This title is a reference to a comment about the difference between being a dick and an a-hole. The reason for it is because of something I’ve been hearing a lot lately regarding people’s perception of certain GM styles or writing styles or the like and they espouse this belief and share it to anyone who will listen. The problem with this when it comes to GMing especially is that we have no real frame of reference besides what works at our gaming tables and what works for you may not for someone else and vice versa.
For example, John Wick is one of the two big sources of what initially got me into writing these sort of posts. His approach to challenging the way people thought got him a lot of hate and a lot of love. If you look at the first article in his book ‘Play Dirty’, Hit Em Where It Hurts he is quite tought with some things and not afraid of it, especially if you start looking at some of his later works.
He states later in his collection that he is not a killer GM who seeks to rack up a body count for sake of a high body count, instead he is a dirty GM, throwing challenges at the PCs that are designed to be difficult and complex to make them have to work to win, and sometimes in telling the stories, all people see is how he was being unnecessarily hard on his players, but apparently at his table, that worked.
I’ve heard both great feedback and scathing critiques about other people such as Joss Whedon for his characters and plots in his tv shows, and Mookie the artist/author of webcomic Dominic Deegan, to the point that there was a whole fan site about how terrible he was and how his comic sucked, not to mention some of the comments about his ‘ Writing Unique Heroes and Memorable Villains’ Convention Panel. People run the gamut on love and hate for people when they make creative works of art, and that is the key word, art. People will look at a painting and complain the artist was a hack and there will always be haters of genres of music, but in the end, everything has fans and critics and vehement ones on either side.
When you sit down with your friends to game, they are the only critics you need to answer to. Occasionally ask them what sort of experiences they want their characters to have, in general terms, and try and fulfill those desires. For example, a big bulky hitter type character wants an epic cinematic duel while the suave roleplaying character wants an intrigue adventure with romance, and another character wants to find some major artifact. You can tailor a plotline for them to quest for the macguffin that many different parties want to get their hands on residing in some ancient ruins under a mountain that culminates with a duel at the edge of an active volcano.
However, always remember, your players are playing a game because they want to be challenged. If they wanted a sure thing, they would read a book or watch a movie. Have them lose, let them die, give them choices where there are downsides to every option. Players are playing the heroes or villains in these stories and if those roles were easy everyone would take them. Just make sure that it flows in with the storyline that is already established, so its not like running a realistic fantasy and then trouncing your players with a magician, or have your Shadowrunners fighting a gang only to have the Red Samurai come to the gang’s aid (unless your players missed the hints in the plot).
So, I say it is good to break out some dickish moves against players from time to time, or even most of the time. Just make sure it can be won if they do the right things. Won doesn’t mean victorious so much as overcome. The options can be as simple as running away, or it can be a complicated plot but it should be something they can find out, not some arcane ritual they should just suddenly know involving blood moons and hopping on one foot… unless, again, they missed the plot clues.
One important thing to remember while you are challenging your players is to not change the game on them just because they are getting close. Your players are close to finding out the villain is Old Man Jenkins, don’t suddenly switch it to be someone else to pad out the plot. You had them planned as a red herring, sure but don’t change things to make it more challenging, because then it is railroading, them being driven how you want it. It works for a crime drama because it shows the investigation process, but if through some train of thought they stumble onto the true plot, give them the victory, because beforehand you should have at least the beginnings of the next plot prepared, or at least something to hold their attention. If you’re unprepared, throw the party a celebration. Do some roleplaying of those NPCs you’ve designed, maybe have the PCs get a reward or commendation or medal or something to give you time to grasp a few straws and tie something together.