Sunday, September 30, 2018

9th Class: Storytelling

With this class, I feel it is time to discuss some of the theory that has grown around role-playing games, as we hear expressed whenever we seek out information about playing.  One such theory is the identification with the DM as a storyteller ... and consequently, with campaigns being founded upon great stories that the DM creates, which are then expanded by collaborative storytelling carried forward by the players, which is supported in part by the creation of backstories, the history and motivation of the character prior to the start of the campaign.

Let us consider for a moment the Novice participant moving towards a greater understanding of the game, graduating to Advanced Beginner.  As more games are played, the DM acquiring experience will find that much of the game running process includes giving information to the players so that they will: (a) understand what is going on; (b) envision a place as described; (c) create an intended emotional response; and (d) provide ground work for the players to make decisions which move events forward.

In storytelling, this information is called "exposition."  Exposition can be provided in a number of ways: through direct description of things; through direct dialogue given by non-player characters; with images; and with body language to convey importance.  Most importantly, we must all note that the very best exposition is that which is told in the form of a story, rather than just a list of facts.  We are more likely to be invested in a story, we are more likely to remember the parts of a story (because they fit together), and we are more likely to gain pleasure from retelling a story that we like.

And so, from personal experience, a DM who is practicing the game as an advanced beginner will naturally seek out ways to transform the exposition that must be given to the party into patterns which we would all recognize as stories.  Quickly, a positive feedback loop results.  DMs try harder to tell better stories, or find better stories, and players in turn respond to these better stories positively.

Before continuing, let's take a moment to understand what the better story accomplishes.  The DM has a set adventure in mind, which has come about through preparations the DM has made.  The adventure is itself a story: a group of creatures has taken an action that threatens some element of the setting, and the expectation is that the players will be commissioned to put an end to the threat.

However, prior to the players accepting the commission, they must be coaxed out of inactivity, so that they will take action.  They must be inspired.  They must feel that this commission is of some importance to them.  It is clear the commission is important to the DM; the DM has created the adventure.  But having not yet seen the adventure, or knowing fully what value the adventure holds, the players are naturally filled with resistance.

This resistance must be overcome.  The DM can plead with the players, asking that they simply accept the commission because the game requires it.  The DM can demand and threaten the players with in-game punishments, holding their feet to the fire by creating villains who will kill the players if they don't act.  The DM can threaten not to DM.  Each of these tactics, however, will tend to create negative feedback, in that they will be seen as manipulative and ethically irresponsible ~ and they will encourage like behaviour from players who concede to DMs who employ these tactics.  If the DM can threaten not to DM, that we as players can threaten not to play.  If the DM can plead with us to take part in his adventure, then we can plead with the DM to feed our own demands.  If the DM holds our feet to the fire with threats against our characters, we can kill the DMs treasured NPCs whenever it is plain the DM has pride in them.  And so on.

A proper story, however, has the power to inspire a player to take part because they want to.  An inspiring story appeals to emotions, which the players want to express and be a part of, feeding their curiousity, their sense of self-expression, their empowerment and their quest for an interpersonal connection.  As a story relayed by the DM touches on some personal story that a player possesses from their own life, a positive connection is made which then becomes a catalyst for agency and a desire for achievement.  Stories compel these responses ethically, because the participants respond pro-actively.  They don't need to be pushed.  They will rush forward.

By the time a DM becomes competent, they have already told hundreds of stories of their own making, and repeated thousands more that they have repeated from another source. What's more, the best stories remain in the DM's mind, influencing other stories the DM will tell and bearing with them a strong sense of nostalgia that will serve as a beacon for what kind of stories ought to be told.

The appearance that stories create better games seems so obvious to a competent DM as to seem self-evident and absolutely beyond doubt.  It is obvious.  And yet, at the start of this class, I described storytelling as a theory.  What makes it a theory?

To begin with, storytelling has nothing specifically to do with role-playing games, except that we as humans play role-playing games.  Human beings are natural storytellers, and we do it constantly and all the time, in every encounter we have with others and in every instance where we think things to ourselves and try to give those things a structure and a meaning.  It is impossible to think rationally as a human without telling a story of some kind.

The argument that telling a story creates positive feedback from players is only true because telling a story always creates positive feedback ~ once we learn to tell stories well.  We learn as young children to create stories to make friends, to get out of trouble, to get the things we want, to settle differences and to express both our true and our false feelings.  We transform living in time into episodes that we integrate with meaning, and then we combine those meanings into our own life story, which in large part we only tell ourselves.  With stories, we construct periods of regret, shame, doubt, resistance to new ideas; and we construct moments when we redeemed ourselves, where we acted bravely or empathically ... and in every case, some of these constructions are true in the minds of others, and some of them are not true.

But the best stories win us partners in life, friends, loving children, trusting employers, community awards and self-respect.  Whereas the worst stories ~ and we all have them ~ propel us into depression, despair, self-destruction, abuse of others and potentially suicide.

If storytelling in every day life is the difference between how we behave as people, and how others behave towards us, why should we presume that a role-playing game would not function according to those same principles of psychology and biology?

Storytelling as the be-all and end-all of great role-play gaming is a theory because it is arrived at entirely through subjective analysis.  We cannot get there objectively ... and as we've already discussed, if we do not arrive at a position objectively, it is not knowledge.  Storytelling can appear to be a path to great role-playing, but we need to ask ourselves:  does it appear that way because of the game, or because of who we are as human beings?  Does it necessarily follow that because we are treating our fellow human beings better, that we are playing a better game?

There is no answer to that.  Which is why I don't say that storytelling isn't very important to the way that a role-playing game is played.  We don't know, because given the lack of hard evidence, we can't know.

This is not a bad thing.  It is a weakness to take things utterly on faith ~ and there are very many who, having experienced the positive feedback of storytelling, are very much prepared to take it on faith alone.  But faith is not knowledge.  We need to look closely at storytelling, deconstructing it and examining all its elements, if we wish to advance our understanding of that facet of gaming from competency to proficiency.

Until the next class, then.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

New Master Class Post

This post, Rewarding Players, is the shortest I have written for the MasterClass blog, just 2,600 words.  I wanted to put more into it, but the subject material simply didn't have the legs to let me riff for the desired 3,000 word minimum.

Sometimes, however, a post doesn't need words.  It needs an idea.  The idea here is that players are owed by DMs when they play well.  And a DM in that situation has an obligation to pay up, ethically and honestly.  Paying up doesn't have to mean pouring out a dumptruck of treasure and ensuring everyone goes up a level ... but it does mean rewarding the players in a way that matters, not only to the campaign but to them as People playing in the campaign.

Anyway.  This makes one post for September, which will be the only one as I explained earlier.  The next one, my last one for the foreseeable future, will not come until after Halloween, and potentially weeks after Halloween.  But I'm assured by my readers that we are well.

Enjoy the new post.  I'm here if anyone has questions.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


I promised myself I'd write a post today no matter what.  I wanted to write another RPG 201 post, but that's not quite coming together so instead I'm going to pick around the edges of it a bit.  Sometimes, thinking through writing is all I need.

My goal for the next four classes, nine through twelve, is talk through some of the theories related to how role-playing games work.  I feel I've established a grounding for processes, how expertise is acquired and how to approach a deconstruction of the game from an objective viewpoint ... so it stands to reason that we need to move forward into role-playing itself, to define how we see it and what is generally believed to make it work from the point of view of both the DM and the Player.

It seems strange at this late date, but I'm having a little trouble defining the goals of the whole course itself.  I am thinking of it, generally, as Introduction to RPG Mechanics ... the way it is done or operated, the practicalities behind it and the manner in which it causes participants to behave.  In that sense, it is also an Introduction to RPG Design ... except that I'm not talking Game Theory and how to design a "role-playing game."  Design is involved, but only in a meta-sense.

