Monday, July 8, 2013

The Art And Fall Of Preparation

The largest amount of time that any DM will spend on the roleplaying game is in the preparation for that game. This attaches a curious quality to the very act of ‘playing’ ... in that to play for a few hours, one must spend many more hours sketching out the fabric of the adventure, or the world, in which the players are to take part.

The art of table-top gaming has been founded on the principle that the more time that is spent in preparation, the better the game. More preparation presumes more detail, a greater development of the personalities the players are bound to meet, a more complex arrangement of the circumstances of the adventure—more elaborate maps, floorplans, more complex toys for the players to use and puzzle out, etcetera—and most importantly a greater familiarity and cohesion to the whole. If the DM knows his or her world in tremendous, intimate detail, then surely it will be a better, more believable, or perhaps more esoteric world than otherwise.

So we must also believe that very little preparation equals a game with none of those qualities ... and empty game, without imagination, or things to capture the interest of the players. Thus, while preparation equals a better world, the lack of preparation must therefore mean no world at all.

Frustratingly, it isn’t enough to say that preparation is good. What sort of preparation? If I am a new player, without any experience, what should I prepare? Even if I have been playing for years, how am I to be sure that the hours I’m spending aren’t wasted, and that they are put to good use? I am getting older, after all ... I have a job, a family, responsibilities, I haven’t the time to waste making huge dungeons and complicated ruined cities, especially if there’s hardly any likelihood the party will see all of it. I don’t just want to prepare—I want to prepare efficiently.

Here is how the method goes. First, we must design that which is going to be used by the players: the rooms where the monsters are; the people who will speak to the players; the statistics of the monsters themselves; and the treasure that is given. Where it comes to a standard night of play, these are the details that will absolutely, without question, matter.

Since one room is hardly going to be enough to satisfy a party for one night, we must create a series of rooms, and a series of monsters and non-player characters, and of course a series of recorded treasures. And since the players are bound to wonder what all this stands for, the Second thing we must have is a reason for the players to be here. We must have some idea that binds these rooms together. Every part of a dungeon, or a castle, must have some connection that will apply to every room, from the beginning of the series to the end.

Now, in our culture, there already exists a template that defines how imagination is constructed into a linear arrangement. It is called a story. It exists in books and film; it can be of any length, and it can be about anything; and it has clear, recognizeable elements to it that anyone can understand immediately. For a DM who is looking for a way to pull together the scrambled arrangement of rooms and ideas they’ve already had, a story is a great help. Not only does it help find a place for ideas one has already had, once the story is invented, it helps create new ideas!

There is a powerful relationship between the story and the preparation problem—for preparation is indeed a problem, in that it requires the creation of original ideas, either stolen or from scratch, if it is to be of an value in the campaign. A series of rooms that have no imagination will do just as well to never have been made. There is a tremendous pressure on the adventure designer to have something interesting and exciting, full of drama, that will grip the players and set them spinning on their seats.

Unfortunately, if you have done even a little preparation, you know how hard that is. You might have no idea what a good dungeon room looks like. Worse, you might be plagued with notions of terrific adventures you’ve been on as a player, and be utterly lost as to how to replicate their quality. You will probably doubt your ability to do so.

Then, there’s the little matter of how truly boring and stale it can be to sit for hours, drawing walls, drawing little doors and halls, all the while painstakingly putting down details about monsters in long columns on paper. Then, when you’ve suddenly had a good idea, you’ve had to erase some area in order to fit it in, or rewrite out a page of statistics ... only to find yourself the next day thinking, “It’s awful! I must be stupid!” ... so that you have to take it all out again.

The act of creation can be bitter and disheartening.

Even if you get the thing made, there are other matters to contend with. You hope the players will like what you’ve made. You search their faces through the entire campaign for signs of interest, for reassurance, for signs that tell you what you’ve done is good. You’re crushed when they tell you casually, “Yeah, it was all right.” You’re even a little furious when they show no real interest in something upon which you worked for hours—and if they actually criticize your work, that can produce all kinds of gaming drama ... but not necessarily the sort you desired.

DMing begins with the way you look at the things you do to prepare yourself, and the game, for actual play. If you have applied yourself completely and wholly to the practice of preparing adventures for your players, you have let yourself in for a wide collection of unavoidable pitfalls. Most of these pitfalls are so established in the role-playing community that they are seen as a necessary evil, things that every DM must suffer, something for which there are no solutions. Some of these pitfalls apply only to yourself; others apply to the reactions of your players; and the very worst ones apply to the things you must do in order to get specific reactions from your players.

