Gamemastering, improvisation, and fairness

The last post got me thinking about two roles of the gamemaster: deliverer-of-unpredictable-wonders, and adjudicator-of-contests. In Old School D&D, there was an understanding, explicitly stated in the rulebooks, that the rules could not cover every eventuality and that therefore one of the primary jobs of the GM was to make fair decisions in situations that the rules didn’t cover (‘rulings not rules’). Ever since then, there has been a long thread in RPG development to try to make a ruleset so tight that the GM doesn’t have to do that, or at least has to do less of it (possibly to make the game playable even if you have an incompetent GM, for which see the very end of this post–but possibly also to reduce the social cost of gaming). Of the RPG rules that I have any familiarity with, D&D 4th ed. is the furthest development along that line. It is probably not a coincidence that it is also the ruleset that most favors combat-as-sport rather than combat-as-war. You can certainly play 4E in the old school, combat-as-war mode–I know because I do, on the infrequent occasions when I play 4E–but it’s a bit like going for a scenic drive in a farm tractor: it’s possible, but it’s not what the machine was designed for.

And I find that the GM has to constantly being making outside-the-rules rulings all the time anyway, for the reason explained in the last post: you can get more done if you scheme than if you “play fair” (with the enemy, not with your fellow players). So a complicated ruleset that tries to do to much is like a governor on an automobile that holds the speed down: if the players improvise a lot, and they always do, then the GM has to be improvising a lot anyway, and small amount of additional improvisation on the GM’s side can replace a lot of rules that would otherwise tend to bog the game down (“let me look up the modifier for striking with a short-sword at a prone opponent–I know there’s a table for that in here somewhere” flip-flip-flip zzzzzzz). Admittedly, this means that the GM has to be both comfortable with improvisational rulings and good at them. Comfort comes through practice–here I think of Zak Smith’s irreverent advice:

“The casting time rules are confusing!” Well change them, waterhead, glue-sniffing 8th graders have been figuring out how to do it since 1979.

As for being good at improvisation, it never hurts to figure out something approximate and let the players roll dice. This is why even when I play first edition, d6 Star Wars, I like to have a full set of polyhedral dice on hand. If you have a d20 to hand, you can divide the probability spectrum into 5% bins (which is probably enough for anything) and let them go. “Hmm, I’d say you have a 35% chance of success here. Roll that d20–on a 14 or higher, you win.” This has two benefits–first, the players have a chance to quibble about the fairness before the dice roll (“Wait, the effects of the booster serum haven’t worn off yet, shouldn’t I get a 10% bump?”), and second, you’re basically off-loading the responsibility onto them. They know the odds before they roll, they know there’s a chance of success (however slim), so it’s basically like any other roll in an RPG.

But I’m getting off-track (and preachy). Last time I wrote:

It’s not so fun to lose because your opponent blindsided you by thinking up something not covered by the rules.

GMs can totally do that to players, but it’s usually not anyone’s idea of fun (other than maybe the GM, who is basically just masturbating at that point and may not have a group to GM for much longer).

Now, that’s not to say that GMs can’t or shouldn’t occasionally blindside the players with something unexpected and horrible. But this points up an important difference between wargames and RPGs: in a wargame, if your small band of soldiers gets surrounded by a more powerful enemy, that’s it, you lose, the game is over. In an RPG, your character probably surrenders and gets hauled off to prison, but the game is not over, it has merely changed mode. Whatever the PCs’ goals were before, now their proximate goal is to break out of prison–and maybe get away with some valuable information or loot as they do so (Star Wars), or at least new allies (Guardians of the Galaxy). So “losing” has different valences in wargames and RPGs: in a wargame, it’s a game-ender, whereas in an RPG it is fuel for further adventures. The PCs may bitch and moan about losing some gear and having to suffer durance vile, but soon they’ll be crowing and high-fiving each other as they ride off into the sunset.

