Friday 7 March 2014

A Response to Matt @ The Tao of D&D


I was born in 1966.  When I started the game, using the Holmes Basic rules, there was no one else I knew who had ever picked up the game.  

Later, I spent four years in the US Army.  I have lived in Missouri, Louisiana, Virginia, California, Wisconsin, and Ontario, both in major cities (Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Toronto) and in rural communities (I spent half my childhood in Pembine, Wisconsin, near the border to Upper Peninsula Michigan, with my nearest neighbour being a 5 mile walk away).  

I have moved a lot.  I have had to seek out new groups a lot as a result.  Usually, I have had to form groups.

So, yes, I understand having to find a group.  I do not equate that with begging around, cap in hand, asking players Oliver Twist style, “Please, Sirs, can I run some more?” 

Players are not a captive audience.  They may choose to play or choose not to play.  I have never had a problem finding players, or getting players to choose to play.  That may be because of simple luck, or it may be because of the way that I approach the game itself, but I have run games for a lot of different people in a lot of different places. 

Toronto is a Pathfinder town.  Running a game in a store, which I have done several times last year as part of the DCC World Tour 2013, is a challenge because you are directly competing with what is the most popular game in town, and in some cases competing with the hype surrounding D&D Next.

When I switched to DCC from the homebrewed game I was working on, RCFG, I lost three good players because they preferred the other game.  They were more interested in games with strong character generation sub-games.  That is completely okay.  Players are not a captive audience.  In my philosophy, every player should seek the game he or she most desires to play in, and every GM should run the game they wish to run.  Now, of course, there is a lot of interplay between these two positions, and the GM hopefully wishes to run the game the players wish to play in, just as the players hopefully wish to play in the game they are presented with.

In your response on Tao, you said

It doesn't even take the entire table to undermine me as a DM. I tried to run a game where plague and disease would play a major part in the campaign. I was trying to build an atmosphere with some gloom and some despair. The characters were going to be fighting vampires and necromancers and cultists and such. Some of my players bought in. Two didn't. They decided they would be at the table, but they weren't playing my game. "Oh, sickness is the problem? Lets start a Laundromat! I'll play an Asian stereotype sorcerer and I'll start a magic dry cleaning business. Want to help?" "Sure! I'll help out your business. Lets go about town washing clothes and fixing disease."

and I have to wonder how that is not playing your game.  It is my core belief that the GM devises setting, including the opportunity to interact with things like vampires, necromancers, and disease, and the players determine how they will approach that setting and those opportunities.  Likewise, it seems obvious to me that some players are going to resist an atmosphere of gloom and despair.  But I do not see this as a failure to buy in; I see this as an acceptable decision within the scope of the milieu.

In other words, there is a difference between “Here is an opportunity to fight necromancers” and “You will be fighting necromancers”.  If the “disease” is the result of necromancy and the undead, how effective is a Laundromat going to be, really?  Discovering that the problem is not so easily solved might well have provided you with a gloomier atmosphere than if they had immediately sought out Count Orlock.

And sure, I could have kicked them out, but they were half my group. They were friends. They were some of the only players I had. Were my other players pissed? Sure. They thought they'd get to play a gloomy dark vampire hunting game, and instead two players were pissing all over it with a joke.

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that any form of player resistance to the opening status quo of a campaign milieu is “pissing all over it” – it is, rather, an attempt to control the direction of the game.  Players should be doing that.  And no matter how much they attempt to make light, the GM should continue to offer context, allow choices, and enforce consequences. 

What would have happened if you had allowed the players to resolve their own internal conflicts?  When two players want to do one thing in a game I run, and two players want to do another, who gets to decide – or even if the group splits up – is a player decision to make.  It is not my job to force a consensus, and it is not my right to tell them that they must decide this or that.

What if you had let them joke, but didn’t change the context in which their choices were being made?  I mean, literally, what if you didn’t let the jokes rattle you, and you continued to play it seriously?  What if, rather than simply allowing that reaction to ruin the game, you used it to highlight the darkness?  Eventually, the number of un-dead would grow, the disease would become worse, and the PCs would be forced to do something, even if “doing something” means flee to another town or continue obliviously until they drowned in a sea of walking corpses. 

See, I don’t see “kick them out” or “trash the game” as the only solutions here.  I see the best solution as “accept their decisions, but that doesn’t change the milieu until they do something to change it.”  I also think that the players should be trying to change the milieu to their benefit.  But the milieu, not their desire, determines how difficult that is.

While your game milieu will include many potential adventure sites, I think it is important to envision a setting in which adventure occurs, rather than specific actions/adventures which will occur.  The PCs should always have the ability to opt out, but putting that option to the test should always include whatever consequences are appropriate to the milieu.  If you choose not to go to White Plume Mountain, nothing happens to you.  If you choose not to pay attention to the growing legion of un-dead where you live, there are likely to be harsher consequences.

That lasted for an hour or two before I quit. I sent everyone home. I trashed the campaign. I forget what we ended up playing after that but I had been running 4th edition D&D during that period of my gaming so it was probably some high powered fantasy loot-explosion bullshit. I hate that kind of game but I ran it because that's what kept my players coming back to the table and quite frankly I needed the creative outlet more than they needed the dice rolling so I ran their game and tried to build a world around it until despite my efforts I lost friends and players anyway.

I got older
You should never run a game that you do not enjoy.  Life is too short for that.  The world is filled with creative outlets.  Some of them even offer remuneration.

But, look at it this way:  If the players have all of the power in the equation, and the bullshit game is what keeps them coming back to the table, it follows that you have to run the bullshit game or have no players. 

But that is not what happened.  Instead, attempting to cater to the tastes of others while ignoring what you wanted caused you to lose friends and players anyway.  And what actually happened?  

