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So I got a group of friends in high school and were all nerds but with no way to play together. Not all of us had a computer or console. We found someone who claims to have a lot of experience as a DM, and I have to admit he's pretty good.

Here's the problem though. He believes that since he's played the game for the longest time (most of us are just starting out), he is in absolute charge of the game.

For example, he makes specific rules targeting classes we would like to play, and he forces us to go down paths so he can advance a story plot he's been making when we just want to go kill some bandits (we end up searching for orcs in a forest to being champions of a ancient dragon who gave us "billions of gold" in three 2-hour sessions).

But the main thing I am concerned about is the fact that he thinks as a punishment he can take away XP from the players. The type of game I (and potentially some of the other group members) want to play is sort of laid back, like MUNCHKIN or Paranoia. But he insists that we shouldn't make fun conversations or go off on tangents about jokes. If we do this type of thing at the table, I either get kicked out (by his order) or I lose hundreds of XP.

Is this kind of behaviour from our DM inappropriate?

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9 Answers 9

The GM taking away XP is not really your core problem. Your core problem is the game you want to play as a group is not the game he wants to run. The solution is simple - go find a GM who does want to run that kind of game, or have one of you GM (or take turns GMing) to run that game.

Regardless of how "good" of a GM he is, he's not the GM that's good for you. Whereas, even if one of you is a "bad" GM to start, you're all interested in the same kind of game (same kind of fun) so you can work together to get those skills up with a little practice.

If you do end up looking for new GMs, you can lay out the kind of games you're looking to play and cut out a lot of drama, misunderstanding and miscommunication up front.

At no point during a voluntary activity for fun should people be punishing each other. If everyone is playing with good intent, misunderstandings clear up pretty easy with the most minimal discussion.

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+1 for link to the same page tool. –  Philipp Jan 31 at 14:32
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So, it's like "Whatever GM says, goes. If he says things his players does not like, his players goes."? –  Mołot Jan 31 at 15:00
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It's not the first time this has been said, but wow, this succinctly answers SO many questions we've had on this site over the years about problem GMs. Well put. Should we add a link to this answer in the tag wiki of problem-gm? –  dpatchery Jan 31 at 16:28
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@Mołot Pretty much. Roleplaying is a voluntary activity, and no gaming is better than bad gaming. A mismatched GM and player group shouldn't try to stay together; they're just making it take longer to find better matches for themselves. –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 at 16:30
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@TimothyAWiseman Yeah, it's definitely overly simplified. As a truism (which are always overly simplified for clarity), I do like Mołot's formulation though. For people who haven't had it occur to them that walking is a legit option, it's got nice symmetry. I know GMs who could use hearing it! By endorsing it, I by no means think that it's always that simple though. :) –  SevenSidedDie Jan 31 at 17:07

Punishment ... wait ... what!?

RPG are supposed to be fun. From what is said, the games the GM wants to run and the one the players want to play are different. So, have a assertive conversation with your GM and agree on a game that you all want to play. Be careful to never criticise your GM personally, only things he has done. So never say

BAD Your taking XP is lame. Stop doing it! BAD

but something like

Better Your rule of taking XP away rail roads the game into one direction and we feel that this takes away our freedom as players thus making the game less enjoyable. What are you actually trying to achieve with this rule?

If you cannot, that is fine too! Just split up and do other things. The idea of a social contract for RPG has a lot of literature. I suggest you look it up. BESW suggested The Same Page Tool and I can add my support to it. It's a little more formal than what I do, but that is no bad thing.

On a side note, there are hints of possible bullying going on in how you phrase some things. Clearly, bullying is wrong and you should never stand for it. However, it might be more than your GM has an expansive personality and might be horrified at being perceived as a bully.

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"Punishment ... wait ... what!?" would get a +1 just on its own. I do however remember many early RPG games where I was a player, or the DM, in similar scenarios, as we struggled to figure out just what it was that we were playing. –  Neil Slater Jan 31 at 8:41
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Using XP as punishment for violating mutually agreed upon rules is fair, I think, if nothing else works. (The game where XP is that crucial scares me, though.) As a general tool to keep players in line, not so great. –  Raphael Feb 2 at 14:01

Docking XP isn't always bad, but here it indicates a problem

I have played with DMs who will dock XP for breaking the social contract of the game—how we're all going to play together, why, and in what style. However, this only works when there is an existing group that knows how the group is supposed to play together, and the XP docking is there to enforce (and make obvious) the social contract to new players. It's an old and crude way of communicating social contract, but it's an effective way to filter out players that don't belong in the group.

