Sunday, September 16, 2018

Life Shifts to the Left

Let me start today by saying I'm sorry.  In the interest of my sanity, and in putting energy towards things that will serve me best over the next year, I am forced to put my Masterclass blog on hiatus.  This follows my online campaign being put on hiatus, and the podcast never materializing, and a host of other things in my life that have been shoved to the side as I adjust my lifestyle.

Until just recently, I had a lot of time. I was working about 15-20 a week, with a 1-hour a day commute (round-trip). Now I am working 40 hours a week, with a 2.5-hour commute. And with Halloween coming on, the costume business is about to go turbo. Workload has increased about 20% across the board comparing this week to last week, and it is going to go on like that (and worse) through the next seven weeks.

I have written an email to those persons who are, right now, supporting my Masterclass and expect two posts for same this month of September.  I have explained that those posts will be written ~ I just don't know when, exactly.  I'd like to work slowly, a bit each day, and get them completed before things get completely crazy with October ... but in any case, anyone who has supported me thus far will continue to have access to the Masterclass blog, because that is my commitment and I will keep it.

However, after those two last posts, I will not be writing more for it in the foreseeable future.  My circumstances may change and I may pick them up again ... but not without much more time at my disposal.  Rest assured, if anyone wants to stop supporting me over this issue, those people have my absolute respect and understanding.  You should not feel any need to support anything that you do not feel compensated for.

It takes anywhere from 10-12 hours of hard planning, thinking and writing to put one of those 3000-4000 word posts together.  In comparison, it is about 2.5 - 3 hours of far less effort to write one of the RPG 201 posts (which I plan to continue to post on the free blog).  It isn't just the time; it is the effort, the painstaking concept of it, that wears me down.

I trust this is forthcoming and honest enough for my readers.  Please continue to watch this space.  I may get thin until after Halloween is over, but I'm not going anywhere.  I'm just writing less.

Friday, September 14, 2018

7th Class: Subjectivity and Objectivity

Following up on our last class discussing the five steps of learning, we looked at Hubert and Stuart Dreyfuss' discussion of mistakes and learning from them.  As a part of that, I spoke on the need to reflect upon the decisions we make as DMs, evaluating the effectiveness and the rightness of those decisions, "without assuming our [original] judgment was correct."

Before continuing, we will need to look at what it means to reflect upon actions that we've taken, or upon anything else that we may not fully understand.  This process is called "critical thinking" and is a fundamental principle of all scholarship and knowledge.  But while it has been seen as a primary skill in learning anything, there is much doubt at present that critical thinking is something that can taught.  In Daniel T. Willingham's seminal work on Critical thinking, he asks and answers the question,
"Can critical thinking acually be taught?  Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really.  People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking it not that sort of skill."

We should find this interesting.  Suppose we want to progress an individual ~ we'll call him Jim ~ from competency to proficiency as a DM. We cannot, as demonstated, teach Jim how to think critically, and then apply that critical thinking skill to role-playing games so that he becomes a more adept role-player.  Thus we are left to ask, what can we do?

We can explain to Jim that, from the time that he was a novice, that most of his "knowledge" came from things that he perceived as he experienced the game being played, as well as his emotional responses to that play, and finally to his imagination ~ the set of things that were not concretely real, but that he added personally to the game's play as an augmentation to his direct experiences.  We all do this.  It is our biological nature to take information gained from our senses and our responses, and transform that information into "common sense" axioms, even before we've ceased being a novice.

Let's take an example.  In our second class, I listed a series of things that a DM or Player might research as a means of preparing to play the game better.  One of the things on that list was (d) solving problems related to group dynamics, by asking questions of the players to determine how best to get a disparate and unique group to work together.

Suppose Jim, as a Novice, begins asking such questions.  When Jim receives answers, he naturally hears the words and reads the faces of the players, then "feels" something about what was said, and finally creates an answer from his imagination.  Because he is a Novice at the game, these are the only skills he brings himself ... and it can be seen fairly quickly how Jim is going to get himself into trouble.

Jim has little to no experience at all with the game, so when he is surrounded by Players and a DM, he is out of his element.  He will tend to make the same personal judgments about a Player's motivation in the game as he would about any person acting in any other circumstance.  Likewise, his feelings about what is said will be the same feelings that he might apply to a person's behaviour in the workplace, or at a bar, or while walking down the street.  Seeing someone get overly excited about, say, a pile of imaginary gold pieces, might cause him to have very different feelings about the experience than a long-time player would.  And when applying his imagination to what his feelings mean, or what his senses tell him, he would likely jump to conclusions that an experienced player would never entertain.

Jim might be the sort of person, with the sort of background, that enables him to "get it" instantly.  I did.  But he might just as easily not be ~ and thus we can understand why many people who first encounter a description of the game are ready to turn up their nose and move off.

Let's say, however, that whether through instinct, or through a willingness to experience more play, Jim acquires that set of conventions that lets him expand his outlook.  Yet as he progresses from Novice to Advanced Beginniner, we should understand that most decisions he will make about which conventions can be ignored, and what parts of the game need to be changed, will be based on his perceptions, his feelings and his imagination.

While very important to our make-up as human beings, we have to understand that these things are not knowledge.  They are beliefs.  They are a subjective judgment about things ~ and while these judgments have value to the individual, we further recognize that all persons have these judgments based on their own personal beliefs, which are therefore different from one another.

Reaching a consensus about subjective beliefs is far, far different from reaching a consensus about knowledge.  When Jim says, "My pencil is broken," this is a demonstrable fact that witnesses can examine and identify for themselves.  Unless the pencil is sharpened, it has no value as a pencil.  But when Jim says, "I don't like the way this pencil feels in my hand," there is no consensus on the pencil's value.  Jim is still able to write with is, as is everyone else; and each person will have their own personal take on the value of the pencil, none of which can be identified as a factual value.

When Advanced Beginners set out to alter and adjust an existing set of conventions, they appear to be doing so based on what they would describe as their experiential knowledge ... but it is, in fact, a personal set of values based on what parts of the game matter specifically to those persons.  Jim decides to change the rules surrounding, say, Alignment, because he doesn't like Alignment, not because the conventions around Alignment are necessarily ineffective.  Jim is not learning more about Alignment and how it works in the game; Jim is learning that he can change parts of the game in order to suit his whims.

This is not how Jim would describe it, however.  From Jim's perspective, these changes are "necessary."  It is "clear" that without the changes, an "improved" game wouldn't be possible.  Jim is still describing a pencil that doesn't feel right in his hand.  His explanations for the change are not grounded in demonstrable facts; others must take his word, relying solely on his subjective opinion (or coincidentally, on their own), if they are to agree with Jim.  Neither Jim nor those who agree with him can point to a set of facts that would convince everyone to plainly see that Alignment is ineffective as a game mechanic.

The alternative position to judging something subjectively is to judge it objectively.  Objective reasoning argues that something is true only if it is universally true ~ that is, everyone is subject to that truth even if they can't perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it.  Objective truths, or facts, arise from investigation that can then be proven by methods that are indisputable.  If there were something evident about Alignment that caused every person experimenting with it to observe the same reactions, experience the same responses from players, and note the same patterns of behaviour in accordance with Alignment, we would soon develop a convention that would be imposed on nearly every game: don't play with alignment.  I say "nearly every game" because even when confronted with facts, some people stubbornly persist at things.

