by Mike Shea on 2 March 2015
We witnessed an interesting dynamic in the PAX Prime 2014 Acquisitions Incorporated game. We saw a situation that we, as dungeon masters continually looking to improve our game, rarely get to see so clearly captured.
Watch the video at the 1:18:30 mark. Patrick Rothfuss, the best-selling fantasy author, min-maxes like a champ. He kills villains, dances down a wall, and plants a potion of alchemist's fire in the pocket of another villain all in a single turn. During this sequence Scott Kurtz calls Chris Perkins out on the perceived favoritism.
"I use my axe...I fail. Who's next?"
"Hey Viari! It's your birthday! The entire cast of Battlestar Galactica is here to wish you a happy birthday! Handjobs for everyone!"
Before we get too far into this topic, consider reading the Id DM's excellent analysis of the Pax Prime 2014 D&D game in which he questions whether this game is even a D&D game at all. It's a fascinating analysis.
The PAX Acquisition Incorporated game is the most well publicized D&D game in existence. It likely brings thousands of new players to the game. Chris Perkins is a master of the craft of DMing and he couldn't ask for a more amazing group of players. And yet we can see in these games some of the very same situations we often see in our own.
We can take a peek behind the curtain in this fantastic discussion with Chris Perkins where he discusses what it is like running the most popular single D&D campaign of all time.
Chris Perkins is clearly a "say yes" sort of DM. He lets Rothfuss's character, Viari, run up the side of a balloon and still get to attack with two weapons. This game is a show after all and needs to drip with the fantastic to keep us all entertained. The great thing about Perkins saying yes is that it costs nothing to do and steps up the entire game. The Acquisitions Incorporated characters fight in giant robots, they become masked lords of Waterdeep, they travel through the outer planes on a flying house. They're superheroes.
With Patrick Rothfuss, we have a player who appears to be more than willing to ask permission for just about anything. He's the best (or the worst) player for a DM who says yes. Want to run up the side of a balloon? Sure! Want to plant an explosive on a villain with a bonus action? Sure! We've all likely had players like this in our game, players more than willing to take whatever agency the DM is willing to give, rules be damned. For these players, getting the DM to say yes becomes its own sort of game.
For less improvisational players, this situation can look like favoritism. Why does Viari get to do all the cool shit? How come he doesn't have to play by the rules? Why do his turns take so long? How come all I do is swing an axe and miss and we're back to the superheros again?
From the point of view of Perkins and Rothfuss, there's nothing wrong going on. Rothfuss is asking if he can do something, Perkins says "sure" because it sounds awesome. From the point of view of Scott Kurtz it begins to look like Rothfuss gets the world and everyone else is a chump. The situation was so stark that the latest Acquisitions Incorporated 2015 video suggests that Rothfuss had some sort of blackmail on Perkins.
This happens in a lot of games. Good DMs get excited for the characters and their heroic antics. They want to see PCs do awesome shit. So they go with the flow. They say "yes" a lot and an enterprising player learns how to use this to do lots of awesome shit. Meanwhile, the rest of the party feels like bit-part actors. Either they're sticking closely to the rules or they simply don't have the wild imagination of the author of the Kingkiller Chronicle.
We can watch out for this in our own games. We need to ensure that everyone at the table gets the opportunity to look cool, not just the most charismatic player. We need to examine the situation and make subtle corrections if the spotlight is focused too narrow. We might start to make life a little harder for the enterprising PC and offer more heroic suggestions and opportunities to the less enterprising players in the group.
In our own games we might say "hold on a moment" to shift away from the player hogging the spotlight and turn it back to the quiet ones. We might even have to say "no, but" once in a while instead of "yes, and".
Above all, a we need to see the problem in the first place, understand its origins, and take steps to correct it.
Being a great DM means constantly and continually reviewing and honing our craft. It means we will be learning how to become better DMs the rest of our lives. It means we'll have some good games and some bad ones but we'll always learn something. Watching a professional like Perkins is a great way to see how a master runs a game and how even a master can struggle to keep the spotlight moving from player to player.