Friday, 7 March 2014

Balance of Power Part I: This Game is Two Games

Wherever you game, and whoever you game with, there is a social contract at the table. In many cases, this social contract is unstated. In some cases, it may be formal. Every gaming group has its own social contract, which meets the needs of its participants. 

In this blog post, I am going to talk a little bit about the social contract that I use. I am also going to talk a little bit about some poisonous ideas floating around some parts of the InterWebs. Please note that I am not demanding that you agree with me, or adopt my ideas. Nor am I demanding that you do not accept the ideas that I am going to describe as poisonous. What I do hope for is a dialogue, and I hope that when you consider the social contract of your own games, that you are empowered to examine it with a slightly wider viewpoint. Most of what I am going to say is probably obvious to most of my readers, so if your eyes start to glaze over, I won't be offended if you stop reading.


In a traditional role-playing game, you have a Dungeon Master, Referee, Judge, Game Master, Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Master, or whatever. I am just going to say GM, and you can fill in the appropriate title for your game of choice. You also have one or more players. Now, some people will tell you that the GM is also a player, but in this case we are using gaming terminology: a player is a person who controls one or more protagonist "Player Characters" (or PCs). The GM does not control PCs. Anyone controlled by the GM is a "Non-Player Character" (or NPC) because the GM is not a player.

So, two senses of the word "player":  (1) someone sitting at the table and engaged in the game, and (2) someone who controls one or more PCs.  Do not conflate them. Henceforward, in all that follows, the world "player" is only used in the second sense, and if I need to I will use "participant" for the first.

This split between players and GM is no accident. In a traditional rpg, the players are granted the opportunity to experience and take action within an imaginary milieu as though they were making decisions for an inhabitant of that milieu. The PC(s) operated by the player allow this access. Some game mechanics support the ability of players to make choices from the point-of-view of his PC (in which case they are called associated mechanics because there is a direct association between the game decision and the PC's decision in the milieu, or the result of the mechanic is mirrored in the changed conditions of the PC and/or milieu). Other mechanics are dissociated, because there is no clear link between the player's choice in utilizing the mechanic and the PC's fictional "choice" of action. 

A dissociated mechanic damages the association between the player and the PC; an associated mechanic strengthens it. There are many fun games that are fully dissociated (chess, for example, or Sorry), and some people will claim that chess is a role-playing game if you whinny when you move the knight. However, I would argue strenuously that it is the associated mechanics in a game which actually allow the game mechanics to encourage and reinforce role-playing. The degree to which any game is a role-playing game is, I would argue, based upon the relative strength of its associated vs. its dissociated mechanics. First edition Gamma World is a role-playing game. Uno is not.

Now, it should be relatively obvious that if the players are going to engage in this fictional milieu through the agency of their PCs, the fictional milieu must exist. Moreover, unless it is an unpopulated featureless plain, someone or something must devise and control all of the objects, creatures, and peoples which may be encountered therein. For the fictional milieu to seem real enough to allow for suspension of disbelief, the person doing all of this must know more than is being presented in the immediate area, and at the immediate time. As a fictional world needs rules to run believably, even off-the-cuff play requires that the person creating material in situ do so within an overarching framework which remains more or less consistent.

This is the job of the GM. The GM will present the roles of various creatures and peoples, but he will nearly always be in a position where his knowledge of the situation exceeds that of the NPCs portrayed. He must dissociate his knowledge from that of the creature being played in order to play it fairly. Similarly, the creation of the campaign milieu is primarily a dissociated process. The GM must be able to view the milieu from the outside, dispassionately, in order to construct or present something worth playing in.

If you stop and consider this fairly, it should be clear that the GM will be engaged in a predominantly dissociative game which enables the players to play an associative game.

There is also a disparity in the amount of work and responsibility that go into being a player or a GM, and they will be touched upon anon, but right now the above is all I really want to get across. The players are playing a game that is predominantly associative; the GM a game that is predominantly dissociative, and much revolves around that single point.


  1. I think you're muddling your terms here by describing the role as dissociative while discussing associative and dissociative mechanics. A better word might be divorced.

    Anyhow, I disagree with some of what you've said, particularly:

    "For the fictional milieu to seem real enough to allow for suspension of disbelief, the person doing all of this must know more than is being presented in the immediate area, and at the immediate time."

    This is not true. Or at least, this doesn't have to be true. I've run plenty of games where I've had no prior knowledge of an area before my players encountered it. In fact, most of my games are run this way now. I used to do a lot of prep work (and for some things I still do), but I've found what really matters either way is what the players actually encounter. Whether or not I have planned something does not matter so long as I can narrate the situation in a way that is believable and consistent. Even then, inconsistency can be a source of intrigue.

    "The GM must be able to view the milieu from the outside, dispassionately, in order to construct or present something worth playing in."

    I would argue the opposite. If you cannot imagine yourself playing and enjoying the scenario you have put together your players are not likely to have much fun either. Your game idea should excite you. It has to if you want to pass that onto the players. Likewise, if you're making it up as you go you better make sure that what comes next is interesting and pushes the story forward.

    1. I will try to address your comments as the discussion progresses.