Monday, February 17, 2014

Auto Pilot

An excerpt from the book, How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, 2nd Draft.

"Mastering roleplay is hard. At the beginning of any given session, my first task is to bring the players up to speed about what was going on before. Players will tend to challenge my memory or notes, so right off there’s often discord to settle. Once we begin, I’m anxious to stir up the player’s emotions, for I want them to re-invest to the level where they were a week, two weeks, or even a month ago. Within minutes I’m driving the game with new descriptions—and these have to be tailored, because different players will hear, or want to hear, different things. I need to stress certain things for certain players. Now I’m asking for responses from them. I need them to speak clearly, and to keep the pace, to answer quickly—too much hesitation, and the game drags. Yet I can’t browbeat them, I must urge them considerately and with empathy. At the same time, I’m fielding questions. They’re coming four a minute or faster, from all around me, on wildly different topics—and since I remember some rules imperfectly, I have to look them up. This must be done in ten or fifteen seconds, however, or the players who aren’t doing anything will start to drift. That means, while I’m looking up the rule, and giving a judgement, I’m also encouraging the players to act in some way, to keep their minds on the game. My mind is rushing too, thinking about what comes next over the next few rounds … and after that. As I push the found rule at the player, I’m half listening to the hushed conversation that’s started between two others on my right. But I’m ready to move on, so I get actions from the players, making a tour around the table—and once that’s done, I’m dropping more description on them. All the while, I’m assessing the players … I’m keeping the communication between them and me as fluid as possible. I’m layering four or five details in my head for when they’ll come into the party’s knowledge, such as what’s about to burst through the door or what the object is that the enemy in the back is carrying — even that a non-player character has some twist in their personality that's bound to come out that night. To keep continuity, these things have to ‘fit’ with the action. In fact, on some deeper level, I’m reviewing the whole rest of the session, in the off chance that something I’d planned won’t work now. I’m picking dice from the table and rolling, relaying the results, all the while mindful that a bad roll could have serious emotional effects on one of the players. I may be interrupted at any moment by a player’s death or near-death. Yet continuously, steadily, I’m pushing the party, pumping up the excitement and visceral temperament of the room.

"I am busy … and this relentless condition will continue for as long as I’m running—unless I let the party cool down. Yet that would undermine my game’s tension.

"Mastering a game is stressful.

"Apart from all that is the actual game, there are distractions from players making jokes, obtaining or eating food and drink, arguing with one another over details having little to do with play and other assorted things. I have scant time to notice, unless these things begin to press upon the game or my attention.

"My priority is to gather data. I am concentrating on what I am learning from the players and from the dice, in order to apply the information in a rapid and meaningful way. Each interpretation I make can be measured in seconds—and most often, less than a second. I’m using the information to make predictions about the immediate future—what the player might do, what words I will use when the die roll goes this way or that, or what a player will need to be told once the result happens. These are predictions I am not aware I am making. There’s no time to think, “I will make a prediction about that die roll.” The information is coming too fast for that. Asking a player to make a roll, my mind is already made up regarding it’s possible results. Once I’ve heard or seen the roll, I’m already primed to give the accurate, die-determined answer. By then, I’m not invested; my mind has moved on.

"I am able to do this because I have trained myself through experience to respond categorically—that is, in the manner I have in the past—according to the information I’m receiving now. I only have to pause and think when I’ve heard something extraordinary ... which might happen only six or seven times in an hour. This is not to say that I fit all gameplay into a tiny box; rather, I’m the result of thousands of hours of play, having seen and retained a wide effective memory for patterns.

"Remember that I’m not aware that I am doing this. This is an unconscious process. I’m seeing things happen, I’m reacting to those things, but most everything that I’m doing is habit and instinct, acquired and corrected by experience."

Context withheld.