"I don't see what the big deal is. Just making a story."
I had in mind to discuss another aspect today, but I'll get to it later. The above, too, is an obstacle that must be overcome. There's a very good chance that the new DM has possession of a 3rd, 4th or 5th edition of the game, and most likely has seen some of the dreck on youtube and reddit that flogs the propaganda above. And because it can't just be managed by providing definitions and in-game distinctions, as the new DM has no context for those arguments, we must find some other way to approach the subject.
I think much of the problem revolves around an incomplete understanding of the word, "story." I and many others have addressed the matter by pointing out that an actual story involves a series of events that culminate in an ending ... and therefore, for a story to work in D&D, the ending has to be determined before the adventure begins. In effect, making a railroad. But we should remember that for many, many players and DMs, a railroad is just fine. They see nothing wrong with it. After all, we write a book or make a film that has the ending predetermined ... and those things are enjoyable. Why shouldn't the adventure work exactly like that, with the players acting out their parts in a story for which they don't yet know the end? When the end comes, won't that be fun?
We understand how this offers only half the game, or perhaps even less. It steals away the player's agency in exchange for that of the DM, or worse, for that of module-maker who can't be there to appreciate the players' response. As well, if a novelist or filmmaker produces bad work, there's no DM to blame; nor is there a DM that exists whose responsibility it is to fix the film or book for other viewers and readers.
Again and again, we find ourselves confronted by the bad language of all this. The reflex when attempting to describe the players having more agency over how the adventure ends, or how it's played out, is to say, "let the players write their own story." But that's bogus too, because the players have no more knowledge of the future end of their story than we do of what's going to happen tomorrow or ten years from now. I'm not right now living a "story." I'm alive, dealing with obstacles as they come, making decisions which can only be known to be good or bad by seeing what comes. I feel that D&D is a better game when played that way ... but I have no word that beautifully describes that ideal. That is, I have no word that can compete with the appellation, "story."
I have probably spoken about this before, but it fits in here so I'll risk repeating myself. The rise of the word story does not begin in D&D or role-playing, but in business. Dale Carnegie presents the idea in his wildly suscessful 1936 best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Chapter one starts,
If You Want to Gather Honey, Don't Kick Over the Beehive
On May 7, 1931, the most sensational manhunt New York City had ever known had come to its climax. After weeks of search, "Two Gun" Crowley -- the killer, the gunman who didn't smoke or drink -- was at bay, trapped in his sweetheart's apartment on West End Avenue.
One hundred and fifty policemen and detectives laid siege to his top-floor hideaway. They chopped holes in the roof; they tried to smoke out Crowley, the "cop killer," with tear gas. Then they mounted their machine guns on surrounding buildings, and for more than an hour one of New York's fine residential areas reverberated with the crack of pistol fire and the rat-tat-tat of machine guns. Crowley, crouching behind an overstuffed chair, fired incessantly at the police. Ten thousand excited people watched the battle. Nothing like it had ever been seen before on the sidewalks of New York.
When Crowley was captured, Police Commissioner E. P. Mulrooney declared that the two-gun desperado was one of the most dangerous criminals ever encountered in the history of New York. "He will kill," said the Commissioner, "at the drop of a feather."
But how did "Two Gun" Crowley regard himself? We know, because while the police were firing into his apartment, he wrote a letter addressed "To whom it may concern." And, as he wrote, the blood flowing from his wounds left a crimson trail on the paper. In his letter Crowley said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one -- one that would do nobody any harm."
A short time before this, Crowley had been having a necking party with his girl friend on a country road out on Long Island. Suddenly a policeman walked up to the car and said: "Let me see your license."
Without saying a word, Crowley drew his gun and cut the policeman down with a shower of lead. As the dying officer fell, Crowley leaped out of the car, grabbed the officer's revolver, and fired another bullet into the prostrate body. And that was the killer who said: "Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one -- one that would do nobody any harm."
Crowley was sentenced to the electric chair. When he arrived at the death house in Sing Sing, did he say, "This is what I get for killing people"? No, he said: "This is what I get for defending myself."
The point of the story is this: "Two Gun" Crowley didn't blame himself for anything.
Why start with this story? If you like, you can see endless interpretations of the answer on youtube, with titles like, The Undeniable Power of Business Storytelling ... Three Principles of Business Storytelling ... The Magical Science of Storytelling ... The Art of Business Storytelling ... and on, and on. If you randomly pick any event where someone in business is going to tell you how to do better in business, I promise than in the first five minutes, they're going to talk about why you must learn to tell a story. And, I'm afraid it's true.
Somewhere between the ages of 2 and 3, your brain developed to the point where you began to understand things in a chronological context. Before you became aware of the fascination behind all this, you were intensely fascinated ... and if you were a child whose parents took the time to read you stories, or tell you their own stories, they hard-baked comprehensions and patterns into your brain that remain to this day. Your ability to be a dungeon master is largely shaped by your parents — or whomever you had as a guardian — and their ability to lay out events in chronological order. If your grasp of this skill is good, you can tell a joke. You can frame the order in which work needs to be done. You can look into your own past and understand how your present circumstances are the consequence of things that you did, or others did.
The next stage of that storytelling education emerges somewhere between the age of 5 and 9, or not at all. It begins with your beginning to "get" a joke. It starts with this sort of joke:
What's the difference between an apple and a grape? A grape is purple.
Silly, but the formula is universal. You're presented with a conundrum, you expect a serious answer, you get a nonsense — but true — answer, and your preconceptions are remolded. As you mature, along with those around you, the pattern is advanced in an attempt to do more than remold your preconceptions, but to also shatter your pre-set assumptions about problem-solving AND the depths of imagination. Here is an actual joke from my grade 2, not shared with adults:
What's easier to unload? A truck full of bricks or a truck full of dead babies? Dead babies. You can't use a pitchfork on bricks.
