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.