The End of Chapter 2: The Rules
To wrap up chapter 2 I want to talk about something Jamison wrote that reminded me of my theory of Game-as-Training-Wheels. I have noticed the trend he references – heavier systems being deemed less useful for experts – in myself as well as in many people I know. This seems to support my idea that rules are useful as guidelines for newbies, but they are more cumbersome than informative for experts who have already developed a deep understanding of “what works”. That said, it’s not easy to find players for a game listed as “homebrew,” so making your own custom light RPG after 20 years of play experience is really advice that only applies to those who have a group of players already on board, I think.
Even just with house rules something I tried to do in my last campaign was to make them as GM-facing as possible. Nobody likes to be confronted with a 20 page errata booklet. Learning rules from a book is tedious and hard and takes too long. So it’s best if you can make the changes invisible to the players as you strip down the rules and customize them to your heart’s content. Other than that I am on board with Jamison’s advice here.
Chapter 3: Creating the Universe
Jamison is right. Most GMs do spend too long making the universe. Nobody is going to buy the 300 page setting book you crank out, unfortunately, and most of it probably won’t even feature in the game you run. That’s a lot of wasted effort. That said, that’s not necessarily a reason to just wing it all at the table as we’ve established earlier. So let’s see what Jamison thinks are the high-impact-low-time elements.
Jamison recommends making at most two societies: the one the characters are from and the antagonist society. This is not a hard and fast rule in my eyes – an easy way to make more societies is for a player to decide they want their character to be from somewhere you haven’t made yet. But when it comes to the GM making societies, I think it’s fair to say “the place you start” and “the place a lot of your obstacles come from” are pretty high-impact.
Additionally, Jamison’s tables of suggestions here and throughout the book are very handy. They aren’t anything an expert couldn’t think of themselves, but they are useful story stuff. You need to know who’s in charge, why they’re in charge, and what rules they’ve decreed to inform your cast of NPCs and creation of conflicts in the world. You need to know how to tell different people apart (in terms of social class and beliefs and so on) so you can describe them, and how they speak so you can act them out.
The economics is similarly basic: what does the society make and what do they need on the whole? But it’s similarly very useful. Conflict is created by scarcity, and good stories are driven by conflict because conflict is action. So knowing what’s scarce and what’s in abundance is going to be a key ingredient in creating interesting conflict. Is every conflict going to be about mustard smuggling? Well, that’s up to your personal taste.
(Me? I like a little mustard on my adventure once in a blue moon or so…)
The map-making procedure is similarly utilitarian. You can make a visually brilliant map if you like, but that really brings us to two major understandings of world building that are critically important:
Most GMs do most of their world-building because they think it’s fun, not because it’s useful.
As demonstrated, you can crank out the important details of a society (village, town, city, empire, these things scale up and down as you like) in, like, an hour. Then you can sketch a map in another hour or so. Maybe spend a third hour on an antagonist faction and boom your world is ready.
So why do we spend weeks on this stuff? Frankly, it’s because we like it. And if we don’t like it? Well, it turns out we don’t need to spend very long on it. So remember that the next time you’re feeling the burn(out).
Most GMs like their world a lot more than their players do.
Additionally, if you look at how people value things one important fact that stands out is the IKEA effect. Basically, people strongly over-value things that they make compared to identical items they did not make. By about 50%, if we’re being specific. As the GM you probably care about the world you’re making 50% more than your players do, so try to keep that in perspective.
Similarly, the same team that discovered the IKEA effect went on to do more experiments in a similar vein. For example, having people construct LEGO robots for 2 dollars a piece. In one condition they were disassembled for parts and you could build another if you liked, while the other you could build another out of entirely new parts while the original remained assembled. Participants completed over 50% more robots when given new parts – when their existing work was valued.
The point is that this goes both ways. GMs overvalue their work and will put in extra effort if they see their work being “properly” valued by the players. Similarly, GMs, try not to value your world too much – and know that players value their own creations as much as you do, even if you are putting in more work than they are overall.
This effect is part of why I think a particular step of Jamison’s character creation method is brilliant, and I’ll say more about that next time!
Next Time: Character Creation
Jamison’s rules for this are a bit idiosyncratic, much like some of his “how to play RPGs right” preferences were. Should be interesting!
All About Players
So, here we are: the very beginning of a campaign as according to Jamison. Probably the most important thing he says in this chapter is his introductory note, I would wager – that people like to classify things, but that commonly when it comes to categorizing people we tend to not do a very solid job. Probably because people are complicated and don’t fit neatly into categories. Nonetheless, Jamison offers his reduction of players into the categories that he finds to be most useful in preparing a game.
He divides players into three dichotomies leading to eight possible combinations: chaos vs. balance, acting vs.action, and storytellers vs. realists.
Chaos vs. Balance
Chaos vs. balance is the player equivalent to the traditional chaos vs. lawful axis in D&D’s alignment system: one likes to break the conventions of the fictional universe and the other likes to fit in with them. While he suggests these two kinds of players won’t get along, I think there is an important caveat. Consider beer’n’pretzels style D&D: Sir Bearington fighting alongside Prissy Pants the Paladin fighting alongside the Eladrin Corsair Calico Knifegutz because somebody’s gotta stop the end of the world and loot every village on the way there. The less the players care about immersion and realism the less they’ll care about mixing law with chaos. So I am not sure this axis is as distinct from the “Acting vs. Action” axis as it may seem.
Acting vs. Action
Speaking of which, in this dichotomy the former likes to play-act as their character (which often involves dialogue and emotion) and the latter likes to treat their character as an avatar for doing Cool Action Stuff ™.
This reminds me of the first time I played D&D online. Word got out the DM was running two separate campaigns, one that was a bit more action and the other that was a bit more “serious roleplaying.” None of us really had any experience besides the DM, but for whatever reason we all suddenly wanted to be in the serious roleplaying campaign.
I’ve found that, given the choice, most people will say the same. But that’s not actually true. This was the great lesson of Howard Moskowitz’s work in the food industry (as described nicely in this TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell). When you ask people what kind of coffee they like they will usually report that they like bold dark coffee. But if this was true then how could Starbucks possibly survive when 90% of its menu consists of weak coffee-flavored milkshakes? It turns out that people will report liking what they are “supposed” to like according to their culture regardless of their actual preferences – hence blind tasting panels being the food industry standard these days.
I have similar worries, sometimes, about player preferences. How do we most often report them? We just ask the player. Giving them what they ask for is good, but it’s not necessarily the same as giving them what they want. Perhaps that’s another point in favor of the convention/online “take it or leave it” model. For what it’s worth, I usually ask new players in my games to tell me a story about a time they played an RPG before. Their go-to story tends to be related to their preferences in a way a simple self-report would fail to capture (but telling a story is a lot less obnoxious than a questionnaire).
Storytellers vs. Realists
The final dichotomy presented has a similar historical pedigree to the first: it’s basically narrativism and simulationism in the GNS (gamist/narrativist/simulationist) theory from The Forge. I seem to recall a particularly sharp expectation mismatch from my last campaign where a player wanted more “cinematic” description – in the literal sense of describing camera movement and portraying scenes to the players that their characters were not present for. The game was advertised as emphasizing simulation. That combination did not last long.
