Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Sides of Power

I am, at the moment, having an argument with myself.

On the one hand, I firmly believe that the DM's privilege of running a campaign is dependent upon the players.  The DM is effectively 'chosen,' or in the very least tolerated by the players, enabling the DM to have authority and run the campaign.  If the players don't wish to play, they can shut the campaign down by not turning up.

Of course, there are many DMs who believe the contrary.  They are responsible for their own campaign, they do the work, the players are lucky to be able to play, etc.  "No one 'grants' me the right to be a DM, I earn that by doing all the work," etc.

There are going to be the inevitable fence-sitters who rise up now and say, "It's both, yes, it's everyone working together ..."  Cue sappy tone of voice and bright shiny eyes staring into the distance, thinking of a time when the whole world joins in union to live life in perfect harmony.

I don't believe it's 'both.'  I think that's a very convenient evasion of the fact that the players can force the DM's game to end, while the DM cannot force the players to play.  Of course, the DM can also force the game to stop, but does that really make sense?  The DM works on the world so the moment can come to play and the DM says, "Well, fuck you all, I don't like you, we're not playing."

Naturally, the DM can always wander off and find a different group of players.  Except that the DM will still be beholden to them to run the campaign, so it's really just trading off either bosses or consumers for the DM's product.  The latter there, however, certainly makes it sound like the DM is in control, the DM has produced something and now it's being flogged around to find buyers who are ready to buy into the product and play.  The recent culture has even embraced the term, "buy in," in order to reflect this premise that the onus is on the players to bow down and acquiesce to the DM's product.

And thus, the argument I am having with myself.

It doesn't take much thought to recognize that any product that is provided to anyone to satisfy a need is, in fact, the making of money from servicing people ... or as George Orwell called the restaurant business in Down and Out in Paris and London, a servile practice, one that is done by a slave.  So there you have it. The DM may be in charge of the product, but the product itself is fundamentally one of servility, in that the player's needs - for a good game, presumably - are being satisfied in exchange for their attention and appreciation.  The DM might go find another party to play in the DM's game, but this is done hat in hand, with the proviso that the DM is reduced to begging.

Aha, says the opposition, doesn't the player also come begging?  Doesn't the player plead with the DM, "Please let me come play in your game?"  It certainly looks like the DM has all the keys, and all the power, and that if the DM closes the door, the player is out of luck.  It's not like a restaurant, because the DM can close the doors if you don't happen to dress properly or if you speak incorrectly or if you're just plain annoying to the other customers.

Of course, you can just start your own campaign.

That leads, I think, to the difficulty of starting a campaign.  If DM's are truly 'talent,' then they offer something that you, the player, cannot obtain on your own.  You can't make food that tastes as a good as what a restaurant can provide, or in the very least you can't provide it for yourself as conveniently, in your car on the way home.  For that privilege, you're ready to eat absolute shit ... and in the same light, showing up on a Friday night without having done even as much as rewriting your character sheet, you're all set to play having done no prep work at all.

So the DM is in control, nyet?  The DM has the talent, the DM is the gatekeeper, the DM sets all the rules for behavior and what restrictions the game will follow ... and the player had better just suck that down and be grateful they're allowed to sit in the DM's hallowed presence.

I guess where my issue lies is that if the DM does have anything remotely like that attitude, they're more than likely to behave in a manner that demands their own importance, including intimidating and influencing players to make them grateful when they are not, or to demand that the attention at the table be directed at themselves, while DMs pursue a set of behaviors that are set to compensate for their miserable lives outside the game, or their miserable childhood, or their personal enjoyment derived from killing player characters, or watching players fight one another, like Elvis dragging in hookers to wrestle each other while offering more money to the one that gouges deeper.  There are many DM's who silently ingratiate themselves on their own importance while cheerfully directing players to participate in a different fantasy game, one that is at the same time gladiatorial and sycophantic, at the expense of players who have been browbeat into believing that they are lucky as hell just to be in the company of this great fellow who has deigned to work so hard to make the game possible.

THAT, I think, is the central reason why players have problems in games ... it is because they are mistreated by DMs who simply fail at being human beings, who manage still to delude players into thinking there are no other options, that the players have got to take attend this bastard's game because there are no other games available, and because it is just so gosh darn hard to create a world of their own where everyone plays cooperatively and has a good time.  I also think these miscreants running their campaigns are advertisements for every dirty bastard of a player who wants gladiatorial games and are more than prepared to by sycophantic in order to get them.

