Wednesday, May 15, 2019

A Desert Island

"What this means ... is that you don't have to learn the rules about how long your character is stunned, about what you are or aren't allowed to do, while you're in a certain mode, or if you're poisoned by a power-up or whatever the case.  You don't have to learn those rules.  The game knows and keeps track of it for you ~ and you can just test the limits of what you've got.  And if you can do it, it'll allow you to do it."
(compared to rules in traditional games)

Rather than talk more about rules, let's talk about game-play itself.  To elaborate on this, let's say that you and I are playing in a game called "Desert Island."  This is a real life game that begins with fourteen men, with guns, seizing us both, putting us in restraints, flying us to an island in the Pacific and abandoning us there, with not so much as a film crew.  The "rules" are clear.  After an unspecified amount of time, we will either be found and rescued (we may assume the kidnappers plan to tell no one of our existence), or we will die. In most aspects, not a very fun game.

There are many other rules which we are subject to.  We need to eat.  We need to avoid injuring ourselves or each other.  We need to learn everything about our island, so that "being found and rescued" might include putting ourselves off the island and reaching a more inhabited place.  The point is, we have no control over how to change the rules, because the rules are set by nature.

The game-play, then, is the thing.  We have a myriad of possible approaches to the game ~ and a great deal about our approach is going to be caught up with how we approach ourselves within our approach to the game.  How long will it take to emotionally get over our situation?  How long will it take before we trust one another?  How innovative can we be?  Are we going to give up and die in just a few days?  No one can tell.

The game play is entirely, completely, at our discretion.  No matter what the island is, how threatening it is or how weak we are, the situation in no way limits our innovation.  We are always hearing that this or that sort of rule-set "limits" our innovation or encourages it.  This is nonsense.  We limit our innovation.  Either by who we are before the game starts, our approach to the game, our willingness to accept the consequences of our approach and ~ in the end ~ if we're biologically able, through mental or physical prowess, to BE innovative once we're forced to be.

In this game, there are no do-overs, no hard barriers that can be wished past and no hope that something will fudge us out of this.  This is real ... but it is immaterial that this is real.  The only material thing that matters is do you want, and are you capable of, living long enough to be found?

I don't want to get into that aspect.  I want to emphasize that game play, no matter what the game, is always up to us.  This is true whether we're on a desert island or if we're playing Pacman.  Our approach to the rules of the game defines the quality, the level of fun we have, the passion we feel or the innovative behaviour we apply.  If we are not fun people, every game will effectively suck and we will make other people feel that.  If we aren't capable of passion, we will bury everything in a wet blanket.  If we are unable or unwilling to be innovative, we will resist expectations to do so.  If we're the wrong person to be left on a desert island, we will die.  Some, pretty quickly.

It is ridiculous to blame the rules for an attitude problem that affects the way we play.  If you have a player who hasn't got a girlfriend, has trouble making a shower work, grunts at moments that call for empathy, constantly leaves the seat of your toilet up, no matter how many times you tell him not to, never cleans up his garbage, works a job you wouldn't take if it paid double the income you're earning now and so on, don't be surprised that this same person chafes at the rules, hates any moment that turns serious, derails the game, kills NPCs randomly, has to be told the purpose of the quest every session and uses every opportunity to steal from or kill other player characters.  This person is losing at the BIG GAME, the life on a desert island game.  Your game world is just the corner of the player's particular desert island being used as a convenient gong pit.  You should not redesign the rules of your game world, make concessions, fudge the dice, give extra treasure or retcon events in order to make this person "happy."

Though arguably, you're doing it because this is the level of friend that YOU have, and perhaps need, because this is the last apple in the bottom of your barrel.  And what does that say about you?

Let's come back to the quote at the top of the post.

Most of us have played more hours of video games than we have played D&D.  If you're on the Steam platform, you are regularly and uncomfortably reminded how much time this really is.  When you play a computer game, knowing you won't be able to change the rules, and that you don't even have to know the rules, you train yourself to reflexively resist the concept of having to actual learn and memorize rules for a non-video game, particularly if the rules are as extensive as they are in D&D.

Moreover, you've trained yourself to regard any resistance in a game that you can push or press against as a fair way to manage your game experience.  Your "innovation" in a video game consists of testing absolutely everything, until you come to that sweet spot that Ian Danskin mentioned in the video I embedded on my last post.

The desert island will do all sorts of things to kill us.  But it won't stop us from doing something we can find a way of doing, because the island isn't sentient.  It is nature, but it is no more than nature.

The computer game is built in such a way that you can find elements of the system that will let you squeeze out some sort of action that gives you more power than the designer's intended.

But D&D is made so that the thing you push and press against isn't the rules, it's the Dungeon Master.  And if the Dungeon Master is weaker emotionally than you are, or needs you enough as a friend, or has some measure of empathy that you can bend to your will, or can be manipulated in a way that forces a decision between the rule and you're affectation of unhappiness, then the DM because the system that can't stop you from what you're doing.

And the DM is way, way, way easier to compromise than a desert island or a computer game.

