Saturday, September 8, 2018

6th Class: From Competent Player to Expert

In our last class, we spoke about how competency can cause a DM to become overwhelmed by the number of aspects associated with the game.  For example, there are elements to be addressed regarding character creation, creating the session, fleshing out characters, managing player interactions and blow ups, how to present the game, how much the dice should matter, whether fudging is okay, character death, amount of experience to be given, use of traps, use of tension, how much agency should the players have, cheating, what's a good tone for a game, how much squickiness is acceptable, where do we draw the line on player girlfriends and boyfriends, how do we find players, booting players, keeping within the genre of the game, using optional rules, using house rules, using rules from other editions or role-playing games, allowing players to use characters from other settings, policing alignment, policing class restrictions, handing out treasure and magic, transparency on the use of magic, gods, balancing player characters, balancing combats, keeping notes during the game, maintaining momentum, fairness as a DM, trade, cosplaying at the table, rolling for reactions among NPCs, NPCs joining a party, the DM's privilege to give advice, controlling gamesmanship, managing aerial, waterborne or extra-terrestrial game settings, use of monsters to subvert or fuck with the party, mind games ... the list is extensive and every aspect of the list includes quite a few sub-texts and functional effects.  Keeping it all straight in one's head in the moment of running the game seems, as Stuart E. Dreyfus suggests, impossible.

So how do we do it?

An ordinary, competent gamer attempts to seek knowledge

Dreyfus argues,
"Naturally, to avoid mistakes, the competent performer seeks rules and reasoning procedures to decide which plan or perspective to adopt.  But such rules are not easy to come by as are the rules and maxims given beginners in manuals and lectures.  Indeed, in any skill domain, the performer encounters a vast number of situations differing from each other in subtle ways.  There are, in fact, more situations than can be named or precisely defined, so no one can prepare for the learner a list of types of possible situations and what to do or look for in each."

Here again, as before, Dreyfus insists on the word, "rules."  This is a problem where we are discussing a game, where there ARE rules that do need to be kept.  The problem is that people tend to rush straight to the definition for rules that states, "A set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere."  This is not what Dreyfus means at all, which is clear by the context of the whole document.  He's describing another definition for rule: "a principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable."  A more precise word for this second definition would be axiom, which we can define as "a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted or self-evidently true."

The game rules ~ such as, when a character's hit points run out, the character dies ~ are regulations and should be observed as such.  The DM's acquisition of knowledge, however, is not dictated by any set of rules.  We are simply muddling through the hundreds of situations that might come up as our games increase in complexity, making judgments, or rulings, as best we can where rules are inadequate or do not exist at all.  Over time, these judgments cease to be individual calls on the game and become standardized axioms, as defined above.  We make up our minds on how to manage new players, or deal with arguments, or present magic items or employ traps, in terms of when and where and how much.

It is not the acquisition of axioms that is a difficult obstacle for our competent DM, but the willingness to make decisions, stick by them and then uphold or take note of that same decision when the same issue arises again.  If a DM will insist upon vacillating between two different positions when the same situation arises, then no such axiom will result and the players will perceive that favoritism is in play (as the decision was different for the fighter as opposed to the mage), or that the DM is an whimsical boob who cannot be trusted and may say anything when the time comes.  Without a clear and serious sense of responsibility when making a given decision upon a game aspect, our DM, however competent, is likely to forget their previous ruling and the game itself will soon become an unholy mess.

Dreyfus is very weak on this point. He commits much of his argument to the importance of being emotionally invested, but he does not state which emotion is critical here.  He attests that we learn from our mistakes, but he fails to note that many people who make decisions, even when emotionally invested, are not aware when they have made a mistake.  Many persons must have the mistake pointed out to them, and even then many persons will seek to avoid admitting the mistake, seeking to "put the blame" on some other person, and thereby learning nothing from their error.  This is grossly common in role-playing games, as players blame each other or the DM, while the DM blames the players.  It is not enough just to be emotionally involved; we must be serious.  This is suggested, but not plainly stated, by Dreyfuss' argument that we must "replay one's performance in one's mind step by step ... to let them sink in."  Of course this is true ... but Dreyfus' language path to get to that point is clumsy, cluttered and frustratingly prosaic.  People all too often refuse to place any importance on their mistakes, and therefore learn nothing from them.

As the decision is usually made under a time constraint, we learn from the decision by reflecting upon it after the game, when time has ceased to matter ~ and mull over the original question without assuming that our judgment was correct.  If the judgment seemed lacking, or wrong, then we consider what decision we would make now, after the fact, acknowledging that this might mean beginning the next game with the words, "I changed my mind and I was wrong ..."  The process of decision-error-reconsideration-confession strengthens our thinking process and increases the seriousness with which we view decision-making at the start.  IF we know we ARE going to confess once we have reconsidered, and not bow out even when it hurts to admit we're wrong, we'll seek choices that don't produce error and eventual confession.

