Monday, October 17, 2016

Some fun with the Sad DM (and other fun thoughts) - Part 3

Alright, that was a fun exercise. Mostly good comments and reader participation, people starting to discuss the problem I tried to illustrate. Good times. I'd still go and post all of it in one post the next time around and I really don't care how big it will end up when I post it. There is something unsatisfying with just pointing out (what I believe to be) problems without also hinting towards solutions in the end. Main problem I see is that people start running in all kind of directions (including myself) without taking the whole thing into account. Anyway, here is the end of it.

If you are new to the whole shebang, you might want to start with Part 1, work your way through Part 2 and then come back here (if you want to) for a more positive conclusion.

What's been established and what's been discussed

I am not the Sad DM, but I had moments close to that. Especially when I started DMing, 24 years ago, but every now and again until today, mostly regarding group politics and lack player dedication, with the occasional disruptive element to keep it interesting. Going by the feedback I got so far and what I hear from gamers all around me, I can say that I was not alone with those experiences and encounters and that those problems still strive, maybe even got worse. So what was that exactly:
  • The leading question, right there at the beginning, was if the common conception that the DM is something like a "service provider" is justified and/or fair. Every concept, idea and problem that came up afterwards, from the polemic ate the beginning, including the thoughts about consumerism and closing with the thoughts about personal freedom versus development, originated from that question ...
  • The position of the DM in the social structure of many groups is at odds with the workload necessary to keep the game afloat. Even the minimalist approaches some people claimed to be the "cure" for the Sad DM need rules ownership, knowledge and understanding if not years of experience to make them work. I agree, they make DMing easier (OSR-blog, after all), but they don't come easily and people seem to forget that ...
  • There is no "institutionalized" (for lack of a better word) gaming culture other than the corporate one and the corporate one sucks. No club or association, no public presence but a fractured (often fighting) patchwork of contradicting forces, leaving beginning gamers with what they can get by sheer luck or corporate advice, nothing else.
  • There's also an alarming tendency towards highly individualized, self contained content customization, meaning we are able nowadays to get what we want far more easily and readily than what we might need. This separation results in a "I don't care"-culture and people just taking sides instead of discussing problems to actually solve them (see your next flamewar for examples). That's taking it a bit easy, but think Immanuel Kant's theory of Enlightenment applied on our usage of technology and how the described nonage separates us ...
  • Our hobby has to compete with so many other hobbies/past-times that way more easily customized and less dependent on other people, that we actually need to do something to keep our hobby attractive to newcomers.
  • It is established that our hobby produced alternatives to the traditional approach, sharing the needed investment to make it work between all participants equally (namely Dungeon World/Apocalypse World, for instance) or allowing for very condensed versions of the experience (one shot/indie-games like My Life with Master or 44: A Game of Automated Fear). I'm not yet ready to accept that they are a natural development instead of an alternative and think traditional games should still be possible.
The photographer had been naked, btw ... [source]
What's left is to offer my opinion to some of the questions that arose in the last two posts. Given how the discussion was spread across 4 days and three posts, there're already lots of opinions and answers around. Not only in the comments (here on the blog and on g+), there are two other discussions about the Sad DM that I'm aware of:
And that's it so far. Many words, many thoughts and if you stayed with me to this point, I definitely owe you some closure. Before I do that, I'd like to state the following reservation up front: I offer those solutions to the best of my knowledge and I truly believe that they have merit, but I have neither the audience nor the pull to actually get this realized any other way than locally (maybe), so what follows could merely be considered propositions and food for thought. If this really is what our hobby needs is another matter open for debate ... Anyway, let's get on with it.

Organized play

The main reason for the lack of appeal (and thus the lack of participation) to participate in an epic role playing campaign is (at least with older players) the limitation to a very small group of people. An example: We all know of the appeal of talking with other, like-minded people about playing one of the TSR classics. They might have heard of it or even played a specific module themselves, so there is common grounds, something to share. The more fractured and unorganized our hobby grows, the more impossible it becomes to achieve that level of common ground.

