Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Walking Through The Session

Ozzie Pippenger, on my last post, offered the following (taken from a larger comment):

"Playing D&D is not a job. It's something you do to have fun. At a job, you put up with things you don't want to do, because you're trying to make money or accomplish some kind of important goal, but you don't "have" to do anything in D&D, except for what you and the players enjoy."

I wanted to talk about this, with all due respect to Ozzie; I don't intend to take it apart or attack it.  I've already answered it in context of the discussion we were having on that post.  I thought I might address another matter.

It seems I can never write anything about how to be a better DM without someone rushing to tell me that D&D is 'fun,' that it's a form of entertainment, or that everyone is there to have a good time, etcetera.  I must assume from this that many of my gentle readers have taken it into their head that I manage my games with a yardstick in hand, mercilessly cracking the knuckles of any player who dares to pick up a die at the wrong time, or whacking them on the head for speaking out of turn.  They must suppose that my players cower in my presence, humbly begging for my attention, fearing that I will slash into them violently for daring to have a thought or produce an opinion on any subject.  It must be a wonder to many readers why I have players at all, for why would anyone produce themselves only to face such a brutal taskmaster as myself.

Certainly, beyond question, no one at my table is having any fun.

My game begins, typically, around about five p.m. Friday evening.  Oh, I don't mean that's when the players show up, I mean that's when I get home from work and I start thinking about the game.  The groceries get shopped for around that time too, stocking up pop and foodstuffs to buttress the appetites of the young people who will be coming the next day.  My thoughts are fairly scattered - and for some hours I will relax and contemplate the game, going over the motivations of the various NPCs and what guesses I have for what the party might do.  I try to run through their patterns of behavior, much like a general guessing at the tactics an enemy might employ, so as to be ready.  I'm sometimes surprised, but not generally ... the party usually follows an expected pattern of behavior, usually making a beeline for the largest pile of treasure known to them, or away from the greatest enemy they've collected.

I have a number of low-attention activities I participate in that let me think about that, from resting in the bath to some form of physical labor that needs doing.

Saturday, I concentrate mostly on material having nothing to do with the campaign.  I used to spend a lot of time creating NPCs that I knew would be needed, or sketching out a map of some combat ground ... and sometimes I still do this.  Mostly, however, I find I can create an NPC pretty quickly out of the air using my generator, or sketching a map as we go through the campaign.  It depends dearly upon how difficult I want that ground of combat to be.  A few rooms are a piece of cake; a series of cliff ledges and rope ladders takes more time, and I'll do some sketching for something like that.  Often, I'll be motivated to sketch out something like that for the future - but without any expectation even of what side of the map the party will approach from.  I don't see that as prepping a railroad - only of having a scene where the combat might occur in an area very unusual.  What might fight there, or why, will reveal itself in time, when things seem right.

My primary goal throughout Saturday is to relax.  This is the hardest sort of preparation I have to do.  A week's stress from work, the various matters of living, things that have recently gone wrong, and knowing the night I'm going to have, coupled with the fact that I'm now almost 49, all takes a toll on my mental state ... and the one thing I cannot have come game time is my head in some other space.  I need to let everything go.  This is best accomplished, I find, with some sort of creative D&D work through the day, such as map-making, followed by an hour or two of a turn-based video game, something I can contemplate, that takes me out of the real world for awhile.

I clean, my wife Tamara cleans, we get the place sorted, ice made, etc., just as one would do for a party.  This is every week, and I don't think that differs much from anyone else.

The players show up around four o'clock in the afternoon.  They live with and close to each other; they consist of a pair of girls who live together, M & KP, of my daughter and her eight-year common-law husband KB, her second cousin (and my first cousin by my first marriage), H, and sometimes a girl who lives out of town, A.  It's been depleted in recent years to that after one girl and her boyfriend, who both played, split from each other, and another fellow decided a life of drugs was preferable to D&D.  It used to be KB's brother would play too, but he's spending his winters snowboarding and his summers in a wide variety of extreme sports, including skydiving and summer ski-jumping.  He may come back if he breaks something.

With this is my partner Tamara, so there are typically seven or eight of us all told.  Note, however, that I have a completely different party consisting of Tamara and a husband and wife, J & J, that I run once a month, where the dynamic differs from the below.  It's calmer and more intellectual, while the bigger party is loud, passionate and highly unstable.

As they roll in, they bring food and drink, having typically come from the local grocery store, and very quickly food is stacked everywhere.  I get them to help me setting up the two tables and the desk, filling the living room, as these people all have many notes and all need a lot of space for computers and such.  While they proceed to devour a farm or two, to build up their energy level, I set up my lap top, connected to two monitors which are directed at the party, so that everyone in the twelve foot diameter half circle can see.  These monitors are set up so that everything on my desk top can be seen as I type or look up things. They are convenient for showing maps, details about various things, stats for permanent and temporary party-followers, that sort of thing.

Behind me, I have a large four foot by three foot whiteboard where I try to visually demonstrate the shape of things, occasionally trying my hand at art to show how a clearing or a setting looks, what kind of thing they might be looking at, calculating math, writing what treasure is available and sorting things like that out, as well as anything on the spur of the moment that is easier to write on a big board than on a computer.

Having set all that up, I have something to eat too.  Everyone simply makes themselves at home, tearing through my kitchen, cooking, storing stuff in the fridge or freezer, etcetera.  The place, typically, looks like a bomb has gone off.  A bomb full of dice.

Usually, it's visiting time for the next two hours.  I try to get the campaign started at six p.m., but sometimes we can clear up some of the paper work before then if anyone is so inclined.  People ask me questions, but we debate politics, show videos we've seen lately that are funny, discuss movies and recent events, and generally catch up.  It's relaxed and friendly, but as most of these people are in their twenties, it has moments of great frantic activity.  Sometimes there is wrestling.

