Thursday, July 20, 2017

False Premises: "The DM should maximize player fun."

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

Someone just said that today. In a public forum. That the only job of the DM is to maximize player fun. This discussion was related to race/class restrictions in 2nd Edition AD&D - but I have to tell you, I've never seen a more stupid sentiment in my life and I decided it needed a blog post. The obvious response is obvious:


I mean this is such obvious bullshit that no one should say it and expect to be taken seriously as a functional adult. This is the kind of crap I expect from toddlers and anyone spewing this verbal vomit should be treated as such.

Now, being the generally nice chap that I am, I will explain once - and once only - why this is a load of crap. Afterwards, if you still want to hold on to this crap, I'd recommend therapy or maybe electroshock treatment.

First, let's step back and answer: "What is a role playing game?"

Premise of a Role Playing Game

A role playing game is a set of structured rules administrated by a single individual to provide guidance around the actions of the players. In terms of AD&D, and D&D in general, the single individual is referred to as the DM and is given maximum leeway in both interpreting the rules and managing the table - in that, whatever the DM says is what the rule at the table and that is "rules as written." This is often referred to as "Rule Zero."

The players have control over their own agency. What this means is that once the players are at the table, with characters created within the scope of the DM's campaign setting, the players have full control over how their characters will react and explore the world. This is why DMPCs and railroading are terrible - they remove player agency either by making them passive to the world (DMPC) or making their agency and choices meaningless.

The DM, of course, is responsible for creating that world: plots, maps, encounters, managing the reactions of the players, allocating resources, evaluating material/rules, and resolving unexpected or unplanned player actions. Essentially the bookkeeping and management. This usually takes up time before and after a game as well, so once the players are done, the lonely DM is still at the table determining the ramifications of the game and planning the next session.

Now, let's discuss maximization.

The Premise and Problem of Maximization

Maximization, or more properly, the utility maximization problem is a microeconomic theory regarding consumer decisions. Typically the question is asked in regards to purchasing: "How should I spend my money in order to maximize my utility?" Money and time are both finite resources that can be viewed under the scope of this utilization formula. For gaming, the utilization problem can be expressed as: "How should I spend my time in order to maximize my utility?" where utility is fun.

Now there is a whole crap ton of work done on utility maximization problems. It's fascinating stuff and I encourage you to delve into it, but the key point that I think needs to be emphasized for this post is this: Although the theoretical utility curve created by the consumer/player will indicate that a theoretical choice is best, that choice might not exist. This is the opposite case of bounded rationality (where the player is unwilling to put in the time or effort to determine their maximum utility and thus they chose a suboptimal experience or product), but the effect is the same - the consumer/player is left with suboptimal choices based on their theoretical - but nonexistent - maximum.

For our player who is searching for his theoretical maximum, two problems get in the way of maximizing their fun:

  1. Demand Pressure: There are only so many DMs. Since demand for DMs is high, and supply of DMs is low, DMs have greater control over the market and can offer those products they wish to offer and not necessarily what the market demands.
  2. Subjective Probability: Subjective probability is based on a person’s own personal reasoning and judgment. It is the probability that the outcome a person is expecting will actually occur. There are no formal calculations for subjective probability but instead it is based on a person’s own knowledge and feelings. For us, any two given players looking at a proposed game will subjectively come to different assessments of their ability to enjoy that game. As a result, the player base is fractured, there is no agreed upon standard for evaluating and assessing a "fun game" meaning that any efforts by the player to maximize utility will be frustrated first by not having the ability to internally quantify their utility, and second being a part of a large demand side of people in a similar situation.

    It's important to note here that the fact that fun is subjective and internal means that it is impossible for any DM to actually meet the maximum utility of all players. Each one will have a utility maximum that is different from the others, including the DM themselves.
By chasing the theoretical maximum, which won't exist in the market, the player fails to maximize their utility. They want to be in the RPG market, they have time to spend on the RPG market, but they burn that time chasing something which they can't have.