The Minor Pitfalls

Let’s examine the nature of the highest quality preparation artist for the roleplaying game. Here is a fellow (who obviously need not be a ‘fellow,’ but let’s propose that we have a ‘he’ for our purposes) who is able to prepare adventures of the greatest possible type—the sort that could easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any module on the market today. Let’s further presume that this fellow has the time, and the will, to work tirelessly upon his projects, to ready them for the games that he runs.

At some point in the past he once designed adventures that were intended to run a whole night long, but which parties shot through in forty minutes; so our fellow has learned to ensure that doesn’t happen. He knows now how to keep a party occupied.

Our fellow knows how to write a good speech that a kindly old man or a dispossessed knight will tell the party, to ‘hook’ them into the adventure. He knows how to describe dank walls and how to give a location real flavour. He is a master at puzzles and designing traps, and his story twists are the twistiest. He makes floorplans that reach to the horizon, filled with incredible amounts of detail, and he knows how to make these details matter in the game. There’s no such thing as an ordinary object in his world; whatever you find on the table today will be absolutely necessary three gaming sessions hence, and his parties know to recognize that everything has value.

Our fellow does have a bit of a problem, however. As successful as his adventures have been in the past, there is relentless pressure on him to forever improve upon himself. Here is the first of those pitfalls, the sort that applies to your own perspective as a DM. No matter how good you’ve been, that’s in the past. Our brilliant adventure-making fellow knows that his next effort must be better than ever, or it will fall flat upon the viewer.

Oh, this may not actually be true—but his own pride in himself will make it true ... because that is a long-standing pitfall of the artist. Our fellow’s reputation is on the line. He must do better, or he’s a has-been. He’s lost the touch. He’s rehashing the old stuff, he’s running through the same cycles ... and the worst thing he can hear is to have players say, “Well, that was good, but you know what was my favorite? That time we punched out the Great Hepphalump on the top of Mount Killerdog. THAT was an amazing adventure! I wish you’d make another one like that one!”

I hope the gentle reader can understand the difficulty here. A ‘story,’ where it has been prepared, must have a beginning and an end. This means that it exists separately from other stories. Sequels are always a possibility, but we know from the movies that the dialogue here is always to compare the sequel with the original.

Where stories are prepared for our consumption, either as viewers or as roleplayers, we accept them as singular, segmented entities. We can do nothing else, because stories—formatted in roleplaying adventures—are given to us. We identify them as packages.

Stories are not life, because life does not ‘present’ in that way. Life continues unabated, very often without cohesive structure, the very structure which the DM so dearly clutched to his or her chest as a means to draw together the discontinuity of the rooms created for the players. Life is full of discontinuity; continuity is something we create in order to comfort ourselves when discontinuity disturbs us.

Our fellow, however, perseveres. He is not concerned with any of this because, as I said, he knows—as do so many roleplayers—that one-upping oneself is simply the price we must pay. He knows there is no solution, except to do it, and to put the entire question of his mind ... at least, as far as he’s able.

Great adventures, however, take time, and greater adventures still more time. The greatest adventures, it is so rarely understood, are those which are never completed. These are the adventures which are conceived of, upon which our fellow and others work upon for years, until at last other responsibilities, a lack of players, a lack of will or the unpleasant disaster of losing all the work one has done because it was left in the wrong box during a move ends on the drawing board the greatest adventures you or I or any player will ever have played.

These are adventures often spoken of at conventions; that are promised to players in uncounted sessions; that gain hushed, reverent descriptions like “the huge undead city” or “the giant cave” ... until a word or two has all the knowing people at the table nodding their heads and anxious anticipation.

But why is it we tonight are playing in something our fellow fetched together in a weekend rather than the Island Ship of Captain Deviant? Because it isn’t ready. It needs many more touches, there are still things our fellow needs to solve, the entire port side of the ship is yet lacking the verve it needs ... but not to worry, this winter, after Christmas, he will have plenty of time to sit down and really work on it. Then it will be spectacular.

This would be a good time to discuss the solitary nature of preparation.

DMing AloneSome years ago, a series of relocations and other events left me without a gaming group, as the players I had run with for fourteen years scattered to meet obligations and seek opportunities. Finding myself campaignless, and busy with my own projects, I found myself faced with a question: “If I did not have any players, was it worthwhile continuing to design my world?”

Without players, any new rules I might conceive could have no game testing. I have never been the sort to design adventures, but even if I wanted to do so, they seemed to offer little purpose. Having no game to prepare for, was there any point in preparing at all?

