Monday, March 5, 2012

The Role of the GM, Part 05: The GM as Challenger

Players game so they cantriumph over adversity.  And who provides the difficulties they face?  Why, the GM,of course!

Now we’re starting to reach the point where GMs find their roles in real competition.  First, we have to tell a cohesive story.  But next, we have to let our players poke around at it and try to break it.  And we have to give them a fair break, even though that may make our ability to tell the story more difficult.  And we have to provide them with fair challenges, ones they have a chance of overcoming, but not so easy that they get bored.  It’s enough to drive a Gamesmaster crazy!

These challenges that we craft are one of the things that distinguish us from improvisational storytellers or novelists, though, and are core to our interaction with our players.  The nature of the challenges we provide are going to be different for every group we run, because the purpose of challenge is to keep players interested and actively engaged.  Once they reach for their smartphones, your hold on them is slipping!

Since the purpose of challenge is to give the players something to overcome, you can present both social and combat-oriented adversity. Additionally, depending on how skilled they are, you can present them with the opposite of what they are best at.  Is your party filled with orc barbarians?  Perhaps they need to make friends with an Elven nobleman!  Are they diplomats and computer hackers?  Perhaps they face a squadron of hunter-killer cyborgs.

When providing challenges in this way, you have to be careful not to overdo it—if all the challenges a party faces are those they aren't actually built for, your players are going to get pretty frustrated pretty quickly.  One rule of thumb that is probably wise to follow is no more than one-quarter and preferably closer to one-fifth or one-tenth (depending on your encounter density) of the challenges a party faces should be ones they're not really built for.  The reasoning behind this is because challenges they're not built for are difficult, but also boring, for the complete opposite reason of no challenge at all.  If there is nothing a player or his character can do in a situation, he's going to wind up puttering, bored or petulant. . .and then that smartphone will come out.

This is one of the reasons that in d20-based systems, for instance, a rogue's "Sneak Attack" ability has gone from not affecting many types of enemies in many situations to affecting nearly every type of enemy in a very specific situation—so that rogue players don't get bored when they can't fight the way they want.

You can also take the approach of challenging players instead of their characters.  Here's a classic example:  Bob doesn't like to talk, and he's socially awkward in the extreme—his foot is in his mouth more often than it's on the ground.  And yet his passion is playing the social butterfly of the group. Unfortunately, this means Bob says, "I tell him what I want, and that I want him to give it to me," and then rolls dice.  If the dice are successful, Bob gets what he wants from the NPC.  Bob's character has met a challenge, and Bob has rollplayed his way through it.  But then Bob's GM decides he's going to challenge Bob, not Bob's character sheet, and so the next time Bob's character has a social interaction with someone, the GM decides he's going to make Bob convince him, instead of letting Bob roll the dice and be done with it.  Bob has to now come out of his shell and really start considering his words—and now, Bob is finally roleplaying.

Challenging the players can lead to fun and interesting gameplay—but it can also reveal more about your players than you might be willing to learn. You will of course find obsessives, and arguers, and whiners. . .you will find people who just aren't comfortable coming out of their shell, and you're not going to make them. . .but you might also find a hidden sociopathic streak. 

The best advice for this is, be very careful!  Only challenge the players instead of their characters when you're gaming with people you already know well or can easily read.  Because once you take that step, you're also making it to a degree more personal, more directed, and that can lead to feelings more easily bruised than they already are.  Also be very careful when judging their actions in this environment, because your players might take any criticism very, very harshly.

It also puts you a step closer to the role of Competitor, wherein rather than working together with the players, you are actually actively trying to defeat them.  There is an old idea that the GM and the Players sit on opposite sides of the Screen because they are in direct competition with each other, that for the Players to win, the GM has to lose and vice versa. This also comes into play whenever the PCs throw a wrench in the GM'splans—if the trapmaster is too good, does the GM make the traps harder, damn the consequences?

It is generally better to play the role of Devil's Advocate, maintaining an adherence to the rules and keeping a sense of fairness to both the players and their enemies.  Because no one on the other side of the screen is going to stick up for the monsters—surely not!  By remembering you're not in competition with the PCs, you can let them have their victories, and you can let the bad guys have their victories.  It helps to remember that as long as a good time is had by all, you're doing your job.

Of course, you can take this too far, and become the Caresser.  This GM is like a skip class in high school or college—so easy, and such a pushover, that the players don't even need to pay attention to their challenges.  The Caresser often lacks a confidence in GMing skill, and this uncertainty shows in the ease with which "Yes, you can sneak up behind that robot and stab it in the cyberkidney, killing it with a single hit" rolls off the Caresser's tongue.  The Caresser doesn't like to make anybody unhappy, and for some groups of players that works out well.  But some groups of players will get bored and leave or, just as dangerously, stay and take advantage of the kindness of their GM.

The latter can lead to a Monty Haul situation, named for the original host of Let's Make a Deal, Monty Hall.  This occurs when the GM, trying to ease the challenge for his players, provides entirely too much wealth, equipment, or other ease-making tools. The inevitable result of this is, of course, that as the game progresses, the danger of challenges decreases, often resulting in an increase in challenge on the part of the GM, who sees the PCs can handle it. . .that is met with an increase in wealth, equipment and the like. . .which decreases the challenge. . .and becomes a vicious and unending cycle.

The key to providing challenges is really all about balance. Maybe this one is too hard, and maybe that one is too easy, but as you get to know your gaming group you will eventually home in on that perfect challenge for them, the one they can overcome with some difficulty but which isn't so brutal that it completely demoralizes them. 

One excellent method for gauging the difficulty of the challenges you set forth is to have Session Postmortems wherein you discuss the session with your players, get their opinions, look up rules in case you had to make an ad-hoc decision during play, and talk about the future direction of their adventures.  You will find the best people to gauge the challenges you set forth. . .are the people you challenged in the first place!  But absolutely the key to a good postmortem is not to lay blame on anyone.  Once players start blaming each other, or the GM, for things turning out badly. . .or, worse, if as the GM you're laying blame. . .you will not have a productive discussion.

The method that can work for this is, instead of saying something like "it's your own fault the Baron resisted and killed you," lay it out this way:  "From the Baron's perspective, you broke into his home in the middle of the night, without a writ of justice, and demanded he come with you.  He had no idea what you were after, and given the circumstances he wasn't about to trust your word that you were on a mission for the King.  He thought you were going to kill him, and he figured if he was going to go out, he was going to try to take somebody with him."

By giving a clearer, and more complete, understanding from "the other side," the players become more attuned to your own style, and might even start being able to anticipate the way the NPCs will perceive the situation. And again, we have a collaborative method to bring to the table in yet another of our roles as a GM.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to next time, when we'll discuss acting methods for the seasoned and unseasoned GM.


  1. Excellent article series, Bryan. Looking forward to the piece on acting - I know a few GMs in our group who have specifically asked for pointers on just this subject.

  2. Thanks :-) The article isn't shaping up to be an end-all be-all "How-to", just an examination of some general techniques. I'll be going into more detail and actually walking through some exercises in the GM SIG Workshop: Bringing your NPCs to Life on April 24th!