Friday, August 5, 2011

Long Times

In a long conversation with a horse trainer earlier in the week, she happened to mention something which got stuck in me and which manifested as a blog post in my head at 4:10 this morning, when I woke because it was too hot.  Between getting a drink, spending a penny, turning on the fan and dropping off back to sleep, I thought of what the trainer had said.

If you want to train the animal to do something, you must repeat the lesson 700 times.  That is 700 responses, 700 times mounting the horse, 700 turns, 700 jumps and so on, if you want to consider the horse 'trained.'  With some horses, it takes more than that - and if you're thinking about taking the horse into competition, it is much, much more than that.

While this all applies to horses, there is a parallel in human development to be found in how a baby increases its motor development, its use of language, it's cognitive and social interactions and so on.  If we replace the adage of 700 times with 700 days, we can see how a baby that learns to walk at 11 months becomes much more proficient by 33 months - by that point moving up stairs at one-foot per step.  An infant that speaks mostly unintelligible words at 18 months is filled with questions and speaking in full sentences at 3 and a half.  I don't mean to suggest the process of development or learning is strict or measured by anything as generalized as the number 700.  I enter such examples here only to suggest that great increase of ability takes a great deal of time, and that if enough time is spent the individual does more than master the skill, the individual increases the limit of what can be mastered.

Thus, if we apply it to something closer to home, the playing of roleplaying games, and we substitute a "day" with the "session" experience of playing the game, we can make a rough judgment of how much effort it takes to become experienced at D&D.  If we can vaguely agree on a few ad hoc guesses about how much most people would play the game from the age of 15 on (and of course we can't hope to agree, but let's just forget that), I propose that 40 games a year could reasonably be the standard.  I probably played more than that when I was 16 or 17, but generally there are other events in life that ruin this or that weekend for play.  Still, the gentle reader can always impose the average number of games which they themselves seems more accurate and refigure my math at will.  For the present we will suppose 40 games.

This would suggest that it would take 17 and a half years to reach the 700 mark, or the point where the player felt immensely comfortable with the game's concept and very likely restrained by the original framework.  If the individual began playing at the age of 15, this would now make the individual in their early 30s, and inclined to recreate or restructure the game to suit their personal whims.  I would propose that a person who had sat at the table 700 times would feel compelled to do so, just as a 3-year-old becomes bored with climbing stairs by stepping with the one foot and then the other on the same stair before continuing.  The child learns to take the stairs one foot at a time because the child grows weary with the time it takes to do it in the slower, more infantile manner.

Yet we are only speaking of playing the game.  It is probable that by age 30 only half the incidents of involvement with the game's play were as a DM ... or less, depending on the player's personal interest in ejudication.  The occasional DM who spends more than half their experience DMing is, I think, losing out on the perspective of the player and will certainly be deficient in some fashion for having not played enough.  The desireable quality would be for the DM to have both 700 sessions as a player and 700 sessions as a DM under his or her belt, thus having the experience and the benefit of both positions at the table.  This obviously increases the total time necessary, so that we are now speaking of 35 years playing the game slighly more than 3 weekends in 4.  That would make the player older than I am, or 50 years old if they started playing at age 15.

This period is shortened if you find yourself playing twice or three times as week, as sometimes I did when I was in university; but overall, the length of time will be considerable, simply because you cannot play as often as you wish.  Moreover, you have to consider that every game you've ever played that ended in a disaster taught the wrong things with regards to proper game play ... so those are sessions that must be discounted.

Things are mitigated somewhat in that much of the game can be played - particularly by DMs - when no one else is present.  I am certain I am not alone in having played out hundreds of combats as a solo player, sometimes out of fascination for the game and sometimes to explore a new idea or system I wanted to implement.  Quite a few of us I reckon have played with the self-generating dungeon at the back of the DM's Guide, and have spent much time working out our own, in the hopes that we could have a feeling for the game while solo.  I don't read much about this sort of thing on blogs, no doubt because of the mastubatory feel of the subject and the general unwillingness of players to admit the obsession required to sit in a room and play the game by themselves.  But even so, this is a kind of experience, as it contributes to the familiarity of the weapons, the combat system, memorization of the tables, the variety of equipment a player carries and so on.

If we then consider also the hours spent drawing maps and working out puzzles, filling imaginary rooms and sketching out new game features such as monsters or spells, this too is experience of a kind.  We can break up all the time that is spent doing such things in session-length chunks and apply that - after a fashion - to our overall experience with the game.

Neither of these last two forms of game play are, however, representational of a DM's ability to interact with players, or a player's ability to work with other players or outwit a DM.  These interactional qualities of the game cannot be obtained with solo play or frittering around in one's room with tables and maps.  Practice is practice, but it isn't the World Series.

What that leaves are a vast number of players and DMs who, having begun playing the game perhaps five or ten years ago, and having little or no experience with a variety of systems because of their age and comparable experience, haven't the chops to make distinctive statements about the play of the game.  Not that this will keep the comparable noobs silent, since anyone can run a blog and the writer's experience with the game is - by the community's standards - never called into question.  We are all equal here unless one of us wishes to recuse his or herself by confessing refreshingly that he or she has only played a few times, or has never DM'd a continuous campaign.  Otherwise, we are to presume that every drop of rain that falls cometh from the blackest cloud.

