Guidance – GMing 101: Four Flavors of GM

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about different types of GM behaviors.

Players. Its well established that players come in many different styles and preferences. As a matter of fact, there’s an entire section in the GameMastery Guide devoted to the various “kinds of players.” Often the different “kinds of players” come with their own advantages and disadvantages and generally speaking when we typecast players in this fashion, its to talk about something that we (other players / GMs) don’t like about that player’s behavior.

In contrast, we don’t hear much about different kinds of GMs, or at least not enough to actually have GM Archetypes. But as anyone who’s ever played Pathfinder Society knows, there are DEFINITELY different kinds of GMs. Today, I’m going to categorize some GM types and tell stories about each, and since we’re talking GMs, I’m going to be flavorful and use monster names to evoke the general trope that each GM type embodies. Player Readers, prepared to agree with me. GM Readers, prepare to have your bubbles popped.

The Anarchist GM (aka the Protean)

Afew years ago, I got a call from a good friend of mine, the person who introduced me to Pathfinder. He was fuming. One of our college acquaintances had offered to run a game of Pathfinder and my friend went, not knowing the horrors that would befall him there. When they sat down to play, the first encounter that the GM threw at the PCs was a stone golem. The PCs were Level 5. They ran away in fear and the golem nearly killed someone. When asked why he would use that monster, the GM said that he thought it would be funny to use. He then proceded to run the rest of his dungeon by making up encounters and special abilities for his monsters to have every step of the way; he had nothing prepared. My friend, who is very much of the rules lawyer type, walked out of the house and never came back. It took him ten minutes to stop shouting after the story had ended.

This type of GM is REALLY rare; as far as I know it cannot exist in PFs at all. This is the GM who DOESN’T know the rules and doesn’t care to. While he’s typically good for some RP, he makes EVERYTHING up on the fly. Rules are not sacred to him, and he’d as soon as give you something you didn’t earn as nullify half your class. There isn’t much to say about the anarchist GM; its literally impossible to know what they’ll do and how they’ll act because they are so utterly, unpredictably random. Sometimes improvisation is good; I myself use TONS of it. But the protean doesn’t use improvisation in a way that makes the game fun. Sure, he might try to, but in the end the game becomes a beast of confusion and ire; not fun.

The Homicidal GM (aka the Demon)

While working on the Monster Summoner’s Handbook for Paizo Publishing, I was interrupted from my brainstorming (complete with fez and corncob pipe) by a distressed text from a friend of mine; her party had suffered a Total Party Kill (TPK) in Emerald Spire. I messaged her back, “That’s hardly strange my friend; the Emerald Spire is a PC meat grinder of a dungeon.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “This is our second death there. The first time our PCs died on the boss fight, whom our GM made more challenging by adding a number of necromancer cleric levels to. When we returned, we found that the cleric had managed to fully repopulate the entire dungeon with goblins as well as raised every dead creature there as skeletal minions, including our PCs!”

“How is he controlling all of this undead?” I asked. I never got a reply. From what I understand, the GM didn’t actually have a good reason as to how his 5th-level NPC cleric could command over 10 Hit Dice of undead. I messaged my friend back, “Friend, you’re dealing with a homicidal GM.”

The Homicidal GM is one that (in my experience) is less common in Pathfinder Society and more common in home games; as a result, I’ve never played with a homicidal GM (hence no anecdote). In a nutshell, the homicidal GM is the GM who goes out of their way to try and kill as many players as possible, as often as possible. This is the GM who lauds the death of a PC and often claims pride over those kills, wearing their stories like an orc war hero stringing the skulls of his conquests into a gruesome necklace. The reason such GMs are uncommon in organized play is that Venture Officers tend to become alerted to them FAST; everyone expects an unfortunate TPK every now and then, but when they happen with frequency, everyone knows it. Not to mention people typically don’t want to play with someone who is cheering about their failures and shortcomings. People wait fair GMs who are going to make a fun experience, and while the thread of death needs to exist for truly memorable stories to be told games that are endless meatgrinders aren’t fun. Especially when you’re destroying a character developed over several days of playtime.

