Thursday, February 15, 2018

We Are in this Apart

I've been thinking where I might pick up from this post and I think it is this:  "before teaching can happen, there has to be some consensus on what ought to be taught."

Fair enough.  It isn't an easy question, but this blog is about going head-on into the storm.  So let's go head-on.

Teaching is the imparting of knowledge, which comes not from the opinion of an individual, or individuals, but from a shared, universal experience that everyone encounters when interacting with a particular thing.  A large-mass object moving at sufficient speed has the capacity to cause a lot of damage.  The speed and the amount of mass are important in this equation.  It isn't necessary to accept anyone's opinion that this is true.  Anyone can experiment with this principle, say, in a busy street, and quickly come to the same conclusion.  This is how we know a particular thing is knowledge.

Picking a game at random, and following this thought, what can we say, with knowledge, about Dungeons and Dragons?  What does everyone, regardless of personal opinion, encounter when participating in the game?

If we listen to opinion, we're sunk right here.  Because people LIE.  If we propose that the game is hard and difficult to play, some will say it isn't.  If we propose that the game has the capacity to frustrate a DM, some will say it has never frustrated them.  If we propose that the official rules or description of the game is clumsy and hard to understand, some will say they have no problem with either.  In part, this happens because people resist admitting to any faults, either in the game or themselves; and in part because some people just want to muddy the water.

Then, if we will say anything about the game, we must rely upon reason and consistency.  To do that, we must begin with first principles ~ and, if possible, principles that cannot be rationally disputed.

To begin, our 1st Axiom is this:
The Player and the DM have different roles to play while participating in the game, and therefore must be considered independent of each other with regards to game play.

We can argue all day about what those roles are or how they are different, but we must admit elementally that they ARE different: and anyone who disputes that sounds like a bloody idiot.

True to philosophic principles, the 2nd Axiom must be deduced from the first, without depending upon assumption.  And so it does:
The principal conflict in game play arises from the discontinuity of the Player's agenda from the DM's agenda.

And again, so it does.  We can argue how the conflict manifests, or what the agenda's are, or how the conflict is the heart and soul of the game, but we cannot not rationally argue that these agendas do not conflict.  They obviously do.

So from this we propose a 3rd Axiom:
Since the conflict between Player and DM is as much a matter of Out-of-Game participation as it is In-Game participation, it is consistently difficult to separate "Real-Life Conflicts" from "Game Conflicts," as these tend to bleed into each other, so that they are mistaken for one another.

D&D, and all RPGs, are profoundly unique in this regard.  Because participants are being both themselves and someone or something that is not themselves, throughout the conflict, distrust arises when any participant feels that the "Character" that is being run is actually concealing a "Personal" slight, or when a participant feels that the "Personal" entreaty by one of the participants is actually a "Character" conflict.

And that sentence makes no sense whatsoever unless you have played D&D, at least a fair bit.

What I'm arguing here is that D&D is, at it's core, a mechanism for creating distrust.  As a DM, I am both fucking with the minds of my players, AND showing concern for my players well-being as human guests at my table, at the same time, and this is truly, thoroughly, 100% expected by the players, to the point that if I was not fucking with them at least a little bit, they would be bored.

In How to Run, I equated this to the magician's performance; we might think of it as a magician-audience contract.  As an audience, we know the magician is intentionally misleading us; and we want the magician to do it!  If the magician does not do it well, we would not be happy.

However, if the magician were a house-guest, and used the same skills to shift things around the house, or out of our pockets and into that of the magician's, there's no contract and we would absolutely, and rightly, be furious.

When playing D&D, as a Player, we're fine with our characters being deliberately given misinformation, or led down a dangerous path, or even corralled and railroaded for a time ... so long as we don't get a whiff that the DM is doing any of this out of a personal vendetta for our personal character.  Once we think that might be happening, like the magician, we feel that a certain contract has been broken and we are, as before, furious.

D&D, however, unlike the magician's stage, is much more subtle ... and much more easily misunderstood, by both Players and DM.   That "whiff" can easily appear inaccurately in the mind of any of the participants.  If expressed, rightly or wrongly, it can lead to a parade of denials, followed by more accusations and more denials, all of it built on a feeling that the real contract has been broken and ~ though there may be no proof ~ trust with it.

To teach DMing, then, is to teach trust.  How to gain it, how to hold it, how not to destroy it once it has begun to tenuously take hold in a campaign.  Early trust is very fragile, very easily shattered.  Trust that has been built over years is virtually impossible to breach.  Hard-earned trust enables the DM to play really spectacular tricks on a party's imagination ... but it must be earned with hard, hard work.  It cannot be managed in a weekend, or a three-hour session.

When we sit down to consider what D&D is, or how to improve ourselves, we spend so much of that time thinking about stories and adventures, about dungeon encounters and devious tricks ... but we think so little of gaining trust.  Games have to be simple, because a simple game is the most a typical player will trust.

Some DMs talk about "good players" and "bad players."  Much of this has to do with player who will easily trust us, and players who won't.  Some of the best players are "bad players" who fight and chafe against every decision ... because they feel, in their bones, that the DM hasn't earned the complicity the DM associates with "good players."

I don't say there aren't bad players.  But perhaps we should make a second distinction, between "easy players," who don't take much work, and "difficult players," who can take a great deal of work.

Difficult players can't be cajoled with a few trinkets.  They want more.  They want to believe they can trust us.  We need to work on the skills that give us the ability to make them trust us.  And, in turn, we need to each ourselves what sort of players deserve our trust, too.

Because we are not in this together, DMs and Players. We are in this Apart.  We don't want the same things.  We're not meant to want the same things.  But we must trust each other, and we must earn that trust.

Then we can play well.


JB said...

