Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Selfish DM

Let me write something more upbeat.

There is an age-old argument against leadership that likes to use the following story.  The French Revolutionary is sitting in his house when he sees a crowd of people appear on his street outside, rushing along.  At this point he says, "There are my people; I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

The story is meant to be an indictment of politicians who spend their time pandering to their constituents, while presumably believing in nothing themselves.  And this sounds like a reasonable criticism.  IF you care what others think, you haven't the courage of your own convictions, and therefore you're a wishy-washy, flip-flopping politician subject to whatever way the wind blows.

I disagree.  I disagree because I believe it takes an amazing sort of ass to believe that the courage of one's convictions is automatically the best possible way to represent a lot of people while simulataneously ignoring what they tell you.  I would rather have a politician that listened to the people, and led in the direction the people willed, than a politician that said, "Yes, I know you have needs and ideas, but I know better."

I think both types turn up as DMs.  I think that there are DMs who do whatever the players want, and I think there are DMs who do what they themselves want, because they know better.

The argument for both politicians and for DMs is that the position suggests intelligence, motivation, education and ability.  No one could be a politician without ability (so it is opined).  The constituents don't have ability.  If they did, they would be politicians.  Comparably, the DM 'knows' more about the game than the players.  If the players knew as much as the DM, they would be running their own games.  Therefore, the players should shut up and let the DM run the game.

There are a lot of false arguments in the above, but going forward we'll just talk about how they apply to DMs.

The value in having a DM is that someone has got to have insight to the back-end of the events that are going on, who can pick the monsters and run the NPCs, while keeping information secret that will yield a good game.  If a computer could do this, we wouldn't need - or want - a DM.  Unfortunately, no one can do it as well as a human, so players tolerate DMs to fulfill that role.

DMs have a tendency to view this toleration only in terms of the gratitude it implies, and very often will go one step further and presume that players are naturally obsequious louts who can be bossed around at will.  And so arises the theoretical nonsense that DMs are really the center of the game, and the players exist to service the DM's world, for worlds need players.

(this is something like Richard Dawkins argument that life is a process by which genetic codes reproduce themselves).

But ask yourself as a player.  What sort of DM would you want to play with:  a DM that views everything about the world as a gracious gift handed down from on high for the players to appreciate appropriately, as is their social position . . . or a DM who views the player's needs first and foremost, who builds the world in recognition that the DM is a representative of the player's wishes?

In the long run, if I were the first kind of DM, who demanded recognition for all my work, what sort of approval would I get from my constituents, er, players?  I may have a great world, but being a pompous ass, exactly how much loyalty will I acquire?  On the other hand, if I am the second kind of DM, where my players know that I'm designing the world to produce the very best response in answer to the input the players are giving, how important is it that my world is necessarily 'good'?

That is, wouldn't much of the goodness of the world be inherent in my treatment of the player's wishes?  And wouldn't the selfish DM's world have to be very, very good to compensate for the fact that it was all about the DM's wishes?

A bunch of players have just turned up at my doorstep.  Pardon me, I have to go find out what they want, so I can DM them.

1 comment:

Darcy Perry said...

Unlike politicians, or scientists, DM's are necessary for playing D&D. As a player, I prefer the sort that listens, encourages creativity and and doesn't let a rulebook get in the way of having fun. That is what I aspire to when I DM also.

Sometimes that requires giving players what they need, not what they want. Most of the time it is as simple as allowing players to explore an ever-growing fantastic world through playing their characters. A world that I am a part of only in the spirit of the game.