Logic Vs. Creativity: Where the magic happens

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Prep and Improvisation,

These two ideas are very different from one another, but both play an important role in any game. In my novice years I would over-prepare, I would write a story involving the players, and then I'd expect them to be happy because I did this. 
 I had made some very bad assumptions and when nobody wanted to play this thing, I gave up, and I felt hurt and angry about it. I didn't even try to figure out what was wrong, I blamed them, and just ran more published adventures before taking a very long hiatus from the game. 
 I was actually ready to start writing my own material, but I had no idea what I was doing. I mistook the game for something that it wasn't. The point isn't a story, the point is focusing on problems that aren't yours for a few hours. The DM supplies the problems, and the players try and figure out the solutions.That is all.

Well, that isn't ALL, is it. A DM has to own his mistakes, and not blame other people. You've got two camps, or two versions of the Dungeon Master's role; there is the cold calculator who is there just to make sure that the players are abiding the rules. They manage conflict, interpret player action and arrive at plausible outcomes based on those decisions. 

Because of the nature of the game, the rule set isn't complete, and the rules themselves have been worded in such a way that they must be interpreted in order to properly apply it to the context of the game itself. 

This version of the DM has the task of setting up a playable scenario in a legal way prior to the players interacting with it. He or she has identified the terms of losing the scenario, as well as identifying the perfect game.

On the other side of the coin you have the DM who is the Artist. This Dungeon Master interacts with the players in the form of describing the world around them, he is an entertainer. He role-plays and engages the players directly. 

This DM is playing the game with the players. 

It is this DM that the players probably see the most; he controls the flow of the game, he slows it down and speeds it up. He takes the notes that the other DM drew up, fleshes them out and adds a touch of drama to them. Sometimes he'll go off script or change elements around based on what he thinks will work best. It is a magic trick, and he is the magician.

Much like the left and right halves of our brains, or better yet, if we look at it like a motion picture, you've got the writer, and the director; they have to work together
On their own, each is dangerous; you got the boring guy who will refuse to give anything away. If he wrote that the only person who knows what the players want to know is the Blacksmith, then that is just the way it is. 
If the player comes up with a different plan, say, asking the little girl who sells flowers by the fountain all day, the creative one will identify that they are probably right, and switches the role to the flower girl. Maybe even keeping the personality traits assigned to the blacksmith because it would be entertaining to have a little girl who spits and threatens the players with violence all the time.

We've got to be careful of the creative DM as well, he'll give everything away if you let him. 
He'll seek to become the star of the game, he'll give away too much treasure just to make people happy, he'll undermine the challenges written by the logical DM, he'll freak out when the players have stopped interacting with him and are discussing what to do next. 

"Riding Down The Avenue" Rusty Russ

 The creative DM needs to be kept on a leash. 

The DM does need to play the game, but he needs not to play the game at the same time.

When we give either of these guys too much power or influence over our game, bad things happen. Balance. This sounds like a logical thing that we all do, but it isn't. Balance is impossible to maintain, what this all means is that when these two enemies, logic and creativity, are getting along, that is where the magic happens. 
When you notice that something has changed, or has stopped working, these two guys should be your prime suspects; figure out who did it and counter it.

A game that goes off script is pointless, but so is a game that is static. The logical DM in us can populate a dungeon level with monsters, but he needs the creative DM to give these monsters movement. 

A drawer in a room description is empty until a player looks at it, and opens it up and asks what is inside. The logical DM will say, “Nothing.” but the creative one says that there is some papers, and when asked what the papers say, he'll just start babbling until the player comes to the conclusion that it says nothing. One way provides nothing, the other, allows the player to get an idea about the personality of the NPC who wrote it. Which one is correct? Which one provides the better game? The player may make a mistake and take the paper thinking that it means something, then we have to decide if it really does mean something or not. Is that going too far off script? Maybe. 

There is a conflict going on inside of us, and it is healthy. 

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 Some DMs would see this as a waste of time, other DMs know that in order to get things to stick, you've got to throw a whole lot of spaghetti, if the players latch onto this and they failed to see the hints that were placed logically, then make it a clue. If they have too much information already, then don't. 

Is this playing the game, or is it being logical?

I think that we all struggle with this. It took me way too long to learn about my Logical DM. Almost all of my major mistakes and failures were caused by me not knowing that he was there. Once I figured it out, and started listening to him, my players have started to really enjoy the game a lot more. 

