Monday, March 11, 2024

An Ethnographic Observation on Adversarial Gaming

The year was 1979, June to be exact, or early July when your issue came in the mail. The Dragon magazine Volume III, No. 12, Issue 26. A small design article penned by Michael Crane, "Notes from a Very Successful D&D Moderator", page 27. A short piece, but in retrospect highly relevant to discussions of play style in role-playing games. 

Here is the opening paragraph,

In recent issues of The Dragon we moderators have had to listen to
the cute tricks of various D&D players who were apparently successful.
This is all fine, but I think that it’s about time that we moderators share
some of our good tricks with one another. Determined to right this
wrong (if this is published, that is) I have decided to divulge some of my
dark moderating secrets to all of you deprived moderators out there.
Though I am not sure how the issue arose, though I'm guessing it was in the letters section, it is clear How Crane is responding. He gives suggestion after suggestion of foiling players at their own game. He advises DMs to "Never underestimate your players!" and writes of counter-measures he took as his players ever schemed to outwit him as their DM. Ending the article with a hearty and good willed, "Here's wishing your players -8 on their next saving throw."

I thoroughly loved this little gem, but I share it here to highlight something that comes up from time to time. Adversarial DMing. Some take such an approach as a bad thing, or question if such a playstyle was ever encouraged by the game. Indeed it was! D&D was born out of wargames, and wargames had winners and losers. The difference between a referee in a war game and a D&D game is obvious to most. Referee's in a wargame arbitrate fairly between two opposing forces. But in D&D the DM IS the opposing force. However, he also wears a referee hat. There is a balance in all things, but this clear back and forth jousting between DMs and players is a part of the game I love. 

Having said that, I know there were those who had much different experiences of this style of gaming. And I will say that just being a "Killer DM" is not Adversarial Gaming. DMs can wantonly kill PCs if they wish, but that doesn't make much of a game. True Adversarial DMing is, at least in part, just what Crane captured in his little piece. 

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