Saturday, April 30, 2011

Z is for Zen Dungeon Mastery

[over the course of the month of April, I have been posting a topic for each letter of the alphabet, sequentially, for every day of the week except Sunday. Our topic this month? Things necessary to take your D&D campaign from “eh, fantasy” to “kick ass.” This will be the last entry...thank goodness!]

Z is for Zen Dungeon Mastery. Yeah, there’s such a thing.

The practice of Zen is just “meditation in action.” I say “just” which, of course, is ridiculous…in our world of information overload and extreme over-thinking, shutting off the old noggin and “going with the flow” is anything but easy.

While Zen can be practiced in all aspects of daily life (yes, ALL), there are some activities where it becomes easier…heck, IMPERATIVE…to find a Zen state. High level sport activity is one such experience (though not one readily available to everyone). Blindfolded archery is another, though one I’ve never tried. Some types of performance art have moments of Zen-like trance state. For me, I find that I can only hit bank shots in pool consistently by “going Zen” (though I usually refer to this as “using my Jedi mind tricks”).

And, yes, you can do a little Zen meditation when DMing a game.

Now, maybe it’s not pure a pure zazen, but one can definitely achieve moments of still mind and clarity, even while communicating to a table of eight people. I call it Zen DM’ing. Others call it “being on their game.”

First off, you have to know the rules, back and forward…like in your sleep. And by knowing the rules I’m not just talking about the rules as written by the designers but the rules as used and utilized by YOU. If you have your own regular house rules (along with, I hope, thoughtful reasons for implementing them), that is absolutely fine…so long as you KNOW what it is that you’re playing with.

To be a Zen DM requires being able to speak with a firm (if calm, cool, and collected) voice of authority, something you can only really do if you have a firm grasp of the rules, both collectively and conceptually…if you can’t do that, you lose the zazen state pretty quick.

Knowing the rules…and knowing them intimately, not just how they function, but how they work together and why…is just the first leg. After that, you must know the scenario.

Again, “in your sleep.”

No, you don’t need to know how many goblins are in room #4 or what the hit points of the owl bear is, nor what treasure is heaped in the ogre cave. But you have to understand the setting. You have to know what it’s all about. You have to know how the various factions (if any) interact with each other…and why. You need to be able to picture the place in your mind’s eye…both the interior and exterior…and it sure helps if you can imagine the sounds and smells, too.

This “imaginary sensing” is hugely important. It is analogous to knowing one’s lines if you’re acting in a play. If performing in a play, you can’t actually ACT until you know what your lines are. That’s a damn fact…you try “acting” without knowing your lines and all you are is some dude on a stage pretending to act. As a DM, you cannot embody the adventure unless you can get the sensing down in your imagination. Call it a “developed knack.”

[and just for the record, there HAVE been times when I have “phoned it in” with regard to my sensing…cut me some slack, though, it took me a few years to figure out how to act on stage, too!]

Oh, yeah…just to relate the “theater analogy” back to the other part: knowing the rules of the game is knowing the mechanics of being on stage (how to endow objects, set stakes, where the 4th wall is, blocking, voice and diction, etc.).

SO…you know the rules (the mechanics of the game), you’ve got a sense of the adventure/scenario (that’s the script). What’s next in our pursuit of Zen (Dungeon) Mastery?

Well, that’s really the bulk of it (see, told you it was simple)…though once you’ve got those two legs under you, the next thing to do is: let go of your attachment to how you want the game to unfold, trust in your players, and act as a vessel for the transference of creative energy.

Really? Yes, really. Let’s go through those a bit.

NON-ATTACHMENT: one of the harder ones for myself and for most self-oriented, self-interested individuals. It is all too easy to attach hopes and fears to the outcome of dice rolls. “I hope the thief doesn’t bite it…they need him for the next encounter!” “I hope I roll maximum damage and rip that stupid fighter limb from limb!”

It’s not about being a “fair” or “unfair” DM; it’s about being human. No matter how impartial one attempts to be, it’s human nature to attach some hopes or anxieties to the roll of the dice. However, the dice will fall where they may…and for the most part, even if you’re not packing Game Science Dice, what goes around will (eventually) come around. The hot hand turns cold and vice versa and it’s all as the universe wills.

I said “for the most part;” the trick is to make sure to always leave your players an “out.” This is what I call true “game balance,” a balance struck between player creativity and DM fiendishness. If the players are creative in a way you didn’t anticipate, don’t stomp ‘em…let ‘em have their break. Don’t wait for them to find “The One True Solution” to a challenge that you crafted in your infinite wisdom. If you do that, then you are stacking the dice against the players.

Non-attachment. Always.

TRUST THE PLAYERS: What I just said about game balance goes for the players as well. Assuming you are playing an Old School version of D&D, you shouldn’t have problems with min-maxers. What is there to “max?” This being the case, you need to open yourself up to TRUSTING your players: trust that THEY want to have fun, too. They are there to play, NOT to wreck your day.

[and if they ARE trying to wreck your day, there’s something wrong with your boundaries/social contract; re-draw the lines, 86 some folks and THEN get back to your Zen practice]

Be open to your players. Listen to what they’re saying (listen mainly through the Caller if you have a large table, but keep your ears open to pertinent chatter as well). Practice active listening…when someone speaks, shut the hell up, look him (or her) in the eye and LISTEN. Ask questions for clarification if necessary, but in general, trust what they say.

