Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Master Class

I have considered the possibility of Dungeon Mastering being taught as a fine arts course, and from that consideration has grown a picture in my head that I'd like to share.  The scene, if you will, is similar to drama courses I once took.  We have a large room with a black floor, made gray with the dust from people's shoes.  There are benches arranged in tiers along one wall, where up to sixty persons might sit and watch the proceedings.  The ceiling is 12 feet high, without any panels to soak up the sound, with an open framework where spotlights might be hung and pointed at a performance.  Ducts, pipes and vents, along with the outer walls of the room, are painted black to give the illusion of greater space.  There are no windows.  In the middle of the floor is a large table, with five chairs arranged around it.  One chair is isolated from the others.  On this chair sits a 'master in training.'  The other four chairs have 'players in training.'  On successive days, the participants change roles in order to each experience the game from differing points of view, playing all possible character classes as well as adjudicating the game.

A group of ten other students sit on the benches awaiting their turn.  In a 90-minute class, three groups will each participate for 30 minutes; the remaining time is spent watching, learning and not speaking.

Circling the table where the students participate is the professor, called the 'Director' to emphasize the performance aspect of the game.  He holds a yardstick menacingly.  He watches the students with the vicious patience of a bird of prey, descending upon their errors with the emotion that ... well, that I remember my acting coaches and performance directors having.  In particular one Mr. Phil Edie, loathed, feared and - by some of us - greatly loved.

We worked very hard for him.


Director:  Again!

DM:  You find yourselves in a small, quiet town on the edge of the Kingdom of Yarl.  Beyond the fields of the town begins the area of wilderness known as the -

Director:  Why have you put them there?  (student begins to explain and is cut off)  No!  It is the worst sort of cliche!  It shows no sign of thought whatsoever.  You must awaken the players.  You must invest them into the game from the beginning.  If you do not give them something purposeful to do, they will drift from the game and despise you!  Make them feel alive and they will reward you.  Choose another setting and start again.

DM:  (closing his eyes and taking a few breaths)  The town is not quiet, it is large and busy and is right now experiencing the effects of a nearby volcano, which is dropping bombs of acid-infused rock among the citizens.  The lava is beginning to flow through the streets ...

Director:  What are you doing!?  (Catches his breath, appears to be suffering from a heart attack)   No, no, no, NO!  You are railroading the party.  You're giving them only one possible response ... they might as well not even be playing the game!  Is that what you want?  To make them puppets on your string?  You must never, ever do this!  They must be allowed to choose their own destiny, and that does not begin with the crisis as it is ongoing!  Did they not have an opportunity to move and choose their lives before the actual eruption of the volcano?  Not to speak of the simple truth that you have chosen an event that is hardly likely to happen to any person in the whole of their lives!  This makes it precious, a worthy experience to be built up to, not to be exploited like a cheap magician's trick.  You must not weaken your own presentation by grabbing for the climax at the beginning.  These are players who have not yet met your world.  There must be introductions.  There must be formalities.  Invest them slowly.  Now, again!

DM:  (clearly rattled)  You meet each other together on a road.  It is ... a crossroads.  During the course of an evening you arrive one by one, deciding to rest there while it becomes dark ...

Director:  Good.  Continue.

DM:  Getting to know one another.

Director:  (turning to the benches)  At this point a poor group of players will waste time with fruitless words about how this elf would not speak with this dwarf or how their character is a lone wolf or some other banter while it is quite clear that they will be together as a party because this is the game.  I want it understood that this nonsense will not happen in this class.  (hammers end of the ruler upon the floor)  If you will learn anything it is that we are not mawkish children making poor jokes to emphasize our own importance!  (looks back at the DM)  Continue.

DM:  You agree to set a watch through the night in pairs for safety, and since none of you have any animosity for the others -

Director:  Be careful in dictating the characters of the players; they may take no direct action, but yet have animosity.  Allow the players to decide their emotional states.  Continue.

DM:  Pardon me.  The night passes without incident between you four ... (brightening as something is thought of) ... but one thing does happen.  Throughout the night a small herd of cattle moves towards you.

Player 1:  How many?

DM:  There are nine that you can see.

