Tales from the Gazebo – When to Win With a “Loss”, Part 1

When to Win With a “Loss”, Part 1
By Cape Rust

When you are running a game, you should never view your game as “me versus the players”. Stop right here if that is how you approach your games. Rethink your life and ask yourself if you really should be running games if you think that way. Sure some of you have run games with just that attitude and things have turned out just fine. Sometimes things turned out just fine for you and the players, but a vast majority of readers here have suffered under the GM yoke of adversarial oppression and were far from happy about it. I have seen friendships ruined and some gamers quit the hobby because of repeated situations like this.

Everyone has their own style of running games, but when you take things down to their foundations, the person running the game is there to help the players tell a story, provide the boundaries of the sandbox (or tracks of they are more rail-roadie), and present challenges to the characters. The person running the game should never have the overarching goal of beating the players. There are encounters and situations within a game where the person running the game will get to challenge and possibly beat the players, but even then the mentality should never be “I’m going to beat them here”.

That mentality should be avoided at all costs, because that thought process will often determine how you set up a challenge and how you portray any foes the party might encounter. A great example of this would be throwing a bunch of sneaky-sneaky types in encounter after encounter that only involve brute force or situations that don’t allow them to be sneaky-sneaky. I had one DM who always loved throwing our sneaky-sneaky types in situations with undead. In D&D 5th Edition, this isn’t a big deal, but in D&D 3.5, this was a huge “sneak attack” on those players. They were forced to switch their characters to a skirmisher role. It got to the point where few of our players were willing to play that type of character because they knew this would happen to them. This DM didn’t have a “me versus them” attitude, but choices like that over and over again sure made it feel that way.

For the person running the game, winning should be defined by the amount of enjoyment everyone gets from the game. The game should be challenging and if it does not feel hard or lethal, there is a good chance your players won’t really enjoy themselves. However, I believe an adversarial game will lead not only to unhappiness, but to anger and discontent. Personally, I would take a non-lethal feeling game over an adversarial or hostile game any time. This is a tough balancing point to reach. You have to challenge your players and make them think and feel the challenges, but for some reason when you are out to “beat” your players it shows.

I mentioned challenging your player earlier and I wasn’t kidding. Your players have to be challenged; they need someone to push them, but push and punish, while having many of the same letters, are vastly different. If you have a group of gamers who are not cooperating, you might have to represent the one thing they hate so much that they will work together to defeat. Yes I used the word hate. But I would rather harness the player’s ire than have them believe I am out to beat them.

Here is the subtle but important difference between the two situations.

The Game Master has created the setting and situation or has the book that has all the answers. The GM holds all the cards! So when a player feels like the GM is out to win or beat them, the injustice of the situation weighs much heavier than it does when your GM does things that you and the rest of your group hate so much you are willing to put aside any meta or at-table differences you may have to show that GM the what for!

… to be continued.

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