Trust also that your players are JUST TRYING TO HAVE A GOOD TIME (did I already say that? Too bad; needs emphasis). If you make an assumption about what a character is doing and jump him and the player says, “Wait I wasn’t doing that! I was doing this other thing!” you might as well go with the player rather than YOUR assumption (see non-attachment above). Nine times out of ten, I find my players are happy to take the knife in the back/belly when they screwed up and know they screwed up…give ‘em the benefit of the doubt when they claim they didn’t and YOU made a mistake.

It's not that they're trying to take's just that we are dealing with an inefficient medium of communication (having to describe orally what is happening in one's imagination, rather than sharing thoughts telepathically or something).

ACTING AS A VESSEL: This part is actually pretty easy if you're doing everything else...and understand the concept. Here's the thing to grasp: all creative juice/energy comes from outside of you. Or, rather, you have the power inside of you, but you are little more than a conduit to the universal source of creative energy. The mistake some folks make is thinking that they originate their creativity themselves...that they owe nothing to no one. And that's both true and untrue at the same time. However, if you do make the mistake of thinking that creativity only comes from yourself (as opposed to being a conduit) the tendency is to rely solely on yourself, thus shutting down the flow of creative energy, and limiting the amount of "juice" you can "pull."

Oh, it doesn't mean you can't rely on wit alone for awhile, but in transferring energy/information to the players at your table (acting as a "channel" for the game), there is making it an intellectual exercise and there is investing the game with feeling. And of the two I prefer the latter, something that only comes from allowing oneself to act as a vessel of creative energy transference.

[yes, I realize that is a ridiculous mouthful of words. let's try a different tact here...]

Okay, forget the whole bit about "being the vessel for energy transference;" let's talk about WHY we would even want to "invest more feeling" in our Dungeon Mastering instead of just being clever and intellectually proficient. I mean it's just a game right? Like presenting a cool puzzle/challenge for players to unravel? Isn't that the whole reason why we're sitting at the table instead of playing on-line poker?

Sure. But this series of A-Z posts was about "taking your game up a notch," and for me that means engaging your players at a level deeper than just the intellectual. I want your players to feel the feel their feel like they're there. This not just Settlers of Catan, this is Dungeons & Dragons. It is not just about making the optimal stat build (at least not for old schoolers)...the rules should be simple enough to Get The Hell Out Of The Way of the actual game play, so that you can FEEL (in your imagination) that you are down in one of these dark and dingy dungeons, looking for treasure hoards, and fighting (or running) for your lives against creatures terrible and dire. If you can share that experience, I think you'll be more likely to end up with "repeat customers."

That's why.

So...Zen Dungeon Mastery. DMing as meditation in action. For the purpose of communicating a richer role-playing experience to your players. That's what I'm talking about.

Yes, I understand that Zen is in many ways "its own reward," but I'm not a Buddhist and I tend to bend things to my own pragmatic causes more often than not. Playing Zen can lead to a better game at the your table...that's what I want anyway. And, yeah, it's pretty damn hard to do...pretty damn tough to be "on your game" all the time and on a level that allows you to connect with your players in a way that is more than just "clever."

But that's the goal, folks.
: )


  1. Z is for you being in the Zone. Great series, JB. I was skeptical of the A to Z challenge, and it's been kind of a drag on most other blogs I've been following. But in your case it has elicited the best writing I've seen since I started following your blog.

    On a note related to your Zen riff, I was just listening to David Brooks talking about "limerence," which he defined (I paraphrase) as state of total and transcendent immersion in an activity, when the boundary between you and other people and the activity dissolves. He mentioned work, sports and religious services as examples of this, and it struck me that we often achieve the experience in a good RPG session.

  2. @ Brian: Indeed it does. And thanks for the kind words!

    Now, when are we going to get to read your opinion of Carpenter as the 'Hawks first round draft pick?
    ; )

  3. I really enjoyed reading this one, JB.
    --Thank you.

  4. Excellent post JB! As a DM who's been there before, I agree completely with your assertions here. Thank you for sharing this very insightful post.

  5. JB - I would love to link your entire series onto the Links to Wisdom wiki under the heading "Making Your Campaign Kick Ass"

    But 26 posts in one section will overwhelm the wiki.
    Would you be willing to create an index post of your A to Z challenge.

    Sort of like what I have done here for mine

    That way we could just create one link in the wiki back to your series.
    I know it's a pain, so I leave it to you.

    I won't be linking my A to Z series into the wiki, as it was a review of the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, not new material.

    Yours however was a great original series, one that will be long remembered.

  6. @ TS, Spiel, and Faol: You're welcome! I'm glad y'all enjoyed it!

    @ Jovial: I'll whip up an index post in the next day or two. I'm flattered to be included in the blog wiki!
    : )

  7. Congrats on finishing the A-Z series. I really enjoyed your particular "theme" for the challenge. Lots of really great advice and things to think about.

  8. @ Martin: Thank you! I am glad you found some ideas buried in it all!
    ; )

  9. If only it were easy to figure out how to "engaging your players at a level deeper than just the intellectual" — any practical advice?

  10. @ Alex: That's kind of what my whole A-Z series of posts was about. Creating deeper visceral experiences by expanding the concept of the game world.
    : )