Wednesday, November 28, 2018

18th Class: Orientation

Having established in the lab what orientation serves in promoting better game play, let's take some time today to discuss issues associated with orientation and why it remains an obscure idea in role-playing.  It is true that some have moved forward and advanced the idea of "session zero."  I recommend that you do some reading on the subject, though as far as I know there is no "official" version.  Most view it as negotiation between the players and the DM, or as a sort of "job interview" to learn of the players and DM are compatible.  There's no real indication that the idea is being treated as an opportunity for orientation as described in the lab.

So why has orientation not become a common part of role-playing.  There are a number of reasons, most of which brings us back to the subject of preparedness.  If we research into the original writings and descriptions of game play going back the last four decades, we can see quite clearly that explaining to people "how to play the game" has lacked a distinct methodology.  It was seen early on that most were learning the game through mentorship, in that participants would come to the game as players, watch the DM for a time, then feel confident enough to try their hand at DMing.  All the early books of D&D, prior to the advanced set, gave less than 500 words to any sort of orientation, and usually much less.  Gary Gygax's DMs Guide gave just two and a quarter pages, most of which is flavor text and distinctly lacking in concrete ideals that DMs might share with their players.  No singular book of significant importance attempting to explain how to play any role-playing game appears until the 2000s, with no book of that type offering any fundamental principles on exactly how to introduce new players to the game in a manner that brings them significantly up to speed with regards to their knowledge and ability to play.  Most texts effect a reassurance or promote confidence, without stipulating specific step-by-step instructions.  This remains true to this day.

The matter is left entirely up to individual DMs, who remain mixed on just what should be covered, or ought to be discussed, before actual game play begins.  Many DMs feel it is a waste of time, that everything can be learned in progress, with a fixed belief that good players pick it up quickly whereas bad players are not especially wanted and that it is better if they find some other thing to do.  As with any comparable activity, the result is that many join the game but depart soon after, or cease playing once their experience with role-playing peaks, so that they willingly abandon the activity for something else, usually after the convenience of the activity (with school or a joined community) falls off.  Most participants usually play, at most, two or three years, never fully comprehending role-playing's potential and viewing the activity as a casual something they did in their youth.  There's no fault in this, as people always find something to do, but we should wonder how temporary participants might have continued to play if they'd had a better understanding of the game's potential.

With a lack of clear guidelines on how to provide a useful orientation, it is very difficult to estimate how much orientation is necessary.  Given the immense amount of detail available, plus inconsistent and hard to define playing styles, the idea of a structured orientation seems beyond the ordinary DM, who must effectively design their own orientation scheme entirely from scratch.  This further promotes the "in progress" ideal, as it seems the only alternative is to spend several sessions doing nothing but talking about how the game would work in theory before actually playing.  Most, therefore, compensate by treating early runnings as a primer, subsidizing play by ensuring no one dies, that mistakes don't count or that do overs are fair, all recognizing that holding players to strict account to a game they don't ~ and can't ~ fully understand as yet isn't actually fair.

Planning an orientation, then, without premises or foundations, is an insurmountable obstacle.  The number of details quickly addressed in the lab gives just a taste of what's actually involved ~ or could be involved ~ if we were to make a plan in any definitive or conclusive way.  In many ways, our own full understanding of what a DM does, or ought to do, along with a full comprehension of rules and game play, simply isn't there.  We feel distinctly at a loss, and overwhelmed, at the idea of trying to address a complete orientation on a subject when we ourselves never received such an orientation.  And we worry that things we would say in such an orientation would be later held against us, because we're not fully sure of these things from the start.

What we need is a set of resources telling us how to go about the process point-by-point, and a strong educational format that we can follow, so that we feel assured that the orientation we give is something that works in our favor as DMs and not something we'll regret later.  Institutionally, however, this would require that these resources had our best interests in mind and that they were designed specifically to increase our understanding of the role-playing game we had chosen.  Unfortunately, no such institutional framework exists.  The need for an orientation is barely, at this time, even acknowledged (with clumsy steps being made by the "session zero" concept).  Much of the role-playing community and "official" structure is compromised by a spectacular fragmentation of RPGs in general, with most major genres and forms all experiencing several iterations that further serve to muddy what standards might have been imposed forty years ago.  As a result, we have no material resources for readying players for our campaigns, nor any expectation of a systemic educational formula to come from any reputable source.  On this count we are in the dark and we expect to remain in the dark.

Therefore, DMs do what they can.  To some extent we practice at introducing the players to the game by considering for ourselves what we want to say with the start of each game session.  We usually have a few things we want to specifically identify, such as adjustments in the rules or our expressed desire that the players follow a certain decorum when playing (less jokes, paying more attention, maintaining their character sheets more readably, etcetera).  Without the motivation for the creation of a more involved orientation, we specifically practice how to get along without one ~ thereby establishing a mental framework that one isn't needed, because it has never been applied.  This tautology, however reasonable it sounds, conveniently dispenses with any notion of improving on an awkward scattering of asked for behaviours and expectations without ever making it clear to the players which ones really matter or which need addressing more than once.  As a result, many games are endlessly bogged down with disagreement, discontent, players who don't show up, DMs who display frustration and apparently unreasonable demands or campaigns that cannot sustain themselves for more than a session or two.  Without communication, the motivation to dig in and commit cannot be expected from people who don't know what's expected or what they're doing.

This means that the opportunity to rehearse the process of game play never materializes.  Examples of smooth coordination between the players don't occur in the short time they have together before the campaign fizzles out, or they occur spontaneously but cannot be recreated at will.  This in turn has created a belief in many RPG participants that campaigns "don't work," usually ascribing lack of time or personalities as the culprits, pushing for game adventures that can be played in a single night, obfuscating any need for commitment or, indeed, for meaningful orientation.  And because this works in practice, it sustains itself as an ideal among many participants, who then never see the potential of RPGs in their full flower.

So what can we do?  To begin with, acknowledge the importance of orientations in every human activity, including RPGs.  We train people to do jobs, to learn how to ski or kayak, to save themselves or victims in times of a medical crisis, to ready themselves for vacations, weddings or funerals, including how to write a will, how to renovate your house, how to life hack your day-to-day, etcetera, because education bestows knowledge and knowledge is power over the complex things of life that we want to do or overcome.  We might ultimately learn to ski on our own, but a morning of orientation saves us a great deal of time and unpleasantness by pointing out the few simple things that everyone learns early on when they first encounter skiing.  That is all that orientation is: an outline of the things of any activity that are easiest to learn and can be explained in just a few sentences, to get us on our way to more complex experiences.

