Thursday, February 6, 2014

But Sadly, Can't Be Fixed

Zooggy and I are chattering back and forth on this post about internal party railroading - which I continue to contend needs another name, but I'll let Zooggy define it in part:

"... When I talk about railroading, I'm talking about forced decision making, not necessarily specifying the subsequent events. From that, it should be easy to conceive of a party railroading a player. (As an example, another highly touted DM technique, illusionism, i.e. the art of putting the prepped encounter under the party's feet, regardless of what they decide to do, as if it had always been there, is also a form of forced decision making. The only difference is that illusionism is covert, whereas railroading is overt)"

There is more comment, and more writing in general on the subject, so I recommend reading all that Zooggy has to write on the subject.

One thing about situations like the above, and the whole range of what Zooggy calls railroading, "illusionism" and "Nurembergism," is that while we like to talk about these things, and refer to bad examples we've encountered, at some point the conversation begins to boil down to something like, "Hey, did you know there are bad people in the world?"

Just now I'm writing a section of my advanced role-play book about the importance of having authority at the table in order to properly run a game in which setting limits on the players will often make players unhappy. And the temptation is to put down a whole section which would amount to nothing more than, "Hey, stop being a dick."

The problem is, people are. And they're not likely to stop when asked. The case above, of the one fellow at the table who is everyone's bitch boy, including the DM's I presume, is a case in point. Here we clearly have a situation where one individual is lacking in self-respect, and a host of other individuals are lacking in personal responsibility. No matter what the game is, the only resolution is going to be the one individual taking steps to stop being exploited, and a series of bad events happening to the others that cause them to re-evaluate their moral compass.

The only question I feel needs to be answered here is this - is such behavior individualistic, or is it systemic? Is there something inherent about roleplaying games that offers entitlement to people who just want to be dicks?

Allow me an example. Not all that long ago, I was playing a regular game of ball hockey in a local gymnasium with about a dozen friends (plus a few joiners who would show up inconsistently). These were friendly games, with no fixed teams, with talented girls and untalented guys that played along together with the reverse. There was no strong sense of competition or counting of points (which would have run something like 45 to 40 for most of the games we played. There were some incidents, including some involving me, as I tend to get too aggressive when my blood is up, but apologies were made and on the whole, these were good games.

One fellow was clearly a far better player that the rest of us. He was in his late twenties, had played in some decent amateur leagues at the peak of his youth and had spectacular puck/ball handling skills. He was the sort of fellow who, when I used to play defense in hockey, I would have knocked off his ass because there was little chance of taking the puck from him. But we were meaning to play with light contact, so his play was undeniably devastating - coupled with deadly aim when firing at the net. It wasn't until my son-in-law began playing (he plays competitive hockey too) that a balance was established; my son-in-law is a goalie.

Now this fellow - we'll call him Dave - could play in a friendly, easy going manner, or he could be a dick, depending on the night. When he was a dick, he would deliberately 'play' with others, handling the ball and doing nothing with it except to show off, until it took three or four people to take it away from him nicely. (Like I say, there's a way to deal with that sort of shit unnicely). It was an unfortunate thing, particularly as Dave liked to be smug about it, and slip into that old jock patter like, "Oh, you want this? Come and get it then. Whoops! Wow, you don't want this very much, do you?" And so on.

In sports, there are children who quickly recognize they're better at the game than others, and who use that to press their 'superiority.' It's only natural, and within reason it's not that hard to overlook. And Dave was a decent fellow most of the time, so we took it goodnaturedly.

Dave had friends, however, who were also of the 'jock' variety. And as things always do, the ball hockey nights began to change as more and more of Dave's friends began to show up to games. Certain things were noticed. Suddenly the girls were frozen out - Dave's friends ignored them, refused to pass to them, or ganged up and shoved the girls off the floor. And naturally I, in my forties, wasn't exactly embraced by these twenty-something guys ... hell, I just can't keep up any more. That's a fact. It wasn't long before there were twenty people coming around to ball hockey nights, with a court not big enough to let us all play all the time, and a lot of us who had been there from the beginning were watching the game and not playing it.


