On Choice and Control: The GM as DJ; The Player as Listener

Advice Control GM Player Zen GMing

Breaking my usual habit of silence in my car on my way to a game, I listened to the radio this evening. No, not my usual public radio or phone full of podcasts. Not even the Pandora station I’ve been tending for several years, seeded from only Total Eclipse of the Heart. I listened to a local classic rock station, and resolved to treat my impatience impatiently–in other words, I vowed to listen to any song or commercial that a DJ chose to sling my way.

It struck me that I’ve been approaching RPGs in the way I usually approach media in my car. I take a choice-heavy and control-heavy approach: I want a very large menu and I demand a context where I get to select items on that menu (or off it!) at my fancy. I tell myself that choice is real and significant, that control leads to happiness.

Then my mind wandered. I’ve admitted here to being a fan of Rush (the band, not the junkie), and listening to a classic rock station on the radio sent my thoughts in one direction: the song, Spirit of Radio. I remember listening to that song as a teen and somehow understanding it on a deep level. Somewhere along the line, I stopped understanding.

Does anyone else experience Boys of Summer with a mixture of nausea and nostolgia?

Once upon a time, the radio represented to me a gateway to music–a place where a local-yet-distant DJ fed me what some subsection of my culture desired at a given point in time. I preferred radio over cassette, because the hassel of managing cassette felt more onerous than listening to the occasional ad or song I didn’t like.

The portable CD player with a tape adapter changed everything. The MP3 player solidified that change, and the 32GB internet box that’s always on my hip streaming Science Friday, Stuff You Should Know, Fear The Boot, Freakonomics Podcast, and This American Life were my co-conspirators in murdering the spirit of radio.

Sitting here in bed, writing this article, I can count 18 gaming products just within my line of sight. That’s not counting the 154 gaming PDFs on my hard drive, or the hundreds more in a very unsightly pile somewhere in the cloud.

A little voice inside my head is saying don’t look back. You can never look back.

And speaking of nausea, have you ever listened to the lyrics of a ZZ Top song?

I’m sure all respect was intended when that odd bearded man who occasionally shows up as a minor character on Bones described a women with hair down to her fanny. (By the way, if you’re a grown man… maybe even if you’re an adult… hell, if you’re a person, I urge you to resist using the word “fanny” if you ever want to be taken seriously.)

I got to thinking: Choice is an illusion.

Here I was, listening to the radio. In other words, my ears experienced another person’s choice in music. A part of me wanted to resist that external control, but ZZ Top urged me to look deeper… We are controlled. The notion of freedom is an illusion. We want to believe that carefully seeding our Pandora station or meticulously curating a digital playlist represents choice. But what of the music that isn’t available digitally?

And before you say, “Someone just has to rip media somewhere,” consider your words. What of media that can’t be made available digitally?

Need an example?

Take The Spirit of Radio by Rush. No, not the one on your MP3 player–I’m talking about the one I heard when I was a teenager. Bit-for-bit it was the same; yet I defy anyone to produce a copy of that song that will hit my ear in the same way.

I’m not a Southern man, so I’d prefer to keep Neil Young around, if it’s all the same to you

Freedom comes from admitting you are not free.

Wait, what’s the application of this to D&D again?

The GM’s job is to make sure players are not free. Furthermore, the GM does this job well when players actually forget that freedom is a choice.

The GM is a DJ who streams scenes at players instead of songs.

Begin your day with a friendly voice

This is just about when I got chills. (If you haven’t been picking up on it, the section headers are related to the songs that played as these thoughts were cycling through my head). Setting Bass +3, Treble +0, Fade -2, and volume to full, I heard the song I loved as a teenager.

Who the hell knew that the path to enlightenment included Boys of Summer, Legs, and Sweet Home Alabama?

Choice is an illusion; we have no control. We may only exert control when we choose to believe this.

I turned the radio off following the Rush song and finished my drive in silence.

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