Friday, April 26, 2013

The Good Old Days

Having resolved to write a book about dungeon mastering, I have been contemplating for some months now about the legitimacy of becoming, and remaining, a dungeon master.  Rather that discussing here how one does it, or for what motivations, I'd like to discuss the core idea of who is entitled, and who is not, to run a gaming group.

I would expect the gentle reader to bristle at the word 'entitled' ... the reply I would expect, voiced loudly, is "ANYONE!"   But then, that assumes anyone with friends willing to participate, or the 'opportunity' to play.  If, by chance, there are no players, there is no gaming group.

By default, and largely because of the need to sell product, I believe the gaming community has presumed that the final arbiter on what makes a game - and who defines D&D - must be, without question, the dungeon master.  Gygax and crowd were dungeon masters.  Dungeon masters create adventures.  They know what will happen, what is happening, what ought to happen during the game.  They do all the work ... and to those who do the work goes the respect, indeed, the humble gratitude of mere players who need only sit down and play.  If there are no dungeon masters, there are no games - and the various foundations of commercial product know very well who it is that buys their shit.  Players buy dice, they may buy a book or two ... but it is the DM, or the would-be DM, who enters and drops $500 in an afternoon.

And so the community has operated on this loose ideal that IF you're prepared to draw the dungeon map, and IF you're prepared to spend the money, and IF you have the space and IF you're willing to present a world in that space, THEN you are one of the elite, the dungeon master, the most important person at the table.

I can feel the bristling again, as I've very carefully written that so that it rubs in just the wrong way.  Still, whatever your egalitarian indignation, it is impossible to present a world as a DM and not feel the gentle waft of adulation that arises from your long-time, appreciative players.  Nor is it difficult to recognize the stiff, okay-motherfucker-prove-you've-got-what-it-takes from the occasional new, experienced player that steps up to try your world.  The latter comes from having a lot of DMs preen and strut their shit like it doesn't stink, where you recognize that a DM having a few sycophantic admirers doesn't prove a quality game.

Have enough people suck up to your grandiosity and that shit will go right to your head ... and I have sat in on more than a few games where the DM was one amazingly pompous bastard, nevertheless with players whose mouths were surgically attached to that DM's anus (this is physically impressive where the number of players rises to more than three).  The circumstance has made me - I must admit - physically ill.  Nevertheless, we've all seen it ... except, I suppose, for that substantial portion of the community that is actively living it.  I don't imagine they're the least bit aware.

All I'm saying is that, while the community pretends that its one big happy family, that every DM is of course a dreamboat and that no one could ever possibly be exploiting this power position for their personal emotional sense of superiority, the fact remains that there are many, many DMs who ARE.  Exploiting their players, that is.  Mercilessly.

We are meant to ignore this.  The commercial elements aren't interested in discussing it, the convention atmosphere isn't interested in curtailing it (as is obvious to anyone with a brain who's been to a convention) and we are absolutely NOT to discuss it in any public forum, ever.  We are to pretend that ALL players are exactly equal, that none have been duped into playing with DMs who actually know jack about fresh, exciting or imaginative ways of presenting the game, and that everyone who has reliable, loyal players has clearly earned them through being such a remarkable, spectacular DM.

Please, please, please pay no attention to anything we have come to know about psychology in the last century, behind that curtain there.  Pay no attention to the fundamentals of dependency, or the social need for approval, or what we've learned about bullying or how group dynamics have been proven to favor the loudest, most aggressive person in the room.  None of that is relevant to gaming, none of it has anything to do with a DM railroading his or her players, or those players piping up to say they "like railroading," or anything else about how the game MUST have a story or how players MUST be controlled to keep the game from descending into chaos and ceasing to be "fun."  None of the people who play in a roleplaying game are subject to the forces, the pushes and pulls, of biochemical response, nor mental abuse, nor emotional manipulation ... because once a person begins to play a character, they are magically exempt from all the influences of every day social interaction.

Because, as we all know, the only way to do anything, ever, is the OLD way, because it is the only way.  And we know that because all the people who have spent all their lives investing in that way just happen to know more than we do.  It isn't because they're old and lazy and can't be bothered to change anything about themselves.  It isn't because they're just barely bright enough to do what they've been doing for thirty years, and that a new way of playing a game is a blatant threat to their security or their stuffy pomposity.

Yes, that's right, the reason "we" don't want things to change is because they SHOULDN'T, ever, at least not as long as I, a DM for 30 years, am alive.  And I don't say that because I have my head up my own ass and it's warm and comfortable in here.  I say that because, well, I'm just older than you are.  And you should respect your elders and stop trying to change things.  Because I said so.

