Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Gaming and Taoism -- A Reflection on Alexis' Recent Posts at Tao of D&D

Yes, it's true, I'm not dead even though I've not posted in, like, forever, and my readership has probably moved on to greener pastures (not that I had a lot of readers with which to begin) but school has been tedious and stressful and I find it not coincidental that getting a Masters in Multicultural Education and a teaching certificate has atrophied by cognitive capacities.  It is a daily struggle to keep myself sharp in a world where indoctrination is heavy.  I feel, at times, like I'm in a reeducation camp instead of a class.

That aside, I want to talk today about some of the things Alexis has been posting on his Tao of D&D blog.  Alexis is currently writing a book on how to be a better DM and it is frighteningly obvious that this will be unlike any other "How To DM" guide ever written and that it is terrifically well-researched, well-thought-out, and a product of years and years of personal experience.  Some of the things he's discussed on his website have been, heretofore, extremely challenging to anyone who would be a DM, GM, ST, RM, etc.  And frankly, Alexis' blog is full of advice and discussion that is unlike that of any other blog I've read, with the possible exception of Justin Alexander's The Alexandrian (although Justin Alexander hasn't been digging into practical advice for a while).  Alexis' advice is often brutally honest and direct--it challenges our preconceptions about what makes a good DM and what a DM's job is.

The more he writes, the more I reflect on my own experiences and the more I want to go into those reflections.  However, I kind of feel that doing so isn't necessarily a good thing to do in his comments section.  For politeness' sake, I try to keep my comments brief even though they do tend to go on for at least three full paragraphs.  I don't really have much to add to his considerations--he's been thinking about this a lot longer than I and a lot more than I.

To begin with, I want to reference Alexis' post entitled "The Sides of Power," in which he delves into a variety of approaches to the DM-player power spectrum and digs at which philosophy of the power-relationship is most beneficial to the gaming group as a whole.  The conversation and comments made me confront my own experiences and attempt to apply Alexis' ruminations to my own experiences and observations.

First, there is, most certainly, a sort of social contract that is part of any role-playing activity/event.  Now, The Forge and Ron Edwards have devoted a lot of head-space to this idea of a social contract in gaming, which ultimately leads back to its Enlightenment-era refinement by J.-J. Rousseau (although he is by-far not the ultimate author of the concept).  We're not going to really dig into the philosophical nitty-gritty of the idea.  We're going to try to keep it simple.

So, there has to be a basic agreement between players and DM/GM/RM/ST/whathaveyou (henceforth, we're going to keep it "DM" for simplicity's sake and to dovetail with Alexis' term-usage).  And this is a key point I want to address--what are you going to run is actually where this entire contract starts.  A couple people talked in the comments section about "buying in" to a campaign concept.  If they don't "buy in" then it won't be all that fun.  But, as Alexis has discussed in his post on fun in gaming, who is the game really for?  The DM?  Alexis asserts that no, it isn't.  It is the players' fun that is important, not the DM's.

And I have come to solidly agree with Alexis.  Yeah, I can have fun being a DM.  Frankly, I had more fun DMing The Forgotten Realms than DMing White Wolf's Exalted.  The White Wolf game requires a huge amount of preparation time.  Exalted requires me to build antagonists with Charms and abilities that will challenge my players without a simple, easy metric like D&D has but players have come to love White Wolf for its distinct lack of character classes and levels, the extreme lethal nature of the system's combat even late in the game.  Even if a player is an Exalt, unless we're playing with the standard "Extra" rules (severely weakening the mortal NPCs, the likelihood of a ten-year-old with a crossbow getting a lucky shot, blowing through the character's armor and killing him in one hit is still present, just like in reality.  Sometimes avoiding combat is much wiser than engaging in it.  Even with the "Extras" rule, the possibility still exists.  In D&D, if you're playing an epic-level character (roughly the equivalent of an Exalt), that ten-year-old has absolutely zero chance of killing you, period.  Even mages have far too many hit points.

