Monday, June 19, 2017

Strategies of the Lost

Of late, in the hope of finding ideas to make jokes about (and I've found a few), I have been watching advice videos for role-playing, principally D&D.  I did this back in 2014, before writing How to Run, but as it seems to happen, the world has changed since then.

Just three years ago, the mainstream content that existed could be described as ineffectual; scattered, cliched phrases that would help little in a campaign setting, generally in a light-weight format that "promised" to give the sense of what game play could be in the space of an essay that wouldn't have met the guidelines for a first-year university paper.

That has changed.  On the whole, the discourse has moved almost entirely to vlogs; and these vlogs are . . . well, mostly unwatchable.

The gentle reader may have noticed in the last few months that a favorite word that keeps making its way onto this blog is "toxic."  I stumbled across the word in relationship to "toxic masculinity" sometime late last fall and I don't seem to be able to let it go.  It seems like such a good, descriptive, stabbing word that I am certainly in danger of overusing it.  Yet it so perfectly describes a certain motive that I am witnessing more and more: the desire not just to be arrogant, but to be deliberately poisonous, harmful or consciously malevolent in the giving of advice to people interested in role-playing ~ and, indeed, anything else.

The motive has come out of video game play and, around the time of gamer-gate (remember that one?), began it's virulent spread into every human activity [as it happens, "virulent" is also a synonym of toxic, thus my adoration of the word].  Those of us who still have a sense of proportion will have noticed that, beginning around late 2014, there has been an increase in the level of hysteria in describing anything one might name.  Not that I think this has reached a fever pitch, by any means: we can go a LOT further with hysteria than we already have . . . but it is not a surprise to me that people are beginning to pull away from social media on account of it.

Yes, yes, I know that you haven't, you're reading this blog.  But it's undeniable that there are rumblings, even if anti-posts about facebook, instagram or twitter say predictable things about the decline and fall of these monoliths.  Please take note that I'm quoting Forbes, Locowise and the Guardian, three platforms that all have something to gain from a) the demise of social media and b) any suspicion on the part of the public that social media is declining.  So please take this argument with a grain of salt.

It certainly isn't the heady days of social media; my experience begins with dalnet and icq, but even I can remember a more recent time when chatrooms were full and sending a message to a group community had merit.  It isn't that there is something wrong with social media ~ rather, it is just that it becomes boring faster than it can resustain itself with young teenagers who haven't had a chance to get bored yet.  And teenagers are bored.  [sorry, this one was USA Today, a thoroughly unreliable source, so please give it no merit].

I wasn't planning on getting into a general discussion about social media, though.  I just got pulled in, as this seems to be a common topic of late among my peers.  They're dissatisfied with it, it costs too much money, they're not meeting sexual partners through it any more, they hate that they're paying for it for their kids, go on and name it.  I can remember that social media seemed to make some people happy and now it just seems to make people feel hollow and unfulfilled.

As far as those who would give advice about D&D [and no, I'm not linking them, hopefully by next year the links will all be dead anyway], most seem to have an agenda that would destroy any vestige left of the game.  Like the fellow I quoted lately who would have every DM fudge and cheat their way through campaigns, to those barking ceaselessly that rules are a waste of time or worse, or the strange ideology that all the responsibility must be dumped on the players, or that saying "no" to players is somehow controlling their characters, so we must always say "yes," etcetera, etcetera.

Some of this, when I watch it, falls into the "understandable" category.  Someone has stumbled across the principle of improv, that argues it is important to always say "yes" to make an improvisational scene unfold effectively.  They look at their own game and think, "Aha!  My game has always worked better when I let the players act freely!"  Immediately they argue, "Always say yes - if you say no, you're destroying participation."  And an ideology is born.

All of these ideologies, however, both the very bad and the almost-trying, fail in one primary regard:  they insist on humans being predictable and, worse, simplistically predictable.  There are all kinds of psychological reasons why it is easier to say "yes" rather than "no."  Role-playing is not theatre improvisation, though it bears some similarities.  A "good game" cannot be boiled down to any de facto truth because humans themselves cannot be counted on to behave consistently in all situations.

DMs have to be flexible, yes.  But flexibility isn't always saying yes.  It isn't cheating on the dice.  It isn't presuming the game must be carried by the players.  Or any other single notion that is carped upon and bombasted for a fifteen-minute vlog.  "Flexibility" means there are no truths except that there are no truths.  The solution isn't to always say yes.  The solution is to say yes when it is appropriate and to otherwise say no.

We're arguing about the wrong things.  We're arguing what we should do, not WHEN we should do it.  Take virtually any of the advice you've heard in the last three years: all of it, I promise, potentially has merit in a given circumstance.  To prove it, I'll argue the right circumstance for the freaking toxic fudging argument:

I'm running a one-shot campaign and it is the end of the night.  I'm at a Fan Expo and I'm never going to see any of these people again, or certainly not until next year, at which time they'll probably be at some other table.  The fighter makes a last roll to hit the monster, three minutes before the session will end, by mandate of the organizers.  And she misses by 1 pip on the die.

Will I say she hit?  Hell yes.  Will I drop the number of hit points the monster has in my head so that she kills it with that last blow?  Sure.  Why not?  What difference would that make?  I'm not investing in these players.  There's no chance that they'll be able to redress the situation later, something I would count of if it were a regular campaign.  So yes, I would fudge.

Does this make fudging a good thing?  No, it doesn't.  But like a human, I can admit to a specific place and time when the traditional rules don't apply.  I come from a western tradition where the law is structured in a way that permits contradictions to normal, accepted behaviour.

However, the contradictions themselves cannot be allowed to become accepted, else all turns to shit and the game is lost.  I can guess why the game is turning in this direction, however.

People are desperate.  Even those who have been playing for 20 years just don't get it.  They've been playing and playing and they still don't know why some of what they do works and why some of it really, really doesn't.  And like humans, they're casting around for some kind of explanation, something that is simple enough to be explainable to people who are themselves wallowing.

And, of course, all this advice misses.  Because something happens in a game, a DM says "yes" when "no" was the right answer, the game devolves into a screaming match and of course no one can explain why.

We need to stop thinking about the game in terms of philosophy and start thinking of it in terms of precedent and problem solving.  A player says they're going to do something.  What you do isn't based on what you believe or what's right or what has worked in the past.  What you do has to be based on one thing:  what answer, in this precise situation, will produce the best possible effect?

You know, like you try to do all the time, as a human being, with your family, your friends, your job or your self.  D&D is just a different situation ~ but the rules are the same.


Stan Polson said...

Cosigned on all of this. All of it.

Ozymandias said...

I've been doing some of the same, trying to get a feel for what people are talking about. Generally, I'm seeing the same BS from one vlogger to another. Some, like this guy, come across as... well, friendly. Nice. I mean, if I met him in person I'd probably agree to play in his game. Still, near as I can tell, he holds to certain conventions and standards that I reject. I don't think he's a toxic DM but...