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


James said...

I feel like you quite accurately nailed where I am at with DMing, which fits timeline-wise.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Dreyfus has been a good guide for this material.