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Adversarial GMs

In a recent GnomeCast [1], Chris, Phil, and I got a little sidetracked from the idea of player intent [2] and waxed poetic for a bit about “adversarial GMs.” We all agreed that a GM who considers himself or herself a direct opposing force to the players’ desires can be a detriment to having fun at the gaming table. Phil and I chatted about this a bit away from the mics, and I thought it would make a great article to dig a little deeper into.

My Definition

In my own words, I consider an “adversarial GM” to be the person running a roleplaying game, but with the mindset of directly opposing all actions the players wish to take or outright denying the players’ desires to do what they wish with their characters.

This is pretty broad in scope with plenty of wiggle room for splitting hairs to happen, but I think it covers the basics.

Why would someone want to be adversarial while running a game, especially a game where they are most likely to be among friends? I’m not going to try to psychoanalyze the phantom idea of the adversarial GM. Mainly because I’d fail miserably, but mostly because I have some experience on where this behavior sprouts from based on my own past.

Let’s talk about that, shall we?

My Distant Past

When I entered roleplaying games at the tender age of ten, my experiences with games were that there was a single winner and one (or more) losers at the game. That was the nature of games. This very much led to the “me vs. them” attitude many gamers of my generation adopted. This was mainly because we didn’t know any better. The idea of “collaborative storytelling” hadn’t quite made it into our collective consciousness.

 This, naturally, led all of us to think of the GM as the opponent. 
This, naturally, led all of us to think of the GM as the opponent. The GM also held the same conceit with regards to the players. Through reading the rule books (thinking of the original Mentzer red box set here), it was quite clear the players needed to cooperate to overcome the challenges the GM threw at them. It was also clear that the GM needed to provide those challenges. However, I don’t recall from my distant memories of reading the red box that it clearly stated that the GM needed to be a fan of the PCs and collaborate with them.

Taking all of this into account, we all set ourselves up with our past experiences, biases, and concepts to take roleplaying into the dark side of a battle between the PCs and the GM. Things did get better, though.

My Recent Past

It took quite a while for me to mature beyond the “me vs. them” attitude. Quite a few years passed of playing games where the GM wasn’t a “fan of the PCs.” Honestly, this left a sour taste in my mouth, but it took experience with other groups, playing games with older players, and growth in my own maturity to break past the adversarial concepts that rubbed me the wrong way.

 They weren’t out to get me. I didn’t have to be out to get them. 
Around the time I turned fifteen, I met Joe and Buddy in two separate campaigns. They were naturals at running games and being supportive of what the PCs wanted to do. It shattered my concepts of gaming. I’ll admit that I was a disruptive force in their games for a few months until I learned that I didn’t have to hide my agenda or be hostile toward the GM.

They weren’t out to get me. I didn’t have to be out to get them.

Once I unlearned my bad habits, I started paying closer attention to how the better GMs around me handled situations. I took the wisdom and experience they put on display and began to improve my own game mastering skills. When Joe moved away for college a few years later, I felt I was ready to run a “real” game. That’s when I volunteered to step into the GM role for the remaining folks in our group and ran a Lankhmar-based campaign. I still hear from those players that it was one of the best two years of their gaming life.

I owe the quality of that game to what I learned from those who had adopted a more cooperative gaming style, especially Joe and Buddy.

My Current Styles

In the quarter century that has passed since that wonderful Lankhmar campaign, I have evolved and improved my GM skills. I’ve gone from opposing PC actions to accepting PC desires to actively cheering for the players as they push their characters through the challenges I present.

This is not to say that I don’t push the PCs at my table. I still throw incredible obstacles and issues (physical, emotional, moral, political, and religious) at the players.

I’m not there to make it easy on the players. Far from it. However, I am there to cheer them on and celebrate with them when they overcome their own Kobayashi Maru situations.

I also mourn with the players when a beloved character (or NPC) dies a horrible death. Then we pick up the pieces together and work together to figure out the smoothest way to integrate a new character into the storyline with the rest of the group.