When people start to get settled, characters spread out, details addressed, we get down to running.  This usually begins with my reminding them of what is the last thing they've seen.  Then they start asking the sort of questions that begin to apply directly to the campaign; how much do they need, where is such and such, have they heard anything from this or that, etc ... for the next 90-120 minutes I field questions, debate rules, deliberate, pontificate, do a little role-play, and try to get these people as emotionally involved as I can.

Once upon a time, I did this until I hit a point of exhaustion, usually four or five hours before starting ... but beginning this last year, I've begun to realize that after three hours the tension and expectation to produce mental brilliance begins to push me to an edge where my impatience rises, sometimes severely.  This, I realize, is something that has come from age.  Now I force myself to take breaks which once I didn't need, and the evening goes smoother, albeit with more interruptions.

The players get very involved with the game, but they are also a group of terrifically sarcastic, cynical, clever people, and it is their nature to twist or turn everything into a joke or an observation.  These are often so funny that the game is destroyed for five or ten minutes, and I have had to break in order to catch my breath from laughing.  One recent proposal, made in a circumstance where the party could pass through a portal only one at a time, was that perhaps the druid could turn into a really large snake, swallow half the party, then disgorge them on the other side.  This became the "Anaconda Bus" and we were pretty useless for awhile after that.  The role-playing game Salmon was another such instance.

Regularly, I haul the players back into the campaign, returning their mindset to whatever's happening, or the ongoing combat, or connecting them again to the problem they've made for themselves.  Often I can leave the room, shake things off and such while they're talking, but mostly I'm looking things up or preparing while they debate among themselves.  The party makes about eight to ten fairly important decisions among themselves each running, though they're hardly aware of it.  Sometimes it's a strategy thing, cooked up on the moment after someone has taken 40 damage (the bard was drop-kicked into a bad situation with the last combat), or preceding a combat.  There are the inevitable questions of who gets what, and of course who knows what (determined by die) about a thing they are witnessing.  There are always more questions ... and as I don't sanction any rule that says when anyone is allowed to talk, I generally get questions from two or three people simultaneously.  I have long learned how to manage this - I don't hesitate to be rude, particularly when I am interrupted by person B when explaining something to person A, because person B wasn't listening and has just had a brilliant insight.  But this is the game.  Nobody cares that I'm rude, because no one gives a shit about anything except what I'm saying.  How I am saying it seems to matter about as much as it would if you were standing on a field and your friend was screaming at you to kill the orc leader first.  You wouldn't care that he was screaming.  You'd be busy doing what your friend said.

There's too much going on, too many opinions, loudly stated, too much arguing, for anyone to care about the things I am sometimes accused of on this blog.  These players have had some of these characters for six plus years.  They have fought, bled, agonized over the life and death of these characters a dozen times; they have pulled these characters from the brink, rescued characters from donjons in the literal location of Hell, lost crucial items of magic, seen enemies stormed and destroyed, staggered across barren icy wastes up to ankle-deep in freezing water, been stolen from, been imprisoned and beaten, been threatened and tricked and trapped.  They have lived.  They are alive to these players, and they do not go into anything lightly; and where things get dangerous, where the moments get gruesome or uncertain, these players shout, they yell, they get mad at each other, they nit-pick and sullenly accuse and get downright mean.

And what keeps the game going through all that is me.  I am responsible for stirring up their emotions; I am responsible for having produced the circumstances they fought and struggled through, and I am responsible for making sure that when the end of the night comes, around midnight or so, they haven't felt like their time was wasted.  I'm responsible for their well-being.  This is not something I view lightly.

If I seem cold and emotionless and dour while I write these blog posts, the reader should recognize that, not now being in the game, my concern is for making the game something greater than just bullshit to fill between six and midnight.  I am stern here because here I am talking about the measure I apply to myself, not that which I apply to the party.  They're not responsible, because they are not the dungeon master.  They're busy enough, keeping themselves alive and in one piece, striving for a bit more success session by session.  They need someone else to have their hand on the machine, to keep all the shit level, so that when emotionally they are scattered there's someone who is clear, sharp and on the ball.  That's my role.

What I get out of that is fairly the same as what I've gotten out of any artistic performance - the solid, grateful feeling that I've done my part well.  The certainty that I've stretched myself to the utmost; that I've spent all my energy, as best I can, to produce an experience for others who cannot produce it for themselves.  Is that serious?

I think that is deadly serious.


Ozzie Pippenger said...

Seeing the quote up there, I realized that it wasn't worded very well. I didn't mean to say that D&D isn't important or that there is no goal to it, but that in an occupation there is almost always some kind of external goal to work to complete, with the enjoyability of the process being of much less importance than the success or failure to complete the goal, while in D&D, because it is a social activity meant for enjoyment, the process and goal are more closely intertwined. So if a part of a process so difficult and frustrating that the overall experience of playing is better with out it, there's not much harm in removing it.

It is absolutely the responsibility of the DM to make the process of playing as fun for everybody. (I use "fun" broadly here. I also mean fulfilling, engrossing, satisfying and just about anything else a game can be) If some parts of the game are difficult for the DM but increase player satisfaction, then the DM has a responsibility to try their best to do it. You clearly know how to handle a game, an and I never tried to dispute that. My only point was that if an element of the game hurts the process of the game more than it helps, it can be better to just remove it.

I'm not trying to start anything with you, Alexis. I think we understand each other. I just wanted to clarify my point for anyone who didn't read my previous comments.

JDJarvis said...

There is comfort, fufilment, and even fun in presenting a clean, well_lighted place in which one can properly share a D&D game.

Scarbrow said...

Struggling to find anything meaningful to say. Too impressed for that. Resorting to praise.

You, sir, are an artist.