Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vizzini Before He Croaks

Vizzini:  You only think I guessed wrong!  That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!

I am here to say, I do not have an answer to the question of how to be a better DM.  I don't.  I can give suggestions on what to do here or there, how to present a given adventure, how to present yourself as a DM, how to care a little more, how to control your party a little better, why you should take it seriously and what you should expect back from your players.  But all this is fluff.  It is filler.  It is cosmetic, and while it will help with momentary problems in your sessions, it won't make you a better DM if you are not already acceptable.  This is why I said in the previous post on this subject that I'm sitting in the back feeling the bile rise in my throat.  I am watching the professor write notes on the blackboard, I am watching the other students diligently copying the notes, I am watching everyone feel they are growing and changing as people, and I am not seeing anything grow or change.  I'm seeing 30 years of this bullshit - don't believe for a second that it has started with the internet - and after all this time I am hearing and seeing the same repeated statements all over again.  Dance like this, sing like this, wave your arms like this and everything will be wonderful.


Allow me to leap to a something tawdry that some of us might know from experience.  My first wife Michelle, who rests in peace, lived and breathed music.  Her father had been a music teacher in a high school and Michelle had embraced the lifestyle as early as it is possible.  Training in french horn and flute, she began in marching bands - something she adored - at the age of eleven, and continued touring and marching throughout her teens.  Every year she marched in a little event around here we call the Calgary Stampede, which means that I was probably in the crowd one July when my wife of ten years later went marching by.  Life is funny.

When she entered university it was to obtain a music degree, which she pursued with vigor, particularly theory and composition, while continuing to play in orchestras and in her own band.  She was a punk rocker in leather mini-skirt and torn top lo about 1982, and I am sorry to say I did not know her in that period.  Suffice to say she was eclectic, driven, highly intellectual and wonderfully confrontational.  I have never enjoyed arguments as much as I did with her.

Part of her training and drive involved spending much of her existence incorporating Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians into her knowledge base.  Let me put that better: she effectively reduced the books into a rich paste which she was then able to introveneously inject directly into her brain.  If you have not opened these books, let me explain that this is not light reading.  This is extraordinarily heavy material.  It is the bible of music.  And of course Michelle owned a copy.

It will only take 15 or 20 years before you're
thoroughly familiar with this.
I very much respected my wife's knowledge of music, and I learned a very great deal about it.  But that isn't important right now.  What is important is the story that goes along with all this knowledge.

It happened one Christmas several years after our marriage that Michelle received a gift from my parents: a coffee table book gotten from the local big box store about ... yes, embarrassingly, music.  In nice big lettering with lots of pictures.  Michelle was polite about it, but that book and my parent's stupidity became a topic of conversation very often in the years afterwards, for which I cannot blame her.  They knew perfectly well the level of her investment and knowledge, but that didn't matter in the fluffy world of their middle-class sensibilities.  "She likes music," they thought to themselves.  "Let's get her a book about music."

What's really baffling about it is my father, who is an engineer and rockhound, acquired at a very early age Dana's manual of mineralogy, which also is not a light book.  If I had bought my father for Christmas a Big Book of Rocks, he would not have been amused and I doubt very much he would have been polite at all.  He should have known better.

My point to all this story is that there comes a time when a little bit of knowledge just isn't enough to make reading worthwhile.  After thirty-two years of playing and reading and studying and building my world and securing players and changing to suit players and re-evaluating my goals and rifting through unbelievable tons of written crappy material about RPG's (which, I am not sorry to say, the authors of which did not impress their names upon my brain), I am hopelessly and disasterously past the Big Book of GM Challenge.  It's crap from end to end not because it's wrong, but because it isn't new.  It is flabbergastingly difficult to explain to people that while the Big Book is pretty and full of accurate little facts, it is full of accurate little facts I acquired some twenty years ago and which no longer hold the magnificent quality of original thought they did when I was very young.  It is therefore useless to me.  It gives me nothing.  It is dead weight.

This was my point with the goldfish essay a couple of weeks ago.  The massive horde of bloggers about are still wanking themselves with this material, even while claiming they've played the game for twenty years.  Really?  Twenty years and this isn't shit you know already?  You know, it only takes 8 years to become enough of a doctor that you can split my chest and operate on my heart.  And after 20 years, you're just now learning to stand up and use your whole body to conduct a session?  Holy crap.

