The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘gm don’t list’

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Neuromancer - William GibsonA cyberpunk character concept I would dearly love to play some day is that of the uber-competent hacker: Case from Neuromancer. Batman’s Oracle. Edward from Cowboy Bebop. Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye. Luther Stickell from the Mission Impossible movies. Half the main characters from Ghost in the Shell.

In my ideal version of the character, I’m the guy who stays in the van three out of five times, providing overwatch and support for my teammates while they mount their raid.

So why haven’t I played this character?

Because what I’ve discovered is that a surprisingly vast number of GMs seem to consider the entire concept of using hacking to solve a problem to be some sort of anathema. So even when I’ve tried to play the character concept, I’ve ended up not actually being able to play the concept.

  • Hack the security cameras to scope out the interior of the building you’re raiding? Can’t do it.
  • Hack the security guard’s cellphone to track her movement? Impossible!
  • Play R2-D2 in a Star Wars game and hack an electronic lock? No way. Pull out your lockpicks!
  • Hack the rigging ports on the pursuit car to seize control of it? Obviously no one would want you to remotely seize control of a vehicle, so they would build a perfect security system that was completely unhackable, and therefore you can’t hack it.

(That last rationalization seems to crop up a lot. It’s like saying that obviously no one would want you to poke them with a sword; ergo it’s impossible to hit someone who’s wearing full plate.)

Quibble here and there with the plausibility of some of these scenarios in particular settings, but I’ve seen this behavior even in settings and games which include mechanics for handling these specific types of hacks! What I’m talking about is a systemic pattern of behavior in which the hacker basically can’t do their thing. It’s the equivalent of finding an antimagic field everywhere you go in a D&D game, except that I’ve found it to be a peculiarly ubiquitous attitude.

Of course, flat out denial isn’t the only way this manifests: Setting disproportionately high difficulty numbers or using roll to failure techniques are probably the most common versions, actually.

I’ve found this particularly pernicious in many convention scenarios: The designers of the game want to show off its breadth, so they include a hacker archetype pregen. But the volunteer GM running the scenario subscribes to the doctrine of Thou Shalt Not Hack, so the pregen is a trap and the person picking it finds themselves sidelined for four hours.

The worst case scenario is, sadly, one of my favorite games: Eclipse Phase. Wanting to show off everything that’s possible in this cool, kitchen sink transhuman setting, the designers regularly include an infomorph pregen: A character without a body who exists only as a digital construct and can only take actions through the Mesh network.

Combine that with a GM who doesn’t allow any meaningful action to take place through the Mesh network (which I’ve seen happen either first- or second-hand in no less than four convention scenarios) and you have a character who literally can’t do anything.

Many of these GMs don’t seem to be consciously aware of what they’re doing, so you’ll even find them saying things during character creation like, “Who wants to be hacker?” I used to hear that and think, “Okay! This guy is going to actually let me hack!” But, oddly, no. They recognize on a conscious level that a team of cyberpunk characters is supposed to have a hacker, but when it comes to actual play the hacker nevertheless finds themselves stymied at every turn.


Infinity the Roleplaying Game

I suspect part of the problem here is that a lot of GMs reflexively cling to the modes of play they learned running D&D dungeon crawls. Their expectation for how a facility raid is supposed to play out features people physically sneaking around and getting ambushed by security guards, and the hacker’s attempt to grab the security cameras disrupts that expectation. Their vision of the game world (inaccurately) doesn’t include hacking, so the hacker’s solution to any given problem comes out of left field, and the GM reflexively shuts it down.

This is, obviously, a form of railroading: A preconceived idea of not just how a specific problem is meant to be solved, but a broad preconception of how entire classes of problems are supposed to be solved.

So the solution to this problem is relatively simple: Don’t do that.

Conversely, however, hacking shouldn’t be a magic button that can trivially solve all problems. When that happens, it creates a spotlight problem where the hacker upstages every other character and flattens the challenges presented by the scenario.

To counteract this problem, there are a couple things the GM should do. First, check the potential consequences a hacker faces: They should be comparable to those faced by other types of action. (Just as the hacker should not find it impossible to hack an automated car; the hacker themselves should not benefit from a foolproof firewall.) Second, check your vectors: Make sure that “solving” the scenario requires a multi-step resolution and, importantly, make sure that hacking can’t be used to trivially solve all the vectors.

