Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It Only Takes Time

I usually don't publish comments written by anonymous or unknown posters, but every now and then I can make an exception.

The question from yesterday from one such poster was, "On the subject of making players unhappy, how do you determine how far is too far?"

Well, when they've stopped trying to reason with you, when they're swearing at you, when they've said for the tenth time without let up that this table is stupid, when they're packing their books to go, when they're on the phone before the session saying "Fuck you, fuck you bastard, I'm never running in your world again, die, die, die, die, DIE!" ...

You've probably gone too far.

I have, many times, forced something on my players.  I have taken a stand on a particular position and said, "Tough, it is going to be this way, suck it up and move on."  I have argued, cajoled, mitigated, redesigned and downgraded things of this nature, and yes, I have thrown them out entirely.

I have, I think, a very sharp sense of when a thing is doing what I want it to do ... and that isn't always creating 'verisimilitude' or 'fun' for the players.  Sometimes, it is something goddamn annoying - an obstacle the players have to get around, which they would rather not get around.  Obstacles are good things; they make for good times when they are overcome, and they offer drama and challenge.

They work when the value of the corresponding dopamine hit from overcoming the obstacle outbalances the pain and difficulty in making the obstacle happen.  For instance, where it comes to the party being surprised.  This is a very easy obstacle to implement.  One die roll, one immediate result, one consistent relief when the party is surprised and doesn't die.

The introduction of a new, complicated table has to carry with it an eventual expection that it can be memorized, and thus the difficulty in managing it can be minimized to where overcoming that table is worthwhile.  If you have to go back to the table every time for months, if you can't get it into your head, or if the players just don't care that they've gotten around the obstacle, then it's time to surrender.  Pack it in, tell everyone it's on the shelf and move on.

See, the real thing is that obstacle.  Think of a jigsaw puzzle.  You start one, it's two, three thousand pieces.  At the beginning, there's a big, long period where you have to flip all the pieces right side up on a good sized table.  As you go, you find the edge pieces, steadily assemble them together.  You collect the others together, grouping them by color, sorting out the ones with design from those that are flatly colored.  Steadily, you begin to build up the picture.

At the beginning, you can go for long periods without any success.  You are studying the picture, steadily memorizing the pieces, even though there are thousands of them.  It isn't easy.  For many, it can be frustrating.  But as you sit and relax and stare and 'puzzle' it out, you begin over time, sometimes weeks of time, while the TV runs or the radio does, to familiarize yourself with it.  You get to where a particular shape or color stands out, and you think, "I've seen that piece ..."  And as it turns out, you actually have.  You're able to reach down into your memory and sort out one piece from thousands, and after a minute or two of diligent searching, you produce it from a vast collection and fit it in place.

And in reward, your brain produces a little dopamine.

As you go, there are periods where you put lots of pieces together, and you get lots of dopamine.  There are days when its hard, and you get in a few pieces over as many hours.  But steadily, the speed of the pieces going in increases as there are less and less of them, until at last you finish the puzzle and it's all in place. 

(Sorry, I'm one of those annoying people who repeatedly finds every piece of a puzzle I'm putting together, losing none of them, even over months)

Mastering a table or a new system is like that.  It is frustrating at first; it requires a great deal of adjustment and patience.  You steadily familiarize yourself with all the goofy details and modifiers.  It seems like you'll never get them straight in your head.  But if you hear your players beginning to adapt to the table or system in their dialogues; if they begin to account for those changes, or figure out ways to get around or past them; you're on the right track.  Step by step you and the party get familiarized, you consume the table/system into your gameplay, you find you can instantly resolve the questions from memory ... and from then on the table/system is a cakewalk.

You can't dismiss something because in the beginning it seems difficult, overly elaborate or impractical.  From scratch, any complex thing is unmasterable.  But ... if everyone has the attitude that they are less concerned with its difficulty than they are with its potential reward - the dopamine hits of the puzzle pieces - you'll find you can include virtually anything into a campaign.

It only takes time.


Scarbrow said...

Another day, another post to add to your How to GM book. I may suggest you add it to the "How to DM" blog tag.

Very worthwhile

Unknown said...

Alexis, many thanks for that in-depth response. It's the second time I've posted a comment here using my Google ID and had it come up as 'Unknown'. It's supposed to be Tremain Xenos, which is my name. When this post names me Unknown again, we'll know for sure there's a glitch somewhere.

Some of my players have made comments implying they expect things to be easier, and I'm not really interested in making the game easier for them. I use critical hits tables, for example, and they get excited when they get to roll to see how badly they screw up an opponent; but they also get really upset when they have to find out what terrible thing is going to happen to their own character. So tables like that certainly seem to be achieving the effect, even though I get complaints that enemies shouldn't be allowed critical hits.

Your advice is taken to heart. Another part of 'How to DM' indeed.