There are four theories I mean to discuss: the game as storytelling; the players as heroes; adventures written as quests; and role-play as the central purpose of the game.  I call these "theories" because none have been factually proven by any clinical research of any kind, but they are held to be true somewhat universally throughout the role-playing community.

I have written posts disparaging all of them ... but that is not my purpose with this course.  Instead, I want to deconstruct each theory from the perspective of explaining why they are held to be true, and why that belief carries a conviction that subverts any attempt at examination.  Most role-players would be hard pressed to admit that their impression of these things ~ stories, heroes, quests and role-play ~ is founded on a complete lack of evidence.  In fact, it would seem, for very good psychological reasons, that these things are all drowning in blatantly obvious evidence, which most readers would be able to point to at a moment's notice if the topic came up.

Except that all the "evidence" is subjective evidence.  In other words, not evidence.  As I explained with my last class.

So this is a tall order.  I have it structured in my head but the words themselves haven't had the time to ruminate their way off my fingers so the process of getting it written hasn't happened.  Sometimes writing is like having a room full of legos but we haven't decided which end of Verne's Nautilus we're going to start building first.

Today, I had an odd request at work, where much of my job has become explaining to callers what costumes our store has in stock, if at all.  I get a lot of requests for adult costumes for kids, many of which we have: like an Indiana Jones costume for a kid or a Tyrannosaurus costume for a kid.  Today, I had someone ask about a kid's costume for an adult - specifically, a carebear costume in an adult size.  It is a world gone mad.

I spend my days also writing about WWE costumes, or LOL Surprise costumes, or disco lady and material girl costumes, or Oogie Boogie costumes.  Three months ago I had a job where I made the same soup every shift without fail ... now I'm writing at length about a sexy nun costume full of double entendres, and five minutes later I'm writing about a puppy costume for a 12 month old child.  It is indeed a world gone mad.

So I'm having a bit of trouble putting together the legos to explain why storytelling for role-playing is a self-fulfilling problem solving mechanic for illusionary problems, yet a crippling blind spot where it comes to moving from the pedantic thinking of someone competent into the progressive thinking of someone proficient.  I'm thankful I've had the time to describe the terms; but there's a long way to go yet.

I'm on it.  A bit distracted, and bound to be more distracted before Halloween ends, but I'm on it.  To whet your appetite I'll leave you with this graph about narrative identity and it's relationship to the process of getting acquainted with a new job.  This has direct bearing on what I just said about story telling in role-play.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Why a University Class at All?

Given my recent work on these RPG 201 posts, I think it's fair to ask the question, am I a mentor?  I know for a fact that some would say "yes," without hesitation.  Others might say I had important things to say or that I was useful.  And still others would answer emphatically, "No."

Frankly, it doesn't matter.  As my 8th Class argues, every voice is suspect.  Every voice, regardless of the status, regardless of the number of years behind it, regardless of the accreditation behind that voice, has every chance of being dead wrong about some, most or all of what it claims.  That is why we create boards that evaluate professions after it's members have reached the last measure of their educations, or the pinnacle of their careers.  Because people, even the proficient and the expert, fall into patterns of thinking that lead them into bad habits and potentially abusive, misleading and criminal behaviour.

Despite what many people think, even after you get your papers, there is no free ride.  If you're not consistently responsible and above board, people will notice and you will lose your credibility, your status and your right to practice.

That is why I would be the first to argue, resist what I'm telling you.  Resist it.  Don't accept it as written.  Test it, examine it with your own experience, research it from data you find both inside and outside role-playing games and come to your own conclusions.  I am not describing my right way.  I'm describing a method for the reader to use to find the right way.

This does not mean there is no right way ... and it especially does not mean that any way is right if it is the right way for you.  I don't want to explain that.  If it's not self-explanatory at this point, it isn't worth my effort to flog why.

The goal is to build a premise for how RPGs function within the framework of other established fields.  RPGs do not exist in a bubble onto themselves.  The principles surrounding participation between DM and Players obey the same social conditions that affect all group dynamics, all power dynamics, all motivational dynamics and all other human activities.  As a DM, we face the same trials that a manager faces in handling employees; we face the same limitations in how much data we can manage at any given moment, just as a firefighter or a soldier manages; we possess the same base instincts and needs as any other person acting within a family, a tribe or a clique.  The guiding principles underlying role-playing are not a science onto themselves.  Role-playing is not "unique" where human-to-human interaction is concerned.  It is merely a different venue.

That's been the trouble to date. There's been a deliberate attempt to "pretend" that RPGs somehow operate according to internal rules that are utterly removed from human experience.  As if, sitting at a table to play D&D, we're not dealing with the same human emotions we would find at a game of poker, or RISK, or a wargame like Battletech.

We're human.  We have to deconstruct RPGs along those lines, to see how they're put together apart from the rules of the game.  Why do we like these things?  Why do they create the impulses, the obsessions, the eventual ennui, that RPGs create?  What parts of the psyche do they feed and what parts do they corrupt?  These are questions no one is asking, because there's a quiet resistance to seeing that RPGs fall into the orbit of human experiences.

As if somehow, admitting the fact would somehow cheapen RPGs.  I don't agree with that.  I believe that by measuring RPGs, and the behavior of the participants, as we've learned to measure every other human activity, we teach ourselves what to expect and how to understand our motivations, our shortcomings and our means of self-improvement.

What did he mean, "some?" Pray tell me, what parts do not fall into the purpose of those exercises? What parts of "role-playing games" are not governed by the same goals behind clinical and academic efforts as encouraging emotional, uncertain people to role-play out their experience?  Was he being deliberately obtuse, or did he really think that D&D consisted largely of people doing things disconnected from everyday human response?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

8th Class: The Pursuit of Objective Knowledge

With our last class, we made reference to the inability of educators to create any legitimacy for the teaching of critical thinking. We discussed subjectivity, making the point that while it was an important part of a human being's nature, subjective awareness of things is not knowledge.  Knowledge, we said, is objective.

From the above, however, we should conclude that no one has the ability to tell another person, "think objectivity," which is substantially no different from asking someone to think critically.  How, then, do we follow through on my promise with our last class to discuss ways in which Novices can adjust their games in an objective manner?

To understand this, let's look more closely at the conventions we discussed in our 5th class.  A convention is a set of agreed upon standards that have developed over time as a shared value upon which a large number of persons agree.  Shared values occur because a particular viewpoint, the origin of which may be obscure, tends to make sense to a large enough group of persons that it becomes strongly suggested as a guideline that most, or all other people should follow.  Depending on the context, we might refer to such conventions as "common sense" or "tradition."

Conventions come in many forms
Notions gain the support of a large number of persons also share a relative objective status.  A convention comes about from no single person's subjectivity.  Repeated observation and acceptance of the convention by multiple persons suggests that it has a validity that goes beyond what can be perceived, felt or imagined by any one person.  Therefore, we might argue that following conventions is good practice ~ and many people argue exactly that.

However, while we might argue that convention bears consideration and may be a pathway to facts and truths, the mere fact that many people believe a thing does not make it so.  Human beings are of a kind in many aspects; and being like creatures, with like hormonal natures and like experiences as they age from children to become adults, can easily come to the same consistently wrong conclusions about a thing than arriving at the right ones.  Conventions about most things are almost always exploded in any subject material where experimentation and scientific method can be applied.  The history of human progress has left thousands of previously held conventions in ditches on the side of the road as knowledge has been expanded.  Of course, as human groups, we're always ready to make new ones.

