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You've Landed on Gaming Group "Park Place", Pay $15 Rent

Started by Paul T, November 26, 2006, 12:49:19 AM

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Thanks Paul for posting this.

I can't afford $15 for rent so I'll just throw in my 2 cents.

People like to be the center of attention and its a big motive in gaming. Its competitive, exciting and generates focus. Organized gaming seems to satisfy this for most and I admire that.

The problem I see with RPGs is that there a lot of rules within the game, but few rules govern the social interaction of the players. Actually, most suggest that you pick a GM and the rest are players. There may be a sample role-playing conversation, but it still doesn't tell you the procedures and how to handle all the different situations that arise.

Would it be ridiculous to devise social rules for role-playing games? Instead of showing the negativity of certain behaviour, is it worth listing the social skills that support and enhance the role-playing experience?

Sometimes, stating the obvious can make you realize that it isn't obvious. Throughout this thread there is an underlying concept of agreement. That is important in any group; otherwise, you have confusion and unreality. Books and supplements give you rules and information that all can see and touch. There may be some ambiguity, but it is written. Not so with gamer etiquette.

After getting back into gaming after 10 years, I observe that many gamers (as people) develop alter-egos when they are gaming. I'm not referring to their characters, but to their actual personalities. It can be fun for the individual and for the group when someone can "let go" and step into another role. Sometimes, it's disruptive and annoying. When the GM becomes Mr. Hyde, the game is screwed.

Going back to my first statement that people like to be the center of attention, it is imperative that the GM is the center of attention. The GM has an obligation to make the game run smoothly and gives each player an opportunity to be in the spotlight. So, the GM not only moderates a bunch of characters, but truly has to moderate a bunch of players. And those players are here for a wide range of reasons.

So, to avoid all those bad gaming sessions, how can we be good players and GMs? Is there some secret gamer recipe of which I'm unaware?


Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Simon, I think you're mis-reading me. None of those leadership roles have anything to do with being "GM." I am specifically speaking of the same things you mentioned: prior experience with play, basic personal charisma, tendency to show good judgment in a number of situations, ability to listen, and many similar things - what the people involved bring to the table in real-world terms.

The point of my post is to say that we, in terms of gaming tradition, have mistakenly confounded any or all of these roles among one another, and in doing so, we have created a word, "GM," which is suppposed to mean something about the roles but does not. At most, it designates the distribution of authority (the four levels), and even then people get confused because they think there's only one way to do it, as in the thread I linked to.

Troy, I think you're demonstrating this fallacy with any talk of what the GM is supposed to do or be. What you're saying may well describe what you've experienced in terms of what "GM" means, or it might describe what you want, but to state that thing as a blanket definition is mistaken. At this point, the only thing that makes any sense as a GM-definition is "person with distinct authority tasks, compared to everyone else," and leaving the leadership aspects completely out of it.

Paul, the options for how to re-organize all this stuff in game design are already well under way. I think if you go back to Prince Valiant (by Greg Stafford), Jared Sorensen's early work, to my work in general, and to The Pool, you'll see the foundations for the explosion of innovations at the Forge booth each year. I'm saying this because each time, you can see more and more social organization and acknowledgment of real social interactions at the table, in the published rules of the new books and games.

Best, Ron

Lance D. Allen


I think that the reason why traditional methods have prevailed for so long is the existence of the ideal of the "Good GM". A "Good GM" is a person who is basically pretty good (if not necessarily great) in all of those areas of leadership and authority. It's sort of a "My GM Herbie" scenario, where individual gaming groups become basically cults of personality around one person who is pretty much always the GM, and in the cases where someone else may GM a game, everyone will follow the original GM's lead, even if he or she isn't the most knowledgeable about a game system, hosting location, etc. A Good GM is the sort who is generally good about making those decisions, so it seems natural to follow their lead. A Good GM is also the sort who can let go of some of those roles in such a way that even if they're not the one making the decisions, everyone basically assumes they're still in charge.

