Thursday, August 29, 2013

Parenting, Not Autocracy

There was another question on yesterday's link that I'd like to address:

"How do you handle PCs who want to split up, perhaps act in manners that act against the interests of other PCs? Because when I ran a similar style, this was the biggest hurdle I ran into and it turned me off to the style personally."

Ever since writing the Opening Module post, I've been bumping up against this one. I've been trying to distill a meaningful answer that would be helpful to everyone who finds themselves in this position, something where I DON'T call adult people at a table who can't agree a bunch of squabbling children.

I try to picture myself a such a table. These two people on the right of me want to stay in port, buy a shop and start running underground weapons to rebel pirates who are plundering shipping on the sea. The two people on my right think that's a terrible idea, they would rather march into the wilderness, find a dungeon and start plundering its rooms. Finally, the two people in the middle are only interested in individual adventures; this one wants to case a house and rob it, alone, keeping everything that's found for himself; and that one wants to spend the whole night gambling, and wants me to play the croupier at the table so she can do that.

And since we're answering the question posed by Fochizzy on the link, let's assume that all six are adamant in what they want to do.

Now, I am also to assume that this is because of a sandbox 'style' of play - so presumably, if I toss in a wizard lord, smack the party around and impose a quest to kill the Great Slog of Punkettsville, this solves the problem.

This solves the problem?

Really, I want to understand. Everyone is acting in a basically selfish, inflexible manner, and the solution to this situation is for the DM to step in and behave in a completely AUTOCRATIC manner. This gets the campaign 'back on track' and therefore is a MUCH better way of running a game.

I see. Can I just ask ... how certain are we that the individual members of the party are that reluctant to work together? Are we certain that the DM isn't just a prick?

Well, some other people in the last couple of months have said or written that when they tried to just back out and let the party go at it, nothing happened all night long. Nothing. Now, I don't have any more information than that in these cases. It's necessary to fill in the gaps. There's no transcript, no blow by blow, no specific reference to what she said or he said or why specifically neither party desired to resolve the disagreement and get on with the game. I only know they weren't able to.

What would I do?

Well, probably I'd begin by troubleshooting plan A: the town smuggling operation. More to the point, I'd try to shoot it down. "You don't have any contacts, you don't have enough money, you haven't thought it through, how are you going to start it ..." That sort of thing. I'd start with the smuggling operation because it's the most complicated. It is the one that requires the greatest amount of thought. That also means it's the one that requires the greatest amount of resolve, so it's likely the first plan that's going to crash and burn in its early stages. It will probably crash and burn as soon as I start poking holes in the plan - legitimate holes the players haven't thought through.

It's the same thing you do when you start a business. First you think about everything you want to do. Then you think about everything you'll need. THEN, if you're smart, you'll think about everything that can go wrong, or more to the point, WILL go wrong. Then you go to someone else who has been there, who is also in business, and you get them to point out everything that will go wrong. If you find yourself saying, "Yes, but I've already thought of that, so it won't ..." then you might just as well quit now. What you need to say is, "Okay, okay, and when that happens, what do I do?"

By and large the ambitious players haven't really thought it through ... and unless they're committed, they'll start to have second thoughts by the time the conversation is rolled out and discussed, whereupon they'll lose heart and opt for the dungeon option.

However, if they don't lose heart, if they really have a plan, then usually what happens is that they have a role for everyone at the table ... and they'll start selling the table on those roles. They won't say, "Come help so my smuggling operation will work." They'll say, "Look, I'll need someone who can get the weapons; and where's the best place for cheap, available weapons? The dungeon up the hill. So help me get my end started, and then we'll go get the weapons ..." And soon enough at least four people in the party are on the same course.

The people who want to go to the dungeon just want direct, easy to understand experience. In the short run, they don't care where they get it. Of course, if they're just bloody minded about going to the dungeon, and they're not interested in being sold ... then I'll go to work on them.

First of all, I want to know what they want out of D&D. Experience? Combat? Anything else? "Seriously, you just want to come in and fight and get experience, and everything else sounds boring. Oh, you are serious. And anything else that happens - I see, it's just bullshit until the next combat. Good. I understand."

