Benefits of Tyranny

If the internets are to be believed, the world is filled with tyrannical “behold my works ye mighty and despair” GMs, game masters who dominate the table and tell their story with the players as witnesses or minimally free-willed participants. They go by many names: storytellers, railroading illusionists, social puppet masters. Tyrant GMs.

There are lots of arguments why this happens: the GM has more the authority and power corrupts, rules-heavy systems require the GM to do lots of prep which gives him a disproportionate ownership of the game when everyone gets to the table, etc.

But never mind for a second why a GM would want to be overlord and god: instead ask why a player would put up with it.

If it’s a widespread problem, then there must be lots of players agreeing to play in those games. The usual disclaimer is something like, well, the players don’t like it but it’s the only game they’ve got. They have no choice, the poor waifs! But that’s hardly a flattering explanation. It’s almost as insulting to the hapless players as it is to the tyrant GM.

I started out making a value judgment that GM tyranny is a bad thing, but by doing so I skipped over the possibility that there could be something advantageous about the whole arrangement.

Let’s face the unspeakable question: are there benefits to GM tyranny?

Freedom is Slavery (and we have always been at war with Eurasia)

Let’s say there are two kinds of responsibility a player has at the table: creative responsibility and social responsibility. On the creative side you are trying to make a good story, to do something interesting and add to the fiction. On the social side you are trying to make sure everyone else is having fun, and that their idea of what is good and interesting is also being respected.

All that can be a lot of work. But with the tyrannical GM, you have one person who steps up and says “this is my game, it is my creation, I’m in absolute control and make everything happen. I resolve all disputes and I make sure all players are entertained.” Which means you, the player, are completely off the hook. You can be as selfish as you want, or as rude as you want, or as lazy as you want, because the GM has taken responsibility for making the game work and taking care of everyone at the table.

By claiming absolute authority, the tyrannical GM frees the players from responsibility. They don’t have to worry about making the game good, or playing well, or really just about anything. They get to abdicate responsibility, so they can kick back and have a beer. They can just indulge themselves and have fun.

This basic truth can be found in many walks of life: you can live a happy and carefree life if you just let someone else make decisions for you. It’s an old, old story.

And think about it: this is just a game. A recreational pastime. Why not relax and let someone else do all the work? What’s wrong with that? You watch movies right? What’s the difference?

That’s pretty much the philosophical dividing line: do you think gaming is recreation or a creative art form. And even if you are someone who believes gaming is art, a tyrant GM gives you the luxury of grumbling about every single thing that’s wrong with the game without having to worry about blaming yourself. You aren’t in control, so you can’t possibly fail, like the would-be writer who just knows he’d be great if he ever wrote something, so he doesn’t write lest he finds out he’s wrong. It’s a cozy being a critic, an oppressed genius.

This is not a love song

Am I saying this is a good thing? Am I saying this is a desirable dynamic? Am I saying this is the game I want? No to all three. But if it works for some people, that’s what’s important.

Instead of just saying “damn, those people are stupid, my way is better” take a deep breath and accept that different people want different things from the table. Maybe your game-fu is superior, or maybe they just have an entirely different goal than you do. Different victory conditions.

Is it ironic that playing with a tyrannical GM is a more like playing a video game? Not when you consider how many more people play video games than role playing games.

    Ben Robbins | February 11th, 2009 | , | hide comments
  1. #21 Jake says:

    I feel that there is alot off confusion in this post, and that alot off the things discussed fall a bit outside the subject.

    I have both been a “Tyrant DM” and a DM who just follows up on the choices the players take and given them 100% freedom. And ive been a player in campaings with both type off DMs.

    1. The DMs that are Tyrants, most off the time dont know they are. Its the only way they know how to DM. They have a “cool idea” for a story and want to present it.
    2. I think players know when a DM is being controlling. Some hate it and some just roll with it. But most off us know when this is happening.

    And the important question. Is it wrong to be a Tyrant DM?
    Well, I agree with Ben Robbins. Both can be right. What ever you like. BUT… one deserves alot moore credit.

    There is a big difference between
    1. a GM that can create a memorable and strong session based on the personaleties of the PC AND give them free choice, choices that matter for the future events, and create unexpected ripples.
    2. and between a GM that has a story to tell, wich might be great, but will force the players into the story if things dont go as expected. And PC never do as expected.

    Its not like we all have to be great GMs, but it makes a big difference what kind off GM you are playing under. And we all want choices, its what makes ANY story interesting. And I think its what most off us want roleplaying to be. Well, most off us :)

  2. #20 Adam says:

    I think the tyrant GM comes a little close to judging an acceptable playstyle. Yes, douchebags who dissallow their PCs from making any choice short of combat scenarios and how to get shot by the arrow trap are probably not very fun. Probably, some people like a strict game narrative. Some people like that kind of strict direction and railroad crafted game.

