Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Worst GM I Ever Had

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.


Fuchs said...

I'd have simply ignored the end in the end.

When a DM pulled something similar (although on a much lower scale) we stopped playing, ignored what happened, and had another GM take over. Actually laughed at the GM when he told us a character was dead - 10 minutes after we had left the table.

Zachary The First said...

@Fuchs--To a point, I think we did sort of retcon it amongst ourselves. We were still proud of that last fight.

Your GM tried to tell you a character was dead after he was no longer GM? Heh!

Bonemaster said...

Wow, just when I thought I've had bad DMs, someone comes out with something more scary.

GMPCs is something that I always take as a possible warning sign that there might be a BAD GM. That's not that GMPCs don't have their place, but in with good intentions, a GMPC take all the thunder out of the party.

Time Travel is also a quick killer in my book. I once had a DM in which everything was either Time or Dimensional Travel. What started off as some modern day horror type thing, only to find that our brains were in a computer program which switched to some alien ship then. After that we somehow got jumped to a Space 1889 type setting and finally at some point was switched back to modern day. Of course it didn't stop there. Same GM, different game, this time a fantasy game. Sadly, we kept jumping around in time. Non of us could really follow what the hell was going on.

Ok, sorry bad memories all around. Like Zack, the survivors of those events share a bad and shout the mantra "Never Again" over and over.

R. Lawrence Blake said...

Wow! Awful!

I had a DM that had 1,000,000 gps somehow hidden in a giant light fixture and we eventually found the hammer of Thor.

It would have been funny if the DM wasn't so serious. I moved on to a different group quickly.

Fuchs said...

We once had a campaign that started in Shadowrun, and later led to a SciFi setting through dimensional travel. We got back from that to the Shadowrun world, and played on there for about a year real time until the GM revealed that we never actually got back, but had been kidnapped and stuck in a matrix-set up. After escaping from that we continued for a bit in the SciFi setting but the campaign petered out.

It was a bit of a bummer to have a year's worth of weekly sessions rendered void.

Oz RPG said...

Got a few stories of my own. Nothing so horrible as that, but bad enough for me to never let them GM again.

The first was a GM who ran D&D on a game board and told us all that we woke up in the dungeon and had no idea how we got there. I offered to run a a game instead and have been GMing ever since.

The second is a bit more complicated. I build a technomancer with the full knowledge and approval of the GM. Our first adventure was to a land where technology was magicked into not working. In the second adventure, we are dungeon crawling through a fairly modern building. You'd think that would give my character a chance to shine, but the GM tells me that since magic and tech are largely incompatible, my powers only work on specially enchanted technology, making half my powers useless until I go on some sort of epic quest for this stuff. Meanwhile, I have to tromp through this dungeon with my one combat power. Since this dungeon actually had technology in it (computers, and some of the enemies were mechs), I was eager to get my hands on it, but the GM very clumsily worked to keep it out of my hands. When we finally made it to the top floor of the building, we were up against a squad of mechs and other beasts. I make a beeline to one of the mechs in order to disable and maybe capture it. One of the beasts gets an attack of opportunity (in BESM) and inflicts just enough damage to kill me. I utilize a system trick (not hard when I know the rules better than the GM) to survive, but the GM sticks by his ruling because "the bullet was THIS BIG!"

I haven't gamed with him since.

Tacoma said...

The Matrix-style "it was all a dream" trope can work for one adventure - a couple sessions tops. And in the end the PCs should keep their XP / skill points / advancement points at least.

I was in one where we walked through a portal and into what we thought was a pocket dimension but we had been put to sleep as soon as we entered. So in the end when we finally woke we found ourselves in shallow open pits in the ground, bare of equipment, with a psionic enemy to fight. As we fled we were able to gather up our equipment plus that of other dreamers who passed through. So it all worked out and we didn't retcon anything more than two sessions past.

Anyway, I've seen the GMPC thing and it stinks. Worst game I played in was this guy's personal campaign setting that was a Dyson sphere with the people on the inside surface. You might as well have an infinite flat world for all I care. His "local baron" type was 40th level with +10 equipment. And he was life-linked to hundreds of people back home who would take damage for him so even Vorpal weapons wouldn't do him in. But I think a lot of this must have been off the cuff once the DM realized how much damage we were doing. Sure we were playing transplants from another campaign who were 20-25th level, but that means we should be more powerful than the robber-baron running a backwater tin mine, right?

Zzarchov said...

alot of my early games were with absolutely terrible GM's, all except the first that i played in for 6 months or so until it ended. So I started seeing what could be done right, then saw alot of what could go wrong (for 2 ish years) then ended up gm'ing my own games and most of the local players became pretty happy for a change. Now If I could just ride a unicorn into the sunset it would be perfect.

