Friday, December 5, 2014

How to Run (Part 3)

[continuing our review of How to Run; see prior posts here and here]

PART 3: Managing Your Players

This is the smallest section of the book (about 38 pages). Despite the title, it is still much more about managing oneself as a DM, but specifically with an eye to how that management impacts player interaction and participation at the gaming table.

Chapter 9 - Power Politics discusses the relationship between the DM and players, specifically the DM's role as a facilitator of the game, NOT a judge, authority, or godlike super-being. Again, the emphasis is on service to the players...and here we're talking real-world service in managing social contract. When Mr. Smolensk writes that it is the DM's job to serve the players, he's not saying that one must create brilliant adventures or hooks or railroad the players through some fantastic story for their own enjoyment. Quite the contrary: throughout the book he stresses that the players must make and create their own "adventures" (for only in doing so can they truly find the emotional engagement that is the objective of role-play). No, instead the "service" being discussed (in this chapter specifically) is serving as a group facilitator: making sure all players have a voice, making sure all players feel valued, making sure all players are equal partners in the exercise (and that the DM is not "lording it over them"), making sure that you (as DM) are not failing at meeting their expectations of fair and respectful treatment.

Chapter 10 - Bad Games discusses how DM's who fail to recognize their role of service can become the abusive DMs running "bad games" (hence the title) that so many players have experienced at one time or another. For me, this was one of the weaker chapters: if you've already "bought in" to the paradigm Alexis has building up to this point, than it follows that you shouldn't want to fall into these categories. I suppose that the main pitfalls outlined here - relying on one's charisma and building a power-base on sycophantic players - are traps that even good DMs need to be mindful of and avoid...however, as a cautionary note, it seems more like frosting to be added on to an earlier chapter. But maybe I'm just nitpicking.

The ideas and topics presented in Part 2 and Part 3 of How to Run are definitely more esoteric than the practical information found in Part 1...discussing the cultivation of good habits and creating a "vision" for the players is a bit more abstract than making sure players have cool-off periods and bathroom breaks. It's good information (again), but it really is more for individuals who intend to make running games a high level vocation. The concepts are less pertinent to the one-time DM or occasional "dabbler" (who can get by wonderfully with just the information in Part 1), and much more imperative to the "career DM;" dudes like myself who find our butts in the GM chair more often than on the players' side of the table.

PART 4: Worldbuilding

If they taught "playing role-playing games" as a potential degree in college, you'd probably need the first year just to dissect and learn the multi-hundred page rule books being published these days. If you limited yourself only to "old school" type products, you might be able to study several systems during the first year...say Moldvay D&D, D6 Star Wars, and the original (Jeff Grubb) Marvel Superheroes RPG...each providing a distinct genre and different approach to rule design and game mechanics.

How to Run would be an excellent course text for such a curriculum, but it would not be read in the first year. It could be a strong text for the sophomore year, with Part 1 being studied the first quarter and Parts 2 and 3 in the second quarter. Part 4 could be started be the Spring session...but I seriously doubt that would be enough time to really do justice to it. At nearly one-third of the page count, I found Part 4 to be the most challenging reading of the book (there are a lot of abstract concepts here that can't be understood until practically tried and implemented), and the prescribed exercises are especially time consuming. No...the final section of How to Run could definitely provide coursework for the entire year of a third year student.

[I suppose actual "game design" (not discussed in the book) would be the prerogative of fourth year (senior) students]

Let's get to it (as best I can):

Chapter 11: Beginnings lays the foundation for everything that follows. It explains the principles of world design, the creation of the imaginary setting, based on the abstract elements of function (poorly defined), behavior (of players with regard to function), structure (the implementation of function), and formulation (the interaction between the three preceding elements). It's pretty highbrow stuff, and could benefit from some concrete examples. Unfortunately, part of the paradigm here is that function has to be tailored to one's players (remember how the DM is serving their interests and wants to get them actively engaged?) which makes it difficult to create hypothetical examples of function without first creating a batch of hypothetical players and a hypothetical DM. "Function" appears to be (from my reading) a synthesis of concepts/activities in the game world with the potential of providing interest/engagement to both sides of the table. But I may be off...the function section of the chapter could stand to be more clearly defined (even the notes in the Keys to Success chapter appears to admit it is difficult to comprehend the concept). Being as amorphous as it is puts the other elements on rather shaky ground, since function is the key concept of the chapter.

So let's move on to Chapter 12: Elements of Design. Here we have a chapter that discusses the practicalities of world building, from the effort required, to the acquisition of quality materials for your map making. Here the idea is over-deliver to one's players, with the idea that this will provide them with motivation and enthusiasm, facilitating engagement, as well as helping to instill a concept of value in everyone's minds (those of the player and the DM who is doing the work)...value of the imaginary world being explored, that is.