    The examples here seem a lot like the strawman example of railroads, of course that could be just what a ‘bad’ railroader is, but it’s certainly not an example of railroading in general. Just like a free and open playstyle it all comes down to preference. The freedom is slavery thing is not bad, but here it seems tainted with venomous bias at a style of playing you just don’t like.

    That being said, I like tyrant GMing to a point. I like to plan a wellcrafted session with interesting fight mechanics, chandalier encounters and wickedly tricky bosses. That’s why, at the end of my session I try to ask the important choices before hand, will you guys prefer to go to point a where there is an open city in need of help on the frontier, or embark on a dungeon crawl? The story, and thusly the gameplan resolves around something of the choices the players make, of course. DnD is a cruel mistress, planning is general how the game works and if I ran something like Paranoia it’d probably be different.

    I agree with points, you should allow the player freedom to interact with the game and feel involved, never should you hijack an honest attempt by a player to play their character, but at the same time allowing them to simply break off the tracks presents problems, do the other players even want to go down that path? Now you have to toss the well prepared fun encounters for a slapdash run in with some bugbears because they decided to go to the cave of bugbears instead of the hall of wicked cool fight scenes.

  3. #19 Devils Advocate says:

    I’m on the tyrant’s side in this. Every GM has a right to invite players to play out a grand epic story of his devicing, and simply tell them “no, we can play that sort of game another time” when they veer away from the plot and setting that was planned.

    There is no grand moral law that determines that every GM must let their players play out their characters stories the way they please from moment to moment. Would you want to throw a month of planning in the trash because your player decided his character wants to quit and become a farmer?

    Besides, there’s all sort of people playing roleplaying games, and I would claim that those who complain about tyrannical GM’s are children. Joining the game without concern for where it may lead them, and then kicking and screaming when they aren’t allowed to have things their way.

    If you want to take the story somewhere as a player, talk to your GM and make sure he has an open enough game in mind, or even a game based on your brilliant idea.
    Don’t try to hijack his vision and cry when he won’t let you.

    On the flipside, also consider the chicken and the egg, and the associated connundrum.

    Is the GM in total control because he’s an inflexible control freak? or is it because the players aren’t taking their responsibilities as someone descibed above, and the GM is forced to do everything to keep the game running. until of one of the players dislikes something he does and calls him a tyrant. ;)

    in the end, it all boils down to roleplaying being doable in an infinite number of ways. if you want your GM to provide a sandbox for your brilliant mind to play in, you need to find a GM that likes that. Any GM that comes to you with a plan will want to follow it, keep that in mind when you decide wether you want to play or not.

    Who is inflexible? the GM that wants the players to go one way, or the players that refuse?

  4. #18 Zerfinity says:

    I disagree that the age of the Tyrannical GM is over. I started gaming as an adult in 2002. I entered an extremely tyrannical game. I didn’t know any better. Though as time went on I learned more and more about the history of destruction and broken relationships behind the campaign.

    Now I GM. The funny thing to me is that I would like more of a collaborative art style of play but my players (most are veteran MMORPG players) are firmly planted in tell-me-a-story mode. They want the freedom to explore an entire world and to drop and pick up plot threads at will so I’m trying to accommodate that as much as possible within reason and as much as it encourages fun for all at the table. I suspect that the syncopation that takes place when you get players and GMs with the same style of play, the same interests, and the same preference in gaming systems is something that must be wonderful when it happens but that doesn’t mean I’m going to become a gaming group slut to find it. For now, I game with my friends and that is good enough for me even if I don’t get everything I might want out of my gaming experience. . . and even if it does open me up to the occasional accusation of railroading (AKA tyrant)

  5. #17 harlequin says:

    The ability to respond to player-driven storylines is perhaps the biggest cash-value I’ve seen from HeroQuest. It doesn’t matter where you go, or what you do, it’s all the same mechanic. You can go from dungeon crawl to army-raising no problem — your character automatically has stats for that sort of thing.

    If a GM is tyrannical because he’s nervous about wandering outside the ruleset, HQ can be a great help.

  6. #16 riprock says:

    I think the old-school settings seemed considerably more oppressive to me than more recent settings.

    What was AD&D, to me?

    Pit traps. Poison needles. Rot grubs. Disease rolls. Slavers. Getting your weapons taken by slavers and having to bust out of jail. Pulling the wrong lever and having the ceiling cave in.

    Runequest was brutal. We could never catch a break.