Suppose Jim continues to play his games in a subjective manner, becoming a DM with the certain feeling that every value he has in playing the game is the "right" value.  As he becomes competent, he will rigidly close down every option of play that he finds personally in conflict with his sense of right and wrong.  This rigidity will steadily, with experience, remove all options from the manner in which he plays ... in which case, whenever he plays, there will always seem to be one clear and perfect option, no matter what has to be decided.

Because this bears a similarity to the Expert described in our last class, who does not make a decision among multiple options, as a Proficient Player would, it is probable that Jim will begin to self-describe himself as an expert.  Like an expert, he sees a problem, he understands immediately what he must do to address the problem, and he solves it.  Except that he does not solve the problem for anyone else. He only solves the problem for Jim.

Dreyfus is quite clear on this point.  Expertise is gained first by fully understanding the whole panoply of options that potentially exist: playing the game with or without alignment, and a myriad of splintering degrees to which alignment in all its possible forms might be structured in order to give the best possible repeatable result for the greatest number of persons.  That is the fundamental of social science, where absolute facts are difficult because of the complexity of human beings (as opposed to pencils).  It is only with great awareness of the various possibilities that the Expert emerges from Proficiency.

Rather than attempting to reason our way through our games with "critical thinking," we need to understand constantly that whatever we believe, whatever methods we use right now to run our games, whatever effectiveness we may have had in the past with our foregoing strategies, we are still in the wrong about something.  The fact that we can perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it, is immaterial.  We know we are in the wrong because we haven't yet shown everyone else in the world how we are right enough to be followed exactly in our behaviour.

Being in the wrong is not a bad thing.  It is a good thing.  It means constantly and vigilantly looking for the value we hold, that we are wrong about.  We don't tire of looking because, first, we know it exists, and second, because diligent searching has found wrong things about our values in the past.

We're just not always willing to accept being wrong, even when we change to account for it.

With our next class, we'll try to evaluate some of the ways that Novices can employ to adjust their games in an objective manner.

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.

Friday, September 7, 2018

5th Class: From Novice to Competent Player

With my last class, I say that we'd examine expertise in terms of gaining experience through preparedness.  I think that it would be best for this class that we don't try to define what "expertise" is, since that's bound to get us in a number of semantic arguments that will create little context for understanding and learning.  Instead, let's begin with defining an absence of expertise, taking as our subject an individual who has no knowledge whatsoever of a given activity.

For this class and the next one, I'll be drawing on the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, advanced by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus.  I do have several issues with the model, most of which stem from the choice of words used by Stuart E. Dreyfus, the author, and there are arguments that stand in psychology against this model ~ but I think it should serve adequately for our generalized purposes.  Dreyfus uses examples from driving a car and from playing chess; I shall endeavor to keep away from all metaphors for today's class, relying instead solely on examples from role-playing, specifically from Dungeons and Dragons (in a manner that should escape any issues arising from editions of the game).

Let's begin, using Dreyfus' terminology.

Stage 1: Novice

Using Dreyfus' terminology, we'll call our candidate for non-expert a "novice."  This novice has never played the game, has never run the game, has no understanding of any of the rules of the game and may not have even heard of the game ... however, our novice is willing to learn.  And for the purpose of our class, let's say our novice is ready to learn how to be a DM.

To begin with, we must explain the basic tenets of the game.  Because role-playing games are very complicated, we shouldn't confuse the issue by presuming that we're going to teach our novice "the rules."  Most participants don't play by all the rules of any system, mostly because they don't know all the rules or because many of the rules are so obscure that no one at a game table might remember the existence of a given rule.  Therefore, we shouldn't expect our novice to learn "all" the rules ~ learning enough rules is what we all did when we started and our novice is no different.

If we stick to the most straightforward tenets of the game, we should include only those that enable play without preparation.  Rolling the character would be such a tenet, as would placing the character in a simple environment, like a dungeon room or hallway.  The presence of other players suggests interaction between player characters, and in that a certain "make-believe" as characters explain themselves, and even their backstories, to others.  Finally, we can posit enemies of the characters, which they can find by moving through the simple environment, and having encountered them, find themselves with the choice to parley or fight, with success or consequences arising out of the emergent behaviour of communication or out of that same behaviour arising out of the randomness of die rolls.

These simple tenets are enough to keep the game fresh for a time; but our question is, how does our novice DM handle the processes behind these tenets?  That is simple too.  In order for a new, inexperienced DM to manage even this much, as educators of the novice we provide advice that follow an if-then structure.  Dreyfus calls these rules ~ but since we are speaking about a game, this causes confusion in communication between "rules" of the game and "rules" describing conventions and procedures (the word rule has multiple meanings).  Therefore, let's avoid Dreyfus' language here and refer to our if-then instructions as "conventions."

We tell our novice that if the players kill a certain number of enemies, they should get such and such an amount of treasure. We explain that the simple environment should be a dungeon and that dungeons should be reasonable in size with monsters or enemies that the players can handle.  We explain that there should be a nearby village which the players can visit to rest up, heal and resupply.  We suggest that parleys between the players and their enemies can be resolved with a mixture of reserved gut instinct supported by die rolls.  Effectively, we provide the conventions that were asserted with the very early period of the game's creation.  And with these conventions, just as you and I did once upon a time, they muddle through, make their mistakes, but manage more or less to run the game well enough for their players to return for another session.

"Adventurers' League" games are merely a different list of conventions, designed to encourage our novice to keep pace with an established module-based procedure, to bring the players along to such and such a point by such and such a night.

As far as play goes, our novice is not a good DM.  Some natural talent might exist for employing the conventions quickly or smoothly, but the conventions themselves are a limitation and so long as our novice relies upon them, much will be lacking from the experience.  We might be able to remember when we ran our games in this fashion; but unless we are a novice, we shouldn't imagine we'd enjoy playing this way now.  It wouldn't be enough.  This begs the question, what happens to our novice that cause an advancement in game play, and how does that advancement manifest.  If we were the Jane Goodall of role-playing games, and we were watching new DMs over a period of months, by what behaviour would we recognize a DM that was advancing from one that was not?

Stage 2: Advanced Beginner

As game sessions are played, our novice becomes increasingly aware that the conventions being followed have issues. Some seem to actively stifle play, or encourage resistance from the players, or lack sufficient reward for the players efforts.  As our DM becomes familiar with game play, various "aspects" ~ defined by Dreyfus as examples meaningful to the context ~ will make themselves evident.  Recognizing these, our DM is encouraged to question the conventions and explore these aspects, and so becomes an Advanced Beginner.

Some elementary aspects that we tend to notice early on in our play includes: (a) the awarding of treasure and experience; (b) the interplay between player characters and NPCs in what we think of as "role-play"; and (c) a fascination with the "metagame" of organizing play outside of the game session.  There are other aspects, many others, but for the sake of example let's use these three.

While awarding success in game play, our advanced beginner wonders why more treasure or experience can't be given more quickly, jumping low level characters to higher levels, where the monsters are more interesting and the players seem more heroic. There seems little point in forcing the players to struggle for a few magical items, when lots of magic can always be countered by lots of enemies. With experimentation, our Advanced Beginner discovers this logic is sound and feels assured by the change.
It's noticed that the players seem to enjoy role-playing, while it relieves pressure on the DM to constantly maintain the world for the players.  More role-playing out of difficult situations means less combats that need to be run.  More time spent role-playing means less demand on setting descriptions.  Twenty minutes of a session can be given over to a detailed conversation with a shop merchant, during which time the DM has to role-play, but little else.  Role-playing can be enhanced with choosing alignments, backstories and inter-party discussions "in character," all of which reduces demands on the DM to produce and run as much setting as would be necessary if role-playing were minimized.  The popularity of role-playing becomes clear very quickly, so it is embraced by our Advanced Beginner as a way of maintaining interest without increasing the DM's effort.

