Friday, May 20, 2016


Those people at reddit are crazy.

Yesterday a fellow posted a link to my DM Tutorial page on reddit, unquestionably to help me.  Back in 2014, I tried the same thing myself, believing that it might be a good way to promote myself and my book - only to discover that a great many people who regularly contribute to reddit are . . . well, let's just say exceptional.

I think my favorite comment was the fellow who wrote,

"IMO any DM who thinks campaigns can be derailed is a bad DM."

There must be something inherent in human biology that compels this sort of absolutism.  This, therefore that.  On one level it is an ad hominem attack, which redirects the subject by attacking the character, motive or other attribute of the person (in this case, the DM's ability).

On a completely different level it results from the participant having adopted a false dilemma as the way in which things are measured: there are only two possible ways to view any statement or belief: that the person who believes this is a totally bad person or a totally good person.

Obviously, it's not the sort of message I embrace.  There is an excellent book on this subject, An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

Look!  Someone used the word 'derailed' in a discussion
about role-playing: they must be referring to sandbox
vs. railroading.

The hardest thing to realize about 'arguments' is that most statements that human make - including most of the statements I make - are not remotely arguments at all.  They're opinions, largely based on emotional responses expressed in words . . . and as such, they have as much application to problem solving as "This ice cream tastes good."  While difficult to dispute, it is largely irrelevant to how we are going to make this particular apparatus work.

In response, there are plenty who will 'argue' from their premise that since the ice cream really does taste good, this is essentially "accurate" - and being accurate, it cannot be dismissed but must be taken into account.  Unfortunately, the assertion that something is accurate does not make it accurate.  Arguments are not based upon apparent statements of accuracy, but upon validation.  You say the ice cream tastes good.  I have no way of confirming that it does.  You may be lying.  You may have no reference for what 'good' is.  You may have been conditioned as a young boy to make positive associations with ice cream that now compels you to register ice cream as good even though essentially you're so used to the actual taste that your hormonal response is "meh."  None of which matters, because I cannot taste with your mouth and therefore I have no means of validating it's accuracy.  This explodes the 'argument' by positively defining it as not an argument.

That is largely lost on most people.  Where I make statements on this blog regarding the value of, say, the practicality of sandboxing over railroading, I am for the most part proposing a very poor argument.  I can try to give my statements clarity and scope.  I can point out similarities between my statements and other situations that the reader will probably agree with.  I can pull several examples and attempt to build a syllogism out of them.  Chances are, however, that I will not persuade the reader because I cannot positively validate my argument by any provable means.  This means that, except where I am citing verified evidence (the heart pumps blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, enabling us to function biologically), I'm only speaking opinion.

I realized several centuries ago never to expect to change someone's mind on a dime.  At best, we can make an argument so passionate that the listener will remember the discussion - which is the biggest victory one can hope for.  Then, at some future point, the listener will be living their ordinary life and, without warning, find themselves faced with a personal experience that validates that argument that they still remember.  My whole life, since long before the internet (since before home computers became a 'thing'), has been people coming up to me months later and saying, "You remember that time we talked about such-and-such?  Well, I get it now!"

If you read something on this blog that you agree with as you read it, that's because you already have that validation in your mind.  Chances are, you have already validated that thing, long past, by whatever standard you use to believe things.

Not to disparage the reader, but for a writer seeking to make a change in the room, this is low hanging fruit.  I appreciate that I have people who agree with me and all, but given that there are hundreds of thousands of people reading the internet who are also into D&D, that was inevitable.  I measure my success as a writer by those whose minds I can change - and those that I value most of all are those who are willing and able to change my mind.  I'm not looking for people who can validate what I write to make me feel better.  That is a matter of complete indifference for me.  I'm looking for people who can validate for me where I'm wrong.

For most making arguments on the internet, the low-hanging fruit is all they need to validate themselves and no one else.  This is easiest when everything in their world fits the black-and-white model, and it's best when the dividing line is so close to the middle that the answer will never, ever be resolved (at least, not in their lifetime).  They write something about the Oxford comma and instantly they command half the English speakers of the world as their allies.  They write something about guns, about religion, about republicans vs. democrats and in minutes they feel part of the grand human experiment, exactly as their distant ancestors felt all heaped together for warmth.

It doesn't get better than this.  I'm that one on the left thinking, "Fuck
warmth.  What are those hulking, apparently harmless things?"

If something isn't black-and-white, they'll make it so.  That makes it comprehensible and, in response, tells them instantly which side they're meant to stand on.  "I'm against anti-derailing observations; vote Proposition 907 come November."

