A Culture of Mediocrity

I am at once compelled to rant and rave, frothing at the mouth over the state of our hobby, the lack of real representation or leadership, and the constant perception of roleplaying as, if not a weird pastime, still a less-than-acceptable one. Yet there is that small part of me that cautions restraint. It tells me that my experiences and perceptions are limited; that the world is a big place; that there are people out there who “get” my hobby in a way that is understanding of its significance, not just to me personally, but to  hundreds of thousands (possibly more) of other players.

That small part of me also says that I shouldn’t call this guy a total fuck-wit, but then again, there’s a reason that part of me is small.

I refer you to the 5:41 mark in this video. I recommend watching the whole thing, if for no other reason than to have a better grasp of the overall context:

“The only thing you really need to know in order to succeed with a group of players, is D&D has a social contract. The social contract is: the DM is going to create a story and try to keep the game moving forward and make it as fun for everybody at the table, and in exchange the player part of the contract is, they’re not going to act like a bunch of – door knobs and just try to tear everything apart.”

Now, I do not doubt that his intentions are noble. He has been playing the game for a long time. He has had some career and financial success – hell, he gets paid to write and play Dungeons&Dragons! So of course we want to know what he thinks about it. Unfortunately, this means it’s all the worse when his mediocrity shows through.

No, Chris, there isn’t just one thing you need to know in order to succeed at D&D. There are several. And you may or may not need to know all of these things in order to succeed; I cannot quite comment on what all of these things are, but I know they are things that have been explored by professionals in fields like psychology, business management, sociology, politics, etc. And I’m quite certain that these professionals would scoff at the notion that a team’s dynamics can be boiled down to simply, “well, there’s a social contract that we have to agree to and follow.” Hell, the concept of a social contract is debatable in-and-of itself.

Let’s assume that it exists and that we’ve agreed, explicitly or implicitly, to follow its conventions. Fine.

The DM does not create a story.

It’s this one element that makes me want to spit. Are we on the cusp of a new age of roleplaying, that although the hobby has been around for 40 years, we’re just now beginning to examine it for what it really is? Or is it that there’s just too little critical thought being applied? I cannot spend too much time shouting this into the void – the DM does not create story! If you want a creative story-writing or storytelling game, then go play one. White Wolf has several game lines that are quite good as far as storytelling games are concerned. But they are not roleplaying games; they never were and never will be. And D&D is a roleplaying game.

It is this sort of feel-good, paper-thin, mental-calorie-“lite” sound bites that supports and encourages this type of discourse amongst the hobbyists. Sure, Chris presents a pretty picture: he’s well groomed, polite and articulate. He looks and acts like a normal guy. But he gives himself away, at least a little bit. He refers to poor players as “lame-Os” and “door knobs” and doesn’t explain what he means, at least not in terms of defining these bad players. Or at least, he doesn’t define them explicitly. He does imply, however, that the bad player – the “door knob” – is one who “tear[s] everything apart.” Because according to Chris’ paradigm, the DM creates a story and the players go along with that story. Those that don’t are guilty of violating their contract.

Fuck. That. Shit.

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22 thoughts on “A Culture of Mediocrity

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  1. Dagnabbit, WP ate my long post.

    “The DM does not create a story.”

    Mmmmmaybe not, but they facilitate the story-play of the group. D&D is not Wargaming; the story is more important than the results. The results of D&D are a means to that end, not the end itself.

    Having listened to your guest appearance on your friend’s podcast (and, I’d really love to explore this topic in reasoned, long form audio discussion), you should be aware that there are a large number of gamers who are simply unaware of the distinction you make when you say, “The DM does not create a story.”

    I am not suggesting that a “full story” game where the players have no consequences is the ideal. I am saying that there are ways to express memorable story-lines in games that are wholly separate from the mechanics of character abilities, and that mechanics are merely a shared suspension of disbelief.

    Originally my first line was, “The DM collaborates with the Players to tell THEIR stories.” I’m still fairly happy with that. But let’s talk.