That said, where conventions exist, it is good that any novice be aware of them.  The conventions in RPGs persist because new DMs who are picking up the mantle of the game are pleased to adopt standards that will, initially, simplify their games.  Our role-playing Novice will do better to follow in that practice in order to swim and not sink when beginning to run.  So our Novice rolls characters as expected, encourages story-making, buys modules, watches Critical-Role on the internet for ideas and functions as we would expect most DMs to function.  This is perfectly normal behaviour.

Just as conventions are created from many sources, we prepare
ourselves by investigating a wide range of conventions
Because we cannot trust conventions, however, our Novice will do well to seek another objective means of determining truths from falsehoods.  We discussed one alternative in our first week of classes.  Through various forms of preparation, particularly research and resources, our Novice can personally investigate each convention through the eyes of multiple persons and sources, both inside and outside the RPG community.  For example, ideas like "alignment" or "combat" can be explored at length in psychology or military history textbooks, and through personal interactions and experimentation well out of the RPG arena, in a vast number of ways.  By physically and personally exploring the use of weapons, say through the Society for Creative Anachronism, our Novice can gain insight into different points of views and conventions, which can then be compared with those conventions that exist in role-playing games.  Gaining a choice of which set of precepts to believe, coupled with subjective experience, our Novice can decide which ideas and philosophies seem most effective where applied to game-play.

This still does not amount to an objective experience, however.  The decision is still largely a subjective one.  Our novice can easily be enamoured by what's new, rather than what's best.  We will often sacrifice old ideas because something fresh is exciting and compelling.  We can't be completely certain that any decision being made is, in fact, objective.

As well, our Novice has a limited amount of time and capacity to personally investigate every convention that exists, in order for such a choice to be made.  Very much time can be spent trying to research or examine things, only to come up empty, which can be particularly frustrating for our Novice, who has little background in what to search for or where.  So while preparation is potentially a great addition to the process of objective thinking, it brings its own problems.  The writer of a book can easily be subjectively or conventionally wrong about whatever is being written.  It is hard for a novice to tell.

With so many conventions and possibilities, we need people
who have been there to help us find the right path.
To empower our Novice, we need a 3rd entity: a mentor of some kind.  A mentor has already been where the Novice is.  A mentor has navigated the various conventions and attempts at alternative points of view that our Novice wishes to have ~ and so a mentor can point our Novice in the right directions, to read the right books, to understand where conventions fail to hold up in the long run and to see which conventions will likely maintain their validity over time.

Like conventions and forms of preparation, however, mentors also have their drawbacks.  A mentor may very well be prejudiced against certain ideas, or resistant against some facts, or simply motivated by some human quality to spread misinformation or ignorance. Not every self-proclaimed mentor deserves recognition as such, but for our Novice, again, it can be hard to tell one mentor from another.  Where it comes to knowing what to believe, or how to play, or how to prepare for that play, our Novice can easily reach out to any voice willing to hold our Novice's attention long enough to inculcate a misguided or self-serving agenda.

Therefore, while a mentor might offer an objective viewpoint, we can never be sure which mentor is true and which is false.

How, then, are we to pursue an objective viewpoint?  There seems no way to remove ourselves from the pitfalls of someone's subjectivity, no matter what we do.  Take heart, however, in the knowledge that this is how it has always been ... and that the solution is simple.

Diligently check each source of potential discovery against every other source, and see if it measures up.  We have four subjective sources: personal experience, convention, mentorship and preparedness (through research, resources and other means).  Whatever any of these sources might suggest ~ including, most of all, personal experience! ~ do not trust it until you have confirmation from all three of the other sources.  And even then, hold that knowledge in reserve.  It might still be wrong, as you haven't yet found the proof that explodes it.

What this means for our Novice is this: the pursuit of knowledge requires that we presume, all the time, that we are probably wrong about everything we believe.  We must not believe things because we are certain these things are right ~ but rather, because these things we believe are the best we have, right now.  Give us evidence, provide the right proof, demonstrate in defacto manner that we have reason to believe that we've been wrong, and we'll admit it.

Until then, whatever you tell us, we're going to turn it sideways and look at it from every angle, comparing it to everything we've learned thus far, then decide for ourselves what is the best thing to believe.

This does not come easily.  Most persons cannot bear a condition that acknowledges the possibility of error in perpetuity.  There is great comfort in being right; even when rightness is impossible, and must be steadfastly taken on faith and faith alone in order to make it so.  It is a peculiar person who can resist the appeal of certainty, even if all certainty is a lie.

Yet, for our Novice, it is best to gain good habits early.  The best habit for our Novice is to question everything.  Why is this a convention?  Why do these things I've discovered not agree with things others say?  Why is this mentor telling me something different?

Our Novice has to keep asking until the answers become consistent, whatever the source.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Life Shifts to the Left

Let me start today by saying I'm sorry.  In the interest of my sanity, and in putting energy towards things that will serve me best over the next year, I am forced to put my Masterclass blog on hiatus.  This follows my online campaign being put on hiatus, and the podcast never materializing, and a host of other things in my life that have been shoved to the side as I adjust my lifestyle.

Until just recently, I had a lot of time. I was working about 15-20 a week, with a 1-hour a day commute (round-trip). Now I am working 40 hours a week, with a 2.5-hour commute. And with Halloween coming on, the costume business is about to go turbo. Workload has increased about 20% across the board comparing this week to last week, and it is going to go on like that (and worse) through the next seven weeks.

I have written an email to those persons who are, right now, supporting my Masterclass and expect two posts for same this month of September.  I have explained that those posts will be written ~ I just don't know when, exactly.  I'd like to work slowly, a bit each day, and get them completed before things get completely crazy with October ... but in any case, anyone who has supported me thus far will continue to have access to the Masterclass blog, because that is my commitment and I will keep it.

However, after those two last posts, I will not be writing more for it in the foreseeable future.  My circumstances may change and I may pick them up again ... but not without much more time at my disposal.  Rest assured, if anyone wants to stop supporting me over this issue, those people have my absolute respect and understanding.  You should not feel any need to support anything that you do not feel compensated for.

It takes anywhere from 10-12 hours of hard planning, thinking and writing to put one of those 3000-4000 word posts together.  In comparison, it is about 2.5 - 3 hours of far less effort to write one of the RPG 201 posts (which I plan to continue to post on the free blog).  It isn't just the time; it is the effort, the painstaking concept of it, that wears me down.

I trust this is forthcoming and honest enough for my readers.  Please continue to watch this space.  I may get thin until after Halloween is over, but I'm not going anywhere.  I'm just writing less.

Friday, September 14, 2018

7th Class: Subjectivity and Objectivity

Following up on our last class discussing the five steps of learning, we looked at Hubert and Stuart Dreyfuss' discussion of mistakes and learning from them.  As a part of that, I spoke on the need to reflect upon the decisions we make as DMs, evaluating the effectiveness and the rightness of those decisions, "without assuming our [original] judgment was correct."

Before continuing, we will need to look at what it means to reflect upon actions that we've taken, or upon anything else that we may not fully understand.  This process is called "critical thinking" and is a fundamental principle of all scholarship and knowledge.  But while it has been seen as a primary skill in learning anything, there is much doubt at present that critical thinking is something that can taught.  In Daniel T. Willingham's seminal work on Critical thinking, he asks and answers the question,
"Can critical thinking acually be taught?  Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really.  People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking it not that sort of skill."

We should find this interesting.  Suppose we want to progress an individual ~ we'll call him Jim ~ from competency to proficiency as a DM. We cannot, as demonstated, teach Jim how to think critically, and then apply that critical thinking skill to role-playing games so that he becomes a more adept role-player.  Thus we are left to ask, what can we do?

