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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design » Shit We Blame on Players (When We Should Blame the GM) #1

Shit We Blame on Players (When We Should Blame the GM) #1

“My Character Wouldn’t Do That.”

Everyone thinks this is a bad thing. You’re not being cooperative. You’re not a team player. So what?

There is a constant chorus of people saying the party should get along and function like a well-oiled machine — that party conflict is not the foundation of a story, but an impediment to it. That’s ONE way of playing, and it’s a common one.

But think of it this way: the story told at the table is not just about how the party handles what the GM throws at them. Instead, it’s about whether or not the party CAN handle it; whether or not the party WANTS to handle it.

Simply because the party doesn’t want to delve into a dangerous dungeon to stop an unspeakable evil doesn’t mean the story ends there. Maybe the unspeakable evil gets a foothold and things start getting worse. and that drives the party to action. Or maybe it doesn’t.

Perhaps the party decides to “get out of Dodge,” and now they’re strangers in a new land, with their homeland now representing a creeping evil beyond the horizon.

Building an adventure on an assumption that the PCs will do a certain thing — especially if it runs contrary to their interests — is asking for trouble. It’s much akin to having a vital piece of information relying on a single notice roll.

In some groups, this kind of impasse will result in a meta-game conversation where the GM says, “Look, the adventure I have planned is down the left-hand path, so if you want to do that adventure, you’ll need to turn left.” This is certainly one way to handle it.

But it makes sense to keep your PCs’ motives and desires in mind when designing adventures, that way you don’t need to mess with the meta-game conversation, as the party will gladly turn left.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

Filed under: Adventure Design

2 Responses to "Shit We Blame on Players (When We Should Blame the GM) #1"

  1. Joseph MasonNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with everything from the 3rd paragraph down. But there you seem to be talking about what the party decided to do vs what the GM wanted them to do. I run sandbox-y type games mostly. So, I try not to assume to much about what the players will do, and how they will archive whatever goals they set.

    BUT, I do have an issue when one player feels that his/her need to accurately role play their character trumps the rest of the players. When 4 our of five want to turn left, and the fifth simply refuses, has a long debate, and then splits the party, things never end well.

    In theory this sort of party conflict could lead to some good drama, in practice it frustrates players, the GM, and kills the fun that everyone was having.

    So, I tell my players that if they can’t figure out a reason that their character would “turn left”, then that isn’t they type of character I want in my games.

  2. CreativeCowboyNo Gravatar says:

    I have to agree with Joseph Mason’s comment above.

    I think the problem being pointed out originates from strong feelings of entitlement at the table in a one or the other alternative to playing the game: is it a game players’ role play or is it performance roles for characters? Are the players doing their skillful best to overcome the stats they’ve been dealt by the randomizer (or to optimize the stats as munchkins are ought to do with point-buy character builds) or is this a game that is set into motion by a script of individual player character stats? In the early days, an unlimited number of players could play at one table but the presumption of play was as a co-operative game and the GM/DM wasn’t catering to everyone as individual snow/flakes but to all as a group.

    Particular games, like those under the umbrella of original D&D for example, can handle these alternatives (and I suppose this is what generates their popularity) particularly early on in their development. We have seen D&D polymorph-self into MMORPG territory from the “every DM equal to another” original concept. @DreadSpace has documented this direction was due to marketing concerns. The entire article is worth the read, with attention to TSR’s/Gygax’s flip flop.

    But is it fair to say that all RPGs are open to all styles? Is there some kind of understanding that comes from merely reading the rules? Must you do it just because the rules state it? Can you simply dream it up on the fly if the rules do not state it? Clearly some people felt their fun so restricted that they called Gygax up at his home in the middle of the night with rules questions. This is where the nerd arguments happen to trump the fun of an actual story of the game unfolding; like some nerd explaining the science basis for every scene in the cinema while watching Star Trek.

    It is the same about that guy who argues to play his “character” because “that’s the way the rules make it” and that only he (usually, he) exists at the table and the GM must cater to his “spotlight.” Well, why would the other characters hang out with that guy in the first place? If the characters were living and one of them were a threat to the team survival, would not the characters themselves have a say as to who gets on the team to begin with? If no-one would work with such drama in the real world, then why would the same people want to spend their leisure time with such person/character drama? Surely no-one would want to play with more than a few of these spotlights because it becomes an unwieldy game.

    In my early days in the hobby, a table of an unlimited number players was possible because everyone co-operated and – perhaps most important to the article here – the story was derived from the play of the game and not the game of the play. It was one story shared with others socially in real-time driven by one central drama of the GM’s creation. The player opening the door with a brute strength role for his wizard, after the player of the fighter critically failed to meet his success randomizer, was the stuff of legend. So too was the players’ group effort to overcome the obstacles created by the GM, who catered to the players game needs, not the individual player’s psychological manifestations in game.

    That last bit is neither fun for me as the player waiting for my spotlight moment nor as the player in the role of GM, who is really a glorified cat herder.

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