When I played my first two actual RPG sessions in 2013, the GM treated me in a bit... peculiar way.

  • The first session was in Prehistoryk. (For context: it's an RPG system where all PCs are hunter-gatherers, and have to distribute 10 points between Strength and Intelligence - the former is the stat used in literally all rolls, while the latter is the number of words your character can speak (or, in some variants, understand), aside from their name. This means that players communicate with the GM almost exclusively through grunts and gesticulation, so all game-related communication takes longer, is difficult and has a chance of failing.) We were going through a mountainous region and didn't know where to go next. I decided to have my character climb onto another character to scout the surroundings. After some time, I managed to communicate that to GM and he told us where to go next. We decided to move on, and GM told us that we arrived at a top of cliff and announced that since my character didn't announce that he climbed down from the other character, he - precisely at the edge of the cliff, not earlier - falls down the character, down the cliff, and *dice roll* dies.

  • The second session was in Gone with the Blastwave RPG. We started waking up in our camp at the top of a skyscraper in a war zone. My character tried to get down to the streets, but GM said that the door wouldn't move. I asked him why the door didn't move - he refused to provide details. Then I made an argument that since our characters probably barricaded the door, my character should probably know how the door was barricaded, particularly since I was the scout of the group - he refuse to provide details. I said I disassembled the barricade, but GM refuted that I need to be more specific. I then made my character pry open the door with a crowbar, which resulted in part of the board that clearly and visibly was blocking the door to splinter of, hit my character in the face, and take out 10% of my HP. The point here is - even with me, the player, having practically zero knowledge about the task, my character still managed to do it in the most counter-intuitive, nonsense way possible.

Is there a term for such gaming style, where the GM assumes that the character does any suicidal, nonsense action unless the player speaks directly about performing minor, common sense actions?

EDIT: As KRyan points out in the comments, this style is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite my poor personal experience, it would be a good fit for some systems/settings/campaigns, like Paranoia as a whole or a campaign of Maid RPG centered around constant risk of committing faux pas.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So everyone is giving in to the understandable temptation to discuss the merits of this. But the question is "is there a name for this." Answer the question. Related issues can be discussed in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Nov 8, 2016 at 13:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ OK, I'm closing this for now because it's become a big opinion-fest and is drawing a load of flags. The examples are indeed of games that are more "this way", and wishing they weren't would seem to go against what the OP is wanting from this question. Also, no one seems able to answer what should be a terminology or history-of-gaming question and identify if there's a known named genre/methodology at work here and are just resorting to either insults or making up terms. None of that is relevant or helpful. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Nov 8, 2016 at 18:31

5 Answers 5


I'd call this "fail-dangerous", as in, the opposite of "fail-safe". A fail-safe style would be to assume that your characters will, in absence of evidence to the contrary, preserve their own lives in simple and obvious ways. What you have is that, in absence of evidence to the contrary, your characters are stupid, and will die - which means that the players have to protect and guide them. (Sounds like some video games I know.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a very clever neologism that quickly and humorously conveys the right message. I love it. Now the question is: how in the hell do I translate that to Polish...? (Also, funnily enough, when I came back to read the answer, yours - the best one - was at the bottom, while the one I thought was the worst was at the top by a far margin.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Dragomok
    Nov 8, 2016 at 19:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Variation on the same idea: the term "fail-deadly" is used in nuclear war strategy to describe systems that are designed to launch come hell or high water, given that some condition is met. Think of the Soviet doomsday device in Dr Strangelove. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fail-deadly \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10, 2016 at 13:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Fail-safe" is a well-known term, @KorvinStarmast; "fail-dangerous" isn't as well-known, but I didn't invent it. \$\endgroup\$
    – rosuav
    Nov 15, 2016 at 3:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rosuav If you could then expand on the terms it might help flesh out the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2016 at 3:44

The root cause here appears that the GM is taking player agency away. Either no information or obfuscation of information in one case and die roll only when convenient for the GM in the other.

I would call this behaviour bullying.

If this were common behaviour from said GM, I would stop playing with them. Life is too short to waste time. Talking to said GM would of course be a first step.


You have labeled this "system agnostic" - it isn't. Both of the RPGs you named are deliberately screw with the players style.

Communication frustration is deliberately baked into the player choice between strength and intelligence in Prehistork. Gone with the Blastwave is based on a web-comic which is about a crazy post-apocalyptic world at war: this strip gives the protagonist a choice between an underground river with 3 waterfalls and something that eats peoples legs, an elevator that runs through a ghoul spider lair or staying where they are and being turned into scarecrows.

It seems that the GMs were successfully channeling the style of the games.

