Tuesday, July 2, 2013

We Will Indulge In Your Meatpies

So the company that makes D&D released a video of their R&D team playtesting a game, with one Mr Mike Mearls GMing.

So what do we learn about the internal gamer culture at the company charged with keeping D&D alive from this?

First, and this is just about the video: they just play and make no attempt to entertain the internet audience and that's really really nice. None of the cringey forced nerdjokery you get with some recorded games.

Second: This looks like a bunch of nice people playing D&D as I know it and not some jarringly skewed ivory tower gamewonk frenzy. While it isn't as chaotic as my average at-home game, it is quite recognizably in the ballpark of what I see when I log on to play a Google + game with some folks I've never played with before and have fun doing it.

Third: It is obviously short on razzle and/or dazzle (no improvised props or lush descriptions, not too many voices, Mike Mearls announces the first real fight of the game at 1:32:12 with "two humanoid creatures leap off the edge and leap down upon you…" and that's that), though there are some good reasons for this:

  • They're testing, so Mike's clearly trying to get them through a number of different kinds of situations relatively quickly
  • This is a game where all the players already like D&D so much they made a career out of it. So Mike doesn't really need to "sell" them on the concept of a ghoul or an orc city. They know what those things are and are already engaged.
  • With experienced players and a vanilla adventure (like, say, a tournament module you're playtesting with) sometimes dealing the cards fast and getting the hell out of the way so the players can just play is the best thing you can  do.
...so there's probably people out there watching this thinking of all the things that their favorite GM does that Mike doesn't, however what they aren't noticing is how well he nails the underlying basics
that so many GMs miss.

So there's craft here, check it out...

-First and least obviously:

This is the most important thing in GMing and it's done so well you don't notice: there's never a single moment of "Ummm, let me see here, ok..hold on....". I don't care if your adventure's got 9-dimensional jewel towers made of solid mutant algebra and random spell fumbles written by Phillip K Dick himself, if you don't have the basic dexterity to keep the game a game every second of the hours we're playing, go practice.

-Info drip feed:

The beginning of this adventure has an investigation/reconnaissance element. For this kind of thing you want players to have as many puzzle pieces as possible (their plans will be more interesting the more information they have) but you also don't want to overwhelm them by backing the infodump truck up to the table edge.

Mearls controls this carefully: he gives the players just enough information in his opening spiel, then gets out of their way so they can play D&D. Then when they ask questions, he thinks "Ok, what I said has sunk in and they want more" so he not only answers the questions but dribbles out a little extra information, too. This way he's slowly building a bigger understanding of the situation up from digestible chunks.

-Turning mechanics into useful details efficiently:

It would be easy to criticize Mike for just having the info-gathering players roll dice rather than role-play out the process and doing funny voices for all the city freaks who divulge useful lore or fail to, but remember: this is a playtest and even at this pace without random NPCs giving out info via eerily accented roleplay, the party isn't fighting anything for real until about 3/4s of the way through the session. However, notice how Mike manages to give the players some texture even while treating the info-gathering section of the adventure as strictly preliminary. It might be short on entertainment value for us at home, but it gives the players the idea that taking the time to find out new stuff is worth it. 


"Why don't you give me a wisdom check?"

James rolls a natural one. Mike still has information to feed out: the orcs seem tense. James gets something for putting out the effort to do reconnaissance. 

James asks "Like they're expecting an attack?" 

Mike: "No, like they don't trust each other."

This gives James one more thing to think about, which snaps into focus when James later deduces (well, infers, but induction is cool) from the ransacked orc that dopplegangers have been killing the orcs and stealing their clothes to get inside the complex.

Now you coulda gone another way with it: made the 1 a fumble and just told James some bullshit, (which is what I would've done--and I also would've rolled the check myself secretly) but the point is there is deliberate decision and method here, though it's subtle.

