Friday, May 6, 2011

DM Dilemma - It's OK to say "No" - No, really. Say No!

What is it about Fridays and this subject - last week's DM Dilemma and now again this week.

I just read the latest post on Roleplaying Tips titled "A Con, A Cave, a Troll" by Simon Woodside. I have to admit, I had to walk away from the computer, come back, walk away again, come back.. well, you get the idea. If you wanted proof and a great example of the myth/perception that the DM should be the (unpaid) entertainer/walking-talking monkey, this post is it.

This is not to pick on Simon - I don't know Simon, I've never seen another post by him, as far as I know - it looks like he's a guest poster. What I am picking on are concepts like these:
As the GM you are expected to be a storyteller for your players ...

... make your gaming material fit what the players want to do ...

In this specific example, the GM might scrap their previous plan to dive into a gritty underdark campaign and instead develop into an above-ground, interaction-with-the-locals theme. I’m just making that proposal based on what the PCs in the example seem to want. They seem to have expressed a preference, maybe, for building-oriented adventures over dungeon adventures. Don’t assume it, ask them. Use their feedback for your future designs.

The players ultimately get a campaign more closely tailored to what they want.
Now, in Simon's defense, he also writes:
But fundamentally he was right. He had prepared a troll cave. Why should he suddenly have to wing it just because his players didn’t want to play what he prepared?
 I'm still trying to figure out how this perception, this myth that the DM needs to be the performing chimp came about. Is it just a sign of the times, this sense of entitlement and the sense that the DMs should have to do that, just because they're DMs?

I don't get it.

I know there's a balance and if I was running a game that totally sucked, nobody liked, then I would expect players to not play. But if the players got up and left because I ran a goddamn troll cave, well, great, you go back to town and we'll shut down for the evening. See you next game session. If I had players demanding things, with the expectations that they should get it just because they grace my table after I've put time/effort/thought/money into putting together a campaign world... I'd be hard pressed to ever want to put the energy into running a game.

I would like to beat a dead horse a bit and say that is why I like sandboxes - the players aren't constrained to a plot that they don't suddenly like. And perhaps that's why I don't run into these problems of the players requesting a "new plot" because they don't like the old one... in a sandbox, they can up and go do something else on their whim, which is expected and encouraged.

Go back to the wargaming roots of our hobby. When someone puts together a battle of Romans v. Gauls, the participants don't suddenly say in the middle of the game "Hey you know what, I really want to play Aztec warriors, so let's just cross the ocean..." the stated campaign was what it was and people played it and then decided what to do next. Now, if the DM doesn't supply players with what's on the WotC approved magic item list, they're a horrible DM. If they don't provide checklists and questionnaires and adjust their campaign to fit 4 to 8 different 10 page backgrounds, they're a shitty DM.

Well, guess I'm a shitty DM. Go figure. I just have no interest in being that type of performing chimp.

This isn't to say I don't participate in a mutually enjoyable game. We try stuff that works or we get rid of it. I run a game that I've found to be enjoyable. I've found a good rhythm with the game I like to run and the game people like to play. At the same time, I don't feel this slavish responsibility to do exactly what my players want, when they want, how they want. I evaluate requests on what's good for the campaign as a whole, not on whether I should always say "Yes". There's a difference between saying "yes" when it makes sense and saying "yes" because I'm expected to be the performing chimp.

If I were writing that article that Simon wrote, it would be less about what I'm supposed to do because the players demand it and more about how to be up front with what the campaign/adventure/story/mission is about and being flexible within a sandbox context to allow the players to shift their goals. I don't need to put the same troll cave in the players' path because I'm locked into the troll cave.

This post feels funky, only because I don't think I'm doing a good job of expressing my puzzlement at this supposed DM responsibility and what goes on at my table. I have players coming back, so apparently I'm not the sadistic, fuck-em-all, screw-the-players DM, yet I don't resonate with anything that Simon wrote.

30 comments:

JoeGKushner said...

One of the biggest problems, starting a bit with 3rd and moving head on into 4th, is WoTC insistance of putting 'core' on everything and having editorials talking about giving the players everything they want, being the 'yes' GM.