The most obvious example of this is, “I can’t hack that system until you plug in my remote router!” But it can become an easy trap to always design scenarios in which the team does a bunch of stuff and “unlocks” the hacker so that the hacker can then win the day. Look at ways in which hacks are invaluable at the beginning and in the middle of scenarios.

Also remember that you don’t always need to lock these things in: Players hot-swapping in vectors you’d never thought of to solve their problems is what makes the game fun. Generally speaking, the rest of the group will find ways to advocate for plans which feature the strengths of their own characters if you give them the chance. You can encourage that by creating scenarios which require multiple problems to be resolved simultaneously. Also experiment with using hard scene framing techniques to move the action “onsite”, which will discourage the players from lingering in remote “planning” sequences where the hacker (and only the hacker) is capable of taking direction action.

Infinity the Roleplaying Game

Go to Part 1

Battlestar Galactica - Starbuck

GM: Okay, you come up over the horizon of the station and you can see the trench up ahead. Three rebel fighters go roaring past.

Annie: I signal my co-pilots to follow my lead and drop in behind them.

GM: Sure. You fall into their 6 o’clock and hit the thrusters, zooming up behind them.

Annie: I target the lead rebel pilot and take my shot!

GM: He’s dancing around in the ray-trace of your targeting computer.

Annie: The Force is strong with this one. I pull the trigger!

GM: The walls of the canyon are really racing past you. All this amazing superstructure just whirring by in a blur.

Annie: Great. I take the shot.

GM: Suddenly that old YT freighter you’d planted the tracking device on earlier comes roaring out of deep space! It shoots! [rolls some dice] One of your co-pilots explodes!

Annie: What?!

GM: What do you do?

Annie: I… take my shot?

GM: Your other co-pilot, distracted by the appearance of the new enemy, loses control! They smash into your wing, careen wildly, smash into the wall of the canyon, and explode! Your own stabilizers have been damaged and you go hurtling out into deep space!

This kind of resolution dithering – where the players have declared their actions, but the GM isn’t allowing them to actually take and resolve those actions – is incredibly frustrating.

Sometimes the dither is caused by the GM prematurely asking the players what they want to do – after hearing the proposed action they realize that there’s additional information that they want or need to convey. (Or, if they’re improvising, details or cool ideas which popped into their head during the time that it took for the player to respond.)

Other times the dither occurs because the GM is waiting for someone to say the thing he wants them to do: Something cool is going to happen when someone tries to open the door, so any other action people propose will be put on pause until somebody in the group opens the door. (This also naturally leads to a narrower case in which only actions that would disrupt what the GM has planned are ignored – you can do anything unless it gets between them and that door.)

Another common form of dithering occurs when a GM responds to a declaration of action by discussing other options that are available. For example, I was playing in a cyberpunk game where I said I wanted to hack an electronic lock. The GM responded by pointing out that I could also kick the door down or just send my slither-bot under the door or physically pick the lock or…

Ultimately, when a player declares an action the GM needs to resolve that action and then describe the new situation: They need to move forward so that the next set of actions be cleanly declared. (The only exceptions are if the GM doesn’t feel they have enough information to resolve the action or if the declared action appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the current situation. In either case, the GM should still be seeking the necessary clarification as quickly as possible and then driving forward into the resolution.)

Resolution dithering often becomes obfuscated when the GM can jump between multiple PCs, leading to a muddle where the GM can get an action declaration from one PC, not fully resolve it, move onto the next PC, get another action they don’t fully resolve, and then repeat cyclically – kind of bouncing around the group without ever moving the action forward. This seems particularly prevalent with neophyte GMs (possibly because their lack of confidence manifests as an unwillingness to make the sort of definitive declarations required of action resolution), and the resulting quagmire can be difficult to diagnose.


What I refer to as the reverse resolution ring is a kissing cousin with resolution dithering and, for me, is even more frustrating to experience as a player.

