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.


  1. Ha, I finally bothered to trawl through those forum posts. That. Was. Ridiculous.

    Sometimes I read things I really enjoy, such as this blog, and momentarily am filled with a light that says "Yes! This is how things are, how they could yet be! This makes perfect sense, and is self-evidently a good solution to aforementioned problems! How could it have e'er been otherwise?"

    And then I read other people's half-thought "witty" responses, and I see exactly how it could e'er have been otherwise. Some folks are just willfully obtuse.

    Play away, brotha.

  2. Good morning, brother. Man, you are nine kinds of the shit! That's why I don't write you off and leave. When I made the case that people come from the factory with predispositions toward different skills, you didn't argue the opposing view; you argued that my view was so invalid that it didn't warrant consideration. That pissed me off royally, and I haven't actually played this game in thirty fucking years! Pissed me off, but didn't drive me off, and am I ever glad.

    I have followed your chain of reasoning through the last several articles, and right here, with your jazz analogy, I have seen the light. Mind you, I'm not giving up my "differing brain wiring" theory. I have seen it and experienced it far too often in my personal life to believe otherwise. It explains why we aren't all Carl Sagan, and every contestant doesn't win on American Idol, but I'm not here to revisit that argument.

    I just want to tip my hat to the master. Everybody can't do what you do, and aren't you proud? If DMs were public celebrities, you would stand alongside B.B. King in your mutual mastery of your arts. Just as every Italian couldn't pick up a brush and compete with Michaelangelo, just as every member of every drama club can't walk out of high school and become Sean Penn, everybody can't pick up a D&D starter set and turn it into a living, breathing, dynamic world the way you do. We can all pick up a guitar and learn to pick out a few songs; it takes a Hendricks or a Page to put it on like a fine garment and make it an extension of their bodies... Or maybe the magic is in being named Jimmy?

    Anyway, you've made your point brilliantly. This is a complement. Bask in the glory; you've earned it!

  3. Given that recent analogies for D&D here and elsewhere have been rock & roll and jazz, and I accept both as eminently appropriate and all three as forms of art... is there some underlying aspect of 20th Century "English-Speaking*" culture that makes these things so similar? Is there something else we could toss into this category?

  4. Art is art.

    Remember, I'm just finalizing an 83,000 word book ON MUSIC. It is kind of on the brain.

    If you don't spend the time, you don't comprehend the nuance. I'd have to say it's like that. To keep with music analogies, recognizing that I have NEVER PLAYED A GUITAR, to me it is an idea of pressing the fingers in the right places to get the right chords in the right order, fast enough to play a song.

    Spend 3,000 hours doing that and you KNOW that ain't all there is.

    Spend 6,000 hours doing it and, from sheer boredom, you're going to experiment with every imaginable way your fingers can press down on strings and frets to get sound.

    Spend 10,000 hours doing it and you'll not only know a different way to play, you'll be a world EXPERT on that different way to play. You may, in fact, be the ONLY expert on playing a guitar like that.

    These people who design D&D cry and moan about a few hours designing something. A guitarist spends a few hours just improving his or her ability to play a D chord less than 0.01% better. A few hours? A few hours is nothing.

    The underlying aspect of this is not music or game design, its the measure of work you're prepared to do. (there's more)

  5. This series of posts has been in answer to a question about finding out what players want. The 20th Century culture has sold a load of bullshit to people - particularly cultivated by the computer environment. "If you want to be better at something, get more information." This 'sounds' logical but it isn't, really, because the better information you really want is how you personally interact with your guitar ... not a host of other people pattering on about how they interact with their guitars. We've encouraged a mass delusion that says an abundance of information can stand in like an avatar for personal experience ... whereupon again and again people enter the process and fall flat on their faces, looking like morons, only to cry out, "But I did the reading!"

  6. Damn well said.

    This is why I still DM this game after 30 years. This is why my old players call me on the phone and rehash adventures I don't even remember anymore.

    Proper gaming leads to meta gaming. I know my players email each other about their plans and schemes. They use the time between Fridays to work on characters and to develop personalities, places and situations that they want to see in the game.

    They know I have an absolute dedication to letting the game go where it goes, provided it goes with style and story -- all my preperation be damned.

    It is like musicians playing off each other, taking chances, and trying to make something cool from a jam session, that originally started out wiht the plan to play x songs from x source.

  7. Hard wiring is a silly concept.

    First of all, how do you measure it? How can you prove it exists?

    You'd have to do some amazing background profiling and genetic analysis to find it. You'd have to stick probes on newborns and do brain scans before their brain has developed.

    Secondly, I'm a strong believer in our experiences shaping us. From the moment you can interpret sensory data you begin to learn. How can you account for all the skills you learn at home, pre-school and elementary school when nobody really cares what you're good at except your parents who have a tendency to be biased?

    Your born leaders, did they have any defining social events in their young age? Did they silently guide groups towards things they felt more inclined to do with only a few but powerful actions that could easily fly under the radar?

    The people who would see this happening are watching 5 classes of kids perhaps as they are running around the playground. Just to ensure they don't beat each other to death or leave marks that parents would question. They aren't recruiting for president.

    I feel that yes, any skill can be trained. But there are many people who have learned not to be willing to put in the effort to learn those skills. Or were trained to go about the wrong way of learning those skills. Or perhaps, they just learned incorrect lessons.

