Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The End of Conflict

It's been a few weeks that I have been hammering on this sandbox vs. railroad thing ... and I am fairly certain that everyone still reading understands the difference, and why I feel one is bad while the other is good. I'm sure many a good reader is sick to death of the subject, and would rather that I talked about something else - wild magic, say, or how to build tension in a running. Not that I haven't talked about those things too.

I've been struggling in my head about what features are really needed to build a world, or rather how much world do you absolutely need, from a design standpoint ... but I'm not ready to talk about that yet.

The thing that has to be understood about railroading is that it is a strategy. There are perhaps 1 in 100 who are so impressed with their own importance that they know they're running a railroad to satisfy their own egos, but MOST people who are participating in the railroad process can be divided into two groups: a) people who don't know they're running a railroad; and b) people who can see any other way to provide satisfaction for their players while at the same time controlling the session.

To yesterday's post, the never-humble JB made this statement: "... I still feel for the 'railroaded DM' who is told by his players (in so many words or not), 'design us adventures Or Else.' Be our dancing monkey or look elsewhere for players."

JB has been my bitch-boy this month ... The Straight Dope has been a markedly popular post, one that I was pleased with, and has driven some interesting conversations off-blog. I don't want to take another swipe at him; I just want to present the quote as strong evidence of the DM-vs.-the-party mentality that is so prevalent among gamers. It's clear that JB feels on some level challenged, that if he isn't in control of the party's movement in his campaign, then the party is in control of him. That's a difficult mind-set to overcome.

Yes, certainly, I am not a member of the party. I am not a player. I have made that point over and over again. I am there to provide the game, manage the rules, create the milieu, keep everyone honest, maintain order at the table, discipline when necessary, ensure gamesmanship, direct action and ultimately produce an experience that encourages players to return. That's a tall order. None of the players, sitting at the table, are possessed with that kind of responsibility.

When you look at it, described as I just have, it is easy to understand why DMs become full of themselves. And why they become obsessed with recognition for all their labor.

Me, I like applause once in awhile. Every now and then, I'll weaken and ask, "Is the game working for you? How was that last adventure? Are you bored?" Part of this is insecurity. I think everyone feels that kind of insecurity. I don't feel ashamed to admit that yes, I occasionally feel insecure, despite all my abuse and my oh-so-evident asshole personality. I'm human.

What I don't feel is sycophantic. I want the party to have a good time, but no, this is still my world. But while the game does go the way I want it to go, what I want is a changing process ... and I am prepared to want something different, and right now, if the party is clearly miserable and the sequence of events isn't working to produce a worthy experience. Not a happy, cheerful experience, mind the reader, but a worthy one. Is the party learning, growing, adapting, interacting among themselve ... are they interested? It doesn't matter if they're miserable or frustrated or pissed off at me or each other. So long as they're not indifferent, I'm getting what I want.

In any case, I don't need to be confrontational in order to ensure this is so. I don't see the party as the enemy. I often present myself as the enemy to the party, because that is my role. The party, very often, HAS to see me as the bad guy. They need a villain, they need someone to hate, and they need - occasionally - to really get pissed at me for screwing them over or setting up a circumstance that they walked into with eyes open, or some other such mess that I've invented. It's not always true that I'm the bad guy ... I often get to give the party treasure or good will or aid of some kind ... but it's very important for my game that the party feel that these things come to them not because I deign to give them, but because they've gawddamned earned these things.

I have to walk a fine line there. I have to restrain the amount of treasure or whatever other good things I give, because too much will ruin a game ... and at the same time I have to accept the party's attitude about it, and not treat the giving of things as some benefice that I, the DM, have condescended to give. I have to buy into the argument that yes, the party has earned those things. If they haven't, then why in the name of all that's playable would I reward them?

Early on, very early on, when I first played this game, when I was in Grade 10 and 15 years old, when all the advice you could hope to get about the game came from other 15-year-olds and maybe the surly, miserable asshole who ran the local gaming store (who considered himself too important to talk to mere children), I often gave too much. I think I understood almost at once how easy it was to give as much as you wanted, and how the logical arrangement would arise where you could give treasure and massive magic weapons the same way you learned to let other kids play with your toys or eat your candy ... so they would LIKE you. Buying a player's love got to be a habit with some people; and that desperate need to be liked explains a lot of gamers who FEAR the DM-vs.-the-players dynamic. "Don't hate me, I'm just trying to run a game," said in a very wide variety of ways, is a common request among young gamers and noobs.

I really prefer the "Hate me, I'm your worst nightmare"-style of DMing, as a bullshit front that smart players begin to see through after they realize that I the DM and I, Alexis, are not the same. The DM is the face I adopt that lets the players play. It isn't an expression of how I feel about the players, or even a description of what I'm willing to do or not do in order to make the game a good one.