As I said, the same construction. Only now you're forced to uncomfortably acknowledge the truth about something that's deeply disturbing ... which is why children, restrained and oppressed by the brutal regime of school, adore jokes like this.
The pattern progresses, however, until comprehension of the joke requires worldly knowledge, preconceptions about what the answer should be and ultimately an admittance of seeing things from one side only:
If only Africa had more mosquito nets, then every year we could save millions of mosquitos from dying needlessly of AIDS.
Once you grasp that a joke is about expectations and insight much more than it's about being funny, this empowers you to produce varying kinds of stories that lead persons into one kind of thinking, burying all the necessary seeds into the story that you'll need later to rip the listener from one kind of expectation into another sort of insight. You never gave one second's thought to the death of mosquitos ... yet you most likely ARE extremely sensitive about death. That inner discontinuity serves the manner in which you're dragged into examining your preconceptions in all of 21 words. But that is why Jimmy Carr is such a brilliant joke writer.
What is Carnegie's story about? Is it about the capture of a desperado? The willingness of a murderer to kill? Evidence that a criminal refuses to accept responsibility for his crimes? Why is it you know that's not what the story is about.
Assuming you know. Many people can't make the connections you or I can't. Some are still trying to understand the mosquito joke.
We know that story is NOT about a criminal, because the title of the book is How to Win Friends and Influence People. Obviously, this isn't done by being a criminal. In fact, equally blatant, is that a trigger-happy criminal is exactly the opposite of winning friends or influencing anyone ... at least, in 1936. First lesson: you want friends? You want influence? Don't kill cops.
Yet we also know it's deeper than that. The story makes a connection between what Two-Gun Crowley does and what the reader also does, which is summed up in the last five words. You recognise the moral because, well, you've heard thousands of stories with morals since the age of 2, jokes included, and you're ready for the moral from the first word of Carnegie's story. From the start, you're looking for the moral, knowing it's there, like a commuter doing a crossword puzzle (sorry for that metaphor, must be the 1936 thing). Long before Carnegie gets there, you're primed.
This priming is what makes stories work so well. Not because you're satisfied with the moral — you're not. It's trite, hackneyed, often isn't the reason you're not doing well with other people and, in general, a waste of your time, what with you being a 2020-something citizen of the world. NO, it's because the moral is there. It has to be. Your disappointment is immaterial. With something like this, you're a cro-magnon animal 125,000 years ago poking between rocks and lifting shrub branches looking for bird's eggs, which at this time of year are always around, but they have to be found. You're standing up to your thighs, bent over a river, waiting for a trout that will come, so that you will eat, but only if you stand absolutely still for as long as it takes.
You're stupid this way.
That is to say, this behaviour made sense for your distant forefathers, but you actually have better things to read that don't end in cheesy moralisms. But here you are, reading through an 86-year-old story about how to win friends, not knowing what you'll get or if it will be worth the time spent. Sometimes, there are no eggs to be found. Sometimes there ain't no fish.
Me, I'm taking this time to tell my own Carnegie-like story, because now I'm ready for my punchline. Your fascination with game modules and other products is just like the fish-waiting habits of our ancestors. You expect to see something cool and important in the module you're buying, just knowing it's got to be there ... and it doesn't matter how many times you've been disappointed in the past. Because even if you didn't find eggs last time, or catch any fish, you know eggs exist somewhere, that eventually, yes, you'll catch fish. Because that's how the world works. That's precisely the way we're all stupid enough to eventually succeed.
The difference between a railroaded story and player agency is your perception of where fish comes from. If you're the sort of person who hunts constantly for other people's fish, you'll buy modules and run to the name game version. If, on the other hand, you're the sort who believes in finding your own fish, you'll stand in your own stream.
Those professionals telling audiences how stories are going to make them good business-people are lying. The story is the message, not what the story says. With an audience as primed as these, a good speaker can churn any sort of bullshit so long as it sounds clever and ends in a semi-literate moral. Which is just what these people do. Don't believe me. Listen to their spiel.
The same argument can be made for how primed D&D players are for anything we want to put in front of them. Once a player gets excited by the concept of making even tiny decisions, they'll climb aboard the train as soon as the whistle blows ... regardless of how well that train's run. And no worry if the adventure's any good; these players are so stoked to find something, they'll lift every branch and stand freezing and miserable in every stream until they find it. And they will find it, because they're stupid this way.
[and damn it, I set these metaphors up one by one; they're not mixed].
What do we tell a new DM? I think, probably, the standard boiler plate. Try a module, and once you see how an adventure is put together, try to make one of your own. If the DM had the select kind of parents, was raised on stories and jokes, can tell a joke properly, and understands the construction of chronology, he or she will grasp the notion of making their own adventures pretty quickly. They'll want to catch their own fish.
But if the DM isn't that sort, didn't have books around, wasn't told stories, can't get jokes, yearns for others to make things make sense, then they'll buy fish at the store, every time. No matter how often they're taught how to catch fish. I'll remind you, this is the post that got this series started. Admit it. Some of you learned how to fish as a child. Do you fish now?
Finally, there's an answer to the quote at the top of the post, about "just" making a story. Ask,
"Can you tell the difference between a good story and a bad one? Can you make a good story? Or are you just assuming you can buy good stories, and you assume someone else is doing it? Because I'm not convinced of that. I think mostly what I've seen at the store are BAD stories, and I can do better. But if you think you know the difference between good and bad, and you think you can make a good story, tell it to me now. I'm listening."