Phase Two: The Rise of DM Determinism

In my last post (sorry for the delay), I wrote about how D&D – played as intended – is a very specific kind of game. I touched on the idea that D&D expects the DM to be the ultimate, but neutral, arbiter of the game. The DM breathes life into the spaces the PCs explore to make them worth exploring. But the DM was also given a special kind of authority to make rulings and set the tone for the table by virtue of a social compact (and their willingness to take on the most complicated and time consuming role at the table).

But jeez, there are a lot (A LOT) of awful DM stories out there. I’ve been in a few games where I’ve experienced the awful DM ranging from cringy to rage-inducing. This brand of bad game experience comes from the innocent (lack of experience) to the intentional (power trip). Players these days use words like railroading and plot-train. It is my contention that this was inevitable in the growth of gaming and that it’s not surprising that Dungeon Masters got a bad rap (tbh, they still do).

This happened for a lot of reasons but I want to focus on how the games changed, the environment of the games changed, and how that facilitated some of the shift to DM Determinism. As a disclaimer, let me acknowledge up front: some people are just jerks. Some of these people become DMs. Some of these people would be jerks no matter what game they run or group they play with. This isn’t about those people. This is about examining broader trends and how gaming as a whole shifted in a very DM-oriented way for a time.

The first thing has to do with that social compact I talked about so much in the last part. It works great when you are playing your game at home with people you know. A gaming group that is – if not truly friends – at least gathering by mutual agreement. But as the appeal of gaming grew, as it became more commercially successful and more public, you got a new level of engagement. You got gaming conventions, gaming clubs, and game nights at the FLGS. You started to game with strangers.

And none of those things are inherently bad, in theory. I’ve played plenty of con games and enjoyed a lot of them.  However, gaming with strangers in formats that are limited by time and other constraints presents unique challenges. Games tend to be shorter, focused, linear, and plot driven to fit in a time slot and give players something to immediately run with. Many of the convention adventures of D&D’s past were written with explicit boxed text so the DM could introduce the adventure in media res. You were on the run in the jungle. The local ruler had strong-armed you into fighting some giants. Your group was doing a thing – a very specific thing.

The DM had to adapt all facets of their running style to fit that mode. You lean toward telling over showing. There is an emphasis more on the part of the DM role where you try to keep the table fair and playing well together because these are people who may only ever see each other this one time and may have nothing else in common besides D&D. Playing with strangers emphasizes different aspects of the DM job and unfortunately, it can emphasize the more authoritarian parts of the role.

And I’m not here to be all hipster about it and say that becoming popular is solely responsible for the shift. But I do think that as gaming expanded more groups came together out of a desire to play as opposed to a desire to play together. A mentality of a bad game is better than no game is an environment where authoritarian DMs can thrive.

Getting away from personalities for a moment as well, there was another thing happening that made a difference. As I wrote about last time, it is my contention that old-school D&D works because the game is very tight in the way it treats certain aspects of the world that players exist in. Things that were annoying like tracking time, tracking encumbrance, and other small details made the game work because they were vital aspects of the balancing act the game was doing between “telling a story” and “allowing a story to emerge from the application of game systems.”

Game systems were also shaped (and did their part in shaping) this shift. Many games that immediately followed in the wake of D&D didn’t do a particularly good job at understanding how D&D fit together to make it function. Or they did and simply chose to go another way – even if that way was often very personal and missed its mark.

2nd Edition D&D didn’t do the hobby any favors either. Now, don’t get me wrong. I cut my teeth as a DM on 2e. I was involved in – or running – a 2e game for the entire 11 years it was on the market. I ran Dragonlance, Planescape, Dark Sun, and a lot of Birthright (seriously WotC, bring back Birthright). And it was fun. But there was a shift. One that 2e often gets derided for making. The shift from more open-ended, sandbox-style play to more plot/story-driven adventures put the emphasis on the DM as storyteller instead of neutral arbiter. And when you become the storyteller, you have more of a stake in the ending… even if that stake is just subconscious. Other early games embraced this shift even more explicitly. First edition Shadowrun was built entirely around the idea that the PCs gathered for a ‘run and the game was built around the build-up, execution, and aftermath of any given shadowrun as opposed to the larger life that the character’s led. Licensed games (Star Wars, etc.) were then their own special animals that shifted the focus even more.

And the shift in language really started to creep in. Bob wasn’t the DM because he agreed to take on that role for his group. It was Bob’s game. The GM had ownership of it in a way that wasn’t as encouraged in the past. The social contract at the table became less implicit and more explicit. This is “my game” and you guys are “my players.” This was compounded when the DM was a stranger because there was no backlog of trust or experience to draw upon. And once that happened, it becomes easier to see the DM as adversary. In 36 years of gaming, I have seen way too many groups who should not be playing together but they keep doing it because a bad game is better than no game. I don’t play at most gaming stores because they tend to have the same toxic culture of “insiders vs. outsiders” and it’s just not worth the effort to break down that wall. (Not ALL gaming stores are like this – and maybe I’ve been unlucky – but speaking only of my own experience – it seems that the least socially acceptable players tend to congregate in public spaces because it’s harder to make them leave than a game in your own home.) This issue further exacerbates the DM Determinism problem. Because the DM also now has to shift their focus into a more active space to make sure that they can juggle everyone’s personalities and still keep the game moving forward and having fun.

So my assertion is that the shift in focus from emergent, semi-random play to something that asked the DM to take on the role of storyteller and group counsellor led to a shift in how the DM was viewed at the table (and how they viewed themselves). I’m not saying that a good DM can’t have story in mind – or even that the shift was all bad. I am saying that the shift changed the dynamic at the game table such that – for a time – the DM was cast in a very different light and that changed how the DM acted and how groups reacted. And that this change was driven by the need for the DM to exert more control in order to meet the changing expectations. The problem is, once the DM needs to be more in charge, it’s only a matter of time before they are too in charge for most people.

And that thought will lead into my next segment, which will focus on the shift to player-driven determinism at the game table.

As always – thanks for reading. I’ll try not to have a two week gap this time.

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