Monday, January 27, 2014

The Day is Coming

I want some room to answer this comment from the last post, from Andrej. Andrej plays in my online campaign:

"Yet people can get together and play chess or cards intently and people can get together to rehearse and act out a play or musical performance together intently. What is it about RPG's, that enjoy some aspects the above those stated activities, that makes it harder. Do even the better run games just accept that RPG's are less serious stuff? Is it something else?"

People who play chess and bridge do so for the pure tactical elements of the game. Chess players, in my experience, tend to be anti-social in general when they're not playing, and the game does not demand they be social. Bridge players, on the other hand, tend to be VERY social when they're not playing ... social to the point where they don't need to bond and interact and be friendly because much of the rest of their lives consists of that; bridge is a rest away from chatter.

Actors performing in a play reherse seriously because they know the day is coming that the will have to stand in front of strangers and be judged. When someone at a rehearsal is less than serious, who clowns around too much, the director is there to stomp them, and the other actors will tacitly support the director out of the fear they have that come opening night, they'll look like idiots. If you go to an opening night and the play is bad, it is usually because a) the actors were not serious; or b) the director wasn't willing to stomp hard. A fellow I knew back in the 90s, who directed several plays and a couple of films, ultimately realized that he had to be willing to throw people off the set or out of the performance for nothing more than not showing up to rehearsal. He had tried to be understanding for years, and it just meant that the serious people couldn't rehearse because the non-serious people weren't there. Answer? Fire all non-serious people. No matter how much they cry, how much they whine, what excuses they have, etc. By the time I'd attended my last experience with this director, 12 years after his first getting his feet wet, his speech included the statement, "If your mother dies, and you are giving the Eulogy at her funeral, and you don't tell them to reschedule the funeral because it conflicts with this rehersal, you will not be in this play. If you are less than dead, and you do not wheel yourself in your wheelchair to a rehearsal, you will not be in this play. Get a friend to pick you up, get a gurney, do your fucking lines laying on your back staring at the ceiling - if you're not willing to do that, you will not be in this play."

These are the standards to which I conformed when I used to perform. These are the standards that all good performance companies meet. Just talk to a couple of ballet artists about the damage they do to their feet.

RPGers do not submit to this type of treatment, or these standards, because they DO NOT CARE THIS MUCH. It is that simple. The chess players I have known, and I have known many because I used to moonlight at a coffeehouse/bookstore that at the time was the center for chess in a city of a million people, live for the game. They work at their jobs so that they can feed themselves and have a home so they won't be interrupted in their desire to play. They will play with you, but they don't give a shit who you are, how much money you have, what you do for a living, if you're married, if you're educated, if you have children or if you're psychopathic. They definitely won't give a shit about you if you CAN'T PLAY. If you prove you can play, if you can make them sweat before they beat you, if you are good enough that you can win half the time, they will pronounce you a worthy human being who has the right to share their air. Everyone else is shit.

Bridge players are friendlier. They'll chat about the hands, they'll give advice, they'll make a comment or two about the outside world while they're shifting their hands, and often the dummy will mutter on about a story, usually to the player on the bidder's right. But there is some terrifically subtle etiquette in it all and if you underbid or overbid too frequently, if you get a reputation for it, players will speak of you snottily behind your back, rating you on the same level as homeless persons or wifebeaters. You may be allowed to play, but it will become quite clear that you will not be wanted, and this is a decision that will be remembered all the rest of their life and all the rest of your life. It won't be, "Nice enough, but she can't play." It will be, "Oh my god, don't mention her."

Why? Because these players don't care about people. They may give lip service to it, but at the core they are haughty, superior, judgemental and unforgiving ... and they care FAR, FAR more about the game than they do about people.

But then, both games, bridge and chess, have absolutes. There is an absolute win. There is an absolute lose. This makes it far easier to establish one's credentials, or to be rated, on ability. RPG's don't have anything as clear-cut as that.

Too, they've both had time, literally centuries, to establish social perameters about play. Both games can be played for money, but usually aren't, unlike poker or other assorted games that are tainted by the presence of people who either have problems with money or who ultimately are willing to cheat for money. People cheat at bridge or chess, but they do it for prestige ... and both games are hard to cheat at. Chess, because the good players never take their eyes off the board, and bridge, because it takes real wit to invent hands that no one has ever seen before. And bridge players remember hands. They remember hands from 15, 20 years ago. They can play them out for you, if you ask. Creating hand after hand from scratch, so you can look brilliant as a bridge player, would take more brains than it would to just get a lot better at playing bridge.

