The Selfish GM


When you realize that your once-weekly game becomes a chore, something you dread and stress over, you’re doing something wrong. The game is supposed to be fun, for players and GM alike. So this week and next I’m taking a break to re-focus and hopefully answer the question that’s bugging me most: why have I lost interest in running my campaign? And, more importantly, what can I do to fix this?

I see Grand Vizier Rainier Desmarins

It seems to be boiling down to the truth that many GMs run the games that they wish they were playing, as Telas points out at Gnome Stew. Or we try, to, anyway. Right now I just don’t like the way my players are taking the game. I have an epic movie playing in my head, something along the lines of the original Assasin’s Creed or Kingdom of Heaven. At the table I feel more like I’m running Aladdin and its sequels, with progressively crasser jokes and characterization. My players have even gone so far as to refer to one of my top-ranking NPC’s, the Lord Admiral and Grand Vizier Ranier Desmarins, as Jafar.

I’d rather they be brushing elbows with the thieves guild, delving into the politics of the city, while they would rather try to steal the underwear off a drunken nobleman or fling shit in the eyes of their French adversaries.

They see Grand Vizier Jafar

And I have a hard time standing by and watching them make a mockery of my homebrew setting. So on Wednesday, after a hour and a half of what felt like pulling teeth, I gave up, unceremoniously sent everybody home, and called off the next week’s session. (For any other GM’s out there, please, please listen to your gut instincts and deal with the problem before it blows up in your face, like it did for me.)

But there’s a bigger question at stake here: is that really their problem, or is it mine?

Am I too prideful as a GM? Am I violating Oakspar’s cardinal rule that the game is about the players, not the campaign world (“Lessons from GMing with my Girlfriend”)?

It may very well be the case that I’m too protective of my own creations, since I had a much easier time with their torturing of the NPC’s when I was running Dark Sun pre-made adventures. In any creative work, ego does get involved, and it’s a better wo/man than I who can keep them separate all the time.

But at the same time, isn’t a little too much to ask the GM to run a game he has no interest in running? He or she isn’t the group’s private role-playing server to program however they like. I firmly believe we have a right to have fun, too.

So then we have to come to a compromise. And that requires, most of all, communication. (Looks like I should have taken Gamemastering’s advice from the first section better to heart.)

When I set out to start a campaign in late January, I essentially offered Marrakesh as-is to my players; I had complete creative control, and they could either play if they want or leave, as one player did early on. It’s likely my own inflexibility that led to the total disintegration of session Wednesday night. And so it’s with a heavy heart that I realize I need to tie it up, reach a suitable conclusion, and move on to another setting, genre, maybe even system.

Gloomwrought: my next campaign setting?

Because I need to run the game that we both want to play. If that means I need to find some different players, then so be it. They’ll be happier for it too, to be able to play with a GM who likes–encourages even–their wild hijinks.

Am I selfish, then? Maybe. I want storytellers and actors who are in it for a serious campaign, preferably with a good dose of dark fantasy and intrigue.

Then again, so is everyone who plays–we all want to have fun our way. The trick is to find the way to bend those styles just enough to make it enjoyable for all, player and GM alike.

10 Responses to “The Selfish GM”

  1. People game for different reasons. Some people use it because they want to tell a good story, or act as someone else for a while. Others want to demonstrate mastery of a system, or because they like a particular genre and want immerse themselves in that genre’s conventions. Still others use it as a veneer for interactions with other people.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the impression from your Marrakesh game that while you were hoping to put forward an immersive setting, banking on players who wanted much the same, you ended up with characters that were looking for a more casual game and would have been just as happy with a standard, generic D&D game.

    Whenever you put forward a creation of your own, there has to be a level of acceptance to the fact that it’s not “yours” anymore. It also belongs to whomever you shared it with; any player in a setting, any audience for a film, any reader for a book, will interpret things differently. That means being able to let go, and take things as they come.

    That said, piecing together bits of your game from your Obsidian Portal page, plus our conversations, it seems like your players were just using the game for a framework for joking around. And, I know you well enough to know that’s not what you want from a game. It sounds like it just wasn’t a solid match…

    That said, I’ve been pushing my players out of their more “casual” style, with my new Eberron game. I provided them an in-character “gazetteer”, and their first session gave them a TON of leads on the various players around Khorvaire. I think that building some buy-in at the start is key to taking a game “seriously”.

