The Game Is What Happens At The Table

Like a lot of kids back in the day, I owned a lot of RPG paraphernalia but rarely got the opportunity to play. After a brief faddish spate of Holmes Basic around ’79-’81, most of the kids I knew moved on to other things, so I read The Dragon, bought stacks of D&D supplements, and spent lots of time homebrewing settings that would never see actual play. Tolkien and Greenwood were my idols as I drew up royal genealogies and alien botanies and landscapes lush with purple prose. I am pleased that I can no longer find any relics of that juvenile work; I’d be embarrassed to look at it and I doubt it contains anything salvageable.

It’s taken me years to unlearn some of the lessons I taught myself during that dark decade without actual play. I continue to adjust my DMing so that I hew closer to principles that come much more easily to me in other games, principles that flee at the touch of D&D’s trappings.

Things to remember:

  1. Don’t plan too much. Sure, for a good sandbox dungeon you need to draw up a dungeon level or three and populate them, but beyond that, there’s no need to worry about which towns and countries are where, who all the NPCs are in town, what’s going on in the grand political arena of the game world, etc. If the players are interested in these things, you’ll find out in play, at which point you can fill in elements of the milieu ahead of them in the same way that you’d build out parts of your megadungeon as they descend new stairways to the lower levels.
  2. Don’t struggle too hard for consistency. Look at your mistakes as opportunities. Did the players notice that you’ve given three different names for the local lord over the last three sessions? Sure, that’s because you keep forgetting his name, but instead of “fixing the problem” by retconning the earlier names, just roll with it and say that there have been three different lords. Is this the result of assassins? Plague? A dreadful curse that the ruling family will pay your band of heroic adventurers oodles of gold to lift? What started as an error is now a plot hook!
  3. It’s just a game. Don’t fret over the structural integrity of your dungeon level or the exact details of the goblins’ food chain! Don’t get aggravated when your players give their characters weird names or declare that a PC’s life goal is to find and consume the perfect cheese. This isn’t a novel, and it won’t fall apart if the mood wanders a bit.

Once the upper levels of the dungeon have been set up and you’ve figured out the basics of the nearest town (if appropriate), the DM’s immediate work is done. The rest of the canvas can remain blank until there’s cause to fill it in. Such cause should come, directly or indirectly, from the players or as an extension of their interactions with NPCs. Every foreign land that a PC hails from, every distant dungeon marked on a treasure map, will fill in a bit of that canvas; don’t fill it in too early lest you clog up that open space!


11 Responses to “The Game Is What Happens At The Table”

  1. 1 Brendan
    March 22, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    “Don’t get aggravated when your players give their characters weird names”

    I thought a couple of weeks ago silly names threatened to bring gaming universes down around DMs ears everywhere. I’m glad the threat has passed.

  2. March 23, 2010 at 1:56 am

    At Gary Con, diaglo (wearing his Hat of d02, which knows no limit) played a character named Reggie Stan, the Whirling Dervish Man. Many characters have titles, but that was this one’s name – diaglo insisted on filling in the rest whenever I tried to shorten it to Reggie, and soon I was trained to do the same.

    The fact that this did not collapse the gaming universe means we can rest easy, I think.

  3. 3 Pete
    March 23, 2010 at 7:18 am

    4. Your players are having more fun than their faces let on. This was the greatest DM lesson for me during my similar transition from thinking and dreaming about gaming to actual DMing. Just because they aren’t hooting and hollaring doesn’t mean they aren’t having a great time, and when you are thinking that your adventure is a shambling inconsistent mess, it is entirely likely they are having fun and don’t care.

  4. March 23, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    @Brendan: I don’t always take my own advice! I recognize that it’s best for me to relax when the players get silly or try to get my goat, but sometimes my goat is gotten despite me.

    @Tavis: That’s an awesome name! Nonetheless, one can simultaneously acknowledge that it’s just a game and try and set a less-than-gonzo mood. Reggie Stan, the Whirling Dervish Man, will continue to bring joy to boys and girls everywhere, but he’s doomed as a result to the role of comic relief.

    @Pete: Yes, that’s a very important lesson! I’m still working on that one. Mainly I get around it by constantly telling my players to shower praise on me. ;-)

  5. March 24, 2010 at 12:55 am

    I disagree that Reggie Stan the Whirling Dervish Man will always be comic relief. I think D&D characters are like Tintin; the fact that the first impression they give is a silly one doesn’t stop them from being protagonists when the panels around them get thrilling. In fact, like Tintin their cartoonishness may actually make it easier to identify with them. An angsty comics character like the Punisher takes himself seriously enough to become laughable; a character who rolls a 4 Charisma, earns the “extraordinary laughable” descriptor, and chooses a name to match may nevertheless become a figure of pathos or heroism as events dictate – assuming they survive that long! Note that their name may not survive as long; when the pace of the adventure picked up and everyone was racing to catch Jahalla the Circean before real-life dawn arrived and we all collapsed, diaglo didn’t correct me when I said “Reggie falls into a pit” instead of “Reggie Stan the Whirling Dervish Man falls into a pit”.

