This Hobby Is Not a One-Way Relationship

With regards to WotC promotional content for 4e, most attention is given to the tease content for D&D insider, the podcasts, and recorded features of actual play sessions. However, WotC recently posted a half-hour special on the joys of DMing called D&D Dungeon Masters/Five DMs. It’s an interesting watch and the first bit of promotional content where a spotlight was cast on the challenges faced by DMs.

Granted, some attention to these challenges is given within the pages of both Dungeon Master’s Guides, but for the most part the book editors lean towards copy that represents a feel-good laidback attitude towards gaming, wilfully ignoring the problems of keeping the party going. “Don’t know the rule? Make it up!” “Say yes! Indulge your power gamer, actor & explorer!” “Player got a lore question not covered by your monster manual? Well, what do YOU think?” “Gave too much loot? Talk it over and then GROUP HUG!” You get the picture.

Not that I can blame them: tabletop role-playing is already a niche hobby. The audience isn’t going to grow with books that talk about how hard it is to get more than two people together on a regular basis, collaborate on That Make Believe Story in Which They Are Heroic Orcs and Elves, not bicker constantly and somehow agree on how to split the cost of pizza. However, I think many will recognize that one big obstacle to growing the audience is the shortage of people willing to run games. As James Leiver of the D&D NYC group notes, sometimes the only way one can guarantee a game is being prepared to run, unless you’re willing to force the issue:

[…] I don’t think any amount of normal “encouragement” is going to make people DM. You need to force them. As part of the NYC D&D Meetup group, I came up with all these ways to discourage people who just want to be players only. It’s really easy for people who just want to “play” all the time to come and take up all the spots at the tables. With our points system we basically don’t allow that to happen. If you don’t earn points by DMing you don’t get priority RSVPing.

Call me callous, but I am of the opinion that people who refuse to GM/DM are patently selfish. This is not an entirely uncommon view. My former roommate is a good example of this. There was this one time where he ran a game of Star Wars SAGA Edition at the insistence of his friends, one of whom has the burden of running a majority of sessions for long stretches of time. Little can be said about his approach to such a responsibility save that it was one filled with indifference and begrudging.

Interestingly enough, I later learned that this guy paid the full retail price to order the 4th Edition Core books – which in the Third World currency my countrymen call “pesos,” is a really big chunk of money – but had no intention of ever having to run it. He was trying to convince all his friends to play it with him, which was met with reluctance. Instead of facing this as a challenge by offering to be the DM, he simply let his books become over-priced door stops. He had the books in his possession for over a year, and never EVER read up on the rules.

Simply put, he bought the books and flat out expected someone else to run the game for him so he could play. As if somehow his investment would obligate someone else to do the work for him.  So when I say DMing is a means of giving back to the hobby, I’m not trying to get all touchy feely. I mean that if you have any interest in sustaining it, then sometimes you have to step up and DM. I’m not even saying that everyone should DM or is good at it. I’m saying is that if you don’t even give bother, because you just want to be a player, then you’re being a selfish prick.

It doesn’t matter if you DM an epic-long multi-session campaign (which is awesome on herculean levels) or you only DM when you have an experimental one-shot you want to try, or you sporadically DM because you have to take one for the team in the face of an absent DM. When you’re do it because you – consciously or unconsciously – recognize that the hobby needs more DMs, or you just want to give your current DM the reward of playing, then it means you aren’t a selfish prick.

16 Responses to “This Hobby Is Not a One-Way Relationship”
  1. Not everyone who doesn’t GM is selfish.

    Some people simply do not have the personality or skills to do it. Even with a pre-written module, not everyone can keep track of everything that goes on or keep control of the table.

    Forcing those people into GMing or making them feel bad about not GMing is is counter-productive and will drive them out of the game.

    • I think you’re right, not everyone has the personality or skills to do it, at least ‘perfectly’. I myself have trouble doing so, I’ve admitted that much.

      But from my experience, the great DMs emerge either as a natural result of superior talents and personality traits – such as great discipline and mental skill or a thick skin – given by divine providence, or the accumulation of years of experience.

