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Hack For More

WEEK 6: 03/25/04

by Edward McEneely
Apr 13,2004


Hack For More

WEEK 6: 03/25/04

Every now and then, a GM finds himself in a situation so transcendentally awful, so horrendously mismanaged, so mind-bogglingly fucked-up that there's no way he can spin it to make it look good or go well.

That was tonight.

A little backstory for you, not that it really mitigates anything: earlier in the week, I noticed my pet hedgehog was feeling lethargic. I wasn't too worried, because hedgehogs aren't really active little animals, but then I realized that he had also lost a lot of weight. I scheduled a vetrinary appointment for him, but I had noticed what turned out to be liver cancer (which albino hedgehogs are very prone to, apparently) too late to help him, and he died sometime while I was at work on the twenty-fourth. I'm not going to waste a lot of your time with a saccharine eulogy, but suffice it to say that I was very fond of my pet, and his death unsettled and depressed me.

As I said, that excuses nothing. The game itself started well enough, with the players heading back to town to heal up and Laager---the NPC Of Doom---preparing to rip them off royally by bilking Erich and stealing his stuff while he was out cold, all in the guise of helping out.

So far, so good. I managed to advance the plot with a certain amount of subtlety, at least for me, and the PCs remained blissfully unaware of Laager's doings for most of the session. I figured that when Erich's PC regained consciousness, I'd drop the bomb.

At first it went okay, with the players gradually realizing the enormity of the damage that had been done to them, not in their hitpoints, which they could always get back by generating new characters, but rather in terms of honor and treasure lost.

Erich had his character slaughter a few NPCs for no real benefit, claiming that his "temper tantrum" and "jerk" flaws allowed him to. I went with it, because his actions were fairly true to the comics. Besides, I figured the NPCs were certainly getting their own licks in, so turnabout was fair play. The other PCs were a little mad because Erich was ruining their investigations, but I figured that they had shown themselves more than capable of autocorrecting the situation by trying to kill each other in the past, so I could leave it to them to sort out.

Erich's buttons, however, had been well and truly pushed, unbeknownst to me. This is because I forgot (or never realized) how appallingly hard it is to play a low-level anything, much less a magic-user, in a game based on AD&D. Erich felt trapped, cut off, and like he was being dicked around. Because he couldn't read my mind, he also couldn't know that I intended to give him his spellbook (at the least) back by the end of the adventure. I completely failed to notice his growing anguish, because Erich doesn't really express his dissent loudly until he reaches critical mass.

Erich reached critical mass when his PC was thrown out of the town's bank and forced to feign death as the constabulary urinated upon his (supposed) corpse, the punishment for fraud (which his PC had been framed for) in them there parts.

Part of the problem was that Erich felt that his former henchling should have been a lot more loyal, and that any disloyalty should have been rolled for. I didn't (and still don't agree) but I know where he was coming from. A player expects the rules will work for him in the same way they work against him. He (or she) has a right to expect that the randomness of HackMaster will swing in his favor as often as it swings against them, or at least enough to maintain parity. The trouble is, I don't now and never have felt obligated to allow the dice to determine the plots of my adventures. I didn't roll to see if Laager revolted (as Erich felt I should have) because I decided the moment I rolled "chaotic evil" for his alignment that he was going to be a major subplot, if not the main plot of the adventure. To Erich, it seemed like Laager had suddenly started to screw him at my whims. The players don't know what the GM is thinking or planning, and I was trying to be quiet a nd clever about things because---let's face it---if I gave the players any sort of clues early on, they'dve figured it out right away and killed Laager on the spot. It's ludicrous to expect a GM to leave everything to chance, because then it just becomes an exercise in probability mathematics, and I hate math. There's no point in trying to defuse things by saying "no, no, you're quite wrong, you see. Actually, I'm brilliant, and you failed to notice it." When people aren't having fun, no storyline, no matter how brilliant it may seem to the GM, is worth ruining things for them.

A lot of RPGs recommend that if a player becomes upset, you should politely and firmly remind them that you're the GM, or perhaps suggest that they play with another group. I've never seen how this is either good or a remotely plausible idea. I game with my friends, people who I know outside of gaming and for whom gaming is really the only social interaction we have; in fact, since Erich frequently pulls eighty-hour work weeks and Laura and I spend four hours commuting to work (both ways, mercifully), gaming is really the only social time we have all week. Additionally, I felt Erich had some very real points: nobody likes to become an adventure hook, nobody likes to feel like their character has been emasculated (or whatever the distaff term may be), and Erich certainly had good reason to feel like he was being picked on. He suicided his character and pulled out another that he had pre-rolled.

Just because I thought that Erich was at least partially right didn't mean I had to like it. If there's one thing I learned during my brief stint as a work crew leader for disadvantaged youth (which ended with a mutiny, a black eye for me, and is pretty much the last time in living memory that I've really lost my cool), it's that once you've been browbeaten and forced to back down while nominally in a leadership position, any authority you may have had is effectively spent. In HackMaster terms, I had lost honor. Worse, there was absolutely no constructive way to handle things. Or rather, there was, but I was wayyyy too close to losing my cool to see it. There was no profit or point to arguing with Erich; he's my friend and the point of the game would be lost if I sacrificed his fun on the altar of my authority.

It wasn't just an awkward moment for me, but for the other players as well. Laura excused herself and went to the bathroom. Nate lapsed into awkward silence. In a situation like this, the other PCs' fun becomes a collateral casualty, so that the sense of anticipation that I was hoping to build completely backfired. I felt like the crew of the PBR in Apocalypse Now, staring with dumb incomprehension at the shattered corpses of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Or something.

I couldn't continue playing, so I managed a reasonable approximation of fatigue and backed down, suggesting that we adjourn for the night and play "Orcs at the Gates", which I at least managed to win handily, salving my battered ego at least a little. In retrospect, I should've talked things over with Erich BEFORE the adventure, but I was so full of myself and my cleverness in taking advantage of an opportunity to blind-side the players that I never even thought of doing it.

Erich and I had been talking about a one-shot with him behind the screen and me joining the ranks of the lowly PCs, which is scheduled for next week. I left my screen, GM's Guide and hacklopedias with him, so we'll see how this goes.

The week after that, Nate's on maneuvers with his unit in Indiana, so you may get to see my first filler column (inasmuch as any one column is more [or less] wasted bandwith than another), featuring a bit of retro-Hack For More. Woo-hoo!

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