Monday, July 25, 2016

The French Viewpoint

I promise that I'll come back to the remaining two vocational/encounter groups for my campaign (functionaries and soldiers).  I'm just taking a breather.  I enjoyed the discussion on the last post and I want to elaborate on one of the points.

I have been thinking about why there is so much resistance for DMs against getting rid of the screen.  I've often heard people say that they need the screen for the quick references there - but those can easily be memorized or addressed in just a few seconds from an open book.  I usually run with a table on the left of me and on the right as well, with open books on both . . . and books leaning against the legs of the table at m feet, where ever I can keep them close to hand.  As I've said before, while DMs may concern themselves that the players are "bored" with waiting while a DM looks something up, this is more a self-conscious fear on the part of the DM than it is a reality.  The players want to know what the book says too - the players are as invested in the correct response as much as the DM ought to be - and after 37 years of DMing, I can assure the reader that looking stuff up reassures the player that the world is honest, consistent and fair.  Once you have the players convinced of those three things, they'll wait until perdition for a legitimate answer to their questions (including, "Did I hit?).

No, that's just an excuse.  As regards fudging and the urge to fudge, even the right to fudge, as some DMs would have it, I find it interesting that we, the table-top gaming culture, have invented this word to draw attention from the actual descriptive, that the DM is looking at the dice and lying.  Let the defenders call it what they will, it's a lie, pure and simple.  I'm sure that if a poll was put up asking if it was okay for the DM to lie about the die (or any other part of the game), there would be less tolerance for it.  But use a word that doubles in use as a soft, gooey, addictive chocolaty confectionery, and it's okay.  That kind of revisioning is a lie all in itself, is it not?

Is there something other than the will to lie that's inherent in the need to keep the screen?  Yes.  I did bring it up in my book How to Run.  The screen is a separator.  It is a physical wall that serves to identify the DM from the players, to create a sense of superiority that helps establish an untouchable, dominant isolation from the rest of the party.  "I am the DM . . . the rest of you are merely players."

Suppose we imagine another such technique, one that I'll use because - as far as I know - it's not common to the table.  Suppose that every time we needed to ask the DM a question, or if you wanted the DM's attention, we were expected to start with the phrase, "DM, may I?"

This isn't so far from reasonable.  I've worked in a lot of restaurants and it was standard policy for a server to get the cook's attention with "Kitchen, may I?" or the server's attention with "Front House, may I?"  The phrase respects that people are busy and that interrupting them without warning creates stress and bad tempers.  Of course, with the help of TV, this has been lately transformed into "Chef, may I?"  Many kitchens now demand that the head chef is referred to in this way by everyone, regardless of their role, who works in the restaurant.  This has led to swelled heads, obviously, as chefs have somehow gotten themselves promoted to the status of doctors, judges and political leaders - without the need for things like ten years of schooling, political appointment or running for office.  (I was told once in a kitchen that there are only two correct responses to a chef: "Yes Chef!" and "Done Chef!")

So, tell me . . . does "Yes, DM!" rankle when it's proposed for the gaming table?  Personally, my skin crawls.  I'm simply not better than my players, I'm not entitled to special acclamation and I know damn well I wouldn't be solid with giving that sort of honor to another DM.  I act in the role of DM because of what I get from the process, not what I get from the players.  I enjoy thinking fast on my feet, I enjoy the show and tell, I enjoy the strain of withholding information until just the perfect moment and I enjoy the emotional response from players who are surprised, elated, downtrodden, desperate, ready, panicked and so on.  I don't need my ass kissed.

I argue, however, that the screen represents exactly this.  The DM can make whatever arguments they wish for the screen being there, but the reality is that these are suspiciously convenient reasons for the DM being able to furtively, deceptively, haughtily, unapproachably and coolly putting on airs.

There is an old joke I've always appreciated . . . that an American, seeing another fellow glide by in an outrageously expensive car, dreams of the day when he, too, will be able to drive a car like that; while a Frenchman, seeing the same fellow in the same car, dreams of the day when he'll drag the bastard out of his car and make him walk like everybody else.

We Russians have always appreciated the French.


Matt said...

I'll bite.

I could see rules about how and when to address the DM being useful in certain situations at the table. For instance, if we follow one of your own tips for the DM to shut up when the party is talking and figuring things out. Using this specific phrase lets the players voice they want DM input, rather than when they are simply thinking aloud. It would also allow the DM time to gather materials and prep for what may come next.

Alternately, if a game is being run with a rather large group of players, say, more than 10, it could be a good organizational aid to have the players address the DM specifically when they want to be heard.

As for the screen, I agree. No real need for it other than creating a barrier between DM and players. It should go the way of fake dice rolls, pointless empty rooms, and gotcha style traps as a 'tension' building device that really only causes frustration.

Jomo Rising said...

I use a screen because I don't have enough room to put stuff (maps, art, stats, etc.) that I don't want the players to see. I use a laptop with some regularity, but I stand and walk around as a DM. I find that I have to sit to use/see my laptop and I don't like to do that too often. I am not free to rearrange the room we use. Are there any suggestions? I might be stuck in a behavior that is comfortable as I also use my modified screen for reference. I make many rolls publicly but not all. It may be an attempt by me to hold on to some special authority, like the barrier between a priest and the congregation at mass. Needs thought and input.

Algol said...

I've always found the "you need a screen to hide rolls" to be an odd argument. Sometimes for example, you don't want a player to realize what they rolled for sneaking, it's a good idea to hide rolls.
Just cup your hand right on the table and roll into that. I've never seen necessarily hidden rolls come up often enough and there's no benefit I see to having a wall in front of the DM. One point httat isn't brought up enough is that a DM screen obscures the DM's view of the players body language. Rules reference sheets should be something the players have easy access to as well so it seems sensible to just leave them on the table.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Why cup your hand, Algol?

I have made "secret" rolls in front of players. I roll the die in plain sight and don't tell the player what the roll means. Sometimes, I point out that the roll is a "7" or a "56" so that I can show the players the table LATER, when the secret is no longer out. If you don't explain the roll ahead of time, how would the players guess what it meant?

As regards "sneaking," I changed the mechanics for that problem so that I wouldn't HAVE to hide it.

Perhaps that is what's needed: an understanding that a mechanic requiring a secret die roll is a BAD mechanic.

Alexis Smolensk said...



I don't think I'm ready to be muzzled. I'll shut up when I think it's the right time; but I can't manage the game's momentum if I'm stuck listening to players overthink something while I'm waiting for permission to speak. Nope. Doesn't work for me.

If there were 10 or more players, you're right. Maybe asking permission to speak might be reasonable.

Matt said...

I don't think it is something I would implement either. Just playing the Devil's Advocate really.

I think the hobby as a whole could benefit from a different default model of player/DM interaction, considering that the model right now seems to be "The DM is King, God, Lord and Master, the players have to listen to everything he says(Or else the DM will quit and never buy our books.) Also, DM, feel free to do whatever you want except for ever make the players feel like their characters aren't the best, coolest, most awesome people in the game world (Or else they'll quit and never buy our books!)

Alexis Smolensk said...


That is very well put!