Friday, January 24, 2014


With regards to yesterday's post, I don't believe that there is an RPG equivalent to 'whitewater' ... at least, not in the sense that I or the gentle reader can watch a practitioner at a distance and think, "That's amazing!" The RPG is too intimate and too esoteric for that. One almost has to be in the game to understand the quality of the game master.

There are things I might look for - confidence, for one. A sense of humour that doesn't destroy the verisimilitude of the game. Judgements that encourage player respect. Self-deprecation. Compassion for the players mixed with an understanding that now and then a DM must be unsympathetic and tough-minded. On the whole, characteristics that are hard to pick up in an hour's conversation, much less at a distance.

Much of the resistance to a DMs ability or skill originates with the 'island' mentality of the game. Two hundred people do not play at the same time in the same game ... and if they did, the results would hardly bring the crowd together. I tried an experiment some years back where I ran a combat based on a poll, so that the choice with the highest number of votes would determine each character's action. Because I included some slightly stupid choices, such as the thief breaking off from the party and attempting to hide in shadows, the balance of the votes tended towards stupidity - I think probably because a group of uninvested persons did not care whether the characters lived or not. I think they wanted to see what would happen. I think, for outsiders, it is always that way. As outsiders, they don't identify with the characters around the table. They think, instinctively, "If that were me, I wouldn't do what he's doing."

It's funny that we have a whole film industry based on the premise that you will like this character because you identify with this character ... and yet in the real world we hardly ever identify with anyone. Conversations about other people tend to be about what's wrong with them, or occasionally how we would like to bed them or impress them. Rarely am I standing in a crowd at an office and hearing about how "John" is "just like me!" More likely, they'll say, "John's an idiot" or, more truthfully, "I wish John liked me."

Fan boys are the worst about this, being the sort that find fault with anything, no matter how desperately or craven the fault-finding is. Consider:

Accomplishment: Proved himself one of the best Air Force pilots
in the world; went to the moon; walked on it.
Fanboy Complaint: too stupid to speak English properly.

Accomplishment: Became the most popular candidate in two
American elections, to be voted by the majority as the most powerful
man in the world, despite the fact that he is black.
Fanboy Complaint:  he has big ears.

Accomplishment:  multi-talented, arguably the most widely-known
global celebrity in human history, with a personally earned
wealth in excess of a billion dollars.
Fanboy Complaint:  she's creepy.

Proving that it is possible to find fault with anyone or anything. The Fanboy's complaint against the kayaker who has learned to shoot the most dangerous rapids in the world is that they're an idiot for doing that. Against this sort of peanut gallery, there is no 'whitewater.' And presently, with regards to RPGs, the peanut gallery owns the theatre.

The Island structure of the game, however, means that it doesn't matter. The only meaningful opinion of anyone's ability to play the game is measured by people close enough to hit with a lamp cord. Anyone further away than that doesn't matter. Therefore, if your world has players that adore it, no matter what sort of game you run, you're met your quality targets. At least ... for as long as those players last.

It is harder for DMs who grow obsessed with the game, who come to realize as adulthood changes the social structure of their relationships, that player's DON'T last. Many is the DM out there who, in no way tired of the game, has watched the players wander off to become accountants, fathers, soldiers or foreign policy advisors, only to recognize they've run out of places where they can get players. How much the worse for them when they discover the 17-year-olds who loved their world were dumber than hammers, and that the new available player crop has a higher standard. And how many players would like another good game like the one they played in university ... but all the DMs these days are morons.

The critical moment comes when the world you've been playing in no longer exists, or when the world you've been running must now be compromised because you have only two players now, and math is an uphill struggle for both. The Island literally sinks below the waves ... and very often, the only rational solution is to give it up and quit playing in favor of giving a shit about the Superbowl. After all, you're 25 now. It's time to give up your infantile infatuations with a child's game and embrace the infantile infatuation with a child's sport. It's evolution.

There's a fellow I met last month who manages the local gaming group. He's in his 40s, he's clearly been playing for a long time, and he's proud of his ability to stay 'hip' and now. He's very excited about D&D Next and considers people who play 3.5 to be archaic and living in the dark ages. He plays 4e now. He's one of those fellows who cannot lay off warstories, even in the midst of running his own game. He enjoys his position of organizer because it means he can wander the seven or eight tables in session and interrupt the proceedings with advice, philosophy and, of course, more war stories. The players I know who attend these sessions weekly (some of them are in an offline campaign of mine) tell me he does this incessantly. Some may think this isn't relevant, but apparently his wife left him recently and he has admitted to many people (including me, within an hour of meeting him) that he's been depressed lately. There's no question that the game is a major social outlet for him.

Here, then, is something to think about when discussing people who have played this game all their lives. For many, it has nothing to do with the game. For them, the game's social premise is something that can be ignored, like a kibbitzer will at a chess game. The presence of other people is an opportunity to combat loneliness or promote one's importance. And the roleplaying game's open interactive framework is conducive to that. MUCH more conducive than it is to the insistence that players shut the fuck up and settle down to some serious play.

It is possible to recognize at a glance the quality of chess players by the intensity of their play. It isn't always so, but one does get to notice that if they're not speaking to each other, at all, it is probably because the game is more important than anything else in the world to them. I have personally experienced that level of intensity in D&D, but it could hardly be called as consistent as playing chess.

