Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The 4th Chapter of The Game Master

A few days ago, Tobiah Panshin challenged me that I didn't do a well enough job discussing his Game Master download, and that I "might try flipping through Part 4" of his book ... if I wanted a better idea of his take on the fundamentals of gaming.  And I promised to do a post on Chapter 4 this week.

So, here it is.

You can download a copy of Panshin's writings at his website, which you can find here.  That's the second time I've linked it on this blog, but if I can link Brad twice, I can do it for Panshin.

The 4th Chapter is a detailed discussion of the creation of a character's background.  Panshin discusses the amount of detail necessary, history of the character, sources of conflict (for character development), character goals, allies and enemies (gained in the past) and the purpose for having a background.

Panshin has an ambiguous style.  From the start, we’re told a character doesn’t simply spring into existence; then we’re told the background isn’t actually required, which would suggest that the character CAN simply spring into existence ... then it's implied that without a background, your character is sure to be cliched (“Holy von Healsalot”), and finally that the necessity and importance of a character’s origin varies from system to system ... and at last that the character background is “required” to have an RPG experience.

Well, now that we’ve wishy-washed our way into the subject, Panshin launches into purpose with, "I'm going to lay down another bit of truth here ... "  I haven't actually heard any truth yet, but okay.  Panshin says, "... background has almost nothing to do with telling the origin story of the character."  Which, from the unfortunate use of the adverb, would suggest that it has at least a little bit to do with the character's origin story.  More ambiguity.  But the purpose of the background, Panshin says, is to provide a platform for players "to explore their character's persona and motivations before play begins."  It's annoying that it's a character background AND a character platform, but there you are.

Let me pause here.  Panshin's writing drives me crazy.  He's trying to explain himself with half-sentence metaphors and allusions, but since his writing drowns in adverbitis, he never quite hammers down just what exactly he means.  For a metaphor to be useful, it must be first carefully detailed, and then it must be explained in ordinary plain English ... but Panshin repeatedly throws out four words as a metaphor, which he then explains with another metaphor, keeping the whole matter definitely indefinite.  So while he compares the character background to actors preparing for a character (a player-directed action), the next sentence is talking about how the game master will exploit the background for story hooks.  This leaves us with a generalized sense that backgrounds can be used somehow, but without any actual idea of what a background actually is.

Point in fact, actors who prepare on stage with a character background are doing so with lines and pre-determined scenes - the background is there to allow them to emote better, and therefore clarify their character's tone, stance, apparent comfort with others, etc.  The more you understand about your character's background, the easier it is to present the lines your character speaks, since you are better able to identify with the character.  But in the next paragraph, Panshin describes a character's "backstory" (where he should have said "background") as a chore.  We've already been told that the background isn't a story, but here we are on the very next page and he's already started using the words interchangeably.  It's not only bad writing, it is hopelessly inconsistent and utterly useless.  It's not enough to say to someone, "Oh, you don't like my writing style, that's fine."  These errors are not errors of "style."  These are amateurish errors of poor vocabulary comprehension, poor presentation and poor organization.  And believe me, I could beat this drum on every paragraph of Panshin's writing.  It is exceedingly difficult to debate the various arguments Panshin has chosen to make when he disagrees with himself to this degree.  The reader is left trying to guess which word means what in which sentence, as there's no consistency at all.

We're told at the bottom of page 42 that a good background can be formed of broad strokes, and that while details like the name of a village may be important to the character, they don't say anything really about the person.  And then we are told that "The best backgrounds give a few facts about the character that the player can use as a go-to reference ..."  What facts?  Facts like the name of the village?  And if not that, what sort of reference is being implied here?  References tend to describe details like the names of villages, the names of people, when they were born and so on.  If we're looking for mainly esoteric descriptions of a person's general upbringing, then why suddenly are we saying specifics matter?  Honest, I could pound my head against a wall.