As for the name, it's pixel bitching.

It's where the only way of advancing the story is to find one small and well-hidden clue. Its origins are in those pointy-clicky adventure games that were big in the 90s, which were fun up until the point where you were stuck because you couldn't find the right microscopic cluster of pixels to click on.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree here because player agency is taken away. To quote OP: "he (GM) refused to provide details" in the second example. This is not presenting three bad choices, it is taking player agency away from them. The first example is just silly: there should have been a strength roll from the carrier before getting to the cliff. Again, it is taking player agency away. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2016 at 10:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe: If the comic strip had a situation with "No, the lift doesn't work!", no further information, and then having one of the characters looking to see what was wrong - no visible problem in that comic panel. So they push the button to call the lift - suddenly the character is electrocuted, there are dangling wires and a big "DANGER!" sign in the next panel. This would read closer to the OP's tale. I think closer to: OP's GM is channeling Road Runner (and PCs are taking role of Wile E. Coyote) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2016 at 13:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion I have played in games like that. You adapt your play to fit the table, or, if it just isn't working for you, leave the table. Played in Plenty of old school games like this where you needed to really be detailed ... I disagree that this is a "player agency" removal. What it does is require something more from the players, a lot more, than a lot of the current RPG community usually does because it's a game style issue. That style can be fun, but it can also be frustrating. There's a fine line. If one is used to a different style a game like this can be hard to adapt to. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2016 at 18:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ You raise a good point, but I'm not sure if "pixel bitching" is the right term here - in both sessions the plot progressed all by itself. Plus, "pixel bitching" is about not doing the one specific right thing, while my question is about not doing a completely non-specific thing right. (This is the second time the second example muddles thing up.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Dragomok
    Nov 8, 2016 at 19:38

Two things your GM demonstrated in the examples provided actually differ.

The first one can be called "a literal interpretation". You said you climbed on your friend's shoulders, you didn't say you descended down - that means you are still on your friend's shoulders.

The GM will interpret the announced action the way it was described, regardless of how dangerous or ridiculous it was. Try to be as less ambiguous as possible, and always ask the GM for more details if the situation is unclear.

It isn't a bad thing on its own, but it should be accompanied with the gamemaster neutrality. Good GM should ask for more details as well, like "describe, how exactly do you do this". If the GM always interpret an unclear description in a idiotic way, it's a bad sign.

The second one is about not providing essential details. The GM didn't say if that was your character who built the barricade (a thing the character definitely should know), ignoring your direct question. Such an attitude is quite bad and should be avoided by gamemasters. I can't find particular name for this "gaming style", since it's not a style, just a bad gaming.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You have a point here - in the second example, the part about GM not giving enough details overshadows the part about my character doing the thing I, the player, don't have enough information about, in probably the most dangerous and counter-intuitive way. I'll think about rephrasing that part later. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dragomok
    Nov 8, 2016 at 19:31

This reads like a text adventure style of GMing.

In old-school text adventures, your character does whatever the engine interprets your request as doing.

If the request does not exactly match what the programmer planned you to say, it doesn't work.

If the information asked for does not exactly match what the programmer planned the game to tell the player, it doesn't work.

When you try to do things, the programmer picks an arbitrary response. It could be good or horrible, there is no way to predict.

When you change state (pick something up, put your hand in your pocket, etc), they will sometimes go back to normal for no reason, and other times will persist irrationally. Querying if you are in a strange state is generally not possible, until consequences occur. Trying to undo your state change requires precise wording, and if you get it wrong the engine simply ignores you.

These text adventures are usually antagonistic, pedantic, and inflexible. They are usually fail-often, in that you are expected to try, die, then restart with the knowledge of what you did wrong. Usually there is some silly action you had to have taken at the start of the adventure that, at the very end, if you did not do, you fail the adventure without any possibility of avoidance.

To beat these adventures, you literally need to read the programmer's mind, or repeatedly fail in attempts to figure out what the programmer wants.

I would dub this antagonistic style, and text-adventure or read-DM's-mind substyle.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Or maybe Sierra-like, since Sierra adventure games are the poster child of this. (Although IIRC later ones have point'n'click controls.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Dragomok
    Nov 8, 2016 at 19:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dragomok They where text adventures with a thin GUI. I'm not about to call a tile-based world-conquest game centered around cities a "civilization-like" game, or a dungeon-crawl from-above with shrines "diablo-like", or a RTS where you start with a small base and gather resources to build an army "starcraft-like"; empire, nethack, and Dune 2 instead. Now get off my lawn. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Nov 8, 2016 at 19:41

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