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Better Game Mastering Through Daydreaming

Posted By John Arcadian On May 27, 2010 @ 12:40 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

image You know what I do when I’m mowing my lawn? I fly a spaceship. You know what I do when I’m folding laundry? I think about exactly what concurrence of events would lead to me getting superpowers. You know what I do when I am waiting in a doctor’s office or stuck at a meeting that has absolutely nothing to do with my job? I watch an epic battle of physics-defying action figure sized people going on unnoticed by everyone around. I daydream – a lot. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m 5  years old again, and I get ashamed. Then I get over it and go back to the distraction from the boredom of whatever task I’m engaging in. I attribute a lot of my success as a Game Master to daydreaming. Because of it, I’ve never lost that youthful sense of imagination. Bogged down by the mundanity of daily life, the imagination gets dull – if it isn’t exercised that is.

Daydreaming, Roleplaying, & “Play” Share The Same Sense Of Imagination
Seeing young children play with toys is like watching imagination unfettered. Not knowing the rules of engagement that older children know of, and not being constrained by the predefined environment of a video game or a set story, children build incredible worlds with just a few mental images and words. All of the action goes on in the mind, despite whatever toys are being moved about in the air or made to punch each other and fall back in incredible ways. The actual movement and action is all secondary to the movie being played and changed inside the child’s head.

This is the same thing that goes on at the gaming table. While we can attempt to define our characters and scenery with words, miniatures, maps, and terrain, we can’t hope to match the vividness and detail built inside each players’ mind. The mental satisfaction and gratification that comes from the gaming moment doesn’t come from moving the mini and the arithmetic that drops the enemies hit points below zero, it comes from the mental image and the players’ connections to their experience in the imaginary moment.  Despite it being because of their character, it is the player who revels in the moment and the victory. They just defeated the monster, snagged the treasure, proved their superiority, or showed their ineffable coolness.

The moment lives inside the imagination, the imagination lives in the player. The imagination of the moment encompasses everything that went up to the creation of that. The world, the story, the actions of other players, the art in the books, the descriptions and challenges set forth by the Game Master are all supports for that string of moments built inside the imagination, that shared daydreaming, that goes on inside of each player.

So what does all this mean? Daydreaming is practice and expression of one of the primal essences of “play”, something that we as roleplayers do in a way unique to any other form of media or story. We actively step inside the imaginary world being created and form it by our actions for ourselves and for other active participants in that same shared world. While this happens in other forms of play (video games, especially MMORPGs come to mind), the active immersion in imagination is never quite the same or as central to the experience.

Daydreaming Focuses Us And Fuels Our Mental Storehouse, Especially As Game Masters
Ok, let’s get a little less doctoral thesis with the tone of this piece. I’ve hopefully established that there is an almost unbreakable link to imagination in roleplaying, children’s play, and daydreaming. If we can agree on that, lets work towards agreeing on this: Daydreaming is to Gaming as Working Out is to Sports. Daydreaming has a lot of health benefits for stress, visualization, flexing of unused neurons, etc., etc., etc. It isn’t exactly the same as running a game or playing in one, but it is a great tool for practicing to do those things. The same “muscles” are utilized, but in a way and environment that doesn’t feel like work.

Seriously, do whatever you want with this. It was taken in 10 seconds for illustrative purposes. Try this: Wherever you are sitting right now, focus on one object or thing (not of your preferred sexual attraction) to look at and imagine something about it. I’m in my office and I’m looking at a toy space-ship (my office is geekily-awesome). Now imagine that in some other scenario. Go nuts and don’t limit yourself in any way. Start with a small factor of the object and build up from there until you are “living” the daydream in some way.   I’m looking at the spaceship and imagining it in space, the black starfield surrounding it as it zooms past. An explosion materializes in a puff of red smoke and fire as a shell hits it. I flash to the crew inside as they panic. I flash back to the big blocky crab-like spaceship that pursues them, easily triple their size. I imagine the enemy captain looking like a traditional pirate but with a military uniform and close cropped grey beard. I build the story and I let it cascade. Eventually images come cascading in from sources unrelated. While the ship is from the anime outlaw star, my mind sees the inside more like the cockpit from farscape. The pursuing enemy ship feels more firefly. Eventually I can’t even source the looks and feels, I’m just left with all sorts of looks and feels that are different.

