Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rant: Old school D&D is suited towards Tyrannical DMs?

Ben at Ars Ludi always makes me think, with his posts about gaming. His West Marches posts are what gave my Dark Ages campaign life and structure.

Today he posted about "tyrannical DMs"  and about the nature of GM/player sharing an experience in a game.

What really got my goat was this comment.

"I actually think that the day of the tyrannical DM has passed. That style suited some of the old versions of D&D, or perhaps suited the age at which many of us played those versions, but I think people (both players and DMs) have moved past that. I, personally, haven’t had any recent experiences with tyrannical DMs. Conversely, I’ve had three in the past four years who are extremely open to shared control, both of the world and its evolution and of consequences/roleplaying (shared narrative).

So my take is that the situation may still exist for some folks, but it’s beyond what I’ve experienced in the last 5 years (with one exception and he had no returning players after session 1)."

Allow me to rant for a moment.

Why is it that someone who admits that they've not had any experiences with bad DMs, and (from the context of statements) hasn't played in the hobby long, can make such a damn stupid generalized statement about how old school somehow makes a bad DM?

Funny, I want someone to tell Dave Arneson that he's tyrannical. Based on what I've read from interviews and his Q/A posts, I think after he gets done laughing his ass off, he'll gleefully "admit" to it and then go on running his 30-odd year campaign. Old school style. 'Cause, yannow, he's from an age that spawned tyrannical bad DMs.

"Bad DMs" can happen, no matter what the version or style or type of game. They happen because people are either exercising their issues/problems at the gametable, or they just are not good DMs, or they are inexperienced and making all the common mistakes that everyone makes at the table. This stereotype that old school somehow makes it easy to be a bad DM is about as stupid as saying that 3E/4E makes it easy to be a bad powermongering player.

I may not like the feel or play of 3E/4E, but I have no doubt that many of the fine people that I share the blog space with are excellent players in that version who have an honest love of the game. Just as I've personally experienced many, many people who run/play old school and have the same honest love and enjoyment. I also have no doubt that there are plenty of jerks and simply bad DMs who can screw up any game. That "age" has hardly passed - I watch it happen in all walks of life.

If someone is going to blandly and blindly post crap about aspects of the game, why not experience it first and get empirical data?

I don't go around slinging shit on games that I don't know about - hell, I want to play them so I can learn and form opinions. I've never played Amber, Fudge and other diceless games, but I also don't support or refute stereotypes about them. I've experienced 3E/4E and I have my opinions based on my experiences. Does that mean I'll turn down a 3E/4E game with people who I know I'll have fun with, because of a stupid stereotype? No. It might not be my "go-to" game, but at the same time, I'm not going to persist a stereotype about it. And I don't believe anyone else should.

Man, I should not read posts before having a few cups of coffee.


taichara said...

As someone who has played D&D for a hair over fifteen years -- a drop in the bucket to many, but eh -- and who seems to fall nicely into the "uncanny valley" between early D&D/1e AD&D and the 3e/4e crowd, I can say this much:

The only thing that could vaguely strike me as "tyrannical" about "old school" gaming (at least off the top of my head) is the gleeful joy some oldschoolers seem to take in the idea of hordes of PCs dying. But if that's the style DM and players want, where's the tyranny? It's not for me; but hey, I'm in the uncanny valley *grins*

The most tyrannical "DMs" I've ever suffered under have all been running games using White Wolf's Storyteller system and similar. There might be a lesson there -- or I might just be a fluke. Who knows ...?

(ha! got it to work --)

Christopher B said...

In my experience - and believe me, I've plenty of years and games under my belt (along with abs that could stand a little tightening) - you'll find tyrannical (I prefer the term "antagonistic") GM's running any game. My personal gaming group has become a more closed circle over the years, so we've settled into a decent groove. But I've seen my share of antagonistic GM's, and my fellow gamers - who game regularly with other groups - continually display a sort of shell-shocked-gamer behavior in response to certain systems, especially 3E, as result of their ongoing experiences with this sort of GM.

