Why The GM Is Not A Sadist

When I was first starting the Play Passionately project I described the whole idea to a friend of mine.  I talked about being vulnerable and loading up characters with issues near and dear to our own hearts.  The response I got was something along the lines of, “That’s easy for you to say.  You are almost always the GM.  It’s safe there.”  I had somehow given the impression that in my play the GM is a sadist who simply indulges in emotionally torturing the players who incur all the risks of that vulnerability.  I realized I need to talk about Play Passionately from the point of view of the GM.

On the front page of this blog I describe two forms of social risk.  The first form is common to all creative endeavors: failure.  A given game might simply suck or be no-fun.  Different games distribute responsibilities among the players including the GM differently.  I often talk about a concept I call the Social Mandate.  The Social Mandate is the central core creative effort a player has to bring to a game in order for the rest of its systemic components to function as intended.

In Dungeons and Dragons the GM has the Social Mandate to bring a challenging and balanced adventure.  If he doesn’t, the game won’t be any fun.  Period.  This is not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s not that different from the GM’s Social Mandate in Dogs in the Vineyard which is to bring a morally and emotional engaging town.  If he doesn’t, the game won’t be any fun.  Period.

In the games I most enjoy GMing the GM carries a lot of creative risk because these games require the GM to be the organizational fuel that give the players the opportunity to engage the game in a meaningful manner.  As noted in Dogs in the Vineyard that’s bringing the town.  In Sorcerer it’s challenging the elements on the back of the players’ character sheets.  In My Life with Master it’s playing The Master in as threatening a manner as possible.

These are skills.  They’re all different skills.  So, like any other skill you might be bad at it.  You might fail.  And that’s okay.  That’s a good thing.  If nothing else it humbles the GM to one of creative equality with the players.  Everyone at the table has a Social Mandate and if you don’t bring it, the game will fail.

So how does the GM avoid failure?  With Dungeons and Dragons the GM has all kinds of mathematical tools at his disposal to ensure the right amount of challenge. But for games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Sorcerer the single greatest tool the GM has for bringing emotional and morally engaging content to the table is himself.  This brings me to the second element of social risk: emotional vulnerability.  That is, the game’s fiction might get personally painful.

As much as I want the players to load up their characters with issues that speak to them, as the GM I load up my scenarios with issues that speak to me.  I’m not happy with a Dogs in the Vineyard town until it disturbs me.  I’ve found that being an intellectual curiosity like a “what if” question out of Ethics 101 leads to weak play.  I know I’ve got a good town when contemplating it troubles me personally.  With Sorcerer I write until I’m scared.  I write until I’m utterly terrified of the Things slithering among the characters and the actions that have allowed such Things to exist.  For My Life with Master I find what in The Master I genuinely love.  The Master is defined as unlovable and yet it falls to the GM to love him.

Yes, the GM is often working with raw material collaboratively created by the players.  But for these games to work the GM must take ownership of that material.  He must infuse it with what is important to him, with what speaks to him.  That is how creative synergy is formed across the group.  The players have told you these things are important to them, now you must answer why they are important to you.

Then that material hits the table.  Do you know what comes next?  The players judge it.  The players look at what’s going on, judge it and take action.  These actions express their judgment and very often run counter to the feelings you had about the material going into the game.  You have not played passionately until you’ve built a character that you have nothing but love and sympathy for and have a player suddenly treat him with contempt.

This is why the GM is not a sadist.  In terms of emotional vulnerability the GM has to go first.  For play to challenge the players emotionally the fiction must be in motion.  While the players often create the raw material for the game’s fiction it’s the GM who first puts it into motion.  It’s the collision points between what the players are emotionally invested in and what the GM is emotionally invested in that gives Play Passionately its juice as well as its risks.

4 Responses to “Why The GM Is Not A Sadist”

  1. mythiccartographer Says:

    “In terms of emotional vulnerability the GM has to go first.”

    Brilliant. Fantastic. Amazing. Genius!

    I don’t mean to get hyperbolic here, but I really can’t overstate how much I value you articulating this. I shake your hand, sir. Thank you.

    • jburneko Says:

      I’m glad you found this useful. I always feel like I’m babbling incoherently whenever I write these things.

      For an literal application of this “going first” principle I suggest looking at Seth Ben-Ezra’s “A Flower For Mara.” That’s a jeepform inspired LARP about a relatives of a woman named Mara who has just died. Mara, however, is an active player. Her Social Mandate is to *prevent* the other characters from moving on from their grief. She is the antagonist.

      A component of the game is something called A Flower Soliloquy. When you think your character is ready to move on from his grief you give A Flower Soliloquy. The thing is, however, you don’t deliver it in character. You break character and tell the group a REAL LIFE story about a time you personally felt grief, loss or regret.

      So here’s the thing Mara has to give hers FIRST. That’s in the rules. This is very important because she’s about to spend the next few hours being an emotional antagonist. She has to EARN that right. She has to establish the “safe space” for the exercise by leading with her own vulnerability.

      Similarly there’s a Director player who does not participate in the fiction. His Social Mandate is purely one of co-ordination (i.e. when scenes start, end, etc). But he too has to give A Flower Soliloquy but he goes LAST. Again, that’s an explicit rule.

      So the game is book-ended with acts of emotional vulnerability by the two people who are “safe” in terms of the fiction. The person who is an active participant but not vulnerable to direct antagonism goes FIRST and the person who is removed from the fiction entirely goes LAST as a sign of respect. A “thank you” as it were.

      I would not consider the game socially stable if it were not for those two rules. They establish a critical window of emotional safety in an otherwise emotionally dangerous game.

  2. Seth Ben-Ezra Says:

    You know, I was thinking about A Flower for Mara as I read this. From the very beginning of the design, I knew that Mara and the Director needed to be required to give their Flower Soliloquies, based on the principle that everyone needs to be a part of the experience and, yeah, that the two players who are running the game have to share as part of their duties. Giving a Flower Soliloquy can be hard, and I didn’t want the supporting roles to somehow be exempt.

    A funny story, though: originally, the Director went first, given that I saw him as being primarily responsible for the game and therefore should go first in sharing his Grief. However, it felt symbolically off that Mara should carry her Grief for the entire game, and it felt ergonomically difficult that Mara should have her hands tied up by needing to carry a flower all game. Also, it felt more natural for player movement in the space for Mara to remain at her grave at the beginning of the game to talk, whereas it felt more natural for the Director to speak at the end and then gather everyone to Lower the Curtain on the game. So I swapped the positions, making Mara go first and the Director go last.

    A Flower for Mara has been an unusual design for me, in that I’ve discovered a lot of features of the game that I didn’t consciously put there. What you are describing is a hybrid, I guess. The general principle of leadership in vulnerability was conscious; tying the order to antagonism was not.

  3. oberonthefool Says:

    Good article.

    I still want to play Mara again some time… it’s a difficult sort of game to assemble a play group for.

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