So, is being a dick systemic in sports, or not? On the one hand, it's really easy to argue that it IS. Virtually everyone who isn't a star athelete can recall experiences like the one above, where a good game was ruined by an assorted group of guys (I've never seen this with women, but presumedly it happens) who are just assholes, plain and simple. At the same time, though, virtually everyone can remember playing sports where that doesn't happen. Everyone is mature, no one is particularly better than everyone else, the reason for people being there seems to be less competitive and so on. It's possible to play sports without dicks. On that basis, its fair to argue that dickishness is NOT inherent in sports play. It's just really, really common.

No, the situation is really not helped by high school football coaches, or patterns of behavior supported in university competition, or the money involved in national sports that encourages parents to freak out at games when their four-year-old is tripped by another four-year-old. It is really easy to see how the climate surrounding sports, in which children grow up, does absolutely nothing towards encouraging decent, respectful play. There is a meaningful number of dicks who do not play, but radically influence the game. And not only in this culture. The condition is so pervasive among virtually all peoples in the world that again we have to ask, what is it about sport that produces dicks?

Then again, people just are.

The whole dick thing is not limited to sport. It exists in business, art, parental abuse of children ... heck, even in the realm of paleontological science. People are fucking nasty. There's no getting away from it.

Are people who play D&D worthy of being hit - and soon - by a truck? Oh yes. Many would point to me where this is concerned, yes? Of course yes. There's nothing wrong with the role-play game, or the game structure, and there is only a passing usefulness in recording the number of instances where this shit goes on. I shout on this blog to stop it; to boot players who participate in it; and to recognize that it goes on, and that fingers should be pointed when it is seen. But I don't think that any of the actual assholes who read this blog are going to change their behavior. The best we can do is isolate them. Isolate them, tag and bag them, and try and help the next generation to see what the shit they did that they shouldn't have done.

It's the only strategy we have.

P.S. Are you following the combat on the other blog?


  1. If I can't identify any dicks in my current crew, should I be worried it's me? Or should I be happy we don't have one?

    I do remember a couple in college, but since then...

    I wont say I am not known to devastate people on game nights where we play competitive games, but I do hope I am a reasonable person about it.

    I think they would know if I were going easy on them.

  2. I don't have any in the three campaigns I'm running either, Lukas. I believe mostly that we grow up and stop congregating where the dicks hang out. I did meet three inside of ten minutes when I went to the D&D clubhouse to play 4e.

  3. I ran a one-shot RPG adventure with friends, and a friend of a friend. The nature of the one-shot is not open ended, like a campaign would be. It was set up. It had the party of PCs answering an invitation. It happened that the friend of the friend (fof) received the invitation. He proceeded to answer the invitation himself, in character, by ignoring the rest of the party members. But, he was in character so everything was alright, right? Apparently he intended to do the whole adventure by himself, while five other players sat around and watched him play. I called him on this and he made it clear that he would rather play something else - when we had all gotten together to play this particular one shot. That night the situation was solved by physically taking the invitation from the fof and giving it to another player. He's not playing with us anymore.

  4. Hey, :)

    Hmmm... yes and no, there's more to it than that.

    I've had this particular conversation in many forms, with many people, in many different contexts.

    Some times, people just don't know that they're doing it. They don't realize it. I find it helps to give them the benefit of the doubt and call them on it, in a non-confrontational manner. Hey, look, this is what's happening, that dude is getting shut out, let's get our crap together and be a group. I've seen that work, many, many times. It pretty much always works unless people get overly defensive.

    Other times, it takes a bit more effort. People genuinely think that that's the correct way to play, and even though they make an effort to avoid it, every once in a while, they slip back into old habits. Usually, a quick friendly reminder is all it takes to get things back on track.

    Then again, some times, it doesn't work out.

    I have a friend, I actually consider him a very close personal friend, with whom I refuse to play RPGs. He's wonderful to play board games with, and he's just a cool guy to hang around when the activities are non-structured, but his personality is such that he simply can't do structured without being competitive. Even when the activity itself is non-competitive, he gets socially competitive, like alpha male competitive, and tries to dominate the proceedings. So, I stopped playing RPGs with him. It just doesn't work out. But it's ok, we hang out all the time, and he's remained a valuable component of my life.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is, yes, there's abuse (railroading, illusionism, Nurembergism) at many an RPG table, the only strategy available is not bag, tag and boot. Yes, some people are inherently dicks. But, I've met two, maybe three at the outside, over the total course of my life. Most people are decent human beings, if you give them the chance to be.