These same people have a view of Education that must fit their model.  A teacher tells the student the answer and the student remembers it; when the answer is asked for, the student provides it.  This is education.

There are no 'answers,' not as this philosophy understands them.  What we have is opinion and a seeking for validation.  A student comes to me who expresses difficulty in controlling their group.  I offer some possible explanations, dredged up from my experience.  The student answers that maybe A. might be true, B. definitely isn't, C. has some merit but this part of the explanation doesn't fit and so on.  In response, once again from my experience, I fine-tune the parts of explanation C. that more likely fit this specific case . . . and step by step, we look together for a potential set of circumstances that are contributing to the general problem.

In this conversation, as the teacher I bring insight and a lifetime spent running and designing the game.  Students bring personal evidence and judgment that they've gained in actually meeting the player-participants.  I'm not emotionally involved so I bring dispassion and perspective.  Students are deeply emotionally involved so they bring their instincts that serve to detect or discard the validity of what they hear.  This symbiosis between mentor and disciple has been used for millennia to determine the probable issue that is to be solved and then to work together to compose a strategy for solving that issue.  The validation of the teaching is not the "answer," but the validation of the strategy: Did it improve the situation?

The market value of my teaching is based upon one simple reality:  if a DM seeks out everyday people in their community for insight, experience, dispassion and perspective, do they find it?  If they find it, I have nothing to sell.  If they can't obtain this, they must needs seek someone who has it and willingly meet that price.

But of course there will be a vast number of persons who are utterly, implacably convinced that no problem exists, no problem can exist, those that believe a problem can exist must be deluded and so on.  Because that belief validates them.

There's nothing I can offer to these people because they need for nothing.


Hare said...

If many (most?) posters on rpg forums are to be believed, DMs should generally avoid attempts to improve their game. Never stated in the way I just did, just cloaked in the magical phrase "As long as everyone's having fun, what's the problem?". This is at best begging the question: "How can I improve my game?" "It doesn't need improvement!" At its worst it's willful blindness. I can't count the number of times this phrase has been trotted out when someone is clearly unhappy with the way things are going in their game and are asking for solutions. The most egregious example was a comment on a Youtube video I saw. The whole video was an explanation of why the poster didn't enjoy the game. One of the comments congratulated the DM for running a fun game for everyone. In addition to the laziness you decry on this blog, there are probably a lot of social reasons for this aversion to challenging or being challenged.

I suppose I'm just beating the drum on one of your recurring themes on this blog at the risk of being off topic. But I bet a lot of the lazy rhetoric in the exchanges you describe is related to what I'm getting at above.

Hare said...

Perhaps more concisely: The black and white thinking provides a perfect border between "fun" and "unfun", and the assumption that one already knows in exactly what category something falls.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nothing wrong with banging a drum, Hare. We bang the drum when we want to call the troops forward to battle.

Have a look at today's post: The Hadron Collider of D&D. I wrote it while you were writing your comment, upon the same theme.

That assumption, I think, is a very fine assessment on your part. How many movies, how many books, how much food, how many relationships and so on do people turn down because they won't like it, only to find that they're instincts misled them. You're right that this involves a huge social dissonance that applies to much more than role-playing. I would argue, however, that it is worse in this particularly back-water culture because, unlike many of the other facets of human culture, there are virtually no upstanding persons in RPGs with the clout and respect to stand up to this tiresome nonsense. Virtually everyone who climbs aboard the RPG train does it to vouchsafe the norm, since the norm promises quick notoriety and instant approval.

Alexis Smolensk said...

they're = their. This is why I have an editor.

Hare said...

I found that the time I spent reading the forums had a negative effect on me when I finally started my fledgling campaign. Not because I bought into the mentality, but because I felt the urge to defend my game unnecessarily. Why? Because the chance of character death is high and real, and PC death falls deep into "unfun" territory according to forum think. My friends observed that I was overthinking it. (First time DM jitters.) What I was missing:

1) Forum posters probably aren't representative of the entire playing population.

2) My friends trust me as a person so they trust me as a DM. No need to explain that I'm not out to get them.

3) They've barely played at all, so they have no safety net campaign to compare it to.

Amusingly, when I was told I was a fair DM, I thought it meant "between good and poor". I was happy to realize it was meant in the sense of a fair referee.

I am reminded of another oft discussed problem: "How do I stop players from impulsively taking actions that will get the characters killed?" Actually allowing PCs to die is off the table, as it's not "good for the story." Usually the DM gets frustrated by the third foolish incident and faces the prospect of reversing the precedent established by saving them in the past. If you see the big picture, intervening the first time is the dick move, unless you plan on doing it every time.