We can research orientations in other activities and transcribe some of the points to our own endeavors.  We can use our experience at an orientation for a job or some other activity as a guideline to estimate how much effort we want to put towards that process.  We can write a list of specific things we wish every player understood clearly about our game worlds.

Having that, we can then search for consistencies across thousands of game worlds to build a guidebook that would enable other DMs to create working orientations that would suit their games specifically.  Perhaps the focus of the "session zero" concept can be oriented away from character building and towards character play and participation ... but I'm not seeing that focus changing at this time.

Finally, we can practice in our minds a better ideal of what it means to introduce players to our game, as discussed in the lab.  And we can rehearse the process of giving orientations over and over, until they become easy to implement and even enjoyable for the player, as they learn precisely what to expect from the campaign and their place in it.

I've played in this game

Friday, November 23, 2018

RPG 201, Lab #1 ~ Orientation

Welcome to the first lab of the course.  Here we'll be talking about the orientation process directly as it relates to game play, both for the players and for the DM.  Note that much of what we'll cover does not just refer to players who are new to role-playing games.  We are also talking about players who have not played this particular system or genre.  We are also talking about players who are starting in a new campaign under a new DM, even if they have played the same game with other DMs.  Every new table and every new system is an orientation process, though it is true many players act differently.

Let's start with the players.  Imagine if you will, that you're all new players sitting down to a game table for the first time.  As you settle in, you look around at the others: you listen, you make a note of things that are familiar or unfamiliar ... and you watch for things that will both reassure you and give you cause for reservation.  This is easier if these are friends, or you have one or two friends present; but you may notice your one friend is acting differently with these strangers.  Whatever your confidence level, you recognize that you don't fit in, not yet; and to compensate, you will either act extrovertly or introvertly.  You will either speak a lot to try to control or influence the others to let you into their circle; or you will act guarded and reserved, protecting yourself until you are made to feel welcome.

There are things influencing your actions.  If you are very familiar with the game, or with role-playing in general; if you have played for a long time; if you've DMed; you'll feel more confident that anything you have to say will be treated with respect and you're liable to say more.  If the others seem friendly or more nervous about you than you are of them, or you're older, say, or otherwise there are reasons to think you're their match materially or intellectually, you're liable to feel a greater degree of control.  If your passion for the activity is very great, if you're emotionally invested or very excited, you may not even notice your level of confidence and comfort, even with total strangers.  These are all things that have been noticed as psychologists have studied, for example gamblers, who are often in situations with strangers or participating in uncertain games of chance.

Your sense of confidence or control depends much on your ability to self-talk yourself in and out of situations, your ability to process large amounts of information and how comfortable you are made to feel by persons in the environment.  Many have had bad experiences with other players who were unfriendly, even abusive, who used their positions as "the old guard" to lord it over the noobs and such; and many have had good experiences, where you were made to feel a part of what was going on as soon as the dice were rolled.  Obviously, we want to create the latter situation as a DM ~ but as players, much of your experience in orienting yourself to a new game depends on your personality, your social skills and your sheer intention to play as you insist.

This doesn't always work out.  Sometimes, players are so insistent that they step into a new environment and immediately set out to control the game's agenda from top to bottom.  They dictate what they want, they ask questions that push the boundaries of the written rules, they speak of their vision for the game being played and they challenge the DM and the other players with their in-your-face attitude.  They want to skip the orientation process, move straight to the place where they are redesigning the campaign to make it suit their needs and they are often oblivious that this is what they're doing.  Most likely, due to their confidence, they've been allowed to control other game spaces; they don't know how to insert themselves into a game any other way.

It may be comprehensible but it is bad behaviour.  An existing game or one that the DM has conceived from scratch deserves to have an orientation period.  The player needs to recognize that before they can change what's on the table, they need to observe it and see how it works.  Orientation means that the player is bound to orient themselves to the situation ~ not the reverse.

The DM runs a game with a vision.  It is not necessarily the right vision; it may not be a defensible vision; but for the new player, it is the vision being played.  Until the player is able to see the vision as the DM sees it, and thus speak to the DM about that vision on the DM's level, orientation isn't the time for adjusting that vision.  But we can talk about this more, later.

Very well, how do we, as DMs, enable new players to see that vision?  We're asking here that players assimilate a lot of information and that they familiarize themselves with all the aspects of the game environment: how characters are created, what characters can do, how combat is resolves, how the DM will tend to present NPCs, what sort of stories will be told, how the setting is structured and how it functions as a world ... and ultimately how our behaviour as players affects that world.  This is only the beginning.  When explaining all of this to the player, remember that there's a real limit to how much a player will learn before resisting.  Only a small part of that resistance is the players' brainpower; the rest describes the players' decision to balk at some point because the process is confusing, apparently purposeless or is coming too fast.  We are responsible for more than merely orienting the player; we need to do so in bite-sized chunks that make the player want to continue learning more.

Dedication is encouraged by making the player feel welcome and comfortable in the group once they're introduced.  Once they've joined, resist the urge to rush into the game ~ give time for the new player to interact with your group BEFORE you start playing.  There's no need to rush!  The interaction between the group will be more positive in the long run if everyone is comfortable talking to one another as people.  A half hour of pleasant chatter can save hours of conflict and bad feelings later on.  But don't have new players introduce themselves and don't put them on the spot with questions.  Let the conversation develop organically; if the new player feels control and confidence, they'll say a lot and your old players will listen.  If the new player lacks confidence, the player will listen to the conversation and glean from that.  Exhaustive communication full of content isn't the goal ~ comfort is the goal.

While you as DM may feel a compulsion to get the game started "on time," you should realize that evaluation between humans is a necessity ~ and will go on while you're trying to start your game, spoiling focus and undermining this opportunity.  New players are a disruption; that can't be glossed over by keeping everyone busy.  There's a lot for the new player to get through, so take your foot off the gas and make time.

