Communication Skills And Gaming: The Fundamental Truth About Fundamentals

These aren't faces. They're an anthropologist beholder's eyes.

There are few things I like more than complimentary skillsets. There’s the obvious reason, which is that you can take something you learned one place and apply it to another without having to start from scratch. Then, there’s the secondary reason, which is the ability to look at everything as a metaphor, which I frequently find myself doing when I tell a long, rambling karate tale to a bunch of programmers about something that is clearly not programming.

I Assumed There Would Be Toast

Today, I found myself giving a speech to a room of about 20 people. It was a voluntary situation that I inflicted upon myself, as the company I work for offers a Toastmasters club and I wanted to improve my communication skills. In addition to being able to convey information effectively to other humans at work, I decided it would be a great opportunity to up my karate instruction game. I’ve been teaching the occasional class for a little over 15 years, and I can get the job done but I’ve never really been able to command the room like Sensei (now a retired high school teacher) always could. I prepared what they call an “Icebreaker” speech, an autobiographical journey by oration 5-7 minutes in length. I wasn’t all that nervous until my name was called, and it took me by surprise. I’ve been in front of a room twice this size before. I yelled at them all, made them do pushups, and kicked one or two. Why would I possibly be nervous?

In the end, it turned out OK. And by “OK”, I mean:

  1. I completely blacked out about halfway through, didn’t see any of the nice big colorful cue cards that let me know my time was up, and my speech clocked in at 9 minutes 55 seconds.
  2. We count “um”s, “uh”s, and other quirks of language that are Not Words in order to eradicate them. I believe I hold the current company record at 86. People with previously-embarassing totals like 46 were coming up to me and telling me I made them feel much better by comparison. Amateurs.
  3. Apparently, I fidget when I speak. A lot. And my right foot taps.
  4. Everyone was entertained and appeared to enjoy my presentation! Woot!

Most of these weren’t a surprise. That is, after all, why I showed up. I’ve gotten better at the “entertaining people” and “keeping their attention” part over the years, but it feels like I just crashed an experimental aircraft almost every time (with varying degrees of success).

Communication At The Gaming Table

This is also (utterly devoid of coincidence) how I feel after running a D&D game. It wasn’t long before the little combination engine in my head beeped and informed me that good communication skills would make for a vastly improved D&D game. I recently heard it said that communication is 90% of being effective at anything, and I am reminded of my years of folly during college dreaming of being so excellent at coding that people wouldn’t even have to talk to me to point, wink, and offer me lots of money. That was dumb. Nobody understands anything unless it is communicated to them in a way they can understand. That’s how it works.

Therefore, it stands to reason that the players led by a Dungeon Master who has The Best Gaming Materials In The World are still going to have an awful time if that DM sucks at delivering game information to them in a way they can process. The game can have been perfectly balanced by robot hyper-brains from the 34th century who are never wrong and if the DM presents things in a confusing way, it’s still going to be terrible. Good communication means planning and having a framework in place to know what’s coming or at least what to do if something unexpected shows up. (This fact was permanently etched into my brain after last week’s…. experiment.)

Never mind the fact that the DM is frequently the de facto leader of the gaming group, and has to settle the sticky situations that arise from playing with other sentient beings. Differences of opinion causing neverending arguments? Someone’s severe analysis paralysis grinding the game to a halt? It takes communication – and a little courage – to speak to people directly to try to work through things.

Delivering Your Informational Payload

It strikes me that there are two main things to consider when trying to communicate something effectively:

  1. WHAT to communicate
  2. HOW to communicate it

Let’s look at “what” first. If there wasn’t something to talk about, you wouldn’t be communicating! If you can deliver the information to the target, you win! It also occurs to me that if the stuff you want someone to know is buried in a whole bunch of extraneous stuff, it might get lost.

In RPG-land, I find myself needing to worry about this when I’ve concocted what I think is a genius plot with lots of hooks and ways to throw the PCs off the scent. Then I find myself all frustrated because I have to hit them with the dreaded Clue Bat…. which upon further thought might occasionally get named the Effective Communication Bat. Does it ruin the surprise sometimes? Sure. But is it better than having a table full of frustrated, unhappy players wondering what their DM (who probably thinks he is smarter than them and is a big jerk) is thinking?

