Tuesday 7 May 2019

Just Do It Well - Revisited

A couple of months ago I posted this, the long and short of which was:
"What works for you and your group" [is] the most profound and important advice there is, and the most difficult to carry out.
I have been blogging for long enough now to have learned the lesson time and time again that some readers are not particularly interested in what you actually mean, but only see your words as an opportunity to grind a particular axe of their own. So I was not very surprised when this was interpreted (by some people, anyway) as a kind of repudiation of skill, rigour and experience, or a platitudinous recommendation along the lines of "just do you" - as though I would seriously suggest that DMing is just a matter of unreflectively doing "whatever" and hoping for the best.

My observation - that "what works for you and your group" is profound advice - does not lead to the conclusion that anything goes and that there are no better or worse ways of playing. Far from it. What I meant (and this should be apparent from the sentences which followed in the original entry), was that human social interactions are complex, and achieving a pleasant equilibrium in which everybody feels as though they have enjoyed themselves while also contributing to others's enjoyment is extremely difficult. But that pleasant equilibrium, if achieved, is one of the best things there is about being human.

Think of the average social gathering - family get-together, lunch with colleagues, dinner with friends, drinks at the pub, whatever. If you're like everybody else, what you will have noticed is that it's easy chit-chat and gossip, but comparatively hard to leave afterwards feeling as though you've actually had a meaningful encounter - like you genuinely connected with another person in a significant way. When you do get that feeling, it's nice. But what's even better is when you leave afterwards feeling as though that was true for everybody in the group - like all five or six of you were really on the same page, discussing things that mattered, sharing ideas, sharing a common sense of humour, actually conversing in the true sense of the word.

We treasure those moments because they're rare. Like your average British male aged 30-50, I spend a decent amount of time in the pub after work or with friends (less than I used to since becoming a parent, but I do manage it at least once in a blue moon). It's easy to go home after a few pints thinking to yourself "Yep, that was a decent night." But it's not very often that you do thinking "Wow, I really felt like we all connected in a positive way." (Indeed, it is comparatively much more frequent to go home thinking, "Ah, I wish I hadn't said that,=", or "Bob was kind of a prick tonight", or whatever.)

Gaming is no different. It's easy to go home after a session thinking, "Yeah, that was fun". It's also easy to go home thinking, "That was fine, but..." It is not common at all to go home feeling as though not only you were on fire, but everybody else was - that there was, for want of a better word, synergy. Everybody contributing, everybody of a similar mood, everybody excited about what was unfolding before your eyes.

Finding "what works for you and your group" is hard, and since any group of five individuals is different from the next, it isn't straightforwardly a matter of applying advice or rules of thumb (although those things are not entirely useless). You have to do it by feel, and you have to learn through doing - that is, through building up a sense of how to hit that sweet spot for everybody through meeting week after week. Sometimes it comes more naturally than others. Sometimes it never does. But you have to work at it.


  1. A dumb analogy: A cookbook is a very useful thing to have, but if you know Bob is allergic to peanuts and Jane doesn't like spicy food, then you can skip the section in the book about Pad Thai without worrying about ruining your dinner party. Recognizing that doesn't mean you can skip learning knife skills and saute technique, though.

    1. Sort of, although knife skills and saute aren't really learnable through just a cookbook either - they have to be taught more directly. I get the general point though.