There's been a lot of talk about Special Snowflake Settings and experience with a variety of Dungeon Masters. Hell, tens of thousands of people have used my Guide for New Dungeon Masters to start running games, including my wife.
She killed the entire party in her first game. It was awesome.
The problem is, all of these are polite guides and statements that allow people to continue to ignore the most important thing about gaming in the entire world forever.
The Special Snowflake SettingSo what's the problem with the special snowflake setting? Why does it even have a bad rap at all, much less one that's so bad that it's considered gauche to use it?
This is a problem with definitions. Chris Kutalik in his second post on Special Snowflake Settings describes an evocative mythical forest environment, and how enjoyable it was to play in such a unique and creative setting. This is in counterpoint to the extensive world-building and how nobody cares about what color hats people wear and how he's glad no one is complaining about that anymore, because good riddance.
This is, I believe, a conflation of two different things.
He notes that in Harald Wagner's game the setting was described with a series of bullet points. Other than those changes it was by the book Labyrinth Lord. The Special Snowflake Settings are not like that.
Instead Special Snowflake Settings required large amounts of knowledge, a significant buy-in before play, and had many firm and unchanging elements that were considered both integral to the setting and immutable. Why? Money and politics.
I'll give you an example of a broken special snowflake setting and how I fixed it.
The Specialist Snowflake Setting of All
The best example is, of course, the Forgotten Realms. In the beginning, it was not a Special Snowflake Setting. Some of the early role-playing game books by Greenwood and Jaquays are the best supplements in gaming. But it has turned into one of the worst offenders of the Special Snowflake Settings that exist, due to the weight of the accumulation of years and popular characters.
Drizzt and Elminster are the worst offenders. Others, like the human, Mirt the Moneylender, who's still alive even after the timeline was shifted forward a hundred years are also included. Why did that happen? Well, Mirt is one of the key figures of the setting (as one of the masked lords of Waterdeep, ooops, spoilers) and Wizards of the Coast, who owned the Forgotten Realms decided:
"Hey! This will sell better if we steal popular ideas from Ebberon. We can have dragonmarked people, except call them 'spell-plagued', and put in a bunch of cool stuff with our new cosmology like flying islands and add in stuff like Dragonborn, because people like dragons. Oh, we will also need to destroy all the necessary history Dungeon Masters feel they need to run the setting so that they don't have to worry about it, so we'll advance the timeline 100 years."
Of course, immediately this causes a problem for the fiction department who says
"Wait! The books that have Elminister and Drizzit in them sell the best. So we've got to find away around the attempt to wipe history away to keep these beloved characters around otherwise how will we keep the fiction line profitable?"
Also, they made Ed Greenwood cry. Which was a totally shi**y thing to do.
The point is, that these conflicting forces leave the actual Dungeon Master at the table struggling to run his sometimes years-long game, without being subject to the cognitive dissonance of needing to deal whatever changes are being wrought to the system based on the most recently published book. The setting ends up even more convoluted in order to reconcile all the conflicting needs of the forces of profit and politics.
Of course it isn't that the Dungeon Master has to adapt to the changes. But his players might expect him to, otherwise, what's the appeal of the Realms? And that's the damming thing—the thing that brings us to our original point, the downside of the Special Snowflake Settings is their immutability. You can't kill Drizzit, Eleminster bumping into your party seems like a cheap shot, you are no longer a player in a game, you're just waiting until you can play again once the Non-Player Characters leave.
How did I solve it in my Forgotten Realms Campaign? Simple.
Everything published in any Forgotten Realms book or story is simply a fiction of Ed of the Green Wood who lives in the dales, or R.A. Salvatore who lives near the Spine of the World. Their penny dreadfuls and stories are the popular myths of the day. There are no Harpers, No Elminster, no Drizzit. Those are just storybook characters that we tell children to make them feel safe at night.
The Special Snowflake Conflict
The point is, that Special Snowflake Settings are in direct conflict with the most important thing in gaming.
- They require a large amount of buy in at the start
- They contain numerous items that remove agency from the players
- They constrict play by having certain, immutable things
- It's impossible for any one person, off the cuff, to do something without conflicting against something that someone wrote somewhere.
All Special Snowflake Settings: Shadowrun, Star Wars, the Forgotten Realms, et. al. have these problems.
Let's talk about how that relates to play at the table.
A 16% Enjoyment Rate
That's a pretty terrible percentage of fun for our hobby. But it's exactly the experience that's related here.