So, positive effects of traditional distribution of the roles and authority Ron listed under one person, off the top of my head, may include training and reinforcing good leadership techniques in the person who takes on the uber-role of GM. Being good at all of those things isn't ever a bad thing. Now, given the vast number of stories of frustration among people who've persevered in this hobby, it's likely that the negative effects do overbalance the positive ones. The reason why it persists is probably primarily due to Ron's example that the basic assumption that the only alternative is anarchy, and more than a smidge of self-delusion; "No, really.. Playing this way is FUN. Let me tell you how fun it is, so maybe I can convince myself, too!"

Probably most of the really cohesive gaming groups either explicitly or implicitly distributed the roles and authority differently than traditional means, or were the result of a rare and radiant "Good GM" (whom the Angels may or may not call Lenore). But like they say, while the very best form of rule may be that of a good monarch, the very worst sort is that of a mediocre to bad monarch.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Mike Holmes


I'll try to be more clear. And we'll kill a second bird by using Ron's analysis, thus verifying it, and getting better explication, hopefully.

At the time of the event, sessions were scheduled on Thursday nights. We were on about the 60th session of play. The game was set on Thursday night because, at the start of the "phase" of play - when we got new players and characters largely - that was the day I worked out would work best for everyone by coordinating everyone's input. I was acting in Ron's "Social Organizer" role here. And, in fact, I declared that we would not play on the last Thursday of each month because I have a tradtion of going out with a group of friends on that night (who are also gamers, for what it's worth, but my best friends in the world primarily). I tried to find another night, but all other nights of the week were such that some player interested in playing couldn't make it if we played some other night. So I reluctantly chose Thursday.

What was clear, too, at that time (as had been the tradition in earlier phases), was that if some player were not present that play would progress without them. Only if all of the players agreed that the character of the missing player in question was critical for playing through a situation would we even avoid that situation, much less cease to play. Further, it should be clear that I allow new players to hop into the game at pretty much the drop of a hat. Or old players from previous phases with their old characters. Moving forward without absent players and allowing new players into the game was a conscious decision on my part designed to combat a problem in IRC play - that it tends to be more common for players to "flake" and miss sessions, or even drop out entirely. To keep a constant mass of players it's been my experience that you have to constantly add new ones.

Some of this I probably did not make clear enought. Frankly in transitioning between phase one and phase two of the game, I had expected more of the phase one players to remain, and thus expected that these ideas from that phase would be expected. I'm not sure how clearly that got communicated in retrospect.

Right off the bat, there was some of the sort of assumption that Ron is talking about in terms of the GM role. That is, I assumed that the game could not go on without me - hence why it would not run on the last Thursday of each month. Now, in fact, at that point I could claim that it's a valid call, since I was also clearly going to be the procedural leader. Without me, at that point, the game would not run at all. But I probably was also thinking of myself automatically in other of the roles as well. For example the creative role of "keeper of the canon" (though I'm actually somewhat loose with this). I tend to think of the HQ as a "traditional" game in many ways (it certainly doesn't have the sort of distribution of authority that, say, Universalis does), and so I was thinking of the GM role in a pretty traditional way. In previous games as GM, I've always assumed these roles.

Further this has generally worked, because I am usually Herbie to the group. That is, I think there's a potential to misread Ron as saying that it's not functional to have all of these roles in one person. When I think he's saying that the problem is that this is an assumption, and one that turns out in many cases to be inaccurate about the actual circumstances of play. It is probably both common and commonly non-problematic to have all of the roles wrapped up in one person. But it's also probably just as commonly problematic.

Well, being into distributing authority as I am, it's probably no surprise that I started giving out procedural authority, as well as otherwise traditionally hoarded GM authorities to direct the creativity. What happened, specifically, is that we decided to try to speed up the pace of IRC play by running more than one scene at a time, each being in it's own IRC window.

