Thursday, February 19, 2009

Responses to Comments on GM Combat Perspectives

First part of responding to some of the comments about the GM perspective on Combats.

Big D said...

11. anti-Glass Ninja games, what would be your preference examples? MnM, WoD, D&D, other?


That's a good question-- I think oddly enough I may be over thinking this kind of thing. Games where I've seen this sort of problem on the players side are generally either level-based or supers games. Level-based games at the lower ranges tend to create significant disparities between classes, such that some get knocked out much faster if hit-- but those differences tend to vanish as levels go up. But at that point, everyone simply becomes varying sized lumps of stone that you have to chip away at. And Superhero games have this mechanic built into them-- the speedster is meant to be fragile if hit. I think MnM handles this pretty well-- mostly because the range that it allows modification of Defense Value/Toughness save is fairly modest.

Here's the irony then, now that I've though about it-- in my head, I like the idea that games have a fairly wide range of difference between players, what you might call granularity. However, in practice, I don't actually care for that. Players, regardless of class and type shouldn't have a huge difference in the amount of damage they can take. There should be differences, especially if a fighter has sacrificed mobility and defense for heavier armor. But they shouldn't be too vast. I think Exalted and Storyteller handles this fine, as does Gurps.

I have to think about this more.

Cher Mere said, regarding 5 and the question of GM cheating.

I think this totally works, for you. There are some other GM's out there that I wouldn't trust with that power. But a good GM should definitely be able to do this.


This is a good point and I think it plays into some of the things that D mentioned about the difficulty of multiple players and the “L33t” powers. I think a good game is built on trust between the player and the GM on several levels. The players should be able to trust that the GM is not going to deliberately hose them in combat-- that if things are difficult or seem unbalanced, that there's a reason: to move the narrative forward, to make a story point, or simply to enhance the challenge.

Because here's the thing: if a combat is a tactical simulation purely, between one GM and a group of players with evenly balanced forces, the GM will lose. I'm not saying that's going to happen every time, but for the most part. So the GM have to be able to shift things on the fly: add opposition, provide baddies who can only be take down by coordinated action, set up an environment that works against the players, to make a combat interesting.

But at the same time, the players have to accept that the GM is still going to play reasonably fair. Once that trust is broken, it can be hard to regain. The players will find themselves inevitably questioning the details of a situation, wondering if the GM is trying to hose them again. How does that trust get lost? There are a number of ways. I'll give you a couple of examples.

Sidebar on Playing: We played in a Exalted campaign that was pretty bad. Normally, my advice is that if you're not enjoying a game, you should either talk to the GM or leave. A player who isn't happy about the game, for whatever reason (what they're playing, the progress of the story, other players, or general dissatisfaction) has a real chance to drag down other players enjoyment. That player needs to first look around and ask themselves if other players seem to be enjoying the game. If they are, then the player needs to ask themselves what it is that they're not getting. If other players are not enjoying the game, then the player needs to talk to them to see what everyone wants. In either case, the next step should be to talk to the GM-- which is always a pain. There's a lot of ego wound up in running a game. But the player should have some specific suggestions or ideas to bring to the GM, not just, I'm not happy. There should be some opportunity for the GM to negotiate a solution-- but the GM is also obligated to keep the other player's interests in mind. Again, if one player is the odd-man out in terms of enjoying the game, the GM shouldn't change everything to please that player.

Further digression on this point:
we played in a campaign where one player clearly wasn't either into things or enjoying himself as much as the other players. The other players generally were. The GM's reaction was to throw more and more plot points and story hooks at the player. The player largely ignored these or only lightly addressed them. However, once these points were in play neither the GM nor the problem player would let them really be dealt with by the other players. As a result, the game bogged down and the rest of the table felt excluded. It created a strange cycle where the more the player avoided what the GM was giving him, the more the GM tried to figure out a fix centered around them. That's a sucking whirlpool-- both players and a GM need to recognize when one player's reaction to a game doesn't fit with the rest of the groups. Sure, some steps should be taken but not at the expense of the whole table.

So, as I was saying, a couple of trust breaking examples. In that Exalted game we played, it became clear that the GM was centering things around one player-- that player was given more opportunities and bigger breaks in combat. Now, this wasn't any fault of that player-- instead it was a particular GM tic. The most egregious example came when the GM essentially shut down actions, despite extraordinary successes, of another player. Consistency is important-- giving everyone equal opportunity to shine. [As a parenthetical, this is especially important when GMing for a significant other. People might think that the case is that a GM will usually go easy on their partner-- and that can be the case in a boyfriend/girlfriend situation. But I've found that it is likelier for the opposite to occur...and I've certainly been guilty of shutting down Sherri's goob, if only to prove to the table that I'm not showing her any favoritism...with the result that the scales balance against her.] I think our group can point to Barry and Charles, both of whom ran good games, but often played to one or two players at the table rather than the whole group.

