Friday, May 6, 2016

Open to Change

Two days ago I described myself denouncing a t-shirt and asking the question, would this approach succeed?  I received no answers to this question - neither yes or no - so I must presume the reader just doesn't know.  In film it makes sense but in reality it is hard to accept that the first experience we're going to have with a 'serious' critic of our lifestyle and approach to things is going to be unpleasant.

However, we usually enter into things with misconceptions and it is common for those misconceptions to meet with disapproval.  So went my first experiences with cooking, so went my first experiences on stage, so went my first experiences with writing papers for university and so on. Like the podcast said, we learn from our mistakes - but most dramatically when we don't realize we are making mistakes.  In those instances, it is our tendency to push back and resist against learning.

Keeping on topic with the art of presentation, I have long witnessed a pattern with DMs that centers around the need to impress players.  The DM creates a big speech that the leader of the town gives, or gives maximum description through every combat of the way the swords swing or the amount of blood that gushes forth from the slain enemy:

Player: "I roll to hit."
DM: "You draw back your sword and with immense power you bring it CRASHING down on the head of the orc, causing the creature to scream in agony and sink to the ground, it's hands dropping its weapon as it cries out, 'Oh why did I try to fight against such magnificent heroes?' . . ."

And so on.

Do these efforts really impress people?  Personally, I have a strong radar for people trying to impress me and my first thought is, "What are they trying to make me buy?"  I inherently don't trust people who try too hard with such things.  It's a tactic and a pretty piss-poor tactic at that . . . and I wonder why DMs feel it is such an important part of the game to impress the players.

Is this really the point of the game?  Or is the point to facilitate play by describing things sufficiently? Presentation, I believe, is about communication, not pandering for respect: if players are going to impressed by a DM it will more likely come from the DM's cool, confident temperament than from the number of adjectives the DM can string together to describe things.

A class would want to emphasize this.  A tutor would need to approach the resistance to this idea of needing to make things 'bigger' in order to be 'better' by communicating with the student and not at the student.  This is what I tried to convey in the previous post: that while I did want the fellow to understand that his t-shirt wasn't winning any contests at the table, I wanted him to understand that from the point of view of someone that was self-aware - not someone who was shamed into a different behaviour.

Education must derive from two persons working together to solve a given problem - in the case given, the problem of presenting to the players to gain respect and legitimacy as a DM.  Education should be a collaboration.  The first step is to agree on the problem and the next, to solve that problem.  So often, the difficulty is to be found in the first step, as the student enters the classroom with a sense that they already know what the problem is - "I don't know what I need to know" - and that the educator will somehow wave a magic wand and make that lack of knowledge go away.

With something like DMing, a thing that is deeply  personal and deeply entrenched in one's prejudices, it isn't a matter of 'knowing' how to DM.  It is much more a matter of recognizing how something tried and tried is or isn't working.  I said this at the beginning of How to Run - it is a major theme in the book.  In the beginning, I had some handle on when I was doing well as a DM; but I couldn't explain why I was doing well and I couldn't reproduce that effect when desired.  DMing was totally hit or miss.  It took writing the book to truly nail down why I could manage a table well and why players enjoyed my DMing.

That would be the purpose of every class I would give:  Tell me what you're doing and I'll explain why this is working and why this isn't.  If the student can then accept that (largely on faith, as one would from an instructor), then we can work to change to a strategy that will work, every time.

That's not easy.  It requires a willingness to break with past behaviour.  That is why the most esoteric of classes cost so much money: it is always presumed that the more open your wallet is, the more open your mind is probably going to be.


James said...

As a DM, I think I sometimes lapse into too much purple prose for one of two reasons:

1. I am nervous, and trying to mask my nerves
2. It is a sign I probably over-prepared an encounter, because I probably really enjoyed writing it up and took it too far.

"1" is pretty simple: I feel uncomfortable as the center of attention. I became DM because I was the only one willing to put the work in, not because I especially wanted it. "2" I try to avoid, but sometimes fail. I very rarely plan encounters (I am much more interested in creating a framework of a world, fill it with NPCs, and let the players do whatever they want), so sometimes when I do plan them they can come off as a little forced.

