Friday, August 26, 2016

Romans... in Space! (Introduction)

Last spring semester, I had the opportunity to try something new in my Advanced Public Speaking class: I built the course around a game-like simulation with role-playing and some war-game and resource management elements.

While I'd done a version of the course a year earlier, including some of the innovations I planned to include in Spring 2016, only 8 students registered and the course wasn't as well developed. This time, I spent most of my winter break from classes writing a more complete set of rules and mechanics for the simulation, and lining up its core concept: Roman praetorian families competing for wealth in our solar system's asteroid belt.

The course began with a full complement of 20 students, and absolutely no one dropped the course. This is unprecedented in my experience. For the game I divided the students into five "families," each of which would compete (and/or cooperate) with the others to earn wealth and reputation. Wealth could be acquired through mining asteroids or pirating other families' ships and selling them for scrap. Reputation could be acquired by engaging in social intrigue of various sorts: spying, rumor-mongering, and so forth. Each score was recorded as a number of points, and combined to create the total score.

One of the greatest challenges I faced in running this class was keeping the "class" and "game" portions independent of each other. While it's not immediately clear why such separation is important, try to think about it this way. The course has some pretty clear learning outcomes, and these must be achieved regardless of course format. I have to meet them, just as any other instructor would. My incorporation of RPG content into the course is sort of an aberration. So, focusing too much on the game would detract from students' ability to learn to deliver various types of speeches needed to pass the class. My fix involved making the "game" portion of the course happen outside of classtime (for the most part), while using it to provide a context (and some content) for the actual speech activities.

Below, I've included the FAQs from my syllabus.

Next post I'll explore more details of my approach to the course, and in subsequent posts I'll explain the rules, how they were implemented, and some of the research emerging from the course.


Here are some preemptive responses to questions you might have about how this class is organized. Please be sure to raise any others that come to mind, as we move along in the semester.

What do you mean by "participation" in this game thing, and how does it apply to my grade?
At various points in this syllabus, I have made reference to your participation in this course. Let me take some time to describe what I mean, in greater detail. Participation means showing up, being on time, taking part in discussions of texts and readings. Participation includes just showing up for class, but it also means that you participate actively in class activities. So, this course will include participation in two other elements: (1) Participation in Simulation and (2) Participation in Role-playing. These elements will be discussed in the next two FAQs.

You will receive a grade based on your participation in this class. It's worth 100 points of the 1000 total points available. Roughly half of the grade is for attendance and half of it is for your engagement with our simulation. You should take part willingly and enthusiastically, and engage effectively with other students, both in an out of class.

What is a simulation and how do I participate?
In the clearest possible terms, a simulation is a real-seeming (but speculative) scenario. Your participation usually occurs in some sort of role, in order to pretend that it's real and that you can affect events as they unfold. Simulations are used for teaching a variety of things, especially applied tasks, like performing CPR, or dealing with customers, or responding to an emergency situation. Lots of people use simulations to prepare for things they expect to encounter in the world, to be ready (as much as they can) when they do so.

In this course I hope to create a simulated situation that requires you to use your speaking skills to inform, persuade, and make decisions in a small-group context. The simulation provides a sense of a larger context in which the speaking occurs and the decisions are made. You will compete and cooperate with others to respond to the situations and events encountered as part of the unfolding "story" of the simulation. My role will be to write and adjudicate the simulation, and to provide "real-world" responses to your own actions' impact on the simulated world.

How will I interact with this simulation?
Each student will be assigned a role: A particular person whom you will "play" almost like an actor playing a part in a play or film. You will use the boundaries of your role as a guide to your particular participation in the simulation. You will pretend to be that person in the simulation, and you should remain "in-character" as you do so, role-playing the part.

Of course you also will be engaged in speaking and other classroom activities. Those, too, will require some degree of in-character play. Just roll with it, and take the opportunity to see how this kind of role-taking affects your speaking persona. In fact, you might be surprised how often you do this, anyway, in different contexts and with different people.

What is role-playing?
Role-playing is "playing pretend," basically. Every kid at some point pretends to be something—a character in a book or movie, a person with a particular job, etc.—and it's a big part of learning how to be a person living in a world with other people. Even fanciful role-playing allows us to try out ways of being in the world that are not necessarily familiar or comfortable, and to expand the repertoire of responses we can have to the people, situations, and events we will encounter in our lives.

The purpose of the role-playing in this simulation is to help you get your head around what it means to speak in context. You're not just giving a speech for a grade. Rather, you're pursuing your own interests, your family's interests, and the interests of the Empire. The speaking is happening in a deep, fictional context. You will have a part in that context.

