Monday, July 30, 2012

The Peter Principle & DnD

I'd like to take a moment to interrupt my rewriting of thieving skills, which I shall be doing for climb walls and pick pockets this week, in order to write on something that has only just occurred to me.


I'm sure many of you are aware of the 'Peter Principle.' The following is from Wikipedia:

"... a belief that in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organization's members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, "employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence." In more formal parlance, the effect could be stated as: employees tend to be given more authority until they cannot continue to work competently. It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book, The Peter Principle."

The idea isn't new, but it is still relevant. Three times in the last three days I've been in some circumstance where the subject of the principle has come up - usually the number it takes for me to start deconstructing something I take for granted.

I think, generally, the principle to be true. I work in business, I have for some time, and I can attest to it's presence there. I've also worked in theatre, and it certainly helps explain how sometimes an individual will rise to playing a part in a play for which they have no competence. I also think the principle is evident in D&D games ... and I know just saying that will be enough to get DM's thinking.

A regular discussion that is had in business is how to circumvent the Peter Principle. The Wikipedia page has an overview of the more common 'solutions' ... they're worth reading through. I note, however, that an assumption is being made, which is always made - and that is, that every person HAS a level of incompetence.

I do not think that is true.

I do not mean that there are people who are competent at everything, or that there are people who are perfect. The Peter Principle does not describe people in a floating sea where any activity or job is possible in a given day. It describes people in a hierarchy, which is in turn dedicated to producing a limited set of results. From that, it MUST be true that a small percentage of possible workers, promoted and promoted, are never promoted into a job which they cannot do. It is possible to be a competent, capable and effective C.E.O. - and since said individual cannot be promoted higher, that individual cannot be affected by a further manifestation of the Peter Principle.

Moreover, for periods of time, all the persons under that particular C.E.O. cannot rise into the C.E.O.'s position because that position is not available. This means it is possible for ALL the positions under the C.E.O. to be occupied by people who are themselves competant at their jobs. However brief the moment in time, perhaps this explains why, for no evident reason, a company like Apple or Research in Motion or Zynga explodes on the scene, blowing past all their competition and changing the face of their industries. Those companies might collapse later, when the next head that's promoted fulfills the principle again, internally collapsing the company ... but for as long as the competant structure lasts, the company is unstoppable.

This could be applied just as directly to creative artists like John Ford, David Lean, Mike Nichols or Billy Wilder - directors who, for as long as they had control over their product, produced brilliant work without fail. A director is at the top of the game where it comes to making a picture - 'producer' is a sideways move into another profession (believe me). So long as the director is fully competant, its possible to create a competant technical and creative crew. It is time, not the Peter Principle, that eventually changes the rules. All those brilliant directors got old, and couldn't work at the top of their game once in their 60s. Direction is an exhausting vocation.

Let's talk D&D. This is an interesting situation since the hierarchy is flat. The DM is only one "promotion" above player. Some DMs are competent - others are not so much. Sometimes an incompetent DM wallows in the role, forced there by the circumstance of a lot of players who are all incompetent ... and it is often the most competent player that gets chosen.

If the DM is competent, it does produce a good game, even if many of the players are not. An especially competent DM, supported by especially competent players, can make the experience for less competent players rich and meaningful, when the goal is friendship over success. At the same time, a DM can be competent and yet mean-spirited; he or she can godmod other players, who themselves lord their positions over more recent, or less competent players. The hierarchy can be pronounced and harsh, depending on the table.

Moreover, D&D is a fluid game. It changes and advances, not just in terms of the rules but in terms of what the players are able to accomplish. As they do more damage and cast more spells they take on more complicated, less easily mastered monsters. The very act of levelling compels the presentation of the Peter Principle, since being a higher level is in effect risking being promoted past your abilities.

Perhaps the reason the so-called 'endgame' is considered unrealistic is because many DMs and many players are simply not able to play at that level. It's one thing to kill some orcs, investigate a tomb or even pick and choose from a variety of strategies as you level up. It is another when the adventurer must manage an accounts book to cover the men, equipment and property the player now possesses, or for the DM to make something like that interesting and emotionally profitable. If neither the DM nor the player has any experience with authority over the masses, or the intricacies of geopolitics, or the temperament to understand magic & physics on a complex, intuitive level ... how in heaven's name do you expect any of them to be competent at making a GAME of it?

Eventually, as the player's experience piles up, the DM will be pushed towards the creation of adventures the DM simply hasn't the ability to create. Most times, this means a ridiculous Monty Haul game which becomes sillier and sillier, such as those run by the dweebs I seem to meet in real life. The incompetence reaches levels of delusion ... producing the kind of game only the cognitively dissonant can play.

Perhaps that's the reality for most of us. I have never played at the highest possible level of complexity this game could arrive - I'm moving, right now, into an adventure in the autumn that will certainly be the most complex I've ever played. Hopefully, I will manage it well ... but even if I do, it will only mean the party will advance in level, and an even more complex event awaits me in the future.

It would be nice if I could hire a secretary by then.

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