  2. a player says:

    A few things…

    a) One thing that needs to be said is not every thing that is being called “Silly” or “not serious” is so silly. As far as the Jaffar thing, when you toss 5 new names and major NPCs at us at once, it is hard to remember names. Replacing Rainier with Jaffar isn’t so much an image in our head as a way to remember which character is who…when you say Rainier and I picture Jaffar, at least I am remembering who is who. The prince of thieves character, I don’t even remember his name, I just know his pog and I picture him as Aladdin because of his description. It isn’t easy to randomly remember NPCs who we see rarely and all at once when we do. And from a simple standpoint, “Grand Vizier Rainier” is a hell of a lot harder for someone to say/imagine than “Jaffar”, with the product being the same: recognition. When some tactics don’t make sense: don’t just say no if you don’t like a tactic, ask. Players will often have a real reason to do something that seems stupid and if they don’t, then say no.

    b) The game should be fun for the DM as well, but don’t see the players variations to your story as a mockery, it is just how they see things and choose to play the campaign. Mind you the title of “player”, the game is for them and if they wish to turn a few things to tailor it to their brains better, taking it so personally is unfair to them.

    c) If all else fails, pull the GM card. If useless questions are being asked, don’t always try to explain it or prove the logic. If it gets ridiculous, simply say “Because I’m the GM and I said so.” It may seem ridiculous, but sometimes it is necessary and not worth arguing over simple aesthetics.

    d) A final statement: mind everyone this is a game at its heart. Yes it is a way to spin imagination, yes it is a way to tell a beautiful story, but never forget it is a game. If players are joking around, it’s because they are having fun and feel comfortable to joke around. If your players sat rigid in their chairs simply throwing d20s at a table, would it really seem like they were enjoying themselves? No GM should take joking around as immaturity and lack of respect, it is a sign of comfort and enjoyment, which is the main goal of any game, let alone one as great and in depth as this one.

  3. I’m going to disagree with you, player, but keep in mind: I’m an outside observer, and not at the table. My knowledge of any individual circumstance is limited.

    When you refer to a major player in the campaign as Jafar, it implies that you’re not taking him (or the game in general) seriously. I mean, you’re taking a character, and just because he has the title Vizier, you’re comparing him to a cartoonish Disney villain.
    Further, that puts forward a modicum of disrespect your GM, whom has spent hour upon hour preparing the game for your enjoyment. When you use nicknames like that, you show that you couldn’t care less about what your GM is really doing.

    I’ve got to ask: is that HARD to take a few notes? Jot down an NPC’s name once in a while, just scratched in the margins or the reverse side of your character sheet? If you’t not willing to make that much of a committment for a major recurring NPC, I’ll be honest–I wouldn’t want you as a player.

    I take issue with your second point–“the title of “player”, the game is for them and if they wish to turn a few things to tailor it to their brains better, taking it so personally is unfair to them.” The GM is just as much of a player as anyone else at the table, and has a right to enjoy themselves just as much as anyone. And, if the GM is willing to prepare the encounters/scenarios/monsters, they have an even greater entitlement to enjoy the fruits of their labor. No GM is there solely to amuse their players. It’s a matter of having fun ‘together’, rather than having fun at the GM’s expense, which is what sounds like is going on here.

    Your final argument is just as faulty. Let’s take an example: I enjoy throwing darts, but we agree to go see a movie. In the midst of the movie, I get up and start throwing darts at the screen. You, no doubt, would take offense at my actions, right? But, I’m just having fun…why should you stop me?

    Quite simply, the answer is that my ‘fun’ is inhibiting the group’s ‘fun’. I don’t have the right to simply get up and interrupt things any more than you have the right to turn a character-driven, plot-heavy game into a spoof of itself.

