Thursday, October 13, 2016

Some Thoughts on The Sad GM

This post is a reflection on the recent post by Jens D regarding "The Sad GM".

An interesting post indeed. One that strikes directly at the heart of what is "wrong" with the hobby, I think. But it doesn't really delve into the rich and fertile domain of "root causes". So I think I'll venture there briefly to give that side of the thing some airing as well.

First, these are just my opinions, only my opinions, and nothing but my opinions. I do not intend to present these thoughts as "the truth", but rather merely as my personal observations and speculations. They are based purely on my own personal anecdotal experiences as a GM for over 30 years.

The hobby was originally grounded in War Games, and at that time those that used miniatures. This was Chainmail, and from it spawned the early version of D&D, edition 1, and probably of all of the editions still my favorite because it was relatively simple (compared with the later editions). Yes, it was flawed as well. But the virtue of simplicity easily outweighed the flaws as the GM was enabled by the rules to over-rule them at any time for any reason. This later became known, in certain circles, as "GM Fiat", or "Rule Zero". The GM as Referee is at the root of the RPG concept. So much so that in D&D e1 the term "Gamemaster" or "Dungeon Master" had not yet been invented, and was called simply "Referee".

In those days players had few expectations about rules systems, GM style, genre, content and so on. Mostly the game (circa 1974) was played as a War Game with supplemental fantasy rules. There were, most of the time but not always, miniatures involved and a game board that was constructed on a large table and held the kind of terrain that one might see in a museum diorama. Something like the image on the right might have been considered common in those days.

The point is that the game was at first something that appealed to a very small number of people who were interested in War Games, and in particular Miniatures based War Games. This is what we might think of as the Gygaxian style.

And then, almost instantly, there was a divergence.  David Arneson, the co-collaborator on D&D with Gygax, introduced and championed the idea, basically, of D&D as a 'Story Game'. I don't think he called it that, but the essential idea was there. The RPG was a kind of semi-perfect system for telling interactive stories that involved characters and setting. For this style of game, which we might call the Arneson style, the story became equal to, or more important than the game mechanics. Yes, the mechanics were still important as no one wanted to play "Let's pretend" with the RPGs. So rules were necessary, but the most important thing in the Arneson style game is that the story-world, and the characters in it, be interesting. Interesting enough to bring the players into a sense of what was called immersion.

My first experience with D&D of any kind was in Eric Tannen's world in 1978. He played an Arneson style game, and frankly he had made up his own rules at that time, as did every other GM in our town, and I didn't know what his rules actually were exactly. So story, from my point of view as a player was paramount. I was intrigued by Eric's world. I was intrigued by my ability to play characters that go and (attempt to) do anything. It was a fascinating experience, and the combination of a rich and interesting world and what we now call "Player Agency" (at the time the only meaning of that phrase could be construed as "the player can decide what their character may attempt to do") kept me coming back for more. Within a month of my first game I was already working on the Elthos Rules system. It was the habit, if not the rule, among our GMs to create their own rules. We were a strictly "Anti-Gygaxian" crew, and while we could use D&D e1 as a basis for our systems, every GM created their own. Sometimes from scratch. Sometimes as a derivation of D&D e1. Either way, the players rarely knew what the GM's rules actually were.

Yes, I'm getting around to my points. But this historical context is necessary when trying to dig into the root causes of "The Sad GM". Bare with me please.

As I was saying, we all had our own rules, and player expectations were kept to a bare minimum. The only expectation players might have in those days was to have fun being immersed (hopefully) in a GM's amazing world. For this, of course, GM's had to have amazing worlds. That is not as easy as it sounds. And this was were the first player bust ups came in. Some GMs had worlds that were boring. You'd get there, roll a character, and it felt like nothing was really there in the world. Some stock generic NPCs would get trotted out to "provide information", but had no individual personalities (or they all had the same one). The World had no discernible history. There might be a town and a dungeon, but who knew why or what for? There was nothing unique in those worlds. Perhaps just rehashes of scenes from popular fantasy books or movies. So our first encounter with broken expectations came early with Arneson style games. Some GMs were apparently not quite cut out for the job. Not enough imagination.