I eventually came to the decision that I liked designing my world, even if I had no players to play in it. The act of designing was satisfying; the various tables, maps or floorplans had a beauty inherent of themselves, which I could certainly appreciate, even if no one else could.

Nor did I forget that surely, one day, I would have players again. When that day came, I thought, my roleplaying world could be deeper and more intricate than it ever had been; I could offer a wider set of opportunities, while fixing issues I’d never had time to fix. Running every week meant much of my tine was spent addressing the immediate needs of the campaign. Not running meant the freedom to work on anything I desired, for as long as I desired, until I felt—for the first time—that it was ready.

One perspective of the DM that truly separates him or her from the point of view of players is that when the game is not in session, there still seems to be something to do. Players digging a mine want to know how much ore they find, and where they can sell it and for how much—and there’s always the matter of risk. Players come in with floorplans of the temples or castles they want their characters to build, wanting to know how much will they cost, how defensive the walls will be, how effective the very engines are that are on those walls and so on. In your last game, trying to roll up a disease for one of the characters, you found yourself hating the random table and so you are thinking of redesigning it. And for most, there’s always the next level of the dungeon that needs attention, as well as the paint job that awaits the new Grey Giant that so dearly waits to surprise and shock the party. If it isn’t a sensational job, the whole effect is lost.

In fact, there is so much to do that the temptation to put off the entire running just one more week is occasionally irrestible. More than one DM has claimed illness so that either Friday or Saturday can be spent uninterrupted with paints or graph paper. More than one DM has silently cheered when this week there have been too many cancellations to make it worthwhile getting together to play. When you plan to run 52 weeks out of the year, it isn’t wholly a bad thing if that number is shaved to 49 or 48 ... especially if the first session coming back from a break is expressly better because the prep time has been lavish.

There are even DMs in the world who secretly prefer world designing and preparation to actual play—which doesn’t say they’d like to give up play altogether! It is only that where it comes to the various elements of the game, design vs. play, for these few DMs the former certainly outranks the latter.

And why not? Play is fraught with difficulties. It is often disappointing. It often demands energy and effort on the part of the DM when he or she might not happen to be ‘on’ that night . Add to that the aforementioned element of failing to meet the party’s expectations, the critical looks on player faces, the worry that some gaming feature will fall flat ... and in general, the malaise that accompanies the certainty that one is simply not very good at DMing, and that on the whole it would be better if someone else did it. Preparation—where as yet no great idea has had the opportunity to fall on is face—can be a desireable alternative to everything that can go wrong.

Many who resist DMing a game continue to design or play with their world, some perhaps thinking of the day when they might DM, and others knowing deep in their hearts that designing the game is enough. There is nothing wrong with this. There is nothing that states, unequivocably, that roleplaying games must be played in order to be enjoyable. Design strictly for one’s own benefit is as legitimate a pasttime as rebuilding your house, disassembling your car to clean it every Sunday afternoon or walks in the park. Still, there remains a put-up-or-shut-up stigma in the gaming community that is bound to dismiss anything such an individual might say about being a DM, in that there has been little, if any, experience in the trenches.
And that has merit. It may be well and good to design a world without presenting it, but it is certainly harder to present what you have made than to keep it hidden. The prejudice holds just as true if you write novels you never allow anyone to read, or practice a guitar which you never play in front of another person. DMing in front of an audience is risk. Preparation is only the beginning.

The anticipation of running a game is a drug, like any risk. Knowing you might fail—and knowing you might succeed—enriches the experience. It is interesting to note that while confidence in oneself as a DM increases the willingness to throw oneself out there and take the chance of failure, too much confidence can winnow down the actual reward. Once one is so certain of success that the game becomes an ordinary activity, something is lost.

It may surprise many long-time, confident DMs that I have taken the position that the act of running a campaign is scary. For many, it is not. They’ve done it many times; they have ceased to even consider the possibility that a night’s running might end in disaster ... for even if it does, oh well, it has happened before and no big deal.

For the untried DM, preparing a game in no way guarantees a good game. But the act of preparation itself is safe and in many ways enjoyable. However, it is almost always understood that someday, even the most recalcitrant DM will have to take that chance and actually present their world to players.

The Preparation Expectation

As the gaming session nears, and the last touches are put on the various features that will be presented that night, the DM has long since allowed his or her self to contemplate the player’s reactions to everything ... the trap in Room 33; the sudden death of the guide when he seizes the green glowing orb in Room 41. The inevitable dilemma when the party reaches the two stairwells, side by side, not knowing for certain which one leads to success and which one is the sure road to a total party kill.