Finally, our Advanced Beginner might become obsessed with the metagame ... the creation of more elaborate settings, mega-dungeons, story-game mechanics in adventure building, a back history of the game setting and  so on.  All these are usually done in solitary and many aspects of this metagame will never see use during the actual game; yet our Advanced Beginner feels a strong desire to explored these concepts for their own sake.

It's important to understand that these reworkings of the game, whatever they are (and including a long list that I have not touched on), and whether they are "good" or "bad," is a natural progression of game experience.  No one is exempt.  We learn from experimentation, and it is through experimentation that we move from being an advanced beginner to a competent participant.

Stage 3: Competence

The acquisition of competence is far from having confidence or mastery of the game.  Rather, it is a stage that puts enormous strain on DMs, testing them, as it indicates that while there is a greater awareness of the game's structure and potential, this awareness can also overwhelm the DM's conviction that they have the ability to master this potential.

The reader will remember that we were just saying that Advanced Beginners become aware of a few aspects of the game and begin to toy with them.  With increasing competence, our Advanced Beginner becomes aware of so many aspects that the bare number of them, and running them all, seems to be an insurmountable objective.  Because our Competent Player is aware of these aspects, and because game play inspired by increased preparedness keeps pushing the DM up against these aspects, it isn't enough to simply say, "I'll ignore them."  With competence, it becomes increasingly clear that for the game to advance, and for the DM to advance, these aspects must be addressed.

Dreyfus describes the situation as nerve-wracking and exhausting; as an overload; as a wonder how anyone ever masters the skill.  It is a point that many DMs will simply quit. Unable to reconcile their innate knowledge gained through experience with the memory of the simple games they once enjoyed running (but are enjoying less and less now), the simplest argument is often that, having come to fully understand the aspects of the game to an adequate degree, it is time to move onto something new.

This might be a different role-playing game, or wargame, or video game ... but of course, with the experience gained at the first RPG of the participant's experience, the passage of time between Novice and Competent Player grows shorter and shorter.  And that passage is less and less satisfying.

With our next class, we'll discuss how the Competent player finds tools that enable advancement from this stage, to where the game can be managed with proficiency and expertise.

From Give up, Catch up or Keep up with Innovation

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Sep. 6

As I am writing this, it is still the 5th of September, but it's technically the 6th for most of the world and most readers won't find this post until we all wake tomorrow morning.  Whereupon it will be the 39th anniversary of my first night playing Dungeons & Dragons.

This post is getting to be sort of a tradition.  I expect I'm getting long in the tooth and there's more reason to fret about small things.  Perhaps I like to gloat that I've been playing and thinking about the game five years longer than Gygax could, and four years longer than Arneson.  That's going to offend some people.  It's simple math.  Granted, I didn't invent the game, so that's on me ... but I'd argue that my best insights have been gained during these last five years and I think that's very important.

Too, I didn't have "inventing the game" to rest my laurels on.

Oh well.  All anniversaries are the same.  We observe the day, a bunch of people say "congratulations," like I won a lottery or something ... I just don't understand the word congratulations.  It always feels to me like an award, like I was chosen from a bunch of people who also did 39 years and given a plaque.  Whereas to me, I've always been here, always writing, always thinking, always designing my game.  September 5th is 39 years minus a day.  September 7th will be 39 years plus a day.  Does the 7th, 8th and 9th count as congratulations worthy?  I've never been very clear about that tradition.

Basically, I put my head down a long time ago and I've taken a moment to lift it and notice what day it is.  No biggie.  Hopefully, I'll lift my head around this time next year and notice it again.  I don't think I've done anything more special today than I have for the other 14,235 days since I got started.  I think I'd prefer to hear something like, "You're a nut job to keep at it this long," or "Christ, man, you're a machine."  Or maybe just, "Well done. You didn't quit."  I don't know.  Something that acknowledges that this wasn't luck, this was effort.

Okay.  I've ranted.  I can start day 14,236 now.

According to this page, these are students depicted in the 1980 Yearbook of
Libertyville High School north of Chicago.  They are described as the D&D "people."
It is as close a depiction of my own people than I am ever likely to find.

The Upcoming Season

As some readers might know, I have recently taken a job in a costume shop.  There, it is my role to write descriptions for items such as this steampunk eyepatch or this medieval war hammer.  Yes, those are my words, being shyly coy about incorporating D&D and other game ideas into product sales.

For the record, it's called The Costume Shoppe.  And once in awhile I try on something I'm writing about, to get the feel of it.

Standing in front of our mailing
It probably hasn't risen on your radar yet, but Halloween is 8 weeks away, exactly 56 days.  Some fanatics, I know, have started working on their costumes, but most haven't remotely considered such things.  But since part of my job includes processing orders for costumes going literally all over the world, things for us are picking up.

By the second half of September, our eCommerce is going to seriously ramp up, as people who want to buy costumes by mail will rush to buy, forgetting that we're living in an age that now delivers inside a 5 day waiting period (and thank gawd for us, or else the last two weeks of October would be impossible).  I'm assured that by the end of September, we'll all be working 6 days a week.

And that starting halfway through October, we'll be working every day.

So posting on this blog is going to get thin.  It may even downright disappear.  I haven't gone through this before, and they all assure me that leading up to Halloween that it's a nightmare.  I don't know and I can't know.  I'll have to experience it.  I've worked at a restaurant in an airport at Christmas, so I'm sure I've seen everything ... but as I remember, I was too tired to do anything after my shifts.  And I was 17 years younger than I am now.

I'll put my focus on getting the four Master Class posts written for September and October, as people are paying for those.  They're going to be ... let's just say a trial.  Apart from those, I can't say what I will be motivated to write.

But I will be thinking about writing, all the time.


If any of you out there have kids and you're curious about some costume that you can only see on the internet, there's a very good chance that we sell that costume in our store.  I have the power to open most anything up and examine it first hand, to give an appraisal of its design and quality, and perhaps take pictures.  So feel free to ask.

Monday, September 3, 2018

4th Class: Practice & Rehearsal

I'd like to start by saying that while I may sound like I have all the answers, much of this content is as new to me as the reader. It has come about because of certain things that were said by readers two weeks ago, which produced the breakthrough that I wrote about in my 1st Class introduction.  That in turn encouraged me to follow up on content described on this wiki page, which led me to examine more closely the methods of prepation, that led me to reading materials on these things and then reinterpreting them for role-playing games. I'm not inventing new information, but rather translating academic research that already exists; nor have I been holding back this knowledge for the day when I could release it to the world.  Rather, I'm describing the material as I have understood it, sometimes having made the realization an hour or so before.

I would have included this material when I wrote my book, How to Run, but I didn't know it then.  Unlike many people on the internet who pretend to have all the answers, I will state coldly that I absolutely do not have all the answers and do not know everything there is to know about managing or preparing for role-playing games.  However, I am researching the concept and learning new things, which is a damn sight better than every other person I have ever read on this subject.  I feel I'm eminntly qualified to write posts like this not because I'm a know-it-all; but because I desire to know it all.  In the pursuit of that goal, I learn things.

What we tend to think when we hear "practice."
And so, if we can begin today's class, our subjects today are practice and rehearsal.  These are often confused and often understood to be the same, so we should take a moment and define the difference between the two.  Practice is a free expression of the individual's desire to explore and examine their own ability; it is largely done alone and is not subject to the will or actions of other persons.  Practice can be done any time, and for as long as one wishes.  On the whole, practice does not have a time element.  Rehearsal, however, is a group activity.  It is typically scheduled.  It is not an exploration of a personal expression, but rather a designed activity to achieve consensus, or a gestalt, among individuals working together.  There is a strong motivation not to make errors in a rehearsal, but to produce the desired result as perfectly as possible.  Practice is a method by which perfection in rehearsal is obtained.

