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 | , | show 21 comments