Saturday, 15 October 2016

Sperm Whale DMing

"I felt a bit like a sperm whale that breaks the surface of the water, makes a little splash, and lets you believe, makes you believe, or want to believe, that down there where it can't be seen, down there where it is neither seen nor monitored by anyone, it is following a deep, coherent, and premeditated trajectory." - M. Foucault, lecture of 7th January 1976

A lot of bloggers and RPG publishers (I include myself in this) are a little like how Foucault describes himself here. Every so often you rise to the surface of the ocean and make a little splash in the form of a blogpost that hints to the world at large that you are working on something unfathomable and yet epic and brilliant in scope. Yet this may well be entirely a mirage - a glimpse of something that is in fact disorganised, chaotic, and barely moving forward at all.

But that is not what I want to post about here. Rather, I want to discuss the importance of the DM as sperm whale.

Sperm whale DMing is, as frequently as is appropriate, hinting that there are things going on beneath the surface of the campaign setting that are seismic and important - so important, indeed, that the PCs operate in a completely different sphere and cannot yet get at them. There are plots. There are movements. There are strategies. There are wars being fought, struggles being played out, loves being lost, dreams being won, seasons turning on different time scales, geological movements, symphonies being written, eras changing, things happening. The low-level PCs only get the tiniest hints, the merest whispers, of all of this. It is only as they get more powerful, more influential, more noticeable, more knowledgeable, that they start to pull at the threads and unravel the veils and turn over the rocks and look behind the curtains. The DMs role is just, every now and then, to ensure that there is just a little splash on the surface to hint at what is going on in the ocean currents below.

The crucial point here is that it does not matter whether the DM is actually following deep, coherent and premeditated trajectories. It is nice and interesting for him if he is. But at the same time, you can build those trajectories in a decentralised and disaggregated fashion, from the belly up: you can drop hints and whisper rumours and scatter clues without the foggiest clue how they all link together or what they mean. What you have is time. Time to ruminate and time to see where and what the PCs dig. You can build those deep trajectories from what you hint at, rather than the other way around.

That is, what you are really doing as you drop the hints and whisper the rumours and scatter the clues is planting the seeds for what you are going to work with later. Some examples of things a DM might throw into a campaign without any idea of future pathways:

-A man in a cape who the PCs see every now and then in the distance when it is raining.
-Rumours of something called The Sapphire Tower - a building whose location nobody knows, as it always seems to change.
-The aftermath of an assassination of some important NPC in which the assassin has apparently just killed himself.

All these things might just occur to the DM off the top of his head, or appear, perhaps, as random table results. It may be a year later that the PCs enter the castle of a storm giant and the DM decides, wouldn't it be fun if the man in the cape was the storm giant's servant and he has been watching the PCs for some time? It may be two years later that the PCs finally find out that The Sapphire Tower only appears after a rainbow or on the 366th day of a leap year, and that it is connected to some arch mage NPC who they have heard about in the meantime since the rumour was first dropped. Or it might be 10 sessions later that they discover that the assassination was carried out by the thieves' guild they have been working for and the DM has finally figured out the reason why. And maybe it's 10 sessions after that when the DM figures out how all those strands are tied together and are related to something deeper yet.


  1. Exactly! Well explained. It's always nice when someone draws back the curtains and catches a glimpse of the Wizard. :-) Insightful as always.

  2. Interesting...

    "It is only as they get more powerful, more influential, more noticeable, more knowledgeable, that they start to pull at the threads and unravel the veils and turn over the rocks and look behind the curtains."

    You left out the most vital element. More involved. As the PCs actively dig deeper into these mysteries out of interest.

    Remember, we don't all play games with the artificial construction of levels. A starting PC in some games can be the Emperor of a nation.

    1. Yeah, fair enough - more involved.

  3. There is certainly some appeal to it, but in the end it's all smoke and mirrors with nothing behind it. It's really fun for the players at first, but I see a very real risk that the players will eventually notice and figure out that there isn't actually any cool mystery to discover. Then you end up with something like X-Files or Lost where the creator is ultimately unable to provide any satisfying answer.
    The fun part about mysteries is sifting through the clues and looking for the patterns. "I want to believe" that "the truth is out there". If you don't know what the answer is you can not place clues that will be useful o make sense. It's all just red herrings. In the end you either have to give the players no answer at all or you have to cobble something together that makes little sense and doesn't satisfy.
    Leaving a lot of wriggling room for specific details based on what the players do and talk is great, but I think you need to at least have some general idea for what the truth behind a mystery will be before you start giving out mysterious clues.

  4. Seems my comment was eaten by the spam filter. Again. (Why is there even an option to enter your Name/URL when it's treated as spam 50% of the time?)

    The big problem I see with throwing out hints first and thinking about a possible mystery to be solved later is that it's always really hard to come up with an answer that fits the clues and also feel satisfying when it's revealed. Both X-Files and Lost were ruined by the writers doing exactly this, and unable to come up with a clever answer they just kept throwing out more red herrings to distract the audience. Eventually the players will realize what's going on and from that point it will be really hard to get them to care about anything that seems like a mystery.

    It's good to leave a good amount of wriggling room to later fill in the exact details based on what the players have been talking about, but I think you should have at least some genera idea what a clue is pointing to before throwing it out to be noticed by the players.

    1. Indeed, "wriggling room" is always a good idea. Having some idea of where your campaign may be headed does help, but thinking on your feet should in my opinion be a VITAL game mastering skill, and this too helps in keeping the clues in line with the mystery. In the end, it's all really a matter of preference.

    2. Let's also not forget that as a DM you also have plenty of time to think these things through between sessions. Also, remember that the plots don't have to be as penned by Agatha Christie. As long as things link to other things somewhere.