And because practice leads to the success of a rehearsal, let's begin there.


The concept of practice does not normally exist in the role-player's lexicon, so it is upon us to demonstrate that it happens all the time and that it is something we do whether or not we are aware of it.  I'll take a moment and say one last time in this course that the game as written does not actually require anyone to give any time towards practice - but it is, in fact, very hard not to practise a role-playing game, once we have a clear idea what we mean by practice.

Practice is the act of repeating a physical or mental action over and over, and in the process improving the efficiency, or mastery, of that action.  For example, if I give myself to thinking about the various ways in which my player character might buy equipment, or choose spells, or express himself, or otherwise participate in the fictional world, and I continue to do so each day for many months, I will slowly master an elaborate set of resources and choices for the character, effectively improving my game play.  I will remember, by practicing to remember, to buy specific things when they are needed, to combine bought items in a myriad of ways, to draw attention to my dress or my appearance when I speak, to speak more clearly, to use my words better, to adapt those words to a character ideal in my mind, which I shall know much better through continued contemplation and so on.  If I try to live in my character's head as I do my own, I will remember more clearly what my character's abilities are, and how they will best be employed.  And I can do all these things whether or not I am actually playing in the campaign.

Moreover, this is what most players who are enamoured with the game do, whether or not they are told to do it, and whether or not they believe it will improve their play.  They do it because it feeds their compulsion to do it; but this is no less a form of practice for that reason.  To understand this better, follow the work of K. Anders Ericsson.

Allow me the benefit of an analogy, which may better express what I mean, since using a player character as a template is unfamiliar territory.  Let's presuppose a musician who chooses to practise.  Naturally, our thoughts reach for the musician's desire to play a musical instrument more effectively; say, in this instance, a guitar.  But there is more "at play" than the guitar.  The guitarist must obtain and slowly grow comfortable in the right posture.  Calluses must build up on various parts of the hands.  The fingers must grow more nimble, and stronger, to press down on the frets or hold the pick.  The guitarist grows more comfortable with not looking at the guitar so that music can be read; and one gets better at reading music more easily so that the notes can be heard on the paper as well as understood.  The guitarist grows more adept at tuning and maintaining the guitar, and at the way the guitar is put into a case, and the manner in which the case is carried, and the habit of remembering that the case must be managed as the guitar is carried from place to place.  The guitarist steadily learns more about other guitars and what are the best guitars, and why, and how the materials of a particular guitar will change the way that something practised will sound.  And the guitarist gets more comfortable with being identified as a guitarist, and being asked to play, and what songs to play for which audiences, and what things people will dislike, and getting used to some people being haters, and recognizing that not all people who like the guitarist do so for good reasons.  And so on and so forth.  There is a lot more to being a guitarist, and practicing at being a guitarist, than merely learning how the strings are played.

And a role-player is no different. There is lots to remember and lots to learn and many ideas to consider and a lot of details to manage and attitudes of players and a desire to play vs. a willingness to DM and so on and so forth ... and all these things require practicing a way of thinking about role-playing games and how we identify ourselves with them.  We don't think of it as "practice" but it is, nonetheless.  We are increasing our cognitive skills and our ability to use our senses in game play; we are assessing the skills of others and our own skill; we are giving ourselves feedback and comparing our efforts with past efforts, and with the efforts that we've seen others display; and we have the option of pushing for better skills in creating maps, designing characters and backgrounds, narratives and hundreds of details we seek to add to the game.

We don't "need" to practise, but we do.  We do through repetition and constant thought as we dedicate ourselves to something that interests us.

This is, incidentally, an argument against artificial intelligence.  When we, as humans, perform repetitive tasks, we are affected by a large number of hormonal impulses that produces a level of boredom that becomes a compulsion to stop doing a particular task.  We then intellectually argue why we should continue to perform the task anyway, because we can see an end result; but to counteract the boredom we start looking for ways to make the task more efficient (to reduce the time to reach the goal), or more interesting (by paying attention to details we did not formerly recognize or by making a game of it) or by thinking of other ways to achieve the goal without having to do the task at all.

Computers can't do any of these things. They don't get bored.  They don't perceive goals.  They can't identify an alternate route to a goal once a route has been established.  They haven't any hormonal impulses that compel them to seek any other action but to continue the repetitive task.

Because we will get bored with creating parts of worlds or adventures, if we push through that boredom or try to mitigate it, whatever we seek to practise will eventually become the part of the game that we are best at.  If we emphasize our willingness to be role-players, then we will view role-playing as the end-all and be-all of the game because that will be the part of the game that we are best at, and with which we are most comfortable. If we spend all our time designing for places in our games where rolls will need to be made, then "roll-playing" will be seen as the most important element.  We build our own prejudices by whatever part of the game we practise at thinking about or designing, just as a country singer will have a prejudice for country music, or a jazz guitarist will have a prejudice for jazz.

But Music, and Role-playing, exists with or without prejudices.


While my definition for rehearsal (as linked above) states that, "... rehearsal is not the final outcome of practice," and goes on to make a distinction between a rehearsal and an original performance, we can bend those restrictions a little by recognizing that each session of role-playing between players and DM is, in a strong sense, both an original performance AND a rehearsal for the next original performance.  The DM ensures that the various elements of the game are ready to be played, whatever the level of preparedness, and that they are coordinated to make the best possible impression on the Players.  The Players, too, come to each session with ideas in hand and proposals to be made, and expect to impress or surprise the DM after their own manner.  Everyone is expected to give their whole attention to the performance of the game.  Even if errors, lapses in attention or interruptions are common place, it is understood that the game is more important than who did what at what place, or who said what the other day, or what might be happening outside while the Game is progressing.

We tolerate distractions and interruptions to be friendly and convivial.  But when someone says, "Let's get back to the game," no one groans as they might if someone said in a workplace, "Let's get back to our jobs."  We want to play or we wouldn't be there.

The purpose of the rehearsal is to coordinate the various dynamics of play and the participant's interaction with play.  The recently coined "Session Zero" is an effort to do this on first meeting without the attention issue of having to actually express what the players are doing in a setting ~ but the reality is that we should expect a group of players to take multiple sessions before expecting them to adjust to matters of the rules, the personalities of other players, personal take on the game, a group consensus towards purpose and many other factors that arise from people acting as a single entity.

If we were to join together to put on a performance of Othello, no one would be surprised to find that there were going to be 13 weeks of rehearsals with 30 to 40 specific nights where we would come together to prepare for the end performance.  Which doesn't include the private arrangements between Othello and Desdemona, or Iago and Brabantio, to run through the lines and blocking of a particular scene without the director or crew present.  Everyone is typically good with this investment, because it is understood that in three months plus a week, we're going to do this in front of a live audience and we don't want to look like fools.  Some of us want a good review, because we think of having a career as an actor.  And so, there's very little sympathy for anyone who doesn't put the play first ~ since a single bad effort by a supporting character, say the Duke of Venice, can wreck the performance for everyone.

So to settle things, we in role-playing take the time to get everyone to agree to the same rules, and the same methodoly of interpreting those rules (as written, by DM fiat or by group consensus).  We discourage a single player from hogging the DM's attention.  We put a ban on player-vs-player ... or we encourage it, because that's the sort of game we've all agreed to play.  We get everyone on board, a little bit more with every game session, because it makes the game session in the future better and better.

