“You are who you pretend to be, so be careful who you pretend to be.”

That is the central thesis statement of Vonnegut’s  Mother Night as well as its most powerful line. While I enjoy Vonnegut in general and am also a particularly big fan of Slaughterhouse Five, God Bless You Mister Rosewater, the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House  among his works, this book, I think, is the pinnacle of Vonnegut’s creation.

It’s about a man who by day works as a propagandist for the Nazis and by night is a spy for the Allies. Pretty straightforward stuff, right? Only this man is wracked by guilt, both in the sense that he worries about what people might think of him in the West when they realize what he’s really doing and also, on a personal level, whether the stuff that he’s doing for the “good guys” is equal on a moral calculus to all the propaganda he’s put out for the Nazis. These are not questions with easy answers, and Vonnegut deftly maneuvers his way through this issue, all while keeping the wit that brings us to read Vonnegut about him.

Vonnegut uses a framing approach to this book, pretending that it’s actually a memoir being written by the main character while he is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison, which lends an extra bit of verisimilitude to the whole shebang. This also would have made it quite topical for the time, as the book’s release (1961) coincides with the capture, trial, and execution of Adolph Eichmann (caught in ’59, tried in ’61, hanged in ’62). Eichmann, of course, always claimed that he was little more than a bean counter in the Nazi machinery. The main character’s role in advancing the Nazi cause was, if anything, greater, and yet he seems at once more sympathetic and, because of the spy connection, perhaps a bit more likely to be set free.

Mother Night  might not be the best introduction to Vonnegut, although unlike, say, Faulkner, it is hard to make a misstep in just picking out one of his works. I might recommend Slaughterhouse Five if, somehow, you have managed to avoid reading him up to this point. That being said, Night is in my opinion his best book, so I guess I could also say that if you are only going to read one of his books in your lifetime it ought to be this one. That being said, take care to read lots and lots of Vonnegut. He’s good for the soul.

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This blog is rather… cluttered, so I went ahead and opened up a new one. It is, for now, abookadaythatsallweask.wordpress.com. So everyone who came here for the capybara pix, this is still your place!!!

I’ll get started with, appropriately enough, a baseball book considered by many to be a classic of American literature.

This book is in a… strange situation in literature. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is fantastic, but it’s also shaded by a pretty fun baseball movie which is purportedly based on it but which really isn’t. I mean, the main character of Roy Hobbs is in there as are most of the minor ones, but the movie – and hey, I am not telling you that you should not like it, but you have to respect the difference here – completely gutted the theme of the book in favor of a more general “ain’t baseball grand?” one.

In my opinion “The Natural” is a must-read for anyone who has ever been interested in the Pete Rose case. Gambling is potentially a huge problem in sports because it can affect the outcome of the games. Sometimes fiction is better than dry fact in explaining why things are the way that they are, and this book is like that. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, but you know that bit in the movie where Roy Hobbs shatters Lightning and then he’s rounding the bases and he’s bleeding and then suddenly it turns into a scene of father and son playing catch? Needless to say, that’s not in the book. The ending is… just a bit darker than that. Without getting into too much detail, this book is a classic American tragedy – since it’s about baseball perhaps it’s *the* classic American tragedy – about a man who attempts to overcome his personal foibles with God-given talent.

I think that the character of Roy Hobbs in the book is a lot more nuanced and, frankly, interesting than the Roy Hobbs of the movie. The movie Hobbs is just an everyday great guy who has an Eddie Waitkus-like run-in with a Baseball Annie but who is otherwise a pretty likeable guy. The book Hobbs is, well, a lot more like we think professional athletes as being today: more than a little arrogant about all things, super-confident about his own ability to play his chosen sport (is it arrogance when you know you’re good?), boastful, brash… to me, the really interesting bits about a character aren’t the things that he can do but that he can’t or won’t do. And unlike the movie Hobbs, the book Hobbs is full of can’ts and won’ts.

So yeah, great book. I should warn you, though: if you’re already a fan of the movie, reading this may make you want to throw it out (or at least see someone remake it).

So, just to get back into the hang of writing and to get this blog going a bit more, I think I’m going to try to go through my voluminous book collection and, once a day for the next year, review one of the books from it. Will I succeed? Will this endeavor last more than a week? Tune in, dear reader, to find out!

Welcome to what I hope will be a rather large-ish category in my blog! I’ve DMed off and on since the late 80s now, and while I’ve always (and probably always will) play a bit more than I get behind the ol’ Dungeonmasters’ Screen, I do enjoy DMing when I get the chance.