Ensure that you and your players are generous with the new player; have dice you can lend them if need be, writing implements, snacks, drinks, whatever would be usual for the group.  No one should be sitting watching others eat and drink because they forgot to bring food themselves.  Feel free to encourage them to bring their own the next running and say clearly, "We all share," so they know that whatever they bring they may need to share themselves.  If they are consistently lacking in the future, this will help pressure them to change their ways; or definitely expose them as the sort you don't want at your campaign games.  Finally, if you have players that are very personal about their dice, and don't like to share, have a set of communal dice that everyone can use if game equipment is forgotten.

It's your responsibility as DM to give them a complete understanding of what you'll expect from the new player regarding their responses during game play and their responsibilities.  If you want them to have their actions ready before they're called on, make sure they know it, they understand it and that you'll berate them for failing to live up to that expectation.  Say it gently and kindly ~ because later, in the heat of the game, you'll say it with great frustration and that will be worse.

Explain house rules and any rules that would normally be viewed as sketchy or fuzzy, particularly rules that are widely known for being played in hundreds of ways, such as alignment, spell use, infravision, perception, trap searching and so on ~ effectively, anything that there exists a flame war online about.  This clarity will help reduce conflict at your game table, as your particular version of "the way" your game is played at this table is made clear.  Once again, the matter can be addressed when the player is experienced; for now, they need to learn how things here are done.

If players have full knowledge about how your game works, they'll know exactly what contributions they're making ~ and that will give them a feeling of significance, of being "in the know" and therefore less of an outsider.  The new player, like the old players, need to feel that they're valued, that their actions have value, that they have a role and a place in the game.  Giving them the power to make informed decisions enables them to put their personal strengths and character powers to good use, creating a sense of appreciation from the other players early on.  Once the new player becomes more relaxed, assured and familiar with your game, they will make fewer mistakes and gain an increasing level of commitment and immersion to your game.

Outline the game's policies and procedures outside of play: when breaks are taken, when eating and drinking is allowed, how much silliness or horseplay is appreciated, specifically explaining where the lines are.  This is an uncomfortable subject and many DMs will not want to address these things ~ but with new players it should be seen as necessary, as this will reduce much drama later on.  The same goes for player absences from sessions: how do you handle them, what is too many, how absences should be communicated ahead of time out of respect, how much notice that you and the players deserve if someone isn't going to show up.  What is your policy on repeated absences?  Do you have one?  For all these things, you need to consider that not every new player will be a good fit for your campaign.  You need to establish your position ahead of time so that you can prepare for the conversation later on where you have to boot them.

As unpleasant as this is, have a checklist for ALL the orientation you think you need to give for new players joining your game.  Some have transformed this procedure into a "session zero" concept, but really it's just a reflection of practices in business or in education, where your first day of work or your first day of class consists of an orientation program or lecture.  No one likes it.  It works.  It establishes a sense of investment: we took the time to train you, we took the time to bring you on board, we took the time to explain all the crash landings you might make in the future.  You invested the time to let us teach you these things.  Your investment and our investment helps create a sense of social responsibility between us.  This further helps you consider your attendance, your behaviour, your respect of other people, as something that matters.  Really, you can read piles and piles of research on the subject.

Knowing what to communicate, and doing so from a list, won't guarantee that the player will understand or hear it, but the player won't be able to say, "No one told me."  Make notes on your orientation list for things that were questioned and with a later session you'll know to repeat those things specifically for further clarity.  Reminding the player on fuzzy subjects gets ahead of the frustration and defensiveness from players who try to bluff their way through things they don't understand.  You should know from experience as a DM that many things about your game are bound to be misunderstood or misinterpreted for a long time ~ even by your old players, who will also benefit from these orientations as fuzzy elements of play are cleared up.  Never rely on saying anything once and expecting the players will understand it perfectly.

Encourage the other players to join in with the orientation.  This should not be a dictated line of points, but a friendly conversation all around.  Much of the orientation can be made while a new player rolls up their character, chooses their equipment and asks about the campaign.  NEVER, ever, ever, introduce a new player with a pre-made character sheet just so you can get the game started off the mark like a sprinter in a race.  Very few players will "get it" from this much context, many will soon quit your game and most that stay will make endless mistakes because they simply don't know how things are supposed to work.  This will frustrate other players and you, for nothing but the sake of an hour that could have been spent specifically bringing the new player up to speed.

Physically put your new player next to one of your more gregarious old players, one who will be helpful through the game.  Let the gregarious player mentor the new player, answering questions quietly, pointing out details on the character sheet the new player may have missed, helping with advice about equipment and so on.  Encourage the new player not to get fancy about their choices of skill, spell or weapon; opportunities can be made later to upgrade either.  Simple works best for now, it will be one less complexity to worry about.  Depending on the player's experience, you may want to dictate these things, or even the player's class and role, explaining that this too can be adjusted after several sessions.  It depends on what you and the player feel you can handle.  New players will often be grateful if they are asked to make fewer decisions.

If you are building good parties from the start, you should find one or two players who will graciously carry out the role of mentoring the others.  As a DM, you can then share this responsibility; you can relieve your burden by assigning players to help each other and by specifying the positions of the players around the table, so that you can seat players who are having trouble nearby and leave contented, confident players in the furthest chairs.  Don't let the best players seize the seats next to you; they don't need your help.  They're only seeking those places so they can block other less active players from participating, by seizing your full immediate attention as much as possible.

Every player, new or old, should always be encouraged to ask questions and expect answers.  Long answers can be addressed briefly and discussed at length in post-session discussions, which can sometimes go on for hours if players don't have to rush away.  A good campaign needs plenty of off-game discussions; no campaign can be healthy if players arrive minutes before the session starts, leave minutes after it stops and casual dialogue never has a chance to bloom.  If time is a factor, then schedule chatter sessions outside the game environment from time to time, at the bar or a restaurant, to let players divest themselves of thoughts, reservations, issues or any other matter relating to the game.

Explaining the game up front will save time.  If you don't take that time now to clear up matters, you'll still be orienting your players on those same matters ages into the future.  The more times you half-explain things, the more inconsistent your explanations will seem and the less valuable will be your time spent.  Lazy instruction will only end in your thinking somewhere down the line, "How many times do I have to explain this?"  You will only a few times, if you explain it patiently and not on the fly.

Most definitely, include in your orientation the overall vision of the game you'll be running.  For now we can say that "vision" is something that transmutes through your game much like the reconstruction a human experiences following a series of ruptures; it is the sense of how the game should be played from the viewpoint of someone who has made mistakes and now realizes their personal responsibility in making the game work.  Visions require investment and a big picture grasp of hundreds of elements forming together into a whole.  New players, even after orientation, will see only a small splinter of that whole.

