Saturday, May 16, 2020

Style of Play in Ø2\\‘3|| (that game I'm about to publish)

A plan is a list of things that won't happen, especially when you are self-publishing and even more so in trying times like these. That said, we've made great progress in that roleplaying game I'm going to publish: Ø2\\‘3||. The writing is almost done, the art is lined up and the editing already started ... we are on our way and maybe (maybe!) it'll be out there as early as end of June. Wouldn't that be something?

Anyway, I'm always saying a publication is worth at least 20 posts here, and I honestly believe that the people enjoying this blog will enjoy reading Ø2\\‘3||, if not playing it. Or I could be totally talking out of my arse here (and there). To put this to the test and to give you a hint what will be in store with this publication, I thought I share a part of the introduction to the DM part of the book. Here we go, unedited (please hype):

Style of Play

If you have read this book in a linear fashion (as one would be bound to do on a first reading), you’ll only have a glimpse of what style of play we have in mind for the DM. As we define in the beginning, the system itself will produce lots of abstract patterns that help forming and directing the narrative.

Some indications of how that works have already been shown throughout the book (how Anger limits the actions a player has in combat is one example of that). However, it’ll need a little bit more than that to make it work for a District Master. We believe that each DM needs the equivalent of what the character sheet is for a player. A world sheet, if you will, although more fittingly it should be called something like an ‘analogue world engine’.

A clockwork like that would by necessity be way more complex than anything you’d expect from a character sheet, which is why we dedicate the second half of this book not only to offering a DM more background for the setting of Ø2\\‘3|| but also try to ease the DM into designing their own campaign with this game.

How to exactly do that will be described later in the book. For this introduction full of inspirations and themes we want to conclude with a little passage how all of the above connects to form a game in Ø2\\‘3||.

There is one universal truth that unites all DM/Player-driven roleplaying games: the decisions the DM makes push the narrative that manifests at the table beyond its event horizon to move it forward. The feedback loop between players and DM will create areas with possibilities that get limited as the dialogue about them progresses to a point where a final decision needs to be made how to progress. That’s when the DM makes a call on what needs to happen next and how.

Aspects a good DM will take into account with their decisions need to be (1) the established narrative, (2) the player expectations, (3) the setting (as a background), (4) the immediate scene (as the stage, if you will) and (5) the rules (basically the physics of the simulated gaming environment).

As important as those aspects are, they are also merely indicators. They offer possibilities. The style of play that emerges from decision to decision to choose among those possibilities is in equal parts what will make the tone of a game and what defines a DM.

Now, roleplaying games allow for a lot of conjecture-driven projection between the ‘real world’ (or our perception thereof) and the gaming environment. DMs will instinctively use that leeway to compensate for all kinds of shortcomings a game might bring by applying common sense, personality and good old story telling instead of the rules.

Again, to a degree this is a necessity due to the complexity of the aspects a DM needs to take into account at any given moment. However, the gap between the limitations a game brings and the craftsmanship of a DM decides about the experience at the table. In other words: it takes a great DM to work with an incomplete game.

But what makes a game ‘complete’? It is our strong belief that a game should offer all the rules necessary to produce a similar (if not equal) basic experience to which then a DM adds their personal touch.

To be more precise, Ruled As Written (R.A.W.) each game of Ø2\\‘3|| should produce the kind of stories it wants to tell while allowing for autonomous, intuitive and spontaneous play from all involved, including the DM.

This is, ultimately, where the style of play in Ø2\\‘3|| connects to those original games of yore: a game of AD&D is recognized as such through the usage of its rules (it’s just its popularity that allows DMs to project the game instead nowadays).

To achieve something like this, a set of rules needs to provide abstract patterns that go beyond what the main set of rules described in the beginning of this book will do for a DM. It is the area where the game designer gives a game nuance. It is what makes it complete.

Since Ø2\\‘3|| is about a dystopian world where individuals are imprisoned, manipulated and monitored in their own private little bubbles, we decided to create tools for DMs to generate twists and turns for the narrative that culminate in the tropes one would expect in a story like that along with point-driven economy (called ‘Pennies’) that forces players to make the setting response stronger and more dangerous the more advantages they take.

DMs will also get the opportunity to create the districts the characters live in as well as surrounding districts and districts they might travel to. It will bring that specific part of the world in Ø2\\‘3|| to live and help a DM in describing a complex science fiction setting with lots of urban areas. This ‘sandbox’ will change over time as the narrative emerges and the DM spends Pennies.

All this is kept abstract enough to let a DM make out of it what they deem interesting and entertaining, offering enough material and interaction to allow believable freedom of movement on the player side while staying consistent with the premise of the game and the fictional surroundings.

In Ø2\\‘3|| DMs will improvise aspects of the narrative most would expect to be prepared (like encounters and the basic story) and will be able to do so consistently because the game offers the tools and additional rules to give complete support for conjuring all the little details that make the game a unique experience.

Lastly, this approach to roleplaying games allows a DM to actually play their part of the game as they can freely improvise and create without making hours of preparation necessary before each Episode.

And that's that

As you just saw, this will be somewhat demanding, and purposely so. Aren't there already enough roleplaying games out there doing the same over and over again? This will be an attempt on going into another direction. I'm actually not afraid to fail. The book stands for itself and it will not embrace mainstream. It'll also be hard to find (look at the title) and it'll be only PoD for the price I deem appropriate (no pdf ... you want this, you buy the book or know me personally). That said, all involved are giving their best to make this as good a book as possible.

We'll also sell merch. Here is part of a poster (details on where to buy it will follow):

The complete poster will be a detailed cityscape with lots of details ...


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Innovation in RPG-Land Part 2: The Process and the Innovator

People actually asked for this (okay, one person ... but Part 1 received generally good and encouraging feedback). That said, I wouldn't want to force it. It's a strange and complex topic, and although I didn't go very deep into it, I think I laid out the basics okay. It's just that it all was left rather abstract (and intentionally so), so there is a lot to explore if opportunity (or inspiration) arises. Which actually happened (as I seem to be almost back to form), so here we go, building heavily on what was established earlier ...

Chuang Tze contemplating a waterfall [source]
The Process (beyond craftsmanship)

I'd like to kick this of with a poem by the famous Daoist philosopher Chuang Tze. It is called The Woodcarver and it goes like this (translation seems to be by on Thomas Merten):

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits. The prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set my heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain or success.
After five days, I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days I had forgotten my body with all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
This is among the earliest descriptions of how creators push beyond craftsmanship while opening themselves for inspiration (roughly 2.100 years ago) and it is quite remarkable for several reasons.

You will find sentiments similar to this among various (if not all worth the label) artists of all kinds. Tom Waits is on record for telling inspiration to go somewhere else when he's driving a car, to name but one more famous example (just don't ask me which interview it had been ... I'm at a loss right now). Inspiration comes to the artist. They are kissed by muses, something speaks to them, they saw it in their dreams ... artists describe inspirations always as something disconnected, as something given to them.