That would have been enough to create some problems for the nascent hobby, but it didn't stop there. We then suffered wave after wave of New Rules from TSR, and other companies. The idea of one game for 50 years was kind of broken at that point. And this time it was the GM expectation of continuity that was broken. At least from my point of view looking at the thing from afar it seemed that way to me. In fact it was our prescient decision to create our own rules systems that allowed most of us 1st generation GMs to avoid that particular catastrophe. I recall my conversation with Eric in 1978 about the future of RPGs and we agreed that creating our own rules was the ideal solution to several problems. 1) we wouldn't have to suffer "rules lawyers" (already prevalent in those early days), 2) we could "fix" the problems we found with the original rules to our heart's content, and 3) we would not have to suffer dealing with major rules changes that could destroy our world's historical context every time TSR decided they wanted to make more money with a new Rules edition. Made sense to me, and so I had my own rules, and wasn't effected by D&D e2 (AD&D) and beyond. I happily played Elthos and so my GM expectations were never quite dashed by the introduction of new editions. I heard the screams and groans from a distance, huddled in my cozy hobbit hole and played on.

However, unknown to me, the world outside was changing. A lot. The biggest change, I think, was the introduction of the Independent Press Revolution that came as a result of technological advances in the printing industry. All of a sudden anyone could publish their rules as books and sell them without too great an up front cost (in dollars, not time). When the Revolution began it seems to have centered around The Forge, which purported to be, if I have this right, a kind of RPG philosophic center that encouraged RPG Publishers to do new things with the game so that they could distinguish their products from those of other publishers, and in particular Wizards of the Coast (which by this time I believe had bought out TSR, which went down in flaming ruins due to internal mismanagement and multiple errors of judgement along the way).

Now what happened next was a shift, a major shift, in player expectations. Again, remember I was in my hobbit hole with Elthos at this time, and had very little interest in following what was going on in the industry at this point, so my viewpoint is personal and partial, but this is what I think happened...

This shift was fostered by the marketing messages that were coming out of the IPR, and principally, afaik, from the major IPR Publishers of the "new style" of RPG. The Revolution was posed as one against the old traditional Gygaxian style game, and championed the Arneson style. It experimented a great deal with rules configurations, and seemed to focus on the idea (right or wrong who knows) that the rules should support the genre of play. There's probably a lot of reasons why this concept was fostered in the IPR, and maybe the main reason was that it created a kind of organizational coherency to the IPR. So if you came to an IPR workshop at a local convention they had a focus and could ask you "the Power 19" questions that would reveal whether or not you successfully embodied their principals of game design.

Across the divide over yonder there were some woeful reactions to the "Indie Revolution" as traditional GMs got pelted by accusations of "Tyranny" from a new breed of converted players. These players now expected an expanded set of Player Agency capabilities, such as co-creating the World. This is probably the one that sticks in the craw of most traditional GMs the most. And there's good reason for it, but that's a topic for a different post.

The upshot is that many firestorms were started between the two communities of RPGers. On the one side we had the 'Ancien Regime' of traditionalist GMs who preferred to keep things the way they were, and on the other side the 'Revolutionaries' who seemed to style themselves as something of an insurgent guerrilla army intent on overturning the traditionalists at any cost with a new breed of games. The rhetoric on both sides got quite heated. From my point of view, by the time I poked my head out from my hole to take a peek around the war was in full flaming glory. Since I had spent most of my time tinkering with a computer application to run my rules system and allow GMs to share their worlds with each other, I'd spent precious little time looking at anyone else's rules. So I was pretty clueless about the difference between the IPR and what later became, if I have this right, the OSR (Old School Renaissance). Once I did step outside my door and made my first foray into the greater world of RPGs by attending a local gaming convention around 2010, I was immediately blasted as "a spy" by the OSR when I mentioned on theRPGSite my recent experience with Luke Crane's Burning Wheel at the convention. I was denounced, and flogged, by the people of the OSR, and it took quite a bit of effort to explain that I wasn't on either side of the war - strictly an independent soul working on Elthos, and just curious about what was going on out there. It was fascinating.

