Thursday, May 2, 2019

DMing Fundamentals, Next

"Once you make this commitment, once you have this goal, what sacrifices are you willing to make?  Because you're certainly going to have to make some if you're going to accomplish something of significance.  Which skills are you going to have to acquire?  Who are you going to have to work with to be able to acquire those skills?  What obstacles are you going to have to overcome?  And probably the biggest obstacle we all have to overcome is self pity.
"Everytime things don't go the way we think they ought to, we get what I call the 'poor mes.'  Poor me, I'm tired.  Poor me, I'm slow.  Poor me, I don't feel like doing this today.  Poor me, I got sick when everybody else had a chance, and I haven't been able to succeed."
Nick Saban, Head Coach of the University of Alabama

I'm posting the above to make sure people understand that there are people in this world ready to fault you harder than I will.  Watch the link above and pretend that he's talking about D&D and not football.

Let's look at those fundamentals again: 1) give a reason to play; 2) keep focus; 3) accept the results; 4) play by rules; 5) make a believable setting.

To DM the game, you have to perform these skills.  If you want to DM better, then accept that you must do more.  You must perform these skills very well.  That takes discipline.  That takes positive energy.  Just like football.

I can't believe that I've had to write post after post in the past arguing that "getting better" is absolutely something that any DM can do.  It is staggering that DMs tell themselves, that you can do it or you can't, that you either have the gift or you don't, like there's a gene that bestows the power to DM and it bestows it only this well, and no better, and that your fate as a DM is not in your hands, it was in the hands of irreconcilable nature, that either gifted you with this power or not.  This viewpoint is stupefying.  And it is Everywhere!  Not in those words, not in that cold, clear sense, but in practice and in the way DMs approach the game, and counsel others to approach the game.  It is astonishing that this attitude has taken hold of the community and that virtually no one questions it's veracity.

This puffed up, presumptuous view of yourself
and other DMs is literally the road to your
immortalized ignorance.
If a football player came to Saban and told him that they already were able to play football as well as they could, the coach would call bullshit.  And so do I.  The argument that you can't get better is to argue that there are no skills in running D&D, and that is just plain stupid.

So first and foremost, how do you get better?  Begin with overcoming your ignorance.  Karl Popper said that, "True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it."  To give the players a reason to play, you've got to get past your ignorance about what it is they want, and your resistance against giving that thing to them, for whatever "poor me" reasons you can drum up.  To keep your players focused on the game, you've got to get past your ignorance about permissiveness being the best option where it comes to letting a player prattle on about something that isn't D&D, because you don't want to offend.  To make yourself accept the results of the die when its rolled, you've got to get past your ignorance about what you think is necessary for the "good of the game" and let things happen as they were intended to happen, enabling you to SEE a result that you didn't make up in your own narrow, tiny-minded world view.  To play by the rules means getting past your ignorance about what rules are, or how you think they "bind" play, and recognize that it is not the rules, but your inability to adapt yourself to the rules, that is the fault of your presentation.  To design a believable setting means getting past your ignorance about your own importance, your self-love, your steadfast belief that because you made something up, others will certainly appreciate all your hard work and love it too.

That is how skills get improved.  Listen to your players and learn from them.  Trust them.  Insist on focus.  Explain why they want focus also.  Subject yourself to the dice.  Appreciate that as a DM, if the player character dies, and they lose, it means you lose too ~ and learn to accept that loss at your table.  Expect the player to accept that loss.  Know the rules cold.  Accept that you need boundaries to become a better DM.  And make a world that everyone can love, not just you.  This isn't about you.  It isn't about the players.  It is about something bigger than everyone.

Identify each skill according to how you approach that skill.


To give the players a reason to play will require that you gain skill at listening and communication.  Get used to talking TO your players, not at them.  Don't tell them what the game will be tonight, ASK them what the game will be tonight.  Don't sit down and say, "Okay, tonight we're going to play the fortress."  Ask, "How do you feel about playing the fortress tonight?"  Give them room to breathe.  Let them express themselves.  Let them criticize your game, your campaign, the constant appearance of fortresses and apparently meaningless adventures that never really go anywhere and EAT it.  Don't get hot under your collar, don't conceal your feeling of shame with anger, don't attack your players for being honest with you, don't run and hide or pout that you worked really hard and this is all you have ready for tonight and if they don't want to play this then "I guess we just won't play," like you're a child.  Buck up, listen to their complaints, give some sound arguments for why the fortress will be more than they expect and then MAKE the fortress be more than they expect.  And if they wanted to play the fortress from the beginning, at least you asked them, you didn't tell them, so good, you've given them some agency.

