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July 17, 2006 / jadettman

Mother May I?

Saturday I posted about ‘Mother May I’ gaming, with links to the argument in question. Today I’m going to think out loud about that argument.

“. . . consider the similarities between this game and traditional RPG gaming, with a GM and GM fiat.” –Mother May I Part 1

Lisbon Gamer posits that traditional roleplaying (with a GM and GM fiat, as he defines it) is analagous to a game of Mother May I and that the players of such games are simply there to provide color.

“Yep, that’s it. If you’ve been playing games without stakes negotiation, aggressive scene framing, shared narration rights, explicit conflict resolution, or some other sort of non-standard, non-mainstream rules (at least a few of these, but not necessarily all of them), all you’ve been doing is adding color. You’re a crayon.” –Mother May I Part

So, if I understand his stance correctly, traditional players can have no effect on a game that is not pre-determined or allowed by the GM.
My response to this is: Yes, what you are saying is true to some extent. If I am running a traditional rpg and a player wants to take an action that is blatantly outside the realm of what is reasonable in that situation, I will not allow it unless the player can convince me that the action he wishes to take is, in fact, reasonable.

Does that make the player a crayon, mere color?

No, that makes the player a participant that is forced to act within externally established boundries. Much like real people, in the real world.

“But then, if the GM is the only one deciding the actually important stuff, what’s everyone else doing at the table?” –Mother May I Part 2

I think that this is really the point of contention: the belief that in traditional rpgs the GM’s decisions are the only important ones.

Let’s start at the beginning, before the game even starts: What is the absolute first decision that must be made by the player before the game begins? Answer: “Am I going to play this game?”

No one is forcing someone to sit down at the table, to subject themselves to the ‘fiat’ of another person. Roleplaying is entertainment, or should be, and the players always have the choice to find something better to do. (However, I think I may have strayed outside the bounds of the discussion at this point.)

Assuming that the players have all chosen to play the game, what power do they have in the game?

A player has complete control over the personality, thoughts and actions of their character (i.e. the player’s ‘game piece’). This may be overly simplistic, but this is the ultimate expression of Simulationist play boiled down to its basest component.

In most roleplaying games (or, if you will, traditional rpgs) a player takes on the role of the character he has created as a means to interact with the game/game-world. In this way, the game attempts to create an association (character/game-world; person/real-world) that strongly defines a paradigm for behavior. The GM, in taking responsibility for controlling the game-world side of the association, generally attempts to enhance the association through description and the enforcement of boundry conditions.

In essence, I believe that Lisbon Gamer is making an argument for more enjoyable play through play with boundry conditions rather than play within boundry conditions.



Leave a Comment
  1. João Mendes / Jul 18 2006 9:41 am

    Hey, Jason, 🙂

    I know you’re just thinking out loud, but I promised I’d jump in anyway, so here’s me. 🙂

    I think you may have misread me. Mother May I isn’t about allowing or disallowing the actions themselves, but rather about allowing or disallowing the intended consequences of those actions.

    Presumably, even under boilerplate simulationist play, when a player has his character act in some manner, he has some sort of purpose behind that action. In actuallity, the connection between the action and the purpose, if any, is totally within the GM’s hands.

    Some players understand this and are cool with it. Others, however, play under the illusion that there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship between what they do and what happens around them, that is inherent to the game world, when in fact, such a relationship lives only in the GM’s head.

    Stakes, scene framing, narration rights, what-have-you, these are nothing more than mechanisms for the players to communicate their purposes and their vision of that same cause-and-effect relationship. If a GM is running a game with explicit stakes negotiation, he’s still responsible for controlling the game-world side of the association. Only now, at least, he knows what it is the player’s character is trying to accomplish, and he can, for instance, decide difficulties and counter-stakes based on that.

    In a traditional game, that same GM is in the dark, and the relationship between action and purpose is a coin toss at best.

    In other words, I’m not talking about the boundaries at all. I’m talking about what goes on right smack in the center of the game world.

    Here’s hoping to have made sense. 🙂


  2. J.A. Dettman / Jul 19 2006 8:01 am


    Ok, I’ll accept that you’re talking about consequences rather than actions. In which case, yes, just like the rest of the game world, those things live inside the GM’s head. Agreed.

    I just don’t agree with your premise that without “Stakes, scene framing, narration rights, what-have-you . . .” that the GM is completely clueless about the motivations and intended consequences of the player’s actions. Sure, the GM could create whatever consequences he wants, disregarding the situational context of play but that would result in, at best, a surreal gaming experience and, at worst, an extreme break from the group’s suspension of disbelief.

    So, what it sounds like is that you want to use explicit meta-game mechanics for players to communicate with the GM.

  3. João Mendes / Jul 19 2006 2:18 pm

    Hey, 🙂

    Whoa… cluelessness wasn’t on the table at all. 🙂 (And yet, now, I want to play that surreal game you talk about, at least just one session of it… it should be wild!)

    Go back to my posted example session account of the guys trying to blow up the sorceress. How did the GM decide to let their plan work? Surely, their game system of choice doesn’t have a table with an entry of “roll here if the PCs decide to try to booby trap the big bad’s toilet”.

