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The Best Game Designer is an Evil GM

Posted on February 2, 2016 by Flames

I love to be the game master. There is nothing quite like the feeling of presenting a challenge that the players will fear, loathe, complain about and eventually, climactically overcome. I don’t mind being the bad guy. I know that I’m the catalyst for great gaming and great storytelling. Of course, all of this sounds like roleplaying but really it applies to game design as well. A game designer has to have a certain sense that he is setting these fascinating objects in motion and the players bring them to life and create the unexpected interactions that make the game worth playing. Semi-coop games such as Battlestations or Descent invite the boardgame referee to be more than just a rules arbiter and I think part of the fun for everybody is to dial up the drama and go for it.

As the game designer, you are the director of the story rather than the author. The players themselves animate the story and bring it to life. This iterates one step further when you are the game master (or dungeon master or referee or enemy, etc.). It would not be fun if you are just pushing the pieces around as if it were your own puppet show. Your “puppets” have minds of their own. A good game system will allow them the flexibility to express themselves within the context of the story concepts you are presenting. Game masters are much like the designers in this regard. The content that you are generating at either level has to be stuff that the players can use because ultimately they are creating the reality.

In a roleplaying game, this is all obvious. Nobody wants to be dragged through a prefabricated story. In a boardgame, this is just as important, but much less obvious. The stories you tell in the board game are hemmed in more severely, but not completely. The decisions you leave up to the players as the designer need to provide enough context to create a great story. You’re not going to get a medieval castle plopped down in the middle of a deckbuilding game with an invitation to explore, but you will have choices to make in the deckbuilding game about how to construct your deck and then how to play it. Players want choices and they want them to matter. The new breed of boardgame/RPG hybrids make it possible to take good stuff from both worlds if not the best. As a designer and a referee I want to bring this out.

I’m going to let you in on a few secrets here. I don’t actually want the players to lose and I am pretty sure they won’t. I take delight in their misfortune because it provides greater context for when they succeed. It is more fun to beat a foe that had been taunting you. Once in a while, this backfires because I’ll be playing up the “you’ll never get out alive, [evil laughter here]” shtick when a series of bad rolls will actually doom the character. But that just makes it all the sweeter when they do prevail. In Battlestations, you have Luck and Sick Bays that bring back the dead and even cloning so nobody dies for good. This leaves me free to taunt and play hard because I know nobody is going to get permanently hurt.

Don’t cheat. You don’t need to. Games are designed to be fun and they are more fun when the heroes win but if you start cheating to let them win, the fun rings less true.

Play up the image of the diabolical GM. Evil laughter, dirty tricks, hidden die rolls are all fair game. In the end, you’re not judged by whether you win or lose but how you play the game. Play the game so that everybody has fun. The best way to do that is leading by example. Celebrate your early successes because you won’t likely have them later. Let the players fear you and mistrust your motives (but never your fairness!) All you need to do is have fun!

About the Author:
Jeff Siadek is the designer of Lifeboat, Battlestations, Desert Island, the Worst Game Ever, Monster Derby, Who Would Win, 99 Chances, Hunting Party, Caesar, Palaces, Pantheon, RoboTanks, Throwing Stones, Total War, Wordariffic, World Conquerors, and many more games.

You can check out the Battlestations Second Edition at!

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