You had a milieu in which you had considered what choices the players had, what the context was, and what the potential consequences would be.  Even if two of the players made choices you had not considered, they were engaging with that milieu in so doing.  Had you stayed the course – allowing them to operate their side of the screen (choices) while you operated yours (context and consequence), the natural consequences of ignoring the context of the milieu would have affected player choices over the course of time. 

You might not have gotten exactly what you were expecting – nothing ever is once a human element is added – but you would have gotten much better than what you settled for.  And, honestly, so would your players.  No one is at their best running a game they dislike. 

So I begged the remains of the players to play a game that I would enjoy running and I tried my damnedest to keep it interesting because I was out of options. If I couldn't get them to buy in I had no players.

Listen.  I’m not going to proclaim my insights to be brilliant.  I am not going to claim that I express myself with the EXACT words needed in all cases.  I am not going to claim that my way is the right way, or the only way, or that your experience cannot differ from mine.  I am not even going to claim that if you disagree you must not be listening.  I leave those kinds of claims to others.  I am interested in a dialogue, not a monologue with a chorus.

Perhaps I come from a privileged position, because I have never had to beg players to play in the games that I ran, and I never expected anyone to beg me to play.  Nor have I ever had anyone come to me, cap in hand, begging to run a game.  Why would they?  If the game is worth playing, you don’t have to beg.

You had a game that you believed was worth playing.  And you trashed it because of an hour or two of frustration.  Players always need to find their feet, to learn the rules of a campaign milieu, when they jump into a new game.  Some players will always want to test the GM, to ensure that they are actually able to make unexpected choices in the game milieu.  Some players will always attempt something suicidal with a new GM, just to gauge whether or not the dice will fall where they may.  These things are normal.

And the result of believing that the players should decide what you run was not very happy, was it?  The high powered fantasy loot-explosion was not what you wanted?  Didn’t you have to run what you wanted to be happy?

Again, I’m not Einstein.  I don’t have some pretensions to being an intellectual übermensch, so take this with a grain of salt:  You decided that you didn’t want to play that way, and then offered the players something you wanted to do, and they agreed to do it.  You might have felt like you were begging when you brought it up, but would you have continued running bang-pow-loot if they had said No to your ideas?

If you would have, then, Yup.  They have all the power.  If you would not have, then congratulations! because you both have power in that relationship.  The players can force the GM's game to end, but the GM cannot force the players to play.  Likewise, the GM can force the players' game to end, but the players cannot force the GM to run.  A relationship – any relationship – where one side has all the power is dysfunctional. 

It is my unsolicited advice to you to avoid dysfunctional relationships, and to be very cautious about accepting the conclusion – from anyone, no matter how well-meaning they might be – that the only way to be in any particular type of relationship is to accept that it is going be dysfunctional.  This applies, of course, not only to gaming, but to all of life.

PS:  If you read Alexis' response, you will note that he said that GMs who view players as disposable are not trying to build a team, but trying to gather worshippers.  Or words to that effect.

Imagine that you wanted to play a game of Risk.  You invite some friends.  Some are into it, and some are not, but the invitation is definitely to play Risk.  Are you building worshippers, or are you getting together a group who has an interest in a particular sort of game?  Is your friend who wants to go out with his significant other that night no longer your friend?  Do you stop going out to see movies with your other friend who isn't into boardgames because he won't let you dictate that he plays Risk on Tuesday?  Are you even trying to dictate what he does on Tuesday?  Or are you offering an option?

In other words, is it the people who are replaceable, or their role as players?  Because the first is a problem, and the second, IMHO, is not.  In the second case, you can go fishing with them on Sunday after the game.

Personally, I don't like to demand that people agree with me.  But I do like to take on memes that seem likely to increase dysfunction.  This is one of them.  And I do suggest that you take a look at the research link that Alexis provided.  When you read about how the research describes destructive leadership, do you think that he has nailed it, or do you think that he has extended the definition rather far from what the authors indicated?

All of these questions, by the way, are real questions.  I am curious about what you think.


  1. Imagine that you wanted to play a game of RISK. And two people at that game decided to start throwing pieces at each other, running around the room and acting like twits. And imagine that when that bothered you, and you said so, some guy who doesn't know you wrote a blog post about how the two people were just trying to control 'their game.' Just imagine.

    1. It may shock you, Alexis, but I am actually interested in Matt's response, rather than in your interpretation of what he should be saying.

    2. Actually, considering how you have repeatedly argued that the players should be telling the GM what they want to do in the game, I have to ask you how you interpret trying to set up a laundromat to combat the disease as equivalent to "throwing pieces at each other, running around the room and acting like twits". Please enlighten me.

    3. What you're saying is, you'd like to just put stuff like this up on your blog and not have it be challenged by anyone who fundamentally is likely to find all of it a lot of self-aggrandizing justification for a narrow minded perspective. If you didn't want me commenting on it, then you shouldn't have commented on my blog, raven. You reap what you sow.

      I have consistently argument for player agency. I have also argued that ALL the players should cooperate. Apparently, you totally dismissed the fact that Matt and the other two players were extremely unhappy. That didn't fit your world view. That was immaterial for you. So you dismissed it. As you dismiss everything else that doesn't fit your round hole.

    4. No, Alexis, you are free to respond. I was just really, really, really hoping that Matt would. Frankly, I am more interested in his opinion at the moment than yours.

      Except that, yes, you have consistently argued for player agency, and you have also consistently argued that all the players should co-operate. But if you are going to argue that the players, not the GM, have the power in the relationship, it is strange that you would also argue that the GM, not the players, should be responsible for ensuring that co-operation.

      Except that, yes, you argue consistently for player agency except in areas where you don't think the players should have agency...such as if they want to work at cross purposes, or if they want to run a different game.

      Except that....your solution to perceived abuses of power at on one side of the table is to place all power on the other side, while expecting the powerless side to be responsible for what occurs.

      Except really, really, really seem to have a hard time with anyone disagreeing with you. In fact, when I read the research you linked to, what I was reading did not cause the average GM to immediately spring to mind, but it did cause the way you deal with your blog to.

