Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Medium

There are thousands of possible scenes that are iconic from the 1960s.  A film-maker makes a choice not from what's available, but by having a message to give and then finding the scene that fits that message.  That is what's meant when we say, the medium is the message.  All the possible choices are "true."  All the possible choices are "real."  But we don't show all the possible choices.  We only show what we want the viewer to see.

What is it that makes this scene impressive?  Is it the soldiers ... or the girl with the flower?

I was asked the question in relation to this recent post, haven't I ever had a player say, "well met" during a game.  Haven't I ever had a player ask me what a saving throw was.  Haven't I ever had players complain about paperwork in a D&D campaign?

This isn't really the point.  As this video explains, it isn't about what an actual player might say at a particular game table ... it is that James Gifford chose to highlight these particular remarks, from thousands of possible remarks, because he felt that these, and not other possible remarks, were the most iconic or importantly relevant things that we should expect a new gamer to say.

Gifford's choice to have one of his fictional characters say, "well met" is, to use Ozymandias' words, "cringe-worthy."  It is what we call, "a cliche."  An awful, terrible, face-palming cliche.  Cliches don't inform, they distract.  They suggest very strongly that the presenter does not know what the hell he is talking about.

Gifford's choice to have one of the players ask, "What are saving throws," is cringe-worthy.  It is an obvious and very lazy attempt to indicate the players are inexperienced.  But surely we can find more confusing and obscure things related to the game than saving throws.  The players have just finished making up their characters; wouldn't a question like, "What's the difference between wisdom and intelligence," be more relevant to a new player, or "How does charisma work?"  Charisma is a peculiar touch-point for most new players because while the other five abilities seem straightforward in terms of how they define a person, charisma is vague.  Most people habitually define their personalities by their intelligence; for a noob, charisma is an intelligent, very common question, with a complex, difficult answer if you're speaking to someone who isn't game experienced.

Gifford's choice to have one of the players use the phrase, "Is this homework, the game," is cringe-worthy.  First of all its a commonly used snarky joke used by experienced players, not noobs.  Secondly, I have NEVER had a new player complain, ever, that making a new character was boring.  For noobs, it is all amazingly fresh and new: there are dozens of things to learn, to explain, there a difficult decisions to make that are only difficult for noobs, there is a lot of confusion ... but it is excited, anxious confusion, a sort of "Wow, this is really deep and complex, I hope I can handle it."

Depicting a noob complaining that it is too much like homework suggests to me that Gifford has only ever started one group of noob players in his entire experience ... and that he has mixed up that experience with the sort of snarky crap he gets from gamesmanship complainers who arrive in his game sick to death of his patronizing, contemptuous, "I'm the DM and I will let you know shit when I'm ready" gaming style.

To be sure, I don't think in nearly 40 years of playing D&D (Sept. 6 this year) that I have ever started a group of ONLY new players.  I have had as many as three new players at once, but there are always old guard around to help me explain details, like what's a saving throw, for the noobs.  The old guard always outnumbers the new.  The old guard serves as the template, so that as the game progresses, the new players watch and listen how the game is played, then begin to emulate the gaming style and responses they witness.

The internet loves this idea of total noobs being introduced to the game.  I know a lot of new players had their first experience when they and a bunch of their friends bought the game without knowing how to play, then had to figure it out from scratch.  But I learned from a game where everyone knew how to play except me; and had others follow me into those same games.  When I began DMing, it was with others who knew how to play ... and through the years I taught others how to play by a simple apprentice-like system.

It would make a lot more sense to depict a DM and four experienced players bringing one player onboard ... but then, every game table I see depicted online seems to be a collection of abusive, snarky assholes.  Again, TOTALLY different from most of the games I have ever been a part of, and certainly different from my own game.

Comics like Gifford's, and indeed the 5th Edition Players Handbook, seem to foster an atmosphere which supports the greatest amount of fabricated, unjustified drama for the least amount of effort ... and I think that is a damaging agenda.  It's all about describing the amazing, fantastic things that might happen and totally failing to understand that even the smallest, nitpickiest little details can be thrilling moments for a given player.  I've had players get excited because they found pomegranates were listed on my equipment table.  Players in my game will remember the humblest incidents or finds.  A Roman helmet half-buried on the side of a road.  A little girl handing one of the players a flower.  The moment an appreciated NPC bid the party farewell.  Game events don't have to be Huge and Impressive.  Most times, the players are just glad to be there.

