XYZ – Examine Your Dungeon Management Style

2008 February 22
by Vanir

Okay, “dungeon management style” doesn’t start with a “Z”. So sue me.

Way back when I was in college (sweet Odin, has it really been almost 10 years?), I had to take classes on management and small group communication. It was lots of stuff that didn’t interest me at the time, but ever since I left school and started working a real job I recognize little snippets of those classes’ materials every now and then. Lately, I realized some of it might apply to roleplaying games too!

Herding +3 Cats

You’re about to play DM for your group. You’ve carefully worked out a plot and encounters to run and now there’s 6-8 people sitting there who are going to do things you never expected to happen in your wildest dreams. One of them is consuming mass quantities of E.L. Fudge cookies. You fear for the well-being of the story and the campaign, to say nothing of your sanity. You have also probably devised means by which to cope with this.

In management theory, you can view the roles of the management and employees lots of different ways. I’m going to briefly go over three of them commonly discussed together, known as XYZ management theory. X,Y, and Z are all different styles.

  • Theory X assumes that workers hate work and believes that you have to exert a lot of direct control over the workforce or they’ll never get anything done. The boss calls the shots, the workers don’t get a say, and if anyone doesn’t do what he says they’re subject to disciplinary action. Theory X managers are generally not well-liked.
  • Theory Y is different in that it assumes workers are creative or inspired and would be happy to do work of their own accord if left to their own devices. Management shares decisions with the group, and feedback is generally welcome.
  • Theory Z is sort of a hybrid of X and Y. While less participative than Y, it has a much higher regard for the needs of the employees than X. It also assumes that the workforce is happy to do their jobs provided the management is going to support them and look out of their needs.

So what does all this have to do with roleplaying games? While I don’t think that XYZ management theory maps 1:1 with everything we do in roleplaying, I do think some important parallels can be drawn.

Dungeon Management Theory X

I’m assuming many of our readers have had to play a session with a DM who might take enforcing the social contract just a smidge too seriously. I’ve seen amazing feats of douchebaggery such as EXP penalties for a player being late to the session.

This is an example of X, albeit an extreme one. This DM wants things done his way or he will exercise his vast powers and authority and put offenders back in their place. He’s authoritarian. (And an asshole, but that is another story.) I’m all about setting guidelines for the group, and if there’s a problem you bring it up as a group. If you can’t work it out, then maybe it’s time for the offender to find a different group to play with. But petty disciplinary action? You’re playing D&D to have fun. In my opinion, this does a hell of a lot more harm than good and I for one advocate talking through things like grownups. Grownups wearing elven chainmail.

There are much saner versions of X you’ll see now and then. From an administrative standpoint, Theory X groups typically follow the DM’s lead. He may have come up with the social contract, or still be using the one that was there when he joined. The degree to which this goes varies between groups, of course. I’ve seen groups let the DM have sole jurisdiction over everything from where/when they play, if new players can join, to whether he gets free pizza. I’ve seen a lot of perfectly functional groups work this way, and I’ve seen some flame out and die when everybody wasn’t on board with the man in charge.

Interestingly, I’ve also seen Theory X groups play and switch DM’s. Then it’s the new guy’s call on everything. (And I’ve seen a lot of scared looks around the table when the new guy does something way different than the old one.)

As far as actual gameplay goes, I’ve seen several DMs (myself included) attempt to put the session “on rails”, where the players are still doing things but by and large what happens is in full control of the DM. Invisible walls are a tool I’ve seen used to do this, as are powerful creatures that the PCs can attack all day but never hurt – and the DM explains away everything. This is not to say that Theory X gameplay is necessarily bad, but having the players’ destiny out of their own hands too long can lead to unrest.

Dungeon Management Theory Y

Administratively speaking, in a Theory Y group, most things are subject to vote by the group. Where you play, when you play, who’s in, who’s out, what’s for dinner. The group establishes the social contract, and they can collectively change it whenever they feel like it.

In gameplay under a Theory Y campaign, the DM lays out places the party can go and things they can do, and the party decides where to go. They get nudges now and then, but for the most part it’s the party’s decision. Theory Y can lead to some seriously amazing adventures and it feels wonderful working as a group — unless the group has no idea where the hell they are supposed to go and they are blind to Leopold the Dancing Plot Point who is doing the Riverdance right in front of them. Then they get frustrated. Too much of that, and you’ve got unrest among the ranks!

You can’t win! OR CAN YOU?

Dungeon Management Theory Z

“If you tighten the string too much, it will snap. And if you leave it too slack, it won’t play.”
– Siddhartha, Epic Level Buddhist

Like its management theory counterpart, Theory Z is a hybrid between X and Y. The DM has a bit more weight in the decision making process than the rest of the group, but the group still makes the bigger decisions for itself. For instance, in our gaming group, the DMs sometimes make a call on where we should play so they can sequester in the basement and plan our demise. But other times, we play somewhere else in case someone can’t get a babysitter.