Finally, remember that orientation is not a one-time event, but a continuous process.  Even long-time players need to brush up on some game elements that haven't been touched on for a long time, as does any DM who plays a very wide game.  The complaint about DMs who must look up the rules all the time is only valid with regards to rules that are used every session.  Rules or parts of the campaign that have remained unused for months or even years always deserve a fresh look.  The players are not the only ones who need continuous orientation.  DMs are responsible for orienting themselves as well.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

17th Class: Understanding the Shared Experience

Thank you and welcome back.  Before the break we were speaking about three levels of meaning-making: reaching consensus, situational learning and experiential.  Psychologists call these semantic meaning, pragmatic meaning and existential meaning.  With the second half of this course, we'll try to give these meaning-making ideals structure and application, as a means of developing game worlds that are vital, creative and effective in game play.

When we approach a role-playing game, whether as first-time players of the game or in that specific campaign, we begin by requiring a clear and complete understanding of the rules. Earlier, we discussed this as reaching a game consensus, but there is much more to it. The game setting and the approach of the DM and all the other players creates a certain characteristic in that social group – and we must acclimate ourselves to that characteristic in order to be accepted. We can call this phase of play, Orientation.

Once the player adapts and sees how the game world and its inhabitants function in the DM’s eyes, the player will advance their styles of game play to match. These styles will be augmented and copied by the other players, just as we spoke about when we addressed situational learning. As the players improve their ability to play, the DM will be pushed to provide a higher standard to that play. We can call this phase of play, Innovation.

As the players continue to advance in their game play, they will begin to challenge the limitation of the DM’s version of the world. This is a relative comparison; players that are much more advanced than the DM will challenge the DM’s version more quickly; while other players who are not as advanced as the DM will come to challenge the DM’s version more slowly. Much has been written and said about the DM’s prerogative to maintain the DM’s version against Players who seek to change that version, the mainstream arguing from the position that the DM “owns” the version in question. This is non-sensical, in light of what we understand from situational learning and what we understand from the process of stability-rupture-reconstruction-stability. Changing is a rupture for the DM, but the lack of change can be just as much a rupture for the players. The healthy approach is to recognize that change is inevitable, positive and ultimately leads to a better version for ALL the participants, DM and Player alike. We can call this phase of play, Renovation.

These three phases, orientation, innovation and renovation, institute a culture that is measured by what is true about the game, what is efficient about the game, what is good about the game and what is beautiful about the game.

Truth measures the veracity of game elements: in orientation, the necessity of certain rules, whether or not we enjoy them; in innovation, the devotion and effort that is required to succeed; and in renovation, the legitimacy of wanting the game to be better, not just for one’s needs but for the sake of the game’s potential.

Efficiency measures our will and ability to put all these things into some kind of order: in orientation, to master the art of combing through a character sheet and investing oneself with the knowledge of what’s possible; in innovation, grasping all the elements of possibility at one’s disposal with enough sense to combine ideas to invoke new ideas; and in renovation, the preparedness to take a scalpel or a hammer to a problem and either cut it out or advance it towards the most healthy end product.

Good measures the robust satisfaction in playing: in orientation, the thrill of at last conceiving the game’s structure and function; in innovation, the triumph of creating means to vanquish enemies and safeguard treasures and self; and in renovation, the epiphany of seeing just how far the vistas of game play can reach, apart from the simple mechanics limited by human mastery.

Beautiful measures the awe we feel as we comprehend our roles: in orientation, seeing a player character come to life from a collection of numbers and words; in innovation, reflecting upon the challenges that have been overcome and one’s personal will in taking on things that are greater still; and in renovation, the comprehension that humans, unleashed, can be as effective as gods in realms of the imagination.

These are highly generalized ideals and some of you will find it difficult just now to see the direct material application of each.  Yet these concepts form the basis of a culturally inherited structure that has been in place since the 1970s ~ though largely distorted and misunderstood through the lack of research.  The goal of this course is to find meaning in these ideals, so that the construction of the game world and the specific manner in which players interact can be more thoroughly understood without sentiment, guesswork or the expectation of quick answers.  We're not seeking an objective cause-and-effect model that will predict and control game behaviour, but rather a steadily increasing understanding of a complex, shared experience that will influence the manner in which we practice the game.

That is why we have painstakingly spent 16 classes establishing that the principles underlying role-playing games are not based on "opinion" or "taste," but are in fact grounded in psychology and empirical research pursued by tens of thousands of thinkers and researchers seeking answers for all human experience.  Role-playing is a human experience and is not divorced from the fundamentals of social meaning-making ... but role-playing as a specific aspect of that meaning-making has been ignored, in part because outside observers may see it as "just a game" whereas inside observers are resistant against any deconstruction that might established fixed principles that could be used to dictate "good play" from "poor play."

Our goal here is not to distinguish either, but to view any participant as one whose comprehension, expertise or satisfaction from game play can be increased if said participant is willing to learn.

We can say, for example, that the specific form of any set of rules associated with role-playing is immaterial when compared with the fundamental principle that it is the duty and goal of the participants to know the rules, examine the rules closely, test the rules, establish precedents to bind parts of the game that were not formerly granted rules and ultimately to adjust, rewrite or discard rules which ~ by the consensus of the participants ~ failed to remain purposeful in providing a peak game experience.

This would mean that those RPG players who have opted to adjust the rules so that player death almost certainly never occurs are not operating outside the principles of maintaining a proper sensibility about rules.  Some ~ including this instructor ~ see that alteration as unpalatable and even destructive to the game experience, but it is not a wrong way to play.  It is up to each group of participants, working within their social group, to decide for themselves what rules should be upheld and to what degree they should be detailed.

Naturally, we should expect to see conflicts arise between groups playing wildly different adaptations of a single RPGs, or between RPG variants of the same genre ~ but conflict is positive and even informative, so long as it is understood that political or ethical ideas of "wrong" or "right" don't attach themselves to the way a single player begins orientation into a single gamespace.  No two game spaces anywhere are alike; nor is any game space today alike to the game space it will transform into at a future date.  Role-playing is not an end result.  Role-playing is a process.