One way to describe this would be that they tap into what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. How to get there is another matter altogether. Meditation, fasting, drinking (as many authors seem to do), other drugs, just taking a walk ... there seem to be as many individual solutions as there are artists. What they have in common is far more interesting, though: it all describes a form of disconnection from what is most commonly referred to as the "ego" (the thing in you that claims to be "I").

The brain getting flooded with impulses ... [source]
It definitely also needs the tools to express those impulses artists receive, so that's craftsmanship. It's where you start, and in a sense it is a different thing altogether. Good craftsmanship needn't be inspired, it is useful and fulfilling on its own.

That's also a very important distinction to make, for the very reason that creativity is connected to the Big Five personality trait Openness as well as to intelligence (interestingly enough, using psychoactive drugs is one of the few things one can do to alter a score in Openness, and it seems to be very hard to change those personality traits at all ...). In other words: people are more or less creative, or even not creative at all (which seems to be an unpopular thing to say, although the science speaks for itself in that regard).

And yet, it doesn't matter (in that sense that it is not an universal and you don't lack anything if you don't have it), since learning a craft is all about dedication and practice, and that's only related to personality in as much as preferences go*. Although Conscientiousness might have an impact on your progress (among other factors). But still, that just determines your approach, not how good you'll get. Right?

If you need a good example for that, look at the cultural implementation of something like Martial Arts in Japan or Yoga in India. Everyone is encouraged to do it, age or social background don't matter, everyone has access to some degree or another (this is somewhat generalizing, but you get the idea).

High craftsmanship is achievable, transcending that might be something else altogether and less connected than generally assumed. Less connected, because craftsmanship has two separate functions: perfection and conservation of an established form (creation of the perfect table, for instance) and innovation beyond the established through creativity and transfer (making a better wheel, for instance).

It's also important to see all this within a spectrum, of sorts. If it's all individual journeys to express inspiration through craft, we are all at different steps in our personal development, sometimes even unsure where we are going or where we'll end (if at all aware).

And while we take our individual dips in the collective unconscious, fishing for inspiration, we are sometimes reduced to being spectators. But that's another thing that's interesting in the process (and very Dao, I might add). We, as a group of individuals, are able to recognizes art, especially over time, although the process for this almost seems as mysterious as inspiration itself. The importance of art, in that sense, can be measured as the time a culture keeps it around (or more precise: the time it carries meaning in a culture).

Within all those complex patterns emerge works of art that alter cultures permanently, and while we could debate the importance of the waves of innovation our little hobby produced so far (see Part 1), the impact of that first game on all cultures that got hands on it, is undeniable and still echoes through all aspects of many cultures as I write this. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure we are not in the least aware how big of an impact we are actually talking about.

As far as the process goes, we see the same pattern emerge that I described above. Simply put, a group of enthusiastic college level war game hobbyists pushed their hobby to a degree where some of them transcended the given parameters out of the necessity to allow for single character games instead of units. Looking back, it seems like a natural development. However, it took some creative minds to tackle the problem (Gygax, Arneson, and so on).

As you'll always have with things like this, many tuned in, either working together, or even being unaware of each other (again, collective unconscious describes best what exactly they tuned into). and the result was what generally is referred to as the first edition of D&D today**.

Famously, this also led to feuds that go on to this day. Who came first up with it, who's the creator, who deserves more praise, all that petty bullshit people fight about over the corpses of those who helped putting the game together. That, however, is a whole chapter on its own ...

Now, what about the innovators?

Did Tesla invent the light bulb or was it Edison? Actually, 22 inventors are listed that made attempts in that direction, and Edison's just was the most successful***. Or did they already have "light bulbs" in old Egypt? They had batteries back then (so-called Baghdad Batteries in Persia, which is mind-blowing in its own right), so what did they use them for?

Light bulbs in Egypt? Check out the Dendera Lights**** [source]
Did the Americans invent Pizza, or was it the Italians. Same for noodles: China or Italy? Are hamburgers a purely American invention, or was it European immigrants inventing short-cuts to sell their fast food better? And what about the Romans? They had a thriving fast food culture, among that selling a beef patty with minced meat between two buns, so they had hamburger over 1500 years ago.

What's more, focus shifts names of inventors change to regions change to nations, and then get forgotten. How many appliances do you have at home with no idea who came up with it? Give it a couple of decades and people may reduce the origins of roleplaying games to America. Give it even more time and it just might end up being a staple like chess.

This is the usefulness and tragic of innovation, actually. The inventor is channeling and manifesting something, with craft, ingenuity and time, and with luck, it ends up resonating with enough others to have an impact. Again, a spectrum, it may be a bestseller that'll be forgotten in a couple of years, it may be penicillin, it might be the thing that inspires the guy that will invent penicillin.

There aren't high chances for success, but if a creative endeavor turns out to be successful, it has a measurable impact. High risk (because you believe in your ideas and invest into realizing them), but equally high reward (if something blows up, it blows up proper).

Sometimes you catch the fish, sometimes ... [source]
Yet, this is just one side of the coin. The other side is that if a creator is channeling, it gets difficult to claim ownership. Sure, you wrote the book, you designed the game, you painted the picture, but in a sense you made the collected conscious manifest. You made it conscious in others, so it becomes a thing of it's own, in a sense.

Insert here the years old discussion about fandom and how much influence a creator has after the creation resonated with the public. Especially with huge successes (I explored that specific rabbit hole in another post not that long ago, and you can join me doing so here). Some can keep on the pulse they created, some try to send new impulses and fail (The Matrix Trilogy comes to mind as a failed example, but there are also enough successful series proofing that the opposite is possible).

It's everyone's game, and it needs to be. As I said in part 1, innovation needs a critical mass to emerge from. If a pattern gains enough interest, lots of lesser successful attempts on it allow for some to hit it out of the park in a way that also encourages others to conserve the attempt through playing with the pattern while repeating it (which, incidentally, is another reason to let go ... and also very Daoist).

There is also the small side of the coin that deserves a bit of contemplation: if creators channel ideas from something that is potentially accessible for all, and manifest those ideas through the established methods of a craft, the whole disconnect created that way between the art and the artist means you really don't have to like the artist (or know them, for that matter) to appreciate the art (or the innovation). Individual expression will always find a way to make itself known, but it is clearly distinguishable from the innovation or the artwork.

Actually, the less you find of the artist in the art, the longer it will last (if it was a success). Look at all the classics. The older they are, the purer they are in their form. Shakespeare is a perfect example for this, imo. Art so powerful, pure and innovative, its impact is felt to this day, 400 years later. Does it matter who he was? Well, of course people want to know who he was and how he lived, but does it matter? No. Not at all.

