Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Excuse Culture

"And here came Wellard onto the quarter deck.  'Reporting for duty, sir,' he said.
"The boy's face was white, set in a strange rigidity.  And [Lieutenant] Bush, looking keenly at him, saw that there was a hint of moisture in his eyes.  He was walking stiffly, too, holding himself inflexibly.  Pride might be holding back his shoulders and holding up his head, but there was some other reason for his not bending at the hips.
" 'Very good, Mr. Wellard," said Bush.  He remembered those knots on Booth's cane.  He'd known injustice, often enough.  Not only boys, but grown men were beaten without cause on occasions.  And Bush had nodded sagely when it happened.  Thinking that contact with injustice in a world that was essentially unjust was part of everyone's education.  And grown men smiled to each other when boys were beaten, agreeing that it did all parties good.  Boys had been beaten since history began, and it would be a bad day if ever, inconceivably, boys should cease to be beaten.  This was all very true, and yet in spite of it, Bush felt sorry for Wellard."
C.S. Forester, Lieutenant Hornblower, pub. 1952

In the above passage, Forester is describing events aboard Her Majesty's Ship Renown, circa 1800, during the first phase of the Napoleanic Wars.  It is an inconceivable passage to be reading in this day and age ~ though I do remember being in school when the strap was still a real possibility and was in fact used on others, but not me.  So I have perhaps a different perspective than later readers.

I don't advocate the strap ~ but I do think that an immersion in icy water of brutal reality is an essential part of a person's education.  In the case above, the "boy" is a midshipman, with very serious responsibilities aboard a ship, the duty of which might have meant the death of a sailor if not carried out correctly ~ and yet in the British Navy of the time, a midshipman could have been as young as 12.  That is truly out of our conceptions, now ~ as is the discipline that was needed to master these ships upon a dangerous and truly obscure open sea, where death was common.  Our soft sensibilities of the present age would make no sense under such circumstances ... and it does us well to remember that we have the luxury to assauge our sensibilities because of the time we dwell in.

I heard the passage yesterday on the audiobook linked, and wanted to fit it into a blog post immediately.  I've been rather enjoying listening to Forester's Hornblower character recently, having never had the opportunity of reading them as a boy ~ though I did read other things written by Forester as early as elementary school.  As books, I'd recommend them; the whole series, starting with Midshipman Hornblower, appears to be on youtube at present.

Earlier today in a comment, JB answered my postulation that there were good DMs and "everyone else."  JB wanted me to be sure I understood that some not-good DMs deserved to be noted as, "getting better."

Well, sure.  Of course.  Good DMs get better also.  But merely wanting to get better, or trying to get better, but not yet being "good," does not in itself earn respect.  Which again, is part of the excuse culture we live in.  Too often, people feel that trying to get the brass ring, or nearly getting it, deserves all the plaudits and rewards of actually getting it.  And this is so pervasive in our culture that many such persons receive those plaudits because, hey, it really sucks to try and fail.  All of which leaves the chum with the actual brass ring in hand asking, "Hey, I actually got the thing.  What gives?"

This is a shortcoming of empathy.  I consider empathy to be a daily necessity, for myself and others, and many's a time I've reproached someone who refused to give it to a co-worker or a friend.  Empathy can build support and the resolve in others to succeed, but it can't bestow that success.  We do no one a favour when we tell them, "Sure you failed, but at least you tried, and that makes you a good person."  Nonsense.  If we want to do someone a favour, we tell them, "Okay, you failed.  Let's figure out a strategy that will help you succeed."

As a teacher, I don't have to worry about students who want to be a good DM and haven't done it yet.  If they want it, they'll get it.  They don't need to be patted on the head until they get it.  And those that will make the best DMs don't want to be patted on the head, because they know that's just a fucking sham.  Give me my sheepskin when I've earned it, thank you.  Stuff your participation ribbon up your ass.

Those who want special consideration because they're "trying" won't ever be a good DM.  They're not in it for the effort or the success, they're in it for the status.  They want to call themselves DMs because the title makes them feel special ~ and they want others to fall in line recognizing how special they are.

Every officer aboard an H.M.S. navy ship knew the cane from both ends.  The cane is a metaphor for the unjust world.  No one likes the unjust world.  But those who focus on the unjust world, who treat every misery of their day with a need to be mollified by that misery, who need to make victories out of attempts and expertise out of half-hearted effort are sad, sad creatures, who don't deserve notice.  We make our way despite the injustice, despite the cane, despite the hurt and the abuse. We hold up our chins and hold back our shoulders, whatever the pain, bearing it for the sake of ourselves.  We don't dwell on what's happened, we dwell on what we're going to do now.  We pick up our feet and become good DMs.