I'm with you on that there's stuff to talk to the players about, stuff to seek common ground on, etc... but at the end of the day, if the gamers don't like my style of running, they're in the wrong game.

Blue is blue regardless of how much you want it to be black.

Night Wizard said...

I think the issue here is that our understanding of how these games are meant to be played has expanded to include alternate and conflicting approaches. Which isn't a bad thing, there shouldnt be just one way to play these games.

What's really interesting though is the change in the culture. I think the war-gaming roots defined a lot of the attitudes in the old-school, whereas new generations of players approaching the game on different terms are going to develop a different attitude towards the style of play. The result is a wide spectrum of play styles and you've just gotta find the right group of people to match you're game.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Night Wizard: But see, that's my point: "how these games are meant to be played has expanded to include alternate and conflicting approaches." -- I don't think D&D is meant to be played where the DM is a slave to the players' whims and desires. If that's considered an "expansion", I see it as a really fucked up one. It's a vampiric relationship and unless the DM is an emotional masochist, I don't see how this is fun for him/her.

I understand there are different ways of playing the game. I don't get where this trend to the DM being the unpaid whore came about.

@JoeGK - I guess, but I'd like to know the "why" and how this gets persisted. I can't imagine this being any fun.

Erin Palette said...

I think the main reason for the mindset that "The GM must adapt to the players" is because the players typically outnumber the GM, and we have been ingrained by society to accept the premise of "majority rules".

It has also been my experience that players are stubborn, often clueless bastards, and the more the GM tries to make them go in the direction of the adventure the more they're likely to dig in their feet and say "no."

What many players fail to understand is that they are a plentiful resource, whereas GMs are rare.

Stuart said...

Maybe the way to think of it is a sand BOX not a sand BEACH. If you've prepared an environment for them to game within and they're wanting to do something totally unrelated... see you next week, I guess.

Night Wizard said...

I dunno, maybe the game's been taken over by socially awkward nerds desperate to please their players?

ChicagoWiz said...

@Night - LOL! Shit, man, I totally fit the socially awkward nerd thing, but I'm not desperate to please anyone?

I'm kinda serious about wondering where this stems from.

@Erin - possibly? The thing is, from what I read, I don't see it as a majority thing as much as this concept that it "must happen"...? It's odd, because if it weren't for the DMs, the players would be playing board games or the equivalent.

Akhier the Dragon Hearted said...

I think that this trend comes from people assuming if you don't give the players what they want they will just quit and play WoW or something. The trend is also pushed by WoTC because it encourages the players to buy more stuff knowing they can use what they buy because the DM "has" to include it.

mxyzplk said...

I have no idea why this particular post tripped your biscuits.

Sure, GMs shouldn't be trained monkeys, blah blah blah - but that's not what that post is talking about. It's simply guiding your players to what you have prepped even when their characters might make a different choice. So what's your approach, the players should go exactly where you say they should because you're the GM? In the next sentence you say you like sandbox...

There's a lot of player entitlement out there to rail against, but a guy saying "Oh if they bypass your cave, stick it in later so they go into it anyway" is not anywhere on that side of the fence.

Alexey said...

I wonder if there isn't a shift based on the game vs. story continuum. I assume most of us play a game that includes creating a story. Some old-school tends more toward the "game" aspect, while some new-school tends toward a "story" focus. While I'm certainly no Opponent to my players, when I DM they know that I'll be presenting them with a challenging setting within which they can take risks and try to win glory. I think players are a lot more likely to go along with what you've prepared if it's presented as a challenge they must respond to, rather than a story they can choose to write with you. I'm not sure if that makes any sense.

ADD Grognard said...

This appears to have started when WotC figured out that there is probably an average of 4 players at any given table for each 1 DM.

By focusing your sales department on selling to the player you quadruple sales or so it would seem.

With some study anyone can become a competent DM. But to be really good at it, to create a space in time where the players lose themself in the moment and end the session enjoying the experience takes more than just competent. It takes a passion. For the genre, in this case fantasy, for the skill to craft material ahead of time or on the spot. It takes a certain kind of person to DM.

I try to picture this taking place anywhere else. Could you imagine someone walking up to Miles Davis at a concert and telling him what to do? That you were bored with what he was doing and to change to something else. And yes, like jazz, good DMing is an art. Part tradition, part improv and when it hits right, pure magic.

