Thursday, February 7, 2013

'Unsolved' Ain't 'Impossible'

It is a very common argument to say, "There are some people who make good DMs, and there are some people who don't."  It seems to make sense, particularly from one's point of view.  Some have given it a try and failed without knowing why ... whereas others do quite well at it, and yet cannot explain the reason.

Where there seems to be no reason for why something can or can't be done, it is easiest to say, "must be an inborn trait."  Then, if you don't happen to have that inborn trait, you're not at fault; and if you do have that inborn trait, you're just lucky.  Matter explained, we can move on to other things.

After thousands of years of civilization, it continues to puzzle me that human beings yet believe that if the reason for something is not immediately evident, there must not BE a reason.  I wonder how many times people - as a mob - must be smacked in the head with the contrary truth to that belief in order to culturally re-identify shit they do not know.  If there IS something inborn in the human psyche, its the confounded insistence that if something is not evident to "me" after having given it a lot of thought, then it must not be something that can be made evident.  Period.

Here's what I would like the gentle reader to try.  Open up a blank page on your computer; take a sheet of paper and a pencil, if you must.  Please type or write at the top, "List of things which I have personally contributed to the store of human knowledge, which were unknown by all humans prior to my contribution."

Go ahead.  I'll wait.

If you wouldn't mind, please type them out in a comment and reply to this post.  I am sure we would all like to meet you.

So, presuming you haven't commented, upon what track record of thought are you basing this certainty that some people were 'born' to be DMs and some weren't?  And if, having it now rubbed in your face, upon what grounds do you have the right to be certain of anything?

Yes, I'm an arrogant bastard.  Yes, I feel often that I have the tail of truth in my hand and I'm willing to beat the beast on the carpet if it serves to make my point.  This is why I'm never willing to "agree to disagree," because I know damn well that one - or both - of us are wrong, and I'm prepared to fight it out intelligently until I know which for sure.  I am unwilling to rush to an explanation like 'he was born to DM' because I have absolutely no evidence to prove that any of us were 'born' to do anything well.

On the other hand, I have plenty of evidence to suggest that we do things well because we are taught the important elements of that thing, we want to do that thing and we are encouraged to do that thing.  Most of us who DM 'well' are doing it because we want to ... and we've surrounded ourselves with people who encourage us.  We wouldn't do very well to surround ourselves with people who hated our worlds, nor would it be very easy.  I don't imagine you'd think you were a very good DM if you only played with people who were rounded up by guards with pistols and forced to sit at your kitchen table.  On the other hand, I suppose, you might delude yourself in a number of ways, that the guards were doing an important service making these people who wouldn't willingly play in your world come and learn to appreciate your genius, that sort of thing.  At the same time, there must be some of you out there who think you're being encouraged by your players when in fact you're not.  So perhaps encouragement from others, for some, doesn't have to be a real thing.  In that case, I would have to argue that your wanting to do what you're doing must be really strong, since you're willing to rework reality to fit your needs.

Uh ... good for you?

That aside.  This post isn't about your wanting to play, or your being encouraged to play.  It's obviously about being given the tools to play ... and let's really admit it:  the amount of teaching most everyone has received on "how to be a DM" has been, well, lacking.

Forget whose fault that has been.  In fact, try to realize how very little time has passed for it to be anyone's fault.  It has only been a mere 40 years since this game has been in existence, and its been played by a startlingly small percentage of the population.  And most of the adults who played it in the 70s and 80s were social dropouts ... not the sort to have done serious dissertation work in the fields of sociology or education.  The 34-year-old fellow who used to run me and my friends in Empire of the Petal Throne (his house circled in 1975 picture of my pre-burnt down elementary school) did eventually get a teaching degree.  He would later, by sheer chance, teach my daughter in Grade Six, way across the city.  But he hadn't done any dissertation work, no.  (Oh, I lived about 10 houses to the right of the picture, where the arrow points).

Ask yourself, how much hard substantial work on D&D has been done by anyone educated to do it?  We're still in the stage where, if anyone talks about the game in the media, it has to be started with "D&D is a game played by ..." and so on.  Like the media still having to explain what a dominatrix is before once again doing the morning talk-show journalism shit.  There are still millions of people in the country who don't know!

So don't be astounded that no one as yet has had an astounding breakthrough in the field of game management mechanics.  Don't be surprised that there isn't a school course yet, or even a really poorly managed community library course you can pay $50 for.  Try to realize how unlikely it is that anyone who 'played D&D' in high school is right now an educated therapist with access to millions of dollars of equipment, who actually gives a shit about D&D anymore.  Probably pretty low.

Which means we're all just shooting in the dark here, people.  You and I and all the people digging around to find answers are in the infancy of this thing, fighting and arguing the salient points and still nowhere close to really identifying the hardcore substance of the game, its effect on humans or on culture, and how to do it well.

