Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Trust Me, I Know What I'm Doing

Michael on the Old Guy RPG Blog had a really insightful post about DM failure. I thought the entire post was quite illuminating and this is one of my favorite blogs simply because Chgowiz allows us very intimate looks at his thought processes, as well as both his successes and failures while running a sandbox type campaign in his unique setting.

I had a lot to say about this, but didn't want to entirely monopolize the comments section (although my two long posts probably did just that). After thinking about it some more last night, I think there are a lot of reasons this sort of thing happens. It happened back in 1979 when I started playing, and it happens to this day, which says as gamers (and humans) we haven't advanced much in the past three decades when it comes to trust issues. Because, when it all boils down to it, the DM/Player relationship, and really the entire gaming experience, comes down to trust.

Michael has a quote that really summed up (to me at least) the entire DM experience:

"I was hurt... hurt that after a year of playing together, after a tough game my players would think I would permanently fuck someone over with a no-win scenario."

I have been there, and I feel for him. Since we first started playing, being a DM to me seemed like a natural calling. I get my kicks out of creating the NPCs, the plots, the bad guys, the monsters, the settings, the worlds, that others adventure in....the lure of actually playing paled next to actually being the guy who pulled all the strings. So, my DM to Player ratio is surely something like 9 to 1, as I rarely enjoy sitting on the other side of the screen saving the princess...I want to be the one who locked her up to begin with! I think a lot of DMs are authors (frustrated or not) and DMing is a very cheap "fix" for us.

As a DM, I pride myself as being an impartial arbiter, although not always perfect (I think it's foolish to assume a DM can divorce all emotion from his game), I have trained myself over the years to be someone who REACTS to his players instead of GUIDES his players. Instead of deriving pleasure out of a by the book dungeon crawl, I've learned to find enjoyment at the differing ways players can confound expectations and sometimes accomplish a goal by a non-linear or unexpected route.

Now at this point I have to mention my middle brother, Rob. I've been DMing since 1979 or so, and my middle brother has been with me that entire time. And to this day, he STILL doesn't completely trust me as a DM not to screw him (or by extension the group) over!!!! Even when he KNOWS I've NEVER screwed him around "In play", EVER! I think a lot of it still comes down to the old "player vs DM" mentality that a lot of old-timers have fostered over the years, and the general nature of competitiveness the game brings out in us....especially since gaming so long with my brother, some battle scenarios literally come down to each of us trying to out-strategize the other (knowing each other's quirks quite well by now) and we sometimes accusing the other of using "out of game" knowledge to give the other an edge. If two people (related to each other!) who have gamed together over 30 years still have trust issues, it's no wonder they have cropped up in your game. Needless to say, we've grudgingly reached an impasse to where we trust the other, but are always ready to yell "Bullshit!" if something unkosher comes up on either side.

All these issues came together in one of my face to face campaign sessions (with my brother running a character). In a recent game, what I thought was going to be a really tough battle for a McGuffin that had a chance of falling into evil hands instead turned into a really tough battle....with the baddies having no chance of getting the McGuffin. For, you see, my intelligent players thought of a way to get the McGuffin (which in this case was an extremely powerful and evil sword) out of the dungeon and to a safehouse using teleportation, giving the ambushing baddies absolutely no chance to "win" even if they defeated the player characters. You see, I had been quite sure the players wouldn't give up their magical advantage by having the party mage leave the field of battle permanently (the teleport was one way with no method for return) just to make sure the baddies didn't have a chance to score the weapon. They did, surprising me, and in the battle that followed the party could rest assured that win or lose the baddies had NO CHANCE to come away with total victory (the PCs did win without the mage, btw, so the gamble paid off).

Anyway, this brings us back to trust. The players had to trust me as a DM (was I going to let their scheme to get the weapon out of evil's hands succeed, or would I screw them over by saying "Your teleport spell doesn't function here" or any number of ways to confound them?) and I had to trust them as players (down a powerful mage, were they going to accept the results of the battle if I stomped them dead, secure in the knowledge they had at least died to keep the weapon out of evil's hands, or would they cry and moan and accuse me of taking it out on them in revenge for them outthinking me?). Both sides had to have trust, and to our credit, it worked out quite dramatically, even if it was totally off the rails concerning every eventuality I had planned for (even down a mage, the characters triumphed over a white dragon and frost giant sorceress and her minions, with only one PC death).

It all came down to trust. I trusted they would take the results like men, since they had made the choice to be down a mage in the combat that followed; they trusted me not to dick them by either preventing their scheme from happening through some extraordinary DM bullshit, or take it out on them by proving "who was boss" in the combat that came after (oh, it would have been so easy to add another two white dragons to the combat....!). It worked out in their favor, but I have no doubt that had things turned nasty for them, they would have accepted the results and rolled up new characters.

The advantage our group had was that all the players are old school, experienced gamers. In Chgowiz's West Marches style campaign, there are no guarantees of that as anyone can show up for any session (I don't presume to know the experience of Michael's players, but the entire sandbox style is predicated on a hodgepodge of different player levels adventuring together). Part of the sandbox charm is the "anything can happen" vibe; however, this can also lead to lots of frustration, as the DM is not creating a railroad as much as he is just the conductor letting players get on their own train. If DM and Players are not on the same page in these sorts of situations, a lot of bad feelings can result.

The #1 thing to remember is communication. We've gone way past the days of "I'm the DM, you're the players, if I hit you with a 50 ton rock and kill you with no warning you just accept it and shut the hell up". That style was big back when you had a lot of really, really crap-ass DMs running around who were using this brand new game to feed their power mad egos; such DMs (at least BITD) ended up with bad reps and soon were only DMing groups of 13 year olds at the Rec Center once word got out. I love the ability to use the internet to post blogs and message boards about campaign history and doings; it is a great mechanism for addressing out of game concerns, and perhaps gently nudging players in the right direction, or giving them choices about what aspect of your campaign world interests them, and about what kind of game they are looking for (for example, if you are a fanatic about puzzle dungeons and your players are hack and slash fiends, someone isn't going to be having a very good time, it's nice to know that beforehand and plan around it).

Particularly in the case of a sandbox, which can contain numerous players with different levels of experience and attitudes about what constitutes a "fun" or "successful" adventure, communication is key. I thought Michael asked some really good questions about how he could improve his game, and gave some really good advice to his players in the aftermath of his game. Sometimes just unfamiliarity with a DM's style can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings...if you are used to a real DM vs PC type game, you might feel you have to constantly argue and pull out all the stops instead of trusting that certain DMs won't screw you over without giving you a fighting chance. If you are used to DMs who are a bit more lenient, it might be a total shock to be told "roll or die!" by a DM after being bitten by a poisonous snake (but, like, my last DM's snakes only had poison that made us dizzy!!!).

When I start a new campaign, using the power of blogspot, I try to set up a page dedicated to that campaign and lay out some of the ground rules....is it deadlier than most? More light hearted and heroic? Grim and gritty? If you choose to play a certain class or race will it impede your ability to succeed? I think this is one way to head off a lot of DM failure problems to begin with. If you are thinking "Dark Sun with even more attitude" and the player is thinking "D&D cartoon I wanna have a pet like Uni" before they even roll up a character, something's gotta give....

To be Continued....

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