Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Long Game

You're working on your new world, you're trying new things, you're thinking of all the stuff you'll add, you're looking forward to the evening when you'll run your first game.  It's three weeks away, then it's two weeks.  You're getting the details regarding the kingdom ready, you've finished writing the history, you're writing down some plot hooks and thinking about those monsters you wanted to add and now there's only a week left.  There's an equipment list and some notes for character backgrounds and now there's just five days.  All those details about the dungeon you've created and the time you've used to build up a new combat system based on the old one, so many hours gone to all those long-term projects and now the time is getting nearer for you to sit down with your new players and actually start the campaign.  There's two days left, then it's tomorrow, then it's today.

Then afterward, the first running put to bed, you've just realized how much is left that you didn't really finish. You thought you had everything prepared but when the game came, you were scrambling and face-to-face with how many things weren't ready.  Seems like they never are, but now it is worse, now there's a game coming next weekend, with things that need readying for it, so when will there be time to fix all those huge architectural elements that the world needs now?  How can anyone manage both the week-to-week campaign and those things we need to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours on to make come out right?

I have had an inkling of an idea late, coming from a number of sources, originating with this talk from Astrid Atkinson of Google, discussing basically the principles of Yeats when he said that the center did not hold.  Not that I'm arguing that the management of detail equates to the end of the world and the eventual rise of the Dark Lord, but I never actually thought Yeats was talking about that, either.  I think fundamentally that the reality is that things inevitably threaten to break down, that no surety can exist; that the widening gyre is the ever-growing difficulty of any venture we are foolish enough to try.

Yeats wrote the poem following the first World War and it drips of despair, failure, the smashing of all things and the promise that far worse than this is still coming, Yeats' beast slouching towards Bethlehem.  Yet as I have gone over this poem again and again in the past, I am met with the clarity that however inexorable Yeats' prediction might be, we continue to make the gyre, we struggle against its widening and we refuse to give into the obligatory doom the poem predicts, however much it looms before us.

Now, I know these are weighty themes for a post about not having enough prep done for game night.  And I I know there are a few readers scratching their heads and wondering what I am on about.  It is simply this: the question of "being ready" - is that not the measure of the DM?  And is not the failure to be ready the boot that we use to kick ourselves, the certainty that not "being ready" will mean our players will abandon us and we'll know, at last, that we never were DMs, we were only pretending to be?

This is why I found myself thinking about the "long game" that Atkinson is on about; the acknowledgement that what we put in place today will be the thing that breaks us down the line, and how we must think today of what structures we want in place when another day in the future those gyres threaten to widen beyond our control.

The long game, I think, demands more than throwing hours at it.  It demands a strategy.  "I'm going to have a great world someday" isn't a strategy.  Strategies are not made in the future, they are made in the present, to fix the problems that were created in the past.  Strategies fail in the future . . . when it is too late and the beast is born.  Those who wait for the future to produce the strategy they wish they could have are merely Yeats' midwives.

I have been thinking about this strategy thing of late: what a strategy for making a world and pulling together a party consists of, how to go about diagnosing what the strategy has to be, how to build a set of tactics for staving off the ill and encouraging the healthy in one's game.  There's a book in that . . . if I can find enough hard data to support a worthy blueprint.

But hell.  I'm already writing a book.


James said...

I look at it as "no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy" kind of deal. Having a strategy and tactics for what to do when your plans fail makes a lot of sense, though wouldn't following some of your prior advice regarding decision-making versus problem-solving aid significantly?

To use your prior example, if the problem is "water has turned to blood," your plans are quickly shot down if the players are uninterested, or if they get stuck in their investigation. Conversely, if you merely present the situation, and let the players choose their own course of action, your plans are less likely to fall apart because the players are already invested.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Then you must build a game design strategy that does not depend on what the players do.

James said...

I'm curious what you mean by "strategy" in this situation. Should it inform your world building, DMing, or both? Would "present situations, not problems" be a strategy?