Should the DM have the players in mind when he is crafting his work? Yes.

Should his role be that of an organ grinders monkey? No.

shlominus said...

This isn't to say I don't participate in a mutually enjoyable game.

isn't that something everyone can agree on? that the game should be fun for everyone?

whatever different groups need or do to make their games mutually enjoyable is their problem, right? :)

i believe a little compromise never hurt anyone.

ps: how often does it happen in your games that the players say "we go to x and do y" and you say "NO!"? not that often, right? if it ever happens.

feel like a whore?

didn't think so. ;)

JoeGKushner said...

In terms of the why ,someone else hit it on. To sell more books. D&D has shifted, almost 100%, from Dungeon Master resources to player resoruces. Players are the larger pool.

However, if the GM puts the clamp down on what's allowed in the game, then why should players bother buying the new shinny?

Hence everything is core and WoTC encouraging GM's to allow everything into the game and allow no holds barred.

Stuart said...

I assume most of us play a game that includes creating a story.

Every game, or series of events even, creates a story. A football game creates a story. The objective of playing most games (including football) is not to create a story though. In navel-gazing RPG theory jargon I believe it's the difference between "Story Now" and "Story After".

how often does it happen in your games that the players say "we go to x and do y" and you say "NO!"? not that often, right? if it ever happens.

If I was prepared to run a pre-made module, or had prepared a map + key for a particular location, and my players announced they wanted to dither about in town or go someplace else I'd break the 4th wall and tell them that's what I'd prepared, and that they needed a character who was interested in doing that. Maybe they need to make a 2nd character. That's up to them. :)

Reynaldo said...

I'm kind of an odd case - I actually like "Winging it" when I can, and usually prepare very loose notes as a result.

Does this still make me a preforming chimp? Or does the fact that I'm facilitating it because I enjoy it spare me the peanuts and organ grinders? :P

Zzarchov said...

The honest answer is much simpler.

The Market speaks. There is a shortage of players, players get demanding. If there is a shortage of GMs then players are all of a sudden willing to put up with living the GM's novel. But at the moment, it really looks like there are more people willing to run games (especially if you count video games as an auto-dm) than players (ie, more than 20% of players are GMs)

ChicagoWiz said...

@Akhier - maybe - I have a hard time thinking that splatbooks in the mid/late 80s caused this particular myth or perception, I can see where you're coming from.

@mxyzplk - no clue why - I was more concentrating on the conventional wisdom bits I pulled out. The overall theme of "don't waste what ya brung" is great but it was lost to me in all the "DM must be player's performing chimp.

@Alexy - it makes sense but the prevailing winds seem to say that it's more of the DM implementing the stories that the players want - going back to the "you must play the jazz I want" example from another comment.

@shlominus - I'm assuming you're misrepresenting my words on purpose, as this isn't about "compromise" but about expectations and what the game has grown to in expectations. Your examples were already covered, so I see no need in repeating myself.

I don't have to say "no" because we've already set the expectations that the players come to the game with a mission already selected and prepared to go. I have said "no, I'm not prepared to run xyz" on inquiry and they understand that.

If I were presented with the situation discussed in the OP, yes, I would.

@zzarchov - to the extent that this has become an industry standard, I'm not sure I believe that. Given what I see at conventions and the FLGS - there are far more players than GMs standing around looking for players. I also think that ratio may be geographical in nature.

@Reynald - that's my game as well. The dancing chimp comes in when you play the game only the players want to play.

ADD Grognard said...

And I don't disagree with the concept for all involved to have fun. If the DM doesn't have the time to form his / her own material there is a lot of quality out there and by choosing to run packaged material they still have the experience which is the social aspect of gaming that to me forms the very bond of this style of gaming.

I just believe that no one should assume a DM is there to just act like the A.I. in a CRPG.

I also believe the DM should make their play style known well ahead of time. With the tools at our disposal right now this becomes easier every day.

I guess the best way to put it is to have everybody on the same page at the same time.

