Some GMs approach the players as their rivals in the game. This is not to say that they are hostile to the players, but that the GM believes that he or she must meet or surpass the players through the game’s mechanics. This approach may result in preparation decisions that are not inspired by the game’s storyline but are instead born of meta-knowledge of the players and the game itself. Examples include:

  • Many enemy NPCs are immune to one or several of the PC’s more powerful resources.
  • A particular player habit is observed and a plan to exploit that behavior to produce a negative consequence for the player is devised.
  • Pet GM PCs are created to keep the PCs confined to the roles of “second class heroes”.

Each of these examples if used sparingly for a limited duration might be very effective for running a memorable game. When used excessively and in combination though these same tactics may result in player dissatisfaction with the game and the GM.

My personal experience as a player was with an older and experienced GM. His tactic of choice was to dangle treasure in front of the PCs that they would never acquire. The first time this tactic was used a large gemstone was trapped and the party thief (this was back in the 80s when a rogue was a thief whose guild was trying to kill him or her for abandoning them) triggered the trap by removing the gemstone and an explosion killed half of the party. This was a fun thing to have happen in the game despite new characters needing to be rolled up. It added a great feel to the game that danger was everywhere and that the PCs should never let their guards down.

Later in the game a chest of gold was discovered. Traps were checked for and found, and after successfully disarming the trap in the chest a second trap was activated once the PCs lifted the chest. Again PCs were killed, but this second occasion was not as much fun since we the players were actively trying to avoid all traps and believed that we had done so. The tactic did not seem to be nearly as fresh and as entertaining the second time around. It felt more akin to being a punishment for not catching all of the obscure clues present in the scene.

More characters were rolled up and later in the game another treasure was discovered. This time it was a necklace on a podium by itself in the middle of an otherwise empty room. We the players decided not to pursue it, and our PCs moved forward into other parts of the dungeon.

You probably can surmise what happened next, but in the interest of completing the story I shall describe the ending to what had started as a fun game.

A locked stone door was discovered that had a carving that was obviously an impression of the necklace. The PCs returned to the room to retrieve the necklace. Yes it was trapped, and yes the trap was triggered. The PCs returned to the door and placed the necklace in the impression and activated another trap, but by this time the players were no longer caring if the traps were activated or not. The door did not open, so a brave PC put on the necklace and placed it in the impression while wearing it and the door opened without any traps being activated. But that brave PC then learned that the necklace was a cursed item that could not be removed without venturing deeper into the dungeon and that the curse would impact all of his attacks negatively.

The game just fizzled out at that point. None of us who were playing felt like continuing, but I can remember that the GM wanted to keep going. In fact, I clearly remember him gleefully saying “I just can’t let you guys take the victory from me! That wouldn’t be any fun at all!”

It was that night that I learned that a GM should never play to “win”. Any “victory” a GM has of that nature is always a hollow one, since you probably rigged the game to begin with.

There are all kinds of problems with the event that I shared with you. The GM had lousy pacing by using the same tactic several times in a row. The traps were more akin to being inevitable consequences instead of being challenges that the PCs might have overcome. The treasure in the game was not actually treasure at all, but bait for more traps and eventually another type of trap unto itself. Although there were other options to be pursued in the game, it began to feel like a railroad with each predetermined destination being some sort of trap to humiliate the players with.

The GM did reveal the methods by which each trap could have been avoided in an attempt to salvage the game when it was clear that the players had lost all interest in playing. It did not matter by that point. The amount of player (not PC) effort it would have taken to overcome the traps successfully in the form of questions to be asked of the GM was not worth the perceived reward being offered in the game.

As a player I felt that I was being tested to see if I could read the GM’s mind instead of playing a game, and for what? So that I could write down “1 large gemstone” in pencil on a character sheet? Alas, I am no mind reader. If I was I would have retrieved his bank account information instead.

That GM “won” each and every encounter. He beat his rivals the players at every turn. He also inevitably cost himself his own game, and therefore lost his role as the GM. No players means no game, and no game means no Game Master.

I wish I could say that was the only time that I had ever encountered such a GM. It was not. I am sure that some you readers have faced similar GMs (maybe even worse ones).  The sad thing is that this GM was talented. He was a great role player who developed an intriguing and compelling story. His combat encounters were fun, and he knew the rules like the back of his hand. This GM could have been a great person to learn how to run an RPG from (ironically he was that, but not in a good way).

Should you challenge your players? Yes, at times. Sometimes you should not. Should you be a rival to your players? Yes, at times. Sometimes you should not. Should you be devious with what you prepare for your games? Yes, at times. Sometimes you should not.

But you should never create an unbeatable situation for your players to be trapped within. If you see your players growing frustrated and losing interest in your game because they keep “failing” in the game, take a moment to ask yourself “Is success actually possible?”

Even better, ask yourself “Would succeeding be fun?”

Agree? Disagree? This one is pretty subjective, but I believe that there is a line here and that good GMs stop themselves from crossing it. Leave a comment below and let everyone know what you think about this matter.