If we don't rehearse this way, however; if we don't arrive at a consensus; if the players won't surrender certain behaviors or attitudes; then each game session gets worse and worse, because there seems to be no purpose to going on if it's just going to be another boring fight every night.  Once again, as the goal with these players and this DM seems less likely to be the game we want to play, we quit and go find another game.  That is how we biologically function.  It's what makes us "intelligent."

The purpose for a consensus, or in choosing to see the game session as a proper rehearsal for future sessions, is not to play the game "right" or "well," but to play it more effectively as a group.  Which is why it can be difficult to let in a new player, who will fail to see the importance of this consensus (which is rarely explained, if even understood by the original group members) and will act as a discordant note for weeks and weeks, until they're pushed out or they conform to the standard the others have agreed to play.

As a DM, the more clearly we see that standard, the more clearly we can explain it to players, both old and new, and the more quickly we can jump from a bunch of people with separate agendas to a single working whole.  It takes time to do this without becoming an autocrat (which many DMs descend to becoming, because it is direct and easy), because it takes empathy, a fair ethical framework to look from and an awareness of both self and others that most DMs do not even care to possess, as they see no reason for it.  And thus we get the games we get, as we have all seen with our own experience.

This completes our introduction to preparedness.  With our next class, we will examine expertise, the process of gaining experience through practice, education and the various other elements of preparedness.

Sunday, September 2, 2018


I must be at the point of the spear again with these recent posts because no one is talking ... but the numbers say there are many readers just now so I'm not worried that the blog has evaded notice.  Still, I write better when I get some feedback, and most of the recent posts came into existence because of conversations that happened here and here.  I do not write in a vacuum.

But ... I know people hate to say, "good post," and I'm on record saying that it bears little improvement on silence.  I don't write these posts for the applause, anyway.  I sincerely write them to help others be better DMs.  I've spent hundreds of hours searching online for the sort of posts that I've been writing this year, and these RPG 201 posts are really hitting the mark.

So let's try this.

If the posts have suggested some directions for your own preparation plans, write a comment that says,
"These posts have been helpful."

If the posts are managing a paradigm shift in your thinking about how we've been structuring preparation for the game, write a comment that says,
"I've never thought of it this way before."

And if the posts have already started you making notes of your own for actual preparation work on your own game, or you've actually started making a new campaign, then write a commen that says,
"This started me working."

And then, maybe, you could add a sentence or two to describe what sentences in the posts were helpful, or something about how you're thinking now, or what you've started working on.  Then we could all feel like some sort of communication has started.

Of course, if you just don't care, feel free to remain silent.

Friday, August 31, 2018

3rd Class: Resources & Education

In our last class, we spoke about three forms of preparation that focus one's thoughts upon self-improvement, judgement and achieving goals.  For this class, we'll step outside of ourselves and talk about how we can prepare through the use of resources and by means of education.

As before, actual game play of RPGs does not require preparation.  The rules are all there to allow people to sit down, roll up characters, posit the existence of monsters, dungeons or wilderness places and just start creating a joint-narrative in an utterly improvisational manner.  The single drawback to this approach is not that the game does not work, or that it isn't fun, but rather that repeated efforts to be improvisational without preparation soon become repetitive.  My creativity is limited to what I can think up in the immediate moment.  I haven't the time to build complex ideas, or research an idea in a manner that might lead to a discovery, or make a detailed plan of my intentions.  Others are waiting. And when they speak, when they improvise, I am waiting.  So after a time of playing, we're limited in our "fun" to those moments where some spark of genius has momentarily touched a given player ... and because these moments are transitory and rare, we grant them far, far more importance that we would otherwise if we were to compare them with a methodical effort at creativity.

We've all heard stories from players who talk about how something happened and it was SO funny, or SO clever.  Because we are not limited in our time to reflect upon these stories when we hear them, the stories are rarely as funny to us, or as clever to us, as they seem to be to the teller.  This is how improvisation of the immediate lowers the bar for what is considered to be "good" play.

We can create better play if we can take advantage of preparedness ~ the time spent in preparing for an adventure can vastly improve the quality and intricacy of that adventure.  One of the best ways of creating time is to take advantage of resources.


A resource is any source or supply of work that has been compiled by ourselves or by others over time, which we are not required to "know" ourselves so long as we can access the material quickly, similar to the way we access our memories.  Instead of simply remembering, our senses locate a sought for passage and the resource gives us the information for our use.

The most commonly used form of resource for an RPG is an adventure module, purchased so that we may have the hours of work that someone has invested so that we can reproduce that investment in the time it takes to read the material, either to ourselves or out loud to others.  It is presumed that such modules produce better material than we would ourselves, because they are created by talented persons with lots of experience, and most participants in RPGs would agree very strongly with that presumption.  It is possible, of course, for a DM to invest their own time to create their own module, but failed attempts and lack of experience soon convinces most DMs that it isn't worth the effort to learn how to do this, since so many modules already exist on the market and it is easier to exchange money for expertise than one's own time.

Another major resource is the collection of rule books.  These often form the basis for some inspiration, but are more important for keeping track of rules that we couldn't possibly remember, except for the moment in the game when they become important.  This does require a motivation to look up the rule ... and many participants don't bother, because even that would be time spent that they feel would undermine the pacing of their game.

Even the least creative DM will have notes that can be checked, if the time has been taken to make them.  Simple to complex maps can be drawn to keep track of the party's location.  A diagram or a symbol can be produced upon demand, not only by the DM but also by the players, who may wish to elaborate their characters with backstories, icons, crests or other details.  Many players will draw out castles or other buildings they would like to bring to life.  In a strong sense, all of these things are resources.

These resources pale to the immense resource that is the Internet, with all human knowledge available with the touch of a few keys and the wherewithal to read what's written.  Need to calculate an area, or identify the pieces of a suit of armor, or determine the effects of electricity in water, or find the name of a character from a given fable, or measure the force of wind, or even look up any detail connected with actual RPGs of every stripe?  It is all there on the internet, whether in open source documents or pirated material if the user so wishes.  None of this content is necessary to game play. None of it was there when I began playing in 1979.  At best, we might turn to the library, or our own books on shelves, but of course we did not play next to a library that contained every piece of knowledge.  And yet because none of it is necessary, most participants of RPGs do not even play with a computer on their game table, sometimes as a political proof that play is better without this inexhaustible resource.  We need to question the veracity of such claims, and wonder exactly what is gained by having less material with which to play, or less knowledge, or less hands-on help in the form of scientific, practical or imaginative literature.  We are often asked, if on a desert island, what book would you take with you?  Here we are asking, if you had all the books in the world with you, would you read them?

Turning to a resource has the side effect of educating ourselves, which is the point of research that we spoke of in the last class.  However, education differs from research in one key way.


This is the process of facilitating learning in others, or in having others facilitate learning in ourselves.  We speak often of "educating ourselves," but this is nothing more than allowing the creators of texts to teach us ... and so the key mental condition that applies with education is the willingness to humble oneself with the acknowledgement that another person, whether in person or through some form of media, knows more about a thing than we do.  Education is a means by which we allow others to change our minds ... and in turn, we set out to change the minds of others who humble themselves to our expertise.

