Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Never By A Damn Sight

Last night I had a few chuckles reading someone defending the post I'd written last week on the Ethical Treatment of Rail RoddersYagamiFire did an excellent job reading me ... it's almost like I use words and they're comprehensible to people who can read.

Not everyone, of course.  Seems what that article was really about was the difference between preparing an adventure and not.  Ah well.  I don't have much to say about that.  Obviously, preparation is good.  That's why I spend so much time at it.  Still, there is a HUGE difference between preparing the overall context of an adventure and preparing a bunch of particular, inflexible circumstances which are to be imposed on the players.  This was NOT the substance of the article I wrote about ethics ... but it is a subject worth speaking on.

Before I do that, however, I just want to make a point about something tanstaafl (arguing against my position in the forum), regarding "effort:"

"But the amount of effort for some people would be dramatically larger, to the point were it's just not worth the time they're sacrificing. Which is the other half of this; it only 'universally translates' to pure laziness if everyone has some effortlessly sacrificeable chunk of time they can use for said training. If they don't (and I don't think many people do) then they have to make choices that have time costs." (6:58 pm, Jan 29)

Can I just say?  "tanstaafl" is a term coined by the author Robert A. Heinlein.  It means, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."  I don't know if the fellow who chose that nick has any idea what the fuck that means, but just for the record, it means - straight from every Heinlein book you might read - if it looks like its free, you're going to learn the hard way that it ain't, so don't go looking for hand-outs.  Be prepared to get your hands dirty and work your ass off, 'cause no one, ever, is going to give you something for nothing.

Heinlein was a Missouri boy, born and bred in the first decades of the twentieth century, when Missouri had few roads, little industry beyond agriculture and a protestant work ethic that runs like blood through his work.  Using the nick tanstaafl to argue that not everyone should be expected to bleed in order to succeed is just about the most profound level of cognitive dissonance I've had the chance to witness ... and there have been some fine examples from commenters on this blog.

The common whine goes, "I'm too busy to work on D&D!  Waa!  Waa!  I have family and a job and responsibilities and things that take up my time and ... Waa!  Waa!"

Really, I don't fucking care.    No one in the world fucking cares.  Tanstaafl.  You don't do the work, you don't get respect.  There's a lot of people who might nod knowingly, pitying you, but I don't know anyone who wants pity.  Improvements in the game are not going to be made by people who would rather watch football on Sunday.  They're not going to be made by helicopter parents who must spend every waking hour of their children's lives smothering them.   Marie and Pierre Curie had two children and they still both won Nobel Prizes, in a world without vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines, computers and about a thousand other time saving devices.  You're not busy because your a parent, you're busy because your priorities are out of fucking whack.

Now, I'm not saying D&D is more important than your kids (well, D&D is more important to ME than your kids are, but that's not really the point).  What I'm saying is that technology has made your life pretty freakin' cushy, and if the Curies could juggle a home life and world-class investigative work, so can you.

When I was in university, whenever I needed an extension for a paper I hadn't written because I wasn't in the mood, I was at the bar or my wife and I had decided to have sex, I would take my 2-year-old daughter to school and sit her on my hip while asking the prof for more time.  I always got it.  OF COURSE it was the lowest form of duplicity.  Still, what the hell difference did it make?  Truth is, parents learn damn fast that kids are the ultimate excuse for everything on this planet.  It is a truth of which single people are bitterly - I mean BITTERLY - aware.  For every parent who can comment on this screaming, "I never use my children that way!" there are two single people who can answer, "Yeah, right!"

Guess who's picking the ball up at your job when your kids are sick again?

'Course, there are some people who don't think the hobby needs to be changed.  They think it is fine just as it is.  The rules are fine, the structure is fine, their world is fine, their style of play is fine, there is no need for improvement in anyway.

Thankfully, none of these people have any real say about the future of the game.  The future of the game is going to be decided by people like me, people who work on it all the time because we are obsessed with it.  People who have long since stopped thinking of D&D as a game and who now think of it as a spiritual art form.  We can't stop working on it ... we know it can be better, because we've deconstructed the principles of the activity down to their base fundamentals and we're well aware that the experience enjoyed by the players depends on the preparation we've done.

