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Hot Button: Who Trumps Who?

Not long ago, I was surfing the boards (I won’t mention where) and I came across a post from a gamer who insisted that it was the GM’s job to serve the players. I’m paraphrasing, but it seemed to me that he was saying that the GM should always allow player decisions to trump her designs. It’s a viewpoint I’ve heard echoed before.

In the early 90s, I played a game under a GM praised by several gamers in my circle at the time. I sat there while he told me an entertaining story about my character and, if I was lucky, I’d get to make one decision or dice roll before he cut the scene. Calling his GMing style “railroading” would not do him justice. I’ve read Endless Quest/Choose Your Adventure books that asked me for more input. Still, to give credit where credit is due, he was an excellent storyteller (in the classic, not WoD, sense) and he was masterful at bridging scenes.

Obviously, I’ve used two extreme examples of “player trumping” and “GM trumping.” However, I have, on both sides of the screen, been party to sessions where the GM tries to run an adventure and the players either veto it outright or “resist the story” as much as they can throughout the session. I’ve also been party to players that modify their┬ádecisions to accommodate the adventure. And, I’ve also seen GM’s rein in players to keep things on track (pun intended).

What say you? Should the players be able to essentially veto an adventure and, if they do, should they expect the GM to continue running that session? Should the GM coax drifting players back into the adventure or always let the chips fall where they may?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Hot Button: Who Trumps Who?"

#1 Comment By nblade On September 29, 2008 @ 9:45 am

Ahh the extremes. I guess I feel blessed that when I GM, the players don’t feel railroaded into adventures. That said, I don’t think that either side should trump the other.

The players do have the right to veto an adventure, but they should not expect the GM to continue running the session. Now, if the GM knows he group, he might have one or two side adventures that he could run that session.

Now, if the players veto an adventure, a GM should determine the results of the players not getting evolved and present the players with the results. I’m not saying the GM should punish the players, but if they don’t go and save the maiden, there should be a string of events. Maybe a less suited party goes and get a load of fame. Maybe the players have to suffer through the disaster they were trying to avoid. Maybe the players are now known as cowards or aloof.

I’ve seen both types of extremes. Like all extremes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Players and GM should work together. The players should make know what kind of adventures they are seeking and the GM should try to accommodate them in someway. This doesn’t mean the GM should just do everything the players say, but the GM should know what the players would like to see and the GM should see if he can provide something to appropriate.

In the end, if the GM thinks the party is always against any adventure he sets up. Maybe the GM should take a break or find a new group. If the players think the GM is always railroading them or they are just not having fun, I think its time for them to find a new GM. Both side of the game should be having fun. If one side or both sides are not having fun, something is wrong and likely there needs to be some sort of shake up.

#2 Comment By robustyoungsoul On September 29, 2008 @ 10:31 am

Like so many things I suppose it is a matter of taste, but the thing that differentiates tabletop gaming to just good old fashioned story-telling to me is player input.

For that reason I always want the players’ input to matter, and I will usually defer to their decisions and actions. Some systems are better at fostering this type of play, and those are the ones I personally prefer.

#3 Comment By Cole On September 29, 2008 @ 10:50 am

I think everyone has a role to fulfill during play. That role depends on the type of the game system and style of play used by the group. Sometimes the individuals in the group have to be reminded of their respective roles. If the individual starts to rebel against his role, than something needs to change.

The change can be as simple as changing the game system, or as drastic as the guy changing groups. It really depends on the situation.

I think the group trumps the individual in most situations.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 29, 2008 @ 11:00 am

It depends on what was pitched. If the GM says, “we’re going to play a sandbox game– there’s no plot, just what you do”, then I’m going to be upset if the plot is anything more that a prompt towards another set of fun choices. Conversely, if the GM says, “Let’s try out 4e; I’ve bought Keep on the Shadowfell”, then if we choose to play that game, we should accept that it’s a module– the hooks won’t be perfectly suited to our characters, but we’ll go along with it.

It comes down to truth in advertising. If the GM promises an open world (or the group agrees that they want to play in an open world), then I’ll expect the game to match. If the GM/group signs proposes a strongly scripted plot, then I’ll be annoyed when PCs wander off the rails and waste session time. Either way, accurately propose how we’ll play, and I’ll adjust my play to match.