Because the excellently prepared DM has spent all this time carefully preparing all the elements of the adventure, and the game at large, there is more going on than that he or she knows what is about to happen. There has grown, drawn line by line, detailed sheet by sheet, day by day, an expectation of what is going to happen.

Let us return again to our fellow, the one we described before, who knows everything there is to know about designing an elaborate adventure. Our fellow expects the party to miss the terrific little clue in the Fountain Room, and how they’ll almost certainly have to back track to get it. Our fellow knows all the players in his campaign very well; he knows how this one is going to react to the massive violet pearl waiting in the Clam Vault, he knows how that one is going to shriek and howl when the party finds itself surrounded without any apparent hope in the Tower Of Maus.

Our fellow is thrilled to be able to at last be trotting out these moments, in this latest much-anticipated adventure that he’s been working on for months. He chuckles to himself as he rearranges the living room, or as he shops for snacks and bubbled drinks at the supermarket. He twiddles his fingers in anxious pleasure as he reviews each wild notion he’s put in there, each little inexpectation, each shock and grab and hook.

Our fellow has already run the adventure for himself and the party hasn’t sat down yet.

Not just once, either. He’s run it a hundred times, all in his own mind, and every time it comes out exactly the same—the way he intended. The way he worked hard, for long hours, throughout many sunny afternoons and in the deep dark of the early morning, to get this adventure to be just right.

This is the nature of art forms. A theatre company works day and night, with each other, alone in the shower, in every way imaginable to make the performance as perfect as possible. The author checks every sentence, every bit of continuity, struggling to involve the reader and dig as deep as possible into that reader’s mind, either to astound, shock or beguile. Musicians practice, poets try every scheme, dancers break themselves to perfect the presentation.

But something must be understood with all these art forms where preparation is applied in the extreme in order to obtain the greatest possible results:

These arts are minimally interactive.

No one asks, nor desires, that members of the audience climb upon the stage and explain to the main character why she’s a fool for going out with the antagonist. The symphony does not hand out musical instruments to the audience as they enter the hall. The performers of Swan Lake are not there to dance with you. They are there to dance for you ... and where it comes to the recognized arts, this is hardly a surprise.

The roleplaying game is not a performance. It was never intended to be a performance. And yet where it comes to grand preparation for the roleplaying campaign, the various complex elements of that preparation take on the characteristics of performance. What’s remarkable is that preparation does so with unexpected and yet undeniable stealth. It would never occur to our fellow, the great adventure designer, that he has undermined the very fabric of the interactive roleplaying game. All he has done, from his perspective, is attempt to give the players the very best experience possible, to the best of his ability, within the framework of the roleplaying game as he understands it. What, he cannot imagine, can possibly be wrong with that?

That Which Is Unforseen

When my daughter was sixteen months old, she had a purple push-car that she adored. We had a large, rambling house, mostly on one level, and as she grew more dexterous with age, she would scurry from the living room to the master bedroom, the length of the house, at speeds great enough to give a parent’s ankle trouble for a day if one did not listen for the sound of wheels on a hardwood floor.

The car was built well, however, without any moving parts except for the plastic wheel, and she had proved many times she could run straight into a wall without suffering anything except rioting peals of laughter, which would go on until she’d backed up to have a go at the wall again. Such is childhood. And if the walls suffered a few bumps and scrapes, well, those could be plastered and painted when she had ceased her era of dangerous driving.

Then there came a moment that severely tried everything I had believed about parenting—that literally blew all the mental preparation I had done about what was right for a parent to do, and what was wrong.

The car was much larger than my daughter. The flat rim that circled the place where she sat was as tall as her chest, for at sixteen months she wasn’t very big. She could climb over the top of that rim to get inside, of course ... but it did require a climb.

One particular day, as I came into the TV Room, my daughter had taken it upon herself to climb up onto the rim of the car ... specifically onto the rounded hood, where she was standing and where she had been holding onto the steering wheel for balance. Her precariously placed feet were more than a foot above our hardwood oak floor ... and just as I came in the room, she let go of the steering wheel, stood straight up and grinned at me.