      And finally....except that none of your comments here have actually made a rational contribution to the discussion. I didn't move the discussion here to avoid talking about the issue. I moved the discussion here to avoid your controlling the discussion (see the research you cited). ANYONE is free to comment here, and unless the comment is particularly offensive, or spam, I leave it be.

      I don't dismiss the fact that Matt and the other two players were unhappy. I point out that the way Matt chose to deal with it made him more unhappy, for longer, and that the other two players had as much agency to deal with the problem as Matt did.

      Similarly, while I was willing to try one more time on your blog, that did not mean that I was not listening to you, but that you seemed to be attempting to hold court, having a monologue with a chorus rather than a dialogue. On this post, and on all other posts were someone might dare to point out that, while some of what you write is excellent, in other places you could drive a Winnebago through the holes. You accuse others of being narrow minded, or of being megalomaniacs, but in fact you are still monologuing, still looking in a mirror and thinking that you see someone else.

      You can try that here, but don't think that it will pass without comment. You are a long way from your personal Guyana here, Reverend Jones.

    5. "I moved the discussion here to avoid your controlling the discussion ..."

      Yes. Yes you did.

    6. "self-aggrandizing justification for a narrow minded perspective"

      Something about pots. And kettles. And the color black.

    7. Of course I did, Alexis. I have already had the experience of my comments being deleted to control the context of the conversation. I had no desire to experience it again. It is called "learning from one's mistakes".

    8. That's a very convenient, meaningless turn around, Greg. "I know you are but what am I?"

      raven moved the conversation here because he couldn't control me. Now he sits on his own blog, painting me as he likes, defining conveniently my success according to his point of privilege, etc., etc. The conversation on my blog, on the other hand, is not actually about me, nor is it about raven. This conversation is considerably lower down the scale. That is evident to anyone. The fact that I insult people, and raven insults people, does not make us equal.

      A smart person, Greg, is less concerned about keeping score, or lowering us all into the dustbin, and more concerned into examining the arguments and making up their minds. If all you can do is take note that I am not pristine clear and bright, then I would similarly point out that no one is. And those who claim they are in a position to judge on the brightness of anyone's kettle are transferring.

    9. Well, except for the part where Raven moved the conversation here to ask for Matt's response, rather than yours. I don't think he was ever trying to control you in the first place.

    10. raven tries to control everyone.

      That's right, raven. I deleted your comments when they were abusive and insulting. Just as I would toss you straight out on the road from my flat if that was the way you spoke about me there. I don't regret it. It was the correct thing to do. You may see that as "trying" to control you, but I see it as removing abuse from my blog.

      Note that your ire and indignation at having your comments deleted in the past hasn't stopped you from going to my site, being disruptive there, continuing to comment as though you're welcome. Nor has your ire or indignation, nor any of the things you've said on this post, stopped you from aggrandizing yourself with me, praising me or otherwise attempting to encourage me to consider your opinions valid. You can't seem to make up your mind. You seem to think its appropriate to slag me when that works for you, then show up a few months later on my blog, all sunny and roses, until again you've said something insulting to someone, whereupon you immediately rush off to write another self-promoting cry on your own blog.

      If I am this awful, terrible, abusive, dictatorial person you claim me to be, why oh why do you keep coming back to my site? Why? Let me think ... oh, you're a troll.

    11. Raven tries to control everyone. Excepting, of course, that I am making no effort to control your comments. Or...huh.....anyone else's.

      The answer to your question, why I keep coming back to your site, is clear and I have stated it many, many times: despite your less than stellar personal qualities, you have interesting things to say. They are not always correct, and you have a tendency to treat them as objective truth, but they are nonetheless interesting.

    12. Funny how every time you mention me you have to add the adjoiner that you don't always agree with me. You must really fear that people will identify you with me.

      Well, let's make this clear. Exactly as I would if you were a person that kept pestering me at the mall. If you must look at me, do it from over there. Stop talking to me, stop communicating with me.

    13. Just to be clear, I mention that I don't always agree with me because I don't want there to be any confusion. I don't want you to think that I am drinking the Kool Aid.

      If trust me on anything, you can trust me on this: I am not worried that anyone identifies me with you. You're on a soapbox; I'm having a dialogue. You're a tortured genius that no one can fully understand or appreciate; I'm just some yahoo with a few ideas to toss back and forth. Night and day.

      AFAICT, I have yet to communicate with you, although it is not for lack of trying. Your reception doesn't seem to be working. But, yeah, I can stop posting replies to your blog.

  2. If I didn't let my players act like twits, I'd have no one to play with . . .

    Serious answer, I wonder how much of conflating players with creative responses to adventure hooks with game wrecking problem players is a result of the adventure path format that's come to dominate RPGs in the last decade or so. It may be nostalgia, but I remember the B/X adventures I first learned the game with as being much more loosely structured than the current APs I see: so loosely structured, in terms of story and plot, that it wasn't within the players' power to ruin an adventure by thinking outside the box.

    1. I think that the AP holds some of the blame, yes. I also think that AP materials are usable, but they should be folded, spindled, and mutilated by the GM so that the players can choose to engage the material however they like. In my version of A1-4, for example, I would argue that the players should be able to use the caves in A4 to sneak into A3, and then deal with or ignore the materials in A1 and A2 as they see fit....or just ignore the whole thing and beat up on some trolls. Or open a laundry to wash the slavers' yellow sails.

    2. I love the Idea of sneaking into A3 through the Caverns in A4! Not to make the hobby sound like a job, but if the GM isn't mutilating the material so that the players can engage it however they like, I don't know why said GM would have started GM-ing in the first place.

      On second thought, I may have just encapsulated several years worth of lessons learned while playing D&D as a tween into "That's obviously the most natural way to run a table." Hell, don't ask me.