These centuries of development have included adapting new players to the standards the old players use. It means generation after generation of older players harumphing and clucking their tongues at young players who behave inappropriately, or hissing and even physically threatening people who won't shut up - with the full support of everyone in attendence, I might add.

Try to imagine a D&D game where the players acted like the tough chessplayers who meet at the park in downtown Manhattan everyday - who are not above putting a knife between your ribs for kibbitzing. Imagine a D&D player turning to another one and saying, "What the fuck do you mean you burn the barn down? Get your shit and get the fuck out. Do it now, or I swear to god you're doing it with a broken leg."

Imagine being at a convention and some guy passing by the table says, "You guys playing D&D, or what?" and your friend Joe standing up, looking at the stranger and saying, "Yeah. That's right. And we don't need motherfuckers like you opening your mouth and wrecking our veri-fucking-similitude. So why don't you take your pussy ass fifteen feet back and shut the fuck up."

Those days are coming. They're a couple of generations in the future, but they are coming. I think it's kind of funny-strange that people haven't yet grasped that all this back and forth about how serious the game is reflects the growing mood that for the game to be taken seriously, the players are going to have to get serious. We're a long way from that. There are still a lot of losers around who don't actually give a shit about role-playing, who are just tourists, just fuckers who are here to troll, not here to roll, who are taking advantage of the fact that the people who actually give a damn are still uncertain about what's allowed, what's expected or what we're allowed to say. But that ain't gonna be forever. Players in large numbers are going to get clear about what makes a good game, and what doesn't, and how the makers of the game have to bow out and shut the fuck up, just like any other kibbitzer.

The older players, the ones doing this for fifty, sixty years, won't need to "catch up" during games, because there's nothing left to catch up on. That's what age is like. They're gonna play very hard core games, and the young people 20 years from now are gonna see that in vids online and they're going to think, "SHIT, I want to play like that." And they're gonna turn to their buddies and say, "Hey, shut up, we're trying to get some role-playing done here."

Yeah. The day is coming. People just can't see it yet.


Lukas said...

This reminds me of a certain video sent out a few posts back.

Remember the fake people who challenged the player to a trivia question to see if they were worthy?

Reminds me a lot of that. Of challenging them to something presumed to show their degree of dedication.

It seems like that's what they were trying to do at that game, but perhaps their definition is seen as poor?

Dave said...

Holy crap... I LOVE THIS!

"Try to imagine a D&D game where the players acted like the tough chessplayers who meet at the park in downtown Manhattan everyday - who are not above putting a knife between your ribs for kibbitzing. Imagine a D&D player turning to another one and saying, 'What the fuck do you mean you burn the barn down? Get your shit and get the fuck out. Do it now, or I swear to god you're doing it with a broken leg.'"

I may start a second, smaller group using this as an example of how we'll be playing... especially since one or two of the kids in the group (my son's friends) actually DO try to burn things down all the time...

5stonegames said...

The comic Hackmaster is set in a world much like this. Its well, its not pleasant.

Gaming does not need to be and IMO here will not benefit from being Serious Business, YMMV of course.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Justin Kennedy said...

I don't know if you're right, Alexis, but, reading this skillful bit of Jingoism, it quickens my pulse to imagine such a D&D culture. Trying to get my players to feel comfortable with trying some real roleplaying is difficult. Having that kind of dedication built in to the understanding of what playing D&D means would be huge.

Thinking on this post, I wonder: Had you already consciously and specifically conceived of a culture before this post, or was it revealed/created as a consequence of thinking through your response Andrej's comment?

Jhandar said...

I can testify to this as well. I have been gaming for the last decade or so with a solid group of friends, about 90% of the time as the DM. However, everyone tended to just funny suit their characters and for the last few years have just been phoning it in, which has been incredibly frustrating for me as I am still very invested in playing. The rest have just been using our game as our excuse to socialize.

So four months ago I decided that if I wanted a better game I had to make it. I ended the game with my friends and have assembled a new group to run with. I unfortunately had to troll the internet and my local gaming store, but I have tried my best to vet everyone and with three months of character gen/world discussion/ideology discussion about the game itself and very intense hammering out of our gaming social contract, I have ran three games so far with this new crew and have loved every minute. I feel more inspired, the fresh start has allowed me to set the tone for the players without the baggage of history making change slow and difficult.