So, we're given a list to describe these "facts."  We're asked to provide an ally, an enemy, a short term goal, a long term goal and a brief character history.  I presume, then, that the unnecessary naming of things advice just given can now be suspended so I can name my enemy and my ally.  But a goal, short or long term, isn't a "fact."  Facts are things that are verifiable.  I'm not sure how anyone is going to verify the goals that I have are actually the goals I have, but I'm nitpicking and I can leave that be.  I think the bigger issue has to be that to make a character background I now need a character "history" ... and a history is a "story" ... but I've already been told that I'm not supposed to have an origin story ... which I'm being asked to create now ... without facts but with facts ... ARRRRRRGGGGGGG!

Have I learned anything yet about creating a background for my character that I didn't know when I sat down, as a person who has actually lived, actually has a history and actually knows the name of the place I was born.  No.  But I haven't gotten into the point by point explanation of any of the things on the list, so ... here's hoping.

The next section is about Allies and Enemies.  I presume Panshin has his reasons for avoiding the use of the word "friends" ... but there's no explanation, and in any case he begins using the word "friend" and the word "ally" interchangeably by the third paragraph, so there you are.

We're given a definition of ally and enemy of the next two paragraphs that begs credibility, but I suppose I understand where Panshin is coming from.  For the record, I have plenty of friends who would not "loan me money" based on the very real principle that friends never should loan one another money, as it often ends friendships; nor do I care very much for the enemies I have, as I don't consider an "enemy" a very valuable commodity and I usually try to separate myself from them so that they can go their way and I can go mine.  I suppose I still have enemies in the world, but since I haven't seen any of them in more than a decade, I'm not even sure at the moment that they're even alive.  The one fellow I might dwell upon in that regard, an ex-roommate, took it upon himself to destroy half my stuff when I was a week away on vacation.  Since he was sort of a loser, I'm almost certain he's dead now ... and if he isn't, I hope his drinking and occasional drug use has turned him into someone I wouldn't recognize.  In any case, I don't think it's very important whether I care about him "greatly" or not, as Panshin says I ought to do.

It sounds to me from the inclusion of these people that this is more for the game master's benefit than for the player ... and in any case, I'm fairly certain that once the game starts, there are going to be allies and enemies that appear unbidden in short order.  I'm not sure how my providing them is really defining me as a person.  Isn't it as true that if the name of my village doesn't matter, we can also assume I have an ally, and that therefore I'm not a complete misanthrope?  In any event, whatever allies I had before the game started, or allies I'm going to gain afterwards, my chief allies are going to be the other players ... since anyone except the other players is by definition totally unreliable.

This brings us to the character goals, short and long term.  We are told these are goals "external" to the players, typically occurring in "plot-oriented" games - except where games are "character-oriented."  And here Panshin demonstrates the height of ignorance.  Quote,

"... character-oriented, where the focus of the game is on how the characters deal with their internal reactions to events.  For example, romance movies and many character dramas don't feature a lot of things actually happening."  [author's emphasis]
Really?  Is this the same fellow who was just telling me about actors preparing for a performance?  The fellow who clearly doesn't understand much about plot where it revolves around dull, ordinary things like love and drama.  Which is to say that in a play like, say, Romeo and Juliet, the only stuff that actually happens is that there's a sword fight in which Mercutio dies, whereas all that shit around the balcony and people talking about feelings is just, well ... dull.  This has to be about the stupidest definition of "happens" that I've ever heard.  But good.  Excellent.  We've just made the point that things that have happened to your character are only important if they involve action or - presumably - comedy.  Internal things are shit.  Got it.

A short-term goal, Panshin says, is something that can be accomplished in a few months of game time.  Now, I'm not sure if he means that as "time the characters spend in the milieu" or time actually spent by the players playing the game.  I ask this because a few months of character time can go by in the space of three hours ... or less.  So we could be talking about some really insignificant goals here.  Still, I'm know Panshin means something a little deeper than "I want to have beef for dinner" because he gives examples: a promotion at work, finding a rare item or contacting an organization.