By the time I’m done, I pull myself out and have created a full bodies, fairly unstructured scenario that is ripe with things I can cherry pick later. The enemy captain that I imagined might become the nobleman in my next fantasy game. The pursuit scenario might occur on airships or within a firefly game. The architecture inside the ship might become the inspiration for the way I describe the inside of the monster that swallowed the player. All these things are going to be forgotten and re-emerge when I’m groping around for imagery at a later point.

Daydreams Are Unfettered – Making Them Great At Expanding Our Barriers
One  incredibly beautiful thing about daydreams is that they are unfettered and unfenced by rules. Even the most structured daydream eventually unravels into an almost stream of consciousness image processor if it goes on long enough. This kind of daydreaming helps us stretch boundaries and think around them when we get to game. While we follow the rules and mechanics in our games, the necessity of the rules comes from a need to organize play to an extent that we can share it with others. While inside of a daydream we are only accountable to ourselves, and we don’t limit ourselves to solutions that are mechanically representable. Because of this we come up with new ways to tackle problems in daydreams. Having done this in an unfettered environment, our minds seek out ways to make unique use of the rules we restrict ourselves to at the table. From the Game Master’s side, this leads us to build more interesting challenges and stories. It also helps us adapt and react when the players present us with unique ideas that the rules don’t account for.

Daydreams Help Us Focus On What Is Important About A Concept And Detail It
When we daydream we build mental images. Within those images we emphasize what is symbolically important about the thing the images represent. If we daydream about a paladinic knight we might emphasize the armor and weaponry. This can symbolize the strength and sense of protection he or she engenders. If it shines it might show the cleanliness and purity of the idea behind the figure. These are all things we might find in sleep-dreams, but in daydreams we can control the level of detail and help build a better image for our later use.

We can take the image, freeze it, add lionhead shaped pauldrons and shine up the armor. Taking a few seconds to add these details helps keep them relevant throughout the rest of the daydream, even if we aren’t actively focusing on the details. While imagining the paladin battling a horde of undead we don’t actively redraw the details in our head, but they stay resident and creep in. The rhythm of stopping and redrawing an image by focusing on certain elements is highly reminiscent of the first description of an object by the game master. Using hand gestures to point out where the pauldrons might be and what area they encompass and using descriptive words to add layers of detail onto the armor is like the pause to redraw in your head. From then on out the image will fade a bit for the players, but it won’t be forgotten and the details will creep in. It is almost like triggering a redraw in the players’ minds. Stopping to do this yourself when you daydream will help you focus your descriptions and detail more.

imageDaydreaming Can Be Done Anywhere With Nothing and With No-one Knowing
One of the most beautiful things about daydreaming as a roleplaying tool is that it can be done anywhere, at any time, with no materials or help, and no one being the wiser. When bored at work we can practice for roleplaying. When we zone out at school, no one knows what is going on in  our head (so long as we don’t start making noises and swinging our arms like swords, achem). We don’t have to turn on our xboxes and wait for them to load, we don’t have to grab the books, we don’t have to worry about making rolls. Those things would probably hinder us. We can make use of things to inspire us, but the real work is solely in our heads.

Gamers, even the most verbal about their lack of imagination, are creative types. Some do it with numbers, some do it with back stories, some do it with in-game acting, and some do it inside their heads while quietly watching other people take the spotlight. But our creativity isn’t just used when we are at the gaming table, and it behooves us to work this out and train it. Daydreaming is a key part of that. So go play inside your head whenever you can. Build up an easily forgotten arsenal of images that will pop up when you need them later. Do a visual scan of anyplace your find yourself in and start building up a story about it. I think you will find your next game session well improved by practicing for it in this way.

So what do you think? Can you see gaming benefits to actively engaging in daydreams? Do you daydream the adventures of characters when you aren’t playing? Do you find that you sometimes get that odd embarrassment when you catch yourself daydreaming, before realizing how prevalent the act of imagination is to the creation of any media or advancement? What do you find your self daydreaming about the most?

