Saturday, October 10, 2015

Why We're Not Great DMs

I have been speculating about the enthusiasm expressed by the fellow at the Edmonton Expo two weeks ago: "I would like to see how you run a game!"  He was remarkably dramatic about that, given that we'd spoken for less than 15 minutes.

The speculation has cluttered my mind because it is not the first time this sentiment has been declared in the last few months.  I've heard it several times, perhaps four or five, one of which inspired this rather vicious post (that was followed by two insightful dissections, here and here).  The ire that emerged in writing that post has been part of the speculation as well.  I find myself wondering why I was angry; and I find myself thinking, if I had possessed the time or the wherewithal to actually show any of these people, what would I do?  That is, to impress them.

DMing is not whipping out a guitar and reproducing Free Bird's bridge to prove one's talent.  It isn't performing Howl at the drop of a hat or demonstrating Bergerac's skill at improvising degradational poetry.  Nor is it a solo performance, bestowed upon the party with pomp and sotto voce.  DMing is, as I wrote once upon a time, jazz.  A form of imagination jazz where there is no audience.

This, I must reckon, is where the anger smoldered underneath the post I wrote.  There is a sense that the player imagines that somehow the great DM will - from some supposed pool of wisdom - a fully-formed adventure.  Naturally, this shall then progress throughout the evening with unimaginable grace - because that is how great DMing works.

The expectation of instantaneous production of campaign wonder has escaped my scrutiny.  It has lurked here on the blog all this time but it has never been directly addressed.  I speak of working and developing a campaign and carrying the drama and immersion to the players all the time.  Yet I don't say, "Oh, and by the way, this is going to take several runnings."  I don't say it because, fundamentally, I pretend that everyone understands this.  When I meet people for whom several runnings is something unwanted, my instinct is to dismiss them.  As voices, as players, as anything having to do with bettering the game or my personal world.  I rank such people - people who play games for one night - with stage performers who don't rehearse, musicians who don't practice and writers who resent grammar.  I dismiss these people because they don't count.

However . . . when I speak to a new DM with new players in a new world, I must confess that my advice has never included the words, "You don't win your players over with one running."

That ought to be the first thing I say.

I do field that question regularly: "I'm new at this, I want my players to like my game, I don't know what I should concentrate on," etcetera.  I usually promote starting with a familiar system and getting more familiar with it.  I encourage expressing to the players what the DM is trying to do.  I promote booting players who deliberately seek to upset the game.

But let's put all that on a back burner.  I don't do any of that stuff, do I?  I'm insanely familiar with my system.  My players already know what I'm trying to do and I know how to convey that without having to hit my players over the head with philosophy.  And I rarely boot anyone, because I don't have those kind of players.

Step-by-step, I've built a game approach that bypasses the need for disclosure, by attempting to involve players as much as possible with their own characters and, in turn, the agendas of those characters.  This approach allows for time spent - I expect a new player to spend at least three solid runnings in my world before there's any chance of their being invested.  Therefore, I do not waste time with quibbling failed ideas like bribery, optional skills, nifty toys or promises of great power or success.  I encourage new players to believe that the world is harsh, dangerous and indifferent, making strong suggestions that making wrong choices in initially developing a character will lead to dire, near-guaranteed consequences of death.

Why?  Because I want the players to feel they're getting into something bigger than they are.

Immediately we start rolling up a character for them.  I remember when I used to roll up characters for the old school games we played, how simple and easy they were.  I do not have my players roll up simple characters.  Rather, I dump great piles of detail on my new players immediately, giving them a load of class skills and a complex character background with no choices (except where they happened to fix their ability scores), telling them, "This is what you are.  This is what you can do.  This is what's happened to you.  Deal with it."

Why?  Because I want my players to be stunned at the depth and detail they're encountering, making them feel inadequate and thus immediately dependent - not upon me, because I don't have the time, but upon their fellow players.  I want every new player to wallow in considerable mounds of new intelligence and uncertainty, because it promotes a sense of doubt and insecurity.

Insecurity will quickly drive the sort of players I don't want from my game.  It will be too much trouble for them, too much annoyance, particularly where it comes to other players and their similar issues.  Good players, on the other hand, will see opportunity and a desire to better themselves as players in order to live up to my expectations.  They will love and adore the detail and respect the work that went into creating it.  They will appreciate my efforts and be more willing to grant my words legitimacy in light of what I've already demonstrated.

Then the new player is shown the equipment list.  They take their 90 or 245 g.p. and find themselves facing a massive excel list with 1500+ items on it, organized in a confusing fashion.  If they beg for something simpler, I remind them that market towns and their goods are not laid out alphabetically.  Again, the player is overwhelmed: omg, where do they start?

