This Circle is a Triangle

Inspired by StupidRanger’s original post and Donny’s response.  For those of you who don’t have time to read these posts, the basic idea of the first is that every gamer goes through several phases: Learning, overpowering the group, underpowering the group, and nitpicking the group to death, before settling on “It’s a game, let’s have fun.” Then Donny follows up with the idea that we learn style from the DMs we play under.

Both of them, however, are missing one important fact: The “Life Cycle of the DM” as defined by StupidRanger doesn’t always apply to people who came into the game as writers first. Certainly, I skipped most of the phases (okay, I might have had a Monty Haul phase back when I was running for my cousins, but that was while I still didn’t know how the game worked).

It’s mainly because many of us have already done this in our writing. We learn early on that nobody likes a story in which the players have it too easy. Then we figure out that too hard doesn’t always work either: unless you’re particularly good at this style, killing off characters regularly wreaks absolute havoc with the reader’s attachment, and making them perpetually helpless tends to result in reader numbness. (Like I asked in my riff on message fiction, have you ever read The Jungle?) And tedious minutiae—don’t even get us started. While it’s a bad idea to have someone with a quiver of twenty-five arrows fire twenty-six, most of our readers will respond to long, careful tabulations of everything possible not by being impressed by our skill with detail, but by getting bored and wandering off.

As a result, we tend to skip the steps in the Circle. This does not, however, mean that we don’t have our own phases. Gaming-first GMs often also run through this cycle, sometimes in parallel to the one detailed on StupidRanger. So here it is, for you: The Triangle Progression of the Writer-GM.

  1. Learning the game. This is as much the purview of the writer-GM as the gamer-GM; after all, you have to start somewhere.
  2. The Tyranny of the Railroad. This is back when we’re still used to being writers first and gamers second, and we don’t understand why anyone would want to deviate from our beautiful, carefully written plans. So instead, we make it impossible for anyone to run away from the plot. Enemies can’t be negotiated with, only fought. The PCs have to visit X locations in Y order to get Z items. In short, it’s rather like a retro video game with slightly more customizable characters.
  3. DMPCing. This can happen coterminously with railroading, or on its own. It’s a similar issue, though: We have a really, really nifty character idea, and we want to show the people we’re playing with just how Nifty it is. LOOK AT IT! ADMIRE IT! This creates the DMPC, bane of many players: a character whose main role seems to be to show the group just how much Better/Plot-Important/Unique than them he is.
  4. The Rule of the Players. This is usually a rebound from one of the above phases, or from having experienced a game in which the DM was in one of the above phases. We realize that no matter how lovely our world is, how well-written our plot, it’s not going to exist without the party. So we go out of our way to accommodate them, even going so far as to present our plot hooks as “If you could please look over here, this is a problem that you might be able to solve…” We adjust our styles to theirs, we look the other way when they create the PC equivalent of the aforementioned DMPC, we abandon entire plot threads because it’s not something they’re ready for.
  5. The Puzzle Game: This is rather like the Rule of the Players, only a bit more passive-aggressive. We have plots we want to use, but we don’t want the group to feel like we’re going to push them down the path, so we go the other way and force them to try to figure out where they’re supposed to go. Often, we’re trying so hard to keep them from having an easy time of it that we forget that they don’t know everything we do.
  6. Equilibrium: Around this point, we’ve come to a balance. We have plot hooks, but we know how to tailor them to the people we’re dealing with; we know when to cling to our plans, and when to let the PCs choose their own path. At this point, we reach the “Collaborative Fiction With Dice” phase.

As we grow and change, we find ourselves working through these phases—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in sequence, sometimes skipping a few because we already know better. Where are you on the path right now?

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