Thursday, June 5, 2014


Before I left for work today, in the time I usually sit and contemplate before getting on with it, I had to listen to a diatribe from my partner.  She has been looking into a D&D group that participates Wednesday nights with an eye to joining them, because lately I'm not running and she's feeling the pinch.  Unfortunately for her, she has - for the first time - gotten a close look at the 'other half.'

She began running in my world in 2004, after two years of our being together.  Like most people, she hadn't heard of D&D.  We met in the period when I wasn't running a campaign, but when I was working very hard to solve the 'trade problem,' as I called it, a mental and experimental exercise I had worked on for several years.  When I did begin to run again, she joined in, a bit unsure about whether she would like this 'thing,' as she still calls it.

Ten years later, and hungry for the thing, she went out looking for other people to play with, and found them. It's a group that I've mentioned from time to time, that have recently moved from 4e to D&D Next (being one of those groups that play-tested the game, so they are not waiting for the 'release').  She had watched three times before last night, getting the feel for it, and last night she decided to jump in.

There was something else that was special about last night.  Having made friends, my partner was really anxious to sell tickets for the fundraiser in June, and to show my book around to see what people thought.  It was a great opportunity, she thought.

Then she found out what D&D players are really like.  Thus the diatribe this morning.

"Why are D&D players so arrogant?  Why do they spend so much of their time making jokes?  You'd think they'd want to play the game!  And all this stupid blather about +1 this and I used this bonus and +1 that and swung to hit the creature and missed and OMG what the fuck is wrong with these people?"  . . . or words to that effect.

I'm pretty inured, but of course half the things she said are things right out of this blog (which she doesn't always read), along with things I've more or less known since the beginning.  Role-players are staggeringly, conscientiously, capaciously - and some would say endearingly - resistant to change.  Which is a bit funny, since my partner's stubbornness is one of the things that I love deeply about her, however much it can exhaust me.

There are a number of reasons for this, some that role-players are well aware of, and others that simply don't attach themselves to thought.  Many role-players began their lives growing up on the outside of things.  Being on the 'outside' was infuriating . . . and once they found the game, and got on the inside of something for the first time in their lives, they can be very protective of that inside.  Once inside, many role-players adopt an attitude that says everyone else can fucking sit on the outside now.  Most don't know they're doing that. Most would be upset that they do that, as they remember very clearly just how much they hated being outside.  But turnaround is human nature.

As to the jokes, well . . . I've thought about this a lot.  I've written about this a lot.  Having listened to my partner this morning, however, I've had a slight breakthrough.  See, as one might expect, and without letting it go to my head (she's my partner, after all, and unaccountably biased), she kept saying, "It's not like your game."  Let's not compare, however, as that's not the point here.  The point is that I believe that the constant humour my partner witnessed, the general feeling of it, comes from the game being awfully boring.

The jokes really aren't that good.  That is part of the reason why role-playing videos are so dismal.  People make little comments, half-rated jibes, players chuckle grimly and so goes the innane tedium that possesses so many of the games.  As I've said before, it doesn't happen with chess, bridge, go, poker, etc.  Nor does it happen with spectators at hockey games, football games or freakin' NASCAR.  Sit in the stands at NASCAR, watching what I consider the most boring spectacle mankind has managed to create, and count the number of lame jokes that are made.  Because those people who have paid to get in are very interested in what is going on.  Boring for me.  Not at all boring for the enthusiasts.

I'm of the opinion that table-top role-players are the only participants that are bored with their own enthusiasm.  It is the only possible explanation.  The game as played by most everyone is so dry, so dull, so agonizingly lacking in pace that the participants themselves feel compelled to interest themselves any way they can.  They can't wait for the DM to pedantically describe another hallway, or for one of the players to go around searching everything, one . . . more . . . time.  They have to make a pained comment.  They have to break the monotony.  OMG, they have to.  This game is so motherf'king boring.

