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Saturday 6 June 2015

10th Anniversary Classic Rant: Your Mt. Everest Is a Molehill

Well, the entry-before-last has certainly sparked a whirlwind of commentary and debate. And, it has led me to question: what are the fundamental causes for certain people's obsession with RPG theory?

It seems that most game theory is based on achieving some kind of "consensus" or "communication" between the DM and the players. Unfortunately, this usually takes the form of disempowering the DM, something that in my experience virtually guarantees an unstable gaming group or an unpleasant experience. Someone's got to be the Alpha, motherfuckers, and if your DM isn't the Alpha in your gaming group, you're all fucked. Cause you know someone else will be, and if that someone else is a player, the whole game goes down in smoke as it's turned into one dude's ego trip.

"But surely", you say, "what you are proposing is that it's all just the DM's ego trip"? No. 
Though I do concede that this is probably one of the experiences that has led many people down the road of Theorist Swinedom: at some point, somewhere, they had a shit-head DM (apparently, in many cases a Vampire Swine) who made them miserable by making the whole game about his plot (or the Vampire metaplot) and basically made you want to cut your balls off rather than game like that again.

Well, the theorist's first mistake was playing Vampire. But of course, you don't get rid of Swine-based problems by becoming a Swine yourself, which is what Ron Edwards and the Forge-ites have done.
But the second mistake may have been just as crucial: picking a shit-head DM.

A good DM, to be a good Alpha, has to have leadership qualities. And narcissism is NOT a leadership quality. Arrogance just might be, but narcissism ain't. So a DM that wants to make the game all about him and his own grandeur is a poor candidate for DM-hood. The answer to all this is very simple: you must have a DM who is definitively in charge and keeps the worst of player abuses and whims in check, but who knows well enough to put the focus on the players and give them a sense of involvement in the game. A DM can't be afraid of saying "no", but he must also learn that if there's no good reason to say "no", he should say "yes"! Hell, sometimes he can get farther by saying "Yes" and then moving the players whims into dangerous directions for them. As Oscar Wilde said: there are two great tragedies in life... one is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it. Give your players enough rope and you can use it to royally fuck up their schemes. The Great Erick Wujcik taught me that.

But let's get back to RPG Theory. It seems to me that most theorists, regardless of whether they accept or reject the rest of Ron Edward's rantings, seem to accept his argument about the "Impossible Thing". Namely that the claim of RPGs that the DM is the author of the ongoing story, but that the players can determine the actions of their characters as the protagonists is somehow an unsolvable paradox.

What the fuck?! THAT is seriously the theorist's intellectual Mount Everest that they can't climb!? That's why they have to make up all this shit about giving the players "agency" and taking control of the game out of the GM's hands? Well I must be a fucking genius in that case, because it took me all of two seconds to solve your "Impossible" dilemma, and I've been roleplaying for decades without running into any problem regarding it.

The answer is simply this: Both the players and the GM are the authors of the "story" of an RPG. The DM is the author of the premise and the context, and the players are the authors of the execution. The DM is the one that sets up the story, and handles the surrounding characters and ongoing events, and the players run the protagonists (created within the confines and boundaries of the DM's premise) autonomously guiding themselves in making choices to resolve the story.

I mean, fuck.. that's no great secret, that's pretty much the fucking definition of ROLE PLAYING GAMES. You may have heard of those?

For fuck's sake, that's why things like story-based gaming, or the more brutish "railroading" are such BAD things. Likewise, that's why a weak DM, or the "monty haul" are likewise bad things. Either of those scenarios mean that one side in the equation is failing to cover his ground, or trying to push into doing the other side's job. This might be a huge revelation to the theorists out there, but the rest of us have been aware of this shit since at least the early 80s.

So yes, Vampire and WW games and story-based gaming are things that fucked up the hobby, and created a whole group of fucked up people who game poorly. I've been saying that all along. But the solution to that is not to be found in some kind of "new deal" where the DM is reduced to a fucking social worker who enables the Player's every crapulence. Nor is it to be found in obsessive micro-games that try to create some kind of "collective story-telling" exercise. It is found in the very foundations of roleplaying and in restoring the traditional GM-player relationship. It's found in having a DM who creates a good premise without getting hung up on it going exactly the way he wants it to; and having players who don't get hung up on getting everything they want at the beginning but instead playing within the boundaries of that premise and making choices and being proactive to find a solution to the challenges the DM presents them with.

This isn't rocket science.


(Originally posted March 3rd 2006)


  1. Wow. Perfect. If I ever publish an RPG, I'd want to include that as a foreword.

  2. More like...

    The GM is a museum docent guiding a tour group around the establishment. The players are the tour group, who mostly follow along with the docent/GM, but every now and then you get somebody who just has to check something out. A good docent adapts, a bad docent doesn't.

  3. The main problem with RPGs is (and that'd be an opinion, thank you) that people rarely read books for games they are supposed to play.

    It's entirely possible that in the majority of cases newbies simply attended a session of game X, were taught selected basics by the group that accepted them into its ranks, then played more, confirmed a few rules, asked veterans a few questions but never ever found it in them to actually buy and read the books itself. Sometimes, even if they did, it was like "oh, I know that, so let's skip that boring intro part", "uhum, mastering the game, ya I know this already, next chapter..."

    Years of online discussions kind of support this opinion - many troubles people have with their games are already addressed and explained. All they need is to sit, read and for once process the text, rather than change it into an equivalent of "speedrun".

    It were Americans who coined the term "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". They simply forgot to add "...first confirm whether it's actually broke, by consulting the instruction".

    In many cases - like the one discussed here - it ain't.