Sunday, April 10, 2016

How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games

For many of my readers, none of this will be new.  I feel that it is something I should do, now that it's been nearly two years since the book was published.

The book is divided into four parts:  The Art of Presentation (6 chapters), Managing Yourself as DM (2 chapters), Managing Your Players (2 chapters) and Worldbuilding (4 chapters).

Breaking it down, chapter-by-chapter:

Chapter 1: Early Days

At the start, I am quite frank about once being utterly unskilled as a DM.  I talk about the difficulty of role-playing games and start the theme of the book.  Although it is very, very hard to be a DM, this is something that comes with experience.  We shouldn't be hard on ourselves at the beginning, we should realize that with time and patience, and a lot of hours spent running, we will steadily get better.  We can learn that the rules are tools, we can learn to experiment in our building and design and we can educate ourselves from a wide variety of resources to expand our minds and the options we can bring to the table. (9 pages)

Chapter 2: The Carrot and the Donkey

Here I talk about motivation - about developing the campaign as a 'theatre' that the players willingly enter.  I talk about the first steps in starting a given session, getting the players "in the mood" and making them feel uninhibited.  Then I discuss arousing the players' curiosity, getting inside their heads and the importance of avoiding 'formulas' that will supposedly get the same returns running after running.  I talk of the importance of making better and better carrots to keep a party intrigued and keep them coming back for more.

From here I talk about the participation of symbiosis.  Everyone in the game must be on the same page and they must want the same things, both DM and Players.  Working together in a supportive relationship will enhance participation and drive the players towards wanting that carrot.  Players who disrupt this formula must have it explained that role-playing is a group activity - there isn't room for one player to hog all the air in the campaign to the exclusion of other players.  By reducing conflict, we can make the game move faster and make the experience more pleasant for everyone. (14 pages)

Chapter 3: The Players

This chapter features a breakdown of player 'types' based on solid psychology templates: three subdivisions of the categories extroverted, introverted and indifferent.  I arrived at nine classes of players - understanding that these are not boxes intended to categorize people, but as jumping off points to talk about strategies in dealing which each form of behaviour.  Any real player will be an amalgam of these classes: the important thing here is that we have something to work from.

These nine classes are Enthusiastic, Obligated, Conditional, Predisposed, Disenchanted, Badly Behaved, Social, Shy and The Guest.  In each case I give the reader an idea of what each has as a motivation, how to recognize that motivation and strategies on how to deal with it - with a reminder that players are the game and that our game must be tailored for the collection of people in it. (33 pages)

Chapter 4: Drama

At last, I get into the gears of running the game.  I begin with a breakdown of the formula that has defined successful drama since the ancient Greeks, discussing it in terms of role-playing and presenting details to players.  I talk of adding complications to the adventure, of encouraging player innovation and about bringing the traditional adventure to a good conclusion.  This first part of the chapter is written as a solid play-by-play for DMs wanting to guideline on meat-and-potatoes adventure building.

At this point I begin to tear apart the dramatic structure in terms of role-playing not being a stage-play created for an audience.  In fact, there is no audience; the Players are the actors upon the stage and there is no script - therefore, there is no real need for specific dramatic cues that were designed to keep an audience in their seats for two hours.  Players easily sit in their seats for four or five hours without any trouble.  While understanding that the game can be run on the traditional dramatic structure, it does not need to be.  We can change what's happening on the spur of the moment - what I call "Here and Now" DMing.  This is where we let the symbiosis we talked about in Chapter 2 develop into a dramatic experience that is both written and experienced in real time. (17 pages)

Chapter 5: Continuity

This chapter discusses the importance of building causality into the campaign, in order to carefully seed events in the future out of what's going on in the present.  Nearly every DM understands that player actions demand consequences when the players do something very bad - but we need to understand that the campaign needs to be reacting all the time to what the players do.  The players have to feel that they are influencing the campaign just as the DM is influencing the players.