I worry.  I worry because one of the important sections of my book is how to deal with stress.  I experience an immense amount of stress as I'm playing.  Within a half-hour I am often pouring sweat.  Things are moving very fast, with everyone invested, and it's a lot to handle.  So I talk for quite awhile about what stress it, what it does to people, effects and so on, and how to handle it and even make it work for you.

Then I see something like this and it's like the title of yesterday's blog post:  what the hell am I on about? Seriously.  Here's a screenshot from the link I just posted:

I swear, I did not have to cherry pick this shot.  I picked a random point in the video and took the image. This is from 1:00:23.

Look at these guys.  The one in green is talking, and four of them have their heads down, completely self-possessed in whatever the hell they're doing.  Run the video from this point and you'll see, they don't lift their heads.  And the guy in black on the left, who at least looks like he's listening?  He's actually digging in his backpack for something.

I wish I could express with words how truly un-engaged these guys sound.  They sit with extraordinary lethargy, except when they rise and leave the table without comment or a word, since plainly nothing is going on, while their voices are so sluggish I swear it is as though the sound were playing at 9/10ths speed.

But I don't want to single out these guys.  These guys are normal.

Admit it.  D&D bores the shit out of you.  You should really stop playing.  Honest.  You're getting old enough now, you have money, you can afford now be doing things you actually enjoyed doing.  These people around you aren't that great - you could have way better friends if you just stopped playing this silly die-driven game.

When this Saturday comes around, and one of your so-called friends asks you to come around to role-play, just make an excuse. Say that you have to help your mom move, or that you've got to go to a symposium or something.  Make something up.  When they say that really sucks, and that they feel bad, you just role-play yourself right the fuck out of that conversation.  Say it to yourself:  jeez what a bunch of fucking losers.

You are SO better off without them.


Marty Walser said...

I'm not sure what to make of this post. Part of it sounds very serious, but other parts of it seem to be tongue in cheek.

Does D&D have some slow moments, or even slow games?

Yeah, sure. Sometimes it's a pain to wait your turn the the DM is not particularly good at keeping things moving. Pacing is sometimes a hard-learned skill.

Does that mean it's not a worthwhile pass-time? Hell no.

My friends and I have occasional slow nights... but we could also have slow nights playing Catan, or Munchkin, or any other random game were analysis paralysis can slow down turn sequence.

But it's still fun to hang out with friends and make stupid jokes and converse and have a little combat in between it all.

And in between those slow moments are the occasional games of pure, unadulterated, distilled fun... with laughter, ooohs and aaahs at really good or really bad rolls at a key moments, suspense and near TPKs pulled back from the brink of disaster.

It's fun. If you don't like the group you're with, pick a different one. It's pretty much that simple.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Watch the video, Marty. It's part of a set. And keep in mind, it's not 'a slow night.' It's quite obvious from the video that no one thinks this is odd.

I don't understand all of you "It's fun to hang with your friends" people. Of course it is. Have you considered a bar? Baseball? Hiking? Have you considered doing something that you don't have to defend all the time to your co-workers? Something about which you don't have to feel ashamed? Have you considered doing something that is CONTINUOUSLY unadulterated, distilled [sic] fun? As opposed to, as you say, "in between those slow moments"? There are actually things you could do for fun that you didn't need to pay a lot of boredom in order to get. Perhaps you might look into those things.

Because really, if the best you can offer to sell the hobby is to suggest that I'm playing with the wrong people . . . that's pretty lame. "Ooo, ooo! Have a good time at role-playing! Just be sure not to play with your friends, because they might be really boring at it!"

That's pretty sad. Got anything I can play with my friends, where we're SURE we'll have a good time?

James said...

As a DM, if I am not constantly busy in some capacity, or my players are cracking lame jokes/telling stories, I know the game needs to be shaken up because it is clearly losing interest. In the same vein, but on a longer scale, if my players can't recall basic details about the world, I am also clearly losing their interest.

I think too many DMs (and players, but more on that in a moment) fail to take any effort in ensuring people are actually engaged, or work under the misconception that if no one is complaining, everything is great. You have to know how to read people; it isn't hard to tell when people are bored.