  • I don't always have to be involved. 
  • This isn't my story at all, it is theirs. 
  • One of the hardest things for me to do sometimes it to just shut up and listen. 

I seek to hide the mechanics, make random encounters feel like triggered ones, all of that is great! But until I figured out how to remove myself and my influence over the game, my games sucked. Other DM's no doubt have the opposite problem, they have a hard time getting involved and engaging with the players.

How does knowing this stuff benefit us?

It allows us to identify what the game is and what it isn't.

The fact is that we can play this game for years and have no idea what it is that we are doing; I'm not saying that it is a bad thing, some people prefer to game this way, and if it works for your audience than you are playing it right. All I am saying is that once we identify what the system does we can focus on its benefits and tailor it to our specific needs.

Identify Elements and their function within the context of game design.

The DM's most important job is game design. Before hiding our mechanics it is necessary that we know what they are. All games should contain the same elements: Mystery, Role-playing, Conflict, Exploration, Logic, Reward, there are probably many more, but these five things are required in varying degrees to have a successful game, the more we can discover the simpler we can keep our game design. The rules of the game are complex enough, the idea is to make things simpler to play, not harder. Once we identify what the players really like to do, and what they don't, we can use this during our design stage.

Allowing the game to function

"The Sky Makes Them Crazy" Rusty Russ
This is a hard lesson to learn, we don't like to see our friends lose, we are afraid that they will get upset; however setting up “You Win” scenarios is insulting to them. If we take away the risk of failure, we also take away the glory of success. If we let one player fail a saving throw and get away with it just because he has low hit points and will die, than what is the point of putting the trap there in the first place? If the person behind him fails their roll as well, but has the hit points to take it, it isn't fair that they have to suffer the effects while the other person did not.

It sucks to lose, we all know this; but we've accomplished nothing by coddling players. If all of the players die because of the traps, then we know that it was poorly designed (or the thief is sleeping), and the scenario was unbalanced, and not fair. If that is the case, then the plan must be altered, and the players may try again with the same characters.

Remaining flexible 

While we want the game to be functional, at the same time we don't want our game design to be fixed. We have no idea what the players are going to see in our design, and we don't want to be over predictable. I say it over and over again, D&D is a cooperative game, and that includes us. If the players come up with a new idea during their planning stage, you get to decide whose idea is better, your original one, or theirs. A good game design features ideas that can be swapped to different places. Making a game easier or more difficult can be done at the table during play . . . in moderation. We don't want to remove any risks and replace them with instant rewards, but we don't want the player's to feel like they aren't getting anywhere either. The bigger the risk, the greater the reward but the harsher the consequences if it doesn't pan out.

Be Brave, don't give up on a design right away, let it play out.

If a scenario looks like it is going to go really bad, let it. See where it goes before over-reacting to it. Players are well known for implementing ill advised high risk plans hoping that you will crumble; as the DM, be brave, and let it ride. Total Party Kill resulting from a high risk venture is a logical outcome. Just because the party made things worse, and is now dead doesn't mean that the scenario is over. They have done something that is just as meaningful to the campaign world as defeating a powerful enemy, they have made it stronger. The victory conditions have been satisfied, the enemy has won. The story continues, the fantasy world still revolves, what does this mean for the new characters? That can be just as exciting as winning the scenario. It now belongs to them.

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Don't be controlled by logic.

Innkeepers who always fit stereotype says something to the player, forget me. To have characters be memorable they should break stereotype. Don't be afraid to be bizarre, to allow nonsense into your game. Random Generators were designed to provide unpredictability, use them. It is fun to try and make sense of two things that don't go together. A completely logical game that is totally all planed out and is executed perfectly to the designed specifications implemented by the DM is boring. We shouldn't be responsible for interpreting everything, we might know these answers, or we might not. It is just like the drawer up above, it doesn't matter until the players open the drawer.

Don't be controlled by creativity.

Creativity thrives on limitations; it requires defined perimeters to stabilize it else it will fall apart under the close scrutiny of the user. Creativity should enhance logic, not replace it. They can and will work together, if you make them.

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As always I am wide open to constructive input and the data held in your head. Does this make sense or am I over thinking things? 
Is an important part of playing the game learning this stuff on your own, or can we further the hobby by attempting to identify it for the next generation so that they can push the hobby further, without having to tread so much old ground? Personally I feel that only by burning ourselves can we learn not to touch the stove, but this idea is an abstract one. We typically aren't aware when we are fouling this up, so maybe this post has an audience? 

