GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.

All of my GMing rules posted so far are collected here.

GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.

PCs and Protagonists

In every story, the hero struggles.  Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself.  This is as true in wars between demigods as it is in an English country veterinarian’s memoirs.

In an RPG, though, that protagonist is a player character – with a player behind them.

That player is a real person, and that real person is investing real time in the game.  It behooves a good GM not to waste that time.

One particularly conspicuous way of wasting that time is for the GM to allow the players to spend time and energy struggling toward a goal, and then invalidating that struggle.

Denied Results

There are two main forms I see invalidation taking.  In the first case, the GM inflicts failure on the players, no matter what ingenuity or determination the players bring to bear.

This happens when the GM sets up a plot that can only advance if the players fail – a plot that halts if the players ever succeed.  A Lost or a Star Trek: Voyager, or a Gilligan’s Island, where every adventure is an attempt to get home, but where the simple math of the premise demands that all of these attempts fail.

I’ve seen this structure in RPG sourcebooks.  I have a sourcebook ready to hand that outlines a campaign about the approach and confrontation of a mighty and terrible evil.  Every adventure in this campaign is about some antagonist taking steps to advance the evil’s approach, and every one of these adventures requires the players to fail to stop these antagonists – or the campaign is over.

At every step, no matter how cunning or steadfast the players, they are guaranteed to fail.  Their efforts are wasted.

Denied Causes

The second case is where the GM allows the players to succeed, or to come close to succeeding, and then reveals the players’ cause to have been a hateful one.

There’s a video game I could name, wherein the player’s objective is to rescue the player character’s girlfriend from a distant castle.  At the end of the game, it’s revealed that the girlfriend is the PC’s ex, and she’s been actively trying to get away from him.

Again, the players’ efforts are wasted – wasted and soured.  You’ve just taken all of the time and energy the player put into that goal, and made it retroactively un-fun.

Frustration vs. Invalidation

I’m not saying don’t make things difficult for the players.

Knock them into pits, so they can fight their way back out!  Set them up against unbeatable odds, and then see how they beat them anyway.  Put the goalposts on the damn moon, and hand the players half a roll of duct tape and an empty egg-carton to get them started on a rocket.

Make them struggle.

But don’t waste that struggle.

4 thoughts on “GMing Rule #3. Don’t invalidate the players’ efforts.”

  1. This is also a lesson I wish game developers would follow. There is nothing more frustrating than doing a difficult fight /and winning/ and then jumping to cutscene and watching your character lose. (And you lose even more points if your character loses the fight [like the story wants] and you get a ‘game over’ screen.)

      1. Nothing says, “Fuck you!” quite like the trifecta of invalidation, frustration, and result denial that is the “You win but you lose” boss fight.

        However, there is NO way to beat Scorpion’s ending from Mortal Kombat (5) Deadly Alliance: after fighting your way up the chain of enemies and beating the final boss, Quan Chi, you’re rewarded with this beautiful piece of text:

        “The hunt for Quan Chi had led Scorpion to the palace of Shang Tsung. Scorpion entered the palace through a hidden passage. As he made his way through the lower levels, he was discovered by the two Oni he had previously encountered while in the Netherealm. Shang Tsung had secretly allied with Moloch and Drahmin as a backup defense against Quan Chi. The two Oni had been hidden in an underground chamber and were periodically fed mortals to keep them satisfied.

        Scorpion fought well but was overpowered by Moloch and Drahmin. Although they could not consume the ninja spectre, they devised another means for eliminating their foe that would satisfy their cruel nature. The Oni brought Scorpion before the portal to The Heavens that Shang Tsung had tapped as a source of limitless souls. They hurled him into the Soulnado and his hellspawn body was ripped apart by the purity of that realm.”

        Emphasis mine. You have to beat the final boss to get to this text wall, which indicates that you didn’t even beat the minibosses! There are plenty of arguments to be made for, “Well, fighting game stories don’t matter,” but this is still completely absurd.

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