Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Wind

In my place of work, a primary concern for the technical staff is the client's 'experience.'  Since we sell a product that is at its heart an electronic tool, and as that product is entertainment-based, the product itself is the biggest factor in how much enjoyment the client is bound to have.  To use the product requires some effort.  The client is compelled to train themselves in the use of the product, so it's critical that the product be user-friendly and consistent.  Moreover, since 99% of the training the client must undergo is self-motivated, the function of the product must make sense.  For it to convey a good experience the product must act predictably.

Thus, there's a lot of chatter that surrounds the subject of experience - and a lot of concern when the call centres light up with complaints about the friendliness of the product.

This brings to mind parts of the Guide, as I speak about function and user friendliness for players in the game world.  On the blog, I have earnestly spoken about the importance of the world to make sense, fundamentally as the real world does, so that the player - or client - is able to make rational choices about what he or she does next.

So we don't need to cover that ground again.

Our motivation for giving the client a good experience is obvious - it is critical to our bottom line.  A widespread poor experience would result in loss of our clients to our competition, which in the long run would damage our viability as a company, reduce the amount of money and resources we had towards further R&D and ultimately the company would die a slow death in a competitive market. From that, it can be guessed how customer response is viewed.

It is everything.  Not only for us, but for everyone in the same business.

This makes me think that where quality is concerned - quality of experience - the role-playing game's chief problem may demand an American solution:  more competition.

Theoretically, a DM would be more invested in a player's complaints about their world if that player had an alternative - another world where they could play.  Unfortunately, there are some problems with that model, which we can run down as follows:

Games happen in isolated conditions.  Most players, if they're lucky, might know one DM, perhaps two.  There are many players - and readers of this blog - who have never had a chance to play simply because they've never met enough people to get together a foursome for a game.  How sad is that?  If you're living in a small town, if you're a solitary individual living outside your culture, if you're young and your parents still have a lot of mastery over your life, then finding a game may be an impossibility. At best, you might be able to take the DM's role yourself and educate a set of complete noobs into your world, but that doesn't enable you to play and it doesn't solve the problem of offering competition for user experience to the player.

Reversing this point of view, DMs know very well that their players have nowhere to go.  A problem player, one that makes trouble, one that challenges the DM's authority or fails to show respect can be turfed knowing that player has limited options.  Chances are the player will either give up the game and turn to other activities or be forced to return, tail between their legs, to dance to the DM's tune.

If it happens that the DM is personally a moral vacuum, this means suffering mental and emotional abuse for the opportunity to play.  It means swallowing your own sense of justice to obtain a poor experience - a good experience is out of the question because it isn't available.

Gaming Clubs despise competition.  I am basing this upon those gaming clubs that I've viewed from the inside, as well as the mutual admiration society that seems to compose the internet community.  To see a gaming club's typical response to innovation, the gentle reader need only examine the patterns shown upon a typical, administrated, online gaming forum.  Very quickly the 'rules' cease to be about the game and more directly geared towards ensuring 'everyone' has a good gaming experience.  The result, of course, is that everyone has a mediocre gaming experience.  Change inevitably disturbs someone in the group, who then complains to the administrator, who then slaps down the instigator of change for the 'general good,' ensuring that change never happens.  Carthago delendum est.

The issue with gaming clubs is that they have to be administered by someone, since the money must be collected for the space and someone must be held accountable if players begin punching each other in the aisles.  Not that I've ever actually seen that at a gaming club, but I've heard the phrase "someone needs to keep order!" said dozens of different ways hundreds of times.

All the DMs within the space are judged to have the 'right' to run their campaign and this is fine in terms of rhetoric.  It becomes a problem, however, if players in the club decide they'd rather not play with this DM and rather with that one - so that the best DMs in the club inevitably gather eight or ten people at their table while the poor DM gets one or two.  Administrators can't abide that sort of thing, so table limits are imposed and people are forced to play with bad DMs on principle - meaning that there are always a set of people at one or two of the tables that are now going through the motions, knowing there's a better game just feet away.

Luckily, this sorts itself out - the good DMs are forced out of the club because they refuse to run their games according to the principles of the club (which often include everyone running the same system, making no changes to that system, everyone running the same adventure so that everyone in the room will ultimately be sharing the same 'experience' and so on).  A good DM doesn't need a club.  They're never short of players.  Clubs are created by bad DMs for players who can't find a good one - specifically by bad DMs who like the political 'feel' of being among the elite four or six persons in a room of thirty or forty.

