In consideration of Zarious' thoughts from DMs Eat Last, it wouldn't hurt to delve into comparisons between business management and acting as a dungeon master. Where are the similarities, for example, and does the proposal that getting a job as a manager/supervisor in a fast food/retail/service business hold water as a means of gaining experience in being a DM?
I can attest that it does, in part, though not as much as the reader might imagine. Any negotiation between one person and another will convey this kind of experience; learning how to handle a customer screaming at us through a plexiglass window as we politely derail their demands will help in managing an irate player who's extremely disappointed at not getting the magic item they want or having their character killed. Unfortunately, however, most manager jobs are not really about "managing;" managers are very often little more than stooges who must adhere to policy being pushed down on them from above, giving them little to no latitude, even in what they're allowed to tell the staff or dispense consequences for employees who show up late or goof off when they should be working. A low middle manager in a service job will usually be a special kind of hell, particular in retail, where the responsibilities are increased but the pay isn't. Remembering that all those "responsibilities" equate to being responsible about acting as a good, obedient slave to managers higher up. Most managers burn up under the stress; those who stay do so in hopes of climbing the ladder, which they may never succeed in doing.
Dungeon mastering is nothing like this. For one thing, ALL the policies are there to be set by the DM, not by someone higher up some ladder. Additionally, a DM is not in the position of doling out paycheques to players, who must show "productivity" in their weekly efforts around the gaming table. Imagine how it might change the dynamic to explain to your players that you'll be paying them $15 an hour, starting at 7 p.m. and ending at 11; that they're expected to be on time or the first hour will be docked; that no, they cannot leave early; that they must play well enough to achieve certain goals in that time, or else they'll be fired and their position will be given to someone else. Imagine saying as a DM, "I have plenty of players in line who would love to get $60 a shift to come and play this game; tell me why I should continue to let you participate in this game, instead of one of them?"
I've had periods in my life when I could afford $240 a week; and I know there are plenty of DMs out there making that much and a lot more, so this is in the realm of possibility. Consider, however, how this shatters the dynamic. The players are forced to play for the DM in compensation for their wages — even if the DM doesn't make it clear in what way. The implication is there. In return, the DM is more likely to feel they owe little or nothing to the players: "We're paying them, aren't we?" Money has a way of making people feel they're doing enough ... and with some people, giving money alleviates any responsibility they have to be polite or considerate to the person being paid. Thus the irate customer screaming at the manager (or employee), the moody diner growling at servers, the drunk who tells the bouncer to fuck off, since he's paid for his beer, and so on. If I'm paying you — or I'm the jack-off filling out forms so my bosses can pay you — then you should do your job. For a lot of people, including workers, who say in return, "I'm doing my job, fucking pay me," the presence of money gets in the way of seeing others as people.
Without money passing between the DM and the player, the dynamic is different. My responsibility to the players as a DM, vs. their responsibility to me as players, is hard to define, mostly because we participate in very few daily activities where authority & subordination isn't defined by money. Hell, look at the word "subordinate" in that description. I looked around for an antonym to authority and they're all denigrating: junior, apprentice, sophomore, pupil ... and none describe a role-player in the least way. A player isn't subordinate to the DM ... and yet the DM is very definitely an authority that "runs" and "manages" the game. I find it extremely telling that we have no trouble at all in ascribing the right English terms to what a DM does, but we bristle instantly if we try to apply any comparative reverse terms to the player. That alone should be telling us something.
Still, while I direct the game, this gives me zero authority to tell the players what to do, according to the dynamic. I can tell them what they face; I can veto their actions within a certain scope; I can hold them accountable to the game's rules; I can dictate how they address me or each other, and maintain order at the table; and I can close the game down with a fingersnap. But apart from the power to govern the legitimacy of the game or enable its existence, everyone understands that the line of my power stops dead where it comes to telling players exactly what they must do. On that matter, I can only advise.
Whereas a store manager spends all day long giving the employees their marching orders. And the employees, unlike players, do it in recognition that this is the manager's privilege. Nor can we ascribe this acceptance to the matter of earnings. In many career-level professions, the manager's right to dictate remains in place, even though the employee might rate their income as fourth or fifth on the list of priorities. Higher ranked concerns would include a feeling of doing something important, knowing that one is helping people, the opportunity to do interesting or exciting work, the work culture and the presence of friends with whom we share values, etcetera. In those cases, we do what our manager says because, unlike the jerk-off 19-y.o. shift manager at a McDonalds, these managers and their experience deserve our respect; we want to obey them; we know they know best. It's a working environment that many, many people never experience in their entire lives; and others experience every day without fail.
So where is the relationship between business manager and DM? What do they have in common?
As a DM, I can get away with pretty near murder if my players respect me on the same level as those career-level employees respect their superiors. My latitude in dictating what a player can or can't do is vastly greater when I act brilliantly in front of them, regularly. Whereas lesser skilled DMs, with less to offer, and less ability to regulate the game, will be far more limited in their power than I am. Not only this, however. It is also the case in career-driven professions that the managers also respect the capabilities and predispositions of their teams — and they make decisions that directly play into the strengths of those strengths. Such managers do not have the cookie-cutter mentality of a McDonald's manager-drone, who couldn't care a whit about the lives of worker-drones further down the chain.
Sit down with a career professional for a beer as one of their team and the conversation revolves around our lives, our interests, our choices and what's going on with our families. Everyone wants to know what's happening with everyone else in the here and now, because those stresses will directly affect the stresses of the work. Sit down with a service-level manager and the conversation revolves around movies, stuff on the internet, who's fucking who ... and eventually everything descends into pissing contests and trashing people who aren't present. People don't talk about their lives because they don't have lives; they have this shitty job they do most of the time, except when they go to their other shitty job. I've worked at length in both environments.