Player 1:  Nine is not much of a herd.

Director:  Do not quibble.  It wastes time.  Continue.

DM:  The cattle sleep much of the time but slowly gravitate towards the crossroads.

Player 2:  We keep an eye on them.

DM:  As the sun begins to rise, you can't help noticing the cattle have no one tending them.

Player 3:  Where is this crossroads?  What's the land like?  Pastures and farmland?

DM:  Neither.  All four of you can testify to there being no nearby manor house, nor farm, nor known pasture in any of the four directions you've come.

Director:  Excellent.  Continue.

DM:  The land is sort of a bottom land, with one road following the course of the small stream and the other cutting across the low valley.  The ground off the road is a little soggy.  The cattle's feet are sinking into it.

Player 1:  So who do the cattle belong to?

DM:  You don't know.  They -

Director:  Stop.  You've said enough.  Let the players ask questions.  Do not give more information than is necessary.

(a long pause as the players look at each other without speaking, or being certain what to do)

Come then, put yourselves in the position.  You are in a medieval setting, the cattle represent a measure of property, which at present appears to be unclaimed.  What do you do?

Player 4:  Steal them?

Director:  Avoid assumptions.  You are not certain at this time that they belong to anyone.  You must think in the terms of someone in that situation.  You would not say 'steal,' which is reserved for actively arresting the cows from a herder.  You would say -

Player 4:  Take them.

Director:  Yes.

Player 2:  Are they tame?

DM:  Yes.

Director:  No.  This cannot be learned from looking at them.  The DM should not answer questions of this nature.  (to the player)  You must ask a question which can be answered with your eyes, or take an action which gives information in some other way.  (to the DM)  You must not give information that they cannot know given the effort they have made thus far.  (to all the players)  What must you do to determine if the domestication of the cattle?

Player 1:  Go towards them.

Director:  Do not tell me, tell the DM!

Player 1:  We go towards the cattle.

Director:  NO!  Do not decide the actions of the other players!  Speak only in terms of what your character does.  Nothing more.  You cannot decide ahead of time what others will do.  You may either ask them to go with you, or go alone.  Continue.

Player 1:  I go towards the cattle.  What happens.

DM:  The cattle remain peaceable.  They seem tame.

Director:  Very good.  Continue.


That's enough I think, to get across the idea.  Carl, you may have something there.  I could see this being an effective training in performance technique, both from the point of view of players and DM.  A class like this would rankle me, but I can see how keeping at it would improve me ... if nothing else it would help cut down on the sloppiness of my delivery, which does tend to degrade if I'm not full of energy and crisp of mind.

I suppose some would find the occasional thing the Director attacked as something not deserving of attack.  And I think that probably people wouldn't like him very much.  I never attended a drama class that didn't have a few people who were there because they thought drama would be "fun."  They failed to recognize that entertainment is a very hard, very unforgiving industry, evident in the acidity of reviews and the often outright condemnation by sitting audiences, particularly while the performance is going on.  People who in their normal habit of living would argue that the greatest virtue is compassion have no compunction whatsoever about booing performers who have not put in the time and effort to achieve anything less than a brilliant performance, nor a writer who has made the mistake of being only mildly humourous.

Fun is Work.  When there has been no work, it is not fun.  D&D often gets away with it because the people sitting around the table are friends, and being friends we make our own fun.  But then it is not the D&D, is it?  So how can you claim to love the game if you will not suffer for it?


ckutalik said...

I will save you the condescending bullshit about how you should do more posts like this and less rants yadda yadda.

All the same, a good, thoughtful post that translates for my feeble mind the vector you have been on about more clearly.

I can identify more with it perhaps because I did have a hard-as-nail theater coach and it was a hell of a lot of work--as is the preparation and execution of all my sessions.

That work is the point where the "just a game" does break down. I don't seem to remember having to read, process, and design for hours on end just to feel adequately prepared for a game of Parchessi--or even a fairly complicated hex-and-counter wargame for that matter.(And I leave out the hours of rethinking and reprocessing that goes on AFTER the session.)

Beyond knowledge of the rules there is nothing like the mental involvement of a decently-run rpg in most games.

Point made and accepted.

