Monday, August 27, 2018

2nd Class: Research, Estimation & Planning

We might imagine that I have spent the first class hammering home the point that values are not part of a thing's definition, and that a lack of expertise is not a detriment to the functionality of game play.  You or I may think it is a detriment, because it is not our game, but that is a value judgment, arising from our expertise.

As the students file in for the second class, we can move on. In my proposition for a course regarding role-playing, I named point [b]: what preparation best feeds the participation of the fundamental game?  Here we're bound again by the limitations established in the first class.  We want to know, if you knew nothing about the game, what preparations could you make?  Before we can answer that, we must understand what preparations are and why they work.

Preparation is committed action in the present that services a situation that is expected to occur in the future.  It exists to enable the best possible results in any situation while reducing negative happenstance.  For example, in emergency services, we make sure the equipment on a fire truck is in excellent working order, every day, so that when we have to use the equipment on a moment's notice it accomplishes the goal of putting out the fire without letting us down and causing injury or death.

Obviously, preparedness figures into every human activity ... for most of us as that thing our boss keeps talking about that we have to be ready for.  Of late, I've taken a job in a costume shop.  Everything right now, absolutely everything, is about preparing for Halloween.  And rightly so.

Although many DMs make an argument that they don't "need" to prepare, it should be obvious that any thing that can be done on the fly and on a moment's notice can be done better with preparation.  I can run a game on the fly; but that is mostly because I've spent nearly 40 years preparing games and because of that I can shrink my preparation time down to a few minutes.  But that is NOT what we're talking about here.  We have to assume there are thousands of players who don't know how to prepare a game.  They don't know what they need to do, they don't know what's involved and they haven't had practice at doing it.  It follows, as well, that whatever will work best for them, will also work best for anyone, if we acknowledge that preparation is not a willy-nilly thing based on personal values, but something that is an established practice, honed by millenia of other people readying themselves for everything that has any human has done, ever.

What, then, is that established practice?  Specifically, seven ideals: research, estimation, planning, resourcing, education, practice and rehearsing.  None of these can be dismissed and all of them ought to be embraced and examined closely.  Mastering these to one's best potential is the best route towards vastly increasing your Dungeon Mastering experience.

Most of all, anyone, of any level of expertise, can advantage their play by understanding what these are and how they work with relation to game play.  In today's course, we're going to address the first three.


The accumulation of knowledge regarding the game, which encompasses an enormous number of elements that are part of the meta-game, in which the only participant is usually the Dungeon Master.  The highlights of research includes: (a) the applications of worldbuilding on both a macro and micro scale, using investigation into research, fiction, architectural design and the preponderance of works created by other people on which we can draw; (b) understanding and comprehending the rules fully, while affirming for one's self what rule systems and precendents, as well as what derivations and alternate rules, best services one's personal view of what the rules should be, so that when a rule is challenged the DM has at least a grounding in the existence of that rule and why it was made; (c) understanding player motivations and desires, so that it is clear to the DM why the player wants, or resists change, or questions rules, or otherwise feels motivated towards a particular action; (d) solving problems related to group dynamics, by asking questions of the players to determine how best to get a disparate and unique group to work together; (e) examining the results of groups that fail to work together; (f) developing new rules for parts of the game experience that have none, or where the DM views those rules as inadequate; (g) understanding the components of describing or explaining things; (h) understanding how narrative works; (i) understanding the elements of story telling that evoke emotion; (j) exploring the DM's inner capacity for creativity, in creating things that are new as opposed to rehashing old ideas; (k) testing the validity of dice, as well as the math behind randomness, so as to understand how bell curves and other perturbations and combinations affect game play; (l) understanding risk; (m) understanding a correct amount of payoff to be given in exchange for risk; (n) organizing rules and created work so that it can be employed when needed; (o) documenting the research that has been done so in can be found and understood when needed; (p) questioning and evaluating one's personal experiences so they can be learned from; and (q) experimentation of new ideas and evaluating those results.

This is a lot, this is daunting, and many simply avoid all of it.  They blindly accept the rules as written, make no investigation into design or human behaviour, do not care about the effects of dice on game play and are in no way introspective about their behavior in the past or how it might adjust.  This is the key to the above: none of this list is necessary to game play.  It is all dismissible, evidenced by those who dismiss it.  But look again at the definition of preparedness: the actions above are preparatory measures taken to increase the likelihood of things going right and decrease the likelihood of things going wrong. They are not guarantors of a great game, any more than the most efficient and high tech fire truck is a guarantor of no one losing their life in a fire.  Life is just too complicated for certainties.