The point I've been hammering has been that I have no wish to tell the players how to play. The reverse is just as true - I have no wish for the players to tell me how to DM. I don't believe that, at its core, either is necessary. I recognize that some - JB perhaps, though it may have been a miscommunication - feel that if its not one, it must be the other. Somebody is bossing around someone.

That, I think, is because in the beginning, WAY back in the 70s, everyone who ran D&D was shit at it. I'd like to write that in letters forty feet high, but I'll have to just leave it in italics and hope the gentle reader understands how dearly I mean those words. Everyone. Was. Shit. The game had been around for just a few years, there had been no quality control at all, no one had had much practice, and it wasn't even conceived that there could be such a thing as a railroad/non-railroad philosophy. People ran completely grab-ass because they hadn't gotten the hang of it, and for those people who were really important, for whom smoke was blown up their ass everyday from the beginning because they were the founders of the game, that grab-ass style became acceptable, even dogmatically acceptable. The RULE, therefore, was that the worst way to possible run a game became established as the 'right' way because there was no other evident way at all. It's taken 40 years for people to begin to question that maybe the Grand Poobah DM is a very bad thing, and that perhaps Gygax and crew were actually shit at it ... only, since there was no such thing as being good at it, and since the number of witnesses in the room is very small, and since those witnesses were ALSO tempered from having grown up in a time without any perspective, the whole ideal of the great godlike DMs of those early heady days has become a thing of legend.

It's all a load of crap. When television was invented, and people began making television programming, all the shows were crap. It's possible to watch some of the stuff from the early 50s and recognize the good writing, the good acting ... but those things were around a long time before television, and at any rate you have to watch the good writing and good acting amidst a lot of BAD, BAD production ... not just the technology of television, but booms dropping into the picture, props not working, actors breaking up on camera and so on. The same is true of movies. The same is true of radio broadcasting, and the same is true of newspaper advertising in its early years. No one really understood how to make better TV, radio, advertising, etc., so they cobbled together the best ideas they could with the knowledge they had. We look at all those things now with the understanding of a parent feeling nostalgic for the first pathetic attempts of a child to walk. It's cute and adorable and heart-rending and a little awe-inspiring to watch a human get up on its feet for the first time and stagger two steps before falling on its ass again.

But that's NOT good walking. We don't go back to our 11-month efforts and 'give them a try again' because shit, those were great and heady days. We recognize that we were shit at walking and we try to get better at it. We recognize that the report we wrote in grade seven on 'Government' was an interesting try for a 13-year-old, but we shrug off all the wrong-headedness and errors with the recognition that we know MORE know than we knew then.

Roleplaying is the same. We don't have to run the old game. We don't have to go on seeing Dungeon Mastering in terms of conflict resolution and one-upmanship. We can learn. We can realize that the players have their role, the DM has his or her role, and the game CAN be played without people having to challenge one another constantly for supremacy at the table. We can learn to recognize when it's happening, and call it for what it is, and counsel those players and DMs to recognize that there's a better way.


Jay Murphy said...

The number one reason, after twenty years of not sitting around a table rolling dice, I've delved back into role playing with a lustful appetite is my firm conviction that this gaming experience can be soooo much better than the one I had when I was fifteen. That some how I was missing the point of the whole exercise. Fortunately the OSR blogesphere has provided vital information on why my I have had this feeling. The information on how best to play these games was missing.

James said...

I would like to champion a third reason for railroading; it is the path of least resistance. Railroading allows me to make a few maps, devise a few encounters, plan a few NPCs and call it a day. I will often try to include meaningful (but limited) choices and multiple ways of handling encounters, but it is still railroading.

The other problem I run into is it is what players' expect. I tried running an open world campaign, and my players felt overwhelmed by options and felt a lack of direction and a general listlessness. Now, it was also my first game and I know I made about 352,273 mistakes, but it was a learning experience.

I intend to, in my next campaign, reattempt a sandbox setting, and hopefully it will work out better.

Alexis Smolensk said...

This is why I described it as a strategy, James. It is the most obvious strategy, and those fellows who started running in the 70s ran the game that way for the reason you do: it was easiest. In fact, it was the BEST way they could comprehend.

Consider any invention or process, and consider how that particular process was done in the beginning. It was done that way because that was all they knew. If you were to build a gun from scratch, without any pre-made materials/parts and without modern tools, you'd build a arqubus.

That would be easiest, too.

James said...

Oh, I should add that I agree 100% with your assertion that the idea that DMing as a skill should still be stuck in the 1970s is illogical, and one of D&D's biggest problems

Carl said...

Excellent post, Alexis.

Jay Murphy said...

and my experience so far has been captured here. http://vanishingtower.blogspot.com/2013/10/so-im-playing-now.html