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Meet My New Monster, the Ball-Buster

GMs have a lot of power in most RPGs, and that includes the power to continue personal, out-of-game disputes at the gaming table. For instance:

Contuining our “hey, it’s a series” bad GMing theme (My Girlfriend is AC 100 [1], Gandalf Flies in on His Gold Dragon…Again [2] and The Iron Fist and Abused GM Syndrome [3]), here’s another common example: The ball-busting GM.

Along the lines of Crazy Jerome’s comment [4] about being too tough on his girlfriend when he was GMing (rather than too easy), this is basically the flipside of the AC 100 significant other.

And back in high school, boy was I guilty of this one. I started out giving my girlfriend AC 100, and then overcompensated in the other direction and was very hard on her — if she did something even slightly wrong, I jumped down her throat. (Thankfully, that phase of my GMing development is long over.)

More common, though, is taking personal grudges to the gaming table — and this is a player-player thing just as often as it’s a GM-player thing.

Monsters hit more often, difficulties go up and — as with the iron fist [3] — “No” replaces “Sure, but it’ll be tough” more often than not. One player is singled out to get their balls busted, and unlike some of the other bad GMing behaviors we’ve looked at, there’s really no excuse for this one.

The bottom line is that personal grievances should be left at the door when you get together to game — and if you can’t forget about them for four hours, you shouldn’t be gaming together until you can.

Does that sound about right, or do you think there’s more of a gray area here? Have you had any experience with ball-busting GMs, or been one yourself?

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Meet My New Monster, the Ball-Buster"

#1 Comment By Frank Filz On April 15, 2006 @ 1:35 pm

The make tracking rolls until you fail is a relative of this syndrome.

It can be hard to separate the lesser problem of the GM not being willing to say “there’s nothing to find” or “you follow the tracks for an hour before losing them” and the GM who is out to make everything a challenge.

Some GMs may not even give you a roll to avoid the dire fate (as I call it, the Shigawire Morgan effect – after a GM, Morgan, who ran this trap infested dungeon, I think the pit trap with the shigawire (mono-filament, ultrastrong wire from Dune) mesh to puree the hapless falling victim was the 2nd trap in that dungeon… I forget if anyone continued playing to find the 3rd trap (I was thankfully just watching, having had my “bad GM” rader activated the week before when Morgan was looking for someone to co-GM with).

Vincent’s “Say yes or roll the dice.” is a good way for GMs to learn to counter this type of problem. Now of course, sometimes the answer is “No.” By learning that when both the GM and the player want the same thing, to just make it happen, also helps the GM learn to be more honest about things that he isn’t going to let happen, no matter how well you roll.

A related problem is the GM who says: “Well, you’ll need a 20 for that to succeed.” and then the player rolls the 20. And the GM really didn’t want to let it happen, and now he has to eat crow, or deal with it.


#2 Comment By John Arcadian On April 17, 2006 @ 4:30 am

Crappy Gm’s, especially the ball busting kind, were what prompted me to start GMing. I had a feeling I could do it better, and I didn’t want to suffer through another crippled character because the GM wanted us to suffer. My first character, under a ball buster GM, was suppossed to be a woodsman turned warrior who didn’t know much about the world outside the woods. The GM forced me to play it incredibly dumb because he had an intelligence of 9 (DND 2nd Ed.) and forced me to roll on knowing simple things, like knowing that a door opened outwards not inwards based on the hinges. . . .

I think the thing that breeds a GM like this is their desire to make their game more realistic. I’ve also been through other crappy games where there was no challenege whatsoever. We search for a trail in the woods, WOW! you found it first try. We’re picking a lock, WOW! you found it first try. We’re running from the town guards because we just set fire to the inn because someone couldn’t hold their liquor, WOW!, etc.

The problem is finding a balance and making your challenges hard enough that they seem realistic, but not too hard that the players don’t have fun. The method I use to attempt to convey this is with a swivel chair. Whoever is attempting the challenege, I swivel to face them directly, address them by character name and describe the action their attempting to perform to wring out a few details and bring the action into their head. I don’t let them roll till a little interaction has gone on “you’re pick is moving through the tumblers when you feel it catch on a snag. This could be the tumbler you need to trigger, it could be a pickblock. Do you attempt to move it? Ok roll vs DF 8r3.”

#3 Comment By Scott G On April 17, 2006 @ 4:38 am

Interesting, the GM that you classified as a ball buster is what I would have called a feasibility-breaker. Your system of classifying Bad GMs seems to be based off of motivation where as I tend to deal with methods.

So how does a player deal with a Ball-Buster? It’s one thing to warn GMs about not picking up bad habits like this, but there are a lot of players out there who need help now. Direct confrontation would likely only make the situation worse unless all of the players confronted GM together. If one of the players is the girlfriend or boyfriend or spouce of the GM, then an intervention will not be feasible.

Another option would be to draw attention to the problems in the game through action rather than words. In the example of the mildewy wall, I would have rolled the dice and taken the damage without complaint. Afterward, every time I reached a wall in the rest of the campaign, I would ask if there was mildew on the walls. When inside a building, I would ask about each wall individually. I would do this even if I had no intention of climbing a wall. When the GM finally gets aggrevated, I will simply point out that I had previously taken damage as a result of not asking about mildew on the walls and wished to take no more from the invisible mildew which nearly killed my character.

If the GM gets more angry by my tactics and introduces even more grudge monsters into the game, then it’s time to leave. There is no helping that GM.

#4 Comment By ScottM On April 17, 2006 @ 8:51 am

What you said sounds right. It’s pretty indefensible– and while I’ve encountered it (both ways), I don’t think it’s as useful to discuss, because it boils down to a personality conflict.

#5 Comment By Troy Taylor aka Carolina On April 17, 2006 @ 2:48 pm

OK, I’m sometimes, guilty of this one.

But just sometimes …

#6 Comment By Troy Taylor aka Carolina On April 19, 2006 @ 3:27 pm

I admit it. In the past, I have busted players who intentionally bring in the outsider-type who is trying either to “break the game” or “beat the DM.”

You know, you announce that you’ll run a desert-themed module and the PC wants to be Aquaman — with an attitude problem. Or it’s Victorian horror and they wanna be Tinkerbell. And yes, I always announce two or three weeks in advance what the game’s theme is, so it’s clear what the PCs are walking into. They can “buy into” the story or not. I’d prefer everyone came to the table looking to enhance everyone else’s playing experience, but not everyone does, you know.

So, yeah, I’ve been spiteful and pulled the old modifier trick, as well as a few others. (Bring a Samurai into a middle-ages European-themed game and there ain’t gonna be any magically-enhanced katanas in the treasure pile, I assure you). I’m a little more easy-going about it nowadays, but in the past I probably pulled the trigger pretty quick.

Look, I appreciate creative roleplaying — and I even like it when a player accepts a challenging role. But when they come in lookin’ to bust things up, and makes an effort to be contrary to concept or theme of the game, I have, on occasion, busted ’em back. They aren’t obligated to play whatever I’m DMing, and I’m cool to running just about any genre, if the players express a certain interest.

The end result is they end up leaving the table — and, unfortunately, they don’t come back.

I know there are probably better ways to handle these situations, but Martin asked what I used to do.

#7 Comment By Martin On April 19, 2006 @ 9:50 pm

I can relate to that, Troy — it’s tough not to take that kind of thing personally, even though it may not be personal at all. Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