Monday, August 15, 2011

A Blindingly Obvious Insight

On Friday I made mention of "figuring out my DMing style," in service to what was really another point entirely. What I was talking about, though, was something else that's been on my mind a lot: for the last couple of years, I haven't really enjoyed running games. Most of the sessions and campaigns I've run have been, to some degree or another, poorly-improvised anxiety-fests that I've found, at best, as least as nerve-wracking as they were fun. At worst, I've killed the session half an hour in because I honestly could not think of what to do next -- or even really think much at all.

This is vexing, because in high school I enjoyed DMing more than most other things. I don't think I'm alone here in saying that I'm pretty omnivorous in the things that I enjoy learning and the stuff that I've gotten good at over the years. DMing is one of the few activities that exercises all of it -- skills social, linguistic, creative, and mathematical, never mind a great deal of random accumulated knowledge -- and that furthermore demands that I be aware, present, and fully operational for any length of time. Particularly when I was in school, being repeatedly warned that I would find whatever fresh hell was waiting for me next year "challenging," and being repeatedly disappointed, this was a pretty vital as at least an occasional feature in my social and recreational life.

I've spent the last year threatening at least occasionally to quit DMing entirely, on the idea that I've grown out of it, or I've found other things to occupy my time, or maybe it just was never as fun as I thought. Fortunately or unfortunately, I find that I just can't quit thinking about the dang thing, so I appear to be stuck with it. So I've been trying to figure out a way to run games without allowing them to become a vehicle for anxiety, at least to the point of unpleasantness.

The trick seems to be -- based on some very limited success in the past few weeks -- as it is with many things, preparation. The best antidote for anxiety is confidence, and the best path to confidence is sufficient knowledge to support improvisation.

Which brings me back to my original point. When I say "what I want going into the game," I'm not talking about style or system or mood. When I say "preparation," I don't mean notes or characters or locations or any of the junk I've been writing up and thinking about and talking about for any of the games I've run in the past couple of years. What I mean is knowing two things:

1. Given where the last session ended (or the circumstances devised for the start of the game), what's a situation that will give the characters (and/or their players) and an interesting decision to make?

2. Given the range of likely or possible decisions that could be made, what's the next such situation likely after that? (And after that, and after that, and after that.)

In the second place, obviously, this means knowing the characters and the campaign in order to have a sort of feel for where things are likely to go, and to be able to come up with something even if and when the players don't match those expectations. This means knowing the who and the what of the situation in question well enough to make the situation feel "real" to me -- that is, to make the decision seem significant -- and knowing what information I need to communicate to the players to make it seem real to them.

As indicated in the title, this is pretty obvious. This, however, is what makes it important to me: It's important, it's necessary, and despite that I've been struggling with it, and a number of other issues that it implies and is implied by.


  1. So now I'm going to ask the obvious question (which I suppose is a future post): how do you answer those questions? I'm especially intrigued because I know your answer isn't the same as mine (which is themes).

    Obviously, the answer is having at-hand the info you need about the characters and setting to answer those two questions. Can you describe, in general terms or specific, what that info is?

  2. Something I have been trying to do lately, when logistically possible--and if it isn't obvious--is end every session with "Ok, where are we going next time? This decision is binding..."

    Helps me narrow down the options for the next week.

  3. The most important question: "What would be the most awesomely fun/moving/meaningful?" Learning to trust your feelings on this, and skip over the "shoulds" to get to the "wants," is part of the art.

  4. i find that after-session smalltalk usually gives me enough ideas about what the players/characters are up to. try to work their short-term goals into your preparation.

    if they don't seem to be planning anything, simply asking also does the trick.

    i am not sure though if it's really helpful to think several sessions ahead. so much can happen/change during one game (let alone several sessions), i would only really plan for the very next one. everything else should at most be outlined.

    if you try to think several sessions ahead the immense range of options might spoil your focus.

  5. Trollsmyth: All talk more about that tomorrow, but the most important thing is "what do the players & their characters want?" Any other detail I need is largely dependent on that.

    Zak S: Yeah, that's something Trollsmyth does a lot, too. Although these days the game is so small scale that the decision usually is obvious.

    Roger the GS: That's true, but... at this point that question just shifts things for me from "oh god gotta think of something" to "oh god gotta think of something awesome/fun/meaningful" which doesn't really help matters.

    shlominus: I'm not really sure where you're getting "several sessions" ahead from, except maybe the question I've labeled as "2nd" above? If that's the case, sorry -- what I'm talking about is the chain of *scenes* within an individual session. Planning beyond a single situation is absolutely bunk, yeah. And I'm not even really talking about session planning ahead of time, necessarily. This is a process that can happen either before a session or within the session, during scene transition.

  6. @ Odd: You might consider investing in Ron Edwards' games "Sorcerer" and "Sorcerer & Sword" (the latter a supplement to the former). There are some pretty terrific essays and insights in both regarding the hows and whys of running a game. His latter works in the same series are equally good, but I'd suggest those as a starting point, specifically regarding "bangs."

  7. I like your post and appreciate your dilemna. I wish I could help but honestly, without knowing how you intend on answering your two questions in more detail as Trollsmyth suggested, I am without a direct frame of reference.

    Usually, in my games, I have no idea where we're going next because I have no idea what the players are going to want to do. Theme and a constantly evolving plot give us/them/me some direction of course.

    I always end my sessions wherever they end and start them in the exact same place. In many instances that answers the question of the next course of action since the CURRENT course of action may not even be over yet.

    Looking forward to the next posts.

  8. This may seem obvious, but make notes during the game. If a player says "Wouldn't it be cool if X happened?" or "I bet Y is involved in this somewhere!" then make a note of it and use that in the next session. That doesn't mean you have to drop X or Y into the next session, but you can have something that leads to X or Y.

    This doesn't help when you're just starting a campaign, but as long as you're at least a couple of sessions in you should find it useful.

    The players like it too, because they like finding out that they were right.

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