Granted, older rules-lite systems often favored GM empowerment versus player empowerment. However, newer systems that attempt to equalize (or even reverse) that structure are not capable of reigning in antagonistic GM's - they just make them have to work a little harder for it.

The fact is, as long as there are GM's and players, there will be antagonistic GM's and munchkin players. After all: you can't change human nature simply by changing a set of game rules.

Anonymous said...

I hope this is not a double post...

(Fudge is by default not diceless. Nobilis, for example, is.)

I think it is possible to build a game such that is encourages some and discourages other behaviour. The impetus itself, however, must come from the players. Only edge cases are influenced by the rules.

For example, if I am offered a system that has point-buy or point-assignment of some sort, like GURPS, WoD or D&D 3rd (classes, levels feats etc. are essentially a point-buy system), I will try to optimise them. If I am let to simply choose my scores, I will not try to optimise them; I'll take a character concept and try to implement that. Little in the way of powergaming.

Anonymous said...

I think the impression comes from reading some of the older material, too. It has things like "The DM is never wrong!" sprinkled through it. I think people misinterpret.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. I tend to think it's an example of correlation and not causation. Just because (anecdotally) there used to be more tyrannical DMs and they played old school systems (that were current at the time) doesn't mean that the system was the cause.

And also as pointed out, if the players want a tyrannical DM, more power to them. It's like the gaming equivalent of being into S&M.

Joshua Macy said...

I initially read Dave's comment as "It's like the gaming equivalent of being into M&M", and I thought Mutants & Masterminds? Is that particularly tyrannical?

Anonymous said...

Hell I am confused about what he actually saying. Is he saying that OD&D was more suited to railroad (or storytelling) style gaming (which is the tyrannaical style Ben is talking about)? Because if you ask me, the whole plot is the most important aspect movement seems to be a recent development (as Christopher points out with the tendencies of White Wolf games).

Or is the commenter saying that more player kills happened OD&D?

I think it all boils down to what he believes tyrannical DMing and old school means.

Anonymous said...

That's not really an uncommon comment from people who have a particular preference for certain styles of indie tabletop games...

Not really worth worrying about. :)

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Christopher B - That is my thought as well. Any game system can be abused. The fact that 3E/4E move the rulings into rules doesn't mean that the DM can't be an ass.

Unfortunately, based on Trollsmyth's review of Shadowfell, I wonder if WotC themselves are going to start being seen as tyrannical - unless plot railroading is now an accepted part of the modern hobby?

@thanuir - thank you for the correction - I'm not very familiar with either system and had them confused. I think behavior encouragement comes from the type of game the DM runs. And that evolves over time and as people get comfortable with the campaign.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Virianta - I never saw those type of comments as saying the DM was never "wrong" - in fact, I don't think I've ever read where the DM wasn't fallable. What most of those "DM is the final arbiter" says to me that it's a two way street. Just as the rules allow players to do anything they like, they also allow the DM to decide if that's possible or not. A good DM says "yes, and here's how this will go..." - a bad DM won't work with the players.

@Dave - now we're into kinky sex? ;) That would bring me some blog traffic...

@jamused - I keep meaning to investigate that game. I hear it mentioned quite a bit?

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Mad Brew - I'm not sure. It seemed like a typical "one off" comment to beat upon the old school "Sadistic Tyrannical DM" stereotype without any thought towards what he was trying to say. I can't speak for him, but in general, I don't see the correlation between old school and "bad DMs" anymore than I see a correlation between modern RPGs and "bad players" stereotype. The players play the games in ways that reflect what we like as a society and what interests us and what sells. An ass is always going to be an ass.

@Stuart - I'm resolved to drinking more coffee tomorrow morning BEFORE I read my blogroll. :D

John B said...

I agree entirely with what you're saying, any game system can fall prey to the bad DM. A bad gamemaster is a bad gamemaster regardless of the rules system that they use. To attribute a rules system to a "Tyrannical" style of play is ridiculous. I started playing OD&D and have played many other game systems through the years and the only times I've left campaigns are because the gamemaster sucked, not the system.

Joshua Macy said...

