When A Game Master Or Roleplay Admin Might Be Power-Tripping - And What To Do About It
Power-tripping admins and game masters are one of those things that you're bound to run into sooner or later. You may have even run into one or a few yourself already. (And they're also one of those things that we're bound to become ourselves if we're not careful!) So here are some signs and symptoms you can watch out for in others and yourself, and what you might do if you run into problems with a power-tripping game master or admin.
Table of Contents
- Why a game master or roleplay admin might be power-tripping
- The warning signs to look out for
- Things that are not power-tripping
- What to do if you suspect your GM/RPA is power-tripping
- In summary!
Why a game master or roleplay admin might be power-tripping
First, it's important to understand why game masters and admins end up power-tripping. Most power-tripping game masters/admins aren't actually the nightmarish control freaks we hear about; in fact, many of them start out quite reasonable and and slip into power-tripping behavior over time.
Here are a few reasons some GM/RPAs end up power-tripping:
Some GM/RPAs power-trip with the best of intentions - they don't always realize that what they're doing qualifies as power-tripping; as far as they're concerned, they might just be trying to keep the game on track or keep the peace. These ones can sometimes be reasoned with and brought to understand that what they're doing is hurting the game and spoiling the fun.
Sometimes GM/RPAs get tired or stressed for some reason or another, which can make it hard for them to stay patient and objective. These GM/RPAs need to take a break and look after themselves for awhile, maybe spend some time on a relaxing activity that isn't roleplaying.
Some GM/RPAs get too attached to a game working out one specific way - and when it doesn't, they basically go into panic mode and start flailing around trying to put everything back how they originally imagined it. These ones need to understand that RP is chaotic and unpredictable, and that trying to control it too much will just annoy and drive off their players - and that the best way to go about it is to roll with the waves and let things happen, so long as they don't make the game unplayable.
Sometimes, you do just have a case where a GM/RPA is running the game as a personal ego-stroking parlor - in which case, just run away and don't look back.
The warning signs to look out for
Quick Note: FO stands for "Favored One." FOs are often allowed to break or stretch the rules where others aren't, have extra say in where the plot goes, and are often considered above criticism. FOs are often close to GMs/admins - being their close friends, partners, family, or the players of the other halves of their ships etc. (However, being the GM/RPA's close friend, partner, family, or shipping partner does not necessarily make one a Favored One!)
The GM/RPA bans/ejects players with no warning for "offenses" that are neither obvious roleplaying etiquette nor are stated in the community's rules. For example, roleplayer Shanna comes into a fandom-based roleplay chat as an OC child of a canon character. Although the rules of the chat never stated that OC children were not allowed, the GM, who doesn't want OC children in the game, immediately bans her from the chat instead of explaining things to her and giving her a chance to choose another character.
The GM/RPA instates sweeping rules without consulting the other players. As an RP group progresses and develops, it often happens that new rules will have to be added to the group's charter to keep things running smoothly. A good GM/RPA will discuss any new additions that will likely affect the players and/or their characters (or the types of characters they can play) with the group first so as to try to make sure the rules accommodate for what the majority of the group actually wants. A GM/RPA who just adds new rules that will have massive impact on the game or on the conduct of the players in some way without consulting them first is likely power-tripping.
The GM/RPA cannot tolerate dissent. Members who disagree with the GM/RPA's actions and policies, no matter how minor their disagreement is, risk being upbraided or even banned from the group. This may be accompanied by stuff along the lines of "Well, I'm the GM/RPA, so what I say goes!" or "Excuse me, which one of us is the GM/RPA here?"
The GM/RPA pulls rank to favor xir own characters, or the characters of the GM/RPA's FOs. The GM/RPA creates or contrives a setting/storyline that gives power, authority, and nice things in general to xir own characters or to the characters of xir FOs, even when it makes no sense in-universe, or puts other players' characters at a severe disadvantage of some kind, or leaves their characters with next to nothing to do. When other players point out the unfairness of the situation, the GM/RPA plays the "Well, I'm the GM/RPA and you're not, so what I say goes!" card.
The GM/RPA tries to railroad the plot by disregarding player choice. The GM/RPA constantly tries to force the plotline, whether through in-universe contrivances ("You can't escape; the door is magically sealed shut and none of your spells are powerful enough to break the enchantment!") or through fiats ("You can either play the game this way, or you can leave."). No matter how obvious or well-planned the solutions the players come up with are, the GM/RPA shuts them down, refusing to let them deviate from a single pre-planned plotline or from whatever the GM/RPA's whims are at the time.
