Monday, May 27, 2013

Player Compromise & Respect

Of late, since the long debate on party agency and game preparation that took place on this blog a few weeks ago, I've been asked to comment on party dynamics, or how party members relate to each other, rather than to the DM.  Specifically, about parties who cannot get together to agree upon a single goal, and parties with are dominated, even pushed around, by one or two players.  It is a problem I've been contemplating regarding an essay in my struggling book, and a problem which - I must confess - I have more trouble proscribing a solution for than enacting that solution.

I have always known what to say or do where it comes to managing my games ... which is not to say that I'm an especially nice guy, or that people get what they want.  No, what I would say is that I'm an expecially FAIR judge, and that I don't give a shit what people want where it comes to the way people speak or treat one another.  This works for my games because I don't have an agenda ... but before I explain how that works, I want to talk about power.

In the second episode of Adam Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, that I posted about earlier today, the social communes which were founded by egalitarians four decades ago mostly failed because of how human beings operate.  Here is Curtis talking about the communes from that episode:

"They all failed.  Most lasted no more than three years.  Some, for less than six months.  And what tore them all apart was the very thing that was supposed to have been banished - power.  The commune members discovered that some people were more free than others.  Strong personalities came to dominate the weaker members of the group ... but the rules of the self-organizing system refused to allow any organized opposition to the suppression.  The failure of the commune movement ... shows the limitations of the self-organizing model.  It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power.  The hippies took up the idea of the networks as a society, because they were disillusioned with politics.  They believed that this alternative way of ordering the world was good, because it was based on the underlying order of nature.  But this was a fantasy."

Hearing that, I was suddenly struck by an understanding of why politics - or rather, systemized control by some human beings over others, beginning with chiefs and moving up through monarchies and democracies - was necessary to curtail the power of individuals like myself, who had the capacity not merely to dominate others, but to lie and manipulate other persons in such a manner as to play them off against each other, and to keep track of all those lies and to even concoct new lies in the spur of the moment to deflect attention or anger against themselves.

This is what is happening at your gaming table, even if you are not aware of it.  If we take any two random persons and have them sit opposite each other, with the expectation that they will 'sort it out,' alone and without any comment from others, you may bet beyond a shadow of a doubt that the stronger-willed individual will influence the weaker-willed individual so that the sorting falls clearly in the favor of the stronger.  If both individuals are quite weak willed, nothing will be sorted out because neither individual will firmly declare their intention to do anything.  If both individuals are very strong, it may take a long, long time to sort anything out, and its probable that both will become angry and resistant to change on principle long before anything is settled.

Social groups as they developed small villages ten thousand years ago must have already inherently understood this dynamic, and understood that the one counteraction to this dynamic is the involvement of others.  What absolutely cannot be allowed to happen in any discourse, ever, is everyone else keeping the hell out of it and minding their own business.  The business of the group is everyone's business, for it is only in organized opposition to the strongest personalities in the group can those personalities be compelled to accept what is best for everyone.  This is a central organizing principle in society ... it must be the central organizing principle of your gaming group.

If you have one individual who snaps at the involvement of anyone in something they consider a "personal matter" between themselves and a given member of the group, what you are watching is an individual cutting someone weak from the herd in order to manage that one individual with the least amount of opposition.  This can never be allowed to happen.  Everyone at the table must be encouraged to speak to every matter, regardless of the matter, and that includes you, the DM.  In fact, that includes you most of all.

Gygax & Co. believed that the gaming group needed one spokesperson who would serve as an intermediary between the members of the party and the DM ... in effect, trying to impose a monarchy so as to curtail the expected conflict in the group.  Monarchies work as social systems because either a) the Monarch is the smartest person in the room, and the title precludes the need for manipulation and deviance (though it occurs anyway, so it goes), or b) the Monarch being fairly stupid but having loads of power serves as a restraint on the smarter people, as the Monarch might at a whim kill the smart person just because (makes the smart people keep their head down).

The common alternative is to have parties vote on everything, imposing the majority over the minority, and that works because the smart person who supposely 'wins' is still reduced to having to create a general single perception on the part of a lot of people who probably don't really understand what they're supporting ... which makes a tenuous situation at best.  When the opposition is real, and everyone is capable of changing their mind, this is quite effective, but if everyone in the government moves to a single agenda, and that agenda no longer depends on a majority of the population, then you get on the road to disaster.

