Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tobiah Panshin

I only just stumbled across an online book by Tobiah Panshin called The Game Master.  I know, I know, I should know all about it by now, but the fact is that I'm really not up on the "popular" D&D material that's out there and online.  I don't go looking for it.

As you know, I'm just in the preliminary phase of my own DMing book ... and having gotten through the first thirty pages of Panshin's book, I want to say:  I can do better than this.

Before I go any further, I have a question.  Panshin keeps making statements like, "The second goal is for each character to conform to the trappings of the setting, as well as its themes."  Then he goes on to explain what a setting is, what a character is, what trappings are and what a theme is, but he never seems to actually explain how to achieve the goal he's just identified.

Does he ever change this pattern?  Because, like I say, I'm 30 pages in and that's all I see.


Carl said...

I had no idea this book existed. Is it self-published?

The best D&D book I've read so far is The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe, but it's a biography, not a how-to.

Still, there are lots of good examples in there of why people don't play much D&D after adolescence, and I think that is instructive.

Arduin said...

I buzzed through it, since it's very slow, and what I think is thus:

There's nothing new here. Not even close. It's a quick regurgitation of what a dedicated RPGer will have seen on a dozen blogs, a dozen times.

It could only be useful to someone who has not attempted to keep up with the "scene", doesn't know where to start, and would like information now, without trying to Google it.

I'm not impressed, but it's not inherently bad. I've just seen it before.

As for the "saying things and assuming the reader will fill in the blanks bit" yes. Yes, that was also prevalent.

As before: it's not awful, but there is similar material, parsed together better, elsewhere.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

I've flipped through it, and so far it hasn't impressed me. Early on he makes a lot of unsupported statements without clarifying or justifying them, like saying that the primary goal of the game is to "have fun". I want to know what his definition of fun is, exactly. It's not that it's obviously wrong, but just that it's so vague as to be meaningless. It sounds like a longer version of the advice at the start of the fourth edition dungeon master's guide.

His system of "Author, Actor, and Audience" doesn't quite satisfy me. His comparison between film and D&D doesn't do much to convince me, because it gives the impression that he's never studied film or been involved with the production of a film at all. He completely leaves out cinematography and editing. If someone's going to talk about D&D as art, I want it to be someone with some amount of education in the subject. I'll read through it and give the book an honest chance, but so far he's not winning my trust.

Down on page 120, he talks about a game where the players decided to track a completely innocent gnomish NPC because they for some reason thought he was suspicious. The party followed him home, and tried to break in. Tobias says that his "two good options" were to pause the game and explain that the gnome wasn't important, or "make up something interesting for this guy to be," to "give some kind of reward for pursuing the little guy."
What Tobias actually ended up doing was simply make the gnome's house completely inaccessible, which he admits was the worst thing to do because it was railroading.

What I take issue with is that, among the "good options", he doesn't list the possibility that the players successfully break into his house, capture him, interrogate him, only to find that he was completely innocent, and then have to deal with the consequences of their crime. There's a good chance that it's what I would have done, and I would have at least liked to see the option represented. He seems to immediately assume that anything that negatively affects player enjoyment in the short term is wrong.

He talks a lot, it seems, about conventional narrative in D&D, with no attention given to the merits of non narrative art of any sort. I think this is a flaw, because D&D is particularly well suited to episodic, non narrative art loosely united by common themes.

There is along history of art that doesn't follow conventional modern narrative structure and doesn't have ethical protagonists, and a lot of it is well respected. Look at Fellini's film Satyricon- there's barely any logical plot, and characters drop in and out without logical explanations. It's just a bunch of sometimes very loosely connected vignettes about a few characters getting into trouble in an interesting setting. It sounds exactly like a lot of D&D campaigns, and it's a masterpiece.

I don't think we should assume that D&D needs to fit the conventional narrative structure we're used to seeing. It is by nature unplanned, episodic, and chaotic, and I think we should embrace it for what it is, and look to other art of a similar structure for inspiration.

I think Tobias deserves praise and respect for doing what everyone else only thought about, but there's a lot in his book to take issue with. I'm nitpicking and being overly critical. I've only read maybe 10% so far and I'm sure there's good stuff in there. I'm very glad this was published, but there's a lot in the book to argue with.

Maximillian said...

Reminds me of highschool english.

YagamiFire said...

People saying the primary goal of D&D is to "have fun" has pretty much been my litmus test for drooling idiots with nothing intelligible to say. It is the response of someone that can neither commit to an opinion about the game nor take the time to actually understand any part of game design.

There is no rules based game on earth where FUN is the point of the game. Yet people argue (just look at the D&D boards) passionately (ignorantly but passionately...) that "having fun" is the designed, mechanical and fundamental goal of the game of Dungeons & Dragons.

And why? Because it keeps them from having to understand anything...and it keeps the conversation at "kiddie table" level.

That entire thought process can go die in a fire...

Anonymous said...

