Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The DM as "Sacred"

So, there are about a dozen blog posts I want to make right now and not enough time to do so.  So, I'm going to go in order and discuss today the first thing on my mind which is a response by an anonymous commentator to my last post on Religion in D&D: Sacredness.  The commentator has some interesting things to say so I encourage the reader to click the above link and scroll down to his or her comments because this entry is going to be a response.

The timing of this blog entry is fortuitous because Alexis over at The Tao of D&D just posted on the rock star position of the DM and seeing his "smug superior mug" accentuated and subordinating the players' images in online game videos on YouTube.  Yeah, read all about it here.

Anyway, my anonymous commentator (henceforth I'm going to refer to him or her as "Anon") indicates a grandiose shift in gaming away from emphasis on the DM and toward the players and the removal of the "arbitrary" and to the rigid, governable world in which the DM is marginalized.

My response is, frankly, one of mystification.  I'm not certain I see what Anon is talking about.  All over the internet, on YouTube, on blogs, on RPGnet, the DMs are Rock Stars and are all centers of juvenile controversy as well (see this post over on The Alexandrian to see just how ridiculously pedantic and politically droll some of these feuds can get--especially "enjoy" the comments section to see the flames spill forth).  Alexis' blog references I Hit it with My Axe as an example of a heavily followed and syndicated series of game sessions viewable online.  I can go on YouTube and watch a dozen-and-one DMs explain how they run, why they run, what rules or systems are best, how their house rules really improve things, etc.  There's definitely a smugness about most of these guys.

So here I am, humbled by Alexis.  Yeah, okay, people may think I'm a suck-up.  That's your prerogative.  The fact is, I'm also called an arrogant and elitist bastard quite often.  I respect experience and knowledge, especially if those two components are combined with metacognition and self-criticism/self-reflection to produce sweeping changes in one's own behaviors for the better, despite whether one likes the harsh truths of their conclusions or not.  That way lies intellectual honesty.  Even Socrates admitted he didn't know anything.  That's why I always appreciated Alexis' blog.  Here's a man who speaks with authority because he's criticized himself personally as well as his DMing quite a bit.

Now I've been reading his How to Run and it's been kicking my butt.  No, rest assured, there are things Alexis asserts with which I have disagreements but here's the kicker--I respect all of the work and research and experience that have all gone into those assertions and I'm obligated to challenge myself and figure out why I disagree with Alexis here and there and, most importantly, if those disagreements stem from my own preferences, insecurities, and personal foibles (limitations of perspective or simple, raw self-centeredness, for example).

Why do I bring up Alexis?  Because both The Tao of D&D and How to Run pound the idea that the DM's fun is secondary to the players' fun and the DM is performing a service to the players by running.  The players should be the rock stars.  There should be a bit of a trade-off, of course, because the amount of work the DM puts into constructing the world and making sure it serves the players' needs and wants, the players should have respect for that world and all the time and effort of the DM and not simply run around willy-nilly killing blacksmiths and seducing barmaids.

The number-one problem with all of these DMs I see online is that their fun takes precedence over the players' quite often (or at least is considered equal in proportion to the combined amount of fun being had by all the players').  I have to admit, I fail in this regard quite often.  I don't have fun running certain campaign settings or systems, frankly, even if my players' love them.  There are times when my players are having a great time and I'm fighting off boredom trying to project enjoyment and confidence that isn't there and I really just want to go do something else.  The problem here is that by picking up the mantle of DM, I've also shouldered a serious responsibility to those who play my game to provide fun for them, not for myself.  I should achieve satisfaction from seeing how they enjoy the game I run but that's not the same thing as having fun.  Indeed, satisfaction is something that's more important because it means I've put work into something and achieved a goal--a goal that not just anybody could.

This also means I have to do things I don't want to do in game.  This includes trying to kill the PCs if that is what the world demands.  I have a tendency to get attached to PCs and I have to remind myself to react as the world would react.  It has to be believable or I do a disservice to both my world and to the players.

So, let's take a look at some of what Anon has said about the loss of sacredness with the DM.  First, Anon indicates that in the 1980s and 1990s, before the "anti-game master movement" gained momentum, that the DM embodied the sacred, unquantifiable aspects of reality.  Anon references the Judeo-Christian God as a great example of a DM in action through a manifestation of the sacred (assuming, for argument's sake, that Moses was a PC in a role-playing game, of course), or when Krishna confronts Arjuna, etc.  These are instances when the DM (if these were events in an RPG) acts through the world to determine the sacred.

I disagree because I see this as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.  The expressions of sacredness coming through the world by arbitrary DM fiat are justified by examples in these works after the fact.  The situations in which DM values and ethics are expressed in game are explained by the DM being God.  Instead of The Tanakh, The Gospels, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, etc. being the model for the intrusion of DM values they are redacted into being the excuse here.  Perhaps I'm misinterpreting Anon's argument, however, so I could be mischaracterizing what he or she is trying to demonstrate.