We can explain to Jim that, from the time that he was a novice, that most of his "knowledge" came from things that he perceived as he experienced the game being played, as well as his emotional responses to that play, and finally to his imagination ~ the set of things that were not concretely real, but that he added personally to the game's play as an augmentation to his direct experiences.  We all do this.  It is our biological nature to take information gained from our senses and our responses, and transform that information into "common sense" axioms, even before we've ceased being a novice.

Let's take an example.  In our second class, I listed a series of things that a DM or Player might research as a means of preparing to play the game better.  One of the things on that list was (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.

Suppose Jim, as a Novice, begins asking such questions.  When Jim receives answers, he naturally hears the words and reads the faces of the players, then "feels" something about what was said, and finally creates an answer from his imagination.  Because he is a Novice at the game, these are the only skills he brings himself ... and it can be seen fairly quickly how Jim is going to get himself into trouble.

Jim has little to no experience at all with the game, so when he is surrounded by Players and a DM, he is out of his element.  He will tend to make the same personal judgments about a Player's motivation in the game as he would about any person acting in any other circumstance.  Likewise, his feelings about what is said will be the same feelings that he might apply to a person's behaviour in the workplace, or at a bar, or while walking down the street.  Seeing someone get overly excited about, say, a pile of imaginary gold pieces, might cause him to have very different feelings about the experience than a long-time player would.  And when applying his imagination to what his feelings mean, or what his senses tell him, he would likely jump to conclusions that an experienced player would never entertain.

Jim might be the sort of person, with the sort of background, that enables him to "get it" instantly.  I did.  But he might just as easily not be ~ and thus we can understand why many people who first encounter a description of the game are ready to turn up their nose and move off.

Let's say, however, that whether through instinct, or through a willingness to experience more play, Jim acquires that set of conventions that lets him expand his outlook.  Yet as he progresses from Novice to Advanced Beginniner, we should understand that most decisions he will make about which conventions can be ignored, and what parts of the game need to be changed, will be based on his perceptions, his feelings and his imagination.

While very important to our make-up as human beings, we have to understand that these things are not knowledge.  They are beliefs.  They are a subjective judgment about things ~ and while these judgments have value to the individual, we further recognize that all persons have these judgments based on their own personal beliefs, which are therefore different from one another.

Reaching a consensus about subjective beliefs is far, far different from reaching a consensus about knowledge.  When Jim says, "My pencil is broken," this is a demonstrable fact that witnesses can examine and identify for themselves.  Unless the pencil is sharpened, it has no value as a pencil.  But when Jim says, "I don't like the way this pencil feels in my hand," there is no consensus on the pencil's value.  Jim is still able to write with is, as is everyone else; and each person will have their own personal take on the value of the pencil, none of which can be identified as a factual value.

When Advanced Beginners set out to alter and adjust an existing set of conventions, they appear to be doing so based on what they would describe as their experiential knowledge ... but it is, in fact, a personal set of values based on what parts of the game matter specifically to those persons.  Jim decides to change the rules surrounding, say, Alignment, because he doesn't like Alignment, not because the conventions around Alignment are necessarily ineffective.  Jim is not learning more about Alignment and how it works in the game; Jim is learning that he can change parts of the game in order to suit his whims.

This is not how Jim would describe it, however.  From Jim's perspective, these changes are "necessary."  It is "clear" that without the changes, an "improved" game wouldn't be possible.  Jim is still describing a pencil that doesn't feel right in his hand.  His explanations for the change are not grounded in demonstrable facts; others must take his word, relying solely on his subjective opinion (or coincidentally, on their own), if they are to agree with Jim.  Neither Jim nor those who agree with him can point to a set of facts that would convince everyone to plainly see that Alignment is ineffective as a game mechanic.

The alternative position to judging something subjectively is to judge it objectively.  Objective reasoning argues that something is true only if it is universally true ~ that is, everyone is subject to that truth even if they can't perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it.  Objective truths, or facts, arise from investigation that can then be proven by methods that are indisputable.  If there were something evident about Alignment that caused every person experimenting with it to observe the same reactions, experience the same responses from players, and note the same patterns of behaviour in accordance with Alignment, we would soon develop a convention that would be imposed on nearly every game: don't play with alignment.  I say "nearly every game" because even when confronted with facts, some people stubbornly persist at things.

Suppose Jim continues to play his games in a subjective manner, becoming a DM with the certain feeling that every value he has in playing the game is the "right" value.  As he becomes competent, he will rigidly close down every option of play that he finds personally in conflict with his sense of right and wrong.  This rigidity will steadily, with experience, remove all options from the manner in which he plays ... in which case, whenever he plays, there will always seem to be one clear and perfect option, no matter what has to be decided.

Because this bears a similarity to the Expert described in our last class, who does not make a decision among multiple options, as a Proficient Player would, it is probable that Jim will begin to self-describe himself as an expert.  Like an expert, he sees a problem, he understands immediately what he must do to address the problem, and he solves it.  Except that he does not solve the problem for anyone else. He only solves the problem for Jim.

Dreyfus is quite clear on this point.  Expertise is gained first by fully understanding the whole panoply of options that potentially exist: playing the game with or without alignment, and a myriad of splintering degrees to which alignment in all its possible forms might be structured in order to give the best possible repeatable result for the greatest number of persons.  That is the fundamental of social science, where absolute facts are difficult because of the complexity of human beings (as opposed to pencils).  It is only with great awareness of the various possibilities that the Expert emerges from Proficiency.

Rather than attempting to reason our way through our games with "critical thinking," we need to understand constantly that whatever we believe, whatever methods we use right now to run our games, whatever effectiveness we may have had in the past with our foregoing strategies, we are still in the wrong about something.  The fact that we can perceive it, or feel it, or imagine it, is immaterial.  We know we are in the wrong because we haven't yet shown everyone else in the world how we are right enough to be followed exactly in our behaviour.

Being in the wrong is not a bad thing.  It is a good thing.  It means constantly and vigilantly looking for the value we hold, that we are wrong about.  We don't tire of looking because, first, we know it exists, and second, because diligent searching has found wrong things about our values in the past.

We're just not always willing to accept being wrong, even when we change to account for it.

With our next class, we'll try to evaluate some of the ways that Novices can employ to adjust their games in an objective manner.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

6th Class: From Competent Player to Expert

In our last class, we spoke about how competency can cause a DM to become overwhelmed by the number of aspects associated with the game.  For example, there are elements to be addressed regarding character creation, creating the session, fleshing out characters, managing player interactions and blow ups, how to present the game, how much the dice should matter, whether fudging is okay, character death, amount of experience to be given, use of traps, use of tension, how much agency should the players have, cheating, what's a good tone for a game, how much squickiness is acceptable, where do we draw the line on player girlfriends and boyfriends, how do we find players, booting players, keeping within the genre of the game, using optional rules, using house rules, using rules from other editions or role-playing games, allowing players to use characters from other settings, policing alignment, policing class restrictions, handing out treasure and magic, transparency on the use of magic, gods, balancing player characters, balancing combats, keeping notes during the game, maintaining momentum, fairness as a DM, trade, cosplaying at the table, rolling for reactions among NPCs, NPCs joining a party, the DM's privilege to give advice, controlling gamesmanship, managing aerial, waterborne or extra-terrestrial game settings, use of monsters to subvert or fuck with the party, mind games ... the list is extensive and every aspect of the list includes quite a few sub-texts and functional effects.  Keeping it all straight in one's head in the moment of running the game seems, as Stuart E. Dreyfus suggests, impossible.

So how do we do it?

An ordinary, competent gamer attempts to seek knowledge

Dreyfus argues,
"Naturally, to avoid mistakes, the competent performer seeks rules and reasoning procedures to decide which plan or perspective to adopt.  But such rules are not easy to come by as are the rules and maxims given beginners in manuals and lectures.  Indeed, in any skill domain, the performer encounters a vast number of situations differing from each other in subtle ways.  There are, in fact, more situations than can be named or precisely defined, so no one can prepare for the learner a list of types of possible situations and what to do or look for in each."

