Monday, 17 March 2014

Balance of Power Part V: Function and Dysfunction

One of the oldest problems in philosophy is the question of evil. Why is there evil in the world? Especially if you believe that there is Someone in charge of the universe, what is the purpose of evil?  We are not just talking about wrongdoing here, but also illness, predation, the need to kill other things in order to survive, tragic accidents, and sheer bad luck. Surely an all-knowing and all-powerful Someone could arrange it so that these things simply do not happen.

We have all seen this thrust arise in gaming over the past decade - railing against PC death, save-or-die mechanics, campaign or adventure premises that seem to be one thing but turn out to be another, etc. In some game systems, characters can only die if the player chooses to put that option on the table. The rise of Challenge Rating (CR) type mechanics from 3e D&D onwards has led to an expectation that "challenges" be "balanced", where "balanced" all too often is taken to mean that the PCs should succeed without any undue loss. And, the advice now seems to go, you should consider fudging rolls or statistics to ensure that the expected outcome occurs. There is a sense that some believe that a saving throw doesn't represent a last chance at survival, but is rather something that should be repeated until an encounter is over or the character wins. Medusa doesn't simply turn you to stone - she slows you down to make the fight harder, but ultimately you triumph!

All of this boils down to the same philosophical problem: Why is there evil in the world?  With an all-powerful GM to look out for the PCs, why should the players ever fail?

None of us wants bad things to happen to ourselves, or to those we love, but at the same time most of us gave up watching programs or reading books where nothing bad ever happens long ago. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone making it through grade school without demanding more solid fare. I have found that few even make it past the age of 7 without developing some desire to have real problems occur in the fiction they are exposed to. This is not to say that they want Gollum to devour Bilbo Baggins, or Smaug to catch the hobbit burglar out, but the destruction of Lake Town rings true, as does the death of Thorin, Fili, and Kili seems right.

The GM has several jobs to do - provide a game milieu that makes sense to him, and that he is interested in running. Provide the players with context so that they can make choices, and determining the consequences of those choices. The players have a job to do - make choices within the context available, and role-play their characters.

If railing at the universe worked, then we would all rail at the universe whenever something bad happened. There are players who follow this principle in rpgs, because sometimes "railing at the universe" (through the agency of the GM) does work. A GM who changes rulings due to such railing does harm not only to his own enjoyment of the game, but also to the enjoyment of the other players. Rewarding railing such breaks the fourth wall, and effectively punishes players who accept the universe as it is.

We can imagine a GM who both encourages rules disputes, and then uses those disputes to split the party between "supporters" and "non-supporters" of the GM's position....but why would we do such a thing? First off, encouraging rules disputes perforce limits the associative game by forcing the players to think in terms of rules, rather than in terms of the fictional "reality" of the game milieu. Secondly, rules disputes automatically split the game participants, whether it is the intention of the GM or not. If they did not split the game participants, there would be no dispute.

I am not encouraging the GM to be a dictatorial monster - if you are that GM, your players are right to leave your table. What I am saying is that the GM has a responsibility to be the referee...to judge the rules as impartially as he is able to do. Trying to foist off that responsibility onto the players helps no one. Yes, discuss why rulings were made at a suitable remove from game play. No, do not encourage rules disputes during the game.

There is a reason that so many early games emphasized that the GM is always right, and it has nothing to do with stroking the ego of the GM. It is because - in the hands of a competent GM - that is the way traditional rpgs work best. And your goal, if you GM, should never be to be less than competent. A GM who uses "The GM is always right" to feed his own ego, or to make the game suck, isn't made better by encouraging rules disputes. A GM who is doing a good job, to the best of her ability, is at best hampered by rules disputes, and at worst hamstrung.

In order to be functional, any relationship must meet at least two criteria:

(1) Is power in the relationship shared fairly?

(2) Does each person in the relationship have the necessary rights needed to meet his or her responsibilities?