#5 Comment By LesInk On September 29, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

To answer the question straight up, the game should always be a certain amount of compromise between players and GM. In the same way that the GM should never railroad, the players should never out and out veto a game. In the rare case that the GM misread the players totally and wants them to go left when they want to go right, hmm, I would say then that the GM needs to bend — but only after some clear OOC discussion about why the adventure is going so wrong and what can be fixed for the next game.

To answer the question in a different way, in one of the campaigns I ran, I did serve the characters fairly deeply, but I used the motto, “What the players want, but with a twist.” In the same way a genie gives you what you want, it never is quite what you want and the player later might regret their request. With great power comes … complications! So the party chooses to the take out the long running mob boss only to find out the local officials were waiting for the opportunity to take the boss out and replace him with their own corrupt rulership.

#6 Comment By Vampir On September 30, 2008 @ 2:48 am

I think that when creating an adventure, the whole group should agree upon it before anyone begins to create their characters (players) or plot (GM). In my experience talking things through with the players as to what they expect and what the GM would like to run, a compromise can be made that suits everyone to a certain extent. A bit like deciding what game system the group will play next!

#7 Comment By penguin133 On September 30, 2008 @ 2:52 am

Oh, for one player who is willing to GIVE any input. I have spent years fighting two so-called players who considered their gaming obligation to consist of rolling dice under my direction and having the results interpreted for them from my books. “Did I do it?” “What do I need to hit it?” One gave orders consisting of an attack and a target – “Bash it!” “Bashitagain!” “Shootit!”; in any noncombat situation he resorted to “I’ll ponder the situation,” or some such, and waited to be told what he thought. The other was quite terrified of admitting that his character existed; his only contribution (to a PBEM) was to write speeches for the NPCs, such as the fighter insisting the Wizard was “Queer” because “Everyone knows all these Wizards are queer!” When I protested he wrote the same thing, followed by “I tell him to shut up!” Then he graduated to describing an NPC’s actions, “X will contact the Thieves’ Guild”, “Y will have a word with Z”, without telling me what they were supposed to SAY; and then to “We” will “have a word with”, or “we” had perhaps better think about considering… etc. The one time I got a straight answer was when in a moment’s panic after I told him to describe his character’s actions, he gasped, “I can’t do THAT, you’ll KILL me!” Trying to get a reaction to the scene, let alone the story, was impossible. It was like pulling teeth, and is the reason I now play solo only!
Sorry, I shouldn’t be moaning!

#8 Comment By Tommi On September 30, 2008 @ 11:16 am

1. As Scott Martin said.

2. It depends on the game; if it is one that requires a lot of preparation, the players should know that and respect the prep. If it allows for quick and easy prep, the players should be able to do as they will, unless otherwise decided by the group.

#9 Comment By Fang Langford On September 30, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

As I see it, the responses run the gamut. And it’s true, ultimately this is a matter of taste.

In theory blogs, they want to empower the game mechanics. ‘System must matter’

I for one like to layer things. I think the whole idea of ‘trumping’ anything is serious dated.

The players are the driving force of the game. They can choose scenes, offer plots and give directions.

The gamemaster may appear to serve them, but he does not. He ‘manages’ the game. He works to make every scene emotionally engaging and that plots raise tension and climax. And when it comes to directions, he just puts stuff in the players’ way.

(The game mechanics mitigate conflicts – PVP or PVE – offers source material and maintains atmosphere.)

Let me put it this way, who decides how many kobold are behind the door? Who decides whether or not the necromancer is even in this dungeon? The gamemaster does this and can do it such that you don’t even know if he’s changing everything as he goes.

Using this, whatever agenda the gamemaster has, goes, in every game. I prefer anything to railroading, so I pick conflict sources out of what the players do. I just whip that into a grand scheme as I go.

Fang Langford
Creator of [1]

#10 Comment By Swordgleam On September 30, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

As others have said, I think it depends on expectations and preferences, and should usually be a compromise.

Personally, I think the story trumps both. If I’m a GM, and a player wants to do something utterly different than what I had intended, but much cooler, I will go out of my way to make it happen. If I have something that I’m pretty sure we’ll all think is cool planned, but it’s not a perfect fit, I’ll ask the players for help in getting us there. We all trust each other, which is why it works. The players know I won’t say, “Come up with a reason for your character to be near the main gate tomorrow morning” unless something awesome is going down tomorrow morning at the main gate. Conversely, I know when my player says, “I pray for Torog to send some goblins just before dawn,” he isn’t doing it to be a jerk.