Here again, as before, Dreyfus insists on the word, "rules."  This is a problem where we are discussing a game, where there ARE rules that do need to be kept.  The problem is that people tend to rush straight to the definition for rules that states, "A set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere."  This is not what Dreyfus means at all, which is clear by the context of the whole document.  He's describing another definition for rule: "a principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable."  A more precise word for this second definition would be axiom, which we can define as "a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted or self-evidently true."

The game rules ~ such as, when a character's hit points run out, the character dies ~ are regulations and should be observed as such.  The DM's acquisition of knowledge, however, is not dictated by any set of rules.  We are simply muddling through the hundreds of situations that might come up as our games increase in complexity, making judgments, or rulings, as best we can where rules are inadequate or do not exist at all.  Over time, these judgments cease to be individual calls on the game and become standardized axioms, as defined above.  We make up our minds on how to manage new players, or deal with arguments, or present magic items or employ traps, in terms of when and where and how much.

It is not the acquisition of axioms that is a difficult obstacle for our competent DM, but the willingness to make decisions, stick by them and then uphold or take note of that same decision when the same issue arises again.  If a DM will insist upon vacillating between two different positions when the same situation arises, then no such axiom will result and the players will perceive that favoritism is in play (as the decision was different for the fighter as opposed to the mage), or that the DM is an whimsical boob who cannot be trusted and may say anything when the time comes.  Without a clear and serious sense of responsibility when making a given decision upon a game aspect, our DM, however competent, is likely to forget their previous ruling and the game itself will soon become an unholy mess.

Dreyfus is very weak on this point. He commits much of his argument to the importance of being emotionally invested, but he does not state which emotion is critical here.  He attests that we learn from our mistakes, but he fails to note that many people who make decisions, even when emotionally invested, are not aware when they have made a mistake.  Many persons must have the mistake pointed out to them, and even then many persons will seek to avoid admitting the mistake, seeking to "put the blame" on some other person, and thereby learning nothing from their error.  This is grossly common in role-playing games, as players blame each other or the DM, while the DM blames the players.  It is not enough just to be emotionally involved; we must be serious.  This is suggested, but not plainly stated, by Dreyfuss' argument that we must "replay one's performance in one's mind step by step ... to let them sink in."  Of course this is true ... but Dreyfus' language path to get to that point is clumsy, cluttered and frustratingly prosaic.  People all too often refuse to place any importance on their mistakes, and therefore learn nothing from them.

As the decision is usually made under a time constraint, we learn from the decision by reflecting upon it after the game, when time has ceased to matter ~ and mull over the original question without assuming that our judgment was correct.  If the judgment seemed lacking, or wrong, then we consider what decision we would make now, after the fact, acknowledging that this might mean beginning the next game with the words, "I changed my mind and I was wrong ..."  The process of decision-error-reconsideration-confession strengthens our thinking process and increases the seriousness with which we view decision-making at the start.  IF we know we ARE going to confess once we have reconsidered, and not bow out even when it hurts to admit we're wrong, we'll seek choices that don't produce error and eventual confession.

But refuse to admit to error; refuse to re-evaluate the original problem with an mind to ensuring a legitimate decision; refuse to look the original subject of our decision in the eye and admit our mistake - and we learn nothing.  We will never be anything but a competent DM.

For some, that's enough.  They equate competency with expertise and fail to recognize that competence means little more than "adequate."  You have the bare necessity of skill, but that is all.  You should not imagine that you're an expert and you should not imagine that you're in a place to give others an education in your subject. That should be left for those who are proficient.

Stage 4: Proficiency

As we become more serious in our tasks, the axioms we create to manage the complexity of the game are strengthened.  This enables us to spend less and less time mulling over decisions that we're making, as we become more confident that we're making the right ones for ourselves and for other people.  Note: it is the latter that is most important, as it is the latter that are most affected by what we decide.

We should not imagine that the process of building axioms and adapting ourselves to responsibility for our decisions is an easy one.  Our Proficient DM is an unusual entity, with the ability to discriminate among hundreds of slivers within the game aspects we've described (and many others besides).  When a decision needs to be made, a wide range of choices is available to our Proficient DM, with increasingly less doubt regarding which decision ought to be made.

On the whole, this choice of decision will exist for virtually any part of the game that the participant has chosen to explore.  Given the game's versatility, the number of editions, the number of other like games with their own sets of rules ~ and given that some games will focus heavily on role-playing while others focus on roll-playing ~ we shouldn't suppose that because a given DM is proficient in these aspects, that they are not merely competent in others.  A DM may be a highly proficient gamemaster at the table; but a woeful competent where it comes to designing a setting.  We may shine where it comes to creating tension or producing successful, believable characters; but hopeless where it comes to sorting out arguments between players or discouraging players from outright cheating.  As individuals in any field of knowledge increase in proficiency, the slice of the knowledge field in which they're in gets narrower and narrower.  Doctors become specialists.  Lawyers choose between business and criminal law.  Engineers move into the fields of chemical, mechanical or electronic technologies.  It takes a lot to become proficient at anything; it is a little easier when we narrow how much we choose to be proficient at.

But this does create prejudices.  Once we become proficient at something, we tend to think that our proficiency is the answer to every problem. It is the old adage, once you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Those who are proficient in role-play want to argue that the game is all about role-play and story.  Others proficient at technical details want to argue that the game must be simulationist and accurate.  We should beware these statements; the game is whatever we choose to make it, according to whatever effort we give to our particular campaign.

The process of decision making is a matter of heuristics, which I have covered in the link.  Our Proficient DM has accumulated axioms which have evolved into available and representative templates, which are accessed from memory and then employed.  There is a period of deliberation, though often brief; and where a lack of certainty exists, there's a strong potential to accurate guess, judge or propose a solution which will, after examination, prove to be accurate and effective.

This does enable our Proficient DM to manage many, many more situations than might normally seem possible, as the DM has learned to "roll with it" when something vastly different and unexpected arises.  It is difficult to stump a proficient DM; there has just been too much experience with odd and unusual things, and with solving such problems, to produce a complete failure to respond.

Stage 5: Expertise

When it happens that the need to calculate and compare alternatives falls by the wayside, our proficient DM has probably become an expert.  Whereas before there was some room for doubt, our Expert will see immediately that there can only be one solution.  This is the result of a number of factors, which are not fully understood by the phenomenalogical/psychological community (though it makes for good, heavy reading).  Fundamentally, our Expert encounters the material, comprehends the material and reacts to the material as a single mental process.

Many might think they do this, but without examination and hard evidence there's little credence to this claim.  As far as we can tell, the expert accurately "feels" the answer rather than "knowing" it ~ while evidence demonstrates that it was the right answer.  It is easy to produce this evidence in a game like chess, where those who possess this expertise consistently win against most everyone but a handful of others in the world, even when distracted or forced to play against a severe time restriction.  In a game like D&D, it is virtually impossible to tell if a DM is an "expert," since we have no way of knowing for certain what a "right" answer would be or how this right answer might manifest during game-play.

We may, however, posit such a person.  Our expert is highly absorbed in the material.  They recognize the existence of axioms and conventions, but equally recognize that these will need to be suspended in peculiar circumstances, that are themselves not necessarily prescriptive of future events.  For example, a given bizarre and highly unlikely sequence of events in a game might create a certainty that the dice should be skewed, or fudged, in this instance, with the recognition that since the unlikely sequence is not likely to happen again in the lifetime of the DM, the incident does not validate any argument that fudging the dice is acceptable.  Put another way, the appearance of a sliver of a particular aspect of the game, due to its infrequency, has no merit where considering the game as a whole.