That's what I meant with separated. It's no problem at all to find people that like what you like, but they are usually all over the continent. And while we are able to connect virtually, we have to disconnect in real life (to some degree). So when I became a fan of the OSR movement a couple of years back and nobody in Germany gave a wet fart about that (still, to some extent) a huge portion of what really meant something for me had nothing to do with my immediate surrounding ...

LAN-Parties: this isn't a new idea ... [source]
Anyway, organized play. The idea here is to produce something that has an appeal beyond playing in a group. Club-organized would be best, as it gets a bit more official and public with something like a club helming it. Think chess clubs with their work shops and tournaments and leagues. Something like that, but you'd have to provide an official gaming board of sorts, a campaign setting. Actually, make that a living and breathing sandbox, with a history, lots of toys and a potential fate.

Now you'd need approved Dungeon Masters to play games in the official setting. They are basically allowed to influence the settings history and future under the rules necessary to make something like this work for any number of groups (schedules where changes can take place and go public and so on). Fringe benefits are newsletters as the world changes all around the group and people talking at club meetings about where they went in the official setting, what they saw and what they changed ... like adventurers would when they meet (I hope you see the appeal in this!).

Next thing would be DM-Rankings and maybe player levels. I think a mentor program for beginning DMs might be a nice idea ... Done right, it just shows what I've seen lacking in many places: the social perception of the DM as service provider changes to that of a narrator. Somewhat of an official, so to say. You want to participate? Get in contact with the club and see how they handle it.

Organize this between several clubs, and you have connected realms that might influence each other. Even tournaments would be very possible in an scenario like that (although difficult, tournament play is a strange beast in role playing games). Either way, with enough people involved you'll have fan fiction, fan art, modules/adventures, a whole setting! And at that point, depending on size and popularity, you may end up getting sponsorship by publishers ...

And that's that, if a club where to take the lead, controlling (to a degree) what will be played and where, the market shifts from dictating what is played and bought (5e is fine, but we need a 6th edition in about two years ...) to support. With mutual benefits, I might add. Because once a publisher makes, say, a setting or module public, they'll make advertisement not for a system (as such a thing should mostly be system agnostic) but for the social aspect of the hobby!

... and you all know what happened. [source]
Where have I seen this?

I know this might not be for everyone, but some might even have doubts tat something like that could work for our hobby. Work in a way that gets publishers interested. Well, the most obvious contender, although a MMORPG and very much corporate, would be World of Warcraft. Huge setting, several groups and leagues, ever changing, events, all that noise. Sure it's a bigger scope than I intent to have in my original argument and brutally expensive to begin with. But think about using all those concepts and ideas just locally and you'd have a lot to go with before you'd be out of ideas.

The first German role playing game, 1977. [source]
Another example is a German game called Magira, the Neverending Game (I dare not call it a role playing game since they started playing it in 1966 ...). The Wikipedia-link only offers the German version, I'm afraid, but google translate will offer some great insights into a game about simulating a fantasy world that's organized by a club (FOLLOW, sorry, all German again) for 50 years now! They have several annual publications (500 pages plus per publication about history, events, art and so on), conventions where they rent a castle to have enough room for all the people ...

They are also publishers of the first role playing game in Germany: Empires of Magira (1977!) I'm sorry, this is some very obscure knowledge, but I just found out that the Hill Cantons had a post about it in 2011, so there you go. Empire had been the grandfather, so to say, of another great and old German role playing game: Midgard. And that's nowadays in it's fifth edition! Add book publications and all that and you get an idea what's possible.

There should be more examples and maybe somewhere out there is somebody with first hand experience about such a thing. What I'm saying here is that I think it's a good idea to do what we did in our hobby to begin with: organize as gamers and play the game to it's full potential. At least have that option for players, you know?