But refuse to admit to error; refuse to re-evaluate the original problem with an mind to ensuring a legitimate decision; refuse to look the original subject of our decision in the eye and admit our mistake - and we learn nothing.  We will never be anything but a competent DM.

For some, that's enough.  They equate competency with expertise and fail to recognize that competence means little more than "adequate."  You have the bare necessity of skill, but that is all.  You should not imagine that you're an expert and you should not imagine that you're in a place to give others an education in your subject. That should be left for those who are proficient.

Stage 4: Proficiency

As we become more serious in our tasks, the axioms we create to manage the complexity of the game are strengthened.  This enables us to spend less and less time mulling over decisions that we're making, as we become more confident that we're making the right ones for ourselves and for other people.  Note: it is the latter that is most important, as it is the latter that are most affected by what we decide.

We should not imagine that the process of building axioms and adapting ourselves to responsibility for our decisions is an easy one.  Our Proficient DM is an unusual entity, with the ability to discriminate among hundreds of slivers within the game aspects we've described (and many others besides).  When a decision needs to be made, a wide range of choices is available to our Proficient DM, with increasingly less doubt regarding which decision ought to be made.

On the whole, this choice of decision will exist for virtually any part of the game that the participant has chosen to explore.  Given the game's versatility, the number of editions, the number of other like games with their own sets of rules ~ and given that some games will focus heavily on role-playing while others focus on roll-playing ~ we shouldn't suppose that because a given DM is proficient in these aspects, that they are not merely competent in others.  A DM may be a highly proficient gamemaster at the table; but a woeful competent where it comes to designing a setting.  We may shine where it comes to creating tension or producing successful, believable characters; but hopeless where it comes to sorting out arguments between players or discouraging players from outright cheating.  As individuals in any field of knowledge increase in proficiency, the slice of the knowledge field in which they're in gets narrower and narrower.  Doctors become specialists.  Lawyers choose between business and criminal law.  Engineers move into the fields of chemical, mechanical or electronic technologies.  It takes a lot to become proficient at anything; it is a little easier when we narrow how much we choose to be proficient at.

But this does create prejudices.  Once we become proficient at something, we tend to think that our proficiency is the answer to every problem. It is the old adage, once you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Those who are proficient in role-play want to argue that the game is all about role-play and story.  Others proficient at technical details want to argue that the game must be simulationist and accurate.  We should beware these statements; the game is whatever we choose to make it, according to whatever effort we give to our particular campaign.

The process of decision making is a matter of heuristics, which I have covered in the link.  Our Proficient DM has accumulated axioms which have evolved into available and representative templates, which are accessed from memory and then employed.  There is a period of deliberation, though often brief; and where a lack of certainty exists, there's a strong potential to accurate guess, judge or propose a solution which will, after examination, prove to be accurate and effective.

This does enable our Proficient DM to manage many, many more situations than might normally seem possible, as the DM has learned to "roll with it" when something vastly different and unexpected arises.  It is difficult to stump a proficient DM; there has just been too much experience with odd and unusual things, and with solving such problems, to produce a complete failure to respond.

Stage 5: Expertise

When it happens that the need to calculate and compare alternatives falls by the wayside, our proficient DM has probably become an expert.  Whereas before there was some room for doubt, our Expert will see immediately that there can only be one solution.  This is the result of a number of factors, which are not fully understood by the phenomenalogical/psychological community (though it makes for good, heavy reading).  Fundamentally, our Expert encounters the material, comprehends the material and reacts to the material as a single mental process.

Many might think they do this, but without examination and hard evidence there's little credence to this claim.  As far as we can tell, the expert accurately "feels" the answer rather than "knowing" it ~ while evidence demonstrates that it was the right answer.  It is easy to produce this evidence in a game like chess, where those who possess this expertise consistently win against most everyone but a handful of others in the world, even when distracted or forced to play against a severe time restriction.  In a game like D&D, it is virtually impossible to tell if a DM is an "expert," since we have no way of knowing for certain what a "right" answer would be or how this right answer might manifest during game-play.

We may, however, posit such a person.  Our expert is highly absorbed in the material.  They recognize the existence of axioms and conventions, but equally recognize that these will need to be suspended in peculiar circumstances, that are themselves not necessarily prescriptive of future events.  For example, a given bizarre and highly unlikely sequence of events in a game might create a certainty that the dice should be skewed, or fudged, in this instance, with the recognition that since the unlikely sequence is not likely to happen again in the lifetime of the DM, the incident does not validate any argument that fudging the dice is acceptable.  Put another way, the appearance of a sliver of a particular aspect of the game, due to its infrequency, has no merit where considering the game as a whole.