On the players' side, I wish my players would take more responsibility for not only their fun, but everyone's fun (a topic I know you have discussed in your blog). If you are so bored you feel the need to amuse yourself, maybe you should speak up and say something? The odds you are alone are lower than you think, but again, this comes to reading people.

JDJarvis said...

Wow that video linked is seemingly full of a whole lot of nothing much.
I'd lose it if someone at the table was doing needlepoint the whole time.
Animation, joking, socializing while playing is great... lumpfying or distancing yourself from the game isn't.
I like poker, I love freindly chatty poker but we'd better all there to play poker or itks no fun...D&D is the same.

There's a point in the video where the GM has a player roll to map and informs. The player they did a very good job and then feels the need to remind them to record that they did a very good job and I thought to myself: WTF, why not just draw a map and be happy with whatever map you draw? Do you have to be told to remember to keep score in a baseball game?

Clovis Cithog said...

Have we come full circle ?

Alexis said...
“The young high school students who where there to embrace the game as gathered steam (call it '77) were hitting the age where they were failing university at 21. Failing university and getting crap labor jobs and beginning the age of the man—boy”
. . .
"Therefore, the socioeconomic failings of many gamers forced a change in game design such that the rules became a more extensive venue for escapism or wish fulfilment?
. . .
"If this is true, one would conclude that
'I have seen the enemy, it is us.'”

Alexis Smolensk said...

No, Clovis.

I am the enemy. I dare to set the standard high; to expect more from people than they want to give; to vilify their escapism and piss on their wishes; to kick them while they're down, living their miserable futures, where things are only made good by bad jokes, half-rated gaming and mountain dew.

I am the bad guy.

Clovis Cithog said...

my theory is correct ?
Alexis is not an Angry person, he is Frustrated ... when that frustration boils over, the unskilled eye will interpret the emotional response as Anger
... ..
"Glückselig die nach der Gerechtigkeit hungern und dürsten, denn sie werden gesättigt werden."

Mat 5:6

Ozzie Pippenger said...

You know, I see what you mean with this post. I put in a ton of effort to games, but more often than not, most people look bored. I think D&D is something that's only fun with a top notch DM, and very interested, competent players. And that is hard to attain.

If I want to come up with interesting fantasy stuff, why don't I just write some stories or something. Not that they'd be any good, but I could post them on the internet at least and have maybe 20 whole people look at them, and perhaps be slightly interested. Better than 4 people at a game, 2 or 3 of whom barely want to be there.

Or if I want social interaction, why don't I take up some less rigid hobby that allows me to have more normal relationships with people? I've played pool a few times, and I think I like that.

Or maybe it's some kind of respect and authority I want out of being a DM. In that case, why don't I actually work hard at an education and career, and get some kind of real position of authority?

Or do I just want some entertainment? There's videogames, there's sports, there's cheap and legal beer in a few years. Why not those?

These are real questions. I don't have answers to them. I graduated form highschool last week, and I'm registered to start college in August. And I'm wondering, do I want to be known as "that D&D guy" for the rest of my life, or just take a shot at meeting more people, getting new and more interesting hobbies, or whatever else it is normal people do with their lives?

I don't know how serious this post is, but it sounds a lot like some thoughts I've been having lately.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Sorry to comment twice in a row, but I wanted to say that one part of the post I disagree with is that the people I play with are losers. They're really not, and I think that's actually sort of the reason the games aren't very fun. They're mostly pretty interesting people who I'd like to get to know better, it's just that that's hard to do through the clunky framework of trying to get them to come to a game they don't care much about anymore. There's no reason to ditch your friends just because they find the game boring. Maybe you should just ditch the game.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Passionate, Clovis. Like all villains.

Sorry, Ozzie, I missed the part where I specifically said that the people YOU play with are losers. Moreover, the part where I used the word 'losers' was deliberately facetious. Here, I'll be a friend and look it up for you:

fa-ce-tious (fuh-see-shuh s). adjective. 1. not meant to be taken seriously or literally: a facetious remark. 2. amusing; humorous. 3. lacking serious intent; concerned with something nonessential, amusing, or frivolous; a facetious person.