      These same DMs I’ve met do not sympathize with my view. I suspect it’s because they because they believe that their talents – which they correctly appraise to be superior- are a prerequisite to even considering DMing.

      However, I believe that new DMs – I’m not even talking about hardcore epic campaign managing ones – aren’t emerging because they get discouraged long before they have a chance to graduate to a certain level of confidence and/or skill.

      The players are too busy going for cheap laughs by pointing out loopholes in the story, arguing about the rules and generally undermining the newbie DMs confidence that such newbie DMs rarely graduate past their distaste for running the game.

  2. DeadGod says:

    Another thing to consider is that some people don’t enjoy GMing. They don’t have any fun in that role, and that is the point of the game, isn’t it?

    • I’ll be honest and say that I may have overstated my case.

      That is true, but 80% of the people based on my anecdotal experience (and by anecdotal, I mean, yes I know it doesn’t necessarily mean I can make a generalization out of it) I know who don’t GM at all, either have never tried it or having tried it, approach the whole endeavor with the kind of attitude that prevents them from having fun in the first place.

      It’s like they’re already prepared to not have fun because of all the ‘responsibility’ it involves or are eyeing their fellow players with envy because they don’t get to play this week or some other nonsense like that.

  3. Yoo-Hoo Tom says:

    A good DM is hard to find. I hang out a gaming store and they go out of their way to encourage good DM’s (ie. free pizza and swag). I’ve been running the same campaign for over a year, and it’s not easy to do. Some call when they can’t make it and some don’t. Some players purposefully try to wreck the system. In the end I think it’s worth it, but alot of people don’t want the hassle.

    • That’s good to hear.

      I’ll be fair and say that not everyone is suited to DMing – oh wait, I said it already – but I think that there’d be more DMs as well if the burden of encouragement didn’t just lie in the FLGS or in meetup point systems, but with players as well.

      I’ve observed that some DMs get discouraged simply because the players are too busy going for cheap laughs by pointing out loopholes in the story, arguing about the rules and generally undermining the newbie DMs confidence that such newbie DMs rarely graduate past their distaste for running the game.

      So in the end, the only people who DM with any amount of frequency are either thick-skinned people or those with great discipline and mental skill. And in some cases, some of these DMs do not sympathize with my view simply because they believe that their (accurately appraised) superior talents are a prerequisite to even considering DMing (extreme conclusion).

      And that I think, is unfortunate.

  4. justaguy says:

    One one hand yeah it’s selfish to not GM. On the other hand it’s selfish to want other people to GM for you, even if you always GM. And on the gripping hand sometimes you have to be selfish to get what you want. So, really, it’s kind of a wash… I do understand the frustration of being the only (or large majority) GM but sometimes that’s just hows it is. Doing things solely out of obligation rarely makes anyone happy, and as much as I’d like to play I can’t really feel comfortable trying to force someone who isn’t comfortable running into it. I do however encourage it when I can, and do my utmost to make the other GMs life easy…

  5. Jroc says:

    I GM because I like to. I don’t expect ALL of my friends to GM but I’m happy if one or two of them will since it gives me a chance to play from time to time… but my preference is GM’ing. Just as I prefer GM’ing, its no surprise that someone else would prefer to play. Its not selfish… its a preference. I think we’re all better off letting a motivated GM run the games than to endure playing in a game run by someone who clearly does not want to GM.

    • I can’t argue with preference, no doubt about that. Hell, I honestly prefer to play, simply because I’m not that good at DMing.

      Though I must point out that some motivated GMs – more than ‘needing’ a break (in so far as ‘need’ is a result of eventual DM burnout – sometimes ‘want’ a break. I know one guy who CAN keep a campaign going for months, but he WILL play if the opportunity presents itself, and Lord knows, he deserves it.

      The sad thing is that in the case of preferences there’s a disproportionate amount of people who like playing (I’m one of them) vs. the people who like GMing (never mind GMing well).

      • Jroc says:

        Very true… and in my group, there are two players who take the reigns from time to time so it gives me a break but I’ve probably GM’d close to 95% of the time, if not more.