Now, on to “how”. Like I mentioned above, effective communication involves delivering the information to the intended recipient in a way that person can understand. Sure, everybody is different and that means no one approach will work perfectly for everyone. So build that into your plans and be prepared to try something else if you’re getting a lot of deer-in-headlights looks.PROTIP: for your own personal safety’s sake, don’t be that guy that thinks it’s clever to communicate in a way that only 0.5% of the population can understand. I don’t want to have to transcode hexadecimal numbers to letters, or scan for steganography data in a .GIF file depicting your family’s Christmas dinner in 1986, or figure out the semantics of the language you’ve made by wiggling your eyebrows. It’s the responsibility of the sender to make sure their information is decipherable if they want anyone to read it.An in-game example of this would be that DM who insists they can’t draw (for good reason) and yet always insists on hand-drawing their maps on the spot. Rooms don’t match up, furniture is not drawn to scale (you’d be surprised how big an issue this can be!), and the entire night is filled with questions about flanking. Ye gods. A better solution for this DM would be to use a pre-made solution like Dungeon Tiles – or to draw their maps beforehand and sanity check them before unleashing them on the players (Planning FTW!). If the players don’t get it, don’t use it unless you can figure out how to make it work in a way that they do get it. (Hint: asking them for feedback is a good place to start.)

In Conclusion

I’ve still got quite a ways to go before I’d consider myself good at this, but I have ample reason to believe I have barely scratched the surface on how good communication equals a much better play experience for everyone. As this is a more “fundamental” sort of skill, you probably aren’t going to be able to walk into the “Self-Help and Personal Development” section of Barnes & Nobles and find D&D-flavored books on communication (a fact that is good for business for us RPG bloggers!). Regardless, you can find lots of this stuff on the Intertrons or in many dead-tree books. Here are a couple I’ve had recommended to me (several of which I have read).

I hope this helps you all in your daily lives and especially in your gaming lives. If it helps you in your scuba diving life, you’re a lot more active than me.
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  1. Well done, and I agree wholeheartedly. And congratulations on making it through your presentation. 🙂

    Communication is vitally important in a social game. You are not hiding behind a computer playing online here. You must be able to make yourself understood, as well as be respectful enough to listen to what others are saying. Communication goes two ways: nothing bugs me more than players and GMs who have no trouble describing what their characters or setting are doing, but then do not listen to te other players when they respond to them.

    Good show!

  2. Nice. Really nice.
    GMing is communicating.
    What a concept.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the social aspect of RPGs is not really addressed much; I think this fits in that category. You see lots of advice about developing your world, new rules, even identifying player types and catering to them. But all of that can get lost if you don’t present the idea well. Makes sense.

    I recently started DMing for some guys that had gamed together but didn’t know me that well. I didn’t set any ground rules at the beginning of the game and now I’m regretting it. Table rule stuff, like creating PCs at the table vs before the session, asking rules questions to the DM vs the rules lawyer player, etc. I’m trying to accommodate their style while DMing the way I’m used to and its an uphill battle. I recently had to sit down with two of the guys and work out a small dispute, and that actually went pretty well.

  4. Great article!

  5. I once criticized your articles for being too self-deprecating, but I feel you’ve left that in the dust. This, as the last few offerings from you I’ve read, is useful and easy to read. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    @Eodrid: Congrats on starting to get things ironed out, that takes some courage. Inertia is the enemy of change in these situations, but it never means it can’t happen. It just means it’s more jarring when it does.

    @Aeryn: Thanks! Your previous comment about being too self-deprecating actually stuck with me for a bit. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve when I write, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use a little feedback now and then. 🙂

  7. The Awkward DM says:

    A good article that articulated an often overlooked yet important aspect of DMing…

    I find that when I DM, I have these great speeches/descriptions/concepts that would sound perfect. But in actual implementation, I start to break down in to ‘umms’ and fidgeting, and second guessing myself… and then just kill the whole momentum, making it come out at only 10% of how well it should have been had I executed it the way it was in my head …

    So I definitely can sympathize with your toastmaster speech as well as appreciate the call to attention on the matter brought on by this article. 🙂

  8. I’m realizing that my players are starting to learn my “tells” when I’m holding back information… I need to practice delivering data (especially from skill checks) in the same monotone way…

    I can never play poker with these people again lolz…