    1. You’re correct: D&D is not war-gaming. It can be, under the right circumstances and if the players decide they want to play it that way. But overall, no, it is not explicitly a war-game.

      It is also not a storytelling game. You heard the podcast so you know what I’m talking about. I think I take your meaning to be, “This is a challenging concept.” I think it is. I think, as players, we’re seeking that experience that gets the blood flowing, that drives the endorphin rush, that first high – not that it’s a drug, but it kind of is and most players want to experience that with every session they play. But how do they get that rush? Well, with D&D, they get it by playing a role, a member of a team in a fantasy/medieval setting that goes on adventures and fights monsters and takes their treasure.

      None of that requires storytelling. Story is something that comes after the adventure has concluded, when we try to reconstruct the events in our minds and among our friends.

      “The DM collaborates with the Players to tell THEIR stories.” I’m okay with that, but I still believe that the story cannot be told until after it has taken place.

      1. The retrospective nature of story telling is an underappreciated part of this argument. Good storytelling is applying intelligibility and meaning to events AFTER they have occurred. Deciding ahead of time what a story is about is to end either in disappointment or in shoehorning, fudging, cheating, and denial to keep fundamentally unpredictable elements (that is, in this case, die rolls) from changing what we, prescriptively, wanted the story to be about.

        To make a role-playing experience one ripe for post-hoc storytelling, you need the events that are occurring to INSIST on being told and re-told: they need to be tense, to involve high emotions, surprise, and investment. These are the elements of a good story. “Beginning, middle, and end”, “character development”, and “themes” are not planned ahead of time, they are recognized or identified afterwards as part of the process of skillful storytelling. Your narrative cannot be about, say, “the hubris of defying the will of the gods” until the characters have, in fact, failed in their defying of will of the gods. To decide on this example of a theme, or any other, ahead of time is remove the propellant of the game (invested agency and uncertainty) and to destroy the player’s creativity ability to understand their own narrative.

        (if this posted twice, feel free to delete one!)

      2. “This is a challenging concept.”

        It’s definitely a meta-concept: to insist upon players doing certain actions should obviously, glaringly be a weakness in one’s Running Repertoire.

        I think we’ve actually hit on something more concrete, but only just: D&D is an Adventure game.

        The Stories emerge from our Adventures. The Drama emerges from (vicarious) Danger. If Danger (small-scale) or Adventure (large-scale) are not believable or engaging, Drama and Story become two-dimensional.

        Maybe what I’m defending in DMs is Story-Framing; having a coherent enough understanding of external events to fold them into the party’s adventures in a believable and engaging way.

        One way I’ve explained it is, “Yes, I’ve created a world, and I like it and understand it, but it’s FOR the Players, and once I let them in, it’s THEIR world, not mine.” Meaning, it’s much more important for the Players to play Characters who believe what they’re being presented than it is for me to check off dialog boxes.

      3. mujadaddy, it’s almost as though you’re advocating role-playing concepts that align, in some fashion, with storytelling concepts.

        I think I can wrap my head around it. I want to grab on to what you’re doing, much like the amateurs who make these god-awful DM advice videos, by whatever means are available. If that means using familiar concepts like “‘beginning, middle, and end’, ‘character development’, and ‘themes,'” then I’m going to do it because I don’t have any other techniques. But I’m not the amateur I used to be. I’ve learned and grown since those years. In other words, I have other techniques and I’m confident I can create other techniques through careful and deliberate discussion and reflection.

        I agree with Stories, Drama, Danger and Adventure as you organize them. I can see the utility in their definition; I’m inclined to draw a flow chart to illustrate how they relate to each other. But I’m hesitant to accept that Story-Framing is a necessary or even useful concept, primarily in the sense that it is too suggestive of conventional storytelling concepts. I’m concerned that it allows for those concepts to creep back into the DM’s toolbox when they should rightly be tossed in the trash.

        giodanisti, it seems that WP has been causing all sorts of problems for people this past 24 hours. Quite frustrating.

