Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Transference & the Need for Help

A couple of weeks ago I made an off-handed comment about how playing the game in order to obtain self-worth might be the central evil in all role-playing games, and I meant to address that. Then I saw this description on an Enworld thread about D&D Next defining fun:

"Of the six people I routinely play with, one of them gets discouraged when he feels like his character is not making much of a difference in an encounter.

"Part of that problem is right now the game is a form of escapism from a difficult time for this player. He works all day on a hard newer job, he has few friends near where he lives (which he moved to relatively recently, away from his lifelong friends), and then in the evenings he is taking care of a newborn who is fussy lately. Taking care of a newborn in the best of times is difficult, and it's even more so when they're teething or sick. Bottom line, his life is a bit rough and he uses D&D online with his friends as a form of brief escapism, playing the role of this hero doing good and making things happen in a fantasy world.

"So in those brief breaks when he gets to play and engage in that escapism, he wants to feel like he's making a meaningful impact on what's going on. If he's going to escape into the role of a hero doing good - he wants his hero to be heroic and actually doing the good.

"So if he just wiffs multiple times in a row, or if his character is paralyzed for an entire battle, I can hear him getting discouraged. To him, the little time he had to try and escape into the fantasy of the game left him as frustrated as real life.

"That issue wasn't as prominent for that player when we were playing live, and he didn't have a newborn. But right now, it's having an impact. So it might be in his best interest to play a character that is more likely to have an impact on the encounter throughout the encounter. Even if that means his average damage goes down, or his defense goes down, I think he'd be happier if he felt like his character was "doing something" every round."

Now I think this puts things in perspective. Just how do you handle this guy in your world? He's a friend, right? And you have empathy, because you're not a complete bastard ... right? Still, there's that whole thing about the game only being 'helpful' when the dice goes his way. That is not something that can be ignored when he's suddenly standing, screaming at his dice, channelling all the awful reality of his world into the fact that he's just rolled a 7 and not a 17.

For a moment, I want the gentle reader to consider how the real world deals with this problem. I've worked in a few fairly rough bars, the sort that keep bouncers on staff, and I can tell you with certainty that there are more than a few people who go to clubs "as a form of brief escapism," only to discover that after a lot of alcohol mixed with misery, it only takes on odd comment from a fellow squeezing his way past towards the washroom for things to quickly get out of hand. Next thing, the bouncers are all over the guy, and they're not asking about his wife or his teething baby or all the hard times that's brought that fellow there on that particular night. Comes a point where your behavior passes 'excusable,' and the world is set to deal with that forthrightly.

Or consider, if the reader might, the literally thousands of persons who are, even now, attempting to manage their misery with other games of chance, specifically those played in Vegas or Atlantic City, trying to ease their suffering and the memory of their teething baby by making six the hard way. Or dropping dollar after dollar into video lottery terminals, unceasingly, because THAT is their particular way of assauging all that suffering they must endure the other 96 conscious hours of their week. As before, there are staff to handle the problems that arise when inevitably some gambler 'wiffs' multiple times in a row, only to start screaming at the environment all around that REFUSES to bend its will for the sake of a fellow who's life just isn't going well.

Here we are, then, back at the gaming table, and you and your friends are looking at each other while Clarence is shouting, "For fuck's sake, I just want to fucking hit something!" None of you wants to step forward and say, "Hey, pal, calm yourself. It's only a game." No one wants to, because we know that for Clarence, tonight, it is NOT a game. It is Clarence's entire sense of self-worth in this moment, and Clarence doesn't feel much of that because a little plastic object hasn't complied with what he needs. Dice, it must be said, are not as dependable as heroin.

Easier to quit them, though. No one talks about riding the 20-sided horse.

I do feel for Clarence, and for all the people out there turning to something other than their problems in order to forget their problems. There's the fellow in the beer league who takes pleasure in running down the short-stop because its his chance to get back at the world; or those who are stealing off store shelves in order to 'get even' with the world, redistributing the wealth in their favor; and, as ever, the old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn. We're a culture of people transferring their issues from issue management to issue avoidance, and the D&D table is no different there.

The reality is that you have to stop the game. You have to say to Clarence, "Hey, guy, let's talk about it." And if he doesn't want to talk, you have to make it clear that he needs to deal with his problem directly, and not through winning against a bunch of imaginary enemies. Close the game, take Clarence to a nearby bar (where the professionals can handle him if he gets troublesome), and ply him with good food and good company to express himself. Get him on the road to recovery. Don't be stupid and try to help him kill orcs. Don't overlook it as though the problem will solve itself. He has bigger problems than the role-playing game he's showed up for ... and you have to make him understand that.

Then, when he's ready to play the game for the sake of the game, and not what the game says about his value, he can come back. In the meantime, he needs to get some help. He really does.


Nine-toes said...

Why does this post remind me very much of the time in your campaign when I ran after that crab?

Jomo Rising said...

Bless you, Alexis.

AnAxeToGrind said...

Well said!

Dave Cesarano said...

First world problems.

I feel for Clarence. Yeah. But perspective is in order.

I mean, seriously, where is Clarence's self-worth when the Mongols, or Magyars, or Saracens, or Comanche, or whoever, ride over the hill and massacre his entire family except the women, leave him for dead, steal his entire life's savings, burn his home and crops, and drag the females off to be sex-slaves in the horde?

First world problems. Throughout history, most people would think Clarence had a great life.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Dave, as you well know, the 'help' that Clarence gets isn't a solution to his problems, it's an outlook that enables him to see them as you've just described: as a great life.

We have a tendency to get bogged down in solutions and compensations, and rarely grasp that we need perspective.

Jhandar said...

Bravo Alexis! An incredibly powerful and accurate post.

Blaise said...

I began this post thinking that it would end with you being a complete bastard.
You proved me wrong.
Way to zig when I thought you would zag.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Not to worry. I always zag eventually.

James said...

Dave, what a trite way to dismiss another human being. I hate the "well Person X has it worse, so shut up" answer, as all it achieves at best is making someone feel as though they shouldn't express themselves, which leads to bottling up their emotions, which leads to worse things down the road.

I mean, one of the best - and sometimes worst - things about TTRPGs is that you play with other people. And in fact, interacting with these other people is the entire point of the game. And that means those people can and often will bring their personal biases, demons, traumas, problems, etc. to the gaming table.

I really like Alexis's solution. Don't JUST remind them it is a game and supposed to be fun, but treat them with empathy and try to help them. Because therapy via gaming alone rarely works.