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From The *Somewhat Twisted* Mind Of Dulux-Oz

The Power Dynamics In RPG Gaming Groups

Rating: 7 votes, 2.29 average.
An incident occurred recently (that I won't go in to) that has caused me to think long and hard about the power dynamics of a role-playing gaming group. Being of a philosophic bent, I've decided to write down my mental deliberations and see if others come to the same conclusions as I have. So here goes.

RPG groups are not Democracies[1]. They may appear to be Democracies on the surface, and they may even strive to act like Democracies in practice, but they are not. They are also not Republics[2], Anarchisms[3] nor Totalitarianism[4]. By their very nature they have some Autocratic[5] tendencies, so perhaps they are best described as Despotisms[6] or Dictatorships[7]. Personally, I believe that the best run RPG groups are run as and described as Enlightened Despotisms[8] or, even better, Benevolent Dictatorships[9]. Let me explain.

I'll start with the most common form of RPG group and then expand out to cover the other variants.

The typical RPG group consists of a single Game Master (GM) and a set of half-a-dozen Players (PCs), give or take. Focusing on the GM for the moment: there are relatively few GMs when compared to the total number of RPG enthusiasts - anecdotally I would estimate that only 1 in 10 RPGers is a GM. There are a number of reasons for this, including desire and the incredible amount of work required when compared to the efforts of a PC (or of all the PCs in a group, for that matter). And yet, without these dedicated individuals (the GMs) there would be no RPG gaming taking place.

This gives the GM an incredible amount of (social) power, more so than the rest of the group combined. Now, that power is normally wielded for the benefit of the group as whole, so that everyone has a fun and enjoyable game, and is also often wielded subtly and with the veneer of consensus (hence groups appearing to be Democracies) but in actuality the GM is an Autocrat, a Despot, and a Dictator. Hopefully, and especially if there is a veneer of consensus, the GM acts as an Enlightend Despot or a Benevolent Dictator - but make no mistake, a Dictator they are!

Let us look at what happens when there is conflict within the group. If a PC falls out with the group or the GM then the PC is free to leave and to try to find another game. We all know how difficult it is to find a game, especially a game run by a good GM. On the other hand, the idea of the GM leaving the group is nonsensical, because the other PCs will want to continue to game with the GM and so "follow" him, thus the group is not broken up at all and we are back to the case where it is the PC who leaves the group.

Let us suppose, however, that the group does break up. The GM still retains the power in this situation as it is relatively easier for the GM to start a new game with new (or even some of the old) PCs, while the PCs from the broken-up group need to find other GMs to game with or re-submit themselves to the authority/power of their original GM, or give up playing RPGs all together.

A further example of the power that a GM holds is in what RPG the group actually plays. While some groups may vote on the RPG system that they want to play, the final decision is not up to the group, but up to the GM. The GM may go along with the group's desires, but he may instead decide to run whatever RPG he wants, regardless of the desires of the group. Again, because of the GM to PC ratio in our hobby, there is not much the PCs can do about this: they can either capitulate and play the RPG the GM is willing to run, or they can leave the group to try to find another game, or again, they can give up the RPG hobby entirely. The GM, on the other hand, will always be able to find PCs willing to game with whatever RPG system the GM has decided to run.

Thus, I hope that it is now obvious that RPG gaming groups are in fact Dictatorships. I maintain, of course, that the best gaming groups are Benevolent Dictatorships. Here's why.

We've focused on the group with a single GM. This, however, is not the only possibility. If we introduce a second individual into the group who is prepared to GM (even if they are only acting as a PC) then the power dynamic shifts somewhat. While the majority of the power still remains with the original GM, the PCs in the group have another option if there is a multi-PC conflict with the GM. While a single PC is still at the mercy of finding a new group, if the original GM alienates a majority or even only a significant minority of the PCs, they have the option of splitting from the group and gaming with the second GM (assuming, of course, that the specific PC wants to stop being a PC in the group and wants to GM for the other PCs instead). At its extreme this senerio could play out such that all of the group's PCs decide to game with the second GM, effectively ousting the original GM from the group. While this means that the PCs have more (collective) power in this scenario the original GM still retains all of his, as he can start a new group just as before - remember, there are always more PCs looking for a game then there are GMs and games available - simple supply and demand dictate that the "ousted GM" will be able to continue with a minimum of trouble.