On in-session critique, in theory I see the benefit, I certainly would welcome tougher feedback in my own sessions, but I also know I have a tendency to freeze up in those situations. Perhaps a failing of mine, but it's there all the same.

The closest I have come to an effective feedback cycle has been with the recent round of Google groups experimentation.

Gamemastering--and watching others gamemastering-- different, reasonably experienced sets of thoughtful players has been an enormously helpful challenge. It forces you to rethink the presentation habits that come with play only with familiar friends.

There is a good long way to go in this area, but the post-session feedback has seemed sharper and more useful likely because they feel the need to comfort less.

Alexis said...

It occurs to me that there's a post script missing from this.

Except for the last three posts that I wrote this week, and except for the comment by Carl that D&D ought be taught in fine arts, which was a response to something I wrote, this post would never have occurred to me. I'd like to point out that thinking out loud, presenting those thoughts to others and having others respond with their thoughts, is a source for inspiration. If it seems strange that I throw out so much energy, it is only because it is the best way to shake my own mind by having others point out the wrongness of my thinking. This compels me to think on a higher level.

I had not previously agreed with Carl's notion that the game could be 'taught.' I feel I've come to a different position on that.

Anonymous said...

Where do I register for the course? Seriously, if something like what's described above were possible one could effectively be taught the game. But who could teach it? I thought the director was spot on, by the way.

Carl said...

James C. -- The course should be taught by WotC (and should have when TSR owned the game, which WotC should have continued). They should have expert DMs who are paid a salary to travel to game stores for a fee and teach an introductory class. I took Drama 101 in college. There are theatre workshops all over the place. D&D should follow a similar model.

Higher certifications would require that you travel to one of their gaming centers and take courses there. They could have week long D&D camps in the summer for kids -- this was done, by the way (

WotC owns the game. For better or worse, they need to teach people how to play. Want to be a paid DM? This is how you do it. You get your certifications which you pay for and you pass your tests and then you are allowed by WotC to charge for DMing using their name.

Ta Da.

If you're really good, WotC would hire you to teach other DMs.

Want to learn to be a better player? WotC should have classes for that, too. Complete the classes, get the certifications and then you're allowed to compete in the big tournaments for actual prize money.

This does not eliminate the amateur/homebrew market. It strengthens it. It sets the standard and ensures professionalism in the offical games. It raises the bar for the every-third-Saturday set, improves the quality of the hobby for everyone and ensures that we get a constant influx of new blood into the game as older players die off, retire or lose interest.

Finally, I'm going to advocate for Ars Ludi AKA Ben Robbins AKA Lame Mage. His blog, and specifically his West Marches series is some of the best blogging on RPGing I've read.

Alexis said...


I disagreed with virtually everything you just said there.

Oh, I'm in error. Re-reading it, there's not one thing I agree with.

Telecanter said...

It's traditional to think that interrupting, harsh evaluation is the best way to teach something.

But the best way to learn is to try, and be allowed to make mistakes. I think it would be a rare occasion that the consequences of a DMing error would not be apparent to the maker of the error in short order.

There's also more and less important feedback. A lot of feedback wouldn't warrant stopping everything and ruining other important aspects of DMing like pacing and time management.

My DMing class would involve the DM running a short session with an experienced DM observing. Then afterward, do some written reflection and discussion.

What was most difficult for you?
What do you feel you did well?

The one thing an experienced DM could really help with is "Yes, I see you had a problem with that, what you could try next time is . . ."

Some of the learning will be delivery-- My roleplaying of the NPC tipped his hand too soon-- some will be preparation-- a list of NPC names would have helped-- some design-- I realize my meticulously prepared dungeon is really just a linear path.

I'd probably rotate the players into the DM position because the two are so essentially linked.

It would be fun. I bet I could take complete noobs and have them confidently DMing groups of 10 in a matter of weeks. Will they be the best DMs ever, no, that will take time and be limited by their individual talents. Do I know everything about DMing, of course not, anyone who thinks they do has calcified and will learn no more.

Carl said...

Alexis, I'm OK with that, but I'm a reasonably secure grown-up and that comes with the territory.

Here's what I have so far that I think we agree on:

* D&D can be taught.
* D&D is an art, not a science.