Yagami, would you clarify what the point of D&D is, then, if not FUN? You mention your interest in competitive video-gaming a lot... do you view D&D in a similar light with similar goals?

I'm not speaking out in defense of fun, nor am I trying to pick a fight. I've played on and off (mostly on) for over 25 years now and I still struggle explaining to people what the point of D&D is.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I dislike the use of the word 'point' in a discussion like this because the word has no distinct characteristic in a philosophical argument. Can we say either 'purpose' or 'end'?

In this context, I think we must describe your question in terms of the end, or objective, rather than the purpose, or aim, as we are speaking of what the rules mean to achieve, rather than how the rules mean to govern the ongoing action.

Obviously D&D is fun. I don't think anyone contends that point. And I think Yagami overstates his case when he argues that D&D isn't MEANT to be fun. Obviously, it is. Yagami's particular bugbear with this - and I've seen him write it elsewhere - is that by reducing the intrinsic complexity of the game, and the emotions it covers, to one word, a word usually used for the most mundane and simpleminded activities, it dismisses or detracts from considerable parts of the game.

James, he's going to answer you with a mountain of rhetoric that will boil down to just that (and he will probably ignore this answer, because our friend Yagami is like a dog with a bone). What he hates is the connotative suggestion the word fun has, not its denotative philosophical truth.

Alexis Smolensk said...


For the record, "fun" means a great deal more than just laughing like an idiot while being pleased by an immediate gratification. It does, in general, mean the very deep and dangerous process of risking one's life or means for gain, even an esoteric, unquantifiable gain.

While yes, a professional football player probably wouldn't describe the game as "fun" ... but his job, family, reputation and self-conceived value as a person is riding on the success of his team in the upcoming game. Those things are going to sour the fun aspects of a thing. But if you asked a mountainclimber why they were risking their life climbing something like the Eiger, he or she probably would include "fun" as a reason alongside of terms meaning mastery and achievement.

Don't delineate the word simply because many people need nothing more than a beer and a bar to obtain it.

YagamiFire said...

I view D&D in the same light as video-gaming only insofar as I take both seriously and try to improve at them (at least with one or two video games).

Understand when I talk about the "point" of D&D, I am talking about the games point. First, what has to be understood is that the game of D&D is different from the action of sitting down to play D&D. Do we sit down to play D&D because we find it enjoyable? Yes, but that is self-evident because it is a hobby. Therefore, I will always consider the answer "To have fun" a useless response.

Back to the point, the point of D&D in-game is to progress your character. This progress is measured mechanically in-game through the acquisition of XP and wealth. It is also measured non-mechanically through the in-game gathering of PC influence and the like. On top of that, characters progress by accumulating a personal history garnered through play.

The point of D&D is growth of a character...progress of a character. From a game perspective that is. This is clear as it is the only metric consistently measurable in-game and in every version.

YagamiFire said...

Actually Alexis, I would never say that D&D isn't meant to be fun. It is a game. The designers, when making it, intended it to be enjoyable.

What I actually hate about the response of "fun" as the point of D&D is that it is a non-answer. It stalls conversation and makes the answerer look like something of a moron. After all, when someone asks "So..what's the point of this D&D game?" they are not asking WHY someone is playing it, they are asking what the PURPOSE of the game is.

The problem with this is that our game is not well understood. In fact, it is not even well understood by those that play it. As evidenced by James 25 year struggle to explain D&D to others, people have a hard time explaining it to others. Saying "the point is for fun" when asked has become a defense mechanism for D&D players that, otherwise, cannot verbalize the mechanics of the game.

Imagine playing poker and someone walks in that has never seen the game before. They ask "What's the point of this game?" and the answer is given "To have fun". The person will consider you an idiot. They will also consider the game not worth their time if it attracts idiots that can't answer a simple question. After all, the point of the game of poker is not to "have fun" anymore than it is the point of D&D. People just understand the point of poker better...because it's a simpler game. Or at least a more easily understood game.

I also play D&D for fun. I recognize it as fun. I tell others I have fun playing it. I can also explain to others the actual point of the game as a discrete thing separate from my enjoyment of it.

Alexis, you state repeatedly that the game can and should be played better...that DMs should seek to improve at their art. And I agree entirely. I also believe that we need to understand the game better because by understanding it better it allows us to play better. To improve it more efficiently. You want people to be better drivers...I do as well. I also want people to better understand how the car runs and how it is put together. Nascar drivers understand cars better than the vast majority of people...they have to because of the level of performance they drive at. If we want to reach that level as DMs/players, we need to understand the game just as well...inside and out.

Additionally, I personally would like for people to be better ambassadors for the game...to be able to communicate to others why it is good and what about it is compelling. "It's fun!" does not do that. However, saying "You take your character and grow by getting treasure and leveling up." is at least a start and useful because it continues the conversation. It actually communicates something.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Actually, I understand the purpose of the game perfectly well. I don't have any trouble explaining it to others.

