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Killer GM or Selfish GM?

Are you running the game you wish you were playing?

One of the more interesting gaming assumptions I’ve run into is that many GMs run the games that they wish they were playing. For example, if you want to play in a politics-heavy space opera, you’re probably running or trying to run a politics-heavy space opera.

Or are you? I had accepted and internalized this assumption, until I realized that it directly conflicted with another gaming assumption: Every GM wants to run a grim and gritty campaign, but nobody ever wants to play in one.

So, which is it – Killer GM or Selfish GM? Do you try to run a grim and gritty campaign chock full of TPKs and traitorous NPCs, or do you try to run the campaign that you’d love to play in? Both? (What are you, some kind of sick sadomasochist who likes to play in short-lived campaigns?) Or maybe both, but not necessarily at the same time? Or does the fact that you can’t run a game without players keep you from realizing your GMing dreams? Or perhaps in your old age and wisdom, you have mastered your desires?

Obviously, I’m kidding here. Of course there are gamers foolish enough to play in a grim and gritty campaign, just as there are GMs sensitive enough to actually run the campaigns that their players want.

But we GMs should be aware of the tendency to find our own reasons to run our games. Sometimes those reasons keep us enthusiastic about the game, but sometimes they lead us to run the game entirely for our own enjoyment.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Killer GM or Selfish GM?"

#1 Comment By Rafe On January 22, 2009 @ 6:55 am

Hmmm… good question. I tend to run games that my players and myself are interested in (usually D&D). In terms of the style of game, most of my players are like-minded in that they enjoy a mix of roleplaying and combat, and they like to see elements of their backgrounds worked into the overall story.

In terms of game style… that depends. Sometimes epic, sometimes more character focused.

#2 Comment By tallarn On January 22, 2009 @ 6:56 am

I certainly run the sort of game I want to play in – and it’s not grim’n’gritty!

I run a fairly light hearted 4e game, using the published modules (H1, H2, etc) and keeping the action moving and the tension high. I have a strong tendency to endanger the PC’s but fall down when it comes to an opportunity to actually kill one of them.

I’ve got two encounters in H1 left – maybe I can use them to really up the danger levels, focus some fire and get my first PC kill!

#3 Comment By nblade On January 22, 2009 @ 7:43 am

As a GM, I tend to run games people want to play. Which for the moment is a lot of DnD. I have one long range game going on. When that is finished, I will try to switch to something or God willing, have someone run (which means I get to play for once)

#4 Comment By DeadGod On January 22, 2009 @ 9:01 am

I tend to run games close to the “vanilla” setting. This way I can say “4ed” or “Don’t Rest Your Head” and players know what they are walking in to. I get my grim-and-gritty fix from one-shots. Do I feel like killing someone (or at least throwing around the serious threat of death?) I pull out Call of Cthulhu. Do I feel like destroying the world in a zombie apocalypse? I pull out All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Having a large library of core books is like having a well stocked spice rack. I’m ready for whatever flavor I am craving.

I suppose it also helps that I am blessed to know a bunch of gamers that are willing to play whatever at the drop of a hat.

#5 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On January 22, 2009 @ 9:27 am

I remember this topic from the Treasure Tables days.

I was fortunate enough to custom-assemble a group to play the campaign that we ALL wanted to play. 😉 But it began with a proposal that the players chose out of several that I put forward, so I guess you could say it’s what *I* wanted to play.

#6 Comment By brcarl On January 22, 2009 @ 9:31 am

I haven’t GMed in about a year, but when I did last, I admit I was running a game I wanted to play. Like others here, I was lucky that the players I had were (mostly) interested in the same things.

I think the other big factor in determining what you run is a matter of pragmatics. I wanted the freedom of a home-spun plot and NPCs, but in the end I had to ditch as I just didn’t have the time, energy and creative juices to keep it up. If I do ever make it back to The Seat at the End of the Table, I’ll probably run (slightly modified) published stuff.