That's enough said on the matter, which we need not bring up again in class.  With our next class we'll begin our discussion of orientation to the game setting.

Anything can be a game setting.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Satisfying Answers

I’d like to let the Gentle Reader in on a little secret, regarding the whole concept of the RPG 201 course and its mid-term. Like Lance Duncan, I also don’t feel I know the material well enough to give satisfying answers to these questions about role-playing theory. I’m only certain that I can give a more satisfying answer than this.

Where it comes to why do we play D&D, the staggering around in the dark is … epic. More than once I’ve come across someone describing a long convoluted series of game events, with the conviction that said events are “cool,” followed by the declarative statement, “… and that’s why we play D&D.”

Imagine the following:
“He takes the snap; there’s only three men rushing for Millsaps. Farmore throws it over the middle, complete to Thompson. Thompson looking for a block; he laterals it to Curry and Curry laterals it again … and it’s caught again, and Tomlin, now with the lateral, and now the lateral to Thompson ~ and he laterals it back to Maddox, on the other side. Maddox, looking for a block; he fakes the lateral to Curry, now he laterals it to Curry! Curry’s at the 49 yard line, he’s dancing around, he throws it back now to Maddox, who throws it across the field to Barbour, Barbour looking to run, he’s looking for a block, he’s got a convoy, he’s going to throw it to Thompson … Thompson’s at the 30 yard line. Thompson now laterals it back to Curry at the 35, they’re running out of spaces. Curry fakes, he’s gonna lateral it to Tomlin, Tomlin’s got a chance to go! Tomlin’s got a chance to go and he laterals it to Meadows, now it’s going to go to Maddox. Maddox at the 30 yard line, and now … now it’s a lateral … Curry’s got it … and Curry’s still going! Curry’s going! It’s a TOUCHDOWN! CURRY SCORES!!!”

And that’s why we play football.

Well, no. We love it when this shit happens, both when we’re playing and when we’re watching, but we know from personal experience that even when football is a grind, even when nothing special happens, we still go out and play, or turn on the game, because we love football for deeper reasons than, “When shit happens, it’s cool.”

I could try and write the rest of this post guessing at what that reason is, and write a bunch of deep from the soul literature that would make the reader feel like I really had a handle on that reason and we’d all walk away with a wonderful cathartic feeling about why we play RPGs. I’ve done it fifty times on this blog. But to tell the truth, I’m tired of guessing. I’m tired of catharsis. I want to actually KNOW what the answer is … which is what this quest for an RPG 201 course is about. I don’t have any really satisfying answers. I want some.

Regarding the exam. I knew those were brutal questions as I wrote them down. When I took courses from university that specialized in essay questions, it was understood that the prof was NOT going to answer the questions for us, ever. I remember my prof Dr. Barry Baldwin had a question that was on every final he gave for Classics 301 – the Roman Republic: “Compare the fall of the Roman Republic with the prospective fall of the American Republic. Be specific and give examples. Argue either for or against.” In the time I took courses from Dr. Baldwin, we talked about that relationship many times; and usually that involved being told to read source materials that Dr. Baldwin would pour like rain into my notebook. But I was never able to wrest out of him what he really thought about it. I think I know. But I’ll never be sure.

Because the “right” answer didn’t exist. The right answer was to make an attempt at an answer. To face it head on and figure out what one really knew about the subject, to ferret out the gaps in one’s knowledge so that, when we would sit at the end puzzling about our opinion, we wouldn’t stop thinking about it. We’d go on trying to answer the question.

As the reader can see, Dr. Baldwin taught me well.

Saturday, November 17, 2018


During my university years, I wrote about 40 essay exams, most of them like the exam I offered.  I don't remember enjoying most of them.  A few, yes ~ but not most.  I remember feeling unprepared for quite a few ~ and that drop that came as I looked at the questions and thought, "Oh shit, I am so fucked."

But I would stare at the questions, and think, and some how I'd get the nerve to try one ... and after writing out a paragraph, memories would rise and suddenly I'd find myself with one essay done and halfway through the two-hour exam.  I'd look over the remaining questions and one would pop out at me.  I'd realize that everything was going to be all right.

I'm not surprised that there were so few responses.  They were unpleasantly hard ~ not like the usual fare:

  • What is your favorite RPG?
  • What is your favorite OSR resource?
  • What game are you running right now?
  • What is your favorite house rule?
... and so on.  Straight out of Readers' Digest.

Had a conversation this afternoon with a friend who used to play D&D long time back, who stopped when he got out of the military and began to pursue music with a vengeance. He works on his composition and performance skills like I work on my D&D world ~ and as we respect each other's passions, we get along very well.

His question for me was rhetorical: why has role-playing persisted as a hobby?  Without effort, I gave an answer that took about twenty minutes, hammering out point after point based on fundamental principles of human behaviour and response, in keeping with content I've already written about.  As he listened, he made connections between my points and his own experiences with musicians, the army, training to be an electrician and social groups he knows well.  Everything I said rang true, which surprised me even as I set out my argument.

Four months ago all I would have had was guesses.

That's what most of the "advice" is that you'll hear.  Clever sounding phrases or vague postulations, such as that the old saw that RPGs are about telling a story ~ as if that clarifies anything.  Few admit that they're guessing.  Perhaps they comfort themselves with the belief that "no one knows," and that therefore it is okay to talk around and around the questions with blurred, sketchy, speculative conjectures, as if we were speaking about the existence of god and not something that happens daily in actual fact.  It is as though people believe that if we keep repeating the softball questions or that story and narrative is central to the game, somehow a great game will spontaneously manifest like a genie.

This reminds me of the cargo cults that seized various primitive island cultures of the Pacific beginning with the late 19th century.  As advanced outsiders made their presence known to places like Fiji, New Guinea and Melanesia known, they demonstrated technology and practices that mystified and temporarily enriched the inhabitants.  When the outsiders went away again ~ such as the Americans departing hundreds of islands throughout the Pacific after World War II ~ the natives committed themselves to the construction of airstrips, planes, offices, dining rooms and all sorts of Western goods, like radios, out of materials like coconuts and straw.  All this was done in the hopes that rebuilding the environment would somehow make the planes return again.  For myself, I don't see anything "stupid" in this behaviour ... it was merely the best information these people had for the way that things functioned.  The Americans built airports and planes landed.  If we build an airport, planes will land again.

