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The Play's the Thing

When GM's Attack

by David Goodner
Mar 18,2003


The Play's the Thing

When GM's Attack

By David Goodner

Welcome back. I decided this month to do a column I've been thinking about for a while: "When GM's Attack -or- Why Bad Things Happen to Good Characters."

I'll begin with a story. After I left my much-beloved Shadow Run game, a new player started - the GM's girlfriend. She was playing an Elven Street Shaman with Snake as her totem, which nicely filled the dual voids of Healer and Hot Elf Chick that the loss of my two characters had caused.

However, because she'd come into the game very late, hardly any of the plot threads directly related to her. She told the GM she felt like she was always on the sidelines and didn't really matter to the game.

So, the GM looked over her background and came up with a plot line that was hers and hers alone. She got center stage and her own personal spotlight.

She hated it. She said the GM was being mean to her character.

He responded with a line that I have taken to my heart: "The characters in the spotlight... they don't want to be there. They'd much rather be on the sidelines where it's safe."

(Hope I quoted you correctly, Dave. It's been a while.)

That's the great conundrum of Player Characters. Most PCs want to avoid the spotlight, while most Players want to be in it. That's also the topic of this column, or at least part of it. I want to discuss the reasons GMs are mean to poor, helpless Player Characters.

Another brief story: When I still lived with my parents, I used to enlist my mom as a reader for my fiction (at least some of it). She's not really the ideal audience for horror/fantasy action adventure stories, but I had a dearth of choices. One complaint she always had was that I was too mean to my characters. Bad things always happened to them.

I used to answer that if nothing bad happened, there was no story.

Unless it's very unusual, that's probably true of your game, too. (And if your game really does run with no conflict, I'd be curious to hear how that works)

There are several reasons for conflicts, setbacks, and general bad days:

Reason 1: It's Just the Plot

The dungeon full of Orks, the Empire of Darkness that's crushing the PCs home town, the elder god beneath the sea: usually these will cause the PCs some problems. It's nothing personal. The PCs are just in the way. (Well, actually, the Orks are in the PCs' way from a certain point of view - but for now we'll assume they're evil, nasty Orks who were just hanging out in the dungeon until they figured out how to get the dragon out of the 10' halls. THEN they'd be trouble)

The faceless, impersonal hordes of evil are a staple of gaming. They're easy to manage, and the reaction to them is fairly obvious. You kill them, run from them, or banish them as appropriate, and pursue your other goals along the way if you have any.

Usually, the main plot affects all the PCs more or less equally. Individual events may hit one PC harder than the others, but over all everybody's in the same boat.

Dealing with this sort of conflict is often what a game is about. If you're playing Star Wars, you're probably trying to defeat the evil Empire (or protect the failing Old Republic these days. You kids and your prequels. In my day we had to walk ten miles to Mos Eisley through a sandstorm, and there was hardly anyone there, and we liked it.)

It is to be hoped that the big conflict figures into your character's personal goals in some way, but this could be tangential. Look at the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings. None of the four really got up one morning and said "let's go destroy the One Ring to prevent the rise of Sauron." Frodo wanted to keep the Shire safe, and his friends wanted to keep him safe. That the safety of the Shire was dependant upon the destruction of the One Ring was kind of a bonus.

In earlier columns, I've already suggested that you should choose goals for your character that will then to lend themselves to the GM's plot. You should also pursue your goals in a way that doesn't directly conflict with it.

Frodo could have decided to throw the Ring down a well. The series would have been much shorter, or at the least would have gotten off to a much different start.

The central conflict of the game is a great way to define your character. How does he feel about it? What does he do about it? Why?

Since I just introduced her to you all, I'll use Juri as an example. The big conflict in our Buffy game is the continuing battle between the champions of humanity and the forces of darkness. Juri has been raised to believe it's her job to protect people from the forces of evil. Further, after a little reading on Shinto religion, I decided she's something of a supernatural racist. Humans are descended from the Kami (the gods and spirits of Shinto religion). Demons and vampires aren't. Therefore, it's always the right thing to do to kill a monster - though it might be occasionally advisable to wait and kill one later if it has something you want.