Other models of player desires?
In my time researching game design I have found numerous different taxonomies of player desires. Raph Koster suggested in A Theory of Fun for Game Design that really all games are fun because they are about learning in a particularly interesting way.
Richard Bartle’s Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs suggests there are two axes: acting-interacting and players-world. Killers like acting on players (PvP), achievers like acting on the world (PvE), socializers like interacting with players (cooperation/guilds), and explorers like interacting with the world (finding secrets).
Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubec’s MDA Framework suggests there are possibly eight kinds of things players experience that they enjoy:
- Aesthetics/sensory input (novel or pleasing figures, graphics, etc.).
- Fantasy (immersion).
- Narrative (story).
- Challenge (winning/losing/mastery).
- Fellowship (other people).
- Discovery (learning something new).
- Expression (making something new).
- Submission (as an identity for the player, for use in relaxing).
Nick Yee’s Quantic Foundry video game model breaks gamer motivations into six associated pairs:
And his board game model breaks motivations into four categories with seven sub-categories:
My point here, really, is that we’ve been trying to classify gamers for a long time. Rigorous attempts have existed since at least the 1990s. And I think something I’ve said before about unreliable personality tests applies here as well.
Lots of people have heard of the Meyers-Briggs personality test. Those of you keeping up with your academic psychology will know that it has poor test-retest reliability, which makes it a very poor test of character traits (which are supposed to be stable across time). These gaming motivation tests are probably pretty similar in that regard: they are not very reliable or highly accurate.
Nonetheless, if you gave a group of people a 50 question quiz about how much they like Star Wars (which by all means does not sound like a very useful personality test) and then grouped them into “likes Star Wars” groups and “does not like Star Wars” groups you would wind up with two groups who get along better than the whole group overall. Even if the box you use is stupid and arbitrary and not very reliable, the very fact that you introduce boxes into which to sort players provides a sort of service. At the very least it will get you the equivalent of the Robbers Cave experiment and get you a feeling of being an in-group together.
Now, do I recommend throwing personality surveys at your players? No. I’ve tried it and it wasn’t as helpful as the effort warranted. But you can certainly ask your players a couple questions and, assuming their self-reports are accurate, you can get a pretty alright idea of what they want based on what they say they want, or what they have enjoyed in the past.
Finally, Jamison ends his section on players with a few small asides. First, he claims wargamers care too much about winning to be effective RPG participants. I don’t agree with this on two counts. First, the original RPG inventors and players were all wargamers. Maybe Gygax and Arneson and their crew of 40 friends were all terrible at RPGs, but that seems extremely unlikely. The second count is the idea that to win is to have losers. Players win RPGs all the time – in fact, that is their expected condition. Jamison himself said the referee cannot be “neutral” because they should be ultimately giving the players wins. RPGs are cooperative games – you can win 100% of the time with no losers if you like. So how is a player set on winning – who will be doing so constantly through the nature of Jamison’s system – going to disrupt the game? Wasn’t our creed to give ’em what they want? I think the more likely explanation is that Jamison has simply had some bad experiences with people he met playing Warhammer at his local game store or something. I know the kind of problem player he is describing here, but I would not call them a “wargamer” – I would call them a socially underdeveloped person. Plenty of people play wargames and make perfectly fine RPG players. Wargames have little to do with it.
Second, he suggests the fewer the players the better (to a certain point). Collaborating is fun, but being crowded out is not. The longer I have played RPGs the more I find myself agreeing with him: more than 4 players starts to be a bit of a mess in a modern story-laden game. An exercise I strongly recommend for any among you who haven’t played in a while: give playing alongside 5 other people a go sometime and take note of how much time you spend doing nothing. Since the GM is often the portal through which all gameplay must flow that keeps the GM very busy. It’s easy not to notice just how much time players spend waiting on other players. Empathy in this regard is very important.
Finally, everything he says about pitching a game is great advice. Separating the discussion of whether to play from what to play is probably smart given his premises, and it’s just good life advice to have your ideas polished down to an elevator-pitch-level sheen. I was very careful in my last online game, for example, to keep my pitch to a single page of text.
Picking the game system & creating the universe. Yay world-building!
Time to actually get to the heart of the matter. Well, chapter 1. But chapter 1 is the heart of the matter in my opinion. Let me tell you why…
Brian Jamison’s Only Immutable Law of Gamemastering
“The more the Gamemaster plots, the less the players will follow the plot.”
I think this phrase is the foundational wisdom of Jamison’s system for preparing and running RPGs. He’s right, I think, when he says “Traditionally … the Gamemaster labors for hours … working out plot and story, then springs the pre-written adventure on the team. The Gamemaster then hopes the players will enjoy the adventure and has given himself little opportunity to change things if they don’t.” I see this on RPG forums all the time. Somebody posts asking for help with a plot point, but the issue is that their plots assume the players will behave a certain way. They are acting like a writer – who has total control – not a game designer, who doesn’t.
Once I read a post on reddit where someone was asking for help with their first session. It was a GURPS game where the PCs would be modern university students thrown back in time during a visit to the large hadron collider. That’s a cool enough premise, right? But the entire thing was prepared completely backwards: first the PCs will do this, then the NPCs will talk to each other, then the PCs will be captured, then they will be rescued by more NPCs… it was classic “GMing as writing” that assumed the players would stick to the script they were (not) given.
For all of his idiosyncrasies from the introduction (and more yet to come), Jamison’s entire method is fundamentally based on this one gem of a paragraph:
Plotting or scripting outcomes are totally against the spirit of roleplaying! Playing an already-written story is boring for the players because they won’t have any input, and boring for the GM because the story is already written. In fact, any game that has a predetermined outcome isn’t a game. GMs sometimes write a story in advance because that’s what they want to do. These folks should write a book/play/movie and get it published or produced. Likewise, if the players want to act in a scripted environment, they’d probably have more fun with a theater troupe.
Truer words have never been written about roleplaying games. Games have players, and players make decisions. If your game doesn’t have players making decisions then pretty much it’s not a game.
There are two elements from this idea that make Jamison’s preparation method so lean. First, he only tells you to prepare things you probably won’t be good at improvising on the spot. Second, he only tells you to prepare things that will be useful in a game environment where you cannot be 100% sure that your prepared material will be useful in a given instance. The entire method is about “preparing to improvise,” as I have come to call it. You can’t have a game without improvising – games need decisions to be made on the spot. But you can’t make good decisions on the spot unless you’re prepared. So you need to prepare to improvise.
The Jamison Order
Much like the Machete Order re-arranges the Star Wars movie viewing sequence, Jamison attempts to re-arrange the sequence of launching a new roleplaying campaign to be more optimal. He claims the traditional order (which I agree is often what happens) is:
- GM chooses game system
- GM readies the adventure (buys/reads/prepares it)
- Characters are created
- Start playing
Now, this method has a few merits online that Jamison doesn’t consider because of the meat-space limitations of his scope. Online it’s very easy to start a pick up game, most commonly by somebody willing to GM (due to supply and demand). There are also great tools for sorting through games to join in places like Roll20 so that you’ll basically get the game you want. Simply because of the immense scale of the online RPG campaign market it’s actually quite practical to present a game “take it or leave it.” This is also how convention games operate – there are so many people (and so little time) you can afford to advertise a pre-prepared game and have it work.
