Tuesday 17 July 2012

Noisms' Verfremdungseffekt

I was going to post about druids, but then got sidetracked by other things. I'm all creativity-ed out every day at the moment due to working on my thesis (yeah, I know, "first world problems" - I despise that meme, but there is a grain of deep Truth in it), so that will have to wait for the time being. Fortunately, although I am creativity-ed out, that doesn't stop me pontificating in a meandering fashion about whatever happens to wander across my field of vision.

Today, it's this, a thread about prep. The basic gist of the original post is the realisation the poster has come across that prep isn't really for him; I identify strongly with this, in that - as I've posted on several occasions - I like to blitz preparation before the start of a campaign and set it up in such a way that it more-or-less runs itself once it has started. It is helpful to imagine a campaign as being a large, circular rock sitting on the edge of a somewhat steep slope, with me, Wily Coyote-like, fashioning a lever out of a large tree branch (the prep) which I then use to shove the rock into movement and let it be carried by its own momentum to a messy, destructive and unexpected end.

But shortly into the thread there is this post, which set me thinking:

The 'Illusion of Preparedness' is critical for immersion; allowing the players to see where things are improvised or changed reminds them to think outside the setting, removing them forcibly from immersion. Whenever the players can see the hand of the GM, even when the GM needs to change things in their favor; it removes them from the immersed position. The ability to keep the information flow even and consistent to the players, and to keep the divide between prepared information and newly created information invisible is a critical GM ability.

I've thought about it a lot, and the less I think I agree with it. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, the less I think I can envisage it.

First, I don't know about you other DMs out there reading this, but I'm surely not alone in that I make mistakes all the fucking time, which just means that, sometimes, I have to backtrack to make changes. Example: in last week's session my group were walking from a village to the nearby city, and they said something like "when we're an hour from the town, we'll send X ahead to let them know we're coming" and for some reason I interpreted that to mean an hour after leaving the village, rather than an hour before arriving at the city, which it turned out was what they'd meant - and they let me know this with howls of indignation and anguish when it became important later on. This forced me to retcon things a bit and fiddle around with what was happening. So DMs are only human, and we make errors of judgement; expecting the players to never see any seams is more than a little unrealistic.

Secondly, I'm not entirely sure how well a DM can mask "newly created information" and keep it indistinguishable from prepared information in reality - unless we're talking about Al Pacino. A game in which players have real agency is always going to throw up a billion situations in which the DM just doesn't have a ready-made answer, and while he can makes guesses and riff on his setting if he knows it well enough, it's difficult to do that and fool the players with any consistency.

And thirdly, I'm dubious about lying to the players anyway. Maybe my DMing style is incredibly Brechtian without me really realising it, but I'm going behind the fourth wall all the time when I run a game. I leaf through rulebooks and my folders, I roll all my dice in the open, I have NPCs make tongue-in-cheek and self-aware remarks, I involve my players in decision-making, I sometimes ask them their opinions on what would happen in the situation at hand. I think this adds to the fun of playing a game, even if it isn't immersive and probably actively works against immersion. It might not make the players feel invested in what is going on at a personal level, but I think it makes them feel invested in the game as a game.

Which isn't to say that developing a very deep, detailed setting isn't its own reward, and nor is it to say that players get much more out of a campaign if the setting seems coherent, interesting, and alive. It's just to say that a lot of what gets talked about in game forums often sounds idealistic and quixotic to me, and I'm intrigued to know how close to those ideals other DMs' games become.


  1. Some people value immersion while sitting at the table playing a RPG. Some people do not. Some DM's are better at creating adventures on the fly, some are better if they are given time to sit down and plan out what could happen.

  2. You're never really fooling the players, just playing the neccessary role in their own en-foolment.

    I have a big folder of *stuff* on the table when I DM with charts and tables taped to every available surface. I think the Teens like it. Even though I almost never look through it, it gives the impression that there are Real Secrets somewhere in the setting, like someone spent ages sitting at home thinking of wierd stuff andt it's all just Out There somewhere, and you could actually find it.

