Wednesday, April 10, 2013

GM as benevolent dictator

Some have said that benevolent dictatorship is the ideal form of government.  A benevolent dictator exercises his political power for the people rather than exclusively for his or her own self-interest or the benefit of a small portion of the people.  In essence, that's what most players want in a Game Master, right?  Even the title has the word "Master" in it.  The GM is the lord.  He can be a total douche - in which case most players will leave the game, or he can reign with thoughtfulness and care - such is the type of GM to which players flock.

There's a social contract between the players and GM.  The GM is given power by the players' consent.  When things go too far, individual players are free to withdraw their consent, effectively deposing the GM (usually as a group) or merely walking out on the game.

I walked out on a game once.  Right in the middle of combat.  The GM, in my opinion, had flaws such as uninspired adventure hooks, boring story, frequently focusing the spotlight on his super-awesome NPCs instead of the PCs, etc.  But the straw which broke the camel's back was this:  There was a combat on a train (this was Eberron).  I was in one train-car and the fight was going on in the next.  I and another PC were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't do anything until the car door was unblocked.  Half hour later of twiddling my thumbs while watching the other two players fight, I finally got through.  As I stepped into the "combat car", an opponent was waiting for me on the other side of the door.  The DM rolled for him.  He hit me, damage was rolled, I was knocked unconscious.  I appealed, but there was nothing the DM would do.  I was pretty sure combat would go at least an hour more (another problem with this particular game).  No healing in sight or way of regaining consciousness, I just decided to go home and watch TV.  That's pretty much what I said as I gathered my books and stood up.  I knew I wouldn't be back, and also realized that staying in a game I found consistently underwhelming was a tragic waste of my valuable time.

My friend, who was also at the table, gave me a strange look as I got up to leave.  The next day he asked why I left.  I told him.  He couldn't disagree that the session was shitty, for me in particular.  Two sessions later, he stopped going, too.  I think the DM was being transferred out of state and stopped running it shortly thereafter.

Anyways, this is just an example of what I mean.  There's a broad spectrum between absolutely loving a game and hating it beyond words.  Have you ever looked at your watch during an unbearable session, then pretended you just remembered you had to go do something else very soon?  If you haven't experienced a game that horrendous, then consider yourself lucky.  It happens sometimes.  Perhaps that's why gamers are reluctant to play at unfamiliar tables?  Luckily, I've also attended many games which were worth their weight in gold.

Some RPG systems (or various editions of those systems) try to adjust the balance of power - filling core books up with so many God damn rules that Game Masters can do little more than roll for the other side.  If GMs run those games by the book, then virtually everything has been decided in advance... from challenge ratings to spellcasting procedures, rewarding experience to magic items.  The GM is no longer master of the game.  Besides rolling dice, he's a voice over with a pencil.  No power emanates from his office, he has no authority to create.  He can do nothing but what the book tells him.  "GM" is an empty name for those sad individuals.

Is this good for the players?  Well, if their GM was a real asshole, then maybe it's better to tie his hands.  However, benevolent dictators are relegated to the trash heap, worse than useless.  Their love of the game, their imagination, ingenuity, and storytelling will surely be crushed under the bureaucratic red tape of rules upon rules upon rules.

That's another reason I prefer old school gaming, where rulings are more important than rules.  Benevolent dictators are allowed to wield their power to benefit the vast majority.  Face facts, terrible GMs are going to run mediocre games (at best) no matter what ruleset used.  "Upgrading" to newer systems of GM shackling won't help much.  Keep your GM in a straight-jacket, and his benevolence won't do the players any good.  All that standardization is crucifying him!

Ok, below is where you post feedback.  Do you agree, disagree, or want to share your own story?  I want to see your comments!  Thanks in advance, guys.