For example, I was playing in a game of The One Ring. The GM would describe a situation – like a guard dog growling as the party drew near – and I would say something like, “Okay, I’m going to grab some of the fresh venison from the deer we killed this morning and I’ll toss it to the dog to distract it.” The GM takes note of that, but then proceeds around the table collecting action declarations from the other players.

So far, this is probably fine: Getting a collective understanding of what everyone is doing before figuring out how it would all play out together can actually be a really good technique for a GM to learn.

But where the reverse resolution ring kicks in is when a form of recency bias causes the GM to resolve the proposed actions in the opposite order from which they were declared (starting with the last person they talked to and then working their way backwards to the person who actually kicked things off). This is a problem because, at some point during those declarations, the other players will often say something like:

“Oh! That sounds good! I’ll dig some meat out of my pack, too!”


“I shoot the dog with my crossbow.”

The latter negates the original declaration by solving the problem in an alternative way. The former ends up basically stealing the original idea (even when the player saying it was just trying to support what they saw as a good solution to the problem) – the copycat gets to be the one to actually do the cool idea.

In either case, the GM is essentially stealing spotlight time. They’re punishing the player who took initiative, which is directly problematic because that’s demoralizing and unfair to the player affected, and indirectly problematic because it will eventually have a corrosive effect on the willingness of the entire table to step up. Even if it’s just a subconscious reaction, eventually you’ll end up with something that could easily be misidentified as analysis paralysis, but is actually just a hesitation to pull the trigger when it’s just as likely to end up shooting you in the head.

(It actually reminds me of something that crops up in live theatre: One actor will come up with a funny bit of business or line reading. Other actors will see it and think, “That’s hilarious!” And then they’ll end up duplicating the bit in their own scene, which can often happen earlier in the play than the original actor’s bit. These derivative bits are often not as funny and only serve to sap the riotous humor of the original – which is often built on the straight takes which are supposed to precede it. It’s the director’s responsibility to make sure that this sort of undercutting does not happen. But I digress.)

The reverse resolution ring can get truly cancerous when it turns into an endless ring: The GM goes through the ring once asking declarations, goes backwards through the ring resolving actions, and then – since they’re back at the beginning of the ring – they ask that last player, “So, what do you want to do next?” … only to then go forwards through the ring again getting everyone else’s declarations. The GM can even convince themselves that they’re “balancing” things – this guy went last, so let’s find out what he wants to do first. But that player is now systemically screwed, doomed to forever get upstaged by the rest of the group until something disrupts the current pattern.

In closing, however, I will mention the exception which proves the rule: A reverse resolution ring can be an effective technique when it’s used to model initiative. In other words, when the GM asks those with the lowest initiatives to declare their actions first and then resolves from highest initiative down. The “punishment” is now modeling the poor initiative result, and grants a strong benefit to those with a high initiative result.

Go to Part 4: Thou Shalt Not Hack

Go to Part 1

Eclipse Phase - Hack the Galaxy

I was playing in a sci-fi game and my hacker wanted to set up a dead man’s switch on the environmental systems in a space station: When the melee characters launched their assault, I’d pull the dead man’s switch. The GM had me roll to set up the dead man switch… and then roll every single round to maintain it… and then roll again to throw it even after I’d set it up successfully.

Eventually, given the endless series of checks, I inevitably failed.

Laying aside the fundamental misunderstanding of what a dead man switch is, the negative effect of this sort of thing can be quite severe in an RPG session. In this case, the group quickly realized that we should never, ever try to make a plan: If we just improvised something, it would be resolved in a single roll and we’d have a chance to succeed. If we actually put together a plan, on the other hand, it would just invite lots and lots of dice rolling until the plan failed.

The solution is fairly simple: Let It Ride. Have the character make a single skill check that determines the ultimate success or failure of their endeavor.

Another solution is a complex skill check (making multiple checks until X successes are achieved). These tend to be very elegant in dice pool systems, and when you want multiple checks to be made they’re an effective framework for allowing that without the all-or-nothing of a single check ruining the entire attempt.


The flip-side of rolling to failure is the “roll pointlessly until you succeed” thing. For example, you’ll often run into games where the PCs need to unlock a door: There’s no time pressure and no consequences for failure, and yet the GM will sit there and have the PCs roll over and over and over again until they finally succeed.

