Sunday, September 03, 2006

Thoughts on GM Cheating

My original Post to RPG-Create:

But Never(!) do I like to see a GM who deliberately makes things difficult and changes the stats of things mid-game just because the Players are doing well. That to me seems like a cheat. Unless, perhaps, if the Players actually get bored because the setup was too easy. Hmmm... ok ok. Maybe we need to let the GM do his thing. Maybe we need to say that GMing technique might need to stay adaptable to the situation at hand, and that the general sense of things is pretty simple: Play fair. Make it challenging. Be Flexible. Have fun.

The Reply:

I heard someone describe this Meme as "No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy" or "Every Encounter Must Be A Challenge". It can be very frustrating if you don't know it's what the GM believes, and you make a very good plan that should have been a cakewalk.

My Reply to The Reply:

I think what you mean is that as Players when you know certain facts about, say, a dungeon, and you go ahead and make a plan for it's assault, if the GM has the "I will be flexible if my (the GM's) pre-set plan regarding who in the dungeon is were and what stuff do they have is too easy" Meme going on then it is frustrating for the Players if the Players don't know the GM has that Meme.

If I have that right then allow me to clarify by suggesting that the key factor in the change from the GM on the difficulty would not be that the Players are winning which in my mind is *Bad* GMing (ie- unfair), but rather that the Players are bored because the scenario was in fact simply too easy. So the GM 'decides' that the kobold that escaped went and got Old Berg, the Ogre, to come upstairs and thwamp on the interlopers.

Yes, that can be frustrating if the Players feel cheated by such an action. I had one GM, Master David, who on the first day I played in his world announced quite blithely and truthfully, "By the way, I cheat". At the time I found his admission both shocking and amusing. But in all, he had one of the best worlds I ever played in; a real masterpiece of fantasy-fiction. And it turned out he 'cheated' in just the way I'm suggesting – the purpose of the ‘cheats’ were to make the game fun. It wasn't rampant really, but it was decisive. David feels that Story trumps Mechanics and if the story is boring the mechanics must be overridden, even if this means he must 'cheat' to make it so. He makes no bones about that. The Players, who know he does that, don’t mind either, which is to your point. He doesn’t say when he’s cheating, he just does it. The game is fun, people are excited, and it works out well in the end. But he’s a big cheater, yup.

As an aside on the question of ‘cheating’ I noticed very early on that GMs all ‘cheat’ to some degree. Why? Well, the early rules systems (at least) encouraged it because they were not balanced very well for our games. So we wound up with the situation that if you played by the original rules strictly (and we had one GM who really did) then the world was simply too hard and everyone kept dying. We also had problems with experience point totaling and so the GMs, until they settled the issue with their own rules, would cheat and just kind of ‘assign’ experience according to the GM’s Fiat. We didn’t like it and would haggle a lot, and in the end it would work out, but that was a rough spot. The original rules of D&D (going back to 1978 or so) were not entirely ‘finished’, but were a “take it from here and build out your own”. Which we did. Until we got to certain areas that we built out on, there seemed to be a ‘cheat’ requirement. That was our take on it, though I’m sure others may have handled it differently and I’d be curious to hear how. The one GM who played strictly by the rules did have a great world, though – but the Players found it just a tad wee bit too rough (understatement).

On the other hand in other worlds the GM may try not to 'cheat' and try to go with the scenario as designed, which means that he won't throw a new set of monsters at the party if they weren't nearby in my setup. But even then you get this area of GM nuance. One might let the Kobold that escape find the Ogre and bring him back if the dungeon gets wiped too easily by the Players. Is it cheating? Well, he rolls for it. Does the Kobold (1-4) run to get The Ogre, or 5 run to get the big dog, or 6, run away and hide? So it is rolled. Does that make it a 'cheat'?

Well the only reason, in this example, that the GM rolled to begin with was to see if he can add something into the mix because said Players are Bored sitting on the coach grousing about "man, that was too easy - what’s on TV?". Hmmm... Otherwise if they didn't feel that way and were rather like "man, that was cool - lets grab the treasure and hightail it back to town while we still have a chance - and come back again later!" then the roll, in my GMerly opinion, might not be 'necessary'.

I'm not sure if this should go down as 'cheating' then. But it is definitely influencing game play on the fly, and is more dependent on Player mood than on the setup in the game. Which is to say, in this case the GM didn't think of any particular pattern for an escaping kobold in advance. He made that up on the fly, lets say. Is that fair? Or is that 'cheating'? My own take is that it is acceptable-cheating. And that’s where that huge gray area sits. What is acceptable cheating for the sake of the game? 0%? 20%? 100%? And that is where I am saying that Gamesmaster’s nuance should allow the GM to cheat within certain bounds for certain reasons which are not easily defined because the number of variables that could necessitate GM cheating are very many, interwoven, and not easily measured. In that case the GM should be given what I am calling Flexibility.
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