Thursday, June 15, 2017

I AM The Game

Let me preface this post with the following: there have been a lot of ideas percolating (if not particularly "gelling") of late in my brain, and they are derived from a number of internet babblers. Here's the list (for interested folks):

I think this is posted in the order in which I read them, but I'm not actually going to go back and check the dates. My time is fairly limited today.

As said, all these have been percolating in my head, making me examine...and re-examine...and re-define, my personal concept of myself as a Dungeon Master. How I do it, why I do it...hell, even should I do it. And if I should, then how should I and why should I...

This Spring, I had the opportunity to closely observe my son's Little League coach successfully wrangle (and encourage and teach) a squad of mostly unruly and often disinterested six year olds through a season of "America's pastime" (tee-ball version). The man had the fucking patience of Job, and I felt myself thinking (and often commenting to others) that I couldn't even begin to see myself in such a role...that it would drive me crazy with frustration, or that I would be too competitive and too hard on the kids. And, yet, I was recently petitioned to take the head coach position for next year's (first grade) soccer team...and I accepted. Despite my misgivings and worries that I'll morph into some sort of petty tyrant of the pitch.

[*sigh* we've got to grow, right?]

The role of Dungeon Master is one that is custom-made for the would-be petty tyrant. And while most folks who play D&D could hardly be blamed for hoping for some sort of "benevolent dictatorship," my base feeling is that autocratic, authoritarian rule is imperative to running a solid (i.e. effective) game of Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, the same thing I fear in myself as a teacher and coach for children, is something I find necessary for this Great Game of ours.

"Autocratic?" Yes. And please note I'm speaking specifically of Dungeons & Dragons, not all RPGs in general. The vehicle for gaming that is D&D requires an absolute authority to act as referee and rules arbiter. It is a requirement if one wishes to experience the entertainment of the game as designed.

Let me clarify, though, lest folks misconstrue...this isn't about some Machiavelli "better-to-be-feared-than-loved" power trip. This is about being an umpire. This isn't about "social contract," a phrase many of us (including myself) have carelessly thrown around with regard to what should happen at the game table. Again, let me be clear: social contract is the reason I don't simply piss on your couch, should I find myself needing to urinate while visiting your home. Nothing else (short of physical restraint) prevents me from doing so...the accepted proprieties and shared cultural assumptions of our (supposedly) polite society.

When we sit down at a table to play a GAME, we are agreeing to abide by a set of rules that govern play. And in the case of D&D, the Dungeon Master is the one responsible for presenting the players with the world in which they find themselves. Game exists within social does all human interaction...but it does not govern the rules by which we play. Rules are not, must not, be subject to negotiation. Interpretation, perhaps, but not negotiation.

Not at the table, anyway. Away from the table...before a game, after a game...that is the time to have a discussion (if required) regarding the way the game will be played, the way the rules will be interpreted. Many DMs feel the need (for whatever reason) to alter or tweak D&D's designed systems in ways that differ from the Rules As Written...and so long as these are presented formally, prior to play, the existence of such changes to the RAW game, good or bad, become a non-issue. Players of American football may bitch (or cheer) rule changes made during the off-season (such as the addition of a two-point conversion, or a new penalty for excessive on-field celebration), but once the season begins, once the games begin, the players (and coaches and fans) are expected to shut the F up and play the game by the new rules.

When I sit down to play Chess, I don't get to fuck around with the rules. When I sit down to play D&D I should be giving the same respect to its rules. If the rules state "a player's character should not act on knowledge the character doesn't possess," dammit, that's a rule! If the rules say dwarves can't play thieves or clerics don't get spells till 2nd level, it doesn't matter whether or not I think the rule is nonsensical or "un-fun." Likewise if I say we have a house rule preventing player versus player combat. Them's the rules, and bugger off if you don't like it.