If had not been for her grin, I’d have leapt across the room and swept her up in my arms, to be sure she did not suddenly fall backwards and crack her head on the floor. But I had never seen a look like that before—and I have not seen it since. My daughter was in the midst of triumph ... and in that split second I realized all the things that as a father I could never prevent her doing. I could not stop her from deciding one day to sky dive, or choosing to cross-country ski into the mountain back-country in the dead of winter. I could not demand she never enter the army, or refuse her permission to dedicate her life to fighting some deadly disease in the Amazon. Nor would I want to. I wanted her to do anything and everything her heart desired, and I wanted her to have that same look of triumph on her face as she did them.

I realized as a parent that this moment, where as a little girl she climbed onto a plastic car, wasn’t about me. It was about her, and her life, and what she believed she could do. And if I rushed in and destroyed all that, only because of my own terror, I did not know what unforeseen damage I would cause her bravery or her ambition.

So I approached cautiously, my arms open, smiling, ready to jump if needed, but waiting for her to make the next move. And when I was close enough, she reached out for me.

That first impulse, to arrest our fear and control everything that happens around us, regardless of the consequences, or who we might hurt, or whose triumph we might destroy, taints the happiness of millions of people. When we think of ourselves first, and then act upon that thought, we have dismissed the acts and thoughts of those around us. We have ‘taken charge’ ... and however we may believe the righteousness of our charge taking, we have done so selfishly.

It is hard for many to comprehend how preparation so dearly commits our behavior to a future we expect to occur. I had always believed my first responsibility would be to keep my daughter absolutely safe—but how ridiculous and irrational was that presumption? No one with freedom can ever be kept absolutely safe. But how often do parents act rashly, and smother their children’s aspirations? How often do DMs, having worked long hours, having spent their effort into an adventure, expecting that all will happen game night in a particular way, will act rashly to ensure their players have the very best experience possible? Regardless, in every sense, of the players themselves, who were were never asked, who never had any opportunity to take part in the planning, and who now required to carry forth as expected by a DM who can claim only to have their best interests at heart?

The free player has the right to rise at the table and ask if it is really his or her best interests the DM is concerned for, or the DM’s perception of the player’s interests?

Participation Vs. Preparation

As the players arrive for a night’s gaming, they are full of anticipation. They trust their DM, and yet they know that tonight they may live or die; they may find some remarkable treasure; they may have that harried, terrified moment of uncertainty that will make tonight’s running the sort they’ll remember years hence. They do not know what will happen.

They have an inkling of the adventure, because the DM has been dropping hints for weeks, perhaps months, and now at last the night is here. And as the DM spins the tale, investing the players in the game, they sit in rapt attention, listening to every detail, knowing that everything may be important.

That, at least, is the romantic’s notion of what goes on.

In the real world, we know a little better. We know that Jeremy will probably have another argument with the DM. We know that some misunderstanding about what was meant or intended or expected will hold up play and push everyone’s patience to the wall. As ever, there will be shouts of “Can we Just Play?” and “Forget it, will you just forget it? No one cares anymore.” And through the night the DM will strive to keep everyone focused, to drive everyone towards the common goal, to keep the game going … whatever that takes.

If you are the DM here, you know what this is like. You have prepared the adventure, and you have in your mind one other thing beyond what you expect will happen … you have an expectation of how what the party will achieve tonight. You absolutely expect that they’ll reach the Wall Portrait of St. Surcease sometime before midnight—and they had better, because if they don’t, then what with a week or more passing between seeing that crucial clue in Room 9 and the Portrait, they’ll never make the connection. They have to see them both tonight, or else the whole thing is ruined.

But … your party has unfortunately learned a bit too well that anything and everything might be important. This has led to that extremely unfortunate meme, the habit of overthinking. And there is nothing that ties up a party’s progress, or that makes them lose focus, then getting hung up on some very minor detail that you, the DM, put there solely for ‘mood.’ But now its been fifteen minutes and they’re still at it. Now its been twenty-five minutes and they just won’t let it go. The clock is ticking. The Portrait is five rooms away. Oh, you think, struggling, for the love of all that’s holy, could they just drop it?

You know in your heart of hearts that this was not what you prepared. And you know—because no one else can know—that this is only a tremendous waste of time. Nothing of value, not coin, not experience, not purpose, is to be gained from this endless yammering back and forth … and no one seems to be having the least bit of good time.

There’s only one thing you can do. You have to tell them. You have to get them off this thing, because there are really interesting things that are waiting for them, that are much, much better than this.

Now, stop here and consider.

Are the players bored? It’s been half an hour, and yet for some reason they keep trying new things. They’re making jokes about what others have tried, they’re feeling frustration and their heads are starting to hurt trying to come up with new ideas … but are they bored?