  2. Story-framing is occurring in roleplaying games, either by the DM or the players or both. Shouldn’t the DM prepare for that, too?

    I misspoke: what I should have said is that external events are folded into the party’s adventures, not vice versa. If I can’t show, not tell, the Party something about the outer world around them at the table, then there isn’t going to be any investment in anyone other than themselves: THAT is harmful to games as much as anything.

    You speak of growth; what about character growth? I’m not talking about a railroad; I’m talking about fleshing out the players, their relationships and their world. DM’s can forget that the players can’t see every little detail in their heads, and that they need to consistently, repetitively support (suspend, if you will…) everyone’s sensory information.

    Recurring NPCs. Community-wide events. Time pressure. All opt-out. That’s all I’m talking about. Not a beginning, middle and end.

    1. One of the worries with the way Mearls, Crawford, and Perkins speak about DMing is that they don’t make this nuance – and if we talk about the impact of D&D streams and its downstream effects, we can see that this nuance of “story-framing” and “storytelling” is not well-policed nor well-expressed by any of the mainstream figures in the realm of tabletop RPG design. Considering that storygames *do* exist and that their designers also enter the conversation, it further mucks everything up.

      So my first rejoinder is that while a DM and players may agree at their table to tell certain stories, that by no means should be what D&D now represents. A lot of narrative-prone folks see the narrative as opening the tent up to a larger audience. I think that it’s true that talking about stories instead of dungeons can be a better marketing tool. Talking about heroic adventures instead of a second life in a GM’s world can attract more people towards the game.

      But character growth is not requisite in all games as something placed upon a pedestal. Perhaps the *player* grows, as someone who is better able to navigate the challenges put before them. That can be a form of satisfaction as well. Perhaps the character simply grows in power and in influence, without necessarily participating in a dramatic, super-personal form of growth. All of these you can treat as a matter of course, but it’s not actually evident to folks listening solely to Perkins talk about D&D or to folks who see story-heavy D&D streams.

      My second rejoiner is the above one – stories, even if we establish that they belong somewhere within the D&D tradition, should certainly not become kingpin. A campaign can revolve around resource management and player challenges, or it can revolve around character growth as expressed through a series of external events around them, or it can just be an evening’s dungeon crawl because you only have an evening to run a game.

      Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each of those sorts of games is something I wish that “advice-givers” did more, instead of going for overgeneralizations. Some do, admittedly. Matthew Colville is far more careful about what words he uses than Perkins or Mearls are.

      You talked about a “running reportoire” – for someone with a large “running reportoire”, overgeneralizations are things we can either accept and adapt to fit with our views, or which we can reject wholesale, as the OP does.

      What about for someone new, though? What about folks who now simply understand that D&D is storytelling and develop their campaigns, habits, and discussions about game design purely from that point of view? Then it is different.

      1. A lot to chew on here!

        “stories…should [not] be what D&D represents.”

        But D&D should represent more than just mechanically dicing against barely-described foes. The whole RP hobby arose because people wanted more detail, resonance, story than simply dicing off armies.

        “character growth is not requisite in all games”

        I would disagree: character advancement is a proxy for character growth in even the crunchiest games. Only the “story-est” games eliminate advancement; their advancement structure becomes said character growth. And I can’t think of any games with neither advancement nor abstract “growth”.

        “Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each of those sorts of games is something I wish that “advice-givers” did more, instead of going for overgeneralizations.”

        This pisses me off to no end: the idea that any individual has “The Secret to the One True Way to Game Correctly”.

        “Talking about heroic adventures … can attract more people towards the game.”

        Moreso than “dicing against barely-described foes.” But it takes YEARS of experience watching games, playing in games and running games to survey honestly one’s own ground-level preferences and skills.

        “What about for someone new, though?”

        My honest opinion is that D&D is dying.

      2. mujadaddy, you’re persistence is indicative of a deeper seated issue that I cannot even begin to fathom.

        You are simply ignorant of the argument, either intentionally or not. In fact, the more I think on what you’ve written, I suspect it’s intentional.