  3. Hmm. Thoughtful post.

    If I may say, I think there is a clear difference between players working towards a goal...and taking actions that are actively disruptive/annoying to the other players.

    In both Alexis' example and the example Matt gave, the 2 players were testing the limits THE OTHER PEOPLE at the table...and the two other players were not happy with the behavior. This was not a game world being was a game table being messed with.

    Unfortunately, DMs can often confuse one for the other...especially if they're more invested in the game world than the game table. That is the danger you rightfully warn against...but it is not the situation Matt was describing...nor what Alexis seems to be putting forth with the Risk example.

    It is the difference between "Why would so-and-so's character do that??" and "Why is so-and-so doing that??". Again, this can often be a fuzzy thing.

    Players SHOULD take control of their characters within the game...but should not, as people, hijack the game table for their own amusement.

    Incidentally, I'm going to have a look around here!

    1. You know, it may be that the two players were testing the limits of the others at the table, and it may be that they hit upon what seemed to them a good direction to move the game in. In either event, what we know is true is that Matt's response to it was damaging to his enjoyment of the game in the long term, and it didn't prevent him from losing players.

      And although I didn't want to open this bag of worms initially, what if Matt had simply told the two players in question No? One tried and true technique that any GM can use is to control where the focus of the game is. The party splits up because they think it wise? Each section gets equal time. You split off from the party because you're a dick? I'll get to you when I get to you.

      Of course, this assumes that the person running the game can tell when someone is just trying to be a dick. And, as you say, the line can be fuzzy.

      In games I run, the players are in charge of their own social dynamics, except in very extreme cases. And if a case is so extreme that I need to intervene, the odds are good I will not be intervening because of that player more than once or twice.

      Like the Risk analogy, I can always do something else with friends who don't want the same type of game I want to run.

  4. Don't ever come to my group to play, we have to much fun joking and acting like "twits" for you serious types...

  5. Eric,

    You're far afield from the point. We all act stupid from time to time at my table...but it's not at the expense of each others enjoyment. No one hijacks the game to go off on ludicrous tangents that actively damage other peoples ability to have fun.

    Fun =/= disruptive

    1. Consider this: We are not talking about an established game here. We are talking about the first hour or two into a new campaign milieu. Either Matt told the players what he wanted their characters to do, or he did not. If he did not, the players have to decide how to take what they are presented with. If he did, the players have to decide IF they want to take what they are presented with.

      Maybe I misremember, but I believe the example was four players, two of who were upset at the other two for wanting to approach the material in a light-hearted way. If you have a group of six, and one is disruptive, that is one thing. If you have a group of four and two are disruptive, that is another - you are clearly a house divided. If this is at the start of a campaign, then also clearly the campaign is not striking half your player base as something they are interested in. Or at least, not the way that you hoped they would be.

      If you are going to argue, as Alexis does, that the players have all the power, how do you expect the GM to resolve this?

      IME, these sorts of behaviours are fostered largely by a lack of context. As the players gain better context, they are able to better appreciate the milieu and make decisions therein. IMHO, and not having been there, had Matt allowed them to make their own choices, and supplied context and consequence, the increased context coupled with the understanding of consequence would have resolved the problem.

      I have seldom seen this fail, and I have never seen this fail with a group I would consider friends.

      So I tend to think, barring more information from Matt, that this is just a case where one can learn from past mistakes.

    2. Checked it. "Some bought in. Two didn't." So we don't actually know how divided the table was. I wish Matt would tell us.

  6. I am arguing that the players have all the power...but that the DM is also just that: a player. So you have 5 players...with 2 disrupting the other 3 in Matt's example.

    Of course, there's also the matter of how the game was established and agreed on beforehand...but, how far do you genuinely believe the two were willing to go with the laundromat premise? Probably just long enough until it stopped being funny to them, right? Not to play the game...not to advance anything...not to engage the other people at the table...but to titter at how terribly subversive they were being with the material presented. To shove the game pieces up their nose, blow them out and laugh at their great cleverness.

    "Okay. How do you go about doing this? Roll to start the business" etc etc. How far do you think the DM would follow down that rabbit hole before the two in question just go "WTF man, we were just goofing around..."? Because, ultimately, they were just wasting the expense of the other three people at the table who, apparently, were obviously not into what they were saying.

    Sorry, but that is not engaging in agency. It is not pushing the boundaries of the is ignoring the game to engage in something else the expense of others.

    Now, I'm not agreeing with Matt's actions and response either. You make very good points that just turning to playing what the players want to do (Smash-kill-loot-repeat) is not a good response either because NEEDING desperately a creative outlet like that is not healthy mindset.

    1. This calls for speculation, and now we are speculating pretty far afield, but until Matt indicates otherwise, I strongly suspect that the two players were doing more than laughing at their cleverness. They were saying "No" to the script. Or perhaps just trying to establish that they could. Again, this is not an uncommon thing in a new game, esp. if you don't know how the GM is going to run it yet.

      On the other hand, similarly to the "Lets get the eagles to fly us to Mordor!" meme you here re: Lord of the Rings, sometimes players want to minimize the "big problem". This is easily dealt with by letting their attempts work only so far as they would in the game milieu.

      In the LotR example, of course, Sauron would get the Ring and win.

    2. Agreed on reducing speculation.

      I would, however, draw a distinction between saying no to a "script" and saying no to a genre or tone that everyone agreed upon when sitting down. Again, to avoid speculation I am not saying that one or the other was happening, just that a distinct difference must be appreciated between those two concepts.

    3. Again, I am guessing here, but it seems unlikely to me that everyone agreed before sitting down, but then upon sitting down two of the players suddenly decided to ruin it for everyone. That is not common behaviour in my experience, and not the sort of behaviour I would expect from a friend.

    4. YagamiFire, this is another topic that I think should be expanded into a full post (at the very least).

  7. The following was a comment I just posted on Alexis/Matt's blog. Not sure if it will be approved, but thought I'd re-post it here...