Thing is, I think that most – perhaps even the majority of DMs – have got their thinking set up a little bit wrong. If you’re a player, I am sure you know this type: the DM who spends literally dozens of hours handcrafting their gameworld, making each little town shine, spending time even coming up with the individual pubs in each town, their menus, what the local patrons think of them, etc. Closely related is the DM who comes up with an ultra-cool plotline with more twists and turns and dives and ramps than any six roller coasters, complete with all kinds of subplots and other cool stuff. Or perhaps your DM comes up with intricate puzzles or rooms laid out in such a way that you can only hope to defeat the monsters that inhabit it by solving the riddle of the room itself. Or… well, I’ve already discussed these types at length in an earlier blog entry so I won’t bore you any further here.

Each of those DM types have their good points and drawbacks and chances are, if you’ve played under enough dungeon masters, you’ve not only seen all the types but have had a good time with each. I don’t think that the natural style of a DM is what’s at fault here. Instead, I think that it’s the preparation itself, no matter what the preparation is about, that makes so many DMs less than what they could be.

This kobold has been cunningly placed to distract you from boring old definitions. Rarr rarr!

My initial idea was to call this blog within a blog The Lazy DM, which sounded semi-familiar to me in the way that a good title often does. However, further research revealed that it sounded semi-familiar because there’s already another blog by that name and a couple of cybersquatters sitting on what could become a couple more. That being said, I think “indolent” actually fits this better. Here’s the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster.com:

1 a : causing little or no pain b : slow to develop or heal <indolent tumors> <indolent ulcers>
2 a : averse to activity, effort, or movement : habitually lazy b : conducive to or encouraging laziness <indolent heat> c : exhibiting indolence <an indolent sigh>

Disclosure time: I have a degree in English and the love of language that comes with it. The important bit that I want to emphasize is definition 2a. Indolence isn’t *exactly* laziness, it’s being averse to do anything. That’s pretty much what I am going after: DMing without doing anything. Of course, you can’t get away with *no* preparation; even if you’re really good at improvisation, the lack of prep will show. But doing significantly *less* prep than what is commonly considered proper, that’s what I’m going after. Also, definition 1A, while it’s not the one we’re specifically going after, still sits in there in a symbolic sense: indolent DMing ought to be painless, not just for the DM but for the players.

Here are the reasons why I think overprep can become a problem:

It tends to lock a DM into a particular way of thinking about a plot point or a problem or… whatever it is the DM took so much time on. Look. It’s only natural to think this way. You take 12 hours devising this aWesome maze with traps around every other corner and a great monster in the middle, and what do your players do to it? They burn it to the ground and walk in to take the (melted) gold. A lot of DMs would say “no, you can’t do that”, which is perhaps the last phrase a DM ought ever utter. Even if you do allow it, a little piece of you dies inside and part of you can’t help but blame it on those insolent (note: not the same as indolent), creative, diabolical players. The same applies to adventures with big old hooks the party cheerfully ignores, rich ducal histories the parties don’t care a whit about, and so on.

It discourages improvisation. Closely related to the point above, I suspect many DMs overprepare precisely *because* of this reason. Improvisation can be a very scary thing, especially if you’ve never done it before. It can feel like you’re talking out of your rear end for hours at a time, and that’s because you *are* talking out of your rear end for hours at a time. The thing is, improvisation is a skill that you can really only get better at through practice. And you may as well start practicing it from your first DM session because there *will* come a time where you’ll need to use those skills you built up.

Not amused.

It also discourages the group dynamic. I know that it’s a lot of fun to come up with a world of your own, populated with a bunch of people you’ve created, and so on. In addition to the DMing I’ve also written a novel that, frankly, will probably not get published any time soon because it’s a bit on the silly side. William Howard Taft is a villain and he throws explosive soaps at people. Right. Too silly. The point is that I took quite a bit of time to do that because I *do* understand the awesome feeling that goes with creation. Dungeons and Dragons or any other RPG for that matter is not a novel. At its essence its a collaborative story told, yes, by the DM but also by the other players. Even if the players contribute a normal amount, if you spend a massive amount of time in preparation, their contribution will by definition be less than that of a DM who is indolent.

(In fact, I have ways of making players contribute *more* than their classical fair share; I’ll talk about that in an upcoming blogisode.)

It promotes an inequitable relationship at the gaming table. The DM, because he is sort of the storyteller (other game systems call him just that), is going to put in more work on a particular gaming session than any of his players. That’s just the way the system works. As mentioned, much of the prep-work is fun in and of itself so it’s not really thought of as a chore. The problem is, especially in groups where the DM is the guy who is most willing to spend the time and/or money to make the gaming group run, that that relationship between the DM and the player gets rather one-sided. This can create a lot of bad feelings: from the DM’s side, it’s easy to think that the players don’t appreciate all the work you put in to making things work, and from the players’ standpoint it can get very frustrating when the DM seems to be doing more than his (already significant) duties as referee, controller of NPCs, adversary in combat, etc. I’ve even seen attempts by dungeon masters to get paid for what they do!

