Friday, October 24, 2014



Just received a comment on yesterday's post literally minutes after listening to part of Ric Burn's history of New York City, released between 1999 and 2003.  It's a massive, 17 and a half hour chronological study.  I'm just completing part 7.  Anyway, first the comment:

Doug writes,

"I wonder how much of this is a result of players who don't bother fleshing out their characters. Giving a character a place to call home is an invitation to a DM to mess with that home. Sort of the reason why so many characters seem to be orphans so the DM can't kidnap a dear sibling."

The passage in the documentary above that I've finished was the demise of Robert Moses, after devastating much of New York in the interests of traffic flow and housing despite the destruction of lives and long-standing communities.  In effect, Moses was a real-life DM - urban planner, planning authoritarian, all-around self-righteous asshole on the grandest scale possible - whose greatest happiness in life was the destruction of things that people held dear for the sake of 'the good' as defined by Robert Moses.

And having listened to this and learned a great deal, along comes Doug to write about messing with the home.

It is very easy for DMs - and television script writers - to leap to the easiest, repulsively overused plot device in the history of serial writing, the destruction of anything the player appreciates.

The player has built a castle?  Immediately - and here I mean in the very next running after the castle is built! - set forces in motion that will destroy, or at least seriously threaten to destroy the castle.  Nevermind that there have never been any forces in the region or that the land has stood unoccupied for millennia, as soon as a castle appears, the DM must wreck it.

The player has an object of power?  Immediately set about having something steal it, dis-empower it, produce something of equal power and go head-to-head with the player, whatever works.  DON'T let the player enjoy it!

The player has managed to establish a rapport with an ally, local authority or guild?  That's a death sentence.  The ally or local authority must die immediately, the guild's management must change immediately, and to someone who obviously must now HATE the player, there must not be any sense of gain or status that the player can enjoy!

We must maintain the player character's inconsequentiality, we must ensure that the player NEVER has a chance to expand from a foothold that they have established, we must always see to it that there's always a higher power or entity that despises the player's success and makes moves towards eradicating it.

Player characters must not be allowed to obtain power.  Even if the DM does allow the player to enjoy it temporarily, the decision will be made immediately about how long the player will be allowed to enjoy it and when the door will be shut.  There's no question about that.

Why?  Because power is an annoyance.  It requires, first of all, that the DM must adapt to new circumstances.  A party that has acquired a host of magic items and followers is now difficult to kill, meaning that all the old patterns of humanoid squads and a few giant beasts aren't enough to threaten the party anymore.  It will take companies of humanoids and a great host of beasts to really challenge the party!  Hell, that's a lot of fighting, a lot of planning, a lot of rolling up hit dice.  Fuck all that. We'll just destabilize that follower base, deprive the party of all the magic, leave them naked on the street again and then MY adventure, Caves of the Cave-loving Cave-dwellers of Cave Cavernous will be relevant again!  Hooray for good DMing!

Having to allow the player who's obtained a minor nobility to attend meetings organized by the Duke or King is just too much trouble.  Damn, that means the world would need to make some sort of sense, it would mean that I'd have to portray a campaign that demands a knowledge of how governing works.  I'd have to read a book!  The king would have to speak respectfully to a party member!  There'd have to be armies and mass battles and - holy shit - what if the party actually tries to get married and have children?  Jeebus, that's pretty freaking squicky!  I just can't deal with that.

Ah, I know what to do!  Okay, first the king dies, then his evil brother marries the queen and together they set out to clean out the kingdom, and of course first they'd start with the newest lords . . .

Listen.  I know why a lot of you run worlds.  Some of you have done the above without knowing any better.  Some of you damn well do know better.

I can't figure out how the people who know better still have players.  But then, I suppose a lot of your players don't know any better.

This 'immediately' shit is really most annoying.  The decision that's made not even to give the alternative role-playing campaign a try, but to immediately destroy the first steps towards that with undermining the player's efforts . . . this really bothers me.  We should really understand that the immediate destruction of things that people have fought for and risked for and invested their time and mental faculties for is a really, really, really shitty thing to do.  It's a poisonous DM's strategy, a self-aggrandizing, miserable thing to do.

It ought to bother your players.

I hope some of them have gotten furious and shouted at you.  They ought to do more.  They ought to break your jaw.


Alexis Smolensk said...

To the person who's comment I just deleted:

How did you know I was talking about you?

Oddbit said...


This has absolutely destroyed both me as a player and made my job as a DM SO HORRIBLY DIFFICULT.

It's made it so that my players are actually having less fun as they expect I am always out to get them.

I'm in a space game. The players have a space ship. They refuse to ever leave the space ship alone as obviously that means I will immediately do something horrible to the space ship.

I have absolutely NO CLUE how to fix this. I have literally told them I have no intention of pulling cheap shots. And in some cases outright told them that if they wanted their character could leave the ship because I WILL NOT BE DOING TERRIBLE THINGS TO IT. And they STILL persist in defending it stalwartly...

I even go out of my way to intentionally logic them into being able to get their ship back 'easily' after they were captured.

I don't even know what to do but prove to them every opportunity I have that I am not taking cheap shots. But it sure as hell is slow going.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't know if you remember, Oddbit, that I ran slam into this for the first time when I ran the online campaign for the very first time before you came to join it.

