Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Delicate Balance

There has always been a sort of balancing act in roleplaying games, from the very first, though it went unrecognized then. In the games of Gygax and Arneson, the balance was weighted completely towards the referee; the DM had all the power to say yes or no to the players. Players were at the mercy of their DMs, who controlled every aspect of the game. If you asked your referee a question and they said no, that was the end of it. There was always, of course, some wiggle room for rules compromises, but in the end the final decision was left up to a ruling by the game's referee. In those days, it was implicit that the person running the game was someone that you could trust.

These days, there seems to be a highly adversarial relationship between PCs and DMs. I attribute this to the blowback of rules that followed years of subpar and downright poor DMs taking advantage of their position as ultimate arbiter to torture and violate their players. The relationship between players and their referee is a sacred one, one that is tantamount to that between a teacher and student or a parent and child. Abusive breaches of trust erode the power of the game and have resulted in a backlash of player-centric content.

What do I mean by player-centric? The first time I began to notice it was with the transition to 3rd Edition, though cries of foul play had been posted all over the internet even during the mid- to late-AD&D days. Players who were fed up with bad DM behavior enumerated bills of rights: their characters should not be killed off callously, they should be informed before-hand what rules were in play, basic things such as this. While I disagree with some of these so-called player's "rights," I understand the situation surrounding their genesis perfectly.

However, they have led to a balance of the game in the modern day where the DM has been stripped of most of his power. People are deathly afraid of railroading (being forced to do what the DM wants rather than what they want) which is not a consequence of the referee having too much power but rather of the referee being abusive. Players have also developed a sense of entitlement: they are entitled to the magic items they want, access to the character classes they desire, and all number of other things which they feel guaranteed to have. After all, the logic runs, we play to have fun, so whatever is fun for us, we are entitled to.

Yet, these players have lost the central tenets of D&D and let them be consumed by sheer masturbatory fantasy. They shift the balance of the game from being controlled by the DM (who must hold an entire world in his mind to let the players explore) to themselves. The game loses all vitality and meaning as it devolves ever away from the question "Did we win?" to "How hard did we win, and also how cool was it?" Removing the fear of death renders the game toothless, removing the challenge cheapens the reward.

There is very little respect for homebrew campaigns or DMs that run games left in the world. The most common phrase I hear these days is "I wanna play D&D... who wants to run it for me?" This attitude is indicative of the rampant disrespect that DMs garner. The DM of a 3.x or 4e game is expected to be little better than a computer, crunching numbers and following the hard and unbending rules of the game. God forbid they point out that even though the rules say you should have survived that fall from a magic carpet, logic dictates otherwise. Woe unto the DM who says "The ceiling has crushed you. No, we aren't going to roll for damage, everyone is dead." This is seen as an affront.

Players believe they are entitled to win, and to win in glorious ways, simply by the act of signing up for the game. They are hurt and feel betrayed when they are presented with problems that have no solutions, or enemies that are not carefully matched up against their capabilities to provide them with the illusion of danger but the reality of victory. It seems that what people as a whole are really seeking in D&D territory these days is a carefully balanced equation that simulates a rollercoaster: the emotional response of being out of control coupled with the logic that, at the end of the ride, everyone will get out safe and sound, content that they can ride again if they like.

That's not the D&D I want to play. That's not a D&D that respects the verisimilitude of the setting, or the work of the DM. If I wanted to ride a rollercoaster, I'd ride one; if I wanted to read a story about how some heroes succeeded, I'd read one. D&D must be surprising; indeed, to be worth playing at all it must not only be surprising but it must be in some ways a mirror of the world. It cannot provide themes and conclusions that novels can (not without badly forcing it to, perhaps at the whim of some monstrous DM like those the PCs of the late AD&D era railed against) so instead it must provide something even more like life. It is a series of picaresque adventures connected by no greater theme than the themelessness of life; playing D&D should be, at its heart, like the pointless exercise of living: you find your own meaning in what occurs around you, or no meaning at all.