I am here, waiting for someone to tell me something I don't know.  I'm patient.  And while Vizzini laughs and tells me what's what and how much of a fool I am, I'm perfectly aware of the location of the iocane powder and that he's going to tip over any moment.  Change is coming.  When it does, I'll be happy about it.

But O gentle reader, who's content with the way things are ...

You're already dead.


Captain Sarcastic said...

Some of us are new to this.
Some of us weren't born 20 yrs ago.

Some of us find this sort of thing useful. We're not mindless slobs sucking up every turd dropped as gospel.

I'm getting the impression this hobby is "by invitation only".

Alexis said...

And yet you've picked that name, Captain.

There are people in the world who are not yet doctors, musicians or geologists. Yet you don't see groups of those experts sitting around lowering the level of their discourse to make it possible for the uninitiated to join in as equals. I'm sorry its a terrible uphill battle for you, Captain, but that's how it is when you're just starting out.

Frankly, I don't think the Big Book is going to help you, either; it's too disparate and egalitarian; it hasn't been vetted or edited; and it contains a lot of tertiary, meaningless advice slopped in with the good stuff, without any effort being made to distinguish the one from the other. Slap pictures on it and it will make a pretty coffee table ornament, but it isn't much good as a textbook.

Of course, there aren't any really decent textbooks, are there? For me, I started with the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide. Those were enough for me to build all this self-satisfaction upon ... and without, let me say, others bending themselves to the ground to help me step up.

If you have any potential at all to get into this hobby and kick ass, you don't need help from me ... and you wouldn't be crying about your lack of experience, either.

R.W. Chandler said...

THIS was the answer to the question I was looking for, Alexis. I do understand your point of view on this much more clearly now.

I think though, that while many of us do have decades of experience, not all of us have used the same tools and techniques, and that's what it was all about. Not to mention, as the captain pointed out, there are a lot of people new to the art/science of DMing that might be able to glean a lot from the entire package. If YOU did not glean anything from it, then that is a different matter.

I realize that most of the stuff in the GM Challenge wasn't groundbreaking or anything, but I think the shared ideas and concepts was the goal.

And you are right in the fact that truly becoming a better DM takes a lot of experience. I still struggle with things at the table myself. None of us are perfect though.

Although your curmudgeonly misanthropic ways can be entertaining to read, I would like to see the side of you that doesn't take himself or the game so seriously. Laugh a little and have some fun. That's what the game is all about.

And I am very sorry to hear about your first wife's passing. She sounds like a lovely woman.

Captain Sarcastic said...

I know.

I didn't imply I wanted to be seen as an equal. Yet, similarly, there are experts that do offer knowledge to others. It wouldn't be necessary to lower the level of discourse. There's no need for such presumption.

Some of the "Big Book" has been useful, some hasn't. I don't use these old sources as textbooks.

For me, they're an interesting outline, a map. I'm just a traveller and I know not all maps are useful. They don't account for all things I need to know.

To the last part of your reply:
I do. I don't. ...and I'm not.

Would it have been better to have presumed a persona of someone that knew everything? No.

Alexis said...


Thank you. She has been past for some time now, but I take your condolences in good spirits.

I don't understand why taking something seriously is so frowned upon. It seems to me that people tend to take my serious attitude about D&D too seriously. In person, I am one of the happiest, humorous, laughing people you're ever likely to meet. But the game is a serious thing, and I refuse to treat anything - or any person - that I love casually.

As far as a bit of humour on the blog, I suggest this post here.

Alexis said...

My sincerest good wishes, Captain.

Just trying to keep the level of discourse high, you understand.

Jason Juta said...

Thanks for this post, more than any other it's made your viewpoint and intentions much easier to understand and appreciate.

Kenwolf said...

@ captain. if you want to be a better DM all you need to do is ask your players after a session what they thought of the nights game and have them give you feed back on what they liked and didn't like. it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of your style or competence is other then the people you are DMing for.

Beedo said...