@Chgowiz, I don't really know anything about Mutants & Masterminds, except that somehow that's what pops into my mind as the likely meaning of M&M in the context of rpgs. Just like V&V means Villains and Vigilantes, and C&S means Chivalry & Sorcery....

Tom said...

"or perhaps suited the age at which many of us played those versions"

I think he was talking about tyranny being an "old school" mentality, not bashing the rule set you prefer.

I don't know, or care, if that's necessary true. I definitely don't have any empitical evidence! ;)

RPG Ike said...

I agree with Tom. Ben doesn't seem to be bashing the older editions, but he is pointing out that he's running into fewer DMs he considers tyrannical these days than he did before.

I've made the same correlation myself based on playing for a decade now (and been e-slapped for it, too), but I'm not sure we deserve it. He wasn't saying older editions make DMs bad, but he thinks there's a correlation between the older editions and tougher/meaner/against-the-players style of DMs.

That's probably true based on his experiences, as it is for mine, limited though they may seem to be.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I should point out that it wasn't Ben I had the disagreement with - I didn't see Ben indicating a bias toward any version. It was the comment I linked to that got my dander up.

Graham said...

Sorry, man. I'm just not seeing the intent you're reading from the comment.

He's merely putting forward that the old-school systems better suited the tyranical DMing style than newer systems do (not that they encouraged it, or that it was their primary style, just that 1e is better for tyranical DMs that 3e is).

The older systems did put a lot more emphasis on the DM's word being law, after all.

But in no place did he say that the system created these DMs. All he stated was that it enabled them more than modern systems do, which I have trouble disagreeing with.

Additionally, he says that it may even just be a product of the age they were when they played the old games (ie. young kids having teenage power trips). Again, not the fault of the system, not is it stated to be.

And, just to nitpick, he never said he "hasn't played in the hobby long". He said that he's seen less in the last 5 years.

So, if it wasn't clear yet, I agree with the commenter, and I agree for the following reasons:

- DM Rule was given emphasis much of the time, enabling tyrant DMs to flourish

- Many of the players were kids getting into the hobby, which lends itself to this style more than adults.

- Mindsets have changed over the years, making this style less desirable.

- The hobby was still fairly small, so it would have been more difficult to find a better game. As such, players were willing to put up with more, whereas nowadays, with such advents as the internet to find new games, players are more willing to just walk out. This is actually a general societal trend, not limited to rpgs.

So, to sum up, I think he's right, and I think you're overreacting to something not meant in the way you are reading it.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Graham - that's always the problem with reading things, one can take words a great many ways.

I take issue with that particular comment because I hear the same tired stereotypes and I don't believe these people have a basis in experience or fact beyond a quick quip, much like many will say that 4E is all about MMORPG Card Gamers. Neither is useful or based in fact. Tyrannical DMs exist outside of system or "school"

I don't agree that old-school systems are somehow inherently suited for tyrannical players anymore than the newer systems. Old-school and modern RPGs have different flavors and different scopes, perhaps, but the capacity is there equally. Old-school DMs could be tyrannical in their "rules" and "rulings." New-school DMs can be tyrannical in plot railroads and preventing player innovation because of those same rules.

Did certain stereotypes happen to be born when the hobby was coming to a greater audience, therefore tying that stereotype to "old school"? Yes. Does that mean those stereotypes have any real basis in fact and should be persisted just because? No.

Let's put the stereotype to rest.

Graham said...

How about we rephrase the whole thing, removing system from it.

There were more tyranical DMs (percentage-wise) in the 1970s than you'll find today.

This is, in small part, due to the language used in the systems at the time, but is primarily a function of the time, the maturity of the hobby and its participants, and the other reasons I listed above.

It gets tied to the systems, but it's really more of a generalisation about the time in which those systems came to be, rather than the systems themselves.

System is a personal choice, of course. You play 1e, I'll play 4e, and neither is an inherently better choice.

But tell me something. Have your play style or play preferences changed since the '70s? Not system preference, but the stuff that fits around the system.

I'd bet they have. Would I be right?

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

There were more tyranical DMs (percentage-wise) in the 1970s than you'll find today.

