When it comes to GMing, I’m a magician at heart. I love the reveal, that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the whole adventure snaps into focus for the players and it isn’t what they thought it was. The twist, when the villain’s hooded henchman puts a bullet in his back and smashes the reliquary they were chasing because they hold the keys to an ancient Prussian war machine hidden beneath the castle. If horror is about hiding something under a sheet and daring them to pull it off, adventure is about whipping off that sheet to gasps. Better yet is when they’ve figured it all out but don’t trust it, waiting for that last piece of evidence that confirms their theory and let’s them go “Aha! I knew it!” Everyone wins. But getting there can take a bit (or a lot) of misdirection and this is the month to talk about it.
Psychological warfare is one aspect of being a GM that I have not delved into much during my games, at least not consciously. Trying to use some of the tips and tricks Jim outlined in his posts becomes harder when you are too busy juggling all the other things you need to as an inexperienced GM. This is where something I mentioned last week comes into play: letting your players do the work.
In the Thirty-Six Stratagems, an ancient Chinese essay illustrating stratagems used in politics, war, and civil service, the 32nd is the Empty Fort Strategy. This was employed several times throughout Chinese history but today we will focus on the general Zhuge Liang and his use of the stratagem during the Three Kingdoms period.
I think part of the reason I regard GMing as one part psychological warfare is because I started GMing horror first, not adventure or fantasy which is what I typically run now. Running a horror game is a whole other can of worms, because it isn’t enough that players have fun, they want to be scared. They don’t want to be genuinely afraid, but to get the rush of faux-fear for which a friend of mine coined the term “Delicious scary.” Scaring people is tricky, because everyone’s different, and has different desires and tolerances when it comes to fear. Still, there are some universal conditions you can manage that will make GMing horror a lot easier.
I often joke that GMing is one part world-building, one part storytelling, and one part psychological warfare. Hence why July is psychological warfare month, also known as messing with your players for fun and profit. But before I can talk about how to play head games with people to get them more engaged in the game and heighten tension, I need to talk about how this jives with treating people with respect. This isn’t a month about messing about with your players’ triggers or exploiting their vulnerabilities, it’s about managing the game in a way that heightens tension and engagement. With that in mind, let’s talk about psychological warfare and limits.