    Even some old Traveller was pretty unwinnable. The universe seemed stuck in “grim” mode, and the characters seemed to be stuck on the bottom of the totem pole.

    And let’s not even talk about Call of Cthulhu. Rejoice when the characters die, rejoice even more when the group stops playing.

    Shadowrun was fairly optimistic, by comparison. Hey, we’re scum and we’re going to jail, but for the moment we can slot BTL chips, drink beer while driving, and shoot people at random.

    Vampire should have been pessimistic but wasn’t in my experience. Werewolf was an exuberant free-for-all IME.

    More recent settings seem more optimistic to me. E.g. the characters can be creative, the characters get a lot of choices. E.g. in D&D 3.0, the DM asked me if I wanted to scribe some scrolls at low levels. Wow! I didn’t want to, but I liked having the option! (And if I had craft points, I would have used the option!)

    D&D 3.5 took the optimism too far, and with excessively loose rules, but D&D 4 seems to have swung the pendulum back. I haven’t played D&D 4, so I don’t know.

    Lately I’ve been playing GURPS, which is as optimistic as the GM’s rulings make it.

    So IMHO pessimistic settings increase player whining about killer DMs, optimistic settings still get PCs killed off, but the players have more fun while the characters are dying, so the players whine less.

  7. #15 charles ferguson says:

    My experience is with Justin.

    I also agree with the thrust of ben’s original post. Letting one person do all the work *is* a whole bunch easier, and it *does* carry with it a strong sense of “well it’s his world, so I guess he gets to run it his way”. At least in my experience (having been both GM & player in this scenario).

    My own definition of when GM authority becomes tyranny is when the GM assumes more power over play than the other players are happy to give them. I’d go further and say that this is more likely to happen in games (as in life) where authority is mostly in the hands of one person.

    I do think that traditional rules have an almost a priori assumption that you’ll run the game at the high end of the GM-control spectrum. That holds true as recently as 4e, with the GM advice sections saying things like “players like to feel they’re in control of X. Here’s how you let them feel they are.” I’m using 4e here only because I can lookup the quotes if I need to, because this advice has been widespread for at least twenty years. My impression is it’s been around since day 1 of the hobby.

    What’s interesting to me about “Here’s how you let your players feel like they’re in control of X” is that:
    a) the players presumably have expressed an interest in more control of X
    b) the advice is never about giving them that control, just about giving the appearance of it
    c) this approach has been around so long and is entrenched in so many popular RPGs that the weight of evidence surely suggests that this approach works: that most of the players quoted in a) are happier with the illusion of control than they are with the responsibilities and effort that goes with actually having control.

    I think a significant reason for that is this: the “traditional GM” skillset is a much broader palette than that required by a “let the GM do it” player. Not everyone is creatively equal. Even when players are in a game that allows strong creative input into plot, world creation, narrative control–even when those players are trying their best to give that input–it can be *hard*. At least I’ve found it so, as both GM and a player. Those skills take time and sweat to develop and hone. Even for people who’v been doing it for years–people like GMs. And, as ben said, not every player *wants* to develop those skills, or to have to use them in play. For a lot of players, that’s just not what fun is.

    And as has also been said, more power to them.


  8. #14 ben robbins says:

    Justin speaks much truth. Not trusting the players to make the game better is a big sign of a tyrant GM.

  9. #13 Justin Alexander says:

    Will wrote: Maybe tyranny wouldn’t be seen as such a problem if more players consciously accepted that when the world turns against them and their clever idea is shot down, it’s an attempt to make the game more satisfying in the long term.

    I, for one, have never had any doubt that 95% of the GMs taking this “do it my way or not at all” attitude are doing it because they think it will make the game better. (The other 5% are just assholes. Not much you can do about them.)

    But, based on my personal experience, I would also say that 99% of those GMs are wrong. I have my own personal collection of stories about games that could have been great… except that the GM wasn’t daring enough to let the players transcend their vision of what the game was “supposed” to be. And I’ve heard those stories from other people, too.

    A friend of mine actually just sent me a link yesterday to a thread over on RPGNet where a GM wants his advice: His players are facing a BBEG. He wants them to go on a dungeon crawl to fetch the BBEG’s kryptonite. His players want to travel to the neighboring kingdoms, convince them to form an alliance, and lead an army to crush the BBEG’s legions. He wants advice on how to get his players to give up on their epic visions and, instead, embrace the dungeon crawl. I’m sure it’s a nifty dungeon crawl, but I feel sorry for those players. I would love to be a part of a campaign where I rallied an Army of Light to crush the Undead God-Pharaoh. Sounds a lot more exciting than another McGuffin Quest.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Monte Cook Queen of Lies: He gave his players a “rescue the hostage from the drow” scenario. His players responded by raising an army and waging war on the drow kingdom. How frickin’ cool is that?

