Why I'm Afraid of Game Masters

In my 19-odd years playing RPGs, about 90-95% of that time has been as a DM/GM. For me, getting to run a character is a treat because the world on the opposite side of the screen is so strange and mysterious. In fact, I find the relationship between the two roles so strange that I don't know how more games don't break down into fistfights.

As a GM, I often joke about killing player characters and how I'm going to screw them over and make their lives miserable. But it's just that - a joke. I don't remember the last time I actually killed a player character, let alone achieved the feather in my cap of a TPK (Probably because I've been playing a lot of 4E. It's much harder to kill characters in 4E), so I never imagined they would take my threats seriously. But you know what? Actually running a character is scary shit.

A buddy of mine recently started a Battlestar Galactica game. He's only GMed a few times, so he's pretty excited and so far he's doing a good job. But I have to admit, I'm constantly terrified for my character's life. I don't know if it's because I'm just not used to playing, so I haven't quite balanced my risk/gain ratios. Maybe it's because he's just doing well at making us feel threatened, and playing up that there's danger around every corner. Maybe I'm just a big pussy. I mean, c'mon, I've only been playing this character for a couple of weeks. It's not like I'm that attached to him. Yet I'm honestly worried he's going to get blown away any second, and probably in some lame way, like screwing up a landing in the hangar bay or choking to death on a chicken bone.

I said choke ON a chicken... nevermind, it was a terrible joke anyway.

Do all players live like this? In constant fear that their character is going to die? I really don't want to start taking anti-anxiety meds over a friggin' game...

I think my fears stem from an early adventure going way back to high school. I had only been playing for a few years, and mostly Game Mastering. My friends and I got together with a real old-school gamer who offered to run a game of 1st Edition D&D for us. When I say old-school, I mean really old-school: he actually played with Gygax at conventions in the seventies, and actually play-tested the original Palladium Fantasy RPG with Kevin Siembieda. Now HE was a killer GM (the old guy, not Siembieda; Siembieda is just a bad game designer), but I was lucky to pick up on his murderous tendencies right away, and I did everything I could to stay alive. Other players were dropping around me left and right, killed by save-or-die poisons, ripped to shreds by owlbears, eaten by a dragon. One guy went through 3 or 4 characters in one night. I played a fighter, but I spent most of the adventure hiding in the back and letting everyone else set off the fucktarded, over-the-top traps. Even worse, the DM knew how to play it up to make us even more afraid: he kept track of our hit points, and wouldn't tell us how many we had left. He just said, "you're hurt," or "you're really hurt," and we had to guess whether or not we could survive another punch to the face from a mummy.

(I think that's the best example of the difference between new- and old-school gaming I've ever found. In 4E, I've seen guys spend hours calculating probabilities and the best combination of weapons, powers and feats to achieve just the right balance of numbers. In 1E, the numbers didn't matter. You just tried to stay the fuck out the way and hope the DM didn't kill you arbitrarily. I'm not saying one is better than the other, they're just incredibly different.)

The other difference is that "new school" gamers won't get this joke.

So you have to appreciate that this scarring experience has stuck with me, and I kinda assume that every Game Master since is equally heartless. I know that's not true - like I said, I am in all fairness probably too easy on my players, and I'm sure there are other GMs who are the same. I want to tell a good story and for the players to have fun. I try to make the adventure just challenging enough so that the players have to work a bit for their victory - I'm not aiming to punish them by killing them for failure.

Though that's probably the aim of most GMs, I still feel completely different on the other side of the screen. You put work into most characters, whether it's hours of writing a back story or months of playing or even just a few minutes of generating some random stats. You grow some attachment to it, you want to see it grow and evolve. It's just like a GM designing a campaign - they want to see a payoff, and have players enjoy their creation instead of derailing it in the first session by murdering the king and burning down his castle.

We really should be able to work together. Ultimately we all want the same thing (except for those odd kooks who really do get off by killing player characters), so maybe with a bit of communication and practice I can stop having nightmares about my character being face-raped by cylons (the metal kind, not the fleshy ones).

This scene just took on a whole new connotation:
"Now, are you going to cooperate, or do I have to invite my big metal friend back in here?"