If they were, they would tell you, no? If they wanted you to break the verisimilitude of the game—to speak to them as the voice of the supreme being, separating truth from falsehood, they would ask you, no? These are your friends. They are convinced something is wrong here, and like a dog with a bone, they will fight with it as long as it takes to find out what it is.

Dogs with bones are not bored.

Who is bored? You are, the DM. You’re bored. You’re not in this game. You can’t get anything from their frustration … the only frustration you feel is your own, special, precious variety. And you know how to deal with that: control the game. Move it forward. Give to the players knowledge that they can’t possibly have, to carry forth your agenda, to get them further towards the goal you’ve selected—selected long before anyone sat down at the table to play.

What is especially interesting about the overthinking meme is that you, the DM, have taught it to the players. You have created the world full of puzzles and complex if-this-then-that formulas. For the story format is all about causality. The players know you have carefully constructed the world they’re moving through, and so they know—unlike ourselves, in this reality we really exist in—that nothing has happened by chance.

You have overworked the contingency plan as to what is presented, and the players know you have given much work. So the players must—by virtue of the adventure format—outthink you. That is the conflict of the adventure game. The monsters and rooms and traps are incidental to the problem of being one step ahead of the DM, and the DM being one step ahead of them. Even if the players haven’t realized that, consistent playing of games built on this sort of structure will teach them that they must play this way.

As time goes forward, you will need to make things more complicated to stay ahead of them; and as you make things more complicated, they will overthink more and more … and more and more you will need to circumvent your own expectations to move your game along to the next expectations. Your puzzles will stump them. Your monsters will kill them. Your red herrings will trap them in endless loops of their own making. And at each step, you—and not they—will solve the puzzle, will cheat on the dice to keep them alive, and will signal when its time to pay attention and when its time to ignore what’s seen.

In the end, no matter how wonderful your players, no matter how wonderful your adventures, you will be playing the game for them. A little bit in the beginning, but as the process goes on, perhaps year after year, your players will lean on you, they will let you tell them what they need to know, they will appreciate surviving all the battles and piling up the loot. If they stay in your world, they will let you run their characters.

This can continue indefinitely … this does continue indefinitely. The matter of ‘playing’ can ultimately become the ‘participation’ of showing up and going through the motions. Roleplaying is communal. It is friendly. It is a Saturday night with good company. For thousands of players, better that than a Saturday night at home, alone, without any participation. The game, at least, is diverting. There are still dice, and the dice aren’t quite predictable. And lest we forget, millions of millions of people participate in passive, friendly activities without ever questioning their validity, their value or their motivation.

Creating adventures will keep a DM busy. Relating those adventures to others will keep a party busy. The snacks are eaten, the pop and beer are emptied, the evening is spent and the next week started. And so goes the game for so many people that play, that there seems little, if any reason, to think it needs to be anything more.

The Story

Before continuing, let us sum up. As a means to avoiding a game where, conceptually, little enough happens that it might be ‘boring,’ a DM prepares an adventure. One adventure follows another, and to avoid repetition, the trappings of each subsequent adventure become more involved and more elaborate. The pressure to keep up with the expectation of the players for better adventures produces stress, that works to undermine the DM’s confidence, so that he or she is compelled to spend more and more time creating--or perhaps seeking out—adventures which will measure up. This discourages the DM from presenting said adventures too soon, along with actually causing some adventures to wither on the vine. Meanwhile, the DM grows to appreciate preparation more than gameplay, in part because there is no judgement, and in part because so much more time is spent in preparation than actually playing.

As the adventures grow more difficult, players are encouraged to believe that everything that is seen or encountered matters in some unguessed at way, which encourages overthinking, which in turn stagnates the momentum of campaigns while encouraging the DM to break the fourth wall and tell the party directly what is, and what is not, more important. The presentation of the adventure format has already created a degree of passivity, so that with an increasing necessity to provide hints to players, the players become dependent upon the DM in order to complete the adventures. With this dependency comes the certainty that the adventure ultimately will be completed, so that the players are made even more passive, until ultimately game night is a process in order to satisfy the DM’s ever-present expectations, which have been installed by the process of preparation.

Through it all, there has been the story. Stories, whether conceived by storytellers as complete entities to themselves, or as reworked tales told by others, or as imposed structures placed upon otherwise random events, must be viewed according to two significant and fundamental principles: 1) that they are subjective to both the teller and the listener of the story; and 2) they are a set of linear events, with a beginning, and, if not specifically with a hard ending, possessing at least a resolution to the main context of the story.