In the series to come, I will discuss tips, tricks, and strategies I’ve learned about/seen/handled over the years. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just a proponent of a particular style of play. I hope to be able to pass on a bit of my learning and learn a lot in return.

4th Edition has a lot of good little bits in it, not the least of which is its depiction of many of the more popular player types that you will deal with over the course of a campaign. It’s by no means all-inclusive and most players are a combination of types but it’s a good start. The human mind is really good at recognizing patterns, so even if you read through the player type list and say “okay, whatever. Bob is not a Slayer or a Powergamer but he’s even less of an Actor”, that’s a good start. The point of them is not really to label your players so much anyway as it is to get you thinking about what sorts of things you can do to make them have the most fun in a gaming session.

That being said, it could be useful for you as the DM to think about what kind of gamer *you* are. Player types don’t quite translate into DM types in part because the DM wears so many hats over the course of a session and a campaign. That being said, here are some types that might get you started:

The Reluctant Dungeonmaster. No, this isn’t the person who doesn’t even want to play Dungeons and Dragons but gets sucked into it by his buddies. Really, if you’ve gone out and bought a couple of the core rulebooks and actually want to *be* a DM, that’s several steps beyond that point. This is a DM type who really prefers to play (especially with all the wonderful options in 4E) but who got hounded into DMing because nobody else wanted to and he knew the rules better than anybody else.

Don’t fret! Being a DM is much, much different from being a player, I will admit, but it need not live up to all the stereotypes. First up, you don’t necessarily need to spend several days planning each adventure (more on that in an upcoming series of posts… if I get around to it, wink wink). Second, if you remember what it’s like to be a player, that IMO is a significant advantage you have over the guy who’s done nothing but DM for the last 25 years, because you know first hand what’s boring for a player and what’s fun.

No, Mister Adventurer. I expect you to die.

The Adversary. You frankly forgot that Dungeons and Dragons is not like Monopoly and you play the game as though you are on one side and the players are on the other. There is nothing technically wrong with this way of DMing; this was really how the game got started, after all. However, times have changed and a lot of people who want to play RPGs aren’t looking for a battle of wits so much as they are looking for a chance to help create a cool story involving a pretend person they created. You probably want to let any prospective players know what they’re getting into before they play a session with you. Ironically, though, it’s this class of DM that never does this because they are also the variety that does not understand that the game itself and the genre of the RPG in general have moved on from the late 1970s.

The Battle Tactician. You focus every game around encounters, and you love throwing in new things to torment the players. You aren’t really the Adversary in that winning isn’t necessarily your primary goal, although the Adversary mixes “well” with the Battle Tactician. You encourage your players to powergame because if they don’t maximize their combat effectiveness they will fall behind your planning skills and eventually start losing a lot. You tend to be very strict about the mechanics; dice-fudging to save a character’s or a party’s skin is generally but not always seen as a mortal sin.

Again, this is a perfectly okay way to run things so long as your party knows about it first. This gaming style is primarily built for Slayers and Powergamers, but Thinkers can also find a niche in trying to outthink you in the chess game that sits behind the mechanics of 4E. Actors and Storytellers are not going to have a lot of fun in your game. Instigators are likely to get frustrated as well; your combat tactics don’t necessarily encourage thinking outside of the box, and since you’re wedded to the mechanics you’re not likely to have a “Rule of Cool” that encourages people to swing from chandeliers and so on.

The White Wolf Guy. This is the DM type who probably started going in the 90s, back when Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension, Werewolf: The Furry Pervert and so on were really popular. Roleplaying is king to this type. Some DMs of this variety like to have you roll for everything and then roleplay your success or failure. Others toss away the dice whenever they can and let the flow of the game dictate whether the party learns the information that they need or what have you. In combat, you’re as concerned with your monsters being memorable foes as putting together a halfway decent assault or defense or whatever it is they’re supposed to do. You’re probably the most likely of all DM types to include the dreaded DMPC in a campaign.

As you might expect, the Actor loves this DM type most of all. Storytellers and Explorers are down with him as well, particularly if they get to contribute to some of the scenery the Actor is busy chewing on. Powergamers might get bored at battle encounters that don’t really push them due to the need for your monsters to engage in less than ideal combat behavior. Paradoxically, Slayers will probably like this just fine, although it might be tough to keep them and the Instigator from jumping the gun on combat after your Actor just spent the last half hour bartering with your NPC alchemist.