    The implication that your GM wants a “serious, toss dice down on the table and be quiet” game is erroneous at best. Many, many, many gamers enjoy ‘intense’ gaming. It’s one of the reasons that Call of Cthulhu games continue to sell out year after year at conventions worldwide. Serious /= not fun. Rather, your GM is trying to foster an intense, immersive mood, based on the Middle-East. To me, making fun of a major NPC like this is like sitting down to a Vampire: the Masquerade or Call of Cthulhu game and asking to play Roger Rabbit. It kills the mood that the GM has worked so hard to establish, and makes the game un-fun for the person who’s invested the most.

  4. M says:

    I will be seriously disappointed if you end Marrakesh. Its one of the few bright spots amidst my job and my school work. I honestly love the story and I’m both excited and curious to see where it goes and how my character can fit in to it. I also love the npcs, Tariq especially and I’ve never referred to him as ‘Aladdin’ or Rainier as ‘Jafar’, and fuck who ever did.

    The group definitely needs some ground rules on speaking out of turn and out of character so we can minimalize the chatter and get to the story, which is the whole reason I come.

    I love the idea of D&D being a living novel and I’ve put in too much drawing, writing, researching and cupcake baking to have this story end the way it is.

  5. a player says:

    You clearly didn’t read my first post as about the reasoning or that wouldn’t be your answer. I can’t say for the rest of the group, but when I refer to him as Jaffar it isn’t to lesson his character or disrespect the GM, it is because that is the imagine in my head. That is how I best remember him. If you are going to tell me I can’t do that because you don’t like it, that is a childlike attitude to take. It is what is most comfortable to me just the same as Rainier is most comfortable to the GM and anyone else. I know the character and that should be all that matters. If you truly think otherwise, then you are simply being too stiff with your rules and I would not play with you as a DM. It’s disrespectful for a GM to tell a player “no, you have to remember him like this” when they are more comfortable a different way.

    No it isn’t that hard, is it that hard to just let the players remember how they wish to remember? Mind you what you are asking is for us to keep a notebook that will further delay gameplay as we continue to look back and forth through the pages to find characters we don’t remember, or some detail we jotted down. I think that would be silly and I don’t wish to delay gameplay any more than it already is sometimes. What is the issue with remembering characters another way? It isn’t disrespect, I don’t understand why you can’t accept that. And as far as remembering a major recurring character: please keep your opinions to yourself if you aren’t at the table, this character was mentioned very little until this particular incident. I repeat, I wouldn’t want you as a GM then because you ask for a professional game, I play to have fun. I have a job to be professional, I don’t want to roll my dice that way.

    I’m not going to spend much time arguing the relationship of player and GM, a GM is only a player when his/her acting is required. Other than that a GM is not a player, they are a GM, hence the separation of titles. They are of course involved and should be having as much fun, if not more, than the players, but they are not a player. They make the rules, the come up with the encounters, they do all the hard parts. A director is not an actor simply because he/she is a part of the production.

    The problem being I am not throwing darts in a movie theater, I am cracking jokes to ease some tension and changing names to make it easier for myself and several other new players to remember different NPCs. I understand you are coming from a strictly outside point on this matter, but please respect that as well. Until you sit at the table with us, you can’t understand it so please do not attempt to. Every campaign is different, every player is different, I believe you know you can’t really compare one to another.

    I don’t doubt people enjoy ‘intense gaming’, however this is a group of people who have never played before. I do not believe that is the group desire as a whole. But when you tell a group of DnD novices “Stop cracking jokes. Stop coming up with silly ways to do things. Remember the characters right”, the only image that I can conjure up in my head is a strict elementary school teacher with a ruler. I understand your need to defend the GM in this case, but understand that it is a different story each time.

  6. a player says:

    first paragraph: image*

  7. Far from it, player, I read all of your posts, several times.

    There’s a funny thing about being disrespectful, it’s a matter of how it’s taken, not how it’s intended. When you refer to a character that the GM has taken a good deal of time on—one integral to the plot, and someone that you’ll be needing to talk to numerous times—as a Disney villain, it’s still disrespectful to the effort she’s put in regardless of how you intend it. While it’s obvious hyperbole, it’s the same way with a sexual harassment case: it’s a matter of how it’s taken, not how it’s intended. Even if you didn’t think it was disrespectful, judging by the reaction to your actions, it was taken as disrespectful.

