Sunday, January 25, 2015

This Is Not Me Being Nice

Last night, I blew my player's minds.

I don't care to go into details - there are a lot of them and I could rattle on for a few thousand words trying to get the reader up to speed, but that would accomplish very little since the emotion of playing would be lost.

These are players who began in my world in late 2005.  They are running the same characters they began at first level.  They have crawled their way through a very difficult, sparse experience system that has enabled them to where they are now hovering around 275K in experience.  Today they shrug off blows of 20, 30 damage, but they remember when it took only a few little hits to put them on the edge of death.  They remember when the druid Pikel, now with 91 hit points, always needed saving. They remember when the mage Garalzapan would enter combat and go down with one hit.  They remember when it took an 18 to hit something, when they would miss and miss before getting knocked unconscious.

Their characters are a mass of memories.  Memories of dozens of humiliating combats, of staggering through cold weather after a near escape, of collapsing and literally dying of pneumonia, of begging for help from people much stronger than they were . . . and now they are those people, doing the work themselves and needing help from no one.

These are characters that have been painstakingly crafted, infused with purpose, struggling with the unknown, searching and puzzling out the things going on with the world and steadily getting a handle on what's happening.

Last night, I made a series of reveals to the party in the form of an NPC the party has been trying to find for an actual year of gaming.  I revealed information I conceived of in 2007 that I have never, ever told anyone.  Other things that I have keeping to myself for three and four years.  Secrets locked inside my head to explain why THIS GUY has hiding and what THIS THING is actually for.  Secrets telling WHO they're up against and why they've already MESSED UP where it comes to killing him.  Secrets that made the party laugh and shout at the absurdity, curse, pound the table in excitement and finally applaud.

Maybe in other worlds there a people who do not experience the transforming lives of their characters, their creations - for I consider these characters to be works of living art that the players are building through years of play.  It does not matter that the player may be the only person to truly enjoy the character to its full degree or that knowledge of the character does not reach out beyond the party.  These works of art are real to them, adored and LOVED.

The reader doesn't understand this?  Has the reader ever made anything?  Does the reader have a novel that they've tried to write, that they still have in a folder somewhere?  Does the reader have a thing they made for their father or mother?  Does the reader even remotely understand sentimentality?

Now suppose I break into your house and the only thing I do is burn that thing.  It's worthless, right?  It's stupid that you still keep it, right?  I mean, anyone who would love a silly thing that isn't valuble to anyone else, that person must be pretty fucked up, eh?

Yeah.  It does matter, doesn't it?  Even if no one else cares, YOU care.  You love that damn thing, even if you get a little embarrassed at the idea of showing anyone else.

But some people . . . fuck, some people.

I got this comment earlier today to a silly joke I posted about player-vs-player:

"Something that puzzles me about this blog is the intense dislike of PvP you seem to have, not just as a poor gameplay mechanic, but to the point of animosity towards players who enjoy it. It just doesn't match the vast majority of my experience playing and running, or what I've heard on other blogs and message boards . . . In the course of standard campaigns, PvP has been a very rare occurrence and hasn't seemed to ruin the game for anyone."
There's more, asking me why I have such a bug up my ass about this.  The reader says he's confused; he doesn't want to start an argument.

Well, it punched my button.  And methodically I set out to rip the guy a new asshole.  Because his innocence was almost worse than his ignorance.

Yeah.  What's the big deal?  So what if I destroy something that belongs to someone else?  How is that wrong?

I know what the 'vast majority' is thinking.  You're not that invested in your characters.  You don't care that much.  When you kill the character of another player, they don't seem to care very much either.

Does this not express how pathetically sad these worlds must be?  And how vacuous?  These are participants that are so far down the evolutionary trail they can't muster the least sentimentality about something they've made.  How can these people have any fun if they are so dead inside they can't . . . feel something about their characters?

Worse, they can't understand how someone else can have feelings.  If someone at my table raised a sword against one of my characters, believe me, the battle wouldn't be carried out with dice.  I wouldn't have to intervene.  My players would rise as a body and toss that fucker out the door.

Believe me, if that isn't the game you're running, you should WISH you were.  If your game doesn't work like this, and you still think that yours is a good game . . .?

You wouldn't recognize a good game if it kicked your reproductive junk through your windpipe.


Alexis Smolensk said...

The comments that were added earlier to this post have been taken down.

Repeatedly claiming not to have meant what was written, in order to avoid responsibility for one's statements, is a clear act of trolling.

VeronaKid said...

Your attitude, respect, and dedication you bring for the sake of your players makes them very lucky indeed. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during that session. Sounds like a transcendent experience for everyone involved. I agree with your character-as-art analogy wholeheartedly. Why anyone would want to kill someone else's creation is beyond me. Sounds anathema to how the game is played at my table, anyway.

Doug said...