How do I participate in role-playing?
You will play a "character" who is a member of an influential family, but is also an individual with particular beliefs, attitudes, and personal motivations, and who also has social and cultural obligations. The student playing that role must do his or her best to represent that character, and leverage that character's resources and means of persuasion in order to influence outcomes in the scenario.

No one player has everything she needs to succeed. No one faction of players can succeed without the cooperation of the others. This means that your individual interests will conflict, your factional interests may be at odds, but you must somehow find a compromise in order to accomplish what you must.

Why are we doing this?
It is my belief that the best learning comes from a feeling of involvement in what one is trying to learn. A "normal" public speaking assignment doesn't ask much more of you than to do a bit of research, to write a speech outline and develop visual aids, and to present the result in front of the class. However, most people don't spend a lot of time presenting academic-style speeches in their jobs and social lives. Instead, we apply our communicative skills in ways that are usually less formal, but also more impactful upon our work, our relationships, and our careers. Both are important styles of communication, and you need to be competent in each.

By taking part in this simulation, you are going to learn some important formal skills in communication. You will do research to provide you with information about how to respond to the situations produced by the class's interactive simulation. These will result in formal speeches, like the Informative Speech and Policy Speech assignments. You also will need to be able to argue your positions informally, in assignments involving deliberation or debate. For these assignments, you will need to be able to respond to the speech of others. Having a role to play makes that easier, because your knowledge of the situation, your place in it, and your relationships with other student "players" helps you understand what you might say, your motivations for speaking, and what you hope to accomplish (beyond completing the assignment).

So, each student will take the role of a particular person whose interests are impacted somewhat differently by the decisions made for dealing with game-based situations. You must represent your interests, find compromise (when and if possible), and take some course of action (or inaction). Your responses will affect the situation. I will decide how it is affected. Your speech will have consequences, just as in life, but in a more dramatic (and dramatized) fashion.

What role do you play, Johnson?
I am the Game Master (GM). My job is to adjudicate the game, handle the game mechanics, keep track of progress, keep score, and ensure that you stay engaged in the simulation. I will determine in-game effects of your various speeches, if there are any. I know what you must do to "win" and a have a set of rules to make that happen. I also (of course) will need to evaluate your speaking activities and written work. My main focus, though, will be to create an environment with unresolved tensions—i.e., plot crises, narrative tension—that you must deal with. It is my hope that such things will amplify the sense of immersion in the simulation achieved by students in this class: I want you to be engaged in what happens here.

How will we be able to affect the outcomes of the simulation?
I will treat your in-game actions as real, and will incorporate them into the simulation as they occur. Some of the actions will have little effect, but others may be consequential, even critical. I also will take into account elements of the speeches you give in class, using them to craft the overall narrative. Each game turn is something like an episode of a soap opera. Your actions in each turn help to create the game narrative as we play.

What does it mean to "win," and how does one do so?
"Winning" means accumulating score. You will do this in two categories: Wealth and Reputation. At the end of play, the highest scoring family wins. I also will ask you to pick the top three speakers for each speech assignment, and award a limited number of bonus points to participation based on those tallies. I will calculate that score separately.

What sorts of research do we need to do?
You will need to understand what history shows us about various relevant historical periods, especially the Roman Republic and Empire. You also will need to have some understanding of humankind's present and future in space, and some knowledge of a philosophy called, "transhumanism." I will suggest some readings to get you started (see below), but you also will complete specific research assignments to expand upon that information. For example, each student will give an Informative Speech in response to a particular research question, provided by me. Your research will be in the particular area covered by that research question, and you should become the class expert on that topic.

As each member of the class contributes his or her research to the discussion, the larger picture will become clearer. It is my hope that the Informative Speeches will grow directly into related Policy Speeches.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Rise of the Norwegian Blue

This parrot's been resting a while. Sorry for being gone so long.

I going to be posting here some more, in the near future, probably about once a week.

Mostly, what you'll be seeing is discussion of work I'm developing. Some will be games-related scholarship, and some will be creative work. Some posts may simply be discussion of concepts and mechanics, some for specific games or situations, and some more of a philosophical bent.

Hope to lure a few readers in for discussions of what I post. I'm interested in your input/feedback.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Gonzo is Great

I hear the term "gonzo" used in games, a lot. The RPG Pundit, +Kasimir Urbanski,  posted something about this a while back, but I actually started this post in December 2014, because I fucking hate how (many) people use this term.

1. Break from strict genre boundaries (i.e., you've got chocolate-lasers in my peanut butter fantasy!) in ways that (a) demonstrate that the line between genres was there and (b) draw into question the value of the distinction(s) between them.

