When I was in Korea with the U.S. Air Force, I was extremely homesick. I missed my wife, I missed the States, and all things told, I wasn't crazy about spending a year in Korea (motto: "Home of the angriest-sounding language on the planet!"). But I did get a metric ton of gaming in while I was there. Rifts, D&D, Rolemaster, BESM--we played just about everything and anything, it seemed. Gaming would start Friday night and end Sunday afternoon. If there wasn't a military exercise going on, we'd play a few weeknights as well. It wasn't always pretty, and since we drank, no one could remember what happened in any part of the game that transpired after around midnight. But man, we lived for those games.
Sometimes, being in a situation like that can make stick in a campaign you otherwise wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. Such was the case of one of our first games, one we played almost until the end. The GM? Let's call him "O", to protect the guilty. O was, quite simply, the worst GM ever. In a way, I'm indebted to him, as he taught everything not to do as GM.
The game was Rolemaster, a bastardized hybrid of 2e and Standard System editions. This could easily be the longest article I've ever written, so I'm just going to hit some of the highlights here:
1) He played favorites with one of his buddies. They'd been stationed together in the states, and so while all of us ended up with characters who didn't have vital skills for the game, his character had every needed language, was able to use every rule to his advantage, and was never caught short. We were very happy when he got sent back to the U.S.
2) He changed the setting every week, depending on what fantasy novel he was reading. No, really. We started in Gondor, phased into Forgotten Realms, and made a quick pass through The Wheel of Time, I think. Then he showed up one day and announced we all had dragons. The SOB was reading Pern. Then characters and places from Terry Goodkind's books showed up--of the S&M variety. Then we were back in the Realms, I think. Ostensibly, this was all the same world. Also, we went to the future a couple of times, but even if I wasn't drunk, I don't think any of it would have made a lot of sense. This wasn't some cool kitchen sink hybrid of those worlds--no, the world physics, NPCs, and locations would change on his whim. No mixing, except for us and his pet NPCs.
3) He made the most special, precious snowflake of a GM Player Character I had ever seen. She had a physical appearance of 300, on a 100-point scale. She was a vampire, which made her strong enough to dual-wield twin war mattocks, which are insanely brutal in Rolemaster. She was also originally a princess of Gondor. She had an unlimited supply of mithril blocks. She had an army of 40,000 undead creatures. She knew every high-level temporal and attack spell known to us, and many unknown to us. She showed up often, just he could demonstrate how badass she was. Do not doubt what I am saying; I remember this all too clearly. He would actually get angry when anyone threatened or attacked this character.
4) O railroaded in a manner that put AmTrak to shame. There were these 5 crystals--one represented each order of magic. Of course, his character started with 2 of the 5 out of the gate--generous of him, really, not to just give her all of them. We wanted nothing to do with the damned things--we had founded a frontier city up in the mountains, and were having all sorts of fun adventures exploring the ancient catacombs beneath it. The crystals were nothing but trouble.
The crystals kept showing up for no reason. NPCs would act out of sorts to steer us in the direction of these things. Game history would be retconned to fit them in. He destroyed the city we spent 3 months building, exploring, and defending without any chance of saving, defending, or altering the outcome. We fled the city, and there was one sitting in the middle of the road. Finally, he told a character that he had no choice, he had to pick it up.
5) He was wildly inconsistent with rulings. Sometimes, you'd die at 0 hit points, other times, it was -100 hit points, other times, you died at -10. Spells wouldn't function the same based on how he was attempting to railroad. XP was given randomly, and I mean randomly.
6) When he didn't win, he cheated. Allow me to compose myself before continuing, because this is some severe Gamer Trauma I'm dredging up:
I played an Elven Scholar, who didn't kill anything in the game until 4th level. But by the end of the game, we had to track his GMPC and her allies to the Gateway to Hell, where we had to fight them for this last crystal shard (if she had them all, she would rule the world blah blah). And I had had enough. We were going in there, and we were taking this hellcat out. I plotted, I planned; I selected spells and quietly let them sit unused so as not to tip our hand.
I pulled every last trick out of my hat in that fight, and we played our hearts out. I cast spells like you've never seen. The Dwarf landed crit after crit. The last of my allies fell, and I cast 12 illusions of myself around the room and took down three vampires. And finally, I cast a utility spell that felled the Queen Bee, the GMPC herself. I am no tactician, but that was my Austerlitz, my Chancelorsville, my Cowpens. I beamed with victory--we all did! We had done the unthinkable. An elf scholar, a dwarf fighter, and a nervous hobbit thief were all that remained of our once-proud crew, but we had saved the world. There was cheering and hearty backslaps around the table.
O scowled, and announced that all of the sudden, the vampires totally enslaved anyone using magic or magic weaponry. My recovered allies were held hostage, and it was a victory for O.
I still remember his face as we left the room that last night, picking up our paper, pencils, and cans, trudging out defeated. His expression was one of total self-satisfaction, and expectancy, as if he supposed everyone would be just as excited at the final outcome as he was. Then it turned to one of puzzlement, as if he actually could not understand our disappointment.
It was also the last session. His GMPC ruled the world. What was left of our band fled as far west as we could, hoping to live our lives out quietly in some backwater. In all actuality, we were finished--we couldn't take another session.
You think, "Zack, why the hell would you stay in that game?" The first thing was, what else did I have to do? The second was, I loved the character I had in that game, and I loved the characters the others had, too. We somehow made that game work, and gave it a consistency, no matter how ludicrous things became. That's something I took with me from the experience. But that is the worst GM I've ever had. I think you can learn as much from the bad ones as from the good ones, sometimes.