Monday, July 20, 2009

The Reign of the Tyrannical DM Over? Not Quite!

"A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. ..." -The Declaration of Independence

“As Greece became more powerful and as cities became even wealthier than before, tyrannies were established in nearly all the cities. The result of this was that public revenues increased, shipbuilding flourished, and men began to think of controlling the sea.” -Thucydides

On this past episode of RPG Circus, we had the always gracious and entertaining Chatty DM (aka Phil) on our show. We discussed a lot of topics, but when we got into discussing GM responsibility and the like, he had an interesting viewpoint. He said "the era of the tyrannical GM is over". I didn't get to address it as much as I'd like on the show, but I've really been thinking it over, and I know the Esteemed Gentleman from Canada will not mind if I order my thoughts a bit more on the topic here.

I think some people who talk about tyrannical DMs think about them as analogous to Thomas Paine's portrayal of George III as a tyrant--an uncaring, unfeeling superior force, one that is justified in losing his power because of his excesses. I see tyrants in the more classical sense--in ancient Greece, a tyrant was simply someone who came to power not through birth or rule of law, but by merit of their own ability. I don't know about you, but that defines me pretty well. I didn't inherit my spot as GM, and my RPGA card certainly didn't get me there. I'm Game Master because I was willing to do what was needed, had the imagination and ideas to make it work, and proved it over time to my group. This type of tyrant does not have to be oppressive, but he does need to be effective.

Most roleplaying groups have 1 or 2 "alpha gamers". They're usually a bit more plugged into the RPG scene than the rest of the group, and usually are willing to put a little more sweat and tears into the game itself. In many groups, you also have 1-2 guys who are quieter, who you know likely won't show up with a 5,000 word character backstory, don't learn the system front and back, but also won't cause any bad friction. They aren't all-stars, but that's cool--they're friends, nice folks, and it's fun having them at the table. They have a limited level of participation, but that's what they're cool with.

Point being, few groups have the composition that's going to make greater responsibility all around really work for them. Some do, and that's great. Relieving some pressure off of the DM can be a good thing, depending on your group dynamic. But, aside from too many chefs spoiling the soup, you have some that don't want to cook--they'll just taste it when it's done.

Let's go back to tyranny for a minute, using the "modern" connotation of an unjust or unfair authority. If the rules become the ultimate arbiter, than the abuse continues. No system being perfect, without strong GMs, the strange and unwelcome inhabitants of the Character Optimization board would be free from their ancient prison, gibbering in their loveless black tongue, able to destroy entire campaign arcs with their invincible Level 30 Dragonborn Sorcerer|Swordmage/Academy Master/Demigod.

In the end, I am pleased that most--most--RPGs still include some mention of the DM/GM/Referee as final arbiter of all rules disputes and judgements. I am not for GMs abusing the system any more than I am players doing so. But given the responsibility that comes with GMing, I would much rather have the burden of responsibility on one willing to accept that burden, and I would rather have a strong, centralized power at the table (listening to player input) instead of 4-5 disparate, disorganized voices . Dispose of the "tyrant" if you must--but do not replace Louis XVI with the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of the Tyrannical DM may not be absolute, but neither is it over. Cruel and brutal Game Masters will always exist. And the answer to them is the same as it has always been--not to neuter the GM position, but to dispense with the bad ones and find one who rules justly.


clash bowley said...

Good article, Zachary! :D

I think, just as people get the government they deserve, groups get the GM they deserve. If a GM abuses power, then it is not just the right but the duty of the group to do whatever is necessary to remove that GM from power.

On the other hand, the group tenders some of its rights to the GM for a purpose. That purpose varies from group to group, but essentially includes some elements of administration, entertainment, and creativity, with the particulars varying wildly between groups.

Some groups want and need a GM who pushes things through. Other groups want and need a GM who keeps a light reign on things, working mostly as an administrator. Other groups happily rotate these duties between all members. Whatever works for the group, I'm in favor of it.

Some trouble generally comes with a style mismatch, where the group expectations - or individual expectations within the group - don't match what the GM has to offer, or thinks is expected.

Other trouble comes when the GM is unfit for any position of power, but wants it.