I just read your post about the shirt. I think it could succeed. You note the importance of presentation in your book as well, if I recall correctly. Your noted approach to instruction seems accurate to me; one person's issue may not be another, so tailor-suiting the issues to them makes way more sense, at least to me. Of course, people are naturally resistant to chance, but you are kind of hoping that people looking for instruction are inherently open-minded to changing their behaviors.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Let me start with Thank You. Thank you for stepping up, thank you for running those people, thank you for trying to be a good DM. Thank you.

To answer your comment is going to require a little elbow room. My whole universe of perception just changed, as I shall explain. Look for a blog post this afternoon; should be up around five or so your time (judging from your description of walking in New York).

JB said...

The only reason I didn't comment on the earlier T-Shirt post is that I've been distracted this week. Otherwise, I'm sure I would have said something about "old Jonathan" versus "new Jonathan" (at the very because that's my name).

Much of the work in How to Run would make good "class lessons" for the beginning (or experienced) DM, even such "elementary" concepts as presentation. Whether or not the class would "succeed"...succeed at what? At drawing interest? Yes (as much as anyone who regularly acts as a GM/DM is interested in classes to better themselves). Succeed at changing the DM culture? Probably not (unless the ideas and concepts start "catching on" even outside those who take the class). Succeed at finding fertile ground and changing those who are receptive? Even if it doesn't (on first pass) get slobbish types to 'turn over a new leaf,' it certainly will provide food for thought, planting seeds of change in all but the most stubborn of curmudgeons (or laziest of slackers). Or so I'd imagine.

Hard to tell without doing.
: )

Maliloki said...

I pretty much agree with James. I missed the part about asking if that would work (I just assumed it would and continued to read in that mindset).

I actually talked about it with my wife after reading the shirt post and talked about how it's stupidly obvious and simple, but just not something either of us thought about. Not that it makes it easier for some people to hear.

Doug said...

I am thinking of Gen Con. The largest gaming convention in the world, I believe, and filled with a good number of people who haven't showered. Star Wars shirts will stretch as far as the eye can see.

One year, I made a point to go to Gen Con dressed in Business Casual. The response I got from the vendors was amazing.

It takes so little to stand out. Just be a smidge above average. I can wear the stained t-shirt when I'm working on my car. When I need to present, I'm selling myself as much as my message, so you'd better believe I don't wear my 1985 sleeveless Metallica t-shirt.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Gentle Readers,

If I hear nothing, I will make assumptions.

Maliloki said...

Valid point. Will do better in the future. :)

Thanks for all the effort you put forth on this site (and the wiki...and the podcasts as those have been fun so far)

Ken Filewood said...

After reading your t-shirt post, I was inspired to re-read How to Run. I certainly got more out of it the second time through than the first. So thank you for writing something deep enough (and passionate enough) for that to be so.

I agree with the idea that education often derives from people working together. Yet it seems to me that the 'first step' might sometimes be something other than 'agree on the problem'. The process might start with almost any kind of interaction (say for example: demonstrating and observing a sample performance), and explicit 'agreement' on a 'problem' might never need to occur.

It seems reasonable to me that your student might accept on faith your explanation of why some things are 'working' or 'not working': in this setup, you have more expertise than the student. So why not invite your student to accept on faith what 'the problem' is? After all, you are probably better positioned to identify problems than the student is.

Improving my game-running skills is something I have always striven to do, and always found difficult. And I can say from my experience as a player that many GMs' games could easily be improved. So I suspect there is a some kind a market there, and I wish you well in your endeavour.



Alexis Smolensk said...


I think my definition of "problem" may be wider than yours. The fundamental problem, I feel, would be to have the student answer the question, "What do you wish to achieve?" That goal may not be a negative problem, but a positive one; either way, it is something that must be solved.

Initially, the student may have no idea what they wish to achieve or - more likely - have no idea how to define it. But working towards how to define what they want through strategies and exercises would be central to solving the first part of the equation: work on what the problem is, BETWEEN tutor and student. Then solve it.

I talked at length yesterday with my friend Ken on the importance of students of D&D accepting things on faith. D&D is not an academic pursuit; it is much like a trade. In the trades, one has to often accept things on faith. "Don't do this." "Why?" "Just don't. If you do this, you'll run 50,000 volts through your body and you will die. So don't do this."

