DMing


Steve and Zack at something awful have a review of some kickstarter for a 3rd Edition of Exalted. They seem pretty angry about the direction Exalted has taken. I played Exalted briefly and really liked it, as well as its over-the-top anime-D&D cross-over style. I didn’t realize it was full of rape magic … is this a new thing? Has Exalted changed, or was it always dubious in this way?

I previously reviewed the 2nd edition of Carcosa positively, and my main reason for being accepting of the child rape and sacrifice in that book was that I thought the tone and context made it clear that it was evil, and that the players could take sides on the issue – it was built into the world but not essential to the construction of characters – if anything, people would make characters who would be fighting against the sorcerers who engage this stuff. From reading the Exalted review, it appears that the opposite situation will apply in the new edition of Exalted – that the morality of the succubus is not clearly evil, and it may be hard for players to avoid engaging with magic that really should be NPC-only stuff. Zack in the review was particularly angry about the demon child rape shown in the page of the review, and it certainly seems like the tone and style of depiction there is very different to the calm, cold, matter-of-fact description of sacrifice in Carcosa … it’s more salacious, as if it contains a shred of approval. It’s interesting how context and tone can shape our interpretation of elements of a story that might otherwise superficially appear to be the same. If so, perhaps everyone’s interpretation of context is unique and the 3280 “little idiots” who supported the Exalted kickstarter would have found Carcosa terribly offensive. Do we have some objective barometer for this stuff?

Also, has anyone reading this blog actually ever tried playing an RPG full of sex powers and rape? Given the game scene consists mostly of men, it seems like this would be a very awkward scene. Also, describing combat would be a weird mixture of embarrassing and disturbing, like watching The Human Centipede with your mother. And how would you design adventures? I just can’t see this style of gaming having much appeal to 99.9% of the gaming world. Is it a common feature of White Wolf that its players enjoy getting together and talking really graphically about sex, with dice?

Footnote: the title of this post is taken from the Something Awful review.

In briefly surfing through the Paizo messageboards I stumbled upon this highly contentious doozy of a thread: Is torturing intelligent undead an evil action? The resulting thread is a microcosm of the murky debates that surround good and evil in a game that recreates a moral universe radically different from our own, but my position falls on the side of the anti-religionists everywhere: Paladins, while good in the framework of the game, are your classic evil bastard when viewed through the prism of modern morality. One commenter sums up the perverted morality of the Paladin quite nicely on the first page:

It’s also hypocrisy like that, that causes no one to feel bad at all when a Paladin bites the dust

Yep, count me in with that position.

Of course, in a world of intelligent undead and actually evil gods, the Paladin’s vengeful “goodness” suddenly makes perfect sense. We should all say a prayer of thanks to the Flying Spaghetti Monster every morning we wake up and find ourselves not in that world.

From a DMing perspective though,the thread raises one interesting question: how to handle players who lie during torture. The OP claims that

The party melee unceremoniously decapitated the magus the same way they had his vampiric predecessor. (The players lied and said they would spare him if he sold his master out)

I hate it when players do this, because you have to act your way through a situation where they get the information and don’t have to worry about a prisoner or potentially vengeful future enemy. Also, realistically it’s the only way you can trust the information you receive from torture: if a prisoner knows they’re going to die they’ll just fess up any old shit as quickly as possible to avoid another round of burnt-poker-rogerings. When players then do the coup-de-grace anyway, it’s like a cheap exit clause for them with no penalty.

So I came up with a new rule that I carry across all campaigns: players can use the old “promise them their freedom if they tell the truth but then kill them anyway” routine, but if they do it repeatedly they’ll get a kind of nasty light in their eyes that every enemy will recognize: the “I don’t really mean these platitudes I’m telling you” light. Once this light gets in their eyes, torture becomes permanently useless. I tell my players this early on, and from then on they only use this technique very sparingly, when they’re in desperate straits (i.e. really can’t risk letting the guy go) or the torturee is really so evil that slaughtering them is a favour to the universe, and lying to them beforehand just the icing on the cake.