However, especially at an in-person game, I think Jamison’s order makes a lot of sense:
- GM chooses the players
- Everyone agrees on a setting
- GM chooses game system
- Characters are co-created
- Adventure skeleton is written
- Start playing
In teaching there is a lot of hubbub about “student-centered” education – teaching students things they will believe are relevant and interesting. Jamison here presents a sort of “player-centered campaign design” – pick some people you like first, then construct everything around the group’s shared preferences. It’s pretty hard to argue with the “give ’em what they want!” approach. What’s the alternative? Give ’em what they don’t want? Seems impractical. At least students legally have to be there – players have no such compulsion to stick around a game not meeting their preferences.
We’re on to chapter 2: Choosing Players and the Game System.
This is the second of the two posts that are going to say a lot about a little. Jamison’s assumptions and foundational beliefs about RPGs that inform the rest of his writing are, I think, too important not to pay a lot of attention to. Let’s get started.
The text may not necessarily make sense in some spots if you haven’t been GMing for a while. This reminds me of the time requirement for something like a private solo pilot’s license. You can teach a lot of things in a classroom, but some things just come up so rarely that teaching them is a waste of time – it’s assumed that the practical experience will act as a catch-all for miscellaneous and sundry little things that would be a waste of time to teach formally. I wonder how different a “how to GM” book would look for people who had never played an RPG before versus those that have?
The Book’s Organizational Logic
Jamison comments here that he found it annoying when GMing books make lots of assumptions and provide too few examples. I find this frustrating, too, and it’s something even professional teachers often fall victim to. Among the most difficult things to do when delivering instructional material is to remember that your audience is not going to have the same point of view that you have as an expert, and that you cannot assume they will have your intuitions. That is what makes clear, procedural examples and an explanation of one’s assumptions so important – and it’s why I am spending so much time on Jamison’s. Also, the real world is concrete and not abstract – we like examples more than we like principles.
Although the book provides tables of options where appropriate, Jamison suggests that wherever possible we utilize our particular judgment in selecting them instead of selecting them randomly. Some people really like true random generation while others hate it, but I like a middle path. I have always found that random generation is a helpful tool because it makes me think outside the box about unusual options I would not have selected at first blush, but we are in agreement that the final judgment needs to go to a person and not a piece of plastic with numbers on it.
Misconceptions & Terms
Jamison is not going to specifically address any kind of RPG except the pen and paper kind you do sitting face to face around a table. I run and play in most of my games online, so I will probably be making some comments about how to adjust his ideas for this – or where they seem somewhat inappropriate or impossible.
Although the author’s comparison of tabletop RPGs to computer RPGs may seem harshly phrased I think his bottom line is nonetheless basically accurate. A tabletop RPG’s most special property is how so much of it takes place in our heads – it gives us the freedom to do just about anything we can imagine with only the constraints we voluntarily accept. The person who talks about this the most that I know of is probably Courtney C. over at Hackslashmaster. We should definitely hold Jamison to task about making certain his ideas going forward emphasize and maximize this idea of player agency since that is what makes the medium so special.
Jamison also makes the distinction between an “NPC” (which he considers a poor term because it makes those characters seem unimportant) and “GC” (gamemaster character). I think going so far as to invent a new term is, frankly, a waste of time. But I do like what he is getting at. Basically, I believe he is emphasizing a middle road between “NPC as throw-away plot device or enemy” and “DMPC who starts doing things players should really be doing.” What Jamison calls here a Gamemaster Character is really best understood, I think, as a strong supporting character – allied or enemy. At the end of the day they are expendable and should not be in the spotlight – they are supporting, after all. But nonetheless NPCs should be recurring and important insofar as you can while not overstepping into player territory. We will see later that, just as Ben Robbins wrote regarding re-using physical territory in his West Marches game, Jamison emphasizes re-using character territory in his gaming style.
“How To Play Right”
At least that’s roughly what I would have titled this part given how it reads. Specifically, Jamison makes four claims:
- The GM’s job cannot be to “win”.
- The GM cannot be “neutral”.
- Commercial adventures are not an effective use of your time.
- Immersion is very important.
Regarding the first point, I agree with general idea: a GM cannot be literally adversarial in the sense of trying to defeat the players because, frankly, he would do so 100% of the time. However, “the GM is supposed to make everyone have fun” is an almost hopelessly broad principle to put into practice. Where does the GM’s responsibility for the fun in the game end? Pizza is fun, does the GM have to always buy pizza? I think some practices Jamison believes to result from this axiom do not necessarily follow, as we will see later.
Regarding the second, I think this is important most of all because actually what most people regard as “GMing to win” isn’t the sophomoric power fantasy Jamison warns about – it’s setting up what you believe to be a fair scenario and then playing it to be as challenging as it was designed to be. That is why it is very interesting that Jamison also says the GM fundamentally cannot be neutral – a sort of neutrality is required for that line of thinking. Jamison’s thinking here is that you can’t be neutral because if you’re neutral you’ll wind up in situations where you botched your design stage and now you have to kill everyone and that’s not fun.
The problem here is that it treats neutrality as “being a rule-following robot,” which I think is not the best depiction of what it means to be neutral as a GM. Let me say up front that I agree you should not be a rule following robot (unless that’s what everyone at the table wants, but I think that misses the main benefit of the medium and is relatively unpopular). I think a more practical way to refer to a GM is not “neutral,” but “fair” – they design content that players find reasonable, and then adjudicate its play in a way that players find reasonable. While Jamison is worried that neutrality requires one to carry through on botched designs until they kill everyone, the fact of the matter is the two halves are not necessarily in lock-step. You can design “neutrally” (or fairly) based on a sense of immersion (what would really be here?) or challenge (what would be suitably challenging and interesting?). Then you can adjudicate fairly in an attempt to meet your design intent. If it turns out something is much stronger than you believed it was when you designed I think it is still being fair (i.e. neutral) to adjust the design in the moment to be more like what you wanted. I think it’s pretty rare for a sense of neutrality to botch your design intent, though, especially if the players always have the option of backing off and approaching things differently. So I would say that while I agree with Jamison you do not want to be a rules-arbiter-robot, I think that’s sort of a strawman against neutrality. Considering neutrality as fairness is most practical because what is fair is going to depend on the group – some groups don’t find neutrality to be very fair, but others don’t find pro-player bias to be fair either.
(It turns out, by the way, that most people find “fair” to be good and bad things in at least a 3:1 ratio. So “fair” GMing actually is generally biased towards the players on average.)
Regarding the third point, I am mostly in agreement. I have increasingly found that lots of commercial adventures are badly made (for example, placing most of the adventure behind a difficult skill check – this sort of adventure is only useful in a sandbox campaign and not useful for “I need 4 hours of adventure tonight” as they tend to advertise themselves for). That is not to say that I could necessarily do better, but I can recognize errors when I see them. These days I most appreciate those commercial adventures that supply creative ideas I would not otherwise have considered, or function as site-based adventures I can put into a sandbox. The traditional sort of adventure that involves some kind of plot and an expected series of events I find often falls flat for the reasons Jamison provides.
