Monday, June 28, 2010

Dungeon Blocks and Me

One of my readers asked me a question about how I use the Hirst Arts blocks in play and whether my use of them interrupts the flow of a session. I thought it an interesting enough question that I'd make a post about it.

To really answer this properly, you have to understand how I run a game session. I'm not what you'd call a deeply "immersive" referee. I am big on describing things, sometimes at great length, but I don't do it in a way intended to "transport" the players into the game world. I address them as if they were their characters -- using "you" rather than "your character," for example -- but there's an implicit understanding that this is an artifice. I've never been a huge proponent of the "theater of the mind" approach to refereeing. I prefer to maintain a distance between myself the game world and it's a distance my players maintain as well.

No doubt this will disappoint some people, but there it is. My players and I freely "break character" and shift back and forth between the game world and the real one, in order to kibitz, ask and answer questions, and just socialize. I'm not a referee who demands the full attention of my players and they often are perusing books, jotting stuff down in notebooks, and so forth while I'm holding forth at the head of the table. That's pretty much how I've always played and I'm comfortable with it. Amateur thespianism is a rare occurrence in my groups and, when it does occur, it's more a matter of whim than planning beforehand. In short, we never forget we're playing a game, even when I'm portraying some NPC giving an impassioned speech to the PCs.

So, when the characters are exploring Dwimmermount, I'll roughly describe what they see, using vague terms first -- "It's a cave approximately 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep with a passageway heading off to the northwest and another one heading to the south." -- and then providing more specific details as the characters enter the room and start poking around inside of it. Dordagdonar's player is mapping this out on graph paper and I'll give him more accurate information for his map once the PCs have taken the time to fully explore an area. Concurrently, we're often using our Hirst Arts blocks to create a rough-and-ready representation of the area. Note that I said "representation." We have a lot of blocks at our disposal but not enough to show every possible room/cave/area with 100% accuracy. Sometimes -- often -- we just have to make do with "good enough."

When this mapping and block building is happening, we're generally not "in character" except in the sense that I try to describe things as the characters would see them. That means leaving out details or elements that they haven't looked for or wouldn't notice without special effort. But the mapping and building are both activities in which the players are involved rather than their characters, if you understand what I mean. I have never worried about maintaining a "mood" or "atmosphere" while playing; that sort of thing either happens or it doesn't in my experience and assembling a dungeon room from plaster blocks no more breaks it than does rolling dice or ticking off damage on a character sheet does. Or rather, it can break the mood but it doesn't have to. As I said, I don't aim to manufacture mental states in my players through dialog or description. Sometimes it happens anyway and sometimes it doesn't but I have comparatively little ability to achieve either end by design.

I don't mean to repeat myself but I'll say again that my group never loses site that we're playing a game, so putting together a dungeon doesn't disrupt "the flow" any more than any other aspects of the game rules. We keep ourselves at a certain distance from what's going on in the game, simultaneously being observers outside the events of the session even as we're also participating in those events from the inside. This is the most natural way to play for me. I can't really imagine immersing myself so much in the game world that I feel like I'm really there. Neither can I look down on everything like a game board and treating the characters as mere pawns to be pushed around. This is a middle ground between the two approaches and it's the one that, in my limited experience, makes the game most accessible to newcomers who might otherwise worry about "doing it right" without reducing it to a level of abstraction that bleeds away any personal investment in what's going on.

I hope that made sense.

25 comments:

  1. My weekly 4E group basically has the same approach. I've come to realize that humor at the table is an essential part of the fun and humor doesn't happen in a more immersive game.

    There's no way you can't not make jokes when your fighting a Gelatinous Cube as happened last night (even if its dissolving your character's skin as your laughing).

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  2. Makes sense to me. I personally don't feel the need to immerse everyone in the setting and pretend it's real. Things can get weird if you do that. Never forget that you're playing a game!