To enhance the fluidity of the world, I then discuss five ways in which the DM can poke that fluid:  I call these Shock (surprising the players with the unexpected, unbalancing them); Rage (stirring up emotions like anger and resentment in order to fire the players towards taking action); Distraction (filling out the moment-to-moment game with little things that compromise player comfort while creating obstacles); Despair (letting the players experience the low-point of disaster and ruin without rushing to save them); and Triumph (total victory).  Of these, the comparison between Despair and Triumph is key to the game, for if the players are assured they will always be saved then there is no real sense of overcoming impossible odds; there is no high if there is no low. (29 pages)

Chapter 6: Pomp

For the chapter, I discuss the grind of being a human body putting out a performance - being conscious of one's appearance, stance, voice, personal tells (like in Poker) and other similar ways in which we interact with the space that we're in.  I talk about "Space" as well, the place where the game is played, the distractions of that space and its convenience.  I talk about "Relations" between persons at the table (are they friends or practically strangers) and how this can change the dynamic.  I talk about the trappings of the game, the mechanics of the meta-game and how these things can serve to clutter a campaign, the influence of the dice and the manner in which we sit together at the table. (15 pages)

Chapter 7: Vigilance

Now I have moved out of the presentation and into managing ourselves as DMs.  I talk of how DMing is an act of courage, of how easy it is to fall into doubt and question the authority we've suddenly been given.  This then leads into a discussion of legitimacy: what is it that gives us the right to DM, to make decisions that affect others, that drive the game and enable us to play with the heads of our players?  There are strategies for winning loyalty and respect, strategies that - if we don't follow them - will make more work for us as our games become increasingly illegitimate.

I talk about overload, the amount of information coming at us and how we wallow while trying to handle it.  I detail what I experience while DMing and about maintaining the social context while still managing the game.  The key is data; getting it, distributing it, being open about ourselves and our difficulties and relying on the players to understand our mental limitations where it comes to the information that's flowing into our heads while running.  From here I explain how I got better at managing data through pattern recognition, and about how this same pattern recognition proved to be a back-up for my gaming where it came to stress.

Stress is a large part of DMing and I talk extensively about it, as well as on how to think better while DMing through understanding how our thinking is compromised by our physical limitations.  Finally, I discuss good habits vs. bad - and about how if we're not aware of the latter they can build up and make it impossible for us to ever be a good DM.  I feel this is the most important chapter of the book. (29 pages)

Chapter 8: Decision Making

Here I come back to momentum and experience in running the game, emphasizing tactics that a DM can adopt to make things move faster.  I talk about maintaining focus and about the capacity we have to control our impulses if we are aware of those impulses.  In many ways, these strategies will help in a hundred ways outside the role-playing game.

In every case, it is important to remember that we can only control ourselves and that we must not perceive that the problem originates with the player.  By applying the right strategies to our own gaming we can mitigate or eliminate troubles that the players are having - particularly if we emphasize that player-to-player symbiosis that we are responsible for creating.  This then leads into Foresight, the ability to guess - and effectively - where the players will want to go with their characters.  It may be a very high standard we are setting for ourselves, but if we want to be a great DM we must pursue the harder course - taking that responsibility onto ourselves and changing the way we view running in order to make the game better for everyone. (24 pages)

Chapter 9: Power Politics

Starting the section on Managing Your Players, I use the chapter to emphasize that we cannot change other people; we can only change ourselves.  To Manage others demands changing those parts of ourselves that win over the players - there is no strategy that describes "controlling players" by some imaginative formula.  Control is maintained through respect; respect is maintained by acting in a manner that is worthy of respect.

From here I talk about player expectations and how to meet them, most of all the important balance of providing a game for the players while being the absolute arbiter of the campaign.  It is a difficult balance to walk and it is full of pitfalls.  I debate theories that the DM 'serves' the players or that players need to 'buy in' to a campaign.  These sound good on the surface but in fact they create division at the table and fail to achieve that all-important symbiosis.  DMs play with players, not for players.  Whatever powers the DM has, this can't be compromised - or else there will be no players to play with. (17 pages)

Chapter 10: Bad Games

Here I return to the effects those bad habits have that I introduced in Chapter Seven.  While bad habits do not make us 'bad people,' they can easily challenge the experience in such a manner as to make it bad for everyone at the table.  Relying too much on our personal charisma, for example, or exploiting player vulnerability because it makes for apparently good drama, produces conflict, shame for players who feel used and dissension between player factions that ultimately arise when one group feels pitted against another.  There will always be bad games - the key is to recognize the signs and to see why bad habits should be avoided. (18 pages)

Chapter 11: Beginnings

Conclusively, I begin a four-chapter discourse on making our own worlds from scratch.  This begins with a discussion about what all designers must manage - regardless of what fields they happen to design in: function, structure and behaviour.  Function is the purpose for which something is made.  Structure is how it is made.  Finally, Behaviour is how the thing is actually used.  If I build a cellphone to keep me informed, built from electronic parts, this does not keep a user from using it as a coaster for their coffee.