That minimum of trouble does have a cost involved, however - namely the "opportunity cost" of the time and effort required to start a new gaming group and recruiting new PCs. This is why the GM holds most of the power but not all of it - the PCs can cause the GM some opportunity cost, singularly or collectively.

It should be obvious that a "PITA" GM is at a disadvantage (when compared to other GMs) because of these opportunity costs, but that such a GM is still in a position of more power than any PC because of the supply and demand aspects. It should also be obvious that a well run group is a Benevolent Dictatorship precisely because not acting in a benevolent fashion causes groups to dissolve or split up.

Finally, if we take the case where GMing duties is split or rotated between two or more group members on a regular or semi-regular basis, then it should be obvious that the GMs in this scenario share the power pretty much evenly. PCs in this scenario still have less power than the GMs, and all of the causes and consequences outlined above still apply. You may be thinking that if everyone in this scenario shared the GMing duties then the group would be a Democracy, but this is still not correct. If you examine things closely, you discover that what happens is that instead of the group being a Democracy it is instead a series of Dictatorships (almost certainly Benevolent Dictatorships) with all of the above detailed conflict-resolutions applying.

So in conclusion, it has been shown that there is a power balance in RPGs groups that favours the GM over the Players such that any group is best described as a Dictatorship. This occurs primarily because of the supply and demand factors inherient in the RPG hobby having a significant oversupply of Players wanting to play (demand) compared with the limited supply of GMs willing to run games. It has also been shown that, because the role of GM is not unique to a single individual, the "best" form of the resulting gaming group Dictatorship is a Benevolent Dictatorship, where the GM takes on-board the desires of his group. If, on the other hand, the GM does not act in a benevolent fashion he runs the risk of losing PCs and so fails to minimize the opportunity costs associated with replacing PCs and/or building a new gaming group. For their part, Players have little power individually and less power than the GM collectively because of the supply and demand aspects of the RPG hobby. They are, of course, free to leave a given gaming group as they desire, but Players need to be aware of their own opportunity costs involved with finding a new group - a relatively difficult task. It is my opinion that if a Player has a good GM with a good group, then the Player should think seriously before leaving that group or trying to split it up, especially if because they don't like the power dynamic, because they are potentially more likely to end up with a less-good GM or of not finding a suitable group at all. As a Player once said when discussing this topic (and no, it wasn't me nor was it about me):
"You don't know how good a GM we have. There are quite a few sh!t GMs out there, and ours is one of the best around. You don't know how good we've got it; you've never experienced anyone else. I have! You'd be nuts to want to change, especially on the off-chance someone else would be better. But go ahead; you'll soon realise your mistake."

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totalitarianism
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autocracy
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Despotism
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictatorship
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightened_despotism
[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benevolent_dictatorship

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Updated March 7th, 2018 at 07:11 by dulux-oz



  1. LindseyFan's Avatar
    Interesting premise and well researched!
  2. Xydonus's Avatar
    Interesting topic for a blog, and this is something that I discussed before in a podcast. I would concur somewhat although I wouldn't call it a dictatorship, not sure that's a label that should be applied to an rpg gaming group but it is somewhat accurate.

    I think any GM who runs his group in a tyrannical negative fashion is just on course for a self-destructive path and it won't be long before the group just falls apart. And then it's a matter of time, resources and energy spent in building up a new group, but if a GM can't get out of bad habits then the cycle repeats. Because of this, and because of the risk of losing players, the GM has more to lose. Sure, the GM has more power at the end of the day, but they have the most to lose because they have invested the most in a game/group.