Well, I'm going to let Anon speak for him/herself here:
In the gaming of the 1980s and 1990s, before the anti-game master movement came into power, that sense of the sacred was inherent in having a game master embody the campaign reality.
Just as secular science can be expressed in formulae and books of rules or "laws" that can be leashed and driven forth by anyone with enough knowledge of science and/or its practical crafts, so the campaign's physical science is expressed in game mechanics formulae and game mechanics rule books.  Want to know the composition of water?  Look in a chemistry book and realize that (barring a miracle) water is always two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  Want to know how to cast magic missiles or aim a starship phaser?  Look in the rule book for the unvarying game mechanics involved. 
However, an individual game master would have his or her own aesthetics, interests, sense of humor, eccentricities, etc., many of which could be noticed and taken into account but none of which could be quantified into controllable rules because humans are not dry iterations of formulae and rules.

Interesting.  So far, so good.  I can't say I disagree.  DMs are human beings, after all and have foibles.  However, it is incumbent upon the DM, in order to be honest, fair, and provide the best possible service, to minimize these idiosyncrasies or at least make the players as aware as possible of them in order to best facilitate the players' enjoyment of the game.
So the player who was attuned to the underlying meaning provided by the game master's unconscious humanity--i.e. the sacredness of the campaign world--would notice that when this particular game master had to make a sudden judgment call about whether the horses were spooked, the PCs who had been kind to cats were more likely to be able to calm their horses.  A bad player would say, "Oh, Bill likes cat-lovers, damn his bias!" but a good player would say to himself, "Ah, I see, cats have something to do with the poetry of this universe." 
Similarly, the player would notice that moments of good luck came more often to those PCs who did not torture.  A bad player would grumble, "Ah, Mark's subconscious wussiness is giving an edge to the good PCs, and that ain't in the rule book for me to find loopholes, so damn him!" while a good player would think, "Hmmm, there seems to be a universal morality to this universe beyond what we can play 'rules lawyer' with."  Or the player would notice that this game master tended to describe safe magic fountains as silvery but cursed magic fountains as flashy, and instead of personalizing this as an eccentricity of the game master's descriptive habits, she or he would realize this is one more manifestation of the underlying patterning of the campaign universe provided by the game master who had created it for the players.
Here is where I start to take issue.  It is incumbent upon the DM to be conscious of his behavior in this regard.  If all of these situations are in-game (i.e. if the DM is not penalizing a person for out-of-game hatred of cats or vice-versa not rewarding a player for out-of-game kindness to cats) then it is fair game and the players should start putting two-and-two together and understand cats are somehow sacred in this reality.

The thing is, these ideas must be something the DM is aware of because he or she must present an understandable and believable world.  In other words, not torturing being a cause for receiving a little bit of luck, while not necessarily a quantifiable game mechanic, must be a part of the universe of which the DM is consciously aware.  This way, the players can start keying into these ideas and their characters can interact with the world more effectively.

The problem is when the DM is unconscious of these things.  Then it is arbitrary DM fiat and it is not part of maintaining a believable world that makes sense.  As Alexis says in How to Run, it doesn't have to make perfect sense objectively but just has to make sense enough to the players to facilitate suspension of disbelief (I'm paraphrasing a bit, here, I don't feel like flipping through pages and finding the exact quote--I'm lazy, whaddya want from me?).

Anyway, Anon continues:
These were not seen as acts of conscious or unconscious favoritism any more than an American would label karma as cosmic favoritism or accuse Jesus of favoritism for choosing apostles instead of letting anyone who could make a d20 saving throw become an apostle.  They were seen as an underlying pattern of meaning that any genuinely involved game master could not help but impart to a campaign by dint of his or her humanity, and they welcomed not resented. 
Of course, that all changed with the decade plus of anti-game master outcries.
Anon is right that the over-mechanization of game rules is somewhat problematic because it gives power to rules-lawyers.  However, I've played with really horrible DMs/GMs/STs who were pretty arbitrary and governed their games by fiat instead of trying to be impartial referees.  Rules lawyering became essential to survival in some of these settings but the thing is, if I have to resort to that then I'm not truly having a good time and I don't trust my GM/DM/ST/etc.  If I don't trust them and they obviously don't trust me, then what am I doing here?  I'd be better served doing something else with my time.

The problem here is the swing of the pendulum.  Sorry, Gygax and Arneson were not model DMs in my opinion.  Similarly, neither is the DM who gives players whatever they want without any challenge.  I think a lot of players convince themselves they've had a good time despite actually having had pretty terrible experiences both with tyrannical and lenient DMs.  Rules should not exist to shackle either DM or player but to provide an action resolution system, plain-and-simple and the more effective those rules are, the better they serve the needs of DM and player alike.

