It will not settle well on the stomachs of many a gentle reader if I make a religious anaology between D&D and the Catholic Church, but nevertheless here we are. If not for the mummery that is the priest speaking and the assembly moving soberly forward to take their place at the altar, the eucharist is only cheap bread and poor wine. It is not chance that invests religion with magic; it is the steadfast belief that magic must exist, or else the whole practice is foolhardiness.
I want to write this post today to convey the understanding that in D&D, too, there is mummery, and that it is more important than is generally believed. The matter struck me as I was laying myself down to sleep last night - and being hit suddenly by an answer to a blog post written about a hundred years ago by James C., which I swear has not been in my forward consciousness all this time. I think I have an answer. Not that I mean to pick upon James or anything ... I quote his blog as representative:
"I used to require all ability rolls to be made in my presence, if for no other reason than to watch the craning necks and sour faces. When that was consistently applied, the player characters all had remarkably similar scores in terms of the net sum. Of course there was the lucky or unlucky outlier, but the curve was predictably bell-shaped. But we are adults now, and worthy of the benefit of the doubt."
Agreed. We are adults. And if accuracy were the only important element of the DM watching a character roll a particular die, I would have to give James his due. But ...
Drama, and the creation of tension, requires an application of mummery that cannot be dismissed. The understanding that player have that they can't roll dice to determine the stats of their character without my go-ahead creates a sense that THIS is a more important roll than the hundreds of other rolls that are made. The show of having the game stop so that the character is rolled up while everyone's eyes fix on the process creates tension, as people wait for the 18 or the 3 to be rolled. Because I treat it as a matter of great import, so do others ... and everyone gets their moment as they pick out the dice and roll, the number being pronounced out loud each time.
Yes, it is bullshit. And the Eucharist is stamped plastic-tasting wafers and vinegry wine. That doesn't matter. It's the pomp and ceremony that matters.
Of course sessions occur where the jokes get so rich, bouncing one after another, that players are on the floor, in pain, from laughing. I find that happens a lot ... and I don't think that's chance, either. The best comedy is born out of solemnity and tension. Increase the drama, add to its thick, palpable presence in a room, and people will find comedy in the cracks. But how to create the tension? How do you inculcate drama to the degree that people start to sweat?
I shall endeavor to explain. The assignation of importance to things such as die rolls is a protocol - a means of making 'official' something that is merely a group of friends sitting down to play a 'game.' They are the dividing line between where something is casual and where something becomes serious ... though protocols must be used judiciously, or else the whole point is lost. If a game is nothing but protocols - particularly ones which appear to make a mockery of the players, such as forcing them to stand up and announce in a loud voice whenever they cast a spell - the tension will be lost in the wells of dissatisfaction.
Protocols should be mostly aimed at the DM, and not at the players. It is the DM that must restrain his or her actions in order to create the needed feeling that something important is going on. The priest does demand solemnity from the congregation. The priest IS solemn, and the congregation feels compelled to respond in kind. It is a performer's trick. It can be accomplished very easily, if you have faith.
Take a laughing, ribald audience. Dressed as a clown, set foot upon the stage. If the audience has been suitable warmed up, they go on laughing. Walk to the front of the stage slowly, holding a stony expression, staring at your audience. Say nothing. Stop and remain absolutely immobile, but continue to fix the audience with your eyes. Watch them calm down. Hear the room get quiet. In all, it takes about 30-60 seconds, but at the end of it every person in the room will be absolutely in the palm of your hand. Silence is a terrifying, intimidating thing ... but timing it suggests that something magnificent is about to be said. The longer you wait, the more magnificent the thing you're going to say will be. If you wait too long, you'll blow it, but if you wait just long enough, you can make the audience feel anything.
I saw a clown come out and do that once, and ten seconds after an audience of two hundred grew so quiet you could hear a pin drop, the clown started to cry. It was ... amazing. The crowd was imprisoned. We sat there together for more than a minute, doing nothing but watching a clown cry. Then he said, his voice unearthly in its infancy, "My monkey hates me." And the room erupted. There then proceeded a lot of innuendo jokes, making it clear what he meant by 'monkey.' One of the funniest things I've ever seen.
Fundamentally, the clown was his own straight man. He set the audience up and then delivered the punch line. In D&D, the DM is the straight man. It's up to him - or her, I am not sexist - to encourage the audience, or players, to buy into the reality of what's going on. The players will not believe until the DM does ... and once the DM finds the key that will allow the manipulation of the party towards the emotional state desired, everything is possible.
My game face does convey a great deal of seriousness, though my voice may be relaxed or I may be chatting about things that don't matter. The hardest time, for me, to retain my face is when a player asks point blank about something that the player has guessed correctly about. The jig is up, the truth behind the facade has been guessed and it would seem, right then and there, that the guts of the adventure are on the open table. Every DM has felt this moment. The tendency is to grin, giving away the truth, and admit that the player has got it. Sadly, it means that for the rest of the adventure, a lot of what may have contributed to a lot of tension has now been exchanged for going through the motions. Sadder still when its realized that the player's question in the first place had been a pretty uncertain guess, without much expectation that it was the right answer.
I got pretty sick of ruining my own adventures this way, and eventually I did develop a game face that was absolutely rigid. It is a face I can hold - without so much as the tiniest discoloration - even when I know the death of a character is at stake. It has taken practice. It has come with the recognition that the drama is more serious than my desire for relief - the relief I used to get by letting the cat out of the bag that the evil baron was the princess's brother ... or whatever plot point was relevant. It is the same deadpan look a priest gives you if you ask anything about the real existence or purpose of god. The priest may have his or her doubts about the truth, but you, the lay person, will never, ever see it.
They are taught this in seminary, and they learn to hold themselves to a standard that is expected of all priests. I'm not advocating quite the same level of reservation, but a DM, too, must hold himself or herself to a standard that compels the players to buy into the world as it is presented. Not, as some people think, but dressing up as a fucked up boob for the games (though if the clown could do it, the DM can), but by seriously internalizing the imposed world with which the players interact.
If you as the DM can't buy the premise, you're players certainly won't. They will attach exactly the same degree of importance to something that you, as DM, attach. If you blow off the character rolls, so too will the players. If you offer the Big Bad as not a particular threat, the players will take their cue from you. If you introduce an adventure with the words, "This isn't much, but ..." the players won't find it's very much.
As the straight man, it's up to you to sell the bit for the players to knock down. Abbott's genius is to convey the absolute reality of a completely ridiculous baseball team. He's the funny one, but the audience identifies so strongly with Costello they don't even know it.
That's what a DM wants.