Regression to Mercy

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of playing my game In the Realm of the Nibelungs for the first time because a friend has taken over GMing!

Yesterday, another player’s character died — and the GM ignored the rules and said the PC might still be saved by cure light wounds in the same round as the lethal hit. One player protested – “Hey, spells resolve after melee!” – but to no avail.

I could have seen this coming — the GM has had trouble pulling the trigger from the beginning. One of my PCs had been the only casualty until yesterday, and he’d offered the cure light solution but I’d turned him down, preferring death.

On the way home after yesterday’s session, the saved PC’s player remarked that he felt torn — things just didn’t feel right, but he was fond of his character. His wife, another player, suggested he should declare his PC dead next week, but it looks as if he would rather keep him.

I said my piece as well, briefly, both during the game and on the way home, though I did not insist, shame or initiate a wider conflict. I’m angry at the GM and disappointed in the player, but above all, crestfallen.

Ten years ago, I embarked on leaving illusionism behind and playing with hard consequences. I had read about this playstyle extensively, asked tons of questions online, and meticulously prepared for our new campaign. I chose DCC on account of its unpredictable critical hit and spell tables and kicked off the action with two ‘funnels’ to get us habituated to characters dying. It worked — the players accepted and adapted to the new situation.

I practiced extreme transparency to fight my own instincts to manipulate the game as a GM — e.g. rolling enemy hit points openly and only upon the first hit and much more. When I gave in to the urge to make a fight harder one time, I confessed the next session and set things right. It was a long road, but incredibly liberating and well worth it — I have a ton of fun GMing because I never know how things will turn out! I stopped counting casualties somewhere at the 80+ mark during the last campaign, and we’ve had plenty more since, including multiple Total Party Kills. I refined my techniques (e.g. by having a mechanic in my Nibelungs game which naturally creates character stables) and was happy with play…

…until seeing this disaster the other night. It’s a dungeoncrawl. If you can’t lose, what’s the freakin’ point?

I’ve often mused that the only way to get a functional game (not necessarily one with character death) with my friends is to be the GM myself — various disasters with other GMs attest to that (with dropping attendance, GM burnout, conflict among the participants etc.). Due to discussions and coursework here, I’ve come to realize just how problematic this is apart from me rarely getting to play.

Whether I am or merely see myself (Am I the asshole?) as the sole reliable source of fun, that’s pretty messed-up.

I wanna play and GM. I wanna learn new things and make however many mistakes it takes, with the others, from both sides of the screen (if there even is one). I sure as hell don’t want to rein in childish behaviour that apparently explodes the minute I’m not in charge. And I don’t want to be in charge but just do my part, whatever that is (hence my restraint).

I’m still proud of what I have achieved and I have fun as a GM, but seeing the game regress to empty theater is depressing indeed.


7 responses to “Regression to Mercy”

  1. I was reviewing the comments in the post “Intent in The Pool,” from two and a half years ago, and this one by Noah jumped out at me as relevant to your point.

    Your reflections about needing to be the GM in order to have fun include the key phrase, “with my friends,” which lead me to say something almost too painful and cruel for public discourse. Which is, they may be your friends, but one or more of them may not be the people you want to play with, and significantly, vice versa.

    To stay specific to this game rather than in general, the fellow who was GMing clearly does not want to play the game you have written. That’s neither bad nor good, and certainly it should not be permitted to go down the stupid whirlpool of whether he “can” fudge rolls/results (anyone “can” do whatever they want). What matters is that as plain fact, there’s no fighting it. You are understandably invested in people enjoying playing the game, and apparently you’re not alone at the table in this, but this person does not want to.

    I am probably going way past social boundaries, and it’s not like you need advice from me about it … well, in for a penny and all that, and maybe this is worth saying, not to you personally, but so others can consider it privately. I totally agree with you that shaming or any other social influencing is flatly bad and wrong to do. I suggest as well that suffering along with the un-played not-played experience is, if not as ethically objectionable, not worth doing either.

    Therefore, giving each other a break and not playing this game together (or for him, at all), may be the actual act of friendship.

  2. Does a “GM” have to be “in charge?”

    I think part of the problem is the conflation of rules facilitator or social leadership role with GMing as a play role. Discussed in Slaying the ‘The’

    I can offer as an alternative the totally viable social agreement of “They’ll be GMing, but I’ll be facilitating the rules”. Not implying that anyone has to be “in charge”, but at least breaking “The GM” into smaller pieces in a way that we’re still playing this game. I’ve at least found it a good exercise for myself in getting over that “The GM” concept, and helping others getting over it too.

    It’s clear that in presence of “but … he’s the GM, he’s in charge, not you” and deep social investment into the conflation of GM and various leadership and guidance roles, there is not much to be done. At that point we’re playing “What the GM says goes” and not “Im Reich das Nibelungen”.

  3. Related to “I need to be in charge to have fun”.

    I’ve found myself struggling with the same problem while trying to establish a player pool here in Helsinki, Finland, and the reason I’m still in touch with my established Italian online player pool.

    Generally, I can trust that any one of the Italian players I’m in touch with (not a comment on Italian roleplaying, just the ones that I interact with) is interested in roleplaying as a expression and that they’re not going to pull any weird fudging social dynamics “for the good of the story” or “we don’t really want to punish you by losing your character” or start acting instead of roleplaying or other bullshit like that.

    I’ve been fortunate enough that after two years here in Helsinki I’ve found a small group of people where I’ve been able to establish that trust and can let go of this “I need to be in charge”. Players have been organizing games without my input and I’ve been happy to show up. It’s been hard to get to this point, I admit.

    Part of meeting people has been running games in shared spaces like bars, libraries, and conventions, and touching people with the enjoyment of what we’re doing. I even met one of the players I mentioned because he **listened** to the session I ran in a café that I described here

    This all to give a small bit of what I hope is encouragement: if you focus on celebrating what you enjoy, people that enjoy it as well will be attracted and naturally gather around you.

  4. I agree that the creative differences between me and my friend (and possibly other players) are likely insurmountable (and that’s not a value judgement about anyone’s preferences).

    I suspect he has been suffering in silence but soldiered on, seeing no alternative to playing with this group of close friends. I do see alternatives for myself, especially due to online play, but have only just begun to explore them.

    (I seriously considered leaving last year over crass misogyny and was delighted to find that, hey, I totally could! I confronted the issue head on, and the other party – also this GM, by the way – relented.)

    As Claudio says, finding people with the same goals, tastes etc. and building trust will take time, but that’s okay. Thank you for your encouragement in this endeavour, gentlemen!

    As for these friends, maybe showing up only for dinner and/or rotating GMs with different games (and different attendees) might be viable, though it will be very tricky to discuss these things, e.g. without things turning into a popularity contest or shaming people for, say, prefering a low- or no-stakes game.

    (In my view, the issue is usually that the illusionists are touchy about their preferences or unable to admit them to themselves, rather than others looking down on them.)

    Last year, I acted as a facilitator / co-GM for a friend, and that worked out okay (and is a long story). However, I think the GM doesn’t want help. Also, adhering to or applying the (written) rules is just the tip of the iceberg. A GM, at least in this type of game, has a myriad ways to manipulate the game.

    • > Also, adhering to or applying the (written) rules is just the tip of the iceberg. A GM, at least in this type of game, has a myriad ways to manipulate the game.

      Yeah, I think you’re really on point here.

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