Conversely, our Expert may perceive that wildly diverse parts of the game also share wholistic characteristics that would not be noticed by a proficient DM.  There may be conditions, for example, that demonstrate that "role-playing" and "roll-playing" are, in fact, the same thing, viewed from an intuitive perspective that is not limited by the need to create an axiom to explain how things work, or ought to work, based on their immediately apparent characteristics.

Very often, because experts don't know themselves how they come to a given conclusion, they cannot unpack their own knowledge and as such, make very bad professors.  I've had quite a few of them.

With our next class, we'll want to review how some of this material on the acquisition of skill level applies to the content in our earlier preparedness classes.  Thank you, this completes our second week of class.

Friday, September 7, 2018

5th Class: From Novice to Competent Player

With my last class, I say that we'd examine expertise in terms of gaining experience through preparedness.  I think that it would be best for this class that we don't try to define what "expertise" is, since that's bound to get us in a number of semantic arguments that will create little context for understanding and learning.  Instead, let's begin with defining an absence of expertise, taking as our subject an individual who has no knowledge whatsoever of a given activity.

For this class and the next one, I'll be drawing on the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, advanced by Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus.  I do have several issues with the model, most of which stem from the choice of words used by Stuart E. Dreyfus, the author, and there are arguments that stand in psychology against this model ~ but I think it should serve adequately for our generalized purposes.  Dreyfus uses examples from driving a car and from playing chess; I shall endeavor to keep away from all metaphors for today's class, relying instead solely on examples from role-playing, specifically from Dungeons and Dragons (in a manner that should escape any issues arising from editions of the game).

Let's begin, using Dreyfus' terminology.

Stage 1: Novice

Using Dreyfus' terminology, we'll call our candidate for non-expert a "novice."  This novice has never played the game, has never run the game, has no understanding of any of the rules of the game and may not have even heard of the game ... however, our novice is willing to learn.  And for the purpose of our class, let's say our novice is ready to learn how to be a DM.

To begin with, we must explain the basic tenets of the game.  Because role-playing games are very complicated, we shouldn't confuse the issue by presuming that we're going to teach our novice "the rules."  Most participants don't play by all the rules of any system, mostly because they don't know all the rules or because many of the rules are so obscure that no one at a game table might remember the existence of a given rule.  Therefore, we shouldn't expect our novice to learn "all" the rules ~ learning enough rules is what we all did when we started and our novice is no different.

If we stick to the most straightforward tenets of the game, we should include only those that enable play without preparation.  Rolling the character would be such a tenet, as would placing the character in a simple environment, like a dungeon room or hallway.  The presence of other players suggests interaction between player characters, and in that a certain "make-believe" as characters explain themselves, and even their backstories, to others.  Finally, we can posit enemies of the characters, which they can find by moving through the simple environment, and having encountered them, find themselves with the choice to parley or fight, with success or consequences arising out of the emergent behaviour of communication or out of that same behaviour arising out of the randomness of die rolls.

These simple tenets are enough to keep the game fresh for a time; but our question is, how does our novice DM handle the processes behind these tenets?  That is simple too.  In order for a new, inexperienced DM to manage even this much, as educators of the novice we provide advice that follow an if-then structure.  Dreyfus calls these rules ~ but since we are speaking about a game, this causes confusion in communication between "rules" of the game and "rules" describing conventions and procedures (the word rule has multiple meanings).  Therefore, let's avoid Dreyfus' language here and refer to our if-then instructions as "conventions."

We tell our novice that if the players kill a certain number of enemies, they should get such and such an amount of treasure. We explain that the simple environment should be a dungeon and that dungeons should be reasonable in size with monsters or enemies that the players can handle.  We explain that there should be a nearby village which the players can visit to rest up, heal and resupply.  We suggest that parleys between the players and their enemies can be resolved with a mixture of reserved gut instinct supported by die rolls.  Effectively, we provide the conventions that were asserted with the very early period of the game's creation.  And with these conventions, just as you and I did once upon a time, they muddle through, make their mistakes, but manage more or less to run the game well enough for their players to return for another session.

"Adventurers' League" games are merely a different list of conventions, designed to encourage our novice to keep pace with an established module-based procedure, to bring the players along to such and such a point by such and such a night.

As far as play goes, our novice is not a good DM.  Some natural talent might exist for employing the conventions quickly or smoothly, but the conventions themselves are a limitation and so long as our novice relies upon them, much will be lacking from the experience.  We might be able to remember when we ran our games in this fashion; but unless we are a novice, we shouldn't imagine we'd enjoy playing this way now.  It wouldn't be enough.  This begs the question, what happens to our novice that cause an advancement in game play, and how does that advancement manifest.  If we were the Jane Goodall of role-playing games, and we were watching new DMs over a period of months, by what behaviour would we recognize a DM that was advancing from one that was not?

Stage 2: Advanced Beginner

As game sessions are played, our novice becomes increasingly aware that the conventions being followed have issues. Some seem to actively stifle play, or encourage resistance from the players, or lack sufficient reward for the players efforts.  As our DM becomes familiar with game play, various "aspects" ~ defined by Dreyfus as examples meaningful to the context ~ will make themselves evident.  Recognizing these, our DM is encouraged to question the conventions and explore these aspects, and so becomes an Advanced Beginner.

Some elementary aspects that we tend to notice early on in our play includes: (a) the awarding of treasure and experience; (b) the interplay between player characters and NPCs in what we think of as "role-play"; and (c) a fascination with the "metagame" of organizing play outside of the game session.  There are other aspects, many others, but for the sake of example let's use these three.

While awarding success in game play, our advanced beginner wonders why more treasure or experience can't be given more quickly, jumping low level characters to higher levels, where the monsters are more interesting and the players seem more heroic. There seems little point in forcing the players to struggle for a few magical items, when lots of magic can always be countered by lots of enemies. With experimentation, our Advanced Beginner discovers this logic is sound and feels assured by the change.
It's noticed that the players seem to enjoy role-playing, while it relieves pressure on the DM to constantly maintain the world for the players.  More role-playing out of difficult situations means less combats that need to be run.  More time spent role-playing means less demand on setting descriptions.  Twenty minutes of a session can be given over to a detailed conversation with a shop merchant, during which time the DM has to role-play, but little else.  Role-playing can be enhanced with choosing alignments, backstories and inter-party discussions "in character," all of which reduces demands on the DM to produce and run as much setting as would be necessary if role-playing were minimized.  The popularity of role-playing becomes clear very quickly, so it is embraced by our Advanced Beginner as a way of maintaining interest without increasing the DM's effort.

Finally, our Advanced Beginner might become obsessed with the metagame ... the creation of more elaborate settings, mega-dungeons, story-game mechanics in adventure building, a back history of the game setting and  so on.  All these are usually done in solitary and many aspects of this metagame will never see use during the actual game; yet our Advanced Beginner feels a strong desire to explored these concepts for their own sake.

It's important to understand that these reworkings of the game, whatever they are (and including a long list that I have not touched on), and whether they are "good" or "bad," is a natural progression of game experience.  No one is exempt.  We learn from experimentation, and it is through experimentation that we move from being an advanced beginner to a competent participant.

Stage 3: Competence

The acquisition of competence is far from having confidence or mastery of the game.  Rather, it is a stage that puts enormous strain on DMs, testing them, as it indicates that while there is a greater awareness of the game's structure and potential, this awareness can also overwhelm the DM's conviction that they have the ability to master this potential.

