Friday, August 19, 2011

The Neurotic Hordes

My mind this morning is full of a great many discussions, arguments and ideas.  Like the gentle reader, I have been considering the matter of D&D's unpopularity; the argument that some people simply don't like it; that it is not for everyone; that people give it up due to time constraints or a change in their lives ... and so on.

I should like to make it clear that I don't believe D&D should be 'dumbed down' for a mass audience.  At the same time, I don't believe that D&D is all that inaccessible.  I have run many a young - and therefore uneducated - goodnatured idiot who had to have the dice thrust into their hand for every purpose, who nevertheless grew to adore the game for what they personally could get out of it.  I have never had a problem with players who were not game-savvy ... and for that reason, I don't believe that the game needs any particular level of intelligence for it to be enjoyable.

What it does need is a patient and able DM, one who can push the envelope of a player's abilities while pulling them to the edge of their seats.  If a player can ask questions about the rules, and the rules can be explained to the player, there's no need for the player to be an expert in those rules.  There needs be only one expert at the table ... and as long as that expert lacks a persecutory bent, the game will go swimmingly and well, regardless of the so-called intelligence of the players.

I believe this because I have seen it and experienced it, and because I believe this I feel that D&D can be for everyone ... if certain qualifications are installed in the game to make that possible.

Let's pause for a moment and establish what it is that makes a game successful.  I don't argue that a game is successful because everyone plays it.  I do argue that a successful game is one that most everyone HAS played, and with which most everyone who has played has had a positive, enjoyable experience.  Board games are often trashed and hated by RPGers, but there is a great deal to be learned from a board game.  I no longer play Monopoly, since it is a very predictable game that no longer holds the necessary strategic potential to hold my interest.  But yes, like everyone else, I've played Monopoly.  And I have fond memories of having played the game in my youth, of the pieces, of the various places on the board and the tactile sensations of the game.  Like the gentle reader, I can easily imagine the wad of money in my hand, counting out $550 to pay the rent on a hotel at St. James Place, a square on the board familiar immediately upon my writing it here.

Similar memories can be associated with RISK, the Game of Life, Stock Ticker, checkers, chess ... and of course all the various sports we played like scrub, capture the flag, hide and seek and so on.  What is important here is that while you are unlikely in your 30s or 40s start up a game of hide and seek with your office co-workers, you would know how, and most everyone would agree on the rules almost immediately.  It is immaterial whether or not you actually still play.  You could play it if you wanted.  That is how I choose to define a successful game.

D&D has nothing of this quality.  It has not been played by everyone - far from it.  Most people who have actually played the game come away not knowing what they were doing or what the game was about.  They do not retain fond memories of the game, they mostly remember that nothing made much sense.  Only those who have played a LOT of it - the small echo chamber commenting on their own community here - actually view the game with the kind of clarity most people remember about chess.

Funny thing about chess.  There has always been a stigma that chess is played by really smart people (actually, the truth is that its played at its highest level by really observant people, but that's neither here nor there), but the fact is that the two dumbest people in the world could have a really good, resounding game of chess.  This is why is it often popular with children, who despite not being able to play on the level of adults (with a few exceptions), heartily enjoy the game with each other.  Moreover, capable players often enjoy teaching incapable players, knowing from experience that with practice, one DOES get better at the game ... and usually this improvement is evident within 20 to 50 matches.

D&D, on the other hand, is OFTEN persecutorial against new players.  Long time DMs and players often treat noobies with a disdain reserved generally for the military, treating them as prey or as possible fodder, since they're so dumb they'll run forward into combat if they're told to.  It isn't just that some people are assholes this way - they are - it is also that very, very often players who have participated in D&D for years show practically no sign of improvement whatsoever.  The game has so many diverse and inconsistent elements that it is very hard for someone not of a particular character to keep track of them all, and this is made worse to a great degree in that experience at the game at one DMs table all to often does not translate to player improvement elsewhere.  Even if I make real effort to teach a player the game, I'm really only teaching that player to anticipate me and my world ... it won't mean they can go elsewhere and be 'good' at the game.  The reality is they will meet a flurry of "we play the game differently" conditions that will destroy the new player's resolve to play.

Let me put that more simply.  An ordinary, non-power player can enjoy my world and have a good time, proving that D&D is accessible.  But that accessibility in my world is worth ZIP-SHIT-NOTHING in someone else's world.  When I stop playing, most of my players will never play the game again, simply because the game they have been playing isn't D&D as anyone else defines it.

This, I am sorry to say for those who love this game, is a really big problem.

If I am a modern train enthusiast, I can go as hog-wild as I like in creating my universe in my basement.  I can have trains serving the planet Mars if I want ... and if I bring another model train enthusiast, even the most conservative modeler in the world, into my basement to show my creation, he and I will still talk the same language.  He may not build his world like my world, but the elements of both our worlds will be the same, and we will agree on them, and therefore learn from each other.

This is not true with D&D.  I can write things here, and some D&Ders will see what I'm saying and what I'm doing, but a great many of them will shake their heads and cluck their tongues and shrug their shoulders and decide there is nothing whatsoever that I have to say that ought to be of any value to anyone.  This is rife within this hobby.  Others do it to me, and I do it to other people.  That is because there is in fact nothing we can teach one another.  It isn't just because we are self-righteous pricks, it is the reality that Jack Schmoo plays the game his way and I play the game my way.  We've both seen the rules, we've both experimented with what we've liked and we've both come to the conclusion that for us personally, it must be this way and it can't be that way.  That is just the way it is and neither Jack nor I are motivated in any way to change.

It is that lack of motivation that is key.  If I am to conquer and hold all of Asia, I may have strategies that I've worked up over the years in how to manipulate other people and make that happen, but I am always open to someone else's strategy when I see it played against me.  I will go, "Wow, that is fucking great, I need to try that."  That is just like it is here in the blogosphere.

