Thursday, February 14, 2013


Continuing this question about DMs versus players, and the value of player input, and the manner in which the game is played.

Let me pull up a document from William Nolte, former director of education and training in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.  The paper, Keeping Pace with the Revolution in Military Affairs, discusses the decision making process and improvisation with the following quote:

"Music provides a useful analogy. Musicians, even in a classical setting with its emphasis on noting every tonal marking to the most calibrated point, may be able to adjust to a loss of beat on the part of the conductor. A baritone may realize that his tenor is experiencing vocal difficulties and increase his volume in a key duet, or even cover for the tenor in a climactic high note. But such adaptability is not the same as the jazz musician's bone-deep understanding that the marks on the sheet music (if he's even looking at sheet music) are not intended to limit improvisation. His or her permission to improvise is not contingent on making the best of a situation in which something has gone wrong. His 'permission' is much broader, much more inherent in the intent of his performance. Improvisation in this context is neither intuitive nor fortuitous; it is developed technique."

You can hear a deeper interpretation of this by Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers (one of the strangest musicians, ever) here (starting 18:30):

A few quotes from Baxter ...

"I gotta be honest with you folks, I am not interested in being an equal opportunity employer.  The stakes are too big.  I want talent.  I don't want to make this a game that's open for everybody."

"Improvisation means that, number one, you're willing to take a chance; number two, you're willing to push the envelope and number three, explore new possibilities; and number four, the most important, is that you're willing to fail."

"We are all as musicians, we come from the past.  My music, my guitar playing, is a conglomeration of everything from Charlie Parker's saxophone playing to Ludwig von Beethoven to Howard Roberts to B.B. King ... deconstructed so I could understand it, and then synthesized so I could create something new from it."

"There are two kinds of musical entities that we want to talk about.  One is a symphony orchestra ... and no disrespect to the incredible talent of the first violinist in the Los Angeles  Philharmonic or the guy who plays second bassoon in the Philharmonic, but mostly, orchestras are trained seals.  They're not stupid, but they're trained seals in the sense that their input into the music is basically reading what's written and follow the conductor ... it's his call.  So all information to the audience on the musical composition is going through this one choke point."

"What's the antithesis of that?  Is [sic] the jazz quintet.  Jazz is simple in the fact that it has some basic, basic tenets.  You start off with a theme, you end with a theme, and everything in the middle is improvisation."

What the general reader has to understand about me is that, like Baxter, I am a synthesis of a lot of different shit coming from a lot of different places.  And when I hear the genius of something like this above, I'm not concerned with quibbling things like my disagreements with Baxter's 'hard-wired' theory.  What I am interested in is his description of jazz versus the philharmonic ... and BAM!  Does that shit define a sandbox game or what?

How is it that I really know whether my players are enjoying the game or not?  It is the complete freaking ABSENCE of any division between what I am doing as DM and what they are doing as players.  If the player is riffing, and I am letting the player riff, then I'm not 'mastering' the player, I'm 'enabling' him.  I'm letting that player take risks, I'm letting that player get the shit out there so he or she can try something new, I'm backing that player up.  In short, I am getting the fuck out of the player's way.  And I know, down in the bottom of my soul, that this is working for the player because the player is cheering, the player is shouting, the player is sweating the possibility or failure or the player is urging on one of his or her buddies.  The evidence is in the GAME ... and I don't need handwritten vouchers from the players to find out if they're having a good time or what they're experiencing.  I am paying attention!

I've seen a lot of DMs, trapped behind their screens, buried there, managing their furtive little plans, organizing the various options they've chosen to offer the players.  When I wrote my little post about treating Rail Rodders decently, one of the chief arguments I received back, mostly on the forum, was that it was too damn much WORK to create more than one option for a party, and that there'd be work WASTED if the party chose to go the other way.

Can you imagine Dizzy Gillespie or Duke Ellington bitching that because the mood of the piece changed halfway through a jam, the sequence they'd been planning to play was 'wasted'?  What the hell?  The crime here isn't that the party isn't choosing the set of obstacles the DM has painstakingly created, the crime is that the DM can't create a set of obstacles in a few minutes during the campaign!

Cause I gotta tell you ... it is a LOT harder to teach yourself to improvise in a jazz combo, what with all the practice and brain-training you have to do, than it is to draw six rooms in sequence and populate those rooms with monsters, traps and treasure.  Seriously.  Do you want to learn how to play this fucking game or not?  Because I gotta tell you, I'm not interested in giving you poor sufferin' bastards any respect you ain't earned.  It's too damn important.  "I don't want to make this a game that's open for everybody."

Some of you are going to take that a bit hard.  Some of you are so used to everything in your lives being democratic, you're going to take a position that no matter how crappy you are at DMing, you have a right to do it so long as you have players.  Maybe.  Maybe.  It's your garage and its your band and if you want to tell yourselves you're the Clash because you feel you can thrash no matter how shit you are at it, I guess I gotta step back and say, great, you all have fun now.

But this ain't your garage.  This is the public eye, now, and when you vomit your simple-minded crap all over your blog, it ain't your buddies reading it.  It is all of us out here.  And we ain't your buds.  We ain't your families.  We don't have to be nice to you.

Where the conversation turns on what has to be done to make this game better, the DMs who want to run brilliantly, who want their worlds to reverberate like Barrett Deems playing with Louis Armstrong, it's time to recognize that if you're not going to do the work, you're out.  You're not needed.  You're fluff.  You're immaterial.  YOU DON'T COUNT.

This is a tough game, for tough people.  And I think that too often I waste too much time explaining things like economics to people who barely have a high school understanding of it, or geography to people who haven't got a clue where Iraq is, or game design to people who still think RISK is worth playing all afternoon (Sorry, I know that's going to hurt).  Truth be told, I played the hell out of RISK.  I played thousands of hours of RISK.  But it ain't holding my attention now, you know?  I haven't got the time.

Stop wasting your time doing a half-assed job.  Get better at this game.  Get rid of your DMs screen and get dirty with the players.  Roll the damn dice in front of them.  Show them that you can riff, and get them to riff with you.  Because when you stop treating them like mice in a maze - when you start letting them make the maze themselves - you're going to find you're not asking bullshit questions like, "Do my players like my world?" or "What about my world is it my players like?"

You will fucking know.  It won't be a mystery.  It will be balls-to-the-wall obvious.  What they like about your world is that it isn't YOUR world.

It's theirs.