Friday, May 27, 2016

Sad Puppies

Received an excellent comment yesterday from LTW, yesterday, regarding the importance of building systems in a world to lend credibility to the player's experience.  I'm quite sure this is a common experience for many DMs:

"My realization led me to view that each inconsistent hand-wave was sort of a backhand to my players creativity. I had been beating them behind an electrified fence that became my world. Their creativity learned not to cross certain bounds. The weird part was that they raved about my DMing skills. They always accepted the hand-waving and they were very encouraging. I supposed they were just happy to be playing. I came to see them as sad puppies in a puppy mill."

This, I think, is the most telling paragraph - and one that truly highlights the DM's dilemma in a way that most voices on the internet simply fail to understand.  After describing his players' discontent with hand-waved judgments, after describing the going-through-the-motions world that LTW began to feel he was running, after admitting that he was keeping the players back with a stick (and an electrified fence), they're still happy.  Yet that's just not good enough.  There is a clear understanding that LTW has, that I have, that I think most of my readers have, that the players are just happy because this is all they know . . . and that glorifying in that 'happiness' isn't right.  It sours the game, knowing that it could all be better, even if the players don't know it.

In some ways, this is the critical point between starting off as a DM and learning to go right, not left.  We've built the world, we've got it working, we've learned that we're substantially just another player . . . but as it has gone we have gathered insight that the players haven't, because we're making the decisions.  This is normal.  This is how responsibility goes.  And when we're ready, as LTW says, to burn down that first world and build a better one, we've accumulated the experience we need to see better how not to just go right instead of left, but to take care of our players, and stop pretending that their being sad puppies in a puppy mill is all right with us.

Of course, we know that some DMs like it.  They delight in being the ruler over sad puppies - and then they use that delight online to argue that the existence of sad puppies in their game somehow proves that their way of playing, their game, is right and proper.  They lord it over everyone else:  "I have sad puppies and that is good enough for me!"

That's always going to happen.  As ever, I've been thinking about the fundamental problem that plagues the community - and I think it is this:  a considerable number of people simply cannot see the problems of an average DM from any perspective outside of themselves.  They cannot put themselves in the shoes of another person, they cannot address the subject of "improving a game" from the viewpoint of someone else who wants to improve it.

"What works for me" isn't the end of the argument.  Some think that it is.  Some suppose that, having sorted out their agendas or their priorities, that other people can look after themselves and that's the end of the subject.  It is as if I were to say to you, "Imagine what it might be like if you were black, how would you feel about this?" only to get back the argument, "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard.  I'm not black and I'm never going to be black, so the question has nothing to do with me."

This is a point made by James Flynn in his Ted Talk.  A point I wanted to get into but my daughter has shown up so I'm cutting this post off short.  Watch the video.  I'll talk about it later.


Anonymous said...

Wow. My reading of this post came directly after another ill advised descent into the forums. I'd be better off using my time to schedule my next running, but I got pulled in again. The reason I mention it is because someone unwittingly wrote a manifesto of the sad puppy game. The poster described their players as passive, unimaginative, and literally wanting to be led. They go on to point out that people attend pre written plays and musicals rather than improvise them themselves, and call their campaign a product. The activity described is simply not the one you, LTW, and I are engaged in. The motivation is unrelated, and whatever this group is getting out of it is alien to me. Completely independently of the rule set. Hopefully this person is an outlier.

I would bet that LTW's previous campaign was actually pretty good. The difference is that they want to make the game better, even when the players are relatively satisfied. I predict the result will be a better campaign for DM and players alike.

Once you realize that "Everyone is having fun" doesn't mean the process should end.

I attended a jazz clinic given by James Moody in the late 90s. (Those interested can look into his bio. Played with Gillespie in the 40s, etc.) The theme of his talk was "This is what I've been working on lately. I'm sick of playing X, so I'm looking at a different approach to this particular harmony."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah yes, jazz. If you haven't seen it yet, Hare, be sure to find this post:

Anonymous said...

