Friday, 29 March 2013

Worth Reading, With Caveats

Scott Rehm posted an interesting open letter to Dungeon Masters here:

It is worth reading, and there is much of it that I can agree with.  The overall sentiment is, in fact, one with which I wholeheartedly concur.  There were, of course, a few points at which I was forced to twitch an eyebrow.

First off is this:

GMs will argue endlessly about the best way to do this and that. They will argue about "yes, and..." and failing forward and binary rules and simulationism and player agency and binary outcomes and this will be good and that will be bad and the other is the only way to get players invested. And those arguments are so much noise and fury that signify nothing. They don't matter. They are window dressing. They are bullshit. And the more passionately you argue for one over the other, the more full of bullshit you are.

Obviously, I disagree with this.  A lot of arguments about the best way to GM are, obviously, only so much bullshit.  But experience has taught me that the way in which I run a game matters.  It has also taught me that running a game well is a transferable skill.

What I mean by that is simple:  My own GMing has changed over the years, mostly for the better, although at times for the worse as I attempted to put certain advice to the test.  I ran a game in 1980 well enough to keep a great many players at my table; it does not therefore follow that my game was the best it could be.  GMs, like anyone with a skill set, improve by practice, by experiment, and by discussing their trade with others.

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses.  Doing our best job means that we will exploit those strengths while shoring up our weaknesses.  What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.  My particular weaknesses, for instance, might prevent me from feeling easy about using a better method for some GMing task I set out to accomplish.  It doesn’t follow that my doing it my way is better than if I set out to overcome my weaknesses and master a new task.

I would not be half the GM I am today if I were not exposed to the “bullshit” of GMs arguing endlessly about the best way to do this and that.  Yes, you are special for GMing.  Yes, you should feel proud of what you are doing.  Also, Yes, there is room in your GMing for improvement, and Yes, paying attention to some of that endless arguing may be of assistance in so improving.

In fact, the whole letter may seem to be both encouragement, and advice of the type Scott calls “full of bullshit”. 

That's the thing. You can't be a lazy GM. You can't half-ass it. The longer you are at it, the more likely you are going to face one of those choices. Even if you manage the workload, even if you find all the tricks to focus only on the parts of the game you love, eventually, there is going to be a human conflict at the table and you will have to be the one to resolve it.

I would prefer to read this section as “Yes, other GMs will have ideas – some of them good ideas, and some of them terrible ideas.  It might be a good idea to pay attention to them, but if any one of these ideas damages your love of GMing, whatever benefit you might gain isn’t worth it in the long run.  Always take the advice of another GM with a huge grain of salt.  A grain of salt too heavy for you to lift is not too large.”

And then I would agree.

But I would also argue that, to GM well, you must also always strive to improve.  You can’t be a lazy GM and expect to also be the best you can be.  Your love for the game will atrophy.  The bullshit matters.

I have been called a terrible, awful DM. I have been called that by other DMs. Because I am railroady. Because I keep a tight leash on world building. Because I am old fashioned and old school and don't believe in player agency over the narrative.

When I think of the word “narrative”, I think of the actions that occur in the game.  When I think of the word “railroad”, I think of the GM usurping the ability of players to make choices within the context of the game.  Scott clarifies this in the comments section,

With regard to "player agency over the narrative," this refers to games in which the players decide things about the game world outside of the decisions their characters make. In a traditional game, a player exercises their free will by deciding what their characters do in response to a given situation. They declare the action their character takes - no more, no less - and the DM responds to that. Player agency refers to the practice to allowing the player control over things other than their own characters.

Please note that this is not what I mean, nor have ever meant, by “player agency”.  Nor, if the GM allows the players to make whatever choices their characters should rightfully be able to make, does this meet any reasonable definition of “railroady” in my book.

Everything else?  It’s a good post, and one well worth reading.

Just don't get so carried away slapping your own back that you forget to improve yourself a little, every chance you get.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write up this response. I hope you'll give me the chance to clarify a couple of things. You worked hard on this response, so you deserve a response.

    What I refer to as the "bullshit" is not just talking shop. And I admit I didn't make that clear. It is the acerbic, overbearing way in which DMs often tell other DMs that their style choices are objectively better. "You MUST run your game this way if you want your players to be happy." That is the bullshit. Because, as you point out yourself, style is a personal thing. Different fits for different folks. I am not dismissive of the ideas. I am dismissive of the arguments.

    I am pretty blunt when I type, but if there is a subtext to that part, it is to think about how you talk to your fellow DMs. Because we SHOULD be a supportive, tight-knit group. We should NOT be heaping judgment on one another. As I've said, I have been judged somewhat harshly by fellow DMs because of my perceived style. It rolls off my back. I have a thick skin. But it should not be.