The Metagamer GM (aka the Devil)

I once played Siege of the Diamond City at a local convention. If you’ve never played this Pathfinder Society special, the basic idea is that you’re in a city that’s under siege by demons trying to earn the favor of a powerful ruler. So we’re running around the city trying to defeat our enemies when we come across our first encounter; some scared crusaders warning us of nearby demons. Well, of course the crusaders AND the demons attack us; they’re a bunch of low-level rogues and we’re up against two schnirs and an incubus; a nasty combination. I’m playing Kohdaehan, my kitsune bloodrager, and seeing the trouble I hulk out; I bloodrage, enlarging and displacing myself, and cast mirror image with an impressive 6 images generated. The incubus flies by and strikes our warpriest; the GM says that it can “see all the crazy magical stuff affecting me and doesn’t want to attack me.” I shrug and think, “Whatever. Its one demon.” But then the GM has ALL of the demons attack the warpriest. And none of the crusaders bother attacking me either. The warpriest drops, and then the incubus flies away and attacks a bard for two rounds before I can get there and kills her. Flat-out kills her. We were able to get her rezzed within the context of the scenario, but the same thing happened over and over again; the GM ignored me just because I was harder to hit, even when I was doing two or three times as much damage as every other PC at the table. It got so bad that the GM elected to attack our warpriest with NINE attacks from the boss monster when I was in range, killing him in a single round. Needless to say, I left feeling VERY annoyed with my GM.

The gremlin GM is a strange beast; he’s often as bloodthirsty as the daemon GM (see above), but there’s always strange logic behind his actions. You see, the demon GM wants EVERYONE dead. The grelin GM doesn’t necessarily want everyone to die, but he is obsessed with making things as hard as possible. Death-dealingly hard.

Usually, there is a HUGE amount of metagaming involved in the devil GM’s thought processes, and none of it ever is concerned with making the game more fun. The devil GM wants to win fights, and he’s not above using every little rule and technicality in order to get there. Typically this GM is a metagaming player who’s trying his hand at GMing. He knows the rules EXTREMELY well and expects other NPCs in the world to fight with his cutthroat tactics even when the monster’s stats don’t make sense. This GM is a hybrid of the homicidal GM and the rules lawyer GM, and it shows; he’s out for blood and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it from you.

The Rules Lawyer GM (aka the Inevitable)

One time in PFS, I was playing my kitsune hibachi chef in a dungeon where we had to clear out an evil force that was tainting it. We ran through the dungeon, loots in tow, until we finally came across a powerful, four-armed skeleton that quad-wielded kukris. It was TERRIFYING. Eventually, one of our players got the brilliant idea of disarming it of one of its kukris. After looking at the stat block, the GM said, “Huh. Actually, it does more damage on average with its claws rather than its kukris, and it’d hit more often.” So the GM had her skeleton drop all of its kukris and proceeded to claw us to near death until a timely critical hit managed to win us the day. Still, the imagery of this bad-ass monster duel wielding weapons deciding to drop its weapons for a mechanical benefit has left a sour taste in my mouth ever since.

Every GM needs to know the rules. It’s the fundamental job of the GM, after all. So what exactly IS a rules lawyer GM? Namely, it’s the GM who uses the rules in a manner that makes the game unfun for the PCs without good cause. So if a PCs says, “I want to stab the monster in the heart in order to kill him instantly,” the GM is in every right to say, “No, you can’t do that. That isn’t how combat works.” (Although a truly remarkable GM will say, “Okay, make a called shot.”) But if a player says, “I want to swing from the bannister down to the floor below in order to charge the opponent,” a GM who says, “No, there are no rules for that,” is likely a rules lawyer. The rules lawyer typically doesn’t allow the PCs to do anything that isn’t printed precisely in the rulebooks, and he’s a stickler for the exact word choice in the rules; not necessarily their intent. A good example of a place of argument between rules-lawyering GMs and non-rules-lawyering GMs are abilities like the harpy’s captivating song: a number of unclear word choices and contradictory sentences make some GMs claim that a harpy and effortlessly coup de grace. This is a valid interpretation of the ability. More laissez-faire GMs (as well as players) claim the opposite. When an ability says it kills you (like phantasmal killer), it kills you: end of discussion. But when you use rules text in a way that it leads to a dissatisfying experience for the players, chances are that you’re a rules lawyering GM.

