Friday, December 5, 2014

23 Things I Want From Combat As a GM

Yesterday I posted "33 Things I Want From Combat As a Player." That's an older post from '09 I wanted to revisit. Today I present the GM's flip side. I've included an edited version of some comments I originally got on the post. I've also included a few comments looking at this six years later. I'll tell you ahead of time that I'm less confident about #4 & #5 now, but that's worth a separate post of its own.  

Here are some first thoughts on what I want from a combat as a GM. Some are mechanics-based, some narrative-based, and some player/GM interaction-based. 

1. I want the players to enjoy their experience in the combat. They should come away feeling satisfied, even if they lost. They should feel that the combat was either logical or necessary to the plot or that, while it was tangential, it was exciting and cool.

2. Every player should have something to do in the combat. They should be able to do something beyond say “I attack” each round. On the other hand, if that's what they're comfortable with then they should be able to do that.

3. The combat should move fast, with the mechanical aspect not squeezing out the time I have for narrative. A simple combat shouldn't take more than an hour-- a more complex scene more than two hours.

4. The system should be flexible enough that I can fudge and flex things without the system breaking down or those changes being absolutely apparent to the players.

5. That also means I should be able to cheat-- for or against the players-- in order to enhance the narrative. That cheating shouldn't be too obvious. (see Note 1 below)

6. I shouldn't need to use a GM screen-- a can use one if I want, but I shouldn't have to in order to manage the combat system.

7. I shouldn't have to work up every detail of abilities in order to be able to manage a combat. I should be able to run from sketches-- attack/defense values, soak, hit points, some basic powers or attacks.

8. I should be able to put Mooks (as a concept) on the table and have them work with the system-- not just speed bumps but with some risk if not managed by the player.

9. I should be able to cause some damage to the players-- to create a sense of risk. That damage doesn't have to be just KO'ing them-- the system should allow easily for other effects (stun, knockdown, disabled limbs, etc).

10. It should be relatively difficult for me to one-shot the PCs, but it should be feasible in rare instances.

11. The system should discourage Glass Ninjas (can't hit them but they drop when hit) or...I don't know what you'd call them...Iron Butterflies (high soak, but can't do much of anything else). (see Note 2)

12. Neither I nor the players should have to go back to the rulebook more than once or twice per fight. There are exceptions for special actions or maneuvers.

13. Players should accept my rulings in play, and if there's a problem, be willing to negotiate those rulings after the session. (see Note 3)

14. Players should not bitch about how hard a fight is, especially if they're winning. Not sure how the GM manages this.

15. If I put terrain out on the table (either through description or through miniatures) the system should allow and encourage the players to use that. If they don't make a difference in play, then it is the same as if you had a blank map.

16. Called shots should be effective, but not necessarily easy. If a player takes a risk in making that shot, they should be prepared to miss.

17. Players should gain a benefit from working together-- I'm not sure if the reverse is true-- should the GM be able to penalize for not working together?

18. Initiative should be rolled at the start of the fight and stay in that order. If a player wants to change their place in the initiative, they should have some mechanism to do so.

19. Mages (or those with other funky powers) should be willing to trade off a little straight combat effectiveness for their increased flexibility.

20. Sometimes the story demands that bad guys get away-- players should be willing to accept this every once in a while. The GM ought to make this logical and not abuse this privilege. The GM should be able to offer a benefit or compensation in these circumstances.

21. The system shouldn't require extra maintenance-- special charts or dials or dice types-- that get in the way.

22. There shouldn't be an obvious mechanic or path to victory in all situations. On the other hand, having multiple attack types requiring multiple defense forms can be a pain. The system should have one pool for tracking damage. The example of the worst offender in this case would be DC Heroes. Each of the three attack forms (Physical, Magical, and Mental) had separate pools. This meant that two people dishing out two different attack forms had to both take someone down to zero. It also meant that a person who could take one form of damage, would likely be KO'd by another. So bad guys either had to be resistant to all three or have some people just wiped the table with them. Weaknesses in bad guys are fine, but not to that extreme.

23. Players should be able to track their own abilities easily.

Note 1: 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.

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. If things are seem unbalanced, that there's a reason: to move the narrative forward, to make a point, or simply to enhance the challenge. (Or because the players have chosen to dive into something over their heads).

If a combat is a tactical simulation purely, between me and a group of players with evenly balanced forces, I’m going to lose. I'm not saying that's going to happen every time, but for the most part. I’m not as sharp as the collective intelligence of my players. So I 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.

At the same time, the players should to feel accept that I’m going to play reasonably fair. Once I break that trust, I’ll have a hard time regaining it. The players will questioning the details of a situation, wondering if I’m trying to hose them again. How does that trust get lost? There are several ways.