A good example at your gaming table is where you have two or three people who are of like mind, who all happen to be the stronger personalities, who in turn push around everyone else.  A very tricky situation, at best.

The deadlock can only be broken if there is someone who a) has a strong personality and position and b) has no agenda.  The strong people at the table always have an agenda.  Their position presence at the table can be a boon if they happen to be of a gracious personality, if they don't need things to go their way or they don't need to be the 'strongest' or most fitted playing.  But then, that is their agenda.  Most times, it does not work that way.  Most times, the strong people want as much as they can get, and they don't care to be gracious.

This is why it is so important that the DM not be one of those persons who are invested emotionally in what results at the table.  The DM can be terrifically emotional in the presentation of events; the DM can be deeply involved with the events as they are unfolding; but the DM must now, absolutely must not, care how it turns out.  If they party saunters through the dungeon, if the party is slaughtered, it cannot matter to the DM one way or the other.  This is not to say that the DM is unfeeling or cold ... far from it.  A DM, to make the experience a pleasure, must be as gracious as the player we were discussing before.  The DM can afford to be gracious; he or she has nothing to lose, as well as nothing to gain, and if a tweak here or there lets a character live who might have died, and the overall party is served, all the better.  But the DM cannot bend the values of the game for the players, nor can he or she compromise on rolls of the dice, which are a power greater than the DM.  That is one of the reason more and more DMs are coming out from behind the screen, because it is a growing recognition that the must be a final say on everything that happens in the game ... and that final say must be rolled where everyone can see it.

I make players wait until I am a witness to see their character stat rolls - it is in their rights to make me wait until they are a witness to the rolls I make that determine the life or death of their characters.

So where there are players who are lording it over other players, DMs, hear me in this - get involved.  Get in their face.  Back them down.  Make them sit in their fucking chairs and listen.  Encourage others to give their opinions on what's happening.  Make it a group discussion.  No one gets to make judgements on others - a Good DM will make sure the players are vocal about what he or she is doing as well.  That DM must be held to a standard of Impartiality just as the players must be held to a standard of good interactive play.

Now, let's talk about the other side of this - not where someone is necessarily bossing others around, but where the party simply cannot agree on what the party was doing.  This came up a lot with reference to the Opening Module, where people said the party would be sitting there three weeks later, without making any agreement.

Let us take a situation, where you have four players at your table and they are discussing the matter.  Two wish to participate in some action that could be termed 'evil' ... they want to raid caravans.  The other two refuse, categorically, to ever involve themselves in any action that's evil.  Both sides spend all night arguing and coming to no conclusion.  What do you do?

It's not like this isn't common.  Four seniors sit down to design the Prom, and the matter of the Prom's theme comes up.  Two decide they want it to be a political theme - freedom of oppressed people everywhere.  The other two decide that it ought to be fun, celebrating spring and happiness.  The debate bogs down.  Neither side will budge.  What do you do?

Well ... I usually find that these sorts of arguments break down between a group that wants to do something and a group that refuses to do something.  But the second example, that of the Prom, I've worded so as to emphasize that both groups have a desire.  Usually, in such cases, a teacher tells them, "Make up your minds, or I will."  That's because the teacher understands what the DM must understand:  that an inability to compromise, for any reason, is a sign of immaturity.

Whether you will do something or you won't do something, every individual in the party must understand that sometimes, you just don't get what you want.  This is the sort of speech that, as a DM, I would deliver at a time like this.  So you don't want to be evil, so you absolutely must sack caravans, well ... I need you to both realize that these are not the only possible things you can do.  And if you two don't want this, and you two don't want that, then grow the fuck up, realize you haven't come up with the thing yet that all four of you can agree on, and stop reiterating this one dead issue.

Frankly, I am not a fan of any member of a party who has a strict closed door policy on any action the party in general may wish to take.  Maybe the door might be stuck, maybe it might take some talking or some compromising, but I feel everyone should at least acknowledge that their personal position includes flexibility.  My best advice for a DM who finds a consistently inflexible person at their gaming table would be to boot them.  That person is ruining your game.  Give them notice, let them know their inflexibility is unacceptable, but if that doesn't work, show them the door.