A dungeon master needs to embody this, needs to run the game table with an iron fist, for good reason: it is only by being an absolute stickler and hard-ass can the players be assured that the game being played is fair and balanced (yeah, I realize this statement might prompt a WTF moment). Here's the skinny: the role of the Dungeon Master is, by design, an adversarial one. The players are not playing against another each other (as in Monopoly), nor against another team (as in football), nor against the game itself (as in a video game or certain board games like DungeonQuest). The players are pitted against the challenges presented to their characters...that's what the game is about, in every edition...and those challenges are crafted and run by the dungeon master.

That's the DM's job. If the DM is shitty about it, then the game will be a shitty one.

And in this case, being shitty means being arbitrary, being "flexible," bending rules and fudging dice rolls, and forgetting various rules and minutia they're too lazy to remember or implement, even in the aid of "pacing" or "storytelling." I'm going to come down hard on the side of Ozymandius here: D&D is not about creating a story. It is not collaborative storytelling. There are other RPGs that do that; some that do it well and make storytelling and "addressing premise" a priority of design. D&D is not one of those; D&D is about challenging players. A story of "what happened to us and what we did (or did not) accomplish" may come out of game play...something resembling fiction...but D&D is, in the end, not about creating fiction. It is a game that challenges players, and challenges them in pretty specific ways.

The DM provides that challenge. The rules (which the DM must enforce with absolute authority) are there to govern play, including both inspiring and constraining the DM: the DM must follow her own rules as well. I acknowledge there is difficulty in being fair and impartial at all times, especially when tension runs high and tempers flare during an especially spirited session, and that is why it is so important that the DM have iron resolve regarding the game, its rules, and the authority and responsibility invested in the position.

So long as the DM embodies her own authority consistently, players can play from an informed perspective...they can explore the boundaries of what's possible within the system, they can face challenges (and then greater challenges, and then even greater challenges). They can master the rules themselves, they can judge risk and reward, they can hedge, they can find ways to cooperate and grow together as an effective team while building camaraderie. And they can do it while losing themselves in escapist fantasy, trusting the DM will not be arbitrary, but both firm and fair...even if it is (at times) dingy, dangerous, and unforgiving.

Kind of like the real world.

I find myself wanting to write some sort of treatise on dungeon mastering, outlining an ordered system as an aid to would-be petty tyrants (i.e. DMs), like myself. I might do so (though probably nothing in the near future, mind you), if only to codify my own thoughts on the matter. Some sort of manual to help me remember my values and ideals when I'm sitting at the table, both alone (writing worlds and scenarios) and with others (running the game).

Some sort of DM's guidebook, I suppose.
; )


  1. Amen! Hells yes! Very well spoken, and insightful. I also liked the linked posts you provided. Sounds like good old D&D to me.

  2. I call the DM "the Referee" explicitly. He doesn't tell the story, he doesn't direct the players. He makes the rulings and rolls the dice and sometimes acts out the NPCs... but he is definitely not the storyteller.

    If you want to be the storyteller, write something. Or better yet play in someone else's game!

  3. Once again, you've hit the nail on the proverbial head. I just wrote a blog post about this myself, although your point about the necessity of an autocratic umpire is probably the best wording I've seen so far. Some of my close friends regard the rules of D&D as something to be changed at a whim (my pleas that druids have to be True Neutral fell on deaf ears), but will happily abide by the rules of Munchkin or various board games...

    Next session, I might have to put a sticky note on my forehead that just says "CHESS".

  4. Yeah, well said. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend of people thinking "D&D isa bout creating a story" lately. I enjoy "story games", but that is not what D&D is about IMO, and the focus on CREATING a story detracts from the joy of EXPERIENCING an adventure and seeing what happens.

  5. Coincidence. I wrote my post today, June 20, then chanced to come read this one.

  6. It's the difference between a piece of art designed by committee (which will be somewhat guaranteed to achieve at least a standard of mediocrity) and the vision of an individual driven to share their experience.

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  8. "Kind of like the real world."

    Because whether we want to admit it or not, our ability to conceive of fantasy is limited by our experiences in the real world. This, I feel, is one of the strengths of role-playing games (generally; D&D specifically).

    I'm looking forward to your take on "How to DM."