I don't see how anyone could make that as an empirical statement - it's purely anecdotal and probably not true.

Has my play style changed? Of course. It evolves. Has my preferences changed. Not so much. But then, my preferences have always been pretty broad.

However, that really has nothing to do with the original statement that I still hold as nonsense.

I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree. However, as a stereotype, I'll still speak out against it. It's a useless, tired stereotype that doesn't do anyone justice.

Graham said...

Agreed on all counts.

Honestly, I'm too young to have anything but anecdotal evidence from those days, anyways, so that's all I'm going off of.

But the one that has actually been shown is that people are more willing these days to just leave for even minor issues. As such, I do believe it is harder for a Tyrant DM to survive these days than it used to be.

Again, it has nothing to do with the systems. It's a product of society.

Meh, it can't be proven either way with any certainty. I just felt you were hammering at the guy for assertions he didn't make.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

@Graham - I think that is a subject that I wish I had the training and experience to speak about - the link between gaming, how it's grown as society has changed, much like mythology has changed as society has changed. I'm not that smart.

I might have been, that's the "rant" part, but I tend to get twitchy when I haven't had enough coffee in the morning and I see something that smacks of "forum-repeat" or AOL-me-too.

Graham said...

Heh. No worries, man.

I'll stick to my engineering studies, myself.

Speaking of which, I should get back to that...

OlmanFeelyus said...

I think you misread that comment. I didn't read it as a dig on any particular system or playstyle, but an observation on a general evolution of player behaviour and I think I generally agree with him.

It sounds to me like he has played in the hobby for a while and has experienced bad GMs. He says he hasn't had any "recent experiences". I think the 5 years he's talking about is this recent period not his entire gaming experience.

And I do think age is a significant factor. I was a complete fascist when I was GM'ing back in the mid-80s. I even "suspended" a player for a month because he had snuck out and bought the DMG (only the DM was allowed to have that).

I am really not like that anymore and I suspect there is a lot less tolerance for that kind of GM'ing than there was back in the day.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I suspect that there are plenty of children playing 3E and 4E that can be just as fascist and tyrannical in their adolescence as there were in the 70s. I still do not think that system has anything to do with it, which was the gist of my disagreement with the commenter.

Dwayanu said...

The association of "railroading" with "old versions of D&D" might be a reflection of context. If that's the same Rafe who posts at Dragonsfoot, then he is not an "old guy" (I think he's in his 20s). He also happens to be German. My guess is that his reference was to Second Edition AD&D, and that no few of us "grognards" share the sentiment to some degree.

In the case of 2E, the association is not really game-mechanical but rather reflects the kind of scenarios TSR tended to publish at that time. Vecna Lives! (and the fact I actually bought it) was almost bad enough to make me forget that Tracy Hickman had gotten that locomotive really rolling back in the days of First Edition AD&D.

There are some people who appreciate the kind and scope of "GM tyranny" discussed there. RPGA play of 4E features a similar "scenario tyranny" to usher players from one set encounter to the next. Note, however, that within the encounter the DM is expected to take an adversarial role and to be bound by the published rules. Shifting the burden to rigidly codified rules frees the DM to "take off the gloves" in playing monsters.

To me, it's essential to a proper role-playing game that the Referee have a lot of power. Limited information and capability is essential in playing any role to which I can relate. That includes limited dealing with game mechanics, too much of which I find especially distracting. Nothing so rips me out of immersion as a heap of complex but abstract (as opposed to "simulating") number-crunching.

At the same time, it's essential to a proper game that the players have meaningful choices. The GM as sole "author" does not work for me at all in that context. If there's to be a line of "story" directing (rather than arising from) events, then the players need to have a hand in shaping it.

Indeed, I think a proper "story-telling" game ought to be designed around that concept rather than being an RPG subverted with GM "fudging." The ones that really work for me make some form of "authorial currency" the central feature of the game. The rules and strategies are all about how the right to "tell the story" passes from one player to another -- rather than, say, the quantified effectiveness of a Lucerne hammer versus mail.