Monday, March 17, 2014

Splitting the Party

From How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, 2nd draft.

"Within just a year of starting to play role-games, I could not help noticing that there were certain players who were willing to invest one-hundred-percent into an adventure or a campaign.  These were people who desperately needed to play, who would bend over backwards in order to play—and who rarely, if ever, disagreed with any ruling or statement I might make.  They never missed a game.  They never forgot their characters.  They obsessed over small things, like their dice or the miniature figure that represented them, or the ornamentation of their character sheets.  These were people who loved the game, and could absolutely be counted on to show up when it was time to play.

"I was not the only one to recognize their phenomenon.  In the early of the game, it was something parents tagged onto when seeing this behavior in their teenage children.  Because the game was new and unfamiliar—and difficult to explain—the degree of fanaticism that some players expressed created a sense of panic in small communities and the local media.  This would spread briefly into the general consciousness, culminating in a notably unfortunate film starring the actor Tom Hanks, and then it would fade away over the next decade as more people had experience with role-playing.  Video games aided considerably in making role-play ‘normal.’

"Still, however, there are players who need it.  And they sit at my table on game nights.  If I have to cancel a session, these are the first people who indicate their disappointment.  If I offer to play past the normal time of quitting, these players are always exuberantly in favour.

"What that means in terms of my personal power as DM is that if I’m in a dispute with a player about my interpretation of a rule—and I encourage such disputes—and I want to increase my authority by calling on other players to support me, I can always rely those players who need very badly to play.  That is a resource that I have in my pocket.  If I am the kind of person who has to be right, who isn’t willing to acknowledge that I might be wrong, or I just very badly want to win the argument, then I’m free to take advantage of that peer support.  If the player I’m arguing with is susceptible to peer pressure, I’m going to win my argument.  If the player isn’t susceptible to that ploy, and I’m the sort of DM willing to push my position of strength, then I’m going to divide the party between those people who unconditionally support me and those people who either recognize what I’m doing—and resent it—or simply despise or tend to resist group-thinking … and I am forcing group-think upon them because I am accessing that option.

"The result is going to be a split party, in which my authority has now become the crux of that split.  It is going to become harder and harder to motivate the party to act cooperatively in the future.  Some of them will feel ‘important’ for having supported the DM—and this support will lend itself to feelings of superiority over their fellow players.  Others will feel corralled, dismissed and even somewhat misused so long as they continue to play.  Eventually, even if they like me and my game, they’ll go, leaving me with nothing but players who agree unconditionally with all that I say.  These in turn will oppress anyone new who enters the campaign, styling themselves as the ‘old guard,’ who believe they’ve been in my campaign long enough to earn them special status.  This situation will continue until I quit running, I get rid of all my players or I severely change my opinions about how to handle power."

From Part III, Managing Your Players, Chapter 9, Power Politics


  1. Wow... I, for one, was completely confounded by that title.

    Still wanting your book to be completed, so I can plunge into larval stage and devour it.

  2. I'd say, confounded by thinking that you'd write about the in-game splitting of the party of characters, location-wise, and reading an inquisitive morcel about the splitting of the party of players, socially speaking (not sure if it's the correct way of saying that).

    Anyway, that's a very interesting post, a warning sign for every DM and "faithful" players alike.

    We must always try to avoid using this kind of "power" unless really necessary, only the smallest amount needed, and refrain from misuse.

    Logical, really but we do not always sense when that happen.

    And now I'm wondering how much bullying and misuse I've seen and done without my conscious knowledge ...

  3. If I can put words in Scarbrow's mouth for a moment, I will assume that he was expecting the sort of "splitting the party" advice that you get in normal RPG discourse. The sort of "Well, some players will feel left out if their characters go different ways. Make sure everyone gets some spotlight time. Try to encourage players to have their characters cooperate so that you don't have to run too many threads at once."

    I know that I was expecting that from the title. I wondered why you would be covering something so mundane and well travelled. I thought maybe you had some different insight to the issue. Instead you tackled a much more important issue.

  4. I've experienced a similar dynamic but not in relation to rules adjudication. I played in a group where the DM had a core set of friends who always went along with whatever 'plot' he had concocted for us. When he presented a new story, they followed and were glad to do so. When anyone resisted the railroad, he would lean on his supporters and influence their decisions in his favor. In this way, he was able to keep the game "on task," as it were, and follow the story he had written. Those who supported him had their choice validated with greater attention/rewards from the DM while the others felt like they were along for the ride.

    The dynamic you've described isn't restricted to core rules. It can potentially apply in any instance where there is a disagreement between the DM and any player, so long as the DM has players who are willing to support him.

  5. Ozymandias,

    I had intended the core rule point to be merely an example. Yes, there are many situations in which it can arise. I will adjust the wording in the final document to fix the misunderstanding.

  6. A few things I'm appreciating from these "How to Run" posts:

    1) A DM's charisma, or power of personality, which is often thought of as an important positive contributor to game success, is repeatedly highlighted as not just having a potential dark side, but possibly being an inherently flawed basis on which to manage a game. The idea of non-charismatic individuals making superior DMs is intriguing.

    2) It's good that you describe these problem DM behaviors in the first person. I know you want to make this a book of positive advice, not just a taxonomy of role-playing pricks, and using first person really helps with this. It also brings you as a person with experience in the game more forcibly into the text. These chapters come across as lessons learned through experience in the field.

    3) The bait-and-switch nature of some of these chapter titles, and the book title as well, is a good thing, maybe something to emphasize even more if you're still considering reworking the subtitle. If the intent of the book is to show the reader that the things they've been focusing on--new rules, new plot hooks, etc.--are not the things that make for a truly excellent game, then the disarming uses of "splitting the party" and "advanced guide" are useful. Putting in even more of this stuff can add a type of humor that reinforces the theme, which the mock-hyperbole of your alternate title did not.

  7. This in a sideways manner DOES talk about in-game party splits.

    After all, why would they have a chance to occur except that members find themselves too inflated or deflated to the point of revolt?

    If I value my companions as much as myself, would I not consider their opinions equally? Would I not be reasonable and come to a reasonable solution?

    Admittedly there is such thing as an intentional split. But the successful ones likely have "pre-determined" goals of meeting up again.

  8. I take the position that more party splits occur due to the behaviour of the DM than the players. I believe that IF the DM has the right attitude towards play, and towards presentation, then there is far less motivation for party splits to occur, and an easier means towards mending them again. Differing opinions will not drive people apart; but differing opinions, which are then counterbalanced by a DM with personally derived motivations in the campaign, WILL prove impossible to mend.

    Do remember that the above has a context that is not included. But I am learning a great deal from the comments today on how to wax a bit more on the subject.


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