Now, a rational actor who examines the market place and finds that there is nothing in that market place that offers what they want can handle it one of three ways. Let's look at the them:

  1. Create their own Service: The player will offer to DM, establishing the game they want to play and inviting other players to join.
  2. Adjust their Expectations: The player will seek to join a game where the game play is as close to possible to the theoretical maximum.
  3. Do not adjust: The player will either not join games and thus get zero utility, or will join games and attempt to force the games to their preference which results in no one gaining utility (due to stress and frustration at the board, leading to DM burn out and reducing the DM supply, thus making it more difficult for everyone else). 
An additional problem, which makes three above such an issue, is that we're all attempting to maximize our utility. If the DM's maximization is at odds with the player's maximization, then the laws of supply and demand come into play. Limited supply and high demand mean that the player who is at odds with the DM will never be able to play a game. If the player can't adjust, or act as a DM, then the player will enter into a situation where zero utility for anyone is possible. Rational players and DMs, faced with a player like that, will remove the player in order to maximize their own utility.

Back to Gaming

So what does this all mean for role playing games? Simple. Be respectful when you're at the table. When a DM outlines their world take notes. If you like it well enough, play it. If you hate it, but can carry on, do so - nothing stops the player from taking notes and saying to the DM: "Hey if you want to take a break at some point, I came up with an awesome idea..."

Your DM would probably appreciate it.


  1. Eu gostaria de viver num mundo onde a premissa fosse o contrário: "os jogadores devem maximizar a diversão do mestre", hehehe! - I would like to live in a world where the premise was "the players should maximize DM fun". Hehehe! :-D

    1. You are way over analyzing what appears to be a much more simplistic premise.

      While I did not see the context of the original comment, I doubt the person was using the word "maximize" in the economic/mathematical model sense.

      While I agree that no DM can satisfy all the entertainment needs of all the players simultaneously at the table at any given moment, it is not an unrealistic or unreasonable request that DM's be flexible and open minded to the players' desires and try to mold the game in the direction of best fit. This includes the DM's desires as a player as well.

      RPGs are a social contract that essentially say "All of us at the table are working toward a mutually entertaining experience." Often times, DMs forget this and create the game *they* want because the players have no control over the world.

    2. Hi Marty!

      A few quick counter points:

      1. 99% of people do not sit down and write out their maximization graphs for either time or monetary goals. At the same time, it doesn't mean that the calculations aren't going on in their heads. Using maximization theory acts as an excellent model to understand player/DM behavior in this case.

      2. This post is not about DMs that would be a separate post but much of the same will be said (i.e. DMs who want to run really odd games won't find players and thus need to adjust, if they seek to maximize their enjoyment they won't find players). Again, economic modeling will still work. In this case, the DM represents a supplier putting forth product for sale. If there is no demand, then they can't push their product. Where supply and demand meets is the compromise position. If the player or the DM wants to push that intersection to maximize their enjoyment, they are pushing against the compromise.

  2. I don't know, I do kind of agree with the counterpoint. We all find fun in different ways, be that fun from playing a "You-Win" game, a deadly combat & tactics type of game, a slow thinking game, or whatever. We do this because this is fun for us and everybody at the table.

    At my table, if I said it was okay for the players to play Chaotic Evil Dwarf Dragon Paladins with 9th level wizard skills, my players are going to be really let down. That isn't the game that they show up for every month. We know what our players want, and we do our best to give it to them, even if FUN for us is playing a challenging game where it takes years of play to gain a level, or what have you.

    Some players want easier games, while others want more advanced ones. Who are we to judge? I don't know about you, but I am just over here doing my thing. I know a lot of players who would absolutely hate my game. They aren't my concern, the only ones that I DM for are the people sitting at the table. When I stray too far from this ideal is when I fail them.

    1. Fun is relative, no argument.

      Let's go back to your table for a minute though. Assuming that you and your players all have an agree upon game, and I join your table - knowing ahead of time what kind of game you play - and then have a screaming hissy fit at your table insisting that you have to let me play a Chaotic Evil Dwarf Dragon Paladin with 9th level wizard skills in order for me to maximize my fun - what are you and your players going to do?

      I am also not making any judgement. I'm simply pointing out that, economically speaking, seeking to maximize utility is a fool's errand in this case. :)

      As for your final part: my point exactly. You're just doing your thing, and you are not going to go out of your way to satisfy those players who would hate your game because it would cause your current players to hate the game.

      They aren't your concern.