On the Dungeons & Dragons Problem

Recently Gus wrote this rather comprehensive article about the history of gold for experience and utilizing it in modern play. He discusses murder-hoboism in this context and ends with this statement.
Murderhobos aren't a problem unless there's a prescribed end point to you campaign and a set of scenes that the GM is willing to force to get there.  
Which is sort of a signal drum for the OSR ascetic to rally around and decry. For good reason, yet it leads to a certain myopic view that doesn't fit the needs of a lot of players.

The problem is that logistically, Dungeons & Dragons is a social tribal ritual. There's nothing insightful about this statement. It is simply factual. It involves a group of people, led by a member of that group, who follow a strict set of rules to have a shared experience.

I speak as plainly as I can. This requires a group of people, and a facilitator.

The "Group of People" while somewhat of a challenge, is a surmounted problem due to the influx of new wave Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts. Critical role, HarmonQuest, and increased televised exposure have translated into more people buying and playing Dungeons & Dragons then at any point in history.

Secondarily This requires* a facilitator. The facilitator, and I mean this in the most clinical sense, must act as Shaman for the group. This is not mysticism. Factually, the way humans structure their societies include the ideas of wise men, artists, priests, and entrepreneurs who's purpose is to direct and lead group experiences. The most ancient of titles is aidraz. Ealdormann who are, fundamentally, the people in front.

The Dungeon Master is the people in front.

This ipso facto is the problem.

Trivially, it requires someone who can manage group power dynamics and someone who is emotionally mature enough to take on the responsibility of facilitating the exercise as a neutral arbiter, without perverting it by their own unexplored or unmanaged psyche.

Again, concretely, this translates into things such as: failing to kill characters due to fear of—or inability to manage negative feelings about—confrontation. Failure to provide real stakes trivializes the importance of the shared experience. If failure doesn't matter then it is not a very engaging vision.

However, people do not like to fail!

I know this is a sequence of obvious statements, but it's rarely addressed in this manner. Here is the problem.

Almost universally, people running a game have little relevant training in acting as a shaman. They aren't versed in social power structures, conflict resolution, negotiation techniques, clinical theory, psychology, et. al. This makes nearly everyone who has a game subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It may be difficult or impossible for them to articulate what is actually occuring during play.

An example, from the 5th Edition Group on Facebook
tldr; dm is stole my social security money because I missed a session due to mental problems and is now punishing my player character because of it
I do not want to leave his game because it's my first ever DnD character. He has threatened multiple times to have other players play my character who are known to be reckless and have been through countless characters due to their reckless and stupid choices. He also stated that I will be getting 3d10 upon awaking from my next sleep in game. He stated as well that no matter what happens to my character now, he will go to his versin of hell in his world. My character is lawful good. 
I do not understate my case. Examples abound**!

Granted, the readers of this blog, and indeed most gamers will skew higher in IQ, which as an objective determiner, helps with the process of acting as Shaman. Generally, you would want your spiritual guide to have at least a reasonably high assessment of general functioning.

Yes, you probably can articulate what occurs and what is relevant in play. Your ability to do so is not relevant.

So many people are playing D&D now. Six million people have watched Critical Role. I haven't watched Critical Role. But somewhere six million other people did.

Is there an non-arrogant way to say this? You got a lot of dumb monkeys throwing shit at each other. The first time this happened in the early 80's, most of the experiences, weirdness, and offensiveness about these failures that drove people away, (which the OSR communally have extensively documented). The second time, this didn't happen.

Because following a linear path and killing monsters in battles you are supposed to win with extensive objective rules for in game actions is wayyyy easier then leading a group of people to a  powerful shared vision quest. Which, again, is just the literal statement of fact. There's a quest, and everyone imagines a shared vision.

This isn't a slam. The linear paths do provide superficially similar experiences to the vision quests, at the cost of being heavily scripted and naturally neutering player agency. And they are simple to use. You start at the top and work your way down to the bottom. We all learned that in school! Thanks Uncle Sam! In addition, neither the players nor the Dungeon Master has to seriously consider the risks of failure. Nobody likes to lose.

The independent games movement (indy games) and the Old School Renaissance have been approaching the core issues like two halves of a turning fork, with most of the hard work being done by a few singular innovators (e.g. Vincent Baker for fronts, ChicagoWiz and Sham for the one-page Dungeon Template), who are then widely copied and iterated upon.

The work, of course, being producing usable tools that assist the facilitators in running a meaningful vision quest. Concretely, tools that insure agency, allow access to the collective unconscious***, and provide enough structure to create emergent gameplay.