I haven't even started running them in the game yet and already they are well behind the curve.  If they're going to beat the curve, they're going to have to try.

That's the crux of it.  That's why this post is titled as it is.  Because I am not a 'great' DM if I have no players who are willing to try at being players.  When I start off the campaign, I'm anxious to see who has the gumption to try.  That is why my campaign is likely to start off something like this:

It is early afternoon on a Sunday, May 5, 1650. Four of you are resting yourselves on the porch of a town gasthaus, the Pig, at the corner where a narrow lane meets with the town square. You‘re waiting for your friend Kazimir to arrive. Not long ago, you watched the usual scattering of most of the citizenry from the town cathedral’s doors from your usual place across the square…whereupon the gasthaus threw open its doors for business. A number of stalls and tables were quickly erected by teams of young boys in the employ of their merchant masters, a goodly number of them against the side wall of the church, where you can the usual piles of vegetables and sacks. Various less blessed members of the town are picking them over, haggling with the sellers and stuffing their bought wares into sacks to be hauled off to the various common quarters of the town.
The bartender, Helmunt, fills your drinks at no charge. Upon an agreement, the four of you have been given the privilege of drinking free in exchange for your endorsement, your willingness to put an end to any trouble and the simple fact that you represent the higher end of Helmunt’s clients. He has hopes that your presence on his front stoop might expose the quality of his kitchen to a few of the better members of the town.
You’re bored. This has been the routine for nearly two months now. You four, Tiberius, Josef, Delfig and Anshelm, met on a cold morning in mid-spring (for the region), finding yourselves all stranger, fairly compatible with one another and equally of the opinion that many of the vicissitudes of life are unappreciated by most. At the moment, however, you could stand a few more changes than there have been.

What have I said?  Have I described anything like an ordinary gaming module?  Absolutely not.  Why?  Because I don't want to give my players an even break.  I'm not a cruise director.  All I'm willing to say is that you're here and you see things.  Deal with it.

No, seriously, deal with it.  Get off your ass.  Do something.  Figure it out for yourselves.  I've been running the game for a long, long time.  You can be damn sure that any sort of adventure you've ever read in any module, ever, exists in some manner in my world.  Your problem is to pick the adventure and then go get it.

I am not a great DM.  Neither are any of you - particularly if you're the sort of sad fellow who thinks drumming up a two-dimensional adventure and presenting it as a drive-through two-hour "experience" at a Con makes you "great."

I have great players.  Players who rise to the bar, who clear it.  I have those players because I make the bar insanely high and then I show no remorse whatsoever.  Want to play?  Be ready to spend time.  Lots of time.  Be ready to get addicted.

We're not great DMs.  At the end of the day, we might manage to chair a great game.  Which is actually better.


Scott Driver said...

From an earlier con post: "At the end of our conversation he expressed a great interest in seeing me run an actual game, but being late Sunday afternoon there wasn't any time to arrange for something like that."

If you'd had time to run a one-off, what would you have done?

(I've never RPGed at a convention ... my lone appearance at a large scale "con" was for a Magic: the Gathering US Nationals.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

That's just my point. What could I have done, with someone who wouldn't be playing a second time, where the necessary set up to produce immersion can take multiple sessions and a commitment from the player to seek that condition with their whole hearts?

Nothing. I couldn't have done anything. The measure of a DM is not in what they can produce in a few short hours - any more than a marriage be experienced in a one-night stand.

Justin Hamilton said...

I am only as good as my players allow. They are the stars and I, merely the facilitator.

Good article.

Barrow said...

Yes, I see what your saying. Running a series of runoffs would be like only going on a single date with several partners. If you new you only had one date to building attraction with each partner, you would have to do all of your moves and say all of your pickup lines on the same date to each partner. However, if you could date the same partner several times, you wouldn't be so rushed to perform. You could spend multiple dates to build attraction.

Alexis Smolensk said...

And how motivated is your would be lover going to feel about your moves when they're rushed?

Eric said...

Would you respond differently to "I'd like to see you run a game with your regular group. I'd be happy to play a henchman or roll up a level 1 guy or even just watch, whichever is least disruptive."

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'm guessing you know the answer to that question without my telling you, Eric. Obviously, seeing the game in mid-stream, with the Players to contribute to the demonstration, would satisfy the curiousity of most of these people. It is the reason why a particular type of player immediately returns to my game at the next opportunity, even if they are 1st level players among 9th level players (they tend to survive and quickly jump to 4th by the end of about six runnings - most of which rely on thinking and interaction, for which level doesn't matter).

Granted, some players don't like my game. I've talked about that before.

Ray Doraisamy said...

I misunderstood you. This clarifies your position, allowing me to re-examine your posts in a new frame. Application of the concepts in your blog suddenly became...practical.