2. Weirdness, zaniness, whimsy--The carnivalesque elements are coming in loud and clear. This weirdness is not just comic, though. It can also be horrific or spectacular. It is a break from the mundane, and one that highlights the joys and dangers of that departure.

3. Let's do something awesome! I mean this in the sense that we want to WIN. We want to win with STYLE. We have a set of rules and game mechanics that allow even a zero-level schlub or 1st level character to do things they should not be able to.

4. There are other trace elements in the game, from other places--e.g. the cultural aesthetics of the 70s and 80s, whether from music or literature or comics or cartoons or whatever.

5. Gonzo means that something unexpected not only CAN happen, but is relatively COMMONPLACE. "Whoa, man, a halfling on a dinosaur with deathray arms..." 

"Yep, must be Thursday."

5. Gonzo can contain some degree of adolescent (male) fantasy, and some of that means things like boobs & cheesecake, indiscriminate slaughter, murder-hoboism, and the like. This does not need to be the case, but often is. When it is, some people enjoy it, and it can be fun. Some people don't, and may find it "problematic."

6. Gonzo means different things to different people. The word can be taken as prejorative--indicating that something is silly. This is the thing that pisses me off the most. I don't mind being serious about gaming, and playing serious games. I also refuse to draw a line between "serious" and "gonzo." These are not mutually exclusive terms.

7. It can even be a reference to the absurdist tradition of H. S. Thompson, and beat luminaries like W. S. Burroughs, R. Crumb, the Freak Brothers, and things like that. This is, perhaps, the overlooked element. Breaking with "straight" reality is a political gesture in a limited way. "I refuse to engage with your straight reality. I reject the premise that this game must be played in a particular way. Look! I got a fuckin' laser pistol!" This can also lead projects to projects like 's Narcosa, or 's Red and Pleasant Land, among others. It finds "the normal" wanting, and invents something else.

8. Too much gonzo upsets some people, even people who like gonzo stuff. Sometimes people just need a break from it. Alternately, they can also need a break from grim-darkness. I know that's part of the reason I found the move from Dark Heresy to DCC so refreshing. It was like waking up from a disturbing dream to find out that there's a party going on, and I can smile and laugh again.

9. Gonzo draws from a variety of traditions, aesthetically, and some of those traditions aren't even meant to be silly. For example, GWAR demonstrates that heavy metal, as a genre, can be self-aware that it's pretty damned silly. Slayer, on the other hand, does not demonstrate this self-awareness in its aesthetic. That doesn't mean that it's not also silly. Nor does that mean I don't like them both. Hell, as I've blogged on several occasions, Redd Kross is a great bubblegum band. Bubblegum music is both aesthetically simple and predictable (sometimes even shitty) and absolutely awesomely fun (to me). Another example of silly fun: The Dickies. They also are a really decent band (to me).

10. Just because something is weird, or just because it departs from genre in jarring ways, doesn't necessarily indicate that something is gonzo. DCC RPG can be played deadly seriously. Part of the distinction (to me) is that the outcome matters. Death Frost Doom, for example, has a lot of stuff that could be read as "gonzo," in that it takes a bunch of metal tropes and inserts them prominently into its adventure milieu. The fact that those trope-y, stereotypical elements (brutal metal, zombies, crazy, reclusive dude, etc.) are there, that's not enough to make it gonzo. Because it matters what happens. You can end the world. You probably will. There's not reason why DCC RPG (as many have suggested) cannot support SERIOUSNESS. The issue is that what happens, matters, and has serious in-world implications, even if it is silly or gonzo in some senses.

11. Gonzo is about embracing the chaos. Weird shit will happen. The world doesn't simply exist as you would have it. You will be challenged. Your tastes and experience will be challenged. It may make you uncomfortable, and push you out of your "comfort zone." I often listen to music that I don't necessarily like, but am interested in experiencing, and seeing where it can take me. Some of Zappa's stuff, for example, is hard to listen to. I do it anyway, because I want to feel what my brain does as an result of listening to it. There are so many other examples of music, film, art, and so forth. It doesn't need to make you feel good. You don't have to "like" it. It doesn't have to gratify you. It may make you sad, or grossed-out, or it might alienate you. This is one element of what I consider "gonzo" that often gets overlooked: It can change you by pushing your limits. I don't mean this in any particularly serious way, but I do mean it. Having our expectations challenged is a part of human growth and development.

