Saturday, November 7, 2015


The road we've been travelling upon becomes a dark lane in a strange city.  We're tired.  It's been raining the last two hours and that has put a hard finish on the day.  There are figures moving on the left of us along a gallery, all in the same general direction.  Ahead we can see three guards, each carrying a yellowish-green light, standing near an open portcullis.  Apparently, we've found our way to a gate that leads into the inner city.

We bring our horse to a stop and contemplate our options.  Two figures - perhaps citizens, perhaps not - turn a corner short of the portcullis and disappear.  Perhaps there is another way in?  While we think about that, we see the guards turn and look at us stolidly.

We can go through the gate easily, we have plenty of money, we speak well and these are only guards after all.  At the same time, we've gone into cities before and a few are somewhat less than friendly.  Still, it is raining.  It may take an hour or more to find an inn outside the city.  The cluttered, ill-kempt buildings outside the walls did not promise much.  We sigh.  Very well, if not for any other reason, let us at least get out of the rain.

It's been some years since any question of the above dilemma turned up in my world.  Try as I might to inveigle the characters into concern about the places they visit or the troubles of having to find a bed at night, for the most part the response I receive in negligible - at least, during the game.  Afterwards, I'm often praised for "making it seem real," but in the actual moment I receive little notice for my efforts, if any.

And that is what this post is about.  DMing is often thankless.  Because it is, we will feel a compulsion to wring an answer out of our players, if only to feel encouraged enough to keep going that night or to ever run again.  Only we need to understand something in our expections - the players are not concerned with critiquing the campaign.

Hard as it may be to accept, the better we become with our descriptions and presentation of the setting, the less awareness the players will have - and that is a good thing.  In the description above, the players ought to be concerned about those shadowy figures who seem to enter the city without the portcullis.  They ought to be concerned that the guards are now frozen in place, watching the arrival of these strangers.  These characters we are running are in an unknown place and they are understandably concerned about that last city and the trouble they had leaving.

Who are we, the DM, to interrupt that with questions about how well the scene was described?

Damn, yes, it is difficult to keep mum about this.  The table does not appear like much of a theater we suppose we can tell so much about the reactions of players by their eyes and reaction.  Every DM, even the worst, has seen that glimmer of excitement or fear or hope in a player's eye and it is supposed that every moment in a great campaign will yield that look again.

It isn't true, however.  Very often, people lost in deep thought will have their face muscles slacken.  Expressions will go away completely.  A player's attention will fixate on the greenish quality of the otherwise yellow light and be lost for three or four minutes shuffling through the library racks of their memory for what that means.  Another will be interested in the highway that transforms into a dark lane and another will be wondering about the gallery and the people moving along it.  Why did I say they might be citizens?  The player is thinking about asking a question about that, but the wording of the question might be tricky if they want to catch me in a mental trap . . . and so their eyes go blank.

I find myself looking from player to player, looking for evidence of any interest, but all that registers are disinterested, vaguely aware people who may, for all I know, be wondering if its a good time to get up and use the bathroom.

Part of the blessing of acting a play in the theater is that a performer cannot see the audience.  There are lights in the actor's eyes and the audience is enfolded in darkness.  The furthest that can be seen clearly is the outer edge of the stage.  It might be possible to stare out and adjust one's eyes in a moment or two - but an actor does not do this because the gaze, like every other part of an actor's physicality, is rehearsed and made to focus as desired.  I have stood at the edge of a stage, giving six or seven minute monologues - and at best one's eyes sweep the darkness at the appropriate angle, to give everyone in the invisible audience the impression they are been spoken to personally.

DMing is not like that.  We can see the faces of the audience perfectly, and break the fourth wall as often as we're inclined to do so with little or no consequence.  In fact, it is so often broken that most DMs are completely unaware there even is a 'fourth wall' - this being the reason I felt necessary to link the words, to enable many a reader to understand what I've meant.  Many who know the term will not relate it to their gaming style.  And still others will think it only applies to the withholding of details the players ought not to know until it is time.

