GMs of various games and particularly those in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (or its ancestral systems) are routinely frustrated by the reactions of their players. Hard hours spent in preparation and thoughtful story architecture explode into anger, seethe into resentment or fade into apathy.
What went wrong?
Sometimes the failure is understanding paradox and its reality at the table. Often the effort of the GM to make an engaging game or compelling setting IS the issue that is causes the negative reactions he or she seeks to avoid.
Types of Paradoxes to be Aware of for GMs:
- Restriction of Power – One of the most shocking experiences we saw involved running a game in the “ancestral system” where an attempt to “control” wizards was made by strict component controls and tracking. The GM thought this would allow fighters and other classes to be a greater focus in his story. Instead the ENTIRE campaign became about supplying the mage in the party. The players became involved in underground materials markets and every effort to drive people away sent them screaming into a world of arcane intrigue. The game was phenomenal but not what the GM intended. Be aware that attention to something in game, even negative attention to a rules element like components, will still emphasize the element.
- Mechanical Barriers – Similarly, mechanical bans on things like classes, feats or spells are going to have a draw to the reasons behind it. Most role-players are drawn to stories and will wonder if a ban ties to a secret of your world. If you want to limit reactions to these elements it is best to acknowledge them as out of game preferences (“I don’t like those rules) as opposed to a in-game reason lest you face a quest obsession with “restoring element x” to you game. These kinds of scarcity reactions are incredibly common and can be used to drive interest if you are aware of them. Want a game to be about planar distortions and magical research, tell your players that teleporting stopped working a century ago and watch the cats gather to figure out why.
- Abundance – One of the hardest concepts for GMs to grasp is that often times wealth given (even earned) is often wealth unappreciated. The very moment a PC crosses the line from fiscal uncertainty to solvency, a massive impetus for the character to move forward collapses. Without a new goal and need to attain it, the players may become less engaged. Monetary motivation for a group of adventurers but be aware of the moment when those PCs “arrive” and have a new motivation lined-up or prep for a game resolution as the party simply retires after attaining material success.
- Choice – Another key reversal that people need to be aware of is that of options. Often times permissive GMs feel magnanimous as they annouce that almost anything is fair game for their campaign. Some players don’t rejoice here, they instead feel paralyzed by the vast ocean of data to sift through to play the character they want. They have anxiety about not being as effective as the group’s alphas because they didn’t put the time in. Inform players more in a nurturing/supportive manner of choices and let interest and questions guide you as opposed to assaulting your group in wall of text mode. Particularly true if you have a new player.
- Logistic Ease – A sad fact about GMing is that the more you let players choose the how and when the more they will. Flexible start times, casual game schedules and undefined end points lead less to awesome games with high player loyalty, and more to hazy commitment and flaky player attendance. Respect your game time, rules and space and players are more likely to as well.
There are always rare exceptions to any rule. Some groups have endless hungers for gold or rules options. Others wouldn’t care if the wizard pages of the Core Rulebook were burned. Even in those groups there is likely someone quietly exhibiting paradox. But the possibility exists that the group is ultimately satisfied with your style. If you find yourself in such a group make sure it meshes well with your style and dive in, but otherwise be prepared for paradox in GMing.