I read the posts, and totally agree with you, Alexis. I teach my sons that they are not allowed to break other kids' toys. It amazes me that some adults still don't grasp that concept.

Matt said...

I don't think that the people who have commented in support of PvP play the same sort of game that you do Alexis. Actually, I don't think that too many people in general really do.

You are running a game where players have been playing for nearly a decade, in a world that you have been running for 30 or so years now. (Please correct me if I am wrong on those statements.) Most DMs in my experience run campaigns that last a year or two, in worlds that they will either buy off the shelf, cobble together from basic fantasy tropes, or create to specifically explore a particular idea. For most players, in my experience, their first foray into a new world isn't one of birthing and caring for a new life, it is about entering a car dealership and deciding what to drive off the lot knowing full well that in less than a year's time there will be something else they want more.

In these campaigns, with these players, PvP allows the players to break out of a bad DM's box, and take charge of something for themselves. It lets players prove themselves against the most dangerous adversaries the game can offer, and it gives players an excuse to go back to the dealership and trade in for a new model.

I am not defending this style of game. A decade long ongoing campaign where everyone has grown to love their characters is a far preferable situation. I just think that those who are confused at your opposition are just playing a much, much different sort of game.

I'll admit my own PVP blunders though. In one game I had a player who wanted to play an evil character. He was from a cannibalistic culture, and he was not squeamish about torture or murder. His goals were not money, or power, but to find a more prosperous land for his people to move to, or a way to vitalize his lands. I let him play this character under the caveat that he was not allowed to kill any other PCs, but that he himself was able to be killed by them. Everyone understood and respected this rule. I thought it was a good ruling.

Unfortunately what happened is that one of the characters, disgusted with the cannibal's actions, tried to kill him. He failed, and was restrained, and the rest of the party took the side of the cannibal. This meant that the other player's character was still alive, but was treated poorly by the rest of the party. Even with everyone's consent things ended poorly.

In another situation there was a disagreement between party members about a medusa. Two party members felt that she was not hostile, that she only attacked those who came to hurt her. The other party member thought she was a monster that needed killing. This was not nearly as lethal. A sleep spell and a hasty retreat for the medusa. The fellow on the receiving end of that spell is still a little sore about the ordeal though.

So again, even with consent, PvP play is just so likely to upset players that it should be avoided.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Yes, I know others do not play the same game I do. Even at the beginning of my gaming, however, I don't recall anyone really interested in the game's potential who wanted to play PvP.

There were many people who thought PvP was great, but these were invariably people who considered the game a farce. The PvP crowd always wound up being the same people ready to set everything on fire, pee on the monster corpses, make crude jokes about princesses and so on. As such, in those first years of playing, claiming a fascination for PvP became a touchstone for what kind of player a person was.

These past years on-line, I've seen nothing to dispute that touchstone. PvP players are the sort of people who, discovering a chess board, play checkers with it.

Fair enough, some people will always play that way. In my perfect world, however, such people would be shamed for doing that . . . just as anyone seeing someone playing checkers with a chess set knows immediately what sort of people we're dealing with.

I'm a snob.

Oddbit said...

I remember playing a single one off day of PvP.

Despite winning it left a sour taste in my mouth and I STILL don't care for the idea in general. I don't remember that session fondly except that my non-sploity character beat the rules lawyer's trick.

If I want to play a PvP game, let's go play Risk, or Monopoly, or Catan or something... The effort of setup is a lot less and it feels less personal for some reason.

Dave said...

"I consider these characters to be works of living art that the players are building through years of play."


Matt said...


Nothing at all wrong with being a snob in this case. You've been doing this longer and better than I have.

I agree that blatant violence of a player against another is to be immediately curbed, and I agree that sort of play is indicative of bad players. The sort of player that craves killing another party member is that same kind of player that craves hiding the chess pieces before the board is set up, or getting the soccer ball and kicking it as far off of the court as they can.

I think that where it gets hard to grasp for some people is when there is an excuse for the PvP. When characters disagree and the players say "Well, wait, we have all of these weapons and powers that we use to solve disagreements with NPCs and monsters all the time. Why can't we use them here?" I have found it hard to argue.

It's been easier to argue after hearing your arguments against it though.

Alexis Smolensk said...

That paragraph about solving disagreements is intriguing, Matt. It makes me want to rewrite it. Try to imagine a heavy, plodding voice.

"Well, yeah - I mean, as a boxer, it's all about punching the other guy until he falls down. That's how things get resolved, eh? I mean, I train every day to use these fists so that when I want to make a point, I'm able to make it. I don't know why my wife don't get that."

Matt said...

Great example! I will have to remember that next time my players want to have a go at it!

Alexis Smolensk said...


I have to add to what you said, my partner 100% agrees with you. She says that even the idea of PvP makes her feel dirty . . . and not in a good way. She postulated last night that participants in PvP must experience after effects of guilt they probably have trouble recognizing.