The Next Generation

As Chris, Phil, and I discussed, when we launched into gaming in the early 1980s, there weren’t many people around to teach us to avoid confronting the GM or players in a direct and combative manner. That’s no longer the case these days. It’s probably quite rare for a new gamer to pick up a rulebook in isolation and teach themselves the game. The more likely scenario is that a new gamer is brought into the folder because they know a gamer willing to teach them how to play. I’m not merely talking about mechanics and rulesets, but also styles of gaming and how to work together to tell a better story.

 We’re handing down our hobby to the next generation with our own styles of teaching. 
We’re handing down our hobby to the next generation with our own styles of teaching. It is vitally important to ensure we not only impart rules accuracy, but also how to be a friend with the person/people on the other side of the screen.

The Future?

I don’t have a TARDIS or crystal ball, so I’m not sure what the future holds. The “traditional RPGs” aren’t go to go away, nor do I want them to fade into the distant horizon. I love playing games with strong mechanics and elaborate storytelling structures.

At the same time, the surge of storytelling games that are coming to the forefront are a wonderful breath of freshness. They may very well be the next generation of gaming for us and may very well push traditional RPGs into the background. I’m okay if this happens because this is the trend my own styles are pointing toward.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Adversarial GMs"

#1 Comment By Angela Murray On April 7, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

With this topic as it has been discussed recently, I have narrowed my definition of a problematic adversarial GM as one that forces the players to obfuscate their intentions so they have a hope of succeeding. If the players are hiding what they’re trying to achieve from the GM, there’s a problem at that table.

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 9, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

I completely agree! If you can’t be open and communicative with your GM, there’s an issue at the table.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 7, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

First, I know exactly what kind of GM we’re talking about here. I’m really glad you’ve explored this topic further in a GnomeStew post. But to be honest, as I listened the GnomeCast, I was like shouting at the speaker, going “I’m an adversarial GM. That isn’t what adversarial means.” But, now we’re just quibbling about definitions.

Abusive GMs want to achieve a “win” (whatever that means in a game of make-believe). So they will cheat, hand-wave, throw overpowered monsters and make dubious secret checks to make their story come out as they envision it. Some aren’t even on a power-trip — they just, sincerely, want their story to have the ending they have envision, and will do what it takes to get there. By hijacking the experience, they’ve become “abusive” GM.

I much prefer that term to “adversarial,” simply because the most basic job of a GM, especially in a baseline game such as D&D, is to provide the motivations and actions of combat adversaries. Nothing about adjudicating combat fairly removes the responsibility to be adversarial. If anything, I’ld like to retain the term simply because I’ve seen GMs who aren’t — but this is the other side of the coin. These GMs will lay over — no matter what — so the players get the outcome they desire. In this, it’s almost like they are bookers for pro wrestling, willing to do what it takes so the players’ narrative comes out without regard to any consequences of their action (or dictates of their dice).

Now, there’s nothing “wrong” with any play style, if the folks at your table go for it. But I’d prefer to be regarded as an adversarial GM without the negative connotation. Judge is a better term, I grant you, but it’s been a long time since that term was in vogue.

#4 Comment By Angela Murray On April 8, 2017 @ 10:38 am

Randy Farmer had a similar reaction as you in the Misdirected Mark G+ community. You’d probably enjoy reading his take on the mislabeling of Adversarial GMs as always being abusive. 🙂

#5 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 9, 2017 @ 1:08 pm


Thanks for the post. You make some good points there. I agree that the term “abusive GM” is probably more of what I was going for, and adversarial a more broad term with a wider range of interpretations and meanings. Adversarial doesn’t always have to be negative, but in the angle I was going for in the article, that was the side I took.

#6 Comment By Dave West On April 8, 2017 @ 6:58 am

A quick story.

The RPGA was TSR’s promotional ‘fan club’ that provided games and ways of gamers to connect for years. They actually allowed non TSR games to go under their banner for years as well, and non-WotC game worlds until WotC changed that police. After that policy change, RPGA for its Living Greyhawk campaign offered a special event at GenCon. WotC was releasing Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. The RPGA did up a special module for those people in the Living campaign (create your own character).