Statement 4, of course, seems hard to argue against to any kind of serious degree. Given equivalent games where – in one – you find yourself immersed and in the other you do not is there any doubt which game is better? Maybe it is not as important as Jamison believes, but it is obviously nonetheless important- at least to some people. Of note, being “neutral” is actually how some people attempt to do this. A bit ironic, perhaps.
Whew! That was a lot of words to spill over an introduction. But now that we know where Jamison is coming from I won’t have to talk so much about his assumptions in the future, and can focus more on his suggestions as suggestions within the scope of his proposed method.
Next up: Chapter 1 – Jamison’s one and only absolute law of gamemastering. Sounds important.
Welcome to the first content post in the series! As a reminder, I will be discussing Brian Jamison’s Gamemastering, which you can get for free in .PDF at that link. Let’s get started.
Introduction & Summary Part 1
I want to write today specifically about the introductory note on page 1. Now, this is a lot of writing about a small part of the book. However, I think it’s important to pay the lion’s share of our attention to the author’s stated goals and methods. This book is a rare thing: a complete set of procedures for preparing and running ALL RPGs, from before you even have a group to the end of your campaign. Therefore, the author’s mission and beliefs are going to be crucially important to understanding why this book is written to be the way it is.
Fundamentally, I believe this text is primarily about Jamison’s methods for doing work as the gamemaster before and after sessions and secondarily about how to employ those preparations at the table (with a few additional miscellaneous tips and tricks along the way). I say that because the book is broken into thirds, two-thirds of which are preparatory work related. It is meant to be a complete system for preparing and running any RPG in his given style, which emphasizes a small group of consistent protagonists who pursue individual and group goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. I like this concept for a few reasons.
Focusing on the Right Elements
With few notable exceptions like Waiting for Godot, basically all stories are about somebody who wants something but can’t just have it. In other words, they are about characters who pursue goals by attempting to overcome obstacles. If the character doesn’t want anything then they won’t do anything period, and if there aren’t any obstacles to them getting what they want (such as a glass of milk out of their fridge) then they won’t do anything interesting. For example, Kurt Vonnegut phrased this in terms of two of his fiction writing tips: all characters should want something, and make awful things happen to your leading character.
I have written previously that we should not be too quick to adopt writing principles for our roleplaying games (and Jamison agrees, saying “Tools like The 37 [Dramatic Situations] exist to help fiction writers over creative blocks. They’re as much help to Gamemasters (GMs) as a butcher’s knife is to a surgeon …”). However, I think these particular ideas are useful for gaming purposes. It seems to me like people probably get their kicks in RPGs mostly out of some combination of two things: overcoming obstacles (“winning”) or creating a good story. Both of those need characters overcoming obstacles in the pursuit of goals, so these are natural things to focus on preparing.
Preparation: The Middle Path
It is very in vogue these days to just say “improvise your whole everything!”, but I think that is a bit hasty. Consider what Roger Sorolla said on the matter: improvisation alone is often inferior to at least some measure of preparation in terms of the resulting quality of the game. The reason I see his opinion as supported is based on the preponderance of evidence in the creative endeavors of society: the balance of traditional acting versus improvisational acting, traditional music vs. improv music, or even teaching with vs. without a lesson plan. The wisdom of society seems to be that there is something helpful in preparing.
It is true that no plan survives contact with the enemy. I sympathize with the improv crowd for that reason. But Eisenhower once said that although he found plans useless he also found planning indispensable. Jamison acknowledges this when he says “many GMs spend too much time plotting out a complete adventure in advance”. There are certain things that are fruitful to think about in advance while others are mostly wasteful. Discarding the waste does not necessitate also discarding the fruit!
In my own experience doing things I have prepared, whether that is teaching a class or running a game, I find that the most effective sort of plan is one that prepares the things that are hard to improvise in the moment, and that specifically leave gaps for you to improvise things that are suitable. For example, I am very bad at conjuring names from the ether for NPCs so I prepare lists of names in advance. But no matter how bad I am at dialogue I do not prepare dialogue because it would be wasteful. Games just aren’t scripted enough to make that worth doing. In other words, the best kind of preparation is preparing to improvise. Jamison’s system embraces this philosophy: to prepare only what is guaranteed to get a lot of mileage at the table and no further.
A Complete Set of Procedures
In practice, nobody is going to prepare and run games exactly like Jamison does – this book is a description of his personal method. But regardless of how much of his method you agree with, the fact remains that he has done a lot of the heavy lifting for us in assembling his book. It tells you specifically what to do in what order from before the game begins until after it ends in a lot of concrete detail. His book reminds me a lot of the aesthetic of Holmes Basic that Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra famously copied in creating Dungeon World: rules for running the game rather than advice. You can agree with the rules or disagree with them, but at least they are specific and comprehensive. I think that kind of completeness has its own value.
I really appreciate the project Jamison undertakes here. It is fundamentally about presenting a complete system for running RPGs that emphasizes efficient preparations meant to make an optimal blend of game quality and time spent. I think it is smart that it does not throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to preparing material in advance of a session. It also does not fall prey to merely mimicking advice from related fields like creative writing exclusively – it claims to do what works specifically for RPGs-as-RPGs. The reason this is so great is that it really lets us consider if we want to meet the goal the author sets (a character-driven game about overcoming obstacles to meet individual and group goals), and it also lets us consider if the methods proposed are actually the most effective for reaching such a goal if we choose to embrace it. Jamison is up-front about this all just being his “opinion,” and that we are free to cast “an eye towards adopting whatever makes sense for [us]” while jettisoning the rest.
I think, in general, that the best sorts of books are ones like this. They have a clear mission – the author believes something and wants you to believe it, too. But they aren’t dogmatic about it, and they acknowledge that they could have made mistakes. Or that – maybe – their goals and yours just don’t quite line up. So, let’s start exploring those goals and methods and see where we end up.
Coming Up Next…
The rest of the book’s introductory section, which contains all of the definitions and assumptions Jamison has made while preparing his method.
The origins of the term “lecture” are actually more interesting than you may think. While getting my education degree I decided to do some research into that topic, and it turns out that they are named after the eponymous piece of furniture from which they are delivered: the lectern.
But the etymology of the term pales in significance to how and why they were once delivered in the medieval university system. Books, it seems, were once in very short supply. “Stop the presses,” you say sarcastically. “Exactly,” I reply. We laugh. (At least that’s how it went in my head.)
More pertinently, a lecture was originally what a professor did when they read a book aloud to the class standing at their lectern (which held the book), inserting their own commentary into the textual flow as they went. This had three practical purposes. The first, and least useful today, is that the students could create their own copies of the texts by writing along with the professor’s lecture. The second is, of course, that it exposed students to the ideas in the book that were so important they had to be written out by hand to preserve them. But the third is the most interesting, I think. It was a method for the lecturer to provide a set of marginalia, commentaries, and glosses on the text to amend and improve its subsequent copies.
In other words, just as Machiavelli had his Discourses on Livy – a commentary on the writings of Livy – so too the typical university lecture may as well have been titled “Discourses on [Book]”.
