Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Unhappy DM (and other sad thoughts) - Part 1

This is the first part of a long October post-series about Dungeon Masters being people too and why all that matters and how role playing games are more than a product. All are topics that come up every once in a while, here and irl. Since it's rare to read something about those aspects of our hobby, I thought I'd oblige ... So here are some thoughts questioning the common conception of the DM being a "service provider" and searching for some causes. It's all very connected, I think.

A very cruel story (the DM in a nut shell)

[the events here are staged to protect the innocent] So a guy shells out 150 bucks for the new D&D 5e core books, sits down for months to prepare a setting and a campaign about a fragile princess that needs protection, just like in The Neverending Story. There is maps and dungeons and non-player characters, a collection of pictures he likes and a sandbox full of hooks to keep the players busy while also doing some learning of the new rules, testing them on the side and working his problems through the forums. Months of preparation and transition, I tell you, while he has his regular game running as usual (of course).

The Neverending Story: All kinds of weird ... but in a good way! [source]
Somewhere towards the end of his preparations, he starts teasing the players with the new campaign. Maybe just mails and pictures, maybe a dedicated blog or a fb-page or forum. Interest is low (maybe a bit higher as it'd be usually, due to the fact that 5e is the new cool kid on the block ...) and he trucks along: sends around write-ups about the setting, possible character backgrounds and pictures.

Then the first player comes and says something like "Why not just play in the Forgotten Realms?! We have always been in the Forgotten Realms!". Others agree and the DM is forced to buy more books (because he needs the newest iteration, of course) ... let's say that's another 50 bucks. He's able to salvage most of his work so far and finds a place to put the new characters in. Just a little extra work, right?

The old campaign comes to an end and the new one needs some coordination. 2 players say they'd like to pause a bit (but actually want to play FATE instead) so new players are needed. It's easy enough to get replacements through the rest of the players and their connections ("my girlfriend always wanted to play ..." or "I know a guy who'd be game!") and all is well until it turns out that one of the regular players has a problem with one of the newcomers because of another game they played in together and things get all political and she leaves ...

In the end there's a completely new group constellation in a setting the DM doesn't particularly like or hasn't his heart in, anyway (and with the guy that made the original request been gone too, adding injury to insult) and with a bad taste of politics before the new game could even begin.

Next thing you know: scheduling the game is a bitch. People have other things to do. Festivals in the summer, other games they are more invested in, life in general, you name it. To keep them all happy the DM ends up playing board games with those players available, waiting for the moment when the stars are right and everyone has time.

Good thing is, he gets a feel for the new players. Bad thing is, he really doesn't get along with one of them. The reasons here are secondary, but he just thinks he doesn't want the guy in his game. There are implications, of course, as it's a good friend of one of the players who stayed for the new campaign and there's always the possibility of bad blood because of such a thing. So he leaves it as it is.

And then that day happens. All have time, all are there. The new campaign can begin!

Our DM wants a good start and goes all in with the preparation: miniatures, painted and paid for, dungeon tiles, background music ... he even practices how to play the NPCs to full effect! Character creation is the first hurdle, though. THAT GUY wants to play some class from one of the Forgotten Realms source-books and it doesn't fit. There's an argument and it's going on for so long that the DM just gives up to get the rest of the game set up properly. He can always ignore THAT GUY and his character ...

Anyway, characters are made, pizza was ordered and eaten, the game starts and the DM weaves his magic. People get into it, fun is had and as the characters meet that fragile princess so important for the whole campaign, one player destroys it all by saying: "Yeah, well, I stab her IN THE FACE!", high-fiving his neighbor and celebrating his little destructive impulse with stupid laughter.
Made a puppy cry, too ... [source 1 and source 2]
After all, it's just a game. Right?

A true story? No, not entirely.

The above is fiction in as far as it never happened to me as described there. But I have experienced parts of it, heard others and read about even more. So you could say it's a pastiche of things I know happened to people helming a role playing game. As a matter of fact, the list of small slights, impersonal carelessness, unsocial behavior or in-group politics doesn't end with what I illustrated in that little story above. It's merely scratching the surface, I'm afraid.

That's a problem.

There is something about role playing games that defies the very core of the society big parts of us live in: you just need some rules, some dice and some friends and you can play one and the same game ad infinitum and you are set for life. You can do all of this yourself and it's possible to play it completely without technical support. It's a capitalist's nightmare and all you need to do to make it happen is ... well, you only need to refrain from doing something else.

Isn't it strange how people get committed to something like a tv series or a movie franchise but have a hard time bringing the same enthusiasm into a pursuit where we actually could be part of very much the same instead of just, you know, consuming it? Well, there're phenomena like World of Warcraft where you come pretty close to participating in a way you'd as a player in a role playing game. But people still have to pay for it and do so very willingly. So what's that all about?

Consumerism, recognition in the hobby and all that ...

My ventures into consumerism grew into a massive post in its own right, so it will be in Part 2. The short of it is, we are so trained to getting everything - especially our entertainment! - packed in friendly little doses that it's getting harder and harder to step away from this and do something by ourselves. But why that is and how all that is connected to why we somehow on the one side expect a DM to do all the work and on the other hand don't get involved enough to invest our time because it doesn't cost a thing, well, all that is part of that next post.