This means if the rules need to be changed to suit different moods, themes, and goals of both the DM and players, then by all means change them.  I love White Wolf's game system but I wouldn't want to use it too often in a combat-heavy setting with super-powerful demigods--its one of the problems I ran into with running Exalted last year.  Actually, White Wolf is well-suited to low-combat, investigation and interaction-heavy games full of intrigue, politics, mysteries, plotting, dealing, and rare, sharp, lethal combat situations.  Simultaneously, I wouldn't want to run such an intrigue-heavy low-combat game involving vampires or werewolves in D&D.  I mean, it could be done but I think White Wolf's system is much better calibrated for that sort of game.

The rules are a tool.  Nothing more.  Indeed, I certainly agree with Anon, here, that the fetishization and deification of rules have served neither player nor DM.  The search for the perfect system, though, is not a lot of fun, either.  Although I love 3rd edition/Pathfinder the rules-bloat is something I find problematic.  Granted, characters can be very easily customized and more interesting.  You can run an entire party of just fighters and have a great time because every fighter is different.

On the other hand, the DM is not God.  God has an agenda, the DM should not, unless, of course, that agenda is to provide a believable world with which the players can interact.  If anything, the DM should represent what Yehezkel Kaufmann calls "the metadivine realm" in his History of the Religion of Israel.  The metadivine realm is impersonal and can be called upon through magic and supernatural ritual to coerce, force, or bypass the gods in order to achieve an effect.  It simply exists and the gods themselves are subordinate to it (at least, in a polytheistic world).  If you're running a campaign set in a monotheistic universe where the Judeo-Christian God runs the show... well, the DM frankly should detach himself entirely from whether the Devil or God wins.  Even if the DM believes fervently in the Judeo-Christian tradition, his world is not the Real World, it is imaginary and the DM is presenting this world to his players for their entertainment not for the confirmation of his/her beliefs or to make converts.  Frankly, given an individual DMs beliefs, it may be considered a conflict of interests for a Christian DM to run a game in a setting where the Christian God is sovereign, especially if the players are not all Christian.  That's asking for trouble on all sorts of levels unless the DM can seriously reign himself in and understand that he's not running for himself or herself but to provide entertainment for his or her players.

Thus, while I agree with Anon that a lot of the anti-game master sentiment that has led to rules-bloat has been somewhat detrimental to the game, I feel much of it was a reaction to shoddy DMs when the hobby was still in its nascent stages.  I disagree, however, with Anon because I reject the notion of the DM as sacred or as some kind of representation of the sacred.  The DM is a referee period and the DM's job is to facilitate the best experience the players can possibly have.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Kicking your ass, huh?

The problem with Anon's argument, and indeed anyone arguing the 'rules bloat' gambit, is that it is never defined at which point the rules begin to 'bloat.' Bloating is an opinion, and most often an opinion voiced by the one player at the table that most wants to do things that he or she knows he can manipulate the DM into allowing, a circumstance disallowed by rules. The precise same argument is made daily by prisoners in the dock, who claim they're not really criminals, it is only that society has 'too many laws' that suspend their 'freedom' and deny them personal happiness. Literally millions of persons make this argument continuously about everything from wishing to smuggle liquor into the country to having to pay or not pay their cable bill.

Actual 'bloat' only occurs when there are too many rules for the DM to reasonably handle and manage mentally - a matter measured by the DM's experience. Having played for a very long time, I manage at least a thousand individual rules in my head every session quite easily, having to pause and look up perhaps only 1 in a hundred, and that only because those are rules not in regular use. There is NO DIFFERENCE to the player whatsoever, because from their point of view I MIGHT be making the decision by rules or by fiat - but I know that I am very definitely making every decision according to precedent and previously considered rules. When I am not, I declare openly to the party that I have no idea how to handle it, and I often ask for suggestions! Thus demonstrating that the DM's word isn't final, the DM is better subject to a discussion and GENERAL AGREEMENT on the matter.


Alexis Smolensk said...

As you point out very well, Dave, the 'rules-lawyer' emerges because the DM isn't trusted; that lack of trust leads directly to the player trying to establish the DM's legitimacy. The DM that declares the player shouldn't do this, no matter what the reason, is making the clear statement, "I am a legitimate DM because I say so." That really is the 'sacred' argument - and it is a nonsense pile of dingo's kidneys.

'Bloat' becomes the convenient argument that supports personal bias and autocracy. Persons like this will cast around for ANY argument that continues to support their deluded justification for tyranny at the game table.

If one compares the size of a law library with all the rules of all the books designed to support a single role-playing game, it is immediately evident that 'bloat' is a misnomer. It is an opinionated rationale designed to promote personal will. It demonstrates a lack of commitment to LEARNING rules, employing them responsibly, sharing their use directly and openly with the party and modifying them as necessary. It proves an individual who sees the GAME as less important than the self-aggrandizing ego running it.