    My own story is a D6 Star Wars campaign I was playing in about a decade ago: The Neo-Empire and a resurgent Sith Brotherhood had smashed the New Republic, killed most of the Jedi, and left the Jedi PCs on the run. The players responded by forging several planetary systems into a Jedi Republic — we had reached the conclusion that the fault of the Republic had lain in never putting the Jedi in charge. We were all set for a taut political drama mixed with interstellar war mixed with themes of the power of corruption… when the GM abruptly ended the campaign because we had veered too far off his roadmap.

    A missed opportunity.

    Personally, I’ve sworn to never be that GM.

    Look, I think there are plenty of GMs who run incredibly entertaining campaigns which are also completely pre-plotted and/or railroaded. And as long as their players are having fun, then I say more power to them.

    But if the players are chomping on the bit to go do X, then I think there’s a pretty good chance it’s because they want to do X and would have a lot of fun doing X.

    (Of course, there’s a hard-to-define line here. The PCs shouldn’t automatically succeed at everything they try to do. But I think we all know what the difference is between something failing because it failed and something failing because the GM wants the PCs to be doing something else.)

  10. #12 ben robbins says:

    re the definition of a tyrant GM:

    If you have absolute power you are by definition a tyrant. That’s what the word means. There’s common parlance that tyranny also means abuse of power, which isn’t really surprising given our expectations of human nature (power corrupts, etc.)

    Normally a GM never has absolute power over everything at the table. At the very least the players control their own character actions, and most games have rules which the GM would have a hard time just ignoring without having the players walk away from the game (“no, you rolled a 20 but you failed your save and you’re dead, because I said so, for I am the GM”).

    So when I’m talking about tyrant GMs I’m talking more about people _trying_ to take over things they shouldn’t, regardless of their complete or partial success. Wannabe tyrant GMs I suppose. A serious storyteller GM may have already taken lots of control of the characters away from the players, and dissolved much of the authority of the rules, but it’s unlikely they would hit 100% control of everything. The players are still doing something at some point.

    Another way to think of it is like monopolies in US law: you’re allowed to have a particular monopoly, you’re just not allowed to use that monopoly to exert undue influence. Same with GMs: in a traditional game you have the final say over the existence of things in the game world and their behaviors, but you should not use that power to take choice away from the players. Even if you are the final arbiter of rules (as y’know, the referee) you should not abuse that power to make things happen just because they work for your plot. That would be tyrant behavior.

  11. #11 ben robbins says:

    Are there struggling tortured gaming artists that do it and don’t enjoy it?

    Yep. Sometimes ;)

  12. #10 Scholz says:

    Do Tyrannical DMs see themselves as tyrannical, or is it the judgment of players, or are there objective criteria? If the GM says, I am not a tyrant, and the players say, she is not a tyrant, could a 3rd person (a gaming psychologist perhaps) say, oh yes you are, and you hapless players don’t realize it.
    As to the fun vs art gaming. Are there struggling tortured gaming artists that do it and don’t enjoy it? Creepy. I can see having fun by making a good story, or exploring a cool concept. But if it were work and unpleasant with people I didn’t like. Ugh, I wouldn’t do it twice. And I’ve played Hero system ;)

  13. #9 Lucian Smith says:

    I think while this theory is part of the reason why railroading works so well, it is only part of the story. My own pet theory is that there are lots of things you can be ‘in charge’ of when playing a RPG, and ‘the plot’ is only one of them (and, for some people, a relatively insignificant one). The players have fun being ‘in charge of’ their characters in much the same way (though to an even greater extent) that an actor enjoys being ‘in charge of’ their character. And an actor doesn’t even get to make up their own lines, most of the time!
    I wrote this up a year or so ago, and I think it’s apropos:

  14. […] Først en amerikansk blog om emnet: Benefits of Tyranny. […]

  15. #7 Christopher B says:

    Interesting post – but you lost me.

    Your intro seemed to be squarely targeting tyrannical DM’s (by definition, those who hold absolute power and abuse it), but by the second section you seem to be discussing absolutist DM’s. With statements like “I make sure all players are entertained” and “taking care of everyone at the table,” I’d say you clearly stepped away from describing tyrannical DM’s – at least any I’ve ever met or heard fellow gamers bemoan.

    While I agree that there are benefits to gaming with absolutist DM’s (in fact, it’s the mode of gaming in which I prefer to indulge), I think we need to be clear on the difference between an absolutist DM who uses that power to referee an entertaining and fair game and a tyrannical DM who abuses that power for his own purposes.

