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Tuesday 16 May 2017

Classic Rant: Old-school is the Least Worst of all Possible Group Power Dynamics

The old-school approach works BEST when it has the best possible person as a GM, yes. And it doesn't work well at all if it has a bad GM. But that's why you have to WALK AWAY from bad GMs.

Every other approach is in some way based on some variant of how to 'solve' the "bad GM" problem. But here's the thing: NONE OF THEM DO. Instead, they hamstring good GMs, while empowering bad players to be either abusive with the mechanics or manipulative over the group in order to get what they want.

The old-school approach has problems, but it's the only one that actually has good odds of working. Yes, the old-school approach depends on a single guy at the table not being an asshole; but most of the other approaches depend on not one of FOUR TO EIGHT PEOPLE at the table not being assholes. 

Democracy is a great principle for running countries; not so great for running tiny social groups, because there democracy becomes mostly indistinguishable from Consensus, and Consensus is (unless very strongly controlled) a system that just lets the biggest asshole manipulate everyone else.

If you say "oh but I trust my group", GREAT! Your GM is a part of your group, right? Then TRUST HIM.

If you don't trust the GM, then you obviously do not trust your group, and there's good odds there'll be at least one selfish asshole among the players, or one self-absorbed narcissistic primma-donna that will abuse 'power devolution' to manipulate everyone else into making the game all about him, or a couple of players who are individually nice guys but can't stop fighting each other over petty shit that, given power and no oversight will make their rivalry into the central conflict of the game sessions, or any number of other things that could fuck up a scenario where instead of just depending on ONE guy to be good, you depend on absolutely everyone being good.

Oh wait, but what about if we make the Game Designer the final authority, through the rules he created? That does it, right? Check and mate, motherfucker!

Or not. Because there you're trusting that Luke Crane isn't an asshole. And he is. Bruce Baugh isn't just an asshole, he's a worthless sack of shit. And Vince Baker is not only an asshole he's a sick fucking asshole with serious issues.

But aside from whatever personal asshole-issues the designers have already front-loaded into their fucking games, you also have the issue that odds are you can't just ring up the Game Designer every time there's some internal dispute in your party. The game designer DOESN'T KNOW YOU. He doesn't know anything about who you are, he lives thousands of miles away, why the Fuck are you going to trust him to decide what's best for your party, and not Jim who you've known since high school?!

And assuming you can't just ring up or email the designer every time the party has an internal dispute, you are still ultimately giving deciding power to someone else. If the point of giving power to the Rules/Designer is to avoid letting the GM be 'abusive' then presumably you'll not let him actually change the rules; and this means that by default, the power will lie with the players. Because if the GM can't just say "NO" to the rules, then what you're doing is giving the group's power away to whichever player or players is the most obsessive-compulsive little rules-lawyery piece of shit that has read every last page of that rulebook and spends more time than everyone else in the group put together thinking about those rules and how to manipulate them and use legalisms to get his way.

So yes, the old-school approach is not some kind of theoretical best approach. But it is the least bad of any approach we have ever devised. Enlightened Philosopher-King Monarchy, baby.


(originally posted February 14, 2015)


  1. I loved it the 1st time around and my feelings haven't changed.

  2. We don't have to assume any bad intent on the part of players, you can get horrible results by sharing authority prescriptively just by the way RPG Games are structured. The GM's only real purpose is a great game. The players HAVE CHARACTERS. So they're always have a SECOND motivation besides "great game," which is "me having fun at the moment," "my character achieving the goals I want, etc." Those latter things can conflict with having a great game.