Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Individual DM Differences

We all know about DM alignments, right? A fairly common way to envision different DM types is by gauging where they fall on the Good-Evil / Lawful-Chaotic axes. But there is another way of understanding DMs, one which I have only begun to understand based on thinking pretty much everyone DMed the same way I did.

My last post on the quantum ogre, solved the notion in my mind by simply deferring to DM improvisation. However, even as I wrote those thoughts my mind turned to several conversations I have had with other DMs that admit they struggle with improvisation and on the fly DMing. Coming up with connections, relationships, hooks, depth, backstory, for them takes time and thought and careful planning. They do not just "make it up as they go along " but prefer to have things thought out ahead of time so that they have a well designed or planned outline, at least, for their players.

The thought of showing up with nothing prepared to a game scares these DMs to death. Or if it doesn't scare them then they simply scoff off such play as haphazard and poor. They would never dare to lower their game to such a random and ill thought out fate. There is of course nothing wrong with this. Well planned campaigns reflect an attention to detail, a sense of immersion and completeness that on the fly DMing can often lack. These DMs often go the trouble to carefully prep miniatures, landscape scenes, select cool artwork, prep background music, even incense or other sensory immersion details. They have carefully planned the motives of NPCs and how they are connected to other NPCs in the region. Their maps have a level of description and detail that would rival the best commercial modules. Such DMS are in my opinion some of the most artful and skilled DMs out there.

Not all of these types of DMs, but some, will admit that when things start to head outside the lines they feel the need to close down the session, so they can return to their lair and prep the next expansion of the adventure. They are uncomfortable working on the fly, and are often at a loss when players start to wander outside the lines of their carefully constructed plans. This is perhaps with the idea of the quantum ogre begins to seem appealing. Shifting preplanned encounters around to foil players efforts to wander off track can begin to tempt such DMs who are far less comfortable letting players challenge them to improvise.

For these types of DMs it may be that my solution to the quantum ogre is less than satisfying. They don't want to railroad players down a certain path; but what is a plan-oriented DM supposed to do when their long hard hours of planning an encounter go to waste when the session starts with the players deciding to go a totally different direction? In these cases I am much less apt to censure or to cast stones, largely because I have no idea what DMing like this regularly is like.

I plan of course, and often in great detail. But I developed as an improvisational DM in my youth. Every afternoon as we got off the school bus my friends and I would decide whether we wanted to get together and game. I never knew when it was coming. I recall long and winding escapades in and around the Keep on the Borderlands. Exactly because it was a sandboxy adventure it lent itself to improvising and a gaming as you go sort of style. There were other settings, many often created out of whole cloth at the table--but it worked, and it worked incredibly well. There were sessions I planned thoroughly, usually pre-planned overnighters where I knew we when and where we were gaming--so I could plan ahead. But more often than not it was an in the moment impromptu session thrown together in less than 15 minutes. I assume those early gaming experiences made me a lot of what I am now as a DM.

So I am not the best to give advice to those DMs that may not be as comfortable with that approach. The best I can say, is know your players. Know what they are likely to do, work closely with them before, during and after you plan the next session. And don't feel bad when things occasionally go off track. Take some time planning personal wandering monster and encounter charts for your undoubtedly well thought out geographies and environments. That will help you get through the session in a pinch until you can get home and work with the creative randomly generated fodder from the improvised session. And don't fret about quantum ogres or Schrodinger's cats. They will be where they will be, dead or alive when you and your players need them.

Determinancy and the Quantum Ogre

I promised some time back to intellectually peruse the argument involving the quantum ogre, which has close connections to Shrodinger's cat. For those of you who are confused I'll briefly summarize (if you'll forgive my amateur physics):

Schrodinger's Cat: in quantum physics there is a phenomenon which is interpreted as two quantum states existing simultaneously until the two states collapse to one state when observed or measured. Schrodinger was not fond of this interpretation and used a reductio ad absurdam example by positing a box in which there was a cat. The cat's state of being alive or dead was to be resolved by the collapse of such a two state wave function. Thus he was showing the absurdity of the fact that until you open the box the cat is both alive and dead--reflecting the dual state of the quantum reality before collapse.

What the heck does this have to do with gaming? Confused yet?? Well, hopefully it will become clear in my next brief summary of the quantum ogre:

The Quantum Ogre: A DM carefully designs an encounter with an ogre for his group's next D&D session. The session begins and the party can choose to venture into the nearby town or the neighboring forest. The DM has not planned where the Ogre will be, he's waiting for the party to choose. Regardless of where the party chooses to go the ogre will be waiting for them there. He exists in both places equally until the party chooses, and then the Ogre will appear.