    Their plan impressed the GM, that’s what.

    Also, think about an investigative game where the players are trying to have their PCs discover a mystery. How do they do it? Usually, by either guessing what the GM wants or tiring the GM into volunteering the information.

    So, all it is is a giant game of Guess-n-Impress. And really, that’s just another name of Mother May I.

    Again, this isn’t a bad thing per se, as long as a) you know that’s what you’re doing; and b) you like that that’s what you’re doing.

    Some people just want more. But most importantly, some people never realized they can have more. Tthat all it takes is to introduce a couple of techniques, that there’s a good number of those techniques available, and that there’s a good number of games available that make use of these techniques.

    It’s not that I want to use explicit meta-game mechanics (although I do). Rather, it’s that I want people to know that they exist. Further, I want people to know why they exist and what their relative merits and disadvantages are, so that they can then decide which ones they like and dislike, rather than be faced with an apathetic “that’s how these games are played” from people more or less discontent with their gaming.


    P.S. It’s good to be talking about this stuff. 🙂 So, if you feel like you need to keep calling me out on stuff or bashing me upside the head, that’s all cool. 🙂

  4. J.A. Dettman / Jul 21 2006 2:10 pm


    You said:

    “In a traditional game, that same GM is in the dark, and the relationship between action and purpose is a coin toss at best.

    I don’t know how to interpret that beyond “the GM is freaking clueless”.

    Now, I’m all for people knowing that different options exist and I’m all for different people playing in different ways to get the fun that they want. So, in that respect, we agree.

    Where we don’t agree is where you say that “Stakes, scene framing, narration rights, what-have-you . . .” are the best solution.

    As far as I’m concerned, the best solution for GM-Player misalignment (where game expectations are concerned) is communication. Plain-and-simple talking with the GM or player(s) should be enough to remedy the situation.

  5. João Mendes / Jul 22 2006 6:45 am

    Hi, 🙂

    Ah, ok. Gotcha. We’re getting there. 🙂

    (I never said scene framing, narration rights or stakes negotiation were the best solution, only that they exist and that people should be aware of them.)

    As for communication, I’m all for that, but really, it only solves part of the problem, which is that the GM must understand the purpose behind each action. The other part of the “problem”, which is that the GM must still agree to and allow the purpose behind each action, is still there, and actually, it is brought to the forefront by said communication.

    (Note: “Problem” is in quotes because, again, this isn’t really a problem for everyone. For some, it’s a feature.)


  6. J.A. Dettman / Jul 22 2006 3:52 pm


    I’m glad to see that, “We’re getting there.” but I still can’t see where we’re going.

    Why is it necessary for the GM to “agree to and allow” the purpose behind each of a player/character’s actions?

    Why is it not enough that the player/character has a purpose for those actions?

    If a player chooses the actions of his character and the consequences of those actions, what is the point of play?

  7. João Mendes / Jul 23 2006 5:33 pm

    Hi, 🙂

    Hmm… When the player has complete control over the actions of his character and the consequences of those actions, then no, probably, there’s no point in play, although some games do take that avenue… but yeah, that’s beside the point.

    There is, however, a difference between simply being able to have some sort of formal input (formal as in beyond simple communication) into those consequences and actually controlling them.

    The crux of the matter is that context plus consequences comprise the sum total of all the in-game world events, and they are all literally in the hands of one and only one of the participants.

    You ask why is it not enough that the player has a purpose behind his actions. I don’t know. For some players, yeah, it’s enough. Others, however, would like to have more contribution towards those in-game events. They would like to participate in shaping the by-product of play that is the story.

    The ones that really trouble me, though, are the ones that think they are contributing to that shaping, when they’re actually not. The ones for whom it’s not enough that they have some purpose behind those actions, but would like to see that purpose materialize with some sort of reliability, only they don’t really know how, or worse yet, don’t realize that such a thing is even possible.

    Hmm… it occurs to me that I have lost my focus in this conversation of ours. I basically no longer know whether you agree with my original posts or not. 🙂


    P.S. The “there” that we were getting to was that crux I mention above and its relationships to your two whys.

  8. J.A. Dettman / Jul 23 2006 5:50 pm


    I don’t know if I agree with your original posts or not, largely because I’m still trying to understand what you were, and are, trying to say.

    I do agree that players should know what choices are available to them.

    I also feel that players really shouldn’t need me, or anyone else for that matter, telling them what those choices are because to do so is to become an authority on those matters, which I don’t claim to be; perhaps others do.

    If a player isn’t having fun, that player should: a) figure out why he isn’t having fun; b) try to correct it.

    If the player can’t figure out what the root of his problem is, I don’t see how anyone else can help them.

  9. João Mendes / Jul 25 2006 12:01 pm


    Fair enough. 🙂 I myself learned about this stuff from reading other people’s blogs and following their conversations. I like drinking from others’ experiences and I wanted to throw mine out there.

    Also, I admit, I wanted to vent some frustration. 🙂

    But that’s all well and good. Arref and I had an interesting conversation over at the Part II comments on my blog. Check them out if you want to. It might make my point a bit more clear.


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