Ask The GM: Rooting Against Us

By John Serpico on


Beth asks – I’m in a campaign with a GM I generally like, but one thing he does is really grating. Whenever we’re in combat and he’s rolling for an enemy, he’ll curse if he rolls a miss or a critical failure. That is, he’ll roll for an enemy, that enemy will whiff and his response will be “Dammit, well that sucks” or “That’s some really sh***y luck for me.” Am I wrong to be bothered by that? Should I just let it go?

Beth, even if I thought this wasn’t a big deal, I’m not in the business of telling people how to feel. Gaming is about experiencing something fun and big and epic with friends, so feeling feelings is absolutely part of it. If you didn’t feel anything about a campaign you’re in, positive or negative, you probably shouldn’t be in that campaign to begin.

That said, I believe that a GM becoming visibly upset when his or her imaginary bad guys don’t chop off a protagonist’s arm is actually a major problem. So if I was in your shoes, I’d feel the same way.

One of the worst possible things a GM could do is to create an adversarial relationship with the players. Gaming is, first and foremost, a shared narrative. And a shared narrative is based on trust, and the idea that everyone at the table ultimately wants the same thing – a good story full of heroes, challenges and thrilling twists and turns. It is not a competition between the GM and the players, and if it feels like it is, a good story becomes very hard to come by. Every frustrated utterance out of your GM’s mouth drives a further wedge between him and the players. It is a reminder that, in his mind, you are competing against him. That he has an agenda and his dice have failed him in executing that agenda.

Take his sentiment to its logical conclusion. If he is upset at every miss, he would be pleased at every hit. If the horde of space elves or blood-splattered barbarians hit you again and again, he’ll be more and more pleased as you lose more and more hit points. Which means that he’ll be thrilled only if the party is crippled or dead. Or, at minimum, he’ll be thrilled if and only if the party sustains the amount of damage he wanted you to sustain and not a hit point less. That doesn’t sound like an exercise in communal storytelling, does it?

That leads me to my next point. In addition to perpetuating the “GM as villain” myth, your GM is also giving you the impression that he has a specific plan for each session that he doesn’t want you to change. While this is most clearly manifested during combat, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came up in other circumstances too, like in problem solving or infiltrating a walled city or picking sides in a conflict. Some GMs are very protective of their pre-planning and find ways to coax players into making certain decisions or engage in only certain kinds of activities. The best way to determine if your GM’s hard-headedness extends past the fight sequences is to think about how often he introduces some unexpected complications.

Let’s say your party made a great plan on how to extract documents from a well-guarded vault. And then your party engaged in some surveillance to find weak spots in the patrol routes. And then your party made a bunch of terrific stealth roles. But then, suddenly, entirely impossible to foresee complications appeared at the least convenient possible time. That might be a sign that your GM has some kind of allergy to the players getting their way. Plenty of GMs use a sudden, intensity-heightening twist to increase the drama and the stakes. But if a GM seems to do that all the time, and couple it with profanity on every critical miss, it’s a pretty bad sign.

My advice is to talk to your GM about it after a session. Let him know that the visible frustration when his plans to kill you are thwarted are a bit troubling and you’re wondering why he feels that way. Hopefully that will be the wake-up call your GM needs to realize that gaming is more fun when everyone’s working on the same story.

Happy gaming!

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