Hm.  In the last three years of working at the company where I am now, I have been promoted exactly once ... and I was here for two and a half years.  If the item is that rare, why does it only take a couple of months?  Can't I just contact an organization by knocking on the door?  I think the word Panshin was looking for was infiltrate ... and again, that can take years.

I'm not sure these are useful examples.  Panshin says on page 44 that a short-term goal is good for motivation; generally, this is true.  He then gives the usual example of the undesirable game that goes nowhere because the players don't have a goal and the DM doesn't insist they have one.  So yes, I myself am on record for saying a player should have a goal - not necessarily because it instigates play, however, but rather because being able to pursue a goal in a game world is a rare opportunity and that it should be cherished.

Panshin does come around to giving another example of a short-term goal on page 45 ... only the goal is that Han Solo wants to pay back Jabba the Hutt.  Now, I don't like the movies, but it seems to me that the actual goal - long-term, I suspect - was that Solo intended NEVER to pay back Jabba the Hutt.  In fact, he smoked Greedo just so he wouldn't have to.  In any case, as written, I can't see how it's the sort of goal a character would invent at the start of a campaign:

"My short-term goal," writes the player, "Is to already be in debt to someone, presumably an enemy, and then to pay off that debt in a couple of months."  Doesn't this seem ... I don't know ... stupid?  When the player actually gets around to describing how much the debt is, what number does he pick?  Me, personally, I'd say a few copper pieces.  "Yes, I owe Jabba the Hutt two copper.  I walk around to his place and pay him off."  Success.  Short-term goal accomplished.  Except that doesn't seem really meaningful.  But is it more meaningful to say, "Actually, I'd like to owe him a couple of thousand gold.  Yes, that's a good number.  Please, let me put my character 2,000 gold behind the eight ball to someone who will kill him if he doesn't pay.  Let the fun times begin."

Sorry.  This just baffles me.  I know Panshin's trying to get across his time-frame here, but he hasn't thought through the specific example he's chosen.  He's leapt at Star Wars as a good source that everyone will know (things "happen" in the film), but he's failed to grasp that in this particular case, we're entering the Han Solo character halfway through his adventuring arc.  The actual adventure should start before the movie does, where the character says, "I want a ship so I can smuggle stuff.  Is there someone I can borrow money from?"  Then we don't actually know Han is going to have to jettison his cargo after he borrows the money - that's part of the campaign.  Coming into it when the movie starts is ... dumb.

Then Panshin gets into the whole definition of the "long-term" goal.  For this, he leaps to another popular cultural example, that of Batman (another story where things "happen"):  "Batman discovering the identity of the thug who shot his parents and bringing him to justice would be a good example of a long term goal," Panshin says.

Would it?  I'm not a fan of Batman, either, but before the modern era of Batman began, the original canon was that Batman could never possibly discover who killed his parents, since it was just an ordinary uncaught criminal, and therefore Batman had decided to fight all crime because that was his best option.  With the new canon, don't we already know it's the Joker, and that Batman has fucked up any and all attempts to bring him to justice pretty much because writers now never want the Joker caught?  Is Panshin telling me that a long-term goal is one the game master deliberately fucks over again and again in order to fit the Batman myth?

Panshin says as much:  "While a long term goal should ultimately be something attainable, it doesn't necessarily have to be something the character ever actually attains."  Well, since this is fantasy, everything is "attainable," so that's not much of a qualifier.  As near as I can tell, this is the only useful need to define the difference between a long-term and a short-term goal.  Short-term goals are obtained.  Long-term goals probably won't be, depending on how much of a prick the game master intends to be.  Otherwise, a long-term goal is just something that's hard to get, in which case it really depends on luck and ability, not time.

Couldn't we just define all goals as "goals?"  Then we could talk about the word goal and build up a useful representation of one.  You know, they write whole books about goal-getting for managers in training and wishing ... the writing in those books is more to the point, more specific, and includes actual strategies for attaining goals, not just a list of other goals fictional character have had in immediately recognized cultural presentations.  Panshin doesn't seem to have read any of them, since obtaining the goal is not as important as defining the difference between "long" and "short."

