How I’m Adapting My GMing Style

A few days ago, I realized my current Dungeon World game wasn’t working. My players frequently were completely stuck about what to do next. I would follow through on the natural consequence of the players’ actions, and it often felt really harsh. I presented quest hooks, and my players would just move on.

In short, the game wasn’t very fun for my players, so it wasn’t fun for me either.

It was the sort of game I would play in. However, my players didn’t enjoy it, so I thought about what they might want. That thinking led to two dimensions by which my preferred style differed from my players.

How bad are the baddies?

Perhaps it’s possible to run some TTRPGs without conflict, but most traditional, fantasy, D&D-like RPGs assume that you’re fighting against something. However, the nature of that evil varies.

Bad guys are bad

“Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished”

-Alan Moore, Watchmen

Light side and Dark side. Good and bad. It’s the most classic version of a heroic story. Something out there is just inherently bad and must be destroyed. In fantasy, this is definitely the territory of the Undead, Devils, and Demons. No further explanation required before pulling out swords and flinging fireballs.

Bad guys are misunderstood

“Every villain is a hero of his or her own story”

-Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

No doubt that the bad guys are doing bad things and should be stopped. However, if you take the time to understand where they came from or what their motivations are, you can sympathize. Mr. Freeze is trying to save his wife. The tyrant in the neighboring kingdom was abused as a child.

Swords are still recommended, but maybe there’s a brief conversation before the killing blow.

Bad guys aren’t bad

Look for causes, not villains

-Hans Rosling, Factfulness

I was really taken by Rosling’s point in Factfulness that often, seemingly malicious behavior is the consequence of non-obvious incentives. Often, people aren’t inherently bad: they are just in a tough spot that we can’t see. We can’t all get what we want; so then what happens? Border conflicts. Unequal or insufficient resources.

In this situation, the first question is who to point the sword at.

You’re the bad guy

Are We the Baddies?

That Mitchell and Webb Look

RPGs have long offered players the option to be the bad guy. On the alignment chart, an entire section is dedicated to “evil.” In practice, I think most players choose to be good, but it’s worth mentioning this style exists.

Swords everywhere. No one is safe.

In-game applications of baddies

All of this can be great games, but it depends on what the players want.

In my game, I had a short arc dealing with some ghosts stuck in a tomb. The ghosts were supposed to become immortal several centuries ago, but due to a ritual gone wrong, they were all bound as ghosts to the tomb, and would have been so until the players came along.

The players cleaned up the mess, but the ghosts had split into two factions: one wanted to become immortal, and the other wanted to move on to the next plane of existence. However, completing the ritual was an all-or-nothing choice, so the players had the final choice: immortal or final death?

As a GM, I didn’t care which they chose: as long as the ritual was completed, they would get a very nice treasure.

However, the players decided as a group that this situation was too messy, that they didn’t care, and it was up to the ghosts to choose. They promptly walked out of the tomb, and I never had a chance to reward them.

I thought the final choice would be a nice twist for the players make a mark and changed the course of this fictional world. However, they really just wanted to do the right thing, get paid, and move on. They wanted the bad guys to actually be bad.

So next time, if there is a choice, it will be much more clear which one the “good” option is. On that note, that brings up the second consideration.

How much is planned?

In a TTRPG, anything is possible. GM discretion overrides all other rules, which can allow for intricate and infinite gameplay that most other games cannot mimic.

However, whether those paths are taken or permissible is very much up to the style of game.

Railroading. Sometimes there isn’t a choice. No matter what the players try to do, they end up being pushed back to wherever the GM wants the story to go.

Magician’s Choice. Sometimes there is a choice, but behind the scenes, it doesn’t make a difference. However, that’s the GM handling things behind the scenes; the players should feel like their choice mattered.

Branching. Choices are posed to the players, and those can result in different outcomes. The GM likely has pre-planned at least a few possibilities, then proceeds through the flow chart.

Sandbox. Everything is a choice, and there are few presumed paths. Whatever the players do is fine, and the GM just reacts to that to keep things moving.

Railroading tends to get a bad rap in TTRPG discussions. Critics assume that the GM has an agenda and unfortunate players are forced into certain outcomes against their will.

However, my experience is that many players are happy to just go along with whatever happens. As long as the GM weaves an interesting game, they are happy just to have participated along the way.

In-game applications of planning

Early on in this campaign, I relied on randomly generated dungeons. As the players moved from room to room, I rolled on the random tables in the back of the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide to create the rooms on the fly. At first, I worried that a random dungeon would lack cohesion, but it ended up being a fun exercise in rationalizing everything along the way.

I ended up moving away from that approach because it was a lot to remember. I also thought the players would enjoy a more deliberately created world.

However, that random dungeon was the most immersive and extensive experience the players have gotten yet. Rather than being limited by my imagination, it just kept going, and it was a lot for the players to explore. They seemed fine picking random doors to open just to keep things moving.

Final Thoughts

On these two dimensions, I have taken away a nuanced perspective about what sort of game my players want. Anecdote one about the ghosts suggests that they want clear answers given about what to do. Anecdote two about the random dungeon suggests that they are comfortable wandering about to see what happens.

TTRPGs allow for diverse playstyles even within a game, and I want to vary gameplay as much for myself as for my players. Knowing what does and doesn’t work and breaking down why just helps to hone in on moments why the game isn’t working and redirect to other ways to play.

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