The only characters allowed to participate in major plots, or do anything that matters or changes the status quo, are those played by the GM/RPA and the GM/RPA's FOs. Only the GM/RPA's characters and the characters of the GM/RPA's FOs get to do anything that actually affects the plot and/or setting. In some cases, other people's characters get snubbed, scorned, and shoved off to the sidelines by the GM/RPA's and FOs' characters, or all of their efforts fail for one reason or another. Sometimes, the plot is set someplace that the other characters have no way to access. And sometimes, they're just told outright to butt out of the plot. Roleplayers who don't want other people's characters interfering with their plots should start a private roleplay.
The GM/RPA's characters are allowed to hurt others, but nobody can hurt the GM/RPA's characters. For example, the GM/RPA has a character who has hurt or even killed other characters or their loved ones, trashed their homes and hangouts, and has generally made life difficult for them in a myriad of ways. But should the players decide to beat the crap out of this unsavory character, the GM/RPA will make sure that their attacks never do any serious damage and/or that the character always gets away at the last minute. Making one's characters untouchable like this is usually a way of projecting one's ego and flexing one's muscle.
The GM/RPA makes little to no effort to assist or play backup to anyone else's characters, but expects everyone else to assist or play backup to xir own. For example, character Todd wants to check out the spooky house at the end of the cul-de-sac and look for ghosts, and invites along the GM/RPA's character, Trish. Trish immediately says that she wants to search the library to find an old spell, and that he can come help her. Trish gives him no room for compromise (EG, flip a coin or plan to visit one after the other) - so Todd can either do things Trish's way, or do nothing at all.
The GM/RPA plans grand, epic adventures but doesn't give anyone else any creative input, doesn't give players any room to take the story in directions of their choosing, or expects the players to play these adventures out exactly as imagined. The point of having players is to give them creative input and let them make their own choices that take the story where they choose. Otherwise, the GM/RPA should look into writing collaborative fiction.
The GM/RPA refuses to accept any responsibility and pins all the blame on others. This is a big one. Any time things aren't going according to the GM/RPA's vision or whims, the GM/RPA takes the default position that the players are solely to blame. While this is sometimes the case, most often the GM/RPA is at least partly responsible. If players are complaining about the game being boring or unfair, odds are good that it is. If players keep trying to do things that the GM/RPA doesn't want, it's usually either because the GM/RPA is trying too hard to control the plot, or because the GM/RPA didn't present them with enough that they actually could do. And very, very often, the GM/RPA did not explain the rules of the game or its universe well enough, which lead to all of its players having different and incompatible views on how it should be played.
Things that are not power-tripping
Of course, not every act of exercising authority on the part of the GM/RPA is an act of tyranny! For counterpoint, here are a few things that are not power-tripping.
Enforcing rules that apply equally to everyone. Refusing to let one player bend or break the rules is not power-tripping. People who thinks that the GM/RPA should make special exemptions for them or their characters need to consider that they're trying to get into the wrong game. Likewise, it's not power-tripping to kick out a player who continues to break the community's rules despite having been issued warnings.
Kicking out a player who doesn't actually want to play the type of game that's being played. Removing a player who does nothing but complain about the way the game is being played or tries to use in-character actions to force the game in a different direction, even though the game is currently being played the way the charter states it's supposed to be played, is not power-tripping. For example, if the game is explicitly an action/adventure game but a player keeps complaining about how it's "too violent" or keeps trying to turn it into a fluff-filled snugglefest, the GM/RPA has the right to remove that player.
Kicking out a player who behaves inappropriately. GM/RPAs are well within their rights to kick out anyone who harasses or flames other players, constantly brings up uncomfortable or inflammatory subjects, or acts like a jackass in general.
Overruling and vetoing ideas that flat-out don't fit the setting or how it's supposed to work, or don't fit the spirit of the game, or might unbalance the game. For example, vetoing a catgirl princess in a game that's supposed to be about rural werewolves and vampires, vetoing Q as a playable character in a Star Trek game, or vetoing characters with certain superpower combinations that would make them able to do just about anything with little to no difficulty.
Demanding some basic effort on the part of the players. Like requiring them to give their characters sensible backstories and legitimate reasons for being wherever the game takes place, or asking them to be proactive enough to take the initiative to talk to other people's characters, or requiring them to read the rules.
Putting a discussion on hold because the GM/RPA does not have the energy to handle it at the moment. Looking after one's personal needs is not power-tripping. (However, continually putting it off or always finding reasons not to discuss it often indicates that the GM/RPA just doesn't want to face the issue - not a good sign.)
