GM Workshop I – Dungeons and Doldrums

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!”

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