Put that way, it is easy to see how easily education can be misused to put inaccurate positions and ideas into the heads of those who have humbled themselves to the educator.  If a person approaches you, and asks you to explain how something works, it is a tremendous responsibility to give them accurate information.  The reverse might serve you as educator just as well, but it will cripple your student.  Not only does it fail to provide the student with the necessary knowledge to succeed at whatever he or she might desire, it also requires that they pass through a disruptive and unpleasant period of unlearning the lies they've been taught, before they can set about learning things that will help them in life.  That is why an abusive educator, one who will tell lies and do so for their own pleasure (for they know the truth and are not harmed by the lies), is perhaps the greatest force for evil in our society.

So it has ever been the case ... which is why there has always been an effort to give validation to places and persons of education, to ensure that wrong education is not received in place of right education.

As a DM, I want to receive education from others to be a better DM.  But I also want to take it upon myself to teach others around me to be better participants in the game, just as I have learned to be.  It is enough, for game purposes, to merely dungeon master players.  But a better game environment, a better experience all around, can be obtained through the process of educating the players to more effectively run in the DM's world.  It is beholden upon the DM to recognize that the world is a product of an individual and the resources that individual chooses, and is therefore alien in large degree to the players of that world, even if they have known the DM for a long time.  There is nothing wrong with making suggestions to the players, or explaining one's motivations, if that effort is put towards increasing the player's effectiveness at navigating the game world at hand.  To do otherwise, either through inaction or by deliberately undermining the player's potential to succeed, through false information, is a malicious act.  The players deserve to have all the tools that are available at their disposal.  Education by the DM can provide that.

We will discuss this further in a later class, once some of these base tenets become more familiar.  With our next class we will be talking about practice and rehearsing.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

August MC Post, #2

With the new job, time has been at a premium of late.  I intend to continue with the RPG 201 classes I have started (it hurt to put them aside for a bit), but I did need to write a MasterClass post for those who are supporting me on Patreon.  Math discusses the difficulties of presenting a realistic world where players can simply express actions, such as walking 20 miles, with no negative reprecussions on the player's feet.  As a DM, we need the players to feel something in connection with those statements ... something that acts as a confrontation against the party's will, something that has to be overcome for the party to succeed.  Something that makes the whole an adventure of willfulness as much as an adventure of accomplishment.

I took a page from the Juvenis post to write this, as the Senex campaign rewrite has fallen behind as I get used to a few life changes.

This post, and all Master Class posts, are available for a $3 pledge per month.  Please Pledge today!

Monday, August 27, 2018

2nd Class: Research, Estimation & Planning

We might imagine that I have spent the first class hammering home the point that values are not part of a thing's definition, and that a lack of expertise is not a detriment to the functionality of game play.  You or I may think it is a detriment, because it is not our game, but that is a value judgment, arising from our expertise.

As the students file in for the second class, we can move on. In my proposition for a course regarding role-playing, I named point [b]: what preparation best feeds the participation of the fundamental game?  Here we're bound again by the limitations established in the first class.  We want to know, if you knew nothing about the game, what preparations could you make?  Before we can answer that, we must understand what preparations are and why they work.

Preparation is committed action in the present that services a situation that is expected to occur in the future.  It exists to enable the best possible results in any situation while reducing negative happenstance.  For example, in emergency services, we make sure the equipment on a fire truck is in excellent working order, every day, so that when we have to use the equipment on a moment's notice it accomplishes the goal of putting out the fire without letting us down and causing injury or death.

Obviously, preparedness figures into every human activity ... for most of us as that thing our boss keeps talking about that we have to be ready for.  Of late, I've taken a job in a costume shop.  Everything right now, absolutely everything, is about preparing for Halloween.  And rightly so.

Although many DMs make an argument that they don't "need" to prepare, it should be obvious that any thing that can be done on the fly and on a moment's notice can be done better with preparation.  I can run a game on the fly; but that is mostly because I've spent nearly 40 years preparing games and because of that I can shrink my preparation time down to a few minutes.  But that is NOT what we're talking about here.  We have to assume there are thousands of players who don't know how to prepare a game.  They don't know what they need to do, they don't know what's involved and they haven't had practice at doing it.  It follows, as well, that whatever will work best for them, will also work best for anyone, if we acknowledge that preparation is not a willy-nilly thing based on personal values, but something that is an established practice, honed by millenia of other people readying themselves for everything that has any human has done, ever.

What, then, is that established practice?  Specifically, seven ideals: research, estimation, planning, resourcing, education, practice and rehearsing.  None of these can be dismissed and all of them ought to be embraced and examined closely.  Mastering these to one's best potential is the best route towards vastly increasing your Dungeon Mastering experience.

Most of all, anyone, of any level of expertise, can advantage their play by understanding what these are and how they work with relation to game play.  In today's course, we're going to address the first three.


The accumulation of knowledge regarding the game, which encompasses an enormous number of elements that are part of the meta-game, in which the only participant is usually the Dungeon Master.  The highlights of research includes: (a) the applications of worldbuilding on both a macro and micro scale, using investigation into research, fiction, architectural design and the preponderance of works created by other people on which we can draw; (b) understanding and comprehending the rules fully, while affirming for one's self what rule systems and precendents, as well as what derivations and alternate rules, best services one's personal view of what the rules should be, so that when a rule is challenged the DM has at least a grounding in the existence of that rule and why it was made; (c) understanding player motivations and desires, so that it is clear to the DM why the player wants, or resists change, or questions rules, or otherwise feels motivated towards a particular action; (d) solving problems related to group dynamics, by asking questions of the players to determine how best to get a disparate and unique group to work together; (e) examining the results of groups that fail to work together; (f) developing new rules for parts of the game experience that have none, or where the DM views those rules as inadequate; (g) understanding the components of describing or explaining things; (h) understanding how narrative works; (i) understanding the elements of story telling that evoke emotion; (j) exploring the DM's inner capacity for creativity, in creating things that are new as opposed to rehashing old ideas; (k) testing the validity of dice, as well as the math behind randomness, so as to understand how bell curves and other perturbations and combinations affect game play; (l) understanding risk; (m) understanding a correct amount of payoff to be given in exchange for risk; (n) organizing rules and created work so that it can be employed when needed; (o) documenting the research that has been done so in can be found and understood when needed; (p) questioning and evaluating one's personal experiences so they can be learned from; and (q) experimentation of new ideas and evaluating those results.

This is a lot, this is daunting, and many simply avoid all of it.  They blindly accept the rules as written, make no investigation into design or human behaviour, do not care about the effects of dice on game play and are in no way introspective about their behavior in the past or how it might adjust.  This is the key to the above: none of this list is necessary to game play.  It is all dismissible, evidenced by those who dismiss it.  But look again at the definition of preparedness: the actions above are preparatory measures taken to increase the likelihood of things going right and decrease the likelihood of things going wrong. They are not guarantors of a great game, any more than the most efficient and high tech fire truck is a guarantor of no one losing their life in a fire.  Life is just too complicated for certainties.

Those who invest themselves in research do it primarily because they like research.  Like this recent PhD comic, people who end up in academic fields tend to dream of working at academic projects ... sort of like the way I spend my day off writing a long outline of how to prepare for a D&D campaign.  We research, investigate, come up with new ideas and use up our time to advantage ourselves and our games because we are built this way.

Yet any examination into any of the points above will greatly increase one's ability to run or play the game.  Knowing the rules by heart, so that we can hear someone make a comment about some rarified idea, we can recall, "Right!  There was a comment about that in the 3rd paragraph of page 45 of the DM's Guide."  Then go directly to that page in seconds and read the note word for word, then debate it among players.  Once, when I practically slept with the old DMG, there were parts I could definitely recite word for word.  It takes no experience, however, to read any rule book cover to cover ... then do it again a month later, and a month after that.  Regularly, I used to reread parts of it just to kill time.