This does mean, IMO, that the "day of the tyrant GM" will never be over, because some groups want and need a tyrant - in the good sense, as you are using it - and mismatches are going to occur. And there will always be those unfit for power, who will never know until they are tried in the position.

I think one of the good things to come out of the Forge is the emphasis on the social contract of teh group. Thinking about what you want and setting it out in the open is just generally a good idea. It tends to limit type mismatches, and lets people in the group understand what the rest of the group wants, allowing them to make an informed decision about whether the group is right for them.

Anyway, excellent points!


Zachary The First said...

Excellent points all, clash. I do agree that the social contract is a solid idea—for some people, that formalization is really going to help. Others don’t need it. In any case, a Tyranny is only one form of DMing, but it remains a valid, healthy one for a lot of groups.

Stuart said...

"No system being perfect, without strong GMs, the strange and unwelcome inhabitants of the Character Optimization board would be free from their ancient prison, gibbering in their loveless black tongue, able to destroy entire campaign arcs with their invincible Level 30 Dragonborn Sorcerer|Swordmage/Academy Master/Demigod."

I love it. :D

Mike Schulz said...

Good article.

I keep thinking that neither King George III or Louis XVI really qualified as tyrants though. And I can't figure out if that helps your argument or bugs me for some reason.

Zachary The First said...

@Mike: I don’t think they necessarily were, either—especially Louis XVI. But I do think the popular perception of them is as such. I used them as popular examples only.

clash bowley said...

George III was a tyrant (in the popular sense) only in America. In England he was rather well liked. He was a tyrant - an unsuccessful one - in the classical sense because of his propensity for autocratic rule, which fought against England's developing a fully democratic government, sometimes by ignoring it, and sometimes by perverting its nascent institutions. Certainly the large and vocal conservative backbone of the English people were quite happy to oblige him.


Ryan said...

Perhaps the era of the "Tyrannical" DM hasn't ended, but I would say the era of the "Whiny Ass Entitled Player" has kicked into high gear.

Zachary The First said...

@clash: George III is hard to pinpoint at times, I think, just because he is such a complex figure in a lot of ways. You look at the end of the French & Indianan War, 1763, and he is generally a well-liked young monarch in the colonies. But miz in his domestic policies, his family life, and his insanity, and you get a very complex picture.

Brunomac said...

Nice little thought-provoking post.

Yeah, I always had my "go-to" person or two in my games that I know will be doing a lot of role-playing and character development, then the one dude who is a more sublime player. I always like a good mix of agressive rpg'ers and one's who "go with the flow." Sometimes a low maintianance players is a godsend. Two knuckleheads who are a hairs length away from being power gamers is plenty.

I've been running my AD&D world for over 30 years, and I am still a fairly "imperial" DM. But I am super-freindly to PC's in that I am usually on their side in everything they do. I want them to win. I give great challenges and often had bad things happen to friend and family (my old comic book influences), but I never say things like "Now it's time for my fun - you get hit by a 10 dice fireball."

But it's my world, and it's open only to my laws and interpretations. My players seem to love it, so I guess I'm doing it ok.

WF: forat. Borat's dad?

Zachary The First said...

Brunomac: Nice comments. I think that a proper "tyrant" would want his domain to do well, thus increasing his prestige and prosperity, right? It sounds like you have a winning formula, and no reason to go away from it.

Sounds like we like about the same mix. :)

Zachary The First said...

Also, a big hello to all our French readers! Judging from our traffic sources today, there sure are a lot of you! Thank you so much for reading!

Kiashu said...

So long as players and their characters continue to be munchkins, distracted, forgetful, lazy, greedy, thoughtless in their actions and selfish, there will be a need for tyrant GMs.

In other words, if players are human, then from time to time the GM must point out, "I wear the Viking Hat!"

As evidence, I present this sjgames thread, "power gaming and how to thwart it", in which a bunch of communists express some ridiculous ideas about players being equal to the GM in rights and responsibilities, and some even pull out the old canard, "you can't solve out-of-game problems with in-game actions."

Or as one maniac put it, "smashing the player character's shiny bits into pieces isn't the best way and is far from the only way to handle this type of thing."


Andreas Davour said...

I can't listen to the show right now. Could you please tell me why that era is over?

ChattyDM said...

Good post Zach.