This rule, I have found, makes players much more willing to find alternatives to torture when they deal with low level minions, and much more aware that every person they let go may be a knife in their back later, or an evil they haven’t slain. It also makes torture and taking prisoners a much more complex undertaking.

But in either case, I don’t think I’ve ever run a campaign world where undead can be tortured. Except maybe vampires. The rest of them will just laugh it off and sneer at the players as they refuse to blab. If you want to find their secrets, you have to dig a little more carefully than severing a few digits and casting a few cure light wounds. They’re liches, not mercenaries with a skin problem!

Shadowrun is suited to campaign settings rife with economic corruption, the desperate and abandoned poor, powerful corporations who control the social fabric, shady underworld groups and street gangs in conflict. Sounds rather like a vision of Greece after the default, if you were to chuck in a bit of magic. So let’s do that! And what better way to do it than through a resurgent Greek mythical pantheon. And, for that matter, if Greece’s default were to drag Europe down, we would also see Italy and Ireland fall into chaos – and what do they have in common but a history rich in pantheism and magic? How would we construct such a near-future shadowrun campaign?

In comments to my previous post, Paul tried to describe a worst case scenario for Greek default:

Greece comes up to a pay day for the public sector and has no money to pay in. They issue IOUs. The public service goes in strike shutting down hospitals. A run on the banks begins and everyone withdraws their money in Euro. The banks collapse. No medicine is being imported into the country or moved to hospitals. Petrol imports stop and the prices go through the roof, preventing the transport of food and other critical supplies. The entire economy locks up because no one can get to work. Farms lie fallow or with harvests rotting in them because farmers can’t use their equipment. Food and potentially power/water shortages start to hit major cities leading to rioting. The police haven’t been paid or fed so they join in. The damage to property and life is massive. Refugees head to neighbouring countries. Eventually international aid arrives, food and petrol shipments unlock the ability to provide basic necessities of life but medical support remains at the level provided via international aid (i.e. broken bones are treated, people with cancer aren’t going to get drugs worth more than tens of dollars – which I believe is most of them). Restarting the economy from this situation is chaos, it’s basically shut down and had spiralling cascades of defaults.

Now let’s suppose that Greece has a pantheon of sleeping gods, but they were roused by some mischievous figure in one of the resistance movements (New Dawn sound like contenders, but anyone will do). They see a country in chaos and desperate for a guiding hand, so they start letting their magic seep out again. How could they have been roused, and what would the implications be for Greece and Europe? I have a few ideas …

Witch Hunter Rebekka

In this version of the campaign, the PCs are members of a top-secret Greek government organization that was tasked with keeping supernatural threats under control, like the organization from Witch Hunter Robin or Double Cross 3. Unfortunately, their organization was abolished as part of the austerity package insisted on by the European Central Bank, and they suddenly find themselves unemployed in a world where the supernatural is suddenly given a free hand. Perhaps they embark on a solo quest to find out what’s really happening, or maybe they set themselves up in some seedy downtown office and start selling their services to corporations and gangsters who have discovered that the dark side is coming for them. And during this maybe they notice a pattern. Perhaps there are other, similar organizations throughout Europe, and as Europe unravels in the wake of Greece’s chaos those organizations too get shut down or worse.

An orthodox priest, a banker and a schoolgirl walk into the Parthenon …

Perhaps the secret organizations working to protect Europe are not government run, but maintained instead by the churches. In Greece this means the Greek Orthodox church… so what do they do if they are approached by a banker, who does a sideline in hacking, who has discovered evidence that something behind the trouble was planned – that much of Europe’s chaos was actually schemed up by some sinister cabal that saw a chance to create chaos in Italy, Greece and Ireland at the same time. The mechanism is economic collapse, but the goal is to revive old, dark gods – the pagan gods of Ireland and the Southern Mediterranean that the more modern churches drove out. So who do they turn to? A motley group of PCs who have special powers and a can-do attitude, perhaps drawn from the many warring street clans and gangs that have sprung up in the chaos of the default and the political struggles that followed.

