Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"This is the Greatest Show!"

I've been "Hulu'ing" a lot lately, 100% due to my wife and I wanting to watch their original series The Handmaid's Tale or (as I like to call it) "the Factory of Sadness."

[all apologies to the Cleveland Browns for infringing on their trademark]

Harder to watch than the Cleveland Browns.
The show is especially depressing when you consider how many women around the world are...at this moment...are being kept in a similar states of bondage. I am not one of the folks who worry about the possibility of my country devolving into some Gilead-like society (I think it would take a biological disaster of Children-of-Men-proportion for such a thing to happen), but there is still plenty of oppression at large in the world. Hell, much of the show could be an allegory for victims of domestic violence (forced to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of one's child/children)...the story works (and is depressing) on a multitude of levels. I think it's especially interesting to consider the story in contrast to the conclusion of Frank Herbert's 1982 novel The White Plague: by the end, the female protagonist appears excited by the new world order that's starting to set-up (with fertile women at the top of the food chain). In some ways, I can see Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel as a direct response and rebuttal to Herbert.

[similarly, one might presume Paraguay's War of the Triple Alliance...which killed 90% of the country's male population, leaving the women "in charge"...would have produced a more egalitarian society. In fact, the opposite occurred and the country is perhaps the most machismo, male-centric state in South America. That's one of the main reasons we didn't want to raise our children in their culture]

But I digress. I didn't actually want to talk about The Handmaid's Tale or even Hulu (other than to say I can now catch up on the last three seasons of Vikings, which I missed). I really only bring it up to state the need to counterbalance this sadness has required me to go hard at some media, including multiple viewings The Greatest Showman, the Hugh Jackman film now in regular rotation on my DVD player.

Don't get me wrong...I'm a longtime fan of musical theater anyway, and The Greatest Showman is a BIG step up from Bye-Bye Birdie, both in terms of quality and message. Even without the need to inject some joy and melodrama and music into my couch-sitting life, I'd have been able to enjoy and hum along with my kids (they love-love-LOVE the film, especially my daughter, who's memorized most of the songs). BUT the most interesting thing about this quasi-biography of the early life of P. T. Barnum isn't (for me) the musical extravaganza, impressive as it is. Rather it's what I've come to think of as the secret message the film is whispering in my ear:

Dungeon Masters are the new ringmasters. Or, at least, they should be.

So much better than Wolverine.
I can't remember the last time I went to the circus. I have been to a circus or two (Ringling Brothers, probably, or maybe Circus Vargas) but not for 30+ years. From what info I can find on-line, it looks like Ringling Bros. stopped traveling around 1990 and shut down completely last year, so that's probably about right. It's possible that I haven't been to a circus since I was 7 or 8 years old (around 1980) which would mean I was last at the circus before acquiring my first RPG. I can say for sure that I don't remember anything about it except tigers jumping through flaming hoops, and even that is hazy.

[shows like Teatro Zinzanni and its lesser ilk I consider more to be "dinner theater," or perhaps cabaret...definitely not the grand spectacle of the Big Top traveling circuses of yesteryear]

There was a time when people went to such shows to experience spectacle, engagement, and escapist fantasy...all at the same time. The ability to wander about, ooo-and-ah, interact with live performers, all while being regaled with preposterous claims and fanciful tales. That kind of entertainment isn't really available these days, at least not in my neck of the woods.

[admittedly, I haven't taken the opportunity to see Cirque du Soleil the few times it's made it to Seattle, so I may be speaking out of my ass]

However, something similar IS possible with fantasy role-playing. The spectacle, for the most part, must be imagined by the participants, but the DM (acting as ringmaster) has the potential to embellish the narrative, providing color and context to lift the players' flights of fancy to epic-level escapism. The experience of role-playing can be the spectacular participatory entertainment that transported Barnum's devotees for so many years...and all without harming a single animal or acrobat.

Of course, getting bogged down in too many rules and minutia can spoil the experience, breaking the suspension of disbelief and fantastical transportation. But it's up to each DM to determine (with time, trial, and error) to determine what constitutes "too many" for their game...learning how much you can handle while still managing to keep your ringmaster hat is one of the major challenges of being a DM.

Because you must keep it together.  Your duties as ringmaster are essential, and trying to run your circus in a half-assed manner is likely to get you bitten by a damn tiger.

*ahem* Anyway...

Anyway...we need a little more ringmaster at the gaming table, a little more circus mastery. Damn, but there's a part of me that feels like this is what's missing from the game (or one of the things). Too many staid and sedate game masters sitting behind their screens, trying to keep impassive expressions, waiting for players to engage in the fantasy...and waiting...and waiting...when the DM should (instead) be stepping up and inviting them in and dazzling them with their verve and passion, if not their wit and charm (which, come on, not everyone has in spades, okay?).

Damn. Imagine walking into a convention room and seeing wildly gesticulating DMs at each and every table, players leaned forward on the edge of their seats, eyes alight, hanging on every word...instead of checking their phones or doodling on their character sheets or stacking dice in an apathetic fashion.

It's enough to make you root for a TPK. Anything to wake folks up.

19th Century Gaming Con
Anyhoo, more on that later (perhaps). Suffice is to say I found the film inspiring for my gaming in a way I hadn't expected (hmm...maybe I should have just led with that). To paraphrase Jackman's character: "What does it matter if the show is fake? The smiles are real." We are playing a game of pretend over here, not curing cancer or fighting (real world) injustice. If we're going to spend our time doing it, we ought to play it hard. Tart it up. Fire it up. Make it matter to our players. Put on a show...that's what I'm feeling anyway.