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  3. I always sort of thought the people who claimed that level of immersion were sort of off center. I mean, I can't feel like I'm there if I am sitting around a kitchen table in the air conditioning eating some potato chips. People who claim they can either seem not quite right or just odd.

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  4. This is similar to how I play as well. It's also why mechanics are so critical to this mode of play. Whether it is the joy of gp to xp or the downward spiral of Sanity in a Call of Cthulhu game, the player needs an interface to the character. The immersive style of play doesn't need those tools, depending entirely on story and role to "feel" what the character is feeling... I think. Personally, that seems like too much pressure for me.

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  5. We almost always use Hirst Arts and Dwarven Forge blocks in the way you describe. Whenever I try to pull back from them for reasons of laziness or experimentation, the players end up getting them out and using them anyway. The players usually have their hands on the blocks as much as I do, building what I am describing - I will correct the block build if they are inaccurate.

    I have to admit though, that sometimes I get tired of the blocks. They kind of make every dungeon look the same. They are mostly good for describing spatially complex and/or tactical situations.

    I also want to say something in defense of immersive roleplaying, which I am getting the feeling is unpopular amongst traditional D&D online people. Playing with a master narrator DM and losing yourself in thread is a great experience, much like reading fiction. Yes, it can feel damn weird at first and it's not for everyone, but I rather enjoy it. It's also worth pointing out that it CAN be achieved without funny voices or gaudy thespianism.

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  6. >>Playing with a master narrator DM and losing yourself in thread is a great experience...<<

    Do you know of a podcast recorded RPG session that is an example of this? My games as James described and always have been. I wouldn't have it any other way but I would like to hear someone else's immersive session and to see what happens. I have listened to 8 or 10 recorded RPG sessions in podcast form and frankly they have all been terrible. None of which represented a game session I have been or would want to be part of.

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  7. I also want to say something in defense of immersive roleplaying, which I am getting the feeling is unpopular amongst traditional D&D online people.

    I think there's room (and proponents) for both.

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  8. @cibet - I know of no interesting session audio recordings. To me, immersion is the mark of a master DM and is very uncommon. DMs that can pull this off are rare and worth their weight in gold. Unlike written words or video or audio recordings it's not something you can bottle and sell. It's the thing that makes RPGs so unique and interesting and different from other tabletop games. Also, because so few people are ever able to experience effective narrative immersion, it's unlikely RPGs will ever be appreciated as anything other than a weird type of boardgame.

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  9. I think there's room (and proponents) for both.

    this (obviously)!

    i do feel that good immersive roleplaying is very hard to achive and doesn't happen very often. a great dm is a rare breed indeed. (edit: damn, cyclopeatron beat me to it)

    my gaming experiences are more like the ones described by james (and i like it that way).

    my own "skill" at "amateur thespianism" are the main reason why i will never larp... it would be pure suck for everyone involved.

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  10. @Paladin - Agreed! Certainly there's room for both gamish styles and more roleplayish styles. I think they can all be great, and variation between DMs is something that should be celebrated.

    In reality, the style of D&D I play is usually a more gamish style similar to what James M. describes.

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  11. It's interesting that you equate "flow" with immersive roleplaying. When I think about the "flow" of the session, OTOH, I'm generally thinking about pace and player engagement.

    My games feature the same kind of kibbitzing and socializing you talk about, but I consider that to be part of the flow of the session.

    And figuring out how to present a new area of the dungeon while minimizing "dead time" of setting up scenery or drawing on the battlemap is another part of managing flow for me.

    (For example, I use a battlemap. One simple trick is to draw and describe at the same time; or to draw and then describe. If I describe it before I draw it, OTOH, the players lose interest because the drawing rarely reveals anything the description didn't. The advantage of simultaneity is obvious, while drawing before describing gives a constant stream of discovery for the players -- the discovery of what I'm drawing and the discovery of my more detailed description of what the basic map is depicting.)

