Saturday, July 22, 2017

[398] The DM as Oracle vs. The DM as Author

There is a bit of talk in the blog-o-sphere about the stories we want to tell in our games. Should there be a literary quality to it? A message? Just entertainment, if such a thing exists (considering that someone has to put some work into it in that scenario to work for the others)? Or dare I say spirituality? And if so, how do we facilitate this in our games? Certainly not only with the stories we tell, because the story is the result of a collaborative process in rpgs and something is really off if someone at the table already knows what's happening ... Here are some thoughts about the whole affair.

This is sort of, kind of also part of what I see as an ongoing dialogue with +Vb Wyrde who posted his thoughts about topics closely related to this here post just the other day (Part 1 & Part 2).

Reality is what you make of it, really

So, everyone has basically his own idea what reality looks like and there are cultural basics we agree upon with language being the overlapping tool to facilitate common ground. Right? I mean, you can go pictures or hand signs, but those are very basic forms of language, too, actually. In a way language helps forming an agreed upon reality when interacting with others. It's no different in gaming. But let's look a bit close at the phenomenon before we apply this to our little hobby.

This goes back to the meaning that the art of storytelling had up until a couple of hundred years ago. It wasn't the only kind of medium, but it had been the most common. Illiteracy in the 18th century is measured at around 94 percent. It's easy to imagine how important talking had been and just as easy to realize the advantage a trained talker had in times like that. It was a necessary skill. Maybe even more necessary than fighting skills.

How powerful it still can be is illustrated easily by just turning on the tv and checking out some ads, or the fake news phenomenon or anything a politician would make you believe. Or a scientist, for that matter (sacrilege, I know, but I'm barely the first to compare science to some sort of religion ... anyway, I digress). The leading National Socialists like Hitler or Goebbels had all been highly skilled speakers and look how much harm they'd been able to do (although the most damning factor might have been the radio, which they made sure anyone owned and listened to).

It's far too easy to lose sight of this, but the art of rhetoric, being able to express yourself, is still a very powerful (and pretty underestimated) skill, even today. Examples are all around you, as a matter of fact. In a way (and this is where I'm getting to the point), if language and communication help forming a common ground, an anchor in reality, if you will, than being able to convince people is nothing less but the ability to shape how we perceive reality.

We know the power of advertisement,
but chose to ignore it way to often [source]
Pattern recognition (or how truth is relative)

One of the reasons why Shakespeare is still as relevant (and popular) as he is can be reduced to his ability to make our emotions palpable, it speaks to us on a very intimate and individual level, although his plays had to be public spectacles (well, maybe that connection is yet another reason for the success ... it provokes the display of raw emotion in the audience which might very well have an amplifying effect).

The immortal bard, posing ... [source]
This still works today although the language has become more of a barrier over 400 years later. That being said, I'm not sure you guys are aware of the fact that those plays had been so wildly popular that they actually influenced the way we describe the world in a very profound way: because Shakespeare had been brilliant in describing (forming?) reality, many, many phrases used in his plays are used to this day. Not as quotes (which also happens, of course), but as part of our every day language.

In Germany you can observe the same effect with plays written by Goethe, Schiller and the like (both huge fans of Shakespeare, btw). Now, seeing it work begs the question how they had been able to achieve this and, maybe, how we can use this for our games. The somewhat simplified answer, in my opinion, is trained pattern recognition in conjunction with the ability to communicate those patterns in a witty way as they occur while embedding them in a more artful, say, literary context.

It's the power of the cliché fueling artistic expression, if you will.

It's no surprise, either. The most effective lies, for instance, are those hiding in a good bit of what is accepted as truth. I hope we can agree at this point that truth, just like reality, is a matter of opinion. Sure, you can achieve a great understanding of the overlap of what is commonly accepted as reality or truth, but since it changes all the time and all over the place, it's all quite subjective.