Gameplay under Theory Z is, unsurprisingly, a mix between X and Y. The world may be wide open for exploration sometimes, but there’s places to go and things to do that need to be accomplished, and the DM will nudge a bit harder to get them there.
Players in a Theory Z game might recognize the signs that this nudging is occurring, and metagame just a little to go with the flow. There’s give and take, and the players know the DM is going to throw them a bone eventually in the name of fun.

But Which One Is My Group?

Good question! Your group may not map to one of these exactly, or it might handle things like Theory X administratively but play like a Theory Y. The point isn’t to have a label to assign to your group and to your DM, it’s to get you to step back and take a look at how you play. Knowing how you play and how you think might be more fun for everyone might make the difference for your group’s roleplaying experience — especially if some players aren’t having a good time right now!

Well, now I don’t feel quite so much like all those hours in class were such a waste of time. How does your group play? Are there any variations that your group does that I haven’t described here? Throw us a comment, and let us know!

9 Responses leave one →
  1. thanuir permalink
    February 22, 2008

    Of the options presented, closest to Y. I guess. All those descriptions assume that either the player characters wander aimlessly around or are lead around by plot. In my games, players create the plot. I simply set up a starting situation that is interesting and will keep them bumping on each other.

  2. ChattyDM permalink
    February 22, 2008

    I’d say we’re definitively Z style in that I consult players on future plots and direction but am solely in charge of organizing games, crafting scenes and setting the pace.

    I find that the best management analogy for a gaming group (DM included) is the Project Group dynamics complete with the 4 stages of development: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing and the 5th one Stagnation.

    In that the DM’s role is more authoritative and controlling in the early forming stage. He/she needs to becomes a true leader-type in storming if there’s any hope of keeping the group together and as players agree on social contracts and get used to play together, the DM’s role becomes more like a coach…

    Great post Vanir… you are quite the master with words!

  3. Roleplay permalink
    February 22, 2008

    I’m probably a Y. Why? Because crowdsourcing and democracy rule. If you want your players to come back, you’ve got to engage everyone, and make them feel valued.

  4. Dave The Game permalink
    February 22, 2008

    Also a Z. While the players want to be able to determine overall direction, they mostly just want to play and expect me to, basically, put on a show for them. Overall they’re a pretty casual gamer group.

  5. The DM permalink
    February 22, 2008

    “amazing feats of douchebaggery…”

    Gosh, Vanir, you’ve got a way with words!

    Our group tends to lean toward Type X, though I’m constantly trying to push us to a Z, at least in my mind. Now, I haven’t figured out if it is because, in terms of our social group, I’ve always been the oldest and the de facto leader, or if it is because I’m a control freak.

    It could be that I’m the only one willing to DM, or the only one that cares enough to make game policy. It could also be that I’m the only one with a big enough kitchen table for all of us and a near-limitless supply of Mountain Dew.

    I get a lot of “hey, it’s your game, it’s your rules” from my players. Do I demand it? Not at all. Do I like it? Not especially. But some of them even get annoyed when I try to bring them into the decision-making process.

    Heck, I remember several years ago trying to get the group to help me pick between two campaign settings. Of the 7 players, 2 had an opinion (opposed to one another, of course) and the other 5 refused to join one side or the other.

    So, yeah, in many respects we’re an X group because that’s the way the players want it. I think Y is ideal, Z is more realistic (for any group but mine, apparently!)

  6. Vanir permalink
    February 22, 2008

    I think one interesting thing is how passive players can sometimes be. I think Dave hit it on the head — sometimes in our group we show up and don’t want to make any decisions and we just basically want Dante to entertain us for a couple hours (or at least call the shots). Depending on how late it is, certain members of our group tend to go into power-saving mode and get very cranky when big decisions have to be made. (It’s not me, the E.L. Fudges keep me wired until about 3am most sessions.)

    My problems with Y are usually the standard ones that accompany decisions by committee. People tend to lock horns and it takes forever to get anywhere, or a leader emerges from the group and people follow them. A lot of times it’s the most hardheaded player or the most vocal who emerges as leader, and the other players just let them call the shots because they’d rather just keep playing and not fight. It’s an interesting social dynamic to me — is it still a democracy at that point?

    To be honest, I rather enjoy it when the omnipotent force behind the DM screen drives a course of events because it gets things going again. I guess at my core, I’d rather be entertained than engage in social discourse. But maybe it’s just the high fructose corn syrup talking. 🙂

  7. The DM permalink
    February 23, 2008

    Vanir, you hit it.

    I have, literally, had a player say to me, after I tried to get him to help decide a direction for a game, “Dude, I’m here to watch you tell a story, not to do it myself.”

    He may as well have said, “Entertain me! Dance, screen monkey! Dance!”

    Fortunately, I’m a passable dancer 🙂

  8. Vanir permalink
    February 23, 2008

    I am so putting “screen monkey” in my daily lexicon.

  9. thanuir permalink
    February 25, 2008

    “I have, literally, had a player say to me, after I tried to get him to help decide a direction for a game, “Dude, I’m here to watch you tell a story, not to do it myself.””

    That is an attitude I simply can’t live with. It implies too much work for me; I’d have to build an entire story.

    Also, it doesn’t sound fun. I could write a novel and be done with it.

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