Who tends to mess up your game? The Creative Genius, or the Devious Mastermind? Maybe it is another DM I haven't noticed yet? 


Unknown said...

I think this is your best free-form blog-post to date. Very insightful, and a very nice way to putting it; logic vs. creativity. Anyone who's tried running a game and something went "wrong", all knows the struggles - but identifying the problem and maybe even change it to an advantage and let it improve the game is a special skill and is indeed when the magic happens.

Looking back at my last few sessions, I had written notes about major plotlines, but instead became something of a background-thing, and instead the players focused on other smaller things. It was only later I discovered I had abandoned some of my old ideas!

I will let those plot play on and have an effect when they return, but that is only one of many examples where you, as a DM, prepare for all sorts of fun, but anything can happen on game-night. Keeping the balance is what keeps the DM on his toes and make the magic, but man, it is also DRAINING!

RipperX said...

Howdy Martin! Thank you for your kind words. This post has caused me a lot of trouble, I got yelled at by many different types of DMs, and got a lot of really good feedback . . . oddly enough it wasn't posted to this article.

I don't feel that this article was written clearly enough, this idea needs a whole lot of development, but I am glad that you saw the points hidden within it.

I don't think that it should be Draining, though. I think that it should come naturally, when you have the true balance of sound logic and personal creativity going it is your true voice.

Your game defines you, and while we can play in the voice of another, it feel natural to have our own style.

I had to understand my mind, how it works and how it plays at the table, and prep for that guy! I am much more creative at the computer than I am at the table; at the table, I really want enough information so that I can see the world and be able to calculate how the NPCs will react to the players choices. I also have more than one thing going on so I don't get fixated on 1 idea.

You do mention something neat: an idea that becomes a background thing, the best ideas I have found, are the ones that factor in the PCs right away. Either the NPC wants something, they want to hide from, they want to manipulate, or they want to eliminate the heroes. We know that the heroes are going to show up, and prior to the game, we want to have some kind of idea on how the villain is going to react as soon as they are aware that they aren't the heroes.

I screw that up a lot, a good idea that doesn't factor in the players, and just assume that the players will like it too, but they aren't aware of it. Thankfully it is something that I can strengthen if I have time; or if it just isn't taking, I'll scrap it and let the idea fester until it is stronger.

I'm not perfect at this, and am always learning, but I think that you just nailed a common problem and pinned it down. Maybe it means that we have too much going on? In a recent game I had done this. We were only there for a short while, it was a timed game, and the villain that they could stop went completely undetected because the players got distracted by the pretty colors, or maybe I did? I put way to much foreshadowing of future events into the scenario, which is a problem right there.

Anyway, thanks for commenting! You definitely pushed this conversation forward.

Unknown said...

Maybe draining is the wrong word, and I think it might be how my group schedules, because we begin mid-afternoon, take a break when we eat dinner for an hour and a half and then continue and around midnight-1am I'm drained and the creative fluids are running very very low - if I don't have a very detailed plan on what will happen and what is going on, I simply can't continue for long before it all goes to shit.

We usually continue the next morning and a few times we retake a conversation with an important NPC because I was too tired to really do what I wanted to do with it...

RipperX said...

That is playing till you drop. We don't normally get to do that. Game time is supposed to be at 5pm, but that is just when dinner is served. Most folks show up early to catch up and visit. After dinner we discuss what had happened last game, if I am going to be throwing any new mechanics at them we'll go over those, and make sure that we are on the same page. I like to get started at 6, but we usually don't get started officially until 7.

Some players have until midnight to play, while others can stay longer. Games usually wrap up with us wanting more somewhere around 12-2 in the morning.

We don't take breaks, we keep going. I take gaming time seriously, and can be a jerk about it. We can talk and joke around anytime, but game time is precious. It takes awhile to get into that zone where the magic happens. Once we get there I don't want to interrupt that and have to start the immersion process all over again.

Stitch Seam said...

Great article. I absolutely see myself in your list of flaws of the 'creative' DM. I chase the spotlight too much. I probably talk too much. I'm prone to winging around numbers ("eh, 3000 gp? feels right") in a way that hurts the game. I'll be thinking about this article for some time.

RipperX said...

Welcome to the blog Stich Seam, and thank you for contributing :)

Finding rewards is difficult, as well as XP. I don't always agree with the XP listed in the system. I should sit down sometime and create a concrete list, just to keep things a little more consistent, but at the same time I don't want to be restricted by them either.

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