The difference comes when my strategy to seize Asia is beaten again and again by person after person, and I finally admit to other people, "Yeah, I've got to quit trying that lousy strategy.  I don't know why I stupidly pursue it."

This is called learning.  And it doesn't happen with D&D.

People will adopt new strategies to deal with issues, and they will even give up rules that aren't working.  But by and large they WON'T surrender a playing style that has been sucking for them for twenty years.  They are far more likely to sit in the mud and pout, "This is my style and I don't care if it doesn't win me gold or experience, I like it and fuck you."

It is far more likely for persons in this game to redesign their perception of how the game "should" work, or what the game "should" be about, or what everyone else "should" consider important, before just admitting that they suck at winning.  The reason this is possible is because there is no winning in D&D, so players are free to define winning however they want, and particularly in ways that satisfy their personal neuroses and prejudices.  This then creates an absurd, ridiculous variety of definitions for the principle 'gamesmanship' associated with D&D, which in turn makes it insanely difficult to herd the participants into any jointly recognizable direction.

When you are speaking to a D&D player about their perception of the game, you are not speaking about the game, you are speaking about their state of mental health ... and you, gentle reader, are not entitled to comment on the mental health of another person.  You are, therefore, irrelevant to the conversation in which you are a participant.  This is why you find yourself bashing your head against an impossible wall when you try to explain anything about the game to anyone else - remembering that you are ALSO doing it from your own position of your own mental health.  Everything you have to say about the game is necessarily suspect ... just as you rightly suspect everything I am writing about the game myself.

That is why more than half the time I get comments about my game that make no fucking sense whatsoever.  And it is why the gentle reader walks away from my blog posts with the sense that I am half out of my mind.  It is because I am.  I really am.

Again, I am sorry to say for those who love this game ... but this is an ENORMOUS problem.

Listen, I am a good DM.  And I intend to go on playing.  But I am increasingly of the opinion that the insistence RPG players hold that we MUST not be part of a single movement is, at its heart, an absolute terror that our own petty achievements will somehow prove hugely irrelevant in the great scheme of things ... and that this will make us terribly, awfully meaningless with our pathetic little tables and insights about how to slap together thirty orcs and a lair.  Now, I obviously don't suffer from this fear as much as most people, since I am so amazingly great (I'm God, don't you know, I said it a few days ago), but I see why this might make the common people somewhat fearful and dubious of more rigorous game practices.

Well, I for one don't really care about your fears, or your neuroses, or your pathetic little contributions.  I want to play the game at a level higher than the one I'm playing now (I may be God but I've got ambitions!  I've got prospects!) and there are too many of you chunking up the gears.

All right; "half out of my mind" might have been putting it mildly.


John said...

Right now I don't really know what you're on about, but I'm interested in finding out. You say you want to play the game at a 'higher level'; what exactly does that entail? And the bit about being part of a single movement, terror about petty achievements being undermined, and so on is pretty opaque. Could you outline what, specifically, you're espousing, or provide a link to a previous post in which you have done so?

Alexis said...

I certainly went over the top there.

I have some ideas that I'm working on for another post, John, regarding your first question. As far as petty achievements, look everywhere. Grognardia, for instance, has built a huge following on nostalgia. If you consider Carl's comment on the previous post, why are we all fundamentally playing - and celebrating - the same game as it existed in 1978? Because we rehash and rehash and produce nothing. Nostalgia is interesting, but when it's gabbering is the LARGEST segment of the community, you know we're talking about a corpse.

Carl said...

I remember when I first stumbled across your blog, I had to ask myself, "Did I ever really know how to play this game?"

This was after years and years of play and DMing. As I said, I was introduced to this game when I was in the 4th grade. I was 8 when I made my first character. I'm 41 now.

When I started questioning whether I had even a clue about how to play the game, I had run several campaigns across multiple editions, played in tournaments and RPGA events and said to myself more than once, "You're way better at this than nearly anyone."

But when I started reading your stuff it made me feel like the kid who knows how to move all the pieces on the chess board but has no idea how to actually play the game. You showed me there was a better way and it made me want to be a better DM.

My situation is far from unique in RPGing. I'm pretty sure that most of the folks who run D&D blogs have had similar experiences.

I just wonder if the game can adapt to become something that will stand the test of time, or are we the northern European pagans standing around when the Christians show up and start burning down our villages?

Here's a question for you, Alexis: given that the DM is so crucial to the experience of D&D, what would the ideal approach be to winning the game wider acceptance and recognition?

Jason Juta said...

I've really got to ask, does any of this matter, really? Who cares if it's a corpse, or an unpopular game. In a few decades gaming and d&d (whether current or nostalgic) will probably be unrecognizable. And in a 100 years, nobody will know or care about out hobby, no doubt. It's a lot of conversation that could probably better be spent on each person's game-related projects. Let each person do it their way, if it makes them happy - each person has a different agenda when creating, DM'ing or playing, and none (well...few anyway) are inferior to any others.

Alexis said...

Every person everywhere knows that's not true about everything. There's always an inferior product. Statements to the contrary are propaganda.

Jason, I don't care about 100 years from now. The game could be improved in about 18 months, if I had the resources. Since I don't have them, I'm going to agitate so that others who do have the resources bestir themselves.

You go ahead and sit on your rump. I don't need you.

Jason Juta said...

If you really mean it that you can revolutionise the game in 18 months, do a Kickstarter, get the funds and hire a code monkey, and prove it - the only person who has the vision to oversee it is you (the next post definitely proves that), not other people who do have the resources. I'd honestly love to see it happen (seriously).