Monday, August 24, 2015

Killer GM Syndrome

Every now and then when I'm running (or even playing) a game I catch the edge of something that sets me back a little, Killer GM Syndrome... and I've noticed it a lot looking at the popular culture around tabletop gaming and so I want to write out my thoughts on it to try and see if I can't figure out a few ways to try and counteract it in games. (for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take a drink for "Zack uses writing to try and figure something out")  TL;DR then just read this one article.

So what do I mean by Killer GM Syndrome (KGS)? You might expect me to be talking about the mythical Killer GM, determined to rack up a fictional body count by bringing PC after PC to grisly ends, but you want to know something? Outside of games designed with PC death as an explicit endgame (think DREAD) and some half-remembered games in Middle School when we were getting our feet under us as GMs and players, I've never actually played a game with a Killer GM (TM). Even back when I attended Conventions more regularly and when I played in organized LARPS. Sure, I played with plenty of GMs who didn't do the best job, whether they were still learning or uninterested, but in the last 15+ years of playing games I can't actually think of a specific time when I ran across a GM who wanted to kill the PCs as a goal. And even with a social group that contains a lot of gamers, most of the anecdotes I hear about Killer GMs are of the "when we were in middle school" variety or from the highly suspect Table Titans 'Tales from the Table' geek-viral story (I enjoy the Table Titans comic, but some of those Tales the Table stories the least or just make me wonder why anyone would play with that GM/player a second time when there is obvious and over-the-top jackassery. (for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take a drink for "Zack makes a reference to Dr Venture being 'waylaid by jackassery' and a shot for Zack using parenthesis inside a set of parenthesis"))

So, I don't think that Killer GMs exist, at least not outside of a few assholes who nobody has to play with in this age of internet RPG groups, so what am I talking about? I'm talking about the insidious idea that seems to creep into the minds and attitudes of many players that every GM is or any GM could become a Killer GM. That the I've even seen this happen with players where I am there first GM and I do not (as far as I can tell) give any indication that my only goal is to kill the PCs. 

But it's out there, this idea of the evil, cackling GM, in meme after meme, on countless t-shirts, just trying to be cruel or mean to the PCs... And I used to joke about it, but I don't think it's a joking matter anymore because I think it can hurt a game. Now, I don't think that players are necessarily always aware that they've been sucked into this mindset and I want to put in a disclaimer here that I'm not aiming this post at any of my players in particular. What is alarming to me is how many players seem to buy into this at times or who perpetuate it through jokes or who seem to react and act in ways that rely on the logic of the Killer GM Syndrome.

I think Apocalypse World puts it best, so I'm just going to copy/paste how Vincent Baker puts it. (for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take a drink for "Zack makes claims that Apocalypse World does something best")
I’m not out to get you. If I were, you could just pack it in right now, right? I’d just be like “there’s an earthquake. You all take 10-harm and die. The end.” No, I’m here to find out what’s going to happen with all your cool, hot, fucking kick-ass characters. Same as you!
It might be because I'm too deep into the Apocalypse World/Dungeon World "Play to Find out What Happens" end of the RPG mindset, but the fun of the RPG is putting the PCs into challenging situations is getting to see how they get out of it.

So, how does this hurt games?