That is damn hard.  Especially if you're not used to eating abuse and sucking up your emotions like an adult.  I find criticism brutally difficult to take, but learning to give the players what they want requires a very clear understanding that what they want may not be what you want, and tough shit for you, the DM, because you're just another person and you're not god.  The "skill" is to be a step ahead of the players, to listen and learn from them over a period of time, so that they begin to believe in you and trust you, because you're actually creating your game world with them in mind.  After a while, they'll realize you're not going to just randomly fuck them with an NPC, a cheap trap or some other fabricated plot twist that was deliberately designed to make them feel shame and not frustration.  Frustration is a wonderful, dramatic device that makes players dig in and fight to overcome it.  Shame is a miserable, vindictive device that makes the DM feel superior and causes everyone else to feel stupid and helpless.  Learn the difference.  So long as there is still a plain, reasonable expectation that the players will win, that's frustration.  But if you slam the door in the players face and make the object or purpose of desire disappear forever, then that's shame and you're a dick.


Focusing on the game means YOU have to focus also.  It means you can't talk about this other cool thing you have planned for another day or some story concept that you thought was keen but decided not to use for reasons that just don't matter right now.  You've got to hold yourself to a standard, and that means keeping your head in the game, not pausing between rounds, not finding excuses to get a drink in the middle of combats or tense moments, not ignoring questions, not failing to have answers, not stonewalling or breaking the flow of play.

This is also damn hard.  I am usually doing nothing more at a table as DM than sitting and moving my upper body somewhat, but I am sweating from the skull work that I am doing.  I'm filling in the gaps between the players words, I'm giving them things to focus on, I'm keeping the combats flowing, I'm cutting people off from taking too much time to make a decision and ruling that they've missed their turn because we all have to move this thing along.  I'll take a break after an hour or two, I don't even have time to reach for my drink, I've got my attention fully fixed on each player as they're talking, I'm straining to hear every nuance of every word that they're speaking and I'm concocting my answer so that it's ready the moment it's needed.  This takes practice.  This is hard work and it takes a lot of practice.  But we get the practice by holding ourselves to a standard and pushing our physical tiredness and our headache out of the way and forging on without stopping to "poor me" our game into boredom.

Can you do this?  If you don't know what I'm talking about, then no, you can't do it.  You've got to learn your role.  That is, to be the momentum yourself, with your energy, your effort, your push, your can-do approach, your constant being on the ball.  When you give the players no reason to change the subject, because you never change the subject, then they will yield instantly when you snap at them, "Hey, we're playing here."


Throw your screen away.  If you haven't yet remembered every number that is on your DM's screen, that get a goddamn whip and flagellate yourself fifty times every night until you memorize those damned numbers.  You think having them on a screen saves time.  Have them in your thoughts.  Snap those numbers out just as fast as a player can answer the question, boom boom boom, then tell the player to write it down and not ask you again, though you know it of course and when they do ask it again, you'll give them shit again.

Get rid of the fucking screen.  You're a person, not a god, you're not entitled to install yourself like an inviolable monarch.  Roll the dice right out in the open and explain what the dice mean, so the players will know what's happening to them, and why.  Then when they die, they'll respect you because they'll know it wasn't you, it was the die.  They'll respect you when you say, "I didn't want that," because you and the players will be in this together.  The players will learn how to play the game, they'll learn how to lose, they'll learn how to be adults ... and so will you.

Forcing yourself to adhere to the die may be the first grown-up thing you ever truly do in your life.  The die is your measure as a skilled DM.  If you can master yourself and your game under the will of the die, if you can accept the will of the die as part of your plans and your designs, hell, you'll be able to accomplish anything to which you set your mind.  But if you continue to use your get-out-of-jail-free card every time to oust yourself out of the trouble that you've caused and you've created by being the DM, then you'll never push past the ignorant limited mindset you've created for yourself.  Fudging is more than cheating the players.  It is admitting that you're a shitty, shitty designer, that has to fudge your way out of every dead end you built, to overcome the crappy value of your second-rate, failed designs.  No wonder you want to hide your fudging behind a screen.


If you can't break the rules, you'll play by them.  If you play by them, you'll have to face your staggering responsibility where it comes to presenting and running the game.  You'll have to actually create circumstances you CAN'T pronounce your way out of ... and that scares the living shit out of you.  Because dispensing with the "rulings not rules" philosophy means that you're not longer granted your special status to weasel your way out of your own design failings.  If you have to play by the rules like everyone else, then you'll have to play by the rules.  And that is the one thing that you became a DM to avoid.

But you will never be a better DM than you are right now.  You don't even have a mastery over what a DM is.  You're not god.  You're an administrator.  You have not forced your players to play.  You have been acknowledged as their representative.  If they are too weak to throw you out of office, than woe for you ... because without responsibility, without oversight, without legitimacy, without a reason to be better than a tyrant, a bully and a coward, you are doomed to an endless game experience where the only challenge you will ever be able to seek is how to create opportunities for cruelty that haven't yet found a way to bore the ever-living shit out of you.