This is GMing: not always telling a thrilling tale of intrigue and romance, but standing on the edge of the swimming pool tossing in toys for the players to kick around-- "Here's this....and...here's this...and..." 

(The actual kicking around process is hard to film. Thinking doesn't look like much on camera--that's why quiz shows always have a weird tracking shot set to music during Final Jeopardy or whatever.)

Note also how he uses what the player actually does to direct the story outcome of the die roll result in the Meatpie incident (below). Beginning GMs trying to figure out how charisma stat rolls and actual in-character persuasion attempts interact should take a look.

-Notice at 59:00 Mike chucks in an event--there's some kind of rumble going on off screen. Again, one more tool to play with. The players decline, but it's there. A lot of GMs get so tied in knots trying to follow what the PCs are up to they forget to keep the world rolling on behind them. More toys is good.

-Around 1:40:00 the ghoul tries to drag the cleric away to devour, rather than just keep slugging it out with the PCs. Good. That's what a ghoul would do. And if he'd made it back to the ghoul air that would've been fun. GMs who don't know what they're doing just have monsters show up and act like combat robots until the players die or they do.

-If the life of all those I hold dear depended on successful survival of a D&D adventure and I had to choose one WOTC staffer in this video to be in my party, I'd take Rodney Thompson (far right) no doubt. He asks smart questions (Wait, I thought this is a wretched hive of scum and villainy--there are murders? How is anyone even noticing?) he's proactive, he makes plans that keep the game moving, he thinks on his feet (inventing the "meatpie" gambit around 59:23 and saving everyone at least one encounter) and on top of all that he's metagame aware enough to help out the GM (noticing at 26:57 that Greg and Peter haven't gotten to do anything since Mike asked "Ok what's everybody doing?" ten minutes ago). That is a sharp player. I want to take a look at everything this guy's ever written now. I also suspect his tattooed halfling with the sunken riverboat is a refugee from Warhammer's Enemy Within campaign so he probably has good taste.

-Greg Bilsland (the one without the beard) is the other MVP here. How much worse would this video be to watch without Greg? Every party needs that player who can take it easy for all the sinners. "Oh, we're fighting..." (42:06)


  1. Great video and accurate commentary. It's nice to know I;m doing something similar to a "professional" when I DM. I never liked the voices.

    Also:I had difficulty taking my eyes off of Mearl's disembodied head floating above the DM screen.

  2. I found the ambush scene/mechanics very instructional. how great when the targets don't show up and the players have to roll for mental and/or physical fatigue and wind up not paying attention or falling asleep.

  3. Thanks for pointing the video out. It was entertaining and learnative.

    - Ark

  4. Isn't Rodney Thompson Mr Star Wars Saga Edition Everything Guy?

  5. Rodney Thomson did a lot of 3rd party stuff for D&D before taking over the Star wars line; he's one of the few guys whose material I trust when buying.

  6. On the subject of 'DM pacing', which (as I am a relatively inexperienced Game Master)tends to oscillate, at times quite radically, from session to session. Now, I'll say that the particular individuals, which I GM, have never failed to require of me that 'substantial narrative possibility' be adhered to all contextual game activity.

    My issue being, I'm worried that I occasionally find myself stuck gaming in the shadow of some other, rather excellent get-togethers that we've had. Times where, you know, shit just clicks extranormally. In this case, all of the hacked up tables I've appropriated, weird personal mechanics and in-game content sum up to produce a genuinely, if not remarkably, good time. And this can happen two-three nights a week for a couple of months, but inevitably there will arise a session in which, due to mine and the players expectations regarding performance and general experience, I fumble in my attempts at cognitive dexterity. Yet, instead of taking the time to pause/manage/continue, I Want to keep pace (partly due to way in which my company conducts itself(ves) during 'play')and I'll remain confident in my ability to work through a situation, usually a narrative dilemma, from scratch.