The Serial Killer GM (aka the Daemon)

My first time playing the Silverhex Chronicles in Pathfinder Society, I played with a group of players who were all using pregens. (This is the normal for this scenario; it is meant to be played at a convention with a crop of all-new players.) Everyone was interested in trying the new Iconics, and like I fool I picked the Iconic Skald, who is HORRENDOUSLY bad because he’s a 3/4 BAB class built to dual wield at Level 1. But I digress. At any rate, we’re playing the Silverhex Chronicles and we encounter a band of human barbarians. Four of them to be precise. Without lauding the designer for throwing four of the most burst-damagy PC classes at us at Level 1 with no real gold or equipment at our disposal, the GM was BRUTAL. He chose a single player and did everything in his power to kill that one person, including going as far as to provoke attacks of opportunities from other players to coup de grace said person while he was unconscious. In the middle of combat. Surrounded by enemies. The player who was being targeted was furious; we all knew that there was nothing tactical in the attack patterns and that the barbarians had no reason to focus on him like they did. The GM wanted that player dead, and that was that. Tensions mounted until everyone at the table started shouting when a rules dispute came up; GM vs. player. Said player was trying to use channel energy to generate enough healing to save this player’s life. Eventually, I stepped in and confronted the GM, “Dude,” I said, “You have nothing to gain from making this argument except killing this player and ensuring he gets no credit from the scenario. You’re being a dick.” We won the encounter after I shouted, but EVERYONE’s tempers were flared and the game lost most of its enjoyment for everyone.

The serial killer GM is an assassin; in combat, he picks a single person for whatever reason and does whatever he can to murder that player. There often isn’t much rhyme or reason to the practice that’s available to the PCs. Players who provoked an NPC in-character needn’t apply to this troupe; the serial killer has no justification for the NPCs to act the way they’re acting. Sometimes they go after the character of a specific person who’s irked them recently. Sometimes they target a race they don’t like. Sometimes they choose their mark subconsciously without ever deciding to do it. Serial killer GMs can sometimes be homicidal GMs as well (most of the ones I’ve known were), but generally speaking they’re more common in avenues where the GM has little to no assured connection with his players, such as in Pathfinder Society; there is little consequence for a GM murdering a PC in Society play, and many serial killer GMs can feel like they can “get away with it” here.

This is far from a comprehensive list of GMs. (Heck, I didn’t have time to list the GOOD kinds of GMs!) Someday I’d like to expand this list to include other kinds of GMs, but for now I think this a good place to stop. Just as players have good habits and poor ones, GMs can develop bad habits and can be just as disastrous for the fun of the game if not more so. Remember, you job as GM is not to challenge your players or to kill off your players or to keep your players off-balance or even to know every rule in the book (I sure as heck don’t). Your job is to provide a fun experience that makes all people at the table want to come back for more, including yourself. That is your job, and perhaps the most important thing that you can do if you want to be a good GM, both for PFS and for home games, is to learn to let your player’s fun be your fun. If that isn’t your prime objective, then you are not living up to your potential as a GM.

And that, my readers, is all I have to say about types of GMs for this week. What do you think? What types of players have YOU played up? What kind of GM are you (tell me even if it isn’t on this list.) What kind of GM do you aspire to me? Leave me your questions, comments, and concerns and stay tight while waiting for another all-new installment of Guidance on Friday. Take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

3 Comments

  1. mark orr Reply to mark

    Any examples of non-awful GM types? Or is that next week? 🙂

Leave a Reply to mark orr Cancel reply