Thursday, March 31, 2016

Faking it (dirty DM secrets are somewhere in there)

Asked the girlfriend the other day how she perceives my DMing and she said I'm really good in faking knowledge (as in: she knows how much I prepare ...). So, I guess that's a good thing. Worth a post, too, because you can't know everything as a DM but people will have to rely on your opinion. If a DM can't make it work for a group, he's the wrong guy for the job (or girl, being inclusive and all). Right?

About being right ...

We saw Thank you for Smoking the other day again. I love that movie. There is a scene where the main character, Nick Nayler, shows his son how to win an argument not by being right or convincing an opposition, but by proofing them wrong. Behold:

In other words, credibility is half the battle. Wits is the other half. Goes for defending cigarettes (I wouldn't, but anyway) and for DMing a game. You see now, knowledge doesn't even have to be a part of it. It helps with the credibility, that's true, but credibility could be derived from many other sources (being famous could compensate a lot, intelligence doesn't hurt, friendship, google ... I could go on). 

And wits can do a lot for you in an argument. Man, people good at talking will get you to tell them what they need and end up shining with it, too. Following the above, proofing someone wrong would be one technique to support credibility and wits is one way to achieve this. But it could also be knowledge and/or fact checking. Even agreeing or admitting to be wrong could help winning an argument or gaining credibility ...

What I'm trying to say here: there is a lot about "being right" that goes way beyond knowing something. There are people telling you earth is a disc and there are people actually believing it. There are books about urban legends and in every case you'll find people who'll assure you it's all true. Aliens, anal probes, the complete show. 

Pratchett knew the truth is out there ... or something [source]
DMs can use this at the table!

But how? As most things, it starts by surrounding yourself with the right people. Friends are a good direction to start looking, but what you really want is acceptance. Respect even, if you can get it the beginning. But when the players don't even accept you in the role as DM, you might as well quit it right there. Because this is your foundation for trust, credibility and, yes, respect. If you get a chance you usually also get some wiggle room to navigate, which you'll need, because ...

... you have to learn how your crowd clicks. Favorites, weaknesses, group dynamics. Again, acceptance is the basis. Only if they are comfortable with you running things, they'll relax somewhat and give you the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Learn to work that crowd. Humor them, ask people for their opinions (especially if they know better for some reason), but also show them where you draw the line.

Here we go full circle. Check above. Consensus is not about being right, but about getting right. So wherever an individual DM would draw a line, he needs to be able to enforce it. That's one reason to have a sentence like "The DM has the final say in all matters!" (or some such thing) in almost all rule books. Codifying it like this to allow a DM that freedom, supports the very ideas discussed above. It builds on acceptance and demands respect. If not abused (because a DM has the obligation to provide, of course) it will result in trust.

In a way being a DM is a lot like nurturing a plant. You do it right and you'll have a strong and growing plant, with some room to model as an extra. You do it wrong and you get a dead plant ...

So it's all about manipulation?

There is now a multitude of ways to facilitate this. Way more than I have room, time or inclination to write about. Manipulation is one of them. People like to dominate people and sure enough, it's often all you need to make something work. Just as wrong, in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there. I'd rather talk about how I try to work this at my table.

I believe there is a certain set of traits that help a DM getting the job done. Knowledge of the rules certainly is one of them (although I actually suck at that one ... most of the time, anyway), but knowing your way around the books is a close enough substitute (you don't need to know the rules for aimed shots if you know where to look at, right?).

What helps me a lot, though, is being able to come to quick and realistic estimations of facts and situations. That's something you can train and I believe every DM worth his salt is somewhat good at "winging it" like it's the genuine item. That's not manipulation, but a good sense of what could be right and what could be accepted as right. Wits might come in handy here, too, as (the other) half the battle is credibility and being able to win an argument (fast) goes a long way in keeping the game on track.

In other words, it needs to look at least as if you could be right about what you say and people will accept it as the truth within the game. How this might be achieved is implied above (the part where you can get right without having actual knowledge of The Ten Thousand Things ...).

Those are not the druids ...

So being able to "fake it" is (in my opinion) a skill worth having for every DM. It's an useful illusion that can help greasing the flow of a game. But it's not all smoke and mirrors. You can't avoid feeding the brain a lot. Music, films, tv shows, documentaries, fiction and non fiction books, comics, blogs, role playing books, computer games, board games, all genres, all topics are interesting. We live in a golden age for stuff like that and while it's impossible to read/see/play all or even a small part of what we got access to, it is very well possible to keep yourself busy with it all the time.

Over time it all starts to connect. At least in places. Your game is in an existing city? If you can't visit it, read about it, look for documentaries and the towns history. You don't even have to write stuff down, just expose yourself to the information and you'll remember a lot without even trying. Main villain in a campaign is a banker? See movies portraying them, read a biography and try to get a feeling for the guy beyond the stats the game provides ... Always think: how could I use this in the game?

But why stop there? You go for a walk and you observe your surroundings for inspiration. I've read somewhere (can't remember where, sorry) that it is a good exercise to look back at your day before the game and take three random events, encounters and/or observations of that day and work them into the game. It's a good exercise to train using everything for your game.

And then there is the interaction with the players. Prepare stuff (as you are bound to anyway), not only send a mail, but add some flavor text and a picture, if you can. Reminding them what happened can help immensely with the immersion. But most of all, play with people you can treat with integrity, appreciation and respect ...

I'm not saying I am all of that, all the time, but it's something I aspire to keep trying. But something I really got good at over time is, you know, faking it to bridge the gap. Well, I hope you guys found an original idea or two in here and I didn't just state the obvious in a way too long text. What things do you guys do for your campaigns? What's different?


Shit, totally forgot about humor! Yeah, you'd need that, too :)


  1. I was just getting ready to pull together my weekly post. This one is on the Cardinal Rules, the only ones that cannot be broken and number 2 is "The Game Master is always right, even when absolutely wrong."

    I wrote it as a matter of stopping arguments before they happen, but I failed to mention that it is really for the players own good because you're right - even if you know that the world the DM is constructing has about as much weight as a movie set it doesn't do you or anyone else any good knocking things over.

    It's kind of a conundrum. We want rich and developed worlds that have weight and feel real, but that weight also makes the world harder to work with. Maybe this is why I've never liked playing with licensed properties. It's one thing to steal juicy bits from movies and books and incorporate it into a game. It's something else entirely to carry the entire weight of the Star Wars universe on your back, as well as a few player's on top of it.

    You gotta be one big fricken' turtle to pull that off :-)

    Truth be told I haven't gamed regularly in years. Life just doesn't allow it anymore, but back in the day I used to constantly dream about what to do and where it all could go in between game sessions, sometimes jotting ideas down in a pocket notebook. The games themselves ranged from god-awful to pretty good, but often I think it was those times in between, dreaming of all that could be done, that I miss the most.

    1. Thanks, man! That's nicely put. Yes, the dream, the flow, you name it. Took me 2 years to get back into that groove again. And I missed it, too. there's really something to it, then :)

      As for the settings, I'm the same. But I see how different DMs get a kick out of that kind of canonical thinking. And it's really a nice thing to have when sharing a world with many different groups.

      Cool, I'll be looking for that post!