Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Win

I admit, one of the things I had not intended to write about in "How to Run" was what gratification I gained from being a DM. I suppose it's a related subject; I suppose there would be many interested in knowing. I may possibly find a place where the answer could be included ... but for now, I'll write about it here.

I have answered the question before. I can't find that answer, disappointingly, but its in the blog somewhere. Mostly, I've mentioned the artistic satisfaction of producing a world of which I can be proud. My self-respect is a terrific driver for me; where people ask, "Why do you bother?", much of the reason must be described as, If I were in a world as a player, I would love if the DM did this much work for me. Thus, the Golden Rule defines the degree.

But emotionally, esoterically, what is it? Where's the satisfaction?

The last couple of excerpts from the book that I've posted(and I was thinking of posting a few hundred words weekly) have been about grinding the player's wheels to make them both suffer and feel the angst. As kimbo wrote in a post yesterday, I can't make the characters feel anything, but I can twist the players themselves - so much of the presentational part of the book is about how to do that, and how to create sensations in players that other art forms might create, such as film or theatre.

There is a question of the DM's manipulation that must be addressed.

It all depends on what you call 'manipulation.' Dramatists manipulate an audience by compelling them to experience things that might be unpleasant or pleasant. In the film Bambi, the death of Bambi's mother is meant to hurt. Bambi's escape through the forest fire is meant to terrify. Bambi's survival and adulthood is meant to satisfy, to fill the audience with warmth and happiness. Every frame of the film is a manipulation. In that sense, if I describe a big hulking creature threatening the party, then yes, I'm manipulating the party.

What the makers of Bambi did not do was hire people to go stand out in the audience and tell people how to react, or drag out the people reacting dismissively or unimpressively from the theatre in order to beat them in the alley. I may manipulate the party within the realms of presentation, but I won't FORCE them feel something. I won't insist that they MUST take a particular action. If the presentation is insufficient to produce the emotion or action I'm trying for, then I have rightly failed.

I can't know what readers have been in a place where they received applause, and which haven't. I can tell you something about applause from experience. It is not all the same. It does not sound the same. At the end of a performance, most anyone can tell the difference between polite applause and enthusiastic applause. It's trickier, however, to tell the difference between enthusiastic applause that's given by an audience that feels it ought to give it, and an audience that really and truly wants to give it. That probably sounds irrational. I have had standing ovations from audiences for performances I knew did not deserve such attention. When one feels that, the ovation does not change one's mind. It makes one think the audience is comprised of morons. Many audiences are.

Most serious performers would rather receive no applause at all then applause that is plainly insincere or forced. I have seen performers step off the stage, having been roared at with enthusiasm, only to exhibit the hatred they felt for their own performance with smashed doors and screaming self-loathing. It is very hard to feel inadequate as an artist; it is something artist feel all the time.

The Holy Grail is not to get applause. Any idiot who can memorize their lines and not trip as they walk on stage can get applause. Audiences, particularly in small towns and out of the way venues are generous. They'll applaud a bad performance out of pity.

The Holy Grail is to feel you deserve applause and then get it. It's the deserving that counts.

Those who read the 5,000 word preview I offered by email remember that I said I still don't feel that I'm a good DM. Many disagreed with me. But the feeling I have isn't that I fail at being a DM, it is that I don't succeed to the degree I can conceive. Like any performer, when I give a staggeringly good performance, something that really rocks the house, then I am buzzing about it in my head for days, even weeks, afterwards. But I don't seem to manage to do that all the time. And when I'm not doing that, when I'm not slamming the game hard enough to break the backboard, I feel ... well, like I don't deserve the applause.

Being a DM is an opportunity to perform. It is a chance to put together a presentation so powerful is causes a player to rethink their world, their ideas, even their conception of value. This is not done by compelling the players; this is not done by hashing out walls and rooms and pre-made monsters. This is done by tapping into the player's emotional potential with the right words, expressions and stimuli. It's dropping this bomb on the table, rising from my seat, gazing into their eyes, gesturing with not too much, and not too little drama, and saying, "What are you going to do about this? It's going off in five minutes, and if you don't do something about it, you're all dead."

If the players don't engage, but they applaud me anyway for trying, then I'm a shit DM.

But if the players engage ...

See, I am playing a game also. But my game is not, can I make the guard believe that I'm a member of the court and that I should be allowed passage. My game is, can I make the player angry as sin because the guard I'm pretending to be is one massive tool, and can I push the player to the point where the player will do something stupid?

And when the player does, I win.


Yarivandel said...

Honestly, it is the best description of what DMing is truly about :)

Scarbrow said...

Do I get to vote? This goes into the book. Now.

A post to seriously remember. Fulfilling as meat and potatoes. After all, how can you motivate a DM to be a good DM is you don't dangle the carrot of how incredibly satisfying must be to reach that height? I know for sure I'm not there. I strongly suspect I've never been. But today, I'm thoroughly roused to get there someday.

JDJarvis said...

When everyone forgets what time it is I'm winning as DM. I gave a kid nightmares once because of how I described and ran a dungeon, in an odd way that was a win.
When players call me to talk about the game I'm winning.
When it feels more enduring then the time spent at the table, it's a win.

kimbo said...

I am gratified that my little ol' question prompted this post.

I can now see what you mean about the future of the game. For it to continue it must evolve into something that a computer game can never be. Beyond merely a combat, sorcery and puzzle solving romp through fantasy land.

Beer and pretzels gaming is fine and fun but has no particular broader appeal or differentiation than boardgaming.

What you have described is the uber-RPG, what the game can aspire to be.

Not some pretentious bollocks akin to amateur theatrics, but people really feeling and being in the flow of it and being affected by it. I hadnt ever considered that this is what it could be.

This DM perspective provides the other side of this game, what it can be for the DM. New territory for me.

Thank you Alexis.