A conspiracy of bankers

Of course! What else? We all know that the major banks are servants of satan – let’s make it official! Perhaps the whole economic collapse was engineered to create the kind of chaos necessary to create space for new gods, to generate new, radical and subvertible political movements, and to force the collapse of the secret bulwarks that the Europeans have established against the dark powers that used to rule Europe. Perhaps European history is a long story of dark powers manipulating politics, and the modern European Union was a post-war project to try and drive them out of society and politics. It was working fine – until someone had the silly idea of setting up a common currency. Then the dark powers saw that they could use mundane, financial means to tear the entire European project down, along with all its political and cultural movements against the kind of chaos on which the dark powers depend for their success.

This whole conspiracy would take place in the halls of power, in the boardrooms of banks and sinister organizations, would be traced through emails and secret meetings and currency transfers through shady swiss bank accounts. It’s the perfect conspiracy for a couple of street hackers to slowly track down and unravel in the course of their dubious work – running in the shadows of the corporations, they find a deeper, darker conspiracy at play than mere political corruption … and all of it focused on unleashing old powers long forced down by the church, the enlightenment and the scientific revolution. We all know that our enlightened, materialistic world view depends on the special social order made possible by wealth and the absence of war and political conflict. What better way to unravel it than to engineer economic chaos, poverty and political disruption in the heartland of the old gods – Greece!

A New Dawn for the Gods

Another possible campaign would involve not a conspiracy of bankers, but a conspiracy of radicals. In this campaign, political movements proliferate after the default. Some of them are very violent and become popular very quickly, and as Greece slides into poverty and political paralysis the conflict between these street gangs explodes. Many are also connected to criminal groups and also to ethnic groups – Macedonians and Albanians, Turks and African migrants, for example. Many of them are easily infiltrated by people with authoritarian tendencies, and one of them – probably New Dawn, but others could be imagined – is soon overtaken by a man with special powers, a descendant of one of the Greek gods whose powers have revealed themselves during the chaos. He begins to impel his movement towards the revitalization of the gods, and as other gangs see it they also begin looking for new powers to fight with – perhaps they begin to research alchemy, or bring their ancient gods from across the sea. The PCs, investigating minor crimes as adventurers in the post-default chaos, suddenly begin to discover hints that people are dragging up bigger powers than they have ever seen before, and realize that the street-fighting and political conflict is taking on a religious flavour – with the gods returning to the world as the fervour increases. The fevered political environment of a country in chaos and conflict is a perfect place for new powers to emerge, or old powers to revitalize themselves.

Exploring the Genesis

Shadowrun is set after the cataclysmic events that changed the world. Those events are history, and their effects taken for granted in the Shadowrun setting. But I’m fascinated by how they could have come about, and what the world would have been like when magic was being unleashed. Perhaps an imagined economic and social cataclysm in Europe is a good way to construct those events, and gives us a chance to run an adventure right at the time of the genesis of the world Shadowrun takes for granted. I’ve always imagined that such a catastrophe would not necessarily be a physical one, but some kind of cultural and social upheaval that made gaps through which magic and gods could flow. Catastrophic economic problems and social conflict in Europe offer just such a setting. From something completely mundane like a run on some banks, to dragons ruling the sky … could you run a campaign all the way from beginning to end, and create the world of Shadowrun from whole cloth?

 

The dragon gets what the dragon wants

On the weekend, the group I was playing with screwed up our GM’s adventure from the very first scene, and from that point on he spent the entire session inventing new characters, story lines and encounters as we stumbled from misunderstanding to misunderstanding, culminating in the three-way stand off depicted above. We asked our GM afterwards, and as far as we know the adventure was supposed to involve us killing a black dragon, then a necromancer reanimating that dragon, us killing the undead dragon, then us tracking down and killing the necromancer. Fairly standard stuff, and the adventure opened with the dragon attacking our tavern, so we could have set off down that path straight away.

