When the gamemaster sits across from the players and starts a game, s/he becomes, simultaneously, cooperative storyteller, impartial judge, and ruthless opponent. The GM must tell an entertaining story, make fair decisions about the characters’ actions, and present the characters with challenge and danger. These three duties often conflict, and never more so than when a character’s life hangs in the balance.
A good GM doesn’t like to kill off characters but realizes that the threat of death is one of the primary things that makes players’ hearts pound and keeps the game exciting and challenging. If that threat is removed, the game often becomes less interesting, the victories less valuable. But how can a GM strike a balance between making the dungeon a cakewalk and making it a deathtrap?
Setting the Stage: What the GM Can Control
When a GM plans a game, s/he should always carefully study the NPCs’ abilities, weapons, and other resources. Nothing should be included in the dungeon if the GM isn’t willing to accept the potential results of its inclusion. It’s not wrong to keep the threat of instant death in the adventure, but it is wrong to keep it in the adventure without weighing its potential effect on the game. As a general rule of thumb, the bad guys should not be able to kill the characters any faster than the characters can kill the bad guys—especially when there are more bad guys than there are characters (and isn’t that always the case?).
Moreover, traps, weapons, or abilities that will cause instant death or some other permanently debilitating effect should be foreshadowed. The characters should be able to learn about the danger by doing preliminary research before entering the combat zone or might see the deadly ability used in combat against the villain’s unruly minion. Give the characters a glimpse of what horrible fate lies in store for them if they fail—it will build suspense and make the players sweat a little. Once fair warning has been given, however, don’t hesitate to use the ability against the characters. After all, they were warned—it’s up to them to decide whether to face the threat or run away!
Although it’s best to plan for most contingencies before running the adventure, sometimes the GM needs to make adjustments on the fly to keep the adventure interesting. After all, only the GM knows the layout of the combat site, the number of opponents in an area, and those opponents’ toughness and resources. Is a combat going too easily for the characters? Bring in a few more villains. Is a combat going too hard for them? Avoid bringing in the reserves. Most GMs have, at one point or another, fudged an adventure or a villain to present a greater challenge to characters who are getting off too easily; less common but equally as important is to alter an adventure or a villain to keep from killing the characters off, if one or more have fallen and the party as a whole is at risk of being obliterated. The goal is to make adventures challenging but fun.
Rolling the Dice: What the GM Can’t Control
In many roleplaying games, a character’s fate hangs on the roll of the dice—does the monster hit? Does the character make a saving throw? Does the spell cause too much damage? Although GMs can’t control their players’ rolls, they can choose to roll their own dice in a way that will either maintain or mediate the element of chance. The most important thing is that the DM choose a die-rolling style and remain consistent throughout the game.
Some GMs believe that after they have set up a fair adventure everything should depend on the characters’ actions and the luck of the dice. These GMs may make some or all of their rolls in front of the players. The most critical rolls to make public are combat rolls, saving throws, and damage dice—the rolls that will determine the characters’ or villains’ fates. Less important rolls, like skill rolls, can be kept hidden.
The advantage to public die-rolling is that the players know that everything is being run impartially—that to a great extent their fates have been left to Fate. The disadvantage to public die-rolling is that the dice don’t care about the storyline. If the archvillain fails a saving throw against instant death in the first round of combat, so be it—her sudden demise may be anticlimactic, but it’s honest. Similarly, if the damage from the assault weapon is going to kill the spotlighted character moments before she rescues her imprisoned father, then it does—the GM can’t drop a few pips from the die to spare the character’s life and increase the drama.
Other GMs prefer to give themselves a chance to put the storyline over the die roll; they hide their rolls behind a screen of some sort. The disadvantage to rolling behind a screen is that players may feel that either they or the monsters are “getting away with something”—that the game is rigged. Of course the game is rigged—it’s roleplaying, not roulette—but when the characters start feeling concerned about it, the GM should consider making at least the most critical rolls public.
Dealing with Stupidity: What the GM Shouldn’t Control
Players are ultimately responsible for their characters’ actions. They must decide whether their characters stick around or run away, develop new strategies to deal with a dangerous opponent or stick with their tried-and-true methods. If the adventurers have found themselves in a deadly situation yet ignore the chance to run away—well, there’s a limit to how much the GM should do to preserve their lives. Trying to maintain an entertaining storyline is one thing—allowing oneself to be a pushover is another.
If the GM thinks a player hasn’t quite thought through all of the ramifications of an action, s/he should issue a warning (“You realize that if you misjudge that grenade’s area of effect, you’re going to catch all your friends in it, right?”) or a clarification (“So what you’re telling me is that you’re going to try to broad-jump across that 60-foot-wide chasm with the stream of molten lava flowing through it at the bottom?”). Of course the GM shouldn’t give away information that the character would have no way of knowing (e.g., that there’s an invisible force-wall in the middle of the chasm that will deflect the character’s jump), but double-checking a patently dangerous or idiotic manuever gives the player some benefit of the doubt and helps avoid after-the-fact arguments (“Well, if I’d known the chasm was 60 feet wide….”). If the player insists on taking the course of action, the GM should shrug and roll the dice, letting the character suffer the consequences. Killing a character because s/he did something stupid is never a violation of one’s responsibilities as a GM. Fudging the rules to let a character survive such a manuever, however, may be.
What all of this leads up to is one of the dark secrets of GMing: Sometimes GMs lie. The game is not always objective. The rules are not always followed. The GM is not always impartial. The trick is to do it as swiftly and as discreetly as possible and to maintain a convincing semblance of objectivity while it’s happening. The GM who has learned how to fudge well will find it much easier to keep his or her three roles—storyteller, judge, and opponent—comfortably in balance.
Originally written July 26, 1998
Image Source: Les fables de Florian, 1913.