Thursday, March 31, 2016

GMs vs Players: There Is No Choice

I am a gamer. If you've frequented this blog, you have probably gathered that. Those who may be reading my stuff for the first time, I offer you this assertion. I am a gamer, down to my very bones. It flows through my veins, lives in my blood. It is not "just a hobby" to me, it is a lifestyle, an intrinsic part of myself. I am proud to admit that fact, and wear the deceleration like a badge of courage.

But I am troubled, and have been for a long time. Almost as long as I have been chucking dice and rolling initiative. Something that occurred to me early in my gaming career, that I could not entirely understand, and still have trouble grasping.

Long ago, when I was a simple college freshman, I was introduced to the glory of Roleplaying Games, and when I say that, I mean that they were my first foray into the genre, be it tabletop or video game (though since I have developed a rather unhealthy relationship with the Final Fantasy series). I loved it. It was fascinating having someone up there (our GM stood and paced a lot), telling this complicated story where each of were primary characters. I had only done a little acting in High School, and had been doing stand up comedy for a few years, so I got right into hamming up my characters.

Not too long after that, I started playing in my very first Dungeons & Dragons game. This was the granddaddy of RPGs, the one that I heard people often talk about with the sort of reverence you serve for heads of state of visiting royalty. It was an exciting experience, and I was playing with my best friends, which added to the overall enjoyment.

Our DM was old school though, and was a big fan of resource management. Those who aren't sure of what that is, it involves knowing everything in your inventory, how much it weighs, and how much of it you use. We didn't think too much of it, until our fighter got his throat torn out by a ghoul, and we were pinned down in a small, stone room surrounded by zombies. The cleric was able to raise him, but it weakened both, and we were forced to hold fast in the room.

We stayed in that room for two weeks, in game. Two weeks of half rationing our already depleted ration supply, while making sure the recovering fighter was given full rations to gain his strength back. All the while zombies scratched at the stone doors day and night, though none of us could tell which was which any more. In the end, we managed to break free, slay the zombies, and continue through the dungeon. That has always stuck with me, even now, 12 years later.

I've told this story to many people over the years, and some say "That sounds awesome!" while others either say "Your DM was a dick." or "Wow, you guys sucked as adventuring."

I personally didn't see anything wrong with it at the time, and still don't. The Game Master is there to challenge us. He could have arbitrarily killed us at any time. The doors could have broken, the cleric didn't have to find that scroll of resurrection, and we didn't have to live.

I shrugged it off, and moved on. It was about two years later that I met a very unique individual that shed some light on things for me. Lets call him... Dewey. Dewey was a gamer that had been introduced my group sometime after our D&D game had ended, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. He built a lot of characters, which I couldn't say much, as building characters was a little side hobby of mine (I ended up with a lot of statted out NPCs later). But Dewey wasn't just building characters, he was building weapons. He was a bit of a rules lawyer, and to the casual observer he would appear as a power gamer.

The truth, however, was a little more troubling.

Dewey had a series of GMs over the years that enjoyed preying on the players. They would instigate player vs player situations, wherein only one character would walk away, They would intentionally mess with players, especially those foolish enough to play Paladins (at least until they were forced to fall). They railroaded players, stripped them of any weapon they were specialized in, and arbitrarily killed characters.

These were not good GMs. These were Dick GMs.

Dewey had taken it upon himself to take up the mantle of a soldier in an all-out war against Game Masters everywhere, creating characters that could break the game (not a difficult thing to do in 3rd edition D&D). When he saw a plot hook, he would either go the other way, or begrudgingly follow along. He didn't just keep his game breaking optimization to himself either, he infused that knowledge into every character at the table, showing the players loop holes, shortcuts, and the dreaded pun-pun build. And when one of his God-nuking abilities didn't perform the way he wanted, and ended the boss fight in a single round, he would sulk and call bullshit.

This kind of animosity was weird for me. What could the GMs have done that was so bad as to turn this otherwise nice and generous fella into Rambo with a d20? I would not have an answer to that question until a year later when Dewey's former roommate offered to run a game. We were pretty psyched, made some fairly badass characters if I do say so myself, and set forth to adventure. His GM style was... Pompous. He would set up situations that we could not win, with no way out, only to lord over us how superior he was. He created puzzles with such an unreasonable solution that no one could ever figure them out, and then chided us for not seeing how obvious it was (it's always obvious if you are the one that made it), and he arbitrarily killed me with a home brew monster that bled electricty when pierced that would strike anyone that struck the creature... even with arrows... from 100ft away... behind cover... for exactly how many hit points I had left, plus 10 (in the old days if you went to -9, you changed your character class to 'corpse').

That was my first character death, and frankly, it made me mad. Not because I had died, but because his glaringly obvious dislike for players getting in the way of his story lead to someone dying for no better reason that the fact that I had figured out one of his puzzles. He was the first Dick GM I had ever come across,  and it was a sobering experience. The game fell apart not to long after that, with the GM swearing that we were not up to the challenge. We were all okay with that.