I've seen that and Baxter's comments are a little grating to me, perhaps because one of my good friends is a "trained seal" in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Some jazz and rock musicians dismiss classical musicianship by completely ignoring the art of interpretation and historical understanding. (Actually almost posted a rant on this here but realized it was not applicable enough to the topic at hand.)

I'm trained in both jazz and classical music, and fortunately in my personal life I've never seen anything but mutual respect between different kinds of musicians. Perhaps because playing either of the genres requires a significant amount of ongoing work. (I have a huge pet peeve against the "talent or no talent" myth as it dismisses the work involved. An excellent analog to DMing: you can actually improve your skills at improvisation for example, even if you don't consider yourself talented.)

Jazz as analogy to D and D is especially apropos of course. I would point out a few things: while a group is somewhat of a democracy, the bandleader picks who's on the gig, based on the results they want, the way the musicians will work together, and how good they actually are. So it's a democracy of a group of people chosen by a single authority. The "My character is an idiot who's going to get himself killed!" guy changes or doesn't last. The "Check out all this fast s--- I worked up even though it destroys the mood of this ballad." guy probably doesn't get the gig in the first place. When I read about catering to "casual, uncreative, passive" players...

Also as in D and D, in most forms of jazz, there is to an extant an underlying form that is adhered to. You will have to roll a d20 now. No you can't play a robot. This varies. Check Louis Armstrong versus Albert Ayler.

Going back to the issue of validation, here is someone who cares about jazz being good:

Alexis Smolensk said...

I 100% agree with you, Hare.

The girl who raked my back back in 1985, who was getting her masters in Education, had her undergraduate degree in music theory and composition. Over a series of two or three hundred arguments she steadily corrected all my misunderstandings about music, how it was created, how it comes into being, what is happening during a presentation and so on. She would not have liked Baxter's comments either; and I personally am not a big fan of Steely Dan nor of Baxter's personal musical style.

I overlooked that in writing the post, because yes it did apply to D&D. I remember I did snort with regards to the classical orchestra quote (though I included it because it was relevant to the argument) because, like you, I'm a little more familiar with six themes of music designed to be played simultaneously and with the principles of coloratura, which seems to have been lost on Baxter's education. People like Baxter fail to realize that jazz came from somewhere, as does all music. It did not spring out of the ground like Topsy - though it is often presumed that it must have.

I'll go listen to the link now and comment further if appropriate.

Alexis Smolensk said...

HAH! "Full of shit!" Brilliant.

Yeah, Marsalis in bang on the button. All I can say about that.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that. It's a pet peeve of mine, but I didn't want to indulge the tangent too much. Baxter's attitude is in the minority. (But when people attempt "crossover" albums, the results are almost universally dreadful.)

I love playing both genres; they satisfy completely different appetites. But as far as D and D goes, I want to play good improvised music with people who can hang. DMing for a group who enjoys making meaningful decisions means I don't need to put on a show or control everything. Maybe it requires more faith in the rules, the dice, and especially, the players.

Hang= jazz lingo for contribute.

LTW said...

Your blog is a rare source on the internet that can champion player experience without listing block stats or encounter hook. Any transformation of mine is largely due to this space, void of the bullshit and the noise of the puppy masters. I have had many revelations about DMing when reading your posts, Alexis. The Right, not Left post recently led me to the a most satisfying revelation about DMing. Its message broke down the mental DM screen that I did not even know I was employing in my runnings.

In short, I used to keep my players at a distance. Yes, I would give them all of the information they needed to make their decisions and more, but I stayed far away from their decision making process. I was afraid that getting involved in that step would cause influence that could be considered railroading or reduce tension. Like a commandment form up high: Thou shalt not interfere with the decision of a player.

