Two pernicious memeplexes are conspiring to ruin tabletop gaming. On the one hand you have players demanding DMs be stripped of their power to adjudicate, and on the other you have DMs lamenting players who refuse to follow their pre-planned story. Both of these issues have a common cause rooted in the larger culture. While we here at Gaming While Conservative would prefer to fix gaming as a naturally occurring consequence of fixing the larger culture in which it resides, we are forced to deal with the world as it is rather than how we wish it to be – we’re not leftists after all! Which means that we’ll just have to fix the larger culture by fixing tabletop gaming culture instead.
No rule set can ever cover every eventuality. Well, that’s not entirely true. All a ruleset needs to cover every eventuality is a rule that, “any situation not expressly dealt with by these rules is subject to the ruling of the DM at the table, who should – and I can’t believe I have to write this down in a game ostensibly written for people aged 12 and up – consult with players to ensure that his rulings are fair, reasonable, and consistent”. You could include an ancillary rule that, “Players who find themselves gaming with a DM that cannot consistently issue rulings that are fair, reasonable, and consistent, should pack up their books and walk away from the table.”
Those two rules are the unspoken backbone of every tabletop game, be it D&D or some lesser iteration of the oeuvre. They have largely gone unspoken for the same reason that no rulebook has ever decreed that players should not poop in their hands and smear the resulting diarrhea all over the gamebooks*. What we’re talking about now is not actually a tabletop gaming thing, but an adulthood thing. The controlling left has done such a masterful job of infantilizing the adult population that erstwhile adults don’t understand how to comport themselves with a little dignity at the tabletop.
Instead of building better DMs, the gaming companies have sought to build more programmatic rulesets expressly deisgned to hogtie DMs. They catered to the player base that demanded the game companies do what the players themselves refused to do – rein in the admittedly all-too-common phenomenon of DMs who abuse their sacred right. The downside of this thirty-five year old process is that it has ruined gaming. It’s turned DMs into little more than CPUs tasked with carrying out the programming written by people who write the rulesets. It stifles the DM at the table. The handcuffs of rules prevents him from creating any new challenge that has not already been foreseen by a latte-drinking beardo in a nice Seattle office getting pressured by Hasbro (my least favorite bro) to sell, Sell, SELL!
Interestingly, better DMs doing their DMing as adults rather than automatons would result in a better gaming experience for players. Given the strictures under which DMs are forced to preform, it’s no wonder that their chief complaint is players who won’t get with the program – they’ve been given programs to process and spend all their time creating instances of those programs. The last thing they want is players running off-script.
It takes a lot of time to prepare an instance of a program. You have to anticipate which of the rules will be needed at the table. A DM who prepares an underwater adventure, and one bound by the official Player’s Guide Rules for Underwater Adventure, can be forgiven when the players decide instead to venture to the Cloud City of the Storm Giant King instead. The DM has not prepared for aerial adventures. He is not familiar enough with those rules – he spent all his boot-up time filling his RAM with underwater rules! In a culture where players grant the DM the lee-way to wing-it, their decision would be an opportunity and a challenge, but it wouldn’t be a problem. It would be an excuse for the DM to create something new and unexpected and wonderful and rewarding and enriching for everyone at the table.
Those poor benighted DMs playing rulesets that promise to cover all eventualities run up against the one eventuality that no ruleset can cover – players deciding to do something the DM did not expect. It grinds the game to a halt. That, or it forces the DM to use heavy handed tactics to force the players to follow the path he has prepared for them. “Sorry guys, there’s a thunderstorm so you have to go to the undersea kingdom of my Mary Sue elves. Maybe next time.” Which is the flip-side of the first pillar.
That’s the price we pay for rulesets that handcuff DMs. Don’t get me wrong, rulesets are a necessary starting point for every game. You have to have that common foundation of expectations before shooting off in your own direction. The argument that rules don’t have to cover everything is not an argument that you don’t need rules a’tall.
Which brings us back to an understanding that the two pillars of bad gaming – players handcuffing DMs and DMs shoving players down adventures that amount to pretty hallways – actually rest on the same firmament. It’s a firmament of demands that everything in the game cater to you and damn the other side’s needs. It’s a firmament that if it isn’t fair then it isn’t right. It’s a firmament that instant gratification is the best gratification. It’s a firmament that if people won’t cooperate that you can always appeal to a higher power to make them do what you want them to do.
The name of that firmament is childishness, and it’s spread from the culture at large into tabletop gaming. For generations the leftoids who fear freedom and responsibility have suppressed all attempts to raise normal adults who can function in a world where adulthood means having the freedom to do what you want and the sense of responsibility to understand that what you want isn’t always what is best for you. While we can hope to have but little influence in the fight to rid Hollywood and Universities and Publishing and Government and Media and now even Corporate America, we as tabletop gamers can push back against the culture by demanding that the people sitting at the gaming table engage in the freedom to experiment and exercise the responsibility to do so…uh, responsibly.
That sentence got away from me, but you know what I mean.
Don’t kid yourselves. Gaming like an adult does not mean having whiskey on the table or rolling dice to see how well you sexed up that NPC. It means having the freedom to do the former while exercising the maturity to avoid the latter.
*Though, to be fair, players could always cut out the middleman and just buy Paizo products, which have already smeared diarrhea all over every page of the gamebook.