Sunday, January 10, 2016

Riding that Dead Horse like a Cowboy! (about group dynamics)

Sometimes I wake up and have a title for a post I shouldn't write. And I love that title so much that I start thinking about how I write that post, how I phrase it all. Just to end up asking myself if there is a way to write it despite the fact that I maybe shouldn't ... And then I sit down and write it :)

About that post the other day ...

So I wrote a post the other day, asking if a DM should "please" his players or not. I have things like this seen done (never participated, though) and believe it isn't that uncommon, given that people do lots and lots of stupid things to get attention or keep others hanging around. But it is, of course only a facet of a bigger picture: it's about the roles we assume and group dynamics. Yes, that's right, it's not about the characters we play in role playing games, but those we bring to the table as individuals. Let's see one aspect of this up close.

Part of an interesting presentation you can find here
What I make of this:
  1. "imposed leadership" is a group member in an official capacity (publisher or related, active game support, stuff like that)
  2. "occupied position" is the group member in the position as DM as per the rules (which might be gradually weaker, depending on the system used)
  3. "informal leader" is the group member actually being accepted as leader of the group

So as you can see here, there are 3 different aspects of Formal Leadership. Ideally a DM would incorporate all three of them, but either way it turns out, it has an impact on the dynamics of the group. So if there is no organization to "impose" a DM on a group (first point just doesn't happen that often in rpgs) and the DM in charge is only DM because the rules say so (second point), it's that third point that could have a huge impact on the game if it's not the assigned DM assuming it.

In other words, if you got a "player DM" at the table and he is actually in charge, you are in trouble (as a DM). Now, this is a situation and very dynamic, not necessarily how it has to stay. One example I can think of, had been a Support player from a German rpg publisher in a con game (actually one of the rare occasions where that first point described above is in fact part of the equation: he had been an "imposed official").

I had been DM and welcomed that as someone representing the developers of a game I love. By association he had, for me at the time, the power to judge about how I rule that game. You know, that whole "Am I worthy" crap. Turned out that he really loved that position and started to seriously undermine my DM calls. Especially when I made a call instead of using the rules. So that was the situation. It started to get on my nerves, for obvious reasons and I waited for an opportunity to stop him cold and tell him off. After that was done (in a polite way) we agreed that I was the DM and he started from his official capacity to support me as a DM!

So he had point 1, went for point 3, leaving me DM just per the rules, but we changed that dynamic and he began using his position (point 1) to support me with point 3 (actually a stronger position than just having point 2 and 3!). We ended up having a good game all around.

Social dynamics are complex!

That example above describes the situation and might already explain my point quite well, but it lacks describing the motivations behind how we acted. Why did that guy undermine my position? After we had our little "show down" he played along happily enough. No bad blood (he could have left the game, making a scene, et cetera), he relaxed and played the game, helping with the rules when I asked for it, being a supportive and entertaining player all around. Which leads me to believe that he, the role of an official being enforced on him, assumed (maybe out of insecurity? or because we had been strangers? bad experiences just before? in general?) that he had to take control over the game ...

Either way, clearing the air had helped him finding his position in the group as an official by embracing it and leaving me to the rest of it. Me accepting his official capacity, on the other hand, was just as important in this dynamic, by the way. If I had not only questioned him aiming for "point 3" and instead had also questioned him being fit enough to represent, it also could have ended with bad blood and open conflict.

Mind you, this is still a very, very, very simple example of dynamic group behavior. Is one of the players your girlfriend/boyfriend or is there bad blood for external reasons or debt or guilt or dominant personalities or submissive personalities, or is one of the group members a DM in another group/the same group with another game, ...? What position an individual has in a group, or even what position it needs to hold in a group to make it work is highly dependent on circumstances and the other individuals involved.

There as many variations as there are ways to change a given situation and we are individually, as it is, alone in our judgement what works and what not and are only able to change a situation by the level of awareness and the power we could muster.

It's a sad truth, isn't it?

This is the sad truth about our hobby: we are mostly alone in making it work for the individual groups we interact with. There are no institutions powerful enough to sustainably install DMs in a respected and acknowledged capacity, which makes "point 1" almost non-existent and everybody can occupy the position of a DM, which seriously undermines "point 2" above. There is no "driver's licence" for DMing it, only the School of Hard Knocks and the hive mind of the hobby, which is most of the time as random and helpless as the rest of us (as we are the hobby).

At this point it gets complicated enough to be reduced to opinion again. The only guidelines we are left with here are those imposed on us by our respective cultures (and let's not forget: that means, there is a huge variety right there, even within the same nation but very much so on an international level). There is a baseline, though, as one could say that maturity and open communication make good grounds for healthy group dynamics (a social contract, if you will), which, in turn, should support what could be considered a "good game".

"That horse is dead, cowboy."

I'll leave it at that. While writing this, I came to ask myself if our hobby needs more "official standards" to help enforcing a healthy group environment for role playing games in general. Something like "if you engage in a role playing game, you assume a certain role in the group and the implied hierarchy is necessary to make the game work while the rules ensure that the hierarchy the game needs is not exploited and that means ..."? But that sure is a can of worms left untouched for another day (if at all, to be honest, telling people there is a hierarchy implied in role playing games is not popular).

Personally I think we are more or less on our own in this and need to decide for ourselves what works for us and what not or to what lengths we go to make happen what we want. But just saying "Whatever works" never sits right with me, because abusive group dynamics actually (and unfortunately) do work for so many people that stating something like that sounds like a justification. Same goes for "Don't be a douche!", which sounds good at first glance but doesn't hold enough water to actually help anybody, as the most capable douches will definitely use it against others whenever possible.

So what is left after that?


  1. >> So what is left after that?
    You're right that just saying "whatever works" can lead to situations in which some abusive relationships will flourish. But I'd hasten to point out that that statement is less true today than it was 20 years ago. Due mostly to the internet, it is no longer possible for a single GM's approach to seem "the only way to play" for a local group: everyone can get online and instantly find examples of groups and games with very different structures, and long forum threads in which these situations and GMs are described, compared, contrasted and evaluated by whole sectors of the gaming community at large.

    It's like that Eddie Murphy joke about wanting to marry an African woman straight out of the bush, a tribal woman with a bone in her nose, who knows nothing about prenuptial agreements, divorce, alimony, or western customs. Of course the punchline is: Once he gets her back to the States, he has to keep her away from other women, or else she'll learn that she can sue him for divorce and take half of his belongings.

    Once upon a time there was no internet, and dick GMs could flourish because players didn't know any better, or didn't have any concrete alternative suggestions to make regarding group dynamics. But today, if you're a dick GM, chances are very good that your players will find out. The disease is pretty well-known. There are cures, therapies and case histories for everyone to examine. If you're a dick GM today, it's just a matter of time before your players divorce you.

    1. You are right. But only to some degree (and only if we talk DMs here). Being able to speak Ze Englisch helps a great deal with that and there are some countries with a strong role playing culture (like France) where it could be the same. I am not so sure about Germany, though. At least I'm not feeling it here.

      Since we moved and left a group of gamers (and friends) we played with for years back where we came from, we try very (too?) hard to get some good gaming going. And although we already met some nice people, I've also seen lots of stuff I already hated in the 90s ...

      I don't know, maybe I'm getting old and grumpy. Or too impatient. The best games we had so far had been online with the old group, one game with newbies and one with some American friends. I hope it is just the first impression, but right now I'm not that optimistic (and the girlfriend is already loosing interest, which is worse).


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.