Points of contention:
* D&D is going to die.
* Teaching D&D should be handled by WotC.
* DMs and Players should have certifications and levels of certification.
* DMs should charge for games.
* Players should be able to win prizes for winning tournaments.
* Ben Robbins writes a good blog.

I think D&D is fundamentally different from board and card games. Because of that, I think it needs to be monetized differently or the money stream will die off and WotC will abandon it.

I think the entire business model of D&D is outdated and wrong, and I think that it was never very well-developed or thought out in the first place.

I further think that unless a new business model is imagined and implemented, pencil and paper D&D will be gone by the next version, to be seen only on game consoles forever after. WotC will continue to make card and miniature games, of course. Those have a solid business model and revenue stream.

Alexis said...


Much of this belongs on another post, as it is off topic. Let me first confirm that all six of your points of contention are accurate.

I think I will fight to the death before I take a position where this game requires any certification of any kind to play, or that said certification should be in the hands of a profit-motived corporation. Let me put this succinctly: fuck certification and fuck WOTC.

"Certification" has failed to standardize anything in this universe, in particular art of any kind. The destruction of the music industry, the film industry and the publishing industry by the Internet has proven what a wasted skein of crap those fundamental organizations have perpetrated upon the masses, requiring persons to join "unions" before getting work or having their work distributed. Clamping down on D&D by means of "certification" is the surest way to murder the game dead in its tracks.

A "certified" game is certain to be the most bloodless sort of game imaginable. Absolutely NONE of the changes I have ever proposed would be considered "appropriate," which would only push creationists like me even further into the woods, and raising the standard of acceptable DMs and Players to those chameleon-like greasy politicos like Kuntz to that of tin-pot dictator from their present status of bloated half-wit.

Your statement that certification would enhance the competitions in big tournaments represents my largest contention. I have never made any suggestion that D&D ought to be tailored to fit a competitive framework, and frankly the idea sickens me ... just as it sickens me that governments offer prizes for the "best" books, or that unions offer prizes for the "best" movies. This, too, is just one massive political jacking off. Tournaments, and the grotesque sale-a-thon conventions that utilize them, are the only part of this hobby in any danger of dying ... threatening only the fan-boy acquisition of junk and that sadly remains part of this game. And then a few insufferable posers will have one less thing to act insufferably superior about.

I won't get behind training DMs and Players to support any of that crap.

I think, quite irrationally I know, that DMs and Players might be interested in training to improve themselves, not for the status it buys them.

Shit, it's hard enough now to talk down fuckwits in the blogosphere. Now you want to put a Seal of Approval on them?


Carl said...

Alexis, thanks for the response. Apologies for the off-topic nature of my comments.

You make excellent points, as usual.

I see our "culture" as a sick one. D&D has blown it's opportunities, and my pathetic attempts to apply Band-Aids to the sucking chest wound that D&D is suffering are coming off as heavy-handed, money-grubbing and I'm sure, strange.

Sure, people may want to improve as players and DMs. They may even seek out classes to do it. Will they pay? Oh hell no. Not now they won't. They already bought the books, right? They've been playing for years and goddamned if anyone is going to charge them to learn how to play this game.

And I have to say that if WotC came out with a D&D class schedule, I'd probably ridicule it. I've played in the games their "pros" run and I get more pleasure masturbating to the Weather Channel.

The root of the problem, as I see it, is that people are exiting this hobby faster than they are entering it. It's a recession of sorts. My ham-fisted notions of how to grow it at a healthy rate are, at their heart, a desire to see people playing pencil-and-paper RPGs for as long as they'll play Monopoly.

I think at it's best, it's a beautiful game. It's a combination of strategy, problem-solving and performance art. At it's worst, it's a horrible display of social Darwinism squeezed through a decorator's tip of hellish boredom.

I want it to be better and have other people like it, too.

Jim said...

Great post. I agree with you about certifications. Give a person a certification and then their opinion becomes sacrosanct and canon regardless of how idiotic it is. In my profession, some of the worst teachers I know have "National Board Certification". Just try and talk with them about what good teaching is. They already know and they don't want to hear it from anyone.