Here is where I get into some personal trouble with this subject. This is where I run out of useful things to offer the gentle reader, as a DM. I can't see myself gaming at a table with a person like this. I recognize there are people like this. I've met, oh, hundreds of them. Grinders.

As a player, I always found a way to point them at something I didn't like, or something that was an obstacle in the way of something that I wanted, so that we could operate together. I would meet people like this and I would deliberately use them, and I don't mean character to character, I mean person to person. It's the way a boss uses an employee that isn't that bright, keeping them motivated to get the floor mopped or the light fixtures changed, while carefully sidestepping anything about wages or promotion. "Yes, Dirk is a good worker, I just push him off in a direction and he does it. No, I really don't give a shit about him. I think I could replace him by the end of the week." It's okay. Dirk likes to kill things. And if I make sure that Dirk has something to kill before the night is over, Dirk is happy. I'd rather not have to service Dirk in this manner, but if that's what I have to do to achieve MY goals, then ...

Most players, however, don't have that killer instinct. They're not ready to lie, cheat, manipulate or whatever the person at the table who is nominally their friend. So it falls to the DM. And because the dungeon adventure is a lot easier than the smuggling adventure for the really 'focused' members of the party to grasp, the DM steps in and says, "Dungeon tonight." And the smarter more clever people sigh and give in and make the best of the dungeon adventure that they can. The Grinder, on the other hand, will not do this with the smuggling adventure. The Grinder will bitch and moan and roll their eyes and sulk because there was no experience tonight, no matter what was achieved.

Now, about the other two. The Gambler and the Thief. I am sorry to say this, but I think both are about as loathsome a people as it's possible to meet playing this game. The thief, at least, might do something that is interesting to someone. First time in a game, it's vaguely exciting to be a spectator watching a thief slip into a house, nearly get caught, successfully overcoming a dog and getting away clean with the jewels. That at least is a narrative. It's a completely selfish, cliched narrative, and the thief never really gets away with more than would be his or her normal share in a straight up encounter that involved everyone (there isn't time, the treasure is too difficult to carry or there isn't enough of it that can be grabbed before the room is full of angry residents) ... but it's a narrative.

The Gambler is far, far worse. They seem to have forgotten what they're doing in a D&D game. They'd rather play craps ... or whatever side game has emerged. They'd rather be in Vegas, but somehow they've wandered into your campaign and you've been caught unaware by someone whose either easily amused or has some sort of gambling problem. They're utterly oblivious to everyone but themselves. And when you say enough, they get upset or exhibit frustration, then pout for the rest of the night. Every time they come back into town, they ask if the gambling venue is open, and soon enough you'll find yourself saying, "No, angry townspeople burned it to the ground."

I hate these people. I hate having them at my table. At the moment, with all three of my campaigns being well-established and the participants motivated towards DOING something that they've decided on their own, it is invariably the newest person in any given campaign that creates a problem like any of the above. They come into a game with their own, personal agenda, or their own, personal bias, and they completely ignore that D&D is a game played by a lot of people, not just one person. They soon find themselves banging against the wall produced by the consensus-driven people who are already there, and either they bend or they quit.

On this blog I talk a lot about the player agenda. That agenda is, however, unfortunate for some, dependent upon the majority being serviced. This is no different from any other group activity. Sports, community service, political activism, the workspace, a holiday get-together ... it is all the same. The person with the biggest PROBLEM is the person who thinks the entire event needs to redirect itself towards their personal needs.

I don't mean, they enter into the activity with an eye to making sure every one's active and doing what they want and that the thing happens. There are those people too. Facilitators. Like me and Dirk. Dirk's happy, he's killing things; I'm happy, I'm cornering the weapons market. We both get what we want. If people want to play baseball, someone gets the diamond, someone brings the bat and ball, people make sure than Cynthia, who is just shit at catching, still gets a turn in right field, where she can occasionally drop a ball but not as often as she would in left field - and everyone makes sure to cheer Cynthia hard when she tries.

