Monday, August 29, 2011

Well Water

There comes a point in making a stand when a writer realizes there is little left to say ... but this is not the end of writing.  Political pundits know that if their theme is to be adopted, that theme must be pounded on the rock until it is soft and pallatable for ordinary minds.  People shall accept free trade as a doctrine, and daily I shall write articles which presents the matter of free trade from positive direction after positive direction.  People who do not know what free trade is shall believe me because they know me, and they shall willingly speak my doctrine to others who know them.  Go to that well and draw, my dear friends.  Draw and draw, for it takes a lot of well water to wash a brain.

This last week I have watched the buckets come up and I have read much praise for water's taste.  We have the written word on how to be a better GM, and the critics are in favor.  This shall surely hail a change in game playing across the land, for the true knowledge on how to better run your games is but a mouse click away.  There never need be any lack of a great GM ever again.

Or it may be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

When hair conditioner was first advanced on the market back in the 1950s, the marketing department discovered that women didn't believe the product worked because it was far too simple; women were used to the trials and tribulations of hair salons.  It was necessary to create a ruse, and women were told that the product needed to remain in their hair for 30 minutes to get the full effect.  The lie worked.  Women everywhere sat with their hair wrapped, moisture dripping uncomfortably down the backs of their necks, to give enough time for the product's effect - even though that effect in reality took only a minute.  People will believe anything if it is presented as rational.

Will reading about how to be a better DM actually make you a better DM?  No, probably not.  Will it make you believe you are a better DM?  Almost certainly.

For most good folks, this is enough.  We all live in a cloud of dubious certainty, and belief is a comfortable blanket we can pull around ourselves and feel snuggly and warm.  Belief can carry you through the darkest times; it can reshape and revitalize misery; it can justify the continued slavery to a job that has brought you nothing for twenty years; it can work wonders with love; it gives solace to the dying.

Reality can offer very little in kind.  It will not wrap you in a blanket, it will wrap you in barbed wire.  It will not wake you up in the morning and get you to work.  It will not give you a good sex life.  It is virtually impossible to define and it is in constant dispute due to its flagrant disregard for belief.  Becoming a better DM in reality is a very hard thing, taking years and sweating effort, and is much harder than believing you're a better DM, which can be accomplished by reading a few hundred words and saying that its true.

The only snag is that other people are rarely prepared to buy into your belief strategy.  If you sit down at your gaming table with the statement, "I am a better DM today!"  You will more likely be met with doubt and derision than with backslapping and approval.  Selling your belief to other people pulls with it a full bucket that feels like the work you associate with reality.  "Oh yeah?" they ask.  "Show us."  And in that demand is implied the insistence that some kind of real change is demonstration.  Call it, I don't know, 'proof.'

You may have gleaned a gimmick or two from the recent compilation of belief strategies, and you may apply it to your upcoming or recent session, and it may ge a cry of approval that may very well seem like proof.  Gimmicks have a shelf life, however; and by the next running that shelf life may have run out.  Three or four runnings down the road, your gimmicks will all be gone and unless there was real change, you will have gone back to running the same dry campaigns you ran prior to your 'great improvement' as a DM.  That's all right, however ... you'll believe, and your players will believe, that you're pretty snappy now.  That one terrific session you ran will echo in their heads for months, and will carry you through a lot of dry times.  And no doubt that'll be good for your ego.

All this said ... the question of how to make you a better DM in reality, that I can't answer.  Carl, who regularly comments on this blog, often calls for an answer to that.  But in all the time that's passed since I began playing, I haven't figured out yet what makes me a good - or a bad - DM.

Let's conjecture a university course in the subject, which I would have probably attended if it had been on the curriculum.  It would probably be slotted into the social sciences; I feel belongs in the humanities department, but that isn't really important.  As long as it's not 'Business.'  I can imagine myself in the class with forty or fifty others, half of them with at least some experience of the game, a quarter thinking that "dragons" meant a survey course on mythology and a quarter there just to get their credit requirements - computer programmers, probably, or jocks told by their chums that D&D meant "Ds for Dummies."

