Saturday, 4 February 2012

You are responsible for your own orgasm

There's a daily free newspaper here in the UK called Metro, which appears on buses and trains in the early hours of the morning in time for the morning commuters. When you get on your morning train to the office you're greeted with a scene like the aftermath of a gun battle - Metro are scattered hither and thither, strewn at random, like corpses littering a battlefield. (If you like your "going to work = going to war" metaphores, I suppose you would see this as making a cosmic sort of sense.)

Anyway, the Metro has a weekly sex advice column, which I always read. (Don't pretend you wouldn't.) The letters people write run the entire gamut from the boring ("I'm 26 and my girlfriend is 34, and I'm worried she's more experienced than me") to the stupid ("I can't figure out which hole to put it in") to the amusing ("I'm in love with my boyfriend's grandfather"), so you get quite a smorgasbard of advice being given by the collection of Agony Aunts on the payroll, but one thing I've noticed them say quite often is "You are responsible for your own orgasm". This seems to be a Sex Counsellor AphorismTM of sorts.

I think, as advice/aphorism goes, the statement is pretty idiotic stuff. But it works for role playing games, if you replace the word "orgasm" with the word "role within the game".

I'll explain further.

This morning I was moseying about on my feed reader and found a link to this blog. I've never read it before, but it appears to deal, in part, with role playing games. The title of the post in question is "How to Run a Successful RPG: Some Tips", which naturally caught my attention, given my recent spate of posts related to this topic. Anyway, it's all very well-intentioned stuff, but in my view it is fundamentally wrong - but wrong in that interesting way that things can be wrong, when they reveal something that is taken for granted but is horrendously damaging if you think about it for even a second.

The wrong bits are:
Make Sure Each Player Will Have Something To Do.  
Some of the most frustrating games I’ve been in were where I told the GM, “I want to play a sniper,” and all of the combat turned out to be in hallways, leaving all my skills to atrophy.
As a GM, I’d be loathe to let someone play a sniper – it’s the kind of role that invariably involves splitting the party, and it’s hard (not impossible, just hard) to come up with consistently interesting combat challenges for someone who works best from half a mile off.  But if you’re going to tell someone, “Okay, put all of your points into ranged attacks and a weapon with a slow reload skill,” then you owe it to them to put them in a situation where they’re often going to be useful.
It’s way better to veto a player’s choice than to get them all jazzed up for playing a ninja, only to discover this isn’t really a stealth game.  If you give someone a skill, make sure they have regular opportunities to use it.
Now, maybe you can see where I'm going with the post title. Why is it that we, as a hobby, seem to think that it is the GM who is responsible for making sure each player will have something to do? Why is it that, if we assume that the players at the table are relatively reasonable adults, the players don't bear any sort of responsibility for making sure they themselves have something to do? In other words: Why do we think the GM is the one who has to give the players orgasms?

My response to the "make sure each player will have something to do" advice is as follows: "Make sure the players understand that they are free to choose whatever character type they like, and that they have the freedom to go with it, and from there on they're on their own."

If you have a player who insists on playing a sniper, then it's his responsibility to be a sniper. It's his character's special skillset, so he should be playing with that in mind. If all combat is turning out to be in hallways, what the fuck is he doing? Why isn't he engineering it so that all his combats turn out to be in the middle of a huge meadow, except he's the one who's in a tree? Why is the GM the engine of his fun/success, and why isn't he thinking creatively and gaming in such a way that he can use his special snowflake character to do what he does best?

It's the same with playing a ninja "only to discover it isn't really a stealth game". Who says it isn't a stealth game? If one of the players is being a ninja, he should be making it a stealth game. He should be making his part of the game, his role within it, about being a ninja. He shouldn't be sitting around with his thumb up his arse whining because the GM hasn't designed an entire game to service his every little whim. Unless he's 8 years old, in which case he's forgiven.

You are an adult. You are responsible for your own orgasm. Not the GM.

What this piece of advice reveals about the hobby, of course, is that too many people still persist in seeing RPG play as linear. The GM thinks of a scenario that he believes will be fun, with a beginning, middle and end, and the players follow it through to its conclusion. If the players don't have fun, it's the GM's fault, because it's the GM's job to be on his knees under the table giving them orgasms.

All of this falls away if you pursue nonlinearity. This is the USP of RPGs: the GM creating a setting, with hooks to get the players involved, and the players going about their business in a way they deem best. Computers can't emulate this well. It's one of the huge advantages that pen-and-paper has over the computer game. And yet for some reason the vast majority of players still don't seem to have got the message yet.

Now, this isn't to say the GM doesn't have a role in this. If the player wants to be a ninja and is doing ninja-ish things, the GM needs to support him in that. When he makes ninja plans to ninja stuff the fuck up, the GM needs to interpret his ideas favourably, and certainly shouldn't be saying "Nah, you can't do that". The GM's job is to be the catalyst for, to encourage, creativity. But there's a world of difference between that and the GM engineering things to suit specific players.