We don't waste time approving ourselves, or asking for approval.  We're busy working.  We're flogging ourselves.


JB said...

"The beatings will continue until morale improves."

(from the t-shirt in a souvenir ship on the Seattle waterfront)

I had to read this post a couple times to grok the full import, because I kept wanting to say, "Yes but they're TRYING, don't you see?" But I get it (and you addressed it)...we're unconcerned with those folks. Right now, they're not yet in the "good DM" camp (and for the record, I'm happy to consider myself "competent," maybe "proficient," and working on my craft rather than outright "good"). So they're not. And they'll either get there (by working at it) or they won't.

Thank goodness D&D isn't the life-and-death challenge that the Age of Sail was.
; )

I'll be honest, Alexis: when I read (and responded to) your last post, I didn't bother to actually read the link to Venger's post. I had completely forgotten reading this previously (and my subsequent off-the-cuff response), until I actually decided to follow the link. And my reaction to Venger's post *was* off-the-cuff, with very little thoughtfulness. Shit, the timestamp for my comment was 3:34am...hardly the time for much serious, coherent reasoning.

Regarding said post (and the point of contention you have with Ruprecht's charactacterization of your DMing style): do you think it's fair to distinguish between one's approach to preparation for The Game (as relates to world-building, rules tweaking, etc.) and preparation for the game session? It seems to me that a person can be meticulous in her prep for a gathering (putting together notes, rehearsing, writing out expository text, memorizing company-published encounters, etc.) while spending little time on the nuts-and-bolts of world building and rule analysis, while another person can be meticulous on the other end and still run a largely improvised game at the time. At the risk of me mischaracterizing poor ol' Ruprecht (I can't help but picture the character from Blackadder), it feels like he might have been equating game prep (world building, etc.) with "table style" (for lack of a better phrase). My question is: do YOU think these things are separate entities, or do you find them somehow linked to each other?

"How to Run" discusses table style at length, but it's hardly the meat of the book. Yes, you have tips on how to "run" a game session, but much of the text is on how to run a campaign, a world that will inspire both players and DM. I think different DMs place different emphasis on these arenas and yet still are able to obtain "good" results (though, sure, the definition of good is debatable, especially when comparing quality, consistency, and longevity of play between DMs/campaigns).

Do you think it's a question worth pursuing? I realize you have had a lot of success over the years with your own methods. I imagine there are others with different methods who would call themselves successful as well. Clearly you cannot be a DM for every eager player in the world, but you are promoting constructive discourse on the subject which (like you) I believe to be a worthwhile pursuit. Is it helpful to compare styles of running and preparation as regards world development (not just session prep)? Or is this just flogging a

Alexis Smolensk said...


I don't think any "style" of play can be safely ignored by anyone who wants to be a good DM. Most DMs do need a lot of preparation; I certainly did for my first 20 years. DMs also need to do things on the fly, by the seat of their pants, because something can go wrong. DMs need to dig into a toolbag and come up with anything they can use or find. They shouldn't argue that they're "not that kind of DM." Why not? Why limit ourselves? If we're good improvisers, or preparers, doesn't it follow that we'd be even better if we gained a new skill to compliment that?

My issue is with the DM who argues, "I'm such-and-such, I don't NEED to do [whatever]." Okay, sure, you don't need to; but why in blazes don't you want to?

Whatever the profession, we don't encourage careerists to "do their thing." We force them to crosstrain, even if they don't like it, because we know that by crosstraining they'll gain new skills, new insight, a better grasp of the larger picture, an overall appreciation for the work that others can do ~ and there's always that chance of learning that Dave or Greg are fantastically better suited to do this other thing!

If we were sorting out DMs to figure out what Molly does and what Meg does, so that we could teach Molly and Meg to shift their perceptions, I'd be all for it. But what we do is write post after post that shoves Molly or Meg into different boxes, throw up our hands and say, "Heck, whatcha gonna do? There are all kinds of DMs."

Bull-puckey. It's a blanket excuse for not crosstraining, not improving, not getting off the collective fat ass of the DMing community and learning to provide a better game experience. That is my issue.