“We excuse our sloth under the pretext of difficulty” – Quintilian
At first I thought I’d be clever and not write anything for this article, seeing as it would fit the sin in both form and function. Then I remembered I’m actually not an inherently lazy person. In fact, I don’t think that most gamers and particularly game masters – at least those of the tabletop variety – actually are lazy people. It’s simply too much work to run a game for the proposition to be attractive to those predisposed toward sloth. Still, there are dangers enough arising from laziness, and though Wrath may be more potentially destructive, Sloth is by far the most insidious and difficult gaming affliction to combat.
DMing for Giant Sloths (Players, not Megatheriums)
Sloth mostly shows itself in the players’ camp. For DMs the experience of running a game is so hectic and involving that sloth of any kind is a near impossibility. If you’re a DM, this is one sin you have to watch out for in others more than in yourself, and it is also a sin which you can turn to your advantage by using it to gauge the current gaming climate. Sloth from your players is a kind of early warning system you can use to take the pulse of the group.Perhaps the players just don’t mesh with their character this time, or maybe the genre isn’t their favorite. But often it is the fault of the DM when lack of interest kills the campaign.
Sloth is, in fact, one of the players’ greatest weapons when they find themselves stuck in a game they don’t think is interesting. We’ve all seen it happen before: At first the players stop being enthusiastic and proactive about their characters; then they just shrug when the monsters and bad guys show themselves.
Eventually your players are off in the corner playing Magic, or calling to tell you that they just have too much work this weekend to make it to the game. This is how gamers kill with kindness, and it works. They’re not mad at you; they simply want this game to go away, and so it does, piece by piece.
This is one instance when I will caution you not to vigorously combat a gaming sin. It’s okay to try and jump-start the campaign, add new elements, or change the setting. But sometimes it’s better to just let it go and bow out gracefully. Give it one last hurrah to finish things off and set the memories in your players minds. And then let the curtains fall.
But what if you’re getting mixed reviews? What if some players are “slothful” but others are still into the game? Sometimes you will notice one or two players who seem to be less involved than the rest of the party. This can be OK if you’ve made an effort to include them and make them feel useful or special in the game. Many players are not always “on” and prefer to wait for opportunities to shine rather than go to the trouble of making them.
If the player seems to be giving up on the game consistently, you might need to take a different tact. Try to set up a subplot, or get them interested in accomplishing something specific. To most players, having a clear objective and feeling important equates to being interested in the game and that will lead them right back to being active participants. If you can give them a push, that kind of motivation can carry even the most slothful player right back into the heart of the game.
The DM gets Lazy
Sloth, of course, can also apply to DMs who have lost interest in their own games. Pay attention to it when it arrives. Perhaps it’s time to pack it in before your lack of energy becomes a lack of planning and effort, thus maiming an otherwise standout game. Don’t be afraid to come to some kind of conclusion and take a hiatus. It’s one of the great entertainment tricks: Go out with a bang and leave ‘em wanting more.
But the truth is, I really don’t think DMs – by nature – are inclined much to sloth.
Now, I know that there are exceptions. Everyone who’s gamed for a few decades can recall some horrific experience with a bad DM who was trying to wing it and had no real idea of what he or she was doing. Creighton Braodhurst recently listed this particular failure as number 5 in his list of “6 Common GMing Mistakes” under the heading “Not Preparing,” so it may in fact be more common that my own experience indicates.
The few times I’ve been unfortunate enough to game under a truly unprepared DM, the real issue – almost universally – was actually a lack of experience. It’s hard for a new DM to know what to prepare and what information needs to be at the fingertips and what can be looked up (or fudged when appropriate). New DMs can truly believe they’ve thought of everything and meticulously planned for every contingency, only to realize they forgot to assign a name to the critical NPC that the party will be interacting with. They might not recognize points where the plot of the adventure might go off the rails if the PCs decide on an unexpected course of action. In these cases, the issue really isn’t sloth or laziness; it’s inexperience.
I’ve also known DMs who had to take a moment or two to look up or flesh out material in the midst of a game, particularly when the party went off in some unexpected direction, but I think that is also a completely different phenomenon. No one can prepare for every contingency or odd party decision, and it actually takes a great deal of maturity and experience to be able to hit the pause button and take some time to prepare for the unexpected in the middle of a game. In fact, my all-time favorite DM to game under, Graham Scott, taught me the value of being willing to pause the game for a minute to allow himself time to prep when needed. It was always worth the wait in his games, and I admired his commitment to the integrity of the game and his willingness to take the time he needed to get it right. I rarely did that myself when I ran a game, always fearing that the narrative flow would get broken or that my players would get impatient. They never did with Graham because they always knew those brief pauses would result in something simultaneously exhilarating, challenging and memorable.
The willfully unprepared DM, the one who really does just try to wing it, has been thankfully rare in my experience. I’ve encountered only a few of these, mostly at conventions for some reason, and even in those rare cases I’m not sure the real issue was actually sloth. Most of those “improvisational” DMs (and I put that word in quotes because I think real improvisation is something quite different – which I shall get to shortly) were really victims of a different gaming sin, the first sin of Pride. They simply thought they were so amazing, so charismatic and cool, such masters of the rules and storytelling that they could create works of edifying and entertaining fantasy from whole cloth. They were, of course, woefully wrong. Invariably, these sessions ended up being boring rehashes of standard gaming tropes strung together with painfully unsubtle pretexts. The plots were contrived, the encounters predictable and the whole experience was profoundly unsatisfying.