#7 Comment By Michelle On January 22, 2009 @ 9:58 am


Both! I run the game I want to play, which happens to be gritty, crazy operaish and freeform. I let the player’s control what happens…but then I give the players pre-made characters with histories and problems, tell them where they are and what they’ve done and go.

People tell me this won’t work but I’ve been running two of these games (Serenity and Demon Hunter) for two years now at conventions. People keep coming back. We’ve had characters die, be killed by other players, turn on the company, kidnap operatives, rescue children, set towns on fire, beat the bad guy and join cults.

Sado Masochistic? Sure but want’s wrong with that?

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On January 22, 2009 @ 10:17 am

We compete a bit at the end of a campaign to see what game we’ll play next. Enthusiasm when presenting counts for a lot, but the players pick which campaign they want to play in– so you can be pretty confident that you’re running the game that excites the players.

On the other hand, I do enjoy trying out new games– and am willing to run them if that’s our major source of exposure to new systems. That’s pretty much “run what you want to play”.

#9 Comment By Swordgleam On January 22, 2009 @ 10:33 am

I pitched three ideas to my players, all games I wanted to either run or play in, and they… picked grim and gritty, which was the idea that had come with the most caveats, and the one I most wanted to run. I’m still not over the shock.

I usually do run games I want to play, but I’m trying something new. If I want to play in a game, I turn to someone who I think would be good at running it, and say, “Here. You run this.” Then I tell them I won’t run it myself. Scion has yet to happen, but I think I’m going to get a Paranoia one-shot or two out of the deal, so not bad.

#10 Comment By BryanB On January 22, 2009 @ 11:12 am

Our group was designed to switch games every four to ten sessions. It is a twice a month group and most of us like to change systems and GMs now and again. We call the consecutive sessions playing the same game a “series.” We can always return to a series that everyone enjoyed, by having a subsequent “sequel” down the road. It has worked quite well for us.

Each of us tends to come up with two or three pitches for the next game, once the current game is nearing a conclusion. We gauge player interest. As a GM, I don’t always get what I want the most. But then, who wants to run a game when half the group has zero interest in that game pitch?

So I can’t be selfish. If I was selfish, I’d force everyone into a corner to play a Star Trek RPG. Since I am not selfish, I vote on a game that I think I would enjoy. If one of my alternate ideas gets the most votes, then I run with it. I’m obviously not going to submit any ideas that I will hate running. After the decision, I try to run the game as if I were a player in it.

I always strive to run a game that I would like to find myself playing in. If I ever have the thought that I wouldn’t be enjoying myself as a player in the game that I am running, then I might need to step back and look at what I might be doing differently. This is why I like to get constructive feedback from my players. I want to know what is and isn’t working for them.

#11 Comment By Bluedress On January 22, 2009 @ 11:16 am

I’ve got some fairly new players in my game, in addition to being a brand new GM myself, so I’m trying to run a lighthearted 4ed game with a darker underbelly (which is just the sort of game I’D like to play in.) This way I can phase between the two tones and see what clicks better with the newer players, and accomodate to their tastes.

Though in an ideal world, I suppose, the game I want to run is the game my players want to be in.

#12 Comment By Jharviss On January 22, 2009 @ 11:37 am

Normally I would run the game that I wanted to play in, though I would make sure that my players were apt and excited about it as well. I’ve had a couple campaign ideas that I’ve thrown out because I couldn’t get the necessary enthusiasm.

Recently I tried something different. I decided to define my campaign in eight descriptors, and these eight descriptors could be pretty much anything. I decided on three of them, then I set down with my players and let them choose the other five descriptors. In that way they told me, as a group, what they wanted to play. They also get a little more say in it than I do.

In this, I found out that they wanted to do more monster hunting, adventure on islands (this caught me way off-guard), more mysteries and traps, and be bounty hunters. I was also able to listen to them tell me what they, individually wanted, even if it didn’t become one of the 8 descriptors.

Overall, I’d say it was a success. It let the group as a whole decide what game we’re going to play.