    In my case, I'm running and still running a linked campaign (over 5 books) that is in its fourth year. I cannot imagine all that time, investment and work going down the toilet. The players are invested as well, but not on the same level as the GM. So ultimately, the GM has the most to lose by running what you might call a non-benevolent dictatorship. If it happened to me, sure I could go and build up a new group and so on, but by god would I be absolutely disheartened if I had to do that. So the GM could find themselves held hostage at that notion, and having it dictate how they GM.

    The same goes for players as well. Any disruptive players in a group are essentially inviting a good kick from the GM. A disruptive player for whatever reason can potentially destroy a group if not dealt with. Usually its good to try and hash it out first, but sometimes the only way to solve a problem is to remove the disruption. That in itself is where the power dynamics come into play, in that a GM can essentially do that without destroying the group in most cases.

    And for a player, finding a new group, a new gm is much easier than the GM having to work in new replacements or build up a new group. I do believe such a term (dictatorship) being benevolent or not, is probably born out of frustration from the player side. And what I mean by that is that players who have left or been forced to leave groups by a GM will probably look back on the GM with a negative label applied - hence, the idea that the GM is a dictator of sorts. But the old saying... if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Sure, GM's call the final shots. Always have. It is the nature of the game. But I do think it might be an error to apply that label to one and all.

    I would argue in long-term settled groups with players who are regulars, the power dynamic can shift into the players hands simply for the fact that the GM would not want to lose a long-term investment and may even placate in some places. In these cases the GM is somewhat submissive to the players.

    So personally, I'd imagine the power dynamic shifting in some cases. It really depends on the group at the end of the day.

    And I like to think of the GM as the final arbitrator rather than a 'dictator' because player input is valuable and nearly always necessary to a good working group.
  3. LordEntrails's Avatar
    As always, well thought out and written. The only aspect that I you didn't address is the social pressure that can influence the dynamics. Such pressures don't alter the underlying power dynamics, but it does influence them.
  4. GavinRuneblade's Avatar
    I think groups are feudalist not fascist and this is relevant because you missed a critical component of the power disparity : the financial power disparity. In most groups the DM owns the books.

    Most players cannot simply cross the line over to becoming a DM because the books are too expensive. I have loaned my stuff to players who wanted to give it a try, and I have rotated a group where players each took turns running a one-off adventure. But at the end of the day not only am I the only reliable DM in our group, if I didn't loan the books the players would have to shell out money to buy them, and several simply cannot afford to buy a whole library. Being a player only costs the price of a player's guide and printing a character sheet. Many groups only have one or two players guides that get shared so one can absolutely play for free. As a DM? players guide, dm's guide, monsters, setting, adventures, maps, miniatures, etc. Even here online in fantasy grounds look at the price difference between a DM's Ultimate license and a player's license.

    Where, in physical gaming groups, do the games meet? Sometimes at a game shop but usually in the DM's house. Players come to the DM the DM doesn't often travel to the players. The exception is when someone has a really nice house or more privacy or whatever.

    Dictators control but don't own. Monarchs both control and own. Thus I posit that gaming is a feudal power structure. Indeed, using my earlier example, how is my allowing some players to be temporary DMs any different from naming a baron or count?

    The other way that I think feudalism fits better than fascism is that dictators often rule by force, but there was the concept in feudalism of the relationship between the ruler and the lands/people where the health of one was intimately linked to the other. The Arthurian legend of Camelot falling to plague and destruction as Arthur got sick, hence the quest for the grail, is the prime example. But it came up in the Song of Roland and in philosophy and in the use of the royal "we", etc. In this way monarchs throughout history have felt responsibility towards their people and their lands but dictators usually just feel entitled to benefit at their people's expense. Benevolent dictators less so, I do agree, however there is the term "enlightened monarch" that I still think is a better fit than benevolent dictator.
  5. dulux-oz's Avatar
    Thankyou all for the comments.