    If your default position is anger, then your default position is wrong. While one can angrily move towards progress in rare cases, one cannot make progress while in a state of anger.

    Stop being angry and you'll have solved the majority of your problems. Unfortunately, it's not the anger that can be fixed. Anger is the symptom. The disease is you. You must change or nothing conscious will ever manifest.


    1. Righteous words there from Venger.

    2. Another way of putting this, if I am understanding what VS is trying to say, is that while anger may provide the motive for action, anger seldom leads to better understanding and is seldom a good position to plan action from. Therefore, if your default position is anger, your understanding of opposed positions, and your response to them, is likely to be suboptimal.

      Of course, if you find your anger making it difficult for you to write, and you find yourself fighting not to be angry, yet you insist that your anger is not making you unhappy when someone suggests you deal with it, you look a bit like Rob Ford insisting that he has no problem with drinking or drugs.

      Anger can be an appropriate response. There may even be some situations where anger as a default position is understandable - Guantanamo, perhaps. Or a prison in Syria. In most cases, though, if your default position is to be angry, you probably should get help.

  8. Alexis, if you would refrain from telling people what they mean or don't mean, you might actually hear what they are saying.

    1. If Alexis didn't tell us what we meant, how would we ever know what we meant?

      Also, Alexis doesn't have to hear what we're saying; armed with a 1952 encyclopedia, a study from "the Department of North Carolina State University," and his own tortured genius, he knows what we say (or mean) before we do. Alexis has it all figured out; we just have to wait for him to explain things. If we are not enlightened by his remarks, it is because we are genocidal sociopaths, not due to his (supposed) untenable position or (allegedly) inadequate writing skills.

    2. For those following at home, I just deleted two comments by "Unknown" because they did not contribute meaningfully to the discussion and they were needlessly insulting (to Alexis, not to me). Throwing off some random insults is not an addition to dialogue. If the writer had the courage of his convictions to identify himself, I might have let them stand anyway. But really, this blog is not a forum for flinging offal from the shadows.

      Thank you.

  9. That offal-throwing shadow-forum being, of course, YDIS.

  10. "If the writer had the courage of his convictions to identify himself, I might have let them stand anyway."

    This is an idiotic thing to say; I could simply make up any name I wished, making the gesture meaningless. (My name is James F. Campbell. There. Are you going to reinstate the comments? I doubt you would, even if you could.) However, I didn't choose to have my name show up as "Unknown" -- it was chosen for me by Google, apparently, when I log in using Gmail, and I simply do not care enough to change it -- but I'll tell you one thing: you're doing yourself no favors by tolerating the piece of human excrement who runs "The Tao of D&D."

    Also, not everyone who criticizes him -- and my criticisms, while expressed unpleasantly, are truthful -- comes from some other blog. I had the sad misfortune of randomly stumbling across "The Tao of D&D" through an Internet search when I was looking up guides on Charisma. I started reading his posts, I realized what an asshole he was, and I became outraged at how shitty he is toward people who post innocent comments on his blog.

    In fact, he did that very same thing to you, ravencrowking. The man's a goddamn crank who doesn't have a single shred of human decency in his body (or trace of writing ability for that matter), and it comes out every time he condescends to you in his responses. That you're defending this asshole is -- well -- ludicrous.

    Christ, you people are dense. Okay, okay, I'm done. Feel free to continue trying to squeeze blood from a very ignorant stone.

    1. Thanks, James. I appreciate comments with some substance.

  11. Honestly I didn't expect a whole post dedicated to me from a little bit of personal rant that I went on. I'd like to describe the situation in a little bit more detail.

    I spent a couple of weeks presenting the setting to my players. I explained that it was going to be an semi-realistic Eastern European setting. I explained that there would be a pall of plague and sickness. Since I had been rather indoctrinated in the "just say yes!" and the "PCs as Fantastic Heroes" methodology, that 4th edition presented I also explained that the player characters would be somewhat above those expectations. They would have the power to investigate, and to change the circumstances.

    I was a pretty poor (as in not good, not in regards to wealth) DM at the time as well. I don't say inexperienced, because I had been running the game for more than 5 years at that point. I had been running the game in the echo-chamber of 3rd and 4th edition forums, and I had really only been running amongst people who were in the same culture. The town I live in is not really a big gaming town. There are really only two stores in town that really cater to tabletop gaming at all. Neither are run by people who play D&D. That keeps the tabletop hobby in town pretty much in the grasp of what is available at big-box book stores. I had previous experience with the hobby, but pretty much everyone in my area just follow the WOTC models of D&D, or have jumped ship to Pathfinder. Pre-packaged adventures, and adventure-path game types were expected. I had really only ever run railroads with branches, but my campaigns were at least home-brewed so I got a lot of praise from the people I ran for.

    My players told me they were on board for the game I wanted to run. We all worked through character creation together. I should have seen the red flags of a somewhat rowdy player playing a character that seemed less in theme. Everyone got on board with Clerics and Paladins native to the area. The rowdy player wanted to play a rather blasty sorcerer from a far away land. I explained that his character might experience prejudice (at least due to overt magic, if not due to racism,) and he did not mind. I went ahead with the game under the premise that we were all onboard.

    The rowdy player, and another player who liked to go along with his plans, immediately began disrupting the game. By that players own later admission he was not trying to stretch the game concept, nor to try an unconventional solution. He was trying to bug me because he had not actually wanted to play this game. He wanted to play D&D, but he thought the atmosphere of the game I was running was un-fun. He didn't like the low magic implications. He wanted to go back to a previous setting I had run instead, but we had decided not to do that.

    1. Could I have prepared for that? Maybe. I think the only preparation I could have done is better detected his luke-warm reception, and asked that player not to play. Could I have tried to bring him on track? Sure, I could have. I put a decent amount of work into the campaign start. I had loyal players. What I really didn't have were the tools or experience to deal with outright rebellion and sabotage at that time. It has been about five years since that game, and I think I have that experience now.