One way to deal with that is something like the Take 20 mechanic: If you can eventually succeed at this, then we can assume that you will eventually succeed at it and we can move on. Letting it ride can also solve this problem by providing the opposite outcome: Your failure on this Open Locks check tells us you are simply not good enough to pick this lock at this time and in this way. (The single check determines your relationship with the lock and until you can substantially change the situation, your character is going to be stymied by that lock).


A somewhat related problem is when a multi-step action resolution gets broken down into too many discrete parts. This can take many forms, but the most cancerous form I’ve seen in the wild came from GMs who took the Search guidelines for 3rd Edition D&D way too seriously. Those guidelines specified that it took a full action to search a 5-foot square. That’s a useful guideline for combat (when you might want to know how much area you can search during a single round), but some GMs took this to mean that you needed to make a separate Search check for every 5 foot square. So if you searched a 10-foot-wide hallway that was 40 feet long, you’d have to make sixteen (!) separate Search checks.

This isn’t rolling to failure because each chunk is a legitimately separate task. (Failing to search in Square #1 doesn’t mean you won’t find anything in Square #2.) But it murders pace – which is either directly undesirable or undesirable because it discourages players from using the specialties affected by the problem.

The solution here is to collect the tests into meaningful chunks: Searching an entire room (or even suite of rooms) is obvious. Alternatively, if they want to search the dungeon hallways as they move along, let the result of the check ride until they either make a meaningful choice to do something other than search down the hall OR until that check result produces a result (either success or failure) that they can recognize as such (i.e., until that check either finds a trap or secret door or until it fails to do so and the trap happens to them or the ambush pours out of the secret door they missed).

Sometimes you’ll end up with a player who demands multiple checks. In some cases this is because they, too, are following bad mechanical advice (like the “make a check for every 5 feet” misinterpretation of the Search rules). In other cases, it’s a manipulation of metagame information (“I know I rolled poorly, so let’s have that only apply to this one specific area and then I’ll make another check”). Often it’s because they’re irrationally trying to manage risk (“I’ll only search this little chunk so that if I roll poorly the effects will be minimalized” — which doesn’t make sense because your odds of discovering any given hazard remain unaltered, but that doesn’t mean people don’t do it).

Most of the time your response to this is fairly simple: You tell them no.

The exception would be the rare instance where it’s actually effective pacing to stretch out the mechanical resolution. Like a slow motion shot in a film, these are the times when specifically highlighting each small, discreet, tension-filled moment serves to escalate the crisis and leave the table on the edge of their seats.

Identifying these moments is a gut-check, not a science. For example, I was just about to say that it would never be Search checks down a dungeon hall… but then I realized that there actually was a time that I followed a player’s lead in the Tomb of Horrors to separately search every single inch of corridor because that mechanical resolution was so completely right in capturing the paranoia and terror the group was experiencing in that moment.


On a closing note, let’s be clear that not every series of sequential rolls with a non-discrete outcome is rolling to failure. We’ve already discussed the situation where each individual check is a separate, meaningful accomplishment. But it’s also true that, for example, combat isn’t a roll to failure even though it involves multiple checks culminating in a single outcome of life-or-death.

It’s also useful to note that rolling to failure can be an effective choice if you’re actually looking at a situation where failure is assured and the interesting question is how long a character can stave off that failure. For example, how long can you say conscious in a vacuum? How long can you hold the door against the werewolves pounding on it from the other side?

The Tomb of Horrors

Go to Part 3: Resolution Dithering

I got back from Gen Con yesterday. All in all, I had a really great time, picked up a bunch of cool stuff, and then came home to find a stack of Kickstarter games on my front porch. (Which I’m referring to as Gen Con Twelfth Night now that it’s happened three times in a row.)

But I did run into something of a bad streak of luck this year when it came to actually playing games. Although there were a couple of really great games, for the most part I was mired in complete duds. In a few cases, this was the result of a bad scenario, but for the most part I was suffering from some truly atrocious GMing.

This caused me to reflect on the fact that GMing is one of those crafts where you very rarely get to see another practitioner’s work. There are, of course, some groups where players will cycle through the GM’s chair, but this seems to largely be the exception rather than the rule. As a result, I suspect that many (possibly most) GMs exist in a bubble, and this isolation limits their ability to recognize (and correct) their shortcomings.