Or is a strategy more detailed, such as "I will attempt to adjudicate player decisions and agency as much as I am able, and if I am unable I will take the time to get it right rather than rushing my decision and possibly making an unfair or inconsistent decision."

I don't say this to be antagonistic, sorry if it may come across that way.

On an unrelated note, I have been thinking about your puzzle versus game post, and specifically how D&D isn't generally run as a game, but as a puzzle. Specifically, I was hoping to get your thoughts on something related to that: the role information plays.

Chess is a game of perfect information; one can always see all moves. RISK is a game of imperfect information; you are unaware if your opponent is capable of trading in territory cards on their turn. However, even in RISK, the imperfect information is only limited to one aspect of the game, because if too much is hidden, it ceases to feel like a game.

This came up because I was playing Warlight (a RISK-like computer game) that uses Fog of War to hide any territories you are not adjacent to. And I hated it, because it provided so little information as to make me unable to make meaningful decisions.

Bringing it back to D&D, I wondered if the reason it is hard to make D&D feel like a game is that the players rarely have enough information to make meaningful decisions.

Samuel Kernan said...

That sounds like a great book.

I was intrigued to hear Atkinson say (just after 8:20) that early on, building too much infrastructure for the future takes time from focusing on your current product, and having the flexibility to change it as needed.

Something that has kept me from playing at times is feeling like I need to get everything just so before I can bring players into the world. Figuring out what long-term work is essential right now, and what can be done as you go, is a challenge that I can always use more advice on.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I have not found that you have been the least bit antagonistic.

The strategy I speak of in this instance is the plan made by the DM to take actions in the creation and running of the world that promote a better experience for both DM and player - to take the perspective that there are day-to-day things that a DM can do with an eye to having the future game play out better than the present game does. Whereas most are easily able to name goals, things they want from their games someday, most are not able to identify what they should do NOW to make those goals possible.

Point in fact, the amount of information does not define something as being a game or not. I would strongly argue that consistency is more important than quantity. Campaigns where the DM rules by fiat without responsibility to previous rulings makes a "game" impossible. However little information a game like Warlight might offer, you're still in a position where you're free to make decisions in a non-specific, multiple-ways-to-win format.

Take a recent game like Reigns, where you're given practically NO information when playing the game. I grant that having more information makes it easier to make a decision, but more information isn't necessary.

The bonus with a role-playing game is that virtually every decision that is make can BE TAKEN BACK. This is highly overlooked. "I go to the tavern. Looking inside, I change my mind and decide to take a walk instead. I think we'll change our mind, close the red door and take the green door." And so on. Collection of information in RPGs, unlike in virtually every other game, can be managed well by players who don't rush into every situation as if they MUST stay with it even when things go bad: for example, players who won't run away from a battle, ever, who would rather stay and die every time.

Games on the whole tend to limit the player's ability to accumulate information for themselves - and therefore it is the game that defines what the player can know before making the decision. RPGs, on the other hand, technically provide all the possible information that real life can - so that the players are not, should not, be limited in what they can KNOW, but in how diligent they wish to be in building up to their decision.

Some things, true, ARE hard to know in advance: what is behind the green door. But such things are because the DM has deliberately created the world so that the only decisions the players can make are those where the DM refuses to give information; not because the game denies it but because of temperament and prejudice. A good DM will set the situation up so that the players have clues and a reasonable amount of information that will enable them to make a reasonable guess as to what is behind the green door; and upon achieving higher level, the abilities and spells to detect what is there, thus rewarding them for success.

Samuel Kernan said...

Bit of a tangent: how do you handle a situation where either the players or their opponents wish to disengage from a battle? Is it a matter of running until you put enough distance between yourself and the opponent? I don't think I have ever scene rules or guidelines for this scenario in a rulebook.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You can read the rules for that on my wiki, here:

Start with melee and then follow the link to action points, combat and particularly movement in combat:

Plenty of grit there.