That doesn't mean artists or innovators don't deserve compensation, mind you (as some seem to think that if you are merely channeling and if what manifests isn't "yours", you didn't seem to do anything special ...). But that's like in that sad joke about the guy asking the other guy why he should pay 200 gold for something that took only ten minutes to make:

See what I mean? [source]
And that's just that. Years of dedication will make you good at what you are doing, and speed is just one indicator how good someone became. You see in the example above that you'll have to remind people of this even if you are only talking craft, with art it gets even less clear cut (the high risk, high reward thing discussed above) as recognizing the possibilities of a thing is not as hard as creating it, but still very hard.

There where cultures that honored the artist for the attempt, for the way of life they chose to (possibly) create something all may benefit from. We don't seem to live in a culture like that.

The only consolidation an unsuccessful artist has, would be that their creativity keeps them entertained. Going that way is a goal worth in itself (which, again, is a very Daoist thing). However, the tragic truth is that a culture that not only ignores spiritual growth (which this all is, obviously), but actively dismisses and denounces it, will also make it a rather privileged endeavor to explore your full potential (or a hard decision).

To end this on a more positive note, though, I'd like to point out that it doesn't stop people from trying and hard decisions are made more often than not ...

And this leaves us where, exactly?

Well, I think that leaves us at a potential part 3, as I still kept this as abstract as fuck :D However, while you might say that this isn't as specific as talking about creating a roleplaying game, it very much is about that very same process. For now, you could think of this as something more like a school of thought than a concrete guide. Maybe we'll go further down that road ...

Learning any craft, being it writing or game design or carpentry, is hard work and takes years of dedication. Furthermore, exploring the outer limits of a craft can be seen as a spiritual journey and manifesting your findings needs you functioning on all the levels described above.

If you recognize this as a possible truth, you will also see where we are at in our hobby. You'll gain an awareness of what is trying to conserve and what's trying to innovate and even, what's couterproductive. To one degree or another. You'll also know one approach to go that way or at least where you are at in the great scheme of things. That's not nothing.

I know it's a struggle, and I'm barely what you'd call an artist. Spiritual, yeah, I'd claim that I dabble in that, but ask me to what end, and I'm somewhat at a loss. I read too much about it and don't live enough of it (mostly because I can't afford to, but partly because it is also very hard to let go). This blog exists for almost 9 years now. I monetize very little (I published a thing that is PWYW ...), because it's a process for me, a way to learn. I'm finally at a point now where I will try my hand at earning a bit more with this. Just a little bit.

See what I mean? 9 years of work here, with years of work before that, and now I feel like I might be in a position to actually earn a buck or two with it. Might still fail, mind you, and I somewhat dread the jump (my first rpg is almost publishable, but I hesitate, and not only because of the pandemic).

Still worth it, though. I regret nothing and I really do believe that taking the journey is worth it. Doesn't matter where it ends, it brought me here, didn't it? So I hope you enjoyed reading those musings and ramblings of mine about what makes art and what doesn't and how innovation is connected to it all. Creating something and sharing it with others at least has the chance to have some stranger leave a bit richer than they had been before, and if nothing else, there is value in that.

The Poor Poet by Spitzweg sums it up for me. [source]

*Here are some thoughts about the Big Five and what they mean for a person. It is important context, but not so important for what I'm writing above. First, we all seem to be primed the way we are from very early on. So much so, that we seem to be born with a specific set of traits (roleplaying gamers can relate: you get what you roll) and we need a big part of our life to come to terms with that (I'm going with Schopenhauer here, in that people don't change, they just change their behavior). This "coming to terms with our personality" will always be a very individual journey, and by no means successful for everyone. If someone is too open and their parents are more of the opposite, that can create conflict. The type of conflict you will see in dramas all over the world. Sometimes people get damaged, sometimes they arrange themselves with something not in sync with their nature. Sometimes extraordinary circumstances force us to be a more rudimentary version of ourselves to function ... It is a very complex subject, as one can easily see, so we think in ideals when we talk about the Big Five. Ideals, because it assumes a person is fully aware of their potential. I just wanted to point out that there are also those people that can't even begin to express themselves (or only when reacting extreme themselves, like getting drunk to write, or cutting off an ear?), because their surroundings don't allow for it. Going this way can be difficult.

**Nothing is that easy, obviously. However, in terms of patterns, we see this all the time, for instance with music genres (Grunge would be a good example, I think). 

***Again, the same pattern emerges ... Just saying. 

****Not necessarily as fact, but as an interpretation or a possibility. We are clever monkeys, after all, and it just took as a couple of 100 years to get where we are today, technologically speaking. It would just take as long to lose all that again, with almost nothing left to proof our technological sophistication. So who's to say what the ancients where capable of? It's a fascinating thought experiment, imo.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Rabbitfolk and Berserker Bunnies for the D&D RC & Layrinth Lord (Happy Easter Edition!)

Hey folks. I hope you are all well out there in the bad wild world. 2020 has been a tough one so far, with more ahead, as it seems. We'll see this through, though. I'm confident we will. Getting some proper gaming going (digitally, nowadays) seems like a good start in a better direction for me. And since it's also Easter (which traditionally is a fresh start and the end of Winter and all those positive notions of life coming back and thriving), I thought I'd share some bonus classes for your D&D  Basic and Labyrinth Lord games. Please, make good use of these bunnies, and share their tales, if you are so inclined.

I used Building the Perfect Class as a guide to make the Rabbitfolk (so it's all balanced and thought through). You should check that out, if you haven't already (and here is why).

The gentle Rabbitfolk

Your classic humanoid rabbits. They come in all the variety you'd know from rabbits. They are peaceful social creatures and live in burrows (as one would guess). They are more spiritual than religious and love dabbling in magic. All of them are vegetarian and they really don't like killing at all (although they will defend themselves). They are as big as Elves when fully upright (although they do love to cower).

I love me some DiTerlizzi ... so good [source]
As far as origins go, I'd go with a martial Halfling clan that got cursed millenia ago when they angered a god with their unspeakable war crimes. They've made peace with their fate by now (as their nature would force them) and are generally rergarded as nice folk and all around pleasant company. They don't often go on adventure, but when they do, it's usually to help the peace in the realm one way or another. That and their strange relationship to magic. The lure of some mighty magic item will tempt the most cautious bunny into a dungeon. They are also highly requested couriers and make honest and reliable merchants.

Prime Requisites: Dexterity and Intelligence

Experience Bonus: 5% for DEX or INT higher than 12, 10% for DEX and INT higher than 12

Hit Dice: 1d6 per level up to 9th level.