Man, I want a top hat.


  1. My memories of the circus are even hazier than yours; the only thing I remember clearly was the plastic glow-in-the-dark sword my parents bought be as a souvenir.

    But I agree completely that passion for the game can make up for a lack of natural charisma, much more so than bountiful charisma can make up for a shallow game experience. So long as that passion extends to allowing the participation you describe, of course. ;)

  2. Perhaps there’s no point in replying to this post, in this way, but …

    When you say “of course,” JB, “of course” getting bogged down in too many rules and minutia “can” spoil the experience, we do recognize that this doesn’t mean that too many rules “does” spoil the experience. It just “can.” The way that going to the bathroom too often during a session can spoil the experience, or the way that interrupting to talk about your great new car can spoil the experience, or the way that DM incompetence can spoil the experience, etcetera. So basically, what you’re really saying is, “Of course,” anything can spoil the experience.

    So why say it? Whether or not you write here that it is up to the DM to determine what “too many” rules are, isn’t that true anyway? And doesn’t “too many” actually come under the heading of, “what becomes too damn hard for me to keep track of”? So that the equation has nothing to do with the number or rules versus game experience, but actually DM competence versus game experience. And “of course,” DM incompetence is going to spoil the experience. The number of rules a game has, or might have, or should have, really has fuck all to do with the experience.

    Saying it, again and again, smacks of a sort of propaganda against rules, letting us sidestep the problem of making a better DM in favor of banging a drum for less rules. Less rules, better DMs … because DM’s must keep “it” together. Well goddamn. If all we have to do is lower the bar to the point that ringmaster DMs can keep it together, why don’t w just all play checkers?

    1. Ugh. Just lazy writing on my part.

      I am very familiar with your take on rules. And I wanted that paragraph to sound subjective (in hopes it wouldn't offend). But you're right: it does smack of propaganda, probably because it IS...it promotes this recurring conversation that "less rules" are better. And I don't agree with that (even if I don't share your particular passion when it comes to building systems for your campaign setting).

      But "too many rules" is too big a subject to address in these comments. It was a thoughtless sentiment expressed in careless fashion...as I said, "lazy writing." I'll post about it later.

  3. And what is this bunk of DMs “waiting for players to engage in the fantasy … and waiting … and waiting,” followed by the old time cry that the DM is responsible for the player’s fun? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your circus analogy face-plants rather remarkably at the critical point: A Circus Is Not Interactive. It’s fine for the ringmaster to be responsible for stepping up and inviting the audience in, the audience is NOT climbing the scaffold to the trapeze and doing a few flips, or squeezing into the clown car, or riding the elephants. The audience at a circus is sitting on its ass eating popcorn, while the performers do all the work.

    D&D is INTERACTIVE. Which means that the players aren’t an audience, they’re part of the damn show. It’s time we got that into their heads and ours, and got about the business of teaching them to pick up some clubs to do a little juggling, or ride a unicycle, or slather on a little make-up … because in the circus of Role-Playing, it’s about time that the players got about pulling their weight. They’re not here to eat popcorn, they’re here to tame a lion, eat some fire, swallow a sword or two, and goddamn help put up the tent.

    So fuck you and your, “inviting them in and dazzling them” bullshit. It’s about bloody time that we taught players to learn something about dazzling us.

    1. @ Alexis:

      Yes, of course, you're right. The circus is a terrible analogy for role-playing when there is no audience participation (and there shouldn't be, as audience members aren't trained circus performers).

      I utterly failed to effectively communicate my feelings here. In the MOVIE (not an actual circus performance), the protagonist ringmaster is engaging his audience in something that is not real (many of his acts are fakes); they participate in the show by suspending their disbelief allowing themselves to be voluntarily hoodwinked so as to join the escapist fantasy.

      But, yes, this sounds a lot like the "illusionism" that is utter bullshit in role-playing (where the players are simply "going along for the ride" in the DM's story, pretending to participate when their actions have, for the most part, been pre-determined). That's not what I found (or find) inspiring.

      The point I wanted to make was to bring the same kind of fire and showmanship to one's DM'ing as the (proficient) ringmaster brings to a circus that might otherwise be a sad and weary place...full of caged animals and poorly paid carnies. That it's not enough to just sit behind a screen and read boxed text and call for "search rolls" upon request.

      But that's not what I communicated.

  4. I don’t think you know how a ringmaster works. An acrobat is not told how to do his craft by the ringmaster. It is expected that it is his responsibility. If I were to use your ringmaster metaphor, here’s how it would go: it is not my job, as the ringmaster, to instruct the acrobat on his performance. When the lights go up, and the show begins, it is expected that the acrobat has his performance ready to go. The ringmaster doesn’t know anything about being an acrobat. The ringmaster has better things to do; he has to direct the crowd, to make sure that they are getting the best view of the performances when they happen and when the change over.

    It is his job to ensure the net is up correctly before the show starts. That if there is a sign of a problem, the crowd is not told until they have to be, if they have to be. All of this happens without ham-handing it to the crowd. As a DM, if my job is to become every acrobat, then how can I do everything else to facilitate the player’s performance?

  5. I get what you're saying, JB, and I think some others seem to only see half of the picture implied by the ringmaster analogy.

    Everyone seems to be equating RPG players as ONLY the audience or ONLY the performers, but they're both. And from that point of view, the DM as ringmaster makes sense. The ringmaster needs to amplify what the performers are doing (the actions of the characters decided by the players) for the enjoyment of the audience (the players and the DM).