Here's how this play style works, when to use it, and how to learn to administer it.
If you’ve read me for a while, it’s not hard to figure out where I stand when it comes to cooperative vs. competitive roleplaying games. I’m all about creating and telling a great story nowadays.
But there’s a lid for every pot, and long ago my pot was shaped differently. When I first got involved in tabletop gaming and video games, I found my bliss in competitive gaming, working against a game’s creator.
In roleplaying games, players can either cooperate with their gamemaster (GM) to tell a story, or the GM can do their best to stymie or even kill the players’ characters. One kind of competitive gaming has players competing against each other—your Call of Duty or Overwatch, for example. But I want to talk about the more traditional tabletop and video games in which players contend against the gamemaster, and both sides of the GM’s screen have an important role to play.
GM: Gamemaster, the person running the game for the players. Also sometimes called Dungeon Master (DM) or many other similar terms.
PC: Player character, a character in a game that is controlled by a human. An NPC, or non-player character, is controlled by the GM or by computer code.
Tabletop (TT): Game played on an actual flat surface in the real world, with dice, pens/pencils, and resource books at the ready. (The books might be PDFs and a phone app might substitute for the dice, but it still involves real people sitting together to play.)
MUD: Multi-user domain/dungeon. Sort of like World of Warcraft, but it only uses text and typed commands. Individual self-contained adventure modules in MUDs are called areas, while the components of the area are called rooms. A room can be an actual room in a building, yes, but it can also be the northwest end of a grassy field area, an undersea courtyard in an underwater city area, or even one particular hamster cage in a pet shop area. The MUD’s code numbers each room, assigns monsters to them, and keeps track of which players are in and around them.
Roll: Always in the sense of dice rather than wheels.
Grind: Doing something repeatedly to get a specific reward.
Progression: Moving toward rewards and the completion of ingame goals. Often part of a formally-coded cycle.
Competitive gaming: The Day of the Kentucky-Fried Aarakocra
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I joined my very first tabletop gaming group. Gamemaster Steve was quite a handful. Imaginative, clever, and very mechanical-minded, he took a competitive approach to gaming, creating games full of pitfalls, traps, and difficult engagements. Our job as the players was to get through them using our ingame resources and our wits.
For a while, Steve ran a game where the players all took nonhuman PCs. My PC was a lizardman. My younger sister ran an aarakocra, a sort of bird-person. The others in the party ran similar characters. It was quite an interesting change of pace!
At one point, the party entered a room that was very clearly a trap.
But it also contained very little to clue us in to what the trap might be, much less how to deactivate or survive it.
Poor Steve. He thought we would figure this out in a few minutes. He thought he’d given us more than ample clues to work it out. But it ended up taking us literal hours of back-and-forth. Alas, our GM was not built for patient waiting. In the end, it was more guesswork than intuition that guided us to a solution, which only annoyed Steve more.
Eventually, all of us decided to stand in a particular place near a big red button on a pillar—except for my sister’s aarakocra. She didn’t agree with our proposed solution, and she refused to go along with the consensus. So when we pushed the big red button, a shield sprang up around us like a dome. A split second later, white-hot flames gutted everything outside the shielding dome, including my sister’s character.
She got to roll up a new character. The rest of us got a funny story to tell. And Steve began bouncing around the room gesturing wildly in suddenly-relieved tension, howling all the while about how outraged he was that we could possibly have missed all those clues.
When to use competitive gaming
There’s nothing wrong with competitive-style gaming. Millions of people who love Rogue-like video games can attest to that. So can people who like hack-and-slash tabletop games like Hackmaster and the hundreds of video games in the Mario franchise. One of my favorite video games ever is Final Fantasy I. Yes, really. I find its progression cycle relaxing and rewarding.
When players want to just run around and kill things or solve puzzles, competitive gaming styles will scratch that itch. All they need is a good setting and a coherent reason to do it, but sometimes they don’t even care about that. I’ve seen games with passionate playerbases that completely lacked any kind of good background story.
For GMs, preparing this kind of game can take as much or as little time as they please. Its traps and fights may require a bit more time to arrange, especially if they’re anything like the ones my old friend created. I’ve been in campaigns built around this style that lasted years, and they were very satisfying for the players and GMs alike.
Bear in mind that players in roleplaying games using this style will very much see themselves as adversaries of the GM. The GM wants to stump them, even kill their characters. (Ah, that coveted Total Party Kill [TPK] award!) They, in turn, want to win against everything the GM throws at them.