  6. March 24, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    I’m not a fan of angsty super-serious characters either, but “Reggie Stan the Whirling Dervish man” does sound a bit too goofy for me (no offense to Diaglo, and if I were the Dm and this was a character someone was playing I’d probably let it go, but I’d also be thinking that this guy wasn’t really interested in the game). The cognitive dissonance for me is the arguments I’ve been in with people that demand that game worlds be rational serious no-nonsense models of simulation..where characters are non-heroic and disposable scroungers and survivors, that “immersion” (for whatever value that entails) is the true goal,… AND that players with silly character names be treated as perfectly acceptable parts of the setting.

    Which leads me to two conclusions:
    1. I see silly names as directly related to the disposability of the characters, or perhaps the players not being that into the setting or the game itself.

    2. The dissonance itself is an admission that isn’t being made; it’s supposed to be immersive AND you want to call your guy “Bimbo the Nood-Froodle”? Immersive for who? (Now, maybe that isn’t everyone’s argument, but it’s one I seem to hear a lot).

  7. March 24, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    @Tavis: Your thesis is plausible, but in actual play I’ve yet to see someone change a character’s name from a goofy one to a more serious one, while I’ve seen name changes go in the other direction. Have there been changes of this nature in your White Box game?

    @Peter: As someone who does not, in fact, name his characters things like “Reggie Stan the Whirling Dervish Man” or “Bimbo the Nood-Froodle”, I have little insight into why people name their characters thusly. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s often a defense mechanism allowing players to maintain their emotional distance from play.

    Things that players might fear would include:

    * Taking the game too seriously
    * Being viewed as taking the game too seriously (being a ‘geek’)
    * Being viewed as a poor role-player

    Tagging your character with a goofy name or a comical trait lets you deflect criticism by saying, “Hey, it’s just a game, don’t take it too seriously, and hey! Look over there! Don’t pay attention to the insecurities behind the curtain!”

    On the other hand, there’s any number of other possible explanations, like a signal of disinterest (as you suggest), an effort to get attention, or a simple indication that the player wants the game to be goofy and gonzo. I’d say that you have to look at each example on its own, in its own context.

  8. March 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    “I’d say it’s often a defense mechanism allowing players to maintain their emotional distance from play.”

    I actually hadn’t considered that possibility. I think you’re correct on that too.

  9. March 24, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Silly names have a long tradition in D&D (eg Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter from B1(?)). I don’t go crazy with names, but I do name guys things like “Bonspiel” or “Bo Lo Bao” (a curling term and chinese pastry, respectively). And it’s because the dissonance is funny.

    When you meet the King, he’s obligated by the social contract to refer to you as “Unkill Goregargler”, because players have absolute control over their characters, and that’s what’s on your sheet! The dissonance is funny.

    I also do it in a game like Red Box because more than likely, (Sir) Bonspiel (von Helmet) will die horribly when someone else in the party fumbles and douses him in burning oil. So rather than spend a lot of time on his name, paternity, back story, etc, I give him a name more appropriate to a “hero” who will probably die in a mishap, rather than facing down with a demon of the ancient world, while his companions escape with the artifact that can save the world.

    Also, serious sounding fantasy names tend to be boring.

  10. March 25, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Eric, I think that you’re right that silly names are indicative of a desire to distance oneself from the action. I think this is a Good Thing. I agree with Zak S’s aesthetic discussion of distance here, and I also note that other distancing devices, like dice and character sheets, are what separate roleplaying games from Charles Tart’s experiments in mutual hypnosis. From what I know about those, unfettered expression of the unconscious in a setting where participants agree to treat it as establishing a reality gets very hairy very quickly. If playing Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter helps people remember it’s just a game, that’s all for the better IMO. (Back in the day I don’t remember silly names, but I do remember people leaping across the table and hitting one another over in-game events).

    The kinds of changes of names I’ve seen are from “Reggie Stan the Whirling Dervish Man” to “Reggie”, and “Ookla the Mok” to “Ookla”, so this is hard to distinguish from just making them easier to say. Some name changes in the serious direction haven’t taken root: John Fighter remembered his not-as-funny real name, but no one (including myself) remembers what it is. But I feel strongly that the *meaning* of the name shifts from being a joke to being the moniker of a person who has reality in the setting.

    Arguably, one thing that giving a character a funny name means is “I want to verify that the limits set on my creativity as a player are wide enough to let me express myself” and “I want to play a character that grows from being a buffoon into a hero.”

  11. March 26, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Last night while reminiscing about my masterful comment (above) I had a sudden and unwelcome flashback to my first D&D character: a Fighter with the sophisticated and elegant name “Ransom”.

    The other players in the game, who were all older kids with high level PCs, teased me mercilessly and referred to my character as “Rancid” for the rest of the campaign. And when the DM rolled a wicked critical on the Arduin tables that crushed his lungs and reduced his Str and Con by 1/2, he refused to let me retire Rancid and roll up a new guy.

    That experience may have colored my opinion about “serious” names.

    I defy anyone to make fun of Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2010

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