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

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 ...