Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Platonic DM

The people at Story Games have been going OSR-crazy, it seems. There are at least half a dozen threads about either the OSR generally or OSR games on the top page. (Although to be fair, it seems one of them was Zak baiting the site's denizens.) This one asks what makes an old school game old school - what are the mechanics? - and it inspired me to give a response:

GM neutrality is the bedrock on which old school play is founded. The GM is objective arbitrator, referee, judge. He is neither against the players nor for them. He presents them with the world they interact with, and he provides the consequences for their actions.

I elaborated a bit further:

No human being can be totally neutral, but he can try. That's really what it's about.

There will always be some level of illusionism, because in giving the players freedom they'll go where you don't expect, so you have to just make shit up (NPCs, locations, etc.). You try to do this as "neutrally" as possible by thinking to yourself, "Okay, in this game world, what would happen? What would be here?" Not what would be "fun", not what would be a challenge, not what would kill your players, not what would make a good story... but what would happen.

Random generators help a lot to keep you honest. Roll the dice and go with the results, and don't ever fudge. 

That's what I think it's all about, really. If I was listing DMing best principles, or drafting a manifesto, there would probably only be three points:

  • Try as hard as you can to be neutral.
  • Think about what would happen, not what would be fun, what would be a challenge, what would kill your players, or what would make a good story. Just what would happen.
  • Use lots of random generators to keep yourself honest.

None of these points are actually realizable 100% of the time. We are human beings, and human beings are flawed. But you can try as hard as you can, and you'll get better at it. (As Zeb Cook put it, you need to "Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one." A big element of that is training yourself to be neutral. At least as far as my own DMing preferences go.)

The platonic DM is, basically, a deistic God who is utterly objective and dispassionate. And being a deistic God is not really such a bad thing to aspire to.

28 comments:

  1. I think you're right that this was the original conception of DM, at least as communicated in the old DMG etc.

    I pretty much agree with it as a goal as far as not being the enemy of the players goes (not a lot of killer traps or tricks to confuse mapping) and not being their buddy (fudging dice rolls, making sure all encounters are beatable). But I think the "neutrality" and "god-like" can be taken too far. I think it pushes you to be more a world builder thinking of imaginary cultures and history. It also pushes you to be a rule maker, deciding on all possible rules interpretations before hand (that's fair).

    And I would guess that the truly neutral DM would not have invented carousing rules or funny fumble charts, or hear the players say "wouldn't it be cool if . . ." and say "Hmm, why not?"

    I might be making too much of the word "neutral" but I think a better goal for new DMs is to remember you are one of a group of people playing and the goal is to have fun. Most rulings have repercussions later so you'll need to be careful that what's fun now doesn't ruin things later. But, yeah, more a facilitator than judge. Hell, as DM I want to joke around and laugh with the players, even show them stuff behind the screen "He almost got you ..." does that make me a new school DM?

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    1. Yeah, neutral doesn't mean not-fun or "god like" in the sense of superiority. I joke with my players all the time. But when it comes to make a decision it's based on what would happen, and that's all.

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    2. Actually ... actually ... argh, go see the post on my own blog instead.

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    3. To me a better term than neutral is honest.

      It is sticking to your own rules. If you make a rule that if you roll a 13 on a Friday you fumble. Then you stick to it even when its inconvenient.

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    4. To throw a third term into the mix, I prefer impartial over neutral, and I think it governs action resolution much more than scenario or location design. For example, I'm likely to put all sorts of stuff in my world because I think it will be fun or interesting to interact with, but I'm not going to force my players to interact with it (though I will make a point of communicating information about said stuff so that they can decide if they want to interact with it). And if they do interact with it, I don't have any specific outcome in mind.

      I think the extreme of "I'm only going to put stuff in my world that I think should be there based on how this world would work" risks fetishizing naturalism. And, such can descend into spending lots of effort on things that won't actually see any play (unless all of your decisions are made "just in time" with no prep work). I think you need enough meaningful cause and effect so that player decisions can be meaningful (that is, so they can learn about the world and make informed choices), but no more than that.

      I do build my locations with an eye to the fact that PCs will be exploring them (not specific PCs, but generically the idea that adventurers will be engaged by the scenario). Otherwise, why privilege one location over another? Why Barsoom and not rural Idaho? Why Dwimmermount and not Walmart? Because Dwimmermount is fun for adventurers!

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    5. To add a little more into the mix re:fun... It completely defeats the object of playing a game for it not to be fun. That goes without saying. Everything in the game world needs to be potentially fun or interesting to interact with, and all random generators need to generate results that are potentially fun or interesting. It's just that the DM doesn't choose which things the players find fun and interesting, and doesn't choose which ones they interact with.

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    6. It's weird that, if you don't aim for what you think would be fun in the moment, but rely on a sort of abstract "potential for fun" set up in prep, then another part of the skill would be finding a sort platonic fun to match your platonic GMing!

      That's another thing I'd like more experienced GMs to say about; how you know when some random table or adventure module content has good potential for play.

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  2. as DM I want to joke around and laugh with the players, even show them stuff behind the screen "He almost got you ..." does that make me a new school DM?

    If that behaviour did make you Not Old School then Dave Arneson wouldn't have been Old School. Which is of course perfectly possible - I can't remember who first said "Marx wasn't a Marxist."

