Show me on the doll where the DM touched you

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I’ve long been bothered by the notion that Game Masters are power hungry tyrants interested only in imposing their will upon the players. I don’t know the origins of the belief but I first came across it in stated explicitly when playing some indie games.  I can’t quote page and chapter now but Dogs in the Vineyard and Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard specifically come to mind (if I’m wrong about those my sincere apologies to the authors). When I used to read the Story Games board I saw it a lot there as well – this notion that it was vital to put narrative control in the hands of the players because the GM (if one existed) would abuse it and railroad the whole thing. It’s not limited to indie gaming by any means but I sometimes think that Story Games and the Forge and such places are like survivors’ groups for the narratively disenfranchised.

As I’ve frequently said, I must have had a blessed gaming life. I very rarely ran into anyone who was GMing simply as a power trip activity. Or maybe I has being abused and railroaded but was never aware enough to realize it?

Anyway, I bring this up now because of an interesting post on rpg.net.  A player posts that in the first session of a new game, the group was taken aback when after killing one of a pair of kobolds the other one began weeping and cradling the body of his fallen comrade.  Some folks in the thread thought this was interesting, but there were also loud cries that the DM was unfairly changing the “rules” (meaning how the world worked, not specific mechanics) in order to trap the players in a “ha ha you killed good and decent kobolds and now you’re nasty horrible murderers” situation. Eventually the DM came into the thread and has posted a separate thread outlining some background stuff of the campaign, which the player had omitted and which puts the kobold situation more into perspective.

Also recently on rpg.net my brother started a thread asking about penalties for limb loss in 4th edition.  Here again there was an automatic assumption that he was a DM looking to screw over his players somehow, or  a player whose DM had screwed him over and much gnashing of teeth that there’s no way to do that in the 4e combat rules so clearly the DM was being a dick here.  The reality of the situation is that his character had sacrificed an arm in a completely role-playing and in character context, totally unprovoked by the DM.

I’m the first to admit – I’m a dick as a DM. I like to tighten the screws and watch the PCs twist in the wind, to mix some metaphors.  But I always feel as though the players are right there with me and enjoying the tension of the experience. Any suffering is in the larger picture of the hero’s journey – if Odysseus caught the first boat straight home to Ithaca that wouldn’t be much of a story would it? Bugs Bunny and Jackie Chan both have to take their lumps in the first act before they declare “of course you know this means war!” and start seriously kicking butt.  If I were doing it just to hamper and nerf them I’d fully expect to get called on it, but that wouldn’t occur to me to do. I’m left wondering whether there are a substantial number of seriously twisted GMs out there who get their kicks by making characters ineffective  and players miserable, or whether  this is some sort of entitlement/spotlight issue at work here.

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13 Responses to “Show me on the doll where the DM touched you”

  1. Bryant Says:

    I think two things.

    1. Sometimes the idea of being railroaded is way worse than the actuality. I opened up Orlando Trash with the biggest railroad in the world. I mean, I killed off your PCs with no outs, no options, no place to hide. You were going to lose the fight in the first session no matter what. It wasn’t just a railroad, it was a railroad in the bottom of a canyon with mile high walls and steel plates slamming down behind you every time you took a step forward.

    Y’all enjoyed it just fine.

    Or, heck, CORE 1-3 with the teleport and the bar fight. You read that and thought it was awful and railroady. It is. But given the LFR context and social contract, which includes the idea that a random party of six strangers will work together to fight a random bad guy? Works like a charm, nobody complains, and so on.

    So people get all exerted in threads like the ones on RPG.Net, but it’s theoretical outrage, not real outrage.

    2. Some DMs are way too in love with the idea of their own power. Viking Hat syndrome really does exist. Drop over to TheRPGSite, and you get the RPGPundit explaining that any player input into the storyline is EVIL AND WRONG and will DESTROY GAMING. Literally anything. And there’s a coterie of people who avidly agree with him. That’s crappy DMing, and I bet it happens a lot.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily about crushing players, but it’s definitely a control fetish thing.

