The Terror of Getting It Wrong

By | February 13, 2016

I’m not a big fan of the adversarial GMing style.

This is the technique of GMing wherein GMs are specifically trying to thwart the players in what they do. From “oh, you didn’t tell me you were going to put away your sword” to “here’s how your wish spell goes wrong,” this style of play is deeply rooted in the idea of getting one over on the players. The GM, in this style, “wins” when the players suffer through significant punishment and still come back for more.

I think, in a way, practitioners of the adversarial GM style see themselves as “training” their players, getting them to think harder and smarter and be more clever. Certainly when I was a teen / early twenty-something and practiced this GM style myself, that’s what I thought I was doing. Ray described it as “giving the players exactly the rope they needed to hang themselves with.”

But what I’ve found, in gaming with new folks at various cons, is that this technique trains players into a certain brand of paranoia. Players who mostly play in these kinds of games tend to have the following in-game behaviors in my experience:

  • They will default to lying to NPCs about their identity, to make sure that no unexpected consequences can come back on them.
  • They will ask for constant Perception rolls, or whatever the system allows, to make sure they’re not missing anything or being tricked in some way.
  • They will very carefully plan for every possible contingency. Often, they will try to make these plans in secret with the other players, to try and ensure the GM cannot counterplan.
  • They will not take anything the GM says at face value, challenging what their characters are experiencing in the game world to make sure there’s no description trickery.
  • They tend to prefer games with complex rulesets, allowing them to feel more “in control” of their character and abilities, and more able to affect change in the game world.

Seeing some combination of these behaviors used to frustrate me, because I thought of these as the behaviors of “rules-lawyerly” players who were being adversarial to the GM. But that’s because I hadn’t stopped to think, “what trained them to behave that way?”

And ultimately, it seems to me that adversarial GM styles are training players to be terrified of making a single wrong or non-optimal move. Because they know a clever GM will be able to undo everything they want from a single misstep on their part. Adversarial GMing makes players afraid to simply relax and play.

As GMs, we are training our players and shaping their behavior not just in our games, but in all the games those players will play in going forward. When we adopt an adversarial GMing style, we are not welcoming and inviting new players into the hobby. We are specifically acting as gatekeepers to keep “the stupids” out of the hobby.  Except, is it really stupid to expect our only window into the game world to be truthful and helpful to us, and to not be trying to actively betray us by getting one over on us?

I think adversarial GMing styles are bad for the hobby of roleplaying, and I think they are a relic of a bygone era. I’m remembering video games like Return to Zork and the pixel-bitchy NES games of my youth. . .and I don’t play those games anymore. The industry has moved on from punishing game design, because it’s realized there’s more money and further reach in games that aren’t as punishing.

Perhaps in my late 30s I’ve become a (gasp) filthy casual in both my video-gaming and tabletop-gaming habits. And there will always be GMs who will use adversarial styles, and players who will be attracted to that adversarial style of GMing. Just like there are players attracted to super-hard video games like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy. “Punishment is pleasure” game design.

But I think the time has long since come for GMs to recognize the lasting effects their GMing style has on their players, and to consider that they, too, have a hand in developing those player behaviors that they so despise.