I guess I'd like to see a definition of the word "consistently" in Axiom #3 as there might be a quibble as to how it arises logically from Axioms #1 and #2...otherwise, I think this is an excellent beginning.

For the life of me, I don't remember reading the magician analogy in How to certainly didn't make as deep an impression on me as it does here. In conjunction with these Axioms (and in light of what you're currently trying to accomplish) it's really powerful, and one of the best analogies for GM-facilitated role-playing I've ever seen.

So many things can be built off of this, if one sets "establishing trust" as the foundation of one's game play. I think of my own games of recent years, where I'd introduce new players explaining - up front - how I intended to be their antagonist in the game, and do my best to kill their characters. And the players were perfectly fine with this, accepting the challenge, and expecting me to "not go easy" on them. Consequently, there may have been disappointment or momentary sadness when a PC died in the game, but no anger or frustration at ME, the dude running the game. And no one (as far as I can tell) ever "took it personally." That was the game they'd signed up for.

With hindsight, the entire first section of How to Run (in which you talk about appearance, presentation, etc.) is probably about establishing trust in players, and I completely missed it. Either it wasn't EXPLICIT in the text (I'll have to go back and read the book...for the 3rd time!), or else because the magician analogy wasn't set up with the importance these Axioms instill.

[or else, because I just wasn't reading the damn book closely enough]

This is a great start Alexis. Damn, you're a smart cookie!
: )

Alexis Smolensk said...

It could be, JB, that I've grown in the three years since writing How to Run.

The book talks about legitimacy: about the DM being fair, being consistent, and treating everyone the same. Legitimacy is the science of establishing trust. If I am putting it more clearly here than I did in the book, it is only because I have had more time to think about this.

The magician's reference in How to Run is chiefly how a magician entices you to take the card you're supposed to take; setting you up, so that you can be tricked, without knowing you've been tricked. The way the magician holds the cards when spreading them out, for you to take one, has a psychological effect of you taking the card you're supposed to take. And you're fine with that, because you WANT to be tricked. But I don't expressly turn the discussion about the magician in How to Run the same way I am turning it here.

"consistently" = in every case and on every occasion, the exact definition of the word. It is ALWAYS difficult to separate one from the other with any certainty, and conflict between Player and DM is always a result of this lack of certainty. Here I am defining "conflict" as "an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles and interests." I'm not defining conflict as you have, JB, where you are speaking of In Game conflict between the character and the setting. That's certainly a type of conflict, but I am speaking more of what we need to do to enable a DM to DM more efficiently and purposefully.

JB said...

Whoops! I was not defining “conflict” at all (even though my example might have looked like I was drawing a correlation based on my “antagonistic” approach to DMing). I grok your meaning there; I was only using MY example (which happens to involve antagonism) as an example of establishing at the outset of a game. It was not terribly purposeful or refined when I was doing it (I was not grasping these ideas then), more of a “fair warning” thing...but it served to set the table to prevent conflict (as you define it here: those disagreements that can derail a DM in game).

Perhaps, instead of “consistently difficult” (as difficulty is a matter of perception) you might say it is a “consistent challenge” (that a DM must constantly grapple with due to your first two axioms). I’m not sure I could say that I find it CONSISTENTLY “difficult.”

The Rubberduck said...

First up, let me say that I don't think I disagree with any of the axioms. However, I do have some problems with the status of the 2nd and the 3rd as Axioms.

For the 2nd Axiom, it is the word Principal (which I'm assuming was misspelled). I can see that it logically follows that conflict will arise from the discontinuity of the Player's agenda from the DM's agenda. But I don't see how we can deduce from the 1st Axiom that this conflict is the principal conflict of the game.

For the 3rd Axiom we reach the conclusion that it is consistently difficult to separate "Real-Life Conflicts" from "Game Conflicts". This seems like common sense, but I have a hard time seeing any proof for this. Based on previous Axioms, there is nothing that says that the separation should be hard. Unless we just base the Axiom on common sense, we need something more for it to stand.

That being said, I dig this. I've been looking into running a GMing workshop for the younger members of the local RPG club, and if I end up doing it, there will definitely be a section on trust now.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Spelling error corrected. I had used "principle" in the correct sense in the post three times prior, twice immediately prior to intending "principal", I'm sure my subconscious was writing the word.


Fair enough. Consistently challenging.


Fair enough also. Will you accept "first" as opposed to "principal"?

Common sense regarding the 3rd Axiom is what I'm shooting for. IF we can agree that conflict arises, in the 2nd Axiom, from the discontinuity between Player and DM, that conflict must arise from SOMEWHERE or SOMETHING. Where? What?

With the 1st Axiom, I did not define "DM" or "Player" ~ because I think the definition of these things are fairly well accepted. The DM acts in a personal, real self capacity, AND a setting capacity; the Player acts in a personal, real self capacity, AND a character capacity.

There are, therefore, FOUR agendas at the table; the two in possession of the DM, and the two in possession of the players.

Using only this knowledge, there is no other possible place from which the conflict CAN arise: therefore, this must see this as the "difficulty" where experiential knowledge is lacking. That is, the knowledge that we're attempting to add while teaching. We want to teach DMs how to be a setting and a real self, so that players can be themselves and characters, and able to trust the DM.

I think I've changed my mind. "Difficulty" is the correct word. It may not be in JB' context of actual running (which I concede), but the issue here is Education. With regards to Education, the DIFFICULTY is in teaching people how to appropriately and properly separate inappropriate real-life behavior from appropriate game behavior, in conflicts that arise from the four agendas.

Is this philosophy that will stand the introspection of a 1st year philosophy student? No. Was not my intention. Is this a reasonable, simplified perspective that we can hinge a constructive educational syllabus upon, as opposed to advice like, "Come up with a good story..."

I think so.