Why RPGs Rely On GMs . . .

An ENWorld poster was asking about a party that’s continually taking-down everything they meet. Here’s the quick reply from last night:

‘Are these bad guys using cover, equipped with escape options, playing mean, positioning PCs in dodgy terrain, supported by endurance-sapping traps, making the fullest use of their magic items, familiar with poisons, taunting and provocative, getting all the bonuses they deserve.’

There are further options, but the OP’s predicament is a good example of why RPGs rely on GMs and need to rely on GMs.

Whether through too many magic items, careful character builds or plain expertise – it’s quite common for RPG gameplay to start to lose any element of risk or threat to the PCs. Resolving this through global mechanical solutions can be quite tricky, as it involves re-interpreting and re-setting the rules to try to establish a new fixed point – a fixed point that’s at best elusive.

It may, for example, appear that balance has been restored through a persistent, system-wide change, only for unexpected knock-on effects to kick-in at a later stage. Equally, players may find it easy to adapt to a global mechanical change by adopting a global change of tactics that soon nullifies the reset.

Under these circumstances an often unspoken meta-game concerning mechanical adjustments v’s mechanical solutions can become as much a part of play as whatever is happening on the table, i.e. the game is largely about ‘beating the GM’ or ‘beating the players’ through the rules instead of seeking to striking a balance on the tabletop.


The alternative is to adapt play to deal with situations as they arise by allowing GMs to adjust the balance to keep the gameplay on or close to a knife’s edge. Doing so makes it practical to go beyond looking for a close or near fit with the rules. Instead the GM is trusted to seek a best fit to the situation or encounter.

This is not about setting aside the rules or reducing player choice. Quite the opposite, as ad hoc interpretations based on current circumstances can be seen to be fair through taking account of what’s actually happening/ conditions on the ground. They can also, generally, be considered ‘acceptable’ because they keep play exciting/ challenging.

Removing any antagonism between the rules and the GM’s role offers further benefits in terms of cementing the GM’s and players’ understanding that no player will seek to gain an unfair advantage aka surrender their honour.

However, the overall shift in emphasis from – the GM v’s the rules – to – a GM with rules – is most helpful when delivering player choice. Using ad hoc situated rulings fosters communication and roleplaying where players feel that their PCs can influence outcomes through inventive or creative gameplay. For newer players this is likely to emerge within the meta-game as players ask about local conditions and put forward possible modifiers. For more experienced players the chance to influence, but not necessarily decide, outcomes is likely to be expressed in-game through taking advantage of both the options offered by the rules and the opportunities to interact with the situation, i.e. becoming a third partner in the triangulation of the rules, the GM and the players.

Put another way, allowing the GM, the rules and the players to look at novel situations – in preference to expecting the GM and the players to squeeze into standardised templates – unlocks a level of player choice that prompts players into offering original, inventive narratives that can be rewarding, and rewarded, during gameplay. If this approach is combined with player choice at the campaign design stage, gameplay may well become significantly more self-sustaining as players and GMs continually fuel their shared storybuilding.

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