So let's have that straight.  Everyone who wants to treat players like shit has a right to, and if the players had any problem with that, they'd say something, because there are no psychological forces that exist to make people accept a situation they think can't be changed.  The game is about a story because that's the way it fucking IS, so fuck off.  And DMs ought never to create anything except for module-like adventures, because I don't and I've never had to, and my players LIKE it that way.

So there.


Ozymandias said...

This is why I will buy your DM book. And probably your other book. Perhaps a subscription is in order, if you're agreeable to that sort of thing...

Verification: many udynnit, as in "Many Udynnit's died to bring us this post..."

YagamiFire said...

The best is that, in many cases, the abuse has been so virulent and thorough that it's turned into full on stockholm syndrome where the victims now almost-violently defend their situation simply because they know no other way or are, in fact, fearful of other game styles.

On the other end, the abuse has ALSO made a contingent of players that have blamed that abusive dynamic on the game itself instead of on the people perpetrating it (again, psychologically it is easier to point fingers at a game than at a person) and now seek to totally change the game dynamics themselves...

Unbelievable...well, unless you know anything about which case it's VERY believable.

JD said...

You didn't, by any chance, happen to read something I wrote yesterday, did you? Anyway...

The correlation between players and DM are much more complex than, say, DM does game right = player "gets" game = game will be fun. It starts to take a wrong turn by thinking about players as one homogenous group. They are not.

Gaming culture is another thing not mentioned in your post. D&D was always a niche, but in wealthy, non-english countries that niche is so much smaller, with no social significance whatsoever (I think that is mostly derived from the fact that wealth means synchronisation means preselection, but I digress). The lack of even the most basic structures makes it (in those areas where the game is not cultivated) very hard to nurture the gaming culture we like to blog about. What I'm trying to say is that without social significance interaction is bound to use primal structures (which might lead to abusive and dominant behaviour, etc.). If D&D doesn't make the cultural preselection, a DM is on his own and all those pretty ideas become something you have to work hard to establish for even the basics. This may downgrade the game to "railroading", just because using popular tropes produces a functional shadow of the game. A "scripted" version of D&D is still some sort of D&D (and may, with experience, lead to more evolved ways to play the game).

And of course that means that the loudest person in the room is bound to get the most attention. We are apes, after all. Throwing successfully shit at each other for thousands of years now. We didn't evolve that much to answer the question "who is entitled to DM" totally unbiased. Or putting it a bit different, everyone doing so uses just another tool of manipulation in an attempt to control his surroundings. Another form of selection, with a bigger social context to justify an approach like that.

So who's entitled to DM a game? Anybody who's able to find people to play with, I guess.

And a story is something that always evolves from playing a roleplaying game, intended or not. It's one of the basic necessities of communication to give stuff that happened a cohesive narrative structure.

Just my two cents, but it's always fun to tackle your more provoking arguments.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I believe the metaphor you're looking for, JD, is throwing huge clods of mud in the water.

Read the post again. I think you missed the point.

Mike said...

Love it! Especially the respect your elders stuff, unless your elder disagrees with you.

Can't tell you how many times I've been told how it "was done in the day" by some pretentious guardian of the true way, who couldn't even write when I started playing.

Let them know, you had been playing for 6 years before they even touched a dice, and all of a sudden you don't know what you are talking about because some other internet imbecile agrees with them.

Look forward to your book on DMing Alexis, ever think of Kickstarting it?

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Ha. That sounds like a couple of games I've made the mistake of playing in. There's nothing sadder than seeing a group of people wasting hour after hour playing in a campaign that is absolutely inane and unbearably boring, just because it's never occurred to them that the game could be anything else. Of course, there's no reason that this couldn't apply to me and my group. I hate seeing my players get used to my flaws, or even mimic them. They'll say things like, "what are the rule changes this week?" Because I change them constantly, or, "don't you hate people who run really long campaigns?", again because I change campaign more often than I should. I've been trying to expand my player base lately, I've had some great additions recently, and a few people I never want to speak to again. I've also been encouraging all my players to try their hand at being dungeon master. Two of them are running short games today, to test the waters. I admit that I hope neither of them do better than I do, at least not at first, but in the long term, I hope my players get as good as I am or better, to turn my group into more of a community of people helping each other improve and less of my personal audience for whatever random bullshit I want to subject my group of captives to this week. I'll see how it turns out. This certainly is a significant problem you've identified, and people need to do whatever they can to push back against it. Sorry about the spelling and grammar errors here. My computer has something wrong with it so I'm commenting from my phone, which isn't easy to type on.

JD said...

Ha, you're right. It was an ill mix of not giving your post the proper time and bad experiences that resonated with parts of what you wrote!

Word verification is "clarents upon" and it's strangely fitting...