The Problem? Some feel that this takes away player agency. That the party's choice has no real meaning and therefore they really have no choice. It is just another way for DMs to railroad their parties down a certain predetermined path.

Well, problems with the analogy aside, this is an interesting dilemma. So much for the summary, now to my personal take and analysis on the Quantum Ogre.

Why the heck does it really matter?

I could leave it at that of course. I mean gaming is essentially making up things anyway. Does it really matter that the ogre was one place or the other? Unless of course the DM had somehow promised, or at the least led the party to believe, ahead of time that the ogre was in place X and then turns up in place Y. Of course even that can be fixed with a quick "He seems to have been travelling through this area the same time your were." Yeah, I know, lame; but you get the idea. Why does all this determinancy of DM results based on party actions matter in a universe where we are essentially making things up anyway?

Well, because it is never quite that simple. In a perfect world, the quantum ogre appears only occasionally. So infrequently in fact that a party should rarely be able to tell if a DM is "fudging" by putting an encounter he wants the party to have in place Y conveniently because the party chose to be there and not where the DM wished they had gone. It should happen about as often as we fudge a die roll to keep a story line moving or save a character from a potentially unfair death, or drop an extra healing potion or two in a treasure pile to keep the party going to the next encounter without stopping to rest, or place a trap in a place justifiably needed to teach a cocky thief a lesson or two. Things like that just shouldn't happen all that often if ever.

But they do and we all know they do. Even Gary Gygax was fond of rolling dice behind the screen for no other reason than to make the party nervous that something might be going on. It's all a part of the carefully staged act we DMs run all the time to keep things going when we need a trick pulled out of our bag. But if we find ourselves running games this way often there may indeed be something wrong--especially if we are not very good actors, or our decisions become decidedly slanted or apparently biased in some direction. Players aren't any dumber than we are anyway and according to many surveys--the best known of which appeared in Legends and Lore articles on the WotC site during the development of 5e--player's don't even like it when we make things too easy on them. They are playing the game for a challenge after all.

So it shouldn't really matter that much if we place the ogre in the party's path just because we want them to fight him. If the party really doesn't want to fight him and runs away back to the town or wherever, then we improvise again. We have the ogre shout in broken common, snot flying in all directions with his rage as he does so "OG FIND YOU YET, PUNY WEE ONES!!! AND WHEN OG FIND, HE SMASH YOU GOOD!!!"
Or something to that effect. And the Ogre becomes a sort of nemesis that chases them all over the region for some unfathomable reason. Maybe it's because the party relieved themselves on his toadstool garden when they passed by his cave.

What we definitely should not do is place Og back in town as soon as the party arrives there. And if the party decides to investigate the ruins to the north, we might have Og hunt them down, but the ruins should still be there for there adventuring pleasure. The idea of DM prohibition here is an old one that has been echoed since the time of the 1e DMG: Don't be a jerk DM! While an occasional quantum ogre is not going to spoil play, the purpose of the game is not to have the party ride on a DM constructed roller coaster ride--down a set of tracks, strapped in, from which they cannot deviate without death or worse.

And of course this is at the heart of the quantum ogre argument. Should a DM railroad a party into his predetermined encounters, or cater to their choices alone? Of course, as with any black and white, either-or, right-wrong argument there is usually no one answer. Rarely is it black or white but some shade of gray. The correct answer is in between of course. For let's say that the ogre was designed to be in his cave, but the party chose to venture into the town down the road instead of towards his cave. But we have no encounters for the road or the town. What do we do? We wing it of course, and maybe rely on some well designed random encounter tables suitable for that environ. We are still making stuff up. Let's say we roll up a merchant caravan. So as the party travels along the road they come upon a slower moving chain of large gypsy wagons loaded down with large barrels of cheap wine they are hoping to trade in town along with plying their gypsy talents: fortune telling, dancing, music, juggling, sword swallowing, fire eating and the like. A brief exchange between the caravan and the party occurs--the party is not interested in them really, even the old one eyed witch who is stroking a one eyed three legged mangy white cat and staring at them uncomfortably. Little does the party know that she is trying to distract their attention from the children crowding around them seeking one an all to pick their pockets and otherwise pilfer whatever they can from the party members. Maybe they catch one of them, maybe they don't; either way we are off to the races on an entirely new and potentially interesting campaign hook with scary evil gypsy witch.

In the end the ogre is no more determinant than the gypsy caravan. I mean here in our universe before the dice were rolled that came up "Merchant Caravan" they caravan was both on the road and not on the road. Quantum has nothing to do with it--good DMing does. And that, my friends, is my take on the quantum ogre dilemma.