Perfect Ten: The tabletop GMs behind MMOs
One of the advantages to computer RPGs, I’ve always thought, is that you don’t need a friend who you can alternately sucker or bribe into taking on 80% of the work that’s involved in making a tabletop RPG fun. You just turn on the game and it goes. The downside, of course, is that you also don’t have the advantages of having a GM in charge of the game, so you don’t get that personal connection and that sense of familiarity.
Except that’s not entirely accurate, is it? Yes, these games do not have a person eagerly perched behind a screen explaining how your characters have screwed everything up forever, but you still do get the same sense of a specific GM guiding the game over time. Because there are certain quirks, certain constants, and over time a feel to the game that informs what sort of GM you’ve got running the game. So let’s talk about the GMs running some games.
I warn you that if you’ve never played any sort of tabletop game, this column may not make a whole lot of sense. But if you’ve never played any tabletop RPGs I don’t understand how you live and thus cannot promise to target you reliably. Sorry.
1. Ultima Online
You know that feeling when you’re playing your first game ever? This is the GM sitting down with a table full of people and it’s everyone’s first game ever. He doesn’t really know quite what he’s doing. The players don’t know what he’s doing. Everyone’s just figuring it out as they go, and the GM is less about being a driving force here than an arbiter trying to figure out what in the world this game is even supposed to be about.
The bright side is that he rarely tells you that you can’t do something, but the down side is that he also doesn’t have a super-clear picture of what he actually can do. Which means that you had, like, a year-long plot arc where a handful of players derailed the game into being about extorting various fantasy villages for protection money. They were having fun; no one else was.
These days, of course, he knows what he’s doing. A lot of people miss when he had no idea and was just throwing things against the wall. But he gets a pass because, well, he was making it up as he went.
There’s a guy like this in every gaming group. More than anything, he delights in the idea that a roleplaying game isn’t about players banding together and taking on diverse challenges; it’s about a group of players forced to fight him while he’s got literal god mode going. You go into loot-filled dungeons and find traps designed to kill you if you breathe in too loud, and then the next room is full of traps that kill you if you don’t breathe loudly enough. If there’s a loophole to screw you, he takes it, and the only thing that keeps you from walking out is that it’s just fair enough to give you a slim chance of success.
Needless to say, it’s not exactly fun a lot of the time. There’s a certain malicious glee to be found there, since every small victory means that you beat the odds, but you’re also playing a game with someone who fundamentally sees himself as a boss monster. He always has more traps, more monsters, and more ways to tilt the rules in his favor. He’s never cheating, but he sees you as the opposition.
3. EVE Online
When you first give this GM your character sheet, she makes a bunch of marks on a separate notepad, chuckles, and tells you to do whatever you want. You quickly realize that the bright side is that she doesn’t feel the need to set horrid monsters against you or deter you from doing what you want. Then you realize that it’s because she is counting on the other players to provide all the opposition you need. It’s not so much that you have backstabbing players here as the entire point of the game is playing a long and slow network of allegiances against one another and watching the other players crumble.
To her credit, she does a great job filling the world, giving you stuff to invest you, and giving you opportunities to take out your fellow players fairly. The thing is, you also realize that she’s ultimately not much nicer as a GM than the previous examples. It’s presented differently, but at the end of the day she’s still playing a zero-sum game; she’s just shifted from being your opponent to being the judge, and your tabletop game is a more elaborate form of Risk.
4. Star Trek Online
You cannot avoid noticing that this GM is a fan of the property she’s running a game in. It’s not just that she explicitly is running a game set in that particular universe; it’s that she’s done her research and knows the fine details forward and backwards. Even as a fan, you have to look up some of the references she makes. She has handouts for you that perfectly mirror the structure you’d expect from this particular story. She has bits of RP set up specifically as homage to moments from the series. There’s a deep-seated love shooting through every moment of play.
It’s almost enough to make you ignore the fact that every single adventure with her follows the exact same structure, and half of the combat bits (and there’s always combat) are just boring slogs. Then there’s the fact that she never has snacks put out for the group and asks everyone to pitch in their fair share for her elaborate table setups and miniatures. It’s hard to begrudge the amount of love put into the production, but it doesn’t so much fix the weak spots as papers over them.
5. Black Desert
So your GM announces that she’s going to be running a game using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Second edition. But it’s all right because she’s put a bunch of house rules together to make combat faster and easier, and she’s stolen some 3e rules to make things more lively. Also, she’s put a bunch of additional systems together to encourage running trade routes and managing fine artwork. But she’s still using AD&D. And despite all of the work she’s put into making the game more open and fun, you can’t help but notice that the actual players are mostly just interested in kicking in doors and killing orcs.