This brings back an old memory with which I'll end this post. When I was a kid, about nine years old, the gang of high-school teenagers down my street created a haunted house for Halloween one year. Their parents must have been indulgent, because they transformed the first floor of the house into a horrorscape, then charged kids who came in through the front door, walked along the designated pathway in a circle around four rooms, then out again. I don't remember much, except there was one scene that had a powerful effect on me.

It was four 'men' playing poker. Four of the boys were sitting absolutely still, as still as mannequins. I recognized them. They were dressed as cowboys, with guns, hats, mustaches and expressions of murderous will. I'll never forget how angry they looked. To get past them, we had to go really close, and squeeze between one of the chairs and the wall, and we were told in a hissing whisper before trying it, "Don't touch them! They'll freaking kill you." Being nine, we believed it. It was terrifying, being that close, and feeling that at any moment they'd suddenly jump up and shoot us full of holes. The effect was powerful. There was no question in our minds about how serious these players were.

I was young. I'd probably look at the scene now and laugh. But I totally bought into it at the time.

Role-playing would really be something if it were like that. Like gamblers playing for life and death stakes, with guns on their hips, ready to shoot. Where it took nerve just to sit down and start playing. Where the players had their hearts in their throats.

Yes, that would really be something.


Jeremiah Scott said...

Neil Armstrong was a naval aviator, he only later worked for the Air Force. He was never an Air Force pilot. For some of us the distinction is worth mentioning.

Aside from that, I would say I think there are "whitewater" moments in gaming. And I think you sell yourself and most seasoned players short when you say that we can't see it at a distance. We can't know the times when the group strays so far from the reservation that the DM is almost shitting himself or herself trying to figure out how to react (as long as the DM has a decent poker face), but there are certainly those moments we all recognize as whitewater (and it's almost never combat).

My best example (and one of my favorite moments in gaming), is when an "in character" discussion between a player and an NPC becomes so heated that you can cut the tension with a knife. I'm not talking about one of those, "let us in, or else" arguments, but when shit really hits the fan. When I, as DM, have crafted and embodied an NPC so wholly and so skillfully that the group viscerally hates that person (most of my NPCs come across as assholes). This is the kind of sink or swim situation that lazy and beginner gamers don't have the stomach for. They are too prone to getting their feelings hurt because they think the game is real life. I love these moments because it's when I know I'm doing a damned good job as DM. And when I see other people navigating these moments, I have no doubt that it is whitewater.

Thank you. I love your blog. Keep it up.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Jeez. I've pissed off the navy. If I change it to air "craft" pilot, will that satisfy the nit-picky fanboy instinct in you?

The remainder of your comment, Jeremiah, is in keeping with things I've written in my book, so I have to agree.

Thank you. I will keep it up. My wife likes it there.

Anonymous said...

I think it more esprit de corps than nit picky fan-boy, Alexis. :)

As for the actual post, one comment you made above about the structure of RPGs's being more conducive to kibbitzing than to intent playing really struck me as true. How true! My own game, played amongst very good friends who also happen to be very good players, veers off the tracks at times as we talk passionately about some other topic or just enjoy one another's company. I'm generally OK with the veering when it happens, we don't have much time to socialize with each other and so spend what we do on playing. But at times I do wish we could maintain the integrity of the fourth wall a bit better. I'm looking forward to seeing how the book addresses this.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh yes, I'm well aware of the infighting between American military institutions. You call it esprit de corps, I call it an unfortunate fall-out resulting from the need to brainwash personnel into this or that arm of the service, producing an undesirable resistance against different forces working unilaterally against an enemy. Many, many satirists have enjoyed the line, "The enemy isn't the Japanese, son ... it's the Navy."

I really don't give a shit. Not being in the service, anyone who flies a plane with intent to murder innocent brown people on the ground is an Air Force Pilot, whatever patches they happen to wear on their sleeve that makes them feel special. It's the sort of thinking that really annoys the military, but heck, you've all got the guns and I'm going to die in the inevitable street war when the government falls to the coup that results from the military being sick of rich people exploiting them like lap dogs.

That said.

I'm not sure how the book is going to address it, if at all. I think its probably unavoidable between people, and shouldn't be resisted. I know that if I'm more of a tyrant, more game gets played, and the players tend to appreciate it 'cause more gets done, but one can't be a tyrant all the time. It gets old and the players want to chatter. So some sessions are just chatter sessions. Three things get done and the game night ends. I know if the players say something like, "Geez, I hope we get some treasure tonight," then it is probably time for me to get more tyrannical.

Anonymous said...

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?

Scarbrow said...

My personal experience is that you can get away with being tyrannical, or intense, only when surrounded by people who are really invested into the game, who enjoy the system, or maybe just the "fun while seated around a table" concept. And then not always. As soon as you have in your room even one person who's not all that invested (e.g. the inevitable boy/girlfriend of your valued player, who trades his/her presence on your table for the ability to be there at all) you can no longer play an intense game.

I would tend to describe skill at RPG as the ability to get intense, serious, invested. Even if you are sometimes relaxed, chatting or distracted. The ability to enjoy yourself with the nitty gritty (creating characters is a good test of character for this matter). A hard to spot quality.