Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DM As An Asshole (a how-to guide)

This post was inspired by comments made by my friend Carl on the post, “The Council of Passaic.”

I don’t know if most of you play chess. I learned to play fairly early, at seven years of age. I was taught by my father, who was not a good player – but he felt his sons would be interested in chess. Why he did not feel his daughter would be interested is another post altogether.

It did not take me long to beat my father – perhaps a year. After that I beat him regularly. I don’t remember playing a game with him after age 14. By then I was cleaning his clock.

My brother, five years older than me, was a much better player. It took me four years to win a game against him. Whereupon he threw a fit. I did not play against him for nine years (during which time, we did not speak a lot). He had not improved as a player in the intervening time.

I, on the other hand, played chess furiously through junior high school. I read books on the subject and I began to compete in tournaments. Around the 9th grade I was playing in and around the 1400 to 1500 level. Not spectacular, by most accounts, but I could have done fairly well had I continued to improve. I began to see, however, that if I was going to improve, I would have to dedicate my life to the game, my every waking hour. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I had decided to be a writer.

I didn’t play many tournaments after coming to that realization. Then I found D&D, which was much more diverting than chess. I continued to play, off and on, and occasionally found friends where we could play game after game all afternoon. It is off the point, but I don’t play at all now. I haven’t actually played the game in over two years. I don’t even play programs. I’m not going to get better. I would guess I would have trouble playing at the 700 level. Chess is observation, and observation is a skill learned with repetition.

There is a distinct difference between friend’s chess and tournament chess. With friends, I rarely played according to the protocols. I very rarely played with a clock, unless they were also tournament players. I didn’t play with the you-touch-it-you-play-it rule. I considered chatting a social condition of playing with friends. Stupid moves could be taken back – why not? We’re just friends.

Tournaments are hardcore protocol activities. You train yourself to stare at the board and think. You don’t talk, you don’t make any motions at all while the game is on – it is considered very poor sportsmanship to distract your opponent. If you are training for a tournament you play by these rules in order to adapt and train your mind to think without the need for physical movement. You learn to think without fondling the pieces before you move them. And you think quickly – the clock is ticking. I’ve known many players who always play this way, even in the park, even in local coffee shops. It’s the only way they play.

I would like to make equivalent proposals for the game of D&D. I have never played according to any of these. I have never considered implementing them – I’m not seriously considering doing so in the near future. I play D&D with friends. It is serious, but not that serious. I have some rules, such as dice count on the table only and no re-rolls, not even for the DM. But they are generally player friendly.

However, if you are having trouble controlling your game, and you’d like to try being a real bastard for the evening, I would suggest some of what follows. Keep in mind – these are equivalent to the sort of stern, anti-socializing rules which govern sincere chess players.

1. No touching of the dice except when required. It is an annoying habit of players to roll and roll their dice, trying to make a natural 20 occur. Or players who must roll the dice twice to ‘shake off the demons’ before rolling the one that counts. I suggest no rolling, none at all, unless the die counts. To police the rule, I suggest every random roll be treated as a saving throw versus trap or monster attack (thus conjuring a monster by rolling the die that has some attack which requires a saving throw; this need not be overt – a brown recluse spider nestled in the player’s belt pouch, for instance). Attempt to conceal the roll indicates automatic failure. Even if the player succeeds, the player will feel less urge to roll again.

This is equivalent to a chess player not touching the pieces. You’ll find similar rules in backgammon, and in many other ‘sophisticated games’ which do not tolerate such things as spitting tobacco in the bullpen or counting your money in Monopoly ... while waiting for them to take their turn.

2. No talking except to describe what their character is doing, or what their character is saying, or specific questions asked of the DM. Yes, I know this rule is out there. I have at key times required it of my players. I am asking a little more here, however, than most DMs would ask. I mean NO talking. No unnecessary questions, no irrational statements ‘made by their characters,’ no leading up comments prior to actually giving an answer to a question.

What do I mean exactly? I mean comments like, “let me think” (do it silently then); “I don’t know what to do” (try shutting up); “My character goes to the tavern ... no, I mean the inn – no, I think ... I think he’ll go to the market place, if I can put my horse in the stable first ...” (brain in gear, then talk); “I’m attacking the darkness” (Uh, no). Various verbal detritus like this needs to be banned. It will encourage thinking. Chess players do not mutter about possible moves before playing.

I mean intermittent character ‘dialogue’ like, “My character tells your character to get stuffed” (both of you stuff it); “You’re a pussy, pussy pussy pussy ... hey everyone, Ragnock is a pussy ...” (you know what? fuck right off); “Then how come you had to cast magic missile?” (sooooo funny).