Maximum Level: 12

Armor: Only light armor, shields permitted

Weapon: Any blunt

Combat Progression: like Magic-User

Weapon Mastery (if you use that): normal

Saves as: Halfling


Special Abilities:
  • INFRAVISION (like Elf)
  • DEADLY AWARENESS (can only be surprised 1 in 8 times, even when asleep, as they sleep with their eyes open, but if surprised, they need to make a Save versus Death to not drop dead)
  • BINKY FELLA (can jump double as high and double as far as humans)
  • RUNNER (Movement as Monk)
  • WIGGLY WRESTLER (may 1 time per level and day add their complete Dexterity to an attempt to free themselves from a grapple)
  • AFFINITY TO MAGIC (casts magic with 1/2 Magic-User progression)
  • CASTS MAGIC IN LIGHT ARMOR
  • HIDE OUTSIDE (like Halfling)
  • HIDE INSIDE (like Halfling)
Rabbitfolk Experience Table (advances like Mage)
Level     XP
1           0
2       2.100
3       4.200
4       8.400
5      16.800
6      35.000
7      70.000
8     140.000
9     280.000
10    430.000
11    580.000
12    730.000
Berserker Bunnies!

Among the Rabbitfolk are also the so-called "Berserker Bunnies" (not to their face, though) that found a way to channel the ancient wrath of their anscestors(or maybe it found them?). Legend has it that they channel their ancient Halfling origin. They are very rare, very scarred and usually don't get very old. If they ever where to unite in force (as it has been foretold in obscure prophecies), whatever is in their way would be in serious trouble. Rabbitfolk in general don't like history rearing its ugly mug like that, and rabbits that discover the Ancient Way of the Berserker for themselves  soon become outcasts, living in exile from their people. They roam the world, looking for the long lost war wisdom of their kin.
Don't call him Berserker Bunny ... [source]

Berserker Bunnies are quite honorable, in a quirky way, and would rather fight for a good cause. However, they will work as mercenaries and because of their They love oversized blunt weapons and would love eating meat, but can't stomach it. Drinking blood seems to be okay, though.

There seem to be no Berserker Bunnies beyond Level 9. They seem to follow a calling of sorts when reaching name level and disappear without a trace ...

Prime Requisites: Dexterity and Constitution

Experience Bonus: 5% for DEX or CON higher than 12, 10% for DEX and CON higher than 12

Hit Dice: 1d12 per level up to 9th level.

Maximum Level: 9

Armor: Only light to medium armor, no shields

Weapon: Any (also has bite as blunt weapon), the love two-handed blunt weapons (because of the "thump" noise they make)

Combat Progression: like Monster

Weapon Mastery (if you use that): as Fighter

Saves as: Halfling


Special Abilities:
  • INFRAVISION (like Elf)
  • EVEN DEADLIER AWARENESS (can only be surprised 1 in 10 times, even when asleep, as they sleep with their eyes open, but if surprised, they need to make a Save versus Death to not end up in an undiscriminating berserker rage for 2d6 rounds - Level which functions exactly like the WRATH below, just without the Save)
  • BINKY FELLA (can jump double as high and double as far as humans)
  • RUNNER (Movement as Monk)
  • HIDE OUTSIDE (like Halfling)
  • HIDE INSIDE (like Halfling)
  • FLYING RABBIT ATTACK (attacks involving jumps add DEX bonus to attack and damage, needs room to maneuver as full movement, though, little jumps don't count)
  • WRATH OF THE ANCIENTS (as soon as losing at least 1 HP in a fight, Berserker Bunnies can call their ancestors for support and their ancestors will answer the call, a bunny possessed like that will shimmer and have glowing and steaming red eyes, they'll also get +2 on damage and attack as well as +1 HP/Level for CON/2 rounds per day, Save vs. Spells negates (unless Deadly Awareness), Berserker Bunnies will fight until the Wrath is over, even when they have no HP left, even if no enemies are left)
Berserker Bunnies Experience Table (advances like Fighter)
Level     XP
1            0
2        3.000
3        6.000
4       12.000
5       24.000
6       50.000
7      100.000
8      200.000
9      400.000
The classes here on the blog are:

Ratpeople

Feline Humanoids

Ape Men

My take on Halflings (a little series)

A Prince Charming (human that grew up with Elves)

Monday, April 6, 2020

Innovation in RPG-Land (Part 1?)

Alright, let's talk games. I've been carrying this post with me for some time now. However, it's a difficult one to tackle (as you would assume, reading the headline), and it took me a while to get to the point where I could sit down and write this. As always, this is very situational, or momentary, as I'll explore where I stand on the topic as I write this, so it is what it is right now ... Here we go:

This is how it starts, people. For real. [source]
Origin Story (of a post)
DISCLAIMER: I will critique some thoughts I heard on a podcast. I know we are talking opinion here. To a degree. I think they address some intreresting questions in that talk and I like Mark a lot. Doesn't mean I can't disagree and put my argument forward as best as possible. No hard feelings. Keep on fighting the good fight, as they say. Thought I'd put that up front.
So I saw this talk about value with Cavin DeJordy, Mark Abrams and Cameron Corniuk. It's an interesting talk about how to provide value in the hobby, so feel free to see or listen to the whole thing (here). At one point, though, they segue into the question why we just can't reduce all our efforts to ONE game (or at least the established) and be done with that part to create content about that with a unified gamer base to address (Mark starts the topic here).

And I get it. If you only have one game or a couple of games, you have a broad base of consumers to address and the pie is big enough for everyone to get a piece (in theory). However, I had to pause right there and stare at the monitor for a bit. To be entirely fair, Mark brushes on what kind of games should still be written, and he is quite clear about what games shouldn't be written any more, but it doesn't take long for them to agree that anything imaginable is already done, and we don't need the redundancy produced by all those designers out there. I definitely do not agree with that.

For one, they seem to say that system doesn't matter. You can play a game about pirates with D&D just as easily as with 7th Sea is the argument they are making. It completely misses the point that we would be talking about two VERY DIFFERENT playing experiences, and that is no trivial distinction. Honestly, I get frustrated by stuff like this*.

I also get frustrated by people saying they always play the same game, even with different sets of rules, because it only proofs one thing: they didn't care to learn the intricacies of the games to begin with (not saying it is the case in this talk, but it reminded me of that bullshit as well).

[source]
Okay, okay, I'll chill. I'll focus. Again, it's a segue in an otherwise enjoyable talk, and if nothing else, it made me think and share my thoughts, so there you go: more value. We also have to consider who we see talking here. It's a performer, a content producer and a guy with a marketing background, and they argue that they need something to riff off of. Fair enough.

It is not their place, however, to state that what already exists, is enough. Them saying that it's already enough disqualifies them right there. If thinking like that would prevail, we would have no progress at all and we'd have a fight in some cave somewhere in the wilderness right now ...

They also neglect that the only way to learn this craft (analogue game design), is by actually doing it and learning from opinions out there ... Well, a bit more than that. There's some crossover with theatre, media and language theory, for instance, and computer game design did some of the work. However, we are a far stretch from getting something like a widely acknowledged university treatment. So, what else are people going to do if they aim to learn writing games? It also needs saturation to allow innovation ... but more on that further down below.