There are consequences, however.  There's what I've been describing - that seeing the player's faces, we're tempted to compel them to come clean about their impressions and feelings immediately upon hearing something described.  We want feedback.  Perhaps it is a need for approval or conditional of our sense of value and usefulness, but whatever the reason, the temptation is often overpowering and we do finish up a great description with, "Well, what do you think of that?  Is this cool or what?"

Imagine Hamlet finishing his soliloquy and then breaking into a smile with, "Fuck, that Shakespeare guy could write, yeah?"

Such need for response also shows the lack of trust the DM has in the player's attention spans, thinking that because the players have not lit up like little candles upon hearing the words spoken, the players are somewhere else.  A DM must believe that the players, if silent, are in a state of reflection, not boredom.  It is easy, so very easy, to believe that it must be the latter and that it cannot possibly be the former.  Yet I believe that many a DM has become so convinced that the players must be bored that they've destroyed their own presentation - and their worlds in some cases - trying to overcome a plague of player disinterest that doesn't exist.  Then, as the world gets flashier and 'more exciting,' the players do begin to view all that's going on with a sense of unconcern and fatigue.  The way we view all attempts by people to be more interesting than they are.

Playing is thinking.  Yes, even in your world.  The processes of imagination, innovation and disbelief are cerebral and don't require the physical manifestation of facial expressions to occur.  We just think they do because we've all be raised on film and television, where actors must emote to sell their character development.  Players do not have to emote, they are not trained to do so and they just don't care.  On the whole, it is unnecessary effort to do so.  Emoting on stage is a rehearsed tactic that is perfected with great repetition.  Listening to a DM describe a scene is a first time experience.

We shouldn't expect players to light up.  Sometimes they will - when they're certain, when the moment blows past their doubts, their guesses or their preparations.

Try not to get that moment to happen by asking for it.  If you really must have criticism for your work, wait until the session is over.


  1. Thanks for this post! The timing couldn't have been better as I just finished a running with my players today and was thinking afterwards about how rarely the players ever come forward with thoughts; how often I prod them with questions like "What do you do?" or "Any ideas?" And that of course puts all this weight on the players, like they need to make all these decisions and plans.
    When you see theatre or a TV show or a movie, usually it's pretty disengaging when those big, heavy exposition moments occur (as you mentioned a few days ago), and it can be even worse when, instead of a big exposition, you're hit with several subtle hints before someone obnoxiously collects all the hints for you and says, "Bonus points if you were clever enough to actually catch these!"
    And yet when players miss a clever detail I slip in or resist the urge to intervene in the lives of NPCs, it totally turns into this almost masturbatory performance of DM exposition where the whole thing just gets spelled out again since the players won't bite. A lot of D&D seems to be about knowing when to withhold information and when to give it: withhold too much and the players get frustrated wanting to roll to know every tiny detail they can tear away from the DM; withhold too little and the players get frustrated listening to NPCs deliver their memoirs.
    It makes me curious to know how you approach "storytelling" as a DM: once players seize a hook, where does the adventure go from there in terms of how the players get more information and decide how to proceed? How much remains still to be "discovered" about the adventure once the players decide to follow an adventure hook?

  2. I've tried to explain my narrative style in a post, Tim. I'm afraid it is loaded with details about the campaigns I'm running - examples were necessary. I hope it isn't confusing.

  3. If you do choose to talk about your narrative style, I would be curious to know why you use the first person in your description.

  4. Simply presenting it from the player's point of view in this case. I don't normally describe scenes in this way.

  5. It's this sort of post that makes me think: "Damn! I really need to run in one of Alexis' campaigns! Where can I sign up? Is there a wait list?"


    P.S. - Yes, I'm quite serious about the sign-up. But then, you probably get asked this a lot... and I live in Calgary, so I could only participate in an online campaign.


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