(Image: Daydreaming by Edward Harrison May, 1876)
(Image: Red Spaceship In My Office by John Arcadian / CC 2.0)
(Image:  Daydreaming / CC 2.0)

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Better Game Mastering Through Daydreaming"

#1 Comment By retrothomas On May 27, 2010 @ 5:31 am

Probably not the first comment you were expecting, but WHERE did you get that Outlaw Star model? I totally need one! That’s one of my favorite anime series.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On May 27, 2010 @ 10:02 am

@retrothomas – I got it at a local comic book shop. I’m sure they can be found online. It has served well in a lot of my games. That and the Arcadia model next to it have stood in for airships or other spaceships on more than one occasion.

#3 Comment By AquaFox On May 27, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

“Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m 5 years old again, and I get ashamed.”

Ahh.. Culture nowadays find imagination to be childish and shameful. It’s sad :(.

#4 Comment By BryanB On May 27, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

Take a look at the Fresno (CA) City Hall building sometime. That is not a city hall at all. It is an Imperial Naval Resupply depot complete with a shuttle pad and grav train station. :D

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On May 28, 2010 @ 12:18 am

I don’t stop and smell the roses often enough. You’re right– a pause to stop and think about things, as full featured and 3 dimensional, really pays dividends when you drag it back and describe it to your players.

The lack of a supply or book requirement is a big benefit too.

#6 Comment By ChattyDM On May 28, 2010 @ 6:49 am

Hi there John, long time no see. I see that the Chatty needle hit you hard on that post. Awesome!

I agree wholeheartedly with the power of daydreaming, that’s where I get inspiration from my wildest campaign settings and adventure idea.

I lower all barriers, tell my inner judge to shut the hell up for a minute and start asking myself freeform “what-if” questions that usually lead to something original and completely off beat.

Great post friend

#7 Comment By John Arcadian On May 28, 2010 @ 10:49 am

@AquaFox – Don’t worry. I get over it quick ;). I’m a big kid at heart in almost all things. There is a lot of culture pushing on us to be responsible members of adult society and not daydream, but there is also a biological survival instinct that tries to kick us out of our daydreaming. If we are unaware of our surroundings (such as occurs when we turn all of our internal sensory processors to our imagination instead of our senses) part of our brain tries to kick us out of it so we don’t get eaten by a bear. This occurs less in “safe” areas, but if we are in unfamiliar surroundings it doubles up. It will also trigger any kind of mental backup that it can, reinforcing the cultural stigma of the unproductive member of society.

@BryanB – Exactly! The Akron Art Museum is actually a buried Imperial Cruiser waiting till the time it can be called into service or resurrected by a race of tech scavengers and made into their next moveable homeworld.
http://www.ci.akron.oh.us/tour/Graphics/Akron_Art_Museum_350x.JPG

@Scott Martin – I don’t think any of us stop to smell the roses enough. I know that I can easily burn myself out by working on too many things simultaneously. When my brain is running at full bore for too long it can blow a tire, but if I take time to sit and engage in nothing I find myself working much more efficiently.

@ChattyDM – Hello Phil! Definitely, and far too long. I definitely did a longer post on this one. It dug into my brain and wouldn’t let me stop until I had something I was semi-satisfied with. I watched my buddy’s kid playing and thought about the last time I had that imaginative of an experience. I realized that I’d been doing so much structured imagining that I wasn’t letting myself explore. I realized how much crossover there was between kids imaginative play and more adult play and that a lot of that was exercised in daydreams.

Good to see you again and I hope to meet up with you at Gencon, if not at Origins. Hope all is well!

#8 Comment By clockworkdinosaur On June 5, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

I stumbled onto this randomly, and had to register just to comment on this.

Maybe this is a little silly, but it’s honestly nice to just *hear* someone else who does the same thing as me. I do my best daydreaming/planning while walking, and until recently my job made it so I didn’t walk at all – I just drove for five minutes and ended up at work where I sat all day. My imagination muscles were atrophying until I quit, and now I make sure to get my daily dose.

As a writer (wannabe) and DM, it’s really important to stretch those imagination muscles on some epic battles as you walk before you get down to the nitty gritty of planning. Who knew exercise could be so fun?

Remember, when you’re imagining that you’re a robot walking through the parking lot and making all those noises, you are not alone.


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