Long story short, what's missing in that discussion is an innovator, someone who explores the outer rims of what is conceivable and pushes that boundary everyone else is comfortable with. You know those people. It's the ones that will tell you what kind of fringe topic they are dedicated to and what they are working towards. 'Artist' might be another good term for that.

I barely fit that bill most days, but I dare to think that I have an idea or two what innovation is and where it comes from and where our hobby is at in that regard. Or rather, I'm willing to give it a shot to talk about all that.

There you have it, an origin story. Just took me a couple of weeks to finally sit down and write that damn post (might end up making that a series, actually ... as usual, there's a lot to talk about).

Innovation, wtf's that supposed to be?

Definition-time. I'd say innovation is the process of pushing the boundaries of the accepted towards something conceivably better. Depending on your approach to the topic, you'll find different definitions and foci. It'll touch on subjects like ingenuity, inventions, creativity, art, chaos and design and the different philosophical, economical and psychological interpretations of said subjects.

Innovation be like ... [source]
Doing just some preliminary research will show you quite fast that this is a bottomless barrel, so I need to set some borders in this regard. A special focus, if you will. Since we are talking games here, it's a good idea to take a close look at design philosophies like this one, for instance.

Language is another strong contender, or rather, how we tell stories effectively. The design of roleplaying games always aims to manipulate language with rules and behavioural patterns to achieve specific psychological effects, so I'd like to add a psychological perspective to this. Several, actually. To give you an idea where I see a connection , I'd point your attention towards the Big Five personality traits model, and especially the implications of the trait 'Openness to Experience'.

There also is a spiritual aspect to this (which the psychological touches on, for instance via Jung's idea of the Collective Unconscious). Since I did some reading into Daoism and Zen, I'd focus on that for now. I have talked about how DMing (for me at least) has a lot to do with the principles of wu wei (to name but one example), but there's also a lot to say about how mastering a craft will open a person up to the possibilities of a craft (like you'd learn in all Zen disciplines). In that sense, I'd argue that if a craft is adjacent to innovation, following said principles would lead to innovative results on the way to enlightenment ...

The Collective Unconscious and the mind. [source]
In summary I'd say, that innovation in rpg land has a craft aspect (the game design), a personality aspect (the creativity, intelligence and ingenuity the designer can muster) and a spiritual aspect (the goal to permeate a craft towards mastery and enlightenment). The further down you are those roads, the more you'll be perceived as a designer, as an artist even (if someone cares enough to take a look).

There's one last dimension to this that I believe to be absolutely crucial: attempts on innovation will fail more often than succeed. It is a process or thrust of not one but all individuals of the social sphere that makes a hobby (or the part you interact with) and all of it is trial and error.

The exchange of ideas, and even getting it wrong, helps creating the necessary surroundings to create. Innovation isn't possible without it, and although we clever monkeys are able to do some of that by playing with ourselves, it's all the little impulses we can get that really help innovation along. It's the saturation I was talking about above.

The true measure of innovation, however, is undeniably success. It's just important to stress the elements that are necessary to not only innovate, but innovate successfully. There's lots of other factors that play into it and they all are necessary to form the basis for allowing an innovative process.

[source]
Other than that rpg designers aren't really restricted by the/a market, as there isn't much of a market to begin with. The few attempts of "manufactured" or "guided" innovation we see the Wizards of that Coast and the like trying their hands on, are weak at best (I'd consider them failures ... maybe I can get into that a bit later on).

This medium (rpg) being as new as it is, it is still a bit wild west out there and while we can already see some waves of innovation in the last decades, the next big wave seems to take its time. But more on that in the next chapter. For now, that's what we are working with.

The Innovation of Roleplaying Games (short history)

The best example for successful innovation is that first game that started it all and how it came to be. D&D was such a huge success, it made its creators figures of history, if not rich (although there was plenty of that). The only reason (I'd wager) that TSR wasn't a success story, is maybe found in the idea that innovators are great at creating, but not so great at conserving and keeping a business afloat. It's different mind sets, and nothing you switch between easily**. Most Start Ups will fail because of that.

Funny story, partly true ... [source]
Anyway, they kicked something off, and while TSR wasn't necessarily a success as a business, the idea of the game they created went, for lack of a better word, viral in the war gaming community. People all over the place took the ball and started writing their own games. A couple of the big ones (like GURPS and Call of Cthulhu) are still around, others had a huge impact on that SECOND WAVE OF INNOVATION (mainly Prince Valiant and Over the Edge, there sure are others).

What's the second wave, you ask? I'd say it was Vampire: the Masquerade, for the simple reason that it hit a nerve in the Zeitgeist of the 90s and switched what roleplaying was about from an outer exploration to a more intimate form of exploration (Vampires, the monster in us, that kind of jazz). That little change of perspective fueled by some actually innovative approach to the game design (storyteller driven, a more literary approach) open the hobby up to a whole lot of new people and games. 

The third wave, while we are at it, was more a technological innovation: it was the rise of desktop publishing and internet communities. It allowed for a whole different kind of saturation, with impulses coming from all over the place: The Forge, to name an early one, D&D forums went strong and started the retroclone movement, the OSR should be named here as well, in it's early phase a number of highly prolific bloggers. To an extent, it gave the hobby back to the public, which, again, led to some growth.

Arguably, this spawned a fourth wave, as a very strong scene evolved around one specific (and innovative) approach to game design. It's something that originated in the Forge, as far as I'm aware, and has it's strongest contender with the Powered by the Apocalypse games. The goal of those games is not so much immersion through exploration as it is about projection. Players are encouraged to bring their experiences to the table and share them with the other players while the games themselves step back and provide just background noise (I talked about the difference in a post, please go here for an in-depth exploration of that difference).

It is debatable if we experience a new wave right now (or the beginning of it?), as WotC enforces and encourages restricted innovative growth through commercialisation of all aspects of the hobby to achieve higher customer dependancy. It spawns a somewhat money-driven sub-culture to the hobby that consists of entertainers playing for an audience, DMs for hire and a heavily restricted  scene that publishes third party material. It goes hand in hand with the assimilation of the NERD into mainstream culture.

The whole fucking problem in one picture ... [source]

 I'd argue that we don't see an actual wave here, but it puts the pressure of commercialisation on the established and that might lead to some SUCCESSFUL innovative responses (we are not there yet, though). If I where to make a guess, it'll go away from rules-light and makes games complex again, just to make entry and participation a little bit more difficult. It seems like the natural response to protect the hobby at it's core (but that might be wishful thinking).

And that's it for Part 1?

This is a new one: I'm actually not sure if I said it all, or if there's more to say about this topic. I could go into that definition a little bit more, I could take a closer look at the difference between achieving saturation and producing innovation and having success with innovation. I could even take a stab at how to handle successful innovation? Not sure.

