Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Hoodwink

"We need to now establish the type of campaign that we're going to be running.  Now, by type, I literally mean the grand theme, the theme, the main overriding story that's going to allow you to create what feels like a contained narrative within a chaotic space.  Now like the master plot, which gives you your singular direction from which you can deviate and move away from, but always come back to, your type or your theme is going to be exactly the same in terms of the functioning of it.
"So if we look at the different types or the different themes of campaign that you can run, you can run a war campaign, you can run a revenge campaign, you can run a justice campaign, you can run an ascension campaign, you can run a restoration campaign, you can run an apocalyptic campaign, you can run a campaign that deals with the idea of love for example.  So they're fairly broad ideas in which the narrative is going to sit."

To deconstruct this, I will be referring to parts of the video that have not been quoted.

Why This Seems Important

The process of managing a game is a daunting, often intimidating prospect, that can be moreso if the DM has run games before that collapsed or failed due to moments when "thinking on our feet" proved to be a failing strategy.  The habit becomes an emphasis on fighting back the chaos, as this seems the most troublesome aspect of running.

The best way to reduce chaos and create an effective management for a game is to organize and plan.  That is the thinking that virtually everyone rushes to when something complicated falls apart after a failed attempt.  "The next time I do this, I am going to have a plan."  The video here is an example of that thinking: the certainty that, with good planning with a strong story and overriding narrative, I will be able to establish a series of achievable, firm goals that can be met methodically and with my feet firmly on the ground.  This way, the confusion, havoc and uproars of my past sessions will be laid to rest, disruptions to the campaign will be minimized and the game will proceed in a predictable, orderly manner.  Thank gawd!

Furthermore, this collection of goals will create for us a logical framework from which we can design additional adventures, all upon the same theme, so that when we need an idea, we can return to the scope of ideas contained within that theme.  Once we've established that this is a war, then adventures connected with war will spring to mind in abundance, so that we won't be on the hook to come up with something, unlike our previous scattered and stumbling attempts, where we've come up short.  How wonderful that is.  No more wasted efforts, no more rushing to react to something we didn't expect - this campaign is going to be one that gets results!

Why We Believe in this Strategy

Without a doubt, plans work.  They encourage thinking about a problem, which itself is an important step towards being prepared.  Part of the problem with relying on improvisation is that it causes DMs to take a pass on thinking about the next game, reducing the overall amount of creativity that has gone into preparing that game's experience.

As well, planning is a specific process, with a specific structure.  If we sit down to intricately plan a campaign, it is easier to guess what sort of questions we want answered, both for ourselves and for the players.  The very act of planning encourages us to answer these questions for ourselves, so that a DM in the planning process will feel reassured and confident while working alone for days, prior to the event.  Planning has a way of focusing our minds on the task at hand.  It is comforting.  A lack of planning makes us feel incapable and anxious about what's coming.  Planning holds our hand and gives us reason to think that we're on top of the problem.  In fact, there is biological evidence of this; planning is an executive function of the brain, selecting and successfully applying attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility, as I've just explained.

The video argues the value of this very human, very emotionally charged process, basically outlining the traditional steps of planning:

  • Choose a destination.
  • Evaluate possible routes.
  • Decide on a course of action.
We humans have been doing it this way for ten thousand years.  We've built the edifice of civilization and culture by designing, organizing, managing subordinates and directing the combined power of human ingenuity and resourcefulness towards the accomplishment of any intended outcome.  It seems child's play to apply this principle to a simple matter like running a game.

Why It Won't Work

Some are well ahead of me by this point.  Role-playing is an improvisational activity.  It can't be "planned" by both the DM and the players at the same time, since the players technically are necessarily removed from what is about to happen on the other side of the door, deliberately by the Dungeon Master.  As such, much of the "planning" for the balance of the participants goes into managing the unknown ~ and the results of that planning and execution creates an unknown for the DM that can't be planned for, since ingenuity, random rolls and the gestalt of the group's interaction creates a chaotic, enticing maelstrom ... in fact, the very effect for which we play the game, as uncertainty is utterly, wonderfully fascinating.

The more planning the DM attempts to contain and build a frame around that chaos, the more stale and reactionless the campaign becomes.

A good metaphor could be the incidence of lightning. We can understand why it occurs, we can produce a reasonable means of predicting its strike, but we can't be certain if, or when, it will actually strike. Moreover, we can't control the strike, nor the effects of the strike.  None of which reduces the awe-inspiring magnificence of the display, nor the terror-inducing effects of a nearby strike, nor the immeasurable dread we feel if we're caught outside in a place where, it seems certain, that it is going to strike us.

Despite the totality of human achievement, there are some things we do not control, that no amount of planning can manage.  And some things should not be planned for: this is why "spontaneity" is treated with such reverence where our emotional-reward is concerned.

Yet that promise that we receive as we plan continues to delude us into thinking that this lightning can be contained in a bottle and that the experience will not be lessened once we manage it.  That is because this planning is all done alone, prior to the game, where the echo-chamber of one's own thoughts, vs. the apprehension of the next running, hoodwinks us into following the will o'wisp, again, into the hubris of our false confidence.

The video, above, is a hoodwink.  It sounds good.  Until one thinks about it.


Drain said...

I've never seen the proposed kind of lockstep from players and DM to a unified campaign theme. There're always conflicting definitions at crosspurpose, as even a concept as supposedly inequivocal as "war" means something very different to the star wars afficionado versus the shaky-cam WWII junkie. Sometimes people even bring ideas of their own to the table, bless their hearts.

Being so much on the same page that one's sharing commas usually means the running is less a game and more some sort of re-enactment of a movie scene and thus more heavily scripted than anything claiming to be an RPG has any right to be.

D-Squared said...

"Plans are worthless, but planning is essential" Dwight David Eisenhower

Alexis Smolensk said...

Tru enough, dat.

But then, I'm a big planner. I plan and plan, I design and design, I fill up blog posts with plans and designs with an eye for telling others how to plan and design.

If Eisenhower had planned the war the way that most DMs plan their campaigns, we'd be writing these comments in German.

No offense meant to my much appreciated German readers, some of whom quote parts of this blog on their German posts. I love you guys.