Notes from the Newbie GM

You come here for the video game content, right?  Too bad.  This isn’t a video games blog.  This is an Aether blog.  Usually I talk about video games, because that’s what’s fun to me.  But really, I talk about whatever the hell I want.

And today, whatever the hell I want is a different type of gaming.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Recently, I picked up the role of ongoing GM for the first time.  Building up a campaign, not just a few one shots.  And it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  Most of the group of players I have here are the same group I learned to play with, and they’re all much more experienced than I am.  Most of them are even more experienced GMs than I am.  As it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  And I think GM’ing for this group is even harder that it would be with a group of complete newbies.  These guys, they freakin’ see right through everything I’m doing.

In any case, I’ve got a handful of sessions under my belt, now.  It’s been an odd experience getting this far.  Here’s a handful of thoughts I’ve had on the process the way up here.

All the Resources are Worthless

Everything geared towards the “New GMs.”  All of it.  Absolutely unhelpful.  Even the things that you think might be helpful.  You would think the Dungeon’s Masters Guide would be essential.  That’s what teaches you how to do the whole thing, right?  Nothing.  If it didn’t come with a list of magic items, it would not be worth anything.  Sure, it has a whole bunch of tables if you’re wanting to roll the dice and randomly generate your world, but just like how procedural generation leads to boring level designs in video games, would you ever expect that to lead to something engaging on the tabletop?  Anything else it has, if you’ve been a player, you already know.  You’ve seen it in action.  You’ve lived it.  And it’s easier to translate that experience than it is to try and pick something up from reading.

But that’s okay, we’ve got the whole wide interbutts at our fingertips, right?  Ehhhhhh…………..  No.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a good newbie GM’s guide.  I’ve even yet to see some newbie GM tips that are helpful.  They’re all either floofy platitudes that don’t really give you anything, they’re concepts that are either over your head or too advanced to work in until you learn to manage your players, very specific things that would not work with the way that you or your players intend to have your fun, or they’re so obvious as to be pointless if you’ve ever been a player.  All of it.  Absolutely all of it.  Even the newbie guides I’ve seen from people who otherwise have intelligent things to say about D&D fit everything into one of those four categories.  And for Kord’s sake don’t go into any sort of online discussion on the subject.  For whatever reason, it seems that the only people heading to talk to others about it have absolutely no interest in actually listening to anyone else.  So many opinions going in all sorts of directions, and no way to figure out what’s good there.

So what do you do if you want to learn GM’ing?  Well, first, spend some time as a player.  You may have noticed that was a common theme of what I had above.  It will do a lot for you if you’re wanting to build worlds of your own to spend time in other’s.  It will teach you things.  From my experience, it’s the best way to get at what you need to know.  Beyond that, just look up regular tips for GM’ing.  Go for the ones for more experienced GMs.  For whatever reason, when they’re talking to the newbies it makes people’s brains go all weird, but you can see some solid material that still gets you what you need to know if you look at what they say to some peers.  Thinking your way through that stuff will teach you a lot more than the weird stuff they’re flinging at the fresh GMs.

Your Players Will Follow Your Lead.  Easily.

From what I’ve been seeing from other GMs, it’s a common struggle to get players to follow on your plot strings.  To actually heed the call, pick things up, and go where you’ve got your material.  Either that pesky free will comes into play, or they completely miss all your intricately laid breadcrumbs, and it’s hard to get them to do anything without railroading.

I have not faced that at all.  Possibly, my experience may be different, because although I’m new, my players are outright D&D fanatics.  They throw around terminology that I don’t even know what it means years after playing.  They seem to have thoroughly explored every new piece of official content before it’s ever even released.  And as I said before, they’ve been seeing right through me.  Oftentimes, they’ve been moving in the direction of the quest before I’ve even laid it out for them.

I just need to hint “hey, there’s a thing there” and they’ll be making preparations for it.  Unless I’m unknowingly being railroady, they’re all actively reading into my intentions and making sure they’re playing along with it.  I’ve gone in some rather off the map directions, and they still keep on top of it.  I had a part where I had the guys basically taking over a town, allocating workers, distributing resources, working out policies, things like that.  I was expecting to actually have to explain this, to more mechanically prompt them into doing it, but no.

I didn’t feel like I even had to suggest it, they picked it up right away. That was a good feeling.

And it makes sense. The game’s not about having the GM against the players. Well, I mean, it kind of is, given that the GM controls the enemies in combat. But it’s not really. They’re working together. And yeah, railroading is no fun. But if players go outside of where the GM made the game, well, there’s really no game. They’d have to sit there while the GM just hammers something out on the fly, and it won’t be as well-thought as the stuff they put prep into. And they know that. So they’re not going to go marching to the east if the adventure is in the west, because that’s not fun for anybody.

That said, you do still have to know their character motivations. Had one player recently who decided that a villain marching through their town wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. Was totally in-character for him, but not super helpful. So sometimes you do have to make the call something that connects with them. In this case, I set his house on fire to get him to do something.

Take that sentence out of context.

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From Zero to One

By the numbers, the most effective, the most deadly enemy in video games is probably the goomba.