What I definitely haven't done yet is giving an assessment of where we are at in our hobby. At least not in detail.

For now, however, I'd leave it at what is written here. Spoiler alert: I don't think that we are done exploring in this new form of media. Not by a long shot. The difficulty is in growing it all into an innovative direction. It needs to be accepted as an art form on so many levels, maybe it needs to a sport, too. It also needs to be distinguished from other forms of entertainment, it needs a proper academical treatment, also on so many levels (studying game design, doing research on the benefits of gaming ... there is some, but the list goes on).

We'll see if I can come up with another part and make this a series. To a degree I'll let this depend on the feedback I'll get on this post. So what do you guys think? Did I miss something? Is my assessment in aspects wrong? Please share your thoughts.

Also, you can now read on with Part 2 ...


* ... and, just as an aside, there is only one way to add value to an endeavour: know your craft, share your knowledge and grow. Anyway, I digress.

** So, incidentally, running a business will restrict innovation, unless you find a place for it, which makes Hasbro (or Disney, or ... end of list) no good environment for the growth of our hobby, as the growth they'd like to innovate in is customer dependancy (which actually contradicts the original spirit of D&D quite a bit and keeps harming the hobby, although more and more people seem to flock towards it).

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Update & some calm Short Fiction (because we need calm right now)

Hey folks, I hope you are alright out there in a world turning for the worst every next minute you look away. We are okay here in Leipzig, although it feels as if the hammer could drop any minute. Some hammer ... it seems like the world is coming apart at the fringes. Anyway. I'm still here, writing stuff towards completion. Gaming on and there might be some more blogging in the near future. Until then I'd like to share a some micro fiction I wrote (I know, I do that rarely here). It's nothing special, just a little story about a little boy exploring the forest behind the house. Something straight forward and simple to keep sane. I hope it does a little bit of the same for you guys out there. Stay safe, friends and neighbors.

Neal’s Day out in the Wild

Neal’s plan had been foolproof: he’d sneak past the kitchen where his mom was doing some cooking. The half unwrapped packing boxes in the hallway would provide plenty of cover. Once he was on his way out he’d give his mom a call that he’d be out and he’d be way over the porch before she could tell him otherwise. Definitely far enough away to claim he didn’t hear her!
He came as far as the shoe rack, but one of his boots betrayed him and made things difficult so that he stumbled back a bit against one of the bigger boxes and grunted even.

Neal? Is that you?” asked his mother from the kitchen. “Yeah, mom, just wanted to go out for a bit.” he was still struggling with his shoe. Not all was lost … there! He made a run for it, the shoe laces still unbound. He could do that later, now gaining distance was the prime directive. His mom was on his case, though: “Did you unpack in your room Neal?” Still to close, he couldn’t ignore it: “Yeah, mom, gotta go ...” He couldn’t let his shoes unbound either, so he stopped on the porch to bind them. He heard his mother moving some dishes in the kitchen. “Don’t be too long, love, there’ll be cake later.” That was good news. The tree line just across the lawn was calling him. He was good to go. “Take Boomer with you!”

And off he went, calling over his shoulder: “Yes, mom. Boomer! Come!”

The head of the golden retriever appeared around the corner of the house, the ears all perked up. Neal laughed. “Come, Boomer, we go exploring!” He was half across the lawn when the dog caught up, making little enthusiastic jumps. Together they entered the forest behind the garden for the first time and the world around bloomed with possibilities. “Where should we go, Boomer?” asked Neal, not slowing down. Boomer barked, but had no other say in the matter. Neal scanned his surroundings for opportunities. “We have to gain higher ground. Follow me!”

Running up slowed them down a little bit, but not much. They scared a squirrel and Neal laughed with joy as the squirrel cackled it’s anger from high up in a tree. “Sorry, Mr. Squirrel.” And then they where high on the hill behind the house. He climbed a small rock to get an even better view turned around and saw the little town they had moved to and a bit of the coast with some white boats in the harbor. There was their new house just below. His father and brother had come back with another car load of stuff and they where carrying boxes into the house, all small and in the distance. Ha! He had dodged that bullet.

The dog was at the foot of the rock looking up and barking. “Yeah, you are right, Boomer. We have not come here to look at the boring town. Just a second. Let me take a look. Good boy!” On the other side of that hill was what he came here for. What would he see? Old Ruins? A mysterious shack? An abandoned junk yard? He couldn’t wait to find out.

At first glance nothing jumped to his attention, though. All he saw was rolling hills with lots of tree tops and playing birds below him in the evening sun. The forest wouldn’t give up its secrets that easily! He had to change positions, so he climbed down the rock and up a gnarly fir to look a little bit more to the east. Boomer followed him to the tree, paying attention and wagging his tail. “Look, Boomer! We found something!”

There was a small lake just down the hill and it had a little island. An island! Maybe it had rafts, too, and the could paddle there. Who knows what could be hidden on an island! He regretted that he’d left his pirate hat at home. That would have been something! But it was definitely lost in one of the boxes in his room and he’d never see it again. No matter! He would go see that island. “Come on, Boomer, we have to check that out!” He took the last meter of the tree with a jump and went off downhill, jumping, dodging and laughing, every now and then checking if Boomer was still with him, motivating him to go faster. Not that the dog needed much motivating. He was having a blast too.

Soon the lake appeared between the tree. At first glance no rafts or boats, but maybe he could improvise something. He went through his options as he closed the distance. He could build a raft, he thought, and already imagined himself on a small boat with a sail, heading towards the island. However, without a crew the endeavor was pointless … and then he reached the lakeshore, checking left and right. No boats, no rafts. He took a closer look at the island, making himself as big as possible in the hopes he’d see something interesting. Nothing.

Swimming over there was out of the question, but his eyes where already looking for alternatives to do on this side of the lake. And sure enough, there was a big rock just on the shoreline, half hidden by reeds, and something moved on it. He immediately went into a crouch and shushed Boomer, who seemed to contemplate jumping into the lake. Neal silently moved towards the rock, a smile on his lips. He grabbed a stick lying there. Just In case. Boomer made a little jump, expecting some flying wood in his immediate future, but got shushed again. What was moving on that rock? Neal needed to know.

He whispered to Boomer to stay and kept the reeds between him and the rock as he sneaked forward to get as close as possible before he could be made. It was dark green and as big as a football, but he couldn’t see any details until he bent a little to the side. It was a turtle! Lying there, enjoying the heat of the stone, blinking into the sun, just one meter distance from where he was. He couldn’t help but whisper “Woah!”, but it was enough to have the turtle glide into the water immediately. Neal half jumped on the rock to see it swim, and caught a glimpse of it diving away.