  1. I, for one, never felt "entitled" to anything as a PC in your games. And as for the sense of "winning awesomely," I seem to recall trusting in your flair for the dramatic - when the dramatic was called for. There need be nothing "fucking awesome" about the normal routines of the games.

    1. I tend to fall hard on the DM power scale, as I'm sure you cogitated. I never thought it was the player's right to win, but rather that it was a reward for a hard-fought battle (metaphorical or literal).

  2. @Josh, What you see as one issue, I see as two. The power scale issue and the rules issue. If you just look at D&D, the game has shifted on both issues at the same time, so it's easy to conflate them. However, it's perfectly possible to have a game that combines different levels of these ideas. I've seen 4th edition gamemasters that have tough games where the players need to struggle to merely survive. I've also seen old-school gamemasters run high-flying wuxia games where the characters are destined for greatness. When you look outside of D&D there's lots of games with different choices.

    Power scale varies a lot. Are you playing grim and gritty or are you playing an action movie? Do you expect to go through five characters before you get to second level or are your characters mentioned in a prophecy and immune to death? Personally as both a GM and a player, I like there to be a significant threat of harm but to have some real options for greatness. Generally a couple of characters die along the length of a campaign, but there's no TPK.

    Rules structure is the other issue. As a player, I've had some crappy GM's, and I like a strong rules structure. As a GM, I need a strong rules structure even more. Being a GM involves a lot of different skills an nobody I've seen is great at all of them. I'm not good at making up rulings on the fly. A lot of it is that I want to be fair and consistent. With a well-structured set of rules this comes up less often and when it does I have more examples to go by. This lets me focus on the description, and the story, and playing the NPC's and everything else.

    I'm definitely not saying that every GM who runs a game with less rules structure is a bad GM. It's a style I don't like, but I'm willing to admit that that's my hangup. Likewise, I'm not a fan of games with too high a mortality rate, but I know some people that like that challenge.

  3. I disagree completely. The rollercoaster is exactly what I, and I believe most gamers, want to ride. I'm not saying character death should be impossible- on the contrary it should be very real, but used sparingly.

    People play roleplaying games to tell a story, and to be a part of that story. It is the work of all to make that a good story. Good stories are, at their heart, nothing like the pointless exercise of living- they are fantasy and escapism! And while gamers may clamour for rules that simulate reality, they certainly don't want their stories to simulate reality.

    I agree that removing the challenge and fear of death cheapens the game, but this has always been decided by the Game Master. Killer GMs and Monty Haul GMs alike quickly become unpopular with players. If the players never win, they have no fun. Likewise, if the only question left is "How hard did we win?" that also loses the fun.

    The advent of more options for players has also meant more options for GMs, and the GMs are the ones who decide which rules go and which rules stay. As always, the balance between players and GM is set by the GM. It's good to be king... but it still comes with responsibilities.

    1. Well, I would present a counter-argument that the GM (as laid out in an older sense) is not present to facilitate a story, but rather to be a final impartial arbiter of reality. Player death scenarios aren't a function of the GM, but rather of the players and their own faculties (or lack thereof).

  4. Some games are like riding a roller coaster. Ooh, that sounds all exciting, right? Sure, you get to go fast and do the loop, but anybody without a heart condition can do it, with no more effort than it takes to sit down in the cart and click the lap belt. You know you're going to get there, and there isn't any challenge to it. But sure, you can have your fun going fast around that loop.

    The best games, however, are like trying to pull off a 360 degree revolution on a loop-the-loop skateboard ramp. Lots of people munch, and bust their face or shoulder, because it's not easy. It's hard in ways that are obvious and in ways you won't expect. It tests you, and it might make you better. If you finally pull it off, the audience cheers because they know it kicks ass.

    Remember: Nobody cheers for anybody coming off a roller coaster.

    (And when you get off the roller coaster, don't bother telling me what it was like. When I want to know, I can get on and click in just as effortlessly as you did. In the mean time, I'm going to try this skateboard ramp a few more times...)