It's bothering me a bit that I just described the problem in this post here and couldn't hint towards solutions or anything. But I hope some of it rang true with some of you. I hope this will help starting a discussion and maybe raise an awareness to some aspects of our hobby that get neglected far too often: the fact that DMs do all the work, inside and outside the game. We organize, we socialize, we do all that is necessary to make a group of people ... happy? For what exactly? Why isn't that appreciated enough? Where are the publishers actually supporting DMs for playing their games? Not just with free swag (which is nice, of course), but with ... I don't know, workshops, badges, recognition beyond what was paid for ...

Alright, I'll stop for now. This is all over the place and while I need to go far deeper down that particular rabbit hole, I'll also write a bit about what can be done and what has already been done. That'd be Part 3, though.

If you want to add to this, feel free to comment and tell us about your experiences and thoughts about being a DM and if it really is that thankless an endeavor to spend your time with.

15 comments:

  1. I feel your pain bro. But it might be that too many high expectations by the DM are doomed to fail.

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  2. Thanks, man! It's a real dilemma, especially when you are not sure if it's all working out in the end and you actually get to use all the things you prepared. Real bummer. I'm on the lazy side of things and I wonder sometimes what people would be actually capable of if they knew for sure their stuff will be used! Magnificent campaigns all over the place! And I'm not sure if we could do what we do if we hadn't high expectations. I, for one, wouldn't even begin if that illusion wouldn't carry me until the very end :)

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  3. I love where this is going. It's a huge framework defining the question I've answered again and again with Dungeon World/Freebooters on the Frontier. No money. No products. No pressure, just the infinite RPG and various groups of players -- old friends and new -- who want to hang out and have serious fun. Where are the publishers actually supporting DMs for playing their games? Lampblack and Brimstone is one of them.

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, DW is unique in that it actually makes it easier for a DM to make a campaign work. Or rather, the players take more of it by helping creating the world, the adventure and the setting ... And thanks for sharing your impression about the publishers not doing much beyond selling the game. Some do, but by far not enough or in a manner that could be called sustainable. There will be more.

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  4. What a wonderful study in geek social fallacies.

    If only the GM in the tale had grown a spine and said "This is the game I want to run. Who's in and who's out?" None of the following fiasco would have happened (or not-happened, because fiction).

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    1. The things people do to get players interested, man, the things people do ... Had a campaign for 5 years once and got booted because some players did politics. Had been a good group, too. Have seen worse shit happening, from DM doing favors to actually buying the rules and other presents for their players. I think I still was too tame about the whole thing in the story above :)

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  5. People suck. This is why I don't play anymore...

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  6. The problem with this whole scenario is that the DM did things in the wrong order. Doing all the work for a new campaign and then building buy-in is a near guarantee that this scenario will happen. Everyone has to agree that they will enjoy something before you do a bunch of work on it. The DM in your example is acting like the game is for him alone.

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    1. Of course it is a problem. That's entirely on purpose and was aimed to show that those mistakes happen. And I don't think he is. Actually, I'm not specific about that but assumed he does it after talking about it with the group. Campaign is about to end, what's next ... But again, this is about problems that a DM might encounter, not about how to DM the perfect gig, because that's another thing entirely. We assume that DMs do their job right or they suck. But where do we learn what is the right amount of preparation or how to structure a campaign? Most rule books I know show some severe misgivings in that area. Especially if you are new to the hobby, consensus being that a customer could always stick with the program and buy the campaigns being offered (which also vary a lot in quality, btw). It's all problematic.

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  7. Don't worry. The solutions to these problems exist and are available. Since you're familiar with Dungeon World, go to Youtube and find Adam Koebel's show Office Hours. Start at episode one and watch them all. You'll be glad you did.

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    1. I'm not worrying, but thanks :) DW keeps coming up in this discussion and I'll just c/p here what I wrote in another thread on g+ (you may have seen this already, Tim, but others might not): "Dungeon World doesn't solve the problem as much as it circumvents it. I'm not saying you are wrong, it's just that exactly those mechanically different aspects make it a very different, more scripted sort of game and that's just not something everyone wants to get on board with just yet. The question is, if that's actually the way to go or if an alternative is possible." I'm more into procedural content creation and world engines these days, which might not have that big an audience but works for me and my players. But I will check out that Koebel guy. Seems fun.

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  8. Jens, are you sure we don't know each other in real life? I swear, I played in that gaming group...

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    1. I never had it all at once, but parts of it here and there ... good to know I'm not alone :)

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  9. I don't think I've ever had all of it together but most of it. I'm ashamed to say I was even one time the arsehole who stabbed the princess in the face. Except in my case it was another PC but even so. Not conducive to co-operative fun for the group.

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    1. I thought about this a bit more and came to the conclusion that most (if not all) of this comes down to classic group dynamics. It's not necessarily the fault of a specific player, but more often than not the phases you'll get with every social group: testing boundaries, seeking rank or hierarchy ... Depending on how far you get with those phases and the results of each of them, you'll end up with a functioning group or not. It's not just about people, it's about us being tribal monkeys :) I should write a post about this soon, I think (think I did already, but must check).

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