There. I turned it up to 11 things about gonzo.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Follow-up from Yesterday's Game Prep Post

After posting my (intentionally) inflammatory post, yesterday, +Adam Muszkiewicz and I had a delightful exchange of ideas. I don't full agree with everything he says, but we are not as far apart as my original post might have made it seem. Also, a clarification. It should be noted (as Adam did) that his original post was directed at hex-crawl gaming, a different issue than (or a specific sub-issue of) game preparation in general. My take was, to be sure, based on ignoring that very true fact.

Adam also agreed to let me post the full exchange. I will do so, and a small rejoinder to his last comment. I left the rest of you guys who commented out, because you just don't matter. Suck it! (I kid, I kid).

Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 9:40 AM
I actually do recognize my "information collection" process as being important to gaming, and I am aware that it informs and inspires my gaming. I think in my original post, the point I made had a considerably different focus, though, and that you're picking out only one detail of it (even of the part of the article in question; you're targeting a part of a part here), but I have to say, I stand by my initial assessment: an overabundance of prep stands between the DM and his players as a sort of informational wall that exists independent of the players' experience of that information. If the player doesn't experience it, then it doesn't exist within a game. 

Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 10:22 AM
Also, I've never come out against prep, just against an overabundance of it. I love maps as much as the next guy and often, like +James Aulds says, I just might start with a map. But what stands in the way of the game is having a list of exactly what every shop in town is and who runs it and how much GP they have in their safe, dresser or underneath a loose floorboard, whether I wrote it or someone else did. I feel like too often, DMs prep themselves into a corner and they lose sight of exactly what the game is to the point where a rift develops between player & DM, th players shrouded in darkness, suffering from indecision paralysis, the DM silently raging at himself "if they'd only do this, it's all so simple!" Of course, again, that's entirely my experience of it, especially as someone who used to over-prep.

Effectively, I'd define "over-prep" as "designing game elements that your players will never experience." 

Edgar Johnson
Yesterday 10:49 AM
I don't see that as overpreparation, because it helps (me) with what happens at the table. It's a thing that exists in the world. So long as it makes the world make sense to me, and helps me make the world make sense to my players, then it's a useful exercise in imagination. It may not get used directly, but it will shape what does get used.

So, having stuff in my game my players never see may make sense to me, and help me make sense of the world I present, and may help me choose (wisely) the signifiers used to present that specific world-situation at the table.

The fact that Bob the Butcher is getting leaned on by a specific member of a criminal gang may be insignificant to the players. They won't enter the shop. They won't buy a joint of meat from Bob. They may, however, try to pull some kind of caper in this town, or they may have dealings with criminals. When I know Bob, his situation, and why it exists, it is helpful to me when I'm at the table, and trying to present the world and the things in it to the players.

Mind you, I don't usually get that far into the weeds with inconsequential NPCs. This is more of an extreme example to color in the point I'm making: Underprep is less helpful (to me) than overprep in allowing me to respond effectively to players during the game session.

Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 11:06 AM
My thought here is that, for me, all of what you describe the "I can do this at the table when I prep" can be handled as a natural extension of just applying the game's aesthetic to the situation. Why do you need to know that this specific butcher is being leaned on? Does that help in any way that knowing that organized crime is rampant here and then finding a way to show that to your players doesn't?

Edgar Johnson
Yesterday 11:41 AM
Another way of putting it. The exercise in thinking in detail about some of the minutiae of the city (e.g., people's names, their situations, etc.) help me, personally, to think about the city as a whole.

Yes, the aesthetic drives this, but the aesthetic (for me) needs to come from the specifics. So, I might not do a write-up for Bob the Butcher, but I would want to think about people like Bob, and the sorts of things that happen to them.

That's sort of like Morlan Twelos, the clerk you guys recently killed. I thought a lot about him and what he does, and who might be pressuring him in particular ways, and what his motivations might be. It didn't end up mattering in that case, because James and those guys offed him, but by thinking about him and the specific place he worked in has helped me to understand a bit more about the city as a whole, especially about corruption in the Imperial bureaucracy.

I guess what I'm saying is that preparation is also a process of discovery for me, and not just for me and the players at the table. There are a lot of places I've "prepped" in that sense, not as keyed encounters, but as specific things that are happening, places that actually exist in the city (e.g., named taverns and landmarks), that allow me to improvise at the table, and to incorporate the actions of the players, after the fact.

A good example, right now, has to do with the three guardsmen killed while the party was ransacking the offices of the mariners' guild. I want to understand how the government/guard will respond to that. I want to figure out how your employer (the Imperial secret police) will treat that. These are important questions for the party, and I want to have some specific answers. One think is that I need to figure out specifics of guard organization, and how the guard gets along with the Ministry of the Inspector General, and what kinds of things typically are faced by the Guard in dealing with the populace in Harbortown. Are such murders common, or not?

