Sunday, April 29, 2018

Who is Responsible

The following sequence rose from events played between February 24 and 25, 2009.

This was, in fact, the first day of the first game that I ran online.  It was quite an education for me ~ the players and their approach took me completely by surprise, so much that eventually I was to lose patience with them.

I had run with a wide number of groups between 1979 and 1985 ... but after that, most of my experience was with a very steady group with which I played for another ten years.  Following the break-up of that group in mid '94, which occurred because of job opportunities, marriage and other issues, my gaming became sporadic.  I would get in a running now and then, but probably less than six times a year ... and by 1998, even that stopped.  I would not find a group until 2004 ... which happened because my daughter wanted me to run her and her friends.  I still run that game, even though they are now almost all in their 30s.

During this long separation from the mainstream of the D&D Community, in which I had retained a lot of my original beliefs about the game, the WOTC shifted the rule system in a very different direction.  This created a different kind of player.  What, I am sorry to say, was a very lazy character.  I hope to explain how.

An actual tavern at Rothenburg, only 198 km north by
northwest of Dachau.  So, fairly accurate.
Having rolled up the characters online through the previous week, I decided to start the characters off on the porch of a tavern in the 1650 town of Dachau, some centuries before that town became famous for something else.  As I remember, the players wanted to start in Germany, and I was looking for somewhere wit access to large cities, the mountains, the Black Forest and easy transport by river.

At the time, I had no idea how cliched this idea was; I had not spent twenty years reading hundreds of game modules that included the motif ... and at any rate, I had no plans whatsoever to follow any parts of the cliche except the presence of the tavern itself.

The inn I had in mind was not far from the one pictured, but I did not possess this picture in 2009.  Primarily, I wanted to give the players a home base; a place to sleep, rest, be recognized by the proprietor, who might save them a room while they adventured in the area.  I called the tavern & inn simply "The Pig" and the bartender Helmunt.  I started them sitting in the open air, looking at the square, explaining,
DM: You’re bored. This has been the routine for nearly two months now. You four, Tiberius, Josef, Delfig and Anshelm, met on a cold morning in mid-spring (for the region), finding yourselves all strangers, fairly compatible with one another and equally of the opinion that many of the vicissitudes of life are unappreciated by most. At the moment, however, you could stand a few more changes than there have been.

To my mind, this was to suggest they get off their feet and do something.  If they had sat there for two months and no adventure had presented itself to them, then it should be clear that it was time to make an adventure happen.

This is not how the players read it.  In fact, they made nothing of what I had said about the routine dragging on.  I did not know at the time, see, that D&D players were very used to having everything handed to them on a silver platter.  I had been blogging only nine months.  I had not played in a group with strangers in more than ten years ~ and then only briefly.  So I was unprepared for the response, as I'm sure thousands of DMs are, who think to themselves, "I'm going to run a sandbox adventure."

continued elsewhere ...

This is the second of two such posts I have written in the month of April for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found. Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found here and here.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. You have just 20 hours to do so, as it will be the 1st of May almost at once and you will then have to wait until the 1st of June.  Because it is difficult to keep track of who is donating $3 to me each month, I am no longer accepting small direct donations for the Master Class blog.


Charles A said...

Interesting stuff.

What do you think about the issue that

The bard (character) may well have several merchant friends, but if the player doesn't know that, how do they act on it?

It seems to me all well and good to say the players need to think of their own adventure, but they're seeing the world through a straw, and without the benefit of their character's lifetime of lived experience in the setting. How do you handle that? Has the way you handle that changed since you started this game?

The characters are probably very familiar with Dachau, its personalities and problems and possibilities of adventure, but the players only know what you tell them, so - what do you tell them?

Alexis Smolensk said...


Regarding your first question, because I did not say that the bard, or any of the characters, had a merchant friend, you must take it that they didn't.

I do not think the characters are "seeing the world through a straw." They know how a city works; they know what people do to make money; they know what a dungeon is or where the monsters are.

You say the characters have lived a lifetime. Haven't the players? Aren't you living a lifetime, now? Yes, it's not a fantasy lifetime, but ... Charles ... that's the GAME. That's what makes it a GAME. The players are expected to use their imaginations, to visualize themselves in a different world, and to manage the difficulties of making that adjustment. This is what "playing" is. Adapting, experimenting, overcoming.

So I tell them they are in a fantasy town, watching fantasy people, with fantasy resources. I expect these are all English words, and they can figure it out from there.

My next podcast should be of great interest to you on this subject.

Charles A said...

I've found that same paralysis dropping people into a fantasy city, watching fantasy people, with fantasy resources. I should point out that these people often have no prior experience with pen and paper or computer RPGs, and that they're creative people - writers, directors, actors, artists, etc. (professionally or as hobbyists). So there should be no issue of them having learned bad habits at other tables, in computer games, or with their generally lacking imagination.

You've observed this, I've observed this. I'm interested in what, as DMs, we can do to help players with the transition. Not just in saying the players lack imagination. I don't think that's the issue. Or, if it is, it's not a solution to say, "get an imagination". As I said, I've seen this exact issue with people who definitely have vivid imaginations.

With the below, I'm not trying to be flippant, or argumentative. These are real issues that I wrestle with that I think you probably have insight into, issues that I think are worth discussing frankly.

You say they don't have a merchant friend. OK. Presumably the characters do have some friends, though, or at least acquaintances. It's an unusual person who grows to maturity without at least a few. You didn't mention any of them, though. Does that mean they don't exist? Fair enough, if so, but if not, how do the players know of them?