The players around my gaming table are easier to manage because of who they are. They don't feel a need to prove themselves or gratuitiously abuse others in order to feel better. Those people do not last long around me, because, like an employer, I judge them on their ability to perform, even though I don't pay them. Reading about other DMs, who describe the players in their campaigns, it's clear to me they have next to zero standards.
If you manage an establishment that has one capable worker and four incapable ones, you might imagine the one will improve the quality of the other four. I've certainly worked in service industry jobs where the manager imagined that. Instead what happens is the one capable employee quits, because he or she is sick of working there. Capable employees can always find work; they can choose where they want to work. It is up to the manager to rid the business of every incapable employee until everyone's capable. Then all the capable people stay, often for years, because they like it there.
Unfortunately for managers, however, is that capable people also want more money. And as I said, low-level managers haven't any power to give wage increases. As well, capable employees are hard to find. So eventually they drift away, until they're replaced, and the business goes under. Seen it many times.
A DM, however, can always afford the best players. A DM can also improve the working environment, getting rid of the incapable players so the best players will stay. Furthermore, since the DM sets all the policies of the game dynamic, those policies can be made not to serve profitability, but mutual respect and mutual compensation. This changes all the rules related to how a DM, an authority, speaks to those over which the DM has charge.
The quote at the top of DMs Eat Last stated, "If you decide to look after the person to the left of you and look after the person to the right of you, you have become a leader." It remains very clear that many cannot reconcile this definition in their heads. We continue to think that a leader is the guy with the flag; that a leader is the one shouting "follow me!"
Let's take a moment and examine that metaphor. The flag-bearer in an army wasn't armed. We don't have flag-bearers and when we did they were always men (French portraiture of the Revolution notwithstanding), so I'm going to use the pronoun, "he." He might have had a weapon, but he couldn't use it because he had the flag in his hand. These were great big things, that needed two hands to hold and a great deal of strength. And because an army was trained to follow the flag, he had to go first, ahead of others. This did not make "him" a leader, because people weren't following him, they were following the flag. He didn't give orders or make decisions, because he went where the general told him to go — and if he didn't, he'd be shot forthwith by the nearest officer. Thus, the most reliable men were typically chosen for this role; the bravest, it was observed, since they had to go unarmed and NOT run away when the bullets began to fly.
If the flag-bearer was killed, it was hoped that the army moving forward and shooting their weapons wouldn't notice by that point ... because once melee is engaged, no one has time to see what the flag-bearer's doing. Still, Hollywood, dating back to silent film in the 1910s, LOVED the idea that once the flag was dropped, surely someone else would dive in and rescue the flag ... and there were cases dating to the Civil War (and probably the Crimean and Napoleanic Wars as well, though I don't know those as well) where a retreating army was perhaps turned around, as depicted in Roland Emmerson's The Patriot, by seeing the flag instead rushing towards the enemy. However, even in such cases, it was not the man running the flag who was being followed. It was the FLAG.
So let's understand this metaphor. If, as a would-be leader, I pick up a flag, it better be the right flag. No one in Napoleon's army is going to follow a flag unless it's the FRENCH flag. 99 times out of hundred, when some dumbfuck leader thinks they're picking up a "flag," they're fighting for a cause no one believes in, no one cares about and most have never heard of. That alone is an act of sheer stupidity.
IF, picking up said worthless flag, the leader then shouts, "Follow me!" it's no wonder he looks like a flaming idiot. He's carrying the wrong flag.
On the other hand, if you're part of an army, and they already have a flag, and that flag exists in the service of a general who HAS authority, and you run off with it, then maybe, yes, you'll get followed; but you better run in the right direction, or else count on an officer to shoot you in the back. The only way to lead anyone with a flag is to run that flag in the direction you're told. That's the only circumstance that the words "Follow me!" have any relevance of any kind.
Leadership is not about being followed. It's about encouraging people to follow a flag they've given reason to care about. The first part of that equation is easy once you've accomplished the second part. But you must accomplish the second part first.
The way you do that is by divising a flag that promises to look after the person on the left of you and the person on the right of you. That requires you learn something about these people. That you learn what they seek. That you're capable of providing that which they seek ... or at the very least, enabling them to believe that what they seek can be accomplished through your plans and experience. That won't happen until those people believe that you know more than they know; and to convince them, you have to actually know more than they know. You can't fake it. They'll know.
A truly great leader understands what others seek before those others know. I'm not talking about selling them a grift, which is inventing bullshit and then ultimately disappointing the rubes. No, I mean, understanding others so well, by listening to them, and having the capacity to understand them, to see a solution to their problems that they haven't the capacity to see. And then providing that solution, free of charge, for the good of all.
Hm. I've just seen what's fundamentally wrong with Ayn Rand's objectivism.
Most aren't great leaders. Most don't even want to be. But I think that anyone who sits down to write a blog and offer advice and solutions about how to play or manage players, that they should probably have "what others seek" at the forefront of their minds. Likewise, when DMs run a game, deciding why the players are there, and recognizing that they have their own reasons, which are certain to be different from the DMs reasons, should factor greatly into how a DM runs a game.
It's something like how you would act as a store manager if you assumed that, at their core, everyone wanted to be there for some other reason than "wanting the money" or acting "in the best interest of the company." Specifically, figuring out how an employee might want to keep working for a reason that was in their own interest, that wasn't about money ...
And then enabling that.