I don't think we are disagreeing as much as all that. However, these kinds of details may matter to me more than they do to you, simply because I'm in the process of discovering this city, if slightly less than the players are. I can't abide not knowing certain things that come up, because they seem important to the game, and would affect how I run it. It's not just that I need to know how many copper pieces are in a tailor's strongbox, or what specific kinds of sausage Bob the Butcher keeps in stock. I do understand, though, that Bob has been experimenting with something very much akin to a good kielbasa...

Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 12:46 PM
Yeah, man, go ahead and put that shit up there. But first, here's my commentary on your last piece:

I agree that I don't think we're as far away from each other on this point than you initially made it sound. I'm especially glad that you added the bit about how your in-depth prep informs you about what your aesthetic is, because that's what I would consider it rather than game prep: part of developing what your aesthetic is.

It's probably worthwhile to point out that my post in question was specifically about the use of aesthetic within the framework of my concept of a dynamic hexcrawl, which is by its very nature an improvisationally-run sort of campaign. That having been said, I do apply the aesthetic logic that I've been talking about to EVERYTHING.

So, allow me get back into this.

I feel like aesthetic coming from specifics rather than becoming the rubric by which to determine what the specifics are is putting the cart before the horse. How can you just come up with these specifics if you don't know where you're drawing your inspiration from for those specifics beforeyou figure out what the specifics are? If Bob has kielbasa, then we've made conscious decisions about aesthetic (that Bob knows how to make traditional Polish, pork-based preserved meats, which means that Bob likely comes into contact with something like Polish people or is one himself, all of which points to either a slavic-inspired or metropolitan aesthetic). If Bob's sausage selection has nothing to do with the aesthetic, then it's a detail that's not worth discussing because it doesn't tell us what things are like (unless the conscious decision is thatthings are different here than elsewhere in the setting); if its consistent with the aesthetic and flows from it, we can duplicate the results by applying the aesthetic (slavicism or metropolitanism) to the immediate game demand ("What sort of sausages does Bob have for sale?") and bam! the job is done.

One of the toughest things about learning to use aesthetics as I am has been learning to trust myself to make the right choices. To make choices that improve the game, flow from the game and work to enrich that game. In my experience, having a good aesthetic guide for your game is like the Force: it surrounds your game, penetrates it, binds your universe together. When you need an answer, you dig deep and feel for the answer that your aesthetic is trying to provide; live in that moment and go.

This does not mean "don't prep." This means "prep only what you're going to need for the next session or two," but I've got more to say on that front. In fact, I already have.

And a quick detour, because that's how we roll.

Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 1:04 PM
I'll be thinking of Bob the Butcher at lunch due to the sandwiches I brought with today, which informs me to ask: is his kielbasa bialy or czerwony? I'm having bialy today, myself. 
Edgar Johnson
Yesterday 1:13 PM
It's a secret. He'll take it to the grave!
Edgar Johnson
Yesterday 1:16 PM
One of these days (hopefully at the height of summer) I need to get up there and go out and about to eat with you. All this talk of kielbasa is driving mad with desire! For food. Yeah, for food.
Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 1:27 PM
Any time, Johnson. You should really come up for the Polish festival in Grand Rapids in October. Beer, polka, food... I think it's what heaven would be like. 
Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 6:06 PM
"Bob the Butcher... the zine" - IN THIS ISSUE: This Year's Top Dungeon Beast Cuts - Intelligent Fungus Counts as Meat, Right? - Know Your Sausage! A Field Guide to Preserved Meats 
Edgar Johnson
Yesterday 6:49 PM
10 Sexy Ways to Eat a Sausage
It's All Greek to Me: Gyros and Souvlaki for People Who Can't Pronounce Them
And don't forget his opinion column, "The Finest Cut."

Now, just a quick reply to the last serious comment Adam made:

I feel like aesthetic coming from specifics rather than becoming the rubric by which to determine what the specifics are is putting the cart before the horse. How can you just come up with these specifics if you don't know where you're drawing your inspiration from for those specifics beforeyou figure out what the specifics are?
I think this is the main place where Adam and I part ways in our conception of game prep. I don't see this as an either/or thing. My details usually inform my aesthetic. I get caught up in them as a New Cool Thing (thanks, ADD!) and forget for a moment the overarching theme, at least in part. So, for example, in my thinking about elves (teaser for the upcoming issue of the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad zine), I started with the iron susceptibility of the DCC elf class and asked, "Why isn't this used?" Then I thought about what it meant, on the level of the specific things that might happen to an elf character if iron susceptibility was taken to a logical conclusion (i.e., like heavy metal poisoning). What would the details of specific NPCs' lives be like if that were a thing, in Ur-Hadad? It would depend on who you were. So, thinking about the details of NPCs I'd like to use for that sort of thing got me thinking about what a society where this was an issue might be like (more of an meta-aesthetic thing). That got me to thinking about conflict in that society based on class divisions, technologies that might be utilized to help the problem, specific game-based effects on player characters and the like. I even started thinking about a detail like a faction leader who resents that a lower-class elf is doomed to horrible death, and becomes a terrorist. Cool details I may never actually use in a game, but which inform the overall feel of the game, and how I might present it to my players.