But here's where this is useful to you: you are running into the "maybe you don't belong in this group" filter. All of you are. But the DM is in the minority, so it just means that his idea of how to play the game does not match the group. The only way forward is for everyone to settle on a shared understanding of why you're there and what you're going to do, or to part ways.

So to plainly answer your first question, yes, this behaviour is inappropriate from the DM in this circumstance. It's not always inappropriate, but here it doesn't suit the situation at all. The DM probably doesn't even know that either; it's probably always more-or-less worked for him and his past groups, and he likely hasn't thought deeply about the possibility that it might not always work well.

Fixing the problem

There are two ways to go about fixing the problem: asking him to change the kind of game he runs; or bailing on him and forming your own group with one of you as DM. Fortunately, you can try both: ask first, bail if necessary.

1. Ask him to change

The first step is to talk to him.

We appreciate the effort, but we're not interested in that kind of game. We want a beer & pretzels kind of dungeoncrawl where we can smash things and get loot and have freewheeling fun. We don't want to be dragged into plotlines we're not interested in. If this game was a book, we'd be putting it down and returning it to the library.

But since it's a shared game, I wanted to talk to you first before bailing, maybe we can compromise. If you're not interested in running a more kick-in-the-door game, then that's cool, but we're not the group for you. If you are, then let's talk about what's important to you and what's important to us and see if we can do both and have everyone happy with it.

I predict that he won't be interested in the kind of game you want, because what you've described of your tastes and about his game so far, those are playstyles that are pretty much opposite; but trying is worthwhile.

2. Form your own group

So if the group splits up? You all know what kind of game you want. You've got your introduction to the game, and you are perfectly prepared to do it on your own now. This is actually how most people learn to DM—play a game with someone, lose the group for some reason, and then take up the DM's chair to get your roleplaying fix again.

DMing isn't actually that hard, especially when you have a really good grip on the kind of game you want. One of you could start DMing for the group; I bet you'd all have a lot of fun.

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+1 but I would add a small addendum to the 1st part of your answer; there are times when for the sake of a particular encounter/session (whatever) it may be necessary to enforce a "no OoC talk". When things are happening fast and you don't want the players to reveal stuff OoC to others..Granted this is very limited but I've been in 2 situations (as player) where it was used and understood it's purpose. –  Ben-Jamin Feb 26 at 19:32

There are 2 types of GM's in my experience. It seems your GM is the type that wants to tell a story an you WILL be the method of the telling. I know one group that was ok with this and went on for a very long time. They enjoyed it. But.... It seems that you want the other type of GM that lets the players dictate the story.

My suggestion, first try to get your GM to understand, in a very nice way, that you aren't going to be his pawns and that you aren't having fun. If that doesn't seem to fix it, get a new GM if you aren't having fun.

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I have been my groups DM for the last 8 years, and i Know it is hard to find someone who is dedicated to running a game, it is hours of hard work. However, your DM seems to be out of line. He might be in charge of the world and the main plot points, but you (the players) are in charge of the stories main characters. Making your characters decisions is not in his power. That defeats the purpose of the game. Taking away xp is a rule that your group makes as a whole, not him alone (but that is an odd way of punishing you). Off topic jokes and conversations are inevitable, and your DM needs to understand that. You should discuss your concerns with your DM. If he does not change or dismisses you it is time to find a new DM.

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I think there is a maturity issue at play here. You said that you are all in high school, right? It has been my experience that people in high school aren't always the best at working well with others. In this case it seems that our DM wants the game to unfold a certain way regardless of how you feel as players. Definitely check out the Same Page tool linked by the other answers, but also consider the following:

You seem to have an idea of how a game should be run, maybe you should try your hand at running a game of your own.

As a person who wanted to play Table Top RPGs but couldn't find a DM, I was forced into being a DM for some friends who were also interested in role playing. I started much like your DM, I had a story and I stuck to it (though I never docked XP, or kicked people out for joking around, the game is supposed to be fun!). I only put clues in the game that would lead to one out come. For example, the tavern keeper only heard one rumor going around town, and anyone else in the town only knew of that one thing.

I am now a few years into DMing and I wouldn't ever do that style of game again. The looks on my players faces when I work in their characters' stories into a game that leads to meaningful development for them is priceless. The job of a DM is to make sure the players have a good time.

Now, if this guy is a good friend then he should be able to take some criticism and respect that you aren't enjoying his DM style. Be honest and kind, but firm when you talk to him about this.