I understand it is daunting for DMs to tell a player 'you're out' sometimes. However, I can attest that the results are worth it. I know 3 sessions is not indicative of the long haul, but at least the result on me has been profound.

And as a post script, my old group and I remain great friends.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I have written similar posts like this in the past, Justin.

Justin Kennedy said...

I figured as much. For some reason, this post hit me deeper and with more clarity than your others on the same subject.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Maybe I'm getting to be a better writer.

Zrog said...

I'll have to admit I'm probably quite the "tourist" in some people's eyes, but with that caveat, I don't think of "serious" as a single-faceted thing.

For example, I want my players "serious" enough to come prepared - they'd better have leveled up, figured out their goals, created short-form notes for the spells or know their spellbook outright, and re-read any clues they might have collected thus far. If they don't do that, I'm not giving them a free pass - they can sit around the table doing that stuff and not playing until they get stuff in order - or I'll just cancel the session and tell them to come prepared next time. On the other hand, I don't mind some chatter, joking and stories. At my table, D&D is a social event as well (to a point). I've played at "pure" RPG tables before, where everything said is in character, and I can hack it, but I don't enjoy that type of play - I find it stressful rather than invigorating & stimulating.

As was previously discussed, it seems that there isn't a norm or standard for RPG play, and thus there isn't "one game". D&D is a game where you can make up rules, discard rules, or even ignore the dice (if you want). If you tried to do that with Chess or Bridge, people wouldn't play with you because you wouldn't be playing "their" game. Alexis pointed out in one post that "don't be surprised that I walk away from your table because what you're playing isn't D&D" (paraphrased), so there's obviously SOME accepted deviation from a "standard" of D&D, but if the multitude of editions is any sign, people have so many different expectations and ideas of "D&D" that it can't be contained in one standard rule-set. I don't believe that ALL the developers of D&D are idiots (well, at least until the ones who released 4th edition arrived), and they have to cater to a market that includes idiots, whose money is just as good as the genius-RPG'er next to them. But I recognize Alexis' complaint: they've created a Checkers version of Chess and they're calling it Chess 2.0 and stating that it's an "evolution" of the game.

But, both the beauty and the curse of tabletop RPGs is that you define and refine "your game" for and with your players, and then tell anyone who doesn't fit in, to get out... and the various editions just give you a starting point.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Hm, it's been a busy week on this blog and this post seems buried by now, but I have some thoughts to share here.

I think you get the real reason right in the first half, about how some activities like Chess have built in incentives to take them seriously because they are competitive. It's primarily competition that makes people take some things seriously and not D&D. The social customs, I think, also depend on some amount of competition, and will develop slowly or to a lesser degree without it. I'm not saying I disagree, just that it might be useful to think of some concrete solutions to speed up the process.

It all comes down to competition. So the question is, is there any way to add competition to D&D? I've come up with a few ideas:

1) PvP: I know this isn't your thing, but the games that my players have taken most seriously have been the ones where they competed against each other. There's no room to goof off, forget your AC, decide not to make a map, or just do anything idiotic when other players just as intelligent as you are trying to beat you while holding nothing back. This doesn't have to be direct PvP necessarily. A DM could, say, run multiple groups in the same world and compare their progress, or allow them to join opposite sides of a large conflict.

2) Player Selection: Like Jandar said, perhaps D&D is better when players are selected carefully. If they know they can be booted from the group and replaced, it will force them to get their act together.

3) DM Selection: It should be more common I think for players to play in multiple groups, or for a group to rotate DM's. It forces the player to think more deeply about what type of game they like and why, and it forces the DM's to not be lazy and actually work hard on the game.

4) Honest Public Discussion: More people need to write and read blogs, and more people need to post play reports or even play videos for discussion. Good DM's need a chance to show off and let other people see how it's done, and bad DM's need to confront their own lack of skill. I've improved a lot from criticisms of my blog and play reports from people in this very comment section, and I think D&D overall would improve by more honest communication.

What I'm saying basically is that for this culture of D&D to form, it has to be a culture that isn't afraid of any kind of competition. Right now we're, as a group, terrified of it. Players disrespect the game, DM's slack off, build terrible worlds and rules, or just do things like change systems every week. Overall there's no honest communication or criticism between groups. There's no honest communication between players, either.

I think any or all of these four changes would help fix this. Am I on to something?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I'm sorry that from your statements about chess and bridge being primarily games of 'competition' that you clearly do not really understand either chess or bridge.

Perhaps I'll write a post about that.