My point: Sometimes I find that specific details that I think are cool become the resource material that provides the resulting aesthetic that will then be used to generate other details. Then, some of those details recur to the aesthetic frame and change it in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. I work back and forth between them--not always, but pretty regularly.

Another example. I wrote an adventure called "Mysterious Temple of the Serpent God," where I wrote the entire adventure from song titles by the band High on Fire.* One of the songs used was "Frosthammer." The existence of the artifact known as the Frosthammer of Graki Deathstalker was a detail that I used to resolve other things that occurred in that adventure. The significant detail is, for me, one of the things that helps me to develop a coherent aesthetic. That said, I understand that it also can work the other way, and has done so for me, as well.

*Note that this way of generating the adventure was based on using song titles for designing specific encounters, and part of developing the adventure, as such, involved me discovering a specific aesthetic framework based on those encounters. So, detail to aesthetic. That said, the method for generating my encounters might be seen as, itself, an aesthetic. I do not agree that the method is, in itself, an aesthetic, because it lacks content associated with aesthetic frames. I could have used REO Speedwagon to do the same thing. The method would be exactly the same, but the result would have been completely different (one would hope).

Another thing: I like having details in my adventures, even if they don't get explored by the PCs. Here's why. If you've ever played a CRPG like, say, Morrowind, and been frustrated by doors you can't open, or objects you can't manipulate, or NPCs you can't interact with, it creates a sense of futility, for me. It gets to feeling "railroady." Prepping a single location, like Bob the Butcher's shop, and thinking about what kinds of things he has there, and how that that implies what sort of neighborhood it's in, and how that affects the kind of customers he attracts, and what kinds of problems he has, etc., etc. All of those little things give me a better picture of the larger world around Bob. He becomes real and, as a result, the whole world becomes more real. The aesthetic springs from the details of the place just as much as the place is birthed from an aesthetic preference. Good fiction is like that, too: An "insignificant" detail can become the thing that makes the story meaningful for a particular reader. (and yes, I realize that I'm conceding Adam's point that this is something that is "significant" because a PC actually encounters it at the table, for this example). The larger point, though, is that the detail may not get encountered, at all, but it may help me (as a GM) understand the larger aesthetic and produce things that are encountered.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Preparation and the Origins of "The Game"

It's been far too long since I posted, and I have little excuse beyond a lack of coherent and useful thoughts, or maybe it's just a lack of belief that I have anything useful and original to say to you guys. I think maybe I need to set that attitude aside and just have some thoughts about gaming, period. I'll try harder.

Anyway, it's time to dust off the keyboard and put down a few words about something I read today.

My good friend +Adam Muszkiewicz, over at Dispatches from Kickassistan has written a thing about dynamic game preparation and aesthetics. Making a slight dig at +Donn Stroud, he said:
 I know there are DMs out there who do all this prep -- like, insane amounts of prep, right +Donn Stroud? -- and who seem to enjoy this sort of shit more than actually gaming. That's cool, whatever, write your novel. It won't help you at the table. And the table is where the game is, nowhere else. 
When he posted the blog, he also observed that it might be bullshit. It is, of a kind. He's also voiced similar thoughts to me, and in a recent Drink, Spin, Run podcast, with guest +Harley Stroh. Here's why this is bullshit.

I am one of those people, like Donn, who is somewhat fixated on preparation. I like to know the places I'm talking about at the table, as a GM. I like to have an idea who the factions are that inhabit these places. I like to know about some of the specific people who live in these places, and how they look, act, and think. I like to have some sense of how these places, things, and people might interact with the characters who encounter them. I like to know how the world in which the game takes place actually functions. I think this is something that Adam can appreciate. What he fails to recognize is that my method (extensive prep) leads to the same outcome as his method (intensive prep), and is necessary, not because I'm trying to write my long-awaited novel, but because that's how my brain works. The landscape for the game requires that my mind be engaged in some very specific ways, otherwise the inspiration must be drawn from elsewhere, and I simply don't have the depth of particular kinds of experience (in gaming, especially) that he does.

