January 16th, 2015


The sound of one die rolling

klik teaches zen in the tradition of the Rinzai sect. This is the more 'martial' of the two main zen sects (the other being Soto). Rinzai emphasizes mental discipline and sudden enlightenment. As such, koan study is a big part of that.
The trouble with reaching enlightenment is that you can't explain it to somebody else in a way that will allow them to reach enlightenment too -- it's a personal thing and what works for one person might not work for another. A koan is a riddle that you get from your master, and you have to come up with an answer that works for you. Turning this question over and over in your mind might give you an insight into something that is blocking you from progressing further on the road towards enlightenment. Sometimes the riddles are semi-nonsensical (such as the famous "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"), but they always have a deeper meaning and are meant to guide the zen student in their introspection towards an area of themselves that needs improvement. That also means that the answer to a koan is deeply personal: two zen students can be given the same question, but could reach different answers because their personalities are different.
There are books with koan and their explanations, and these make for amusing reading, but they will not help you attain enlightenment -- the book does not know your situation, and thus does not know your correct answer to the problem posed.

As part of being "RPG Geek of the Week" I was asked, more as a joke, "What is the sound of one die rolling?" I did not want to dismiss this question as a silly joke. I wanted to approach it as my personal koan for this week, to see if there is something I could learn from this question -- and perhaps take a step towards enlightenment.

[Meditating on a koan]I thought about the nature of RPGs first. Most have to be enjoyed with a group of players, with one player being the GM. Having a good game requires a cooperative effort. The "sound of one die rolling" is not the sound of an RPG being played -- you need more people rolling dice to make it happen. This turned my thoughts towards the way I have been playing RPGs with others.
I strive to be a good GM for my games. Currently, the campaign that takes the most 'mindspace' is the Streamdales campaign, which has now been running for almost two years. Lately, I have been dissatisfied with how the sessions have been progressing. I have been plotting the scenarios in scenes, with possible connections between the scenes. The current scenario is more of a clue-trail detective story. My dissatisfaction stems from the fact that I pour all sorts of details (setting, scenes, NPCs, what they tell the characters etcetera) into the game, but that only a little of that is retained for the next session. The players do not take notes, and mis-remember or even forget crucial details that would bring them further along in the plot. I have been blaming my players for this, but this is not fair: we play this RPG together, and the play emerges from the interaction between the players and the GM.

Another thing zen teaches you, is to be empty, in the moment. If you attain emptiness, you can react to things as they are, instead of projecting your own ideas onto them. Being empty allows you to see the world as it is. To pour all of your being into doing something carefully and with love -- to have a "beginner's mind": everything is possible. People make their own suffering, by having a strict notion of how the world should be, and lamenting the fact that it is not like that. But by being empty, you can take the world as it is, and do what is needed at that moment.
I have not been 'empty' during GMing the Streamdales. Not because I have a railroad the players must follow (the scenes are only 'loosely coupled' and I will gladly invent new ones as we go along), but because I have a preconceived notion on how the players should play 'my' game. But the players are, of course, under no obligation to follow my style of play -- they're not at the table to attend a lecture or to do homework or to humour me, but to play a game in the style they prefer!
In this manner, I have created my own suffering over this. I should be more empty when GMing and go with the flow of the players: if some minor detail interests them, I should offer them more of this. If all your players want to play fighters, it makes little sense to give them a scenario involving lots of social interaction!

But if I do that, it will not be the Streamdales campaign anymore. In my mind, the themes of that campaign are too far entrenched to switch to a dungeon crawl style. I have worked too hard to establish the setting to throw all that overboard and re-skin the Streamdales into a more 'traditional' fantasy campaign. But it is also true that what I put into it, is less than what I get out of it.
Becoming more 'empty' with regards to that campaign would mean ending the campaign. And I have decided to do just that: after the current scenario is wrapped up, I will end the campaign.

This turned my thoughts to the future. I will not immediately start a new campaign -- I need some time to think about what would work for me and a group of players (possibly this same group, possibly with a slightly different composition). I have a lot of ideas, but it also has to mesh with their style of play. When the Streamdales started, we did not explicitly discuss this, and we might have to do so before a new campaign starts to prevent dissapointments one way or the other in the long run.
The next campaign I run should be 'loose' and invite more player input -- perhaps by offering a more 'traditional' style of play. My best sessions flow naturally from one thing to another, with every roll of the dice steering the story into new and unexpected directions. Every player is invested in the outcome of such a die roll -- not only for their own character, but also because they want to know what happens to the other characters. In such games, the sound of a single die rolling is the sound of quiet anticipation, in both the player and the GM. My next campaign should be like that.
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