Dungeon Contractor: Speak Clearly and Carry a Big Shtick
Letter to Amy O., Initiate Referee. Last missive oh so long ago you hit me up for advice on running a game. I stalled on it for the main reason that I took so much advice. Back in the day I read books, went to seminars, critically observed games at cons and did anything I could to try and learn what the other side of the table is supposed to be doing. Because I feel like I've stolen my ideas from so many other places, because I spent so long being pedantic about the praxis, I have never felt comfortable doing it, expecting the role to be better filled by some mythical game-mavens out there. But if there's a debt, which there is, I am willing to fill it, so I will.
Letter to Amy O., Initiate Referee
Last missive oh so long ago you hit me up for advice on running a game. I stalled on it for the main reason that I took so much advice. Back in the day I read books, went to seminars, critically observed games at cons and did anything I could to try and learn what the other side of the table is supposed to be doing. Because I feel like I've stolen my ideas from so many other places, because I spent so long being pedantic about the praxis, I have never felt comfortable doing it, expecting the role to be better filled by some mythical game-mavens out there. But if there's a debt, which there is, I am willing to fill it, so I will.
I start with the standard anti-advice. Running a game is about finding your own voice. Buried in everyone is the style they will feel comfortable with, the sort of game that will make you want to run. Honestly, the style finds you more than you find it; it comes or forces itself out and your choice in the matter is minimal.
The cheesy way to look at this is all of us have unique talents and skills to bring to a game, and those skills shine the greatest when we are in charge of a game. This way neglects that 1) not everyone's skill set is game-useful, which is to say you might be a brilliant producer of games no one likes and 2) it is, at best, far less conscious. Things are at their best when the game runs you. The better philosophy does not have an abstract superiority over other philosophies, the better philosophy is the one that makes you content to wake up in the morning. The better style is the one that allows monkey mind to shut up and the game to get on with itself. Of course, this is as repulsive as the cheese, because it is awfully hard to make things easy, and it disregards the ways conscious effort can have productive effort on the unconscious.
All of this is why I prefer to use the concept of style. You have one, and you don't get to choose it. Though it is not a choice, it does not have to dictate your game-life. Right now you have all the skills that will make you an interesting Referee, they only need time to come out. The rest of the stuff is cheap tricks and triump d'olie, lovingly passed down over the ages.
If we are discussing matters of those simple tricks, remember, when creating a world, I always have Andrea look over my geography. I never put out a world map without passing it through an accredited geologist. This is not due to a perverse love for tectonics, but because I realized early on that maps are often really screwed up in games, and in fact there are a lot of things screwed up in games.
You are not trying to create a realistic society because it is necessary. Okay, it is the case the last thing you want to face in a game is a player hitting upon a massive continuity error, like an economy that doesn't actually work or a technology that should be present. That sucks, but such players are rare and having the error actually noticeable is rare as well. You will always run into them, though. (Recently, my gaming group got into an issue about whether you could survive a fragmentation grenade blast when it explodes at your feet. Base it on damage tables and you're good to go, but that seems so wrong). You are trying to create a realistic society because realism is more plot-rich and interesting than fantasy.
Real civilizations have been really cool, the people you actually know are often more interesting than any character you can dream up. Frankly, when you look at something like the geology from a realistic perspective, new elements you have not considered out of pure fantasy will develop. If you've said this land here was rich, it makes sense to blame it on glaciations, which then changes the way this land looks like, what sort of resources it has to offer, and consequently what sort of people will be there. The study of a game element that leads to some greater sense of neatness, of more ideas for you and more hooks for them, is a worthwhile one.
Now, a lot of others will impress upon you the importance of rolling with the punches when it comes to your character's decisions. It is true, but I think this leads to a mistaken belief the game is more about the players than it actually is. Clarification: without the players, you're talking to yourself. But a game is as much for the players as it is for yourself, and you have something you are trying to do as much as they are. "Don't compromise your artistic vision" is a pretty cheesy thing to say, and it is not quite the matter at hand anyway. Maybe. Sometimes. It is a fuzzy notion, because on one hand the typical notion of vision-violation (an editor crippling the text of the writer) doesn't apply as much because a role playing game is a multi-sided effort. It is designed for there to be surprising results.
Perhaps the better way to express the principle is "know when to fold 'em." What you want to see may or may not happen, but what you want to see isn't the point of the game. Things, however, may get out of hand. Know when to say stop. Know when to show your soft underbelly. Sure, everyone wants to think their Referee infallible and generally speaking it is better to run with it, but not always. We all want to think any game will work, but that is not a given. If the game is not going well, if you lose the sense of joy you had in it, admit the fact and move on to something else.
One of the constant mantras of the creative writing camp is to focus on detail. It's the detail that will catch someone: Bond's martini, Elimister's pipe, or Dorothy's dog, a detail that will serve to define. I'd actually urge you to think of it slightly different in terms of a role playing game. Look for the hooks. A character like Heckler is just another brash Goganger, but give him a highly idiosyncratic speech pattern and nigh-illiteracy and he becomes memorable. Erik is a master of this sort of thing. Most of his characters fall into a fairly typical archetype. He plays tech oriented social misfits. But he always finds a way to make that simple mode immediately memorable. Kenobi doesn't speak, and suddenly there's a notion, a fact, that sets everything about the tone, makes the character a character.
And don't let my examples make you think it's primarily a matter of characters. As far as I'm concerned, Lotvia took off in people's minds when I added the Sturgeon wrestling. Suddenly there was this quirk that set the northerners as something interesting and idiosyncratic, and forced the other parts of the country to become likewise. That concept made people interested in learning more and made them remember what they have heard. Running a game is a constant quest to find these things. A lot of them will be sudden and random. Go with it. Always be open to what's going on with the table. Sometimes the nifty concept will stick, like how sometimes the accidental nifty concept, some off-handed remark you make during play, will become the pervading detail.
There are some real simple tricks when it comes down to describing things. You want to hit as many senses as possible, but that's a general concept as opposed to a specific one. In other words, don't feel like you have to stack all five in any given description of a room, person or event. Jumping around in that respect will do more to confuse your characters than envelop them. But it is the general case we do think in a visual manner, so don't forget about the others. Something like "coming out of the starship you are hit with the smell of cilantro and diesel fuel" will open better than a lengthy visual description, and - again - get that hook in your player's minds to base the rest off of. If you are pausing for suspense in some description, count to five. When I learned this one it was sold on the premise that five was somehow special in terms of pauses, but it has another utility in my mind. If you are headed into a pause, you want an exit strategy, a clear sense of what you have planned. You want to feel the control, and not get sucked up into the moment yourself.
Save the point you want to make for last, the thing you want them to see and react to for the end. The importance of this isn't so much that it is true, but you do not want to let your players be confused in the description. If you forget a point, and then throw it in at the end, they will be drawn to that point above all the others.
During play, don't be afraid to be as theatrical as you need to be. Remember you are the one primarily on stage, and you have the grace of the players for the highest amount of willing suspension of disbelief. You can get away with cheesy tricks with lights and wacky integrations of music because it's the spectacle that your players have come to see. Don't be afraid to stand on the chair. Do it earnestly and they will buy what you have to sell.
All in all, speak clearly and carry a big shtick. It is not an attempt to be funny, it is the way to do things. Bring to the game as much honesty and personality as you can, but temper it with schoolmarm rhetoric. Find your game, but never forget your basis in simple intelligibility.