Friday, October 7, 2011

The Reason I Dungeon Master

On Sunday, JB at B/X Blackrazor posed a perfectly fair question, one which I don't think I've answered in these last three years.  Why would someone want to be a DM?

(of course, he said "GM," but let's not quibble)

And in the midst of his long post he threw a shout-out at me:

"For some DM's this may be as "simple" as drawing a dungeon map and stocking it (random or not) with challenges and loot. For some (like Alexis over at Tao of D&D) it might mean creating an entire living-breathing world of society and customs and economy and trade routes and knowing how those things interact so that when players say, "I want to be a mustard farmer," he knows how many plots of land are available for cultivation."

It's inaccurate in detail, and its inaccurate in proposing why I might do all this, but I don't fault JB. He doesn't know me, and from the outside, that's probably what it looks like. However, I actually don't "create" a world. I really only interpret the actual world, and this is what makes it living and breathing ... the fact that the players can visualize a living/breathing Germany because Germany actually exists, there have been references to Germany all their lives, they've met and seen German people, and so they can imagine the German background without my needing to create it. All I have to do is map the place.
And as far as knowing how many plots of land are available, I actually have no idea at all.  But I do know, from investigating the actual world, what lands will grow mustard and what won't, and generally speaking there's always some uncultivated land somewhere, or someone willing to sell, so if you want a plot we can do a deal.  But I don't have to have the number of plots nailed down to make that work.

In any event, this living/breathing thing is not, repeat not, the reason I DM.  The world and the environment are just tools, like the dice or the rules, intended to provide guidelines for the

carrying on of the game.  The setting is only one part.  It is only the stage.  The rules are only the atmosphere and the boundaries of behavior, like gravity and human limitation applies to the actors. And the dice is the undefined element.  All together, however, its just window-dressing.  And while I might work hard to make the window-dressing attractive, I don't delude myself into thinking the window dressing is enough.  I'm not making a film in the Transformer's franchise.

I run a game as a DM for similar reasons that I'll write a play for public viewing, or stand up to give a reading at a local event, or enter a political forum to present an opinion.  I am seeking to create a visceral response to an act of intellect on my part - preferably, a carefully intended visceral response, to cause the audience to respond with the emotion I want them to have.  This might be horror at something I'm reading; this might be a laugh from a carefully set up joke, or series of jokes as part of the performance; it might be dead silence, as people wait breathlessly for my next word.  It might be a feeling of warmth and coming together, particularly if I am the MC at a wedding.  It might be release and hope, if I am giving a eulogy.  Whatever the circumstance, I am giving it my all to bring other people towards a place of personal emotional and intellectual growth.  And whenever I can do that, I feel immensely satisfied.

This isn't an unusual or unique goal.  Tell a joke.  Give praise.  Describe a past event of your life.  Shout at someone.  No matter how you may express yourself, your desire is to see registered in their face an understanding of what you believe and who you are.  You want them to laugh.  You want them to beam.  You want them to listen to things that matter to you.  You want them to hear you.  And in doing those things, you feel important.  You feel as though you matter.  You feel important.

Going to the degree I go to in order to DM a game isn't necessary for most people.  A few drinks at the bar with friends, a momentary success on the golf course, managing a lucrative sale or enticing an investment ... that is enough for most people to feel special and important.  I've never felt that.  Too much of it is easy.  Or a matter of indifference to me.

I like the feel of hitting a softball out into the distance and over the heads of the fielders; I have big, round shoulders and a powerful swing, and fair hand-to-eye coordination, so I can get a good leverage on the ball and whack it a mile.  The moment of impact between bat and ball is satisfying ... but only momentarily.  I've hit it that way many times, and I don't feel any particular validation in it.  For a long time, remembering that I had once been young and clumsy, before I had grown into my full size, I enjoyed my increased performance as an athelete.  But it was fleeting, and doesn't do me much good now as I slide further into middle age ... and at any rate I'm driven more by intellectual satisfaction than emotional.  I would rather change a person's mind than make them run after my hit ball.  The former is more challenging, more satisfying in its conclusion, and I think better for the world altogether ... since, after all, I generally think I am right and that most other people are wrong.  If I can give them cause to mend the error of their ways, not by appealing to them emotionally but by hammering them with argument, I feel I've truly accomplished something.

But you cannot separate entirely emotions from the intellect.  We as beings think with both heart and mind, and always one of the two serves as the best possible guide to the one lagging behind.  If I want an intellectual response to a play, I fill my play with emotions.  If I want an emotional response from an entreaty, I apply reason and meaning by the use of words.  You can't change a person's mind with facts alone; you must encourage them to set aside their fear and be brave.

This, then, is the reason I Dungeon Master.  I have the opportunity to provide an arena for conflict.  I can fill the arena with spectacle, to encourage anticipation, frustration, anguish, joy, triumph or whatever my players will have, as though chosen from a menu.  The players are free to practice ambition, charity, deceit, beneficence or greed.  They can be villainous or virtuous.  And with each response, with each reaction, with each insistence that they will carry forth this plan regardless, with every angry respite against a world that does not treat them as well as they insist on being treated, I smile and chuckle and enjoy the fact that these players just don't quit.  They want more, they'll fight for more, they'll demand more, and as they work the dice against me they'll GET more.

Every time I lose, I win.

No other artistic endeavor I've ever involved myself in provided such a wide-ranging opportunity for emotion and personal success, for me or the 'audience' of players.  It's only drawback is that the audience is so small, and that I've never found a way to make money at it ... so I'd never have to do anything else.


Jeremy Morgan said...

This post - more than any other I've read from you - has been enjoyable to read.

I feel like I understand you quite a bit more now.

Which was your intention, exactly, wasn't it?

Alexis said...

That, and angering software engineers to build a better stage for me.

Jeremy Morgan said...

Who told you I was a software engineer?

*looks around*

Someone will pay dearly for this! Oh yes, someone will pay.

JB said...

Indeed, I was inaccurate! I believe my impression was made more by your trade tables and their value to your game and discussion of how much ore is available for mining.

I understand the distinction between interpreting and creating, but it seems a fine one (as in "fine line") when it comes to modelling reality in a game system. However, I do apologize for misrepresenting, as well as mis-hypothesizing your specific motivations for running a game. As usual, I was simply waving a big hammer around hoping to somehow hit the nail and drive my own point home, and I was careless in my examples.