How to Avoid Being a “Defensive” GM

“Did you… just… one-shot my BBEG?!?!” Artwork by Aaron Lee

They say inspiration can come from anywhere.  Today’s inspiration came from THIS post over on the Cypher Unlimited Discord server.  Angel’s Citadel friend Koan Mandala talked about how one of the things he had to learn in the course of what he calls his “GM skill progression” was how to let go of being a defensive GM.  In his words:

“Getting into a defensive mode when players stomp on your sand castle was a natural instinctive reaction that was actually hard to let go. That was my paradigm shift. Nowadays when I see a player preparing to unleash a massive [nuclear bomb on my plans], I just say give me your best shot; and we manage together to make it a scene, make it work and have great fun.”

Koan Mandala, 5 September 2020, Cypher Unlimited Discord

“To be defensive is to react with an overprotective mentality to a situation that perhaps doesn’t warrant it. Defensiveness is an impulsive and reactive mode of responding to a situation or conversation. Rather than listening with an open heart, we respond with our metaphorical shields up and weapons drawn.” (Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, Quoted from this article, emphasis added).

So why does a GM get defensive?  I do not believe that a majority of GM’s wake up in the morning and spend the day thinking about how they can “beat” or “screw over” their players.  While there may be occasional bouts of “cruelty in gaming” (Cthulhu in Power armor anyone?), I don’t think that, for most GM’s, it’s the normal state of affairs.  What I do believe is that GM’s, like players, get attached.  While players often get attached to characters – some to what they can do, some to who they are, some to both – GM’s often get attached to either their NPCs or their world.  It is very much like having a child.  You gave it life, and it’s tied to you in some oddly profound ways.

A GM can spend massive amounts of time preparing for their gaming sessions.  From drawing maps, to creating NPCs, crafting items, populating dungeons, balancing encounters, and much, much more.  It is often a thankless job, but they do it anyway.  Why?  Because creation itself is a joy, even if it is only a fiction.  Two things counteract this, however.  First, when the PCs go “off the rails” and don’t even meet let alone interact with what the GM has so painstakingly prepared.  Or second, when the PCs traipse through that preparation like Godzilla through Tokyo, sending wrecked pieces of carefully prepared worldbuilding flying everywhere.

When that happens, what do you do?  One option is to turn defensive.  That means giving NPC’s plot armor they wouldn’t otherwise have, or perhaps railroading PC’s to a location they were not otherwise going to go to.  In other words, it means taking away player agency and consequence.  Truly compelling stories are not compelling outside of reality, but in spite of it.

So what does it look like to not have that happen?  It means that when the PCs choose to leave town knowing that an NPC was in trouble, let the NPC die and then figure out what happens because of it.  It means that when the PCs, through their ingenuity, figure out a way to one-shot the adventures BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy), let them, and then figure out what happens next.  None of this is the end to a story.  It’s simply the beginning of a next story.

How do you not let it happen?  Well, the easiest way to do so that I have found is to not over-prepare in the first place.  Using a preparation method like Michael Shea describes in Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, a GM focuses on building only what the players might encounter next.  If you don’t prepare it, you can’t get attached to it.  But most of us have to prepare something.  So you only prepare what is absolutely needed, and you recycle anything you don’t use.  There are many books, articles and videos about this style of preparation, Michael Shea just happens to be my favorite of the bunch in the way he presents it.

If you enjoy worldbuilding, however, and you spend your time doing so because it brings you joy (like I do at least occasionally), that may not be enough for you.  If that’s the case, then the thing you need to internalize is that you and the players are not enemies.  You are partners building a story together.  And while there is indeed an element of surprise and discovery that the Players have that the GM does not, their persons are not on opposite sides of a battle even if occasionally the characters and the NPCs or creatures may be.  Understanding this leads one to develop a “Yes, and…” approach to responding to PC actions or a “OK, what’s the next thing?” thought process when the players take a route or make a choice you, the GM, didn’t expect.

“On the other hand, some players absolutely will get it. They’ll understand that it’s the spirit of the rules, not the letter, that’s important. They’ll get that the story being told is key. Rather than poring over the description of a power and trying to twist the words to an unintended meaning, they’ll use their intelligence and creativity to figure out the best way to use the power to portray a character who fits the setting and is fun to play.  

“People who try to exploit the rules don’t understand the Cypher System, but people who exploit the situations do. If a player is smart and creative enough to turn the tables on their foes in an unexpected way by using what’s around them, allow it (if it makes sense). If the PCs find a pool of caustic fluid and lure their foes into it rather than fighting them in a straightforward manner, that’s not cheating—that’s awesome.

“Be certain you don’t accidentally penalize players for not doing the obvious or straightforward thing.  Be generous with people who take nonstandard actions or who do something realistic (such as using their action to take stock of the situation rather than attack—ease their next action). Don’t make “attack” always the right choice. It’s a creative game, so allow the players to be creative.”

Revised Cypher System Rulebook, page 433

The more you adopt this kind of thinking, the better the feel between people at your table will be and the more engaging for everyone including you the stories will be.  Players will feel like their choices have real meaning and their characters are part of a living, breathing world rather than just cardboard cutouts against the backdrop of the GM’s story.  In my experience, you will find greater immersion, and greater fun as you do so.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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