Friday, February 28, 2014

The Trials of the Game Master

I have been part of a regular once a week Tuesday night game for a few years now. We started out playing Legends of the Ancient World, a rules light, yet very old school fantasy RPG based on Steve Jackson's the Fantasy Trip. LAW was a pretty great time for our little group and it is still spoken of fondly.

Our LAW game ended when 4th Edition came out, and I wanted to try it. We were all excited about a new edition of D&D and we weren't the only ones. As we made the switch from LAW to 4E various friends who expressed an interest were invited to play along and our gaming group more than doubled in size. (3 players +Me as GM, became 8 players +Me.) This changed the game dynamic astronomically. More people, new game system. It made for a bumpy ride.

Perhaps because of the harshness of transition, or perhaps because it truly isn't that great a game ... 4E was abandoned within a few months. This left me with a sizable gaming group and nothing to play. It didn't feel right to go back to LAW, that game belonged to the smaller group, and I wasn't prepared to integrate all the new players into that world. So, I tried something else ... and then something else. We tried Castles and Crusades, and Labyrinth Lord. We played Five by Five and a handful of other free RPG's. We tried the D&D Next playtest. But, the group never settled down.

My group was getting frustrated with the inconsistency, and I was getting frustrated, because I couldn't settle into a game I felt strong enough about to run consistently. One of my players came to the rescue and offered to run a Battlestar Galactica game. I was all for it and anxiously accepted. And we played BSG for awhile. The thing is ... and now I am finally getting to the point I want to make.

Being GM is hard.

As GM you come to the table with a specific kind of game play challenge in mind. The thing is, balancing the challenge to your players, isn't easy to do. I am not talking about game balance. I am talking personalities. Each player will come to the table expecting something different from the experience. As GM you have to juggle these expectations. That means being willing and able to alter a plan in midstep to carry the players in a direction they want to go. And it's easy to get lost if one player is especially influencing on the game, while others remain quiet. It can also be frustrating to see all your work in planning get summarily tossed to the side.

The GM for BSG was working hard to recreate the sort of desperate atmosphere that the characters in the television show had experienced. But it seemed like everything the players tried to do was preordained to failure. The GM had a very specific story in mind but he failed to connect with the players to tell the story, and instead the players became frustrated and rebellious. 

Why? Because, being GM is hard.

As GM you feel ultimately responsible for the enjoyment of the play group as a whole. That's a huge burden, and one I am afraid can all too often go unappreciated. The BSG GM felt like he was hitting his head up against the wall ... and that wall was the players. Ultimately, he relinquished GM-ship and the group had a heart to heart about what to do next.

We decided that I would GM Five by Five, but with the promise that no matter what happened, no matter if the game became frustrating and we needed to shift gears, or if I ran out of creative ideas and wanted to go a different direction, that we do all of that with the same characters. No matter what, we would keep these characters in play. Most of all my players wanted some stability.

And that's what we've been doing. And when I wanted another GMing break one of my players stepped up to run the game, but we didn't change systems or start new characters. However, we most certainly did change genres ... as the first place the new GM took us was a Tooniverse! (We had been occupying a zombie apocalypse.) From there we went to a fantasy world, and now we are in a Trek kind of place ... but still the same characters ... and the players (myself included seem to dig it.)

The Tooniverse was a blast ... but in the fantasy realm a story line unfolded that seemed to evolve an unbeatable menace. And in a matter of a few game sessions we were back in BSG territory. I understand not wanting things to become too easy, but players need to feel a sense of potential victory ... they are the heroes of the story and need to feel like heroes ... even when they are losing ... and that can be a tricky order to fill.

In this particular instance, the GM created a threat that had a very specific path to resolution, but he wasn't sure how to get the players on this path without handing them the victory, so instead he merely punished the group with greater failure whenever they strayed from the path as a way to discourage that course of action.

And the players true to form, having encountered an immovable object pushed against it even harder ... sure that the object would eventually yield to their unstoppable force. Ultimately, the GM threw up his hands and gave the players a partial victory to get things moving again. The GM was clearly frustrated, and the players were too ... but, here's the thing ...

Being GM is hard.

It's okay that we all got a little frustrated. Ultimately, we are on the right path and all still playing, and we are having fun. Being GM is a learning experience. And it doesn't matter if you've done it once or 10,000 times, there's always more to learn, because every group is different. We are all friends ... human beings who have gathered together to have some fun. Yes, your GM may play God ... but he's still just this guy, ya know.

My advice to GM's out there based on my experience such as it is: Throw your players a bone. They are the Heroes, they need to feel like winners. Victory doesn't need to be easy, but it should be obtainable and it should feel like a genuine victory when it happens (which I personally think should happen at least once a game session.)

My advice to Players out there based on my experience such as it is: The GM is trying to make everyone's game experience the best it can be. Have you ever considered what you can do to make the GM's game experience more enjoyable? At the very least be sure and let the GM know on a regular basis that you are having a good time and that you appreciate his efforts.

Just some thoughts I needed to get out. Hopefully, not too rambling and some useful stuff in there somewhere.



1 comment:

  1. Great advice Jeff. I try to take a few minutes at the end of every session to poll my players expectations. It can be very informative and I frequently discover frustrations/confusion that were not evident in play. Being a GM is hard!