Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

No, the DM Is NOT Your Peer...

Some (more than a few?) gamers are profoundly uncomfortable with the greater agency and judgemental authority referees are given, especially in old-school games.  Or, as my brother observed way back in 1979: "But the DM could say anything and the whole thing just breaks down and becomes unfair over time".  It was a fair point, but I countered with the fact that lots people obviously were playing these games, and that unfair DMs will find themselves without players pretty quickly if they abuse their authority...

He was forced to concede my first point and eventually, my second too.  

And the fact is, old-school gamers willingly submit to the DMs authority because it provides them with a specific gameplay experience.  But the DM (GM/referee) also lives by a code of fairness (and reasonableness) that their players will hold them to! 

To underscore the trepidation of some, consider a review of our Barons of Braunstein, which said: "[B]ut I think the "low definition, high trust" nature of the rules could make this game a bit rocky with players that like crunchy rules or tricky character builds."  Of course, the whole simple versus complex divide is a matter of preference.  But the concept of trust in a GM to fairly execute their authority underlies the essential old-school experience... 

Players want the experience of becoming a hero in a world of sword and sorcery, and the only way to do this is to put much (most) of the setting beyond their direct control. I mean, how often can we control the weather or world events?  Sure, we can control our personal choices and decisions.  But not who moves in next door (usually), or what family is in the car next to us, or who we'll meet in a gas station on vacation.  And there would be nothing particularly heroic about our circumstances if we did have power over these things.

The DM/GM isn't a coequal peer
and, for optimal results, they shouldn't be...

So players change things through their choices and get to earn their victories and take pride in their accomplishments - just like we do in the real world!  That's what they get out of it and what they should seek going in.  Now, this is strictly my personal opinion, but if you really just want to write stories and the ending to those stories, become a writer instead...

Narrative control over certain aspects of a character's performance?  Sure.  Clever resource management is a challenge and constitutes the sort of strategy we need to execute in our own lives.  Spend LUCK (or MIGHT) improving rolls?  You bet.  But you still won't know what's hiding behind that door unless you have a spell or, better still, a plan.

But what about the DM/GM/referee?  What do they get?  Well, they get to build a world and exercise unparalleled narrative control as the guy (or gal) who does know what's hiding in the shadows (or behind that door) and/or the necromancer's secret plan to rule the world.  
An unearned place of privilege?  Maybe.  Except they don't get to become a hero and hear their name spoken in awe.  And they pretty much have to be responsible for everything else and make the hard decisions when others don't.  It's a labor of love and involves its own form of personal sacrifice.  I love it.  But I remember plenty of times I was frustrated that everyone else wanted me to run when I just wanted to make a character and dive in.

And implicit in this arrangement is the understanding that both sides have to agree to certain terms to make things work.  Players agree to play well, make good decisions, and earn their success.  They also agree to submit to any agreed-upon rules and the judgement of the referee when justly rendered.  That said, the DM/GM/referee agrees to fashion challenging adventures and be fair, impartial, and reasonable in their dealings with their players, and that means being open to negotiation in the interest of mutual fun.  It's a win/win thing...

Of course, while the DM/GM (or whatever) isn't your peer, they or should at least be your friend.  And it does no good to forget that in a hobby ostensibly played for fun

Some modern games (and groups) treat the rulebook as the final, ultimate arbiter and reduce the GM to a peer with authority mainly over the monsters and NPCs and do so with the best of intentions.  But for greater challenge and dynamism, old-school values are unbeatable


  1. "unfair DMs will find themselves without players pretty quickly if they abuse their authority"

    Exactly. This, I think, is the biggest check on potential GM unfairness. A rule book thick as the dictionary isn't necessary. This simple fact is all that's needed to keep a GM honest.

  2. Yes, this I completely agree with. Thank you for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I especially liked this: "being open to negotiation in the interest of mutual fun."