To close with an example from the game I'm running at the moment: one of the players in the campaign has a "Rockerboy" character (it's Cyberpunk 2020). He's a superstar East German DJ who wears silver pantaloons. This isn't somebody who naturally fits with the other characters, who are more traditional noir-ish cloak-and-dagger corporate assassin/fixer types. But the player in question has become a huge part of the game by manipulating situations to his advantage (with the cooperation of the others). Almost every session he's at the centre of things, whether doing impromptu performances, arranging gigs, networking through his club contacts, or doing sham concerts as fronts for other activities. He's a massive piece of the group's armoury, and it's because he and the other players have been willing to think creatively. At no stage have I ever sat down to think to myself, "How can I make sure [x] will have something to do this week?" Because I know that he'll think of something.

You are responsible for your own orgasm, people. And don't you forget it.


  1. Yes, dude! Exactly! Damn! Next time I see a blog post that bothers me I'll just cut out the middleman and send the link right to you to write about.

    We have Metro in Canada as well. I don't know about your journalism across the pond, but the Metro here is just a poorly-formatted rag of idiotic headlines (front page: "Police Seeking Clues"!) and execrable writing. EXECRABLE.

  2. Yeah, it's awful stuff here too. But it works for 8am when your brain is only half turned-on anyway. I think that's the genius of it.

  3. Yep. It's the idea that the DM will dictate what happens. This virtually has to be the case in 4e, and most late 3e/PF play is heavily weighted in this direction also.

  4. I think the Metro is spreading worldwide. We have it here in the Philadelphia area in the US. I read it all the time when I used to take the train to my old job. It was fun finding all the typos!

    Anyway, yes, THANKS for this! Spot on. Too many players expect GMs to stand up and sing "Let Me Entertain You" and it's so annoying. My current group is not like that at all...yet another reason I cherish them so much! They're an inventive bunch, and they are constantly scheming, coming up with all sorts of creative plans. They are not at all passive!

  5. I am horribly aware that no one else is playing any role in my orgasms.

  6. Metro is everywhere. I once thought it was only available here in Sweden, but it seems to be all over the globe.

    The image of a GM being involved i my orgasms is just... wrong, somehow.

    Really good advice and hint for both players and GMs.

  7. But, the players can't eat unless the GM cuts up their meat for them!

  8. Yes, thank you. I totally agree with you here. Active players please!

  9. The Metro in the UK is the same paper as The Daily Mail just with the rightwing nonsense taken out. That's why it's so thin.

    It is to my eternal shame that I have never, in all my 37 years, got onto a train early in the morning enough in order to get my hands on a copy.

  10. This is totally true.

    And I think relates to the bigger ongoing "Whose fault is it if you're not having fun playing (whatever) game?" thing going on.

  11. Some players orgasm too early, then sit around talking and wanting to cuddle with the DM.

  12. For several years now I've noticed that the "common wisdom" and the default adventure design methodology coming out of WotC and Paizo has been placing more and more responsibility on the GM to "make things fun".

    It's a ridiculous amount of pressure and it's a ridiculous amount of work. When I have to sit there worrying about whether or not I've perfectly balanced the latest My Precious Encounter or need to double-check to make sure my railroaded plot has enough opportunities for everyone to participate, I'm drastically increasing the amount of prep work I need to do and the precision required to make that prep work pay off.

    Whereas if I just prep a scenario and let the players figure out what they want to do and how they're going to do it, suddenly all the pressure disappears: Not only am I no longer responsible for making sure that the players are having fun. There's also a lot less pressure in terms of making sure things are perfectly "balanced", because the players are free to ignore challenges they find too hard (or, more likely, find unique work-arounds that make those challenges manageable).

  13. Now I know why I get cranky when I hear people talking about giving each player a chance to "shine".

    I got enough to worry about running adventures without having to fabricate situations to make players feel smart.

  14. I have to say, though, that some player choices are so obviously going to negatively impact the other players that the GM may want to veto them. The sniper is a good example as the original piece said, this is the sort of role that will naturally split the party. Split parties are not fun for the GM or, usually, for the players. Play slows down because the GM's attention is divided and there's all sorts of problems with note-passing and crap like that.

    So, I agree that the GM doesn't owe it to the player to give him/her things to do but I do think that the GM owes it to the players to sometimes say "that's not going to work in my game".

  15. @Justin Alexander - I am increasingly coming around to the idea that the GM's job is not to ensure that fun is happening, but to ensure that not-fun is not happening.

    It's their job to identify things that can stall the game and squash them flat, whether those things be "we don't know what our characters are doing today" or "oh god how does the diving charge work again?"

    The term 'Referee' for 'person who runs the game' is starting to have more and more appeal for me...

