New Year’s often means looking ahead, but it also means reflecting on the past and the lessons we find there.
And that brings me to one of my favorite things on The Internet last year.
It’s a post most GMs can relate to. We devote a lot of resources to convincing PCs to keep moving forward, to going where less brave, less desperate souls would have the good sense never to set foot. It’s a worthy endeavor, but it can get exhausting, and sometimes, just sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded that your players trust you enough to drink the bubbling potion without spending eighteen rounds checking it for traps first.
It brought to mind my very first GM. I got my introduction to gaming when I was in middle school playing Dark Sun in 2E D&D. Our GM, Alex, was older by four years, smart, and well-versed in D&D, dice-rolling and tabletop systems. My fellow players and I were…decidedly not.
I didn’t know the term at the time, but Alex was an example of a classically Gygaxian DM – he pulled no punches with the rules. He didn’t seem to fudge any numbers. Yet after a year in the scorched, desolate world of Athas with him as my guide, I fell in love with gaming and have been doing for more than two decades since.
I mention him because there was a rule in his game that there was no “identify” spell, no way to learn what a given magic item or potion or whatever did unless you either had one just like it already, or were willing to drink it/wear it/wield it to find out.
Naturally, we would know the general shape of the item. If it was a sword, it went to the fighter, who knew how to use swords. If it wasn’t cursed, then at worst it was still a sword. Simple bonuses were done as better craftsmanship rather than magical enchantments (a +2 blade was weighted better, for instance), so every magical item that was legitimately magical had an effect of some kind, and you discovered it by using it.
It was a lot like playing in Numenera decades before there was a Numenera. Things were arcane, meaning “mysterious or secret,” meaning “welp, let’s see what THIS button does” kind of discovery was an everyday part of the adventure. There was no way to attain certainty safely, so there was no choice but to take the risk, and that made the risk easier to take.
What’s critical about how Alex operated is that he rewarded the trust and risk-taking regularly enough to make us reckless enough to feel like we’d then ‘earned’ the times it bit us in the butt. And even the occasional cursed item became its own reward – a scarf that made the mul’s voice high and squeaky like he’d sucked down a helium balloon might’ve made it hard for him to intimidate, but it was hilarious to us around the table. The thri-kreen found his way into a belt of clumsiness and complained of “six left knees” for hours afterwards.
It only worked because we trusted that the GM was there so that we could have fun. We knew that if we drank the potion or put on the rune-covered helmet or picked up the glowing dagger that something special was going to happen. It might not always be good for the character, but it was always good for the player, and that was the whole point.
That level of uncertainty made it possible to not worry as much when we got into more classic trouble, like stumbling across traps or getting into fights with intimidating monsters. We’d survived 12 impossible things before breakfast, what could possibly happen now that wouldn’t at least give us one heck of a story to tell?
Nothing makes me happier as a GM than when I ask my players explicitly if they want to identify the thing, or check for traps, or research the Johnson giving them the job before going through with it, and they look at me, shrug and say “nah, I’m good,” with a smile on their face. It’s not that I’m spared the half-hour of cooking up reasons why they should go into the room or flip the switch or take the job anyway (although I won’t lie, that’s always nice), it’s that I know they trust that I’m there to make sure they have fun.
That means I’m doing my job well enough for it to show.
Most of my players probably wouldn’t believe that I take most of my cues from a Gygaxian GM. But I learned right from the start that you can keep your numbers solid and unfudged as long as the consequences for failure are still something the players themselves get to enjoy.