Friday, July 3, 2015

Getting Better

Let's talk about this matter of getting better.  I've written about it in all sorts of ways, since it has been a running theme on this blog from the beginning.  From what I can see, it is a running theme that crosses the whole internet community, since the principle point of discussion on every board, page or forum revolves around advice about how to do things, see things, improve things or fix things.

Beside this, there exists a philosophical position that claims such improvements are, at best, cosmetic.  At worst, they are considered bean counting and time wasting, since so much of the preparation that we see many DMs strive for can be written off as 'unnecessary.'  An ordinary DM, it is so argued, can run a perfectly viable campaign with an absolute minimum of preparation, since the real enjoyment derived from the game is in it's people and not its design.

I have argued against this also.

Whatever the philosophical perspective, we must admit that both ideologies have their supporters, their detractors and their merits.  Unquestionably the campaign is very deeply entrenched in the many ways that humans interact with humans.  This is why my book How to Run dedicated ten chapters, two thirds of the content, specifically to the subject of recognizing player motivations, personalities, teasing out emotional responses, evolving a highly personal presentation, controlling oneself and changing oneself as a person in order to run a game fundamentally about people rather than design.

Then I talked about design, but that's another post.

These are all things the blog has covered in considerable depth.  Where I continue to fail with the prep-is-unnecessary ideologues is quite obvious; I am asking for something.  However much people will love a thing, for some there will always be a point where, having been asked, the answer will be, "What's in it for me?"

Incentive.  "Why, O Why, should I spend a single moment of my life trying to be a better DM?  I'm already good enough."

Incentives are tricky.  We expect rewards for changing our behaviour - no reward, no desire for change.  More to the point, we expect bad things to happen if our behaviour is inadequate.  No bad things, no need for change.

"I get together every week and play with my players.  None of them complain.  We all have a good time.  As far as we're concerned, being 'better' is just guilt others try to heap on me.  We don't need guilt.  We already run a great game."

The value of this viewpoint is in its autonomy.  Games such as this depend upon a minimum of expectation, enabling all the participants to feel comfortable and at ease during the course of the game.  This is where we see arguments for games where the players can't die, where participants legitimately prefer a game where the decision-making process has been circumvented.  Expectations for better games are seen as coming from the outside, not from within the group; because they are coming from outside, arguments for betterment or mastery are an invasion, a reprimand, a haughty superior viewpoint that has no merit because me and my players are happy and contented.

Where this autonomy fails as a philosophy, however, is in how it is likewise imposed upon people seeking mastery.  The typical autonomous player participating in a light-and-easy campaign will not hesitate to turnaround that advice or call for improvement in the game as an infringement on their rights to be autonomous . . . meaning that they then become the outside, reprimanding, haughty superior viewpoint that derides those wishing to be better.  "Why are you even trying?" shouts the autonomous participant.

This is somewhat akin to an experience that many people share where it comes to taking up any artistic endeavour - for example, an instrument.  Everyone has known or personally experienced the fallout that comes from deciding that they, or someone in their lives, will learn to play the guitar.  In every case, even within ourselves, the first response is doubt.  We all know that playing the guitar, for most people, is a difficult thing.  We also know that even if we do manage the instrument, achieving an expertise sufficient to encourage others to listen will be even more unlikely.  Finally, we know with almost certainty that the would-be guitar player will never, ever, obtain the sort of tangible reward reserved for people working at minimum-wage jobs.

Let's look at that scale again:

1. We will strive to learn to play, spending hours of our life causing pain in our fingers, endlessly repeating very boring scales, feeling inadequate to the task for a very, very long time before beginning to obtain a small payback that comes from accomplishment.  Presuming we do . . .

2.  We will experience a terrific level of doubt and lack of enthusiasm once we reach a point where we hope to share our sense of accomplishment with others, because by now the practice of playing guitar has become important to us.  Presuming we can make others listen . . .

3.  Because we are not recording-perfect in our efforts, we will experience a long, long period where others may graciously allow us to play while endlessly comparing our limited skill with the maximized skill of people who have already achieved fame and therefore confirmed value.  If we're not dismayed by this comparison . . .

4.  We may reach a point of clarity in how the guitar works, encouraging us to experiment in small ways with the instrument's potential.  However, because this experimentation will be commensurate with our as yet unrealized full skill potential, sharing what we discover will inevitably turn others off to our guitar playing.  In short, they will express a preference for what we used to play.  But presuming we push through that . . . 

5.  By then we will have sought out other people approximating the same amount of skill that we possess, in order to find 'valid listeners.'  These people will pressure us to "do something" with our skill, specifically in the way of promoting ourselves as guitarists, just as they are doing.  Simultaneously, while among these people, virtually all discussions about music and guitar-playing will be fundamentally competitive in tone.  Competitive, that is, with each other, as we all try to achieve fame and confirmed value.  And chances are . . .

6.  Nothing significant will come from that.

Ah, the urge to get better at stuff.

The punishment, strangely, does not come from failing to succeed at guitar playing, but from trying to succeed.  In turn, the reward for failing is greater acceptance from peers who have no interest in mastering the guitar.  It is all turned around.

The autonomous, happy-go-lucky player, who claims the game does not require mastery, has made a fair showing on the internet.  They and their philosophy can be found everywhere.  Why is that?  Why do people who have no wish to play the guitar have such a stake in the desire for others to try?


  1. @ Alexis:

    A very nice analogy. Mastery of anything is (for the most part) its own reward, and with few exceptions is only incidentally rewarding of hard currency (fame, fortune, followers, whatever). Few people have the fortitude to pursue mastery of more than one thing in our lives (as I believe you wrote about before regarding "Renaissance Men" or some such? Oh, yeah...the Dozen Eggs back in June). Perhaps the reason so few people seek mastery of Dungeons & Dragons is that they are already working on something they've prioritized as "more important" (their job, their faith, their relationship, playing the guitar, whatever), and truly have no time for mastery of something perceived as a diverting pastime and little more. Perhaps it is the reason so many people are willing to write off role-playing as "just a game."

    Perhaps we need to go back to calling folks "referees" instead of "Dungeon Masters" until they've proven their "mastery?"
    ; )

  2. "The enemy of 'great' isn't 'bad,' it's 'good enough.'"

    I don't know who first said it, but it rings true.


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