So in my original post I tried to illustrate what I have observed as a potential problem in some old-school style games; the idea that sometimes the villain becomes too powerful, as a result of the GM conflating their own knowledge of the PC’s actions, with the notion that the main villain should be more powerful and intelligent than the GM would be in a similar circumstance, leading to a very high degree of difficulty for the PC's possible victory.
To the mailbag, Mash asked: “Looking at your example: if the PCs don't really understand how powerful the villain is, then is there scope to downgrade him without creating a continuity error with what they do actually know?”
I think there surely is, my point on this topic is that the GM is not willfully nor consciously doing this. It is a problem that creeps in, often undetected except in the final throes of conflict after a TPK. Let me go to an example:
I have primarily experienced this in older D&D games, where the villain’s level was a predictor of his or her relative powers, and as such, far exceeded that of the any given PC (as a way of equalizing the cumulative power of all of the PC’s fighting the villain at the same time). However, the actual manifestation of this was that as PC’s, we encountered the villain’s hench-people and defeated them without really understanding much of the why’s and wherefore’s of the situation. The consequence of that action would be terrible and extremely powerful revenge visited upon us, usually through a pre-prepared ambush, which would often defeat or kill the PC’s.
The result from the player’s perspective was a degree of confusion: ‘why did we just get our asses kicked? That sucked!’ and the response from the GM would often be ‘that’s the consequence of meddling in the villain’s schemes, you guys should have been smarter’ and also ‘had your characters actually survived, you might have learnt your lesson’. This might be a 'fair' outcome from the GM's perspective, but because we didn't ever undertsand all the variables involved we couldn't assess the fairness, only the fun-ness, and it was not 'fun' (for me at least).
To be fair I have run a similar situation myself; several instances of Delta Green come to mind, where the villains in question were a race of sentient insect fungus from space. Possessing advanced technology they are able to easily spy upon the PC’s without detection, and while their motives and actions should be appropriately abstract in terms of plot, I had difficulty in having them overlook the PC’s plans for violence or disruption of their plans. I tried to give some clues of this infiltration, but what occurred in the most recent game of Delta Green I ran was that the players acted hastily (in the context of the government agents they were playing, not in terms of some tired gamers around a table) and enacted a raid that was a spectacular failure due to the villains having made preparations along the lines of the Branch Dividian in Waco (one of the villains listed ambitions was to cause the federal authorities significant embarrassment to back off future operations). I’m not sure the players enjoyed the experience, and we didn’t play Delta Green again.
Which brings me to the next point of discussion. If the GM might sometimes attribute additional intelligence, perception or power to the villain’s interaction with the game-world, then who exactly are the PC’s?
To illustrate this point with an example, a friend of mine recently complained that despite having a high Charisma score in his recent D&D game, the GM often belittled his attempts to elicit information or charm NPC’s because the GM did not find the player’s strategy for achieving this to be successful, irrespective of the characters ability. He was equally miffed that the other PC’s did not treat his character in a manner that befitted the natural charm and charisma that his character should exhibit in the game-world. His argument was that the PC’s and NPC’s should all act as though his character was the extremely charismatic and charming individual the system said he was, largely irrespective of his own personality at the table.
Obviously the same argument can be leveled at investigation games, where the PC’s are playing expert and professional investigators, yet the players are often stumped in situations that their characters would not be (enter the GUMSHOE debate).
I know that when I run a game I try and keep a mental picture of each character distinct from the player, and try to overlay one with the other when they interface with NPC’s, but I suspect I’m not always successful in doing this.
To be continued again...