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  12. In my group, we use miniatures mainly to stage the positions of characters and monsters. Often, we'll use a battlemat to draw a quick sketch. We also have lots of old floorplans if required.

    In our Stonehell campaign, we use a different method - employing an LCD monitor laid flat. It works extremely well as the whole map can be drawn, as we go, in a single image. The section in play can then be viewed at multiple levels of close-up. Photos of the system in use and a fuller description, may be found in the following thread on the Goblinoid Games forum:

    http://www.freeyabb.com/goblinoidgames/viewtopic.php?t=1856&mforum=goblinoidgames

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  13. Most of the commentators seem to have a very binary view of immersion. As in you're either in the zone, or not, when in reality it's a spectrum. At least it attempts to get you to empathise with your character and react as your character should, rather than have you character react in the manner most beneficial to it from your god-like perspective. At it's most, at least for tabletop games, you are not so much there, as phrasing your instructions to the gamemaster in terms of the character.

    Of course, for LARPS and freeforms, because of the fact that you also represent your character physically, you can go much deeper. Which can be bad for some people as they forget that they are playing a game when caught up in the moment. With "tabletop" games, there is always going to be that layer of abstraction between you and the game.

    YMMV.

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  14. The whole chatter about "immersive group storytelling experiences" and Gameist theory and such and so on are the reasons I left Role Playing oh those many (in reality few) years ago.

    Personally I can't stand the amateur thespian types, everything they say at the table just sounds like forced lines from yet another corny fantasy novel.

    But thats just my personal taste.

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  15. I personally would not describe all immersive experiences as some kind of thespian stunt. Total bullshitg really as immersive does not have to rely on actimg chops. Immersive is the DM knowing his world and environs, understanding and acting on the motivations of NPC's, and presenting things with a touch of charisma.

    Trying to LAARP and joking through the game and focusing on other things are both bad in my book. I present a fairly immersive game, full of humor and some goofing. And I ain't no actor. I'm just that good that I can have things both ways.

    Sounds like a lot of people here, including James, would be just as well playing Pictionary or something. These semi-focused games I've been to are the reasons I just DM and hardly sit in as a player.

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  16. Sounds like a lot of people here, including James, would be just as well playing Pictionary or something. These semi-focused games I've been to are the reasons I just DM and hardly sit in as a player.

    Thank goodness you arrived in time with this insight or I might waste another 30 years doing it wrong ...

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  17. some people play Pictionary very immersively!

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  18. Hope my 35 years doesn't trump the 30 too hard.

    Not trying to break balls James, just saying that games I've been to that don't put the focus on the game over rehashing Monty Python routines or talking about movies or whatever very often suck. I have way more normal socializing time than I have game time. I don't have time to half ass it on a long unday afternoon or whenever you play. I have about 3 hours of game time on a weeknight about twice a month. I promise my players a game and that is what I focus on giving them. Don't do that, and at least half the players get up in arms about time wasting. That's because they came to game. Maybe your players just aren't that into it.

    Not saying that running an unfocused half-a-game is "wrong," it's just not what I or most of my players look for in a game. Nor do I look for acting chops.

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  19. Not saying that running an unfocused half-a-game is "wrong," it's just not what I or most of my players look for in a game. Nor do I look for acting chops.

    Who said anything about "half-a-game?" I can fully understand gamers who are "all business," because they have limited time. I have the luxury of being able to devote all of my Sunday afternoons and a good portion of the evening to hanging out and gaming with my friends and family, so I understand that our more "laid back" approach isn't to everyone's taste (nor does it work with everyone's schedule). But why the knock against this approach as "half-a-game" and "might as well be playing Pictionary?"

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  20. Sure James, I've been there with the longer weekend session in the past (and I miss them) where we could shoot some tequilas and talk about all sorts of things over those several hours. But later I always wish I had spent more time on the game focus. Maybe that you don't see your friends that much other than game night is the key.