So, I got the idea in my head to write my own series of commentaries on various roleplaying texts. Being the digital age, luckily, I can dispense with reading the book to you – you can follow along at home and post your own discourses (on the book or on my own thoughts) in the comments section.
The First Series
I have selected for my first entry in this series of commentaries the e-book Gamemastering by Brian Jamison. You can get your own copy in .PDF for free at that link. I selected this text for three reasons.
First, it is a complete, personal, and specific method of running tabletop RPGs. In this age of the “grab bag of tricks” – specific techniques to make a combat run faster or improvise NPC names – something professing to be a complete explanation of just plain gamemastering is actually fairly rare.
Second, it is system neutral. This makes the entire body of the text relevant to all published tabletop roleplaying games, whereas – say – the experience point rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide probably are not.
Third, I use a lot of it and also disagree with a fair chunk of it. I find this is in virtue of it being very concrete. I am the first one who will say it is easy to get lost, adrift in the land of abstraction. But people naturally prefer concrete specifics because that is how the real world works, and that is generally how this book works, too. That makes it easy to agree with it – and use what it suggests immediately – or to disagree with it because the examples provided do not match our experience. In other words, it is ripe both for practical use and for analytical commentary.
Next Time On…
To paraphrase Adam West, tune in next time – same bat time, same bat channel – to read the first entry in my commentary on Brian Jamison’s Gamemastering. I intend to post a chunk of commentary at least once a week from here on out, starting at the latest on Monday the 21st. If you don’t want to check back every day with ‘bated breath in the interim then I will also tweet out when I post each section on my twitter account @TheHydraDM.
Quod Volare Porcos,
The Hydra DM
First up, I’d like to immediately link away from my content (marketing, what’s that?) so I can give credit where it’s due for the title: Ars Ludi’s Grand Experiments series. I’ve toyed with ideas I’ve considered experimental before, but this is one that really deserves the title, I think. Thanks for the inspiration, Ben.
The Eponymous Baron
This idea arose while re-reading a game I had meant to play for a long time but had never gotten around to: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s named after the eponymous baron Munchausen, who was renowned for telling outrageously exaggerated tales of his adventures abroad near the end of the 18th century. In the game, you take on the role of a noble much like Munchausen, and tell similarly outrageous stories of your own adventures in the same time period, with the goal of the game being to tell the best (most entertaining) story possible each round.
The relevant feature here is that, per the rules, you can offer corrections to other players’ stories in order to complicate them at the cost of one of your limited number of coins (coins are otherwise used to vote for the winner of the round). The player being corrected can offer a coin – and an insult – back, upon which the initial player might insist that he is correct and return with two coins (and, of course, another insult). This can, of course, lead to a betting war (and a lot of language cribbed from the Shakespeare Insult Kit). If a player runs out of coins yet refuses to yield in the betting war, or if the insults get a little too saucy, a duel can be called by either participant to resolve the matter of honor.
Duels, of course, require proper accoutrements.
As says the Baron regarding dueling –
I am advised that it is the fashion to name this part of the rules the ‘Combat System’. That is an ugly phrase which stumbles off the tongue, and sounds like a Prussian manual on methods of elementary sabre-play. I disdain it. Should its coiner take exception to my contempt for him and his phrase, let him challenge me and we will see if he knows aught of real systems of combat, while I reduce his britches to lace.
As I have observed earlier in this volume, if in the matter of an objection or a wager a player should insult another’s veracity, title or pedigree, then the injured party has the right——nay, the obligation——to challenge his insulter to a duel. Such a trial by combat may also come about if during the course of a wager one party finds his purse exhausted but does not have the grace or good sense to withdraw, in which case he may demand that the other stand down his claim, or face him on the field of honour.
The calling of a duel will cause an unfortunate interruption in the flow of the game’s stories, but so be it : where the honour of a nobleman is concerned, everything else must stand aside while he defends himself. Fighting over matters of honour is a dangerous business which may bring poverty, injury, death or——a worse horror——ridicule to the participants, but it is as necessary as beefsteak to an Englishman, gold to a Swiss, or avoiding baths to a Frenchman.
The system for fighting a duel is simplicity itself. Once the injured party has issued the challenge, the two duellists must choose friends or companions to be their seconds, agree on a weapon——rapiers are traditional and come easily to hand at most parties or places where the genteel and well-educated gather——and then go outside …
… If you are weak of blood, soft of flesh or lilied of the liver, or——by way of furnishing you with a convenient excuse——you are in a hurry to finish the game, or there are ladies present who would be shocked at the sight of blood, or you are unable to retain the rôle you are playing at the thought of noble combat, and find yourself reduced to a common peasant once more, or if you are Welsh ; if any of these things be true then you may avoid the physical combat of a duel. Instead, just as you are playing at being a nobleman in my game, you may play at fighting a duel with a set of rules I have devis’d for that very purpose.
The alternate system he proposes is, what else, best 2 out of 3 rock-paper-scissors (a game invented by the Baron himself, of course).
This assumption that one does not have the proper accoutrements for dueling – the swords or other weapons, the exterior space, and the willingness to potentially be injured, among other things – is well-founded. Indeed, most people do not have such accoutrements, and even if they did have them would probably be unwilling or unable to use them.
I am not one of those people.
My membership in an excellent historical fencing club makes me uniquely qualified to, in fact, duel with swords. Or at least training swords, which, lacking points and edges, are relatively safe when used in conjunction with modern sport fencing masks and other basic safety gear.
I hope it is needless to say but I will say it regardless: do not try this at home. I am in many ways a very poor fencer, but I have also been instructed on the rigors of safety in real sparring with realistic weapon simulators by a qualified martial arts instructor. Unless you can say the same, you should not attempt this. Ignore this warning at your own risk.
You want immersion? I got your immersion right here…
This experiment, in effect, accidentally re-invented stat-less LARPing, which I’m told already exists. Whoops.
Anyway, there’s a whole can of worms to discuss regarding player skill and character skill, but I want to set that discussion aside to instead talk about immersion. One of the things a lot of people talk about in RPGs is about feeling lost in a fantastic world that is not our own, playing a role that is not theirs. Referencing frameworks like MDA we can see that this notion (“immersion”) has a category in their rigorous list of aesthetics: Fantasy.
Well, I can tell you now, having done it: actually dueling (with minor concessions for safety) is a lot more immersive than pretending to duel using rock-paper-scissors.
Before I move on from immersion, since Baron Munchausen is a game that advertises itself as one involving drinks of some kind, I’d like to take a second to advise against mixing the immersion of real drinks with the immersion of real sword fighting. The reasoning behind that, I hope, is obvious.
What did we learn from all this, anyway?
While the original conception I had was of swords because that’s literally what the text playfully suggested and it leapt immediately (…after over a year of re-reading the game…) to mind, it turns out that any “weapon” works really well here. Nerf guns are the next obvious candidates (“nerf guns at 10 paces”), but a foot race, single-life super smash brothers game, and so on serve pretty well, too. As long as it’s a skill-based activity it works to what I’d call some degree of excellence.