The heavy-handedness of Gifford's comic reflects a clumsy disregard for detail and resonance that I continuously see overlooked and unappreciated by those who want to set themselves up as voices for describing game play.  Pumping up your chest and speaking in a deep voice doesn't make you impressive.

It makes you look like a pompous schnook.


  1. "Players in my game will remember the humblest incidents or finds."

    Reminds me of that internet meme, the joke about players who latch on to a random, last minute NPC at the expense of ignoring the elaborate character the DM spent days creating.

    It's only a joke to people who don't understand how to leverage basic human psychology.

  2. I agree with this post, and think most players have a chance to be mentored by experienced players. Having said that I want to share my experience in relation to this topic. I have dmed a a group of complete 'noobs' twice that I can that I can think of, there may have been more that I just can't remember.

    Both of these times were for a tabletop club I started at university. At the first meeting of the club there were maybe 20 students and just me and another DM. A few of the students played a couple of board games, but the rest wanted to play D&D, so I ended up with a table of 8-10 completely new players. I gave them pregen characters and didn't explain much upfront, just the basic concepts of a roleplaying game, I specifically avoided explaining the rules. I wanted them to play the game and not worry about whether the rules allowed them to do this or that.Of course when they asked a question I would answer them and not say they didn't need to know, but no one asked what saving throws were, what intelligence or charisma were, or questions like that. they did ask questions about where to find stuff on their character sheet, what the thief skills were, what a spell did, why they could only cast one spell, how could they heal their injuries. These 'noob' players asked about what their character could do, they didn't care about the numbers on the character sheet.

    The other DM that night, was running 5e. they went through character creation and he introduced them to roll20, they never even played in 3-4 hours. Only 2 or 3 of those players came back to play in his game.

    The other game with complete noobs wasn't supposed to be, 6 or 7 players were supposed to show up, but only 3 did, and those 3 had never played the game before. at that time i ran them through character creation, and was able to explain some of the basic rules in the process. I think a couple of the experienced players did show up for like the last hour of that game.

    I have also run at least a dozen new players in one on one introductory games.

    Every new player has wanted to play the game, some abandoned it after the first session, but they always wanted to try the game, no one I know was dragged into it by a boy/girlfriend or a family member. Some people are immediately hooked by the game, and some just don't get that much out of it. In my experience, problem player is synonymous with experienced player with a bad DM. 'Noobs' are the best players, they aren't bogged down the rules, and don't think character creation or reading the rules relevant to them are 'homework.' Maybe us expereinced players feel these things are like homework because all the rulebooks are written the same way and we have to sift though them to find what makes this game different than all the others we've played. You kind of touch on this in your 5e posts. the core books are written for noobs, but they aren't the ones buying the books. the most exposure to D&D the common person gets is at Barnes and Noble, and the RPG stuff is always hard to find there. Only people who have already been introduced to the game by someone else is going to buy those books, and then they don't need the game explained to them because it has already been done in person(or by youtube celbrities).

  3. My start into D&D was like one of these comics. My friends and I were 23 and picked up the 4th edition red box on a whim.

    But, I guess it is the kind of people we are, we just read the rules, rolled characters and played. If we made mistakes, we would learn, and if we died in the process, that was part of learning.

    As you note, memorable events are derived from player investment, not anything intrinsic to the event itself. You can keep ratcheting up the stakes, but that only works if the players care about the stakes.

    But few want to discuss that D&D requires player investment, and keeping players invested is partially the DM's responsibility. Because that is hard, and can't be boiled down to a few neat talking points.

  4. Yes, this is cliche, patronizing, sometimes misguided and cringe-inducing. But my 12 y.o. self would have loved a comic like that. Because as it happens, I didn't have an older player to introduce me to the game : I litterally learned to play from a comic. It was 1986 in central France, I had discovered the existence of the game in Tintin Magazine, which ran a few episodes of "Donjons&Dragons", depicting a small town butcher who DMed incredibly violent adventures for two blood-thirsty teenagers (including one girl) and a dumb friend of his. My father drove to Lyon and bought me the game for my birthday. It was Moldvay's red box. I tried to run B2 for my mother and sister, failed miserably. I spent days rereading the booklet, trying to understand what had gone wrong, then rounded up four school friends, and embarked on a journey from which I never returned.

