Dungeons and Dragons and Central Planning

Table top games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and Traveler are all great ways to stimulate your imagination, bond with friends, and practice your problem solving skills whether you are a game master or a player. The first time I was a player I was surprised by the freedom given to you in the game.

If you are unfamiliar with these kinds of games, just imagine a videogame like Skyrim or World of Warcraft, except there are no limits. In videogames you can run into plastic walls, can’t talk to certain non-player characters, can’t use certain items, etc, but in a tabletop game it is all in your imagination. You tell friends what you are doing, whatever that may be, and the game master describes how the environment or non-player characters react to those actions while other players decide for themselves how they will react to those same actions. As someone who has played role playing videogames, like Guild Wars, and strategy games, like Age of Empires, for my entire life, I was honestly delighted by the liberty you had as a player in a table top game. Of course the only reason this is possible is because a human can make cleverer responses to actions than a program can, especially when dealing in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction.

However, when I prepared for my first time being a game master I had a ‘conflict’ with some of my political ideas. Was I being a central planner for this world to the players? I was directing the “economy” around them and how all social interactions occurred with the players. However, I think you go further than being just a central planner when you are a game master. You aren’t just the mechanics of how players get money and how much any item costs, but you are also the trees, the bees, the deer, and the beer. You are literally all the universe that isn’t directly the players themselves. In this way, you are the god of this imagined universe (but the god of gods since there are gods that exist within most of these universes).

At this point, it should be noted that there is a significant difference between being a game master and being a central planner, which make it significantly easier to be a game master. When being a game master, you don’t have to deal with scarcity of any kind. It is an imagined world. There is no lack of cows, food, sand, water, swords, monsters, or anything else that might appear. I only have to think about it, say it, and it exists. The only thing I have to keep in mind is not creating an extreme rate of inflation for gold or experience among the players or else the numbers become unkind to work with and confusing to the players.

Without there being scarcity to worry about as a game master, directing this world as a planner must be an easy task. It is like writing a story or a book. Just imagine something entertaining or exciting and we will have smooth sailing. Except… Not really. Actually any interesting game for the players is the opposite of smooth sailing. It is frustrating, confusing, and everything is unexpected even as a game master, and it is all because of those pesky human players. They are too volatile of a variable. As players sit at the table, they create a narrative for their characters that have their own desires, motivations, fears, and beliefs. How am I suppose to plan around that?

I planned an entire quest going down the path to the burning Castle of Prince Ralley the Mighty, but then the elf rogue played by my friend decides they feel something calling to them in the forest and runs off the path into a mysterious forest I had only considered for 5 minutes before the session. What if the other players’ characters don’t want to follow him into the forest? What if one decides to attack the other? What if none of them are interested in the burning castle? Human players are a pesky variable that you can never predict.

So in this way, even when I don’t have to deal with scarcity in this world, I still struggle to plan for the players because I am not the players. I don’t have all the knowledge, motivations, and thoughts as the players, so I will never be able to perfectly plan for them. And sometimes, that lack of planning can show for a really crappy sessions, but most of the time I would like to think I am clever enough to rebound.

Regardless, I think tabletop games teach a valuable lesson on humans as a chaotic variable. The main take away for me being that humans are too complicated to plan around. Ludwig von Mises describes this problem to a great extent in his treatise Human Action, but to put it down to small excerpt from the piece:

“Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented.” –Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics

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