      The game I ran afterwards, if I remember correctly, was a more traditional high-fantasy high-magic setting. Fourth Edition D&D is built around that expectation. I do not know if you have extensive experience with 4th Edition. The game has a very big focus on party roles, and on balance. When the game was first released WOTC's char-op boards quickly showed that a properly built character completely and mathematically obliterates monsters appropriate for their level. As a response, WOTC re-tuned the monster creation rules, and thus all further monster releases, to match that standard. In 4th edition it is not enough that your level 30 fighter has a +6 sword, +6 full plate, and a +6 amulet (for those Non AC Defenses). That level 30 fighter will get his ass kicked. What is necessary is that that fighter also have additional properties on those +6 items that support his build. He needs a bevy of additional items with effects that stack and synergize so that he can control the battlefield each round. If players don't get these things they will bitch and moan, and they will be right, because you are basically asking them to play Chess against you using only pawns.

      When I said that "I hate that kind of game" what I meant was that I hate the kind of game that forces me to ask players for a character-build-wishlist before I even think about handing out treasure. It was tedious, and insincere to constantly say "AND YOU FIND THAT SHADOWWOVEN BLOODPLATE +3 IN THE BOX! WASN'T IT NICE THAT THE TAINTSPIKE PITFIEND KNEW JUST WANT YOU WANTED?" I felt like a parent trying desperately to convince their teenager that Santa Claus is still real. In the end I resorted to exactly what those parents do. "You find a gift certificate for a Level 24 item. Please cash it in for an item of that level or lower at your next convenience." I enjoyed the game that I ran, I just hated some of the hoops I had to jump through. I hated how much time I had to spend constructing monsters if I wanted to throw anything unique or interesting at the players. I hated how each encounter needed to be intricately thought out, with synergized monster abilities and complex terrain. I hated how I would spend hours on that fight just to make a fatal mistake that allowed my players to completely dominate the encounter. I hated even more how it would take just as long to play out that complete domination. At the end of the day though we got to share in each others stories and role-playing, and we had a fun time. I didn't run the game begrudgingly, I ran the game while always struggling to marginalize or break free of the things I didn't like.

      I also did not lose those friends and players over a table dispute. There was an unrelated personal schism. Two of the players were dating. One broke up with the other. I did not immediately disavow the player who had broken up with the other, and so I was a villain not to be associated with anymore (and probably had been sleeping with them too!). Just so happens that the players I lost were the ones most involved in the character-creation sub-game, and the ones who were most likely to complain at any change.

    2. Now that the history of the event is detailed, I'll answer the power balance question. The players hold most, if not all, of the power in a game. In my experience (and from what I have read and seen) there are three sorts of people who DM.

      There is the DM who is voted into the position by the players, because he is the most responsible or the most creative or the oldest or whatever other qualification there is. This person does their best because they feel responsible for the players fun. The players have asked this guy to run and he has accepted because they are friends, or because maybe he does have a want to run, or maybe because it's the only way he'll get to play.

      There is the DM who runs because he wants to play, and no one else is running. He creates the kind of game he would want to play in, and optionally makes himself a character to play along. If he's lucky he gets players who think like him, and who play his game. Then he passes off the hat to another DM, and they rotate running games for each other. In the best of cases he attracts someone actually interested in running a game, and as a player (as he is only a DM by necessity) he has forced a game to happen.

      The last is, in my opinion, the ideal DM. The last DM is the person who legitimately wants to run a world. They want to provide an environment for players. These DMs are still at the mercy of players because their own enjoyment relies on players actually playing. Consider a film or stage director. They do what they do because they have a passion for the medium, but the minute the actors say "we're out" the production stops. Sure, the director can fire everyone, but it has the same effect of stopping production. The idea that the DM has power because he can decide to run or to not run for a certain group relies on a DM that does not enjoy running. It relies on a DM that has this power only because he believes he does. It's egotistic and masturbatory. It is the DM saying "I can tell these guys they can't play with my toys, and that means I have power in this playtime." You're only right if you don't care if you have anyone to play with or not.

      Maybe the "cap in hand" analogy goes to far, but in my opinion Alexis was being hyperbolic in order to drive a simple point home. That point is that if you are a dick to your players because you think you have something they can't get elsewhere, you're wrong. The point was that you need to treat your players like human beings because otherwise they'll leave and you'll be all alone with your toys. The point was not that you need to put on your prettiest lip-stick and pucker up for the players. Anyone who expects that should be shown the door.

    3. Matt,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment with so much detail. It certainly presents a much clearer view of what occurred in your particular case.

      Personally, I would not describe a situation where the players want to play and the GM wants to run as being one in which most of the power is in the players' hands. That almost defines equilibrium.

      In any event, I neither think that the GM nor the players should go into the game with the opinion that they do not matter. Each person brings something unique to the table. How much they bring to the table is a function of investment and creativity.

      The player who wants to give you a hard time is easy to replace. The player who makes running a game a real joy is far harder to replace. Similarly, a poor GM is easy to replace, but a good GM is harder to replace. That's not because of the position; that's because of the person.

      Functional relationships have an equilibrium of power; dysfunctional ones do not. I am very much opposed to anyone suggesting that you should have a dysfunctional relationship in your gaming group. You don't fix a power imbalance in one direction by advocating a power imbalance in the other.

      I very much like your analogy re: belief in Santa Claus and WotC-D&D, by the way. I think that it is pretty accurate.

  12. I am glad you appreciate my Santa Claus analogy. The wish-list philosophy of 4th edition D&D drove me nearly completely mad. Any time I sought help with the issue from that community I got the response that I needed to give the players exactly what they wanted.