And I mean questions like, “Which die do I use for a long sword?” (you know what? you get to attack when you fucking figure it out); and “I can cast any of these right? On the list?” (I told you once); “How can they surround us? I had Mordenkainen’s magical watchdog cast ...” (and you told me ... when?).

Yes, this is being an unbelievable prick. It also greatly reduces the second-grade babble that pervades all sessions, making it impossible for the DM to actually hear the players say they cast this spell or that spell. If you don’t let a player attack during a combat because they can’t remember what die they need to roll for a mace, you know what – they will remember next time. Pabulum feed them and they will suckle that tit for life.

Suggestions for other punishment? All unnecessary chatter in the wilderness to be punished with automatic party surprise + failure for initiative during the next combat. Unnecessary chatter in a public setting like a town guarantees one random item automatically stolen per six second period.

3. No out of milieu references. No references to movies, no references to modern equipment, no references to any anachronistic material, period. All such references to be considered immediate indications of character insanity, to be followed with an extensive spontaneous period of either manic behavior (DM runs character) or catatonia (indicating character is in another space). Either are certain to happen in the middle of combat.

This might, or might not include shouts of “BOOO-YAH!” upon killing enemies. DM’s discretion.

4. Time is an element. I suggest a chess clock for each player (they aren’t that expensive). Or you could do it on a lap top. Set clocks for 20 minutes at the start of combats. All comments and die rolls to be made while the clock is running. If the clock ends before the combat, player drops to the ground from exhaustion.

5. Standardized breaks. Every half hour, every hour – DM’s discretion. No one to leave the table except at breaks. No one to pee or shit except at breaks. Hold it, pace yourself. You wouldn’t get up in the middle of a movie unless your bladder is bursting, and that’s two hours. All I’m asking for is forty five bloody minutes of your undivided attention.

6. NO food. Drinks are acceptable, provided belching and other unnecessary display of drinking is controlled. Eat during the breaks or – guess what – eat at your fucking home before you come. Smoking doesn’t bother me, but it bothers the asthmatics I play with.

These are not a great deal to ask. You know how I know? Because a vast number of responsible, “fun” activities require them as automatic principles under which the activity is done. Have you played in a band? Have you practiced yoga or ichido? Have you performed in a theatre? Have you sat in a theatre or at the opera with other people? These are events served with a healthy helping of shut-the-fuck-up, people are trying to improve themselves here.

You know, thinking and learning any game or activity requires concentration and good listening skills. It requires a degree of discipline, the desire to quell one’s spontaneous bullshit in order to hear about things which are sincerely important, and spread them to other people. Nothing I’ve suggested goes beyond a simple person’s desire to occupy his or her mind with the subject at hand.

D&D has consistently been, in my experience, the second worst offender when it comes to poor manners, poor habits and unbelievably infantile self-proclaiming posturing. The worst, of course, is any bar with a television where you’re trying to get solemnly drunk. The principal reason most people do not take D&D seriously upon first investigating it is the impression that everyone involved is a screaming infant. It is also the unspoken attitude of those at your office who look away when you mention the game.

To improve, behavior and manners are the place to start. Perhaps not to the degree I’m suggesting here. But if you can’t begin to implement even a moderate control along these lines, your only real option is to boot these babies out of your house and out of your life.

Or admit you’re one yourself.


Badelaire said...

I'm always the first to say "hey man, gaming is about fun and friends and having a good time, so we all gotta chill out", yadda yadda yadda.

But you know, there's a lot of really interesting gaming concepts and ideas that I'd dearly love to put into motion that have come to mind over the years, but never happened because - you guessed it - the player base has simply been too casual and too informal to allow for it.

How do you run a really, really hardcore horror campaign? How do you run a tense, pulse actually racing, sitting on the edge of your seat adventure? How do you get players to stop and think and actually feel sadness or anger or joy?

By introducing a little player discipline into the gameplay. By NOT making everything a Monty Python reference, by actually PAYING ATTENTION to the rules and not forcing me to answer inane questions every thirty seconds, thus breaking my rhythm and concentration. And most of all, by respecting what I as the GM am trying to accomplish and not acting like a brat every chance you get.

So call me crazy, a bastard, and even an asshole GM, but there are certain situations where I think most, if not all, of those rules would be perfectly acceptable.

Adam Thornton said...

In my fantasies, this is exactly what playing a game that James Raggi IV is DMming is like.

JB said...

In the past when I was a regular DM with a regular campaign, I sometimes set ground rules similar to some of these...generally when the gaming group was of a size beyond which I could easily manage.