Reading enough starts to connect dissimilar concepts in one's head, so that with research connections tend to arise through sheer repetition and combination.  This connectivity inspires creativity, which is in turn fed by extemporaneous passages that express particular viewpoints, strategies or successes, all of which steadily serves to prepare one for the unexpected ... so that when a player does something truly off the wall, it is (a) not that off the wall, because of the reading you've done; (b) just another new thing, because in your reading you've encountered many new things; and (c) completely manageable because you've already trained yourself to manage new things when you've encountered them.


The method by which we measure the effect or importance of things, or the needfulness of things, in order to satisfy demand when it occurs.  The highlights of estimation include: (a) how much preparation an idea needs, prior to the implementation of an idea or process; (b) how much time it takes to express a given number of details to a party, and the speed at which that detail can be relaid, as well as how much can be understood by players who have never heard it before; (c) what images or other resources will be needed to cover a presentation when that occurs; (d) one's own mental and physical limitations, based on time of day, personal health, mental acuity, ability to concentrate for a set number of hours and evaluating how one feels in the present moment; (e) understanding what it the best tactic, or model, to use in presenting a particular element of the game (should this be a physical representation of the battle or can we play this with descriptions only); and (f) what matters and what does not matter where gameplay is concerned.

Estimation is primarily a mental preparation, though it often adjusts real time processes and pacing.  To estimate accurately usually requires experience ... but even without any experience or proficiency, the very fact that estimation will be required to produce a better game is an enormous step forward for any would-be Dungeon Master.

Many DMs, inexperienced and experienced alike, enter into a game session presuming that the players and the DM will do their thing and it will all somehow work out in the end.  This is confidence, but it is not rational.  A DM has the choice to reflect upon the various elements of play and question, "If I were being told something without having previously understood the research, or heard the idea, how long would I need, and how much description would I need, to grasp the idea enough to play with it?"  The choice to step outside of ourselves in order to estimate how our words and actions, as DM, affects other people, matters.

Realistically estimating how much work needs to be done to present a particular adventure or session to the best degree can both increase the resultant success and save time, as we can evaluate what over-preparing is.  And as a neophyte invests into these various aspects of estimation (empathy of the players, amount of preparation needed, a clear idea of their own limitations), the practice of estimating becomes second nature to the DM and it is then done later on with more and more alacrity.

Naturally, there are some without skill who will make an estimate and find the estimate was way off, then come to the conclusion that estimation is pointless.  Nothing is ever accomplished with that thinking.  The assumption that others estimate, but I don't have to, would be a clear effort towards justifying laziness, a habit for which no limit of invented nonsense will ever be reached.  The laziest people will always find a good and rational reason to be lazy; this does not make it a good route for preparing for future games.


The formation of a plan is a series of steps designed to produce a specific result that will give us what we want.  For example, if we are homesteading previously unoccupied land, and we want water, we must dig a well.  To dig the well, we must plan to have tools, we must have materials, we must have time to do the labor, we must have the capacity and the will to work as long as necessary and we must have a place to dig.  Understanding that we need these things, before actually putting any of these things into use or effect, is planning.

The highlights of planning are: (a) having players to participate who are eager and ready to do so; (b) planning a world that will satisfy the players who will play; (c) having a space to play; (d) knowing that an understanding of what a DM does will matter; (e) knowing that estimates will have to be made; (f) having the various tools and researched material, along with game books, designs, rules, written adventure points and so on available for use; (g) understanding of the basic premise of the rules and game play; and (h) planning to make further plans for what needs to be addressed when the present incarnation of the game grows tired and ineffective.

Most of these things are fed by research, which in turn lends itself to estimation and understanding.  Even so, the first things on this list don't require actual experience in game play in order to assemble.  Communication with persons establishes them as players.  A few questions identifies their expectations.  The space needs to be large enough and convenient for the participants, but is no worse than planning a small party.  Knowing that there will be estimates is not being accurate with them, it is merely being aware that some sort of stab in the dark is necessary.  Tools, books, designs, rules, what have you, can be purchased and need to be carted to the game space.  Reading the books to understand the bare minimum of rules is expected for any game.

Planning for future plans, however, is another deal ... but it is assumed that these plans will be fed by what has already been experienced.  If you've run an adventure through to the end, you know you will need another adventure.  If the adventure before wasn't very good, you need to plan for a better one, and not just follow the same pattern again.  If you bought your first adventure, buying your second one isn't a new plan, it's the same plan you already carried out; don't be surprised if this plan, carried out ad nauseum, begins to fail. If you don't seem to know the rules very well, read them again. If your players seem unreliable, plan to sit down with them and get a stronger commitment, by addressing existing problems and negotiating.  Plan to replace players who won't commit, or who commit to a narcissistic idea of their own that is not your game.

Carrying out your plan is NOT planning.  If you conceive of a plan in one instant and move to carry it out the next, you're not planning, you're acting on impulse.  Planning is the process of concieving a solution to a problem (we need water) or the pathway to that solution (let's build a well).  It is not grabbing the nearest stick of wood and digging in a random spot until you get tired.  That is not planning.  That is the absence of planning.

Before carrying out a plan, we need to examine the problem and the proposed solution from all sides.  Once we conceive of an idea, say for a game world or for an adventure, we must take time to consider what others will think of what we would propose.  This has to be done realistically ... not merely from the notion that, because I thought of it and I think it is cool, others will automatically fall in line once they see the thing's magnificence.  Again, that isn't a plan.  That's narcissism.

Most people do not like to plan.  They like to jump in and do, and they will tell you so, often.  But like the fellow with the stick digging a well, they soon get tired, they stop digging with the stick and despite a lot of effort, nothing actually gets done.  The key separation between "doing" and "accomplishing" is in how much planning was given to the original concept.  A plan has to include estimations of how much is needed and why, the employing of a trusted friend who can act as a sounding board, a willingness to admit that perhaps the idea is a bridge too far given one's actual abilities and exactly what is to be accomplished ... and to work, this has to be decided before any work is done.

As with Research and Estimation, Planning is not actually necessary for game play.  It can be discarded, and is discarded, without changing the definition of an RPG in the least.  But choosing to plan enables long term solutions to problems that will one day arise; choosing to plan enables a steady increase in one's abilities; choosing to plan saves time and effort; and choosing to plan makes one aware of more than what has been made.  It creates much of the structure in one's own mind in a clear, fixed sense, so that even if it hasn't actually been put on paper, the very planning of the idea has made that part of the plan real.

Before we start digging the well, we can see it in our minds; seeing it, knowing how it will happen, relieves the stress of doubt that comes from just winging something.  If you already know as an engineer that your plans are sound, that the equipment and materials are available, that the water is accessible and that labor is plentiful, there is no doubt in your mind that the well will be finished and ready to provide water, when you're ready to make it happen.

Without a plan, you're never sure of anything.

That's enough for today.  With our next two classes we'll be talking about resourcing, education, practice and rehearsing.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

1st Class: A Game is a Rose (Introduction)

In 2010, I agreed to review a module, Death Frost Doom.  And as someone who has reviewed newspapers and novels for publication, and been paid for it, I followed the orthodox tradition of running the module exactly as written.  As a reviewer, it was not my role to change the content, or adjust is as I might, since that would muddy the actual value of the content.  When another DM ran the game, that other DM wouldn't have the benefit of my experience, or imagination ~ so what good would it do anyone to detail the advanture as I modified it?