    This always works for the single session. I mean, I can keep the pace and I know that my at-times-temperamental players respond well to this. But the narrative-based and ecounter-based decisions that I make tend to always force me to continue making them and then things get haphazard. So, two weeks later, for example, I'll find myself engaged in this uncanny sort of story-or-setting-or-occurrence that has taken on its own life. Which is good, right? Well, I'd say so but in this case it all seems to get fairly contrived and chocked full of empty requirements and meanings that the players soon lose interest in.

    I guess my question for you would be:

    How do I, as a GM, retain the game's quality after I've already buried myself in all of this false significance?

    How do I redirect their attention back to a far more open world of interactive potential, as opposed to this fake-ass Fantasy-Novella I got going on that I don't even want to write?

    I see where I've made mistakes in this. I'm just not sure how to save the campaign from my writerly tendencies when DMing, which I depend upon for pacing.

    Thanks for your time.

    1. If I understand your question (big "if") then I would recommend:

      get all your emerging story cards on the table and give the players a set-up where they get to choose which ones they want to do something with. Then run that one session real open. Then close down to a narrow, deep focus once they've gone a significant distance down that rabbit hole next session.

  7. No, I'd say you understood the questions quite well. Now let me see if I understand the lead up and resulting conclusion(s) of your response.

    I present a (contextual or at least reasonable?) situation in which all of my current, indulgent little subplots are offered up as playable options (or, like, possible Adventure-Lines) and the party is required to choose a couple of these. Should I go ahead and railroad them into this encounter from where they are at the game's start? Or maybe take a session to slowly shove them towards some locale with hostile occurrences?

    Or is this more like: Sit my friends down, tell them their options, make a decision, start the game, zapp! that Djinn Kibitzer who loves to play practical jokes on the party from great distances has just teleported all the members to blah blah blah. Like fast travelling after selecting a quest.

    Regardless, what I'm really impressed with is the resolve that I think follows in how you explained the session should be conducted. I mean, if we're talking about how to 'rebirth' a campaign then my impulse would be, "explain more. create more. don't let shit be flat," or whatever. But that's a dumb way of going about it.

    Your solution is like a real good use of entropy.

    Last question, promise: What do I do about the way that the discarded stories effect the way my players understand their environment? Like, what if one of my shitty subplots just subsumed the imaginative identity and meaning of a, let's say, temple of cycloptic priests and all its occupants and that it would be rather strange for me to ignore this later in the game?

    Though, I must say, it seems quite unfair of me to ask you to reorient the particular semiotics of my game. That's probably my responsibility.

    Hope this came across somewhat clearly. I got some bad writing happens.

    1. Wait, are you also WIll McKinnee?
      if so:
      Whether you explain the subplot situation in or out of game and whether you do it fast or slow is up to you depending on what your group wants.

      The "discarded" subplots should keep playing out as they normally would, possibly with emergent consequences for the players.

      I sometimes reveal what's going on on the "paths not taken" to PCs in dreams while they're knocked unconscious during fights or resting.

    2. Damn it, where's my +1 button for this reply?
      The whole video was good, too. And I notice happily that I used the "tell some shit on a fumble" trick a couple weeks ago, which worked fine for the group.

  8. Yes, I am Wil McKinnee, also.

    Thanks for the consideration. Saved me a lot of anxiety towards this coming Saturday.

  9. I enjoyed reading your take on this video after having slogged through the forum-bile concerning it. It was refreshing. I felt roughly the same way (although I think it would have been just great to watch the dev team go through their repertoire of funny voices).

    I liked his (apparently) disciplined approach to running a playtest session that kept things quick and moving, and the way in which he seemed prepared to deal not only with their clever shenanigans, but with the contiguity of background noise.

    Kudos to Mr. Mearls.

  10. Alright I REALLY enjoyed reading this. As a fellow GM you did a great job of pointing out the things Mike does that tend to go unnoticed(especially if you are GMing well). Additionally, you are incredibly astute in picking up on Rodney's playing, I didn't notice at first but you are totally dead on. Thanks for this.