Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The DM is a Shut Eye

post on Prismatic Wasteland recently outlined, fairly well I think, the basic procedure of playing an OSR or Classic style of game. However, I have some problems with their prescription for a "modified procedure," and unfortunately to get at them I have to do some theory. This is going to be my most pretentious post to date.

The dungeon master, or at least my ideal one, is what Orson Welles referred to as a shut eye. As Welles explains here, a shut eye is a psychic who has forgotten its a grift and begun to believe in their own "powers." They have entered a state of self delusion because of the advanced nature of their process. They are able to apprehend the factors that used to be consciously thought about so quickly that they can begin the grift without thinking. But what is the grift a dungeon master is pulling?

They are trying to convince the players of what Matt Colville calls the secondary world.* Many players, myself included, want the experience of interacting with a fantasy world that feels real and that reality is a trick. However, like the shut eye, the trick works best if the dungeon master is practicing a self delusion. All of us do this to a degree, because it is necessary to the very act of imagining. 

Nightwick regular and former blogger Cole calls the imaginative self-delusion "my dog barks some." To borrow the example but make it D&D specific, the DM rolls on a table and sees that the PCs have encountered a dog. From having the vibe of the setting and the scenario they are running, the DM just upon seeing the existence of this dog in the table knows the type of dog but does not consciously choose it. Colville in his video above talks about looking in on an imaginary dragon and seeing what it's doing. The incident of the adventure, the way a particular question the players ask is answered, the actions of an NPC are thing the DM "knows" without consciously deciding. Some, or indeed all of us because we are mortal, may need to take some processing time to "reveal" this unconscious answer, but it is important that the answer be unconscious or, at the very least, decided beforehand.

If you, like me, want the experience of this kind of violent fantasy tourism, the fictional reality of the secondary world must be maintained for engagement. If it no longer feels real, I get bummed out. Obviously it was never real, but my ability to pretend its real for the purpose of the game requires the self delusion of a shut eye.

One of the easiest ways for that to become punctured is for the DM to ask me, the player, questions about the setting. I locate the secondary world largely in the DM's head, and if they are suddenly asking for my input it reveals the artifice. They are not looking into an imaginary world that is locked in some portion of their midbrain, they're just making it up. The modified procedure, where the DM questions the PCs back about in fiction details, would cause me to be less engaged because I have stopped treating the secondary world like a world and started to treat it as something that is fake. I'm asked to operate the strings on the hubcap that was, moments ago, a flying saucer. I do not take joy in the co-creation of the fiction. Rather, my actions are revealed to be meaningless.

Maybe this is why I studied history instead of english. 

* I do not actually condone things he talks about in the video such as rebalancing encounters on the fly or quantum ogreing, but hopefully that is also clear from this post.


  1. You do you, as the saying goes. I'd much rather play with folks who want the whole group to contribute to worldbuilding, even if it's just small personal details about their own characters. And that's equally true whether I'm GM or player.

    Different tastes. Neither form of play is inherently better than the other.

    1. There is a difficulty with any writing medium such as this where on the one hand I don't want to sound like I'm saying mine is the only way. On the other, putting in a number of qualifications makes the writing weaker. My academic training has taught me to deal better with declaring things rather than hedging, but I did not mean to imply mine is better just that I prefer it.

    2. "Different tastes" is just a way to end conversations in a kind of fake "truce" where nobody actually has to voice their opinion, have their views challenged, or think.

      Your tastes may run towards broccoli, and mine to crystal meth, but no sane person would say that our preferences are equivalent.

  2. In our game we rotate DMs every 3 games which makes our world some kind of Jungian/Campbell myth archetype I guess.

    Ha, you still owe a Joesky tax though. ;~)

    1. I think I do enough content content on this blog to make up for it :p

  3. Seems to me you're talking about immersion in the game world and maintaining the players suspension of disbelief.

    1. Yeah. I think the "modified model" on Prismatic Wasteland has the potential to break that for me and I hadn't seen that discussed before.

  4. I studied (and now teach) English, but I'm still with you on this. The whole "shared mythopoesis" thing IMO only works for one-shot games. As you say, in an ongoing campaign, I think it's best to let the DM decide on what's true or not of the world. If players want their characters to deviate form the norms, then their PCs are deviants or oddballs in some way.

    And by this I don't mean small things like the player assuming there is a certain piece of furniture in a room that the DM didn't describe, or the PC's family customs. I'm talking about stuff like the Prismatic Wasteland post is considering from the AW examples like there being tribes of nomadic under-Disney dwellers in the setting.

    I do think that adding a "DM interrogates the players" phase to the basic procedure is required, but it's mostly clarifying questions to make sure the players' intent is understood. Not to build world details.

    1. "And by this I don't mean small things like the player assuming there is a certain piece of furniture in a room the DM didn't describe..."

      The difference here might be worthy of its own post, but I think it's beyond just the size of the item. If the player asks "is X there" then the DM can potentially "see" it, so if you're interested in something as a player it's often I think good policy to try to research it in the game rather than asking the DM out of character.

  5. "operate the strings on the hubcap that was, moments ago, a flying saucer" is such a great way to put it. I agree completely. The games I have played where I am expected to come up with integral parts of the game world always feel fake and pointless. I like creating situations in my character's background myself, but using building blocks supplied by the DM. Otherwise it just feels groundless.

  6. Great post - I could see a very, very thin slice of cases where I would be happy with a DM asking me about lore - "where did your magic sword come from" - and it all falls either within the shadow of what I would think of as my character background or things that would be indisputable about a setting we are all very familiar with (Forgotten Realms, Tekumel, etc).

    Otherwise, as you say, it is like the director of the play turning and asking me to improv the next scene of this play we have all being putting on - not what I am here for?

  7. The One Ring does player-authority but not via this modified basic procedure.

    The player only gets authority when they succeed a roll - and the rules state that their input has to be within reason.

    This isn't so much authority as participation. The GM is ceding some control to let the player contribute what they think should happen next. After all - they succeeded, the GM is asking what in their mind constitutes a success. It doesn't extend to revealing secrets (that's still the GM's sphere alone) though it may extend to their method of revealing the secret.

    After running this game I find myself running other games and after a successful roll asking, "would you like to say how it happens?" And more often than not, they do.

    But this is not the same as world-building authority. Once you go there you can't have mysteries and secrets.

  8. I agree that immersion and the "reality" of the game world is the most important thing. I also agree that it is the DMs job to reveal and protect that "reality".

    That being said, i think player input into the world is fine, as long as the procedure used is about revealing the world and not determining the world.

    Due to the lethality at low levels I encourage my players to develop PCs backstories through play. They are allowed to ask questions that might reveal something about the world and their character.

    Example - the party is stopped by a town guard - PC 1 asks, " hey, my brother was a town guard(never before established). Is there a chance this is him, or they know my brother?" I then make a ruling (or roll) and we play it out. Regardless of whether the PCs brother worked there, now it is canon that his brother was a town guard.

    I also like to keep any overarching links fuzzy, and let them develop through play as well. The PCs may come up with theories that are better than mine, or find links that I never thought of. This is all internalized in the DMs mind and not something spoken out loud. That way the illusion of a seperate game "reality" is maintained.

    But quantum ogres, balancing on the fly (well maybe a little), and fudged rolls,nope, not for me.