See? Adult humour. A complex joke. A funny. Not actually an attack against your friends.

Please don't say that you didn't get it because it's text and this is the internet. Writers have been using words to express facetiousness since the time of Aristophanes, 5th century BCE. So, 2,500 words. If I can get Aristophanes' jokes (and they're funny!) then you should be able to work out that, after I've written a million or more words defending role-playing, and I'm writing a book about role-playing, that I was totally joking there.

This is a plain indicator that it is TIME TO READ BETTER BOOKS than what you are reading now. I don't mean that as an attack. I mean that sincerely, as one person to another. I trust that you're going to do some of that in college. Please, for the love of god, take a humanities course. Take several. They will do more for your role-playing game then a hundred modules ever could.

This is continued on the next comment.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Let me take your questions seriously, putting the post aside. I don't feel that anyone has to be a 'top notch DM' or have 'competant players.' That's a misnomer. The problem isn't skill, it's comprehension. Who out there is really, seriously, teaching anyone how to present a game, or even taking apart what presentation is? I promise you, it isn't interesting fantasy stuff, or great stories, or even charisma. It's knowing the nuts and bolts of how people are intrigued and aroused to passion. This is a science, and it amazes me that after 40 years apparently NO ONE who has written about D&D has come from a serious background in theatre or drama. That sort of surprises me. This is a huge part of my book.

Believe me, you will probably never get passionate respect and authority out of a career you get through education. Education teaches you how to follow YOUR passion, but it doesn't teach how to make others passionate about you. For that, you have to start something - a business, an organization, an idea and so on, that will draw people who are looking for a passion. You have that handed to you on a silver platter.

Part of the reason I get so frustrated (!) is that I see so many people pushing role-playing in the dirt, pissing all over it, half-assing it if you will, and then thinking and saying they've created gold. There's so much delusion, sometimes I just can't stand it.

Remember that the post is facetious; role-playing is entertainment, but it is SO much more. Most entertainment is passive; most of the things I mentioned in the post are passive. Role-playing is magnificently active. It's really no comparable.


Alexis Smolensk said...

About "being that D&D guy." Well, you don't have to tell everyone. Until recently, I kept it out of my career - but it's a bit hard to do that right now. Lots of people do hobbies without needing to talk about them. I have other hobbies I never, ever mention. Nobody's business but mine.

Though I will admit, it is a bitch to get the snakes across the border.

"Being that D&D guy" has made me knowledgeable, skilled, communicative, funny among groups of people, brave in front of crowds, flexible, inventive and able to get to the heart of nearly every problem that drops on my lap. I attest that my skill with people has not only made it possible to manage them in my favour, it has made it possible for me to manage them in theirs. I don't go through a day where I don't make someone, most often a total stranger, laugh out loud, or tell me their problems or ask for advice - because I am confident, comfortable with the sound of my voice and certain about what people need to hear, whatever they may happen to be doing. DMing taught me that. Thinking of my players first, and me second, has taught me that. Can you believe I've been vilified for saying that's what we should do?

Ozzie, you're at the very, very beginning of an amazing potential that no one can define except you. I understand your uncertainty. I understand it because I've had exactly that uncertainty, at the time that you're having it now. Trust an old, miserable, grumpy grognard. People want to beat you down. That will make you think the thing to do is beat yourself down. You've got to know, this life thing - this thing is a bitch. It really takes a lot of effort and skill to manage it. You've got to realize, you're just digging in and getting started; but you can get the hang of this bitch and make it gallop, if you'll just give yourself time.

Just give it the spurs and hang on. Make that horse go where you want it to go and know that being that D&D guy won't stop you from meeting new people, or getting new ideas or exploring new possibilities. It will HELP you do that. For all of your life, not just the four years of college.

College will give you some good books to read, for a few years. Role-playing will take you back to the drawing board a thousand times. College will teach you how to do that.

