Monday, June 11, 2012

The view from behind the screen

I had initially thought to write a post on why I play D&D, but unlike a lot of other OSR bloggers, I don't really have any interest in running a non-D&D RPG.  Inevitably when I start to think in depth about some subject, my mind jumps from one inference or observation to the next, until it's gone somewhere else entirely.  Often that somewhere else is more interesting than the destination I first had in mind.  This is one of those times.

In brief, I don't want to run any other system because D&D is the one I've chosen to be fluent in.  I don't want to clutter up my gaming consciousness with a bunch of other radically different mechanics, or tempt my gamer ADD with new systems that may well address issues I've had with the D&D rules while simultaneously showing new and equally annoying chinks in their own game-mechanical armor.   I've learned the ins and outs of D&D; it's my chosen medium, my area of gaming expertise.  This is not to say that I'd never want to play any other system, only that I don't want to run them.  And that brings me to my tangential topic...

Running the show gives one a vastly different perspective on the art than watching the show.  I'm pretty sure it's the same no matter the specific field. 

I'm writing a novel.  Whether or not I'm actually any good at it remains to be seen, but I can say at least that I've tried to learn everything I can about the craft, and it's given me a new perspective and a keener eye.  Now, I don't read books the same way I did in my younger days.  I'm not sure I could if I tried any more.  I used to breeze through a novel of a few hundred pages in a couple days.  Now it may take me a couple weeks, as I slow down to notice what works and what doesn't, how the author foreshadows future plot developments or differentiates characters from one another, or how dialog and description are balanced.  I notice terrible flaws, too, things that I wouldn't have batted an eye at before, that now sometimes break my immersion so thoroughly that I can't finish the book and set it aside after a chapter or two.  (Thank goodness for free samples of kindle e-books!)  In short, I read like a writer.  I've looked behind the curtain at the Great and Powerful Oz, and the mystique is gone.

I had the same experience when I started using mod files in my Elder Scrolls: Morrowind game.  Some otherwise interesting mods had game-breaking flaws, so I set about learning how to use the construction set to fix them.  Once the behind-the-scenes stuff was laid bare, once I understood something of the nuts and bolts behind the facade, the game lost something to me.  I couldn't interact with the people who populate the game world without seeing stat screens and dialog trees.  I couldn't look at a door and think of it as opening into a room; it only loaded a new cell which was connected to the door through code, not spatially.  The first time I played through the game, unmodded, I was so terrified of my character catching the dreaded corprus disease that I ran like hell from the infected monsters.  It just wasn't the same when I found out via the construction set that it isn't even in the game's coding for you to be able to contract the disease before the proper scripted event.  The game is still fun, but it's just a game, with most of the wonder and immersion washed out.

I imagine it's a similar experience for theater people watching a play or a movie, a chef eating out at a restaurant, magician watching someone else's act, or just about any other "in the know" person you could name trying to enjoy his or her field of knowledge as an outsider.

If I ever get the chance to sit on the players' side of a DM's screen again, I hope the person on the other side house rules it enough so I feel like I don't know all the mins and maxes of it.  Throw me some curve balls, so I can forget I know how the system works, and just live in the game world for a while.  I would love to play in a non-D&D game some day too, but when I do, I don't want to have to learn any more of the system than what I need to play my character, assess risks, and manage resources in-game.  Sometimes enjoying an experience is just better when you're ignorant of how it's all done.  I do enjoy DMing, but once you cross that cardboard barrier, you can't ever go back again, at least not completely.

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