Single games can only handle woefully small numbers.  For the sake of argument, let's say that I'm a good DM.  I won't say that I am, truly, but I've been doing this for 35 years and therefore it's at least believable that I might be, so let's just stretch the imagination far enough to make that possible.  Now, how many players can I reasonably run in a given campaign?  Six?  Eight?  Fourteen?

Fourteen is the highest number of players I have run for three sessions in succession.  I was 22 at the time, full of piss and vinegar, running a game in which the combat map was x's and o's scratched out on paper like a complicated four-endzone football schematic.  In effect, combat was me pointing at a player, stating how many enemies were in front of that player and then indicating it was time for that player to swing.  That's about as complicated as combat got - and even on that level a battle between fourteen players and enough enemies to threaten them was a logistical laugh-riot.

There is no way I could run that many people using the system I employ now, not without at least one other person coordinating movement or providing raw data for player use.  Realistically, operating alone, I can say with confidence that my outside limit for a gaming group is eight - and I wouldn't want to run that many people all the time.

For most of us, we know that four players is realistic.  Where the game as a culture is concerned, a 4:1 ratio for player to DM is a disaster.  It means that even if the word gets out that a particular DM has talent, and even if that DM is in the neighborhood, chances are that DM is full up and can't take any more players.  Whatever we may want or need for the culture as a whole, a good DM's world fills up fast - what with word of mouth and all - and very quickly, for the player, the opportunity to play with a good DM is snatched away.

Which is all the more frustrating, because -

DMs won't learn from other DM's.  These past 35 years I must have spoken to thousands of other DMs in one capacity or another.  In all that time, I've discovered that one thing is absolutely true - the personality of a DM is not conducive to outside criticism.  We go our own way.  We have our own philosophy.  We all think we're right to run the game our way.  Etcetera.

Just look at the flame wars that go on when the subject of managing some small, insignificant element of the game arises.  The endless bullshit explanations for hit points.  The endless hair splitting over what exactly and precisely defines the line dividing a railroad from a sandbox.  GNS theory.  Things that matter greatly to DMs but upon which player opinion matters very little.  A DM cares what the hit points stand for; the player is mostly concerned with how many they still have and what they're able to still do as the number dwindles.  Players are concerned most with mechanics and how best to exploit them, or with the personality they wish to play and how best to play it.  DMs are mostly concerned with the dimensions, suck-power, ejection rates and frequency culminating around their own assholes.

What is missing from the community is a player complaint department.  A forum could easily be set up to manage that, so it isn't a mechanical problem.  Different threads could handle the endless questions that begin with, "I really fucking hate it when a DM does/thinks this . . ."

The problem would be making any DM listen.  I said my corporation listens to feedback.  That's because we service hundreds of thousands of clients in a given day.  We have a lot to lose.  But why should a DM care what some player says about some other DM about a subject the DM already smugly believes they know everything about?

Nope.  Ain't gonna happen.


The internet is the only saving grace in all this.  The internet has the potential to make a DM feel ashamed for their world and what they're doing to players.  The internet has the power to raise bad DM's to quality status through education, demonstration and anecdotal evidence.  If more DMs see good games, more DMs are going to want to run good games.  More DMs will be concerned with players having a good experience.  More DMs will speak out, raising talent and commitment as arguments against those promoting mediocrity or emotional privilege.  More DMs, raised into a culture where ability means more than selfish desire, will hammer the role-playing community into a better culture than it is today.

Some are going to suffer that change.  Some will shout against it.  Some will scream that no change is needed.  None of that matters, because it isn't up to them.  The decision to change is never left to the status quo - it is taken up by those for whom the status quo has failed.  They are the wind.  The stupid will stand up to it and be broken, while the weak will bend.

1 comment:

Tim said...

When I first arrived at university, fresh and bright with only a few months' worth of D&D experience, I was surprised that there were no clubs for D&D: no groups looking to recruit people to try the game, discuss methods or help DMs and players find one another.
I think what could really help encourage that form of community lies parallel to the feeble attempts WotC makes to keep selling new editions: draw in fresh blood.
When the game is being presented on shows like Community or The Big Bang Theory, it makes mainstream culture curious. I found a group just by inviting my dorm-mates down to the common room one afternoon to make characters, and ten people (of a twenty-four person dorm) showed up. If you could get smart people interested in D&D and get them questioning the system, then you can get smart voices into the community, player or DM, who will speak up when something is wrong or stupid or selfish.
It really is an activity of isolation. The gaming clubs should be encouraging mixers! The conventions should have discussion panels on social interaction! There should be a dialogue, not a dogma!
But hell, I'm young and haven't had the world beat cynicism into me just yet, so maybe I'm just too optimistic.