No one, absolutely no one, would expect me to change the words of a bad novel, to make it a good novel, in the process of reviewing that novel!  The very idea is obviously ludicrous.  But even now, 8 years after, I still occasionally run across some commenter on Reddit or elsewhere talking about how I "fucked up" Death Frost Doom.  By playing it exactly.

To be sure, were I to run DFD in tandem with my own judgement, yes, it would have definitely been a better module. In fact, I do this every session of D&D I play: by throwing the module into the garbage and then replacing everything with my own creaivity and ideas.

This leads to a point I made with my last post, Humanities vs. Social Science.  Specifically, what part of the game works, regardless of the quality ~ or the experience and expertise ~ of the Dungeon Master?

What do I mean by "works"?  Well, technically, the module DFD, or any module, "works" as a process for the game.  Not necessarily a good process, not reliably a joyous one, not even an interesting one ... but as a process, or series of events and descriptions that are given to the players for what happens, a module "works" whether or not the DM has experience and expertise.  The players will, for ill or not, either die along the way according to the rules or succeed, participating in the game.

Now, people will rush forward and chatter about how a good DM does so much, much more, but this would be missing the point.  As a game, baseball works even if the players are very, very bad at the game.  It works even if the pitcher has to be moved ten feet from the batter.  It works even if the pitcher is replaced by a tee.  The runners still have to run the bases, the fielders still have to put the runners out, and the most runs still wins.  It can be very funny to watch a bunch of five year olds play baseball, and obviously an adult or a professional baseball player can do much, much more than a bunch of tiny kids, but to the game, that doesn't matter.

This is a nearly impossible thing to get across to most RPGers.  You DON'T have to be skilled to play.  The existence of the module enables someone else, with a reasonable amount of experience, to jury-rig the game (just like replacing the pitcher with a tee) so that the least capable participants can still participate.

In fact, the module isn't even needed.  So long as we wash out the expectation of a "story," which isn't strictly necessary to any part of the game, we can still play with virtually no ability.  The rules provide for setting up groups of people on opposite sides of a map, then having a fight, then awarding the winning side with experience that will enhance their powers.  In the strictest sense, this is still role-playing.  It just isn't very good role-playing.  That is immaterial.  The quality of something does not determine its nature.

The decrepit rose on the left is no less a rose than the vibrant rose on the right.  And this is the point that is so hard to grasp.  We have a tendency in our culture to rate the definition of things according to the value placed on that thing, whatever that value might be.  Yet a sample of DNA from either rose above could be used to make a completely healthy and beautiful rose ... so what does the appearance at a given moment in time have to do with the definition of a rose?

I hope that point is across.  Because we can get nowhere in any study if we cannot accurately describe things.  But let me drive it home with just one more example: a group of five-year old children playing baseball very, very badly, are having no less fun, and in many ways more fun, than a group of professionals playing baseball very, very well.

Bringing us back around to, what parts of the game do not require experience or expertise?

Surely, character creation.  If we get rid of the premise that a background must be written for characters, which in fact has no specific application to game play, the character creation process is an established series of IF-THEN processes that any DM can adjudicate, even if it is the first day they've DMed.  This fits into virtually all our experiences with our first games.  When we chose to DM, we were grateful that the rules for this part were at least laid out for us. Even if you were the particular kind of DM that rolled all the player characters in advance, then handed them out at the start of the game, that was still according to rules that you did not need expertise to follow.  You could roll the dice, see the result, be affected by the result, free-associate on the result and then watch the effect on the players as the result was made known to them.  It is a simple part of the game. Which might be why we were willing to play it so often.

Perhaps the reason why so many homebrew games don't get past the third running is because the first running is taken up with character creation, which goes so well, only to be followed by one or two runnings that fall flat, because the principals of the game are not nearly as clear.

What else?

I admit, it becomes harder to see another possibility.  But then I think of a little child running after a ball, falling down, getting the ball, dropping it, picking it up again, throwing it to first base and the ball not making it.  And meanwhile the runner is between home and first, standing there confused, while parents scream, "RUN!" having no immediate effect on the child's behaviour.  Seriously.  If you want to study game participants, throw away your clipboard and go watch children play anything.  Hockey is pretty funny, too ... especially for me, as I remember playing hockey at five.

So if we presume play without expertise, but still following the rules, combat is definitely a thing.  Expertise will bring a lot of nuance to combat, but again, value is immaterial.  The point is that it is possible to run combat, if you allow for everyone taking their time to look up rules as necessary and they're prepared to invest themselves.

This is one of the points where early versions of the game excelled.  There was no need to have "experts" on hand.  Any group of kids could buy books and if they had the patience, they could suss out a personal version of the game.  Some readers I have right now did it that way.

The way the books are written now, however ... well, it is back to Brian Griffin's book.  There are fifty pages in the back that you're expected to fill out on your own.

That's the primary reason for reviewing a module exactly as written ... I had to assume that some people wouldn't be able to enhance the module, as everyone said I ought to have done.  Some participants ~ a lot ~ simply can't.  They don't know how.  And the assumption that they ought to know how, or that knowing how is an obvious fact of any product that is provided by any manufacturer, is an erroneous approach.  I wrote my book as an "advanced guide" to role-playing ... to differentiate it from Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies, a book that had to be written because the rules were so flat out badly written that outsiders had to make sense of it.  I've read that book.  They still choked, largely because they did not stick to first principles and they allowed themselves to devolve into a lengthy attempt to comprehend the values of the participants.

To manage that problem, I'll have to step to the left for a bit and talk about ethics, as Matt suggested Friday.

Value is the degree of importance that is assigned to something, assigned by individuals either presently, or as the result of successful arguments that people have made in the past that creates a sense of tradition or belief connected with an assignment that happened a long time ago.  For example, someone, at some point in the past, conceived of the idea of a "god."  This happened so long ago, we can't even be sure the conception was voiced as words, since it is possible the invention of "gods" is older than the invention of even speech ... though it is a gray area.  Either way, the invention gained traction, and pervaded through all human cultures as a "good idea" for enough people, for certain reasons (which we can skip), to the point where we continue to have arguments on the existence of gods even though there is absolutely no real evidence of any kind for this belief.

Nonetheless, people value their belief in gods, and will embrace earlier silly nonsense, or make up their own, rather than sacrifice this value they have.  And in our society, we recognize the right of people to possess values, regardless of their scientific or rational formulation, because we believe that values, on the whole, so long as they don't hurt people, are a good thing.  And I will not argue against that.

HOWEVER, it is crucial that we don't get values confused with facts, or mechanics, because that's where things tend to go wonky.  When we start building bridges based upon the values of the designer, and not the designer's ability to understand how engineering works, things go bad in a very, very big way.  This is why one of the values we've put in place in our society is that people who design very large things with parts ought to be accredited by other people, before we trust them.  It's just a good value, all around.

That is why I have to beat the drum so hard ... because most people talking about role-playing just now are hopelessly caught up in defending values as examples of game play.  This is like a professional ball player explaining to a little boy that he needs to take 2nd base so that he'll improve his chances of being picked higher in the draft when he's six.  Arguing that all players of all games need to create backstories for their characters is like that.  Or arguing that all DMs of all games need to make great stories for their campaigns.  These things are values.  They are dearly embraced by many people, but they are not, in fact, relevant in any way to the actual game, or the thousands of ways in which the game can be played.

And before these values should be embraced by the whole community, they ought to be defended.  Not in the way we're seeing, where someone says, "It makes a better game," as if that is an argument.  No.  I want to see them defended in the manner that Immanuel Kant defended Reason.

I'm not seeing anything like that.