Bad GM's suck in the moment, but in the long run they are a valuable learning experience.

rainswept said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James V said...

The Matrix-style "it was all a dream" trope can work for one adventure - a couple sessions tops. And in the end the PCs should keep their XP / skill points / advancement points at least.

For XP and level games, a dream sequence could be a great way to explain a character's leveling. Inspiration is unlocked, one looks back on the travails they've indured in the light of the dreamscape.

I'll have to sock away that brainstorm.

BlUsKrEEm said...

I had a DM offer to run an engel game once that I wish i had never played in. Instead of Engel, an RPG and universe I love, we ended up playing Engel in "his personal fantasy world" even better we played in the history of his pet world, right as his pet NPC was about to conquer all of it. In a world where our trading partners were magic using Elfs, and had an elaborate pagan mythology we were suppose to memorize (because it kept coming up) we were playing Engel, with no attempt what so ever to reconcile the backgrounds.

The plot revolved around his NPC demolishing our only non-elven allie by dropping glacers on them (she was the god of winter as it turns out,) and us trying to talk her out of crushing our city in the same way. In the mean time we would be sent on random quests to destroy heretics, and technophiles by Michael. When we final got to the point where we were going to meet his god NPC, and started plotting an assassination attempt he got angry and confused as to why we would want her dead, and quickly added in a subplot about another pet NPC Anthropomorphic Dragon from the Future who was spreading a plague in order to learn what humanity was.

I got pissed at the dragon, and was about to leave when he decided to give all of the characters upgrades by letting them multiclass into other orders, or allow them to resserect dead orders...

I really liked the guy running it, but that was a train wreck.

Helmsman said...

It's interesting how a few tiny victories in a game filled with horrible adversity and crap can give you fond memories of it. In a lot of ways I think negative feelings counterpoint the positive ones. I think Pointyman once posted a list of the various feelings of enjoyment, and I think there are a few odd categories that probably apply in your game.

Norman Harman said...

I've never had a DM I'd call terrible. It makes me very paranoid that I am that terrible DM...

Mu said...

Very funny story.

The last sentence reminded me something that happened in a game.

I was carrying a Vampire campaign (or chronicle) with some friends. I wanted another friend to join, call him P., but he was not interested in Vampire.

On the other hand, one player, Ch., became very involved in the game and wanted to run one as GM himself. Some day, we were camping with various friends, including P., and he make us to play the adventure he had thought (prepared is not an adequate term, since his style was improvisation ) about a black guy dressed in black and with black sunglasses that was born form a pregnant vampire and has hunting them (us), called the Avenger.

As you are guessing, Ch. was a terrible GM. He didn't abuse of us as much as he did in previous occasions (maybe because I knew the game much more), but the game was a surrealistic improvisation after another. The Prince of the city (the vampire boss) was not credible in any sense.

That last thing made that my friend P. went to me and said:

P.: I want to join the Vampire game (mine).
Me: Great! Why?
P.: I am very excited with Vampire after Ch's game.
Ch.: Really?
P.: When I saw the way the Prince behaved in such a ridiculous way, that I realized how things SHOULD be, and I liked it very much, so I want to play a GOOD game.

P. was very innocent and he hadn't offensive intention, but I think that Ch. would not feel very well with his sincerity.

Kiashu said...

I like the way he was oblivious. It's amazing how oblivious they can be. They railroad you into a TPK, wipe you all out, and then smile and say, "cool, what are we playing next week? Who's GMing?"

Railroad Track Maintenance said...

Total FAIL as a DM on his part. He lost sight of the fact that a DM's role is to actually faciliate the FUN for everyone. Imagine how awesome it would have been had he let you actually have the victory in that final battle. The fact that YOU had worked so hard and let it pay would have LOVED him as a GM. Instead, he now sits quietly with his 20-sided dice and 5 imaginary crystals. I am a little surprised you took it for so long. lol

Nathan Hall said...

Picking favorite players and railroading others are the worst crimes a GM can commit. I had the misfortune of playing a Shadowrun game where I beat a PC my PC was fighting with (played by the GM's friend). Next scene: My PC is captured by her enemies (no rules, no transitions, no choice I could've made to prevent it) and has to be rescued by the PC I beat, who has exactly the skills needed to do it. The stupid player spent an hour shouting me (player me) out.

Sadly, all it takes is one a$$ to ruin a game. If you're really unlucky, that A$$ is the GM - and he's gay for his buddy.