Friday, May 6, 2016

Right Not Left

Had coffee this morning-afternoon with a friend of mine, Ken.  He won't mind my using his name because, like me, he's doing what he can to live his life publicly.

We don't see each other that often but the conversations are what you'd expect from two in their fifties artists who still have the bit in their teeth.  We talk about theoretical history, cultural patterning (he has a degree in anthropology, I do not) and, naturally, approaches to art and the management of the art we both want to do.  He's a musician.  I'm a writer.  He's a writer too and I've done lots of stage work.  We understand each other.

At one point in the conversation we discussed performance anxiety, something we've both experienced but to which we've become adapted.  Because it is on my mind, I drew the conversation around to teaching DMs how to DM (Ken used to play the game decades ago, understands it but hasn't any interest), specifically how to overcome their sense of being nervous around their friends. Towards this issue Ken outlined strategies that he's known theatre performers to employ while teaching business people and others to feel more comfortable in everyday situations.  It was interesting, the conversation moved onto other things.

As we were getting ready to separate, Ken stepped off a moment to deal with nature and I checked my blog: and found this comment waiting for me.  I'll quote the beginning, without paragraphing it because that's how it appeared on my phone (which is relevant):

"As a DM, I think I sometimes lapse into too much purple prose for one of two reasons: 1. I am nervous, and trying to mask my nerves 2. It is a sign I probably over-prepared an encounter, because I probably really enjoyed writing it up and took it too far. "1" is pretty simple: I feel uncomfortable as the center of attention. I became DM because I was the only one willing to put the work in, not because I especially wanted it."

The serendipity being there, I read the above to Ken as he returned and talked about how this is a story I hear all the time: Nervous, Center of Attention, Voluntold.

Ken replied that it is exactly this way with the army.  You're not asked, you're told, "You, you're in charge.  Get on with it."

Once upon a time, Ken was a Master Corporal in the Canadian Army (which is somewhat higher than the American corporal; my Brit/Can readers are nodding) and he served as a Drill Instructor - so he knows.  The first emotion the new junior NCM feels is "What, me?" - followed by the feeling of a rabbit that knows it's about to be caught and skinned.

"So how do they manage it?" I asked, thinking of tens of thousands of DMs who have just found themselves promoted over their friends, to whom they now have to give commands.

"It's all expected behaviour," he answered.  "You tell him to take the men out on a ten mile hike.  Everyone already knows how to do this, so all the junior has to do is march them out and march them back.  'Course, when the junior gives the order to turn left, the Junior has to remember to turn right; he's an officer now.  His point of view is now an officers' - he still does what the others do, but he does it right when they do it left and vice versa."

"Fabulous," I responded.

"They come back from the hike and the next thing the Junior tells them is exactly what is expected.  Break out for chow, clean the barracks, whatever is NEXT.  It's standardized, it's ordinary, it's already set up to be followed.  The main difference is that when before the Junior had to think only of himself, now he has to think of everyone else, too.  He's doing what he would normally do - but when he gives the order, he's doing it WITH them in his mind instead of only himself."

I just nodded at this point, brain popping all over the place.

"You have to remember," said Ken.  "There's someone watching them.  An Officer who is yet in charge above the unit.  And the Officer does two things that makes this change work.  First of all, the officer says, "Good Job."  This gives the Junior the sense that they're managing this new business of leading men and they're not fucking it up all over the place.  And the second thing the Officer does is say, 'Next time, try this.'  This helps the new Junior get his head around what needs to be done over and above what's obvious."

So there's the problem, all.  DMs are alone.  There's no one to say, "Good Job."  There's no one that can be trusted to say, "Next time try this."

We have all kinds of people on the net saying, "I like what you did there" but that isn't the same as saying, "You're doing a good job."

We have all kinds of people on the net saying, "That's a really good idea" but we don't have enough people on the net saying, "Take this idea and apply this precise, exact way."

As such, we don't know what the hell we're doing and we're not told when we've done something good, bad or anything else.