    Maybe Gifford is just drawing the advice he wished he had been given when he started. Right or wrong, I won't blame him for that.

  5. This series of animadversions on the Gifford comic has made me rethink an assumption about the impulse to minimize orientation and get new players "right into the game". The stated fear is always that new players will be bored, overwhelmed and otherwise driven off by receiving too much information before play begins. I wonder, what if the concern about giving new players "too much" information up front is really just a cover for experienced players and DMs not wanting to take time out from their game? We only have four hours to play today; do we really want to spend half of it explaining things to these two newbies. Can't we just hand them some pregen sheets, dump some dice in front of them and assure them they'll pick it up as we go along?

    If our concern is information overload, how about a method that combines rules explanations with simple encounters or micro-scenarios that would demonstrate the rule just explained. This is an obvious method from other disciplines. You neither study all the relevant information before applying it, nor do you get a minimal briefing and then just start practicing the craft in full. You receive a discrete piece of training, then practice it with a controlled environment or problem-set, then you step back out and learn some more. But again, this would take the DM and experienced players away from "real play".

    Back to Gifford's strip, it is one of those cases where I'm fascinated trying to dissect my own visceral response. At what point did I become thoroughly chagrined by the presentation? It comes even before we're "Well met!" It's the expression worn by the DM character the first time we see his face. His eyes are averted, his hands gesture nervously. Throughout the comic, his facial and body language all speak of someone deeply embarrassed and apologetic about his beloved hobby, still desperate to convince his friends that it's just some light fun, casual, no big deal, nothing to it, easy to pick up as you go. All the while, he's looking his eyes, grinning sheepishly, shrugging his shoulders (I have to acknowledge that Gifford does an excellent job of capturing these painful expressions).

    I don't see this comic as an instructional work for new players, nor as a guide for DMs to teach them. It seems directed at experienced DMs, inviting us to share the narrator's abasement as he tries to explain D&D without seeming to be too into it. In this, it's almost a work of Apologetics, smoothing over what an outsider might find objectionable at first blush, promising that the complicated aspects of doctrine will all make sense once we get there.

    There's one moment where the narrator's mask cracks and a deep, maniacal fervor shines through: "And I've spent days planning this game...DAYS." Then we're right back to the breezy assurances of how carefree and easy it all should be.

  6. apologism: a defence or excuse; a written answer made to justify someone.


    The breakdown for you was in Moldvay's red box, which was intended to be a "simpler" version that would require a simpler explanation ... and it let your young self down. If Moldvay had taken the proper time to fully explain the rules in simple language so that your young self would have been able to grasp the whole context, you'd have succeeded and not failed. Consider your approach: you spent days rereading the books ~ obviously searching for a expanded clarity that WAS NOT THERE. Imagine if Moldvay had provided in his book that sincerity you clearly wanted? Imagine that if there had been MORE content, not like a splatbook that just repeats iterations of previous splatbooks, but ACTUALLY more content, describing all the details you were looking for then and you're looking for now.

    Imagine if Gifford didn't try to cover character creation in ONE page, as he was eager to rush on to describe what would happen if you jumped over a pit of lava (Really? Is that a situation that occurs so often in the game that it HAD to be on page TWO???). Imagine if Gifford had taken the time and effort to draw 32 pages on character design alone ... and get rid of the drama and the fluff that doesn't really teach you anything. Imagine what your 12 y.o. self would have thought about ten or twenty comics like that, with each comic intricately covering role-playing discourse, combat, planning for an adventure, chatting with you the reader about difficult players, etcetera.

    Instead of having just one comic book to sell, James Gifford could have an unending task in front of him, a beloved task, a task that inexperienced and experienced alike could enjoy and appreciate.

    Of course, James Gifford would have to be experienced to pull it off, AND he would have to have a larger VISION of his task.

    Don't expect me to respect anyone with such a tiny grasp over what they're doing.

  7. Silberman,

    Days. Pfft.

    I agree with your theory about effort. There's a quote from Robert A. Heinlein in Time Enough for Love. "It's amazing how much 'mature wisdom' resembles being too tired."

  8. "Players in my game will remember the humblest incidents or finds."

    A couple days ago, one of my players proudly reminded me he still has a cheap homemade bracelet that was gifted him by a little girl when he saved her village from an ogre attack. That was two years (irl) and 6 levels ago.

    He considered it a treasure. I was so happy.


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