Another example is when the GM does something more than a little absurd at the table in terms of their bad guys. All that takes is for the GM to say that misses when a player rolls an extraordinary success, or to have a superb damage roll simply glance off, or to make a player roll multiple support skill rolls and not give them any benefit, or to give a bad guy a soak equal to wearing three suits of plate mail. Players know when they're being jerked around, and so do GMs. But the GM who has built trust can get past that-- as long as there's an affirmative relationship and the GM has made their signals clear. Of course, that assumes the players are reasonable and approach the game in the same way as the GM-- a question, again of player management worth dealing with another time.

Holy cow, what point was I making: yes, trust is crucial. It goes both ways and that relationship has to develop over time.

D said: 13. The problem I've seen with this, is when the player builds up an ability/power that they think will be "l33t" and then they get burned when they can't do it. I'm thinking of Charlie in several of my games or Will's character in the MnM game.

How do you propose to get around/through this situation? If you effectively tell a player at the table, "No, it doesn't work like that," you're setting up a potential argument or shutdown. Players won't always tell you up front about their cool ability and that can lead up to this situation.


I think a couple of other people in the comments to the original post touched on some of these issues. I'll put my two cents worth in here. I think these problems come from three sources: system, player and gamemaster. In the first case I think there are some systems which have too many rules-- or too much rules arcana or which have moved beyond the grasp of a GM and of players. I think for my money that's why I don't like d20, Rifts and other expansion/addition driven games. They encourage rules abuse and combining powers to make UltraGoobasaur. [I do want to say that I'm leaving aside Supers games from this consideration, as I think they operate under a very different set of meta-rules].

There's an irony here-- at the same time I dislike that expansion path, I also hate add-on materials like splat books that don't add anything to the game. I think the original Exalted Caste and such books are prime examples of this. They have 96 pages, with about 8 pages of actual useful rules additions. The problem is that the rest of it, filled with narrative and character stories doesn't add anything useful for me as a GM. If I liked bad Mary-Sue fiction, I'd be set.

But anyway, I think the first line of approach when dealing with those moments is for the GM to evaluate their own reaction to them popping up. Sometimes the player's intent is clearly to have created the “game-breaker” or a system advantage which is truly goobed. And quite honestly, some times players are just being dicks. But I'd say more often that's a problem of the way the player is presenting the action they're taking. If they're being confrontational about it or presenting it in a sneaky way, then they know somethings a little off about what they're doing. That can be a result of the kinds of GMs they played with before, or can reflect a little how the current GM/Player dialogue is set up. Ideally if a player is goobing, they're doing it for the cool of the situation or to find a desperate solution to a difficult problem. They should be looking for ways to enhance the narrative, and the GM should be looking for ways to assist that.

That being said, I can imagine three obvious situations where the GM will want/need to shut down a goob:

1. The player is, quite frankly, cheating. It is rare, but perhaps he's used a set of rules you haven't approved for the game. Perhaps he suddenly has an ability that he clearly didn't before. Maybe what his character can do varies from session to session. That's a tough thing to deal with-- asking players for a copy of their character sheet goes a long way towards helping with this. But sometimes you can't keep up with it. This becomes a player-management problem. My solution is to try to contain it-- if someone's cheating in this way and it isn't affecting the other players, then I'll turn a blind eye. I'll probably up the opposition to that character quietly in an effort to balance. If that doesn't work, then you need to have a talk with the player.

2. The player's using what Hero System used to call “Stop Sign” powers. These are powers that I generally steer PCs away from. Certain kinds of perception abilities, danger sense, lie detection-- for the most part powers that bypass the normal process of mystery solving. It can also include things like Mind Control or the like that can break what you're doing. The GM needs to be clear with the player about what he doesn't want in the game and why. If that breaks the player's concept of their character, then you can negotiate. You can always allow players to reallocate exp if that situation arises.

3. What I think is most important, however, is the situation where one player's goob or power overshadows the other PCs or intrudes on their enjoyment. I believe that generally there ought to be perceived parity between the players. If someone has an ability that always one-hits without any real penalty, while the other players have to work to take people down, that can get frustrating for the group. Or one player can take many more actions or boost their stats well above anyone else at the table. If the other player's perception of that discrepancy is legitimate and continuing, then the GM does need to step in and restore balance.

That being said, if a problem does occur, the GM needs to take a breath and assess. Is allowing this going to negatively affect the other players? Does it go directly against something I've already established? If the answer to those two questions is no, then the GM should let it fly. Later the GM can talk to the player and ask them to change things around if it still seems like it might evolve into a problem.

If the answer to the above questions is yes, then the GM needs to say something equivalent to: “Sorry-- actually I want to hold off on that happening that way. I'm going to handle that this way right now, and we can talk about that afterwards. If you want to change what you're doing, go ahead.”

That's what would happen in a perfect world. With happy bunnies.