Part of the "problem" was that it turned out that I had some very dedicated players that started play of phase two, and who always showed up. As well as having lots of players who would show up occassionally. And then I was still always recruiting new players under the assumption that I would lose players here and there. When this didn't happen, I'd occasionally get as many as 8 players to a session, or even more on occasion. Which is a ton for IRC play. When this would happen, it would beg for at least three complicated scenes, and sometimes more (even then players had to wait for a scene to open up often).

At my best I can handle three very simple scenes, or two complex ones. At times like this, all the scenes would bog down terribly (even more than you'd expect from IRC normally), and so I looked for a solution. If I recall correctly, I asked Thomas Robertson at that point to be my "Assistant GM." His duties defined as being the procedural leader for a scene here or there to take the pressure off. He would also have certain creative authority over NPCs to play them. And I even gave him my thoughts on bangs and the metaplot (long story), so that he could riff off of them. Though most of the time he would defer to me on most things.

Well, after we'd been playing like this for a little while, there came a night where I forgot to show up to play (or was detained or somthing, can't recall). The group, assembled and ready for play, decided that Thomas could run the scenes that they wanted to do, and did so. I can't recall if I'd said that I wouldn't mind if they did so before this. But I didn't mind. In fact I was glad that they could still have some fun in my absence. After this point we agreed that Thomas could run things in my absence. It happend a couple of times after that.

Now, simultaneous to this we'd occasionally do a scene by email, again to move things forward at a more substantial pace than the slowness of IRC allows on a weekly basis. And in cases where it made sense to do the scenes by email. These tended to be just dialogs, and I was copied on these but rarely had to intervene with any procedure.

There also came a point where, if I recall correctly, some people together on an alternate night decided that they'd just work out a scene, because Thomas was present, and they just had the urge. And then there was a humorous parody of play of the game by some ice-weasel obsessed fans (or so I choose to believe).

After about 60 sessions or so, we could all sense that the phase was coming to a climax, especially as some of the most interesting and central characters were getting set to deal with some of their main issues in a conclusive way in a massive heroquest (trip to an otherworld to adjust reality). At the same time, there were some growing time constraints. It occured to some of the players that we could get more play done in shorter time if we didn't have that annoying week where Mike did something else and we didn't play. Somebody proposed that, if the social contract of the game was that play happened at the appointed time, regardless of who showed up, and if we didn't need myself to play, that they should go ahead and play on those days even if I wasn't there.

Further, somebody suggested that, instead of sticking mostly to the scheduled games weekly, and extra stuff that I had been setting up, that it might work to just play whenever two or more of the faithful were gathered in the chatroom.

This is the point at which I objected. I mean here we had selected this day of the week to accommodate the most players from the group, and, because I wasn't able to make it to that night once each month, I was going to be excluded from play of that session. Or there might be play happening whenever, and I'd only be able to participate if I happened to be there when people decided to play. At this point I pulled rank. What it comes down to is that I said that as the creative leader of the game, or at least the player with the most authority over the world as my character, and as the social organizer, that I was due some special consideration, and that play should not occur without me, unless it was the aforementioned case of me not being present for a session when I said I would.

I have some more comments about Ron's ideas, but I'll save them for later, this post is long enough already.


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Wade L

Wow, this is really interesting stuff.  I'm glad this thread is happening.

I'm also glad Ron has pulled apart some of the different roles that often all get mushed together as "the GM".  Some of these things are relatively RPG-specific.  Others occur in any social activity, and some of the particular things that seem to go on especially in geek social circles.

How my particular social circle is structured really makes the separate roles visible to me.  I am a LARPer(Vampire LARP, specifically, although people play different games and genres now, it all generally descends from that style).  Pretty much all of  the friends I see regularly, and pretty much all of the people I game with, LARP or have LARPed in the past.  Most of the friends I've made since going to university I made through the LARP social circle, along with most of the people I've dated, and I am a pretty typical example of that.  In the "extended family"(which includes folks who play in one of the LARPs, but also those ex-LARPers who associate strongly with that circle), there are probably as many as fifty people.

