Monday, 5 March 2012

Your Players Know You're Not God

One of the key elements of my GMing style, I've realised, is that I tend to involve the players in the decision-making process rather a lot, so while I'm the final arbiter, I'm always open to suggestions on rulings and ideas on how to handle things. For instance, let's say I'm GMing a game where the rulebook doesn't include anything on calculating damage from falling and one of the PCs is falling off something from a 30 foot height. I'm just as likely to say to the players as a whole, "What do you reckon? How damaging would that be?" and let them have some input into the final decision as I am to just say, "You take 1d20 damage" off the top of my head.

I'm also likely to draw on the players' expertise in decision-making processes too. My gaming groups include veterinarians, firearms experts, people with PhDs in mathematics, and computer scientists. It would be almost perverse not to draw on their knowledge to make decisions and rulings that are realistic and sensible. (The firearms expert in particular always comes in handy; "John, would a 12.7mm round penetrate the brick wall Andy's character is hiding behind?" "Yes.")

Reading around forums and watching other GMs, I realise that this isn't really the norm, or at least I do it more than most. I can't really understand why. I take the view that we're all adults, and my players know I'm not God - it's not like I'm shattering any illusions by revealing I don't know something or I could do with knowledgeable input.

It also seems to me that sessions always run smoothly when it feels as if everybody is pulling in the same direction. My GMing decisions are generally as objective as I can make them and I try to create a neutral game world with rational consequences, but it doesn't hurt for players to feel as if they have some input into the process of refereeing - it gives things an atmosphere of consensus and collegiality rather than of paternalism.

Let's face it - I'm also pretty lazy, and the more I can farm out and outsource to the players, the better.


  1. Certain GMs like to feel like gods.
    Certain players like the illusion that the man behind the screen is a god.

    I'm really on the opposite side of the river (same as you) but I understand their indulgence.

  2. I think it is rrrrrreally common, but the kind of people who like to complain about "omnipotent, dictatorial GMs" (and the systems that supposedly enable them) on forums have never met these people and are--basically--not adults, and so they are a very loud minority.

    I mean, really, who _wouldn't_ ask the firefighter about the smoke-inhalation damage?

    1. If you get the firefighter in my group started talking about smoke inhalation he won't let it go for the rest of the session.

      I've stopped using flaming oil because it just isn't worth interrupting the game for twenty minutes every time.

  3. What about the situation where your players want to "win"? E.g.

    DM: You fall for 30 feet... Hmm, how much damage do you think that is?
    PC: Zero damage.
    DM: No, that doesn't quite sound right...
    PC: One damage.
    DM: Eh....
    PC: Two? Three? Look, what's the minimum damage I can say before you accept my answer?
    DM: I don't know, I was willing to accept any reasonable answer.
    PC: Look, why don't we cut the crap. You already have in mind some idea of how much damage I should get, and now you want me to play this guessing game to see if I can divine what your secret number is?

    1. See, that's why you ask the players as a whole. Because some of them might want to push people off of cliffs some day.

  4. @nebu pookins

    Then stop playing with those people because they are 4 years old.

  5. I am with Zak here... I have never played with anyone who doesn't already have the maturity that Noisms is speaking of.

  6. Hail the lazy GM!

    Have you started delegating conflicts and NPC control to other Players yet?

  7. I turn to the players when I'm stuck for generating a name on the go.

  8. This is cool and it's the way I try to do it now too. I do think it takes confidence and experience to be able to go to the group like this. I wonder how common it is with DMs, though. I only ever heard of this kind of collaboration after I started reading OSR blogs. I don't think any of the classic rules could be read to encourage this; the DM was the sole arbiter and designer. Is there any evidence Gygax and Arneson ever did this? I've never read about it.

  9. yeah i used to do this. nowadays i mostly use games that i designed myself, so basically i "know" how falling damage works already. i don't actually know everything, but i know enough about the tone of my world and i've seen enough different things and cherry-picked things that i liked and didn't like that i can make a house-ruling on the spot if i don't have a ruling already in my head. for example, i like "1d6 per ten feet" for falling damage. if somebody has a beef with how that isn't realistic or whatever, i'm willing to hear their input as to why, and will insert it into the rules if it's cool/makes sense

  10. I have to say that this is what I do so often. Players are a great Chorus of woe or awe for their fellows.... Also helps to determine how to punish the wicked who don't bring the beer and snacks...



    -Brook Tracey (Loonook)

  11. This is especially good practice when you have other DM's in the group. You usually get decisions that are harsher than the ones you would have come up with yourself.

  12. It's very similar to the way I do it. I don't claim to be an expert on anything I'm not, and it avoids arguments. It also reconciles what can potentially be very different visions of an event with one another, which I like.

    I have gamed in the past with people who were dictatorial jerks who insisted their delusional vision was the ultimate truth, but I now avoid them.

  13. I do this too. When a situation that hasn't happened in this game / campaign yet comes up, I tend to ask the players.

    "Hey, now that you have Sleep... You guys want it to be by the book no-save thing? Just realize that you aren't the only ones with it!"

    "Double-damage for charging with a spear on foot? Would be cool, but the other side can use it too..."

  14. I'd guess that my bad GMing habits were picked up as a child when none of the players were really "subject matter experts" in any particular area, and they still looked to me as God.