  2. Christopher Tatro Says:

    1. I think I’ve said before I was never much into Forgotten Realms so maybe I was just missing the required buy-in to how the setting worked.

    (also, I wasn’t there yet for the warehouse session of OT, but that’s nitpicking)

    2. Control fetish is definitely a good way of putting it.

    • Bryant Says:

      Nah, it’s not a Forgotten Realms thing, it’s a living campaign thing. But either way — context is king.

  3. Jeff Says:

    RPG.net is strange like that. After I nearly got killed by Bill 3 sessions running, I decided to start a thread to have people help a newbie die less. The consensus felt like “oh, the DM is out to get you.” Well, no – I need to figure out what I’m doing wrong and how to use cover better, dammit.

    Not a fun experience. And then I wonder why I don’t spend much time there.

  4. Foxtown Says:

    Valid points all.

    I think this is like problem of a controlling boss. While there are extremes that hate a controlling boss no matter what, there are controlling bosses that are very good at their job and make working for them very easy. There are also examples of them sucking, a lot, because they are not good at their job.

    It is easier to attack the idea of control than the idea of competence.

  5. Jeffwik Says:

    As I’ve frequently said, I must have had a blessed gaming life. I very rarely ran into anyone who was GMing simply as a power trip activity. Or maybe I has being abused and railroaded but was never aware enough to realize it?

    Now, to be fair, I GM’d for you several times.

  6. Fiona Says:

    Your post subject is indicative of sexual abuse, which is pretty unrelated to the subject line of the post, and, in fact, isn’t very funny. Because making light of sexual abuse? Not very funny.

    I had thought were going to talk about a situation where a GM behaved in an inappropriately sexual manner toward a player. It’s a problem that some gamers have suffered in the past, and is probably worth a post all on its own (one which I would enjoy seeing), rather than being made into a cheap joke.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Thanks for your comment.

    • drew Says:

      1. Take a look at the rest of the site and tell me why you think that subject would even remotely be broached on a site which by and large addresses facts of game design and implementation.

      2. Would you really not think it was a cheap joke of a headline if it HAD addressed that topic?

  7. Fiona Says:

    1. Which is why I think it’s an inappropriate subject line. I agree that there are other blogs that are far better suited to address the subject of gamers who have been sexually harassed by other gamers or game masters.

    2. I would consider it to be somewhat more in line with the subject of the post, at least, and would have thought longer before commenting about whether it was appropriate or not.

    But, whatever, you can quibble all you want. The gist of my argument still remains the same: Sexual assualt. Not appropriate as a funny subject line!

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      My intent in using the line was calling upon the line as it is generally used in pop culture; that is, in spoofing the more witch-hunt-esque aspect of the child abuse/satanic child abuse frenzy of the 80s/90s, especially as it is depicted in overwrought made-for-television movies. I’m not sure where the meme began but I assume there was some ur-Law & Order episode or Lifetime movie back in the primordial soup of cable television. Maybe it’s because I heard *how* the line was being said (not with gentle compassion but the frenzied screams of an overzealous prosecutor) inside my head that I contextualized it differently. I chalk that up to my limitations as a writer and of the internet’s infamous failure to deliver tone.

      I completely agree with you w/r/t sexual assault not being funny. I disagree that the line was making light of sexual abuse. While the line has an unquestionable origin in connection to child sexual abuse cases, given the context of the post (and this blog in general) I felt comfortable calling on the more generalized pop cultural touchstone. You may think that cultural reference in general is misguided, and that is your prerogative. I’m going to leave the subject as it is, and leave your comments here so that other readers can decide for themselves. But the matter is now closed and any further comments from you or anyone else will be removed.

      On your second point, I would not write a post about inappropriate sexual behavior in a gaming group, because I have not had that experience and I don’t know what I could add to the narrative that already exists elsewhere aside from “don’t do it – Seriously, don’t be that guy.”

  8. Kerri Hodges Says:

    clawclawpeck.wordpress.com’s done it once more! Incredible read.

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