No, I'm talking about the asshole who has to PITCH, because he deigned to show up. Who has never been to one of these things before, but is ready to criticize everyone. And who wants to change rule A and rule B because they don't suit him.

Often, it's not that blatant. Instead of bossiness, there's a distinct sluggishness or apathy; the player mopes and sulks; they answer questions as though answering questions is the most boring thing in the world. They only get excited when everything comes around their way.

Trot 18 random strangers onto a baseball diamond and tell them to play, and 18 people can organize themselves pretty quickly. They'll use any of the standard ways for splitting themselves up into two teams that were invented for them in elementary school, they'll debate for a bit about what position to play, or what batting order to be in, but you can pretty much expect that they'll be playing baseball inside half-an-hour.

But put 4 strangers at a D&D table and tell them to do what they want, and they'll calcify in a couple of minutes on four different strategies. That's why Fochizzy says that he doesn't play that way any more. He autocratically decides. Otherwise, nobody plays.

I think that's wrong. I think it's a rational solution if the goal is to put up a barn or to get a film made. One autocratic individual can motivate a crew without any trouble.

I think, however, that the REAL solution is to have the party come around night after night, forcing them to face the same question, until one of two things happens.

1) They recognize that no one is going to hold their hand, and that if they want to play D&D they're going to have to sort themselves out like grown-ups.

2) After the second or third night of this, only one or two people show up. The most serious players. With less people muddying the water, they'll get started. And then, when one of the others find you're still playing D&D, and show up to find the other two are already moving in a set direction, that third person will fall in line.

The party will have ultimately decided. And you'll have a sandbox game. One where you'll NEVER have to boss the party again. But it is like giving birth. Sometimes the campaign dies, comes out still born. Sometimes you get a squalling, screaming infant. But as the infant grows, it begins to create it's own way in the world.

As a DM, you cease to be an autocrat, and slip comfortably into the role of proud parent. Giving advice, making suggestions, offering ideas ... but never, ever ruling your way or the highway.

Still, there are a lot of parents who try to parent that way. There are a lot of old age homes full of lonely parents.


Vlad Malkav said...

Insightful. I've stood both at the GM and player side of such situations (albeit in a toned down way), and having such a way of handling things would have been great each time.

Be it in real-life or in gaming (eh, what am I saying ? Gaming is real life too), this has lots of value. All of you, take some time to think about it, remember those moments when you were a facilitator, or a "normal guy", or even the obnoxious "My way or no way" guy ...

I've been all of them in turns. Not proud of the last one, mind you ... But it's often hard to see it, to understand that you're ruining everyone's fun. And how. And what to do do make it better.

I got a lesson reading this. And I hope to remember it as long as I can.

"Dungeon Mastering" ? Man, you've got so much more in there than just GMing ...

Mic B said...

I've been reading your blog for a time. You inspired me to change gaming style, more specificaly to go "full sandbox", which was something never tried here, right after reading "The Opening Module".

First game went well: they thought they had "received a quest", but when they find out they could not complete it, they bitched a lot but we had a talk and then, what you wrote today just happened (quoting today's post):
"They recognize that no one is going to hold their hand, and that if they want to play D&D they're going to have to sort themselves out like grown-ups."

and they got creative, the merchant character started slightly pusing the party in his direction and everyone is happy. The game is still new, we're introducing a new character tonight and I'm quite certain he will "fall in line", or maybe propose some other line of action.

Conclusion: we're all adults and we wouldn't play with people who are so "small" that they prevent the group from having a good time

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thanks for commenting, Mic B.

I much appreciate the confirmation for my ideas.

Jomo Rising said...

More wow, and I don't mean World of Warcraft. Thanks.

James said...

I decided to copy and paste that opening module, and use it to start my next campaign. I am running Planescape next, and wanted to drop the PCs off in Sigil and basically say "here is the world, do what you will!" and see what they do with it.

This was exactly what I was looking for, so thank you.


Jay Murphy said...

I've modified the Opening Module post to offer players open gaming choices, and this post bookends the intent of that draft nicely. As in, now I know how to enforce this intent at the table. Useful work once again.