Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Good GM

I have mentioned several times before my hobby of tabletop roleplaying, and used it to discuss ‘railroading’ vis-à-vis predestination and free will, and talked about the fictional religions often used in such games. 

I tend to run more games than I play in, and I’m a fairly experienced GM. I read online forums like RPG.net, I’ve written my own set of rules, and created several different worlds in which to run games. Recently I’ve been watching RPG streams like Titansgrave and Critical Role (the latter especially is excellent) and got some quite good GMing tips from these. I really enjoy running games. I love the creativity, the story-telling, the necessary improvisation when your players do something really unexpected (i.e. stupid). Even the frustration (e.g. when your players spend an entire hour discussing how to give a group of guards the slip, and then pop back to let them know where they’ve gone, just to give an example) is entertaining in its own way.

There are certain things that are considered good and bad practice when it comes to running games. I’ve discussed railroading (forcing the players into a given action instead of letting them choose) before. However, one of the other devices usually considered a significant no-no in GMing is the GM player character, or GMPC.

This is essentially what it sounds like. Usually, there is a firm divide between the one player character (PC) controlled by each player, and the vast number of non-player characters (NPCs) controlled by the GM, and with whom the PCs interact. The GMPC blurs that division, and can potentially take advantage of out-of-character knowledge that the PC’s can’t possibly have, purely by dint of being controlled by the person who knows the plot. At it’s very worst, the GMPC can become a self-insert for the GM, a power-trip in which the character is more knowledgeable and competent than the PCs, and becomes the main character in the plot, relegating the players to the role of observers, or, at best, assistants. It’s rarely much fun for the players, who rightly expect to be the focus of the unfolding story.

However, the GMPC can also be used effectively to help steer characters in the right direction and avoid the forbidden railroading, and if there are a limited number of players, can be used to fill a gap in a party’s capabilities. The GM has to take great care though that the GMPC never makes decisions for the rest of the party. It can and has been done well, but the dangers are constant and real.

C S Lewis used chess as an analogy (in Mere Christianity, I think) when discussing miracles and nature, but I am convinced that he was limited by the technology of his time, writing as he was before the invention of Dungeons & Dragons. I am not so limited, and can utilise resources denied to writers who would have been able to make much better use of them than myself, but I’ll do my best. With Easter just behind us, I’d like to think about the Good GM, and his GMPC.

The Great GM in the Sky is (if it’s not blasphemous to say so) a mega-nerd of the kind who has not only created His own campaign world, He’s even created the rules-set by which it operates. The best number of players for a game is generally considered to be between three and six, but God is currently running for several billion, and inviting more in all the time. That there is a plot, I have no doubt, although as a PC obviously I have no idea what that plot might be. The GM’s screen is vast and impenetrable, and we’ll only get a look at His notes when we lose our last hit point and our character sheet is relegated to the Folder of Dead PCs.

Like all players, we seem to have a remarkable ability to ignore the plot, and when we’re not ignoring it we’re messing it up. The Good GM will not railroad us though. We must choose to follow the plot, or else there’s not much point of playing, either for us or the GM.

Instead, He has done what other GMs have done since, and sent NPCs to us with tasks to draw us back into the story, or dropped clues or information that we ought to be following up to get us back on track. Instead we’ve either ignored the NPCs, or beaten them up and looted their treasure. We then complain that we’re getting bored, that the campaign doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and that we’re not levelling up as quickly as we think we ought to be.

The GM considered His campaign, and what would happen if events continued to unfold in the way in which they were. According to both the nature of His campaign world, and the rules by which He was running it, the only obvious conclusion was a massive and inescapable TPK; the complete destruction of both the world and every character within it.

With every other reasonable option exhausted, the Good GM had to take a drastic step, and introduce a GMPC. He had to insert Himself into his game world, build a character according to the rules by which His universe operates, and interact directly with the players. It is not best practice, but if anyone could do it well, it’s Him. Nor did the GM stop being the GM just because he was also the GMPC. He is capable of being and doing both at once.

The GMPC walked amongst us, but didn’t try to overshadow us with His perfect knowledge of the plot, or make decisions on our behalf. The Good GM used Him well, giving us extra information, dropping hints and clues, pushing us gently back towards the plot.
We beat him up and looted his treasure.

No doubt holding His head in His hands even though He knew it was coming, and as much as perhaps He wanted to, the Good GM could not fix things by merely breaking the rules. If he did so, then the game became meaningless and pointless. Instead, he did the next best thing. He fudged.

Every GM occasionally has to ignore a dice roll or hand-wave a rule to further the plot, and the Good GM has been no exception. From our limited perspective within the game, we call such things ‘miracles’. However, if you ignore every dice roll and hand-wave every rule, then there’s no game left to play. The rules are there for a reason, and have to be followed, at least most of the time.

Now though it wasn’t simply ignoring a bad roll or conveniently forgetting an incidental rule for a moment or two. This time, He had to fudge the rules in a massive way, but without breaking the world or the game. He also had to do it in a manner which didn’t remove player agency; which avoided the dreaded and game-breaking railroads.

He found a way. The GM subverted His own rules, and the GMPC sacrificed himself to change the way the game was going, and pull us back from the brink of destruction. The plot isn’t over; it’s still up to us PCs to get back on track and follow the story to its conclusion. It’s up to us to ensure that we play in the best way possible, use our abilities and equipment to greatest effect, cooperate to maximise the overall capabilities of the vast player party in which we find ourselves, and eventually bring the campaign to the end the Good GM has envisioned all along, whatever that might be. Whatever it is, I believe that it will be the best of possible endings, both for the Good GM who so ardently desires the enjoyment and satisfaction of His players, and for those players and their PCs, for as long as the great Campaign runs, and for ever afterwards.


  1. I like this idea, have you come across David Williams, who wrote the book "Leveling Up: How to Be a Christian Cleric"; some of which is on his blog here http://www.belovedspear.org/2014/06/the-missing-chapter-how-to-level-up.html

    1. Hi there. Rather belated response, but based on your recommendation, I looked up this book, and added it to my Amazon wishlist. I got it for Christmas, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I've not finished it yet, but some very interesting, funny and geeky thoughts so far.