My friend Ken, who worked as a journeyman electrician for twenty years for the railroad after getting out of the army, can tell story after story about people who tried to 'rationalize' their way through that industry - and died in stupid ways. Absolutely, in some things, we have to accept on faith.

The trick is to make people realize this is so with DMing.

Ken Filewood said...

You are right, Alexis. I was thinking about 'problem' in a narrower sense than you had intended. Now that you have explained, I pretty much agree with what you say. This process of exploring and clarifying aims is important and ongoing. It is to be hoped that as you work with your student, his or her aims will change and develop.

At the end of the day it seems we must accept something on faith, if we are to take hold of almost anything new. Even in those (possibly few?) academic contexts where a student is expected to question and criticise the objects of study, that student is still accepting on faith the legitimacy and efficacy of the learning process presented. By submitting to the process the student is granting some kind of authority to the 'teachers' or 'markers' or 'feedback' or 'curriculum' or 'methods' or 'qualifications' or 'criteria' or 'pursuit' or 'industry' or 'discipline' or 'ideals' involved. This is surely true in studying science, engineering or mathematics also.

There is, I believe, an important role for experience and reflection in learning. When I am learning to be a better DM, nobody is likely to die if I try something new that doesn't work. So I perhaps have more room to experiment and explore for myself than when I am learning an electrical trade or how to defuse time-bombs. 'Faith' in the instructor's guidance remains important, but its function in the learning process seems to be a bit different.

Hopefully the instructor can and will guide the student's exploration and learning. It is probably a big time-saver for me as a student to take an instructor's specific suggestion on faith, at least until I have tried it for myself.

So the ability to inspire faith, confidence and trust is an important skill for an instructor. And the ability to prudently trust and take risks is an important skill for a student.

One of the problems I have with learning to run better games is the lack of opportunities to practise. If I am trying something new for the first time, it is nearly always in real time with a live play group. So both the difficulty and the stakes are higher than I would like.

A safer, more controlled learning environment would be a real help to someone like me.

So what are your thoughts about helping your students get THAT?



Alexis Smolensk said...


The "death" element in D&D would be the ever-present threat of quitting DMing or the game forever. There are bodies all over the internet of people who couldn't get it together and, in that frustration and fury, surrendered and moved onto other things. The attrition, as we know, is disheartening - not only to those who try, but to those who are fearful to try.

Regarding the lack of practice,

My father is a good painter. He is not a good self-motivator, however, and as such for several decades he spent money on art classes so that he could stand in a room of other people and do exactly what he could have done in a room alone - long after he needed actual instruction (he would begin winning prizes at competitions in the early 2000s and still he went to art classes).

I can see that some would continue to attend a 'class' for the purpose of discussing theories or even just as a confidence booster once a month, to feel strong enough to keep designing and preparing their game. I can't see anything wrong with that: I used to sit in my prof's office during his office hours twice a week just because it made me WANT to keep studying.

Ken Filewood said...

Thanks Alex, for being generous with your responses.

I guess I can see how the risk of 'quitting DMing or the game forever' might seem like a big danger to many people. In my case, it scarcely applies. I find it hard to believe that problems running games would stop me trying; and my desire to improve is strong enough that the cost of settling for 'less than better' seems worse than the risk of messing up.

Your remarks about practice are interesting. I agree that, with many skills a person's ability to teach themselves tends to increase as their overall skill level increases. It's probably true of running games. So there is something for me to think about. What you say about motivation is also important.

I desire to increase my skill in running games. In other parts of my life I have found that breaking a performance down into its elements and rehearsing the individual elements is a useful way to improve the performance as a whole.

There are many sub-skills of running a game - many are mentioned through your book - that I can rehearse without players. So I thank you for reminding me to do that.

But other sub-skills - such as those that centre on attending to the players - are difficult to practise alone.

Maybe some kind of agreement with my players (or a group of like-minded GMs) to engage in a few structured practice sessions might work. However, that would be a big price to pay in terms of 'real' playing time.

Have you any other thoughts?



Alexis Smolensk said...

Only that you're doing great when you argue that you'll never stop trying or that you want to be better. That's rare.

Please, I ask that you call me Alexis and not Alex.

Ken Filewood said...

Sorry about the mis-addressing. Alexis, it is.