    Did I say anything about a notebook? My exact words were “Jot down an NPC’s name once in a while, just scratched in the margins or the reverse side of your character sheet”. I’m implying that you should have a huge notebook with you, every time you meet an NPC. Rather, it just makes sense that someone would write down the name of an important character.

    If making an internal comparison to another character is what works for you, that’s fine too, but when you take the extra step to verbalize that association—one that defeats the mood and intent of the game—you make the game ‘un-fun’ for your GM. It’s their game, too, and if the game is ‘un-fun’ for the GM, there’s no game. I do find it interesting that you refuse to talk about the GM/player relationship, because that’s what’s at the heart of this: the play-style at the table is not what the GM wants to play in.

    I readily admitted that I’m not at your table in my first post—no need to get defensive about it. That said, I’ve been friends with your GM for years, and even lived with her for a while. Believe it or not, I like talking about games with her, even to the point where I’ve chosen to work with her. Yes, because designing games is, in fact, work.

    If you don’t want me as a GM, that’s fine—that’s your call and, in the eyes of many so far, your loss. I’ve never had a problem filling a table, and that doesn’t look to change any time soon. But, when the person who is running your game is telling you that the actions at the table aren’t kosher, it’s more than disrespectful, it’s outright rude to say otherwise. And, to see you fall back on the, “but our table is different” argument only smacks of a poor attempt to justify actions that you know actually made your GM feel like crap.

    You put a pile of words in my mouth there, at the end, none of which I actually said. The furthest extent that I made mention of was to jot a few notes in the margins or reverse of a character sheet, as I quoted earlier. If you don’t want an intense game, that’s fine—not everyone does. But, the onus falls on you, Player, to talk to your GM reasonably and ask for a change, rather than simply mock what she’s invested her creative time and energy into.

    If you look back at my first post—yes, the first one I made—you’ll even see that I made mention of that. If you want a different style of game than what’s being played, say something. But, at the end of the day, Rule #1 still stands: “Don’t be a dick.” And (at the risk of being offensive here), if your GM has to kick the whole group out of her house, because they’re driving her to a nervous episode? Yeah, that’s being a dick.

  8. Oh, and to stave off the potential nit-pick, allow me to correct a typo above:

    I’m NOT advocating bringing a whole notebook to copy down minute details in; rather, simply that occasionally jotting down an important name or such on the blank space on a character sheet should do just fine.

  9. Thunderforge says:

    I too am not at the table, and I’m not trying to take sides here, but I have many of the same difficulties as “a player” in remembering NPC names. For me, I can remember plot details intimately, but for some reason names often escape me. I can probably outline most of the details of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies even after seeing some of them once, but it wasn’t until the third Pirates movie that I walked out of the theater and could actually remember the name of Kiera Knightly’s character! It sounds like the player has the same difficulty through no fault of his or her own.

    I’ve never liked taking notes of any form at the gaming table (it reminds me too much of school). And often times there are enough names being flung around that I don’t know what’s worth trying to remember.

    Fortunately, there are a few other ways to get me to remember a name. One is to have it repeatedly drilled into my head (I had no trouble remembering “Captain Jack Sparrow” after the first movie because it was said so many times). Another is to make it easy to remember or have some sort of association (I remembered that the witch lady in the second and third films was really Calypso, the same name as a character in The Odyssey, but I can’t remember what her name was before that was revealed). This seems to be the way that the Marrakesh players wound up dealing with the name difficulty by likening him to a character they already remembered. Finally, you can write it down. For me as a visual learner, if I see it in writing, I can remember it better.

    I’d encourage using those tools wherever you can, as it can’t hurt and it may immensely help your players.

  10. Laraqua says:

    I totally feel for you there. Its really hard to find players that fit the type of style you’re going for and equally hard to find a GM who’s after the same kind of thing.

    I’m very lucky to have some pretty serious players who can make their comedic moments feel real. People can be weird, be comedic, make crass jokes, and try to cope through humor and that works out for me.

    I also know I can’t focus as much on investigations, especially on complex investigations involving establishing timelines, as I’d like and need to focus more on exploration. This is an easy compromise for us.


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