    On the other hand, none of the guys I game with these days are subject matter experts in anything pertaining to the game...they're web page designers and IT professionals and landscapers and unemployed bankers. None of 'em know anything about swords or chainmail or elvish politics or how many mamluks can ride a war elephant.
    ; )

  15. I am blown away by this topic. This is perhaps exactly what I am saying?

    I get these people flying by on my blog who say this exact same thing.

    What Nebu is talking about is crazy! What the fuck is wrong with that person?

    Basically, if they are acting that way they have a disorder.

    What if I played football and refused to wear pads? What if I only golfed with a one wood and nine iron and didn't use any other clubs? What if during a game of risk I tore up the other persons cards?

    Those aren't crazy things! I'm not wearing pads because football is about your ability to withstand pain and gamble injury in conflict. Golf is a test of skill and technique in working around the limitations of club design. I tear up the cards because they represent the limited resources available on the planet.

    Of course I have reasons why I might talk the DM into not giving me any damage, but those reasons have nothing to do with the actual game.

    D&D is a cooperative adventure role-playing game. There is some flexibility in those terms. Adventure to one person could be super-heroic fantasy and to another picaresque adventure.

    But to disengage from fictional positioning and verisimilitude from the chosen setting in an 'attempt to win' is missing the purpose of play.

  16. Well, yeah, what Zak said and -C said.

    I should ask though: do you all think we do this because we are in some sort of OSR cool-DMing echo chamber? I ask because it's not just on forums that I've encountered people acting as if GMs should be like God and not trusting players to offer sensible contributions, but also in real life too.

  17. Both my groups totally do this sort of thing and I don't really think we are part of the OSR.

  18. @John, Zak S, et. al

    I guess this is one of the reasons why I no longer play D&D, and instead only read about it on blogs: Not enough non-"4 year old"-friends to play with.

  19. Doesn't doing this in-play harm player immersion? Or is that not a goal of yours?

    I can see that player assistance out-of-play can be a valuable resource, but in-play it would tend to be a last resort for my style.

  20. Nebu Pookins: That's a bit plaintive - get on the G+ ConstantCon action.

    S'mon: Can you explain why you think it would harm player immersion? I could understand why it would if basically all conversation at the table was in-character, but I don't know anybody who does it like that.

  21. @noisms

    Every time we visit Story - Games it's pretty obvious we live in a cool-GMing echo chamber.

    Then, y'know, there's all those con GMs which is--to be fair--a far less predictable beast.

  22. "S'mon: Can you explain why you think it would harm player immersion? I could understand why it would if basically all conversation at the table was in-character, but I don't know anybody who does it like that."

    As a player, it would tend to take me out of the feeling of exploring an already-existing world, if (eg) the wall-penetrating ability of 7.62N rifle rounds is something determined by my opionion to the GM during play. I would get the feeling that the environment was being generated by myself and the other players in-play, rather than exploring the GM's world.

    Conversely though, I don't find that random determination of stuff in-play by the GM has this effect. It's as if the world is immanent in the dice.

  23. I often do this too. When I was younger, lack of specific knowledge felt like an insurmountable barrier between me and games like Aftermath!, Twilight:2000, etc - if I'd had some players with military experience (fat chance at 15!) it might have been different. But, yes, I do consult with the players when there are different options on how to resolve in-game actions, and do draw on their knowledge when I can. Questions I find myself posing to players more and more often these days include: "What do you think you chances for success are?" and "What do you think would happen if you failed?"

  24. Yeah good system, I think it helps that as GM your not gunning for something hidden, and so your not trying to hide your direction in things like plausibility.

    But then it's not surprising that you make a load of choices of principle that other people don't and then don't have problems they do!

    Given that the power games drop out of plausibility, and no one needs to argue minutia to control the flow of the game; there's nothing to loose, because you've already given it up.

    And if you have a reasonable division of creative authority between players you can just make it explicit what your gunning for; "there's monsters here because it's cool, can anyone think up a good reason for that?" or similar. Players are already in on the program, so they can collaborate, or just shrug and throw the question back to you.

    I'm sure there are other pre-requisites too..

    OK, if your like me you'll prefer those times when everything is really tight, the world is really distinctive and cohesive etc, but if your not running it like some mathematical model with internal causality, but according to external standards (ie as a game), then when things go sloppy you can shrug and move on, because people always know the basic stuff they can be involved in. There's an exception to this when players start building detailed plans based on assumptions about the world (I handle this by asking people what they are basing their plans on, and tighten up that area of the game in response), but generally the game won't fall apart if plausibility breaks down.

    So if someone wants to make it all tidal patterns and horse genealogies, you can just tell him to tone it down a little so you can get on with the game!

    Ooh also, I've been in games which have a really particular form of immersion, and a weird ritualish split between "in character time" and "out of character time". It's like getting into your characters mindset is like writing an essay or acting, you get your headspace set up, and go at it. Sort of "knuckle down and play your character" stuff.

    So out-of-character time happens when people are taking a break for food or whatever, or the GM is flicking through notes/rolling on tables for the next stretch, depending on how improvisational he is, or it happens suddenly when people loose track of things and need to clear up misunderstandings. In that framework the only time you'd discuss plausibility would be to fix "issues" of suspension of disbelief failure and get back into the game. Jumping back from your nicely constructed character method acting to the logistics, physics or architecture of the game world and back is something that takes a little bit of uncomfortable effort, so you try to minimise it.

    Not sure that's what your talking about S'mon, but that one would also not really match this approach.