And that's just it, if you want to convince people of something, you start with the common ground and go from there. That's basic salesman-talk. Another technique would be mirroring, all of it aiming not at the truth but at your agreement, weaseling in from the common ground getting more and more specific as they peel you like an onion, all of it to twist your perception of reality towards the ends of whoever is doing the manipulation.

Suspension of Disbelief (a little gaming intermission)

This, right here, is already relevant for our games. Playing our little elf games works as long as everyone participating is on the same page. Sounds simple enough, but it just isn't something we agree upon before the game. Well, we do that too, of course, but to keep it that way is traditionally one of the duties a DM has. And if my experience is any indication (as player and as DM), it's damn hard work, pretty much for the reasons stated above.

The simple assumption about finding common ground and going from there gets easily screwed the more invested people get about the same thing without actually agreeing. Say, two Star Wars fans arguing canon. Both hold their idea of truth very dear and will fight for/about it, add a third one being the DM in a game of Star Wars and conflict is imminent. Same goes for rules, as a matter of fact (which kind of gets important further down below).

What's more, though, is that the techniques to achieve this are pretty much what is described above: "the power of the cliché fueling artistic expression". The DM is the one stitching it all together, giving it meaning as he goes along while balancing it with the input AND expectations of the players. As an interim result we can say that what works for a play will work to some degree for our games.

But before we can get to an conclusion, we have to go a bit further down the rabbit hole ...

The DM as Author (the book writing variety)

Lots of insights applying to plays and rhetorics also apply to books, naturally. The big difference, though, is the level of self being addressed. An author writes for the number of individuals willing to read it (not necessarily as a reason but as a matter of distribution and reception). As I already said, the same rules apply, but it is a way more intimate affair, a dialogue between author and reader, solely limited to it until the reader goes and talks to someone about it.

Of course, talking about it is a completely different animal compared to reading it. So different, in fact, that it needn't necessarily address the same aspects, as you shift media and although you'll talk about the same story, you do so in a totally different context. It's like the difference between reading The Lord of the Rings and watching the movies or (to make it a bit more strange) to be part of an reenactment of the book. All variants touch different aspects of self, of truth, of perception, you name it.
Reenactment is a thing, of course (and that Aragorn looks dope  ...). [source]
However, that's kind of the point. A point that can be made, to a degree, with almost every kind of authorship (play, tv script, books ... adventures?): they all exclude, out of necessity, the recipient as active part in the creation. The recipient creates after the fact and individually. Now, if we crank this up a step or two and talk about literature, we could say that authors offer meaning as an additional possibility and the artistic form helps encoding meaning in artificial patterns that, well, see above ... The recipient can glean it out of the text, decipher it, if you will.

I think this is the main problem when discussing if it is possible to give our games a literary quality, role playing games are a very different process to the whole writing/reading complex and what is generally believed to be "literary", is in huge parts associated with our ideal of the writer as artist and the elitist educated recipient as the one "getting it", not as a collaborative effort.

The question is (remains?), if it is possible to achieve this within the specific form of story telling that make our games tick. Which leads to (you guessed it) ...

The DM as Oracle (not the goat gutting variety)

In it's simplest, most common understanding, rolling dice and interpreting the results is for a DM like reading an oracle (which comes from the Latin word for "speak", btw). It follows the very same principles, as it offers meaning of random results to the context that is the (gaming) environment. The DM rolls the dice, reads them and tells you the weather or the mood the merchant is in or how big a treasure hoard is.

And finally, the DM can offer the potential or inspiration to elevate that randomness (including the random input the players give, of course) to some sort of literary quality. Not predetermined, but out of the flow of the game.

This is where, in my opinion, the tools of our games get so important. Actually, that's the main beef I have with many of the so-called "light-rules" rpgs out there as they very, very often just leave the DM tools out to keep it short. I mean, let's go a bit full circle here: what we use at the table (the type of oracle, if you will), shapes how the narrative emerges. Use only French terminology to give a game a certain vibe, or sports terminology or whatever makes your goat float (is that how you say it).

