No Unpleasant Surprises

Newcomers to any game have a lot of questions to ask and I hope those who already play those games can offer some good advice. A new Symbaroum Game Master ran his first session and had a question to ask:

How ruthless should the GM be? I just ran my first ever session of Symbaroum, and I have to say I am not pleased by how it turned out. I ran the campaign from the core rule book and I managed to kill only one player… Now I should have killed the Wizard and Leader of the party during the (Mal-)Rogan encounter but I spared them, and it felt bad after the session ended. The bad guys want to win, and they too are fragile the same way the players are. Is this the idea behind combat?

It’s worth taking a quick trip to the dictionary to give this question some context.

Ruthless (adjective): having or showing no pity or compassion for others.

I have to say, this isn’t the role of the Game Master in (most) games. Symbaroum certainly isn’t a game where the Game Master is out to win by annihilating the player characters.

Role playing games in general are meant to be an “entertaining, thrilling and unifying experience for all!” (Symbaroum Core Book, page 11).

As a Game Master, you are not trying to beat the adventurers or the players – any more than the Director of a movie is trying to kill the characters. You should try to Understand The Enemy before you run the adventure (SCB, pg 168). What motivates the antagonists?

Few, if any, of the enemies in an adventure will have the motivation “Kill everyone“. Even a simple enemy will likely have a slightly more straightforward and less dangerous goal than that, as – you quite rightly point out – they are as fragile as anyone else when the swords start swinging. A canny antagonist won’t just launch in with weapons hot intent on a kill. They’re more likely to want to imprison, subdue, intimidate, waylay, disarm, divert, deprive, or otherwise compromise the plans of the player characters — almost any number of things that can get them closer to their goal, without resorting to wholesale slaughter.

Take the introductory adventure The Promised Land as an example:

Mal-Rogan wants the Sun Stone. Yes, he will kill people – one by one – to get at it – but once he has it, he won’t stick around to slay the stragglers. He has plans, akin to a Bond villain, for world domination – and killing a few upstart wagon train guards hardly seems worth his effort. By all means, have Mal-Rogan place a Curse of Death (Curse at Master level) on the upstart wizard with the Brimstone Cascade and see how he fares.

Don’t roll Mal-Rogan’s Resolute when he uses his Ability – you’re the GM, you don’t roll dice! Have him paralyse the characters and secure the Sun Stone in short order. Then, while the characters writhe in agony, have him gloat, deliver a suitably villainous monologue, and depart. If you must, really hurt someone – play him like Negan (The Walking Dead) and have him kill a non-player character without mercy, if you want to get the point across. That ties in to the next bit…

By all means, throw Unpleasant Surprises at the characters (SCB, pg 169), but be sure to Describe the Consequence (same page) and Save Them From Trouble (same page again). A player who doesn’t acknowledge the danger inherent in an encounter, despite clear awareness of the threat, should – by all means – meet their end; but, that shouldn’t happen lightly.

And at the end of the session, take a moment to ask for feedback and discuss the way the game turned out. If you give them the opportunity, and act on their feedback, players will usually tell you what they thought of the session, especially if they felt it was too hard or too easy. As a hobby, we investment precious time into role playing that shouldn’t be wasted; if the players aren’t enjoying the game you’re running, give them the chance to let them tell you and then work with them to find some common ground for next time.


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Post is part of the #AtoZChallenge.

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