        Read the post. Listen to the podcast. Read this comment and these words: D&D is not a storytelling game. It is a role-playing game. It does not benefit from storytelling concepts and conventions. It does benefit from concepts and conventions from a variety of disciplines, to include (but not limited to): theater, management, psychology, game theory, etc.

        You were on the right track with Drama, Danger and Adventure. These are concepts from the current D&D landscape that we can effectively use. You are misguided when you continue to use Story. Story is something that occurs after, as a means of understanding and framing events that have happened before. Story never happens during and we do ourselves a disservice by trying to shoehorn it in.

        Yet you betray yourself by discussing character growth. I never mentioned it. Neither did the other comments. The first time “growth” appears in the discussion is with your comment. It makes me think you’re up to something.

        And I never claimed to have “the one true way.” I don’t think anyone else has, either. We all know what you’re referring to there and we’d appreciate it if you don’t do it again.

        jacuzziant, I recommend you stick around. “Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each of those sorts of games is something” I intend to do a lot of.

      3. “Yet you betray yourself by discussing character growth. I never mentioned it. Neither did the other comments. The first time “growth” appears in the discussion is with your comment. It makes me think you’re up to something.”

        I’m not sure from where this sudden antagonism has arisen. You said, “But I’m not the amateur I used to be. I’ve learned and grown since those years” — this is the growth which was mentioned first.

        My only point is that humans seek out stories, and that we as game-runners can harness that desire to heighten drama. I agree that forcing a Story will not make it happen, and that they follow Adventures, not lead them.

        Forgive me if I’ve offended somehow.

      4. @mujadaddy

        >But D&D should represent more – why? I think you’re ignoring the other gaming forms I’m talking about. Remember, I’m not establishing them as superior, but as equally valid forms of gaming. You view those RPG games as being implicitly inferior with your phrasing: “mechanically dicing against barely-described foes”. A narrative GM might talk about how mournful a cry is or how fair-haired a maiden is, while one more interested in explicitly challenging the players will only talk about clues regarding the challenges, such as how the hall looks suspiciously clean for our iconic gelatinous cube. Those are equally valid. Again, I don’t object to stories in D&D as the OP does. But I *do* take umbrage at the implication that D&D *should* represent storytelling. It *can*. Let us go no further than that.

        >Char advancement – I suspect I’m being imprecise. I mean narrative character growth, as in when a character becomes a better brother or when a character learns to deal with their daddy issues or when a character gets over an addiction problem. I’m saying this form of advancement exists, and is not requisite.

        >The Secret – yeah, same page bro

        >Taking years of experience – not sure what you’re saying here. To me, designers, GMs, and advice-giving folks influence the audience. They can make shortcuts to those years of experience. That’s exactly why OP is talking about this video and cautioning that this video might make a short-cut which sells the hobby short.

        @Simon

        >Sticking around – I’m not 100% sure if you’re OP. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m Ant Wu from Alexis’ blog (if that means anything to you). “jacuzziant” wasn’t me trying to hide that, I just already had a WordPress account. If that is a turn-off for you, may as well ban me now rather than drag it out. Just being honest.

        >D&D is not a storytelling game – I agree. But then you make a claim which befuddles me:

        “It does not benefit from storytelling concepts and conventions.”

        It seems you have carefully partitioned the beneficial elements of drama, danger, and adventure to non-story areas of study…such as theater?

        However, Alexis has said that I have a habit of demanding folks explain themselves. I suppose I’ll stick around and think about this for now. If I read more it may come together.

      5. my apologies to all, I think I’m the one who got confused with these comments.

        jacuzziant, I’m familiar with your posts on Alexis’ blog. I, too, have another handle through Blogger: Ozymandias. My “stick around” comment was more in response to your request/suggestion. I’ve had this blog for several years but I’ve struggled with the dedication necessary to keep it going. I think I’m at a point in my life where I can change that. And so I’m going to try.