I would not play with a DM who made an argument like that.

Dave Cesarano said...

'Bloat' becomes the convenient argument that supports personal bias and autocracy. Persons like this will cast around for ANY argument that continues to support their deluded justification for tyranny at the game table. ... It proves an individual who sees the GAME as less important than the self-aggrandizing ego running it.

I grok most of what you're saying. Perhaps I should have been clearer in what I mean by "rules bloat," then. It usually takes me a while to learn all the rules to a game system that's new but after a few sessions I do. Some game systems have tons and tons and tons of options and therein lies the bloat. 3rd edition has rules bloat in the form of what I call "toys." Everything is toys. Compared to the 2nd edition sourcebooks, which had setting details, role-playing ideas, concepts, and only a minimum of crunchy options or new rules and toys, the 3rd edition books are primarily stuffed with toys, crunch, and rules adaptations, many of which end up being redundant when compared to other sourcebooks, flat-out contradictory, sub-optimal, or so over-powered that they make what's in the core books sub-optimal. This is what I mean by "rules-bloat."

Perhaps I should have chosen a different term. Nevertheless, the lawyer will know all the feats, prestige classes, and optimum builds to min-max his character. While I really don't give a damn about that, he's free to do it if he wants, when the feats, classes, items, spells, etc. are so obscure and time-consuming (even if memorized) they can slow the game down or disrupt players' enjoyment.

Actually, this has been a subject of conversation between my gaming group and myself. They've recently gotten into Numenera a very rules-light system. It's not hard to learn to run but I'm still learning it and ironing out some of the bugs in my own head from it. The fact that it is rules light means task resolutions are simpler and more efficient.

I see rules bloat as an efficiency issue. I like options for players and I like easy systems that are simultaneously comprehensive, flexible, and adaptable. This is not just for me, however, because I've noticed my players enjoy efficient systems as well.

Thus, if you think I'm complaining because there are rules for shepherding, shearing sheep, selling wool, etc., in the game mechanics, that's not what I consider rules bloat at all. (I remember you had a discussion about that in the past.) That rule exists for a reason. Rules bloat, I feel, is overly clunky combat mechanics that take five or six rolls to resolve a single attack, for example.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, I understand. Please forgive the misunderstanding. I did think we were talking too many rules.

This is a very strong argument, however, for picking ONE system and becoming an expert, nyet?

Dave Cesarano said...

This is a very strong argument, however, for picking ONE system and becoming an expert, nyet?


That's a damn good point. The problem is, I like different systems for different reasons. Some systems facilitate combat-heavy games while others facilitate more investigation or political sorts of games. While good systems can perform a variety of play styles well, I find that specific systems carry with them a kind of mindset that they communicate to both DM and player alike.

It all comes down to preference, I guess. I'm most used to running D20 and White Wolf's Storyteller System. I've tinkered with Palladium, ran a session or two with Numenera's Cypher System, and been a player for GURPS, Palladium, White Wolf, D20, AD&D 1st and 2nd editions, basic D&D (Rules Cyclopedia), and a few others. Being a player is much easier although a thorough knowledge of the rules on the players' part means the player can make better choices and maximize their options.

But, yeah, you're right. It would certainly be most efficient to pick a single system and become an expert at it. The thing is, what happens when your players constantly want to try a new system? My players wanted to try Numenera because it requires less statting than Exalted did. Thing is, Numenera requires me to learn a new system plus a new setting and devise new places, people, and things with which they can interact, meaning that I still have to work my ass off to prepare a campaign. And because I'm not intimately familiar with this new setting, like I am with, say, The Forgotten Realms, Exalted, Dark Sun, or Conan... it's still taking me a long time to get things ready to run the way I feel games are best played--very freeform and player-driven with lots and lots of choices and interaction with the world. The less I have to make stuff up on the fly (from peasants and inn-keepers all the way to generals and kings) the more I feel the world is reacting to the players and not me.

They might not care much about it... but I do. It's like fudging dice rolls. They think what they don't know won't hurt them so long as they have fun.

There's a vignette I recall in the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms where this guy tries to bribe a virtuous official and says, "Nobody would know." The official responds, "Heaven would know, the earth would know, you would know, and I would know." That's precisely how I feel about fudging and also how I feel about making stuff up on the fly.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"What happens when your players constantly want to try a new system?"

35 years of play, I've only had this happen a few times; and mostly they continued to run in my world while seeking someone ELSE to run the other system.

If I sell ice cream, then I'm going to be the best damn ice cream seller I can be; of course I still like hamburgers and pizza, but I don't happen to be in that business, so I'm happy to let someone else make those.