I digress.  To return to the point about playing Exalted, I am essentially running what my players want to play.  I once tried to set up an Eberron game that was going to be centered on exploring Xen'drik, that setting's equivalent of Africa (a dark, mysterious continent).  I had ideas drawn from Indiana Jones, the Alan Quartermain adventures like King Solomon's Mines, Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kaine stories, the historical British Empire in Africa (the expedition to find Dr. Livingston, for example), Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan novels, Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, and a whole host of other literary works.  Nobody "bought in" to the idea.  Nobody created the Big Game Hunter type ranger with a pith helmet and English accent.  Nobody created the intrepid explorer of the jungle.  Nobody created the daring archaeologist seeking ancient treasures amid trap-filled ruins.  I was annoyed by the players' lack of interest in the direction I wanted to take the campaign and the literary antecedents for it.  I toyed with the idea of creating pre-made characters for them to choose from but they rejected the concept outright.  So, I shelved the entire campaign and ran nothing.  I took my ball and went home.

Who was at fault here?  At first, I thought it was the players.  Then, I realized, after reading enough of Alexis' blog, that it was actually my problem, not theirs.  I had the issues here.  I provide a service for the players and my reward is satisfaction at running a game in which they have tons of fun and continually come back for more.  At first I didn't understand entirely what Alexis was getting at.  Now I do.  My fun takes a backseat to the players' fun.  When it dawned on me why I DM and why Alexis' argument is spot-on, I remembered this entry in my record of the old Forgotten Realms campaign.
When I revealed (using Maptool) that the stream had spilled them out at the waterfall, the players cheered in triumph. Yet another seemingly hopeless situation turned into a victory by the PCs.
They cheered in triumph!  I remember it clearly. They had escaped with their lives.  There was backslapping, laughing, fist-pumping.  They had escaped a challenging situation, cheated death, and lived to fight on.  If the campaign had been easy, this escape wouldn't have caused such a strong emotional reaction.  Similarly, if it had been too hard, they'd have become frustrated and felt it was pointless to play.  The strength of the challenge and their ability to overcome was rewarding and that translated to them having fun.

So, it isn't so much the players buying into the DM's idea of a campaign that is important.  It is the DM buying into the players' concept of what would be fun to play that is important.  My enjoyment is derived from the players having a good time and going home hungry to play more.

This led me to thinking about the power-relationship between DM and players.  Alexis discusses a number of them (many of which are dysfunctional or abusive to one or the other).  All of these are indicative of somebody playing out their own deep-seated mental issues in game.  I've long observed that role-playing games are a great way of psychoanalyzing another person and discovering if they're a completely horrible jerk, a functioning psychopath, etc.  Watch how they relate to the other players or the DM.  If they're the DM, watch what they do with the game and how they treat the players.  Personal issues will emerge and play out in game--often to the detriment of the fun level for everyone else involved.

The Forgotten Realms game was also a point in which I realized that group dynamic between players is more important than the concept of "buying in" to the DM's vision of a game.  I went into the Realms game with no overarching narrative in mind.  Let's throw the PCs into a huge sandbox and see what they do.  Here's a few modules--hooks for you guys to start with.  Pick one.  Let's run with it.  The result, at least for Luke, DJ, and Shaun, was fantastic.  Other players who came in and out had trouble.  At first I wondered if I wasn't running well enough.  What I realized, however, is that the players had preconceived notions of what they wanted from the game--notions they either didn't communicate or weren't metacognitive enough to understand they wanted (or worse, so cognitively dissonant about what they wanted that there was no way to please them without deeply analyzing and perhaps overthrowing the entire endeavor).