Conversely, our Expert may perceive that wildly diverse parts of the game also share wholistic characteristics that would not be noticed by a proficient DM.  There may be conditions, for example, that demonstrate that "role-playing" and "roll-playing" are, in fact, the same thing, viewed from an intuitive perspective that is not limited by the need to create an axiom to explain how things work, or ought to work, based on their immediately apparent characteristics.

Very often, because experts don't know themselves how they come to a given conclusion, they cannot unpack their own knowledge and as such, make very bad professors.  I've had quite a few of them.

With our next class, we'll want to review how some of this material on the acquisition of skill level applies to the content in our earlier preparedness classes.  Thank you, this completes our second week of class.


kimbo said...

Great series of posts Alexis. Really useful perspective for self examination and improvement.

On your last point about bad-teaching-professors, the unconscious experts perhaps one could call them, i have experienced a couple of times experts with axioms and mental models which are demonstrably wrong (ie they dont represent the process they follow and if followed by others dont help to get the same results) but refuse to examine this at all. Perhaps unconscious learning trumps conscious learning.

Reading Rory Miller's "principle based instruction for self defence" he mentions a big part of expertise is screening out the unimportant stuff, noise vs signal.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Truth be told, kimbo, we don't know if those professors were experts. We were told they were, because they had an accreditation. But we had to take the university's word for it.

Jack McLaughlin said...

Very insightful post Alexis. I've been reading your blog, with a few breaks in the last couple years when I lacked a group to play with, for about 5 years now, and I believe this is the first time I've ever felt like I must comment. Forgive me in advance for the meandering nature of this comment.

On first read, I thought something like, "this is very intellectual; but how can I put it to use?" But then something clicked for me, the answer to a question I've thought about for a long time.

After reading your posts about heuristics linked in this post, I began wondering what your exact stance on "neutrality" in D&D games was. By "neutrality" I mean that nebulous concept, variously defined in its particulars, that the DM, or the world itself, should be impartial, uncaring, disinterested, etc. I usually see this concept promoted by old school DMs as a way of guaranteeing player agency. As a principle, it tends to be joined by things like not using a DM screen, or rolling dice in the open. I've always valued player agency over almost anything else, so I've naturally gravitated to this idea.

But there was always a problem with it: the pure, "bullet-point advice" form of the neutrality argument never squared perfectly with my experience of running a fun game. And how could it? It is, of course, just another form of puritanism that precludes anything from happening outside the realm of preset parameters, which are by their nature arbitrary.

Of course, you're not one of those puritans, as from the examples in your posts it seems you're perfectly willing to create or modify an encounter on the fly, using your established heuristics about what those encounters should be. This is something you have thought about, and answered for yourself.

I've done similar things, but I have always felt bound, in a sense, to things like "# appearing" or other things one might find, or write, on an encounter table, because that seemed "fair" and "neutral." Whenever I departed from those things, or made a decision such as "one of the orcs in the camp is the same orc you met before, in the dungeon you raided," I was sure I was making the game more fun, but I had doubts anyway. I doubted my decisions, and whether they undermined my commitment to player agency, whether they damaged the relationship between action and consequence.

I've run games like this for years, always balkanized, accepting the principle of impartiality, but being unable to reconcile its pure form with things that seem obviously to make the game better.

In reading this post, I've realized that things like the fiat decision to make an orc a familiar NPC, or the decision to create or modify an encounter, or any number of other things, are decisions that, with the right heuristics, can be felt. The religion of impartiality, which I had been clinging to, is a vestigial remnant of my "advanced beginner" or perhaps early "competence" stage; a framework that once provided me with a useful logic, but now merely interferes with the heuristics I've established not through idle theorizing, but experience and self-criticism. This essay has helped me to conclude that this is something I can finally let go of, as I can accept that may own heuristics may clash with axioms that, nevertheless, may be generally valuable.

Indeed, maybe so many experts are so bad at unpacking their knowledge because, at the highest levels, anything but an infinitely detailed fractal of situational rules will produce contradictions.

Thanks for taking the time to tackle big topics like this. No one has to do it, but you do it anyway.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hello Jack,

Sorry about the lateness of my reply; I have pretty much no access to the real world during my workshifts, so I could not answer until now.

Your realization is precisely what I'm seeking and precisely the point that Dreyfus was trying to make. At some point, EVERY piece of advice offered by anyone, expert or not, becomes increasingly less meaningful to individuals who are pushing their own boundaries of knowledge. Each person, as they push towards proficiency, gains the possibility of making discoveries and breakthroughs that have the potential to change human thought on any subject. We have to free ourselves from the cocoon of education that got us as far as competence. After that, we have to fly ~ and convention be damned.