        Regarding the partitioning of beneficial from non-beneficial elements… well, I supposed that mujadaddy should be credited with bringing up the concept. Something that I will speculate on further…

        mujadaddy, you haven’t offended; I was a bit lost concerning the topic of growth. I spoke of growth in the personal sense and you brought up the subject of character growth. They are the same in my mind, yet I missed the connection; indeed, I consider character growth to be something of a misleading concept because, beyond what the player considers important, character growth is really nothing more than the prescribed advancement rules: you get XP, you get levels, you get new abilities. But no, no offense; if anything, I erred in misreading the comments.

        Overall, I think we’re much on the same page about these topics. Except that “D&D is dying.” It most certainly is not if only because there are people like us who introduce new players.

      6. @jaccuziant, “umbrage at the implication that D&D *should* represent storytelling.

        I agree; I am weighted 90%+ toward what Mr. Vesper calls “role-play”; my statement is only meant to bring consideration that it becomes “mere dicing” if you go to 100%. Perhaps I simply misspeak in a space which has been overrun with stressful discussion, when it seems simple to me. To be more clear, *NO*, I don’t write a story down. I’m as much interested in what the next part of the story is going to be as the players. *BUT*, since I do have knowledge of more of the np-characters’ motivations and how they shape the larger world, I attempt to make it appear that there *IS* some narrative coherency to their adventures, both game-to-game and overall.

        To the general idea behind “Story-Telling Games”, …how am I supposed to know what the Story is before it happens?!? If I knew what the story was, why do I need the players at all? There’s a big difference between “letting players improv in Your Story” and having a game in which you can expect to be surprised and delighted, just like the players. I think most of us are in agreement here.

        @jaccuziant, “To me, designers, GMs, and advice-giving folks influence the audience. They can make shortcuts to those years of experience. “

        I’m not actually sure that is true. I’ve read as much influence as anyone, but watching DMs succeed and fail from the player’s seat and being a DM succeeding and failing on my own is the ONLY thing that I feel has actually been helpful. It really is the difference between, say, reading about how to hit a golf ball off the tee and actually driving one. This is, of course, a touchy subject to people who create the advice, so we can let it go. 🙂

        @Mr Vesper, “character growth”

        To me, Player Growth is a much more abstract concept; Character Growth to your point *IS* player growth, but I meant to engender the idea that the Character becomes more realized by the Player as opposed to the Player themselves gaining the skills to realize more fully their characters.

        @Mr Vesper, ““D&D is dying.” It most certainly is not if only because there are people like us who introduce new players.”

        Sure, but I would call those “Pockets of Civilization in a Strange Wasteland”. The distinction is that “when I was a kid,” you had to read books. Literary acumen is the primary attribute of our ilk, and critical thinking and literacy, and patience, are being obliterated in society.

      7. I confess, we’re getting to enough of a new point that it no longer feels appropriate for this particular posts’ comments.

        …watching DMs succeed and fail from the player’s seat and being a DM succeeding and failing on my own is the ONLY thing that I feel has actually been helpful.

        We’re talking about what D&D the game is and how it is characterized. When I hear Perkins I take what he says with a grain of salt because I understand he is the story guy for 5e and that he does not know the rules sometimes and his players prefer it that way and ugh, I’m out. Not gonna run the game like him. Not the same type of guy.

        But imagine players who look to Perkins and who then go asking their GMs to be like him. “Why bother with rules? Why did you give us a hard encounter? Why don’t you make us feel more badass? Where are the story hooks?” Those players exist.

        I’m not saying this is a ubiquitous problem, muja, or even an important one. But it has merit and it’s relevant to what Vesper was exasperated about. I’m much happier for example that at least SOME narrative-focused groups like Matt’s have awareness of their position as ambassadors of the game, and so have the skillfulness to tell their audience, “remember that our game is not the way D&D is meant to be or has to be played”.

      8. I haven’t watched or read enough of Mercer’s work to really understand his position – are you saying that he considers his paradigm to be apart from the norm? Because that is a fantastic message. Really, I want to know where he says that so I can help broadcast it all over the place.