I’ve written a great deal of advice for GMs here on the Alexandrian, and most of it is positive in nature. I like to tell you about the nifty stuff that you could be doing or adding to your games. But now I’m going to spend a little time taking the opposite approach: I’m going to talk about the stuff that you should NOT be doing.

The examples I’ll be using here are primarily drawn from some of the bad experiences I had at Gencon. But since I’m not looking to specifically call anybody out, I’ll be anonymizing the details.


Player: Shit! Okay, we run out the other door!

GM: There is no other door. The only way out is the way you came in.

Player: What the hell happened to the other door?!

There’s nothing more frustrating for a player (nor more guaranteed to shatter their engagement with the game) than watching the reality of the game world shift like a mirage in front of their metaphorical eyes.

In some cases, of course, this morphing of reality is the result of poor communication: The GM forgot to mention the ogre that is now pounding in their skull when they unwittingly tried to run past it. Or when the GM said that the doors were at the “end of the hallway” he meant they were facing each other across the width of the hall while the players assumed he meant they were standing side-by-side looking down the length of the hall.

Far more problematic, however, is when it becomes clear that the GM’s own mental picture of the game world is inherently unstable. For example, there was a science fiction scenario where a ship’s compartment was filled with vacuum… or not. It oscillated randomly over several rounds of combat. (And if you’re thinking that this would be distressing for anyone in that compartment, you would be correct. Maybe you’re the character who carefully took the time to make the preparations to enter a vacuum only to be upstaged by someone else rushing into the compartment because the vacuum has vanished. Or maybe you’re the character suddenly exposed to the vacuum because you entered the compartment after being assured that everything was fine now until the GM suddenly remembered that the vacuum was supposed to be there. Either way, everything else about the game will quickly become blotted out by your palpable frustration.)

I think it can be argued that maintaining the integrity of the game world is, in fact, the GM’s most fundamental task. Everything else flows from that singular, unifying vision. And without that integrity meaningful choice (the defining characteristic of the roleplaying game) becomes impossible.

Perhaps the most common form of morphing reality is geographic: Distances that double or quadruple in size. Ogres who can somehow simultaneously be standing right next to two characters who are nowhere near each other. Hallways that appear and disappear from the floorplan. But it’s a problem which can be found in any aspect of the game world: NPCs who change their appearance. Organizations that flip-flop between panopticon omniscience and bumbling cluelessness. Spells that vary in efficacy depending on the GM’s mood.

On that last note, it’s also important to note that, in addition to descriptive consistency, the GM should also strive to achieve mechanical consistency. As Ben Robbins’ elegantly states in “Same Description, Same Rule”:

The game world is imaginary. It does not exist except in the minds of the participants. Each person has their own mind and their own imagination, which makes it all the more important to make sure there is a consensus, that you are all operating in the _same_ fictitious world and in agreement about how things work. Consistency makes that easier, inconsistency makes it harder.

To use an example from M&M, the players encounter one machine gun that uses a normal attack roll, and then later they encounter another machine gun that uses an Area attack instead (automatic hit, Reflex save to reduce damage). Conceptually the two machine guns are identical — one is bigger but otherwise the same.

A player sees the second machine gun before it fires and says “a ha, I will dodge to increase my Defense, which will make me harder to hit!” Logical but completely incorrect, because that player doesn’t know that the second machine gun uses a rule mechanic that has nothing to do with Defense.


There’s a simple fix for this:

The same description should never be modeled with two different rules. If you want to use a different rule, there should be a different description.


RPGs are the theater of the mind. They’re improvisational radio drama. Achieving consistency means holding complex pictures of the game world in your mind while simultaneously juggling all of the other things the GM needs to be doing at the gaming table.

That’s not easy.

The degree of complexity in that mental image that can be successfully managed will vary a lot between GMs. (This is also a skill, of course, and you’ll generally find that you’ll improve at it over time.) So the first thing a GM needs to do is know their limits. And once they know those limits, they can find ways to push beyond them.