She relates a sequence of convention games with Dungeon Masters who took scenarios and made them unfun. She talks about saying no. She talks about listening to the players. I talk about Player agency and the Quantum Ogre. Chris talks about Special Snowflake Settings.
We are all taking about the most important thing in gaming.
Gaming is a social activity where we engage in shared, structured play, for enjoyment.
The reason the my Guide for new Dungeon Masters, the Quantum Ogre, The Alexandrian's "Don't Prep Plots. . . (The Principles of RPG Villainy) and blog posts like The Surest Way to Become a Better Game Master get shared, and reshared, and shared again is because they are being shared by players because five out of six Dungeon Masters are still making people miserable at an event for the purpose of enjoyment.
- If you are already saying you're a good Dungeon Master, you are part of the problem.
- If you are already justifying your behavior, you are part of the problem.
- If you are already deciding I'm wrong because your players don't complain, you are part of the problem.
- If you are feeling defensive about anything being written or discussed here, that is the surest sign that you are part of the problem.
In fact, if you are doing ANYTHING but thinking about how you need to listen to your players and ways in which you can improve your game, you are part of the problem.
The reason people are talking about this is because you, the Dungeon Master, aren't listening. It's why people keep writing about this. It's why people moved away from more freeform games towards games for more rules. It's why so many books on advice for being a Dungeon Master include saying yes.
Anyone who ever in the history of the world who robbed a bank had a very good reason for doing so.
That doesn't make it right.
A Bit of the Solutions
What does this post do to help the situation?
I was struck by this quote in the article:
"I believe that all these GM's whose games were failures from the player's perspective actually wanted the players to have fun, the player characters to shine, and extraordinary magic to happen during the adventures. Unfortunately, they wanted this to happen along a specific path perhaps dreaming of the way they would love to play through the adventure themselves. And none of us gave feedback because frankly, after a GM has been deaf to your input for six or seven hours, it doesn't seem very worthwhile to tell them "Look, you're not listening."
This is an opportunity missed.
We keep writing over and over the same advice. The trouble is, that studies have shown, that the bottom 25% of people frequently believe that they are in the top 5% because they lack the mastery to understand what mistakes they are making, the middle 50% all believe that they are way above average, and the top 25% believe themselves to be below average, because they have enough insight into their mastery to tell where they went wrong.
The problem is, that the people who need this advice the most aren't going to listen to it. This is obvious by the experiences people have with public play Dungeon Masters. Clearly articles on the internet aren't cutting it. A refutation of every strange, bizarre, bad faith, misinterpretation of the "listen to your players and give them agency" has already been written. Seriously. If you post any sort of refutation in the comments, I won't have to reply with anything but a link.
So, the problem at this point is that people aren't giving the feedback to the actual Dungeon Masters in an assertive way. This is a concrete skill that can be taught. It isn't easy, but if we want Dungeon Masters to improve, taking the step to give them this feedback is important.
- We don't want to be aggressive and cause them to be defensive because this will cause them to reinforce their bad habits.
- We don't want to be passive and stop going to their games, because they won't realize that it's their responsibility that people don't want to play with them.
- And we don't want to be passive-aggressive and try to subvert their game, because this provides them justification for their behaviors and makes you feel better at the expense of everyone else.
We want to be assertive. This will involve some confrontation.
The X-Files Season 03 Episode 20 - Jose Chung's... by mutterz
Be part of the solution.
Also note that this assertive method of interaction also works for people engaging in passive-aggressive, sexist, racist or otherwise unacceptable behavior.
Steps to Assertive Interaction
- Ask For Time
- What this step is about is allowing the listener to prepare themselves to hear what you are saying. What you are really asking for is attention. This will give the Dungeon Master the opportunity to focus and really listen to what you are about to say, with their full attention
- Note that "No" is a perfectly acceptable response to this question. Your best bet in this case is to avoid playing games with people that don't want feedback.
- This has three essential components. First, you have to empathize with the listener. Second, you need to state the problem, and lastly you have to state what you want.
- If you do this, and you do it correctly, it will be one of their foundational Dungeon Mastering experiences and they will carry it with them to every game they ever run in the future.
- Empathize with the listener. This contextualizes your interaction as an assertive one instead of an aggressive one. In an aggressive confrontation, you're trying to win. An assertive conversation involves attempting to reach a balance, where your needs are met as well as theirs.
- State the problem. The important and hard thing to do at this point is let go of your anger and sorrow. Yes, you didn't have fun. But if you use this opportunity to lash out or attack the other person, you are back to an aggressive interaction.