World_1-1_-_Gameplay_-_Super_Mario_Bros

Specifically, this goomba here. The first goomba you face in the game. I would bet that this one goomba has slain more players than any other creature in video games. Grandma gets you a new NES for Christmas, you plug it in with the game it came with, you jump into good old Super Mario Bros., start figuring out the controls, and bam! Before you even have any sense of precision with your jumping, before you even know how to properly maneuver, you’ve got the weakest enemy in the game in your face and bearing down on you. That has happened to thousands and thousands and thousands of players over the years.

For those of us steeped in video games, veterans of the form, that goomba is a complete non-issue. Seriously, one jump, a bunch of minute mid air navigations, we’re on his head and then on our way. A whole bunch of instinctual things going on there that we don’t even think about. Even if you’ve never played Super Mario Bros. before, even if 2-D platformers are completely foreign to you, if you’re enough into video games that you made your way to this blog, you can crush that goomba no problem. Because you’ve built up the gaming skills to know what to do.

Yet, if you don’t have that experience, that first goomba is a completely different challenge. You first have to recognize it as a threat, then recognize the movement that threat is making, predict the immediate actions of the threat, determine the appropriate response, mentally map the buttons to press to execute that appropriate response, evaluate the timing of the appropriate response, move yourself into position to execute the appropriate response, then press one button to launch yourself into the air than use the pad to control your descent.

You and I would be able to do this with all the efficiency of a professional athlete in the midst of the game. Most of this won’t even enter our consciousness, we’d just act on instinct and and put our active mind beyond it. Because we have practiced every single step in that process, or at least something very similar, over and over and over and over and over to the point that it doesn’t even require a thought. Again, it’s a very different game to someone just getting into the medium.

So how do you bring someone to that point? With everything that games have to offer, from the thrill of action to the mind-bendingness of puzzles to the sense of accomplishment of success to the involvement of the narrative and beyond, games have a lot to offer. They are an art form, a very multifaceted one that has some really great experiences within it, but one with a barrier to entry. And how do you take someone over that barrier?

That’s a problem I’ve found myself posed with recently. My most frequent Player 2 is my daughter. But her gaming journey has been a very sheltered one. Usually, she’s on the couch, backseat playing for me as I dominate games like I dominate all things. In recent years, she’s taken to picking up the controller herself, in pretty limited fashion. She’ll ride on the back of my kart and chuck items ahead of me as I drive in Mario Kart: Double Dash. She’ll copy along with what I do in Cooking Mama. She’ll take the reins of my cap and fly around in Super Mario Odyssey. She’ll wander through Kirby’s Epic Yarn with me, my carrying her through the dangerous parts. She’ll have fun, but these have largely been experiences where she doesn’t have much impact on the game, and is not at any real risk of failure. She’s not going to feel the sting of failure in these rolls, and she’s not really going to have to challenge herself. She gets frustrated at losing, and so everything we’ve been doing together have been experiences that I can carry her through. It’s all been very safe for her.
She’s decided she’s done with that. She’s tried some single player fun. She can wander around and catch bugs and fish in Animal Crossing. She can jump around Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64. But she wants more. She wants to grow and expand to becoming a True Doom Murderhead like her main man Aether. She’s been wanting to get into the same type of games I do. She wants to play appropriate to her level, of course, but she still wants to get into the type of game where she needs to be overcoming conflict, facing off against enemies, and navigating strenuous situations.

And that’s where I’ve been having issues. Finding a game that I can use to introduce her to the skills needed to succeed. And it’s been a lot harder than I expected. I set her up in Kirby figuring that’d be about as simple and flexible as it comes, had her watch me play through the first level, had her practice all the controls, and she still froze up when faced with her first enemy. As simple as that game is, just playing games in the first place involves so much mental actions that even a simple mindless encounter to me is overwhelming to her.

It makes me think of my own journey through video games. I remember being exposed to them for a while through friends before I ever felt comfortable enough to pick up the controller on my own. Once I did, my learning experiences were mostly through the standard classic fare. Super Mario Bros. 1-3, Kung Fu, the first two areas of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 over and over and over. I wasn’t aware of my skill progression there, but obviously, that did build the fundamentals I needed to find success in future games, and I kept building up on that over the years and decades since, to the point where I’m the planet-shattering warbeast I am today.

But how do today’s newbies do that? Going from 0 to 1 on anything skills-based is generally one of the hardest steps. And modern games are generally a fair bit more complicated than they were when I was growing up. The skill progression would be very similar, I’d imagine. But I find myself more stumped as to how to instill that in someone, how to put them on the path to competence while still engaging them with what they’re playing on the way there. Trial and error just doesn’t seem to work anymore.

220px-Rcr_gameplay.png

For the time being, we’ve got ourselves going back several years to River City Ransom, and that seems to be working the best for her. Requires a lot of basic positioning skills, while still being mashy enough that she can still be a meaningful part of the game just hammering on buttons without thought, and the beat up guys/get money/go shopping gameplay really feeds into the reward structure that resonates with her. Most importantly, this is one of the few games I’ve found that, as long as I’m running interference as the other player, she only needs to focus on one or two things at a time, cutting through a lot of the mental processes that altogether can be overwhelming and lead to freezing.  So that’s working for use right now. Next steps are still to come however. Hopefully I’ll stumble onto something that works then.