The Novelist. You’ve planned out this intricate gameworld and wonderful plot, complete with subplots. It spent you literally MONTHS to put this bad boy together and now you’re going to use Dungeons and Dragons to show off to your friends how awesome you your world is. You understand the mechanics of the game pretty well but aren’t afraid to fudge the dice or bring in a deus ex machina to win a battle you needed the party to win to keep the plot going. When anybody deviates from the script one iota, your heart races and the walls seem to close in on you.

The Storyteller is the most likely person to appreciate this game. The Powergamer and the Slayer will probably be okay with it as well as long as there’s enough combat; just don’t expect them to ooh and ahh over all the time and care that you took. The Thinker, strange as it may sound, is likely to not like this way at all; they want to figure out how to make a quest as easy as possible and when you’ve designed it so that there’s no way through things but to fight a couple warm-up encounters followed by the Big Bad Evil Guy, his thinking will be stifled. The same goes with the Instigator; in fact, you and he will probably get fed up with each other before the campaign is done.

Is this your ideal DnD campaign?

The Puzzle-Master. Your favorite games when you are not playing Dungeons and Dragons are found in Games Magazine. You delight in setting up elaborate mazes, traps that require players to solve them logically rather than make a Thievery check, runes that you borrowed from Myst, and so on. Sometimes combat can turn into a puzzle like this thanks to the use of terrain and so on. You have a tendency, in fact, to punish a party that can’t figure out your puzzles with the dreaded TPK, followed by a party debriefing that includes the phrase “it was OBVIOUS” five or six times.

The Thinker – wow, whodathunkit! – lives for these kinds of games, so long as he didn’t just buy the issue of Games Magazine you are stealing this week’s puzzle from. The Instigator might help or hurt depending on how flexible you are and on what levers, panels, etc. he decides to trip in order to make things happen. The Slayer is liable to just get frustrated if you have too many combat-related puzzles; after all, he’s there to kill stuff, not play the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. The Actor’s not going to find a lot of chances to act and so might get frustrated, but not nearly as much as the Storyteller and the Explorer, the former because he’s less interested in how to solve the puzzle as why the puzzle is there and the latter because your elaborate puzzles are usually predicated upon the party going to specific, pre-determined places.

The Buddy. The opposite of the Adversary, your game style is to always let the players win, get the coolest stuff, and constantly feel the warm glow of satisfaction. There’s only one problem with this: after a while the lack of real risk gets boring. Although your players are not likely to ever tell you that the game’s too easy (maybe more experienced ones will), they’ll still feel it and you’ll eventually feel it when they find other things to do on Sunday afternoon or whenever it is that you play.

It should be noted that Adversary DM types think that basically everybody who does not play the game on an adversarial basis is this kind of player. That doesn’t make it so. To be honest, the Buddy is a fairly rare kind of DM. But they do exist.

The Jack of All Trades. This is the DM who knows how to mix in a little bit of each type to fit their party’s needs. He gives RPing chances to Actors, chances to explore the world to Explorers, good adventure hooks that eventually compound upon themselves to Storytellers, fun and interesting combat to Powergamers and Slayers, and lots of stuff to break for Instigators. He’ll even try his best to bring the Watcher into play, as he realizes that sometimes the Watcher is just another player type waiting to be enthused by DnD. Above and beyond all, he’s willing to tailor his game to the party: if he built an elaborate plot but the party insists game after game that it wants to just find the closest goblin lair and sack it, he’ll eventually turn it into more of a sword and sorcery kind of thing or at least find different ways to hook the party back into his plot structure.

It’s probably pretty obvious that I think the last DM type is the ideal one. The difference between him and all of the other types isn’t natural skill or interpersonal skills or anything else so much as it is the ability to be introspective. Too many DMs do not make an attempt to see their game from beyond their own eyes. Coming in with a “my way or the highway” attitude seems to be standard operating procedure for many DMs. Even the Buddy generally sees himself as inadequate to the task and piles on the treasure in a misguided attempt to get the rest of the group to like him. A DM has to get past that insecurity that either makes him feel as though he’s not good enough or that twists that line of thinking around so that he refuses help or feedback lest someone tells him he’s inadequate. Like anything worth doing well, DMing is something that’s worth doing poorly for a while. And just like anything else, the way you get better at it is not just to repeat the badness over and over again but to see where your strengths and weaknesses are and work on them all.

I have a couple of new reviews up over at Pop Bunker. Specifically, “The Men Who Stare At Goats” and “Away We Go”. I am emo.