As to (1), either the players or the GM can end the game, but only all the players together have the ability to end a specific campaign, although the GM has the power to do so.  Without the GM's materials, the other players can create a continuation of sorts, by inventing (or buying) their own materials, and without the players, the GM can continue to use the same game milieu with others, if he can attract new players.

The GM has the majority of the say, because the GM does the majority of the work. If you expect someone to do the majority of the work, but have no increased share in power, then you are actually advocating a dysfunctional relationship. The world is full of people who advocate dysfunctional relationships. Usually, they advocate them for other people, while blithely ignoring their own advice, or they advocate them in their own favour.

IME, in most games there is no question about whether the GM or the players are going to walk, as long as condition (2) is met. Really, most people are able to talk out issues and make compromises, and most people are able to respect the work of the other people at the table.

As to (2), I have written - a lot - about what the GM needs. Let us turn for a moment and look at what the player needs. The player's primary responsibility is to play a character and make choices within the game milieu. That means that, unless there is some form of external compulsion involved that makes sense within the context of the game milieu - and even that should be used in very, very, very, extremely very limited amounts - the player gets to choose what the character does. Period. End of the sentence.

The GM does not get to tell the player what his character would do. The GM does not get to demand that the player approach the game with a specific goal or mood in mind. The GM does not get to demand that the players work together. All of these things fall outside the GM's purview. Only in the rare case, where an issue external to the game is being played out inside the campaign milieu, should the GM intervene. Demanding that the players choose a single goal that they work together is the GM version of being a rules lawyer, or demanding that the campaign milieu works in accordance to your expectations.

Now, if you are not interested in letting players play the associated game, or the GM play the dissociated game, you can come up with different forms of functional relationships. And, as a player, if you can find a GM who wants to run what you want, or if, as a GM, you can find even a single player, you should always run the game you want the way that you want.

But, for me, there is always a chance that bad things will happen in the game world because it is necessary for the associated game that it be so. It is also necessary for an interesting game. My job, as GM, is to provide interesting context and consequences that follow rationally from your choices. Your job, as player, is to play your character and decide what your character will do. I will respect your job, and I expect you to respect mine. We share this game. We share the power, based upon what we contribute and what our jobs are. We share the success or failure of each session. I am not out to screw you over, but it is my job to make sure you can make choices that do screw you over, just as it is my job to make sure that you can make choices that result in your coming out on top.

Gary Gygax talks about this in his Insidiae, and I quote here from pages 50-51:

It should be hammered home by now that the role of a game master differs significantly from that of a fiction author. The job of the game master does not involve revealing to the players the private thoughts or motivations of NPCs and monsters, nor will a good GM dictate what the players’ characters feel or how they ought to act – because he doesn’t know that. In general, a player should not be forced to explain his character’s actions, or to justify his actions to another player even if asked, unless the character’s normal demeanor has drastically changed, or the action threatens the entire party’s success or survival. Likewise, the denizens of a campaign world are known by their actions, their natures and private thoughts kept secret by the GM – unless learned by guile in play, ripped from them by magic or torture.
Also, no single antagonist or creature should become more important to the plot than the heroes. In other words, the game master should not make any NPC absolutely central to the unfolding story, because nothing controlled by the GM is more important than the development and advancement of the PCs through their interactive play. It is apparent, then, that the game master is far removed from being a “third person omniscient narrator”. Sure, he might be omniscient in regard to the details of his chosen milieu, but because he cannot know the future actions or thoughts of the PCs, he cannot be called a “story-teller” in the fullest sense.

Finding people who want to play, if you let them play their characters, and you don't punish the rest of the players by rewarding the weeds, has always been easy in my experience. Likewise, finding a GM if you respect the position, and if you don't act like a weed, has never been difficult. If you feel like you are coming to the game "cap in hand", from either side of the table, you might consider trying this yourself.

And that's the end of this series.

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