It isn't so much that the players necessarily ARE in control, but they could be, any time they're willing to cease putting up with this shit together, which they could do by speaking up during a campaign against both the bastards in the player role and the bastards in the DM's chair.

But then, we've been crying for some time now that any time we're willing to get out into the street as a group and threaten to tear down the fucking government, the government will change their tune, but as long as we sit quietly and suck our own tongues down our throats, the corruption and criminal behavior of politicians will continue unchecked.  The pitch for unilateral action is about as successful as waiting for a Republican to admit that perhaps God didn't say fuck all about abortion in the Bible because God had never heard of it.

Still, we're not talking about all of society here.  We're talking about three or four adult people sitting at a table saying, "You know what, it's time you, the DM, started running a game we want to play in," and seeing what happens.


ravencrowking said...

Not a bad post, and you point out many of the relevant issues very well, but I do not think that the conclusion you draw follows from the data.

The idea that the GM or the players come "cap in hand" to the table is ludicrous, in my experience. I have never had to worry about players, and good players have never had to worry about me.

I have had players decide not to play in the game system I want to run. That is cool. But I have never had players force me to run anything I did not want to, nor is there any means for them to do so.

The GM decides what he wants to run. This decision may be made with player input, but it need not be. The players decide if they want to play. This decision may be made in consultation with the GM, but it need not be.

Everything you talk about in the post points to the same conclusion: There is a balance of power on both sides of the table, but the power of each side takes different forms.

James said...

You talk about the relationship in terms of power and control, but isn't it really just a social contract? We, the players, give you the roles of both creator and referee. However, for that right, we demand a fun experience. When the Contract is broken is when problems occur.

If we must discuss the dynamic in terms of outright power and control, I always felt it was more akin to a symbiotic relationship. Sure, the players can always take their ball and go home, but often times, very few players are really willing to DM, because they think it is too hard, or time-consuming, or they lack confidence, or any of the myriad of reasons people don't do things.

Also, there is the reality that even if people can take their ball and go home, very few people actually will. Thus DMs often retain much of the power because, as written, players have few options outside of revolt.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ludicrous. adjective. Causing laughter because of absurdity; provoking or deserving derision; ridiculous; laughable.

ravencrowking said...

That is correct. When I read the bit about the poor DM having to try to find players, begging essentially, I actually laughed out loud. It is completely contrary to my experience, although I will grant that it may have happened to others.

That said, I am looking forward to your book. While I am sure that there will be things I disagree with, I am also certain that there will be insights I have not considered.

Matt said...

Maybe Ravencrowking lives in a densely populated area with several game stores and a long history with the hobby. Maybe he has a large group of friends and acquaintances that game as often as he does. Maybe he is still in school and has a larger pool of social connections to draw on. Whatever the case I think that his situation of never having to search for a group is an uncommon one.

As a DM I have to be a salesperson for whatever game I am trying to run. I have to convince people to spend 4 or more hours on a session on a regular schedule. I game on Saturday nights, so being a regular player in my campaign involves the sacrifice of some very valuable time.

My campaigns tend to become very wrapped up in character goals, so the moment one player decides "Screw this. I'm going to spend my Saturdays downtown or with my family or with other friends" my current campaign is at risk of collapse.

Two or more players doing this kills a campaign dead.

It doesn't even take the entire table to undermine me as a DM. I tried to run a game where plague and disease would play a major part in the campaign. I was trying to build an atmosphere with some gloom and some despair. The characters were going to be fighting vampires and necromancers and cultists and such. Some of my players bought in. Two didn't. They decided they would be at the table, but they weren't playing my game. "Oh, sickness is the problem? Lets start a Laundromat! I'll play an Asian stereotype sorcerer and I'll start a magic dry cleaning business. Want to help?" "Sure! I'll help out your business. Lets go about town washing clothes and fixing disease."

And sure, I could have kicked them out, but they were half my group. They were friends. They were some of the only players I had. Were my other players pissed? Sure. They thought they'd get to play a gloomy dark vampire hunting game, and instead two players were pissing all over it with a joke.

That lasted for an hour or two before I quit. I sent everyone home. I trashed the campaign. I forget what we ended up playing after that but I had been running 4th edition D&D during that period of my gaming so it was probably some high powered fantasy loot-explosion bullshit. I hate that kind of game but I ran it because that's what kept my players coming back to the table and quite frankly I needed the creative outlet more than they needed the dice rolling so I ran their game and tried to build a world around it until despite my efforts I lost friends and players anyway.

