Saturday, January 19, 2019

23rd Class: Conventions

Early in the course, in describing how a Novice DM handles the processes behind running an unfamiliar, complicated role-playing game, we discussed Stuart Dreyfus’ proposition that the Novice relies upon conventions, a set of if-then instructions. We did not, at that time, discuss what those conventions would be … so let us today take up that subject and investigate what we might include.

It would be preferable not to base our list upon conjecture or opinion, particularly because we ourselves are not Novices and are therefore easily led astray by those axioms we’ve developed for ourselves. The class will remember that we differentiated “axioms” from conventions, the former arising from personal observations that we accumulate through playing the game. Axioms are substantially reflective of our value system ~ the peculiar way we think that we should play the game. Conventions, on the other hand, should reflect the manner in which Novices should play ~ specifically because they are Novices and therefore lacking in the experience necessary to create their own axioms.

DMing is Scary

Therefore, upon what should we base a list of conventions? For that, let’s examine the viewpoint of the Novice when first sitting down to run the game for the first time, or at any time early in their game history.

By far, the easiest part of any role-playing game to grasp is character creation. Everything about character creation is linear, the process is usually established, a character sheet of some kind is usually included so we can clearly see all we have to do to complete the process and with character creation the rules are their most clear. Moreover, character creation can easily be practiced by the Novice as much as need be. If

the Novice wishes to save time in early runnings, because the creation time might be very long and depend on much looking up of rules, that is a convention that would be fair to suggest.

We could also argue that repeated rolling of characters with the players helps build familiarity for both DM and players at the same time, with the amount of time contracting as repetition occurs; but we could allow that to become a personal axiom for the DM once they gained personal experience with rolling up characters (thus making the DM expert for a group of novice players if that’s how it shook out).

IF there are a great many character types, and IF there are excessive numbers of skills, powers or equipment options to choose from, that in turn makes joint DM/player rolling of characters excessively drawn out, a rational convention would be to have the Novice selectively curtail the number of choices in the short term, until more personal experience is gained. For example, early D&D had less characters, less skills, less spells to choose from and a shorter equipment list. Even if more of each exists, as a convention the DM could say, “For now, you can only play these four character classes, we’re limiting the skills to this list, you can only choose from this group of powers and here is a minimal equipment list.”

Then, as the DM gains familiarity with the content, each list can be expanded piecemeal as is practical within the DM’s capacity to handle those expansions. This greatly reduces the number of elements, ideas, points to be remembered and manners in which the players can influence the campaign. While not optimal for a Competent DM with several years experience, it would be more feasible for the Novice DM who is already overwhelmed by the magnitude of these lists.

Additionally, with a greater direct knowledge of the limited player character attack forms, because it is easier to memorize less material in the short term, this empowers DMs, letting them grow familiar with those classes, skills, powers and equipment choices, encouraging confidence, a sense of control and time to expand the parts of their world they want to expand, when they are ready to do so.

We can then apply a similar convention to combat. With fewer classes to manage, we can see that the main difficulties for the Novice will be management of combat; knowing what dice to throw and when; making judgment calls on player innovation; making a measured assessment of how strong the enemy should be; plus knowing how much treasure and reward to give as compensation. Early combats can be daunting; there are many rules and exceptions to remember; players tend to get over-anxious and even upset over results; it is easy to kill a whole party, or to have the players dispatch an enemy with disappointing ease. It is very difficult for a Novice to refrain from fudging die rolls for psychological/emotional reasons, and very easy to self-justify such behavior rather than acknowledge its duplicity, again for psychological/emotional reasons. The process of judging combats is a hill to climb: how the enemy arranges themselves, how they approach the party, how they respond to success or failure, whether they are entitled to call for back-up, whether they should flee or fight to the death … all of these things temper the experience of the players, who are making the same decisions but with less resources.

To help the DM, we offer the convention of using a limited range of monster, those largely dependent on physical attacks, particularly humanoids. We suggest limiting the use of magical attacks, or don’t use them at all … at least until both the DM and the player grow used to combat and there is an increase in the DM’s ability to gauge what’s strong enough to kill the whole party too quickly. Then, again, as experience is gained, a wider range of monsters can be incorporated; and a wider range of monster tactics and defenses. It is best, in the beginning, that the Novice run all monsters as rather dense; later, these same monsters can develop intelligence and begin to act as supportive teams, while the player characters learn to do the same. As the Novice notices what the players are doing, situationally the DM can reflect that behavior in the monsters also.

By narrowing the amount of experience the DM has to have in order to run the bare necessities of play, shortening the list of character attributes and the possible types of monster enemies, we can then apply the same convention to the overall setting and the player character’s place in it. The creation of an entire world is overwhelming; even a detailed rendering of a single province, or even a complex detailing of a city, would quickly overwhelm a Novice who has never run anything like this.

Therefore, to enable the DM to have more control over the game setting, we suggest conventions such as viewing “the village” with a very simple eye. It is essentially a collection of houses surrounding a market, a tavern and a few officials or knowledgeable persons the players can turn to in times of confusion. The space around the village is filled with farms and exists primarily as a buffer between the village and any “dungeon” that might exist outside that circle. The players are led to understand that they must travel between village and the nearest adventure set piece in order to encounter foes that can then be dispatched, before returning to the village. These effectively become the focal points of our Novice setting.