This rigidity left the players feeling frustrated when they expected one outcome, but received another because they did not considered some key components of the world that they should have. That would lead to an interaction like this:

Player: What? That NPC is still mad at us for the death of his brother? I would have been able to see that in his demeanor before I asked for help...

DM: I thought that would have been assumed, you knew he blamed you for his brother's death...

Another problem with the mental DM screen is that it also fed my natural instinct to be competitive, a reoccurring DM flaw of that I try to manage. Competitive in the sense that I like to win. Its fun to watch my players clobber the NPC's, but there is a little goblin in my mind that taunts me while it happens. I found that the proper player-centric attitude is deluded if, even in a small way, you feel as if you've lost on some level. Its easy enough to squelch the goblin, but after 4-5 hours of late running he's been able to sneak in.

Right, not Left revealed the mental DM screen I was running, the dualism I was creating by being hands off. The last few runnings I've entered into player decision process. In a way, totally becoming a player, assuming only the information the players could know, and objectively adding to the discussion when needed. Sort of like the 6th man in basketball, stepping in to support the starters.

The support will look like this: "Do you think that NPC will treat you fairly when he blames you all for his brothers death?" Instead of allowing the players to steer headlong into an idea that should be considered by them as poorly supported by the fixtures of my world, I now reveal these textures to the players when they haven't been considered. That said, I let them know that they are still free to do whatever they want.

I find the players can better understand and appreciate their characters' surroundings and NPC's have started to become more predictable to them. I am OK that the predictability is strengthen because I have given an objective opinion about a decision. In addition, that goblin is gone now, because I am on the players team. I find that being on the players team is much more fun and satisfying anyways.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Isn't that amazing?

LTW, I have always run in the way you describe - but it has taken me a long, long time to first realize that others don't, then to try to find some way to explain why the rigidity you speak of is poison.

That moment when my friend spoke about fresh corporals was Archimedes' scales falling from my eyes. I wish - I truly wish - that I could make thousands see that: but I am absolutely thrilled that you have gotten it. When your players begin to realize that this information is something they can trust, they will love you as a DM like you have never experienced.

The next stage, I hasten to point out, is the players understanding that they have a RIGHT to this transparency you're offering. This is why I began creating my sage tables in the first place: to give the players a better grounding on what they knew and what they should know. Sadly, the task has proved so gargantuan and exhausting that it continues to be put on hold while I fritter around with other less important (or perhaps more immediately important) problems.

Ah, I wish I had a little staff I could afford to pay.

Anonymous said...

"When your players begin to realize that this information is something they can trust, they will love you as a DM like you have never experienced." There's that "trust" word again.

Your comment really got me thinking,LTW. First because the image of the "sad puppy masters" cracked me up. More substantively, because it highlighted the relationship between player information and agency. What follows might be hyperbole, as it's based on what I've seen on the internet, which we've established isn't representative of most DMs. But I've definitely seen the following approach described: The sad puppy masters dole out information as if presenting a gift to unwrap, and the information functions as a signpost pointing to the next thing that's supposed to happen. Sometimes more explicitly than others. (My reaction to some "fail forward" techniques.) As DMs trying to maximize player agency, we want to avoid this. The danger of excessive vigilance in avoiding this("Just the facts with a poker face.") is that it's easy to deprive players of information their characters would certainly know. Your NPC is a great example. If I killed someone's brother and saw them again, I'd have a very clear idea of the situation. It's not possible to describe things so thoroughly that players are fully aware of everything their character knows all the time, so we need present information relevant to the situation at hand if players are to make meaningful decisions. So we're making player agency more meaningful rather than reducing it.

Maybe this is why I roll my eyes when I see unprompted die rolls used to check various knowledge based skills. "You passed, so here's a little history of your destination." It seems so strange that no context is involved; your character may or may not know about something, completely independently of their history. Alexis, I believe you mentioned this in your discussion of "Critical Role".

Well, I sure am opinionated for a brand new DM. Very good to have read this now. You might have saved me future headaches.