One of my players wanted to play a True Necromancer.  However, his character was basically an all-around jerk.  He became upset that all of his spells and abilities gradually turned him into a lich and that in the Dales he'd generally have to walk a very, very tight rope or get burned at the stake.  I threw him a few hooks with the Cult of Jergal, a neutral god of death, that he could have followed.  However, he was growing angrier that the populace as a whole would have feared him so severely for riding in on a pale horse with a skeleton army everywhere he went that they'd have tried to exterminate him.  The kicker is... if he had handled his situation differently none of those things would have happened.  However, he was dead-set on being an angry teenager with skeleton minions than someone who could have performed a vital function in society (i.e. tending to the dead, ferrying souls to the afterlife, stamping out evil necromancy, etc.) as a servant of a neutral deity.  Yeah, he'd be feared and been an unsettling person to be around (have you ever seen Departures?) but so long as he didn't act like a threat or like he held everyone around him in absolute contempt, he'd have found a place in the Dales and actually perhaps become a powerful political and social force there.  The problem is, he wanted to play his character a specific way and not deal with the consequences.  More accurately, he was angry that the consequences didn't accommodate his personal fantasies and desires.  In addition, he was only around for about half of the sessions.

The result was, he never really meshed with DJ, Luke, and Shaun.  So, even though he scrapped the True Necromancer character and rolled up an elven archer, he still never really fit in.

Vetting players to ensure they'll fit the party dynamic is hard.  It's also something I'm not sure Alexis has tackled (or even if he believes such vetting is necessary).  I actually have no idea what his take on this is (I haven't found posts on player-group-dynamics yet).  Most people are, as I've said, not very metacogitient and most people also suffer from cognitive dissonance.  Therefore, deducing what they want from a game can be problematic.  Alexis does discuss spoiling players (here) and catering too much to players who whine about class limitations, etc. (here), players who don't support the party against the DM's monsters/villains/etc. (here), sociopathic players (here), and more.  He's got a definite handle on what makes a "bad player."  What I want to know from him (if you're reading, by any chance, Alexis) is whether or not there's a way to decide if a player should even join your game in the first place or if eliminating a player from the game (as opposed to a character) is a bridge best crossed when the player's behavior makes it optimal for the enjoyment of the DM and everyone else.

While the game is primarily about the player's fun, if the DM is becoming actively insulted and frustrated by ignorant players who have no respect for the time and effort the DM puts into creating interesting events, NPCs, scenarios, locations, and materials with which the PCs may interact, then there is a definite problem with the player and it is not the DM's fault.  Boot the guy (or gal).  (Yet two more awesome posts by Alexis here and here.)

Considering I work, am applying for a teaching certificate in two states, and taking education classes--combined with running a bi-weekly Exalted game that requires much more time and effort to prep than a D&D game--I don't have the time to even want to deal with problem players, let alone have them disrupt the precious little time I get to game.  While Luke, DJ, and I are only three, one DM and two players, and we're seeking a third player, the scheduling conflicts make our preferred additions difficult to implement.  There have been suggestions but I'm frankly sick and tired of taking risks on players I don't know for certain aren't going to cause problems and kill immersion.  I put far, far too much of my free time into my games.  It takes work.  In fact, it is taking me more work than ever before to prep for Exalted.  Plenty of players don't get that, I think.  It would be so easy to wing it, make stuff up on the fly (even though I still have to to a small degree) but basing all of the game on arbitrary DM fiat breaks all of the tension and suspense.  I don't care if they'll know or not, it isn't fair.  I'm not reffing the game, I'm controlling the narrative.  No, the DM's job is not to make the game his story.  It's a collaborative effort and the PCs are the main characters.  They should have narrative agency.


Alexis Smolensk said...

I am reading this. Taking a break from writing for a minute to see what's out there, and found this, Dave.

There is an answer to your player process, but it begins with the exact same dynamic you use on the disruptive/dis-engaged people in you r classroom. It isn't that you 'vet' the people, it is that you have to make it clear to them that they must change their behavior, any behavior, even minor behavior, when it is disruptive.

I am covering this upcoming this week, and doing more research to be on top of it. It isn't basically that there are bad players, it is that there are players who would rather not change, and be alone with their principles, than be a 'fit' with other people in ANY participation group. Such persons, whether in D&D or any other activity, cannot superimpose their characters, needs, behavior or demands with the expectation that the other players will suffer. You as DM must make a value judgement. Someone has to change. You must decide who. First and foremost, you want the person that changes to be yourself - but when you've gone as far as you can with that, you have to move next with "You, you there, you're the one that has to change." And when you get the answer, why me, you the DM have to make it clear that it is him because he is the one that is most disruptive, his change will make the biggest difference to the campaign, and - though you don't say this - his departure will leave the smallest whole.