If you ever want to be a human being, and be better at this game, you're going to have to overcome your cowardly fear and your crutches and assign yourself the responsibility of living by the same rules that everyone else lives by.  And if you can't do that ~ then I don't want to know you.  I don't want to know anybody who thinks that any participant in any game is entitled to make up the rules as they go along, while expected I should respect them for it.  Ridiculous.


The setting is not the game.  The setting is the football field.  Every football field is precisely the same.  The same dimensions, the same lines, the same numbers, the same grass, the same adjustments for the weather when that happens.  The fact that the football field is regulated and static has had absolutely not one negative effect on the quality of football as a game.  But you know what would spoil the quality of football?  Fucking with the setting.

World designers continue to believe that inventive, imaginative worlds are the very first rule in making an inventive, imaginative campaign.  And of course, the more inventive, and the more imaginative, obviously, the better the campaign.  But no.  Sorry.  It's a delusion, held by people who want to believe that their personal control over the space will always translate to love from every other person.  But what really happens is that the campaign would be a LOT better if there wasn't all this shit in front of it.

I could run a better D&D campaign set on a football field than most people could run in virtually any silly make-believe world they try to fabricate.  And mine would be more accessible, more believable and vastly more accessible to the player.  The space of my football field would be embraced by the players in about an hour, and game play would ensue from there in a rapid and paced fashion, while you'd still be explaining the etiquette rules of your fantastically ludicrous smug self-creation.  And that is something that as a DM, you've got to get.

The setting is not the game.  The setting is the field on which the game is played.  Burn it into your head ~ and then, when you set out to do the work to make your world a believable setting, you'll begin to understand why you shouldn't waste your time with things that don't add to your game.


I set myself these posts, conceiving of the work that's going to go into addressing the introduction and the five points ... and hell, it takes commitment.  But these are the skills I learned being a DM.  A game session takes hours to play.  I don't play a session at any less a fervor than I spend writing a thousand words an hour.  I don't deal with a series of rooms or meetings or game events with any less of a pre-planned expectation ... but as I'm writing out the post, or running a session, ideas sprout up that I didn't expect.  90% of the insight above was not planned or expected more than ten or twenty seconds before it was written down.

But its all trapped in my head, without words.  The act of writing frees the thoughts that are there from my deeper consciousness ... so that as I set out to write, those thoughts churn up to the surface, where I grab them in words and build sentences.  I do this precise same thing in D&D, when I have an NPC say something clever or bold, or realize that the room needs a little more dressing than my original intent.

Having written so many times, and DM'd so many times, I have come to rely on this churn.  I'm not "winging" it; I'm dredging up a moment of genius from my past cogitations on thousands of subjects, carefully crafted and stored in the deep wells of my memory years and years ago.  These thoughts are forgotten but still there, and brought up to my consciousness like a wine steward poking in the back of the cellar and coming up with a Pinot '75 that everyone had assumed was opened decades ago.

There is more magic in your consciousness than you can imagine; you've got to get past your willful ignorance and challenge yourself to do things you're afraid of doing, if you want to be a better DM.  You've got to listen to other people.  You've got to push yourself.  You've got to hold yourself accountable, and cease backsliding.  You've got to look at things in the cold light of day, and change what you believe and who you are.

Otherwise, you haven't a chance of being a better DM than you are now.


Agravain said...

"The space of my football field would be embraced by the players in about an hour, and game play would ensue from there in a rapid and paced fashion, while you'd still be explaining the etiquette rules of your fantastically ludicrous smug self-creation."

Absolutely this. I'm playing on Mystara because it's pretty much what I always played on when I was young. And because it has a gigantic amount of material, both canon and (properly) fan made.

But (and this is a big but) it is REALLY hard to have people "get" a culture, people or city, without referring to the real world.

I'm always like "Glantri is built like Venice and inhabited by French" or "the horsemen of Ethengar are like Gengis Khan horde".

I'm getting more and more convinced that your idea to use the real world as the playing field was genius.

Jojiro said...

Fantastic post. The distinction between the ability of frustration to inspire vs. the inevitable trend of shame to demean is such an important one.

The distinction between setting and game is also one that is ever so difficult to draw for people, at least kindly. New GMs who enter online forums and chatrooms looking for advice are, for lack of a better term, "hyped" about worldbuilding. To nurture their excitement while also making sure they realize its lowered priority in the big picture is trying.

"I'm getting more and more convinced that your idea to use the real world as the playing field was genius."

Absolutely this. With newer OSR products leaning more gonzo and out there, I only get more and more disconnected. Having a world every player and the GM can more equally relate to is so important.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, I wouldn't call worldbuilding a lowered priority. Only that we need to know what purpose worldbuilding serves.

Jojiro said...

Fair point. Poor phrasing on my part.