    I understand your statement of equilibrium. I did not want to just sit by and hand out challenges and hand-picked rewards to my players. I felt the game was poor in that case. I do not think that equilibrium really describes the problem that I was getting at in my comment, or that Alexis was describing in his initial post.

    As a DM you want to play. To play you need players. As a Player you want to play. To play you need a DM.

    The players can functionally create a DM, either by forcing someone into the position, or by using a rotating process, or by DMing through consensus. This is even easier in a system like 4th edition D&D where the focus is on the combat, and the combat is built to be fair and challenging. That edition of D&D is so easy to DM by consensus that Wizards packed the system into a "board game" where you do just that with Castle Ravenloft.

    The DM cannot functionally create players. I suppose he could roll up a party and run them through a dungeon, but then he is likely more concerned with the playing angle than the performance of his dungeon. He is not presenting a world in which players can interact. The DM needs players more than the players need a dedicated DM in order to play the game that each wants to play. The advice then is not to put the players on a pedestal and worship their every move and give them every desire. The advice is to treat them like people. The advice is to listen when they say your game sucks. The advice is to present an experience that the players will enjoy. That means challenging them, making them work for their goals, and sometimes punishing their characters for failure. It also means that you need to make sure you aren't marginalizing players, that you are not impeding agency, and that you are not, in short, being a dick.

    We're really talking about the same thing. We want a relationship that is functional. The DM has to work harder towards that functionality because his control of the challenges and rewards of the game can very easily turn him into a manipulative, cruel, bully.

    1. I think you are wrong here: The players can no more force someone to GM than the GM can force someone to play.

      "Don't be a weed" does apply to both sides of the table, though. It is better to not play than to play with an asshole, or a bunch of assholes, regardless of whether you are a player or GM.

    2. I would also caution you to beware of the false equivalence inherent in the position that any one of the players can simply take over the reins.

      If you have been following Alexis' posts, you are familiar with the amount of work he has put into the verisimilitude of his world. Were you and I to be playing in a game that Alexis ran, and I decided to quit, and got you to agree to GM, you wouldn't have access to Alexis' work. You might actually run a better game, but the games would not be equivalent. If Joe does nothing more than run modules, then yes, you can probably replace Joe with another, if there is another who is equally talented at running said modules. The more Joe does to create and individualize his game milieu, though, the less equivalent any other GM will be.

      I don't think we should be trying to be "vanilla" GMs or players. I don't think we should be trying to be easily replaced. I also think that we should be very careful about who we take advice about functional relationships from. For example, if my posts lead you to believe that my gaming (or other) relationships are dysfunctional, you would be foolish indeed to take my advice without a big grain of salt (or at all).

  13. No, a player selected into a GM position, or a rotating GM duty will not produce a game on the level of a dedicated GM. It does allow for a stop-gap, an interim where the players can still play.

    You've mentioned that you've seen that there are more people willing to play than there are willing to run a game. I have seen this situation too, especially when I was in school and "playing D&D" was something that related me to a group of people. I would not play with all of those people. Often those groups included players who were ill-mannered, or who lived too far away, or who had different ideas on what makes a good game. This shrank the pool of potential players for me, as a GM.

    To those players though any game is usually better than no game. This is especially true when the community embraces player-centric games with a focus on tactical combat and character generation. That the adventure allows for little complexity or thought is irrelevant when it allows the players to bring the character generation sub-game to fruition through actual in-game interaction. When the game is about "can my rogue one-shot a dragon in practice as well as in theory" it doesn't matter if the GM has taken the time to map out the region the dragon threatens. It only matters that the person controlling the dragon does so intelligently, and in a way you can't perfectly predict.

    There will be players for whom this is not as satisfying, but as stated above, to someone whose main hobby is tabletop gaming any game is likely better than no game. This is what leads DMs to allowing disruptive and destructive players into their groups. It is also what allows players to run things like D&D Encounters, pre-purchased modules and adventure paths, and so on. There are an enormous number of tools and sources than can mitigate the work of the GM. This is often of little use to dedicated GMs because the work is of low quality. It is the lowest common denominator of the game. It is why so many people run through Keep on the Borderlands and Tomb of Horrors and The Temple of Elemental Evil. There have always been more people interested in playing. They will find a way to do it whether or not someone is interested in working at being a GM or not.

    You cannot go to a store and buy a pre-packaged set of player reactions to your custom work. There is no stop-gap for when the players decide to stop playing in your world. If there is any false equivalence, this is it. Anyone more interested in creating characters and rolling dice and playing the system can buy enough work to get by. Anyone interested in presenting setting and creating an environment for interaction needs actual human players. I expect it to stay this way until we design a D&D playing artificial intelligence.

    I have not read very many of your posts, but I don't think your group is dysfunctional because despite arguing against the terms being used you seem to agree that people need to treat each other like people. I have read a great deal of Alexis' posts and I do not believe he has a dysfunctional group because he works very hard to give his players every opportunity to do what they want. He also goes to great lengths to sort out any bad seeds that make their way into his group. I do not think that his posts lead to dysfunction because he is advocating that the GM act with humanity. He advises the GM not to succumb to the traps that control over game functions bring. He does that by showing that if the players rebel the GM is stuck without a game.

    1. I want to correct myself.

      When I said "This is often of little use to dedicated GMs because the work is of low quality. It is the lowest common denominator of the game" I meant to say "because the work is 'often' of low quality ..."

      There are very good published adventures and campaign materials out there. I personally feel the vast majority are not. I feel that at best most published modules are of use to a GM if they are gutted for their useful bits. Even the best of published modules require the extensive support of additional published material or enough work at seamless integration into the world that a homebrew scenario would have take just as much time.

    2. Our mileage definitely varies. Even when I had just moved to a new area and knew no one, I never had any problem with gaining players. Once I began to run a game, the number of potential players has always exceeded the time I had available to run games. I do not mean that every time I might want to run a session, people miraculously show up. I have my share of sessions cancelled due to scheduling conflicts, for instance, and not everyone I know who plays rpgs is into the same games I want to run. That causes no conflict; playing in my game is not a prerequisite to being my friend.