    Right now for my short games I don't spend much time outside of the game with them (in the past it was mostly people I was already friends with), but I also got this group together to game, so I try to be a bit strict about the in game chatter outside of the first and last 20 minutes of the night.

    I think my ass got chapped by the concept of game immersion as some kind of acting thing. I'm not actor nor do I try to be, but I present a very immersive experience for my players despite the odd joke or off-game tangent.

    Again, my players like to joke around, but when there is too much I later get complaints. We are all in it together, but I like to make it my job to keep it on track (unless I feel especially silly that night). My players are coming for the D&D first and foremost. I try to give them one and transport them a bit to another place. I manage to do that without thespian tricks.

    If your friends are coming to hang out anyway, with D&D as just this "thing we are doing" is great. Sorry to say it was wrong. What I meant about Pictionary is that people don't usually come to a little dinner party just for that, it's "OK we'll also play some Pictionary for some laughs."

    Is it exactly half "we are here to socialize" and half "we are here for D&D?"

    Anyway, I think I'm inspired to post about this later today, and maybe there I can get how I feel about it across without denigrating your game, which I'm not really trying to do.

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  21. I always sort of thought the people who claimed that level of immersion were sort of off center. I mean, I can't feel like I'mthere if I am sitting around a kitchen table in the air conditioning eating some potato chips. People who claim they can either seem not quite right or just odd.

    If you can read a book and get absorbed in the story (possibly while sitting at that kitchen table eating potato chips) then you understand the phenomenon of narrativeimmersion. It doesn't require you to get all thespian, anymore than you need to put on a scarf and round glasses when reading Harry Potter. ;-)

    Do you know of a podcast recorded RPG session that is an example of this? My games as James described and always have been.

    I make no claims to being a "master narrator DM" but we do play in an 'immersive' style (which doesn't preclude some jokes and social chit chat). I've recorded some of those sessions if anyone is interested: Expedition to the Ancient Academy - Part 1

    Where I think you'll see the immersive part the most is when the players encounter something "scary" in the game and how they react to it (eg. "I'm not going in there" "I'm not touching that thing" "I run" etc)

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  22. I've listened to those podcasts before at the gym (up to where I can't make it out because of the audio, anyway). Since they sound equivalent to any game I've ever played or run, I guess we're quibbling over the definition of immersion, which is where I lose interest in the discussion.

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  23. I guess we're quibbling over the definition of immersion, which is where I lose interest in the discussion.

    I always figured this is how everyone played... but since reading RPG blogs and listening to podcasts I've seen a lot of different ideas.

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  24. Stuart: thanks, I just downloaded that to have a listen to when I get the chance (could have used it yesterday on my 8 hour drive from Nothern Cali).

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  25. this discussion is really interesting. and the dispute seems in some ways like one referees should have with their players. because no matter where the referee tries to lead, it doesn't work unless the players contribute.

    thinking about my players, there is one who is especially guilty of instigating chit-chat. no monty python happily, but perhaps more damaging "What are your plans for the summer?" cause you know, I have to look something up for half-a-minute. but this player also responds most strongly when i'm trying to "make a moment": real indignation when the King doesn't want to pay a promised reward, real fear when her character wakes up underground, real remorse when insect swarm obliterates the gang of bullies.
    and yeah, when it comes to pictionary, she's ready to climb into those drawings.

    so my referee philosophy is that rather than pushing one style, a really good referee can accommodate all styles. to let the immersion happen, but not to force it.

    of course any concrete advice on how to accomplish transcendence without thespianism would be welcome.

    finally, has anyone read "Kill All Monsters"? In some ways it's a typical "I *used* to play D&D and now I live in Williamsburg." kind of piece. Except that it goes a bit deeper, and more germanely, the guy talks about going to Lake Geneva to interview Gary Gygax and then play D&D with him. Gary seems a little embarrassed by the author's imitation of a giant crab.

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