  5. There are some ways where the team sports analogy doesn't quite hold up to D&D. It mostly has to do with the goals that the party has. In a sport, the goal is simple: score points to win the game.

    Even if you are on a team that has no interest in winning at the sport, even if you're just playing a friendly game, even if you aren't even keeping score, the goal is to do the thing that earns you points. No one is going to play a basketball game and decide that they'd rather all lay on the floor and see how well they can pass and catch the basketball using only their feet instead of trying to make baskets. If they do, they'll probably be asked to leave the court, or if the whole team likes the idea, they probably won't call it basketball.

    In an RPG each player usually has some goals for their characters beyond the default assumptions of the game (get EXP and Gold ad infinitum.)

    Maybe a player wants his character to avenge their slain father, and maybe another wants her character to become the Duke of Marmalade, and maybe one just wants to be the greatest warrior in the land. In the course of reaching these goals the party will work together as a team, support each others goals, and benefit from the success thereof.

    In a sport, there really isn't a situation where two players on the same team will be in conflict about which goal to pursue. There is one goal: score points. Maybe there will be some ball-hogging or show-boating, or maybe there will be some conflict about who gets to actually score the points, or what strategy will maximize the points scored. There is no argument over which basket you shoot the ball into.

    In an RPG evidence could arise the same person who killed one character's father could be the very king who has dominion over the Duchy of Marmalade. The loyalist who seeks a title, and the man who seeks vengeance are put at odds over this. Sure, they could agree to kill the king, and to try take Marmalade in the chaos. They could decide to play the court, and then uncover evidence of the king's vile acts so that he can be deposed later. The loyalist may decide that Marmalade is not worth his friendship, or the avenger could decide that his vengeance is not worth plunging a kingdom into chaos. Further, if they do play the game more politically, then the warrior may not have many chances to prove himself a great warrior. Sure, maybe he can become a knight or a captain in the duke's armies, or maybe he can attend tournaments, or maybe he can just find dragons to fight for the good of the kingdom.

    I don't think the avenger's player would be being a dick if, upon hearing the loyalist's promise of fealty, he decided to punch the loyalist right in the face. (In character of course. If he slugs the player he is absolutely a dick, and needs to be literally tossed out the door.) I don't think that the loyalist would be a dick if he challenged the avenger to a duel to restore his besmirched honor. I think that as long as the violence doesn't veer into the "I'm going to kill your character and take his shit" territory that inter-character violence is a normal and healthy part of building a stronger team.

    The important thing is that after that violence there has to be talking, and decision, and compromise that will lead to new goals being drafted. I think that inter-character conflict has a wonderful way of gluing a party together as long as people aren't dicks.

  6. Yes, Matt. D&D is not a sport. I was using a metaphor.

    As a DM, players challenging players to 'duels' is tiresome, annoying, cliched, anti-social and, in all cases, produces either hard feelings between players or an escalation in the need to 'out-compete' one another until the WHOLE game is about whether Player A is better than Player B.

    But, as your answer proves, players will Go To Every End to justify this behavior.

  7. As an afterthought, and this is certainly worth a post someday.

    The need to 'prove' things, like being 'a great warrior,' is a very troubling part of role-playing games as well as other activities. And there will always be a select number of players who turn to RPG's in order to obtain self-worth.

    This may be the root of all evil.

  8. Reading this made me think of the recent scandal in the US Air Force where some 34 officers in the nuclear program were found have been involved in cheating on the competency tests.

    NPRs reporter cited a study that I cannot find where it was shown that when rewards are given too heavily to a single winner, it causes the rest of the participants to engage in unethical behavior and cheating -- being a dick, in other words.

    Look no further than Wall Street to see examples of this in real life. Hell, watch ANY organized sport. Second place is the first loser and all that.

    D&D is often played in such a way that the "winner" gets the bulk of money, magic and experience. I think this alone can explain dickishness at the gaming table.

    What we can do about it is spread the rewards out more evenly. Everyone gets experience for a fight. Monetary rewards are more evenly distributed.

    Competition isn't the cause of dickishness, it's the lopsided distribution of the rewards that causes it.


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