So I begged the remains of the players to play a game that I would enjoy running and I tried my damnedest to keep it interesting because I was out of options. If I couldn't get them to buy in I had no players.

Now, I have more players than I did then. I run a game with depth that keeps the players interested and coming back. I don't have to bend over to appease the players. If someone tries to pull another Laundromat stunt I'll physically throw them out of my home. Still, if that happens, or if someone leaves, I have to do more to sell my remaining players on my game.

Long winded response. Sorry. The short of it is you're very very right Alexis. I didn't realize I was doing it until you told me of course. I thought I had been impressive and interesting, not catering and pandering. It's a tough thing to swallow because as DMs we work so hard, and put so much into our games. Players praise you. They say they don't have what it takes to do what you do. You feel like a god, but what use is a god without believers.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Long-winded responses are good, Matt. They clarify the point.

My research tells me that a strong leader is one that is able to build a solid, cooperative TEAM that works towards a goal, and that the best leaders are the ones a TEAM will choose because that's the leader that will get them there. Independent DMs who view players as disposable are not trying to build a team, they're trying to build worshippers.

No, you don't have to cater and pander. But you should provide sustenance and purpose. Before you throw the next Laundromat guy out of your house, take a walk with him down to the store and ask up front if he or she recognizes that you're ready to play an adult game with serious people. Try to make them understand that you're working towards a goal, and that they need to get on board with that goal or take their leave. You might be able to make them understand, so that at least if they go, they won't stop being your friend.

YagamiFire said...

Excellent post.

No easy answer to it.

What you're basically looking at is the rise of things like cult of personality and, as you said, leadership positions in general.

Your description of the DM who abuses players is the classic case of power corrupting...or, more accurately, a position of authority encouraging someone to display their true colors. They overtly or covertly, consciously or subconsciously, manipulate the table and the people at it. They are the alpha of the group and both guide and direct it...woe betide those that try to rise from the rank of beta. They get slapped own. Rocks fall. Only they die.

This is one of the reasons I caution against the concept of "buy in"...because it's opening up the opportunity for bad behavior by suggesting the players are buying something the DM is if the relationship is vender and consumer. "Well you guys SAID you wanted this" - The DM said while giggling and rolling the dice.

At the same time, I've definitely seen the "cap in hand" DM situation with someone wanting to run a game, all-but begging for players. More often than not, they're craving an audience...a peanut gallery. They grovel not for the experience they can offer, but rather for attention to their game. Their wonderful creation. Their art. I mean, if only people would give them the chance, those players would see how great their efforts are...and THEN they'll beg to keep playing. And if they don't...well then those players are ingrates and philistines! They don't appreciate what was so humbly offered to them out of the DMs sweet, generous nature!


Personally, I DM because I enjoy the aspects of the game itself...and I enjoy the company of my friends primarily. We can hang out, they can drink (since I don't) and we can have fun. I see them make hard decisions, come up with cool ideas and enjoy turn, I have fun from that. They do the majority of the talking...and I mean that on an individual level. Any single player tends to talk more than me during any given session. If we weren't playing D&D, we'd be doing something else.

I've no desire to hold power over them, because there's no power to be had. It's a game. I'm content with the endowment God granted me and have no need to supplement it with piles of polyhedrons. I don't think they work that way, anyhow.

And if I was being a prick, I'm sure at least one of my friends would say something...but, better yet, I avoid having to drop into that safety net by simply not being a prick. By not inflating the role of DM with needless pomp & bluster. My work is not special as a time is not more or less valuable. I create and run because I enjoy it...not because I am sacrificing for my players to experience some brilliant art. I simply do my best because I like to do my best in things I'm passionate about. I play to win. In the case of D&D, that means running as well as possible so my friends have as much fun as possible.

A DM begging for players is a red flag...because it's about begging to play THEIR GAME...instead of them trying to make friends. "Come play my game!" about "Can we play a game together?". Then again, it helps to keep the frame of mind where what you make today will be considered shit by the you of tomorrow. I'm never in love with anything I create...because tomorrow I'll want to rip it to pieces and rejigger it into something better.

Unfortunately, megalomania is a hard habit to break.

Alexis Smolensk said...


ravencroaking has posted a response to you on his blog. Not here. There. Because, basically, he'd like to take up a subject with you that is in no way relevant to the subject matter of this post.

