Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tense is Everything

Earlier today, I made a point about DMs and Players working things out so as to come to a reconciliation on game matters.  In general terms, I was promoting compromise instead of the common situation where DMs give flat, blanket statements about player behaviour, as though speaking as the Almighty dictating the ten commandments from on high.

I went looking about for an example of this.  I had several to choose from.  I chose the below article because, in fact, the writer has a reasonable point to make about players spoiling games.  However, he starts from a position as inflexible as granite.

"Let me tell you what a harda$& I am. I make my players give me completed characters before the game starts so I can read over them and approve them or reject them. Then, I reject PCs out of hand and don’t tell the players which one of my crazy-a$&, byzantine, secret rules they violated. Their only recourse is to start over and make a completely new character."

The Angry GM, The Mad Adventurers Society

Now, personally I don't mind typing the word 'ass.'  It's what George Carlin - in 1972 - called a 'two-way' word.  For example, it's okay to make an ass of yourself but you can't get some ass.

This isn't 1972, however . . . and it remains a pretty silly thing that some segment of the population still gets worked up by the use of these words.  In fact, the real issue is that the position the Angry GM takes is far, far more offensive than the actual word he obscured.  But perhaps "The Mad Adventure's Society" - whatever the fuck organization that is - has problems with using rude, blue, crass, gutter language.  Perhaps the author actually felt very bad when Carlin died, that one of the greatest comedians of all time was gone.

Sigh.  None of that is the point, so let me shelve it.  I'm in a wrestling match with myself: I want to delete the last two paragraphs and I don't want to . . . what the hell, I'm just going to leave that shit up and move on.

Now, it isn't that a DM shouldn't have standards.  We're playing in a social situation, there are plenty of details to be managed and understood, investment may be quite high, naturally we want everyone on the same page.  It is reasonable to desire players who don't answer 'whatever' when presenting the game and functional decision making is a must.

However, the above (and generally, the article) isn't the way to go about this.

Many times, on this blog, I have railed at a particular individual, discussing what I will politely call a complete and utter failed candidacy as a human presence ever likely to appear at my gaming table.  [See?  That's how a euphemism works].  There are absolutely people who fit into the "why am I hanging out with you people" category.  I do contest the participle, however - it presumes that I've already been hanging out when in fact there isn't a hope in hang-gliding Christ that I am ever, ever, going to hang out with these people.  Even at 17 I had learned to see these people coming long, long before the present participle could be enacted.  The correct participle is, "why would I hang out with you people."  Tense is everything.

When a DM hits the point where they have to start making inflexible, dictatorial decisions about what players must do before starting a game, it shows desperation.  I feel I should point out that in the linked article there, I did describe six behaviours that I found troubling.  I also need to point out, however, that I never did ask new players what they felt about any of those six points, and at any rate I only said I might be interested in their opinion.  In fact, that post did start a lot of discussions around my tables (including the online campaign) which proved to be useful in exactly the sort of compromise on the point that I'm slowly, slug-like, moving this post towards.

Unfortunately, the more inflexible the DM becomes, the less wiggle room there is in the campaign for those things that most enrich the game experience.  While forcing players to come up with acceptable back-stories sounds like a reasonable demand, it fails utterly to examine the value in having a back-story at all.  Backstories themselves are an attempt to give depth and meaning to characters that are typically devoid of player concern - that is, the players don't care about their characters, they go through them like cordwood, and the backstory theory is that giving the character a 'personality' will make them more valuable to the player.

Unfortunately, most players aren't writers, aren't psychoanalysts and don't have the training or the experience to propose (or run) a proper backstory that isn't de facto stolen from some other pre-existing source.  As such, players compelled to invent "less crappy" backstories must dig them up from a graveyard of television, film and literature, mashing them together Frankenstein's monster-like, only to have them turn on their master as a weird self-induced railroading massacre of player agency and satisfaction.  In fact, the backstory becomes a tool the DM is then free to use (it's true, I've done it) to screw the player into choking down a lot of bile or into pissing on said backstory because it has suddenly taken on a life the player never meant it to have.  Backstories are a horrible method for breathing life into a character - but they are embraced through much of the gaming world because no other means of immersion can be found.