It is this emergent, unplanned chaos that makes the vision a quest. The unknown self-developing reality that we auger, provides a dragon of chaos, again, literally just the darkness and the unknown, to threaten our success. More directly; the adventure we recount had an actual threat from the unknown that one overcomes. That unknown is unknown and meaningful, because it is emergent, making it truly unexpected and chaotic. A literal real threat from the void.

Fifth edition makes a surprising and brave attempt. Granting the Dungeon Master an official mantle of power. Dungeon masters are in charge. Coated thick with warnings and explanations of value, along with examples, and plenty of guidance, with a stern warning about not being dicks. Don't do it! Being a dick is bad! Then it takes an extra step and spends thousands of words talking about what that concretely means  in terms of play. In addition to an official twitter to interact with the entire world of players in a conversation about how to engage with the game.

That power people have invested in the Authority has been granted back to us, TSR is dead, Long live TSR. Many squander it, but we become better and better at creating a world and tools where that becomes a much less attractive situation.

Hi! This is literally my job now. The end of the year came with surprise unemployment, along with the rest of the trials of the past few years, cancer, divorce, custody fights, the death of my father, and let's not forget surprise unemployment! I'm not complaining though: if you liked this article, you should feel completely free of any guilt if you're not supporting me on Patreon! Or, if you're not into that, I really suggest you check out Megadungeon and some of my other publications!

Hack & Slash 

*  Of course we are all aware of "DMless" systems like mythic, and play against automated or programmed opponents (Arkham Horror, etc.), but less clinical and more colloquial, they lack tactical infinity, which really places them into a different category. tl; dr, Dungeons & Dragons cannot exist without the Dungeon Master

** Just trivially taking apart this post; "He also stated that I will be getting 3d10 upon awakening from my next sleep in game". Ignoring the fact that this is nonsensical, what was the actual social situation at the moment that the DM communicated that. Is that what he said? Under what context are the conversations occurring?  I'm certain that all statements aren't represented accurately. Digging down into meaning could require thousands of words.

*** If you're wondering how you know if an adventure is tapping into the collective unconscious, it's almost always when you feel something is really cool, alien, and interesting. Patrick Stewart and Arnold K. are virtual machines that act as conduits to our collective psyche and nightmares. A large focus on the "Weird" in the OSR is that it's a very direct way to tap into things that resonate with the unconscious of the audience. Specific hooks redirect to vague outlines of memories in childhood, movies seen once on VHS, dimly remembered, a cloud of knowledge just out of our vision, primal and modern fears.


  1. I agree with your general concept of D&D as a shamanistic shared vision - but I really don't think it's as hard to run that group as you're suggesting here. It might not be for everyone, of course, but even if one isn't wringing hands about the minutia of set-piece combats working with 'RAW' and such the mechanical structure of D&D's rules provide a strong set of aides to the GM to avoid both being a jerk and to allow risk.

    I don't think running an open world game is much harder then running Hoard of the Dragon Queen or some other linear slash fest - it just takes slightly different lessons and mechanics to do well, and 5th Edition (despite it's peppy talk and some good elements leaning in the direction of location based adventure) leaves out a lot of those ideas. It's not that the OSR should decry scene-based play, but that if one is frustrated by its failures there is a large amount of good thinking about how to run an alternative location based game in the OSR - and it's stuff (like GP=XP) that can easily be adapted to 5E despite WotC's stumbles on the issue.

  2. As I read your article I couldn't help but think of Glorantha. Both Gloranthan RuneQuest and HeroQuest Glorantha are explicitly about shared vision quests as part of the RPG experience.

  3. Good read, but I am unsure if you are arguing for DMs to be completely morally absent, and if you think that there are situations where "good dnd" can happen when the DM is morally present

  4. Also, sorry to hear about your unemployment, I hope your revenue stream stabilizes soon!

  5. Excellent post, aligns with my revelation about the ritual nature of the hobby after reading Interaction Ritual Chains. I had been thinking of DM as priest, per IRC's language, but shaman is probably more accurate.

  6. Huh. I don't think I've ever drawn the parallel between RPGs and tribal vision quests...though I have certainly discussed the value of ritual at the game table. Something to chew on, certainly!

    This may explain part of my fascination with shamanism, though it's been close to two decades since I last studied the subject. Might need to break out my old books and start making some notes.
    ; )

  7. This is a much better thrust at what I was awkwardly grappling with in Gus' comments. More tools for new people should help people learn faster. In theory.

  8. Let me try to replay this in my own words.

    RPGs are a group interaction. They can be both fun and deeply meaningful if done right.
    Game masters have a duty to make it work and the greater their skill and wisdom in the social arena as well as game expertise the better this all works.
    Game structures can help the GM or make their work harder.
    D&D the 5th has opened up to the strengths of a wise GM at the risk of allowing the less wise to produce a poor impression on the uninitiated.


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