Chapter 13: The Creative Process provides practical methods for brainstorming and conceptualizing your world (you need to have the key concepts from Chapter 11 and the practical stuff from Chapter 12 before you move to this step). The amount of effort recommended by Mr. Smolensk in prior chapters is exceeded here by the recommended time he proposes you spend. However, as we've leaped into the realm of the vocational DM, it's hard to argue with a few months of time spent on conceptualizing a world that you intend to run (with constant tweaking) for many years to come. Alexis provides tools for folks who want to commit to "the long haul," as he has. The "Keys" in this chapter provide notes for abbreviating the process.

Chapter 14: Modelling [Canadian spelling] is really the Part 2 to Chapter 13. It explains in practical, semi-linear fashion how to translate the ideas and concepts onto to start small and work outward, how to create your world in such a way to introduce it (in a practical way) to the players. It discusses the creation of entities (which can be individuals, monsters, geographic features, religions of the fantasy world, whatever...though focused on those things pertinent to the players), and creating their relationships to each other...which is as important if not more so than drawing lines on a map. This creates the web in which players can anchor their immersion.

For those interested in role-playing as an exploration of the imaginary world...what might be called (in old GNS terms) a "simulationist creative agenda"...this section of the book is a godsend. It also provides an idea of the amount of work and effort needed to create a lasting game of the type Mr. Smolensk has run...and still runs...for decades. You can, of course, put less effort towards your world building, though perhaps with lesser results.

The Appendix contains (in addition bibliography, index, etc.) one last chapter (Chapter 15: Gaining a Level). It does not contain the "keys to success" section found in other chapters; it is an epilogue, not a part of the instruction found in earlier chapters. It discusses work: the reason for work, the reason why work is good, the reasons why one might choose to invest in the amount of work described in How to Run for a fantasy role-playing game. It is a convincing argument.

Concluding Thoughts Regarding How to Run

Alexis has really put out something special here: an example of how to turn a passion for gaming into a Great Work, i.e. a transformative experience. He does not outline a road to perfection in gaming, but one of perfecting oneself (an on-going process, a life's work) by approaching a subject with intensity and serious attitude. Nothing here is going to be mastered in a handful of years, but all the tools and ideas presented are useful for personal growth and development of one's ability as a game master.

Having said that...

Not every person seeks to walk this particular path, and the tools outlined are not necessarily appropriate to all forms of gaming. With regard to "world building," I'm not certain his principles would apply to all forms or genres of role-play...for example, the comic book superhero genre (which often exhibits wild inconsistencies and flexible reality even while using a "real world" setting). Recent game designs have demonstrated that an enjoyable role-play experience can be had without the need of a DM figure: games like Fiasco, for instance. And many story games can still engage and elicit emotional, exhilarating response from players even without the need for the detailed world-building and attention to cause-and-effect that Mr. Smolensk is preaching (games like My Life With Master); many of these games were designed to do exactly what Alexis purports to desire, but with less time and effort spent...perhaps because the commitment required otherwise is a price we are unwilling to pay.

For myself, I enjoy running games, and I enjoy running different types of games...not simply different adventures in the same world. While I do not particularly enjoy learning different rule sets, I do appreciate how different rulesets interact with their respective games...I don't just want "One GURPS To Rule Them All." But that's me, and I recognize that for some folks the only thing they want to do is play the One Game (whatever it is) that they love and that has allowed them to craft their perfect fantasy world. This desire is not an unusual one...M.A.R. Barker was perhaps the first to bring this type of work to the gaming world with Tekumel, and you can see it even today in worlds like Timeshadows's Urutsk or Alexis's own campaign. These worlds have lasted years and will continue as long as their creators continue. For folks who have this burning desire to create...and to bring their creation to others (not just write a six book fantasy series)...I'd strongly recommend they get How to Run and read it a few times. Especially, if they are fairly new to the whole role-playing thang (like I said, it'd take years to master the stuff in these pages so start while you're young!).

For those who do NOT have such a burning desire...who simply want to run games, and perhaps dabble in "world-building"...there's still a lot of good to be found in this book. It will provoke self-examination. It will make you take stock of how you run your gaming table, and provide tips as to how to make your games better...for yourself and your players. Even if you're not into long-term campaigning, it's useful stuff, and much of it is new (even if some is stuff you already figured out). There's no talk of the history of gaming, no talk about specific systems or rules, only information on how to run a better game. There's plenty of good insights even for those who don't enjoy long-term campaign play, and it's not a bad read.

All right, that's enough.

Get Ready To Run!

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