Unfortunately, we assumed – I think, fairly – that the dragon was too tough for us and that the only option was to negotiate with it. So we went and chatted, and the GM let us. What followed was a train wreck, that was rescued at every turn by our GM laying on an increasingly complex and entertaining adventure. Instead of three straight fights and treasure, we instead agreed to find a lich for the dragon; agreed to find the lich for a wizard called Magister Tiana who we thought was an enemy of the dragon; went to meet a dubious infernal contact of mine, who thought letting the lich go would be a good idea; investigated a crematorium; watched an auction where all the bidders were goth halflings; fought and killed the lich; made a lich compass; lost the lich to Magister Tiana; investigated the lich’s hotel room, where we thought we found evidence of a third force looking for the lich (probably the thieves’ guild); met the wizard that the lich was chasing, a chap called Malachy who was on the lam from the Wizard’s Guild; arranged a meeting between Malachy, Tiana and the Dragon thinking that there would be a three-way stand-off; fought the lich again; fought Malachy as he did a runner; and got a ride on a dragon to meet the heads of the Wizard’s Guild.

As far as I know none of these events were meant to happen. A few aspects of the adventure that were particularly entertaining:

  • The town itself: we were in a town called Red Lanterns, that is built on the back of a behemoth tortoise. The town comes alive at night when the tortoise sleeps and sleeps during the day when the tortoise walks; this tortoise is one of 10 such beasts treading a steady path in a circle around the continent, and its pelagic nature makes it a haven for renegades – it has no laws. We didn’t bother finding any of this out when we visited the town.
  • The goth halfling auction: In this town the bodies of the deceased are cremated, and then their ashes are auctioned off to the highest bidder – our GM told us he got the idea from Star Trek Deep Space 9[1]. We naturally assumed the lich was after something in the ashes, and so we went to watch an auction and see if he was present. On the day we visited, a halfling was being auctioned off and two factions in his family were involved in a bidding war that was causing some deep tension. All of them were, of course, dressed in black, and the entire audience of bidders were halflings, bidding for the ashes of their own uncle. This scene cracks me up every time I think of it. It was interrupted by the lich outbidding all attendant halflings, who responded to his intrusion by attempting to shoot him, at which point he turned into a swarm of cockroaches and ran, with us chasing.
  • Magister Tiana and the dragon: so we first offered to find the lich for the dragon if he would leave the town alone, and he agreed. Then within a few hours a wizard, Magister Tiana, visited us and told us that she was mates with the dragon. We didn’t believe her because she didn’t tell us she knew we had arranged a deal with the dragon, and in fact we were able to cut another deal with her to get the lich for her, with a bonus if we found out who he was working for. Why would she do this if she was an ally of the dragon that had already got us working for free? I’m not sure why the GM did this, or why we cut a deal with a rival of a dragon (thinking about this for even a moment, it’s really not a good idea to double cross people with this kind of power), but he did and we did, and thus the flavour of the adventure turned into one of those “everyone’s out to get Wally, let’s get him first” type stories. They always end well!
  • The fugitive wizard: after we had killed the lich and lost his body (aren’t we smart!) we searched his spellbook and found notes in it indicating that he was chasing some guy called Malachy, who was hiding in the local wizard academy. We found him, and discovered that he was on the run from the wizard’s guild due to an “accident” in which he accidentally crashed one of their sky castles. He was on the run from the lich after a confrontation in which he somehow permanently destroyed the lich’s eye and one hand. When he found out Tiana was in town  he got all scared and started thinking of running, but somehow we convinced him to meet Tiana and hand himself in.
  • The final stand off: we arranged the final stand-off thinking that Tiana and the Dragon would turn up separately, see each other and toast one another, and we would hand Malachy to the winner and loot the loser[2] – we remained convinced she’d lied to us right up until the point that she rode in on his back, carrying the lich’s head. Thus we found ourselves in the situation depicted above, with her and Malachy having a robust chat under the watchful eye of the dragon. Things went pear-shaped because Tiana had brought the lich’s head with her, and it got loose and started trying to waste everyone so that it could catch Malachy – apparently he was quite the prize. We, naturally, sided with the dragon, and then Malachy did a runner while dragon, Tiana and lich were engaged in fearsome battle. We caught Malachy and dragged him back, and that was that.

I think this adventure is a credit to the GM. Every part of it was fabricated on the spot to help us continue charging around the town making mistakes, and although we were starting to suspect we’d cocked it up, at no point did he let on which bits were in the plan and which weren’t – we were convinced the halfling auction was in his original notes, for example. He was creative and energetic throughout the whole process, he managed to tie together disparate elements of the plot even as he was making them up on the spot, and somehow at the end everything was resolved neatly and clearly – all of this in the space of about 5 hours. I think this kind of creativity and flexibility is the mark of a good GM, especially when it’s in response to your having thrown all his preparation out the window from the first encounter. We didn’t intend any of this disruption, we just genuinely misinterpreted the purpose of that first battle – like most players, if he had said “guys, this adventure is meant to involve you fighting this dragon” we would have taken it on, but he didn’t, and so we did what comes naturally to a bunch of cowards, and supplicated the damn lizard. But he didn’t correct us, presumably having faith that he could somehow muddle up an adventure regardless, and that’s what happened. He told us later that he decided many of the plot elements based on our assumptions, so that we were driving the plot forward, which is also a very fine thing to do. The man was an improvisational genius.

If there is any lesson in this for better adventure planning, I guess it’s that you shouldn’t make an adventure’s entire plot hinge on players deciding to fight a dragon – many players assume dragons are too tough for them, and if the first encounter of the day is a dragon they will assume negotiation is the key. But it also shows that if you’re a good GM with a healthy attitude, even when your players completely cock up your plans from the very start, you can still make a great adventure. And our GM this day was not just a good GM – he was a great GM. This is GMing at its finest, in my opinion.

Finally, to top it all off, once we’d finished for the day we offered to do a test fight against the dragon, to see if our first decision was right. It was a close thing, but we killed it. So even our decision to negotiate was wrong!

fn1: And they say Star Trek never benefited humanity!

fn2: we were stupid and evil!

A first attempt at how a D&D character sheet might look like if written in business buzzwords:

Click for a full Horizon-scan

This character sheet is based on the D&D 4e Essentials character sheet, with the “skillset” separated from the “capabilities.” Follow the flow of that character sheet to see how they all fit in, though it should be obvious to anyone who is singing from the same hymn sheet as me exactly what should be actioned in, for example, the “Key Deliverables” section of the document. If you see a word you recognize, it’s because I can’t think of a suitable buzzword to replace it with. I considered putting in a statement about proper treatment of personal data and please destroy it if it has been emailed to you in error, but we all know that really those statements have no legal force. I think I haven’t used enough hyphens, and some of the nouns lose their full bullshit bingo force if they’re not used as verbs (or should I say, “verbed”).

Suggestions are welcome, of course: we’ll stir-fry them in the ideas wok. I’m doing a full 360-degree horizon scan on this, so any blue-sky thinking on it is absolutely welcome. Just so we’re sure we’re all on the same page, I should clarify that this is issued under the Open Bullshit License (OBL), just like all product made available through this communication channel. Under the Open Bullshit License, if you envision a strategic fit to any of the ideas pioneered here, you’re welcome to transition them to your own knowledge base. A few questions for us to brainstorm:

  • Is “drill down” sufficient for “dungeoneering”?
  • “Empowerment” isn’t the best option for “Armour class,” but much as you’d like to see the average meeting turn into a melee (that ultimately ends with your boss getting stuck with a guisarme), I can’t think of a buzzword for this
  • “Intestinal fortitude” seems a bit weak. Actually some of the original words (dexterity, fortitude, intiative) are kind of bullshitty in their own right: should they just be kept as-is?
  • Should the whole thing be called a “Service Level Agreement”? I’m not sure…

Let’s whiteboard any ideas and see if we can come up with a 2.0 version …

In comments to my post on shitty GMing it has been suggested that the problem simply came down to a GM who was running the game as a “neutral arbiter” and had I known that I wouldn’t have felt hard done by. Putting aside the particular exigencies of that case, I don’t believe that it’s possible for a GM to be a truly neutral arbiter, nor do I think that it’s particularly desirable. Here I shall give some reasons why it’s not possible, giving some examples from the module that we played during the particular case in question (which is available online here), and give my preferred role for the GM in play.

The Problem of GM Preferences

The GM participates in the game for his or her own fun, and is not actually a referee in the strict sense of the word. Every GM brings their own preferences for gameplay and interaction to the table, and it’s inevitable that the GM will reward play that matches their preferences, and discourage play that doesn’t. In a one-off game this may not be noticeable but in an ongoing group the players get used to the GM’s preferences and change their play accordingly (usually). The players are usually aware that the GM also needs to enjoy the game, and they do tend to adapt accordingly. But if they don’t, the GM has – and will generally use – a variety of techniques to ensure that the game will be rewarding for the GM as well as the players. I don’t think it’s possible for a GM to remain neutral while pursuing their own fun.

The Problem of Shared Experience

Much of an RPG in practice proceeds according to a series of descriptions by the GM, and responses by the players. How the players respond depends on their understanding of what the GM told them, and in my experience as both player and GM what the players understand of what the GM told them is very different to either a) what the GM expects them to understand or b) what the GM thinks they understand. Things the GM thinks are obvious remain completely invisible to the players; things the players focus on are irrelevant to the GM. It becomes the GM’s responsibility to do something about this: whether the response is one of correcting player misconceptions or riffing of these misconceptions, neither response is neutral. The genuinely neutral response is to either correct the players’ misconceptions (so there is no risk that the shared experience is corrupted by the medium of expression) or to ignore it (being “neutral”). I think many people who think it’s possible for a GM to be neutral couldn’t even agree on which of these actions is the mark of a neutral GM, or even which is possible. In reality I think the concept of a neutral arbiter relies, in gaming just as in real life, on the assumption of information exchange being perfect. This just doesn’t happen in games, and it’s no one’s fault that players suddenly yell “I’ll jump out the window!” when you’ve just described a subterranean room with no windows; it happens all the time. Players are tired, checking facebook, drinking beer, reading a spell description, checking whether they have used up that item … and you’re imparting a crucial piece of information that they not only fail to hear but fail to realize is crucial.

This problem is especially pernicious where the game depends on setting-specific knowledge. In this case the “neutral” GM has to decide which aspects of setting knowledge the PCs already know (and thus what the players can learn for nothing) and what they are supposed to find out the hard way. This is not the kind of information that has even a concept of neutrality attached to it.

The Problem of Knowledge

Everyone who comes to an RPG has their own specific knowledge and real life experience, and this has a significant bearing on their understanding of the game world. What people believe is possible or impossible, what they think their PCs can and can’t do, what they even think of doing with their PCs, depends on their understanding of the world they’re in. Recently Hill Cantons reproduced a few “design notes” from two popular RPGs, and the attitude towards knowledge in one of them (Chivalry and Sorcery, I think) was noteworthy:

We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity…[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe…The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.

This kind of attitude towards setting obviously assumes that everyone playing understands what a feudal world is and how it works. But this is almost never true. Lots of people know almost nothing about the “real way of life” under feudalism, and everyone brings their own prejudice and misconceptions to the setting. The most important of these prejudices and misconceptions are, obviously, those of the GM. What is possible politically, socially and financially in a feudal world is completely dependent on the GM, and there is no sense in which the GM can be neutral in arbitrating this stuff. Provide you stick to a set of disconnected module-based dungeon crawls this may not be an issue, but as soon as you aim for a game more complex than killing people and stealing their stuff, conflict between GM and players over assumptions and knowledge will enter the game.

This conflict also occurs in task resolution and challenges. A GM who is experienced in rock climbing and mountaineering will have a different concept of what is possible in these settings than one who is experienced in surfing or computing. I think lots of gamers are know-it-all nerds who think they have a good grounding in a wide range of knowledge, but in general they’re straight-up wrong about most of their wikipedia-based insights; and often very stubborn about defending them to boot. The GM may think he or she is being neutral in arguing that it’s not possible to do X, but if there is someone in the group who is familiar with X and didn’t learn about it yesterday on a dodgy message board, they’re likely to misinterpret the GM’s neutrality as pig-headed stupidity. The GM is not a database of unbiased knowledge; which way their biases leans depends heavily on what they know and what they don’t, and how they value the knowledge they do have.

The Problem of Facilitation

The GM is usually charged with the task of resolving conflicts within a group, that is often composed of people with little in common except their desire to game together. This manifests most commonly as a need to control the more ebullient and aggressive players, and to draw out the shyer and more timid players. It’s not possible to do this and remain neutral, because it involves favoring some people and being stern with others. Furthermore, the GM often has to resolve conflicts about actions and consequences, and occasionally quite bitter disputes about (for example) treasure, PC conflict, and game direction. Sometimes the GM has to shut a player up who is dominating the game beyond any kind of reasonably alloted time, and if a player is disrupting the group it is usually the GM who is charged with the task of deciding what to do (and communicating it to that player). Who, if not the GM, gets charged with the task of delicately explaining to the neckbeard that they stink and need to wash before attending sessions? OH, the joy of GMing. And when the GM does this they bring their own social biases and problems to the fore, and usually don’t stay neutral for very long – and they are usually responding to a group dynamic that they only have partial control over. It’s very hard for GMs to stay neutral in these situations, just as it’s hard for GMs to avoid playing favorites, or getting pissed off with particular players and acting irrationally, and so on. Some players just have a style that a GM will like or hate, and it will be rewarded or punished accordingly. This is not neutrality.

The Demands of the Module

Using the Rahasia module as an example, we can see a few immediate situations where the GM is tasked with a non-neutral stance by the designer, or set challenges that demand a departure from running the game-as-written. The Rahasia module introduction suggests that the GM

Encourage the players to think of ways of capturing and defeating the witches without inflicting physical damage

and the game is built on the assumption that GM and players will go along with this idea. This sets up a framework – including penalties of lost experience points – that is very far from neutral. Furthermore, the background information about the dungeon itself is very limited and not much at all is said about the structure of the dungeon. The trapdoor through which I climbed to my death is described thus:

Directly behind the statue, in the floor of the temple, is a secret door that opens over a staircase to the lower treasure room

No information is given anywhere about whether secret doors are locked or how to handle them, so the decision to make the room accessible to anyone from below is implicitly up to the GM. A decision to allow access is a decision by the GM to make the dungeon more dangerous; it might be taken unthinkingly or deliberately, but it’s not a neutral decision. Especially in light of this statement about the golem in that room:

This golem hopeless outclasses any typical party, so the players must think of a way past this creature (the robes work, of course)

This statement makes it clear that the adventure is not supposed to funnel the players into conflict with the golem; they aren’t at any point meant to be its match. Instead, the GM has to at least give the players a chance to stop and assess the situation and find a way to know that the golem is there. Allowing them to access the foot of the statue as soon as they enter the dungeon is not consistent with the intention of the module, but the module nowhere makes clear a way to avoid this. The GM’s decisions about trap doors, use of portals, and ways of passing through the dungeon are tied in with the nature of this final beast, and the option of playing the module “as written” is a dead one. The GM must choose a non-neutral position on this module in order to run it in the sense that it was intended.

