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.