It is a demonstrable weakness of subjective reasoning, based on appearances, feelings, assumptions or wish fulfillment.  It creates a representation of particular situations or processes that provide for an overarching set of aims or values. It creates a dialogue.  It enables.

But the answers provided fit the standards of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.  Which explains why in 40 years of describing, developing, redeveloping, writing and designing, the standard quality of a typical game module written in the last three months is fundamentally unchanged from the standard quality of a game module written in 1978.  Some would argue that it is a little worse.  I would argue that any difference is found in the number of words actually used to describe the module.

I think it may be that many designers believe that if the same old material is stuffed into the same old format, somehow something different will emerge of its own accord.  Somehow this module will make the planes land again.

This thinking will not change until we find real answers.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

16th Class: Mid-Term Exam

Below are four essay questions.  Choose two and write a 500-word essay on each.  Be concise and do not exceed the proscribed length; it is enough to give a clear indication that you understand the material.  
1. Dreyfuss describes five stages of skill acquisition. Explain the progression from competency to proficiency from the perspective of preparedness (research, estimation, planning, resources, education, practice or rehearsal) using whichever form of preparedness seems most applicable to you.
2. Describe ways in which mentorship can advance the creation of game consensus and effectively situated learning; then describe ways in which mentorship can obstruct game consensus and undermine situated learning. Relate positive and negative mentorship to meaning-making.
3. Explain how unrestrained subjective thinking in managing role-playing games leads to the calcification of ideas and creative ability, particularly in the progression of novice to competent player. Relate your answer to the course definition of conventions and axioms.
4. Give reasons for why we prefer to use the enigmatic term "story" to describe the process of stability-rupture-reconstruction-stability rather than a more anatomical approach when describing to others, "how to play?" Given that "create a story" is a more popular form of advice than, "create a set of obstacles that will force your players to reimagine their characters," how do we expect the first advice to serve as a template for the creation of game worlds?

You will be given until 12:01 AM Saturday, Nov 17, to submit your answers. Your answers should be submitted to my email, You will not receive a grade if you do not submit your answers to my email. You may, if you wish, submit your answers directly to the blog (splitting your answers up as needed to make it fit), but answers submitted to the blog will not be published until after the exam deadline has passed. Answers submitted to the blog but NOT to my email address will not be graded and will not be published.

Grades will be posted Nov 17-18th as I am able.

Good luck.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

15th Class: Experiential

After the previous two classes covering game consensus and situated learning, we come now to the existential development of the role-playing character.  This is the process by which the character consciously or unconsciously shifts it’s original purpose and conception through hundreds of hours of game play.  Essentially, dealing with the world, managing the struggles and difficulties associated with adventuring, the precepts upon which the character was founded grow less and less important, while the existential needs and wants of the character take precedence.  The player will, without awareness, reshape his or her perspective, so that past expectations will be achieved or discarded in favor of a new perspective.  Just as we do with our daily lives.

This. too, is connected with meaning making.  The meanings we created once no longer apply; we have new knowledge now … and with it, new meanings.

From the perspective of playing and managing a role-playing game, we need to ask ourselves, how can we advance this change in knowledge, and thereby advance the habit of characters constantly making new meanings for themselves? How can we encourage player and character growth, together?  Because obviously it is not really the character that grows, but the player’s conception of the character.

Before we can answer that question, we must first understand the principles underlying rupture and reconstruction.  This is a universal phenomenon which we all know from personal experience.

The normal pattern of an individual's life follows a pattern of stability interrupted by rupture, followed by restructuring and then new stability.  Ruptures can be radical, causing PTSD, defying restructuring and lasting in years of oscillation between temporary comfort and difficulty.  Ruptures can also be highly transitory, so that something upsetting that happened a particular morning can be acknowledged, managed and ultimately restructured within hours.  Psychology tends to look at the larger moments of rupture because these are much more difficult to manage and often require outside assistance.

Ruptures are highly variable in type.  Ruptures can result from cultural changes and conflicts, such as war or the appearance of some new ideology or social-changing technology.  Ruptures can result as a change in a person's environment, such as moving to a new city or country, a change in management at work or a recession.  Relationship changes, such as divorce, a death in the family, a child leaving home, new love or a change of interests can be a rupture.  Merely growing older, an increase in health issues or changes in one's belief system should also be included.  Ruptures may happen in an instant, or they may accumulate over a period of years.  We need to recognize here, however, that the origin of the rupture is much less important than the effect the rupture has upon the way the person views their immediate world.

We each move from home to office, from office to entertainment venue, from venue to home, from home to parents home ... and each of these spheres possesses a recognizeable identity for us.  We go where we are comfortable; and the less we recognize the sphere, the more hesitant we are to go there, or let ourselves interact with it.  Going on vacation is stress-inducing because we don't know that sphere and we have reason to question that choice.  A bad vacation can very much be a rupture, one that we will have to deal with while losing that opportunity to relax from our day jobs.  This is one reason why some people never go on vacation.

Ruptures, when they occur, cause uncertainty.  Uncertainty is generally seen to be full of tension and anxiety, but it can also be felt as excitement (again, the thrill of going on vacation, to see something we've never seen, is both exciting and stressful).  Uncertainty can be paralyzing.  It can bring on the oscillation between our coming to terms with what's happened, while feeling despair or depression as we fail to overcome the rupture.  We feel a compulsion to explore, to experience newness, but we are also well aware from our own experience that newness can often have a high price.

Our takeaway here should be that we often deliberately court rupture.  We change jobs for the sake of opportunity, we seek out relationships or to end relationships, we adventure into dangerous places for the sake of newness, we play dangerous sports and other games ... and we do these things because, following the oscillation of the reconstruction process, we grow as people.  We see, we experience, we learn, we advance, we develop new ideas and we come away with new tools and methods of managing ruptures that might occur in our future.  If a rupture occurs, we feel certain that we will handle it and that ultimately that management, that reconstruction, will make us stronger.

Most meaningful activities, the ones we most remember, the ones that bring us the greatest amount of satisfaction, deliberately risk some form of rupture.  The very concept of game-playing is rupture on a micro-level.  Let's take a moment and view a typical role-playing campaign in terms of micro-ruptures.

The players create their characters in an atmosphere of certainty, with free time to conjure up backgrounds, purchase equipment, chat with each other about plans and build up their confidence.  Soon, however, after venturing out, they encounter a difficulty.  They have to reassess; change some of their expectations.  But then they advance, restore their characters, head out again ... and get into some really serious trouble.