Those who invest themselves in research do it primarily because they like research.  Like this recent PhD comic, people who end up in academic fields tend to dream of working at academic projects ... sort of like the way I spend my day off writing a long outline of how to prepare for a D&D campaign.  We research, investigate, come up with new ideas and use up our time to advantage ourselves and our games because we are built this way.

Yet any examination into any of the points above will greatly increase one's ability to run or play the game.  Knowing the rules by heart, so that we can hear someone make a comment about some rarified idea, we can recall, "Right!  There was a comment about that in the 3rd paragraph of page 45 of the DM's Guide."  Then go directly to that page in seconds and read the note word for word, then debate it among players.  Once, when I practically slept with the old DMG, there were parts I could definitely recite word for word.  It takes no experience, however, to read any rule book cover to cover ... then do it again a month later, and a month after that.  Regularly, I used to reread parts of it just to kill time.

Reading enough starts to connect dissimilar concepts in one's head, so that with research connections tend to arise through sheer repetition and combination.  This connectivity inspires creativity, which is in turn fed by extemporaneous passages that express particular viewpoints, strategies or successes, all of which steadily serves to prepare one for the unexpected ... so that when a player does something truly off the wall, it is (a) not that off the wall, because of the reading you've done; (b) just another new thing, because in your reading you've encountered many new things; and (c) completely manageable because you've already trained yourself to manage new things when you've encountered them.


The method by which we measure the effect or importance of things, or the needfulness of things, in order to satisfy demand when it occurs.  The highlights of estimation include: (a) how much preparation an idea needs, prior to the implementation of an idea or process; (b) how much time it takes to express a given number of details to a party, and the speed at which that detail can be relaid, as well as how much can be understood by players who have never heard it before; (c) what images or other resources will be needed to cover a presentation when that occurs; (d) one's own mental and physical limitations, based on time of day, personal health, mental acuity, ability to concentrate for a set number of hours and evaluating how one feels in the present moment; (e) understanding what it the best tactic, or model, to use in presenting a particular element of the game (should this be a physical representation of the battle or can we play this with descriptions only); and (f) what matters and what does not matter where gameplay is concerned.

Estimation is primarily a mental preparation, though it often adjusts real time processes and pacing.  To estimate accurately usually requires experience ... but even without any experience or proficiency, the very fact that estimation will be required to produce a better game is an enormous step forward for any would-be Dungeon Master.

Many DMs, inexperienced and experienced alike, enter into a game session presuming that the players and the DM will do their thing and it will all somehow work out in the end.  This is confidence, but it is not rational.  A DM has the choice to reflect upon the various elements of play and question, "If I were being told something without having previously understood the research, or heard the idea, how long would I need, and how much description would I need, to grasp the idea enough to play with it?"  The choice to step outside of ourselves in order to estimate how our words and actions, as DM, affects other people, matters.

Realistically estimating how much work needs to be done to present a particular adventure or session to the best degree can both increase the resultant success and save time, as we can evaluate what over-preparing is.  And as a neophyte invests into these various aspects of estimation (empathy of the players, amount of preparation needed, a clear idea of their own limitations), the practice of estimating becomes second nature to the DM and it is then done later on with more and more alacrity.

Naturally, there are some without skill who will make an estimate and find the estimate was way off, then come to the conclusion that estimation is pointless.  Nothing is ever accomplished with that thinking.  The assumption that others estimate, but I don't have to, would be a clear effort towards justifying laziness, a habit for which no limit of invented nonsense will ever be reached.  The laziest people will always find a good and rational reason to be lazy; this does not make it a good route for preparing for future games.


The formation of a plan is a series of steps designed to produce a specific result that will give us what we want.  For example, if we are homesteading previously unoccupied land, and we want water, we must dig a well.  To dig the well, we must plan to have tools, we must have materials, we must have time to do the labor, we must have the capacity and the will to work as long as necessary and we must have a place to dig.  Understanding that we need these things, before actually putting any of these things into use or effect, is planning.

The highlights of planning are: (a) having players to participate who are eager and ready to do so; (b) planning a world that will satisfy the players who will play; (c) having a space to play; (d) knowing that an understanding of what a DM does will matter; (e) knowing that estimates will have to be made; (f) having the various tools and researched material, along with game books, designs, rules, written adventure points and so on available for use; (g) understanding of the basic premise of the rules and game play; and (h) planning to make further plans for what needs to be addressed when the present incarnation of the game grows tired and ineffective.

