Friday, April 29, 2011

DM Dilemma - It's OK to say "No"

I've gotten some very nice email inquiries and comments about the sandbox posts and I'm very appreciative of that, thank you. One of the common themes of the inquiries seems to be regarding my boundary of "no in-town adventures" so I thought I'd talk about that for a minute, because boundaries/edges and player expectations are a dilemma that I read about DM's having.

That "no in-town adventures" boundary came about as a result of adopting Ben Robbin's "West Marches" campaign style. I bought it whole-cloth, including the "You must begin/end in civilization" and "No in-town adventures - civilization is boring - wilderness is exciting!" themes. I'm extremely up front about that in my player handouts and game introductions. 

No capes! And no in-town adventures, dah'ling! Too ordinary!
Someone asked me "why" the restriction and it's a fair/good question. The best answer I can come up with is that I find them incredibly boring.

"But Michael!" you may gasp (and I've been asked in same emails). "What if the players want it!? What if they DEMAND it?!"

Simple. I would say "No."

Well, why I would do something that I have absolutely no interest in? Why would I waste their time and mine? Why is there the expectation that the DM is someone who simply supplies entertainment on demand (I really wanted to put "is supposed to be a whore?" here, but figured that would distract some. Wait, I did it. Oops...) to the players who are within their rights to expect whatever they want.

Crazy, right? I see this all over the place though - DMs who think that they have to do XYZ, or that the player's fun should come at the expense of the DM's fun. Bullshit.

Now I am clear and up front about what I will and won't do. I don't bait and switch and even if a long-running player got pissed and threatened to leave unless I provide an in-town adventure.. well... sorry man, thought it would work out, hope you find a game you can enjoy. That's not to say that I don't appreciate player input, that we don't discuss rules, that I ignore player requests or feelings. At the same time, I've got my own ya-yas. I've got what works for me and I know what doesn't work and trust me, an intrigue-filled, plot-rich mystery of Lord So-in-so who may be a vampire in the Enonian Keep zzzzzzZZZZzzzzz... huh? Wha'? Let me know what's beyond the woods over to the east in the wilderness. I may spend 10 days hex wandering, but by god I'm filling in my map and making plans for my keep to go there, my village to go there and I'll move those goblins right the fuck out! See? I'm cursing and getting all excited about the prospect. (Now you know why I needed 29,000odd hexes...)

Look, this isn't a post about why in-town scenarios suck. It's a post that says you as the DM have every right to run, to enjoy, to demand a game that you like as much as you try to provide a game that other people like. I know that in Chicago, I am extremely lucky to have a big population and lots of opportunties. I have a pool of players that enjoy the kind of game I run, that enjoy the way I do things. Not everyone has that... but in consideration, if I were in a player-poor environment, I still would not run in-town scenarios. Why would I play basketball if I suck at it and don't like it? Answer, I wouldn't. I'm not a masochist, emotional or otherwise. I'm not doing this to be of service to everyone else. I'm doing this to share what I do enjoy, to be with like-minded people and to have awesome games doing it.

So it's OK to say "no". It's OK to tell the players "you can't" and it's OK to set limits, boundaries and edges. Just be up front, be clear and be consistent. Be prepared to wow them with what you CAN do, with what you WANT to do and let the love of THAT shine through and you won't get asked for the things you don't want to do. 

20 comments:

Brunomac said...

A DM shouldn't be worring about what he has to do to keep players at his gaming table, but the good times of the players are partially in the DM's hand. Speaking as somebody who rarely enjoys the game experience as a player, sometimes the DM needs to play the part of a dancing monkey to a degree if he doesn't want to be doing it alone. There are plenty of times when players are responsible for boring times at the table, but the DM has more control than anyone I think. And in this particular case, I would find nothing but wilderness adventures boring pretty quickly. Almost all wildernesses are alike. It's in civilization that a DM can bring his world to life.

I'm known to my players as somebody who can provide and enjoyable game, and a colorful world. That is most of the reward right there. But it is true the DM needs his fun too, and should stand up for what is fun for him. But if it is simply heavy love for doing nothing but wilderness, there should be no suprise that somebody will bail on the game even if they have no alternative. Time is precious. Nobody wants to spend it doing something that isn't fun for them.

koboldstyle said...

I don't see anything wrong with what you're saying here. The DM -is- a position of authority and sometimes the DM should exercise that authority for their own gaming needs/satisfaction.

Generally I do like to think of myself as a "Say Yes" sort of DM inasmuch as I can be but like everything in the game that certainly starts and stops within the boundaries of me having my fun.

Granted, those boundaries of fun aren't sharply defined, there's wiggle-room.

I DEFINITELY believe in establishing clear parameters of "what this campaign is going to be about" and sticking to those parameters as firmly as one sticks to the rules (which might also not be that firmly, depending).

ChicagoWiz said...