But hang on. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

So it was entirely sarcastic? It's sort of difficult to tell over the internet. I never thought you meant everyone should give up on D&D, just that a lot of people should. Obviously you don't think your group is bad, you just think most groups are. So why shouldn't I consider the possibility that I'm running one of those groups? That seems in line with your usual attitude.

I honestly don't know what the hell you're trying to communicate here. I'm not the only one confused, read some other comments. Whatever it is you mean, I mean exactly what I've already said. I'm bored of the game, my players are bored, and it seems like other things would be a better use of time.

I don't know why I even bother with blogs and comments and all this. Just sort of a habit I suppose.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Sorry, I commented before reading part 3 of yours and I think I was a unnecessarily rude. You're trying to help here, and there's no reason to be so angry and defensive.

It's been troubling lately, finding no joy in what used to be my favorite thing and wondering if it's all a waste of time. It's good to have a reminder sometimes that the there's fun in the game if you know where to look. I might give it another shot.

Jeremiah Scott said...

Last week I asked you to write about why you love the game as a whole, not just DMing. Between the post and the comments, I think you've nailed it.

Barrow said...

What made me laugh the most about this post and the comments is that it appears some people actually watched the video you linked to. Its 3 hours long. I take it on face value that the people in the video look bored. Mostly because I can relate to that image from my own players.

I have a player that doodles entire 8x11" pages over the course of a few sessions. He is a superb doodler and he turns out some artistic and interesting pieces, but I often wish that creative energy went into the game. His shorthand artwork is a reminder that I am not doing a good job of keeping pace and channeling everybody.

I also feel the lag. Lately, I am unmotivated to build out my campaign and expand my world. Its become boring to try to suppose what my PC's will do. I used to think I had a bi-polar relationship with my campaign, but it probably more likely that my recent game sessions aren't quite satisfying enough to peak my interest over other things. I think my disinterest comes from a number of structural components that I don't like about my campaign and my inability to properly engage my audience. For whatever reason I never considered that the net result is boredom, for all.

Though I do have one moral objection to this post. Is it fair to post a video of a group of "normal" D&D players, undress them and throw stones at them without showcasing a video of a group playing correctly or as you suggest they should? Why do I envision sweaty, heavy-set bloggers en masse, with pitchforks and torches demanding to see a video of your group, Alexis, in action? Does anyone second that motion?

Barrow said...

Also, could you or a fellow commentor make a few remarks about note taking during a game session? Looking for suggestions as to how not to slow the game down.

Alexis Smolensk said...

My players have indicated an unwillingness to be filmed and held up to display by the internet. Recent abuse against me and this blog has not helped there.

I can't hold up a good example because I haven't found one yet.

While I have tried to film, there are problems. Unlike theatre or the movies, you can't stage a session so that everyone is sitting on the same side of the table. People need to be miked to be heard clearly, and that would probably be one mic for every person. It is all spontaneous, so it's impossible to plan camera shots, though at least two cameras are needed, one behind me, and one behind the players. That means filming it all with two cameras, then sitting down to cut the film.

This would take many hours, and I'm not that good at cutting video. I would love to have someone with real skill come and do it - and in fact, I could set that up, since there are always people with skillz who want a challenge like that. But it would take a willing party.

Here's what I suggest. If you want to see me run, pay bus fare, come to Calgary, we'll find some room and I'll run you in my world. Will that do?

Barrow said...

Yes, I suppose that would do. I understand the desire of your players to have anonymity on the net.

The motion and moral outrage was mostly in jest, because if you had such a video, of your group or others, I assumed you would have posted it by now. Though I would be a willing spectator. Also, I do appreciate that if you were to release a play session on video, the production value would be elevated as well.

Maybe after How to Run is released, a few good examples will popup on youtube.

Marty Walser said...

"Have you considered doing something that you don't have to defend all the time to your co-workers?"

Are you ashamed of your hobby? How sad for you. I feel no shame and everyone I work with and know is aware that I play D&D with my friends of Friday nights.

It sounds like YOU want to quit. So quit already and save us your BS.

You might not be having fun, but I am, so if you aren't, Quit.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'm sorry Marty.