    While I tend to agree with the comments, I think that a couple of you have missed a vital point in my original post (which is OK, because it wasn't explicit, but only implied) - not all Dictatorships are "Fascist", and not all Dictatorships are "tyrannical"- I suspect people are making that mistake (if they are actually making that mistake) because the "prime" example(s) we have from history are fascist/tyrannical. BUT if we use the term "Dictator" in its proper, formal sense and not in its "knee-jerk, common, everyday" sense (hence the Wikipedia links/references) then I stand by my original post - ESPECIALLY as I was arguing from a "Benevolent Dictator" point-of-view.

    So, while I agree with the commenters on the ability to apply other "governance"-style systems to RPGing, my considered opinion remains the same - that, fundamentally, RPG-gaming groups are Dictatorships and, hopefully, Benevolent ones.

  6. Verisimilitude's Avatar
    Delux-Oz - what's your view on the impact of VTTs on the DM/player dynamic? Do VTTs further enhance the power balance in favour of the DM or does the ability of players to seek out another DM on a different VTT (hopefully in a suitable time zone) weaken it? From my cursory glance of the FG forums I would presume the former rather than the latter - "If You Build It Will They Come" seems to reflect the continued DM dominance?

    A related question is the consequence of this imbalance - do some some DMs abuse it? I expect they generally don't (or can't) as most (all?) players will rather not play at all than put up with an over bearing DM. And I guess this observation points to the principal factor (already mentioned) limiting the power of DMs - ultimately they are not able to force players to stick with their campaigns and so this has a moderating influence.

    I agree, RPG-gaming groups are dictatorships, but the power of the dictator is greatly tempered by the need to provide an enjoyable gaming experience for those who have voluntarily agreed to submit to the dictator's regime. Those volunteers can rescind their agreement to submit at any time. Interesting discussion - many thanks.
  7. dulux-oz's Avatar
    An interesting question - I suspect that the VTT scene neither enhances nor diminishes the over-all power dynamics - true, the pool of GMs is much larger for players to "move to", but in counter-point the pool of players that a given player needs to "compete" against for those GMs (ie a slot in a GM's game) is also much larger.

    As for "bastard" GM's, well, as I said, the "best" type of GM's are Benevolent Dictators
  8. lorenzo110's Avatar
    I apologize if my perspective may be in disagreement to your point. It is simply my own opinion, as I see you having your own as well. I tend to see D&D as a co op story telling role playing game. I think it would be a great disservice to generalize each game because none are ever run the same, nor should they be. The event is defined by what every person brings to it and adds to it as well. I would never consider "Critical Role", "Missclicks" or any highly viewed streamed game that I have observed a dictatorship. All portions of the group rely heavily upon each other to function as a cohesive story telling unit. They set the story on its path, while the GM provides the breathable world their characters live in. Now we must remember that the rules to D&D are malleable and flexible. A DM can use, discard, or add what he views are the rules that best fit his story or Game. He becomes the eyes to which his players view their world. Depending on how the characters choose to see this world and interact with it is dependent upon what traits and personality defines their character. If they chose to role play an aggressive character then their perspective may be skewed as such in how they interpret the way they live and interact in this world.

    A DM on the other hand is more an arbitrator or judge. He gives free reign to his players to explore and flush out the tale these players choose to take. It is the dice that define the progression of a story and its outcome. The times that I have seen "Dictatorships" occur in some games are when either players are a bad fit, or a DM is a bad fit. That's why session Zero is important to have, and I would even encourage contact before this as well. Think of it as a job interview. You want to surround yourself with the best fit of people who are capable of working together to attain a shared goal. Let the group first get to know each other and share a bit of their personality with one another. Allow them to establish a camaraderie and fellowship with one another. That way when and if disagreements occur they do not become personal or abrasive toward one another. This is what a DM should always strive for in his collecting of a group. In the end he simply referees the rules and content of the world.