    Judgment and objective (and false) absolute statements about superior styles are toxic. As you note, it is important for DMs to strive to improve and to talk to each other to gather new ideas and new insights. But harsh tones and value judgments put people on the defensive. The targets STOP listening and start defending. And the speaker isn't listening openly either. So no ideas are being exchanged. No improvement is happening.

    To boil it down to something glib and easily quoted, we shouldn't argue about the BEST way, we should each be talking about OUR ways.

    With regard to railroading and agency, I should probably let the very brilliant Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws speak for me in "Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff" episode 30 ( ), but I'll just mention that railroading is used by many people and has many different degrees. As Hite and Laws point out, there are folks who consider a mystery with a established solution to be a railroad plot because the solution to the mystery was not affected by the players' investigation of it. By that definition (as someone who runs a lot of mystery and intrigue plots), I am the railroadiest engineer ever to ride the raily rails of railroad town. Again, judgement and argument over the best way - THE ONE TRUE WAY - is just a bunch of bullshit.

    1. Overall, I agree with you. I do, however, hold that there are qualities of a tabletop game that make it different from a computer game or a movie, and that if, as a GM, you choose not to allow these differences to flourish, you are making your game less than what it could be. It might still be very entertaining, but it is not what it could be.

      For example - railroading, the way I defined it, is toxic to the game. IMHO. You might be able to do it (and this is the general open-ended "you", not the Angry DM "you"), and that might even be what you prefer. If you can get a single player, you should always run the game the way you want to run it, but you will never convince me that your railroaded game is as good as it would be if you let the players make their own decisions.

      Likewise, if you fudge die rolls, I think that you are damaging your game. The players may still like it. You may like it more than if you did not fudge, and following the general rule of running the game you want if you can get a single player, you should do so. But doing so damages the effects of player choice, and, I think, therefore damages your game.

      Note that when I say "player choice" I mean only the player's ability to choose the actions of their characters within the contextual fantasy milieu, and to reap the consequences - good or ill - of those choices. I think that this interplay between context, choice, and consequence is what the game is all about.

      YMMV, and, if it does, your decisions about how to run a game should likewise vary.

    2. But my point is that we CAN discuss these things, the pros and cons, more effectively if we avoid the arguments as to whether this style is better or that style is worse.

      For example: instead of talking about fudging die rolls "damaging the game," let's discuss the reasons why we might or might not do it. An argument can be made, for example, that fudged die rolls increase the impact of player choice by reducing the chance of having the desired outcome being overruled by random chance. And if are trying to build a character-driven story game, we might find that helpful. I personally never fudge die rolls, but I can understand why some might. And I don't agree that it is "always damaging."

      Likewise, as I noted, there are some places where the word railroad evokes an extreme negative reaction that linear games with DM-provided goals instantly provoke ire, rightly or wrongly. Again, I really encourage you to listen to Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws if you want to hear the full length and breadth of the gaming discussion of "sandbox" vs. "railroad" and the toxic nature of the argument.

      The moment you say "I will never be convinced that your game will be as good as it could be" without sitting down at someone's table, you are telling me that there is no point in talking shop with you. You do not have an open mind and are not willing to listen. Again, hypothetical you.

      Ultimately, the drive to improve is a personal one. For the DM and the player. When I seek out your help and your advice, by all means, give it. But if I am happy and my group is happy, then trying to make me better by hook or by crook, telling me I am wrong or doing harm to my game, you are the asshole. Because every DM and every game doesn't have to strive for perfection. That is your goal, your drive, your motive. Some folks just want to sit and laugh and have a good enough, fun enough game.

      There are more important things than being correct. There are more important things than being perfect.

    3. Scott, for an "Angry DM" you are certainly working hard to be rational.

      I knew I would be in trouble with the hyperbolic "I never will be convinced...." To be more accurate, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I have found, having tried it both ways, from both sides of the screen, that there is a difference between fudging and not fudging, between "linear model" and sandbox games.

      "Better" or "worse" is, of course, dependent upon subjective opinion.

      But, I have to ask, don't you see a discrepancy between "Some folks just want to sit and laugh and have a good enough, fun enough game" and "You can't be a lazy GM. You can't half-ass it."?

      Obviously, if good enough is good enough, you can be a lazy GM. You can half-ass it. Lo these many years back, when I was first running games, I was in grade school. I could be a lazy student. I could half-ass it. I could be a lazy student, and even get halfway decent marks.

      At the same time, though, I wouldn't claim that doing "good enough" was getting full value from the educational opportunities afforded to me.

      I am suggesting that it is fine to run your game however you like. If you can get even a single player, you SHOULD run your game however you like. But, if you don't push yourself, you will never get full value from the opportunities afforded to you. If you don't want those opportunities, that's your call. But there is a difference between striving and not striving.

      I should note, obviously, that there are those who can do better not striving than others can while striving. For instance, I cannot carry a tune on a CD, let alone play a musical instrument. No matter how I strive, the vast majority of people I meet are instantly more musically talented than I will ever be.