He does go on to talk about picking another goal after accomplishing a goal, whereupon predictably he uses an example from Star Trek (yet again, a show where things "happen") ... and at that point I just glazed over.  There's also the predictable line about achieving a goal is its own reward, but over the next three paragraphs I didn't see anything actually useful that further defined what a goal is, could be, or how to achieve it.  Apparently there's danger that, once you've achieved a goal in the game, you may not want to play your character any more.  I presume this is so you can invent a new character background with new goals, though that's not clearly stated.

I thought at this point Panshin would finally come back and talk about the "character history" earlier alluded to, since we've now gotten through the other four things Panshin listed off earlier.  However, it is not yet to be.  First, we must talk about "Sources of Conflict" ... which starts with saying that you might not want your character to have "goals" at all.  No, seriously.  If you're playing in a game that focuses on character development (you'll remember, that's one of those romances or dramas where very little happens), "... you might prefer to ask each of them [Players] for two sources of conflict instead: one internal, one external."

Now, I must say at this point I had to get up and pause for a moment, since the words, "oh gawd" leapt immediately to mind.  I don't know exactly how to explain the page and a half dedicated to this particular idea.  In general, it concentrates mostly on defining for the reader what an internal or external conflict is; internal conflicts would be exhaustive inner turmoils possessed by the character, acted out by the player, for reasons that are "fun" - remembering that this is Panshin's absolute dictum where it comes to roleplaying games.  Ethical dilemmas are, for the most part, very rarely fun ... when you are actually having them.  Since we may reasonably assume the player is not actually in a dilemma - since this is something the player is choosing, you'll remember, on behalf of the character - what this really seems to be is a tremendous excuse to get all emo with your character and thus voyeuristically masturbate while simulataneously being free from any actual need to resolve said conflict.

See, where it falls apart for me, is that if we are talking the actual Peter Parker character (yes, I swear, Spiderman is Panshin's next cultural example), this is someone who can't actually wave a hand and say, "Fuck it, if a few people die cause I'm not perfect, so be it."  Parker has been raised in a particular way, he has a particular moral sense, and he's actually stuck having to be Spiderman every minute of everyday, with the risks and responsibilities that come with that.  But the player , pretending to be Spider Man, doesn't actually have the horrid, gut-wrenching knowledge of having killed someone.  No, this player only likes to imagine that he or she has this knowledge.  For fun.  I'm sorry ... why is this?  Exactly?  Aren't we moving a bit into the area that the player might just possibly have a few things he or she might be better off actively discussing with a professional, rather than acting out in a roleplaying game?  Just saying.

External conflicts ... now that I can get down with.  But how exactly is the external conflict the player's responsibility?  This just returns to the question of inventing an enemy.  How about I just start running in your world, and when I meet someone I don't like, I'll try to kill him.  Then, if I fail, or if the someone I kill has friends (allies) that would like to kill me, the enemy problem - the external conflict, as it were - is solved.  Hm?  Doesn't that seem elegant?

Perhaps, I have to kill someone because he or it or whatever has something I want.  And perhaps the thing I want can be a macguffin of some kind.  And the external conflict can be about that.  I'm not sure why I need to create one ahead of my actual play ... particularly since Panshin never tells me why.

Aha!  At last, the discussion of the character history.  Which lasts, on the page, eight lines.  Five sentences.  120 words.  I shit you not.

The first sentence tells me this is the last element of the character's "history."  Really.  The Brief history is the last element of the character's history?  Don't we mean the character's "background"?  Interchangeable words again.

The second sentence tells me how long the character history should be.

The third sentence suggests a physical description, a "few notable events" and some "personality."  There is nothing written about the parameters of what these should entail.  How about I'm 8 feet tall, I was born in a palace where my father used to kiss my ass daily, and everybody loves me to the extent that they shit themselves when I appear.  Excellent.  Short, concise, matter dealt with.