That is, supposedly.  Backstories are a corporation answer to a human problem.  I'm quite certain that a group of individuals associated with the sale of the game, hearing that players were quitting the game because they found it repetitive (make a character, die, make a character, die) sat around and decided to expect ordinary individuals to feel more deeply about role-playing by insisting that all of them - every single one - should immediately and decidedly become an expert dramatist.  After all, role-playing is just like acting!  And everyone can act, right?  I mean, it's not like acting, writing characters or inventing stories is hard.  Pfft.  My four-year old son can invent pretend people!

Players then bought into this because . . . reasons.  I don't know, actually.  Sheeple, my daughter would say.  

Here, let's look at this issue from the above author:

"The problem with a PC who has goal like 'find my father’s killer' is that any adventure that doesn’t lead toward that goal is a distraction and ultimately the PC has no reason to take on that job. And when you have five PCs who all have their own single goal, the DM has to make sure that each PC’s goal is intertwined so that every adventure promises some of those stories will advance every single time."

The author then goes on to explain why 'motivations' are much better than 'goals' and he does have a point.  I agree with his assessment regarding the difference between each.

My principle issue, however, is that he seems to presume that - as people - we are limited to one or the other.  Or that we're limited to only one goal or one motivation.  His premise that adventures not specifically about the player's predetermined goal is a distraction makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  Tonight, I went to a hockey game.  I am also preparing for my campaign tomorrow.  Was the hockey game a distraction?  Yes.  Did I therefore have no reason to go to it because it was a distraction?  That's crazy.  We distract ourselves all the time.  We love distraction.  That's because, as human beings, we don't just have a single 'goal' or a single 'motivation' - we have hundreds.  And they are changing all the time.  We discard old motivations and goals and we start new ones.  Sometimes we just get bored with things.  Sometimes a distraction changes our lives and we begin to pursue a totally different courses of action.

Our 'backstory' is not our master.  We grow up, we change our tastes, we imagine that we'd like to get the man who killed our father but then we realize that's pretty silly and in fact against the law.  Or we learn that he was killed in a bar fight in Kitzamaringo, Mexico.  Or we're told by our mother that, in fact, our father was never killed, he just left us as a kid and she was trying to soften the blow.  We get older and we learn things . . . and we set aside our childish ideals and motivations and we let the world teach us something new.

The more the DM tries to insist that our 'motivations' make sense, the less real or purposeful we become.  Trapped in the two-dimensional concept of the backstory (or any other rigid, insisting demands on how we run our characters or how we interact with the world), we're sooner or later reduced to going through the motions - running the character becomes a job, not a recreation.  The solution to this is NOT a better backstory.  It's the elimination of inflexible concepts on how to control behaviour where it comes to an open, imaginative world.

This is the reason why I've left the George Carlin stuff up at the top.  See, Carlin went right to the heart of the matter.  Those words - and the restriction of those words - represent a push-and-pull relationship that most people have with the way the world works.  Each word associates with an action and a feeling about that action that differs from the feeling we ought to have.  It is okay to make love to your wife but it isn't okay to fuck her.  It is okay to poop in the toilet but it isn't okay to shit in it.  And the very idea of making love to your mother - no matter what word you're using to describe that - is just plain wrong.

Because a substantial portion of the world feels that speaking about things in a certain way cheapens those things.  There are people who will feel this is a good post except that it was cheapened by the use of slang.  These people have made an assessment about how the world ought to work (and how our backstories ought to have been prepared by our parents) and in banning certain words - and other things - they hope to impose an inflexible framework on thought.