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    1. That would be Marx himself who said he was not a marxist in response to what either the French or German workers party proclaimed to be marxism.

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  3. I think this is one of the better explanations of what 'old school' play is like.

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  4. I agree with Black Vulmea's comment above, and with the post as a whole. Well done!

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  5. That's an awesome and clear definition. Does provide some insight into the differences between OSR play and what I enjoy at the table.

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    1. What Lowell said -- thanks for the clarity! I approach GMing somewhat differently; it's good to see the fundamentals of someone else's approach. It does make me curious about how you approach the idea of "fun" when you're running a game.

      When I'm resolving the what-would-happen question, I often see multiple plausible outcomes, and I usually go for the one that seems like it will be most entertaining to the players in the room with me. Do you generally just see one thing that's likely to happen? If faced with multiple likelihoods, how do you break the tie?

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    2. Isn't that why we use dice?

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    3. Dice, impulse, my love of running gags, hunger, the desire to dispassionately model a consistent world-setting, votes...

      I use a few different methods for this; none of them seem to be my favorite. So I'm interested in the thought process that leads to using a specific method repeatedly. Kinda like how I don't speak Italian, but I'd like to learn someday.

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    4. Yes, dice. Lots and lots of random generators. The crucial point being that all the results have to be potentially fun, of course.

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    5. Certainly -- only weird pedants would insist on not-fun results in order to fulfill some other criteria. (There aren't nonweird pedants, are there?)

      I'm curious about why only random generators. Nothing wrong with that approach, but I don't follow the thinking. What makes that "more honest" than other options? Is it a matter of not trusting your own judgement, or of something that you feel you owe to your players, or that you like the clattery sound of dice rolling? I'm not trying to be glib; I use dice sometimes. I wouldn't use them *every* time, though, so I'd be interested in knowing what makes that your preference.

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    6. Leaning on the dice helps me to avoid falling into a foolish consistency and it increases the fun I have running the game because I like to be just as surprised as the players.

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  6. This is a thought-provoking post. One of the first thoughts it provokes in me is:

    This description of DMing is perfectly consistent with what new-school, Story-based DMs do as well: they just happen to run games set in worlds governed by drama, rather than physics. I think these principles do a good job of capturing what old-school DMs THINK they're doing differently from new-school DMs, but there are some important assumptions buried inside of that attitude, e.g.: the DM is supposed to engage in Tolkein-style world-building with lots of details about things that haven't been (and maybe won't be) encountered by the players; the game world is governed by Gygaxian Naturalism; etc.

    The more I think about it, it sounds to me like you're describing the old-school DM style as straight-up Simulationism. The fact is, though, that pretty much nobody runs their games this way. As Telecanter said, this isn't a lot of fun. Your subsequent clarification is good, but it highlights my first point above: if the essence of old-school DMing is "obey your own rules", why is this inconsistent with a Story-based game where the DM's only rule is "every situation is resolved in the way that best serves the story"?

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    1. Disagree. There is no assumption of Tolkien-style world-building (at least not for me). What does governed by drama mean? I think "every situation is resolved in the way that best serves the story" is pretty much the opposite of neutral or impartial refereeing.

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    2. I think this sentence is a teensy bit meretricious:

      This description of DMing is perfectly consistent with what new-school, Story-based DMs do as well: they just happen to run games set in worlds governed by drama, rather than physics.

      Because as soon as you start "governing the world by drama" you immediately get into the territory of wondering what would be fun, what would be good for the story, etc., etc., which is kind of the opposite of what D&D DMs are traditionally supposed to do. In fact, it turns out that what story-gamer DMs and D&D DMs do are diametrically opposed.

      Regarding it nobody running their games this way...well, yeah, I agree - it's why the title of the post is The Platonic DM! This is about aspiration, not reality.

      Finally, regarding fun - I'll write some more about that in reply to Telecanter.

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    3. I don't agree with this, fitting neutrally within a genre is one way to play things, but not the only one.

      A load of these GMs aren't neutrally applying "dramatic logic", but setting up situations that respond to the kind of issues players have dealt with before, but amplify or twist them to see how players respond.

      Or chucking bombs into a tight status quo of player characters to keep things interesting.

      Or tempting players against their principles and grinding the characters down to see what they're made of..

      Or asking provocative questions to twist things round and re-incorperating old details..

      Ok maybe that's a form of neutrality, in that you have a job, and you get on with it, but that's stretching it so far as to miss the real distinct qualities of what he's talking about.

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  7. I wasn't baiting. I was trying to find out if the "denizens" were as fucked up as they sometimes appear to be.

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  8. Either way, I'm glad you and cole and scrap princess are on there to say what I would say without getting the insane backlash that i get when i say stuff because they know who i am.

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    1. I don't visit often enough, and I'm not notorious enough, to get insane backlash. I do also actually genuinely like story games, so maybe that comes across as well.

      They are quite a strange bunch, but then again so is every single set of regular internet forum-goers in the world ever.

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    1. Are you talking about me or Zak? He's like this rather famous artist-cum-D&D-theorist-cum-porn-actor. In fact he may be the most well known one of those in the world.

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  10. Great Insight. The "story" is always most important but impartial refereeing allows the players to drive the story, twist the plot and create the ending themselves, without direction or coercion by the DM.

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