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The Iron Fist and Abused GM Syndrome

Continuing our informal series on bad GMing (which began with My Girlfriend is AC 100 [1] and Gandalf Flies in on His Gold Dragon…Again [2]), here’s another classic example of GMing gone wrong: “My way or the highway.

This one’s tricky because in moderation, it’s actually a very useful approach to GMing — GMs are authority figures in nearly every RPG out there (as well as in most gaming groups), and you need to exercise a degree of control.

But when moderation goes out the window, along with fairness [1] and perspective [2], it’s not hard to spot:

Having tons of house rules, writing up novel-length campaign guidelines and the tendency to say “no” too often can also point to abused GM syndrome (which is related to abused player syndrome [3]). Abused GM syndrome (AGMS) comes from running games for bad groups for too long.

For example, I’ve known GMs who made a shitload of house rules because they were used to playing with powergamers, and needed to plug every loophole. Whose fault is that? Everyone’s, really — not just the GM’s.

Railroading (the fifth item on the list above) isn’t inherently a bad thing — it’s a great way to start a game with a new group, or when learning a new system. And some groups continue to enjoy it for years afterwards, too.

But when an NPC comes along once per session, puts a ring in each PC’s nose, and then leads them to the preordained conclusion of the GM’s kewl story, that’s a problem.

I’m not much of a pouter myself, and I rarely say no when “yes, with a really high difficulty” is an option — but I have had some pretty long campaign guidelines in the past. Ditto with house rules, although that stems more from my desire to tinker [4] than from needing to plug loopholes. I definitely don’t have AGMS — my GMing stints for bad groups have been brief and very infrequent.

How about you — do you have abused GM syndrome (AGMS), or have you gamed with a GM who did? I think ruling with an iron fist — essentially, being a control freak — is one very clear sign of AGMS — do you agree?

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "The Iron Fist and Abused GM Syndrome"

#1 Comment By Jeff Rients On April 14, 2006 @ 8:34 am

I address One meeeelyun house rules/Extensive pre-campaign guidelines issues by limiting myself to a one page pre-campaign handout that contains a kernel of background information, character guidelines, and other stuff players need to know. If I can’t fit the basic gist of a campaign on one page I assume I need to rethink the concept or the implementation. If the house rules are too long I need to find another system. If the synopsis of the campaign is too long then I need to come up with a tighter concept.

And in practical terms there are plenty of good players who won’t read more than a page or so of info.

#2 Comment By Anthony On April 14, 2006 @ 10:03 am

Addressing some of the comments above:

The GM that runs a system without house rules in advance, but impliments house rules on a whim also needs beaten with a wet noodle. I’ve played in several games where I get to a certain situation and find the rules aren’t going to work for my character like I thought. It turned my off of a D&D game with a group I really like recently.

Point 5 is also important. GM’s that get used to players that aren’t pro-active have adopted a style where the important clue always shows up at every single session. It ruins the hell out of things for people that like the exploration and discovery elements.

Lastly, I’m going to agree with a poster above but add GM’s should be REQUIRED to have an overall one page summary of a campaign to pass out before any game. I think the disconnect between player expectations has killed far too many games when it could be remedied with a simple campaign background sheet that could let people see if something is going to come up that goes against their play style.

#3 Comment By Frank On April 14, 2006 @ 10:38 am

I’ve been there with a lot of this (though I’ve not written novel length campaign background)…

One thing I’ve come to understant recently, there’s nothing wrong with power gaming, and in fact, I quite enjoy it. The trick is that the rules set has to really support it well. I used to consider Cold Iron a defense against power gaming/gamist play. What I realize now is that it’s totally not that. It’s totally a power gaming/gamist enabling system. The reason I enjoy running it is that the power gaming aspect actually works, and works for my tastes in power gaming. Now it turns out that D20 is along the same lines, however, I still cringe at parts of D20 (and mostly I think it’s saddled with some holdover from previous editions that limits it, plus I think they’ve gone and made the GM prep too complex).

Actually, when I look back at my gaming, things have actually been pretty good. Oh, sure, there have been plenty of non-memorable games, but there’s been very little horribly dysfunctional gaming.

As to a one page campaign summary – that’s something I’ve been trying to perfect. One thing my campaign summaries now are is more honest about play style. I no longer use the phrase “role playing not roll playing” (because such a phrase is totally meaningless in my mind). I’m up front that my games are combat heavy (perhaps even hack ‘n slash). But I also know that I run a much more interesting game than “Monster Manual from A-Z.”


#4 Comment By Kestral On April 14, 2006 @ 2:39 pm

In response to Anthony’s remark that GMs that implement house rules on whim need to be beaten:

I disagree. A GM should be willing to implement houserules on a whim, but only when it makes things better/easier/faster for the GM and the players.

Is a specific rule slowing down the game unnecessarily? Then it should be OK to implement a houserule to make play faster.

Unnecessary houserules are a pain, but they’re a matter of social contract.

#5 Comment By Martin On April 15, 2006 @ 11:21 am

Jeff & Anthony: I like the idea of limited house rules/campaign guidelines to a single page — I’ll have to use that the next time I run D&D.

Frank: I suspect you and I have different default definitions of “powergaming” — I don’t think it’s a bad thing when defined your way.

When I use the term, though, it’s to denote a style of play where kewl stuff trumps every other consideration, including how much (or, more aptly, how little) fun everyone else is having in the game.

Scott: Good point about general insecurity vs. AGMS. A lot of bad GMing behaviors stem from poor social skills (ditto with bad gaming tendencies in general), at least in my experience.

Kestral: That sounds about right to me — I always reserve the right to bring in new house rules during play, and make sure to consult my players (or at least provide a clear explanation) before implementing them.

#6 Comment By Frank Filz On April 15, 2006 @ 1:42 pm

Oh, I agree with your definition of powergaming. It’s just that I’ve realized that a lot of powergaming is really just good gamism, struggling with a system that doesn’t handle it well (for the players involved). Much of the problem is not so much that there’s anything wrong with what the “powergamer” is doing from a play standpoint, but that it isn’t right for that particular group. The real problem is when the rules text actively supports the “powergaming” in which case, really the players need to use a different system that matches their needs better.

Now where “powergamers” are most abusive is when they manipulate the social contract. They whine to the GM for special favors. They do things not in the spirit of the game, but technically by the rules. They manipulate D&D’s alignment system. Some of that can be cured by using a tighter system, or one that better suits the group. But the player himself may have an issue that can’t be resolved.


#7 Comment By Rick The Wonder Algae On April 16, 2006 @ 6:23 pm

I’m actually working hard on NOT doing this myself. It’s really rough when you’ve got the really “COOOOOOOOOL” concept, story, event, whatever, in your head and your players want to run away from it screaming into the night or have their own goals they want to pursue. I think it some cases, the old “flaming Death weasel trap” is fine (the really cool whatever is behind either the left OR the right door, whichever the party happens to enter. In other cases, it’s entirely inappropriate. It’s a fine line between “show your players something memorable and cool” and “tell your players a story under the guise of RPing.”