Look to the new post, my friend.

YagamiFire said...

Alexis, of course you don't have trouble. That merely means that in another facet of D&D you remain an exception, rather than the rule. Very nice post, by the way.

Alexis Smolensk said...

If people simply embraced my explanation, then I would be the rule, wouldn't I?

Anonymous said...

Bear with me here guys, before getting overly pedantic. I'm playing devils advocate a bit. I appreciate your fire and tenacity, Yagami. Your answer on the purpose of D&D is at least insufficient; and if it is indeed possible to perfect the playing of the game in an objective manner as you state to be your goal, then the answer "to advance a character through the game" (if you allow me that abridgement) is objectively wrong. Try again

90% of my 25 years with the game has had nothing to do with advancing a character. Building a world, expanding on its details through play, creating a fantastic environment with depth and clarity that is capable to host meaningful activity. This is my purpose with the game.

I don't misunderstand my purpose in pursuing the game, Yagami. I lack the vocabulary to explain it without comparing it to something else. Somewhat like you. And Alexis.

Anonymous said...

... and here I thought I was clear in "...not being in defense of fun." ; )

Anonymous said...

Given that the last two paragraphs of the post titled "Life" above exist as objective evidence to the contrary, I rescind "And Alexis"


Alexis Smolensk said...

I think 'pedantic' is exactly what the conversation needs.

ANY description of the game that begins with any concrete physicality is a detriment to the game's possibility. I would go one further to emphasize that "advancing the character" precludes the simple reality that the player, a real person, lives through the character, an avatar, and has the benefit of actual experience gained. The "character" is prop.

The superiority of the game is that it ISN'T about A or B. It is about whatever that particular individual wishes to apply to this set of given circumstances, as ALLOWED by the imagination of all those involved. It is an open vista.

Trying to close that vista by hammering down something concrete is a disservice to that vista. Persons who wish to understand D&D must discard the concrete and conceptualize the game in terms of its esoteric existence instead.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. "Pedantic" was in direct reference to examining the word "fun", but we've moved passed that now.

Anonymous said...

It's days like this I think about the founders of the game and its founding. How aware were they of the precise genie they were letting out of the bottle and how inevitable was it that it would be let out?

My sense has long been "not entirely aware" and "inevitable".

Alexis Smolensk said...

I most steadfastly agree. I think the originators were about as bright as a buttonhole in the wellwater, and I think game-theory in the 1960s was driving a number of people in the direction of mental-directed conceptualized gaming.

This, I might add, one day after Gygax Jr. approved of my friendship request on facebook.

Tobiah said...

Hi folks. If it isn't clear from my username, I'm the author of the book you're discussing (yes my name is spelled with an H, not an S). I apologize for being late to the discussion. I just wanted to briefly respond to a few of the points you're making.

First of all, Alexis, I'm sorry you didn't enjoy the early chapters of my book, or my writing style. I aimed for something accessible to both beginners and experts. I assumed that if I explained what a setting and a theme are, it would not be difficult for a GM to look at a proposed PC, decide if it conforms to the style of the campaign, and if not ask the player to change it. I'm sorry if that was unclear. As someone who I take to be well versed in the fundaments of gaming, you might try flipping through Part 4 of my book, although if my writing style grates on you then perhaps it would be better just to let it be.

On the question of "Fun", (this is particularly in response to YagamiFire) I do contend that this is the express goal of a game, above and beyond character progression, world-building, or story-telling. If one of those elements is "fun" for your group, that's fine. But I find that many of the GMs that I've played with emphasize one of those other elements as paramount, even when the result is a less fun for everyone.

Saying that the goal of a game is "to have fun" is like saying that the goal of a trip from the east coast to the west coast is "to go west". It's a placeholder direction in absence of a more specific instruction, because your specific journey depends on where you start and where you plan to end up. But in all cases if I say, "head west", you're at least moving in the right direction.

Personally "fun" for me is telling an engaging and interesting story. Character progression is a secondary or even tertiary goal. If I had to explain to someone who doesn't know anything about RPGs what they were about, I would say something like, "having a good time with my friends, playing a sort-of board game in which we make up a story where each person controls one character in the story."

How you "have fun" is totally up to you. As Alexis says, "The superiority of the game is that it ISN'T about A or B. It is about whatever that particular individual wishes to apply to this set of given circumstances, as ALLOWED by the imagination of all those involved."

In any case, I'm again sorry that y'all didn't find my book useful. But if you'd like to discuss it (or any of my points) further, you're welcome to email me at tobiah@panshin.net

Alexis Smolensk said...

Title of the post changed to "Tobiah" ... sorry about that. I am very sensitive about names myself, and I must have been on autopilot. The correct spelling was in the text and I should have caught it.

I'll do a post on Chapter 4 this week, if you want to get in on the beginning of the discussion, Tobiah.

Tobiah said...

No worries. It's an exceedingly common error. Thank you for correcting it. I'll keep an eye out for that post.