  16. #6 Stuart says:

    I think S’mon really nailed it with this observation:

    “In a traditional D&D style RPG session the GM is dispassionately administering a simulated environment in order to create a challenge that the players have a fair chance to beat. Ergo the Forge’s Gamist and Simulationist are going on at once in the same play-space. Not as a flaw or ‘incoherent’ play; the two agendae are irrevocably and necessarily intertwined.”

  17. #5 Will says:

    What is it about tyrannical GMing that annoys players, though? (Setting aside the idea that some people just like any opportunity to complain, which I think is no more true of role-players than of the general populace and therefore not likely to be a crucial factor in our explanation of the tyrannical GM phenomenon.) Is there a way to get the best of both worlds?

    It seems to me, that what players really want is to control their own characters. A tyrannical GM who asserts control over the characters — “Your character wouldn’t do that” or “You’re acting out of alignment” or “Make a Will save to overcome your own personality” — is probably going to annoy even the most laid-back players. At some extreme point, the player just becomes audience, an the expectation of “playing” is violated.

    Conversely, though, the GM has control of the universe — and the player should not expect otherwise. Oftentimes, the players will think of something the GM didn’t expect, and in order to keep the game “on track,” something absurd will happen to block the players. “Uh, that wall is unclimbable,” or “The key breaks off in the lock,” or the classic “There’s some kind of anti-teleportation field interfering with you here…” While I can understand how this might annoy players, because it violates their expectations of agency and of operating in a predictable world, the tyrannical GM is within his “rights” to do these things. It’s part of the social contract at the table that the GM controls the world. (Games which explicitly give the players more narrative control of the world seem like they would be unattractive to tyrannical GMs.)

    Sometimes the goals of the game are in conflict — if the GM needs to steer the party towards where the fun is, and that means violating some expectations about PC’s agency or the world’s predictability, maybe that is a trade-off that needs to be made. Maybe tyranny wouldn’t be seen as such a problem if more players consciously accepted that when the world turns against them and their clever idea is shot down, it’s an attempt to make the game more satisfying in the long term.

    (Of course, it’s probably even better if the GM just comes out and says, “You guys can go down that path but it will ruin the story and I have nothing prepared after that, so I’d rather you come up with some rationale for not doing it.” It might make the players appreciate the story line a bit more without using GM power to force the issue.)

  18. […] Ben Robbins: ars ludi – The Benefits of Tyranny. […]

  19. #3 Chgowiz says:

    That style suited some of the old versions of D&D, or perhaps suited the age at which many of us played those versions

    @Rafe – that’s a very curious statement to make. Do you have an empirical evidence to support it?

    The stereotype that old school D&D was somehow always about players crying and weeping as the sadistic DM chewed up their every character is about as fallacious as someone saying those who love 4E are simpletons who are locked into MMORPG-style play powergamers who can’t handle a game if it involves risk to their characters.

    Neither statement is very helpful.

    There’s a difference, in my experience, between a tyrannical DM who stuffs a railroaded plot down players’ throats, or won’t listen to players’ input and a DM who fairly “referees” a game, providing story, plot and hooks for the players to develop. I don’t see where any version of D&D supports one over the other. I speak as a player and a DM from 1978 up till now.

    “Old versions of D&D” suited referees who had a simple set of rules and who could either play with those rules or homebrew them as they saw fit. These same old versions were different in their nature, but not to the extent that somehow “old school” supports some sort of bad DM anymore than “new school” somehow supports bad players? Believe in those stereotypes limits a person from appreciating what the various parts of the hobby can give people.

    The “day of the tyrannical DM” has hardly passed. Anyone can set themselves up as a tin god using any game system. What you may be seeing is that your choices in who you play with have taken you from the type of people who might be like this.

  20. #2 Rafe says:

    I actually think that the day of the tyrannical DM has passed. That style suited some of the old versions of D&D, or perhaps suited the age at which many of us played those versions, but I think people (both players and DMs) have moved past that. I, personally, haven’t had any recent experiences with tyrannical DMs. Conversely, I’ve had three in the past four years who are extremely open to shared control, both of the world and its evolution and of consequences/roleplaying (shared narrative).

    So my take is that the situation may still exist for some folks, but it’s beyond what I’ve experienced in the last 5 years (with one exception and he had no returning players after session 1).

  21. #1 Jason S. says:

    My answer has always been that those gamemasters are making music, and the players are dancing to it. Dancing is creative, expressive, and fun — but not everybody likes it. Moreover, not everybody wants to be a DJ or a composer; some people just want to move where the music takes them.

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