Sometimes, players might even compete against each other in roleplaying games. There’s always a nonzero chance that someone in a party might steal from other characters or act against the party’s overall interests. If the party finds out, they may decide to take swift and firm action against that PC. And by that, I mean they might send the PC floating home.
Competitive gaming: Teamwork, perhaps, but little two-sided storytelling
Many years ago, a friend and I designed a huge, sprawling area for a MUD. In this case, our new area contained about 1000 rooms divided among four sub-areas themed roughly around the elements, plus a fifth area: a mountaintop fortress where the area’s ruler lived. And we, its designers, intended it to be a real challenge for the most experienced, powerful people in the game. They had lacked high-level areas up till then, so we wanted to fill in that increasingly-troubling level gap.
Once the area opened for play, the players immediately figured out just what a challenge it was, too. On a game where almost everything could be handled with one or at most two characters, this one required a dozen at least. Twenty was better.
They all also needed to be almost max level in the game even to enter the area. We had a coding check for this part to bar unqualified characters from entry. So people couldn’t even speedrun to map the place with lower-level throwaway characters.
If characters died in that MUD, their gear stayed with their bodies. But we’re talking about MUD code from the 1980s and mid-1990s. Back then, MUDs were not able to “remember” anything a player dropped in a room. So if the game crashed before the revived player could race back to get their stuff, that room rewrote to its default. Any dropped stuff on the ground before the reboot was gone, and its previous owners had to go earn it all again. So “corpse retrieval” runs became a common sight.
Even at the top levels, players had to pay close attention to each other and their teamwork, because a single mob could end the whole party in a couple of split-second rounds.
At the time, my then-boyfriend thought it was just a little weird of me to float along invisibly with the players to watch them engage with my creation. But I didn’t care. It was too exhilarating to see how much people enjoyed the area. Almost 25 years later, I still remember one young woman telling her group that her knees were shaking so hard in her excited nervousness that it was making her computer lab’s table jitter—and she loved it!
When storytelling isn’t the focus, and why
For this huge area, we two designers had a complex story. If they wished, players could easily learn it by reading the descriptions we’d written for everything there. If they paid attention to extra details, they could even access some secret parts of the area to learn more about its backstory. Many actually did do all of that, to our delight and theirs.
But the area was purely a competition between the designers and the MUD’s players. As much as they might want to learn the area’s story, they would never be able to add to it or change it. The story had already been told and set in stone. It was one-sided in that respect.
We weren’t under any illusions to the contrary, either. We wanted the area to challenge but not frustrate, to be difficult but doable if players organized well and played their roles correctly, and that’s ultimately exactly what we accomplished.
For a hack-and-slash MUD area, that’s all perfectly okay. The computer code that goes into MUD area creation makes two-sided storytelling very difficult, if not impossible. Once a MUD area goes live, that is usually the end of the builders’ work on it—except for fixing any errors, of course.
Maybe that’s why players were always tickled pink when an admin made them a special object to commemorate a grand achievement.
Information control as a potential pitfall for competitive gaming
As you might guess from reading these scenarios and anecdotes, information control is vital for GMs playing competitively against players. If the GM’s plot relies on secret knowledge that is difficult to learn, then players learning it inappropriately might fatally thwart the GM’s side.
In tabletop games, it’s much easier to control information flow between the GM and players. All the GM has to do is not blab about the secret info. If one player absolutely must know something like that, the GM has to take a chance here and hope that the person won’t just text that information to the other players between gaming sessions.
This matters much more in competitive games. In cooperative gaming, two-sided storytelling can easily absorb this kind of behind-the-scenes kibitzing. The goal is a great story, after all. Both sides can know every single part of the plot and still have a great time. But in competitive gaming, this would be like one big corporation stealing their competition’s secret blueprints and formulae.
Competitive gaming and secrecy depend on good faith from both players and GMs/admins
On one MUD I played, one admin wanted to create a secret group of high-end warrior characters. He went all-out on this project, creating behind-the-scenes plotlines, groundwork, and areas that would create fun for a couple of years. Once he finished getting most of it done, he invited eight of the game’s best players to join the secret group. Then, he swore them to secrecy.
But this MUD had a serious trust issue. A big segment of the playerbase suspected other admins of doing all kinds of dishonest, sketchy things to favor their friends. Worse, they weren’t entirely wrong. But this admin was a squishy teddy bear of golden sweetness. He didn’t have a dishonest or sketchy bone in his body.
It didn’t help, however, that this admin was on very friendly terms with the players he’d invited to his group. He’d invited them into his plot because he knew they were solid players. Whether right or wrong, once his group went live the perception of favoritism would have been potent and inevitable.