The social advantages of being the GM of one of the "big LARPs"(20+ people per game attendance, usually with an active player roster of 30+) are pretty obvious.  You get to be the center of attention.  Lotsa people like that.   You are, to a degree, a power broker in the social circle - you can include and exclude people from some of the largest(and most regular) social gatherings.  People are practically forced to interact with you, and since a lot of social gatherings have LARP as some type of pretext(where some folks would say "Let's go hangout or go for coffee", many LARPers will say "Let's do a scene for the game", which translates to much the same thing only with some roleplaying at the start), you can invite yourself along to a lot of stuff, too.

There are also a lot of smaller tabletop games - but they all draw their players from the same LARP pool or, rather, a subset of it since the number of tabletop gamers is much smaller than the number of LARPers.  It tends to be the same 15-20 people you see reoccurring from tabletop game to tabletop game.  And because people have limited time, there is a very real competition for players between people who want to GM.  I find it interesting that some players are definitely worth more than others - having Mr. Smith in your game might be a particularly big coup for instance, because he doesn't have time to game very much, is known to be very discerning in his tastes, and is acknowledged to be an "excellent roleplayer".

Being a "Good GM" becomes a big social status mark, simply because it means you'll get the attention from players.  This is a good thing for you because it allows you to have the players you want for the game...and because it is a sign of greater status.  Running a successful "Big LARP" is a much bigger mark of status than running successful tabletop games(although every "Big LARP" ST I know also runs tabletop games), but to a degree they are scaled versions of the same thing.

But here's my actual point:  There are other ways to get that social status in the group without GMing, but it seems to operate in the same way.  Hosting parties is one of the big ones...  There are some people who regularly host parties, and they are judged on almost the exact same criteria as games:  How well attended is the party?  Is it only the "losers" who show up, or the cool kids too?  How well are things prepared?  How much fun is the party?  How much fun is it to interact with the host?  And of course, people who throw parties compete for the exact same resources as people who run games - namely, people.  The time commitment normally isn't as extreme, but the fact is that yes, someone could be doing something else with their time.  And there are also obvious social perks to having your parties be the place to be.

On a smaller scale, people do much the same thing by hosting board games nights, movie nights,  having the house that out of town games stay over at when they come in for a game, or by being that one person who organizes a posse to go to a particular club or bar on Saturday night, etc.

At least in my social circle, a lot of the power conflict and dysfunction exists primarily on the "social organizer" and "host" levels.  Sometimes conflict can emerge further down the ladder when, for instance, a really prominent player in some ways overshadows a GM(especially if the GM is running something they consider to be "their system"), but for the most part those aren't our issues.  Might be because there are enough people willing to run games, and enough fluidity on the tabletop side at least, that people who want more creative or rules authority will just start their own games.  In the LARP case, there is more likely to be a wholesale "takeover" than just extended conflict - there was one case in particular where the players did not like the GM and eventually they just agreed amongst themselves to change what day the game was set on, and not tell the GM(nominating a new GM from amongst themselves), culminating in the particularly cruel line "So, how does it feel to get kicked out of your own imaginary universe?"  As a side note, said game has changed hands GM wise several times, but is still running on a monthly basis ten years later.

Perhaps my social circle is just particularly dysfunctional(which I probably wouldn't argue too strongly about).  My suspicion is that a lot of this stems in some way from the strong foundation the circle has in gaming, although maybe many social circles operate this way, or at least geek social circles.  I'm not sure whether this is something about games or about gamers.  My point is that although the games may be the battleground, they are hardly the only battleground, and the social status issues settled there may not have a lot to do with gaming(the game is the medium, the players are the message?).  Especially of note is the fact that I think there are some highly functional(and fun) games buried in amidst the social circle junk.