If you have the party split down the middle, and they absolutely will not agree on anything, make it clear that you're going to boot two of them if they can't change their minds.  I have no tolerance whatsoever for people who cannot change their minds.  It's infantile, it's imbecilic, it's detrimental to a fluid campaign and it's just a huge pain in the ass.  Frankly, I'd rather run with two people who can clearly define what they want to do, and do it, than run with four squabbling people who cannot get their shit together.  This, too, I would simply make clear:

"Let me say this.  I am here to run a world.  I don't care what you do, but do something - else, I can find better things to do.  Get your shit together, act like adults, or I'm going to roll a die.  If it's a six, you two can go home.  If it's a one, then its you two.  If its a 2 through 5, I'm going to roll again.  If you don't like that, if you think that's unfair, you can get up and stomp out now.  If you think I don't have to roll this fucking die, because you're grown up enough to work it out, then I'll put down the die and give you another half an hour.  I don't care.  But I'm not sitting here forever and letting this go on.  Understood?"

It's like I've said before.  Scare them.

Be warned.  You will lose friends this way.  But if you draw the line on the behavior you have a right to expect - just as every person does in every situation they're in - you will have a great world.  You will have a cleaner, more straightforward life.  And those who stay with you, who acknowledge and respect your call in these situations, will be the best players you've ever had.

They will be the best friends you've ever had, too.


Ozzie Pippenger said...

Interesting post. It does seem that every decision made by a group without formal organization depends much more on social dynamics than the quality of ideas presented. I see it happen a lot in group projects for school. The person with one or two friends around starts suggesting ideas, anyone who agrees says so, and in a few minutes, a social order is established and anyone who contradicts the unofficial leader is viewed as an outsider coming in to be pointlessly negative. But of course nobody can question this social order, because it appears to not exist, especially to the people at the top.

The players who have been most disruptive to my game have been the outliers in terms of social power, I think. I've had a few unlikeable, socially incompetent types who simply don't understand group dynamics. They can't communicate their ideas, and when the game goes differently than they want it to, they get pouty and start blaming me for not running the game well, even when the game has been completely player directed. I don't have much patience for this type of player. In a professional context you have to try to put a system in place to insure that decisions are reached fairly, but in a social setting, such as D&D, you're not making a decision because you have to, you're trying to have fun with friends. If someone isn't fitting in with the group, and not even trying to, then as harsh as it sounds you have to stop inviting them. Just like you wouldn't invite them to a dinner party or a movie with friends.

On the other end of the spectrum have been the players with much more social power than anyone else. The biggest problem player of this type has been my older brother. He makes decisions way too quickly, and doesn't wait for anyone else to give ideas. He's good at creating a false sense of urgency and phrasing mediocre ideas in a pseudo-intelligent way. There was one game, recently, where he came in near the end. The party was discussing how to clear out a bandit fort. They'd started doing some smart stuff, like poisoning the well, and they were planning their next move. My brother came in, rolled up a character, and ordered a frontal assault on the tower. There were archers firing through arrow slits on the third story, and every time they hit (and killed) members of the party, my brother looked around seriously, and said in an authoritative voice, "We return fire!"

What he actually meant was "I'm going to keep up my futile attempt to hit people a hundred feet above me that I can't clearly see through a narrow slit while I stand unprotected in an open field and get killed, because I don't have any actual ideas."

The party went along with it, and didn't realize until later how much he'd fucked them over. A player working through the group and actually listening to ideas would have realized how stupid he was being, and so would everyone else. But my brother had consolidated all the social power in the situation, even over me.

Both of the players I talked about don't play much in the group anymore, with the full support of the remaining members. Understanding social dynamics and maintaining relationships with friends is very, very hard to do. You have to respond to subtle hints, and you have to know when to subordinate your desires to the group. Everyone has a had time with it. People who are bad at it suffer a lot of consequences, probably more than for any other shortcoming, and people who are good at it often get far, but are resented for it. This is true for 99% of everything humans do. There's no reason D&D should be different, except for timid DMs or unskilled ones who can't afford to lose players. I think that if we'd all acknowledge that the same social rules of everywhere else still apply at the gaming table, our hobby would lose a lot of the stigma attached to it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The difference, and it is inherent with every sentence of your reply Ozzie, is that in ordinary circumstances no one person is given the power to 'set things in order.' But in D&D, that person is the DM.