Most of these things are fed by research, which in turn lends itself to estimation and understanding.  Even so, the first things on this list don't require actual experience in game play in order to assemble.  Communication with persons establishes them as players.  A few questions identifies their expectations.  The space needs to be large enough and convenient for the participants, but is no worse than planning a small party.  Knowing that there will be estimates is not being accurate with them, it is merely being aware that some sort of stab in the dark is necessary.  Tools, books, designs, rules, what have you, can be purchased and need to be carted to the game space.  Reading the books to understand the bare minimum of rules is expected for any game.

Planning for future plans, however, is another deal ... but it is assumed that these plans will be fed by what has already been experienced.  If you've run an adventure through to the end, you know you will need another adventure.  If the adventure before wasn't very good, you need to plan for a better one, and not just follow the same pattern again.  If you bought your first adventure, buying your second one isn't a new plan, it's the same plan you already carried out; don't be surprised if this plan, carried out ad nauseum, begins to fail. If you don't seem to know the rules very well, read them again. If your players seem unreliable, plan to sit down with them and get a stronger commitment, by addressing existing problems and negotiating.  Plan to replace players who won't commit, or who commit to a narcissistic idea of their own that is not your game.

Carrying out your plan is NOT planning.  If you conceive of a plan in one instant and move to carry it out the next, you're not planning, you're acting on impulse.  Planning is the process of concieving a solution to a problem (we need water) or the pathway to that solution (let's build a well).  It is not grabbing the nearest stick of wood and digging in a random spot until you get tired.  That is not planning.  That is the absence of planning.

Before carrying out a plan, we need to examine the problem and the proposed solution from all sides.  Once we conceive of an idea, say for a game world or for an adventure, we must take time to consider what others will think of what we would propose.  This has to be done realistically ... not merely from the notion that, because I thought of it and I think it is cool, others will automatically fall in line once they see the thing's magnificence.  Again, that isn't a plan.  That's narcissism.

Most people do not like to plan.  They like to jump in and do, and they will tell you so, often.  But like the fellow with the stick digging a well, they soon get tired, they stop digging with the stick and despite a lot of effort, nothing actually gets done.  The key separation between "doing" and "accomplishing" is in how much planning was given to the original concept.  A plan has to include estimations of how much is needed and why, the employing of a trusted friend who can act as a sounding board, a willingness to admit that perhaps the idea is a bridge too far given one's actual abilities and exactly what is to be accomplished ... and to work, this has to be decided before any work is done.

As with Research and Estimation, Planning is not actually necessary for game play.  It can be discarded, and is discarded, without changing the definition of an RPG in the least.  But choosing to plan enables long term solutions to problems that will one day arise; choosing to plan enables a steady increase in one's abilities; choosing to plan saves time and effort; and choosing to plan makes one aware of more than what has been made.  It creates much of the structure in one's own mind in a clear, fixed sense, so that even if it hasn't actually been put on paper, the very planning of the idea has made that part of the plan real.

Before we start digging the well, we can see it in our minds; seeing it, knowing how it will happen, relieves the stress of doubt that comes from just winging something.  If you already know as an engineer that your plans are sound, that the equipment and materials are available, that the water is accessible and that labor is plentiful, there is no doubt in your mind that the well will be finished and ready to provide water, when you're ready to make it happen.

Without a plan, you're never sure of anything.

That's enough for today.  With our next two classes we'll be talking about resourcing, education, practice and rehearsing.


Drain said...

Excellent advice, Alexis.

As ever, you deliver well past the usual bunny rancher's field guide spiel of "Just Say Yes & Have Fun".

Samuel Kernan said...

Estimation is an area I had never thought about before. I've had things derailed when I thought players would pick up on a new rule quickly, with little explanation, but they ended up needing more time and guidance.

Charles A said...

This is excellent. You've framed the issues in a way that allows some headway to be made.

Thiago said...

Well, since we're all adults with little time, me and my group have drifted towards rules light systems, and just accept that level of simulation. Bar that, me, as the DM, have great delight in historical research, and thus my game world usually relies on actual facts for stuff like weather, agriculture and architecture.

Monkapotomus said...

What a great way to think about this. As an engineer who regularly employees this process for project planning, software development, and deployments this really strikes home.

Estimation is probably the area of game mastering and playing that I struggle with the most and it is probably one of the most important steps to get right. It often doesn't matter how much research you've done and how good your plan is if your estimation of time and resources is completely wrong. For work it is easy since I have a lot of established parameters, metrics, and best practices to work with but for role playing I really struggle. Maybe this goes back to research but identifying the various parameters for the game that I need to estimate and plan for would probably help a lot. Obviously game system and players is critical but what about beyond that? Off the top of my head I can think of setting, location, NPCs, and races. I suppose religion and culture would be included as well.

Boy this has my gears spinning and churning.