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.