What to do if you suspect your GM/RPA is power-tripping
First off, don't say "I think you're power-tripping" or similar. This is very likely going to be met with indignation and denial, and the GM/RPA will probably be unreceptive to whatever you say afterward. (And remember, power-tripping GM/RPAs are still humans who deal with human problems, and many of them are just trying to do the best they can, so it's good to try to be as polite as you can.)
Instead, take a step back and think about what you want from the game, compared to what you're actually getting from it. (If you're having trouble putting your finger on what exactly the problem is, take a look at Basic Advice For Giving Useful Feedback To Creators.) Now, think about what might be done to fix the problem - and preferably, think of more than one possible solution if you can. Also, be willing to compromise and consider other people's solutions - if you're not the only player in the game, everyone else's wants will need to be considered, too.
Now, let's say that the problem is that your GM/RPA has been playing an untouchable antagonist who has been harrying the player characters, but none of the player characters have been allowed to retaliate. You might begin by saying something along the lines of:
"Hey, [GM/RPA's name], can we talk? I have a concern with the way the game is going right now."
Once you've gotten the GM/RPA's attention, you might follow it with something like:
"I notice that whenever your bad guy comes up against our characters, he beats us up right and left. But before any of us can get in a good hit, you have him run away and rule that all of our shots miss. I find it this frustrating, and it feels pointless fighting a bad guy I know we'll never actually beat. Maybe if you don't want him killed off, you could use a character who's more disposable instead?"
Now, notice what the sample message does and does not do:
- It does lay out the problem clearly and succinctly, with no exaggeration or hyperbole.
- It doesn't insult the GM/RPA, or call the GM/RPA mean, unfair, or similar.
- It doesn't describe the problems in vague and subjective phrases like "the game isn't fair!" that don't actually tell the GM/RPA what the problem is.
- It does offer a potential solution.
Hopefully this will get a discussion started, and you and the GM/RPA can work something out together. (And there might be some compromise involved.) And remember, any GM/RPA who flat-out refuses to discuss your concerns with you, gets mad or sarcastic when you calmly and courteously explain how you feel, tries to make you feel like you're wrong or mean for voicing your concerns, mocks you, or shuts you down by pulling rank is not a good GM/RPA - or at the very least is not in a good frame of mind for being a good GM/RPA right now.
If the GM/RPA explodes on you, stay calm and try to remain reasonable. Let the GM know that you're not trying to start a fight - you're just having some difficulty with the game and you'd like to see if that could be helped in some way. If the GM/RPA cites real-life or personal problems that are making things hard right now, you might say "If you aren't up to talking about this right now, I understand - but we do need to talk about this and figure something out, so we can do this when you're feeling better. I'm not angry at you; I just want to discuss this with you." In any case, if the GM/RPA persists being rude or tries to guilt trip you or make you feel sorry for xir, you have the right to politely disengage. You came to make your concerns known and to negotiate, not to get wrapped up in a fight or to get conscripted as an ego massager.
Remember that it's the GM/RPA's job to at least try to make sure that everyone in the game is having fun. Sure, it won't be possible all the time - not every game can be for everyone - but a GM/RPA who refuses to even try is not a GM/RPA you want to play with.
- There are many reasons that GM/RPAs end up power-tripping. Sometimes it happens because they're just trying to keep their games orderly and don't realize they've gone too far. Sometimes it happens because they're stressed out and don't have the patience to deal with things in a more even-handed manner. Sometimes they get so attached to their creative visions that they forget they need to give other people wiggle room, too. And sometimes, they're just selfish and petty.
- A GM/RPA who does any combination of forcing the plot xir own way, setting players up for failure, playing with double-standards, snubbing or excluding players, changing rules on a whim, kicking players out for violating rules they never even knew they broke, pulling rank, and/or blaming everyone else when things go wrong is probably power-tripping.
- Not every executive action is power-tripping - there are plenty of legitimate reasons for a GM/RPA to take action or put xir foot down, too. Just because something is inconveniencing or requires one to work a little harder than originally expected doesn't make it power-tripping.
- If you bring your problems with a roleplay up, be polite. Lay out your problem clearly and suggest a possible solution (or more). Stay calm and polite, even if your GM/RPA doesn't. If your GM/RPA is stressed, let the GM/RPA know you can talk about this when xe is feeling better, and that you're not angry. If your GM/RPA keeps belitting or ragging on you or tries to throw a pity party or lay a guilt trip, you have the right to politely disengage.
Other pages you should look at:
Starting & Running Roleplays & Bringing In New Players
Beginner Tips For Entering A Roleplaying Community
Right & Wrong Questions To Ask A Roleplaying Community
How To Recognize A Moral Abuser
How To Recognize Gaslighting