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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

http://www.kickassistan.net/2015/04/lets-talk-about-prepping-to-improvise.html


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

Adam Muszkiewicz
Yesterday 1:04 PM
 
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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
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"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
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Also:
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.