I'm not going to post the link, though he sent it here. You can find it by following the link of ravencroaking's name to his Nest blog.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't see that being the only possible motivation behind begging, Yagami. I think that should be judged on a case by case basis. Yes, some people ARE responsible for being beggers. And some people are just in a bad position.

Jeremiah Scott said...

As a writer, I previously DMed with idea in mind that I could write our adventures into a book. All my players would be excited at the start of each campaign saying, "Is this for a new book?"

Six months ago I started a new campaign with the idea that--I was inspired half by your blog, half by watching a very bad DM--DMing like that makes me a worse DM and a worse writer. I told my players that I had no plot and that this campaign was their game.

At first, they seemed disappointed. And they've struggled a bit to get used to the new dynamic. But it has been worth every struggle. I am no longer the dictator. I feel a freedom to connect with their characters in ways other than at the end of marionettes' strings. The dynamic between player and DM has changed completely and I think our experience is so much richer for it.

Previously I was chosen to DM because I "wrote the best stories and did the best accents." It would be laughable in hindsight if I didn't feel so much anguish over how much of my gaming experienced served just to inflate my ego. I was deriving enjoyment from watching them squirm through the treachery of my scenarios. And they all professed to enjoy it. But I started to get the sense that something was amiss. I think this post covers the "syndrome" from which our gaming dynamic suffered: DM megalomaniac, PC sycophant.

They have since spread their own wings and we have a much more natural interaction. We are still learning how it works, and fighting the urge to fall back into familiar patterns. But the newfound joy of the game helps to keep me on the straight and narrow.

And so, in my experience, the dictatorial DM is likely also to be the railroading DM. And why should we be surprised that a DM who wants to force feed a storyline to characters also thinks they should be grateful to him or her for the opportunity to play? Anyway, that battle has been fought.

I know this is only tangential to the thesis at hand, but I think it has more than passing relevance.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Much more than passing, Jeremiah. It's on target.

Dave Cesarano said...

This post. Holy crap. It hit the frickin' nail on the head.


I've got two players right now for my Exalted game. That's it. What's funny is that it's very much a hat-in-hand situation for all three of us. They won't run anything(one can't, one doesn't feel he'd be a good GM and is probably right). I'm the only one who can and is willing. All three of us are trying to work out our schedules to pull in a couple other people but we've had real problems with inter-personal dynamics and players the type of which you, Alexis, have mentioned and discussed throughout a lot of recent posts (which I'll return to below). In the end, we're making it work, but it's not as fun as it would be with a larger group but we've learned that it's better to have two players instead of two players and two idiots who want to run a laundromat. So we're really choosy about whom we approach and it's often people with whom we've gamed before and know they fit the group dynamic constructively (which I find much more important than "buying in").

I game to live in the world (and yes, true, I like being a hero, doing amazing deeds, and blowing up evil gods with sorcery). I GM because I love history, culture, languages, literature, poetry, music, etc. and even if it is in my imagination and the imaginations of my two friends, GMing allows me to dwell in these far-off places. I've found that Jeremiah is on target with a lot of what he said, too, about railroading, GMing, and the like. From my experience, people who start GMing because they want to often have power issues and turn the game into one big self-aggrandizing project to their own literary "genius." On the other hand, those who start GMing like me (everyone picked me to GM way-back-when) sometimes end up pandering too much to the players. Which reminds me of the post you wrote regarding giving players what they want (I think it was "Spoiled Rotten").

An interesting note--my friends wanted me to run a game and so I said I was thinking about Vampire: The Dark Ages (I'm really quite tired of D&D, levels, classes, etc. so I've been hitting the White Wolf pretty heavily lately) and I was met with dead, stony silence. When I pursued the issue, they were pretty straight-forward about being utterly uninterested in playing vampires. However, when I said I had ideas for an Exalted game, they jumped on it. Proof positive of what you've said in this post--the Vampire game died before it even began.

Finally, you're dead on about roleplaying being a team effort--one in which the GM is as much a part as the players themselves. There's a ton more I could write but I'll leave it at this. Can't wait for the book, Alexis.

YagamiFire said...


We've all seen those situations where the put-upon person just appreciates the attention directed towards them by a tormentor. Stockholm syndrome in tabletop form.

Very nice post.

"But they REALLY like my stories!"

"They bought in to me running a story-heavy game! So it's okay!"

"They WANT me to make a story!"

Like an episode of COPs..."Don't take him! I loooove him!" says the abused house-wife.

Uh huh. Find a healthy relationship. For your own sake.

Again, very nice post. I've (along with my table) gone through similar growth.