They told the GMs running the event to be abusive/adversarial. Many GMs balked at this because they, like you and me, are storytellers and narrators not adversarial/abusive. Some GMs loved it, and since the people at their table were not friends, they could cut loose. Others, like I said, balked and walked away from running it. I refused to run or play in it. But around this time the head of the Living Greyhawk campaign was quoted as saying it wasn’t a good adventure unless at least two PCs died, I ended my support of the campaign (I had written a module for our region.)

To add insult to injury, the actual module came out and I purchased it. The recommended level was twice the level they allowed into the module at GenCon, and they moved all the monsters spread out on the first level in the published adventure to near the entrance in their special module for the convention.

I’m so glad the trend has been away from this ‘killer DM’ style of play since. If you want that, go take your level 10 in WoW and run around Feralas.

#7 Comment By J.T. Evans On April 9, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

I’m also glad the trend of the “killer GM” has mostly faded away. I fondly remember Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. I’ve run it 100% through with two different groups. There are some rough moments in there, but having a GM more interested in cheering for the players softened the those moments where necessary.

I remember a one-day dungeon crawl that I went through when I was 13 or 14. This was 1st Edition AD&D at the time. The GM was very fun and would hoot and holler and cheer for us when we did great things. He’d also laugh and cackle when a PC died. He truly enjoyed every aspect of the game, which made losing a character not so bad. To add to this, the game was a pure dungeon crawl. No backstory. No player-created characters. No real emotional attachment. It was almost like playing a video game, to be honest, but it was FUN. The GM had brought a slew of characters (and a mini for each one) to the event. When a character died, we had to sit out the rest of the combat (they were fast) and while sitting out we got to pick out our next character from the side table where they were all laid out.

I didn’t know it, but the GM was keeping tabs on most character deaths, best character death, and other “stats” along those lines. He allowed one player that won an award to keep the mini of their final character that was still alive at the end of the day.

The point: While he relished killing characters, he made the deaths fair and somehow cheerful for the whole group. Had he held a more negative attitude or approach, I would have dropped the label of “adversarial” on him. However, he truly made the whole affair enjoyable to the end.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On April 11, 2017 @ 10:14 am

I game with a player whom I love as the brother I never had, but who cannot join in my own games as he assumes (incorrectly) that I am out to “get” the players. It doesn’t help that my game of choice for years was Call of Cthulhu and he never understood the milieu as anything but a 1920s action-adventure one (which it avowedly isn’t). Time after time this player would have his character whip out a 45 to deal with some antediluvian horror from the corners of time that was immune to firearms, which would then end badly for the character and anyone else too silly to run. He never understood this as anything but the GM screwing him apparently.

We have been playing together in a game of Deadlands:Reloaded and he started badly by provoking a showdown between our characters which ended with mine dead. I was miffed but let it go after pointing out (with a smile) that by the Code o’ the West Mr Gun-Happy was now a murderer despite being a lawman by trade, then had a word with the GM (who had sat by gleefully watching events go down) and explained that this player had never gamed in a system with “hindrances” and would never play to them unless prompted by the GM.

The GM (who is a lovely guy) didn’t see what I was driving at until I pointed out that Mr Gun-Happy was supposed to be saddled with the “loyal” hindrance and therefore would *never* have done what the player made him do – unless provoked.

My friend took a while to understand that the GM wasn’t out to get him, the other players weren’t out to get him and that everyone would get their time in the spotlight without his having to elbow someone else aside.

I think he’s having more fun now than in those old Cthulhu games (which I still occasionally put on and which still feature messy death for those with guns instead of good running shoes).

#9 Comment By Michael O'Connor On April 11, 2017 @ 11:35 am

I remember the days of “adversarial” or abusive GMs and doing so myself for a short time. Fortunately, since it turned out to be more fun, I quickly stopped GMing in that way.
Now I’m about to run D&D for my son for the first time, who I think will be a fantastic GM in the future, which he’s super excited for. As we were building his first character, he’s asking all kinds of crazy questions about what he can do, mostly at higher levels, and I’m trying to convey that we are all in this together. Trying to build the foundation of collaborative play in his mind. Letting him know that I’ll be challenging the other players but I’m not the “bad guy”. I only play him/her occasionally.
Trying to get this across to an eight, almost nine, year old is not easy.
So, rambling aside, I’m going to be trying to not instill the habit of abusive GMing.