Oddbit said...

It's funny, the only satisfaction I got from the event was with the person who built a throwaway character.

But yeah, if we all built throwaway characters and I still feel dirty, I can't even imagine what it would be like in a legit game.

I know one player who quit our group, not because of intentional PvP, but due to the fallout of the DM using mind control. (A dirty trick he makes a regular staple of one genre).

William Jones said...

I'm really interested in this subject. As a DM, I have struggled to prevent players from fighting - because my style is to not try to control them or punish them for playing their character properly. How would you handle it if their characters are disagreeing about something, and that disagreement turns to taking actions, not violent actions but definite actions against one another? Actions that will inevitably lead to violence, because that's what the characters would do? When and how do you intervene?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I would ask the players who could not settle their differences through discussion and maturity to get out of my world.

You need to learn and understand the principle, "The right of your fist ends where my nose begins." When your players achieve their agency through the DELIBERATE REDUCTION of another player's agency, that is not freedom of action, that is aggression, self-promotion and acting out like a child.

You promote this behaviour because you yourself fail to understand that not controlling or punishing your players for acting out like children is to encourage anarchy and the exact behaviour that is undermining your world. You enable this activity by insisting that it is "proper" behaviour by your players, as indicated in your comment where you say,

". . . playing their character properly.

You intervene with this statement:

"The next person who suggests or even makes a joke about attacking another player's character for any reason at this game table is GONE. Period. I don't care if I am sitting here all by myself when we're done. I will get more players. Now let's play."

I am willing to bet you will see some of your players suddenly break into a wide smile, while others grunt and whine.

Guess which ones you want to run?

William Jones said...

I've been really thinking hard about your answer, and you are 100% correct.

The thing is, I don't want to get to that stage in the first place, I don't want to have to tell a person that they will be kicked out if they attack another player.

But of course I don't want player characters fighting each other either, because you are absolutely correct as well, it is just horrible to have that inflicted on your character.

My players are not Jacobs, from the post above, not even close. Nor are they the types of players you've described, the type who enjoy pvp. They are nice, grown up individuals who have been friends for two decades and have supported each other through thick and thin.

There have been incidences of - well not pvp, but cvc - character vs character in the past. I can probably count on one hand the incidents which have actually been significant, and only one of them was deadly (The player in that incidence though had said that if his character wasn't dead, he would retire it though, as he hated it so much - a very OP paladin) so a different situation.

But I know that even a handful of incidents that have led to nothing are a significant sign that I am not getting it right yet, and that my "playing their characters right" is the sole cause of a potential situation in which players feel that their characters have to kill another players character.

It is my responsibility, my fault and me who needs to change this.

Now given that I wouldn't ever have to threaten to kick a player out, all I have to do is say no, and there will be relief on every players face when I do - which I will next and every time pvp raises it's ugly head, but what I really want to ask is how can I say no, without saying no. What tips and tricks do you have so that when tension arises in the party, they are guided away from the situation to a player friendly resolution without having to break that 4th wall, and without blaming my players because they are lovely and respectful and will eagerly avoid pvp with minimal prompting - it is entirely my fault, my insistence that they distance themselves from the character and play the role with detachment. How do I fix it?

Alexis Smolensk said...

You're right, William. A harsh NO is not the best, particularly if things haven't become especially confrontational.

It isn't what you say or how loud you say it, it is how your face looks when you say quietly, "That's enough."

Remember - and this I said in my book How to Run - you can't force the players to change. You can only change yourself. When you make it clear that you're not interested, the players will lose interest as well.

"Well, I'm not going to be part of this," would be the strongest words I would recommend. Get up, ask if anyone wants to go to the store, then put your boots on and go on a snack-run. Everyone else who doesn't care will probably joyfully go with you, and you will find yourself listening to THEM complain when you leave behind the participants. You've all been friends for 20 years, so I take it you can trust your house with them.

If they come too, then they'll be guilty. As you walk, getting a breath of fresh air, getting away from the dice and the characters and the GAME, it will be easier to send your message across - and I stress that it should be your message and not mine or anyone else's. Tell them what you feel, what you hope your world can be, where you feel the players are wasting time and so on. Be direct. You're all a lot older than you were when you began playing so you'll probably find people are looking for some ground rules.

Look, for example, what happened when I went ballistic on the internet last week, ranting about Rule #4 and saying fuck you to trolls. The immediate response was people feeling SAFE enough to tell their real stories, knowing I wasn't going to let anyone step into the space and mock them. Sometimes, it takes a harsh word or two to encourage people to believe that the rules are there to PROTECT them, not hurt them.

Get out and walk, stretch, talk about it and set some boundaries. When you sit down again, you'll find the players will come around to the game rather than their discord, without anyone needing to shout at anyone.