The key to why this is the case is simple: you’re replacing what is effectively a random chance of victory (rock paper scissors can be played against the player if the player is bad, but rock paper scissors is optimally played by acting randomly) with a chance of victory that depends on the actions of the player such that the player can actually affect the outcome in a knowing way. It’s effectively the difference between resolving a dispute by flipping a coin or resolving a dispute by playing a game of chess: the latter is rich with agency (the ability to make informed decisions, translated into actions, that causally determine the outcome of events) while the former is… not.
This is a really extreme example of a simple principle: give players more agency. It makes them feel more in control of the game experience, and it certainly makes them feel more engaged and immersed since their decisions have direct causal consequences. If we return to the aesthetics from earlier, we could probably call player agency principally Expression.
Plus, honestly, sword fighting kicks ass. I mean, come on.
However, I can only sidebar player skill vs. character skill for so long, and like all principles this one doesn’t always apply. There’s of course the problem that if you’re meant to be playing a great duelist but you get romped by the other players’ superior athleticism it takes you right out of the Fantasy on account of the disagreement between the gameplay and the narrative (this is academically referred to as “ludo-narrative dissonance”). Furthermore, the sort of competitive gameplay on display here isn’t a good fit for every game, and Baron Munchausen just happened to click. Lastly, giving the player more control isn’t always correct: sometimes you want to disempower the player, or else you want to generate outcomes that players rarely create themselves. This last set, of course, is dangerous, since player agency is what makes games unique as a medium, but they can’t be discounted entirely.
So, ultimately, what happens when you substitute the actual task being resolved as the resolution mechanic in a game? A lot of interesting stuff.
That’s long enough about what I think, though. What do you think about this crazy idea I had? How has it changed your view of immersion, player agency, or even of the player vs. character skill debate?
’till next time,
The Hydra DM
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. So goes the joke most often attributed to Mischa Elman, and I think it has a lot to teach us. I started this blog as a way to give back, based on my own experiences, some of the great advice that I had taken to heart to help me on my own journey. And, sometimes, the best advice is also the simplest. You don’t need to be destined for Carnegie Hall to take advantage of Mischa’s advice: practice is how you get good at anything (running, playing, and writing RPGs included).
It just wouldn’t be me if I left well enough alone, though. I’ve learned a lot about what makes for effective practice, and I think that there’s not enough material out there that explains how to practice effectively.
Not All Practice is Created Equal
You can play a game for a thousand hours or more and never wind up even remotely near the top. If you don’t believe me, check out any competitive game with a leaderboard and look at the hours or games played of people in the middle and bottom of the pack: lots of them have played thousands of matches, often amounting to a thousand hours or more of what might widely be considered “practice”. RPGs don’t (generally) have leaderboards, but the principle is the same. You can play a lot and still be bad. I won’t have any of that “you can’t be bad at RPGs” nonsense, either, because I’ve seen enough threads about “that guy” and “railroading GMs” and “chaotic stupid players who kill every NPC on sight” to know not only that it’s a lie, but that everyone ought to know it’s a lie already.
The takeaway? Getting your hours in is necessary, but not sufficient, to become better.
To get better you need not just to play, but to play seriously. You need targeted practice, with a set of good rules and (dare I say it) practices (argh puns) behind it.
Sidebar: Why Serious Play?
You, the rhetorical reader, may attempt setting my premise up for failure right off the bat here by simply asking me “I play to have fun. Why should I need to practice?” The short answer is: if you think playing with Chris Perkins, or Ed Greenwood, or the designer of your favorite game system or setting would be better than playing with your own group, do I have a deal for you! You too can be Chris Perkins et al. through the power of serious play.
These giants of gaming did not become great through natural talent alone. The best RPG players – like the greatest Olympian athletes, Chess or StarCraft champions, or our friend Mischa – are not born (though natural disposition certainly helps), they are made. The tool of that making? Serious play. Practicing your RPG skills is no less fun than simply playing RPGs – in fact it consists largely of doing just that – so there’s no reason to fear improving your game playing and running skills when the cost is so low and the benefits so high.
The Seven Tenets of Serious Play
1. Hours are Necessary, not Sufficient.
You can’t do the rest of these if you aren’t playing in the first place. Some studies have shown that intense visualization is sufficient to mimic an activity as practice, but that still involves seriously devoting your time to doing that thing and that thing only. You can’t play candy crush and seriously play an RPG at the same time. If you don’t put serious hours in, you won’t get anything serious out. If you don’t put ANY hours in, you won’t get ANYTHING out. It’s that simple.
2. Have a Specific Goal.
Trying to get better at everything is a recipe for getting better at nothing. Paying particular attention to a certain skill that needs improving (for instance, speaking character dialog in first person, something I’m working on right now myself) means you’ll be sure to specifically expose yourself to situations in which you can practice that skill. It’ll also mean that you have a target for your performance reviews (see the next point). Finally, it’ll mean that you can have a sense of accomplishment by reaching the goal – nothing feels more ambiguous and more difficult than trying to “just get better in general,” since you won’t know when you’re finished or where you’re going in particular.
Be careful not to overdo this step, however. Tunnel vision is harmful – make sure to recognize opportunities to improve as they arise, make a note of them, and only then feel free to dismiss them for later if they aren’t within your current goal. And, of course, nobody likes a game heavily railroaded towards that thing you really want to improve to the detriment of everything else unless that’s the game they know they signed up for. Having a practice partner or two or three who are all trying to dedicate themselves to improving at RPGs can help here, since you can all set up contrived scenarios with each other in order to focus on your improvement goals specifically.
3. Use multiple kinds of performance reviews, and use them consistently.
A pre-emptive note about reviews of your performance: try to get one done as soon as you can after the game, then wait a while (days, or even weeks or months) and do another one. Your perspective will shift over time, and what remains memorable is an important clue in and of itself about what really mattered in a given game session or campaign. Stuff that still matters a year after a campaign ends is the stuff you’re going to be very concerned about regardless of whether they’re remembered fondly or with dismay. Each of these three kinds of evaluations can benefit from both short and long perspectives. Each of them can also be tailored to fit your specific goal (for instance, in my case I might ask about my best and worst performances in first person dialog in particular).
Self review. Ask yourself what went well, what went poorly, how you might improve what went poorly, how you might make the stuff you thought you did well even better than it already was, and what you should focus on next time.
Peer review. Try to get these individually if you can (the wisdom of crowds relies on independent data – review by a committee of four is a lot less powerful than review by four individuals). I like to ask what people liked most and what they liked least, since that’s only two items (it’s fast, and players hate nothing more than doing work between games – that’s the GM’s job :p) and clearly subjective (what they liked most or least, in opposition to what was done best and worst) so you avoid the risk of a social catastrophe.
Replay review. If you possibly can, it is critically helpful to record yourself. Your memory can clue you in to what you think was important during the game, but there’s going to be a lot of things you simply end up missing in the heat of the game, or don’t remember (or remember differently) afterwards. The sound of your own voice is a grating price to pay, I admit, but the dividends are huge. This also has the advantage of being able to be paused, re-winded, and re-watched at your leisure.
4. Always Have a Reason.
If you don’t know why you did something, you cannot improve at that thing except by luck or natural ability – and chances are your natural aptitude is as good as it’s going to get, while luck is notoriously unreliable (remember those people who played thousands of games and never got much better? They relied on luck). Reasoning precedes action, and understanding your own reasoning means you will understand your own action. Even if the reasoning is “it’s the first thing that came to mind and I didn’t want to disrupt the game to stop and think,” it’s super important to have that reasoning on hand so you can examine whether it was good or bad in retrospect.
