Monday, May 9, 2011

The Squib Was Damp

It was inevitable that - my having a game design - someone would throw the "Rules" of online game design at me.  As it happened, I beat out the inevitability by stumbling upon them, organized and tabulated by Raph Koster, here.  It is a daunting, sobering collection.

However, it is nice to have at least one thing confirmed.  In Raph's words, "It's not just a game ... It's a service, it's a world, it's a community."

Yessiree kiddies, I'm not the only one who takes this seriously.

This last Saturday night, however, I completely crashed on my players.  A collection of circumstances having nothing to do with them left me unfocused, dry as a bone for ideas and utterly unmotivated.  The time came to run D&D, and I could not run D&D.

I've often drawn connections between D&D and stage performances, but there is a crucial area in which they differ.  When the evening comes, and you are expected to perform, you can't go out the audience and say, "Hey, people, I am not up to this today."  You have to go on.  What enables you to go on - even if your drunk, sick, on medication or injured, the lines have been written for you.  If Hamlet breaks a leg, the stage action can be quickly redesigned to enable him to remain centre stage in his cast (or pushed around in a wheelchair).  I've heard of it being done, but I have not personally seen it.

Dungeon mastering can be scripted.  I don't script my games, and 29 times out of 30 that is just fine.  This weekend wasn't.

Seriously, the thing to do in times like this is to be honest, to offer the players whatever side information they need - if they need it - and that failing, to just play poker.  Because if you go on pretending, banging your head against that wall without hope of improvement, you are just going to damage yourself and your campaign.

The fact that it isn't a game - and that it is serious - means that as a DM you have a responsibility.  You have taken it upon yourself to provide a good evening for other people.  You may personally feel that's unfair, that the whole thing shouldn't rest on your shoulders, but you've chosen to DM and that's the price you pay.  Try to shift out from under that responsibility and your players will know it.  And they will not respect you.

So be honest.  If you're not ready right now, but you think you might be able to get your shit together, send everyone - yes, everyone - out to the nearest store and take that time to think clearly.  Silence will work wonders in getting your head together.  With luck, they'll come back, and you'll be ready for them.

But if you're not, or you think that even a little time won't help, be honest about that too.  Just admit that you're in over your head, that you'll be in a better state of mind for the next session and that you are sincerely, honestly sorry.  It will help if you actually are.

I despise myself when I have these moments.  And I immediately make promises to be better prepared, and for the larger part of the next 29 sessions I am better prepared, and the sessions are good.  But things get busy, and the preparation falls off, and my confidence grows that I don't need any preparation, and then that bad session happens again.

Human nature.  What a shit that is.

My players were very forgiving.  We talked for awhile, shared stories, ate and basically had a small party.  And then the ranger pointed out that we hadn't yet really sat down and worked out the background of her sixteen followers (she made 8th level a couple of months ago) and so we did that.  It's a drawn out process, not bad for one player ... but for sixteen it is exhausting.  But two hours later, the matter was solved.  Everyone had a height and weight, an age, a father's profession, a background, a knowledge of any diseases and so on.  Easily the most interesting condition?  One of the women fighters was - is - eight months pregnant at the time of becoming a follower.  Should be interesting to see if the mother dies in childbirth ... and if the baby is adopted by the player.

So all in all, not a bad session.  Some people left with the feeling that something had been accomplished; there was some feeling that its been awhile since a hardcore, stand up fight yielded a lot of treasure; and there was certainly tolerance and good will shown to me.

Damn it, I owe those good people a good time.  I feel it right down deep ... and things that are 'just a game' don't make me feel that way.

About the "rules" ... I suppose I'll have to write about them the next few months, specifically in reference to my efforts with Conflict!  I expect that won't be very easy.


DRANCE said...

I think the very nature of roleplaying is so complex that it creates a paradox: the pastime can be simultaneously viewed as very serious and very simplistic/ frivilous.
There are degrees to this, of course. I'm oversimplifiying here, and I don't have the time at the moment to go into this in detail. Hell, I'm not sure I'm making sense.
What it boils down to (for me) is what I've stated before: I credit roleplaying with my social and creative development. Many people have found succor in RPGs, from mere escapism to something much more profound. But I think the importance of the pastime breaks down when we begin to become too pedantic about it, when we begin to argue about the merits of one genre/game system/style of play over others. That, to me, is taking things way too seriously.
Thus the reasoning behind the seemingly contradictory declarations I’ve made in the past: I adore roleplaying and its many-layered effects on individuals, but also acknowledge that it can be quickly summed up as "playing pretend." I think those who resort to RPG demagoguery erode the reputation of gaming to the point where some people (both gamers and outsiders) might begin view the hobby with disdain, as something childish.