I had a campaign crash and burn in the early 90's because of a lack of communication on my part and the players. I had gone whole hog DARK SUN and they couldn't understand why they couldn't bring their old characters into the game, so that was on me. I learned a valuable lesson about communicating your intent to a play group with that experience.

Tequila Sunrise said...

I don't get it.

I think this is an issue of internet distortion, rather than DMs behavior. You read a post by a guy generally advocating 'yes,' and you think of an enslaved chimp. Meanwhile, I see your post title and I think of this DM: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/10/04/101004fi_fiction_lipsyte. The reality isn't on either extreme.

For example, I try to be a yes DM. When my players come up with a goofy idea, I try to fit it in even if I'm not overly fond of the idea. Often those goofy ideas grow on me, and my campaign is richer for it. But I have my limits. When things get unfun for me, I say no. In fact I recently kicked a player out of my game because he couldn't accept that.

I've actually never met a slave-to-his-players DM, or a tyrannical DM. Probably because tyrants aren't fun, and slaves don't have fun.

Reynaldo said...

@Wiz I think one-sidedness is a bad thing on either side, but few people address it for the DM's sake so I do like your post. I just wanted to hear your opinion.

I wish players would appreciate the guy/girl running the show more often. I always appreciate it when someone tells me they had a lot of fun.

Supah said...

This may be a weird idea for a fantasy game, but I think everybody just needs to be reasonable. Players should recognize the GM (may have) worked hard to prep and that total improv is very hard to pull off well. GMs should recognize that players want to feel like they have some control and that their ideas are taken seriously too. There's no easy way to define this relationship, and it's balanced differently for different groups.

So yeah, I second the notions that (a) who cares if everybody's having fun and (b) there probably is some distortion going on here - GMs aren't slaves or masters; they're hopefully people playing games with other people in a way that requires everyone to give.

David Lundy said...

I have to disagree with CWiz in that it IS the DM's responsibility to put together something that the players enjoy. But it's also the players' responsibility to make sure he/she knows WHAT they enjoy. In the wargame scenario mentioned, the combatants don't get to choose who they fight. There's the enemy; let's kill 'em! In a D&D game, just because I see a troll cave doesn't mean I have to expore it. It's the DM's job to make me WANT to explore it. If the DM and the player(s) don't see eye-to-eye on what they can mutually enjoy, then someone needs to move on to another group.

This can be mostly avoided using the "event-based" scenario rather than the "location-based" scenario, as discussed earlier. You can't just build a villian's stronghold and expect the PCs to just walk up, bash the door and head in swords-swinging. I've found that when I build adventures, I put in my time throwing together the key encounters that advance the story. I'll then fluff out the rest with generic encounter ideas and about 10 sets of potential encounters, relevant to the area(s) currently being explored. The nice part about this is that if/when the players go left on you, you can throw in one of those encounters, which eats up a fair amount of the session. Since they're themed to fit the area, nobody balks at it. Then at the end of the encounter, the party finds a clue in the loot that leads them back where you wanted them to go in the first place.

If you give the right incentives, the fish won't notice the hook in their mouths that's pulling them towards the boat. They'll swim towards it willingly!

ChicagoWiz said...

@David - as you may guess, I disagree with you on many different levels.

it IS the DM's responsibility to put together something that the players enjoy. But it's also the players' responsibility to make sure he/she knows WHAT they enjoy.

Why? Why does the DM have to do that? It might be the DM's *goal* but the responsibility is to the rules, to the world they've created and to the things they want to get out of the hard work of running the campaign. I'm no more responsible for the players "enjoying" the campaign as I am to the players having a enjoyable meal at the Burger King or having an enjoyable time snuggling with their significant other. That's their job. If they don't derive enjoyment out of my world, then 9 times out of 10, they're going to go elsewhere and that's OK. It wasn't meant to be and I'm good with that.

In the wargame scenario mentioned, the combatants don't get to choose who they fight. There's the enemy; let's kill 'em!

Not necessarily, although that's a nit. There are just as many scenarios where it's in my interest to pick battles to gain objectives.

In a D&D game, just because I see a troll cave doesn't mean I have to expore it. It's the DM's job to make me WANT to explore it. If the DM and the player(s) don't see eye-to-eye on what they can mutually enjoy, then someone needs to move on to another group.