#13 Comment By Lee Hanna On January 22, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

Years ago, I could find players who would play the games I wanted to run (often Twilight:2000, Space:1889, semi-historical D&D, Star Trek), but they’ve all moved on or away. The group that has stayed with me is “D&D/Greyhawk or the highway.” (Except for my lovely wife, who will play a lot of things I suggest).

So, I either play what they want, as filtered by me (Birthright D&D), or I scrape real hard to recruit players with flaky availability to play GURPS or Serenity. The addition of 4e has added tension, as half of the D&D group wants to play that, and some don’t.

It’s been over a year since I’ve run, largely due to scheduling issues.

#14 Comment By Sarlax On January 22, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

Our group uses the Weighted List method. We just picked our two new games last Sunday after my two year 3E game finished; Martin’s year-long Mage campaign had ended a couple months earlier.

We brought dozens of games to the table and everyone pitched what they’d brought. Three of the five of us were willing to GM, and two of us potential GMs were prepared to run things that the group was more excited that about than we ourselves were. That’s actually how both Mage and D&D were picked. We had been playing Stargate, and that GM had a sudden urge to play D&D, which I was happy to start running. Martin began running Mage after the group was impressed by it following a one-shot adventure that Martin had actually missed.

This time around, our discussion lasted for hours. After the first round, we listed the game that either I or Don, the other GM, would end up running, and cut it down from there. We came surprisingly close to two games that hadn’t even been on our radar as a group: Alternity’s Star*Drive setting by me and Shadowrun 4E by Don. The next time we select games, I wouldn’t be surprised to see either one or both get picked.

We finished up with 4E D&D and Ghouls (the Vampire kind). Don had come to the table ready to run many things, and 4E ended up being the one the group was most interested in seeing him run. In my case, I had preferred to run Ghouls but was ready for others. I was happy that Ghouls ended up being the game that I’ll be running, but I would have enjoyed any of the dozen games or so that had first appeared on my list.

#15 Comment By Aramax On January 22, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

My first post,welcome to me!I run a very slow progression low level D&D game,EXACTLY what I would like to play in.The few times I play,its always higher level than I am interested in.

#16 Comment By Volcarthe On January 22, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

We started playing (read: i started running) Paranoia because i wanted a TPK situation where nobody cared that they died (multiple times!) while being screwed over by the GM.

other than that, yeah, i run games i want to play. i tell the kinds of stories i would love to be on the other side of the screen for because those are the stories i like.

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 22, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

I’m impressed with the number of GMs who are finding innovative methods to find common ground between their tastes and their players’ tastes. Well done!

I will be doing things a bit differently this time around; I’m going to run the setting and genre that I want to run, and I’ll make sure any incoming players know that. (Our group membership is not set.) However, the players will have to choose which plot threads to follow, and (largely) what the above-game atmosphere will be.

#18 Comment By Alnakar On January 23, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’ve been guilty a few times over the years of running the games that I wanted to run, regardless of whether I would have wanted to play in them or not. I’ve gotten a fair bit better since then, though (I think, anyway, although you’d have to ask one of my players to be certain).

I must say that I’ve found that when I’m running a campaign that I’m excited about, that excitement tends to carry over to the players (even if the campaign is a little on the gritty side). If I’m not thrilled about the stories that I’m telling, I’ll be able to tell quite quickly that my players are losing their interest, at least a little bit.

#19 Comment By Barlycorn On January 26, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

I run an online PbP game. I decided the type of game I wanted to run (homebrew dnd 3.5, open ended) and advertised for players. That greatly increases the chances that the game will be something that the players are interested in. Players who find it isn’t their cup of tea leave (or disappear) and can be replaced with another advertisement.

PbP games obviously move more slowly (in real time) than tabletop games. This gives me more of a chance to respond to player desires. I also tend to playfast and loose with the rules, if someone tries to do something that I think is really cool, I will bend the rules to give him/her a chance to try it.

By the way, yes, this is the type of game I would like to play in.

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