Or if you’re really old-school and hardcore, you have them roll up new characters, and maybe the new gang can try to bust the old gang out of prison. But if imprisonment really is a game-ender or at least game-suspender like that, it should probably be in response for something the PCs did that was careless or dumb (robbed the local magistrate and then flaunted the stolen goods around the same town, used their starship in the convoy raid but didn’t disguise it or change the transponder code before they put in at the next Imperial port).

Dammit, I keep getting sidetracked and preachy. Where I’m trying to go with all of this is the idea, which just occurred to me a couple of days ago, that players want (or games or gamemasters allow players) to cheat when they’re gearing up to screw NPCs but be treated fairly when they’re about to be beaten by NPCs. What I mean by that is that there is usually an expectation that the players can use rules loopholes and scheming and so on to get the NPCs into a turkey-shoot, but that the NPCs won’t be maneuvering the PCs into a similar turkey-shoot–or that if a clever NPC is doing something underhanded like that, it’s something the PCs have a chance to discover and derail. And RPGs tend to have lots of rules for combat even if they’re not about combat because the consequences of combat are sufficiently dire that there need to be fair and transparent ways to adjudicate them (that’s Oddyssey’s idea, not my own, but I think it’s absolutely true). So it’s almost like the game switches modes depending on who has the upper hand, the PCs or the NPCs. If the PCs have the upper hand, often in pre-combat mode, they are scheming and plotting and exploiting loopholes and trying to engineer either a turkey-shoot or a clean getaway. A lot of this will not be covered by rules. But once combat starts, and especially if the NPCs have the upper hand and the PCs are facing imminent destruction, rules kick in to a greater degree. So if the PCs lose and their characters die or get captured, they know why and believe the process of adjudication was fair. That’s still an inexact way to put it, since there is a lot of scope for improvisation during combat, but it’s at least closer to what I’m trying to get at.

When this first occurred to me, it seemed like a bad thing, like players get to have their cake and eat it, too, in terms of screwing the bad guys more than they themselves get screwed. One way to level the playing field somewhat would be to make sure that the PCs’ scheming is just as discoverable by the NPCs as the NPCs’ plotting is by the PCs. And the corollary of that, or maybe the prior condition, is that the main NPCs are always plotting. They’re not just sitting passively offstage waiting for the PCs to walk in and kick their butts, they’re actively seeking the PCs in ways that will have consequences if the PCs don’t detect those machinations and react (Zak’s Hunter/Hunted mechanism).

But even if the scales of screwage don’t quite balance, is that necessarily a bad thing? In the real world, the rich and powerful have a lot more tools at their disposal to mess with the underdogs than vice versa. Since the PCs are usually the underdogs, a strictly “realistic” game would probably end in defeat, whether swift and decisive or a long slow grind into poverty and hit-point-loss. RPGs are games, games are supposed to be fun, and if some of the fun comes from screwing over the bad guys harder than they’re screwing you over, it’s hard to see why that’s a bad thing. Of course things can drift too far, to the point that the PCs are effectively invulnerable and get away with almost anything, but I think a lot of players would not find that very rewarding. And if some do, well, who cares? However they roll dice around their table doesn’t impinge on the way anyone else does it. May a thousand gardens grow.

Hmm. Now that I’ve finally gotten all that out, painfully and still inexactly, I don’t know what to do with it. I am tempted to say that it probably requires some degree of social skill and ‘feel’ for the game and the group to make the gamemastering gears mesh, and that for whatever reason a decent chunk of people who are drawn to RPGs seem to lack those skills or at least pick them up slowly, and maybe that’s why you read so much bitching online about bad GMs. But in fact I only got that impression from reading around on the net. My own experience covers decades of no-more-than-normally-socially-adept nerds GMing for each other, and the only bad sessions I remember are ones where I was the GM and I had nothing interesting prepared for the players to tilt at. Maybe it’s because I’ve only gamed with friends. But maybe, contrary to the common wisdom that I just regurgitated, gamemastering is just not that hard–as long as you make some efforts toward being creative and fair and having a good time, everyone else will, too.

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