Feel free to openly admit when you aren’t sure whether your reasoning is good or not, or even when you aren’t sure what your reasoning at the time was. In fact, don’t just feel free, it’s super important. That’s the first step in improving your thinking.
5. Everything is Your Fault.
Ask a room full of people who do a certain activity (for instance, driving) whether they think they are above average at that activity. Turns out, most people think they’re above average. It doesn’t take a statistician to point out that this is, obviously, a problem.
This attitude – that you are already good at something – is toxic to improving yourself. If you think you’re good already, you have no reason to improve. You can make a good counterweight to this tendency for yourself by adopting a tweaked Socratic ignorance as your mantra: you are bad, and everything that happens is completely 100% your fault and in no way the fault of any other player at the table.
That may sound harsh, but now you’ve got your motivation (you are bad), and you’ve got an automatic insight into which problems to fix (anything that goes wrong is on you, so you are going to try to fix all of them – just remember to Have a Specific Goal and tackle them one at a time). Just remember to lighten up once in a while – and don’t be afraid of thinking you did something well so long as you recognize it’s still imperfect – so you don’t drive yourself crazy and you’re all set.
6. Adjust Incrementally
When something doesn’t work very well, people have a tendency to throw everything out and start fresh or to make other wide, sweeping changes. This is a mistake, generally speaking. There’s often something good hidden in the bad that you can safely extract for re-use later, and it’s very important that you find it. In my case, while I may have failed at first person dialog once or twice, it would be a huge mistake to throw it away as a concept and just use 3rd person narration from this point on.
Just as important as not throwing overboard an entire premise just because it seems flawed is to only change one variable at a time if you can help it. This is a normal process of scientific experimentation – by only changing a single variable at a time you can determine the effect that variable has on your experiment. While it’s basically impossible to modify only a single variable at a time in a social situation like tabletop RPGs, you can still do your best to minimize your own multi-variable changes so that you can get a clearer picture of how your latest changes performed.
7. Be Very Specific and Aim for Perfect.
As you use these other principles to ascend out of the realm of mediocrity, there’s a problem you’re going to run into. When you actually, really, truly are above-average – you’ve got all the normal stuff covered, and even a few of the corner cases to boot – you’re going to hit diminishing returns. Going from bad to OK is fast, going from OK to great is slow. This is why Everything is Your Fault is so important: it’s easy to give up once you reach “OK” status and just float along. You shouldn’t, because you can still improve, and here’s how.
You need to be super specific, super nitpicky, and aim to be perfect. You won’t actually become perfect, but actual perfection isn’t the point – recognizing what perfect would be, and then heading in that direction with a purpose, is the point.
As you get better, the obvious holes in your skill will start to close. You’ll gain mastery of the system rules (no more accidental total party kills, hooray) and speed in administration, for instance. You won’t be at a total loss for what to do with a newly introduced NPC, or how to structure a dungeon, or what stats baddies should have. You won’t actually be bad anymore (though, remember, Everything is Your Fault – your attitude shouldn’t change). From here, you need to start nailing down corner cases and turning “good” to “better”. This is going to involve a lot of “I liked it, but was it as good as it could be?” and dealing with things that come up rarely so that you won’t be tripped up when they actually do arise (*cough 3rd edition grappling rules cough cough*).
It’s a slow road from “the good” to “the best”, but don’t give up on it. You’ll be better for it, and – to repurpose a quote famously put in Socrates’ mouth by Plato – your game, the examined game, will be worth playing.
Get out there and Play More, Seriously.
A New Year’s resolution – or a resolution at any time really – to play more games is one I can get behind. But remember this: Hours are Necessary, not Sufficient. I hope you’ll remember to take the time to advance your gamecraft if you haven’t been already, and if you have been I hope you’ve found some helpful ideas to take things a step further still.
Get out there and become the best you can be – your game will thank you for it.
Post-Script: Annotated Further Reading
I’d be remiss not to include some of the foundational works that inform my current method of targeted practice. I’ll give two specifics, and a general one for brevity (brevity? Hah, too late…).
This text is probably among the most instructive I’ve read about how to learn well from practice. The author is an eight time youth National Chess Champion and a master and world champion of Tai Chi Chuan.
While I had always been naturally good at games, and naturally drawn to improving myself, this series was my first exposure with serious competitive gaming. I loved it from moment one. Earlier episodes focus more on education, while later episodes focus more on entertainment, but I recommend it regardless of period. The author of this series is a winner of the Brood War WCG USA championship, WCG Pan-American Championship, and top-16 player in the Brood War WCG Grand Finals. He’s since gone on to become a professional eSports shoutcaster and runs his own eSports company and brand centered around the Daily web-show.
I also recommend becoming engaged with various works of philosophy, since the type of thinking employed in that field is the exact sort of thinking you must employ in order to practice most effectively. The branches of science, with their equal appeal to logic, are similarly helpful. The recommendations that may be made within such large and diverse fields are too numerous to do justice in such a brief post-script.
Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM
If somebody asked me “what video game today best represents old school D&D,” Legend of Grimrock comes to mind, but ultimately I think Dark Souls would be a more interesting and equally qualified answer. Given the raft of actual D&D games, branded with D&D on the box and everything, why on Earth would I think this? Hopefully I’m convincing.
Dark Souls very much takes place in a megadungeon, and a well-made one at that. If you strip away the visual properties and various idiosyncrasies of the game and focus only on the fundamental design tropes of megadungeons you’ll find this to be the case.
Branching, Looping, Linear Pathways
Megadungeons consist of corridors with walls, meaning you are generally on a linear pathway. Sometimes these are broken into larger areas (rooms) filled with content, but the rooms only have a low number of exits (usually no more than 4 and often as few as 1 or 2). Dark Souls, perhaps simply because games are limited in this way but also probably due to design intention, is similarly made up of linear pathways punctuated by expansive “rooms” or, more video-game-appropriately, “arenas”, in the parlance of the Half Life 2 developers at Valve.
At the same time, though, these linear pathways tend to branch and loop. For more analysis of the types of exploratory pathways in games you can see this post on ENWorld. Further writing on the merits of designing good layouts of linear pathways is this piece by The Alexandrian. These are together probably two of the best examples of analyses on how to design combinations of arenas and linear pathways as far as it concerns roleplaying games, so they make good reading and say basically everything I ever could regarding background.
In summary, Dark Souls doesn’t offer an open world like Skyrim – you don’t have 360 degrees of motion between most locations – but it does offer multiple paths, shortcuts, secret passages, and the like. In Dark Souls, like in most good megadungeons, arenas are connected to each other in multiple discrete linear ways, and those connecting paths themselves are often interconnected.