@Bruno - "Nobody wants to spend it doing something that isn't fun for them." Sauce for the goose as well as the gander. If the expectations are set and known up front, then there's no hard feelings. I'm perfectly OK with that and I'm OK with people who don't want to play my game because I won't run in-town scenarios. Sure, I'm the con-artist, scammer, dancing monkey, but I'm not going to do something that I suck at and that I have zero interest in.

It's OK to have boundaries and to stick with them. I think I've brought my wilderness to life in such a way that civilization is boring compared. That is what I'm good at and that's what I'll do - no apologies and no regrets.

Chris said...

...you as the DM have every right to run, to enjoy, to demand a game that you like as much as you try to provide a game that other people like.

After the amount of work we put into the game before the players even turn up? Bloody right mate! :)

(This hasn't been a problem for me personally, my lot are happy to head into the lawless Wilds/Vaults for their sprees of mayhem. They don't want to wreck up where they re-supply)

shlominus said...

thanks for the reply! (both here and by mail. mine was gerald's.) :)

i guess i lean towards brunomac's point of view. i am quite the dancing monkey myself, when i dm.

still, i'd also simply say "no!" if players demanded anything i wouldn't like to do. hasn't happened a lot though.

if the dm is bored/unwilling noone will enjoy themselves.

now, about that whore...

Brunomac said...

I totally forgot to mention that the other year I ran a handful of sessions of the Star Wars game for an established group, and when all was said and done I felt like most of them viewed me as "working for them." The "lady" who asked me to do it, and was hosting, seemed to be wanting things done "her way." And it turned out these creepos were actually waiting for me to go (I got a weird feeling at the end of each game where they almost seemed to be ignoring me to some degree) so they could discuss my "performance." I was really both pissed off and creeped out when I realized this after I quit the situation (and the lady posted on some meetup.com thing about it). This I guess is an extreme example of what you discuss, ChicaW.

In that case, these people had a ton of experience with the rules, each other, and were also die hard SW movie fans which I was not (I did not, as the rules suggest, take the movies as my total inspiration; I wanted slightly harder and more serious Sci Fi). I was disadvantaged to say the least. Anyway, I'm on point with my D&D, so I only take as much players crap as I am willing to on that particular evening. But I for sure look out for my own fun (which isn't being a "killer DM" or anything, is beyond that).

Welleran said...

I think you're perfectly entitled to this approach, especially given the way you are upfront about it. Over the eyars I've refused to allow elements in my campaigns that I did not care for because it was my game.

However, I think that sometimes it's not a bad idea to move outside your comfort zone a bit. I mean that, although I acknowledge that it is just a game at the end of the day and being uncomfortable is not usually most people's idea of fun, you might derive a lot of pleasure from trying something a bit different-- if it works out, you'd probably get a good deal of pleasure from it, more than just another generic dungeon crawl.

Disclaimer: My current campaign is a megadungeon and the urban adventuring has been largely non-existant, so I am just spouting off!

Night Wizard said...

I'm definitely a proponent of the DM's prerogative; you're putting on the show so run it how you like. Part of running satisfying campaign is putting together a group of players that can enjoy what you do. Without that chemistry you're playing with a handicap.

On the other hand I love hearing my players come up with their own adventure hooks (whether they know they're doing it or not). My favorite players are the ones who bring that extra creative energy to the table; they're the ones that make the whole sandbox thing work.

ckutalik said...

Running a West Marches campaign is inherently one of the most player-empowering experiences anyway, I see no problem at all in giving yourself a little stick bending in setting boundaries for your own enjoyment.

Ironically though my own stick-bending in my WM campaign was in allowing town adventures--cuz I was bored and wanted em!

knobgobbler said...

Definite agreement here...
Being DM comes with responsibilities but also freedoms... including the freedom to not have to run a game you do not enjoy.
Personally I like urban adventures, but with the wrong group they can be hellishly monotonous... regardless of the GM.
The OCD guy in our group grinds everything to a halt whenever he gets near any sort of shop/bazaar/merchant.
My big "NO" is fate points/re-rolls... I don't like them, they squish my fun, don't want them as a player, won't have them as a GM... if you have to have them, look elsewhere.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Bruno - holy fuck! Based on what you're telling me, I've seen similar types and I call 'em energy vampires. That must've sucked hard.

@Welleran - I do that at conventions or in trying different things out. I'm less likely to do that in a campaign unless I've already tried it out and it's worked. Example is the wargaming stuff - while I may start including it more as an option to participate in my campaign, I'm not doing it yet because I want to be sure it's fun for me and I grok it before I see if it's fun for the players. But yea, I often get booted out of my comfort zone by what I read on some of these fine blogs.

@NightWizard - I love it when the players hand me the keys to the bus so I can run them over. :D

I gotta say to you all, thanks - I'm pretty gratified that this ended up being a positive thing. I wasn't sure because I see a lot of DMs get flak for NOT being at the beck and call of players.

Badmike said...