He turned to Boomer, smiling: “That was something, wasn’t it?” The dog was sitting there, wagging his tail in some dry leafs, looking at the stick in Neal’s hand with intent. “You want the stick?” the dog made a small leap and sat down again, still wagging his tail, looking for possible stick landing zones and back to the stick. So they played fetch for a couple of minutes before Neal decided it was time for some iced tea ... and something else nagged on his mind. Something his mother had said. He just couldn’t remember, shrugged and called Boomer. He’d find out soon enough.

He considered going back over the hill as boring and decided that going left looked more interesting than going right. They took their time and Neal hit bushes and low hanging leafs leaves with his stick. Boomer was sniffing all over the place and marking territory. They were half around the hill when they heard the laughter. It was a bright and young kind of laughter. A girl. Close by. Neal changed course to check it out.

Nearby was a glade with some big rotting lugs and a small group of kids was huddling there between some high grasses. One of them was a brown haired girl with a yellow dress. She must have been the one who had laughed. Neal hid behind some bushes, hoping to get a glimpse of what those kids where doing. He heard some whispered talk and giggling, but could glean nothing.

He was so fixated on the scene on the glade, that he’d totally forgotten about Boomer and the dog wasn’t having that. As dogs would, he got a little agitated, hoping for attention. Seeing that being wiggly didn’t work, he did the next logical thing and barked. Way too loud. All time stopped. Neal froze down, the group froze down. Boomer wagged his tail, waiting for a reaction. The girl reacted first. She stood up and looked in the direction the bark came from, while the other sheepishly stayed down and tried to sneak a peak, obviously hiding something. She must be his age, Neal thought, probably younger. Nine, maybe. She looked nice, for a girl. He stood up as well and waved at her. She waved backed, still a questioning look on her face, which was exactly the moment Neal remembered the cake. So he waved her goodbye, said “Gotta go. There’s cake!” and ran off into the woods.

He’ll like it here, he thought while running back home. 

Found this AFTER writing the story ... nice :) [source]
And that's that. Some proper content and announcements will hit the blog in the near future (I hope ... this shit is stressing me out and I'm not as productive as opportunity would dictate, I'm afraid). Until then I'd like to remind you nice and beautiful people that Monkey Business, the extensive jungle crawl adventure module I published a couple of years back, is still out there and PWYW. That should keep you busy for a while ...

Monday, January 20, 2020

It's like Jazz, isn't it? (an attempt of a post about the different types of DMs out there ...)

Happy New Year, friends and neighbors. I hope you had a good one and wish all readers a great year 2020. I'll keep it casual here on the blog and post every once in a while. For now. However, there's hope that I'll get some more time in the very near future and I also might start tackling new designs this year, as Lost Songs is in the final stages of development and Ø is about to get published soon, so the next fresh thing would be exploring The Grind a bit more (D&D steampunk heists with cards!). So excited to finally tackle that one ... Anyway, let's talk about DM styles.

DMing is like playing an instrument ...

... but with words (you can quote me on that one). All right, that doesn't sound like a big revelation, I guess. However, it's in pushing the concept to see what it means in all its consequences and dimensions where the fun is. I came across this very specific issue a couple of times, although from another perspective: that of a producer of content (as a writer and designer, if you will).

Basically I was getting the impression that reviewers in general try to enforce a standard that doesn't necessarily match (or cover) all the different styles of DM
our little hobby must produce by the sheer endless variations of the basic premise that comes from learning to DM.

Now, I have talked about this from very different perspectives over time. I did that (most of the time) based on my own preferences, of course, for the simple reason that I don't know any better. It's also what has to inform my designs, so what I end up realizing ideally should match what I prefer to run. Turns out, the result is not mainstream.

Bad design choices be like ... [sources]

Which I quite like, to be honest, but I have to defend my design decisions occasionally and it's quite the tricky thing to do, as I'm still exploring my position. Well, I'm not shy in voicing my opinion, but I'm prone to make a strong case even if I have no idea what I'm talking about (result of decades of DMing, I guess).

If I'm lucky, I will argue my way to something conclusive and true over the course of such a discussion. Most of the time I have to sit down afterwards and chew on the problem a bit before I can get anywhere with it (sometimes I get to explore it here on the blog, obviously).

One topic like that was my decision to have some empty rooms in a temple dungeon in that module I wrote. Most reviewers will make a strong case that in a "product" ALL rooms should be described, because why else use a module, for instance, if not to have all the "work" been done for you? I wasn't convincing in defending my position there. Only after I read a post about empty rooms over at Delta's D&D Hotspot and wrote a comment in a Mewe Group about it, I realized not only where I come from, but also got a fair grip (I think) on how that relates to other approaches.

Here's what I wrote:
My take would be that really "empty" rooms are best to give that impression that a ruin or dungeon is mostly abandoned and it helps to emphasize that those small areas where monsters lurk are little islands with reasons to be where they are (the goblins only need 3 room, the giant spiders came through a natural crack to the underdark and set up shop because of traffic and so on). Empty Rooms are also a chance to give players some breathing room or room to maneuver or to set the atmosphere for the surroundings (noise, furniture and stuff like that). In that, empty rooms are necessary parts of the "symphony" that is manifesting when exploring a particular dungeon (or dungeon level). The idea that every room needs to have something is not only very boardgamey, it also seems to be connected to that customer's point of view of "completeness" or the demand thereof, which I believe to be problematic ... DMing is, imo, a creative endeavor and the DM should be able to join the melody with his own (like jazz) instead of just making his attempt on the melody given (I can see value in both approaches, though).
Getting that far into it, I thought it warrants a post, and here we are. But how many types can we get out of this analogy? Let's see.

Type 1: The Jazz DM

[source]
I know I'm not the only one ticking like this. We take inspiration where we can and make them motives for our improvisations. In a sense, those motives can be described as "oracles" (as I talk about here). This style would also heavily lean on sandbox play. DM like this prefer some complexity and depth with the systems they use, but also need a high level of abstraction available (material to riff off of, so to say).

The Jazz DM sees playing the game as a team effort. All contribute to the story (rules, players, setting and DM), everyone brings their own melody, their own ideas and concepts. In that sense, rules could be analogues to instruments, which makes the DM tools the leading instrument, offering specific opportunities for the other instruments to join in. Here's the Wikipedia attempt of a definition for Jazz (as far as it relates to gaming):
A broader definition that encompasses different eras of jazz has been proposed by Travis Jackson: "it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an 'individual voice', and being open to different musical possibilities". [source]
I think this illustrates how we are not talking about what music is played, but about the approach to play music.

That said, it can have serious drawbacks. For one, DMs like that will have a hard time (or no interest in) DMing most published modules or adventures since they'll find it too restricting (railroady, even) without any meaningful room for improvisation (even if it's just true for the DM-side of the game*). Another thing is that players need to be up to the task (which means they'd have to bring a somewhat similar mindset). Players that go through the motions and hesitate to add their own melody will end up having less fun.