I'm not sure if the issues I'm describing here operate on the same level as some of the rest that is being described...  I think some of them are, although again the question is whether it is something useful to discuss or whether it is beyond the scope of game design.  If nothing else, though, I think it might serve as a good example of how those larger social issues can eclipse or occlude some of the types of GM power conflicts that are more highlighted in the archetypal "Wednesday night gaming group" type of situation.  Either way, I hope my subset of experiences is useful to the conversation - I am finding more and more all my focus in designing or running games is aimed at the social end of things rather than the creative end of things, because I find the social end is both far more important than the success or failure of a game, and harder to get right.



Ron: Yes, those comments are from my experiences as a gamer and a person. What things "are" and "aren't" depends on the point of view. You state your observations and I state mine. Also, I would never presume that you are telling us the way things are and have to be. I appreciate you sharing your experiences and opinions.

Wade: Thanks for your post. I would definitely like to see more people really think about why they play games. I share your priority in that the social end is important.

Quote from: Wade L on December 01, 2006, 08:14:25 PM
Either way, I hope my subset of experiences is useful to the conversation - I am finding more and more all my focus in designing or running games is aimed at the social end of things rather than the creative end of things, because I find the social end is both far more important than the success or failure of a game, and harder to get right.


Ron Edwards


This is me putting on the moderator hat and treating my previous posts as if they were from someone else (even though I say "I," below, because otherwise it would be weird.)

Troy, with respect, we are not merely presenting individualized opinions. That is not the purpose of these forums or this site. Nor have I stated anything about what I want or expect from GMing, or what makes good GMing.

It may be that we have miscommunicated, and I'll go back over the posts to make sure I'm not being unjust to you. At the moment I'm typing, it looks to me as if you may be mis-reading my long post on the first page as a set of recommendations or expectations for someone called "the GM." It is not. I am instead listing the leadership roles we can expect to see emerging from any number of people, formally or informally, during play, and suggesting that "the GM" is an artificial mish-mash of the roles, some of which are probably not possible to assign to a person prior to play.

I dislike posting back-and-forth about what someone thought someone else meant, or what someone thought someone else said about what they meant, and all that sort of thing. It may be that you've totally grasped what I posted from the outset, and if so, then OK. We actually don't have to hash that out to see who wins in internet-land. What I'm asking is that you, too, review the posts and see whether we're really exchanging and combining ideas, or whether we're talking past one another. I do that, you do that, without any need to debate or respond about it, and then we move on from there.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Simon, I thought I'd look over your questions in a little more detail.

Quote1) Your essay seems to portray one way of assigning leadership roles as "bad", and others as "good".  Do you think it might be more productive to look at this in terms of goals and outcomes? Your "worst case scenario" seems like a bit of a straw man.  I'm not debating whether or not the traditional GM role can have negative effects, but rather suggesting that it would be more productive to look at what effects each model of leadership distribution has.  Given that the traditional model of GM is a popular one, it would be surprising if it didn't have some positive effects.

Regarding bad and good, it's purely a matter of observation and inference on my part. I've watched too many groups rip one another apart, often inflicting permanent emotional damage (divorces, ruined careers, dropping out of studies), over exactly the kind of mistaken issues over leadership and authority that I'm talking about. Primate social hierarchy is a serious thing; we are dangerous, touchy animals who think nothing of retaliating with emotional punishment. That's why I'm saying the worst-case scenario is not a straw man, but a reality.

As you say, you're not debating that, so this isn't a rebuttal, but with any luck a clarification of where I'm coming from, and thus we've communicated. I appreciate the feedback a lot.

In that spirit of mutual understanding, I disagree that the most widespread model of GM is popular; I think of it as instead embedded, mainly because most texts for role-playing light no lamps in the murk of play, and because the culture of role-playing has no insitutional memory, and hence no self-correcting factors. The rapidity with which alternatives have taken hold in the last five years, even relatively minor (but significant) models such as Sorcerer, bears me out on that, reinforced by the explicit testimony of doing so, and the fear, vested-interest (e.g. freelancers), and illogic which characterizes the resistance.

