Monday, September 9, 2013

"Hey, we're friends. Right?"

There are quite a number of people who believe that a DM can 'step down' and converse with the other players at the table as just 'one of the group,' and that they have no special status at the moment they themselves declare, "In this particular matter, I have no special status."

It is something akin to your Dad saying, "Hey, son, we're friends, aren't we?"

On some level, sure, you're friends with your dad. You fish together, you chat about stuff, you may even regularly get together with him at the bar and have a drink or two. But he is still your dad. He's the guy who threatened you when you were a screaming kid in the back seat; he's the guy who took down your pants and roasted your bottom when necessary; he owned the house where you grew up and he's a hell of a lot older than you. You don't just love him, you respect him ... even if he's the kind of dad that doesn't deserve respect. You do anyway, because he's you're fucking dad.

Nothing is ever going to change that.

Now, the DM you happen to be playing with is not your dad, he or she hasn't got anything like the kind of influence your father has over you ... but there is a very definite division there. You know the DM knows things that you don't know. You know the DM can screw around with you, mess with the situation, hold a grudge and so on ... and you know that a good game requires a great deal of TRUST between you and the runner of the game. Even when that trust goes bad, it can take time to convince yourself that it has.

The gentle reader isn't an idiot. The reader has lived in the world and knows very well that people can smile right into your face and lie. It's a knowledge we consort with every day, and even as young adults we stop believing what we're told just because someone uses those words. We have been freaking lied to before today. We know of what people are capable.

We judge our success at anything from the dynamic that exists between ourselves and others - and there is a very definite dynamic between player and DM. We know we're not talking to a fellow player; this is the one who runs the game, and we know that when it comes to the game, it is the DM who sets the tone.

We're not dumb. We know on what side our bread is buttered.

If the DM says, "Hey guys, we're all going to make this decision; I'm no more important than you are," we realize that is a bunch of shit. We've grown up on the planet too. We can read the signs on the DM's face. The power for veto is there. We're not fooled. When dad says he wants to be our friend, that doesn't mean he wants to share porn.

No DM is going to run a game where all the players have decided such-and-such is cool, if the DM doesn't think so too. Sure, the DM might agree, but the DM has to agree. We all know it. Saying that's not the way it is, well ... that's some kind of delusion, isn't it?

Yet I've run smack bang into that illusion. Not just in D&D, obviously, but in all sorts of interaction. There's the guy who says, "Sure, I'll play right field," and then you find out at the end of the day that he was pissed he didn't get the chance to pitch. There's the one in the crowd who agrees to see the movie everyone else wants to see, that secretly hates every minute of it. A lot of people go along to get along, then find out that going along really sucks, and after a couple hours lose their shit about it. If you've lived on planet Earth, you've experienced this.

We've watched a DM convince himself that he's going to run a game the players want ... only to find out he really doesn't want that. And a few months into the project, its really beginning to tell on him. He's bored, or he's angry, or both. Oh, sure, he promised to run that game, but now all the actual work has fallen on his shoulders and he is sick to death of that game. Sooner or later its going to occur to him, "Hey, I'm the fucking DM. It's my world, isn't it?"

So when you hear a DM saying, "Yeah, the party and I talked about it and agreed," that is really a lot of shit. What happened is the party read the DM, guessed what the DM wanted, paid lip service to that extent and the DM has somehow managed to delude his or her self into thinking it really was a group decision.

The first time I learned that lip service works was doing door-to-door sales at 17. I have a very low tolerance for lip service myself. I think of it as a lot of bullshit, which is why I don't really trust someone who makes a comment on a blog that amounts to, "good post." But as it turns out, a lot of people actually believe lip service. You can stand in a homeowner's doorway, praise the flower patch in their front yard - which, let's admit, you don't give a shit about - and they'll beam and bask in the praise of a total stranger, which in turn softens them up for buying $500 worth of housepainting. Or more. When I was first instructed to do this, I thought in my head, "Nah, that ain't gonna work. I'm selling shit, aren't I? The guy is going to know I'm saying it to get on his good side, right?

Apparently not. It makes no damn sense to me, but if I say this or I praise that, I can get people to unload a hundred thousand dollars on a car, easy. Blows my mind. (It also makes me feel awful sleezy, so I don't do that kind of work).

"Oh yes, Bob, of course you're just like we are. Of course we won't think of your opinion as having any different weight than our own. Of course we won't interpret anything you dislike with an special import. We promise."

So Bob freaking beams, because they're all just one great jolly family. He runs off to a convention or to the net and says, "Yes, we make decisions together!"

And everyone with a brain - literally, actual grey matter, helping them breathe and digest food - thinks, "Yeah. Right."


Matt said...

I'm afraid I may have missed the point here.

Is it pointless for a DM to ask his players about preferences? To ask, outside of a game "What do you guys think is fun?" and use that as a guide to frame the game? Is it pointless for a DM to ask his players for opinions because they are only going to pay him lip service anyway?

Is it wrong for the DM that doesn't want to run what the players want to play to say "Sorry guys, I do not want to run this. I would like to run a different thing. Do you guys want to play different thing, or would someone else like to run what you want to play?"

Alexis Smolensk said...

No, it's not pointless to ask if they think it's fun. But you're a fool if you believe every word.

No, a DM shouldn't have to run anything he or she doesn't want to run; but the DM is a fool if they think the player's opinion and their own amount to the same value.

Eric said...

This one seems pretty straightforward to me: the DM is going to shoulder the bulk of the world-building and event-generation tasks. Since they're working so much more with the setting, their opinion of it is of more import.

JDJarvis said...

If I'm DMing I'm very unlikely to allow PC Dragonmen, its not going to matter much if "we" all agree on there being no Dragonmen PCs.

Nothing wrong with getting folks opinions but pretending one person doesn't get final say because of the effort they are putting into the game is lame.

James said...

Well, that is one of the lies of D&D, that everyone is equal at the table. Except Rule 0 exists (if the DM says it happens/works/exists, it does). So the real deal is that everyone is equal, except one person (the DM), is more equal than the others.

Of course, there is a corollary to that. It behooves the DM to understand this dynamic and not abuse it, because there is no game without any players. In that sense, DMing is more akin to a S&M relationship, where the sadist (DM) is theoretically in control (and for the vast majority of the relationship, maintains actual control), but in reality, the masochists (players) are in control because they hold the final veto (to no longer partake).

Anonymous said...

DMing is like any other artist/professional gig: you are hired to do it your way, until the client decides that your way is not for them. At no point is it acceptable for the client to dictate what your way should be. On the other hand, the client has a limited right to express what they would like to achieve. Should their expression start to stymie your flow, it's time to restructure the relationship.

Ozymandias said...

Is it just me, or is this a bit... suspicious?

When I read this post (an hour after it was published) I followed the link and read the first page of responses on the forum. A couple hours later, I returned to read the rest of the discussion and found the Wizards webpage down "for scheduled maintenance." Now, a day later, the link brings up a "page not found" notice.

From my vantage point, it's as though the Wizards don't want anyone discussing such negative aspects of the hobby...

CAPTCHA Word: USBBOA. As in a USB stick shaped like a boa. I'd buy one...

Jacob Marley said...

@Ozymandias - It's just you. Wizards just transitioned from their old forum software to their new forum software. They emailed all members that it was likely that many forum posts would be lost in the transition. The link in this post is likely broken from the transition.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The link was broken, because WOTC - as usual - have no conception of trust or responsibility, and simply threw away all the old threads in their latest reboot.