All my life I have been repelled by role-players' war stories.  "I ran my party through such and such,  my party did this, they found this, there was this thing that happened and they all thought this, etcetera."  I've thought all my life that these were just people who were self-involved, who were so narcissistic that they needed to talk about what they did in order to promote themselves.  As such, I have avoided telling war stories like the plague.  When I have told one here and there on the blog, I have always apologized for doing it.

Now I understand.  They're not narcissistic.  They're looking for someone to say, "Good job."

I talked to hundreds of people in Toronto and Edmonton at the cons I've done.  I've heard them tell their war stories and I reassured them that I could help make their worlds better.  But I didn't say, when hearing that they were pushed into DMing, that they were doing their best, that I was proud of them.  That I felt they were magnificent for digging in and trying.  That the game needed them and that they had every reason to hold their heads up high.

So let me say it now.  "Good job.  Well done.  You're doing the best you can and you should know that you deserve the highest respect for it.  You took those players out, you brought them back, you gave them a good game and they came back for more.  Good Job."

I will never hear another war story with the same heart again.

Now go out and tell a DM how they're doing.  Do that before telling them one more word about how they can do it better.


  1. I wish there was a simple "like" button for posts like these.

  2. There is! It is called google+. It is right up there next to the search engine.

  3. doh! Now I feel silly. Will use in the future!

  4. Excellent point. I suppose the same applies to leadership roles in many fields where a formal hierarchy to provide that encouragement and credible feedback is lacking.

    I wonder how many DMs really feel as though they were forced into the role against their preference. It is a bit hard for me to imagine someone taking it on against their will.

    Maybe that's just because in my own play circle there has more often been competition to take the role of DM rather than to avoid it.

  5. 'He's doing what he would normally do - but when he gives the order, he's doing it WITH them in his mind instead of only himself.'

    This it seems to me is the most interesting and important thing your friend said.

    The DM/GM is continually modelling not just the world and the characters, but all of the players as well. This puts running the game at a much higher level of complexity than playing.

  6. Actually, I feel it greatly LOWERS the level of complexity.

    DMs have to realize they're going on the adventure with the players. They're just doing it as DM, instead of as player. Left, not right.

  7. Or right, not left. Means the same thing.

  8. I've realised that my original comment failed to acknowledge the main point of your original post. I'm sorry for that oversight.

    You are right that the 'new DM' could simply switch seats and follow the accustomed routines - right, not left as you say. And this is an important insight.

    It's true that a large part of play tends to be made up of familiar routines or rituals strung one after another.

    So I am thinking about what it would mean to stop trying to model the players and just to follow in mirror-image the routines the players know. I am trying to relate this to my own experience.

    I can imagine this both as a passing phase in a learning process, and as a recurring phase in ongoing practice. I can especially see it as a phase that helps to simplify making a transition from playing to running.

    However, it would be hard for me to accept that the potential practice of a player is as complex as the potential practice of a runner. It is precisely the stimulation and excitement of that added complexity that attracts me to running over playing. More information to handle, more decisions per unit time.

    Judging by the contents of How to Run, I suspect you may feel the same way.



  9. I do agree with you completely on the complexity, Ken.

    Undoubtedly, it is that complexity that has kept me from seeing the transition from player to DM at the beginning. It does have to be the passing phase, however: to enable comfort, confidence and the mental tools needed to then go out and make the world complex.

    That comes later. At the beginning, the new DM should try to limit their experience to taking the players out on a 20-mile hike and bringing them back, AND NOT WORRY about the complexity.

  10. Thanks for your comments, I'm glad you found what I wrote useful. I just wanted to say I liked this post a lot; I think struggles with nerves and performance anxiety might be a larger part of DMing than people realize (at least, it is for me).

    As an aside, I had completely forgotten I even attempted a blog at some point. Thanks for reminding me, am I the only one that cringes when they reread things they wrote 7 years ago?

  11. I didn't think it suffered, James. I've taken walks like that at least hundreds of times; I like the city at night.

    But yes, things I wrote seven years ago? I don't like those either.

  12. This post was spot on, as was the Class 1: Presentation post. I should have mentioned something there about it when I read it.

  13. This is possibly the best game-related blog post I've read this month. It clears up some of the confusion I've had about listening to war stories as well.


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