No we (or me) did not come from a tournament background; it was simply easier to order the action with a little discipline. Not that we held hard or fast to ANY of the rules...certainly no one was kicked to the curb for breaking one. But we had an open discussion of expected behavior...I guess you'd call it a "social contract" before play began. At least on some occasions.

DIfferent folks have different degrees of commitment to an RPG (whether RPGs in general, a specific RPG, or a specific group playing an RPG). If there are groups that are particularly insular, I believe they have simply discovered a "level of commitment" they are comfortable playing and they've found folks that share that same level of commitment...and they're afraid to invite others "in" to whom they'd have to explain their crazy, archaic ground rules.

One might call rules sticklers "tournament style" or even "asshole DM" but some players (and DMs) can play with a high degree of discipline WITHOUT being "overly serious." It's just their preferred way of playing.

Not mine! But I understand it, that's all I'm saying.
: )

Carl said...

You had me at, "healthy helping of shut-the-fuck-up." Brilliant.

I'm going to cross-post this at ThreeHams and maybe my players will see the wisdom in your words.

Alexis said...

Thank you fellows,

At least the DMs are with me.

It may be that the intrinsic quality of being a nerd and playing this game brings along with it a distaste for social conventions such as politeness or consideration. Call it the 'booger factor' ... the decision to seek attention through misbehavior. It may be that is the personality conflict we are all fighting with our players, D&D players suffering from their peculiar social leprosy.

Strix said...

I had a player rolling dice consistently, nervously... it was annoying the hell out of everyone including me. After repeated attempts and polite reminders to stop, I turned to him and asked, "What did you roll?"

After some arm twisting I discovered that he rolled 2 x d20 to see which one was the odds on favorite.

I asked him to add the two together.

I then turned to page 29 of the Monsterous Manual (2nd Ed) and said, "Hummm.... page 29... Brain Mole".

He didn't roll another dice unless he was asked directly. In fact, he insisted on clarifying exactly why he was rolling and how many to roll.

I still haven't ever put a Brain Mole on the table, but some day page 29 is going to get rolled.

Herb said...

I just spend two days trying to find this. I found a similar, if less confrontational post, over at in the process.

Why did I spend all that time? Because you are dead on in much of this. Over at PtG,PtB I wrote about how TSR helped build an impression our hobby is for kids and how that's held us back 20 years. Next up is writing about how we have a chance for a redo of the late 70s/early 80s breakout of the hobby. However, that immediately leads into "what do we have to jettison that we've come to love". Too many of us love bad behavior.

So, I wanted your post as a touch point/reference. Thank you for providing a great springboard.

Miles said...

Wow.. that's absurdly harsh. I've been DMing for 25+ years, and it's how we unwind, have a good night together, etc. It's not tournament training, and if things go off the rails now and then, it's still more enjoyable than the kind of draconian atmosphere you describe, at least for me. Why?
because it's just a bloody game! It's utterly meaningless, like chess, backgammon, watching hockey, and so on. We blow off a little steam fighting imaginary dragons, for Crom's sake- it's not supposed to feel like work! Scheduled bathroom breaks? No food? No jokes? I teach university, and I don't have to act like that big an asshole to keep order.
If your players like your Type A iron fist regime, that's fine (I assume most of them are in the military and/or masochists). I, and anyone I've ever played with, would laugh in your face and walk out the door if you tried to enforce any of that crap. Because the game isn't more infinitely important than the social interaction, it's the excuse for it, and the form it takes. We play to have fun.

Alexis said...

Miles must teach at university. Like all my profs at university, he doesn't bother to read every word - particularly where I said I don't play by these rules:

"I have never played according to any of these. I have never considered implementing them – I’m not seriously considering doing so in the near future. I play D&D with friends. It is serious, but not that serious."

Pulled right from my post.

Andrew Brownlee said...

DMing perfection, this.

I actually printed up what I call the Eight Tenets Of Wisdom for not getting your character killed." It's eight simple rules for game etiquette. I also implement three sand timers: a 45-second used for character actions each turn, a 3-minute used for non-combat encounters, and a 5-minute that is used to give bosses a "special attack" in addition to their normal attacks every time it turns.

I have booted a few players and completely folded one game. The girlfriend of a friend sobbed and apologized and begged for me not to fold...but she wouldn't put her f---ing phone away and her boyfriend wouldn't make up his mind during his turn so he wound up doing stupid shit that put everyone in danger. That left only one viable player, so I folded.

People absolutely love my games, I'm privileged to say, and have had players I've hosted for over 10 years, even though I come down hard. I am always fair and even throw a few bones the players' way, but I demand the kind of discipline you outline here. But I have never, ever been called an asshole. (At least, not to my face.)

Excellent post!