Now I had seen both sides of the argument, and as I went out into the gaming world and met new people and new Game Masters, I discovered that this was not an isolated problem. This had been going on for a ling time for a lot of people. There seemed to be this divide between players and Game Masters that I just couldn't quite 'get', because in my mine they were just two sides of the same coin. You couldn't have one without the other, right?

While most of our community thinks the way I do, that Game Masters and those that play in their games are equals at the table, there is a sizable section that oppose this notion. They feel strongly that one side has more value than the other, going as far as to replace or remove those parties all together.

I ran a poll earlier this week, pitting Game Masters against Players, asking members of various pages who they felt was more vital at the table. I could have just left the choices with those two, but I chose a third option, suggesting that both were of equal importance. The votes were cast, and to my joy, the vast majority agreed that the third option was the best. There was, however, some activity in the other two. It was not so clear cut. After tallying the votes, they looked something like this...

Both are equally important: 789 votes

Game Masters: 167 votes

Players: 45 votes

I delved into the comments to see why people voted the way they did, and there were plenty of comments to sift through. A good deal wondered why I had asked the question at all, as the answer was so plain to see for them. Others spoke of the dichotomy of players and GMs, and why one was intrinsically more vital than the other. Most concerning was the assertion that one party or the other was unnecessary.

What do I mean.

A few times I say the statement that players can be replaced, or rotated out. I've heard personally from some GMs that they have a waiting list to get into their games, and they could easily kick someone from the group and bring someone else in without issue. The idea of viewing a player as such an easily disposable commodity is not only disturbing, it's wrong. Players are not just warm bodies that take up space. They are there to engage in the collaborative storytelling experience that is roleplaying. If you get rid of one, you are silencing a voice in that collaboration, and the other players have to wonder what their worth in the group is.

I understand that sometimes it is necessary to remove elements from a group that don't fit well, like problem players that refuse to mend their ways or at least see things from the GM's point of view, but to do so because you just don't like their style of RP is ridiculous. Everyone is different in their style, and they shouldn't have to be punished for it.

But if Game Masters believe they are free from this kind of easy disposal, they are dead wrong. I have always considered myself to be a gamer with his ear to the ground about our ever expanding world, but until the other day I had never heard of a GM-less system. That is a system where the players engage in the collaborative storytelling, and have no need or use for a GM. I was shocked to say the least, but the more I thought about it, the more I sort of understood it. A lot of players don't much care to be in the hot seat, behind the screen. Sometimes finding a Game Master can be a challenge in and of itself, as a good deal already have groups, and those that don't are first time GMs running their first games that some veteran players don't want to "waste their time" with.

While some Game Masters, like the one I experienced ages ago, are pompous asses that make bold and idiotic claims that they're "Gods", and lord over their players with a superiority complex that is no doubt compensating for something lacking in their lives. As I GM, I can say with all the confidence that we're not Gods, we're not infallible, and sometimes we're not on all the time.

I think the largest issue in this divide between GMs and Players is that there seems to be a reluctance to walk a mile in the other's shoes. See things from the other guy's point of view, and you may come out of it with a new perspective.

Game Masters spend a lot of time prepping for games. Every magic item, every memorable NPC, ever nefarious villain or vicious monster was placed there by the Game Master. While the player is playing one character, the GM is playing the rest of the world, and depending on the game, it can be a big world. Even per-published modules and Adventure Paths can be quite the undertaking, as those require their fair share of planning. On top of that, they have to find a way to introduce situations to make the player characters shine, week in and week out. All that time they spend prepping is time they could spend doing other things, like reading, playing video games, spending time with their friends or family, but they willing sacrifice that time to entertain their players. In a way, that is pretty selfless.

How often do you tell your Game Master they did a great job, or that you appreciate what they are doing?

Players spend a good deal of time crafting a character that they will enjoy playing. They cobble together every aspect of that character (some more than others). They cook up the backstory, they roll the dice, and they live that character's life. They are attached to that character, and they want to feel important. They are, after all, a main character in this story. They want to feel like their actions have weight, that they matter. There is nothing more discouraging as a player that finding out that you are second fiddle to the GMs parade of NPCs, or that no matter what choice you make, you have little to no affect on the world around you.

How often do you tell your players that they have done a great job, or that you appreciate them for playing their character the way they do?

We are all of us playing a game, and the first and last rule of that game, no matter the system or the mount of players, is to have fun. That is why we are there. In the battle between GMs and Players, there is no choice. They are the same. They hold equal value, and are equally vital to everything going on at that table. Some may have more time invested in it than other, but they only do that to make sure that everyone in that table feels valued and welcome.

When you are done reading this, do me a personal favor. Get on messenger, haul out your phone and call or text your Game Master or players, and tell them that they are freakin' awesome, because more often than not, it's true.

We can all get along. Keep playing, and keep having fun,
+Ed The Bard 

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