It is not a “world” but is serves the base needs for a Novice’s campaign. The players require the anticipation of going to, then arriving at, a place that offers a threat to get their blood up. The intervening neutral space between the adventure and the village becomes, by default, the player characters’ moment of privacy from both risky challenge and the comparative responsibility of behaving a certain way in the village. With experience, as the village becomes a town, that sense of propriety the characters must observe becomes more obtrusive. The open road suggests freedom from convention and yet rapid proximity to return to the fight if need be.

Initially, this can be enough for a Novice. The village/town relationship to various adventure spots, with lines drawn as roads between population centers and various adventures can support game play for a few years, until such time as that convention becomes tiresome and the DM begins to crave something more three-dimensional. By that time, of course, the Novice should have advanced considerably in their knowledge of game play, combat, small location design and character building, and will be ready for a more elaborate campaign structure.

Finally, then, we have the player’s worldview, to which the Novice DM must support and empower. This can be extremely difficult for the Novice, particularly as the player’s worldview itself is rarely seen in concrete terms by the player, much less understood by the DM.

We can assume the player wants things, and we can suggest that the DM gives the players those things – but the manner of giving those things can easily break a game if the things are given too quickly or only after too much price is paid by the player. As a convention, “Give the players what they want” can easily create an uncontained nightmare of a campaign.

We do better to tell the DM, “Give the players some of what they want,” with the added caution that the DM should always leave the players wanting more. This is not, however, a particularly useful convention. For example, what wants should be given? What wants shouldn’t be. WANT is itself a very difficult philosophical conundrum in its own right. People often want things that will not satisfy them and are often surprised to find themselves satisfied by things they did not immediately want. “Always wanting more” is more often than not a recipe for disaster. More than one DM, Novice and Competent DM alike, has tried to please a party’s wants only to create dissatisfaction and resentment.

The player, apart from the intricacies of the game, is at the table seeking many things: a positive game experience; fun; a sense of community; and validation from their peers. None of these things are something the DM can “give” to the players; and are, in fact, things the DM also wants. However, while the players’ actions can obstruct these returns, the DM is ever more so in a position to undercut the overall experience of the campaign, through trying too hard to grant things or disallow actions that my fruitfully contribute to the gaming experience.

Therefore, we often hear it said that a Novice DM shouldn’t take a hard line on rules, and should feel free to “loosen up” and “have fun.” The logic for this as a convention seems sound. DMs who take the game too seriously, particularly in their early history, do sound like the sort who will block players from the good, fun, communal and social activity they’ve come to avoid.

The difficulty with the “loosen up” suggestion is, “How much?” There’s no clear cut measure for what we can define as loose and what we can define as hard line. A Novice DM may have to take a hard line against players who choose to ride rough-shod over the campaign, potentially because they feel the DM is a Novice and therefore easily manipulated. The “loose” DM might become so loose that they’re handing over to the players everything that’s asked, resulting in a campaign so short of challenge that it quickly becomes either silly or boring. In all cases, we should keep from conventions that encourage behaviour that cannot be readily defined, especially by Novices.

Because a Novice has little conception of what consists of the player’s worldview; and because any action the Novice might take towards addressing it is bound to be overcompensation or wildly guessing, it is probably best not to take any action regarding the players’ worldview at all … until the Novice acquires a clear, conscious idea of what this is. Players will want things. The Novice should take note of what things. The players will want too much and on those occasions where the Novice sees the player has been overpowered by some possessed item, the Novice should take note of that and resist the temptation to give things like this again.

The Novice shouldn’t try to take a hard line or adopt a light stance. The Novice should by convention do what seems best in the moment and what seems fair to everyone. What is best and what is fair can be determined clearly through discussion and consensus ~ which is the best way to make meaning of any campaign. DMs should not take the position that they are responsible for the players’ game experience; all participants are responsible for the game experience of everyone present. By convention, the DM should concentrate on providing an honest, clear description of the setting, with the intent of fairly responding to the players’ choices about that setting. And that is all.

By no means is this a complete list. But these are conventions we can fairly offer based on the Novice’s immediate relationship to a game form the novice does not fully understand. Any proposed convention that does not take that fact into account is very much missing the point.

Very well. We can elaborate further on the subject of Novices and Beginners with our next class.


Samuel Kernan said...

I wish I had had this post in front of me when I started DMing! Expanding the possibilities of what the players might encounter slowly would surely have helped me develop consistency in how I portrayed those encounters.

This post is encouraging me to to narrow my setting to something more manageable at my present skill level. I would run more consistently with a game that was less daunting to prep.

Samuel Kernan said...

This post together with what you have written elsewhere on ways to reward players would be a better intro to the game than the entire published DMG (4th edition probably?) that I read when I started.

Maybe with a bit more on forming consensus thrown in. I should go back and read the earlier class where you talked about that.