It's plain you don't have the slightest idea what's really being discussed here - and you REALLY don't understand me.

At the moment, I'm writing an academic textbook on How to Run role-playing games, because in fact I love this game dearly. You might want to read this post from Monday to understand my commitment. You might also note the small book I am selling that shows on the sidebar. You might also note the 1300+ posts I've written about D&D.

If you knew me, Marty, you would know that I'm deeply invested in this game, more deeply than you can guess. If you knew me, you'd never have posted your last comment.

Get to know me, Marty. I think you'll like me.

Neil Vines said...

Hey Alexis. I stumbled across your blog quite accidentally but not unhappily doing searches for tips on towns, hamlets, cities and the like.

What I found was much funnier and interesting by far. Been playing D&D since the early 80s and most of my lifelong friends have been made from the relationships gained from many many nights of mental fun and adventure.

I find it an interesting conversation about buy-in, pacing, and the art / science of running good sessions or campaigns. It's something I and my co-DM talked about often. I now DM alone because my Co-DM has moved away and is quite the rolling stone at the moment. We learned alot together and I try to pick up things that other DMs do well and learn from what they don't.

The answer is a complex one really and depends upon your audience and what they want from the game as much as what we want to give them through it. With that said I've found several things that have helped me which I'll share now.

Pacing - We decided to put our players on an action timer while in combat and sometimes when out of it if we want to build tension. This helped improve the game in several ways. (1) It kept players from group thinking their actions, promoted combat "realism", and sped up combat. It was like red meat to hungry wolves. Senses sharpened, attention turned to the combat at hand, etc. The timer also improved other things such as competence. If your friends lives depend on you making good decisions under duress in combat, you'll bloody well know your characters motivations, abilities, spell lists etc. Which in turn speeds up everything in and out of combat.


Neil Vines said...

Co-DM - If you can find one with compatible attitudes toward gaming and the one you want to run specifically they can be a godsend. Every working relationship takes communication and flexibility. Co-DMing is no exception but the benefits outweigh the possible negatives in my opinion. Every DM has their weaknesses and strengths. Together you mitigate those. Having 2 DMs also allowed us to give our players more freedom to roleplay and follow tangential plot strings without sacrificing pacing. We used a 10 minute rule where if a party member separated in town for instance we'd give them 10 minutes with the co-DM to run some then check in with each other as things progressed so each would know where the party was and let it run or guide them back to the group as applicable depending on the scenario / story running that night. I shouldn't even have to mention how helpful a co-DM is when doing game prep! What a relief. Again each side has to pull their weight in prep and adjudication but it's doable. Our players LOVED it.

Individuals - We always started our party members out individually so as to increase character "buy-in" and roleplaying before they came together as a unit. We made sure the storyline had hooks that made sense for them to come together and work on a common goal even if it was for different reasons. After each main campaign milestone, we would allow a few sessions for each player to run their character individually with a single DM. Also increasing a love for that particular character by the player, more buy-in, depth, meaning and context to their part in the grand storyline, and again better roleplaying when assembled with the rest of the party. Our players LOVE this as well. It takes a lot of commitment on behalf of the DMs but the payoff is sooooo worth it. We end up loving the characters as much as our players and the stories we share about them years later.


Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't find this particularly on topic, Neil.

Neil Vines said...

Sorry if that's the case Alex. Two things stuck out to me in the main topic. Which I was trying to address. One was the inner turmoil on loving the game but being frustrated by what it asks of us and sometimes from the lack of reciprocity of care and commitment by the participants. Maybe I missed that as one of the points.

The second was how the players were reacting / acting in the picture and description of them.

The question then springs to mind...Why are they disengaged? I offered possible solutions to the problem. If I'm off in offering those up then I'll sign off and be gone.

Best of luck to you and your players.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Just making the rules clear, Neil. Moreover, my name, for the record, has six letters: Alexis.

I'm well aware of what's needed to spice up the campaign above; what I don't understand is why players put up with it. That is what the post addressed.

Neil Vines said...

Alexis it is. No disrespect intended on the name flub. I see where you're coming from now on the player side.