In a bad Exalted game we played, it became clear that the GM centered things around one player-- giving more opportunities and bigger breaks in combat. Now, this wasn't the player’s fault-- instead it was a particular GM tic. The most egregious example came when the GM essentially shut down actions, despite extraordinary successes, of other players. Consistency is important-- giving everyone equal opportunity to shine. Another example is when the GM let’s their bad guys do something absurd. All that takes is the GM calling a miss when a player rolls an extraordinary success, have a superb damage roll simply glance off, force a player to 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. All of these we saw in the Exalted game and others. Players know when things are not in sync, and so do GMs. A GM who has built trust can get past that and show how it fits in later. But they need an affirmative relationship and clear signals. This assumes the players are reasonable and approach the game in the same way as the GM-- a distinct question of player management.

As I said at the start, I'm less sure about #4 & #5 now, but I'll deal with that in another post. Short version: die-fudging feels more ham-fisted to me now.  

Note 2: 11. anti-Glass Ninja games, what would be your preference examples? MnM, WoD, D&D, other?

Generally either level-based or supers games games have this problem. Ath the lower-ranges level-based games can create significant disparities between classes, such that some get knocked out much faster if hit-- but those differences vanish as levels go up. But at that point, everyone simply becomes varying sized lumps of stone that you have to chip away at. Superhero games have this mechanic built into them-- the speedster should be fragile if hit. I think MnM handles this pretty well-- mostly because it has a tight mod range for Defense Value/Toughness.

OOH in my head, I like the idea that games have a wide range of difference between players or granularity. In practice, I don't dig 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’m going to reverse myself here. My original stances is self-protective and maybe paternalistic. If a player wants to be a glass ninja, that’s cool. But the system should advertise is that way- rather than players discovering suddenly that they’re fragile and easily taken out. The player also need to take responsibility if they make that build, recognizing that while they might be super-effective at times, there’s a trade off in potentially losing turns. And I as a GM have to accept that players have made those decisions. I’ve talked before about my hesitation at hammering players on weaknesses they’ve chosen. This falls into that category. 

Note 3: 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 these problems come from three sources: system, player and gamemaster. In the first case some systems have too many rules or too much rules arcana which has moved beyond the grasp of the GM and players. That may be why I’m not as into Rifts and other expansion/addition driven games. They encourage rules abuse and combining powers to make UltraGoobasaur. I'm leaving aside Supers games from this consideration, as I think they operate under a very different set of meta-rules.

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 clear intent is to create a “game-breaker” or a system advantage. And sometimes players are just being dicks. But more often that's a problem with the way the player presents their action. If they're confrontational or presenting it in sneakily, then they may know something’s a little off about it. That can come from the kinds of GMs they played with before or reflect the current GM/Player dialogue. 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.

A point I miss in these comments: if that’s the way the system’s written, I’m going to let it roll at least once. If they pull it out at the table, I’m check it and confirm afterwards. But I don’t want to argue/check it in the middle of a session. If it is the way the game’s written, then I have a couple of choices. Figure out if that’s actually broken, if there’s a counter, and what the other players think. Assess that and if its still a problem talk with the player about it. Often they’ll be willing to work something out. Not always. I had a player quit because I was worried about the effectiveness of Possession in M&M 2e. I tried to negotiate out a compromise, but they didn’t care for it.

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

1. The player cheats. Perhaps he's used a set of unapproved rules. Perhaps he suddenly has a new ability. Maybe his character’s powers varies from session to session. That's tough, but asking players for a copies of their character sheets. OOH we had one long running player who would make excuses every time about why he didn’t have a copy or only had things sketched out. He’d been with the group long enough pressing him on this new behavior meant creating a bad scene. But sometimes you can't keep up with their sheets. I try to contain it-- if someone's cheating this way and it isn't affecting the other players, then I'll turn a blind eye. I'll up the opposition to that character in a quiet effort to balance. If that doesn't work, then you need to have a talk with the player.

Ugh. Of course when I wrote this I was dealing with a couple of these players- where the social contract kept me from pressing the issue. Now I’d say: deal with it right away through conversation. But I also recognize that isn’t always an option

2. The player's using what Hero System calls “Stop Sign” powers. They might include some perception abilities, danger sense, lie detection. These 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.

But if I’ve let them in, then my first instinct ought to be less “how do I fix their characters?” and more “how do I make the setting work well with that?”. For the latter, the world should let these function and succeed from time to time, but not be overpowering. If they have these powers they should remain useful, but I may need to shift the games’ focus.

3. Most important is the situation where one player's goob or power overshadows other PCs or intrudes on their enjoyment. I believe 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 frustrate the group. Or if one player can take many more actions or boost their stats above anyone else at the table. If the other player's perception of that discrepancy is legitimate and continuing, then I want to figure out how to balance that..

If a problem does occur, I need 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 I should should let it fly. Later I can talk to the player and ask them to change if it seems like it might evolve into a problem. If the answer is yes, then I need 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.” But I should do that reluctantly.