In practice, she's always eager to fight, because it's what she was raised to do, and the only time she feels like she's fulfilling her purpose. On the other hand, she's very concerned with the safety of the rest of the team. If a team mate is in trouble, Juri will probably drop whatever she's doing to help them - which isn't always the best decision. Her "kill them all" attitude is rapidly eroding, not out of compassion for the monsters, but because she's been in several situations already where letting one live for a few minutes would have vastly simplified her life.

Other members of the group have different outlooks, which lead to some interesting situations. The most fun is watching Travis and Theo (who hate each other) both try to protect Juri while she's trying to protect both of them.

Reason 2: You Asked for It

This is my favorite. One of my gaming ephinies was the realization that if I was running Champions I didn't actually need to plan adventures. All I had to do was roll everybody's Hunteds and DNPCs and figure out how the latter got in trouble with the former.

In almost any game with an Advantage/Disadvantage system players have the option of creating ties between their characters and certain NPCs. This is a practice I strongly encourage, even in systems that don't allow it formally.

Since I'm tired of using Star wars as an example, let's look at another cinematic classic: Die Hard. John McClane, trapped in an office building with a bunch of terrorists, and without his shoes. What does he do? He saves everybody. Why? He's a hero, and the movie would be really short if he did the smart thing and snuck out - but also because his wife was one of the hostages. Later on in Die Hard With a Vengeance, the brother of the terrorist he beat the first time comes after him for revenge.

It's all personal, and therefore more gripping than it might otherwise be.

When your character's personal ghosts come back to haunt him, there are essentially two forms the interference can take. Either it will be part of the main plot, or it will be a distraction from it. Either is fun.

In my Now is the Winter game, Dr. Zhou (the Tremere) had a Dependent: his mortal family. In the second adventure, Dr. Killian (the Malkavian bad guy) kidnapped his granddaughter as a reprisal for Dr. Zhou breaking someone out of Killian's asylum. While under the good doctor's care, the poor kid was subjected to lots of nasty mind control powers that warped her mind for the rest of the game. In session 2, rescuing the girl was the main point of the session. For the rest of the game, trying to unravel what Killian had done to her mind distracted Dr. Zhou and almost induced him to sell out the rest of the group once.

NPC ties aren't the only thing the GM will exploit. If your character has a fear of spiders, then expect at least once that he'll drop something he really, really needs into a hole full of daddy longlegs.

Rather than looking on this as persecution from the GM, I look on it as a way to make sure my character will always be involved in the story. When your enemy shows up, it's your chance to shine. When your loved-ones' lives are on the line, failure is not an option. Cool stuff.

Careful choice of disadvantages has allowed me to steal the spotlight (well, just borrow it for a while) of several games.

Reason 3: Just One of Those Things

Even if your character doesn't' have Enemies (for which he got, or paid in 7th Sea, points) he has enemies. He's probably a gun-toting maniac. Of course he has enemies. If he left them all dead, then their kids, girlfriends, and bill collectors are his enemies. If, somehow, he doesn't have enemies at all, he still has some ties to the game world.

Eventually, those are going to cause him problems.

(If your character doesn't have any ties to the game world, go back and read all my earlier columns and re-make him. The game is really a lot more fun if you have some vested interest in the outcome. Honest)

These can be some of the most annoying misfortunes ever to strike a character. The come out of nowhere, more or less, and can utterly screw up your plans. Sometimes they serve the greater plot, but sometimes they only seem to serve the GM's sadistic urges.

As a GM, I've hit more than one PC with a complication just because it seemed like it would be fun. I'm more than sure that some of my favorite GMs have done the same thing to me.