Whatever may be the DM’s intentions with the creation of the story, however sincerely the DM wishes for the story to be interesting or exciting, and to involve the reader’s emotional investment for an evening of gaming, it must be understood that it is the DM’s story. It is not the player’s story. The player was not present when the DM was creating the story, and had no input with regards to the quality or development of the story at any point during its construction. Therefore, the DM is the teller and the player is the listener; the DM is active; the player is passive. Where the player may have the opportunity to expand the story, this expansion is minimal where compared to the DM’s creation.

As the DM determines the beginning of the story, and the resolution of the story, through the preparation of the story, the player’s involvement in the story is therefore, again, dependent upon the sequence of events and the resolution, which has each been predetermined by the DM prior to the participation of the player. This dependence again compels the player to be passive to the DM’s active presentation of the story.

Roleplaying should not be a passive activity.

Where the DM makes activity in its entirety, the player is shut out. Where the DM determines the resolution of that activity in its entirety, the player is shut out. The common, accepted way of presenting the roleplaying game, where one person prepares the game in solitude prior to the outset of play, denies fair and equal participation to every participant of that game.

Where one person’s imagination is tapped to create a game, and no other person, the imaginations of all other persons beyond the one are wasted. The DM does not alone contain all the imagination of a gaming group. The DM should not hold a solitary franchise where it comes to the creation of play—in fact, the DM should hold no franchise greater than the sum total of any single player. Every player that sits at the DM’s table is entitled to the same rights and privilege to create the adventure, the whole adventure, as the DM possesses.

To meet that expectation; to satisfy the freedom of the players to create their own game, to participate equally in the use of their imaginations, the DM must learn to control the game in a manner otherwise that preparing the events and resolution of the game in advance.

The DM must refuse to impose a story on the campaign. The DM must restrain his or her self from attempting to do so, for the good of the players and in the best interest of allowing all the participants, players and DM, the opportunity to fully express themselves creatively.


  1. Top-notch DMs are rare breeds. Half lone wolf, half social butterfly: butterwolves, if you will. True ambiverts.

    Not many people are going to "get" your DM book, are they?

  2. This is about half the original essay I was going to write for the book, entitled "Mastering Yourself as DM" ... it is part of the reason why I felt I needed to take a step back and look at the ideals of the book again. While I feel the above is wholly accurate, it is not the spirit nor the feel I believe this book ultimately needs. I don't want to simplify the material, but I want to direct something that is more positive. I'm stuck in the blog-mode, how NOT to DM. I am right now gathering my thoughts, making notes, preparing for the right book, that being how to BE a DM.

    Not get my book? I suppose that has much to do with how much a person really wants to do this. I don't think DMs are necessarily rare, lone wolves, ambiverts, etc. I believe that the RIGHT books have never been written that would enable someone to learn how to do this. I'm very anxious to write the right book, not plow ahead with the wrong one; I'm very conscious of that.

    Listen, being a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, what you will, is hard; the necessary mindset for those professions only very slightly derives from a particular kind of previous personality - the more relevant question is, Will you change your way of thinking so you can think like an engineer? Or a lawyer? Or a doctor? Many people can't, or won't, and find the course work impossible - they are crushed by the course work. They dislike the idea that at the end of their education, they'll be a different person than they were when they went in.

    I don't think D&D is anything like as hard as that - but no one can learn, or 'get' anything, until they decide for themselves that having always known a thing doesn't make it true, and having always been a certain kind of person doesn't mean they always have to be that person. Change is choice; it's not my responsibility to decide who will or won't understand what I'm trying to say.

    It is my responsibility to say it accurately, helpfully and as straight-forwardly as possible. That is enough on my plate, thank you very much. What other people 'get' or don't get is not my problem.

  3. I have to say - this is one of my favorite post of yours so far (I haven't read your entire archives...yet). I am DM-ing my first game this fall, and I have been plotting and planning history and background ideas for weeks. It takes all my self-control to not build the adventure ahead, since, honestly, I have no idea what is going to happen and don't want to. I look forward to your book.

  4. I've returned to DnD after a long absence and have, in short order, made so many of these mistakes. The first one of which was burdening them with my story. I realized quickly that it was working against my intentions but your meditation on these details is helpful.

    I use DnD as a teaching tool [I am an ESL teacher] and encouraging my players to see the game as an opportunity to express themselves is entirely the point.