The fourth sentence reminds me not to tell a "story" ... and that I shouldn't make the effort of making a complicated background.  Already solved that one.

Finally, the fifth sentence tells me the background should be meaningful.  I think I have that covered too.

And now Panshin concludes all this, stressing cohesiveness, and particularly this little gem:

"The real secret, however, is not what the backgrounds do for the players, but what they do for you as the GM."

I don't know how to tell Panshin this, but it wasn't much of a "secret."  It was, in fact, pretty absurdly obvious throughout.  Panshin's whole point is apparently to sell this drivel to his players in order to lean on the crutch they've created, rather than actually doing any work himself.  And isn't that clever?

Now, Panshin waffles for awhile after this point, talking about a "Bad Background" and all ... but I've written almost 4,000 words now and frankly, he mostly re-quotes himself and talks about how much you should write - that is, not more than Panshin feels like actually reading in order to achieve his purpose, which we've just had him define.  It comes down to, "Write a background, but don't bore me."

Why have I gone to these lengths to talk about Panshin's fourth chapter?  Well, for one thing, because I want the reader to UNDERSTAND that when I write, I consider all the details and qualities of writing that I've just described.  WRITING IS HARD.  It is ridiculously fucking hard.  And while I may shit around with a blog post or two, I've practiced enough that at least I'm able to make a straight point without then making the opposite point two sentences later.

Moreover, when I write something that's intended to be for the ages - like the book I've published ... and yes, I'm going to give the title, Pete's Garage.  When I write a book, I go over the nitpicky grammar and meaning of words over and over and over again, so I don't write the sort of crummy thing Panshin has written.  He's very sorry, no doubt, that I don't like it.  Frankly, I don't know how anyone can actually like it ... since it isn't actually about anything.  Mostly, it's just words strung together without much sense or reason.  It defines nothing.  It resolves nothing.  It gives no valuable advice to accomplishing any specific thing.  Anyone who's come through grade school already knows how to do every action Panshin has suggested doing.  They don't need Panshin to explain how, cause this is grade school stuff, and Panshin lives down to that minimal requirement.

Don't go to this book look for answers.  You already know this.  The fact that it agrees with what you already know doesn't make it useful.

4 comments:

YagamiFire said...

What you are experiencing (and it looks quite painful for you) while reading is not only short-comings of a writer, but the failings of the wishy-washy mentality that has infested the game.

People are afraid to say anything definitively. Partially, perhaps, because they don't want to be proven wrong. Really though, the root of the problem is that no one wants to say one thing is "right" or "better". The are scared to god that it will make them look like the much maligned "grognard" that insists there is a right way and a wrong way. And they can't have that.

So conversation boils down to "Doing things in a good way is good if you were to do it that way but if you don't that's still good so feel free to do this or don't." and we are left with big rambling bullshit books on D&D and one-off bullshit posts on D&D boards that don't have the balls to make an actual claim.

Drives me mental.

Jay Murphy said...

Right O!!!

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's worse than that, Yagami. There is no a priori argument that's being made. It's a bunch of connected badly made definitions that don't address any actual change of perspective.

Dave said...

I DON'T want my players to think up elaborate back-stories for their characters... waste of time since all it does is gets them hooked on a character that will most likely die young. I'm running an OD&D campaign, and borrowed the idea of the zero-level funnel from DCC. Each players starts with 5 characters with randomly rolled professions; there are bakers, ditch diggers, orphans, and city guards, to name just a few. They name them, and choose an alignment, and play begins. Ten minutes to create five zeroes... those who survive long enough to earn 500 expts and choose a class have come up with all kinds of back-story, but it's based on their exploits, the group, and their in-game adventures, not their previously held desire to play "a young man whose family is murdered, who goes on to seek revenge, only to find that he is destined for greatness if he can avoid blah blah blah..."