    @noisms - Good stuff! I tend to get hung up on the responsibilities of the GM (I don't actually do the player-playing that much, and the other GMs I know almost all have that sort of linear, Pathfindery, here's-one-I-made-earlier thing going on) and it's doing me good to be reminded that it's not all my responsibility.

    @Coop - you're missing nothing. Buy yourself a Nemi collection and the entire value of the Metro evaporates.

  16. Nagora: I don't necessarily object to that, but I think the problem is solved by the GM just making it clear what kind of tone the game will have. If he says "It's pulpish noir, like a Dasheil Hammet book" it sends out a pretty clear message what sort of characters will fit. Then it one the players turns up wanting to play a ninja you'd have to then wonder what on earth was wrong with him.

  17. This is very good advice, I need to remember the D&D version and make sure my 4e players know it too. The 1e players are in no doubt. >:)

  18. I was going to go on record with partially disagreeing with you. But, your response to Nagora covers pretty much my view. Just like with orgasms, it's up to everyone at the party to make sure it's working.

    The GM needs to communicate clearly up front what sort of campaign this is. I got very frustrated in a recent campaign that started out being all about urban intrigue, and suddenly was about trailblazing on a remote island. My diplomancer/illusionist was just a little bit useless.

    The players need to make characters that fit with the campaign, and ideally fit with each other. Most especially, don't be a passive-aggressive douche by making a character for the game you wanted to play, and forcing the GM to shoe-horn it in.

    In play, the GM should present a variety of challenges, and leave the solution to those challenges open-ended. IMHO, that's the best way to give everyone a chance to shine. Also, when you are building your scenarios, look at the party's character sheets as your first source of inspiration. Somebody sunk points into Underwater Basketweaving? Send them up against a kuo-toa tribe that likes underwater basketweaving.

    Both sex and gaming work best through honest and open communication, and being aware of each others' needs.

  19. Agree absolutely.

    But I think the "let the players shine" angle originated to counter the equally toxic play style that makes the PCs extras in the DMs plot/world building/whatever extravaganza. Having your attempts to engage and contribute to the game constantly stonewalled by the DM is not a fun experience.

    This doesn't negate any of your post, just saying. Like most things its the middle way that's key.

  20. For several years now I've noticed that the "common wisdom" and the default adventure design methodology coming out of WotC and Paizo has been placing more and more responsibility on the GM to "make things fun".

    It's a ridiculous amount of pressure and it's a ridiculous amount of work.

    Hmm. On the other hand, if (e.g.) D&D 4e did a better job explaining what 4e play ACTUALLY consists of -- cinematic combats of a mini-superheroic variety, linked by not-terribly-important plot stuff which the rules don't spend much time on -- some of this pressure on GMs would dissipate, because the fun in question would be easier to anticipate. Pathfinder and 4e are tailored to a specific kind of (power) fantasy that's really its own thing, specific to post-videogame nerds. They're pretty good at serving that fantasy and they give less in other modes.

    I think the 'make things fun' pressure is maybe also a little bit of 'We worked hard to make you this detailed combat system, so you've gotta hold up your end.' Whereas the stuff between fights (in the 3e/4e way of thinking) is more obviously open to improvisation.

    Anyway going with the orgasm metaphor: modern D&D provides a specific sex/power fantasy and says, OK, everyone's gonna help everyone else get off, and try and all get off at the same time, which means you're gonna have to submit to the shared fantasy. If everyone's cool with that, it's a powerful thing. Also difficult in some ways, maybe needlessly so.

    If one dude shows up in a clown suit and insists that the only way he's gonna be part of the shared fantasy is if there's a FUCKING CLOWN INVOLVED, that's gonna be hard for everyone who doesn't get off on clowns. Which is almost everyone, thank god.

    I mean, 4e explicitly names its roles. So everyone knows how everyone else prefers to get off, and can lend a hand (or whatever).

    Meanwhile the old stuff has a different contract, where clown-fuck guy can show up and meet sentient-armour guy and computer-octopod girl and dog-headed Catholic androgyne and they're all just gonna see what fits where. More like life, yes, but it takes away the shortcut to high-amplitude collective fantasy which the new shit's mechanical scaffolding provides.

    Does that make sense? Not arguing for the superiority of the new stuff here, just trying to name its intention as I see it.

  21. Well, gaming really is like sex. My game tonight was cancelled for lack of people.

  22. Great post. Dou you mind if I translate it into Russian and post on my blog ( With all due credits for sure.

  23. Interesting discussion! I think everyone at the table has their responsibilities and the GM can't be blaimed for everything.
    Maybe he doesn't know that the sniper/archer-figure won't play well with the campaign. On the one hand GMs are supposed not to plan it all ahead, on the other they should foresee that some character class won't be the best choice?? That just isn't fair.
    btw: Here's another post about player responsibility ("Character background, made GM-friendly").

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