Treat Your Players Like Peers, Not Students

I have had this happen months ago in a game in which I was playing a cleric in a D&D 4th Edition game. The GM had arranged a story where two good goddesses were at odds with each other, and my character being a cleric of one of the two good goddesses had to deal with the tricky situation of hostile negotiations with the other side.

Of course my character was of significantly lower level than the opposing side’s cleric, so a direct confrontation was out of the question such as setting stakes for both sides and then having a duel to see who wins. Say what you want about “roleplaying vs. roll playing”, but a non-lethal combat to solve a social conflict is a legitimate tactic that puts the game first and not the GM’s opinion.

Now to set the stage for what the conflict was all about. The goddesses involved were Erathis and Melora. Erathis, my character’s deity, is the goddess of civilization. Melora, the opposing side’s deity, is the goddess of nature and the wilderness. Apparently a temple of Erathis had been built on territory claimed by Melora. Erathis did not request this temple, her followers simply showed up and built it.

If we were keeping score, we could say that Erathis had wronged Melora at this point in the story, but it does not end there. The city erupts in civil war for reasons unrelated to the conflict between the goddesses, and through a comedy of errors a magical dome encapsulates the entire city trapping everyone inside. From the outside you can enter the dome, but if you try to leave it will kill you. The city is now being used as a prison by a tyrant, and my PC’s party was sent in order to find out if rumors of a way to escape the city were true or not.

In case you missed those railroad tracks read the last sentence of the previous paragraph again.

But that is not all! As several hundred years pass the city comes to be ruled by gangs, one of which is the follower’s of Melora. Their base is the former temple of Erathis which is now overgrown, and the giant holy symbol of Erathis (the cog) has been broken, allowed to rust, and desecrated. Furthermore the only way to escape the city is to repair the cog and remove it from the old temple.

Were the NPCs reasonable in that after explaining that by working together all of them could be free? No, of course not. That would make an already outrageously complex plot workable to some degree.

The GM had been a player in a previous campaign in which I had played my character. He knew that I played a character who was a zealot, but who was also tortured by his faith. He had at one point been completely cut off from his goddess as a formal punishment for his zealotry. I am a very intense role player, so I was really trying to play this outwardly fierce but internally fragile character. What can be more dramatic than a cleric who is having a crisis of faith? When the GM asked what were we hoping to achieve in the campaign before it began I clearly stated that I wanted my character to have a chance to confront his goddess and show her how she was also in the wrong (there was an event in the character’s story to justify this).

Did that confrontation take place? No. Instead it was later revealed that the GM decided to set all of these various elements up in order to teach my character a lesson: Sometimes civilization is messy.

That ruined the story, the game, and the character for me. This GM wanted to teach me a lesson about how he had interpreted the deities of the game world. The verisimilitude of the game world is of no interest to me whatsoever if it is at the expense of the hard work that I had been putting into the development of my character. The obvious stacking of the deck against my character in order to prove a point which I did not need to learn, and which the GM foolishly assumed he was authorized to teach me, just punched a hole right through the game out of which all of the fun gushed out.

Why was this so bad? Because the GM decided to manipulate me. Not the character. He decided to manipulate me as a person. He took the role of GM more than a step too far. He took it an entire marathon too far.

If you want to explain a concept, or communicate your beliefs to one of your players do it by having a conversation with your friend! Do not do it by manipulating your player through one of your games! What this GM did not only ruined the game for me, but it also soured our friendship.

So never use your game as a way to teach a player a lesson. That is not what people joined your game for. They joined your game in order to explore what it is like to be another person and to have fun. A GM who has another agenda for them is going to risk a lot more than just a bad game.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below and we will take it from there.