Re-Stocking Enemies and Re-Treading Terrain
Megadungeons do it every time you leave (or in some cases even when you roll a random encounter, to some extent), while Dark Souls does it every time you rest at a bonfire (or die). While Dark Souls’ enemies don’t change the way a megadungeon’s might, they do still come back, and that means that just like a D&D megadungeon the megadungeon of Dark Souls is designed to not be permanently “clearable”. In Dark Souls, just like in megadungeons like the labyrinth under Castle Greyhawk, you also unlock shortcuts between areas (mentioned above) meaning what begins as re-treading dangerous ground over and over eventually becomes a much more streamlined adventure, much like higher level PCs skip straight to the lower levels of a megadungeon via some shortcut or direct access they have found, thereby reducing the amount of time the players spend re-treading familiar terrain and dealing with re-stocking enemies. Additionally, in both cases, as you level up you will find re-treading the same ground to be much easier than it originally was, but also providing much less reward. These two factors combine to encourage you to push forward outside of any story motivation – mechanically you are drawn to areas that are of appropriate difficulty, since these areas will provide reward commensurate with your out-of-game skill and in-game power level.
There are a few ways that narrative happens in a megadungeon, and most of them aren’t what we think of when we think about exposition in modern RPGs. In a D&D megadungeon you can only reliably get information in a few ways. You can ask NPCs (most creatures wouldn’t be willing to help, though) if you manage to find any (or rarely you can ask NPCs outside of the megadungeon, but their chances of possessing significant knowledge is much less), you can look around for messages, writings, maps, and that sort of thing left behind by some precursor to yourself, you can learn by personal experience (you walk in the room and there are orcs? You know there are orcs in the room now, congratulations), or you can learn by some method of divination of non-language artifacts (either literally by using magic or more like an archaeologist by piecing together what you find laying around into a coherent story).
Dark Souls does all of these things in a very similar framework. You learn about the lore of the Dark Souls world in a few ways –
- A short introductory cut-scene.
- Rare, stilted, dialog with non-hostile NPCs.
- Messages left by other players that fit a purposefully limited format (“[thing] ahead”, or “beware of trap”, for instance).
- Non-contextual item descriptions of loot you find (you’ll get the story of the item in a few sentences, but no explanation of how it fits into the larger picture).
- Seeing something for yourself (“oh, shit, there’s a hydra in the lake!”)
All of these are distinctly limited and present to you sufficiently less than the whole picture (and, often, aren’t even entirely accurate, as in the case of player messages). They’re generally lacking in overall context, and have a direct 1 for 1 with how you learn things in a traditional D&D megadungeon. Messages on walls, messages attached to items, observation of the environment… all of these are regular elements of what modern D&D designers term the “exploratory pillar” of D&D – finding out new stuff without it all being dumped on you at once by McLecturePants the Plot-Giving Elf.
People have eventually compiled histories of Dark Souls’ lore, just like players can eventually piece together the history of a megadungeon, but it took significant effort and there are still gaps that need the interpretation of these game-world historians, just as in a megadungeon environment.
A Land Where Stuff Is Weird
As one would be informed by the entry under W in The Dungeon Alphabet, megadungeons are all about being weird. They often (though not always) represent a mythic underworld (see page 22), where things have a sort of internal sense that defies complete scientific classification no matter how hard you try. It’s a brutal landscape for no apparent reason. In OD&D monsters can pass through doors without a care in the world but those same doors are stuck for the players a full third of the time, and even if the players get them open they have a habit of closing themselves and becoming stuck again unless spiked. In OD&D monsters can see in pitch black, unless they’re in the PCs’ service, and then they miraculously lose this method of vision. It’s designed to make the game challenging, sure, but the realistic repercussions of these game design decisions is that the world is seriously weird and seriously hostile in the narrative as well.
Dark Souls is no exception here, either. It’s designed to be difficult compared to most modern games. This game design decision (difficulty) needs justification in the world’s fiction, however, and so by playing as an undead monstrosity yourself you can’t truly die permanently no matter how many times you get sent back to the last checkpoint. The brilliance of this associated mechanic that explains “restart at checkpoint” in game-world terms aside, when’s the last time you played as an undead monster in a game? Probably never if you’re most people. When’s the last time you fought a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth or a giant magic butterfly or a flaming spider-centaur with a pyromancer witch as the torso? This kind of unique strangeness, generated partially by strictly game-centric design decisions being reflected in the narrative, is paramount to enhancing the feeling of exploration made possible by the previous section.
Level & Sublevel Theming
A common thing to find in most megadungeons are highly thematic “sub-levels” (smaller areas bound within a close proximity), or slightly less thematic (but still differently themed) whole levels. Put at its simplest, Dark Souls does the same, and is even kind enough to label them for you (Valley of Drakes, Blight Town, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, and so on and so forth). At its most basic, this is just about creating differently themed “zones” so that things don’t become monotonous.
Under a Big Tent
The concept of the “big tent” campaign comes from the very early days of D&D with Gygax at the helm. Since he knew many people interested in playing games of this sort, they invariably all hounded him to run them – and the games grew truly to unwieldy proportions. Perhaps some 20-odd players inhabited his home campaign, even sometimes sitting at the same table! But, more generally, they drifted in and out as the mood suited them, and the more prolific players whose characters’ names live on in infamy were just the ones who played more often and were thus more successful.
This drifting in and out of players, and the discussions the players would’ve had about what they found in the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, mimics the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls (or perhaps I should say Dark Souls mimics it, chronologically speaking) almost perfectly. The fact that Dark Souls encourages you to come together to solve the problems of a shared environment (via cooperative summoning or messages, or in the meta aspect by simply talking to other people who play the game on regular internet message boards or otherwise) is extraordinarily similar in concept to how a giant rotating cast D&D game worked back then. Some days some people went into the dungeon, other days different people went in, and sometimes they compared notes, and mixed and matched companionship of their characters as the situation warranted.
This sort of individual shared experience (you were never guaranteed to play with the same people consistently, but you all played in the same world) is a quirky similarity, but one nonetheless.
A Land Where Danger is Everywhere
The final point here is that megadungeons are not amusement park rides with fake scares and cheap thrills – they’re designed in large part to be a game and therefore a test of skill. Not only this, but their early-D&D rulesets were pretty unforgiving of mistakes or even of bad luck. Dark Souls is no exception here, either: it is to most games what gutter bowling is to bumper bowling – in some cases literally, as bottomless pits with no safety rail will regularly attest; it’s a fair, but punishing, alternative. It embraces the war-game-like feel of early megadungeon play, where the trick is for the players to outsmart the environment and progress towards a distant point of actual distinct victory (name level and making a fortress in the wilderness, enabled by their earlier successes in the megadungeon).
As I’ve demonstrated here, Dark Souls is simply the video game that gets megadungeons, and by getting megadungeons it is probably the best representation of “old school” D&D that I can think of in video game format. It has some other elements that it shares with D&D, like leveling up and weapons and armor with plusses on them, but those aren’t what makes it like D&D; they’re just superficial similarities. It has things like PvP combat, too, and that makes it no less D&D all the same. The trappings – the PvP additions of Dark Souls or the weapons with plusses – aren’t what makes the games what they are. I think that reasoning belongs to the framework of play itself: the environment.
If you care about seeing and experiencing a representation of the design aesthetics all those OSR(Old School Renaissance)-types are constantly going on about, therefore, Dark Souls is probably just about the best and clearest alternate version of that experience (complete with moving pictures and sound effects) available in a box, period.
Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM