How Can David Mamet Help My Game?

A Pulitzer Prize winning writer helps you with your make-believe elf games. Also: Penguins.




The name Davd Mammet may or may not be familiar to you. You’ve probably seen at least one of his works. He’s been a playwright and a screenwriter since the ‘70’s, he’s won a Pulitzer, and arguably his most mainstream success was The Untouchables, back in 1987. He’s a good writer, an adept craftsman of drama and tension on the screen.

He also created a TV show: The Unit. But he had a team of writers working underneath him. As you might imagine, he had high standards. And the writing on his own show did not impress him. At. All.

(A little heads-up: Davie uses some saucy language there. Nothing too elaborately profane, but perhaps not great for the young ‘uns. He also uses PRACTICALLY ALL CAPS, so it’s perhaps not great for reading, either. And there’s penguins. Anyway.)

What's key here is that this advice isn't just good for someone trying to meet David Mamet's writing standards. It's really good advice for anyone wanting to help create more compelling, dramatic, interesting stories. Turns out, that's RPG players and, primarily, Game Masters.

The Audience Will Not Watch Information
The penguins want you to be clear. They want understanding. They want you to be obvious, to state precisely what is happening simply.

But the penguins don't know what makes for interesting screenwriting. Because they're not screenwriters. And if you follow their advice, says Mamet, you're not going to get anything out of the audience.

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Do not follow the penguins. They are adorable, but make poor GMs and smell of fish and poo on things. But...d'aaaw....

Information isn't drama. It’s boring, about as compelling as reading the dictionary. Information, by itself, is dull: it doesn’t create anticipation or raise the stakes or keep anyone interested.

I bet you've got lots of information you're hoping to put in your players' hands. You know where the Duchy of the Flamingo is in relationship to the Dire Swamp of the Xvarts. You know what the motives of the Black Prince of Bhardabad. You know exactly why the Bandersnatch needs the Tome of L’bropp. Heck, depending on your reading habits, your might know the name of every minor noble in Faerun or the mating habits of triaphegs. Or both.

But when we follow our inner penguins, and we make the mistake of just telling the other players that information, it dies. I'm sure every DM has had that experience:

“Um. Wait. Was that the dude who made the goblins attack us three weeks ago? Or was that the guy with the vampire thing? I thought his name was Tim. What city is he the prince of? The one with the dude with the thing? Okay, whatever.”

The audience doesn’t care about raw information. The people playing your game aren't any different. Information doesn’t make them interested in what will happen next, and doesn’t, in and of itself, empower them to do anything. The penguins in your head want to tell them everything, but telling them doesn’t make them care about it.

Drama makes them care. Empowerment makes them care. Anticipation and dread make them care. That’s the hard core at the heart of any enjoyable experience: you care what happens. They’re not going to read your handout, they’re not going to listen much while you infodump, and they won’t remember the name of your important NPC. Not unless you make them care.

A Need Which Impels
Rather than being concerned with informing your players, then, you should primarily be concerned with keeping them interested.

And how do you keep an audience interested? Well, I’ll tell you in the next section.

Before we get to that, we need to ask a more fundamental question: Why should the player care about your adventure? There’s usually a sort of agreement between the players and the GM’s that the players will play through what the GM constructs, but that doesn’t really mean they care. Do they get invested? Do they get excited? Are you hearing joyous laughter and witnessing abject (if entertaining) defeat? Are they on the edge of their seats, or asleep in them? The game is already active – you actually need to give input into your actions to play an RPG. But it’s sometimes all too easy to disengage from what’s happening at the table.

Which is where Mamet’s advice comes in to play for you. Your players already have characters – characters that, because they built them, they can’t help but empathize with and want to succeed. They’re ready to care and root for their PC. And so they’ll sit up and pay attention when something is at risk for them.

Mamet says that drama comes from the heroes overcoming things that prevent them from achieving a specific, acute goal. We’ve looked a bit at how goals are something that can structure a PC, and some work is done there in making them more severe and central with the origin being tied to the goal, with specificity coming into play with the precise rewards the DM keys to each adventure. And that helps. But even if you’re not using a system like that, a lot can be gained from having your players make characters that want things very much. The desires might be for a vorpal sword or a legendary gem or to kill a beast or to extract vengeance or to serve a king or whatever, the important thing is that they want it, and that they want it bad. Badly enough to risk the death, damage, and dismemberment common in RPG’s. Bad enough, in other words, to be a little unbalanced.

This should happen on a moment to moment basis. Even in a more hands-off style of DMing, in a more sandbox-like environment, your PC’s should hit the ground running, with fierce and deliberate intention, driving themselves from scene to scene. In order to drive the action forward, they need to be thinking about what’s going to happen next, all the time, which means there must be some carrot out there they want to pursue. A PC who has no great desires – or who is generally apathetic about achieving them – isn’t going to be a compelling character for anyone else at the table.

Mamet’s “litmus test” itemized list is a good way of asking yourself if your planned adventure or encounter is actually compelling, or just filler. Who Wants What? helps define the goal and the necessary characters (the PC’s, and their antagonists): if the Leucrotta has no reason to be in the ruin, and the PC’s have no reason to fight it, there’s not going to be much interesting happening there. Why Now? helps make the adventure or encounter immediate. If there’s no pressing reason to thwart the Necromancer-King, there’s nothing to anticipate with dread or fear, nothing happening if the PC’s don’t do anything themselves. What Happens If They Don’t Get It helps define how the scene is going to play out, because, as Mamet notes, the hero in this encounter or in this adventure is going to either fail entirely, or find a new way. That is, the hero won’t accomplish their goal here.

That last bit is worth diving into a little bit more, because it’s a little counter-intuitive. A character does not get what they want until the end of their career, until the end of the campaign, so each scene, each encounter, needs to be them failing to get what they want. Even if the party emerges from the combat intact, they do not have what they seek, their needs are not fulfilled, and they probably just wasted a few minutes and a lot of blood on something that is at best a stop on the road to what they actually desire. This is why the goals in that previous article are staged: you are not meant to get what you want, because once you get what you want, all the tension and anticipation goes out of the thing.

The Audience Will Be Interested In What Happens Next
So, how do you keep an audience interested?

One of the things that humans do very well is to imagine the future, to think about what might happen, and to try and use whatever skills they have to figure it out. It's what makes musing interesting. It’s what makes horror horrifying. It’s what makes drama satisfying. It’s even what makes us enjoy gaining levels and improving characters.

There is one thing at the core of all of these experiences.

Anticipation.

The realization of anticipation is what causes that physical reaction known as catharsis, and that heady drug knows few equals. So of course it is at the core of what Mamet advises makes for good DRAMA.

Anticipation can be absent from our RPG’s for all sorts of reasons. Maybe the game isn’t swingy enough. Maybe there’s not enough chaos. Maybe there’s too much control. Maybe the next 20 levels are all spelled out in advance. Maybe we know the battle will be won, or we know that our characters will succeed. Any time that we know what the result is going to be, all the air goes out of the tires.

The job of the GM, to keep the players interested, and to keep them coming back, is to slick the wheels on their train of anticipation, to keep them wondering about the future.

Any level-based system already has this, to a certain degree, built in. An HP-like system of diminishing points also agitates this predictive mechanism. As a GM, you can leverage either of these, or both, to build anticipation in your games. Magic items and other rewards are also good sources of anticipation.

Regardless of your system, anticipation requires ambiguity and chaos: you cannot know for sure what hit will drop you to 0 HP. You cannot know for sure what you’re going to be able to do when you gain a level. You cannot know for sure what capabilities your magic items have. If all these things are nebulous and unknown, but important to your character’s goals (and those goals are, as noted above, acute and demanding), you create a circumstance where you need to pay attention to see if everything falls apart, or not. Abandon the precise math, the wishlists, the recommended wealth-by-level, the guaranteed powers from these specific lists each time you get X amount of XP, and embrace more chaos, more unknowns, and more mystery.

The more your players are wondering about what happens AFTER this encounter or this adventure, the more you’ve made your material compelling and interesting.

And once you’ve got THAT, they’ll seek out information, without needing you to dump it into their brains.

Answer Truthfully
The letter is good advice. It telegraphs key principles that should help anyone, from David Mamet’s writing team to you in your own home games, to ratchet up the dramatic tension of their creative medium. There’s enough meat here for 10 articles (like: try writing a D&D adventure where you don’t actually have NPC’s who TALK!). But for now, I’m interested in you: How are you going to add more DRAMA into your next game?.
 

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Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
Great piece -- I like Mamet a lot. And it's a good lesson for DM's too. Information is lost, drama is remembered.

Do you have any examples of encounters/scenes/adventures that you've worked on or run that you applied this to? Or maybe examples (like we did for my piece about boxed text) where we take an encounter and give it the Mamet treatment?

-rg
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
I think the most successful use in my personal games pertains to the Goals for the PC, and making it so that failure at accomplishing those goals was assumed. For instance, there was a PC there who had the goal of Independence, and was an escaped slave. I made it clear up-front that it was assumed that, at the end of this little 5-level mini-campaign that the PC would be captured by her previous owners -- unless she did something to stop that from happening (each character was assumed to fail at their goal unless they did something active to counteract that). The three stages on her path to her goal were all about stopping that fate, and she was always well aware of what the future held for her. There was a scene where the party was pretty blinkered from a series of difficult combats and was in retreat, but her character charged during a particularly difficult combat, because "If I die here, at least I die before they can catch up to me" (or something like that). Really awesome scene, and all because the stakes were high, failure was assumed, and the player was thinking about what was going to happen in the future. It also helped me, throughout the campaign, to set up scenes where Who Wants What and Why Now and What Happens If We Fail were very, very clear. That combat itself was based on another PC who, with the goal of Peace, was doomed to failure if he didn't do something active to stop his Rome-esque empire from going to war. It pushed him to attack this nation he was very loyal to (he was a monk trained as a soldier in the army) and be branded a traitor, all because he wanted to see the wars end.

High stakes and clear goals and the real and present threat of failure bring out a lot of juicy drama. :)
 
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Janx

Hero
Having read the penguin article, I see some other interesting lessons from Mamet.

mamet talks about writing for TV and not radio, since thats the people he's addressing. The inverse is really true for GMing. You're writing for listeners, not watchers. People can't see anything, so you've got to hold their attention in an audio medium. That still means not boring them to death.

mamet hates scenes with 2 people talking about a 3rd person or exposition scenes.

in D&D, I take these concepts from that:
any scene with 2 people talking means the rest of the party is bored. Cut some conversations down to summations rather than back and forth dialog that the rest of the party is stuck waiting for it to finish.

Don't spend a lot of time describing everything or giving length backstory. Somebody else has an article on cleaning up boxed text. Read it.

in that same vein, don't describe, show. We don't need to know exactly what the evil prince of evil is wearing. But if you want me to think he's really evil, show me the results of his evil or have him do something evil in front of me. That'll get the point across better than trying to dress up how evil this guy is and it'll use less idle game time to do it.

I still like KM's mandatory goals for PCs, as a driver of action. Just about every scene should be actions taken to get the goal.

I was going to say "driving to the goal", but that's another metaphor. Don't waste my time describing the ride along the trail. Ain't nothing happening. it's filler. Cut to the chase.



KM raised an interesting point in his second post here about goals, in that they are predestined to fail unless the PC exerts effort. He should have put that in his original Goals article. But I'll extract another lesson from it.

One of the ways TV shows lose audience is when they take so bloody long to resolve themselves. Lost hit a lull like that (season 3 if I recall the complaints). As a writer or a GM, you can only milk a goal for so long. It needs to move to the next stage or end in final defeat. If you keep milking the same cow, you're going to jump the shark.

This is part of what Burn Notice suffered from. How many seasons is Michael going to be burned, and go after the guys who burned him, and then go after the guys who were really behind the guys who were really behind the guys who burned him. Even an onion has a limited number of layers. Finish it.

There is a pacing that should be kept, so the player feels tension, and progress. And if the PC is lucky, eventual success. But certainly not never ending repetition of being stuck in the same stage for 20 levels.
 



Lord_Blacksteel

Adventurer
I was expecting to hate this article based on the title alone - "oh look another attempt to turn advice from a completely different medium into DMing advice" - I find most of those to be just wrong.

Lo and behold - this is actually good stuff, and if your players keep coming back you're probably already doing some of these. I'm especially a fan of "information is boring".
 

I think Mamet is an excellent writer and his instruction is spot-on for screenwriting. I'm a little reluctant to just say, "Do this same thing with D&D." It's a serious mistake that is repeatedly made - the things that make a good book do not necessarily make good D&D. The things that make a good movie do not necessarily make good D&D. Books, movies, TV shows, plays, D&D; they share many of the same requirements, the same terminology, but they are NOT INTERCHANGABLE.

For one thing the DM is not actually writing most of the scene - THE PLAYERS ARE! The players determine what their characters motivations are - NOT THE DM. The players write their characters dialogue - NOT THE DM. D&D is not a wholly written medium, nor is it a medium dominated by visuals as movies and TV are. The job of the DM is not like the job Mamet assigns to the screenwriter - to ensure that the hero repeatedly fails or is otherwise prevented from succeeding until the end of the show. The DM has to compose adventures in such a way that at any point when the players come up with better ideas that they can actually succeed prematurely. It is considered BAD DMing to write as Mamet suggests and we even have our own name for it - railroading.

I think our greatest challenge, our most needed skill, is the ability to re-write our entire show on the fly. To not have our episode or our entire multi-story arc collapse in a puff of logic just because the PC's succeeded in achieving goals before we initially planned. We have to anticipate that they will REPEATEDLY achieve goals before we really want them to. We have to RELY on the idea that things will NOT develop as we WRITE them to develop and that we will then have to REWRITE everything that follows quickly and believably.

I am not David Mamet, however. I could be wrong. But I suspect that he'd see the truthiness of this.
 

I'm A Banana

Potassium-Rich
Man in the Funny Hat said:
It is considered BAD DMing to write as Mamet suggests and we even have our own name for it - railroading.

I'd disagree.

The idea is that the character's goal isn't something you can accomplish by the end of the encounter. They're still looking for their goal. There's a reason they're still out there adventuring and risking their life, a future they are seeing that killing this wave of goblins didn't accomplish.

That's a failure. They failed, in this encounter, to get what they want. If they didn't fail, this would be the end of the character: they'd have what they want, and go home happy. But they failed to get what they want. This keeps them moving onto the next encounter, and keeps the players interested in how they will eventually have their characters accomplish their goals.

I agree that the mediums have differences, but if I get everything my character wants, it's just as boring as when the character in a TV show, play, or movie gets everything they want. It doesn't make me interested in what happens next.
 

Random Axe

Explorer
The idea is that the character's goal isn't something you can accomplish by the end of the encounter. They're still looking for their goal. There's a reason they're still out there adventuring and risking their life, a future they are seeing that killing this wave of goblins didn't accomplish.

That's a failure. They failed, in this encounter, to get what they want. If they didn't fail, this would be the end of the character: they'd have what they want, and go home happy. But they failed to get what they want. This keeps them moving onto the next encounter, and keeps the players interested in how they will eventually have their characters accomplish their goals.

I agree that the mediums have differences, but if I get everything my character wants, it's just as boring as when the character in a TV show, play, or movie gets everything they want. It doesn't make me interested in what happens next.

My biggest stumble over this concept in this article, is that it keeps sounding like an instruction to the effect of, "You must make the characters fail" in order to keep them coming back. Well hey, lemme tell ya, that's not going to happen. If my GM keeps thwarting my victory, my catharsis, my triumph at finding any particular macguffin or defeating any particular warlord, I start to lose interest in the game itself, not just that campaign.

Instead, I would want to specify that this concept really only applies best in general, in respect of the over-reaching 20-level campaign, where what we want as characters from that life of adventuring, is never fully satisfied generically until we die.

Regardless of your system, anticipation requires ambiguity and chaos: you cannot know for sure what hit will drop you to 0 HP. You cannot know for sure what you’re going to be able to do when you gain a level. You cannot know for sure what capabilities your magic items have. If all these things are nebulous and unknown, but important to your character’s goals (and those goals are, as noted above, acute and demanding), you create a circumstance where you need to pay attention to see if everything falls apart, or not. Abandon the precise math, the wishlists, the recommended wealth-by-level, the guaranteed powers from these specific lists each time you get X amount of XP, and embrace more chaos, more unknowns, and more mystery.

Yes and no. I love and fully support the idea of mysterious magic items. I dislike the concept of going to ye olde local magicke shoppe in Waterdeep and plunking down a mysterious piece of paper that has "60,000 gold pieces" written on it and placing an order for a custom-made Boots of Hasty Striding & Springing or a +2 Sword of Doing This and Extra That and One Neat Thing Per Day. That's not mystery. That's an abstraction that reduces the fun of the game to a numerical transaction. Instead, I love the feeling of finding that magical bippy in the dungeon, that sword or that shield or that wand being used by the bad guy or hoarded by the monster, that I win by defeating them. That's where the fun of the game comes from, in the discovery and the literal winning of. Not the buying of.

I do NOT agree with doing away with the by-level ability "wishlist" as you put it. Me being able to plot out my PC's level plan of feats and class abilities is completely necessary for me to be able to reach a prestige class, for instance, that as a character concept I want to work toward; or to keep track of the different abilities that I get, and so on. I don't like the idea of my abilities being a mystery to me as a player.
 

I agree that the mediums have differences, but if I get everything my character wants, it's just as boring as when the character in a TV show, play, or movie gets everything they want. It doesn't make me interested in what happens next.
Yeah, but do you write the encounter/adventure with the specific intent that until they reach the end the characters WILL fail to get what they want until the end of the encounter/adventure? That they have no possibility for successes because repeated failures is all that propels the character into the next encounter?

We have random wilderness encounters. Are they engineered for PC failure because failure at this encounter drives them to the next? No. SUCCESS at one encounter after another propels them forward - an obstacle overcome not an obstacle that sent them packing. We have clues or trails of information that lead to interactions with an NPC to get the next clue/more information. Is it FAILURE to get what they want that drives them further? No, it's success at achieving the next step of their goals. Or is Mamet correct that this is a BAD way to give characters information and thus impart that to the players? Are the tropes of D&D interfering with good drama or are the requirements of D&D just different from a screenplay?
 

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XRUjVq Fantastic article.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.
 

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