The only real case I can think of from my own experience that I can fully attribute to sloth was a DM who ran a module that he clearly hadn’t read through fully. I’ve never really been a fan of running modules as, for me, at least half the fun of running a game is the creative work of preparing an adventure. Still, there are some great adventures out there and I have no beef with DMs who run some of the amazing modules and adventure paths we are lucky enough to have access to in this golden age of gaming. (I’m serious about the golden age. Look at the quality of some of those beloved but pretty terrible early modules and tell me with a straight face that things aren’t much better these days.) But it is simply inexcusable to have not read and considered the material ahead of time. No matter how well made the module, there will be gaps, problems and omissions that you will need to think about ahead of time. Look at all the critiques and reviews of the inaugural adventure for 5E, the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, particularly the Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which is scoring only a 55% approval rating on the EN World reviews. Even the flagship adventure is filled with editing errors and inconsistencies that will need to be addressed or at least foreseen. The DM who won’t make his or her own adventure should at least have the integrity to have read and prepare the pre-generated material ahead of time. The DM who wings a module has no excuse. Here is DMing sloth at last!
Improvisation is Different
This leads me to a corollary discussion that I think might actually be more interesting than the ruminations on sloth above. I don’t really believe that much of what is conventionally labeled as sloth is true laziness. In fact, I think a certain amount of what is commonly perceived as sloth is actually a potential advantage, especially at the gaming table. Let me explain that last comment with a brief detour into some personal biography that is – I promise – relevant to this article. And I realize some of it will read like hardcore humblebrag, but it’s critical to my point so I’m just going to go with it.
For many years I considered myself a lazy person. I was always incredibly busy, and so I never felt like I was able to get everything done. I thought I was too lazy to get things done ahead of time, and always felt like I was procrastinating, but I was really just mastering the art of getting things done in the nick of time because I always had too much on my plate. I’m sure this is the root of the phrase “if you want something done, ask a busy person.”
How is this all relevant to the theme of sloth in game mastery, you might ask? Well, my real point is that I have only recently realized that somewhere along the line I mistakenly associated my own ability to improvise effectively with laziness. I had become good at thinking on my feet and often relied on that ability to see me through unexpected assignments or to help me meet an all too rapidly approaching deadline. I knew I could get that conference paper done in the last few hours before presenting it, or come up with some useful insight at a meeting that made it look like I’d gone over the notes with a fine-toothed comb. I felt like I relied too much on my improvisational skills, and that this was surely a sign of laziness.
It took a particular watershed teaching experience to realize that something quite different was actually going on.
I first discovered the power of improvisation relatively early on in my teaching career. While teaching a class on the history of the English language I found myself forced to improvise a new lesson when my carefully prepared plan was scuppered by a realization that none of the students had done the required reading. Rather than getting upset, I instead improvised a new lesson on the spot, engaging them with a bit of lecture, a brief bit of group work, and a writing assignment that seemed to really get them involved and revitalized.
I quickly discovered that I was drawing too much from the class text and stifling my own creativity by over-preparing my lectures and class activities. I tried an experiment and intentionally under-prepared for the next class. I winged the lecture on Anglo-Norman England and the effects of French on the vocabulary of English. It was possibly the best lecture I had ever given, and in truth it was hardly a lecture at all. The class became dynamic, with me asking the students questions and them asking me questions in turn. It was a dialogue; it was hysterical; it was informative; it was a hit. I still use my etymology of the dinner table example that I came up with from that session on a regular basis.
What this experience taught me is that improvisation is not the same as laziness. To really improvise, in the way that a jazz musician might think of the term, you really have to know your stuff. Improvisation is actually a peak skill, only achievable by those who have truly mastered the material by rote and can finally transcend the mechanics by internalizing the knowledge and skill they have acquired. This ability to improvise probably requires something along the lines of 10,000 hours of experience, as Malcolm Gladwell famously argued was necessary for true proficiency in his book Outliers.
In truth, I’ve probably spent about that amount of time running, playing, developing and working on gaming. At this point, I really do think I can improvise while running a game and make a success of it. In fact, I know it. I’ve done it, intentionally and unintentionally, several times. Once was just a few months ago when my players followed a minor plot line, so doggedly chasing down a relatively inconsequential villain I had thought to have escape, with such persistence that I had to improvise a whole chase sequence and eventual confrontation. I really wonder if any of the players noticed that I was winging the whole second half of the game.
Of course, what made that improvisation possible was hard work done beforehand. I knew where the villain would run because I had created an intricate web of influence and charted out various strongholds and hideouts that might serve those involved in the nefarious plots. I had even done a preliminary map of the ruin in which he eventually sought refuge and where the party finally encountered him. Of course there were some challenges, such as the fact that some adversaries were a bit higher level that the party was really ready for as I’d been thinking they’d encounter them a bit later on in their careers. Still, though, there was a moment I thought the battle would devolve into a potential TPK, they pulled it off and I believe we had one of our best sessions in the campaign.
So, this is my final thought on the subject of sloth, for any fledgling and incubating DMs out there. Don’t be lazy, but also don’t be afraid to improvise and let the game and your players lead it where they will. Let things get messed up a bit and be “prepared” to wing it when necessary. Practice the art of occasionally and deliberately being just a little bit “lazy” and you will in due course develop the vital skill of improvisation.†