A third disadvantage I can see would be a lack of dedication for a campaign. Other "instruments" may be too tempting and the urge to experiment can result in a lack of consistency (which I try to compensate by writing and designing stuff ... to mixed success, I might add).

Ideally, a Jazz DM will offer a lively game where like-minded players are able to explore and create over the course of small campaigns.

Type 2: The Conductor DM

For me the next logical comparison. Conductors take great and complex works of art and negotiate them with an ensemble towards a performance. Your typical AD&D DM, I'd say. They orchestrate the perfect manifestation of the "instruments" of their choice and prefer rule systems that offer depth, crunch, teamplay and long campaigns (AD&D/HackMaster, CoC, Pendragon, games like that).

They tend to take themselves out of the game as much as possible. If their style emerges, it is through the conducting of the campaign as the players reach their goals from level to level by playing their characters. They'll be (or aspire to be) very savvy in the rules and trivia of the game and their joy is in seeing it all unfold as proposed by the rules.

I'd say DMs like that are good with pre-defined campaign settings (Greyhawk, Ravenloft, the works ... AD&D again, too), but excel when combining it with some campaign spanning module of sorts (Against the Giants, to give one example ... Call of Cthulhu offers some great campaigns like that as well). They'll come preppared either way. With Conductor DMs  you can play campaigns over decades.

Conductor having a moment ... [source]
The drawback of a DM style like that would be inflexibility in some aspect or another. Depending on the DM this could be rules or canon. They will also have very concrete ideas how the game is played, which means that it'll need players that are able to play along with that. 

Ideally, Conductor DMs orchestrate epic campaign arcs for players to experience and be a part of over long times.

Type 3: The Band Leader DM

This DM is less about the rules as he is about "personality". It's your typical storyteller DM, if you will (World of Darkness is the base line here, but there sure are more games like that ... 7th Sea, maybe, or Over the Edge and Prince Valiant).

The group dynamic is more towards an assortment of band members that might even have different agendas. Teamplay isn't a necessity as it is more about exploring a selection of themes and concepts. The Band Leader DM offers the stage for the other members to express themselves and shine.

Something like this? [source]
DMs like that will tend more towards improvisational theater than indirect narration or even meta play. Plots will be more dramatic and emotional than, say, epic. However, just as meticulously prepared, with the focus more on story, history, background and personal impact.

As far as drawbacks go, I'd say Band Leader DMs can run the risk of having short-lived campaigns (usually purpose build, as in, exploring some theme or another). Another drawback can be the emotional toll of playing that way and conflicts that can result out of it, depending on how mature the member of a group are.

Ideally, Band Leader DMs offer an emotional experience for players that like to express themselves in a more direct, or say, theatrical way. Everyone gets a chance to be part of a big performance.

Type 4: The DJ DM

This might be the GUMSHOE DMs. And maybe most of the indie games in general? Definitely Dungeon World and consorts. And the whole Light rules Movement, I think. It is not as much about offering to reconstruct an experience as it is about imitating one. It follows the idea that you don't play to have a step by step recreation of whatever characters are capable of but instead an abstraction of that to a degree that the process can be evoked instead of produced.

It's a difficult distinction, but nonetheless one worth having. Hear me out here. I've been thinking about this for a while now, because people tend to ignore the difference to, say, all the other games: it's the analogue of dancing to music instead of making music (which is why the DM is a DJ here, duh).

It's games where the player gets the clue and gets to shine while exposing the murder instead of grinding the evidence and hoping for some lucky rolls. It's the games where you don't have to make a calculated risk in a fight to kill the monster, but instead fight to celebrate the action happening. It's about dancing to celebrate the tune the DJ DM is throwing. You know what I mean?

Utz utz utz ... [source]
 The drawbacks I see in DMing games like this is in the limitations it forces on narratives. You don't play to get there, you play to talk about it, if that makes any sense. It's imitation, so, there'll be no depths to most games, because they quote instead of experiencing ...

Anyway. Ideally, a DJ DM will offer a Best Of players will air guitar to for a couple of evenings. And you can have that like having a night in the club every other weekend. There's nothing wrong with that (but it is a difference).

Type 5: The Composer DM

This is the DM as author. I'm not sure this is a real category or a cautionary tale, but lets go through the motions here. This is the DM that wants to tell a story and goes through the motions of engineering it. Some say, it's the guy that should rather write a book ... However. Role playing games are a new medium and who's to say that an approach like this is wrong? If we can have interactive movies, we sure as hell can have auteur-driven campaigns.

So here's my thinking: a DM like that would be driven to tell a grand story and the players are merely audience. It'd need players going along, but those players exist, I'm sure of it. This isn't even about quality, I'd say, as long as the illusion of quality is agreed upon, everyone is having a good game (I'm thinking about a vibe like Gentlemen Broncos for some reason ...).

What I'm saying is: it can work. DMs like that are about controll and will most likely claim authorship of the rules as well (playing something obscure, if not entirely DIY). However, players into emerging themselves into that private canon, will most likely reap the benefits of indulging the Composer DM.

Make it artsy, baby ... [source]
Well, the drawbacks are obvious, I think. If the composer isn't any good, players will ride that wave of hope to be close to an undiscovered genius until they crash on some neurotic cliff incident of sorts. You'll have DM player characters and calls towards the narrative anmd all those bad habits.

Ideally, the Composer DM will do a great job to please an audience that accepts that the DM is in controll. I believe it's rare, but if you can make it work, it might actually be exceptional.

Can be, but needn't be ...

Well, that's 5 styles right there. I'd go as far as saying, it covers a lot and that the analogy goes a long way. Is it definite? No, it's most likely that people will read it and find themselves a bit here and there. It's a spectrum, maybe. Is it complete? I couldn't say. Maybe not? I sure as hell have gone as far as I dare to push it. But I could very well have missed something crucial (you tell me).

That said, I see myself in most of the above to one degree or another. I think I'm the Jazz DM right now, but I would love to be the Conductor (for some proper AD&D/HackMaster campaign, man), I've tried and failed to be the DJ (but will take that approach for some limited D&D one-shot convention gig), I was the Band Leader for a while (oWoD, for real) and the Composer .. well, who doesn't like groupies :)

Another possibly interesting take-away would be that the standards we are mainly talking about right now don't pander to all the possible styles to DM a game. They mainly pander to two (I'd say). Just food for thought.

So where do you guys see yourselves? Anything I missed? Any more benefits or drawbacks to the styles I describe (I'm somewhat biased, for sure).

What's your style?! Huh! [source]
* Uuuh ... now there's a topic I haven't seen anyone talk about: railroading gamemasters. My immediate take would be that it can be just as bad (for the same reasons) as railroading players (wrote a defense about railroading once that'd apply here too, if you are interested). I'd also say it happens far more often than player railroads ...