Thursday, February 12, 2009

I am an Adversarial DM.

I wanted to spin off a bit from this post by Chgowiz over at his blog. There, he passionately refutes this comment that "tyrannical DMing" is some inherent part of old school gaming (and the implication that a "shared narrative" model is superior).

The Gentleman from Illinois needs no assistance from me in making his point, but the entire business did make me want to explain about what being an "Adversarial DM" may entail, and why I consider myself one as well.

First off, "tyrannical" does not equal "adversarial". Tyrannical GMs exist regardless of system. In rules-light games, they railroad the players into the ground, stupidly shooting down every positive thought or idea they may have had. In a game where's there more emphasis on the rules as written, a tyrant will seek to bend the rules where he can, interpret where he can't bend, and cheat when all else fails. Tyrannical GMs exist, because a-holes exist. Take away the GM, go to your loosey-goosey "shared narrative control", and you can still have Tyrannical Players in Director Stance or whatever the hell the hippie kids are still talking about (I kid because I love!). Let's look at that versus Adversarial GMing:

I'm an Adversary for my players. That isn't all I am as DM, but part of what I am. Yep, at times, I am the bane of my player's gaming existence. We (through our characters) match wits; I try to frustrate their plans, and they try to frustrate mine. Why? Because conflict is a key aspect of a successful RPG (or story, for that matter). They love to be challenged, to have their characters weighed in the balance and either found triumphant or wanting. If triumphant, they know their victory wasn't handed to them by a guy who was just setting up dominoes to be easily knocked down. If found wanting, then they have something to work towards, and it makes any eventual victory that much sweeter. I know I will hears roars of delight when they best my creations; I will hear groans and rueful laughter when I get the upper hand on theirs.

Now, as a DM/GM, that's not all I do. By turns, I am an Ally, Collaborator, and Facilitator for my players and their characters, and each of those turns have a place in our game. But by positioning myself as an adversary, I help fill one of my most important roles as a DM--I help create the nucleus for conflict and plot. That's not to say I remain the creative drive behind it--I create a spark, the players respond in kind, and soon we have a happily crackling fire. This also isn't to say I'm the only one who can create a spark--there can be (and usually is) player-created conflict--but as a DM, I throw situations to the characters, they react, I react, and so the whole game evolves and grows. I introduce conflict to the game, or situations from whence conflict may arise, according to the players' reaction.

I'm not interesting in sadistically torturing the players/characters any more than I am in holding their hand through a no-brainer wish fulfillment romp. I'm interesting in running a challenging, balanced, fun RPG for my players, and part of that is being an adversary when they need one within the guidelines of our game.

Here's a quick ruling for you: if you're being an adversary for your players, you're likely ok. If you're being one just to be one, you may want to look and see what sort of benefit your game is actually getting from that sort of behavior. And if all you're being is an adversary, then you may wish to consider Lord Byron.


Gleichman said...

Interesting isn't it?

I think it comes from all that "every child is special" nonsense that is fed kids these days. Makes them completely unwilling to work for something- and that makes those who insist that they do (even if its an rpg GM) into Tyrants.

Show me a "shared narrative" and I'll show you a bunch of spoiled wimps :)

Thasmodious said...

Are you using 'shared narrative' in some hands-holding circle of hippies with flowers in their hair dancing about in a shared utopian happiness type of game?

I don't think 'shared narrative' is the right term for what you want to describe (wish fulfillment romp). One of the cornerstones of RPGs, and the key difference between it and other storytelling mediums (literature, movies, etc.) is that the story that is eventually told is shared by all the participants.

An author may sit down to write the story of how a group of heroes defeated Orcus.

A DM presents Orcus as a challenge for the PCs to overcome, if they are able. They might win, lose or abandon the effort altogether. The story told is not always the one in the DMs head because it's the player's story as well.

Of course, playing isn't always like this, but I think it's fair to say it's the "core" intention. Tyrannical DMs try to squash them and make the game all about them and their story.

I agree with you as far as being a good adversary as a DM and the need for challenging conflict. I just don't agree that the opposite of that is shared narration. Both are cornerstones of the DMs role - presenting the players with a series of challenges and obstacles, often towards some story based goal that the player's may or may not succeed at and the manner in which they succeed or fail is in their hands.

