It was inevitable that - my having a game design - someone would throw the "Rules" of online game design at me. As it happened, I beat out the inevitability by stumbling upon them, organized and tabulated by Raph Koster, here. It is a daunting, sobering collection.
However, it is nice to have at least one thing confirmed. In Raph's words, "It's not just a game ... It's a service, it's a world, it's a community."
Yessiree kiddies, I'm not the only one who takes this seriously.
This last Saturday night, however, I completely crashed on my players. A collection of circumstances having nothing to do with them left me unfocused, dry as a bone for ideas and utterly unmotivated. The time came to run D&D, and I could not run D&D.
I've often drawn connections between D&D and stage performances, but there is a crucial area in which they differ. When the evening comes, and you are expected to perform, you can't go out the audience and say, "Hey, people, I am not up to this today." You have to go on. What enables you to go on - even if your drunk, sick, on medication or injured, the lines have been written for you. If Hamlet breaks a leg, the stage action can be quickly redesigned to enable him to remain centre stage in his cast (or pushed around in a wheelchair). I've heard of it being done, but I have not personally seen it.
Dungeon mastering can be scripted. I don't script my games, and 29 times out of 30 that is just fine. This weekend wasn't.
Seriously, the thing to do in times like this is to be honest, to offer the players whatever side information they need - if they need it - and that failing, to just play poker. Because if you go on pretending, banging your head against that wall without hope of improvement, you are just going to damage yourself and your campaign.
The fact that it isn't a game - and that it is serious - means that as a DM you have a responsibility. You have taken it upon yourself to provide a good evening for other people. You may personally feel that's unfair, that the whole thing shouldn't rest on your shoulders, but you've chosen to DM and that's the price you pay. Try to shift out from under that responsibility and your players will know it. And they will not respect you.
So be honest. If you're not ready right now, but you think you might be able to get your shit together, send everyone - yes, everyone - out to the nearest store and take that time to think clearly. Silence will work wonders in getting your head together. With luck, they'll come back, and you'll be ready for them.
But if you're not, or you think that even a little time won't help, be honest about that too. Just admit that you're in over your head, that you'll be in a better state of mind for the next session and that you are sincerely, honestly sorry. It will help if you actually are.
I despise myself when I have these moments. And I immediately make promises to be better prepared, and for the larger part of the next 29 sessions I am better prepared, and the sessions are good. But things get busy, and the preparation falls off, and my confidence grows that I don't need any preparation, and then that bad session happens again.
Human nature. What a shit that is.
My players were very forgiving. We talked for awhile, shared stories, ate and basically had a small party. And then the ranger pointed out that we hadn't yet really sat down and worked out the background of her sixteen followers (she made 8th level a couple of months ago) and so we did that. It's a drawn out process, not bad for one player ... but for sixteen it is exhausting. But two hours later, the matter was solved. Everyone had a height and weight, an age, a father's profession, a background, a knowledge of any diseases and so on. Easily the most interesting condition? One of the women fighters was - is - eight months pregnant at the time of becoming a follower. Should be interesting to see if the mother dies in childbirth ... and if the baby is adopted by the player.
So all in all, not a bad session. Some people left with the feeling that something had been accomplished; there was some feeling that its been awhile since a hardcore, stand up fight yielded a lot of treasure; and there was certainly tolerance and good will shown to me.
Damn it, I owe those good people a good time. I feel it right down deep ... and things that are 'just a game' don't make me feel that way.
About the "rules" ... I suppose I'll have to write about them the next few months, specifically in reference to my efforts with Conflict! I expect that won't be very easy.