Oddbit said...

I think reading through that list of notes/rules the one that stands out most to me is the ability of the player to leave their mark. Every game I'm seriously into and keeps me interested is giving me these options.

Ben Brooks said...

"That, to me, is taking things way too seriously. "

Argument and debate is important and healthy in a community. The problem as I see it is that debate is discouraged and/or laughed off by a large section of the community and this leads to people not understanding what's worth arguing about.

If you ever see someone try to block legitimate discussion with "it's only a game", "lol, y so srs", or something similar do the hobby a favor: Reach through the monitor and punch them in the face. :)

Ben Brooks said...

My biggest take away from the link was a strategy for addicting people to a product. Which I find a little morally questionable.

Granted that's largely because the outline was couched in that kind of mindset. It's solid advice in any case. Though what's best of the game and the bottom line aren't always what's best for the customer.

Also: Depth and Gameplay ftw. Simplicity will only get you so far. :)

DRANCE said...

@Ben Brooks: Debate is one thing. I wasn't saying there can't be debate, discussion, or argument. And I think that you know that. There's an obvious difference between engaging in lively debate and hiding behind one's bully pulpit and belittling those that disagree with their views. That's not discussion or argument. Those that declare others to be idiots for not seeing things their way are the ones that need to be told "it's just a game," since they're the one's who are truly taking the hobby too seriously. The average, open-minded gamer who loves to discuss RPGs all day long is not taking things too seriously; those types of gamers (the majority) are taking the game just seriously enough.

Alexis said...

Let's keep this intellectual. It's starting to sound like Monty Python.

Ben Brooks said...

"I wasn't saying there can't be debate, discussion, or argument. And I think that you know that."

My point and my experience is that many people think that way. And even more people will try to use it as an excuse to shut down an argument they don't like. Sometimes people really do know better, why do you think so many people go to websites looking for RPG advice? :)

Taking it back to Alexi's post, I just know if he hadn't cultivated his audience like he has we'd be seeing comments like: "You're trying too hard. RPGs are about getting krunk and killing orcs, you're doing it wrong. It's you're free time ... chill... " and so on and so forth.

'Elitist' vs 'populist' arguments, which do you find more tiresome? At least the 'elitists' want to improve the game. :)

Alexis said...


Yeah, I can see myself with a hoe in my hand.

Of course you're right, Ben. But while I find populist arguments tiresome, I'm always ready to gird on the sword and go at it.

Drance, the most populist argument going is that a supposedly small contingent of people (in this case, read 'gamers for fun') are being bullied somehow into playing certain games or certain styles of games. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ben is simply saying, "Keep it out of my face," and I for one find his inclination to smash the faces of those who won't appealing.

In this particular instance, I don't think anyone here really gives a shit what sort of game anyone, anywhere, plays. The "rules" are, as Ben states - and as Raph Koster firmly argues throughout his website - there to ensure that game designers design games that are successful. It is not the voice "from a pulpit." It is the voice of experience. I for one am able and willing to learn from that experience.

That's how I got so smart, after all. I listened to other people.

DRANCE said...

"My point and my experience is that many people think that way. And even more people will try to use it as an excuse to shut down an argument they don't like."

Ben, I totally agree that it is a poor, lame tactic to use the "you're being too serious" gambit for shutting down an argument.

With regard to supposed gaming elitists versus populists, I think these contingents can coexist peacefully. All it takes is a bit of tolerance for the other side's viewpoints, and avoiding subjective attacks on the foundations of each side's motivations.

Alexis said...

"All it takes is a bit of tolerance for the other side's viewpoints ..."

I really hate this kind of mealy rhetoric statement, I can say coldly that I have no interest whatsoever in coexisting peacefully with populists. The very point of "populism" is to organize masses of people and encourage them to act in accordance with the power motives of ideological overlords. Well, fuck that.

Every populist movement has always begun with the argument that A) they are being persecuted; and B) that we should co-exist peacefully.

Drance, why is it every empty sentence you write sounds like its straight out of Mein Kampf? At present, I can't figure out what the hell you stand for, since you make such a grand gesture of standing for it you fail to define what 'it' is.

Is your whole ideology really just "playing pretend?" Great. You've made your point. No one cares. Now please, just go away.

DRANCE said...

Well, I visit because I genuinely do want to comment on your posts and participate in discussion, and not to espouse some ideology. I find your posts as insightful and useful as anyone else who might visit your blog. Apologies if I overstepped. I'll try to stay more on topic. Please, no virtual face punching, Ben ;-)

Ben Brooks said...

Oh, I can think of quite a few people who are more deserving. Don't worry about it. :)