As Clint said, "A man's got to know his limitations"...if you don't want to run city adventures, more power. I'm not a big proponent of the Western Marches style of sandbox....my players have plenty of city encounters, and they spend the night in the wilderness a lot of the time...but I have my own bugaboos. No evil characters, ever, and no character classes not on my approved list. Like you, if someone showed up wanting to run an evil assassin, it's "No, pick another character or grab a soda and watch the rest of us". It may seem shabby to do so, but as you said I have virtually zero interest at this point of my life in dealing with PC assassins, or some dude wanting to get out his jollies by having his proxy evil PC torture the village of halflings. If they insist, I'll have the fickle hand of fate come down on their character like a steamroller, and they can keep rolling one up until they get the message. Been there, done that, I'm almost 50 years old and I don't care about what you want cause it doesn't work for me.

In the end, it doesn't matter WHY in town scenarios suck, or why assassin pcs suck even harder, it's about what you are comfortable with in your game.....and how your players enjoy themselves with those limitations.

yellowdingo said...

Actually my 'town' adventure in my new 'RES PUBLICA' sandbox setting involves a crappy little starting Thorp with nothing in the way of all the nice things the Player would want for their PCs in the ruins of what was once the capital of a huge Republic, and is now no more than a hundred square miles of sewers teeming with monsters. They can have a tow nadventure all they want but I have a sequence of large scale events that involve a frikin army of Slavers moving through their region and that Thorp is cannon fodder.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Badmike: If they insist, I'll have the fickle hand of fate come down on their character like a steamroller, and they can keep rolling one up until they get the message.

I wouldn't allow it to get that far. If I had that big of problems with someone that I needed a "hand of fate", I'd simply not ask them back. It's happened already.

Brian said...

of course this a DM's perogative, and all the comments should convince anyone that there's nothing radical about this suggestion.

but in the case of no town adventures, how do you do it?
1) there are no towns. we're way beyond civilization, and the PCs have to find what they need.
2)town is the price list. if PCs find a town, they can mark off gold and buy what they want and the DM watches TV. when they're ready to leave town, the DM is back on.
3) if PCs go into town and try to cause trouble, the watch just shows up and kills them.
4) something else?

mondbuchstaben said...

I've got what works for me and I know what doesn't work and trust me, an intrigue-filled, plot-rich mystery of Lord So-in-so who may be a vampire in the Enonian Keep zzzzzzZZZZzzzzz... huh? Wha'? Let me know what's beyond the woods over to the east in the wilderness. I may spend 10 days hex wandering, but by god I'm filling in my map and making plans for my keep to go there, my village to go there and I'll move those goblins right the fuck out!

I know your post was not exactly about town adventures vs. wilderness or dungeon, but...

Do you think there would be away to prepare and run a town adventure the way you do prep and DM the adventure locales you are more comfortable with/interested in?

richard said...

YES. If you're not having fun it's hard to bring the fun for the other people anyway. You'll do your best job when it's something you enjoy.

...and it's exactly this sort of hole that might encourage one of your players to take over DMing once in a while. They want city adventures? Why don't they run them?

For myself, the wild unknown is always everywhere: down in the sewers, up on the roofs, in weird church hierarchies, between the covers of books or merchants' ledgers. But if you know nothing's going to happen in town it does give you a lovely secure homey feeling about it: a place to kick off from.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Brian:

1) there are no towns. we're way beyond civilization, and the PCs have to find what they need.

They go back to town and restock. Or they hire a shit-ton of porters and have a nice baggage train behind them.

2)town is the price list. if PCs find a town, they can mark off gold and buy what they want and the DM watches TV. when they're ready to leave town, the DM is back on.

Not in my town, as the economy does affect prices. There is role playing that happens - NPCs do have personalities and things do "happen" but it's not an adventure.

3) if PCs go into town and try to cause trouble, the watch just shows up and kills them.
4) something else?

If the players wanted to wipe out Enonia, I would probably talk about it with them before we did the deed. It wouldn't be pretty and I'd let the chips fall and at the end, given your scenario, I'd probably conclude that run of their characters and reroll 3d6 in order...

@mondbuchstaben - I don't know? Maybe? Just not my cup of tea.

@richard - I'd probably not do it that way as I don't want to cross the streams. If there comes a day when someone wants to DM in my world, it's gonna be under the same rough guidelines of West Marches.

Eric Walker said...

When do you say no?
How much can you say no to?
How far does no go?

I get it. You play too. You are doing a lot of work. But can you say "No. You cannot wear a purple hat," is that OK? Can you say that After they wore the purple hat? Can you say that as a snap decision in the middle of play?

The "whore of the game" thing comes from a really sensitive feeling of reciprocity about how much authorship people have when they start being player characters.

P.S. Scenario choice is the gm's bag. Let them all run what they want to.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Eric.
1. When it's time to say no.
2. As much is as right for my campaign/game.
3. As far as it needs to.

a. Yes, it's OK.
b. Yes.
c. Yes.

d. Only if you're looking for an experience beyond the simple pleasure of playing D&D. My game isn't about exploring feelings, gaming big-issues or any of the stuff that other people/GMs try to inject into games. I play D&D and have a simple, fun game.