For example, I know that I, personally, can’t handle fights with simultaneous action resolution if there are more than 8-12 characters involved. Beyond that limit, I can’t keep all of the disparate actions in my head at the same time and figure out how things would play out. So when that situation began cropping up frequently in my OD&D open table campaign, I responded by creating a mechanical structure that split the round into multiple resolution phases so that I was handling smaller groups of characters at any given moment.

If you struggle with keeping the geography of a locale consistent, sketch out a quick map. (This doesn’t have to be a hyper-accurate blueprint: It just needs to cement the idea that the kitchen is here and the bedroom is over there.) Jot down notes on your NPCs to keep their appearance and characterization consistent. Keep a campaign journal so that you can track continuity between sessions.


Once you’ve got things straight in your own mind, you can work on improving communication with your players. Start by making a mental (or physical) note of moments when your players become confused by your descriptions. Review those moments: How could you have phrased things differently – or what details could you have added – in order to make things clearer? Over time you’ll figure out which phrases (like “at the end of the hallway”) are too vague and how you can make them more precise.

(Note that precision does not necessarily equate to greater length.)

Creating clarity might also mean using visual references: Drawing diagrams, handing out photographic references for major NPCs, hanging a map of the city on the wall, and the like.


While you’re working on all of that, keep in mind that no matter how skilled you become mistakes and misunderstandings will still happen. So give some thought about how you’ll handle that confusion when it happens.

First, be alert for signs that a misunderstanding has occurred. Usually a dead giveaway is if the players are proposing actions which don’t make sense to you. I’ve talked about this at length before and proposed a general principle:

If you don’t understand what the players are trying to achieve with a given action, find out before adjudicating the action.

Second, give the benefit of the doubt to your players. Your vision of the game world is not precise and the situation of the game world is dynamic (even if your mechanics are breaking it down into sequential turns).

For example, there’s an ogre fighting in the middle of a room and one of the players declares that he’s going to run past the ogre. Clearly in their vision of the situation there’s enough room for them to safely do that. Maybe in your vision of the room things aren’t so clear-cut. But if you just have the ogre take a step to the left as he swings his club at Athena, then you could easily imagine Horatio Ogrerushing past him. So let it happen.

Third, find ways to compromise between your vision and what they want to accomplish.

Maybe it really is impossible for Horatio to just run past the ogre: It’s a small room or maybe the ogre is specifically trying to prevent people from getting past it. Instead of just declaring it impossible, however, look at what the player is trying to accomplish (get past the ogre) and then offer them a way to do that which is consistent with your vision of the room: Maybe they can make a Tumble check to get past it. Or maybe Athena could deliberately bait it out of the way.

This process of compromise isn’t just a specific application of the “Yes, but…” principle of GM rulings (although it is), it also smooths the players’ correction of their mental picture. These mental pictures, after all, are built up from an aggregate of detail. By offering options for accomplishing their goals, you’re encouraging them to focus on the additional details you’re adding (the room is smaller than you thought) instead of on the rejection of their previous vision. (It’s a subtle distinction, but in my experience it’s significant.)

Finally, when the wheels come completely off the bus don’t be afraid of allowing minor retcons to resolve the discordance.

If I’m following the advice above, I find this most often occurs when the consequence for the misunderstanding doesn’t immediately manifest itself. For example, “If I’d known the ogres were close enough to get here before my next turn, I never would have stopped to pick up the idol!”

Even with the passing of some short span of time, it’s usually still not too difficult to just back things up a step, correct the action taken under a misapprehension, and then move forward. But as chains of cause-and-effect become more complicated you do have to balance the potential discordance of the retcon against the discordance of the player’s disconnection from the game world. (Also bear in mind that there is a difference between “the character didn’t know” and “the player didn’t understand”: If the player thought the ogres were several hundred feet away when they were actually only a few dozen feet away, that’s one thing. But if Horatio didn’t realize that the ogres could traverse several hundred feet in a single round because of the cheetah totems they’re wearing, that’s a completely different thing.)

Once again, it can be useful to consider the compromise of a negotiated retcon: When Horatio grabbed the idol he was granted a brief vision, so you’re not going to allow a retcon that wipes that moment out completely. But maybe you’ll allow Horatio to avoid getting cut off by the ogres if he drops the idol and makes a run for it with a successful Athletics check.

Go to Part 2



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