Your experience and mine shows the DAMAGE done by 40 years of incompetence, opportunism, a lack of responsibility and pure mean-spiritedness that has come to be inherently a disease within role-playing.

Damage that no one anywhere - particularly not among the game makers or the supposed 'testers' want to address or even consider, as they set out to contribute to it every day with more and more badly written modules doing no less than what we've come to expect from the very 'best' of sit-com writing.

Seriously, though - if you've told them and they don't believe you, I suggest you make a threat - if they can't be bothered to step forward and PLAY, neither will you.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Good post. Shitty DMs do a behavior to retain control/resist change, and train their players to expect it, or to use it themselves as DM. I think this behavior, and the "each session/adventure is a self-contained episode" behavior come from the same source*. They are done by the control-freak or over-invested DMs.

There may be another cause for this behavior, although I'm just woolgathering here: in fiction, it's common for the hero to achieve something (e.g. take over a a small kingdom) in one story, and then for there to be a TIME SKIP until the 2nd story (when the invaders attack the now-flourishing kingdom.) The problem is, most games are not set up to make the "skipped time" interesting. Other than magic item creation, there's nothing really interesting to be done during what is called "downtime" (and it's only called that because the players aren't out fighting/traveling, which means "no game" to these people.) In a more fleshed-out WORLD, however, there are e.g. economic ventures, bureaucratic concerns, affairs of state, intrigues, etc for the new rulers to concern themselves with. In the well-run world we can play these things out in full. The shitty game will do a time-skip until the next time there's a fight (or just make a fight happen immediately: the former just pays lip service to the idea of a functioning world). In the same way, some fiction assumes that nobody cares about politics, etc. and skips to the fight scene. Perhaps the DM's jumping straight to destroying the player's achievements has its roots in these shitty books just as the three-act structure bullshit does.

Of course, in the end it doesn't matter where the behavior comes from. If they do it, they suck.

*I also think the "immediately destroy" DM is even worse than the "episodic" one, because at least the latter is explicitly stating that whatever players do will ultimately not matter (and giving you a sign to bail out before it's too late!)

Dave Cesarano said...

I'd rather the PCs help Duke Wulf of Carwell rout the orcs in the North Forest because Carwell is the fighter's uncle and he feels obligated to help out, not because Carwell posted a sign (forgetting that serfs, peasants, mercs, yeoman, hell anyone except clergy and magisters can't read) saying, "Rout orcs, 5 gp per scalp + treasure and XP. --Duke Carwell."

Having a personal reason to go adventure is better than "here's some money and XP." Dramatic tension = more player investment. I've noticed that players will take greater risks for imaginary people I portray that they like than for imaginary gp and XP.

Let the players acquire power. If they lose it, it had better really advance things in a hugely dramatic way and/or be 100% a consequence of their actions. In both cases, they're allowed to pick up the pieces and rebuild, assuming they succeed and survive.

JB said...

@ Dave:

Huh, I'd rather the PCs become the "Duke of Carwell."

@ Alexis:

In recent years, I've had the opposite issue...players who don't have any ambition to become "powers" in the campaign world. In my AD&D youth we welcomed wholesale shifts in the fabric of the game world due to PCs becoming lords and ladies and controlling vast tracts of land and possessing powerful magic and armies and whatnot. The campaign world evolved just as the PCs did. But the players I've had recently...they're more concerned with finding the next goblin next to loot. I don't THINK they're afraid that anything they acquire will be "immediately" taken from them (they haven't voiced that fear). They just seem more interested in playing "light."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Perhaps, JB, that is a case of stress in their ordinary lives; a view that acquiring power in your world would be equivalent to acquiring responsibility, which may be the thing they're avoiding by playing the game.

I don't insist that my players acquire or that they MUST become supreme over the domain - I only say that if this is what they want, the DM needs to go with it.

Still, I stand by this philosophy - if the players resist something in the game, then it is because they have been taught or trained to resist it. Perhaps not by you, but by someone.

If I were in your game, JB, knowing that you encourage PvP, I wouldn't bother to invest myself in acquiring status either. Food for thought.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Hmm..."encourage" may not be the right word. "Welcome" would be closer to accurate...still I leave this in the hands of the players.

Strangely, the players of recent years (who exhibit little to no ambition) are dead set against PvP conflict, whereas the ones in the past who DID engage in PvP are the same ones interested in impacting the game world with dominions and armies and whatnot. The PvP conflicts often came about because of feuding territories and rivalries.

Food for thought indeed!

Alexis Smolensk said...

As you've argued vigorously on your blog more than once for the virtues of PvP, and as you continue to advertise the symbol for it prominently on your blog, I'd say 'encourage' is accurate in fact if not in admission.

You seem to discount, JB, the possibility that the presence of accepted PvP in your campaign may be influencing the players; perhaps as they've gotten older, or perhaps as they have seen the game turn and change this last decade, they've adjusted their playing style to suit the campaign you're running. The ones in the past were perhaps less experienced, or playing in a different gaming culture, not yet affected by the omnipresence of first person-shooters that exists in a hundred times the availability.

We don't game in a vacuum. We're all experiencing influences on our players' styles from the outside. The trick is to change our policies and ourselves to adapt to those changes.

Clearly the present style of gaming that your players are pursuing is not satisfying you. Time for YOU to change.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Oh, I AM changing Alexis...a little bit every day.
; )