That is the dynamic for dealing with 'bad' players. You have to address it, set the standard of behavior, enforce that standard and be damn sure the remaining players back you in your decision.

Dave Cesarano said...

I totally understand and get what you're saying here. And I don't disagree, I totally agree.

I find it frustrating that I have to use the same techniques on fifteen-year-old kids in a classroom as I do twenty-five and thirty-five-year-old adults at a recreational activity. A huge part of me is screaming, "Grow up, people! We're beyond this!"

Basically, you're saying I shouldn't go about vetting potential players--instead give everyone a chance and then deal with it if and when problems arise. I'll be honest, it's something I'm not entirely keen on doing. It seems like each player has the potential to be an awful waste of time, energy, effort, and resources for me and the other players. But, what the hell, without risk there's no reward is there?

Thanks for your comments, Alexis. As always, your insights give me much about which to think.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Let me rejoin on this, Dave.

For your sanity, don't think of your players as 15-year-old brats; think instead that you are putting a team together, team Exalted, and that what's needed is a bit of boot camp; a bit of shut up and listen, sir yes sir, this is my gun and this is my rifle, etc., just to get them motivated and pointed in the right direction, to make them understand that in this army, these are your team mates and your fantasy self-indulgence is going to get others killed, soldier.

Less hitting them on the knuckles with a ruler, however, and more a firm pointing them in the right direction. They are adults, and they should be able to incorporate advice ... unlike your usual students.

Dave Cesarano said...

For your sanity, don't think of your players as 15-year-old brats; think instead that you are putting a team together, team Exalted, and that what's needed is a bit of boot camp...

Aha! That clarifies things a bit. I definitely agree that it's a team experience if done right. Looking at it as a bit of boot camp sounds right.

They are adults, and they should be able to incorporate advice ... unlike your usual students.

A slight digression: Ideally, I prefer to treat high school students like adults. I find that they respond a lot better than if you are patronizing and treat them like children. These are my expectations, here are the consequences, there aren't any arguments. The problem is the educational system hinders that a great deal and ends up making it hard to avoid patronizing condescension (which is how the kids interpret it).

However, once they graduate, they're so used to being treated as children that the transition to adulthood is psychologically rejected by the person. They stay children, whine and have tantrums, and now you have an entire society of children in adult bodies. Yeah, this is a much broader problem and slightly off topic but it does go back to gaming.

See, as a high school teacher, although I do my best to treat the kids as adults (and for the most part they respond positively) I still expect them to have transition issues. As an adult dealing with other adults, I expect those transition issues to be either nonexistent or at least severely diminished. Instead, I find that the institutionalization that education performs on students fails to prepare them for adulthood (parents aren't innocent here, though, either) and I end up dealing with people that are, on a number of levels, actually less mature than a fifteen-year-old.

This directly impacts gaming. See, you're totally right, they're adults and they should be able to incorporate my advice. In reality, I find that is actually the opposite of what happens. So far, I've been able to handle these situations constructively. For example, the problem players in my Forgotten Realms game ended up dropping out and they never played a very strong role in the campaign. DJ, Luke, and Shaun formed a pretty coherent team and if a new player didn't fit the needs of the team (which was more than just killing monsters and healing wounded party members but also interacting with the world itself) they stopped showing up. It was frustrating, yes, but it was handled.

I guess that's what really frustrates me. The problem isn't that they're problem players as such. The problem is, they aren't adults.

Regardless, the idea of having a boot camp experience is a great one. I've often prepped future players on what my games are like, what the team is like, and how they're expected to fit into the team. What surprises me is how much people find ways to indirectly and passive-aggressively refuse to conform to the needs of the group. The result is always me withdrawing the invitation. Sometimes, people get really peeved. I feel that if they're not willing to fit the needs of the team, then they aren't actually a team player.

As always, Alexis, I appreciate the advice and suggestions. Always food for thought.

Alexis Smolensk said...

That insight is helpful for me, too. Keeps me focused on what issues I need to address.