      And I am okay with that. I make jokes about it. I am simply never going to strive to do better with music. But, then, I don't make the mistake of entering Canadian Idol, either. Better or worse may be subjective terms, but I would rather hear a musician who constantly strives to be better than I would a recording of my own voice. And I bet you would, too.

    4. (I also assume that, if someone is foolish enough to read my blog, they are effectively asking my opinion. And I don't feel a pressing need to IMHO/YMMV every second sentence. I trust the reader to understand that implicitly.)

    5. Having listened to the podcast you cite...."Railroading is a pejorative term for a game session in which something gets accomplished"? Really? Sorry, but listening to this podcast, I cannot agree that the gentlemen understand either term as I use it.

      A sandbox includes both mission-oriented play and exploratory play, although the players get a hell of a lot more input as to what missions they undertake in a sandbox....and exploratory play tends to help in setting missions. They discuss this, but they seem to feel that the GM determines whether the players are engaged in a mission or exploration. The GM can certainly introduce context within a sandbox - an invading army, for example, offers context in which players make choices for their characters, and certainly influence the potential consequences of those choices.

      Conversely, a game is railroady, as I use the term, only to the degree that the GM presents not only context for choices, and consequences for choices, but also forces the choices themselves. The PCs keep getting attacked by monsters if they get off the DragonLance rails, for example.

      So, no, the dichotomies that the podcast suggests as replacements for railroad vs. sandbox are not particularly useful, as they do not speak to the question. All they do, if adopted as replacements, is prevent you from talking about the question.

  2. You can be angry and rational at the same time.

    You, sir, really need to bend your definitions a little. The problem with a loaded term like "railroading" is that everyone doesn't use it the same way you do. There ARE degrees. And that was part of the point Laws and Hite were trying to make: it has become a broadly applied pejorative and has come to encompass many different styles of play and that has the end result of ruining any useful conversation about it. Like this conversation here. You have to keep jumping in with "Railroading means this and only this to me" and "and if taken with this definition, I will never ever accept any possibilities that it is okay." So, again, we're not exchanging thoughts or ideas. You are just insisting on one definition and then asserting that your particular definition is absolutely always bad.

    And if you really do think that way, that is fine. It is your right. And it is your blog and you should use it as a forum for your opinions. But any further discussion is kind of pointless. Because we're not going to break through that barrier. If you will absolutely never accept a possibility, there is no reason to discuss it for you. You have effectively turned off the discussion. So, I am going to withdraw my hat from the ring of that discussion.

    I think your assertion that "you can't half ass it" and "some people play just good enough" are contradictory are a result of a false dilemma again. I firmly believe that even playing "just good enough" still requires a lot of work and commitment. If you drop below that minimum standard (half assing it), your game CANNOT be good enough. Good enough still requires a high level of work and commitment from the DM. Our argument, then, is whether striving for constant self-improvement is part of that minimum level of work and commitment. Logically, it isn't. Self-improvement implies that you are seeking to move BEYOND good enough to better than good enough. But if you are happy at good enough, there is no imperative that says you must always be improving. It is okay to settle. Because it is just a f$&%ing game, after all.

    Meaning no disrespect, I again am not really sure what you are trying to argue. Are you trying to argue that every DM MUST strive for self-improvement? And that self-improvement involves listening to people who try to apply objective value judgments to subjective style considerations? Because I can't agree to that. And that means that this time, I'm shutting down the communication because, again, I don't see that we can get to a useful place with that discussion. And I genuinely think that is a closed-minded and ultimately toxic attitude to the gaming community.

    1. Nah, I am happy to say "For the purposes of this discussion, X means Y" even if I do not think that X means Y. However, I am leery of the attempt to then turn around and conflate X and Y more generally.

      Rob and Ken can call "games without sufficient context" sandboxes if they like, and "games with sufficient context" railroads, but that is not remotely related to the general reasons why people dislike railroads.

      Put bluntly, it doesn't speak to the question. All it does is attempt to muzzle the question, and I have no interest in that.

      Likewise, of course it is "okay to settle", but one shouldn't mistake settling for something that makes you special. I know people use "it is just a game" to make it seem like it is unimportant, but if one considers the amount of time one spends upon it as a measure of its significance in your life, one might conclude that for many, while it is a game, it is more than "just" a game.

    2. Oh yes, and if the problem with a loaded term like "railroading" is that everyone doesn't use it the same way, i.e., "it has become a broadly applied pejorative and has come to encompass many different styles of play and that has the end result of ruining any useful conversation about it", then I submit that the LAST thing it makes sense to do is "bend your definitions a little" and use the term more broadly to encompass more, and thus further ruin useful conversation about it.

      Unless ruining future conversation around the root term - the reason why it became a pejorative - is the goal. And when that is the goal, well....No thank you.