      I have a hard time believing that Alexis runs his game any differently than he runs his blog, though.

      First off, when I read his blog (and I still do, because his world-building process remains interesting), he seems to be claiming that he treats comments in one manner, but in actuality he does so in another. He seems to sincerely believe that he is being rational, and that anyone who disagrees with him (and does not come to see that he is right) is a troll, and he may believe that he treats players in his games differently, but seeing the discrepancy in the first makes me doubt the validity of the second.

      Secondly, in the comments to this post ( you will discover Jeremy Murphy's comment:

      'It's curious to me that Alexis would presume to give anyone grief for "railroading". My limited experience with his online game was that it was very highly scripted, primarily by NPC's. Everything I was either NPC's doing something that we were unable to stop, or powerful NPC's giving orders, with the strong implication that it would be unwise for us not to carry them out. Not much agency there.'

      Subsequent back-and-forths with Alexis (generally thereafter deleted by Alexis) have demonstrated to my conclusion that (1) the commenter above did have play experience with Alexis, (2) the comment quoted above was accurate, and therefore (3) I need to take Alexis' commentary with a grain of salt.

      Just a word of caution: Anyone can claim to be Rumson if they control the conversation.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I played in an online game with Alexis and it was abruptly cut short when he decided he didn't like how I was playing my character he pretty much had decided my last actions were stupid and I imagine he felt my character would probably die. Fair enough as it was his show, and I said so at the time and thanked for his efforts, but he was the one who wanted to take his ball and go home and not the players. It's not the reason I would end a game - I probably would've just killed my character or done something to give some incentive for some better play but whatever. Later I mentioned it in one of his comment threads and he attacked me in a similar way that he attacked. I guess what I'm saying is don't take it personally the dude has some anger/lack of personal responsibility for his actions issues.

  14. Maybe I am seeing something that isn't really your intention. What I have experienced though is that Alexis told me about this post on your blog so that I could respond to your analysis of my comment. Besides what I inferred to be frustration that you would do so here instead of where the comment was originally posted he did not do so with any guidance or warning as to what I should do about that comment.

    Besides the mention of what Alexis feels are personal attacks that you made against him, I don't believe he has even really talked about you, or your blog.

    The fact that each response you've made to me has had, what I infer to be, a subtle detraction of Alexis' writing leaves me with a bad taste. It feels like you're winking and nudging me towards the conclusion that he is a bad person. Even the support feels like the falsely intentioned "devil's advocate" argument that kicks off bad evangelical pamphlets.

    I'm trying very hard not to put words in your mouth. Maybe I am completely misreading your text. Maybe you are just trying to show a different argument. I am just saying that I'm getting some sinister vibes here.

    For my mileage, Alexis' post about the sides of power left me with a thought process that I can and have used to improve my table. It made me reflect on things I had done in the past and recognize mistakes that I had made. He said things that made me uncomfortable and angry, but that lead me to do things that made my experience with my table with players who are not familiar with his blog a better experience. Your posts on the balance of power really didn't leave me with much to think about. They were dissections of the game into parts that were to me obvious. It did not seem to address the point of power so much as the fact that players and DMs have different roles. I didn't read anything that I wanted to bring to my experience at the table.

    I don't mean that to attack you, I only mean it as comparison in my personal experience. My point is that whether or not Alexis is right or wrong or pretentious or insightful or righteous or an asshole, his writing has made my game a better game. I intend to keep reading his blog to that end regardless of your warnings or cautions.

    1. I don't take it as an attack. I am sure that my irritation and distaste at Alexis' proclamation of being the One Who Knows, while any that disagree with him is ignorant at best, and intentionally bullying him at worst, comes through loud and clear. I wasn't taking any pains to hide it.

      You can, and should, use anything that helps your game. You also can and should take anything said on the InterWebs - including by me - with a bit of scepticism.

      I don't know that I would say Alexis is a bad person. I do not think that he means to be. I think that he writes things that are interesting to read, and which provoke thought even if one disagrees with them. But I do not think that Alexis is a person who knows himself as well as he thinks he does, and I think that this clouds his thinking quite a bit.

      That might be the same for me, too....again, take everything with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of scepticism.

      In any event, I would have linked my post to the thread on Tao, except Alexis asked me not to post comments there. Also, frankly, after having carefully considered comments removed there, and then having them derided by Alexis once they were no longer available for others to judge, I have learned to be careful in how I let others control the conversation.

      (And that would be more irritation creeping in, in case you thought I was trying to be subtle. lol)

    2. In fact, let's take Alexis' comment: Incidentally, raven has a long history on this blog. He has repeatedly left abusive comments, he has repeatedly attacked me, he has several times now set out to vilify me on his blog, and all the time he comes around sucking up to me and my opinions. Don't get the idea that somehow my response on Thursday occurred in a vacuum.

      Raven does have a history on Tao, both in cases agreeing with and disagreeing with Alexis. Some things he writes I agree with, and some things he writes I disagree with. Far too often, however, I have discovered that if I disagree with him I am "abusive". (Shrug) What comments of mine he has left undeleted are available; if you agree that they are abusive, that is your right. In my world, "I don't think you understand what I am saying" is not abusive.

      Alexis also accuses me of "sucking up" to him. Again, I have said repeatedly that I respect his world building work, and I respect some of his philosophical posts as well - even some that I disagree with. If that is "sucking up", so be it. Crom and the Seven Good Gods know that I have gotten enough flack for defending Alexis over the years.

      I don't know. I guess I am tired of being told how abusive I am while he heaps scorn on my feeble intellect because I dare to suggest his insights are imperfect. Nonetheless, I am certain to continue to speak out against anyone who prefers to imagine that he is preaching The World from On High, who claims to Know Because He Knows, or who tries to shut the conversation down.


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