Thursday, January 7, 2010

Player Characters, GMs, and Issues with Authority

I run a lot of military games, and I write a lot of them too. In fact I'm writing one right now - In Harm's Way: StarCluster. When I mention one of these games on a forum or by talking with someone, i often get some variation on this response:

"Oh, that sounds neat, but my group would never go for that! They can't stand anyone having any authority over them! They'd just sabotage the whole thing."

I am usually dumbfounded - or I was until I heard it so many times! Why does this reaction happen? It happened once or twice to me many many years ago, but I attributed it to a character thing, not a player state of mind. It has *never* happened with my current group, who are all - except for my wife, who is ageless, beautiful, and wise - between 18 and 23, and they have been gaming with me since they were 12-13, the period you'd expect to be rebellious and resentful of authority.

Bill Corrie of Hinterwelt said that it was because of the way I GM it, that my group trusts me. I think that's true, but that leads to the corollary thought of "Why don't these other groups trust their GM?" That leads to the thought that maybe these guys, or maybe their predecessor GMs, abused their player's trust, or never earned it in the first place. Then that leads to thoughts on those indie games with a curtailed or sharply defined GM role...

Then I wrench myself back from staring into the abyss, and focus on what can I do to help GMs. I've begun putting together a GM help section for IHW:SC concentrating on running military or military-esque games, where the PCs are part of a greater organization. I'm asking here for thoughts from anyone reading this - is there any advice you might have that I can put there? I know I'm not the only one to run this kind of game - someone keeps buying them! - and I know I'm not the source of all knowledge.

Thanks in advance!



  1. The advice I have always given is:
    1. Make the orders be broad enough to allow lateral thinking. Micromanagement is something not appealing int he real world nor the game world.

    2. If you are going to have a commander who inflicts his will on them in micromanaged way, have him come to a just and abrupt end leaving the characters to do as they will.

    3. If possible, never send the commander on the mission with the party. This leads to, at best, the party feeling the commander is looking over their shoulder.

    As to trust, perhaps that was a poor choice of words. They know how you will handle orders and mil structures. They know that if you give an order (through an NPC) you mean it to be carried out within some parameters.

    Unlike you, I have observed this phenomenon again and again (as a player). It usually starts with either:
    1. Players being smart asses and trying to game the structure,
    2. the GM micromanaging the commands from thecommander so as to stop the smart ass player.

    Unfortunately, it leaves the majority who wish to play out in the cold. The best way I have seen to handle this is as always, communication. Communicate the expectations of the orders and command structure ahead of time. If the king is handing you a quest most folks do not expect him to tell the questors to ride white horses, only travel on Tuesdays and never use mayonaise on thier mutton. Somehow, modern mil games get this expectation in spades.

  2. Oh, and you spelled game incorrectly in the first paragraph. Sorry, the editor in me coming out. :(

  3. I think Hinter has hit the nail on the head.

    For my 3:16 game, I've cast the "lt" as somewhat like a "Lt Gorman" from Aliens who is never in the thick of combat with the players. They don't mind the command structure within the group, and they love to hate the Lt.

    For other games like Star Trek, I think I would put the characters either low enough on the totem pole so they'd have some sort of autonomy at their job, or not be directly under the thumb of the ultimate authority on a regular basis.

  4. I made one of the PC's captain in my ST game, that way the authority is their own.

    Otherwise, I try and spread it out, making the figure distant and somewhat not-often interactive. Allowing them some freedom. I don't run a lot of military games but I've run a few.

    Of course in one of the few games I play in, I've got to deal with a NPC Dukes' private "advisor", whose a pain in my PC's ass, using her supernatural powers to manipulate people however she sees fit. I suspect we'll all hate her for a bit, right before she dies.

    Albeit to be fair, my PC is a Priest so he's got a lot bigger "Lord" in the game on his side.

  5. @ Bill: Awesome list! These are all great ideas! Thanks! ;d

    @ Chgowiz: yep! Sometimes a shared hate can bring the group together.

    @ Tim: One of the things the game does, but it should be emphasized! The PCs can be the ones in charge. Excellent!

    Thanks so much guys! Much appreciated! :D