The Emancipated Gamer

This is a short one, but important nonetheless. Some of the discussions the last few days had been about how the Sad DM made many, many mistakes (which was the point, but anyway) and one that was pointed out very often, was that he'd planned too much ahead. It's difficult to assert where we actually start preparing our games, but learning the rules is definitely in there somewhere in the beginning. And that means, it almost always starts with some sort of product.

Sure, some are lucky enough to learn how it's done from a DM they know, but even something like that could go several directions, not all of them being positive. What I'm trying to say is that becoming a DM is difficult and that although we have now decades of experience around to share. But the hobby is too fractured and we lack proper definitions or a canon (remember that "Love letter for your favorite game"-community project? That was a brilliant idea close to what I'm talking about here!).

Something like this would be useful, maybe?
So you go with the products you use or what you can gather online. If you are lucky, you'll get it right fast enough. But I believe it'll go just as often the other way. In a way this is very close to the argument I'm making for organized play. DMing is not necessarily an occupation, but referees of all kinds of sports all over the world are able to get certified and learn what they have to do and how. What's missing for game masters is that it's publicly recognized occupation to begin with.

Is it so different from being an author or writer? Well, to solve this, we'd need to clarify if role playing is an art form or a sport, for instance. That's what I mean with a lack of definitions and why we need to organize apart from the industry. In short, we need a lobby. Or something like that. Why is it that we never get to discuss what role playing games actually are and what they could (or should?) be for society? I know there are uses for therapy (read somewhere it's already done, but can't find it ...) and we all know what we can learn from playing. But nobody cares? Why?

Anyway, part of that whole idea to work on something resembling a "gaming culture" (as we don't have that) is to collect and condense the experience of 4 decades of history into an easy accessible guide for DMs, a system agnostic breviary or pamphlet, of sorts ... I know there are several books that try to encompass this sort of thing, for instance (but none of them short or free or in any other language than English or easily accessible, btw), and advice is all over the place, some good, some bad, some debatable. But did we actually do any progress in any of that?

Alright, enough for today

Did I catch all loose ends? I'm not sure, but please consider checking out the forum discussion linked to above, as the discussion (from page two onward) actually covers several additional angles to what I wrote here (a book trade angle, for instance, how writers didn't get any kind of recognition only a couple of hundred years ago, or think about copyright ... stuff like that). And I'm really getting tired right now ...

The DM without a cause is happy now! [source]
So a bit more closure. Nothing of this is new, of course, TSR tried it at least up until 2e AD&D and I think this is to a good degree because of the hobby origin TSR had. All that changed with 3e and in a worse case scenario, the coast dwelling wizards will do to D&D what they did with Magic: a corporate controlled gaming environment that is perceived as the standard.

Well, I believe we can do better than this. And I know, all of this sounds like frecking politics and as I wrote above, I'm not even in a position to start a movement like this. But I'd really, really like to see that our hobby, with it's millions and millions of players all over the world should be recognized as socially relevant.

Just for comparison, WoW has around 2.5 million players right now (according to this source), is that really more than those playing table top role playing games? I don't think so (actually, this source here talks about 5 million alone playing D&D, and that's a couple of years back ...). So if something has that big of an cultural impact (also that last link, around 20 million people world wide are estimated to have played D&D at some point in the past and that's 8 years ago and not mentioning other role playing games), how is it that there is no unified effort to make it public?

I'm sorry, this ended up being more meandering than I intended. I don't even know where I'm supposed to end this right now. We have a great hobby, with some huge potential to be even more than that. Think about the possibilities in therapy or education, for instance, think about the possibilities to have this recognized as art or sport ... All of this is possible, nothing of it will happen if nobody starts working on it. And who else but us, those who played it for decades with dedication, would be most qualified to start that kind of dialogue.


  1. Oh Jens, I hate to disappoint but I'm not coming up with anything which I think you will not find disappointing. Sorry.

