Monday, 21 October 2013

The GM Spectrum

Forgive any mistakes in this one, folks... I've fallen down with Nurgle's Rot recently and am a little off, so my powers of proof reading are sloppy at best. Maybe I can do another pass over it in a few days once I am feeling the light of Sigmar in me once again.

There are many different GMing styles out there, and attempting to catalogue them all would be pointless. Also, knowing how one GM goes about playing isn't all that helpful to others, in my opinion. No two GMs are the same, so what works for one style-wise simply wont work as well for another. Nor should it. I wouldn't expect Monet and Van Gough to be able to sit down and swap style guides, nor should anyone expect two GMs to do the same...

But what can be examined to great effect is the attitude with which we GM. These are moving targets, and can each be used by the same GM during the same campaign at different times to great effect. So now I present to you the GM Spectrum.

The GM Spectrum

The GM Spectrum is a five-portioned scale, including: Guardian, Guide, Referee, Challenger, and Antagonist. Each has their pros and cons, and certainly has situations where they should and should not be used. Lets take a closer look...


The Guardian GM

The Guardian GM is the GM who protects their players. This GM looks for ways to make the player's dreams come true through their characters and to prevent harm from befalling them along the way - this could take the guise of fudging dice rolls in the player's favour or planning out encounters so that they have quick and easy escape routes (or no challenge at all in truth).

All this isn't to say that this GM makes a railroad or a campaign that isn't fun - they will present the game as if it has the illusion of difficulty, but they will in fact be protecting their players along the way.


Pros

The pros of a Guardian GM are that everyone at the table is more likely to have a fun and relaxed time. Even though there may be the illusion of challenge, everyone under a Guardian GM should feel like their characters are the heroes and that they will almost certainly survive to fight another day.

This means that a Guardian GM makes their players feel safe and rewarded, and this opens up for a breezy and generally laid back, more heroic campaign.


Cons

On the other hand, players can often feel lead along and unchallenged. As with any game design, a lack of challenge will lead to a state of boredom instead of flow. This is problematic and may result in the rewards the player's get being meaningless.


When To Adopt

This attitude is best suited for cinematic moments during a campaign - moments where a lack of payoff would be anti-climactic and silly, such as the end of a massive story arch, or at the climax of a well thought out plan devised by the players.


When To Avoid

This attitude is best avoided when the players are entering a location they know to be dangerous, or are attempting something you've described as impossible or the stuff of legends. If it is so easy to climb to the top of Hero Mountain and slay the Legendary Dragon King, then why hasn't it been done before?!


The Guide GM

The Guide GM is the GM who wants the players to win, but wants them to earn it. This is the GM which will present a problem to the PCs and then will aid the players in solving it - they will make the solutions easy to find with a bit of digging and will always have an exit strategy up their sleeve in the event things are getting a little to dicey in game.

But the Guide has to come with something to guide the players through... They establish plenty of problems with often hidden solutions. The players till have to work, but the GM is on their side in the whole endeavour.


Pros

The pros of the Guide GM are mainly that it has some of the safety of the Guardian, but also has the risk. The PC could be harmed or even die, but only if the players make a grave mistake. This will make a more convincing illusion of risk (as there technically is a risk, however minimal) without making the situation seem overwhelming.


Cons

The cons are that this attitude is the closest to railroading - this attitude assumes that the GM is inherently biased in the players' favour, but is giving them situations where it seems like they aren't. If this illusion is shattered, there is no going back and the players will lose a lot of what makes this attitude worthwhile.


When To Adopt

This attitude is best suited for situations where the players should feel the stress, but should still succeed. This means the ultimate battles at the end of the campaign, or the moments when they are reaching for that legendary sword which has been long foretold to be in their hands. They can't really fail, otherwise the prophecy is wrong... But they should have to go through gruelling ordeals to get there, otherwise this GM is a Guardian.


When To Avoid

This attitude is best avoided when the players have done something decidedly uncharacteristic or un-heroic. Why Guide them when they are going shopping, or stealing from old ladies? If the cops catch them, so be it. Throw them in jail, lock away the key. Then start planning for a jail break session!


The Referee GM

The Referee GM is in the middle of the spectrum for a reason. This GM is impartial. They establish situations with problems and then present them to the players. The players either succeed or fail, and then the GM presents the resultant situation. Every success is met with another problem, and every failure is met with a chance of redemption.

But the key is that the GM has no say in which one prevails. That is all up to the mettle of the players.


Pros

The pros for this attitude are great - the players feel higher amounts of fiero when they succeed, as it was all on them, as well as feeling like the game world is truly being shaped by their efforts. These are strong emotions, but they come with some pretty big cons...