Soon, it looks like it could end in a total-party-kill.  Several members of the party begin to identify their situation with inevitable doom.  Another disaster befalls the party and yet they fight it out.  Things swing wildly back and forth.  For a moment, the party is safe; then all hell breaks loose.  Someone's character dies.  Another falls unconscious.  Then something is found - treasure, or equipment - and the dead character is restored and the party advances in ability ... one more difficulty and the party retreats back to town and catches their breath.  There is a moment of comfort again.

But because of their actions, a new rupture is forming.  The enemy has followed the party back to town and now there is a momentous battle.  Magic items are used, some are destroyed; the enemy seems impossible to kill; there's no telling who will win; the party's tension rises, the moment is very exciting ...

We deliberately pursue this format of game play because it reflects our characteristics as biological, thinking entities.  We equate rupture with growth; we equate the threat of rupture with purpose.  And then, following the rupture, we narrate the process of stability-rupture-reconstruction and new stability as a story ... because that is how we are constructed to think.

For those who may be familiar with the term, "the Hero's Journey" described by Joseph Campbell is nothing more than the fundamental structure of human being's adapting and reconstructing themselves psychologically following any rupture that might have occurred in their lives.  Campbell's "universality of theme" exists because every person writing a story is a biological human being.

Our goal is to see clearly how creating rupture is the heart of the campaign structure - much more so than story or heroism.  Story is only the recording of the process; heroism is only the self-perception of how we rose to the challenge.  Both are second-hand descriptors of what is really happening.  We need to lay aside non-specific language and address the functional process directly.  We will continue with this subject, applying the cyclical process of experiential rupture and growth after the Mid-Term exam.

I'll take this moment and say a few words about the Mid-Term, which will be the next class.  There will be four essay questions on the exam - the student should choose only two of the essay questions, then write a 500-word essay on each of those two questions.  For those students who cannot follow instructions, you will be graded on the first two exam questions that I see pass my desk.  Each exam question will be worth 50% of the total mark on the mid-term, which as I said before will be worth 40% of your final grade.

You will be given one week from the time when the exam is posted to submit your answers.  Your answers should be submitted to my email,  You will not receive a grade if you do not submit your answers to my email.  You may, if you wish, submit your answers directly to the blog (splitting your answers up as needed to make it fit), but answers submitted to the blog will not be published until after the exam deadline has passed.  Answers submitted to the blog but NOT to my email address will not be graded and will not be published.

I will be grading each essay according to the following method:

  • F Grade.  Essays which show no evidence of grasping or understanding the course content will receive an F Grade.  Take note that answers that introduce outside, unsupported content not included in the course material run a considerable risk of receiving an F Grade as well (I will consider new material that is sourced on a case-by-case basis, subject to the academic value of the source).
  • D Grade.  Essays that accurately repeat the barest material included in the course content, providing no personal insight, will receive a D Grade.
  • C Grade.  Essays that show an excellent grasp of the course content, yet show little or no personal insight, will receive a C Grade.
  • B Grade.  Essays that demonstrate a strong recognition of how elements of the course content influence one another, offering personal insight, will receive a B Grade.
  • A Grade.  Essays that provide remarkable intuition from the course content and the source material, which surprises the examiner with its acumen, will receive an A Grade.
You will not be graded on your spelling or your grammar.  Remember that a D is a Pass.  I wish the best of luck to all concerned.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Go Low, Dumbfucks

Tomorrow is the mid-term election in America.  And two years ago, I took a vow.

Some people who come here are not left-wing in their outlook.  I don't care.  I'm not going to take a second to disparage the right.  I'm only going to say that whatever the outcome of the election, whatever number of people come out and vote, nothing is going to change in America by way of the Democratic party.

And to support that statement, I draw the reader's attention to this argument:

This whole situation is the Democrats' fault ... and has been going all the way back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was more concerned about popular opinion than he was about how well the Vietnam War was going.

At a time when the Democrats should be going for the knees, their only functional strategy with these mid-terms has been to encourage people to vote.  As though that were a strategy.  It wasn't.  If you think that the Democrats winning anything tomorrow is going to count in the long run, you're just not getting it.

You're just not.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


I was going to create a poll to determine who, if anyone, was interested in taking the midterm exam for the RPG 201 course I've been creating.  But the poll feature has been removed from blogger.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

14th Class: Situated Learning

With our last class, we discussed the orientation of each player to game fundamentals of role-playing, arguing that better comprehension for all concerned would heighten the players' enjoyment and make for a more engaging experience.  When all the players are able to communicate clearly, nearly or all of the time, play is streamlined and the participants are able to invest themselves at a faster pace, on a higher game level.  This happens because conflict is reduced.

Let's move on to a discussion of the players' effects on each other during play, as the DM introduces situations that the players must resolve.  To do this, we need to consider some of the dynamics at play between the individual players - and to visualize those players, we can take advantage of the six-personality types developed by the American psychologist John L. Holland.  Obviously, this is greatly simplified and no one should imagine that players can be slotted into types so that there are only six types of players.  This is an exercise, to highlight the manner in which disparate people might communicate with each other during game play.

As indicated by the image, the six types each express a peculiar outlook or preference towards particular kinds of jobs ... and the development of a personal skill set that contributes to the performance of those jobs.  The conventional tends to like structure and to keep records; the realistic is hands on and practical, with a penchant for independent action; the thinker observes, evaluates, solves problems and is reserved; the artistic puts much of their energy into expression, creativity and a desire to act in unstructured situations; the social feels a strong need to help others, to inform or enlighten if the situation allows; and the enterprising likes to direct, influence, persuade or manage others.  For anyone who has participated in a role-playing game, it is easy to see how each character type manifests itself.