    Thats why Vornheim and Isle of the Unknown are good things to have on the table. They have that slightly cryptic, vaguely arcane quality that good gaming materials have. As if they were vomited forth by a very particular subculture and understood only by a chosen few. If you see them you know strange shit will be happening round this table.

    Thats why when you brought out (in game) the Journal of Laxmi Ghuptra Dhal everyone round the table went 'OOoooo' and leant forward. It's because we were thinking 'he's got a sub-blog about this guy, he must be obsessed, there's probably loads of stuff knocking about in there.'

    I've gone off topic. You almost never actually fool the players the way you would fool someone playing against you in a board game. You are just playing the psychic in someones co-operative adventure-sceance. You need to sound like you know what you're doing. They will fill in most of the rest.

  3. I remember reading that MAR Barker, when his players encountered a situation, place, or person that he hadn't imagined yet, would close his eyes (for some time), and when he opened them he'd have 'the answer' as if it had always existed.

  4. I'm naturally much better at having things planned and detailed than made up on the spot, as borne out by several examples of astonishingly shallow and dull story lines I've had to improvise through the years. However, practice does make improvement, and I'm better than I was at making the improv feel not so much like a throw-away.

    Along the way I discovered that a richly made world allows me to improvise far more easily. Leaving things open for instant filling-in is of course useful, so that when some unforseen NPC brings the PCs to their workshop, it doesn't cause trouble for established facts; but having the building already on the map makes for smooth and plausible ramifications for its location, neighbors, etc. Likewise, I know the biome/climate of the area; the crops, herbs and mineral resources to be found nearby; the cultural, culinary, economic, architectural and other implications thereof; and details such as why quality ink is easy to come by, obsidian is oddly expensive, or wineskins are considered quaint. I don't have to think about them, so they become a framework on which to improvise.

    All this to say: Having pre-planned detail allows me to go off-script without going off the rails. Yeah, things can get, as you say, quixotic, and blogs like Campaign Mastery get way deeper than I ever will on many topics, but it's rare that preparation gets in my way.

    1. what john said (-the mineral resources). :)

    2. I like to include the mineral bits because they can have big, disruptive effects like this. Coming up with my own local (literal) flavors based on their foodstuffs was probably the most fun looks-excessive bit of planning, though.

  5. I rarely conceal that information is being created ad hoc, through dice rolls, tables etc. I see it as me discovering the world alongside the players. Who knew that orc had a +1 shield? Not me!

  6. This was a very helpful post. I've been putting off DMing a game for a while now because somehow I've been convinced it needs to be "right" and "perfect". It might help to get this game off the ground to think of DMing more like flirting: both parties know that the other is interested, flawed, and a little bit nervous, but they pretend they don't know to keep things going.

    Incidentally, what is it about "First World Problems" that you don't like? I hate it too, but haven't yet been able to explain why.

    1. Well, it can be funny as a joke internet meme. But people now seem to have taken to saying it or using it in any situation where anybody complains about anything, no matter how justifiable.

      And used that way it's just incredibly asinine. First world problems might be less cosmically serious than third world ones, but they're still problems. For example, my phone doesn't get a signal at the moment, and I can't even use it to call T-mobile to get it sorted. This is a first world problem. It's still fucking annoying.

      It's also got the smack of self-righteousness about it. When people say it, the insinuation seems to be "I've got a great sense of perspective about the world - you haven't." Imagine if you knew somebody who, the moment anybody complained about anything, immediately said: "At least you're not starving to death in South Sudan!" That person would not have many friends left. And yet for some reason people think it's incredibly clever to say "First World Problems" on internet forums and in daily life.

    2. People in the Third World have mobile phones now. And when they don't work, it's a serious problem; eg you don't get the latest market prices for your goats, and have to decide blind whether to trek them to town. So your lack of T-mobile coverage is a Third World Problem. >:)

  7. Someone needs to get together those people who love immersion and get some good expressions of what they're up to. I'm sure they're doing something else, just judging by all the pointing and waving that happens when we talk about it.