    As I said I tend to see failure in this aspect when the people involved provide little to no input or if a DM does not put any effort at all into providing a livable environment to the players. It becomes tedious, monotonous, and boring to participate and be in such a setting. Now again this is all dependent upon the type of play one is setting up. If it is simply a hack and slash with no imagination involved then those participating in it should expect no less. If they simply want to game, instead of RPG and it has been established beforehand that is what is expected then go for it. But if they are expecting an immersive world building legendary game then it is incumbent on all involved to work toward that goal. But they must first know each other, know the game they want, and be willing to provide the time and effort to achieve this end. Dictators tend to happen, and again only my opinion, in badly run games, or games that do not first establish their goals and rules beforehand. D&D should never lead to fights or personal disagreements that end a session, or ruin an experience for all involved. No one should ever leave the table pissed off at another player for something that happens in game. There should never be dictators telling other players how to play D&D. It's a co op story telling game that uses one's imagination to bring a world to life, for gods sake. But again this is just my perspective and opinion, and I know others will see it different, and that is totally fine by me.
  9. lorenzo110's Avatar
    Sorry for the misspelling I was in a rush for a dinner date. Lore
  10. dulux-oz's Avatar
    An interesting discussion - and there's no need to apologise just because you disagree with someone (me ) @lorenzo.

    However, I seem to be detecting a pattern among all those who have disagreed with my basic premise, and that pattern is that those people are NOT (or at least, seem to me to not be) using the correct definition of "Dictatorship" in their arguments, but instead are using the "popular definition" of the term. Let me explain:

    The most common reaction people have when hearing the term "Dictatorship" is to immediately call to mind the most common examples of Dictators from history - Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Starlin, etc. While these individuals were certainly Dictators, they are not the only examples and, I would argue, are certainly not what would be termed "Benevolent Dictators". But because these individuals are the ones most often called to mind the term "Dictator" has taken on a negative connotation. However, "Dictator" does not equate to "Tyrant", even though it is perfectly reasonable to classify the aforementioned individuals as Tyrants.

    In other words, people are seeing the term "Dictator" and are finding it distasteful due to its association with some of recent history's (arguable) most evil men - but are missing the true meaning of the term.

    If you go back and use the term "Dictator" in its original, non-populous definition (as per the reference link I provided in the original post), then you'll discover that, yes, while the term has been labeled with a "negative" tone, it also encompass a more "positive" or "lighter" side. To take other historical figures: the early Roman Republic was run by "Dictators".

    Yes, we are arguing definitions and terms - but this is fundamental to the base argument because unless we all understand the definition of the terms being used then we end up arguing across each other instead of for or against the original proposition - and again, this is why I included reference links in the original post.

    Finally, let me restate something that I've said before on numerous occasions: the "best" type of GM's are Benevolent Dictators.

    Updated April 3rd, 2018 at 04:29 by dulux-oz
  11. lorenzo110's Avatar
    Good evening Dulux-oz,

    Yes, Dictatorship has always had a negative connotation to it, historically speaking. And probably more so now a days considering the current political climate in the world. I can see how it could be a subjective term to some depending on life experience and location in the world. Unfortunately, I myself would have to admit I have a negative bias toward the word. Have not met, nor ever known a Benevolent Dictator in my life. The Dictators I have known of have always been "Butt Holes". Perhaps in the world there may be some benevolent ones out there, but I have yet to meet one. I guess one would have to ponder if they were slave to a Dictator would they consider their master Benevolent, or Evil. If the Dictator is kind but would kill them if they tried to escape their bonds then how truly benevolent are they? I guess it is all a matter of perspective. What is one mans treasure can be another mans garbage. Maybe using the word God instead of Dictator. It leaves a lot of gray area to work with. To me I would consider a DM an unseen Deity. I know there are probably a lot of semantic points to either or, but as I have said before I have yet to meet or know of a benevolent dictator. A benevolent God, now that is something I can totally see. My apologies again I am going off on a rant. Wish everyone a good day and night. Lore
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