My statement on the show was that since D&D 3.x, the burden of knowing and mastering the rules of D&D shifted from the DM to the players.

While the DM has the power to make calls and veto rules/rulings. The era of the all powerful DM who's whims spelled life or death of a PCs was over.

I've seen my share of Tyrant DMs (the King George type) in my time and with the shift of the burden of rules, such tyrants have very short lived careers.

And I must say that I'm quite glad. I have no tolerance for petty bosses that abuse what little power is given to them.

The Authority of the DM resides in the trust the players give him and is valid for as long as the trust is not broken. So the authority is earned, not a given of the title.

Zachary The First said...

@Chatty: Thanks for posting your thoughts, and thanks for bringing up the topic to start with. It was a pleasure having you on the show, my friend!

I guess what I don't see is why the ability of a DM to be a tyrant or authoritarian has specifically shifted with the latest edition of D&D. Certainly there have been games that have had this approach before--are you saying that in a "By the book" approach, this is now more the case? Is there anything you feel built into intrinsically to discourage this particular "governmental" arrangement? If the GM/DM/Referee still has the final veto, isn't any division of power still subject upon his authority? Or is it your opinion that players are less tolerant of abusive DMs because of greater education on the mechanics?

Lastly, do you any shift towards the players simply moves the possibility of "bad" tyranny from one participant to several? That instead of one dictatorial GM, you now have the possibility of 4-5 dictatorial players instead?

Thanks again, Phil. I think this is a really engaging topic, at least for me. I think, at the heart of it, people are comfortable with different levels of DM/GM authority, and the idea of working with what works for your group still reigns supreme. That's something I've seen regardless of system.

Andreas Davour said...

From the latest comments I take it that the hypothesis was that by "nailing everything down" and removing DM creativity from the game (having long lists of magic items in the PHB? Play wish lists of magic items!) would be a blessing since it took the bad DM out of the picture?

Anyone suggesting that need a reality check.

ChattyDM said...

If you'll allow a parallel. I work in the world of Quality Management regulations. Such regulations are often obtuse, hard to decipher and very complex.

Bad Quality Managers will often abuse the fact that people around him don't understand the regulations to make overly costly requests 'just because the regulations say so'.

In the same vein, and only for D&D, giving players near full access to the mechanics of the game makes the job of the 'because I said so' type of DM harder. The DM still has authority, but it's harder to take the convinient shortcuts that Tyrants and bullies like to use.

Now I'm not saying that DMs have been emasculated and should bow down to the shrine of the all powerfull player, hell no! I'm just saying that now that the rules rest equally on the shoulders of everyone, the DM can now focus on winning the trust of his players and lead the playing group like a coach/director.

Now you DO bring an excellent counter example Zach in that with 3.x and 4e, a new brand of tyrants, the Player, has appeared. Such players can kill game as fast as bad DMs could.

And this is an area where DMs need to develop the proper social tools to counter. I just don't happen to think that responding with Tyranny is the way to go.

Zachary The First said...

Excellent, Phil! Thanks for the discussion! I'll chew on what you said for a bit. :)

Andreas Davour said...

I definitely think the only effect this has is bringing in the Player tyrant.

Also, how many of the examples out there of bad DMs is actually caused by bad players who really needed to be taken down a notch?

I think the call for codifying things to remove those DMs is targeting the wrong problem. People who just can't handle the fact that rpg's are social games where everyone take part will wreck any game, but the good players will be limited and bored by a game where everything is codified and pushed into the same mold.

Brunomac said...

Hear hear, Andreas. I've been doing 1st ed. with the same gameworld I came up with as a kid. I have a lot of heart and soul invested in that world. I personally put on the tyrant hat when somebody is being a dick with their actions, but at the very least I am generally "imperial." A good king who wants his people to do well, but make no mistake. I am king. There's a 4.0 or a Rifts game somewhere in town if ya don't likes it!

Andreas Davour said...

I posted some of my own thoughts on the matter over here on my blog. Already I have somebody disagreeing while kind of thinking the same as I do. :)

Zachary The First said...

I read that. I wasn't sure at first if he was agreeing with you and just coming from another angle. :)

Anonymous said...

Nice blog Zachary. Will have to add to my watch list.