Cons

...which are that the players can often feel overwhelmed by a lack of a windfall for their characters - nothing ever seems to go 'right'. They succeed because they work damn hard for it, not because they are heroes. This can create a tiring and stressful game which can often feel more like work than play.

Furthermore, and this might just be me, but this attitude is less fun for the GM. They are passively creating situations and presenting them. By becoming engaged, they are working against the strengths of this section of the spectrum, and as such are some other form of GM. So for the great boons of this attitude, the GM needs to take a back seat.


When To Adopt

This attitude is best to implement mid-campaign; when it can go either way. This is the best attitude to use when deciding how the entire campaign will pan out afterwards - the PCs are all in their elements, and they are comfortable playing by this point, but even they can't see the light at the end of the tunnel yet.


When To Avoid

This attitude should be strictly avoided for two portions of the game - the beginning and the end. The beginning is often difficult for players, as they are unsure of their characters and will likely freeze up when presented with situations without any guidance or indication of what needs doing. Further, at the end they will have expectations and so will the GM, and going with this system will frustrate everyone, as it never turns out how anyone is hoping (as that is strictly the point).


The Challenger GM

The Challenger GM is one who views the game as a struggle between the PCs and their world. They establish lots of problems that need solving and keep lots of secrets hidden up their sleeves. When one problem is solved, it usually means another two have come to the fore.

This doesn't mean being a jerk, inventing new ways to screw over your players just when they think they've won, but more building up the tension so that when they finally break over the crest of success there is much fist pumping and cheers of accomplishment!


Pros

The pros are that this attitude creates perhaps the most fiero possible. It is a hard slog to the finish line, but the oranges set aside on the table beyond that white finish-line ribbon are divine... The players will feel great accomplishment, and the GM will feel great pride in seeing them win through.


Cons

That is, if the PCs get that far... The Challenger GM is in danger of making it to difficult. If it isn't difficult enough, then the players will feel like the whole thing was a push over. If it is to difficult, they will likely stop caring, as the game is more work than play at this point. This is a balance that must be found carefully.


When To Adopt

This attitude works best for situations when the PCs have embarked on something big, or have just begun a new story arc. Pile on the problems so they can work through them all and grow into the heroes they need to be for the climax.


When To Avoid

This attitude should be avoided nearing the end of an arc, however, for the players need a win. They will begin to get tired of the stress eventually and will want to play something else which is more rewarding. It is before they get to this tipping point that you should switch from Challenger to Guide or even Guardian (but make it seem like nothing has happened :P).


The Antagonist GM

The Antagonist GM is the final step on the spectrum and my personal pet peeve. It is the GM who sees the game as PCs vs GM. This may not seem different to the Challenger at first, but note that the Challenger is PCs vs The World and the Antagonist is PC vs GM.

In this attitude, the GM attempts to defeat the PCs by throwing everything that contextually makes sense to throw at them. Note though that this doesn't mean be a dick head and rocks-fall-everybody-dies, or set up situations where the PCs have no hope. (One billion dragons arrive. Roll for Initiative.) This means pulling all the stops and using the rules of the game as if you were another player but with an army of NPCs.

This can actually be used well, as in the instance of removing Plot Immunity (which I may write a post on) or to create tension.


Pros

If a player manages to survive an encounter such as this, then they will feel truly proud of themselves and it will forge a much tighter bond between the party.


Cons

On the other hand, this tighter bond within the party will also result in a lessening of the bond between players and GM. The GM will have their work cut out for them to return trust if it is broken, and some players can feel cheated if things go badly and their GM is usually further left on the spectrum.


When To Adopt

There are only two instances when I think this attitude is actually a good idea: the climax of a personal plot line (I.e. a PC is about to become a God and the other Gods all gang up to kill them), or at the end of a campaign (The PCs have just stormed the Evil King's fortress and it is on...)

My advice would be to tell your players that you are removing Plot Immunity or adopting the Antagonist GM attitude before you do it (preferably at the end of the session before you do) to give them some time to prepare. Explain to them why you want to do it as well (for tension reasons, not the plot line) and get them on board. If they sincerely don't want you to do it, or are shaky on the subject, best not to risk it.


When To Avoid

All other times. Seriously, this attitude is only fun for the players if it is used very sparingly and only when they've been warned. Nothing sours a gaming relationship more than this attitude used badly.


Conclusion

Each of these attitudes is useful to the GM, and each should be used at some point or another. I myself swing between Guide and Challenger most often, and am planning to pepper the end of Shadows Within Shadows with a bit of Antagonist, and the beginning of Into the Expanse with some Guardian.

Hopefully this outline will help you all prevent a GMing catastrophe!