The point is, that those things are usually already in depth developed and tools like random tables and terminology and, yes, patterns we might need for our games (structures of armies, advancement, power levels, attributes, to name just a couple of examples, they all offer patterns like that), they all feed the communication in a meaningful way and help a DM weaving a pattern on his own that (in a best case scenario) emulates a certain kind of story.

Old school oracle in action ... [source]
What you get without those tools is just a guy telling stories, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but rob the game of an important aspect and makes it very hard for beginners to get a sense for the relevance of those patterns, how they work and how they are copied. The machinations, so to say. It's the main problem with rpgs that only span a couple of pages and claim to be "complete". For the experienced DM it might just be a matter of taste.

Anyway, what that little detour should illustrate is that good rules offer patterns, that, when they emerge, shape and fill the narrative certain ways. This is why you end up with a different playing experience every time you play a different game, it's different oracles and different input.

Finally, as far as the "literary quality" of role playing games are concerned, we get back to that original, historical meaning of oracles or druids or shaman or bards, even. We read the patterns and give them meaning. The suspension of disbelief helps a lot, the system should give enough input to give us something to read and when the time is right we set the impulses to make the narrative count, to give the sum of all the parts a deeper sense because an campaign arc gets closed or a plot twist revealed or a character has a defining moment ...

Think fast! [source]
That's, for me, when role playing games really click at the table, that moment when everyone gets involved and invested at what is happening and the implications thereof. Very much like with a good book or movie or play, just coming from a different direction.

So much more to say ...

Damn, it's a long one again and I still feel like I did say maybe a quarter of what I feel needs saying about about cooperative story telling and patterns or how to recognize them, where to get ideas, how to practice, how to be a convincing DM ... so many topics. It'll have to wait.

For now just say that:
DMs are like oracles that offer the potential for literary quality by interpreting the patterns that emerge from the cooperative effort that is the game in a meaningful way within the overlap of the established rules of the game and the artistic patterns we know from other media.
In other words, we know the answer to the question what Hamlet would have needed to roll to end up where he ended up in the end and we would come to somewhat similar conclusions if we saw those patterns emerge in our game (I know there should be lots of missed saves in that specific game, for sure).

One final thought, though. The DM has in that sense (or following that logic) not really a story prepared, but a stage with all the tools the groups needs to get going (rules, setting, characters, the works). Story is the result of this endeavor.

And that's my 2 cents of the dollar it should be. I'm sure I'll be exploring this further in the future. Comments, thoughts and experiences are, as always, very welcome.


  1. Now I so want to write an RPG called Haruspex where instead of rolling dice you reach inside a bag that resembles a goat and pull out gelatinous masses that resemble organs and mean something....

    I definitely like the idea of DM as Oracle. I think that is spot on. DM as author? Only when we talk about bad DM-ing. It seems as if all of the worst adventures I have ever been on have tanked for one of three reasons: nobody at the table cares about the game, people at the table care too much about the game, or the DM is trying to be an author.

    Novels and RPGs both rely on words printed on paper, but that is where the similarities end. They are two different beasts.

    This was good. I enjoyed it :-)

    1. No goat has been harmed in the making of this post :D

      Thanks, man! Yes, I believe authorship is with the group, as everyone adds his voice to the narrative. The oracle part is, together with the rules, more like a shaping tool.

  2. Great post Jens, as always. Very thoughtful and thought provoking.

  3. Man, I wish I lived in the same country as you. I really think it would be awesome to hang out and play elf games with you.

    There is so much to say about this, as is often the case with your posts; I suspect I'll be coming back to it as I tease out all the nuggets of gold.

    (Love the idea of 'Haruspex' by the way...)

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked it :) And if you are ever in the mood to give Google hangouts a try (or something like it), we sure can get a game together (or if you are near Leipzig for some reason). England is also the next thing on my traveling list, so there are opportunities! You have my email address, right?

    2. I think Google hangouts is more likely than me coming over to Leipzig and getting an evening of gaming, but if you're ever on this side of the German Ocean, let me know and we'll see what we can do.


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