Behind the Screens – Tinker/Tailor: RAW, or RAI?

Today I’d like to start a discussion about GMing styles, particularly when it comes to narrative focus. This article is partially inspired by a conversation between Ryan and Perram during banter segment on the “Can We FLGS” episode of Know Direction. The conversation started on the topic of party balance and eventually touched on whether or not a GM should tailor an adventure – published or otherwise – to suit their players. It’s a great discussion and you can listen to it here:

Anyways, here’s my 2cp on the subject.

First off, what kind of GM are you? Take the following situation for instance:

The level-one PCs have just wandered into a forest known for being home to monstrous trolls. What are the odds that the PCs encounter a pack of trolls and ripped to pieces?

How you answer that question says a lot about your GMing style. If your answer was something like, “Not very likely, trolls are too high a CR, I’ll throw goblins at them instead” then you’re a very different GM than someone who answered, “100% Those trolls smell them immediately. One TPK coming right up!”

Obviously this is a super simplified example. But I think it does a good job of illustrating two very different schools of thought. In very general terms, the first GM is tailoring the adventure to his players’ needs. In essence, he places his players’ importance over than of the world or campaign setting. For ease, I’ll refer to this practice as Player Focused.

The second GM isn’t tailoring the adventure to his players. He’s decided that the troll infested woods are in fact infested by trolls and his players were taking major risks going in there in the first place. This GM has placed more importance on campaign setting integrity than he has his players’ characters. We’ll call this view, World Focused.

Neither of these particular views is inherently superior to the other. But they do make for vastly different play experiences and heavily influence how an ongoing story is told. A Player Focused approach treats the PCs as the primary movers-and-shakers of the story. The story is about them and what they do in the world. A World Focused approach still values the PCs as protagonists in the story but puts more emphasis on the world maintaining its internal consistency. The story is still about the PCs but ambiguous situations tend to be resolved in favor the world as it was designed or written.

Once again, these are very much generalizations and a given campaign can flip back and forth between them regularly. Indeed, I would argue that the most successful collaborative stories are told through a combination both viewpoints. What’s most important is to gauge your players and determine which type of game they’d rather play.

It’s fine to say, “This is the world. And it will be as it has been written. And you will wander into high CR zones or anger powerful entities at your own peril. There will be no kid gloves. Your actions have consequences. Good luck and have fun!” But understand that if your players don’t want to play in that kind of world, you’re basically railroading them into playing in a way that can hurt their enjoyment of the game.

On the other hand, if you decide to tailor an adventure for a group that expects a by the book run you can make them like they were deprived of a “textbook” experience. If they wanted Rise of the Runelords as advertised just as it is on the box but you give them Rise of the Runelords as customized for their party, they might feel cheated.

Ultimately it’s best to reach some form of agreement with your players about the type of game that everyone participates in. In the next few posts I’ll start to explore the pros and cons of these Player and World Focus GMing and what sort of impact you can expect them to have in your groups.



What kind of GM are you? How do you prefer to run your games? Know Direction wants to know! Leave it in the Comments section below.


Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

1 Comment

  1. If my players are being smart and acting like they really live in the world, then my GM style is player-focused. Ideally, I would have it be common knowledge that those scary woods are dangerous and they probably shouldn’t venture forth into the dark wilderness yet. If they somehow manage to innocently avoid finding that information, then I guess the goblins will find them. If they know there are trolls in the woods and go there anyway, they’re begging for a troll encounter. I’ll probably kill one or two of them and hopefully they’ll flee. If not, well, it’s not my fault they didn’t have the tactical sense to avoid a total party kill, is it?

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