GM Tunnel Vision

Do you have any blindspots as a GM? I do. I’ve talked in the past on my difficult in setting up a satisfying adventure. Even hooks in sandbox campaigns, I’m terrible at that stuff. It’s not that I don’t have it ready to run; I just can’t seem to get it in front of the players in any fashion beyond “hey go do it”.

What I’m describing is an area of poor performance on my part, which causes some detriment to my players. Additionally, I didn’t realize it until sometime into my first campaign. Someone had to point it out to me, albeit in a subtle fashion. I would’ve noticed eventually, after all player dissatisfaction gets written all over their faces at some point or another. That facet of play produces player feedback, whether they intend it or not.

But what if I wasn’t aware of it? What if the players’ feelings on that facet of play were obscured, or worse, difficult to express? This is GM Tunnel Vision; a lack of awareness of the players’ experience at the table, particularly related to your decisions as a GM. If I didn’t pay attention to what my players wanted, which I could guess at being a frequent player myself, it could seriously degrade their experience at the table. Even if other aspects of play I had power over were fantastic, my simple disregard for one section of play could erode trust in general.

Eroding trust is a companion essay to this one, so let’s go back to GM Tunnel Vision. The reason I spelled all of that seemingly self evident stuff out is because it’s easy to fall into as a GM. The GM can ban race and class options, right? Well within their rights to, as a matter of fact. It makes more or less sense depending on the world or setting they’re running. There’s no reason to assume the class spread of the PHB is perfect for every world, after all. Let’s not even get into the trouble of cramming dozens of races together in one world.

So we go to our players in this hypothetical situation, and say “I’m banning the Sorcerer and Druid. I’m also ditching gnomes, tieflings, and dragonborn.” Races are usually easier to get past more experienced players, but banning classes really rubs folks the wrong way in a far more common fashion. Let’s now say some folks make their disappointment known, whether they’re anonymously commenting on your decision online, or they’re your actual players complaining. There are any number of responses to give, so we won’t go over the list; just the one that spurred this article on.

“ Every time you talk about banning races and classes… (players say) the GM’s just trying to screw me out of my favorite thing. Really? I wrote this whole campaign book, because I wanted you to not have the one choice you enjoy. That’s why I did this! You sir have greatly elevated your importance in my mind.”

There’s nothing malicious in that statement at all. Boiled down, “I did what I wanted, screwing you over didn’t cross my mind” is quote’s essence. But does that player feel better, now? My favorite modern philosopher often devised a hypothetical situation for comment as follows: a man with a gun and a tiger are both hunting you in the woods. One is obviously sentient doing this on purpose, the other is not, driven by instinct. Does it matter which one catches you first? The obvious answer is no, you’re dead either way.

Let’s pull a more relevant example out of our posteriors; a player creates a character who incessantly asks “why would my character do that” at every prompt and prodding to go out and adventure. They’ve created a character who does not want to adventure, unless likely prompted by some very specific detail or event that you, the GM, in all likelihood to not have time to divine. But wait! Our player here didn’t mean to be an obstructionist shitheel, causing problems for you where there were none and diminishing your free time. They did in good faith! You sir, have greatly elevated your importance in their minds. Has the problem gone away, now? Simply avoiding maliciousness isn’t enough . Granted, one could make a case that ignoring any thought of other people’s fun in a group activity centered around having fun is a conscious choice and therefore malicious, but that’s besides the point.

It doesn’t matter if you’re actively out to get someone or not, there are plenty of ways to needlessly be a dick. I’ve banned/restricted races plenty of times, placed different restrictions, etc. Knowing it was a potential negative for a player didn’t stop me from making the decision; it was a decision I felt was best for the game at the time. Acknowledging the fact it was a potential negative allowed me to look for potential rebalances, giving the players other means of fun (tailored to them) across the course of play.

I take this approach because it isn’t “my game”. I didn’t gather friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc to sit through my b-novel. We got together because in some fashion or another we enjoy each other’s company, especially in the context of this game we came together to play! I’m not saying to never ban classes, races, features of play, etc. For the record neither am I some god-tier GM; I’m still a beginner. But consider, just for a moment, that thing on the other side of the GM screen is a person, a person you may actually care about, who is impacted by your decisions in the game. If you want to bypass GM Tunnel Vision, consider making additional decisions that positively impact the player’s enjoyment or experience at the game. It’s just a simple exercise in empathy. It may not have much of an impact on your decisions to begin with! But in this mindset, you’ll at the very least be aware of what your players are thinking and how they’re reacting internally.

What’s the worst that could happen?