I believe that there's an argument to be made that video games are training untold numbers of people to treat the DM as the obstacle and not the DM's setting.  And justifying it under the rubric that it is legitimate to wreck anything that is wreckable.  And in fact, to do so because it is wreckable.  So that every DM who feels at all ashamed or doubtful of their power, or their potential to kill a player, or the conscious fear that a player will disapprove, or a weakness of heart that someone's fun might be compromised by a die roll, that the DM views as a responsibility not wanted, is utterly, completely, mercilessly at the beck and call of the wreckers.  And more to the point, the new D&D has been designed to both incentivize the process and mock any other process.

The game the wreckers are playing is not D&D.  The game being played is how to wreck D&D.

You, as DM, shouldn't be playing with these people.  Not if a game experience really is what you're searching for.  The phrases you're being told, and the rhetoric being hurled against you, isn't about improving game play; it's about circumventing it.  And that's not the game.

Your vulnerability to that rhetoric is the key to your game.  As a DM, you are charged with obeying the rules, carrying forward the rules, defending the rules and enforcing the rules.

If you doubt your resolve or responsibility to do this, then you shouldn't be DMing.

If your responsibility to take a hard line on the rules makes you feel uncomfortable and ashamed, then you shouldn't be DMing.

If you're willing to compromise your role, to sacrifice it, because you're unwilling to let a player dislike you for even a few minutes, because you desperately need to be liked, or can't stand not being liked, then you shouldn't be DMing.

If you see it as your job to carry the emotional baggage of other players, to ensure they have fun, instead of trusting them to take that responsibility onto themselves; or if you're prepared to innovate for them because they're unable to do so; or if you're going to empower them because you feel they can't do it without you; or if you're unable to make them accept the consequences of their actions, because YOU can't bear the consequences for their actions, then you shouldn't be DMing.

If you're willing to break a rule, so that others won't be held to the standard of the rules, then you shouldn't be DMing.

If you can't be a desert island, then I don't want to be trapped on you.


JB said...

I am having a little difficulty formulating my comment in a coherent fashion, but I'm going to try taking a stab at it anyway:

There is, I guess, another "issue" (for lack of a better word) that also arises at the D&D table that doesn't have anything to do with players being natural (or trained) "wreckers" but, again, is due to the fact that they are gaming with a human being (i.e. the DM) rather than a computer or a desert island. A computer or desert island is absolutely, utterly IMPERSONAL...we may rail at it while playing a game ("Oh, you blankety-blank!" or "Damn you, God! Why are you throwing a storm at me along with everything else!") but we know, not-very-deep down, that the challenges being thrown against us are not "personal" in nature...the computer game kills our avatar and there's no need for it to say, "sorry, nothing personal, them's just the rules" because it's a fucking computer, and we don't expect a computer to be doing anything other than running a program.

A DM is NOT a computer. He/She may put on a blank face and give every appearance if impartiality, but we know (again, not-very-deep down) that this is a flesh-and-blood human being sitting before us. Not a robot. And we know just how personal and partial and fallible humans can be, as we ourselves ARE humans, too...and we see reflections of ourselves in others. And we can't know for certain that this person isn't going to screw us (or is already, in fact, screwing us) at any given moment, on a whimsy, when SO MUCH OF THE GAME is coming directly out of the DM's head.

I'm not talking about the rules; I'm talking about the game play as created and presented in the form of situation/scenario by the DM.

Placing trust in another person's authority, in their ability to be not just an impartial arbiter of the rules, but a neutral presenter/facilitator of "game" is a damn tall order. Writing this, I wonder how much of my proclivity to act as DM is due to my lack of trust in others' abilities to "do it right;" I know that *I* will strive to DM in a certain way that I find "correct" but how can I know others will? And when I make mistakes at the table (as we all do at times), how can the players trust it is an "honest" mistake and not just me shafting them or fudging something or otherwise being arbitrary and capricious? How long till they start to question my authority and start to push back against what they see as a "rigged game?" Maybe not the first time, but there's a finite limit that depends on each player's nature.

This is an issue that has to be accounted for and cannot simply be "ruled away;" it is always there, inherent in the game because of the manner in which the game is expressed. D&D is played with a human Dungeon Master. Computers are stable and consistent, even with regard to their flaws. Nature is outside of our full understanding and control and we (generally) accept that. A card game or board game has limits and boundaries set by its physical pieces. But human DMs, creating and applying meaning, color, narration right from their imagination? There's always going to be some degree of "push" against that. Regardless of how much (or how little) someone cares about "wanting to be liked."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Then I will amend my statement.

If you can't try very, very hard to be a desert island, then I don't want to be trapped on you.

JB said...

: )

Zilifant said...

Brilliant post, Alexis. I have a couple of avid video-gamers in one of my gaming groups and you've articulated some of the challenges and frustrations I struggle with at times when playing with (and DMing) them. I know they're not doing the things they do to intentionally try and disrupt the game, but it's clear that the world of video games has taught them a very different style of playing. One of the folks in my group recently began trying his hand at DMing, and I see these same characteristics carried over to the way he DMs as well.