The prof comes into the room, writes his name on the blackboard - Mr. Chundley - and goes into his introduction.  There will be a midterm and a final and there will be a 2,500 word essay on the social relevance of D&D.  Each will count for one third of the total grade.  No, there will be no actual playing of the game during the course, but we are "encouraged" to take part in as many games as possible in order to get a full sense of the game.  The jocks groan, the game players nod enthusiastically, the mythologists check their schedule to see how fast they can dump this course for something else ... and I sit in the back and feel my bile rise in my throat.

Naturally, if we're dealing with what is substantially a complicated context-oriented performance art, the last thing we would want to do is have anyone actually perform.  That would involve standing to the side and criticizing people as they ran the game.  Hands up, those of you who would care to learn to be a better DM by running the game in an auditorium full of well-meaning critics who were encouraged to shout at you during your presentation.  Mind you, I said "well-meaning" - not trolls anxious to put you off your game, but persons who have legitimate, well-founded oppositions to what you're trying to do.

Cue laughter.  What in this game represents a "well-founded opposition?"  Anyone?

We're all old hands at the blogosphere, the sniping, the derision, the pompous superiority, the dismissive carping and so on ... most of it to be found right here in this post.  What's missing here is the slobbering praise, the wanking approval and the excited presentation of the very ordinary.

Oops ... that was more dismissive carping, wasn't it?  Sorry.  It's a hard habit to break.

Call it what you will, the last thing we have represented in the D&D 'field' is a well-founded anything.  D&D is, for those following around the blogosphere like puppies, a survey course, taught without play and taught be people who think "social relevance" is a measureable quality in the superiority of the game and its participants.  You can't teach something if there's nothing standardized enough to be taught.  All we really have is what people believe, and you don't teach beliefs.

You sell them.


Kaspar said...

Still, any bit of advice helps. Reading a book on the subject is of course only step one.

And what exacly do you mean with "standardized"?

Alexis said...

Standardized; past participle of the verb standardize

1. Cause (something) to conform to a standard.
2. Adopt (something) as one's standard.
3. Determine the properties of by comparison with a standard.

Beedo said...

The only standard I find relevant is whether the DM feels like the endeavor is worth repeating - running the game again next week - and that the players feel like it's worth showing up again.

About the only thing I hoped to get were a few micro-techniques to improve the chances that the game's I run meet both of those standards.

Alexis said...

Nothing like having the bare minimum held as the highest possible expectation.

Beedo said...

You get what you pay for.

R.W. Chandler said...

As one of the contributors on the project, I can say I don't think the point was to "sell" anyone on the idea that they'll read this collection and *poof* be a great DM. I think the idea was a culmination of shared thoughts on GM techniques which have worked for us individually as GMs, and passing on those ideas to others who might be interested. I'm not sure why you would have an issue with this approach. It would have been nice to have had your own input on the subject, in fact. I'm sure you saw the "challenge" on Hill Cantons before the entire thing was collected and put together. We all just volunteered to do it, and it was a fun and useful project I think.

Alexis said...


In all sincerity, if you look on the sidebar of this blog you will find a label, "Dungeon Mastering," with 41 posts in it discussing all manner of how to be a better DM, or GM. I am not opposed to discussing how to be a better DM, and I know you'll find throughout the blogosphere hundreds and hundreds of posts written on how to be better at running a game. It is quintessentially a principle subject upon which to write.

I am opposed to this casual approach to the subject matter being branded, packaged and distributed like so much cheap, sordid crap, not as well-thought out posts conceived at the time and moment when they were relevant, but slung from the hip to serve a quick-splat kindergartenish template.

That is why, I say without malice, you did not receive a contribution from me.

R.W. Chandler said...

Well, being a reader of your blog, I have read many of your articles on the subject.

I would ask then, is it more the format the PDF was compiled in or is what you see as mediocrity as a whole in the content therein? Because basically these were all just blog posts written on the subject and posted on our own blogs originally, which were compiled into this collection.

Again, I don't think the idea behind the project was to sell people on this notion that these entries will instantly make you a better DM, but would you not agree that the shared advice on the subject could be beneficial to some? I know I gleaned a lot of knowledge and inspiration from the articles, and I've been running games for nearly 2 decades, and consider myself a fairly experienced, and good DM.

Anonymous said...

Jesus Alexis, will you drop it already and post #42. We folksy distributors of anecdotal chaff are waiting to bask in the glow of your virtuosity. I say this with love.

Alexis said...

James C.,

I hope tomorrow.