    Personally, I don't like the idea of competitive gaming, and I like the idea of people being able to have completely different adventures in the same made up world with a small group of friends. To pull off something like WoW for table top gaming you would simply have to become WoW. The end goal would corrupt the phenomenon.

    The other thing which I KNOW you do not want to hear is that if you want ttrpgs to gain the same recognition as the arts or sports then you will have to do what the arts and sports have done to be recognized - make ridiculous amounts of money for the people who invest in it. The sad unchangeable truth about our existence is that everything follows the money. No one would give a rats ass about professional arts or sports if it didn't turn a dime. Media coverage would evaporate overnight. There would probably be no professional artists or athletes.

    Gaming's big problem with money is that it is stuck on the matter of selling and reselling people the rules. Meanwhile it ignores the litany of needs we often hear from people - no place to play, no people to play with, no time to prepare for the game. Maybe what the world needs is something like a pool hall for gamers, one with small booths you can rent, ones that are stylized with cool lighting and a local sound fx machine which the GM can easily control during the game to emphasize the atmosphere of the adventure. Some place with big comfy chairs and heavy oaken tables. Anything other that the plastic tables and folding chairs one finds in the back of gaming stores. I always feel like I've been relegated to the kiddie table of a family function when I sit at one.

    Then behind it all a coordinating website so people can schedule meetings in advance, arrange players, almost like a never-ending gaming convention. Here is where you can give people the recognition they crave, where groups can form and post pictures and updates and such. They can give each other kudos, make recommendations, some local celebrity, etc.

    All of this would shift the financial model of ttrpgs away from selling ridiculously overwrought editions. It might just cause the games to scale down and become more accessible in order to reach a wider audience.

    It still doesn't solve the problem of the Sad DM though. You might be able to employ people to be professional DMs (a bit like the chefs at Japanese Steak Houses but with more dice rolling and less knife flipping) but I can't imagine anyone doing that day in an day out without burning out or becoming a boring DM. I don't know. I don't really have an answer for that.

    1. Maybe you are right. I'm not in position to find out any time soon. And yet, seeing that one DIY club described above, going strong for 60 years, gives me hope. It'd be nice to have DM tutorships, it would be nice to no get ridiculed by the media. But the saddest thing is that there are real benefits in therapy, education and human resource management and it's just not happening.

      A local club here in Leipzig actually offers rooms to game. They also organize public play events in libraries and attended to the local book fair (until they started to demand huge amounts of money, that is ...). Many, many problems they have would be less problematic if the hobby had a better standing in public. I admit, money is always a problem, though. But it's common practice to pay a fee to participate in a club and I believe, if they'd offer more than just room and PR (something like the organized play described above, for instance) they'd get, over time, more funds and thus more effective PR and so on ...

      Might all be a pipe dream, though.

  2. for 13 years, I've been pushing this whole blog posts concept: I have travelled the world to promote it, I had, at my best time 7 GMs in 4 countries all using a few google docs to share what was going on between different campaigns, the basic rule was 'if its blank, you can create it, if not, use whats there and document your groups events'. A Very large world of over 80 countries came about from that, and the history would take me years to individually document. Interactions between kings, but also roleplayers travelling within the world, some of the stories I only heard snatches of, an entire session being recorded by the GM as "players took down the Cave of Sunder, All creatures dead, all furniture burned at door, head of wyvern taken, 99% of treasure claimed, except secret door 4B untouched."

    The Map is there for any other GM, and they adjust accordingly..

    I don't think its a pipe dream, but it has its fallbacks.. Day-Z adventurers, pre-spoiling adventures by writing on the walls for the 'next possible group' I've seen a lot of it. Yet I still think its possible and will push onward.

    1. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience. I had hoped that someone came forward like that. There is a hangout talk in the work about the ideas above and if you are interested, it'd be nice to hear more about that from you (particularly about those fallbacks, as it is something not entirely discussed enough and going to be important).


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