No, it's not my job to make you want to do anything. I have no interest in making you want to do anything. If you decide the troll cave is uninteresting, so be it. If the rumor of treasure or the gains to be made don't interest you, I'm not going to go out of my way to make you want it. It's there. It's up to you, as the player, to interpret your place in my world and decide what YOU want.

This can be mostly avoided using the "event-based" scenario rather than the "location-based" scenario, as discussed earlier.

If the only thing that events are done is to force the players into a specific plot, then this is known as the railroad. No thank you.

You can't just build a villian's stronghold and expect the PCs to just walk up, bash the door and head in swords-swinging.

Yes, I can. The "locations" and "events" go hand in hand, but they are not geared towards forcing any one answer over another. The world reacts in spite of, or in answer to, what the players do. If the players don't care what the villian does, then neither do I in forcing the players to the villian's stronghold. At the same time, if they do care for their own motivations, then yes, they will go up and kick down the door and take heads.

If you give the right incentives, the fish won't notice the hook in their mouths that's pulling them towards the boat. They'll swim towards it willingly!

There are many incentives that the players can take. It's not my job to dictate any above others, to somehow make one set more attractive than the others or to use "events" to "guide players where you want them." It's my job to present a world consistently, fairly and to keep it alive and reactive/proactive to the players. If they are doing things they don't enjoy, then it's their job to move on... or change the world to become enjoyable.

David Lundy said...

@CWiz - I love spirited discussions. ;)

I think we've gotten off-topic a bit here. The original article was lamenting how the DM with the cave so desperately wanted his players to explore it that he railed them into doing it. You're arguing that the players shouldn't have the ability to say, "Yeah sieging the mountain castle would be fun, but we'd rather go pearl-diving off the coast 500 miles away." On that point, I heartily agree.

I think we're arguing the same point otherwise though; just different approaches. You don't like railroading. I like having control of the storyline. Is it really being railed if you're unaware that you're being railed? What if you have the illusion that the decisions you're making ultimately make a difference in how the story plays out? Would that be any better? That's what I was arguing for here.

ChicagoWiz said...

@David - Control is an illusion.

Yes, it is railroading whether the players know it or not. I don't find railroading necessary or "story control" necessary, but then I'm not after the experience of telling a story. I'm after presenting a world and seeing what the players make of it and themselves. It's my world, but their story. They are in control of their own fate - whether they become mustard farmers, moisture collectors or evil paladins. They don't tell me what to put in my world, I don't tell them what to do with it.

There shouldn't be any illusion that the choices they make matter - I agree with Matt Finch's principle that meaningful choices should have meaningful results, even if it's diametrically opposed to what I thought the players were going to do (and therefore prepared for). The world acts, and reacts.

David Lundy said...

Ah. We just have different styles of running games then.

I prefer having a story in mind and letting the players interact with the story elements as they progress. That's what I meant by events 'n stuff. For example, the BBEG is trying to find the powerful artifact and draw the world into the Shadowfell. The events that comprise that story are going to happen whether the players interact with it or not. If they were able to short-circuit the story in the first 3-4 sessions, then there wouldn't be much story. If the PCs ignored the storyline altogether and became moisture collectors instead, then the BBEG would still blow things up. Just because you ignore something doesn't mean it stops happening.

I think having a definitive storyline is easier for everyone involved than simply throwing people into a world and letting them run rampant. Your way is most assuredly better in that the players can have an integral impact on the world and make up their own stories. They have complete reign to be heroes or villians, which is hella-cool. But from a player's standpoint, I'd have no idea how to even get started.

I like my way because it gives everyone a structure to work within. If the players choose to deviate from the rail and I know where they're headed, it just becomes another branch on the tracks. If they're going way off tangent, I pull them back in. Maybe I'm just not a capable-enough DM to give people carte-blanche. Mea culpa.

ChicagoWiz said...

@David:

If they were able to short-circuit the story in the first 3-4 sessions, then there wouldn't be much story.

How so? Where you see "(not) much story", I see the PCs using ingenuity to overcome the BBEG in their own way. Why deny them their victory, in the name of what you perceive as "(not) much story"? Who are you telling the story for, them, or you?