The error in your brother was in YOU; you described his behavior as something you've seen before, and you rightly recognize that you, too, were duped. If you had not been, you could have turned to the party and said, "Don't let him boss you around; that's what my brother does, he bosses people around." But you didn't do that; you ignored the dynamic and the dynamic fucked the party.

I think you recognize that now. That is the reason why D&D IS different from other social circumstances - it's your world, it's the dynamic you allow ... just as a judge in a courtroom is utterly unlike people in a bar. The game gives you the power to judge - if you refuse to do so, your game will go to shit every time.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

I see what you mean. I shouldn't act like there's nothing the DM can do to improve social dynamics. There have been games where I've managed my brother better, especially as my other players have gotten more used to him. He's made certain games much more fun, and if I feel up to managing him, he adds some excitement to the campaign.

It's a question of how I want to spend my time and energy, though. I can control an unruly player, but time I spend doing that is time I don't spend keeping track of all the other things I have to manage, and time I don't spend responding to other players. When he gets really into it, he fundamentally changes the dynamic of the game, so that it's no longer about me determining what happens based on the party's actions, but about me desperately trying to control one person. Which I don't think I should ever have to do. I strongly prefer to let players direct the course of the game and spend my time reacting.

I think the problem is when the person with the strongest personality is also the person who least respects the DM's authority. So it's an almost constant fight. Me and all my players trying to play cooperatively, against my older brother trying to be the center of attention and do whatever he wants.

There might be two separate types of players here: players who try to control the group but listen to the DM, and players who try to control the entire group, including the DM. I think I conflated the two.

I think you're right that a player who has lots of ideas and tries to control the group but can be controlled by the DM is nothing anyone shouldn't be able to handle. My brother though, due to his personality and sibling dynamics, is basically impossible to control at the table because he doesn't respect my authority as DM.

I think that as long as he's my older brother ad as long as he refuses to accept my authority under any circumstances, it won't be worth it to play D&D with him. But that's a separate issue and I shouldn't have claimed it was based primarily on regular social dynamics.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'm sorry, the world is full of managers who "prefer strong people who do their jobs." I have no sympathy.

Controlling people is part of being a DM (and a manager). You get no sympathy because it's not a thing you think you should have to do.

You want to be a good DM? It isn't about you getting what you want, either - it is about doing everything that is needed at the table, not just the cool stuff. If you feel you don't have it together to do everything, stand aside for those ready to step up.

If you find yourself spending too much time with one player, explain it first, give them a chance to shape up, and then if they don't, boot them.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Playing D&D is not a job. It's something you do to have fun. At a job, you put up with things you don't want to do, because you're trying to make money or accomplish some kind of important goal, but you don't "have" to do anything in D&D, except for what you and the players enjoy.

I don't like controlling people who don't want to be controlled. My players don't like watching me control people who don't like to be controlled.

Of course a DM should do whatever they can to make the game better. I'm not complaining that it's hard so much as that it takes my time and focus from things more deserving of my attention because they make the game better for every other player at the table.

When it comes to my brother, I have more or less "booted" him, to the extent that you can "boot" someone who lives in the same house as you do.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I understand your position in this, but there is something you fail to comprehend.

A manager does not keep order because it is "a job." A good manager is well aware that the people under him or her have lives, depend on their income and very often fulfill positions that are necessary for the well-being and happiness of society. It is a weakness to write 'manager' off as something people happen to do. Many people, managers, do that job because they recognize the IMPORTANCE of such positions in keeping food on the table of children's homes, of running hospitals and military organizations, of making sure people are paid welfare, that roads are serviced, that infrastructure is maintained and that the world is made a better place.

Being a DM is a RESPONSIBILITY. It does not matter a whit that is a game. You are taking the responsibility for someone's well-spent evening, an evening that would cost them real money at a bar or a theatre. If you won't treat that responsibility with the same import as the manager of an establishment or a venue, then you fail to grasp your responsibility.

You won't rise in status as anything until you get your head out of the bullshit perception that 'fun' is something that occurs without someone stepping up.

YagamiFire said...

Speaking as someone that has spent at least half of their professional career as a manager, I can firmly say I like the role. It offers the ability to problem-solve in a way that no role on a team, lacking such autonomy and authority, can match. When you have the final say on stuff, you have to tread carefully but simultaneously you have to make sure you actually act on the authority that has been invested in you in a purposeful, useful manner.