  • It assumes that the GM has bad intentions, is not committed to everyone having fun or should let the game be, in the immortal words of Joey Mousepad, "[a] cake walk in the teapark"(for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take a drink for "Zack makes a Futurama reference")
    • One way to think of it, is that players under the Killer GM Syndrome might be viewing the game as though they were playing checkers with a four year old... 
      • Either you beat the pants off them because it's easy to beat a 4 year old and that's what you want - that is, the player just wants combats where there PC wades through enemies being a badass with no real challenge.
      • Or the four year old always changes the rules of checkers so that they are always winning. - I see this when players retreat to rules challenges or assume that the reason a GM changes things up on the fly so that they are "winning".
      • Or the four year old throws a tantrum, flipping over the board. - the classic, "rocks fall, everyone dies" total party kill, classic Killer GM move.
    • Now, I have probably maligned large swathes of four year olds who can graciously lose at checkers or are better at checkers than I assume. But my question is, if the four year old (or GM) behaves in one of the 3 ways I outline above, why would you ever play with them (or at least ever play a second game)?
      • You don't really want a challenge, you always want your PC to be a super-hero waltzing through a power fantasy with no real danger. Ok, I kinda get that it's fun to find a god-mode cheat for a video game, but doesn't that get boring after a while? And why would you want to have a table of other people sit through that? If that's really your jam, then I think you can cover it by playing some Diablo with all the cheat codes you can find.
      • This is the most pernicious viewpoints, in my opinion, that the GM is adjusting rules/enemies/rolls on the fly so that they can keep "Winning". I also think it's the toughest to combat, because as a GM I am always adjusting rules/enemies/rolls on the fly to try and (A) provide challenges to keep the game interesting and (B) keep the game fun. Because sometimes I throw in a wyvern because it would be cool in the epic combat and I want to see the badass way the PCs dispatch it, but at the table I see that it's sting is way, way more potent than I had thought and so I maybe nudge things so that I don't kill a PC with one hit in an anti-climatic fashion.
      • This is the easy one. I kinda get back in the day, maybe it's a smaller town and your play group was limited, but in these days of the internet allowing you to play a tabletop game with someone who is half-way across the world or to find local players that you might not have met otherwise, why would you ever play with the kind of jerk who just kills PC after PC (unless that is an agreed upon gamestyle that everyone knows going in).
  • There's this idea of "Winning" or "Beating" games which is hard-wired into many of us that we sometimes bring to a tabletop RPG. The idea that it's the Players vs. the GM. And the Killer GM Syndrome just amps that up. It leads to Players always watching to figure out "how the GM will screw us over" or that the GM doesn't want to see the players succeed.
    • It's a fine line to walk as a GM, because you really do have more fun as a GM when the players overcome obstacles. It's cool to have the Rogue disarm that deadly trap. But if the rogue sees every trap coming and always succeeds on disarming them easy-peasy, then it just becomes tedious and uninteresting.
    • This is why the Dungeon World GM Move - Give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities can be so counter-intuitive and also revelatory. The point is that even when things are going poorly for the PCs there should always be the opportunity for them to make use of their heroic abilities to recover and turn things around. Sure the fighter gets knock off her feet, but isn't that a better position for her to sweep the orc berserker off his feet in return?
  • I actually received a t-shirt that reads "Beware the Smiling DM" and I know it was given in good humor but I've only been able to bring myself to wear it once because it ties into the Killer GM Syndrome.
    • A smiling GM is having fun, fun is the point of the game.
    • A smiling GM means something interesting is going to happen, I guess I could stop smiling and joylessly narrate as you walk through miles of tunnel if you'd rather I GM something that I won't enjoy.
    • Is it really any fun to kill a dragon that never uses its breath weapon?
      • "Oh, yeah, this dragon tooth? Yeah my thieving murder hobo buddies and I went in and found its hoard and then it tried clawing at us feebly a few times while we slaughtered it like a tied hog."
        • versus
      • "The dragon's fire breath nearly knocked me off my feet and I was barely conscious but I held my ground and distracted it long enough for the rogue to slip around and drive a dagger through it's eye and that's when I jammed my sword into the bottom of it's mouth and the wizard hit it with lightning bolt and that's how I got this dragon's tooth."
    • Just as there is an amount of luck to player rolls, there is an amount of luck to GM rolls.
      • This is especially true of 13th Age where different monster abilities are triggered by different rolls.
      • Yeah, your PC probably didn't like having his arm torn off by the Owlbear, but you talk about it, because it was a cool thing that happened in the game. You wouldn't be telling that story if it was "we fought an owlbear, it didn't tear my arm off"
  • Behaving as though you're facing off against a Killer GM can warp how players approach the game.
    • A long time ago, Thomas asked me to write a blog post about the narrative tricks I was stealing from 13th Age and I never did but I did discuss them a bunch in podcasts, but one of the great things from 13th Age is this bit of Player Advice: Telegraph your Intent. Here's how they put it (emphasis mine):
In some campaigns, the players are even careful not to let the GM know their intent so that the GM can’t foresee the player’s plan and block it. If the PC can talk to animals, for example, the player might ask a number of leading questions about the surroundings hoping to corner the GM into saying that there are animals around so that the player can spring a means of talking to animals on the unsuspecting GM. We encourage you to take just the opposite approach. Explain to the GM what you hope the answer will be and why so that they can take that into account when inventing an answer.
    • I'll catch Players trick to talk around what they want to do, and honestly, being super sneaky about your end goal and trying to trick me into saying yes irritates me and makes me less likely to say yes. I'd much rather have a conversation or even a negotiation and work with a player to come to a consensus about the narrative than have them try and trick me into saying Yes. Especially if players are fishing for an answer that they know or even suspect is beyond the realm of possibility within the fiction of the game.
    • An example of this that irks me is the "I search the room" answer. Where a player is as vague as possible to try and get the GM to provide all the information.
      • If you say "I search the room" even if you get a high roll, I might not tell you that there's a key hidden in a dresser drawer because, really, really are you searching there specifically or are you just glancing around the room quickly to take everything in?
      • On the other hand, even if you rolled fairly low, if you said "I search the dresser" I'd let you find the key, because specificity is key (for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take a drink for that terrible pun) and if there's a bugbear hiding next to the dresser, you'd notice that too.
    • Another example that bothers me, players making a knowledge check, before I tell them to roll dice, rolling low and then assuming they wouldn't know anything and/or assuming that any knowledge they get is false/tainted because of that low roll.
      • For example, a wizard should know a bunch of wizard stuff, cause that's his biz. But I see players all the time who say, I roll arcana to look at that wiz biz and before I can say "hey wait" they're all like "guess my wizard who presumably spent years training in this wiz biz doesn't know anything...dur..dur...dur..." and then they wonder if the basic information I give them is suspect because they rolled that 3. 
      • I wonder if there was less expectation from the players that the GM is out to get them if they'd say "my wiz wants to look at this obvious wiz biz" and then let the GM tell them what they know instead of assuming that they need a high die roll to know ANYTHING about a subject they are knowledgeable about.(I've written about this before but it still bothers me, if you can't tell)
    • Believing that you're facing a Killer GM also seems to make players hoard resources. In the 13th Age games I ran in the spring I noticed that the single-use magic items, runes that would buff attacks or defenses, healing potions etc, ended up in lists on player sheets instead of being used up, even though I was giving out two or three a session, as players kept waiting for that big bad TPK encounter where they'd really need them. Now that I think of it, I know I've given out several single use magic items in my 5e D&D campaign but I don't know that they've been used aside from healing potions.
    • Overall, the Killer GM Syndrome makes players cautious in ways that drags down the pace and excitement of the game. A while back I posted a list of articles I thought people should read, but I wish I had specifically called out Players: Trust Your Gamemasters. Especially since it is probably a more succinct and readable summary of what I'm trying to get at with this post.
So, now that I've gotten that off my chest, what do I think can be done about Killer GM Syndrome? 
  • Try to run games using a set of Principles. 
    • Okay, so again I go running back to Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, but they do this really well. (for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take another drink for "Zack makes claims that Apocalypse World does something really well")
    • Here are Apocalypse World's Master of Ceremonies (GM) Agenda, [things to] Always Say and Principles (or how to approach GMing AW in a nutshell
      • Agenda
        • Make Apocalypse World seem real.
        • Make the players' characters' lives not boring.
        • Play to find out what happens.