I tend to expect the same thing when I’m a player – if I want to do something awesome, I’ll get irritated if the GM doesn’t allow it and I can’t see a good reason. If the GM asks me to play along with something, or makes a call I don’t understand, I trust that it’s because he has something great in mind for the story.

#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 30, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

The GM is in charge. The GM also has the responsibility to provide a good game, or at least the ingredients for a good game.

#12 Comment By penguin133 On October 1, 2008 @ 2:26 am

Quite correct, Telas. My sentiments exactly. You provide the best mix of “stuff” you can and let the players make the cake the way they want; if you can provide multiple story threads it is excellent fun, especially if they are interconnected, because the players will keep colliding with the various “bits” whichever way they go!

#13 Comment By lady2beetle On October 3, 2008 @ 9:32 am

I guess I’m in the middle of the road. I feel like as long as the players recognize that it’s a game and understand the work that the GM is going through to present them with that game, there shouldn’t be very much of an issue.

As an example, I joined a group once, when they were in the middle of their adventure. We sat down, they helped me design my character and then when the GM presented my character to the party, one of the characters flipped out, declaring that I wasn’t with the party when they accomplished their last mission, and they weren’t obligated to trust my character or give me any share of the future treasure. I can appreciate that the player was roleplaying and I usually love roleplaying, but I think there are times when the player need to reign in their character. Because it is just a game – and if my character wasn’t going to be welcome in the party, I should have been told before I sat down and spent all the time creating them.

My current group is an example of a great balance. Most of us have all GMed (and do periodically), so we all know what it takes to GM and how hard it is. We also typically use pre-published adventures because it’s less work. Again, this means that we all understand it. So, when the GM blocks a PCs action or “encourages” them to take one, they don’t have to be blunt about it – we as players know enough to get the hint (and we usually joke about a bright neon sign that says “plot this way”). On the other hand, the fact that we all trade off being GMs mean that we also trade off being players. And so, we all know how it feels to want to follow our character’s passions and as GMs, we all try to be as flexible as possible. I, personally, can’t imagine being in any other sort of group.

#14 Comment By BryanB On October 10, 2008 @ 10:01 am

I tend to agree with those mentioning module style play vs. free form or open style play. If I am playing or running a module (not often), then I expect the game to be more structured and more linear. If I am playing a one-shot at a meet up or convention then I expect the game to be tightly focused and somewhat linear in nature. As a player, I will try to focus my attention towards the “carrot” that the module or one-shot seems to be aiming at. Thus you could say that the GM trumps the players out of necessity.

Campaign play is completely different. I run games in what I call the Matrix Method. I have PCs, NPCs, a framework of plot and an extensive back-story that gives me a foundation to build upon. The PCs have goals and the NPCs have goals. Conflict or cooperation will happen based on these goals. It is dynamic and flexible.

Events may happen if the PCs choose not to act and events will happen if they choose to act. If I have six scenes in mind for a particular session, only scene one and scene six will likely happen in the order that I plan for. The player’s actions or inactions drive the story but it is a collaborative effort because I set the stage and have NPCs act or react according to their motives. In this case, I would say that no one trumps anyone. The players need me as much as I need them.

#15 Comment By Harboe On August 18, 2009 @ 6:48 am

Whenever I’ve been a GM, I’ve tended towards “sandbox” games. The players might spend an entire session without interacting with any established plot (I had an entire solo-session about a player buying a factory and converting it to a fortress) and I love it!
It gives me the opportunity to flex my creative muscles and the players love being able to go in whichever direction they feel is the right one.

All you need to make it work is A LOT of names, generic stats, a good deal of named, statted NPCs and readiness to go with the flow.

I do feel that the players have an obligation to help ease the GMs workload (by giving input, ideas etc.), but the GM has an equal obligation to make things easier on the PCs (introduce a plot hook or five a session, make them interact with any NPC they choose etc.)

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On April 22, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

I run Call of Cthulhu. If the players say “we’re not having anything to do with this; we go shopping for guns and attempt to muscle in on the local bootlegging ring” I reply “let me take a look at those character sheets then”.

Once I have them I confiscate them with the words “six months after you cruelly snub your friend’s desperate plea for help the world is swallowed whole by a seething, extra-dimensional being of immense size and you all cease to exist in a form capable of independent action, spending what might as well be eternity as mental voices in a chorus of praise to Azathoth, mindless and thankless lord of all.

“You’ll be needing new characters in the universe in which this didn’t happen. These are no longer in play.”

That usually brings a sense of purpose and focus back to the game. 8E