Over the weekend, I obtained an artist for the book cover of How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games. Perhaps I might be able to replace the image at the left sometime in a month or two. Things are steadily moving forward. I finished a complete rewrite of the second section, Mastering Yourself As DM, from which an excerpt appears below:
"It is not so much that we learn lessons from our errors. Rather, it is that by repeating our errors — and we will repeat them — we adapt ourselves to circumstances our errors create. We learn to recognize when we’re making the self-same error again, and we teach ourselves what to do once the error is made.
This can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it means that no one handles the chaos resulting from our errors as well as ourselves, so in creating the error we also create a familiar, even comfortable circumstance. But in getting used to that circumstance, we are tempted never to change. We gain a fondness for our mistakes that translates to pride, which then demands a set of rationalizations to ensure that these are not mistakes, but instead are sensible courses of action.
Improvement begins with stepping out of our comfort zone. When a novice first learns, everything is uncomfortable. As time goes on, the novice adapts, comprehends, then eventually — with familiarity — relaxes into a confident, self-assured groove, even if the confidence is unwarranted. That is why confidence, and fundamentally all comfort in one’s knowledge, is to be distrusted. That doesn’t say that if we think we’re right, we probably aren’t — that’s a misnomer. What it does say is that even if we think we’re right, we should still walk over the ground again. We should still consider the details and the evidence behind our actions on the premise that we might be wrong. The dangers of confidence are not in the certainty that we are right. The danger is in being certain that we can’t be wrong. We can always be wrong. The circumstances may not be what we suppose. That is why they have to be reviewed. Not just for a few sessions. Not just until we’ve been running the game for a year. But every time. Every Time. Until the process of reviewing itself becomes intrinsic to running the game.
In reviewing what we do, we steadily collect a series of patterns that we come to associate with game play. To the novice, every game session and every game group seems new and indistinguishable — like the paired images in puzzles where the reader is challenged to find the six differences between the left and right panels. On the surface, both images are the same. It takes examination to see that the image on the left is not quite the image on the right. The man is wearing one black shoe in the left picture, and two white ones in the right. The woman is carrying a square handbag in the left picture, and a round one in the right. It is in this manner that we learn to distinguish details, which aids in the process of running.
My behavior on a given night, or my player’s behavior, may look random. The players may look accepting or enthusiastic. And I might take that as fact if I were looking cursively at their faces, or if I were dismissing many of the things that might have been said. Being alert, I might recognize clues in a player’s behavior that might suggest a rising dissatisfaction throughout the game. This is not something I would want to miss.
I am an experienced DM. I have, as I said, played thousands of hours, and I have collected a very large set of game-playing patterns, so when something happens during a game, I have my ‘training’ to fall back on. I understand how that training works. It means that I must trust my gut and my intuition when it’s telling me something is wrong. Nothing may appear wrong. My intuition might tell me things that, as far as I can rationally tell, don’t make sense. Yet, intuition occurs on a subconscious level ... and it is on that level that I begin to sense that something is going wrong, or that the players aren’t ‘engaged’ when everything else suggests they are.
There are reasons this might be so. I always remember that I’m dealing with people whose motivation for participating, or their mood, is unknown to me. The worse their mood, the less evidence I may have for it — because people suppress their feelings, particularly if they’re going out in public to be with others to play a game where everyone is expected to have a good time. The last thing a moody, miserable, tense player worried about their job or their relationship wants to convey is their real emotional state. Yet, though they might be moody, I don’t notice. I’m vigorously pursuing the processes of being a DM, and ramping the emotional state of my players upwards. I’m busy.
My intuition, however, might. The player’s mood, and other things, might bear similarity to something that happened twenty years ago ... but I don’t really remember the events of twenty years ago. I wouldn’t think, for example, “Ah, this is like when the other party I ran in the 1980s encountered that thing that did that stuff to them.” Instead, what I get is a feeling that something is wrong ... and that I need to change my tactics, even if consciously I don’t see a reason to change.
It is very important that I don’t question this feeling, but to go with it when it occurs. The common tendency is to doubt oneself, or dismiss the feeling as baseless, and then go on making things worse despite having obtained a warning. Part of that is because changing mid-running is more uncomfortable than continuing with the chosen agenda. Without solid evidence, it’s hard to convince ourselves that discomfort is preferable to comfort. It only when discomfort is forced on us that we reconcile ourselves to managing it.
This intuitive understanding that something is wrong, derived from years of experience, is an identified connection in the brain that is called a ‘pattern match.’ It happens regularly to old hands in high stress occupations, such as the military, fire fighters and surgeons. We can’t say what’s wrong — but we know something’s not right. When this happens, the worst thing we can do is try to rationalize the feeling away, and allow our rational judgement to overrule our intuition. In dangerous professions, that gets people killed. In role-playing games, that starts fights. It makes for bad blood. It’s a session killer, and occasionally it can end a whole campaign. Intuition needs to be trusted.
Those matching patterns supply another measure of vitality to my campaign — the power to project those mental simulations that I earlier discussed. It is from that collection of patterns that I create those mental ‘movies’ that I have in my head as I play. Having seen so many versions of the present, and the way the present becomes the future, my imagination is supplied by thousands of previous experiences that I can draw on, both consciously and unconsciously.
In training myself to run games, then, I am training my perception to look for details; I am honing my comprehension not only in terms of what I can describe, but also in terms of what I habitually detect; and finally, I am projecting that training into the near future to enable me to manage it more efficiently once that future arrives.
I don’t dream that I can create a pristine environment. Nor do I think I can control my players’ reactions as well as I’d like. Not without dictating to them their reactions, at least … and that wouldn’t give me the game I want. I may be able to reduce the distractions occurring around me, but there will always be distraction. To over-manage distractions would be, again, to undermine the player experience.
The only real solution has been to train myself to accept an imperfect environment, uncontrolled players and distractions as a normal part of gaming. To increase my ability to DM, in short, I have run a lot of games. I have learned with practice to master the various elements, and to install that mastery into my DMing by repeating things that have worked, by being realistic about things that haven’t, and by adapting myself to the demands of the game, rather than circumventing the game in order to suit myself.
Role-playing is noise and mayhem. It is rules and details and memory work. These things can be learned. Very young children are taught the alphabet; and this is something that becomes utterly natural to all of us. If the reader takes a moment and scans through the letters, there’s no need to remember that ‘s’ comes after ‘r.’ It just does.
But if the challenge were, by tomorrow, to be able to rattle off the letters of the alphabet backwards, we all know how to rise to that challenge. For a time, yes, we’d have to think consciously that ‘g’ would now come after ‘h’ — but with repetition, saying the alphabet backwards would come as easily as saying it forwards.
If the goal is to be a better DM, then the solution is obvious. We must pursue good habits rather than bad ones. It will be better if steps are taken to fix the game’s principles in our minds, or that we engage the players, or that we make everyone at the table understand what behavior is acceptable — but the overall quality of anyone’s actual running will only come from doing it, and examining rigorously after the fact what was done right, and what was done wrong, then repeating what was done right, and refraining from what was done wrong."