Sometimes it's realism. If your character wanders into the area the GM has decided is the lair to a big monster, he's probably going to end up mauled by said big monster. If he was there for a totally different reason, there's going to be irony dripping along with the blood.

Sometimes it's an attempt to steer the characters (affectionately called "railroading" in many cases). If all the avenues open to you but one are guarded by ravenous wolves, guess which one the GM thinks you should take. This is really annoying when it's blatant, less so when the GM is subtle about it. If he's really good, you'll never notice.

Sometimes it really is just one of those things. For instance, I tend to run about half my games off the cuff. I have a general plan, but at least of half of what goes on in a session is pure improvisation. If my PCs do something I totally didn't expect, I have to come up with something fast, and I'll try to make it interesting. "Interesting" in gaming parlance tends to follow the conventions of the old Chinese saying...

These random conflicts can be annoying, but they can also be a lot of fun. The potential for them is one of the things that makes gaming a lot different than fiction. In a story or a movie, everything that happens is part of the plot. In a game, there's potential for lots of plots all at once.

Assuming your character survives his unfortunate encounter with the beast from my earlier example, maybe now he thinks it would make a nifty jacket and pair of boots. There could be some fun later down the line when he goes back with the right equipment this time.

Reason 4: The GM is a Jerk

This is the one I don't like. There are times when a GM is just out to get one player, or to kill them all. Those are two different situations, so I'll take them one at a time.

First, the Party Killer. This GM wants to run his game (at best) like a chess match where he throws all his resources at the party and the players do their best to beat him, and (at worst) like an endless deathtrap where the party will fight wave after wave of threats until they're overwhelmed.

The first case is fine, if that's what everyone wants to do. It's more like a strategy game than a story game, but that's what it's meant to be. As long as everyone's on the same page and everyone's having fun, they should keep doing it.

The second case is the kind of game I'd walk out on. The realization that broke me out of my munchkin phase in High School was that the GM always had more hit points than I did. He always had more experience. There were always more monsters. There was absolutely no way my character would ever be more powerful than the GM could threaten.

Once you realize that, there's not a lot of point in collecting power anymore unless you have something you want to do with it.

The flip-side of that realization was that as GM I could always, always kill the entire party whenever I wanted to. There was no ability a PC could possess that I couldn't defeat, remove, or circumvent.

Once I saw that, I couldn't see much point in wiping out groups of stalwart adventurers any more, either. The Tarsque and the Death Star were comforting security blankets that I had largely outgrown.

So now for the hard part, the vindictive GM. There are levels of vindictiveness. Sometimes the fault lies with the player, and the GM is just trying to rein him in, or the player is just trying to push his character in a way the game is not designed to go.

In my Now is the Winter game, Jason the Brujah seemed determined to ignore the fact that the city was about to be sucked into hell as he pursued his political agenda. Eventually, I decided to smack him by having the Prince offer him an Office, then use the Dominate power of Fealty (which makes an oath literally binding) to force him to toe the line. I'm not sure that was the right decision, but it was enormously satisfying - particularly when Prince Marcel rolled so well that I had to extrapolate more slots on the effects chart to see how long the Oath would bind Jason.

But sometimes the GM just has an axe to grind. I really don't know what to do about that. GM favoritism is just about always bad. If the GM and the player can't settle their differences amicably, then maybe the player should leave the game. Some people just shouldn't game together, even if they get along in other ways.

If the game isn't fun, you definitely shouldn't play. If it's the only game in town, then you'll have to decide if which is less fun: a game where the GM is out to get you, or no game at all.

Since everyone reading this article is presumably equipped with an internet connection, I'd recommend looking into PBEM, PBP, and IRC games.

Parting Words

This is usually the point where I tie everything together into a nice neat bundle, but I don't really have one this time. The big point is "The GM is probably not picking on you." The lesson, to the extent that there is one, is that setbacks and conflicts are what make your character. How he reacts to them is what defines him.

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What do you think?

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    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg