Thursday, September 20, 2012

Power Dynamics At The Game Table

Let's talk about something that is generally only ever whispered about around the water cooler: visible power dynamics on an out of character level. In other words, who has the power? Who is in charge? Who controls the game? This can vary quite a bit and while every group will naturally have some sort of power dynamic where one or more people have more influence than others, the rule of thumb is that the power should be shared as equally as it comes amongst friends. Some people may be content to mostly just watch but should they decide to stand up and take the reins, they should be encouraged to do it rather than forced back into submission.

Now let me first add a disclaimer: Anything CAN work if it works. However, just because its what you've all been doing doesn't mean its actually working. If people are getting hurt or upset by it then something needs to change. If people are struggling over who has the power, then something needs to be worked out.

This particular article is about whether the players, the Game Masters, or even the Game Developers must necessarily have the most power at the table?

I'll give you a moment to think about your own opinions on this matter.




In my opinion, it all depends on your perspective.

The game designers have created the world but you've chosen to run it and, in running it, will lay your own stamp of originality on how it all works out. Some people want them to have all the power and will try to cleave as closely to the canonical themes, stories, mechanics, and game play as possible. When in doubt, they'll ask the developers. Others are keen to take the basics, mix in a lot of other things, and then churn it up. So long as you buy the books, you're doing right by the developers so while you can certainly give them a lot of power over your game, you certainly don't have to.

The Game Master is the one who just spent hours every week designing an adventure for you. They've slaved away over rule books, searching forums, and inventing cool new scenarios for you to strut your stuff in. They arbitrate the rules, settle disagreements, select the monsters, and decide how the world reacts to the player's actions. A Game Master can theoretically say: "Rocks fall on your character and he dies" and make it true.

That is a lot of power. Or is it? They're committing quite a lot of time and effort and are being paid in personal satisfaction, player's smiles (or fear or tears or whatever the point of the genre), and a chance to investigate the sort of stories that interest them. Okay, true, sometimes they're being paid in power and control over other people's lives but that's not generally the case. If the players are hating the game, then the Game Master is likely to end up pretty miserable as well. What's the point in running a game that the players hate?

If they're doing their job right, the Game Masters are catering to their audience (the players) and making all sorts of compromises to ensure that everyone has a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I'm not a big fan of mechanics but I read up on every antagonists' mechanical abilities so I can play them right. I've had preferences for NPCs only to have players adore a different one I never intended to bring up again. I've even swapped out my first preference of investigative horror game for less preferred (but still enjoyed) games such as piratical action adventure and post-apocalyptic high adventure games as I knew that was what my players adored and where most of their talents lay. I even finished the Pathfinder Crimson Throne game more out of obligation than true interest.

So in other words, they're a bit like mothers. If they're doing their job right, they may find they have a whole lot of control but not a whole lot of power as a lot of their job comes from catering to the whims of another.

Does this mean the players have all the power then?

Umm, probably not.

Players can vote with their feet but they might not have any alternatives or might not want to hurt a friends' feelings. They're vulnerable to their Game Master's machinations and have to simply have faith that the NPC antagonist figured out the holes in their plans because of behind the scenes elements and not because the Game Master didn't like having his plans destroyed.

They generally aren't responsible for creating a campaign, or even choosing game style and genre, and I've found that they generally don't want to be. They may be happy to vote between campaigns but too much choice can be paralysing as they can often see the merits in a lot of different games. Besides, what looks good on paper might play terribly in reality. How many players truly know what they enjoy or what they're good at anyway? (I know I don't.)

If a player rebels, they can wreak havoc in the game world or at the table but the Game Master can theoretically retro their actions out of existence. Subtle sabotage works better but, contrary to some people's beliefs, players don't generally enjoy it. They lash out or zone out due to frustration, boredom, or resentment, but would much prefer simply enjoying their game time.

Generally all they have to sacrifice is a few hours out of the week, rather than a Game Master's far heftier contribution of effort and time, but those few hours can feel like an eternity as there are only two things a player can draw enjoyment from at the table. The game itself or out-of-character chit chat and the last option can easily be outlawed if it becomes the primary motivation of the players - and therefore disruptive to the less enjoyable gameplay.

To make matters worse, there are many perfectly good players out there labeled as 'trouble players' because their gameplay style clashes heavily with a game that doesn't cater to them at all. In a game that's all about dungeon crawling, a player who adores investigation or slice of life gameplay can quickly get labeled a bore who keeps trying to slow down the exciting combat with useless Knowledge rolls, dumb questions, and boring conversations. In a game of political intrigue, a player who craves action and excitement could be labeled a brutish idiot who just can't go five minutes without causing trouble for themselves. They're not bores or idiots. They're just in the wrong game.

A richer experience can be drawn when multiple gameplay styles are included, even if a few are favored over others, but if this isn't recognised or wanted than players with diverse interests can end up feeling like there's something wrong with them.

The other issue that bars a player from having all the power is that players are plural. Outside of the odd solo games, players must make numerous concessions and compromises with each other and that dilutes what power they do have. Kill the dragon or spare it. Steal the gem or leave the tomb intact. Befriend the suspect or intimidate them. Who drives? Often times this can be a source of resentment or irritation between players as the one area they get to decide - what they do and how they do it - gets broken up into multiple portions.

So which group naturally has the power?

No one. But then, who needs it?