Quote2) Your list of leadership roles associated with being GM doesn't include pre-existing statuses that I think are important to how the role is normally percieved.  Things like "most experienced gamer", "the person everyone likes" or any other social status indicators.  A lot of dysfunctional groups, specifically the one I talk about in my above post, are the result of tension between the GM role and these social roles.  Have you left these out because you see them as outside the scope of game design, or because you don't think they're relevant?

I hope that my previous post clarifies my position about these things, and also shows that we agree about them. These are exactly what I'm talking about as the source of the various sorts of leadership, and my position is that they should not be confounded with anything in the subordinate/less-touchy issue of authority.

I'm angling toward a view of play that defines the four levels of authority (combination of levels, distribution of levels, organization of shifts if any) as a feature of the rules ... and then, as well, completely separates that from any of the sorts of leadership that I've described, both social and creative. Let those arise from the more fundamental elements of the real-person dynamics of the group (the things you describe).

In other words, just because I own the book and would really like to play the game with my friends, does not mean I have to take on the other roles of leadership (e.g. creative ones, especially), nor does any organization or recognition of the leadership roles in our group have anything to do with who will (if needed by this game) take on a central authoritative role over the imagined elements of play.

What do you think?

Best, Ron


Mike Holmes wrote:
QuoteAnd then there was a humorous parody of play of the game by some ice-weasel obsessed fans (or so I choose to believe).

That was awesome.  For reference, I was one of the people who lurked in the IRC channel, and sometimes there would be 20 dudes all hanging out playing some game I didn't know, that involved people wanting to have sex with each other, but not doing it.  And the recurring mention of ice weasels.  So, what we thought was the appointed night came around--and me and xiombarg (Chris?) were the only ones there!  Naturally, the show must go on.

But I had no idea the social situation was as complicated as Mike described it.    Come to think of it, this "Mike-less play" was pretty avant-garde.  But no harm was meant by it.

Damn, I wish that session had been "in continuity."

Ron Edwards


Wade, you might be interested in the Social context thread, which was part of a series of threads called The Infamous Five. In it, I suggested that gamer culture typically puts the social/friend/creative features of an activity in reverse order.

What interests me is that your basic point, that organizing a socially functional group is necessary, the biggest box, seems like such a revelation to members of our gamer culture. It shouldn't be. Every group of humans faces that very same thing, and in many cases it falls apart in some way and undermines the endeavor at hand. Why should role-playing be different? I think it has a lot to do with a lot of stuff that a lot of people aren't ready or willing to talk about. You can see some of the hitchy, edgy effects even in the mainly-positive spirit of those threads.

This is why the Social Contract is the biggest, most all-encompassing feature of the Big Model. I started hyping that point all the way back near the beginning of these discussions, because people kept talking about social things as if they were alternatives to aesthetic or procedural things. They aren't. They're the big box which encompasses all those other things, which are themselves expressions and features of the bigger-scale things.

As a possibly-relevant tangent ... both the FBI of the 1950s-60s, and the East German Stasi of the 1970s-80s were expert at disrupting the actions of activist/dissident groups. They'd find a person who was a member of the group, but disgruntled or malcontent in some way (usually something really petty), and first turn them into an informer. They'd learn all about the foibles and details of everyone in the group's power structure. Then, later, he or she would be prompted to attack the social fault-lines that existed in the group, whether someone sleeping with someone else, or telling the right lie to the right person such that it became a controversy or even an instant group assumption, or ripping off some money in a way that framed someone else. The honest members of the group often fell right into the trap, because their commitment to the endeavor actually powered their drive to root out or punish the people who were causing problems. It's basically high-school gossip-mongering at a refined, deadly level, and it works far too well.

I bring it up to reinforce the point that all human-group endeavors exist at the sufferance of the social dynamics of that particular group. Either those dynamics support what is going on, or they will eventually destroy what is going on. There isn't any way to shuffle the social dynamics out of the picture.

Best, Ron