    And thanks for the references, though I'm fighting to get past the first page of Holmes' essay. Right where he talks about the paladin and his "vows." Makes me angry just thinking about it...

  9. @ Ozy:

    Really (regarding the paladin)? Why?

    I ask out of honest curiosity (and because I don't want to guess / make assumptions).

    1. I managed to read the whole thing. Didn't really leave any impressions.

      I majored in philosophy in college and spent quite some time discussing alignment with my gaming group (one other philosophy major and several rules-lawyer-ish types). I also believe in an objective reality - if I cease to exist, the world persists, therefore it's reasonable to assume that, if good and evil are real things, they have a concrete definition beyond my personal experience/bias. The problem, I've found, is that this often leads to problems in the game. Unless you're playing with people who enjoy debating philosophy, it's not worth the effort to define and enforce moral/ethical concepts (which is a requirement if you're going to play with alignment).

      It took me a few years to realize this. It seems that the designers of the game, and the earliest players, never came to the same conclusion. This baffles me, to the point of irritation.

    2. Huh. That is very interesting. Do you happen to have a blog post [link] where you elaborate on this further?

      I'm not sure I would agree that it IS a requirement (and might even like to write about the subject), but before I insert my foot in my mouth, I wouldn't mind reading more.
      : )

    3. I have to weigh in on this.

      While I can see it from Holmes' point-of-view, the game hadn't been around that long when this was written. The various facets of the "adventure" as he describes soon become tropes, then cliches, then tiresome cliches, then ultimately dogma, where "vows" become something mired in concrete, destroying long-term interest in the game. Thus, people quitting after a few years of playing.

      While Holmes advocates "fantasy," the structure of his fantasy is very, very narrow. It was a problem I had with players back in 1980 and a problem I still have; the idea that D&D has particular identifiers that stultify the game. Paladin's vows? Why, that's D&D!

      That's how I understood Ozy's anger...

    4. @ Alexis: I spent several hours yesterevening reading (and rereading) your old blog posts, especially regarding alignment...mainly in prep for a blog post I intended to write on the subject. Just haven't had the chance to get to it today.

      Thanks for weighing in, though.
      ; )

  10. JB: I'm working through my "What is...?" articles. I thought I would just address D&D as a type of RPG but research into the topic has led me down some rabbit holes. I'm thinking, "What is a game / an RPG / D&D?" as well as one or two others. I mention this because your query has me thinking about whether something like alignment can be used in a game. I think it can but then that game would not be D&D. I'm not even certain it would be an RPG. So no, no link just yet but more to follow...

    Alexis: Yes, that's part of it. Definitely. I think there's more that we can articulate, which can broaden our understanding of the game (and by "our" I mean "mine;" I may know a lot but I still consider myself an amateur). I think part of it is that there are certain tropes in the first place. Despite D&D being a relatively "limited" RPG, in that it has certain structures/conventions/rules, it still has far more potential than just about any other non-RPG game. Associating the game with limits like, "All paladins are..." or "All thieves are..." is just plain ludicrous.

    1. @ Ozy:

      I understand the rabbit hole...I've been down it for the last two or three days.

      However, I'm just about ready to come up for air; if my kids give me the chance today (they're on summer break), I'll try to post my own thoughts on alignment and its place in D&D. My feelings have evolved since the last time (2009) I seriously considered or devoted much time to the subject.

  11. Aw! And now I feel guilty for not getting my own post up (as *I* promised)!
    : (

  12. I agree with you on the subject of GM authority, but not the rest.

    The GM must be flexible and occasionally arbitrary. He must also foster a story - without devolving into immersion destroying story-game tactics.

    You guys are seeing it as a dichotomy, forgetting the crucial middle ground - the gray area wherein lies the truth.

    1. Venger, if you haven't already, I recommend you start with some of the recent posts by Alexis at the Tao of D&D. From there, take a look at videos, lectures and material on game theory and design. I'm doing a lot of research myself and it's quite eye-opening.

  13. I've checked out Alexis' blog before and actually read/reviewed his DMing book. Let's just say that I'm not a fan. We have wildly different opinions on gaming.