The reader will remember that we were just saying that Advanced Beginners become aware of a few aspects of the game and begin to toy with them.  With increasing competence, our Advanced Beginner becomes aware of so many aspects that the bare number of them, and running them all, seems to be an insurmountable objective.  Because our Competent Player is aware of these aspects, and because game play inspired by increased preparedness keeps pushing the DM up against these aspects, it isn't enough to simply say, "I'll ignore them."  With competence, it becomes increasingly clear that for the game to advance, and for the DM to advance, these aspects must be addressed.

Dreyfus describes the situation as nerve-wracking and exhausting; as an overload; as a wonder how anyone ever masters the skill.  It is a point that many DMs will simply quit. Unable to reconcile their innate knowledge gained through experience with the memory of the simple games they once enjoyed running (but are enjoying less and less now), the simplest argument is often that, having come to fully understand the aspects of the game to an adequate degree, it is time to move onto something new.

This might be a different role-playing game, or wargame, or video game ... but of course, with the experience gained at the first RPG of the participant's experience, the passage of time between Novice and Competent Player grows shorter and shorter.  And that passage is less and less satisfying.

With our next class, we'll discuss how the Competent player finds tools that enable advancement from this stage, to where the game can be managed with proficiency and expertise.

From Give up, Catch up or Keep up with Innovation

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Sep. 6

As I am writing this, it is still the 5th of September, but it's technically the 6th for most of the world and most readers won't find this post until we all wake tomorrow morning.  Whereupon it will be the 39th anniversary of my first night playing Dungeons & Dragons.

This post is getting to be sort of a tradition.  I expect I'm getting long in the tooth and there's more reason to fret about small things.  Perhaps I like to gloat that I've been playing and thinking about the game five years longer than Gygax could, and four years longer than Arneson.  That's going to offend some people.  It's simple math.  Granted, I didn't invent the game, so that's on me ... but I'd argue that my best insights have been gained during these last five years and I think that's very important.

Too, I didn't have "inventing the game" to rest my laurels on.

Oh well.  All anniversaries are the same.  We observe the day, a bunch of people say "congratulations," like I won a lottery or something ... I just don't understand the word congratulations.  It always feels to me like an award, like I was chosen from a bunch of people who also did 39 years and given a plaque.  Whereas to me, I've always been here, always writing, always thinking, always designing my game.  September 5th is 39 years minus a day.  September 7th will be 39 years plus a day.  Does the 7th, 8th and 9th count as congratulations worthy?  I've never been very clear about that tradition.

Basically, I put my head down a long time ago and I've taken a moment to lift it and notice what day it is.  No biggie.  Hopefully, I'll lift my head around this time next year and notice it again.  I don't think I've done anything more special today than I have for the other 14,235 days since I got started.  I think I'd prefer to hear something like, "You're a nut job to keep at it this long," or "Christ, man, you're a machine."  Or maybe just, "Well done. You didn't quit."  I don't know.  Something that acknowledges that this wasn't luck, this was effort.

Okay.  I've ranted.  I can start day 14,236 now.

According to this page, these are students depicted in the 1980 Yearbook of
Libertyville High School north of Chicago.  They are described as the D&D "people."
It is as close a depiction of my own people than I am ever likely to find.

The Upcoming Season

As some readers might know, I have recently taken a job in a costume shop.  There, it is my role to write descriptions for items such as this steampunk eyepatch or this medieval war hammer.  Yes, those are my words, being shyly coy about incorporating D&D and other game ideas into product sales.

For the record, it's called The Costume Shoppe.  And once in awhile I try on something I'm writing about, to get the feel of it.

Standing in front of our mailing
It probably hasn't risen on your radar yet, but Halloween is 8 weeks away, exactly 56 days.  Some fanatics, I know, have started working on their costumes, but most haven't remotely considered such things.  But since part of my job includes processing orders for costumes going literally all over the world, things for us are picking up.

By the second half of September, our eCommerce is going to seriously ramp up, as people who want to buy costumes by mail will rush to buy, forgetting that we're living in an age that now delivers inside a 5 day waiting period (and thank gawd for us, or else the last two weeks of October would be impossible).  I'm assured that by the end of September, we'll all be working 6 days a week.

And that starting halfway through October, we'll be working every day.

So posting on this blog is going to get thin.  It may even downright disappear.  I haven't gone through this before, and they all assure me that leading up to Halloween that it's a nightmare.  I don't know and I can't know.  I'll have to experience it.  I've worked at a restaurant in an airport at Christmas, so I'm sure I've seen everything ... but as I remember, I was too tired to do anything after my shifts.  And I was 17 years younger than I am now.

I'll put my focus on getting the four Master Class posts written for September and October, as people are paying for those.  They're going to be ... let's just say a trial.  Apart from those, I can't say what I will be motivated to write.

But I will be thinking about writing, all the time.


If any of you out there have kids and you're curious about some costume that you can only see on the internet, there's a very good chance that we sell that costume in our store.  I have the power to open most anything up and examine it first hand, to give an appraisal of its design and quality, and perhaps take pictures.  So feel free to ask.

Monday, September 3, 2018

4th Class: Practice & Rehearsal

I'd like to start by saying that while I may sound like I have all the answers, much of this content is as new to me as the reader. It has come about because of certain things that were said by readers two weeks ago, which produced the breakthrough that I wrote about in my 1st Class introduction.  That in turn encouraged me to follow up on content described on this wiki page, which led me to examine more closely the methods of prepation, that led me to reading materials on these things and then reinterpreting them for role-playing games. I'm not inventing new information, but rather translating academic research that already exists; nor have I been holding back this knowledge for the day when I could release it to the world.  Rather, I'm describing the material as I have understood it, sometimes having made the realization an hour or so before.

I would have included this material when I wrote my book, How to Run, but I didn't know it then.  Unlike many people on the internet who pretend to have all the answers, I will state coldly that I absolutely do not have all the answers and do not know everything there is to know about managing or preparing for role-playing games.  However, I am researching the concept and learning new things, which is a damn sight better than every other person I have ever read on this subject.  I feel I'm eminntly qualified to write posts like this not because I'm a know-it-all; but because I desire to know it all.  In the pursuit of that goal, I learn things.

What we tend to think when we hear "practice."
And so, if we can begin today's class, our subjects today are practice and rehearsal.  These are often confused and often understood to be the same, so we should take a moment and define the difference between the two.  Practice is a free expression of the individual's desire to explore and examine their own ability; it is largely done alone and is not subject to the will or actions of other persons.  Practice can be done any time, and for as long as one wishes.  On the whole, practice does not have a time element.  Rehearsal, however, is a group activity.  It is typically scheduled.  It is not an exploration of a personal expression, but rather a designed activity to achieve consensus, or a gestalt, among individuals working together.  There is a strong motivation not to make errors in a rehearsal, but to produce the desired result as perfectly as possible.  Practice is a method by which perfection in rehearsal is obtained.

And because practice leads to the success of a rehearsal, let's begin there.


The concept of practice does not normally exist in the role-player's lexicon, so it is upon us to demonstrate that it happens all the time and that it is something we do whether or not we are aware of it.  I'll take a moment and say one last time in this course that the game as written does not actually require anyone to give any time towards practice - but it is, in fact, very hard not to practise a role-playing game, once we have a clear idea what we mean by practice.

Practice is the act of repeating a physical or mental action over and over, and in the process improving the efficiency, or mastery, of that action.  For example, if I give myself to thinking about the various ways in which my player character might buy equipment, or choose spells, or express himself, or otherwise participate in the fictional world, and I continue to do so each day for many months, I will slowly master an elaborate set of resources and choices for the character, effectively improving my game play.  I will remember, by practicing to remember, to buy specific things when they are needed, to combine bought items in a myriad of ways, to draw attention to my dress or my appearance when I speak, to speak more clearly, to use my words better, to adapt those words to a character ideal in my mind, which I shall know much better through continued contemplation and so on.  If I try to live in my character's head as I do my own, I will remember more clearly what my character's abilities are, and how they will best be employed.  And I can do all these things whether or not I am actually playing in the campaign.

Moreover, this is what most players who are enamoured with the game do, whether or not they are told to do it, and whether or not they believe it will improve their play.  They do it because it feeds their compulsion to do it; but this is no less a form of practice for that reason.  To understand this better, follow the work of K. Anders Ericsson.

Allow me the benefit of an analogy, which may better express what I mean, since using a player character as a template is unfamiliar territory.  Let's presuppose a musician who chooses to practise.  Naturally, our thoughts reach for the musician's desire to play a musical instrument more effectively; say, in this instance, a guitar.  But there is more "at play" than the guitar.  The guitarist must obtain and slowly grow comfortable in the right posture.  Calluses must build up on various parts of the hands.  The fingers must grow more nimble, and stronger, to press down on the frets or hold the pick.  The guitarist grows more comfortable with not looking at the guitar so that music can be read; and one gets better at reading music more easily so that the notes can be heard on the paper as well as understood.  The guitarist grows more adept at tuning and maintaining the guitar, and at the way the guitar is put into a case, and the manner in which the case is carried, and the habit of remembering that the case must be managed as the guitar is carried from place to place.  The guitarist steadily learns more about other guitars and what are the best guitars, and why, and how the materials of a particular guitar will change the way that something practised will sound.  And the guitarist gets more comfortable with being identified as a guitarist, and being asked to play, and what songs to play for which audiences, and what things people will dislike, and getting used to some people being haters, and recognizing that not all people who like the guitarist do so for good reasons.  And so on and so forth.  There is a lot more to being a guitarist, and practicing at being a guitarist, than merely learning how the strings are played.

And a role-player is no different. There is lots to remember and lots to learn and many ideas to consider and a lot of details to manage and attitudes of players and a desire to play vs. a willingness to DM and so on and so forth ... and all these things require practicing a way of thinking about role-playing games and how we identify ourselves with them.  We don't think of it as "practice" but it is, nonetheless.  We are increasing our cognitive skills and our ability to use our senses in game play; we are assessing the skills of others and our own skill; we are giving ourselves feedback and comparing our efforts with past efforts, and with the efforts that we've seen others display; and we have the option of pushing for better skills in creating maps, designing characters and backgrounds, narratives and hundreds of details we seek to add to the game.

We don't "need" to practise, but we do.  We do through repetition and constant thought as we dedicate ourselves to something that interests us.

This is, incidentally, an argument against artificial intelligence.  When we, as humans, perform repetitive tasks, we are affected by a large number of hormonal impulses that produces a level of boredom that becomes a compulsion to stop doing a particular task.  We then intellectually argue why we should continue to perform the task anyway, because we can see an end result; but to counteract the boredom we start looking for ways to make the task more efficient (to reduce the time to reach the goal), or more interesting (by paying attention to details we did not formerly recognize or by making a game of it) or by thinking of other ways to achieve the goal without having to do the task at all.

Computers can't do any of these things. They don't get bored.  They don't perceive goals.  They can't identify an alternate route to a goal once a route has been established.  They haven't any hormonal impulses that compel them to seek any other action but to continue the repetitive task.

Because we will get bored with creating parts of worlds or adventures, if we push through that boredom or try to mitigate it, whatever we seek to practise will eventually become the part of the game that we are best at.  If we emphasize our willingness to be role-players, then we will view role-playing as the end-all and be-all of the game because that will be the part of the game that we are best at, and with which we are most comfortable. If we spend all our time designing for places in our games where rolls will need to be made, then "roll-playing" will be seen as the most important element.  We build our own prejudices by whatever part of the game we practise at thinking about or designing, just as a country singer will have a prejudice for country music, or a jazz guitarist will have a prejudice for jazz.

But Music, and Role-playing, exists with or without prejudices.


While my definition for rehearsal (as linked above) states that, "... rehearsal is not the final outcome of practice," and goes on to make a distinction between a rehearsal and an original performance, we can bend those restrictions a little by recognizing that each session of role-playing between players and DM is, in a strong sense, both an original performance AND a rehearsal for the next original performance.  The DM ensures that the various elements of the game are ready to be played, whatever the level of preparedness, and that they are coordinated to make the best possible impression on the Players.  The Players, too, come to each session with ideas in hand and proposals to be made, and expect to impress or surprise the DM after their own manner.  Everyone is expected to give their whole attention to the performance of the game.  Even if errors, lapses in attention or interruptions are common place, it is understood that the game is more important than who did what at what place, or who said what the other day, or what might be happening outside while the Game is progressing.

We tolerate distractions and interruptions to be friendly and convivial.  But when someone says, "Let's get back to the game," no one groans as they might if someone said in a workplace, "Let's get back to our jobs."  We want to play or we wouldn't be there.

The purpose of the rehearsal is to coordinate the various dynamics of play and the participant's interaction with play.  The recently coined "Session Zero" is an effort to do this on first meeting without the attention issue of having to actually express what the players are doing in a setting ~ but the reality is that we should expect a group of players to take multiple sessions before expecting them to adjust to matters of the rules, the personalities of other players, personal take on the game, a group consensus towards purpose and many other factors that arise from people acting as a single entity.

If we were to join together to put on a performance of Othello, no one would be surprised to find that there were going to be 13 weeks of rehearsals with 30 to 40 specific nights where we would come together to prepare for the end performance.  Which doesn't include the private arrangements between Othello and Desdemona, or Iago and Brabantio, to run through the lines and blocking of a particular scene without the director or crew present.  Everyone is typically good with this investment, because it is understood that in three months plus a week, we're going to do this in front of a live audience and we don't want to look like fools.  Some of us want a good review, because we think of having a career as an actor.  And so, there's very little sympathy for anyone who doesn't put the play first ~ since a single bad effort by a supporting character, say the Duke of Venice, can wreck the performance for everyone.

So to settle things, we in role-playing take the time to get everyone to agree to the same rules, and the same methodoly of interpreting those rules (as written, by DM fiat or by group consensus).  We discourage a single player from hogging the DM's attention.  We put a ban on player-vs-player ... or we encourage it, because that's the sort of game we've all agreed to play.  We get everyone on board, a little bit more with every game session, because it makes the game session in the future better and better.

If we don't rehearse this way, however; if we don't arrive at a consensus; if the players won't surrender certain behaviors or attitudes; then each game session gets worse and worse, because there seems to be no purpose to going on if it's just going to be another boring fight every night.  Once again, as the goal with these players and this DM seems less likely to be the game we want to play, we quit and go find another game.  That is how we biologically function.  It's what makes us "intelligent."

The purpose for a consensus, or in choosing to see the game session as a proper rehearsal for future sessions, is not to play the game "right" or "well," but to play it more effectively as a group.  Which is why it can be difficult to let in a new player, who will fail to see the importance of this consensus (which is rarely explained, if even understood by the original group members) and will act as a discordant note for weeks and weeks, until they're pushed out or they conform to the standard the others have agreed to play.

As a DM, the more clearly we see that standard, the more clearly we can explain it to players, both old and new, and the more quickly we can jump from a bunch of people with separate agendas to a single working whole.  It takes time to do this without becoming an autocrat (which many DMs descend to becoming, because it is direct and easy), because it takes empathy, a fair ethical framework to look from and an awareness of both self and others that most DMs do not even care to possess, as they see no reason for it.  And thus we get the games we get, as we have all seen with our own experience.

This completes our introduction to preparedness.  With our next class, we will examine expertise, the process of gaining experience through practice, education and the various other elements of preparedness.