A few tips I can suggest for him would be:

  • Ease up on the anti-joke rule. A few jokes back and forth make for a fun relaxed game (however if the jokes stray from the originating incident, or go on for more than a minute, it is time to reign it in).
  • It's ok to want the players to go a certain place in the end, but they need to find their own way there. Instead of saying "Ok now your characters travel to candy mountain after getting directions from the magical leoploridon" he should entice the characters to go there through rumors of powerful magical artifacts and treasure.
  • Instead of docking you XP you already have, I would suggest that the worst thing that should happen IF the players get too out of control, is that the players do not receive the XP for that particular night.

Good luck sorting this out and don't let it ruin how you view these kinds of games.

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Fundamental Analysis

The fundamental problem appears to be that he's an old-school GM who also railroads.

The Old School GM

In the dark days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1E, the gamemaster had absolute granted authority - including an explicit permission to alter the rules on a whim. The rules explicitly provided for various means of doing things, but the introduction chapter of the DMG told the GM that he could ignore any rule he wanted.

It was explicit in AD&D1E that playing "out of character" was worthy of a 10% experience penalty on newly earned experience. Nothing but the introduction would allow for taking away already recorded experience on a whim, however. That being said, GM's who wished to do so could point to that introduction, and feel justified in doing so.

Further, several monster types caused damage in level drains - which was, in essence, a more legitimate way of taking away XP.

The Railroad Issue

Several styles of GM occur within the Old-School context. Those who railroad, when accompanied with the Old-School attitude of "I get to tweak whatever I want," generally results in a game style that feels constrained to players.

Further, it typically is a long-term issue - it won't go away quickly, easily, nor pleasantly. Those GM's who make it work often are excellent story-tellers, but often lacking in practical social skills. Often, they only start to realize it is a problem when the players start to bail from their games.

And, as apparently is the case, the GM has a fixed story in mind, and the players are not actually important to him. In such cases, it may indicate some deeper psychological issues.

The Concept Character Issue

Many Old-School GM's reject the idea of allowing "Concept Characters" - that is, a character built to match some pre-extant concept - and so many Old-School GM's feel no compunctions at all about ignoring what the players want in their character. Not too many of them, however, conceal this - if the GM requires random rolls in order, it's a pretty good indicator they expect/require playing what you get, not building what you want.

The Bottom Line

It's not a violation of the Old-School rules of AD&D1E, but it's certainly not good GMing.

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I'm going to reiterate what's already been said - nearly every specific example given in your initial question raises red flags, and calls me back to my own, terrible, high school first GM.

This guy comes across as power-tripping, railroading, and pretty much the GM from hell. Don't game with this guy.

I have gamed with a lot of people. I run at conventions. I play with lots of people who've never played before and people who've played the same game for twenty years.

You have just perfectly described a very specific sort of player and GM who is unfortunately vastly common in the roleplaying community. I'm not sure exactly why. But they feel that games should happen in a very specific fashion - in order to enforce that, they often end up as the GM. They prefer to claim more experience or skill if they feel they can get away with it in order to do so - they typically state how many 'years' they have been playing a specific system whenever they can.

They are absolute poison to a roleplaying group. Even as a player, they tend to nitpick, try to get extra advantage mechanically, lie to new/inexperienced players about game mechanics or the 'correct' way to do things, and so forth. I have never found any player or GM so disruptive to the idea of a fun game as this sort of person.

I might be wrong, i'm basing this on a short description, but my advice/answer would be: Don't game with this guy. Take your friends, start another game. Maybe this same game but with a different GM and without this guy. It's not hard to run games once you realize the players are the main characters, and you are there to provide enemies and allies and comedic relief. Give it a go yourself - you might find you like it.

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In some circumstances, meta rule penalties could be bestowed on a character by the GM for breaking the contract of the game. It's got to be fun for everyone, remember, and it is the GM's duty to ensure that the right balance is struck.

The best example is a game I ran many years ago where a player decided to run an ultra-pious cleric, obsessed with the orthodoxy of his religion. However as time went on it became clear that the player didn't really want his character to behave this way when it was inconvenient to do so.

The other players, and I, all felt this went against the spirit of how we all understood the character should behave, and spoiled the suspension of disbelief. So I docked him XP when he did things that were in clear and obvious breach of the tenets of his religion. Eventually he decided he didn't like that restriction on his decisions and chose to roll a new character - everyone was happy with the resolution.

This is categorically not the same as punishing a player because they did something destructive or, worse, made a decision that stopped the GM's railroading. That's not acceptable in my opinion. It sounds like this guy is enjoying the power trip of running a game a little too much, and abusing his authority.

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