Where Adam and I differ is in terms of methodology, but even then I don't think we're so far apart. Adam preps, too, but it is possible that he doesn't recognize what he's doing as preparation, because it doesn't resemble what I do; and the level of detail I put into the sort of prep that I do may seem like more than it is, for someone who doesn't approach it this way. Let me give you an example.

Lately, when I have the time and inclination, I've been drawing a map of the city of Magyaru. The Magyaru in my mind has seven levels, rising from the sea and up the side of a great mountain. So far, I've mapped approximately on third of the lowest level, called Harbortown. There are roads and neighborhoods and buildings. I've probably drawn a couple hundred buildings. I plan to map the rest of it, as well, in time. Here's the thing. I'm doing this a prep for gaming, but not in the sense that I know what's in every building, or the name of every street, or even that I have specific ideas about how "The Game" is going to unfold; rather, it is preparation of my mind to be fertile in responding to what my players do at the table. I know a few of the people in this place (significant NPCs), the sorts of things they do, and what currently concerns them. I also have some ideas about the organization of the city into districts, and (to a very limited extent) neighborhoods. I also have some ideas about what's happening on larger scales, cultural and social.

For example, the design of the city means that there are open sewers on every level below the highest. They drain from east to west, into the river that marks the city's western boundary. Such a feature as an open sewer is, to put it bluntly, a shitty thing to have in your neighborhood. So, the neighborhoods along the length of such features are, necessarily, the worst of their kind, at least for the district. In the higher, more desirable districts, it's better than in the lower ones. In fact, the richest of the residents of Magyaru might have ways to abate the stench from the open sewers on their levels (e.g., hordes of slaves dumping quick lime into the canals). Not an ideal situation, but certainly better than those bastards down in Harbortown. This is a simple matter of political economy, but knowing this fact provides the city itself with a logic. It establishes it's flavor, its aesthetic. Here's a few ideas that spring from knowing this.

  • There are striking class differences in this city.
  • The very lay of the land underlines and accentuates these differences.
  • Those with more can use their money and influence to abate some of the worst things about the places where they live.
  • People obsess about those differences, so they (particularly the most prosperous) pay close attention to social comparisons with their nearest peers. This causes resentment and jealousy among them, and provides one of the many ways they mark (in a social sense) their place in their society.

Sure, these are pretty easy things to know about any city, in general, but by prepping in the way that I do, I know why and how they are that way, in particular, for this city. For me, as a GM, it makes my understanding of the city coherent in a way that not having that prep in place could not. As a result, I could, right now, this very instant, take a group of players and start playing a game. Based on who they are, and what their abilities are, I can present them with a range of options (adventure hooks), and away they go. Sure, I might have some idea about what is "supposed to happen," but it really doesn't matter if that thing happens. I know enough about this place and its people and institutions that I can "wing it." They players can introduce things into the picture through their actions and questions. If, for example, I need a merchant or a tavern, something like that, I can make one up or I can simply ask, "What's the tavern called? Who runs it? What kind of place is it?" Then, it becomes canon. I get to use it in other games.

So, it's not so much that I'm writing my novel, as Adam said (and I don't really think that was more than a playful jab at Donn, mind you), but that I'm working in my chosen profession. I was trained first as a sociologist, and then as a rhetorician. What unites my work in these fields is my interest in cultural production, change, and the like. So, on a micro level, I am interested in the lived experiences of specific human beings and how various aesthetics, social orders, relationships, etc., are made meaningful by and/or to them. Largely, this is about social orders and the semiological systems that accompany them. On a macro level, I am concerned with political economy, writ large, and how that political economy interacts with various sociocultural phenomena in particular social spaces. That is, I'm interested in how the Big Picture affects specific elements of the Little Picture.

I don't talk about that stuff at the table. More likely, if one of the players has a question about where they might find the notorious pirate queen, Red Varza, I would point them in the direction of The Groin, a district in Harbortown. It's called that because it lies between two large avenues (The Avenue of the Emperors and the Avenue of the Merchants), and these divide Harbortown. The Groin is a free-for-all kind of place serving both the Imperial presence in West Harbortown and the commercial-industrial presence in East Harbortown, and lies between the "legs" of the avenues (hence, the name). In addition, because of all of the trade entering Magyaru's harbor, from distant Ur-Hadad and places beyond, there is a strong maritime, transient population of merchant sailors, Imperial crews, smugglers, pirates, and so forth. This makes it a dynamic place, and (often) a violent and dangerous one. This means that there are those in the district who work very hard to establish and maintain criminal and commercial enterprises, to build, control, and destroy those enterprises, just to make a simple living, and so forth: a host of competing interests. However, those interests are knowable and have a logic to them, because I know the lay of the land, some things about its people and its visitors, and so forth. My growing map of Harbortown makes that possible for me to do, on the fly, because it's just Stuff That I Know about that place. That thinking is partly My Story, but more largely my understanding about such places, and how they ought to be, in a more flexible, logical sense.