When building our worlds, we need to keep these three things in mind, if we want to design a world that will serve its purpose, work excellently and be appreciated by the user (ourselves included).  Bringing these things together is called formulation, which I talk about as the chapter closes. (25 pages)

Chapter 12: Elements of Design

Once again, the chapter translates the exact premise that engineers and manufacturers experience when trying to make anything that exists in our world.  The world we build must follow the same principles, since it too is a 'product' that will be 'used' by the Players and by ourselves.  The chapter discusses the individual needs we will want our worlds to provide: a sense of place, authenticity of experience, suitability to the players interests, convenience, simplicity of use and so on.

I speak at length about Aesthetics and the beauty of the world, how beauty draws players to the game and how presenting phenomenal amounts of beauty will awe the players and make them more pliable to the campaign.  If the campaign is impossibly wonderful, then players will feel less inclined to walk away from it - since they will truly be losing out on something amazing, something that holds a greater importance for them.  The more work we put into our worlds to make them beautiful, the more profound will be the effect of those worlds on our players' behaviour.  I talk about how to do this.

Finally, I talk about the materials the world is made from, personal prejudices for some materials over others (and for some gaming systems over others - without naming names!).  I talk about the use of dice, about cheating, about tempo in gaming and finally about the cost of finishing a game (in time and money) to make it what we want it to be. (27 pages)

Chapter 13: The Creative Process

Here we move away from theory and towards practical application.  Having developed a philosophy, now we need to develop ideas.  We need to brainstorm, breaking out of our prejudices and into training our minds to understand that some ideas produced at random can expand and elaborate upon our world concept.

Once we have done that, we can begin writing the proposal - the bare bones of a campaign, to present to players as a way of seeing what might need to be adjusted and what their behaviour might be.  Proposals "sound" dull and difficult, but communication between a DM and Players is the key to a great game.  A proposal need not be formal - but it should include what the DM wants so as to get feedback on what the players want. (23 pages)

Chapter 14: Modelling

Having built up the philosophy and the technique, I embark on a chapter long account of a fictional kingdom, Fallow, that I use to set out the guidelines of what a proposal ought to contain and details that we will want to include.  I talk about entities (everything that exists is an 'entity'), entity sets (groups of entities that function together) and relationships (the pre-existing association between factions of non-player characters in the campaign), to help the reader build up an idea of what to place and where.  There are a great many kinds of relationships - the most common of these are detailed one by one.

I also talk about disclosing this information to the players, what to tell them and what to hold back, so that they can 'discover' about the world as they go forward.  There will always be more world, more kingdoms, more people to be met and more relationships to be discovered, both far away and right under the players' noses. (30 pages)

Chapter 15: Gaining a Level

This chapter falls into the Appendix of the book and is part of no other category.  In it I talk about the ways in which role-playing games can influence the rest of our lives, primarily because they give us skills (education, understanding, interactive abilities, a sense of working for our own causes and so on) that translate well to many other practical and vocational activities.  At the end, I talk about how writing the book has transformed my own perspective of the game, how it made ME smarter and more aware, since it was vigorously researched.  I make mention of how it was not based on 'game design' texts but upon sources far more technical in structure: psychology articles, conceptual design, consumer behaviour, physiotherapy, situational awareness for emergency response, models for persuasion and so on. (12 pages)

Now, if you've read the book, please send this post to them.  Please link it to your facebook.  Please twitter it.  Please get the word out there.  It takes you thirty seconds to slap the url to a page and say, "Read this.  It is worth the time."  Those thirty seconds may make an incredible difference to my experience and my world.  I will get on my knees and beg you to do that.

If you have not read the book, please see from the above that this is not the same patter that you're likely to read in any other book or see on any youtube video anywhere.  This is a hardcore, advanced, deliberative point-by-point attack against the substance of DMing that is designed to shatter the game as you now play it and put in its place something better.


Daniel Osterman said...

I absolutely attest that this book will continue to improve my game as I return to it and garner some new insight from it time and time again. I wish all DMs were required to read it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you, Daniel: but please tell it to the world.

Ernest Rowland said...

Thanks for posting this; I'd been meaning to pick up your books, and this cinched it.

Grimnir said...

Dropped a link to the Michigan D&D Group Finder page on Facebook. About 50 members tied to a couple dozen groups. Hope it helps. Good luck!

Great book, I've got a copy nearby.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'm glad that you did, Ernest; I hope you enjoy the books!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Grimnir, that is very appreciated. Thank you for that. I can use all the good luck I can get.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

I put links to this post and to the Lulu page on my Facebook, along with a blurb expressing what makes you the king of this scene and why your work is Quality.