Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The GM as Reluctant Court Jester

I've returned, windswept and rain-sodden and midge-bitten from the extreme North West of Scotland. (Some people go to sunny places in summer. I can never understand this. 7 years of Japanese summers were enough to convince me, if I didn't know it already, that the sun is our Enemy and not to be trusted. I like rain.) So naturally enough I want to write some posts about Scottish Highlands style D&D, because the bleak and empty hilltops, deep dark lochs, and abandoned castles of Skye, Wester Ross and Sutherland would be a perfect place for sandbox D&D.

But first, I want to talk about being a serious and high-minded GM, because the day before the missus and I went away there was a session of a regular Call of Cthulu game I'm involved in, which contained a moment which I think summed up rather nicely something which I've noticed over the years.

Most GMs, I think, are rather high-minded about the games they run. There are plenty of gonzo-style GMs around, of course, so I'd hate to generalise, but I think by and large they tend towards wanting their games to be taken at least somewhat seriously. They spend a lot of time carefully crafting worlds, adventures, NPCs and encounters, toiling often for hours every week to make a deep, meaningful and interesting game session that the players can really be immersed in.

And yet it so rarely ever comes off, because more often than not players just don't have the same investment that the GM has. They don't put in a lot of work outside of gaming sessions, as a rule, and much of the time what they're primarily interested in is their own character, and hanging out with friends and eating lots of fatty foods. This is true of most players and is certainly true of me when I'm a player, not a GM.

Last week during the Call of Cthulu game, we'd just learned that an old arch-enemy of the group had not in fact been killed in a fire (as we thought he had) but had in fact survived. This was quite significant, as it was an NPC we all loved to hate and who had come close to killing all of our characters in days gone by. So the scene was set for some good immersive role playing reactions. One of us, I forget who, blurted out, "He's alive?", with a serious "in-character" expression on his face. To which, on cue, another player immediately murmured "Gordon's alive!?" in a pitch-perfect Brian Blessed impression. Everyone sniggered and the moment was ruined. All that careful build-up was for naught.

Just as the remark was made I glanced at the GM's face and saw writ there the GM's tragedy encapsulated perfectly: caught between having to laugh because although it was a stupid and obvious joke it was executed with such panache, while at the same time having to be disappointed and crushed by the carefully built-up mood being so utterly spoiled, he ended up doing neither. He just looked down, paused for two seconds, and carried on. But I knew that the moment cost him, as it costs all GMs dozens of times every game session, all across the land, and he had felt it like yet another pound of the huge weight which he, like all other GMs, carries John Bunyan-like on his journey through the valley of role playing.


  1. I've learned to expect any of my pretensions to high-falutin melodrama to be promptly piss-taken as soon as the orchestral score begins to build. If I had to take a pop-psych stab at why players do this, I'd guess it's because it gives them some sense of agency even when the Referee is beating them with the Plot Bat.

    Then again, my campaigns are fairly tongue-in-cheek, and I look at player caprice and dumb gamer humor as design features rather than flaws to work around. I usually take the piss long before the players even encounter the material in question.

  2. ...and it makes you wonder why you even friggin' bother.

    Good post. An ugly truth. I'm one of those people that took my stuff waaaay too seriously in the past (and probably still do). It's great with equally serious players but you don't always get that.

    Though in all fairness, how can people take some of these RPGs seriously?

  3. Ah, but my experience is that in a remarkably short time what the players will remember from that session is the in-character moment and not the joke.

  4. Reluctant court jester? My purpose as a GM is to keep my friends entertained. Sometimes they want spectacle and high drama (I have some in stock, if required); at other times the hunger is for an evening of sadistic slapstick and pop culture geekery.

    I use their precious snowflake characters as chew toys, they heckle from the peanut gallery; all is right with the world. :)

    "Lets pretend: srs bzns". Naaaaaah.

  5. Yeah :sigh: I know that feeling. You pour your heart and soul into trap - and the PCs go around it. You spend a year building up a bad guy - only to have him taken down in five minutes. You sprinkle your campaign world with halflings who are all named after esoteric vegetables - and instead of the players finding it funny - they just think something is wrong with you. Yeah :sigh: I know that feeling.

    Setting expectations is important - not only for the players - but for yourself as well.


    - Ark

  6. Scott: That's why I'm always torn, and I think most GMs are too. We expect and enjoy piss-taking, and yet at the same time it would be nice to be taken seriously, too. It's like being caught between two stools, really. At least in my experience.

    JB: In pretty much all the games I've played there's been a heavy dose of humour involved. I wonder if there actually are serious games going on out there?

    Joshua: Perhaps!

    Chris: Don't you think the players' role is to entertain each other (and the GM) a bit too?

    Arkheim: It's the cross we have to bear...

  7. I think's it's a defensive mechanism, to do with the 'roleplay phobia' that Zak S has also observed. Plenty of folks with little experience of acting or improv feel uncomfortable in moments of drama or rp freedom. They are scared that they personally may ruin it if they say the wrong thing next. Puncturing the moment with humour is a safe and controlled way of 'ruining' it and one with a fairly positive outcome.

    Most of the time it doesn't bother me. Only if it escalates into stupid in-character actions does it become tiresome.

  8. I've experienced this and, heck, have to be careful or my need to quip will cause me to do it to myself!

    I wonder if more gonzo games ever suffer from the opposite; a carefree, humorous tone ruined by very unfunny implications of in-game happenings (rape, torture)?

  9. I wonder if there actually are serious games going on out there?


    Mind you, it's the solo game with Trollsmyth. The group game is still fairly serious (the clear divide between IC/OOC in chat gaming helps) but it can get a bit goofy at times. (You remember Afya, don't you? >.< ) The solo game is pretty much dead serious, except for in-character humor. It helps that there's no other players for me to amuse by getting smart, and that Trollsmyth and I can both be terribly pretentious about certain things.

  10. What i find the most frustrating about this sort of thing is that my players have complained about not having enough role playing opportunities. And its just like, gee you didn't take anything i offered, you kind of have to work with me here.

    I wish they could just be a little more open minded to things, and trust that what i've prepared and invested in will be fun.