I agree with the others, this post humanized the man behind the keyboard; sorry to hear about the loss of your wife.

I want to point something out, seeing as I indirectly started the GM challenge when Chris K read a comment over on my blog. I *am* an acceptable DM, but there's a gulf between muddling through years of DMing, as most folks who take up the mantle likely do to a point, and then crossing over into self-examination of techniques and analyzing what works and doesn't work - and to be able to articulate why certain techniques work at the table.

The measure of being a 'successful DM' is really low; you're a success when your players want to come back. Mastery means making it repeatable and understanding why things work; it's a big part of why I started blogging.

As for helping new DMs; they just have to get out there and do it. Read a tutorial - many of the older game books included them. Though they may be flawed, the tutorial will at least provide the basic overview of the role; then get out there, run a bunch of games. I don't see any shortcut. Analysis of techniques is pretty meaningless without some initial context and a foundation.

Adam Thornton said...

I am afraid I Just Don't Get It.

Sure, there are plenty of tricks, tips, techniques, whatever, you can do to be a slightly better game master than you already are. But there's exactly one thing you have to do.

Run games.

A lot, if possible. As many as possible, anyway. (Play in some too, but with your critical hat on, where, in addition to just playing for fun, you're being mindful of how the guy or girl behind the screen is orchestrating your fun.)

And if it turns out you never had a knack for it in the first place, you'll find out, because people will stop wanting to be in games that you run. And after you've run enough of them, and you've thought about what worked, and what didn't, and what you can do better next time, and you've asked your players all this (because what YOU thought, you will find, is sometimes not AT ALL what it seemed like from the other side of the screen) you will have gotten pretty good at it.

In short, it's the same advice: how do you become a better writer? Write. For any meaningful craft, there are no meaningful shortcuts. Or, to tie it back to Alexis's wife's favorite topic:

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Practice, man. Practice."

Captain Sarcastic said...

@Alexis: Thank you, and to you as well. I do understand.

@Kenwolf: Fortunately, I have had no shortage of such "immediate" reports on my games from my players.

@Beedo: Some literary research and an appreciation for different forms of media entertainment have proven beneficial. Observation has been key, so far.

Alexis said...

I don't make any comments suggesting that other people don't play their games, Beedo; I didn't actually say at any time that you were a poor DM. I merely made the comment that in being a better DM, having your players reappear at your table is hardly something I want to hold up as a goal.

There's a difference between having players show up for another ye olde game and your players being blown away. I love it when I can manage the latter, but I, like everyone else, find I'm stuck too many nights in the former. And I want advice to get better. But I don't hear useful advice, I just hear the same old goldfish stuff repeated ad nauseum. And it's not good enough. Not by a damn sight. I want more.

I'm not going to join in the eternal praise of the bland when I am looking for SPICY. And yet everywhere I went on the blogosphere last week, it was "love this bland repeat of stuff people have said before, love it love it love it!" Someone has to say somewhere that the bar just HAS to be higher than this. It has to be.

I am under no mandate whatsoever to "help new DMs." I don't really particularly care about new DMs. I'm confident there are many, many other people who are prepared to school them, and I'm too busy with the part I'm playing in this to join in with the teaching of grade one. I'm shooting for university level. So you get them through middle school, and when they're ready, they can come take a crack at the discourse here.

Sound good to you?

Adam Thornton said...

Alexis: I may actually be able to help with this:

If you want the advice to get better, you need to steer it. Which means you're going to have to get a lot more specific when getting feedback out of your players. Not "So, did tonight work for you?" or "too fast? Too slow?" but "Did you notice that all the bad things were grouped in threes and all the good things were grouped in pairs?" or "Did it seem like the fight with the lich and his skeletal owlbear was just dragging on there?"

Now, if you've thought about what to ask about, specific answers to very targeted questions can give you the larger answers about the way you're conducting the game you were looking for. But unless you're playing with a lot of players who DM and care about how they do it, they're not going to be able to articulate useful advice on their own. And asking tightly-framed questions whose answers will give you more general knowledge is a learned art, that you also need to practice in order to get good at it.

And, yeah, this doesn't work at all with a blogosphere full of platitudes, but it works quite well with a table full of engaged players.