Hopefully the rest of you have long ago come to terms with your characters' mortality, but if you have thoughts from either a player's or Gm's point of view, feel free to leave them below.

Like this?


  1. I keep wondering how much of your concern is because your GM is new to the position and hence is more prone to making a mistake - one that can end your character's life?

    You see, there is a third type of GMing - it's not just new school and old school, there's also Naive school, when someone flat out doesn't have enough experience to make the players feel comfortable.

    Add to that the phemomena of fear feedback - one nervous player making a second nervous, and another player's anxiety then feeding back to the original player and making him even more nervous - and it quickly becomes questionable how much of your nervousness is due to your past experience and how much to external factors.

    Both of which should mean that your nerves subside as the campaign ages, and you become more comfortable with the new GM.

    The other major source of player nerves I discount - and that is that some GMs get used to sitting behind the screen and become nervous because their actions are being constained.

  2. Book_ScorpionMay 31, 2011

    I used to be a very cautious player, bordering on paranoid. Part of it probably was because I started with Vampire and paranoia was the normal state of mind for us. But the other part was just me, I'm like that.
    It started to change with my first 7th Sea round because 7th Sea not only allows you to be daring and sometimes reckless, you need to be. I developed a much more relaxed playing style and this has carried over into other games, even into my Cthulhu games. I have more fun now and I can't say I have lost characters because of it. There were some close calls, but they all would have resulted in a pretty awesome death if things had gone wrong, so I can live (or die) with that.

  3. brianrae1May 31, 2011

    The fear is good. Personally I like the fear. It's the chance of character death that keeps the game fresh for me. I find that the main reason I disliked 4th ed so much as a player was the absence of that risk, that fear of death. Even if I did die it was just so easy to come back (raise dead ritual scroll anyone?). I enjoy a game until such time as that fear of death goes. Then I find myself growing fruastrated and bored.
    Want me to leave your gaming group for good or insist on being the DM forever? Kill one of my characters then bring him back with a fudged dice roll. If I don't know the DM (or rather, his creations) might kill me, I'm just not interested.
    But I still feel just as bummed as anyone else when it finally happens.

  4. Have you talked to the GM about it?  On the one hand, maybe he likes having you be nervous.  On the other, maybe he'd really like it if you calmed down a bit and quit making *him* nervous.  Just try asking him flat-out how he feels about killing PCs, especially arbitrarily.  That might go a long way towards easing your mind.

    The crazy killer GM is really a rarity these days.  Most of them have been weeded out by either maturity or a lack of willing players.  Many GMs will refuse to pull their punches, and believe in role-playing their villains as doing their level best to kill the PCs, but that's not quite the same thing.

  5. CDGallant_KingMay 31, 2011

    I don't think it's related to experience, though that is an excellent point.  I do think he's purposefully being hard on me, but that's entirely my fault, I kinda asked for it (when you purposely play your character as a bastard, it's only fair if it comes back to haunt you).

    I think your last point is much more likely - as a GM, I'm used to having control, and now not having really freaks me out.  Before, if I didn't like a situation, I could immediately change it.  Now, I just have to deal with whatever gets thrown at me.  Not used to that.

    Thank you for the feedback!

  6. CDGallant_KingMay 31, 2011

    You're absolutely right.  I've watched many players over the years, and those who have the most fun are usually the ones who play recklessly.  We play RPGs to do stuff we can't do in real life - no sense being cautious about it.  And there's nothing better than dying awesomely.  Again, you'd never be able to be eaten by a dragon while swinging across a river of lava in real life.

  7. I'm a GM, I've pretty much always been a GM. I suppose it's sick from some players standpoints but to be frank, I love coming up with ways I know *can* kill my players. I don't set out to do it, but I do make it clear that I'm not about to coddle them. Monsters can crit; Vampires who aren't thralls fight with malice and sadism; A lich is going to be preparing if he knows you're coming. That's just the way the world works, I've had a single player complain in my lifetime as a GM (about this particular issue, other types of problem players are a totally different issue) and that player was used to games where the GM would fudge rolls to protect the players before reaching the big bad. 

    And I really enjoy the thrill of being in the dark when I get those rare treats of being on the opposite side of the screen. Something about knowing you can die makes all those fool-hearty things you want to do seem even more awesome when you survive. 