Hare said...

Quick addendum: The mentality I describe does allow for character death if the player does something "really stupid". As if the standard for "really stupid" will be the same for everybody. The DM finding something really stupid when the player doesn't: What could possibly go wrong?

Alexis Smolensk said...


Regarding forum posters and people on the internet in general: this is why the Toronto Expo in 2014 was such an eye opener for me:

I hadn't talked to the public eye except for D&D clubhouses and so it had been more than a decade since I'd talked to an ordinary, everyday offline DM. Wow. A thousand times more like you. Met one person among hundreds in Toronto, and again one person among hundreds in Edmonton last year, who breathed anything like the air one finds on the internet.

I can write a post about not letting players get themselves killed. Strangely, the argument I'd make is the same as that generally made surrounding criminal punishment. That there are three strategies: 1) put the player in the position where they can explain their action rather than just taking it, to understand the player's mindset; 2) work hard to give the player's action as much reasonable latitude as possible - that is, err on the player's side; and 3) come down hard on the player after the character's death by making the player wait until every other business at the table is finished before the player is allowed to roll another player character.

Most important of all: NEVER, EVER, let a player roll a character in solitude. Make every other player at your table watch the creation of every character that they will ever make, so that every player at your table is PART of the proceeding. This will make every character of value to every player. If there is one thing that I do at my table that is more important than anything else, it is this one, solitary rule. Characters are made AS A GROUP. With me over the player's shoulder, standing and watching every roll, like a kindly Mentor looking down from upon high, so that the process of character creation is RITUALIZED and never treated as casual.

No one in my world ever rolls a die in the game that I don't give my approval of first - and that includes character creation dice.

Hare said...

Re: The internet: I shouldn't leave out that we naturally remember the horror stories more than the other content.

I was envisioning more clear cut cases, but I certainly would rule on the side of the player in ambiguous situations.

The example I had in mind was attacking a horde of 30 enemies the moment you see them. (Not a fictional example.) Your strategy #1 might be met with "Because it's awesome!", "Because it's D and D and that's what you do!" or "My character is rash and foolish so it's role playing!". So just radically expectations. "Fail forward" is the go to technique for this, even when it flatly overrides the game rules or the established game world.

How often do you see this in players new to your campaign? It's obvious from your blog that player enjoyment is paramount in your game, but also that you aren't going to change the nature of your game to please everyone.

RE: Chargen in a group. When I was running for my relatives during the holidays, we rolled characters separately from each other and the session. I thought this would save time, but it turns out players really like to see what happens in a group(Especially when using 3d6 down the line). "I can't read!" actually ends up being kind of cool in that context. Fortunately I ask players for suggestions after the session, which I think is an excellent practice for new DMs.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, but you see Hare, it isn't important that you get reasonable answers. You're not asking to make a point and you should have a tone in your voice that suggests you're expecting a right answer. What matters here is that you LISTEN to them, that you make it very clear that you were ready to LISTEN.

So if they fail forward, you were straight up with them and "fair," just as you want to be.

I don't see it often in my game. I have long term players that are very supportive of newcomers because I don't enable any sort of abuse at my tables (and that includes snark, mockery, teasing or any other subtle passive aggressive habits).

When I get a player who wants to commit suicide and it is patently suicide, I let them know, first, speaking thusly (using your example):

"You can see about thirty enemy with sword and spear. As you run in to attack them full out, we'll roll initiative. If they win, they'll throw 30 spears at you. If you win, you'll get a chance to attack one of them and then it will be their turn and the rest will throw 29 spears at you. Since you can see this is obviously what's going to happen just at the moment that you've decided to rush forward, I'll ask, Are you sure you don't want to stop yourself before it's too late?"

And I've had people who have said, "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!!! I ATTACK!!!"

So I've played it out exactly as I've said, thinking it would be nice if this guy got really, really lucky and lived long enough for the party to save him. When he doesn't, the madman sits out the game for the next three hours as the party moves tactically forward, kills the 30 enemy, divides their treasure, sorts out what they're carrying, makes up their mind about what to do next . . . and then I say, "Do you want to roll up another character?"

No one has to say anything. Guys like this (and it's always a guy) either don't come back or they realize it's more fun to be cautious than to sit and wait three hours.

I make it very, very, very, very clear to players that their character "rashness" or "silliness" or "bravery" doesn't cut ice with me or with my game. We do business in steel, friend. Not excuses.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hare said...

So just radically *different* expectations.