to keep people returning year after year.
The GM is not the enemy, and most games shouldn’t have high casualty rates. So. Point three, or rather three interconnected points. The GM is not better than the players; just because you’ve GM’d for a long time doesn’t mean you’re good at it; and experience does not mean either quality or verisimilitude. You, as a GM, should be learning new tricks and techniques constantly—new ideas and concepts from movies, other games, books, whatever. No matter your experience, there are still things to learn, and if you think so you’re either an idiot, a liar, or you started playing in the ‘70s. As such, not every problem is related to the players—if something doesn’t work, work it out with the group. It takes two, and the players shouldn’t be patronized just because they’ve never played with you before. Once again, the point of gaming is to have fun. If the players aren’t having fun, or even if one or two of them are disappointed, then it’s time for you to try and restructure things so that it’s a worthwhile investment of time for them again.
It all reminds me of an old internet joke, where a player comes into the game store very depressed, wanting to sell back his books and dice. The game store owner asks what’s wrong, trying to figure out why he’d went so far downhill after happily buying the supplies earlier in the month. After a long pause, the player responds with: “Well, I can’t stand it any more. Last week we fought two demons and died, and this week we were killed by a red dragon. I’m just not cut out for this… we’re not very good at it. The GM keeps on winning!”