That is the thing I've seen so many managers miss. They forget they aren't just balancing books. They forget they aren't just typing reports. They utterly forget that a manager manages by managing PEOPLE. Without a doubt, my favorite part of the position is coaching. Working with other people, developing their skills, and meshing them into a larger whole is the core of good management.

And guess what...sometimes it blows. Sometimes it means trimming the bonsai to promote growth. Sometimes it means being the guy that is willing to say stuff no one else will. Or that no one else CAN because of their relative position either socially or in the work hierarchy.

You take the good with the bad and you embrace both because it's YOUR ROLE.

The DM is no different yet DMs I've seen are so very quick to abdicate that part of their responsibility because IT IS HARD. It requires using ones brain and, potentially, invoking one's authority. Sometimes it requires reminding everyone at the table that you ARE an authority.

In my current long-running game, I have one player that has a very strong personality. In fact, he was recently promoted (deservedly so) to a management position himself. Not coincidentally, he also has the makings of a good DM and has expressed interest. However, that means when I am his DM I occasionally have to check that personality. Not in a bad way, mind you...I just have to make sure the table is operating in a manner that gives fair voice to all my players. They deserve to be heard. They deserve to have their desires acted on. They deserve to play and act on their own agency. Having removed myself as an obstacle to their agency, it is only natural that I have to make sure other factors (even each other) do not infringe on it either.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this. There's nothing bad. I game with adults that act like adults. Both my groups, currently, have the best players I've ever gamed with but that doesn't mean that social dynamics disappear because Care Bears shoot Fun Rainbows from their bellies to my game table causing everything to just work out right. Just like when I was managing and had the best employees I could have hoped for, I still had to manage their personalities as a player. I had to help them function not just as individuals with individual personalities, but as a cohesive unit with a temperament and personality all its own.

As DMs we'd all do well to remember that those personality traits that make players great can simultaneously make them problematic. This doesn't mean it is a bad just means it's one that a DM has to be aware of and be prepared to managed just like helping the opposite side of the spectrum to help give voice to those players that have weaker voices in the group.

Like a judge in a trial, the DM has to make sure all sides get to make their case.

Anonymous said...

Sat and watched all three episodes of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace today. Thanks Alexis, though I'm now no closer to getting the day's actual tasking done.

It was an excellent doc, and there's a load of related questions and discussions bouncing around inside my head as a result. I'm going to avoid a long, drawn out comment tangential to D&D here and instead advance one idea.

The player described as the most disruptive sort above, the strong willed manipulator, shares many qualities with the most productive sorts of players that often move the game forward. Namely, this is an ability to describe a desirable action and influence others into wanting to take it. Other than the truly socially inept and immature person, isn't the difference between the disgruntled malcontent and the empowered leader sometimes only whether or not this individual has something to manage?

If you'll allow me that groups tend to naturally form around or produce by necessity its leaders and/ or spokespeople and since D&D is a voluntary and ideally pleasurable pastime and since everybody comes to the table with their own expectations and desires isn't there then a need for an effective player-leader in the game if the adventure is to be truly player-driven?

So rather that pushing back and shutting down these individuals, how can they be identified and cultivated into effective party leaders? Is it a natural process? Obviously not given all of the advice on how to curtail the impact of obnoxious would-be player leaders. So how do we encourage the good ones as DM's?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I mentioned graciousness, James. You've just described the gracious leader. The player who steps in, proactively shares out the treasure fairly, solves problems and shares the credit at the same time, doesn't have to be controlled or encouraged. I find in such situations that I am encouraging others to follow his or her example and take part, not feel they have to be shy.

You're a bit like that player yourself, James; and if you look back, you'll see me encouraging some of your co-players to feel confident enough to pipe up in the way that you do naturally. I never had to 'control' you ... though I did, once or twice, have an NPC rebuff you. But that's part of the game.

jbeltman said...

Hi Ozzie,

another term for Dungeon Master is Referee. It is someone who is impartial and will enforce the rules of the game to make it fun for everyone. If you can imagine a team sport being played with a bad referee you can see some of the problems. Like if the referee is biased towards one team or player. Or imagine if the referee lets the game get out of hand so people are getting out of hand and fouls are happening that aren't getting called, it can be quite annoying for the players. If there is a strong, fair referee who enforces the rules then the games are generally better and the players appreciate it I think. I know I do.