"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.