You say they're to use their imaginations. Could they imagine that they have a friend? That the friend has an issue they need taken care of by the party? Or is that encroaching on the DM's territory? How do they know where the line of what they're allowed to imagine is?

You say the players have lived a lifetime. The players haven't lived a lifetime in Dachau in the 17th century, though. The characters have. How many shops in your home town can you name? I can name dozens or hundreds in Toronto. I can name probably almost all of the shops in my home town in Central Ontario, which is reasonably close in size to 1650 Dachau. How many shops can the players name in Dachau, 1650? How many can their characters? I think that necessarily the players have to lean heavily on the DM, especially in the first few sessions, just to get info that they would know if they were really there.

You say the players know where the monsters are. How exactly did the players in that campaign know where the monsters are? Could they have just asked you, "we want to fight some monsters in a dungeon, where do we go?". Or would that count as not using their imagination?

Would it perhaps have been helpful to fully explain the procedure you keow they'd have to go through to get a job guarding a caravan once you knew that was something they were interested in? It seemed like they had to kind of drag the procedure out of you, even though they had no way of knowing that there was an established procedure (you have to get bonded, you need someone to vouch for you to get a bond). You could say they should have known that, but they didn't, so isn't it our role as DMs to help them negotiate the world? Would the characters have known that? Probably?

Is it possible that they didn't actually have any real interest in guarding a caravan, but that it seemed like one of the only options on the table? How do we make sure players aren't latching on to little things in our description (like these players seem to have with the merchants in the square), and instead keep their minds more open? I've previously resorted to more or less explicit "menus" of options in the first session (while making clear that everything/anything else is still on the table), with some success, but this doesn't seem to be an approach you favour.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Okay. Charles, you hugely misrepresented a lot of what I said, and read things into my text that I didn't say. I said they have to use their imagination. I didn't say anything about their not having one. People have arms and legs. If they don't USE them, they're not much good, no matter how creative they are or how good their imagination is. If they insist on being lazy about using their abilities, then they aren't going to get far.

I often find myself in this sort of conversation with you, Charles. I think I could make you see my position on voice, but in text, you always have a tendency to go one more step past something I've said, IN THE WRONG DIRECTION. Like with the example I just gave. I said the players have to use their imagination. Reading it on the internet, you picked up on a sarcasm that wasn't there, attributed it to my saying that "tough luck, if they lack imagination I can't help them," then went off in your own direction.

The same with something else I said. I wrote the players didn't have a merchant friend. You answered that we can presume they have friends (why? I don't presume they have friends) and then you went off on a thing about how those presumed friends could help them. What is the difference between me giving them a rumor to get them started, and my giving them a friend to get them started? It is just more of the same: that it is the DM's responsibility to make sure the players have a good time.

And again. I said the players have to adapt to a world they don't know. And that this is the game. You ignored all that, then showered me with questions about naming shops. If I drop you in Thailand, or Rwanda, or Northern Burma, then the game becomes, can you survive in those places. It is immaterial if you know those places, from a game perspective. The game dictates that you must try to survive and thrive anyway.

Like I say, if we were talking face to face, I'm sure I could make you understand my perspective. But you're so insistent on reading things into what I've said, or jumping into scenarios or dictates that you're clearly prejudiced by, that you can't see the most obvious answer to your problem. And I say that it is YOUR problem, because it isn't mine.

Your problem is, QUOTE, "what can we do to help the players."

I'm not here to HELP the players. That is not my role. I'm here to provide a setting, and to make that setting as immersive as possible. It is the players' role to help themselves. If they don't "make the transition," too bad for them. I'm here to RUN THE GAME, not help the players play it.

Until you learn what your responsibilities are, and start to delegate of your former responsibilities onto the players, your world will get better.

Charles A said...

Sorry if I'm misrepresenting and misunderstanding, I'm certainly not doing it intentionally. If there's any misunderstanding, it's honest and unintentional.

I'm also not trying to read anything into what you say beyond what it seems to mean (to me), I'm asking questions to try to understand your position better. I'm not trying to catch you out, I'm trying to give you an opportunity to elaborate on things that are unclear to me.

I'm interested in your position, and trying to find out more about it. That's all.


I'm going to roll this quote around in my head a bit and reread your article with it in mind:

Your problem is, QUOTE, "what can we do to help the players."

I'm not here to HELP the players. That is not my role. I'm here to provide a setting, and to make that setting as immersive as possible. It is the players' role to help themselves. If they don't "make the transition," too bad for them. I'm here to RUN THE GAME, not help the players play it.

I've gone back and re-read these posts, which have been niggling at the back of my head for a while, but which clearly I wasn't thinking of when I read the masterclass or wrote my comments above. Took a bit to find them, but I was reminded of them by the quote I pulled just above and sought them out.

I think I'm cottoning on now, slowly, slowly, to what you're getting and what you're trying to do. It's starting to make sense and I like it. Your earlier line in one of those posts about trying to take yourself out of the loop "landed" this time through in a way it didn't before.

I'll be thinking more about proactive vs. reactive characters.

Thanks as usual for the thought-provoking content; nobody else is looking at things this way.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Charles. I don't think you're doing it deliberately, no.

Getting you on the same page, I can address getting players on page; because you're right. The players will stand around, doing nothing. I did not encounter this until I played online. I still have not ever encountered this in a face-to-face game.

It seems to me that if they've been trained to wait for the DM to provide a game for them, they can be trained to find a game for themselves. It might mean wasting a running, as they stumble around doing little or nothing. But that is the first step towards thinking for themselves. We're trying to teach them how to fish, so they can eat every day.