Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Improvisation and the Art of the Good DM: Introduction


I've always had more than a passing interest in what might be called the ethnography of group improvisation, be it in music (i.e., jazz) or in improv comedy troupes.  That is to say, I've always been interested in the sort of implicit rules that seem to govern the dynamics of a "good" improvisational performance; rules that talented performers just seem to know and that they continue to develop and refine and test in practice.

I've decided to combine this interest of mine in improvisation with my deeply-held belief that there is a real skill or objective form to the art we call being a "DM" or a "referee" in a role-playing game.  Now, given the sort of blanket subjectivism that seems popular in the rpg blogosphere, I'm not sure that many will find my musings enlightening in the least.  However, for the few who aren't ready just yet to concede that all artistic taste is purely arbitrary, I plan on offering a series of posts in an attempt to define or at least make more explicit one aspect of the art of the good (notice the normative!) DM - as an improvisational performer.  

In my view, although the art form we call DMing or refereeing is complex and multifaceted, it remains a kind of techne that, because it can be learned and taught, is just as "objective" as the art of shipbuilding or gardening.

Why be interested in improvisation if you're a DM or even just interested in our hobby?  After all, improvisation is just "making it up" - so by definition there can be no rules to uncover, and, hence, nothing to talk about or learn from studying it, right?  And anyone can just make stuff up just as well as anyone else, right?

Anyone with more than passing experience with rpg's in general - and Oe d&d specifically - knows that there is much more complexity to improvisational performances that these naiive questions suggest.  What it is that a DM and his players are doing it is definitely not just "making stuff up" or at least not just making it up willy nilly.  Even more, it's pretty hard to deny the reality that, despite the apparent paradox, some folks do indeed seem to be better at "making it up" more than others.

What I hope to explore in this series is my suspicion that good DM's and referees know both these things really really well, whether or not they know that they know it.

The reason I'll offer a series of posts rather than just one quick summary of the "Art of the Good DM" is that the rules that tend to govern good improv are mostly implicit rather than explicit.  So, we have to act as anthropologists of sorts and examine both how those good at what they do in fact do what they do, as well as draw some inferences about what they take themselves to be doing in the process of doing it.  This, at least, is how I understand an ethnography.  And, consequently, a bit more time is necessary to uncover these rules than can be accommodated in a single post.

The implicit rules of good group improvisation are rarely stated directly by skilled improvisers (many even seem to follow them without really knowing it).  Nor are these to be considered "rules" in the sense of universally binding on all participants equally.  What rules there are to improvisation are strange in that they are neither sacrosanct nor inviolable, with even the most skilled performers often twisting or tweaking or even occasionally breaking them with outstanding effect.  As we will see, these rules guide and inform the craft of improvisation rather than determine it's every outcome. 

Granted there are certainly many sides to the question of what makes for a good DM.  But, as I've said, I'm going to focus this series on the special improvisational skills and techniques that are necessary.  If it is generally true that referees and DM's are all improvisers of sorts, then it is even more the case when it comes to the "old school" DM who deals largely in what Matt Finch has appropriately called "free-form" role-playing.  Such a DM lives and dies by her wits, as they say.

I think we DM's and players can learn a good deal about what kinds of improvisational techniques and skills make for a good "old school" DM performance by considering the implicit norms and rules that govern good group improvisation more generally.  That is the assumption of my next few posts, at any rate. 


thanuir said...

Play unsafe might interest you; it s a book on applying the techniques of impro to roleplaying.

post festum said...

Looks very interesting. Thanks for the citation, thanuir.