In my world, if they overcome the BBEG in one session or 4 years, it's their story to tell.

If the PCs ignored the storyline altogether and became moisture collectors instead, then the BBEG would still blow things up. Just because you ignore something doesn't mean it stops happening.

Of course not, and the players know that. Hell, it's happening in my world in an overwhelming way. The PCs are assailed on many fronts (think BSG) and they have to figure out what is in their best interest.

Not mine, theirs.

I think having a definitive storyline is easier for everyone involved than simply throwing people into a world and letting them run rampant. ... But from a player's standpoint, I'd have no idea how to even get started.

That's a common myth of sandboxes, that players have no structure or no way of knowing what is out there. I have hooks. I have clues. I have out and out shit happening right in front of them. The point is that they get to choose. They get to figure out what they feel is most important. If they follow a path, I give them the support and the info they need and qualify for.

Maybe I'm just not a capable-enough DM to give people carte-blanche. Mea culpa.

I don't think it's about being a capable enough DM. I think it's about letting go... giving up control over what you can't control (the players) and controlling what you can (your world and how it reacts).

ChicagoWiz said...

BTW, David, I thought you might enjoy this list of quests/adventures and hooks that my players have engaged in. This is the opportunities available in my world:

Clear out the Monastery of St. Eggyx and eliminate the source of Chaos (still ongoing, 1st level cleared)[1]
Investigate and loot the ancient Dwarf Mines (on hold)
Investigate and/or re-establish the New Hope settlement (not possible due to orc attacks)
Investigate and/or establish an outpost at the destroyed Dalewoods Wayfarer's Inn (not possible due to goblin/orc attacks and the site being visited by a wandering dragon of some sort)
Make a foray into Irecia (on hold)
Investigate a deserted Wizard's Tower in the plains of Irecia (discovered but not cleared)
Investigate the rumored existence of a gold mine in the plains of Irecia (never found)
Kill the troll-mage (on hold)
Rescue human slaves from orcs/goblins (completed)
Find a holy shrine/location of Vanir (found)
Find a holy shrine/location of Tangadorin (found)
Find a holy relic of Tangadorin (recovered)
Find the Crystal Lake (found - dungeon discovered nearby, still ongoing)
Find a lost hunter's cabin with a magic knife (found, recovered but knife was then lost)

David Lundy said...

Who are you telling the story for, them, or you?

Point. Dammit. Now you've got me thinking and stuff. I hate it when people make me re-evaluate my position.

That's a common myth of sandboxes, that players have no structure or no way of knowing what is out there. I have hooks. I have clues. I have out and out shit happening right in front of them. The point is that they get to choose. They get to figure out what they feel is most important. If they follow a path, I give them the support and the info they need and qualify for.

So basically you do have a story in mind. You're just not requiring their participation in it. The story goes on if they choose to ignore it, but can change if they choose to get involved.

I don't think it's about being a capable enough DM. I think it's about letting go... giving up control over what you can't control (the players) and controlling what you can (your world and how it reacts).

Okay, so I got about halfway there. I'm a programmer by trade, so I'm anal and controlling by nature. I think I was an archetect in a former life. [shrug]

So how would you recommend setting up one's "sandbox"? Put together skeleton nations, movers & shakers and general events and then flesh out as the players encounter stuff? Or would this be a discussion best served somewhere else?

ChicagoWiz said...

@David:

So basically you do have a story in mind. You're just not requiring their participation in it. The story goes on if they choose to ignore it, but can change if they choose to get involved.

So how would you recommend setting up one's "sandbox"? Put together skeleton nations, movers & shakers and general events and then flesh out as the players encounter stuff? Or would this be a discussion best served somewhere else?

I have several posts on setting up sandboxes - there are quite a few posts and it's a subject of constant discussion around the blogs, it seems.

I wouldn't abandon what you have. If you have a successful campaign and you've started things off nicely, stick with it, but think of it like a diorama or, since you're a programmer, think of it in terms of Agile development. You just put up version 1.0 of your use cases. The users are now going to fuck with it and mess things all up. Rather than trying to force the users (players) into your program, allow the program to be changed to their specs... and if there's stuff that's going to stay the same, well, keep it going.