Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Which The Warlock Postulates Verbage and Bondage...

In my recent games, it's become more and more apparent that games have begun to fall into a continuum of sorts, when talking about set pieces.

As most English teachers can tell you, verbs come in two sorts: active and passive. Active verbs imply some sort of action: run, jump, climb, eat, eviscerate, disembowel, etc. Passive verbs come from the declension of the infinitive "to be"--is, are, was, were...all of these are passive voice verbs.  Writers typically try to avoid passive voice verbs, by and large, but there are several times where passive voice may be more appropriate to a situation or character.   

As GMs, we all like to think our games run in the active voice, but rarely is that truly the case. Rather, we're often most content to be on the receiving end of our entertainment. The start of "The Flood" provides a great example of this phenomenon. It seems like a very active-voice introduction--steam wagon battles and ghost-rock bombs drive the plot forward at breakneck speed. But, in actuality, the PCs are merely witnesses, and not participants in the majority of the action. While the Great Rail Wars reach their culmination, the PCs get to watch their NPC counterparts hog the spotlight. This isn't meant to be a knock against the campaign--my players have loved it and I've really enjoyed running it for them--but for all the high stakes, the PCs are skating around under the radar rather than rolling with the movers and shakers.

Much has been made of so-called "sandbox" gaming, where the plot is entirely driven by PC actions and motivations. And, truly, in ideal terms, that would provide a more active gaming experience. However, this requires significant buy-in from all players at the table, with prep work spread across numerous people.

Anthony Bourdain clearly has
the Two-Weapon Fighting edge...
My favorite foodie, Anthony Bourdain, describes the act of eating as a fundamentally submissive, passive experience. Done correctly, Bourdain claims, a diner should feel comfortable enough to hand their minds and palates over to the chef and simply savor. The chef, in essence, dominates the show, determining each flavor, each texture, and each experience as they intend it to be.

Perhaps in this vein, good game mastery, like the act of cookery, should fundamentally be a dominant, active act? But then, what of the active player, eager to break off in new directions? They're in a different position than the eater, whose role has intrinsically less input. Should a gamer be penalized for positive actions that add to a game? Of course not!

Fun...and good for theorizing on
proper Game-Mastery?
As strange as it is to say, the best analogy I can provide would actually come from BDSM, of all places. If a game master is a dominant, then the ideal player would be a submissive that struggles and resists, providing input and suggestions that provide intrigue and nuance to the established norms of the game. And, as one might imagine, the best Dungeon Master (in both senses of the term) is the one that knows when to back off, and let the players play.

As with all things, balance and variety serve as the keystone. While a player might be dominant in one game, they may come off as submissive or passive in another. Similarly, a quality GM should be able to alternate control of the game, passing dominance back and forth amongst players, all the while loosely holding the reins of the ongoing story.


  1. I can't say that I'd ever considered it in this perspective, but you have a point. The top provides a range of experiences and sensation for the bottom, just a DM provides scenarios and situations for the players. In both cases the 'master' can be reasonably expected to determine the experiences to be delivered, either through request from (or consideration of) the 'submissive' participant(s).

    Fascinating, thank you for bringing this idea to my attention.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Keith!

    I had honestly been debating whether to go so far as to make the actual analogy between BDSM and the game-table, but the balance between dominant and submissive roles was so fitting to the game-table, that I decided it would be worth the somewhat head-scratching controversy.

    I'm currently working on a few game-master centric essays to accompany my "The Pendulum Method" in an upcoming book. I may just have stumbled upon my third essay topic without even realizing it.


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