GM: Friend or Foe?

Something happened in out last game session that is so unimportant and unremarkable that I don’t even know that I should write about it. It had no effect on the outcome of the session and no one was worse or better off with or without it happening. So what was it? My character tried to set aflame a pile of dead kobolds and the GM said “no.”

The context is that our party was dug-in to a narrow hall in a kobold mine, defending it as our alchemist brewed a concoction that we would need to advance. After multiple waves we had accumulated quite the number of kobold corpses and thought we could use them to strengthen our position. So we stacked them across the hall to provide a barrier and then to add that “little extra” to deter anymore attacks we put our torches to them. Nothing happened. Our GM ruled that it was unrealistic for bodies to catch fire like that and after a very short debate we conceded to his judgement.

Without getting into the science of burning bodies, of which there hasn’t been a lot of research, I feel our GM made entirely the wrong call. He chose to punish or at least discourage our creative spirit over an encounter that will not have any major bearing on our character’s development or story arc. What I mean is the next and last wave that attacked us we thoroughly destroyed and routed. The bodies that we laid were pushed out of the way and didn’t have any major role in the battle.

So I’ve been wondering when it would be beneficial to penalize the players for being creative, which is exactly what happened here. In a recent post by LS he describes how he essentially let a low level character get multiple attacks and access to cleave without having any of the prerequisites. It’s worth reading if you’re a GM. I think in his situation LS made the right call. After all, why penalize players for creativity? Because of rules or reality? Those are terrible reasons.

If a player is willing to suspend his disbelief for a few hours and pretend he is a dwarf clearing a mine of kobolds is it too much for the GM to do the same? (That is suspend his disbelief). Let’s say I read about our situation in a book and the author had his character ignite the bodies using nothing but a torch. I’m not going to throw the book down in frustration because I don’t think that’s realistic. I’m going to enjoy it and keep reading. Why isn’t the same mentality adopted in gaming?

Throw the rules and realism arguments aside for a moment, I think this goes deeper than those.

What I think this comes down to is the way GMs and players think about each other. Is the GM working for the player or against them? Because of our experience in the gaming world (from table top to computer) I think there’s a natural tendency for players to view the GM as their opponent and likewise for the GM to view the players the same way. Because of this mentality GMs will often find themselves trying to defeat the players, especially subconsciously.

To support this, after our session my GM (who I love by the way and I’m not bashing him) even said that he was out of ideas to throw against us in the last encounter. Essentially he had run out of ideas to defeat us. Now our GM is pretty generous with helping us survive so it’s not like he is maliciously trying to kill off our characters. But as he observed we had effectively defeated the obstacle set before us; however, instead of accepting this and letting the story advance, he kept trying to defeat us to the point where he told us we weren’t allowed to defend ourselves by putting burning bodies in the hallway to dissuade any more attacks.

I wonder what end he was trying to reach, surely not a character death or party wipe?

The more I read and research the more I’m aware of how many people view the GM as an opponent. When the reality is that he is a player’s ally. Not just a judge to walk us through the world, but a cooperant, working with us to see our characters grow and enjoy the adventures we go through.

I’m not suggesting a GM hold the players’ hands or fudge so many rolls that we’re never in any danger. Not at all actually. Players want challenges, we even want failures (though not fatal) as they make our victories all the sweeter. The obstacles the GM places in front of us provide the conflict that make our characters’ stories dramatic and worth going through. The obstacle aren’t there to end the story or defeat the players.

So before you, the GM, say no to the players ask yourself what denying them adds to the story. Likewise ask if allowing them to do something takes away from the story. But ultimately for the sake of the story and for the sake of fun, be willing throw out the rules and suspend your disbelief just like the people around your table are already doing. I mean hell, we bought you beer and pizza.

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