So the inevitable happened. Someone—either another highly-placed admin or one of those eight players—leaked the info about the group and its plotline. In just 24 hours, every person in the playerbase seemed to know all about the group and the planned plots involving them.
I don’t think the admins ever found out who did it. The list of suspects was just too long, and the admins entirely lacked any way to investigate out-of-game communication. They had their suspicions, but nobody ever divulged the identity of the leaker.
Unfortunately, the whole idea had completely depended on the group being a big secret. The originating admin ended up abandoning all of it, which of course wasted all the time and effort he’d already put into it.
Everybody was sore at everybody for years over this whole brouhaha. I didn’t stick around much longer myself.
If anyone had asked me, I’d have suggested not making everything depend on secrecy in a game where people often communicated with each other outside of the game’s channels, and where they often expressed suspicion of and hostility toward its admins. But nobody asked me.
Gauging difficulty can be a delicate business
In a competitive RPG, the GM is, of course, the final word in all cases. But for the competition between the GM and players to feel good for both parties, they both need to be able to practice good sportsmanship. And that means that if the GM scores a TPK, or the party wipes up the floor with the GM’s biggest baddest ultimate monster, the person who lost needs to be gracious about it.
In turn, the players’ win has to be the result of good planning and strategic use of available resources. It can certainly involve luck, but if it’s too cheap a win, it won’t sit right.
Think about the way that Arya Stark kills the Night King in Game of Thrones.
She jumps on him from out of nowhere, gets in a cheap knife shot, and instantly kills this ginormously powerful, seemingly-immortal supervillain. Then, every one of his minions explodes in a shattering of ice, thus ending the big war.
Yeah, a lot of fans were very sore about that scene.
One of my tabletop campaigns ended similarly. And yes, the GM running it was very sore about it too.
How to kill a dragon
My party had worked for about a real-life year to assemble what we needed to kill an ancient evil dragon. We hired archers and other support personnel, equipped ourselves with hard-to-get gear specifically meant for fighting this kind of dragon, and conducted lore-gathering missions to learn everything we could about him.
When we finally got to the fight, though, that dragon went down in about 90 seconds. I don’t think it took more than a round and a half.
We, of course, were all cheering and celebrating. We’d prepared well, we’d rolled decently well with the dice, and we’d seen our efforts pay off grandly. No regrets!
By contrast, the GM looked like he’d just learned that his entire family had died. He was stunned. I thought he was going to throw a tantrum or dissolve into tears. Finally, he made a snide comment.
No, he was not pleased at all with our quick win.
Eventually, he calmed down and took the loss in some kind of stride. But I think he’ll always wonder if he should have beefed up the dragon. Or given it more powerful capabilities. Or something.
If I ever find myself GMing that kind of campaign and want a long, dramatic last fight, you can bet I’ll run a few tests in private before sending the players up against the big baddy.
Competitive gaming vs cooperative gaming: Use the right tool for the job
As I’ve hopefully made clear, there are times when a more competitive approach works better, and times when the opposite is true. Which approach is best, though, depends on the temperaments and desires of particular GMs and their players. Not everybody even wants to tell stories cooperatively, while others might get tired of nothing but dungeon crawls.
A D&D-style dungeon crawl functions a lot differently from a World of Darkness-style courtly-intrigue live-action session. And each appeals to different people at different times for different reasons.
My suggestion to aspiring GMs and game designers or admins is to think about which tool will work best, then pursue the skills needed to make it happen.
How to GM for competitive gaming: Resources
The easiest way to learn to GM in this style is to pick up pre-made game modules for whatever system you want to run. Dungeons & Dragons is famous for its “modules.” Each one is balanced for particular levels of characters. Free modules abound online, though of course people create and sell them too.
Whatever system you use, the best way to learn game balance is to learn your system inside and out—especially its combat routines. Run solo missions at introductory levels to figure out how combat flows and how characters engage with the gameworld.
Once you get a feel for how-tough-is-too-tough, you’re on your way to making adventures of your own. At first, continue to test your creations in private. If a casual encounter wipes out the party or a kobold kills a character in one shot (which gamers call one-shotting), it might be time to dial back the difficulty somewhat. Remove some of the enemies, make them hit less hard or less often, lower their levels, or figure out a way to get your heroes a bit more firepower.
Lastly, try to check your ego at the door. As GM, you hold all the power. If something goes hideously wrong, don’t get upset or angry. If the GM gets like that, then the entire game gets poisoned. Just keep things moving, make it fun somehow, think of a way to recover from it, and move forward.
Above all, enjoy a fun evening with your friends!