One thing we don't need is a lot of groundless conjecture automatically slotting all the playing persons in the game into "Can be a DM" and "Can't" based on nothing  more than a feeling or a gut instinct.  There are a lot of people out here who WANT to DM, know they haven't got a handle on it yet and don't need to be told right out of the gate that the word of GOD is that they're fucked from the get-go 'cause their mothers didn't invest them with the proper dice fetishism in the womb.  Yes, no doubt, YOU can't think of a better way to be DM; YOU don't have any advice for these poor souls who are trying; YOU haven't five minutes of patience to help them over the hurdles or give them the advice they need.

And by Jesus and the third coming of the Rat People, if YOU don't know how to help them, obviously NO ONE does.

It's a skill.  It's a habit.  It's a combination of strategies and tactics ... and anyone with the wherewithal to keep trying can eventually get it.

You know, we don't let some people be doctors because if we did, they'd kill people before they got good at it (not that medicine has always been so limited).  D&D doesn't remotely answer to criteria like that.  Maybe we should let people who are right now bad at being DMs time enough to get good.  Maybe we should stop measuring new DMs by a three-strikes-and-you're-out philosophy.


joe said...

You, sir, are just the sort of person with whom I enjoy arguing the particulars of triviality over several rounds of cheap beer and good whiskey in a haze of tobacco smoke.

I assert that any thinking person can be a Dungeon Master, and a damn good one, should they endeavor to work at it.

Keith S said...

I think that's my biggest complaint about WotC/4e D&D. Not enough material about the mechanics of DMing. (The 4e DMG2 being an exception.)

I agree that good DMs are made. Not often exclusively by the game itself.Good communications skills, a bit of empathy, some hands-on experience (be it with swords, food, castles, whatever.)

In my experience the best DMs combine that with a quick and discerning wit. Think fast, and on your feet.

Alexis said...

Well, I have yet to be in Oklahoma, joe, but perhaps someday I can accommodate you. Presuming I can still rely on vodka, scotch or rye as a fuel, and its fine if I do not smoke (second hand is fine with me).

Anonymous said...

I always conceived of "Dungeon-Mastering" as a skill / process, not as Providence. Also: If we want to share our enjoyment with others, treating the "Craft" of DMing as some kind of Priesthood is self-defeating (and self-fellating LOL).

Electrolux said...

Who gets to be a good GM and who has to be a bad GM appears to me to entirely map to who is respected and who is not.

We may as well write a guide to getting respect.

Once you have that down figuring out how many gnolls to put in the room is trivial. And also won't matter anymore.

Kirk Nachman said...

My dear philosopher, should we not be found speaking these truths in the light of day?

ESR said...

I think you're taking "born" too literally. If we instead take the idea that "born" means "sum of experiences and aptitudes up to the point where one tries DM'ing", then yes, some people ARE more suited to it. Being "good" comes easier to them, and thus their friends encourage them to get better. If one is terrible at it, no one has fun, then, as you point out, you're terribly handicapped at becoming even a "good" DM because a low starting point in your skills may completely prevent you from being able to practice, since no one will suffer your DM'ing, because they are unlikely to sacrifice themselves to help you get better at "just a game". In this way, I offer that there ARE people who CANNOT become "good" DM's, even if they want to!

Okay, so this hypothetical terrible starting DM finds a group of people with really low expectations who don't mind the emotional abuse the DM dishes out, and have nothing else to do for several hours a week/month out of their life, and let this poor DM practice. Does he ever get to be "good" when surrounded by such low expectations? Would such a DM be able to break away from his self-adulation-DM'ing when faced with the awareness that there's a better way(brought to him by a blog such as this one, perhaps)?

For this reason, I don't think you can just "DM more" or "research DMing more" and get as good at it as someone whose personality, breadth of experience, speed of thought, memory, emotional stability, etc far exceeds yours due to other life experiences (or whatever personal attributes you'd assign to a "good DM").

It IS a skill and a habit, but one that relies on the good graces of players to let you practice and improve.

No one plays with a ball hogging sore loser who can't hit an open net from 3 feet away...

Alexis said...

I put it to you ESR that those who can even conceive of the phrase, "I want to be a better DM" must obtain a level of humility that is not to be found in the sort of ball hogging sore loser you describe.

"Aptitude" is a bullshit word in my opinion that is an evasion from "born to do it."

However, if we want to argue "the sum of experiences," then I put it to you that if you are right now 25, and you have been becoming the person you are for all this time, and you truly CAN admit you are not the shit, then you need only apply yourself for 25 years in a different direction to obtain the same amount of skill that a good DM has at that age.

However, I don't think it takes nearly that amount of time, since MOST of your experiences have been ones that have taught you something useful to this game. Therefore, it isn't what you've learned that makes you a shitty DM, its your unwillingness and snottiness to even admit that being a better DM is something you remotely give a shit about.

If you do, then you'll try. And if you have help and useful feedback, then you'll succeed. But don't argue that your personal unwillingness to put up with someone who hasn't got that 'aptitude' to a level where YOU personally recognize it is proof positive that a person you don't like couldn't be a better DM.