  5. I find this collection of your thoughts on how to be a DM very enlightening, even if in the end there's a lot more about how NOT to be a DM. But you know, it's very useful to have a roadmap of sorts of the kinds of bumps you're going to find on the road.

    When I started DMing, one of the first mistakes I made was to find, and perfect, several forms of railroading. If I knew half of what this post said, I could have skipped the part of learning and then unlearning those abilities.

    Also, it was pleasant to find so many of your previous ideas so cleanly collated in one place. I think this post merits to be side-to-side with "How to be a DM: The 10.000 word post". Great work

  6. Very, very good post. I hope a lot of people can "get it", but you have made your point clearly and in a most interesting way.

    Count me in for the DM book, I'm game. Hell, I may even buy its hardcover version and make it shipped to France...

    And now, to meditate on this and tonight's session. They've shackled themselves for a month now (just 'cause one of them has his honor to maintain), and finally they'll be free (or dead, maybe both) ! Free to do whatever please them again, and suffer from the consequences ^^ ...

  7. It's been my experience that story emerges in play. Setting/world design is more rewarding time-wise than is adventure design for me. The more setting there is in place the more there is for players to find adventure. The setting will never really be a complete work it will grow and evolve, details will be filled in, landscapes populated as play aids in building the campaign. With a foundation of a setting the DM knows adventures themselves may take but minutes to design. As example I spent dozens of hours building my current campaign before play, the first three sessions of play took place in a locale that took only 20-30 mnutes to create ahead of time.

  8. This reads like the first half of am essay. I would very much like to read the other half.

    I'm looking forward to your book, Alexis.

  9. Excellent post. Summarizes a lot of the stuff rattling around in my own head. :)

    I find it interesting how the rejection of "story" on the part of the DM has also resulted in the tabletop culture adopting a "Get buy in!" zeitgeist that really just amounts to "Get permission from your players to railroad them" in a lot of ways.

    I guess that is inevitable though. Like turning a "bug" into a "feature" in a game. If we can spin it into a positive, it's no longer a negative! Deluded thinking to be sure, but it helps people sleep at night I guess.

    I much prefer what you have said here. Better to address a problem and work to fix it for the betterment of the game than pretend we can "solve" the problem by encouraging it.

  10. I'm glad you disclosed this was part of a longer work, as I found myself taking multiple notes on things I wished to comment on or reply to, a list which quite rapidly multiplied far beyond one or even several reply boxes. I'll stick to praise Quite a bit of this resounds with my own thoughts, some is at variance, and some has caused me to re-examine by own deeply held beliefs about good Game Mastering. I think I could write a chapter on the "aha" moment of your daughter alone. Of particular resonance was your mention of the zen koan of being a DM, are you still a DM when nobody is playing?

    I tend to draw a line between the tactical level of adventure building and the strategic level of world building, mostly because a lot of my early experiences (and natural habits)led to huge expanses of dungeon not being explored. A product of a need for another point you made, letting the players write part of the story. Their solution often doesn't follow my narrative and as such chunks of my narrative are left by the side of the road. The Art of DMing requires endless corrections, something which the Science of DMing doesn't always prepare for, if you grasp the distinction. It's part of the reason I rarely use store-boughts, as the amount of work involved in altering them to fit the current players often requires more work than just making a new adventure. I've found that in practice, I rarely can write more than a few months in advance, since I don't really know which "stubs" or loose threads they'll follow. We might be writing a tale of a Peasant Hero, an Elvish Lord exiled from Court, a Dwarven rebelan enemy of the King Under the Mt., and the last bard of the White School. Then some character dies or the real world player moves/switches shifts and they're written out of the long term narratives. No bard means no reason to quest for the Drum of Pan. No Peasant Hero means that sewer map under the palace won't come in handy for confronting the man who killed his father. The long term narrative often precludes one size fits all modules and that long term narrative often means they keep coming back. Personal growth makes their character more than just a collection of magic items, it's a back story and a future. It's the pleasure of the long term campaign as compared to the evening.

    On an unaesthetic level, it's also a need to tailor adventures to the players. Some enjoy elaborate puzzles. Some do not and will never figure out the easiest, if it involves math or mythological allusions. Some want rumors and legends to figure out the mystery, some just want to kill something.

    Which is why I find Dming without a party a bit useless on the tactical level and confine myself to the strategic level or world building.

    Any number of other points I'd like to echo, elaborate, and given the medium, quibble over. I intend to shamelessly steal chunks of this to expand upon at my on leisure and when I'm not forced to harshly chop out hunks, so I can post this and get to work.


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