  8. Well, all I can say is you've backed yourself up very well, and that it's clear my experiment won't be nearly as useful as I originally stated. I still intend to carry it out and see what I can learn, but I was wrong to question your methods. You clearly know what you're talking about.

    I could weasel around some more about how you don't quite understand how I run games and my idea isn't exactly what you think it is, but the fact is I started an argument by asking how you could make a statement about why people play without asking your players, and you won that argument by logically answering that question and providing ample evidence to prove your answer correct.

    I've enjoyed this conversation quite a bit, even though you called me a cruise ship captain. I'm going to dig through your archives more thoroughly and keep commenting on your posts, whether or not I agree with you, but this particular conversation is over. Congratulations.

  9. I have never been musically inclined at all. Never had a passion for it. Never had much of an understanding for it. I definitely follow the examples both in the article and in these comments...especially in regards to dedication to a craft. For Street Fighter I've spent hours just repeating the same motion, series or combo again and again and the point where my wife has asked me "why" and the only real answer I can give is "to get better at it".

    It's all about dedication in the end. I do not really believe in a ceiling for human ability...especially when one looks at it in any real way. Of course I am sure we all have some sort of hard-coded limit, but for people to think that what one human being does is unattainable by them...well I find it a silly notion. Unless the person is identifiable as the finest in their field because of absolutely near-unique capability, it's foolish to say "Well I could never do that."

    In fact, on those very boards linked to I had to point it out the other day that I kind of find it insulting when I am told (and I have length) that "not everyone" is capable of what I do as a DM because not everyone is "lucky enough" to have a skill-set I might have. It's an insulting notion that essentially undermines a persons efforts at improvement by claiming that what they can do is not a summation of their work but, rather, a god-given gift that they were lucky to have bestowed upon them.

    Bullshit I say to that. I was not born a good DM. I've worked at it. I've designed, I've read, I've tested, I've succeeded, I've failed...but, the entire time, I've kept at it. I've practiced and worked at it repeatedly. Hell, I don't even actually know I'm a good DM now...all I know is that I am better than I was before and that I hope to be better tomorrow than I was today.

    I also factually know that my players enjoy what they do at the table. They have told me so and, most importantly, they get passionate about the game. They actively worry...they feel anxiety...they feel elation...they respond. They want to be there but there are moments they actively wish their characters weren't.

    I also factually know that what I see other DMs do and espouse and put up on a pedestal is the sort of shit I was doing and moved past YEARS ago. And I know it would not be fun for me or my players...because we DID do it and it WASN'T that fun. In fact, I did it as a player and it was NEVER fun for me. It's one of the main reasons I've been primarily a DM for a decade and a half.

    Of course we have fond memories of the games...and oh do we have stories, sure...but they're stories of boys goofing around in a game...they're stories about the act of getting together...and far less often about the game itself and if they are stories about the game they're stories that are humorous and rarely anything else.

    Nowadays though? Now they're stories about the in-game events...about accomplishments...about overcoming challenges and striving towards goals. They're stories about the characters...not the players. Maybe in the next decade or the next year or next ten minutes I'll find a better, completely different approach to gaming...I doubt it but I won't discount it. However, what I know is that I'll never accept the word of a DM as to what is "better" when that DM's game could be entirely up-ended by me in a single session because I went "off script".

    God I've been running around too much...I'm rambling...

  10. Just talking about yourself, Yagami ol' buddy. It's a hard subject to stop once you get started.

    I know.

  11. He who prepares least has prepared best.

    Improvisation between players and DM makes for the greatest games. The jazz analogy is extremely appropriate.

    I find that the biggest hurdles are allowing yourself to cast aside the crippling crutch of undue prep-work and finding a way to get your players to pick up their instruments and become more than drones that read the results of various polyhedrals.

  12. I believe you can do 9990 of your 10000 hours at the table.

    Sandbox frees us from preparing anything as long as we are prepared for it.

    (Yes, I am justifying my own laziness right here.)

  13. I know I don't post, but I've been a long time reader and just want to say I immensely enjoy reading your blog. The people in my town that I game with all treat the game as people playing in the DM's pre-written story. You've been slowly convincing me to try to show them how it's done. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  14. I`m a starting DM, and I have to say that it was your previous post that encouraged me to choose the style of game.
    It`s difficult. It`s really, really difficult to NOT nudge your players in the direction you want them to go. It`s godawful difficult when your players tell you "well now we go there" and you go "oh shit" because you have no idea what is there, because you are new to this game and have not idea what can or should be there... it`s really difficult to try to run a sandbox when you are new. You have tough time improvising because you have never played a single game in your life (yeah, it`s THAT bad) and you can`t predict what your players are going to do for the same reason... And it`s so much FUN!!!!

    It`s so much fun to draw the world map and do some research for density of population and social structure, and try to invent your own, because this world has magic and therefore is different from our own. Your articles on mathematical approach have encouraged me and told me "Hey, you can do this, keep going!" I don`t use hex, so I can`t use your tips directly, but I`ve borrowed the distinction of wilderness and civilized areas...

    I want to say "Thank you". I chose this post because as I was reading your blog backwards I saw this and remembered the beginning, where I saw your post and thought "well I`m going to do things the right way from the beginning!" Thank you so much.


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