Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How Not to Abuse the Rules as a GM

This is the image I use for Kiara, my Arcane Monk (meaning she is mostly Wizard with a few levels of Monk).  She and I (since she is really just an alter-ego that allows me to experience dangerous adventures in Paizo's setting of Golarion) had a rather unsatisfactory experience in her final time being played.  And I blame the GM who didn't know how to properly cheat.
     If there is anything I have learned about cheating at roleplaying games (RPGs) – and let's not assumed that I have, or that what I have learned is worthwhile – it is that it is best left to the person running the game (the Game Master, or GM).  And the only reason to engage in cheating is to make sure that everybody gets to have a good time.  One of my fundamental assumptions – repeatedly proven wrong over this past weekend – is that people want their player characters (PCs), their in-game alter-egos, to succeed after being significantly challenged.  I would prefer that the players have some vested interest in story, and in integrating their PCs into the world, but since the PC has to overcome challenges (not all of them all of the time), I know that successes matter.
     Now, the game I played and judged (was the GM of) this past weekend was Pathfinder.  It is, like it or not, the true heir to the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons that WoTC threw away when they introduced 4th Edition.  I have been playing RPGs – starting with the Basic Rules set of D&D – for almost 30 years; longer if I consider playing with no understanding of the rules.  But rules are actually important.  They shouldn't be paramount, because there are the concerns of story and character and player investment, but in an Organized Play (OP) environment, rules are damn near the top of the list.
     Not that everybody needs to know every rule.  Not that anybody need to know every rule.  There is a reason we carry the books around.  Actually, these days most of the referencing is done on tablets (for access of the pdfs of the rulebooks) or on smart phones (for the website that has almost all of the rules material).  We need access to those rules.  Some of us are gracious in our ignorance, and others are fat pieces of shit who I will sooner see die then ever realize that their partially informed opinions – the same way most of the rest of us formulate opinions – are not universal truths. 
     As a player, I know not to cheat.  Hell, I don't want to.  I do want to avoid having bad things happen to my characters.  I don't want them to be killed, or robbed, or imprisoned, or raped, or any of the other unsavory things that can happen to real people (and the chances for the aforementioned possible consequences drastically increase if the PCs are adventurers).  But I see the easiest way to put the odds in my PCs' favor is to minimize the risk as much as I can, and that is just play style.  I also try to make sure that my PCs have utility, that they can do several different things (though not as well as any character that chose to specialize in them).  It means that I don't spend a lot of time wondering when the fight is going to happen so I can finally do something.  I prefer the stuff that isn't combat.  Not everybody is like that.
     The aforementioned fat piece of shit (and I'm sure in about a week's time I'll regret repeatedly referring to him as a fat piece of shit, but at least I'm not calling him or her out by name as a fat piece of shit) decided that the adventure he was running for us, the players, was too easy.  Fine.  Those of us who GM in an OP setting have been there.  Lots of players want to crack their PCs out, usually for combat.  Hell, combat is the only true measure of success in OP, so those of us who don't so it are just harming ourselves (or looking for some degree of challenge to be left in the combat encounters).  But he increased the difficulties of the encounters to counteract the combat ability of two PCs in such a way that those PCs were the only ones who could meaningfully contribute to the battles.
     That is how to be a bad GM.  It is a prime example of how not to abuse the rules.  All GMs want to feel that what they are doing matters to the players.  Players want to think that the actions of their PCs matter (though this isn't all that likely in OP sessions).  Often, players aggravate the GMs by not paying attention and having silly table talk, bullshitting with each other until it is time to roll dice.  And we should feel bad about that.  But the GM doesn't just want attention because he or she is there.  The GM wants attention because the actions of the beings he controls (the NPCs and monsters and such) present some degree of risk and challenge to the PCs. 
     The FPoS decided that one encounter had to be against a monster with an AC 41, SR 27 (maybe...we never surpassed it to know for sure, but the mechanics of it would be right), over 300 HP (all of that is meaningful if you know the system; the short version is that the monster was tough).  Our party consisted of 10th and 11th level PCs.  To put this in perspective, none of the PCs had an AC over 40 (my Arcane Monk did get her's up to 38 for this combat), none of us had SR (spell resistance), and none of us had more than 120 HP.  The monster could deliver over 70 points of damage in a single hit, and since it was attacking with better than +30 to hit (meaning that it would hit my Arcane Monk with a 60% frequency and come close to killing her on the first attack, with five more to follow that same round).  The only PCs who could fight it were the ones who were making a joke of all the other combats – the giant Robot and the dainty Archer (with his suspect dice that consistently rolled in the 17-20 range all weekend). 
     Everyone else was fucked.  And we knew it.  It didn't make the combat more exciting (the chance of losing does that to some degree, but knowing there is nothing a PC can do means that there is less reason to pay attention....like politics in Chicago).  But FPoS sat in his chair chuckling like he had found the way to bring balance to the game.
     As someone who frequently cheats as a GM, I can assure him that he did it incorrectly.  When the PCs who are built to break the game are doing just that, the GM needs to introduce elements that slow down and hamper the (usually combat) successes of those PCs.  Someone's archer is killing everything on the battlefield?  What if all the bad guys could deflect those arrows (by ability or spell), at least for a short while?  The other PCs now get to step up and help out.  The raging barbarian/ultimate fighter/giant robot is killing every NPC with a single hit?  Why not have the bad guys steal his or her (or its) weapon (even if the bad guys normally wouldn't have a chance in hell of succeeding)?  The the battle beast of a PC has to come up with a new tactic and the rest of the party gets involved.
     Maybe it is just laziness, but I think it points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how to break the rules for the good of everyone.  I first encountered people doing it the wrong way when Carl Hewelt decided to make a Living Arcanis module more difficult for us because my Barbarian/Fighter was killing everything.  The end result was the only PC who could do anything meaningful in combat was my Barbarian/Fighter.  He pissed off the other players because he was trying to show me that my PC could be made less effective, and he didn't even do that.  I think that there has to be a misreading of the situation where these GMs think that since they have to increase the difficulty of the scenario, they should only let the PCs who made that necessary (?) succeed from that point forward.
     I don't know if the players I GM for know when I am cheating.  I think they have a notion, sometimes, but they often seem surprised by the fact afterwards.  With experiences like the one the FPoS put together, everyone at the table knew right away.  And I think we all would have been fine with it had the FPoS found a way to make it a more equitable experience.  But if you are too single minded to see anyone else's opinion on anything, I guess you are not likely to consider whether or not they see the general experience the same way as you.  And the FPoS is of the belief that he can make the most effective combat builds out there, so his attempts to frustrate those who are combat monsters may have been a qualified success, but it also shows how little he understands the game.

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