Now you'd think that this might have given me a bad attitude about the OSR. Not really. At that point actually, I had a previous experience with the "Indie Revolution" that had already put me on guard to the marketing invectives streaming out of that community and their destructive power. I had been running very happily and successfully a nice little Yahoo Group for the Literary RPG Society, and it' had been going strong since about 2006 and we had a lot of great posts and local meetings and all was going well. Our goal was to collaborate on ways for GMs to enhance the story aspect of their Worlds through a variety of techniques, and it was mostly a discussion and brainstorming society. It was great. Until one day an Indie Revolution 'Stealth Evangelist' arrived. He single handedly turned every thread in the forum, every single one, into an argument about why you should stop playing traditional style RPGs and convert over to the Young Hip & New Indie Revolution style. It got to the point where posters would write me emails on the side saying they no longer can tolerate it and were leaving the group because of this person. I tried my best to get this person to cool it, and he would for a few days, but then come back again with the same thread-jacking and in the end everyone stopped posting completely. I tried about a year later to post again to the group to hope for a revival, but within minutes of my post our old Indie Revolution friend immediately chimed in with - yes - another thread-jacking. And so my once beloved group is in ruins on Yahoo Groups. You can find it, and see for yourself how things went down, so long as Yahoo still exists, by going here and taking a look:

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/lrpgsw/info

That experience made me a Sad GM. *sob* ... But I moved on, and got over it. I decided life in my hobbit hole was a nicer place than I expected, and pretty much retreated back to work on Elthos and the Mythos Machine while the war rages overhead. So for the most part I've pretty much tried to stay out of the fray. What's the point of it? I don't disagree that there's a good number of Indie Revolution games that I might like, but the marketing invective and the stealth evangelism that came out of the Revolution were from my point of view totally destructive. I lost all interest in so-called "Indie Revolution" games after that. Whether they were good or not, I simply didn't want to get near them. I suppose ti's a natural enough reaction. My attitude now is that they may be fine games, and I'm not against them per se as games, but I will growl under my breath if I hear phrases like "BadWrongFun" or see someone doing ye old stealth evangelism around me.  It is these things, and their deleterious effect on player expectations that has made me, to whatever degree I might be, a Sad GM. It just grates on my nerves, that's all. I hope people will understand and not be too offended at my being too offended.

Ok, to wrap this up I will conclude by saying that I feel that a lot of what has caused the problems in the RPG community that Jens D is referring to, and the consequent Sad GM experience, have to do with the innate nature of the hobby as it evolved, and the history of negativity that is a product of changing and expanding expectations of players and GMs over time. I think it boils down to this - at some point the domain of expectations based on an ever expanding multiplicity of options becomes so great that it fractures into a myriad of expectation-shards. Some players want this piece of that, and that piece of this, and some GMs want this much of that system, and that much of this system - every RPGer for themselves, and damn the torpedoes! The loss of coherency in the World of RPGs has created a good deal of difficulty for GMs. And the reason for that is as Jens D suggests in his post - GMs put in a great deal of effort into their worlds based on some system. When encountering players with a huge diversity of expectations as to game style, modalities and rules, it becomes a serious problem for GMs. And that is likely to make GMs Sad once in a while. I can't say I disagree with that. Fortunately for me, I have my own system, and my players happen to like it. So I'm pretty safe in my cozy little hobbit hole. So for the most part I haven't had to deal with these problems as a GM. When my players show up I tell them this is the Elthos RPG, here's the rules book, and leave your previous expectations at the door, thank you. Thank goodness.

And that is where I think we're at in terms of "root causes". Frankly this is a light treatment, and a seriously biased one, and there's a good chance my viewpoint is factually flawed due to my limited exposure to the Great RPG War as it was waged. But still, I think I have it more or less right, and I could go on and probably write an entire book on this topic and still not exhaust all that could be said on it by all sides involved. At any rate, that's my understanding to date, and I hope it helps to put things into perspective, at least somewhat. At least from my point of view this is what the "root causes" seem to be. If you disagree with my viewpoint, have anything to add, or correct, please feel free. My attitudes are rarely set in stone, and I'm always curious what others think.

Are there any solutions to the problems Jens D has raised in his post? We will have to wait to see. He will be posting on the topic again in his promised Parts II and III. I look forward to reading them as well. I have a few ideas of my own, but will refrain from commenting on that until after I read what Jens D has to say. Looking forward to it.
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