Badelaire said...

The philosophy I have, and that I try to relate to my players, is that they have to trust me to provide them with the adventure experience they're looking for in adventure RPGing, and if that means putting them through hell before they come out victorious in the end, so be it. I want my player's PCs to succeed, but I also want them to appreciate the victory more after a few knock-downs and bloody noses.

So yeah, I'll pit myself against their characters and cook up a suitable challenge, and I'll make sure that my NPC baddies aren't easy meat. And yeah, a few PCs might go down (but probably not die) in the fight, and it'll go right to the wire...but in the end the PCs will (usually) pull off a win, even if it's a costly win. I like to see the good guys come out ahead in the end - so sue me.

So don't feel bad being an "Adversarial DM". The DM is like a Drill Sargent - he's going to put you through the wringer, but in the end, it's for your own good...

Zachary The First said...

@ Gleichman: I've found that one of the reasons for a strong GM is simply that there are different sorts of players. Some aren't comfortable with that much creative control--they want to show up and campaign in a setting laid out for them. They don't want responsibility past that of their character. Which I'm fine with.

@ Thasmodius: I do believe shared narrative control can be taken to an extreme, and often it is a stand-in/indicator of unopposed wish fulfillment in games, and lack of adversarial play. But like adversarial GMing, there's an extreme, and then there's a more measured approach. I totally understand that's my experiences, and we may view it through different lenses. I didn't mean for that to obscure my more main point, which was more the difference between tyrannical/adversarial GMing. Thank you for the comment!

@ Badelaire: Well put!

Donny said...

I enjoy taking up the adversarial mask whenever we have a "boss fight" between the party and a major villain.

The trash talking and such really galvanizes the players to do SOMETHING to wipe the smug grin off of my face. So much so, that the XP often takes backstage to bragging rights over who "owned" the DM the most :)

It gives me a chance to enjoy some role-playing too. I mean aside from disposeable NPC's and silly sword fodder monsters, it's really the DM's only chance to really let his hair down. The players love to hate it :)

Johnn Four said...

Zachary - we share the same style. However, I have a problem with the term adversarial DM and don't have a better label to sum up the overall approach.

As you've described, it's just one hat you and I wear. I like wearing the rat bastard hat sometimes as well. Calling myself an adversarial DM sends the wrong signal as it implies that's your only style or overriding style. Maybe that's where some of the misunderstanding from others comes from.

We need a global term that communicates adversarial is part of the package, but does not imply that's our primary mode.


Zachary said...

@ Johnn: Interesting! I can see where folks might take “Adversarial” in a negative light, but I really don’t see it like that—I mean, you need conflict, you need an adversary in the game. It is, indeed, a hat to wear. But if there’s a better term for it, I’d be open to hearing it. Right now, though, I’m drawing a blank on what it would be.

Dwayanu said...

The "narrative" thing gets out of hand for me when a game is billed as "role-playing" and in effect I end up playing the role of Robert E. Howard (or his editor) -- when I expected to play the role of a barbarian adventurer.

That's to mind the chief reason for a referee: to handle the limited information aspect of the game -- including much, if not all, of the business with numbers and dice -- so that I can "get into the shoes" of a character.

Actually facing the unknown is the experience I'm after, not just "play-acting" ignorance or worry. A real chance of failure goes along with real freedom.

As a GM, I find just setting reasonable probabilities and then letting dice fall as they may an essential part of keeping the game "honest." I also enjoy being surprised by outcomes. "Fudging" to my mind transforms the enterprise from a true game into an exercise in fiction in which I am really the author and the players merely a combination of script-bound actors and captive audience.

When "story" is to be something other than what we tell afterward about events, I think it important to switch to game rules explicitly designed for that. I don't see how it can remain what I would consider a proper game without spreading around more widely the power normally assigned a referee in an RPG. A "story-telling" game seems to me quite a different species.

Jonathan said...

"Tyrannical GMs exist, because a-holes exist. "

LMFAO. Doing the editing for Open Game Table vol 2 -- I think I just woke up the kids laughing. EXCELLENT post.