I think that's the trick. Not just on a moral level but on a realistic level it must be recognised that no one in a roleplaying game HAS the power and that its not really necessary for anyone to have it anyway. The whole enterprise is a great big negotiation where competing objectives, stories, and styles play out in a way that can lead to a rich and enjoyable experience or can collapse into an entangled cacophany of misery and woe depending on people's tolerance levels and ability to recognise their own needs and where they clash with other people's needs.

As a Game Master, I ran a Pathfinder campaign I wasn't all that keen on and when casting about for the next campaign to keep my players happy I stumbled across one that excited me. Pirates and privateers, naval combat and excitement, high adventure with a tinge of horror. When I mentioned it, the players were so enthusiastic they had their characters figured out by the end of Crimson Throne's fifth book.

I've certainly enjoyed it. I've produced treasure cards, shopping lists, miniatures and short but sweet adventures revolving around high adventure elements where I will generally look to see how they can succeed. After all, in high adventure even dumb and desperate ideas can succeed, albeit by the skin of their teeth. My players have generally went with cunning plans but I'm happy to tolerate dodgy risks and ill-thought-out plans.

My players understand me and allow me to inject my little tinges of horror (Nidal's influence), my touches of realism (influenza plague in Diobel), the odd over-powered but realistic encounter (vampire in the box), slow experience track, more modern engineering in the ships (as I love Napoleanic rather than medieval oceanic warfare), and my stuff ups (too many ghouls causing a near TPK).

My players also accept each other. They accept Proteus' players' itchiness and wanderlust and desire to get moving and DO something. They accept Lhyes' players' desire to iron out the kinks in people's plans and his desire to use tactical considerations such as stealth and guile where possible. They accept Lunjun's interest in sitting back as he slowly builds up his wizardly arsenal. They accept Archer's players' keenness to gather the facts first and write them down and refer to them later and the fact that his actions are motivated by a feeling or righteousness.

They accept Lenny's players' desire to play out a borderline Chaotic Evil barbarian motivated only by greed and Lenny's player accepts that she needs to see even a payment of a few gold pieces as being enough motivation because the other players shouldn't have their characters weakened just to let her play out her character. This is made all the easier because I look at the characters in terms of wealth rather than treasure received so if they gave her an expensive trinket in payment that would count against her wealth level rather than theirs and thus the players don't lose anything unless she repeatedly demands the lion's share (which she most certainly doesn't).

Who's in charge during the game? I am. But I am only in charge because my players let me be. Power implies dominance, or at least the ability to be an autocrat, and games are democracies whether we want them to be or not. My control is a gift and therefore any power that comes from that control is an illusion. They need me to do what I do and I need them to surrender certain privileges to me (such as deciding if its an empty room or there's a hydra in it) in order for the game to work.

Sometimes I complain because I feel powerless as a Game Master because I must change my own desires to cater to theirs. Sometimes I do the same as a player for the exact same reasons. But that's life and that's negotiation and I wouldn't have it any other way.


  1. Excellent post. I completely agree that the trick is to accept that you don't have the power and to reconcile yourself to that (the big comfort being that nobody else has the power either). I also agree that it's good not to invest too much in getting a particular type of experience out of a game because that way lies the "twenty minutes of fun in four hours" argument.

    In particular, I think it's a key skill (as player or GM) to be able to step back, look at your preferences, and have a sensible take on what aspects of RPGs are must-haves, what are "nice to have"s, what are "mehs" and what are genuine red lines. Not just in isolation - which is where I think a lot of people go wrong - but as part of an experience shared with other people, because there's plenty of stuff which I would consider to be a bit "meh" in isolation but which I'm happy to get into when I'm in a particular group because the participants who are more into that aspect of the game can help me enjoy it, both actively by giving pointers and passively through the fact that being in the presence of someone who is enjoying themselves will tend to make it more likely you feel good about what's going down too.

    I als think people can benefit a lot by really interrogating the things they consider as "must haves" and red lines and give proper thought to whether they really are that hardline about them. I really, really love investigative games but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a game which lacks a strong investigative component, and likewise I don't really have many red lines. In fact, most of my red lines are social contract issues like "no playing with complete jackasses who I can't stand to be in the same room with" and "no OOC meanness or rudeness at the game table", which ought to be universals, and once you set those aside in terms of the actual components of gameplay there's actually very little which I flat-out can't live with. I think people can learn to enjoy many more aspects of tabletop RPGs beyond those which they consider themselves to be fans of, but it requires them to a) take pleasure from the fact that other people are enjoying themselves and b) trust that the other participants will do their bit to help them enjoy the parts of the game they're less interested in. Part a) is more or less down to the individual being willing to take an interest in the happiness of their friends, which if a participant isn't able to do speaks to problems which go way beyond game table social dynamics, and part b) is a collective responsibility - you've got a responsibility to make your preferences understood and look to the other players to help you navigate bits of the game you find burdensome, the other players have a responsibility to take your preferences into account once they become aware of them (and to work out what they are if they aren't aware of them).

    I'd also say that even the GM's ability to decide what flies and doesn't in the gameworld is an illusion. Sure, the GM has the nuclear option of declaring "rocks fall, everyone dies", but the players also have their own nuclear option... which is actually a tangent I'm going to explore in one of my own blog posts because I have a bunch of thoughts about that.