I'm not talking about some willy nilly preparation such as sketching out a room or writing up the NPC who's standing outside the Grub & Grog.  Seriously, when I talk of working on the game, or given players options, or getting the hell out of railroading your campaign, I'm not quibbling about some stupid 'improv' you're doing where you paint the walls white in the dungeon instead of gray.  It makes no nevermind if the NPC is a mage or a fighter or six-feet-tall or if he comes from the planet Zooba-Zikzik-Zaffa-Bam 43.  That sort of thing is what we like to call in the development department a cosmetic change, and it don't mean fuck all.

NOT railroading your parties does not begin with doing a little nip and tuck here and there to fit the occasional hiccup.  There's nothing more annoying that a DM who claims on the one hand, "I don't railroad," who then proceeds to use language to frame their DM style like "campaign arc" and their "story writing skills."  The disconnect is exactly the sort of fog a DM like that needs to justify their perfect record where it comes to making their players happy.  As Chiba says on the top of this page, "... I've never had a party just completely abandon the storyline I have written and prepared for."

Never, huh.  Never.  Oh, I don't think he's lying.  It is far more probable, given the number of times he makes claim to the words story, plot and plan, that his players haven't a bloody clue the game is played any way but Chiba's way.

Many, many players don't.

Before one can remotely begin to conceive of a world without tracks, one must first have a conception of not needing them.  For most, the argument is still stuck between "but if I don't prepare, then what do I do when the unexpected happens?"  The very core of this question is the DM's fear that disorder and chaos will give way in their world, and they will lose control over the proceedings.

The terror of not measuring up to a challenge or a crisis has long been the reason for people doing far more preparation than they really should.  I have a favorite story from the film Marathon Man, which I first heard related sometime when I was just out of high-school.  The story goes that for the scene where Dustin Hoffman's and Laurence Olivier's characters meet - the brilliant dental scene where Ernst Szell interrogates Babe to learn "if its safe" - Hoffman, as was his usual style, did not bathe or sleep for days prior.  Being a student of the Stanislavski method, he wanted his emotional state to be as close as possible to that of the character in the film.  The story goes that Hoffman - who practically worshipped Olivier, as everyone did - explained all this to his idol in the hopes that the effort he'd taken to destroy himself for the part would be admired ... and Olivier is said to have asked in response, "Why don't you just try 'acting'?"

Here's the scene.  You tell me who did better on the 'preparation' front:

As I have already said, I prepare my world on a constant, continuous basis.  More to the point, I prepare myself just as much as I prepare my world.  I do that by not living in a world of self-aggrandizement and certainty that says I have the way to DM that works for me, no question about it.  I have been playing 33 years now and there is no way I think I know the best way to run my world.  I try a new technique every week.  I experiment, I dissect, I ask my players, I struggle to keep the game as lively and rich as I possibly can ... but I never, ever, think that the way I run my world today is the BEST way.  It's the best I can do right now ... but I'm sure that with more effort, with greater insight, with a higher level of research and examination, plus all the design I can muster to back up those investigations, I can make my world better tomorrow than it is today.

Because you see, O Gentle Reader, it is never good enough.  Never by a damn sight.  I simply cannot cripple myself by worrying about whether or not I have control over the sessions, where there's room for all this improvement.  If the thing goes to hell, and I've tried something that didn't work, then fuck it.  My players are playing the same game I am, and they're just as prepared as I am to reboot something that's not working, IF it's not.

Jeez, to hear some DM's talk about it, you'd think the players were the enemy.


Anonymous said...

I have further thoughts, but I wanted to point out that this: "I would take my 2-year-old daughter to school and sit her on my hip while asking the prof for more time. I always got it." made me laugh out loud -- what a great idea!

I am of the position that if one is NOT moving towards improvement, one is moving towards mediocrity or worse. One can certainly be in a "maintenance" stage in some matters, but that still requires work.

I think there is a Zeitgeist in (Western / American) culture that "work" is a "bad thing." Also: we have moved a great deal towards passive-observation based entertainment. I abhor passive entertainment. I even detest commercials to the point where I solely rely on the internet (siphoned through a DVR / HD TV) for my movies and show as I cannot stand waiting through commercials.

I believe that AAA gaming and the like is another of passive-entertainment. Button-mash until the next cut-scene. I refuse to own any console gaming systems.

I love radical acts, radical acts in all things. What is more radical in game play than creating your own and / or improving upon previous game content / procedures?

I am reminded of the movie "The Name of the Rose" where one of the underlying tensions was the Truths That Must Be Maintained twixt the Discoveries To Be Revealed. I enjoy the process of discovery and creation much more so than maintaining any sort of status quo.

Keith S said...