- One good way of managing this interaction is to avoid the use of "you language" instead of saying "You said no and railroaded us." say "I felt we had a good idea/were ignored/had no choice in this scenario."
- It's important to stick to and mention facts, not judgements.
- Use assertive body language. Speak clearly and calmly. Face the other person.
- State what you want. This is where you make a specific quantifiable request for change of the persons behavior. It needs to be specific and quantifiable so that there's no confusion about whether or not the person is meeting your needs. If it's not, what they consider "Helping" or "Doing better" might not be.
- This is important because here the Dungeon Master is going to tell you why she made the choices you did. They will justify their behavior, and in doing so, give you the insight you need to understand why it's more important for them to meet their internal need, rather than focus on the enjoyment of the shared, social activity. It is important you listen closely so that you can understand what their motivation is.
- Once you've sussed it out, it's important to acknowledge their reason and validate it. Once you understand their reason, repeat it back to them to make sure you understand what they mean in your own words. In most cases, it's because the Dungeon Master has a specific idea about how their game is going to go. This is something they will likely feel very strongly about. After you've acknowledge it, you can state your original point, which is that "I felt ignored." or "I didn't feel like I got to make any choices" or "I felt like my enjoyment wasn't important to you."
- After repeating steps 3 & 4 until both sides have been heard and had their feelings acknowledged, and the other person either has or has not agreed to your specific and quantifiable request for a change in their behavior, thank them for their time.
- To manage your expectations, remember that no one who was wrong in an argument every went "Oh my goodness, you were so right! Thank you so much, I now see the error of my ways!" Frequently when confronted with their shortcomings, they become defensive and angry. If you follow these steps and allow them to speak their mind, they may defend their actions at the table, but if you're calm, the next time they encounter this situation, they can't help but remember what you said.
Using the example of the session where the players were playing goblins and the Dungeon Master didn't allow the players playing goblins to set fire to a building.
DM: "So, does anybody have any feedback?Oh, wait, that was the aggressive interaction.
PLAYER: "Yeah, I've got some feedback if you want to have it. F--- YOU AND YOUR S----- GAME!" [Flips table]
PLAYER:. . . "No the session was great" [Gets up and leaves the table]Oh, wait, that's the passive interaction. I'm sure I'll get it this time.
DM:"So, does any body have any feedback?"
PLAYER:"I'd like to mention some things, if you're interested in hearing them."
PLAYER:"It's clear you did a lot of work to prepare for this scenario. I'm sure it was pretty hectic for you to come to the convention and run it for us. I'd like to thank you for putting in that time, it means a lot to me." [pause]
PLAYER:"I'd like to talk about some of the things that happened during the game, is that ok?"
DM:"Sure, uhhh, what?"
PLAYER:"Well, I feel kind of sad. I felt like our plan to burn the house down was a real good one. When we were talking about it, I thought you looked uncomfortable, and I don't understand why we weren't able to burn it down. I think that would have been a real funny thing for the goblins to do. I feel it's important to listen to your players, to get an understanding of what they enjoy in a game. In the future, I'd like it if you listen to the players when they are excited about something and consider how you could adjudicate it instead of saying no."
DM:"Oh, well, If you did that, you would have missed all the treasure in the house and the fight wouldn't have been fair, and all that work would have been wasted!"
DM:"Well I put in a lot of preparation!"
PLAYER:"I hear that you spent a lot of time getting this game ready. I could tell, that's one of the reason I thanked you for it."
DM:"I don't want all that to go to waste, and you would have missed all of that treasure."
PLAYER: "Yes, its true. That preparation would not have been used today, and our characters would have missed that treasure. That would have been a good in-game consequence of our choices."DM:"You just wanted to make the game unfair. That idea would have ruined the challenge of the combat."
PLAYER:"I hear that you really value providing a fair challenge, and there were a couple of encounters that were really hard later on. That horse gave us a lot of trouble. But not every encounter has to be a tactical challenge. There were consequences to us doing it that way too, losing the treasure like you mentioned."
PLAYER:"So, all I'm asking is that next time the players ask for something that seems like they are excited, you say yes and adjudicate it fairly."
DM:"Yeah, well, I don't like my work going to waste."
PLAYER:"I think you'd eventually find a use for that material, either when you run the module again, or put somewhere else in another adventure. I'd like to thank you for taking the time to listen to me. I hope you at least consider what I said. Thanks for devoting the time and energy to run a game for us."
Maybe it won't do any good. But maybe it will change a bad Dungeon Master into a good one.
We'll never make any change if we don't try.