Power and Authority in Dungeons and Dragons
I recent tweet by @DungeonCommandr on the ties between colonialism and D&D spurred me to post something separate so I could respond comprehensibly, I have trouble following responses to tweets that are multiple posts long.
I agree with his assertion that there is a power relationship in the game that mirrors that of colonialism, that it is baked into the game, and that for the most part DM’s do good for their players. I also agree that this doesn’t excuse us from looking at the imbalance in power.
The way I deal with this asymmetry is through:
1. Transparency 2. Agency 3. Responsibility and 4. Bounded Randomness.
I also deal with race and gender issues explicitly by discussing:
A. Race non-specificity and
B. Gender openness
I’ll deal with each individually.
1. Transparency: I discuss everything I will discuss here with the players before we game, so they know the score from day one. It takes some time but its important.
The very first thing I tell them is that I run an open ended (sandbox) 1e D&D game, where they can go wherever they want and do what they want. The game is fast paced to help with immersion, constant stopping and starting to deal with looking up rules and making group decisions breaks immersion, takes you out of the role playing experience. You CAN play collaboratively, but for the flavor of D&D I like, it is much easier to give the authority to the DM.
Also, Since the game is open ended, I need the ability to make on the spot decisions about novel situations and the implementation of regular game rules, anyone who has run an open ended game like this knows that there are hundreds of these adjudications in every regular game. This was known, BITD in wargaming as “Free Kreigspeil”, the idea being that the DM has to be able to make adjustments, discard rules, make up rules, etc. to address the almost endless possibilities in open ended game play.
This is a great strength of the game, and what separates it from video games and regular board games, and I think it is worth preserving, even though it has its risks.
I also tell them the game is deadly, as death and the risk of death adds to immersion and creates tension and excitement. They usually run a PC and a henchman they can take over if their PC dies to allow continuous play. That essentially gives me the power of life and death over their character, and I believe that giving me that power makes the game better.
That’s the justification for the DM having the power, I address the asymmetry with:
2. Responsibility: I am responsible for determining the consequences of the players actions, I don’t get to hide behind the rules. Every rule is *interpreted* and *implemented* by me, not the game. If you have the power, you have the responsibility. This is important as it is easy to hide behind the rules and pretend “its just the system, not me”, but you are implementing and interpreting the system, so it is you. I can’t see having the power without the responsibility.
3. Agency: As there is an asymmetry, there is an even greater need to give players agency, and a voice in case the DM is abusing their power. Players are told that, IN GAME, my rulings stand, they can ask about them, but other than a short discussion its tabled for after the game. However, after the game we have had long discussions of the rules and why they are interpreted the way they are. Everyone has to agree to a change, and we have changed/introduced rules as a result. The players have to have an avenue for appeal, but it isn’t in game, it’s after. The weight is on keeping my rules as is, I have researched them, playtested them and I know how they hang together, but they are open to change.
4. Bounded Randomness. This is a particularly important one, as a DM if I make ALL of the decisions then I tend to fall into patterns, and the players get bored as I get predictable. D&D addresses this through bounded randomness, allowing the dice to decide within limits. If it’s completely random it becomes impossible to get any better at it, and as this is a game I find that undesirable. You have to have enough structure to make the game *somewhat* predictable.
Whenever I can’t make a decision I roll dice for it, and I inform the players of the odds before I roll, and I roll in the open in a dice box. I don’t change rolls once they are made. I roll for NPCs and monsters in the open as well, so the players see the results. Whether or not to roll, and what to roll, is mine to decide, but once rolled the dice are final. They know all of this from day one. So there is some independent structure to this, it isn’t all me, and there is some predictability to it.
This provides some degree of fairness, and when coupled with the ability to discuss outcomes after the game, gives them a degree of agency and ability to give input. PCs have complete control over their character’s actions, I have no say in that.
So through transparency, responsibility, agency and bounded randomness I justify the power asymmetry, limit it, give the players an avenue for appeal and a degree of both freedom and structure that creates immersion.
With respect to race and gender, two areas where power imbalances are keenly felt and thus should be addressed separately, I tell my players this.
A. Race non-specificity
1. “Human” encompasses all of the races, e.g. Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. There are no game mechanical differences between different kinds of human
2. Players determine their race in game
3. The humanoid races do NOT stand-in for any real world races (in my game world they were all concocted in the laboratories of wizards)
B. Gender openness: I tell my players that in D&D:
1. Characters can be gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever the player desires
2. Players do not have to play their gender identity, they can play anything
I think you need to take the power of being a DM seriously, and address how this power structure is to work, but do so in the beginning so the players can “buy in”. If they do, and if you are committed to revisiting things if there is a sense that things aren’t fair, then the relationship can be productive and positive.