Creation takes blood, sweat, tears, and time. I think a lot of (American) people are always on the lookout for the pill that will cure their ills, the one-step solution to fix all. Reality is though, most things of worth take real work to achieve.

However you're motivated to improve your work there will be natural ebb and flow. Progress and lack thereof ...

YagamiFire said...

I approach games with a general attitude that how I did today is never good enough for tomorrow. I am a leader on a local airsoft team and our teams attitude towards the game is based on my own outlook which has lead to our team motto of "Perfection tomorrow. Improvement today" of course with the understanding that tomorrow never comes.

It does strike me strange how the "There is no wrong way to play D&D" meme (which I already find...questionable) has changed into a malignancy where nothing can be criticized. In fact, even more than that, it is becoming difficult to even extol methodologies or techniques because people become offended, taking it as an insult to their own beliefs or ideas.

It is ridiculous. It reminds me of people being offended by someone wishing them a "Merry Christmas" because they take it as an insult against what their own religion might be. Yes, god forbid someone wish someone well or high-light the advantages of a Dungeons & Dragons approach. Think of the children.

All that said, I agree that enough should never be enough. I come from a background of competitive video games...specifically fighting games...and more specifically Street Fighter. What you are speaking against, Alexis, is the "scrub mentality" as expertly defined and deconstructed by David Sirlin. His writing was the first time I was able to see how I often felt about games put into actual words...and it was a pleasant revelation.

I'm going to end my rambling now and simply say that I think I will be commenting on your blog when I feel I have something worthwhile to say since I have recently finished reading from beginning to end. Good gaming.

Alexis said...

Good gaming, Yagami.

I wrote this post to make one thing clear ... that the sort of people who are biting the hook in the forum right now will never matter where it comes to this game. They're concern is how nicely they're treated, not with what needs to be done next. They don't matter. But I have learned from the internet, people of substance are forced to spend far too long reading nonsense in between finding stuff that's good. You nicely threw some pearls before swine ... I only wanted to make sure they started bleating loud enough to draw a farmer's attention.

Thank you.

YagamiFire said...

Not a problem. I understand where you are coming from. I went to school for game design so even around my friends I have run into a lot of conversations where I have to bite my tongue when discussing games...but I am not one to bite my tongue so I end up just saying what I was going to say anyway. Thankfully, I choose my friends wisely and they know what sort of person I am...blunt and honest to a fault. Almost certainly more than what is considered socially 'normal' but I have never felt a need to hide vast parts of my emotions or thoughts from people I consider my close friends or family.

It has been a strange experience coming back to Dungeons & Dragons after years away from it. Especially when doing so meant finding that I often align with the thoughts and opinions of people that started playing the game when it was new...people that are decades my senior.

It's an odd thing. And I don't mean that as an insult to anyone (old player or young)...just that it is honestly how I feel. So few of these new ideas & memes in the hobby resonate with me on any level. Often they just come across to me as useless, nonsensical or even contradictory. Meanwhile, the game theory that has evolved on various blogs (this one included) and that has developed parallel to, but totally separate from, those "current" ideas in WOTCs books (and to an extent on their boards) seems to make much more sense. It has resulted in me having to throw out previous held notions...and to refine my process...and to continue to improve my game.

And it has paid dividends! Such dividends! I am currently engaged in the best campaign I've ever DM' the best tabletop I've ever played...and the players have been up front and honest enough to tell me the same while openly criticizing my previous efforts. It's been great.

Alexis said...

Personally, I'm a miserable old bastard. 'course, once I was a miserable young brat, so its not much movement.

I have always prized straightforwardness. It's one way of recognizing when people aren't lying to me (or themselves). The picture I use for myself for this blog was painted by a fellow who was himself an irreconcilable genius who, apart from pissing off most of his contemporaries, only changed the world of art forever.

Being loved by this kindergarten society hardly balances that kind of success.

ESR said...

I think there's a great difference between "material that is created for final purchase" (video games) and "material that is created for other creators" (D&D manuals). It's almost the same difference that a novel has from a programming manual. I think WotC has lost sight of this fact - they should NOT be designing purchase-product for new players, but rather for experienced players or DMs. Sure, if you want to get new people in the hobby (er... obcession?), by all means make the classic "first three" manuals (Players/DMs/Monster Manual) fairly simple with streamlined rules. But somehow (and probably to create more money), they never get that basic system right, and instead of building on a solid foundation, decide to release a whole new version every 7 years or so.