      9. @vesper

        Not per se. I don’t think anyone could put so much love into their game and still be willing to call it “abnormal”.

        But they started noticing fans who were too afraid to play D&D because they felt they had to be professional actors, and heard about fans and GMs who were annoyed cuz CR had a huge impact on how folks wanted the game to be. So they say at panels now that their game is not how D&D has to be.

        He says it in this comment thread as the first comment: https://www.reddit.com/r/criticalrole/comments/60sbpi/spoilers_e90_vox_machina_bad_decisions_the_modern/

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6uyq9xzI1Q 3:32 and 5:09.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQzL4zCD9lk&t 0:45.

        It’s a good thing to highlight. Just by acknowledging “this isn’t the only way to play”, he is showing quite a bit of self-awareness of his influence, and humility when exerting that influence.

      10. Appreciated, but where are the people who offer the “alternative” view? Granted I’m just now becoming acquainted with D&D YouTube channels but seems like the prevailing opinion is that it’s a storytelling game when clearly, it is not.

      11. Fair warning though. Todd Kenreck (the interviewer) very much sees D&D and storytelling as not only being linked but as being identical. Cuz I know you’re on the lookout for that sort of thing and I don’t want to be accused of pulling a fast one over you.

        Putting it out here in advance.

    2. This conversation is starting to get a bit confusing to me. I’m going to see if I can clarify anything, even if only in my head.

      Mujadaddy: I believe what the “dnd is not a storytelling game” people (myself included) are trying to say is that a D&D campaign is NOT like enacting a piece of theater, where the beginning, middle, and end have been planned out, where the “structure of the narrative” is already in place in the mind of the DM from the outset, as is the case, say, when someone runs a module. This is an example of forcing storytelling preemptively on a campaign. Furthermore, there are games such as Burning Wheel which attempt to make narrative devices such as “plot armor”, fate, and development of beliefs literally written into the rules. This is also storytelling gaming, and at least by normal definitions of D&D, does not fit into the milieu.

      HOWEVER, “recurring NPCs”, dramatic moments, depth of character, utilization of human motivation, and effective description are NOT “storytelling conventions”. They are fully within the realm of simply making an immersive world for the players to act in. I don’t think anyone who is opposed to storytelling-gaming would object to any of these being used, and would in fact insist on their use. These elements do not force interpretation on the narrative (which in my view is anathema), they simply add depth to the world.

      As far as “character development” goes, this can only be determined in retrospect by the players themselves. The problem is not that a character might gain a personality, its that planning out this growth ahead of time is limiting and frustrating, regardless of whether the DM or the player is the one planning it. Storytelling, and character growth, are descriptions about a game that has already occurred, not elements of a game while it is in motion.

      Simon, Jacuzziant, how do you feel about the above description?

      [apologies if anything is a duplicate post]

      1. @giordanisti
        In the interest of streamlining, I’ll number out the things I believe:

        1. Storytelling *can* enhance a game for some players.
        2. Storytelling is not REQUISITE for game enhancement, and is hardly GUARANTEED to make a game better.
        3. Storytelling can easily DETRACT from the game.
        4. Storytelling according to advice blogs and vids is now “what D&D is about” which is sucks.
        5. Character development, if planned, is by definition more limiting. I’d extend that to say planned stories are limiting.
        6. Some folks enjoy this limitation, either because it actually suits them or because they’ve been bamboozled to think there is nothing else besides this sort of game.

        7. This is the thing I struggle with. The types of games revolving around storytelling aren’t compatible with the types of players who hate it and the types of games without it aren’t compatible with the types of players who enjoy it. The common wisdom that you can somehow unify folks under a common tent of D&D is false. You could get a particularly flexible player to enjoy both types of game, perhaps, but even then they would need to undergo a paradigm shift between the two types of game.

      2. An excellent summary. The one thing I would add is that we can apply elements from improvisation theater to our games; it’s not necessary but, done right, it can improve the game in the moment.

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