The conventional player is keeping track of everyone the party meets and keeping the dungeon map straight, while maintaining that rules are rules.  She takes notice when the DM says anything unclear, and asks questions because she dislikes anything that's ambiguous.  The realistic player is min/maxing his character, taking advantage of every flaw in the rules and pushing for more power because for him, more power means a better chance at survival.  The investigative player is puzzling and overthinking every aspect of the game so far, proposing theories, analyzing every detail and bearing down on any mystery that might be present, certain that they will figure it out before the DM makes the reveal.  He is also holding back, listening, whenever the party is taking action or discussing things with themselves and others.  The artistic player is designing the appearance of his character, and the castle he'll build one day, and the elaborate backstory of his character, while showing little interest in the campaign's mundane details, such as how much food there is or even what day it is.  The social player is anxious that everyone gets a chance to speak, she is carrying extra supplies in case someone runs out, she is willing to go along with the majority and rarely speaks up against the majority - and, in fact, only joins the majority once it has formed without her.  Finally, the enterprising character is organizing the party, directing who goes with who when the party has to separate, is the first to speak up when speaking with non-player characters and is often the first to sacrifice themselves if a sacrifice is necessary.  The enterprising player will often ensure that everyone speaks in order so that everyone gets a chance to speak (which often pleases each other personality type differently but positively).

We could continue to discuss their individual approaches to the game, deconstructing their motivations and aspirations, but none of these players exist in the game alone and none of them are immune to the influences that other players have.  Towards that end, we would do better to discuss how they interact together and learn from one another.

Towards that end, I've reworked the earlier image to give each of the personality types a name.  Since we have the images to remind us, we can quickly identify these six players and remember what they are individually.  We can imagine Ian sitting between Richard and Armand, with Connie, Ernest and Sophie on the opposite side of the table and the DM posed between Sophie and Armand.  Both these last two are more likely to sit nearest the DM, as they are gregarious and attentive.  Armand wants to show his latest creations and Sophie likes the position of being seated at the DM's left hand.

Richard and Ian are both remote; Richard because he sees his role as opposing the DM while Ian simply wants to watch everyone.  Ernest wants to watch everyone also, but positions himself so that everyone at the table ~ except the DM ~ is immediately close to hand.  Connie, too, is remote; but only because she views herself as the keeper of notes and is comfortable where she is furthest from direct inspection by the DM.

It might seem purposeful to discuss how these personalities conflict with each other ~ yet conflict is more rightly seen as a means to an end, rather than as an isolated event.  If Ernest and Richard conflict over an issue, the conflict itself is not the goal, but rather the resolution of that conflict.  Remember when we discussed earlier that shared meaning making came about through interpersonal and intergroup behaviour.  To achieve a consensus, each participant will want to give their perception of the issue ~ over time, a positive group will find a way to achieve consensus and that particular conflict will be brought to a close.  Conflicts are time-limited, whereas a consensus can potentially reach into future generations.  There are many aspects of human culture that began as bloody conflicts, but eventually resolved themselves into mutual agreements that have lasted centuries as legacies shared down through generations.

However different Richard and Ernest might be, over time Richard will see things in Ernest's management of the table that will seem appropriate and successful ~ and Richard will adopt those strategies.  Ernest will watch how Richard has chosen his weapons and skill sets and will likewise choose to incorporate the same tactics.  Sophie, who might be intimidated by Richard, will feel comfortable enough with Ernest to let the latter show her how to incorporate Richard's ideas.  Ian will puzzle it out as the tactic is discussed around the table, then suggest a point where Richard's ideas could be improved ~ and Richard will immediately incorporate Ian's suggestion. Armand will find reasons not to incorporate the change, such as the lack of personality in everyone approaching the game the same way; and both Ernest and Connie will see merit in that argument and reduce some of Richard's harsher choices.  Armand might then try a watered down version of what Sophie has adopted.  And so it goes, round and round the table.

Armand says something clever to a non-player character and Ian is impressed.  The next time, Ian tries a similar reply, which gets a slightly different response from the DM than Armand got (partly because the DM has also been thinking about Armand's earlier riposte).  Connie has been thinking about the earlier exchange also and quickly comes up with something that supports Ian this time.  Her phrase gets a big laugh from Richard, Sophie and Ernest, which increases Connie's comfort playing with this group.  Richard encourages everyone at the table to speak their minds to NPCs and gets an approval from Sophie ... so Richard tries to say something in the parley that is still ongoing; unfortunately, this falls flat.  Ian tells Richard why, Richard takes it a little hard, Sophie says something encouraging and Armand changes the subject by saving Richard's comment with a quick explanatory lie.  Ernest, ever the persuader, sees how to expand the lie and in moments, Richard's failed effort is forgotten.  If Richard feels encouraged by his peers, he'll try again ... and eventually will learn something about role-playing by watching Ernest and Armand go at it.  And so it goes around the table.

This process is called Situated Learning.  So long as the participants of any activity are busy taking part in that activity, they will habitually learn from one another and ultimately incorporate pieces of what they observe into their own behaviour, no matter who they are or whether they are conscious of doing so.  In neither example given above is any player aware that they are watching, incorporating, self-selecting material or actively teaching the others in their group.  Yet it is happening ~ and over long periods, as a result of hundreds of hours of parties acting together, players will learn immensely just from watching each other play.

Note that I have been careful not to dictate that the manner of play of any of these participants is "better" or "inferior" to another.  Whatever the personality make-up of a game's participants, the players cannot help being what they are or finding importance in the things that matter to them.  Our goal should not be to dictate which player behaviour is appropriate ... or even to dictate what all the players must do with their characters or their approach to the game.  A positively managed group of players ~ those who are encouraged to resolve conflicts, respect each other's differences and focus on the game and not their immediate emotional needs ~ will eventually create a symbiosis that will cause all the players to behave in a single, unified manner, respecting each others abilities and peculiar gifts for solving specific problems.

There are problems in game play that only Ian can solve; or that only Connie or Sophie can solve.  There are situations that call for Ernest's management of the whole party.  Sometimes, Richard will save the day with his mechanical perspective; and sometimes Armand will save the day with his creative perspective.  And each player at the table will take a little bit of the others so that they will have some of Richard's power, Connie's methodology, Ian's insight or Sophie's patience.  This is how our education happens, everyday, regardless of what we are doing that day or where we are going.  We learn by watching, agreeing, adopting, seeing it done better, refining, innovating and then adapting that innovation ... while everyone in our company is doing the same, using our processes just as we are using theirs.

This is how we reach a consensus as a whole culture, by making meaning as we go and encouraging others to do the same.  This is how millions of people steadily shift towards believing the same things.  The practice is pragmatic, complex and incomprehensibly effective.

Very well, that's enough for today.  Just a reminder, we will have one more class and the one after will be the mid-term exam.  The mid-term will count for 40% of your grade.