      • Always Say
        • What the principles demand.
        • What the rules demand.
        • What your prep demands.
        • What honesty demands.
      • The Principles
        • Barf forth apocalyptica.
        • Address yourself to the characters, not the
        • players.
        • Make your move, but misdirect.
        • Make your move, but never speak its name.
        • Look through crosshairs.
        • Name everyone, make everyone human.
        • Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
        • Respond with fuckery and intermittent rewards.
        • Be a fan of the players’ characters.
        • Think offscreen too.
        • Sometimes, disclaim decision-making.
    • And you can find Dungeon World's equivalent here
    • Now, without the Apocalypse World rule book, some of those principles are probably fairly opaque, like "Sometimes, disclaim decision-making" or "Look through crosshairs" but they provide a great framework for running a game. If you compare them to Dungeon World's you can see that you can't apply the Apocalypse World Agenda and Principles to a Fantasy Heartbreaker game without making some adjustments but they're great inspiration.
    • I think that making it clear that you're trying to run a game by a set of Principles in addition to the rule set could help players get past Killer GM Syndrome. Maybe you need to make it a little explicit too, like I interpret "What honesty demands" from the Apocalypse World "Always Say" as
      • I, as the GM, will always be honest. I will tell you what your PCs see, hear and experience. They might miss something because they're not looking in the right place, an NPC might lie to them, but I will tell you the full information that your PC is entitled to. 
      • Even when I'm running a game that isn't Apocalypse World, I try to follow this rule. PCs might miss things, NPCs might lie to them, but I, as the GM don't lie. I wonder how much of a difference it will make in how my players approach in-game situations if I'm explicit about following this dictate to the best of my ability.
      • For what it's worth, I also think that Players should follow their own set of Principles and I've drafted up a sample set here.
  • Assume Good Intentions
    • I'm going to continue to assume that Player's have Good Intentions, even when they slip into habits that make me wonder if they have Killer GM Syndrome.
    • Even if they fall into treating me as I, the GM, am the enemy, instead of the ogre looming above them being the enemy, I'll try to let it roll off me during game.
    • When players try to be tricky or vague, I'll ask follow-up questions and try to encourage them to be honest and specific about what they'd like to accomplish in game and I'll try to treat those situations as negotiations instead of zero-sum questions.
  • Refuse to Perpetuate the Myth of the Killer GM
    • I'm not going to make any more jokes about GMs being the enemies of the PCs or players. Or even anymore "Rocks fall, everyone dies" jokes.
    • When I run a game where PC deaths are likely because of the conceit of the game I will be honest and up front about it.
      • If I decide to run the Tomb of Horrors, I'll at least let players know that the dungeon is deadly and they should make a back-up PC or two.
      • If I run Grim World I will make sure players know up front that Death Moves are an expected part of the game and that will necessarily require a PC death or two. (But the death moves in Grim World are awesome and well worth it).
    • In games where PC death is not an expected outcome I will work to make PC deaths count.
      • I won't have PCs die randomly at the result of a single die roll.
      • When a situation turns deadly I will try to make sure that the PCs and their Players understand the stakes.
Like I said, I don't think my players are consciously approaching my games with Killer GM Syndrome, but it has been gnawing at me and hopefully this rant has purged some of that from my system, or at least when I feel it coming up again I'll think back to the strategies I tried to come up with and see how effective they are.

(for those of you playing the Antagonist Relations blogpost drinking game, take a shot for making it through one of Zack's extended screeds)


  1. I wonder to what extent the problem is only solvable with a new group and new expectations.

    Then again, I also wonder what'll happen if you cater to people's current expectations and run a more whimsical/gonzo deadly death trap of doom type game. Not that I'm advocating Paranoia, but often times that seems to be a game that people are playing even if the rules are D&D...

    1. I don't know that a new group would solve it, as I mentioned I've found that this seems to seep in even with players who've only gamed with me. Now, new expectations and/or trying to remind players that I'm not running a game under the expectations they have might help.

      I think even if I ran a more whimsical/gonzo deadly death trap of doom game I'd want to be up front about it as I think (and maybe this is me thinking about being a player too much) more of the fun is either (a) beating the death trap dungeon through paranoid play or (b) maybe going through three or four PCs playing a little gonzo and loose as well.


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