The Fallacy of Behaviorism

Another common view I read on the internet about GMing and player reactions is the idea that players “learn” from their mistakes, and the GM has a role as a “teacher” to help them understand the risks of the world they’re in. This is particularly common in old school play, in my experience. I think this is both fallacious and patronizing. It’s patronizing because we’re all adults, and I don’t give up hours of my downtime to be schooled in the harsh “realities” of fantasy life by a self-important neckbeard. I want to play in a shared world where my understanding of that world is assumed to be an adult’s understanding, and my mistakes are handled, not judged. But it’s also fallacious. Adults don’t learn in this way, and punishing adults for their mistakes is pointless; it’s a classic example of a fallacy based on regression to the mean to think that adults will learn this way. Furthermore, what the GM may think is a mistake, the players may think was a reasonable action. On top of this, there is an additional behaviorist nonsense. Most of us learnt the game as teenagers being taught by bad teenage GMs in fairly immature social settings. If this behaviorist approach to learning from “mistakes” has any truth to it, by the time we get to game as mature adults we’re going to be well past correction, and will be gaming primarily based on the experiences of our (mostly crap) teen years. If so, “teaching” us is going to have to be done some other way, and is going to involve the GM coming down from their neutral pedestal to make judgements about what is wrong with our play style. But who’s to say, given the backgrounds of the adult participants in this hobby, that it’s the players who learnt all the mistakes? Just as likely it’s the GM who needs to be “taught” about their mistakes. The best approach is to drop this ideal altogether and accept that everyone involved in the game is probably flawed and their flaws and mistakes demand understanding rather than “teaching.”

The GM as Facilitator

I think the GM is inherently biased: he or she is there to enjoy a game, and wants the game to run in a way that entertains him or her. But on top of this, the GM is charged with preparing for the game, managing conflicts, and ensuring that the players have fun. These conflicting tasks are inconsistent with a neutral position, just as the players’ role is inconsistent with a purely selfish one (they are also meant to be aware of the work the GM has put in, his or her desire to enjoy the game, and the needs and perspectives of their fellow players). The GM thus functions best as a facilitator, ensuring that the players enjoy a game full of challenges and exciting situations, in which they will have fun and everyone will got what they are looking for. A neutral GM cannot help this happen, and I don’t believe it’s possible for someone to be a neutral GM to start with. There are too many conflicting pressures and responsibilities for the GM to remain neutral in all circumstances. By pretending that this is possible, we simply create a set of false assumptions and expectations that let everyone down: better to understand everyone’s biases and perspectives upfront, and respond accordingly, than to try and pretend they can all be hidden or put aside during an activity that, in its own way, can be as frantic, demanding and engrossing as anything else that adults do.

 

Would you risk your fate with this man?

On Tuesday I start working at the Tokyo University Department of Global Health Policy as an Assistant Professor, which means that on Sunday I am moving from Steamy Beppu to the City of Light. I will also be returning to full time work after a year working part time and being a househusband.

This means that my Japanese Warhammer 3rd Edition group has broken up, and my Japanese role-playing plans in general have to go on hold until I can find a suitable group in Tokyo. I don’t know how easy that will be. It also means that I’ll have a lot less time for, and material to put into, long posts, so my posting frequency will go down, which is a shame because I’ve been on a bit of a roll recently.

To keep my posting frequency up I may add a new posting series, about bars and restaurants in Tokyo, because I will be exploring them. I may also put in some taste-testing of various Japanese sake, which I’m becoming interested in… we’ll see. It’s a bit off topic but when I go searching for information about Tokyo night life I appreciate other peoples’ views, so maybe someone will appreciate it being here… also there may be some general aspects of Tokyo life to comment on, so the blog may open a little beyond nerd culture to include general big city culture.

I will of course be trying to expand my role-playing horizons in Tokyo – who knows, I may even play in English! – and exploring nerd life a little. There may also be some Harajuku-related material on here too… we’ll see how busy I am. But the move to Tokyo may well indicate a move to a broader focus on Japanese otaku life, hopefully from the perspective of someone at least slightly involved in it. We’ll see. But for the meantime, expect me to post slightly less frequently, and don’t be disheartened.

The miniature at the top of this post was painted by one of my players, Tencho-san. It’s a likeness of me. You can’t see it in the photo but the book has “Master” written on it’s cover, and on the back of the wizard’s jacket is written (混沌東大), which is Japanese shorthand for “Tokyo University Chaos!” This was part of my going-away present, along with the game Make You Fortress and a collection of cards for the game Make You Kingdom, which contain colour cardboard cutouts of all the cute monsters from the game. I really need to play this game at some point…

A report of the last session of the Rats in the Ranks campaign will be going up soon. In the meantime, any particular requests for investigation you would like to see conducted in Tokyo, please let me know in comments (and yes, if I find a used underwear vending machine I will post a photo!)

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