Except it doesn't work.  It never works.  We think as we think, we don't have any control over that.  I think shit when I see it in the toilet, another person thinks feces, another sees poop.  It isn't planned, it just is.  And chances are, as we get older, we will begin to see shit turn into poop or poop turn into feces - because this is what happens.  We either move towards a certain feeling when we see the world or we move away from it.  I happen to have moved towards a starker, colder, less sympathetic view of my bowel movements.  Others will age and crave a warmer, friendlier, less threatening perception.

Our only chance of mitigating between multiple persons at a gaming table is to discuss, seek places where flexibility can obtain and then compromise.  This can only happen when change is possible and embraced by everyone - in which case, ideals like a backstory must inevitably have a shelf-life.  After all, not only should the characters in the campaign have room to change, the players themselves, moving through their lives and learning as a result of actually living, need room to change also.

It amazes me that a player who invents a backstory at 17 is still expected to play that backstory in exactly the same way when the player is 21.  Do we not see how incomprehensible that is?  Do we not see that players who have started a campaign in their early 20s will probably be looking for something profoundly different from that campaign in their late 20s?  Is there any chance that a DM who acts inflexibly against this reality will almost certainly be stuck with players who are unable to live their own lives, much less participate meaningfully in a campaign.

I know that I'm the only one in the world, in this game, thinking on these things - but that is because, I'm sure, that I am changing all the time.  I think that is a good thing.  Moreover, I anticipate change in everyone else, even if they themselves haven't considered it.  I encourage the reader to recognize that - if you want to play this game with people your own age, all your life and all their lives, then you have to address who they are NOW.  You must live in the present.  You must adapt and coordinate your game thusly.  That means talking.  A lot of talking.

Otherwise, you'll find yourself endlessly introducing new people to your endlessly stale campaign, only to watch them go away when they change themselves out of it.


kimbo said...

I like this. Backstory as inspiration, adventure hook, initial motivation or character texture VS as straightjacket restricting player action. Surely a better way for a continuing character would be to write down what they love/hate/desire/fear/hope etc right now, to provide a set of cues to a DM to potentially use.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

The whole "reject your characters because of a rule I won't tell you" is to my mind no different from the crappy kind of gameplay where the DM has a special secret trigger/password/course of action and won't let anything else work to solve the puzzle, scenario, etc.

I do not know why the quoted blogger is so proud of having magical hidden rules. I won't even touch the fact that these are magical hidden rules for "character backstory"; I think Alexis has said all that needs to be said about that (here and in other posts.)

Doug said...

I remember an old article that had something like 50 questions to help you determine one's character's personality. One was "Describe is your character's favorite meal." An interesting question, especially considering the internet wasn't available for me to understand how medieval cooking was performed, so the question was useless.

For a time, I did buy into it. But it was never satisfying. The past just isn't interesting when you can create it. Choices we make are what provide for an interesting life. I know of DMs who demand a character backstory. Luckily, I don't play with them.

Leland J. Tankersley said...

Having read a lot of The Angry GM's posts, I am comfortably certain that the bit about "crazy-a$&, byzantine, secret rules" is hyperbole. (I'm sure he DOES have rules, and that he enforces them -- and I suppose that if you're not approaching the game from the same place he is, they might seem crazy or byzantine -- but based on other posts of his I'm confident there is a method to his madness.) His writing all has a certain style or voice, including a smug air of superiority; ranting about idiot players (and GMs); use of tortured sports metaphors; intentional conflation of popular genre elements ("Star Trek: The Phantom Menace"); and the use of grawlix -- that's his schtick. I find that he makes a lot of good points, and he has certainly devoted a lot of thought to how to run games. But certainly some may (and do) find his style off-putting. As Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, "If you like that sort of thing, it's the sort of thing you'll like."

Alexis Smolensk said...


While on some level I am prepared to accept that is hyperbole - and I did say in the post that the linked essay wasn't all bad - I do worry that this is the hyperbole that the writer uses when addressing his players.