It’s not that she’s a bad GM, exactly, although you have a vague sense that bits of the game setting (which she swears she’s been working on for years) are more about her own personal fascinations than making a fun game. It’s just that she’s cobbled together a rough assembly of too many different systems that never really work together, and the result is a bit of a disjointed mess. You can still have a lot of fun, but it seems like it’s a game with a lot of other stuff stapled on.
Also, somehow every single outfit she designs prominently features underboob. That raises further questions.
6. Star Citizen
You may or may not want to play a game with this guy. Not that you would ever know either way, because he doesn’t actually have a game to run yet. He’s got a binder that he carries everywhere that he claims is filled with the campaign he’s been working on for seven years, and he claims to have a huge detailed history and culture for all sorts of in-game factions. But he also still doesn’t have a system or a plot or anything, and on the few occasions he actually runs a one-shot to give you a taste of it, there’s nothing too interesting going on. It’s the same as other adventures, except slower because he insists on showing all the work he put in to providing mind-numbingly fine detail.
Also, he keeps borrowing money from you for dinner and he still hasn’t paid you back all of the money he owes you from the first time he borrowed money.
7. Final Fantasy XI
When you started this campaign, the GM explained to you very patiently that she doesn’t believe in making things easier for players. The dice fall where they may, and if you come up with a stupid plan that gets your party killed, she’s only going to step in to let you know how your party got killed. And that’s how she’s always run the game, with a certain degree of imperious disconnection from you and your fellow players.
The funny thing is that while this is often frustrating and not fun, there’s also a certain amount of fun to it just the same. Her adventures can often be grueling and sometimes unfun, but you also do get the sense that working through her cold logic can produce some real fun. It’s not what you’d consider a straightforward ride, and you would probably jump ship to another game if you had the option, but she’s never actually cruel, just aloof and willing to hurt you. She’s more interested in following the rules than helping you craft a narrative, and that just means you have to play according to those rules.
This guy is passionate. You have to give him that. Unfortunately, he’s passionate about being as much of a 15-year-old GM as you can possibly be. Every single adventure he runs is over-the-top as far as it can be, and then the next adventure goes even more over the top with crazy ideas that have clearly never been carefully examined. By the third session you’re already fighting monsters on the moon with weapons forged from dragon bones, and by the fifth session you’re wearing moon-built power armor to fight the star-dragons and keep them from reclaiming half of the galaxy.
It’s so far over the top and so constantly obsessed with escalation that you never get any sense of restraint; the stakes rise endlessly upward. And to make matters worse, he’s also got that teenage obsession with also making the rules go harder and harder, to the point that the sixth session is where you stop even keeping track of your hit points because every single attack from you or your enemies either does nothing or instantly kills the victim. It’s the tabletop equivalent of eating a can of frosting, where about a third of the way through you realize that you can totally have too much of this.
9. World of Warcraft
There’s nothing inherently wrong with teenage enthusiasm, especially not when the GM can temper it with a bit of experience. Yes, this game still has some pretty wild escalations, and it’s run by someone who tends to go a bit too far in with various systems. She has a tendency to pile on too much or overtly pull inspiration from other shows or games or books, and she’s got a weird fixation on making certain systems work because it’s the way she’s always learned it. There are preconceived notions she just doesn’t seem to be able to shake, and a lot of them make the game less fun.
But there’s also a lot of fun to be had with the flashes of over-the-top antics, and you get the sense that every rush gets tempered with a bit of a push back down to a lower level. Yes, it’s messy a lot of the time and a lot of plot points get rewritten or ignored to suit the adventure of the week, but the individual adventures usually average out all right. There’s bad management here on a macro level, but from moment to moment you get the sense of a GM who wants her players to have a good time and do fun stuff.
Until she gets a new sourcebook, of course. Then the entire campaign gets put on hold for two or three months so she can incorporate everything from that sourcebook.
10. Destiny 2
This is what you get when you have a GM who has run a reasonably successful game before, knows what he’s doing, has experience with the genre and keeping players engaged, and should know full well what he’s doing and how to manage things. And then you get three sessions in and everyone playing is angry because somehow he’s decided to change things that worked fine while not changing things that were actual problems from his last game.
He apologizes a lot and acknowledges his mistakes. But then he keeps making them straight on down the line. It’s kind of infuriating.