        Maybe I’m a control freak but, as much as I like playing and I’m grateful for the opportunity (and I go overboard writing backgrounds for my PC’s…), about an hour after I sit down as a player, I’m thinking about running my own game. I hate to admit it (and, after playing with the same group of friends since 1986, I’ve never admitted it to my friends sh shhhhh!), I even think about how I would run their games differently! I keep it to myself… but I still feel guilty when I do it.

  6. wickedmurph says:

    I learned how to GM because it was the only way we got to play at all. I liked the game a bit more than my friends, so I had to learn to do it. And I was a crap DM for many years. I’ve still got a lot to learn about DMing, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years.

    That being said, it was a great relief when I got into a group where there was another good DM. We would switch back and forth, doing different games or covering for sessions where the other person was unavailable. I got to play again, which was awesome.

    I’m the DM in my group again these days, and I do find that it’s a pain to have to keep things moving, organized and together. But I do it because if I didn’t, we wouldn’t get to play. My bet is that a LOT of DM’s started that way, and are now competent at it. Sometimes there is somebody who is a “natural” DM, but I haven’t met many – most of us learned the long hard way – years of games, thousands of hours of prep and reading. Busted sessions, crap plots, 2D villains. And lots of criticism (constructive and otherwise).

    I think that more people should give DMing a try, if only for a short adventure or 1-shot. You learn a lot, and it makes the regular DM appreciate you, which is never a bad thing.

    • That’s exactly what I’m getting at.

      I continue to DM (badly) because I know that all my favorite GM bloggers have at least a few years of experience, some going into the decades. I know that I’ll never be a good DM unless I learn to get over being thin-skinned, poorly organized and bad at improvisation.

      A natural DM is rare, and I think veterans take their own experience for granted. Some have developed so much, that they assume that there’s something wrong if others don’t take to running games like they do, and as a result, end up volunteering to DM if only because they’d rather not be a player and have a good campaign than sit back and watch someone else ‘botch’ it.

      As for my former roommate, I’d never played 4e at the time, and it was obvious he really REALLY wanted to play it, so I kind of find it sad that his desire to play it didn’t translate to TRYing to run it like it did with you. But then again, that’s just consistent with certain personality defects of his, a subject not pertinent to this discussion. 😉

      • Jroc says:

        What makes you think you’re doing it badly? Doing it for any length of time means you’ve got people that are having fun so you have to be doing something right. Just because you’re seeing ideas or techniques in use by others that you haven’t thought of yourself doesn’t make you bad. Wanting to improve does not mean you’re not good at something. Even Olympic gold medalists think they can do better next time.

      • @Jroc: I actually do DO it badly. My lack of confidence is obvious and I stammer a lot while running, though there has been a game or two where I ran it capably. It’s not an issue of not doing what other people have done.

        Also, I’ve only DMed like 4 times now. The real DM regulars of our group is the titular My Girlfriend is a DM and another veteran DM whose been running for more than 20 years.

  7. Geek Ken says:

    Everyone should take the reins once in a while and run a game. Players need to go through the experience of prepping and running a session. At the very least, they get a perspective of what it means to be behind the screen. That helps a lot in easing other tensions that can build up over a campaign due to missed calls and rules-lawyering or other personal conflicts with the DM.

    It’s good for the DM also. Give the guy a break and let him run a character once in a while. Take the epic campaign you’ve been running and put it on hold while another guy runs a few sessions with something different (like say…Mouse Guard). The players will get recharged for jumping back into the D&D setting and your DM will get fresh ideas. Everybody wins.

    This goes both ways too. I cringe when I hear some guy claim he never ran a game where he was a player, that he just wanted to be a GM. Typically you have some guy stuck in a perspective that it’s more fun to make players jump through his hoops. I’m wary of a guy that never wants to jump into the player’s chair and have fun. Likely that GM is a control freak and takes enjoyment out of twisting players through a wringer.

    • That’s a good point.

      Some players start behaving better or appreciating their GM better if they had at least one or two experiences behind the screen, and some GMs who never play don’t realize what kind of things they force upon their players in their style until their control of the encounters is taken away and replaced with a PC.

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