It is VERY important that DMs present their positions in gaming carefully, reasonably and DELICATELY. It is far, far too easy to be misunderstood and it is poor DMing when someone argues that "I'm just kidding" or some other such lack of responsibility. It is doubly unacceptable when this hyperbole is used in an essay encouraging behaviour from other DMs without the writer ever actually saying, "I'm using hyperbole here."

Whatever his schtick is, his demeanor and draconian choice of language suggests a failure to see the game from a perspective other than his own. I don't find that laudable. I don't remember Abraham Lincoln engaging in any crotch-grabbing hyperbole in stating his demands to the south in that silly war you people had down there. As I remember, Lincoln was highly sensitive and empathic regarding the needs and motivations of the South. I think that your Angry GM ought to change his schtick in order to sound more like an aware, concerned and experienced human being and less like a crotch-grabbing moron at a Nebraska State football game.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Damn, used 'crotch-grabbing' twice there. You know, when words get stuck in your head . . .

Leland J. Tankersley said...

Well, I guess I'd say that if you read more of his stuff, the fact that he's using hyperbole becomes more and more apparent -- obvious, really. And the overall effect (to me, anyway) is really more amusing than confrontational. He's playing the role of the angry blowhard ranting at people, but the way he executes the role (I think) takes a lot of the sting out of it. He ends up denigrating himself just as much, if not more, so I end up laughing both "with him" and "at him" if you follow. And he uses this method to convey a lot of insight. I don't agree with all of his points, but even when I don't I can see where he's coming from and why he feels the way he does. Much like you he has some very strong ideas about how RPGs OUGHT to be run, and about the role of the GM in creating good games -- like you, he's passionate about it. But I can certainly understand if you just came across one of his articles cold, it might make him look like an angry, ranty nut-job. (The article you cite _is_ from a column called "Angry Rants.") Perception of style is subjective.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Being just the sort of person who is so often misunderstood in his anger, I understand your perspective, Leland. I get it. You like him. I appreciate that there are people in the world who like me, despite all my faults.

I was not amused, however.

Leland J. Tankersley said...

People like what they like -- you can't argue with that. I just really wanted to clear up a misinterpretation. It looked like you and maybe Maxwell up above were dismissing his post because of the grawlix or the bit about secret, byzantine rules. It's fine to dislike his style, I just wanted to make clear that it WAS style and not substance.

FWIW, I think you'd probably agree with a lot of his points on running games at the table -- and disagree vehemently with how he approaches designing and structuring his games.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I can definitely argue with that. No one gets a blank cheque. What you're completely failing to grasp here is that your argument is based on a visceral like for the fellow and his presentation - but viscerals don't make a good argument. In fact, they don't make any argument at all. If one looks at exactly what the fellow SAID, stripping it of your need to apologize for the fellow and explain how he's much more reasonable than he appears, then the fellow's argument is unacceptable and abusive. You, Leland, don't make that better by trying to mitigate the statements he makes by explaining that he isn't really irresponsible, he isn't really unreasonable, he isn't really a horrible DM, he just comes off that way because, well, that's his style and he shouldn't be judged just because he happens to have a particular style.

That's just too bad. I do judge him. It does matter that he comes off as an jerk and an asshole and someone I wouldn't want to play with because he encourages - for whatever reason - behaviour that I am just dead set against because it is insensitive, abusive, demeaning and reckless where the management of human beings deserving of respect are concerned.

He plainly doesn't care. He's chosen a pseudonym that proclaims his EMOTION rather than his meaning, promoting his anger while concealing his identity, choosing to posture a toxic persona rather than standing by his words with his real name, as he would rather be a "personality" than a person. He isn't here defending himself, he has apologists like himself to do it for him.

This line of conversation is now over. You've made your point, twice now, please don't make it again. I want to be respectful and all but if the writer's viewpoint and message on the link can't defend itself without your help then it failed, period. Writing has to defend itself.

If he wants to come here and debate the point, that might be interesting. It would be better, Leland, if you used your energy to go to his post and convince him to write better than that you should use it to convince me that I should better like his writing.