I have similar thought processes with regard to factions in the city, and external relations with outlying districts and the natives peoples of this land. I write a lot of this stuff on index cards, color-coded by function (NPCs, places, factions, etc.), and (eventually) put them in Scrivener. The players, of course, in the guise of their characters, affect those people and factions, in ways small and large. I often incorporate, for example, new NPCs and places, and generally locate them where they seem "logically" to belong. Many of these new elements come out of game play. I write them down, they get put into the files, and they become "real" in some sense. These specifics don't, however, tend to change what is generally true of Magyaru, in the sense that shit doesn't change for most people, but can change very radically for very particular people, sometimes, with a little luck (good or bad). The world, as it is, continues to be very much how it is. Also, and this is where I think I must disagree with Adam, it's not because I already know The Story. This is not a novel. It is a real place where the game takes place. What happens at the table is important. It has consequences. It does not, however, change what the place is about or what kind of place it is. Maybe later, those consequences will become longterm facts of the place, but that's not resolved in the short term.

For example, I have  group of PCs hunting for Red Varza (notorious pirate queen) who is rumored to have pirated a missing treasure ship, which had been bound for Ur-Hadad before it went missing. Red Varza is an NPC who I came up with for a specific purpose: I needed pirates, so I named one. That one eventually because a woman, because why not. She became embroiled in this plot (with some local criminals AND a second group of PCs) to pirate the ship. The Imperial treasure ship was significant because some PCs had magicked a standing stone into gold, and the (22 tons of) gold was appropriated by the Imperials to be sent back to Ur-Hadad. These PCs wanted to get "their" gold back (Dammit!). Also, in the background, the native peoples are outraged by the desecration of their sacred henge, and have begun burning colonial villages; colonial troops have been sent to suppress them. Those last couple of True Things are because of specific actions of some PCs in my game world, and arose as a result of the logical (and unintended) consequences of their actions. But those outcomes are based on the way I prep the world. In my mind, it's a real place (Yes, I know it's not really real.), with real people. They have motivations, too, just as real as those of the PCs. The place where they live has a culture and a social order. Nobody gets to escape that, but they often try to. Occasionally some may rise or fall, but the Way of Things doesn't change.

The place I've described has been used for (at this point) six different groups of players, face to face, on G+ hangouts, at conventions, and even in the classroom. Every single thing that happened in those games, if it affected The World in some significant way, made it's way into my campaign. Each group's actions have the possibility of affecting the world, and other groups who play there. An example: The ongoing hunt for Red Varza is (put bluntly) one group of PCs hunting another group of PCs. It's entirely possible they might kill each other at some point. I can't write that shit, but I can prepare for it.

A final note: I think Adam preps just as diligently as I do. He may not recognize it as such. But when I hear him talk about Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, or Jack Kirby, or first edition Warhammer Fantasy, or that game I've never played, or that comic book I've never heard of, or any of the many, many wonderful things he discusses on a regular basis (and brings to his gaming tables), what I hear is him saying is, "This is how I prepare for my game." He doesn't go in naked. He's be preparing and training for this for decades. He remembers all this stuff, and he can pull it out as needed. He's a genius in this regard; I am trying to learn some of those chops. I don't have that experience. I've only been back in gaming since 2006, after being absent from it since about 1983. I do have other experience, though, and that experience drives my methods for game prep.

What's different between his method and mine has to do with inclination and training. I am inclined toward a systematic approach, because I need that to think things through. I also tend to forget the things that don't make sense in the system, or that don't get included in it, so I have to have a way to include them. I also am trained to think about societies and cultures as systems, and to have theories about how they function. I've read extensively in social and cultural theory, media studies, etc., and I include what I've learned in my game world. I've done a lot of writing, too, from technical writing to fiction and poetry. That's also a part of my "prep." What I don't do, though, is think of this as My Story, with the PCs simply along for the ride. I've tried that, and the games are terrible when I do so. I don't have fun, and the players don't have fun. Taking the next step, though, to establish My World, provides a much different experience, and one (I think) very similar to what Adam is going for.

Bottom line: In game prep, I think we're going to the same place. I just take a different path to get there.