I do not write this to pick out any individual, but rather to encourage each speaker to assess their own level of expertise, and to judge for themselves if they are in a position to know of what they speak due to the years put towards their knowledge, or if they are really only armchair propositioners with more years of solo play and game design than hardbitten experience.  No person can make any accusation to the contrary, and being online no person can know for certain any protestation of one's supposed experience.

I could be a paper tiger, for all anyone online knows.  And I encourage others to view me and what I say with head askew, inquiring of themselves, "Does he really know or is he just very clever?"  And then I encourage the reader to consider how they themselves are viewed by others, and if they themselves are really the shit they claim to be, or if they wouldn't do with a little more game play before speaking further on the matter.


Strixy said...

I am confused how you get from a horse trainer commenting that it takes 700 repetitions of a single action to a person taking 700 hours to become proficient with something. I think you've made an erroneous assumption that 1 repetition takes 1 hour. I also think there is an incorrect assumption being made that humans take the same amount of time to train as horses. Some humans take much longer to train. :)

Alexis said...

I am viewing the entirety of one gaming session as equivalent to one episode, and positing that it takes 700 said episodes to make an experienced gamer.

Yes, unquestionably, without error, the proposition is false and does not provide a 'proof.'

How many gamings do you propose it requires?

scottsz said...

Just a suggestion: you describe the two roles as 'DM' and 'Player', but would it be useful to consider that there were three roles: DM (running/hosting the sessions), Players (playing characters), between and during sessions there's the role of content creation.

I'm curious as to your thoughts on treating the operational role of a DM and the world/content creation role as separate.

An additional point: the 'Gladwellian' paradigm (just put in the time and you'll learn) flies in the face of every teacher who said that "practice doesn't make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect."

Alexis said...


I make reference to the content creation as instructive and positive. It's application is not interactive, however, and interactive is the central tenet of the game's play. Too much content creation and not enough play makes for a DM who ruffles papers, assumes his or her word is absolute law and reduces the ability to usefully inveigle players into the pleasure of campaigning.

Gladwell's argument isn't that 10,000 hours makes you perfect, and it isn't my argument either. It is your personal standards which bring you closer to perfection. The term I use in the post is 'comfortable' ... where playing becomes second-nature, where you are like a duck in water. Many players & DMs continue to feel for a long time that they are scrambling for information, the right dice, rules and so on, or living the disorganized campaign to the fullest. Long experience enables the gamer to engage with others while habitually knowing the tools of the craft.

Doesn't make him or her perfect.

Allandaros said...

"Moreover, you have to consider that every game you've ever played that ended in a disaster taught the wrong things with regards to proper game play ... so those are sessions that must be discounted."

However, unlike a mechanistic process of climbing a stair or jumping a gate or something, I would submit that disastrous sessions do wind up teaching lessons and improving play. If the players make a complete hash of things and get TPKed, they learn from that. If the DM runs a slow, plodding session and nobody has fun, they can also learn from that (although admittedly some will fail to, in both cases, that doesn't discount the concept entirely).

Also, I would argue that analogizing the session to a day is a problematic jump. Unlike the tasks which you're analogizing to, each game session has multiple decision points, and multiple learning experiences. I'd say that you're getting far more than one day of learning* from a session.

*I'm really tempted to just start calling these units of learning "experience points." :P

Alexis said...

Good point, Allandaros. I stand corrected.

Oddbit said...

I try not to hide the fact that I don't have the most experience in the world. But I have to say, I don't advertise it often. To do so would be to say I lack self confidence and ultimately undermine everything said after that point.

I've spent a lot of my life on games in the 'single player'. Some of my early memories are playing Lego space vs pirates vs civil war vs fantasy with structured rules and cash systems. Or combining Jenga, Monopoly and Risk into a pretty fun wargame. After my first introduction to role playing games I made my own, and had only a few interactions with a friend with them. After my first introduction to DnD, I spent hours running solo campaigns and creating arenas with specific rules to how to run them and advance. In all honesty, my experience is primarily solo and secondarily social.

How does this play out? Well judging from what I've seen from my latest flood of gaming (0 to 3 real life and 4 forum) I have more confidence in rules than other players, but much worse ability to predict players/GM and their expectations. I also feel like I'm getting better at picking up new rules faster.

Symeon Kokolas said...

In my earliest days of playing, I had nothing better to do. We played over the lunch hour at school, 4+ hours every weekday, and all day and night throughout the weekends. It wasn't D&D, but it was tabletop RP with dice. Call it about 30 hours a week. I learn fairly fast, and I was comfortable running the game without referring to rulebooks after about four months (about 500 hours). I was a devious DM and my players were entertained.

Fast forward to D&D; I was playing much less frequently. It took perhaps three runnings to find my bearings (~20 hours), and at least another 12 runnings (72 hours) to feel comfortable enough to run a game. I am perhaps 300 hours in and not at the point of mastery yet, so I cannot say how long it would take. Previous experience in another gaming system helped me immensely as a player, but only a little as a DM.

From personal experience I would agree that a 700-hour estimate seems reasonable. For someone with sufficient intelligence, creativity and general knowledge, 500 to 1000 hours spent playing, running, and designing the game would make for a competent DM. For a player, only a fraction of that time needs to be spent in that specific game system. For a DM, most of that time needs to be in the specific system.