    I think it's a good balance to have a GM who makes it clear that mortality is part and parcel with a world filled with monsters and players who make it clear they're going to take a stand against said monsters. It's a dance, a give and take that lets the group as a whole create a dramatic story instead of a simplistic, unrealistic one. 

    But that's just my take. 

  8. CDGallant_KingMay 31, 2011

    That's a good point.  I can't stand video games where it's so hard to die you never see the Game Over screen, and even when you die the consequences are negligible (you continue/respawn at the same spot).  What's the point?  You might as well just watch the ending cut scenes on YouTube, as playing through the game really holds no challenge, and thus no reward for your work.  Same goes for RPGs.

    As for DM's "fudging" die rolls, it's only really bad if they tell you they do it.  Then they lose their mystique and again, the challenge and thrill goes out of it.

    Oh, and awesome Vampire Ferret, by the way.

  9. CDGallant_KingMay 31, 2011

    I probably should have mentioned that we're playing this play-by-e-mail-post, so it's not like I'm sitting there at the table shaking uncontrollably and muttering to myself.  It's more like I'm constantly thinking about the game and all the things that could go wrong, and since you only post once a day, there's lots of time in between to think about it.  The GM probably has no idea  that I feel this way (unless he's reading my blog, right now, in which case he's figured it out).

    I suspect he would get a kick out of knowing he's affecting me so much, though he probably wouldn't be surprised because he's known me for years and is aware of how neurotic I can be.  We've actually had a very good back-and-forth about the game and ideas for the story and my character, so it's not like there's anything wrong with the relationship.  I just haven't told him yet that I'm convinced he's out to get me. 

    Are you reading this, J?

  10. CDGallant_KingMay 31, 2011

    And I think it's a perfectly valid way to play.  I believe D&D, especially old-school variations, are meant to be played that way.  There's a reason there's so many monsters in the MM that can kill you just by looking at you.  The game and the world the player characters live in is deadly, so everyone at the table should agree that death is possible and will happen. Often.

    On the other hand, in games that are more story-driven, it seems wasteful to kill off a player character who has sunk alot of work and background into the game because of a freak die roll or one bad decision.  For instance, we're playing Battlestar Galactica.  If you're familiar with the show, you know that despite there being a constant threat of violence, the deaths of major characters is pretty rare.  Is that okay in an RPG?  I don't see why not.  Characters should be able to lose status, have their plans ruined, lose friends and loved ones and maybe even suffer a crippling injury, but I don't know if they they should be killed outright unless their death somehow advances the story (or their character did something in game that made them truly deserve it).  It's a different sort of game, and that's my two cents.

  11. Jason SalvatoriJune 01, 2011

    I have been reading, just haven't had a chance to comment yet..
    I do like that you are nervous - as long as it's not so bad that it makes the game less fun for you.  It's a big bad world out there, and yes, you could die - I'm not aiming for that, but if enough rolls go badly in a row, I'm not the type to fudge the dice.
    If the PC's don't feel threatened, there's no drive to the game.
    And yes, I am screwing with you a bit more than the others, but that's just because I know you will run with the crap I'm throwing at you and help me drive the story in interesting directions.

    As with your games, please tell me if I'm making it lose it's fun!

  12. ItsmyNPCandI'llcryifIwanttoJune 01, 2011

    Sidebar: in the event that the author kills one of your characters, I’ve noted that he is highly susceptible to tears. 
    He once killed my in-game husband, who, as a NPC, was played by him for over a year and an integral part of the story. I bawled until he permitted me to go on a quest to bring him back to life. Lip-wobbling, chest-heaving, nose-running sobs. 
    Of course, it helps that I'm his wife. You know…in life.

  13. CDGallant_KingJune 02, 2011

    I would have more fun if I had a really big gun.  And indestructible body armour.  And psychic powers.  Yeah, yeah, that's what I need!  I will not enjoy your game until these demands are met.  So say we all.

    Do you seriously think that your character could die (or be otherwise ruined) at any moment when I'm GMing?

  14. JsalvatoriJune 02, 2011

    Not often... though I really wouldn't mind it. If there's no fear, what's to stop us from doing crazy shite like teleporting on to a balcony solo to fight a buch of flaming skeletons?


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