Thursday, June 19, 2014

Seeing Victims

Be warned.  Spoilers.  I got into a hard-core debate last night with an ex-member of the Albertan Wild Rose Party, a provincial party just slightly to the right of Hammurabi, so I'm going to start this post with some politics.  Towards the end, I let my passion and my rage off the chain a bit, but I assure the reader that despite the swearing and the tone, I'm in control of my emotions.  It's only that I want to sincerely get across the . . . injustice of it all.

Stonekettle's retreat was due to his post that expressed anger at the total fuck-up that was Iraq, specifically wondering what it was all for as Iraq now slides into the pit of demented religious fanaticism.

People who cannot figure out that war surprise me.  The following speech is from the Third Man; it's delivered by Harry Lime, a black marketeer in Vienna after WW2, who sells bad drugs to hospitals that results in the deaths of kids.  The scene is the Ferris wheel in Vienna, looking down at the people far, far below on the ground:

Martins:  "Have you ever seen any of your victims?"
Harry Lime:  "You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things.  Victims?  Don't be so melodramatic.  Look down there.  Tell me.  Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?  If I offer you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spend?  Free of income tax, old man.  Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays."

I don't know why people find these modern wars so incomprehensible.  America has recently imposed a new stooge for the throne of Egypt, Syria has obviously been paid off, Libya is a money-making chaos for a variety of evil people and their corporations, while Russia just wants its hands back on the Donets Basin, where there incompetent Ukrainian fiasco is letting the machinery rust and the production of one of the richest places on Earth falter.  Follow the money.  Always follow the money.

And when I am listening to a pretty smart fellow, last night, give me all the same rhetoric about why we can't afford to pay our taxes (and why we shouldn't have to), along with welfare, the people out east who want a piece of beaten, old Alberta (which makes a per capita income that dwarfs Brunei and the rest of Canada) and how poor we are and how we can't afford services in this province like post secondary education, the rise in the cost of health care and so on, I just hear the same bleat that says, "Let everyone else die, I love my money, I love my money, Oh how I love my money."

So Iraq is going to the dogs.  Well, that was expected.  American business soaked it for everything they could get, they created the mock-up of a police force so they could leave the country with a modicrum of dignity (that was supposed to help the Republicans win the election back home, but it didn't fool enough Democrats), and now its done.  The dots are still moving, but someone else is getting that money.

And Alberta doesn't give a shit about the rest of the country. Why should they?  If other people wanted to be rich, they should have been smarter about where they were born.  Those are the breaks.  There's no room for thinking of someone else.

This does come back to D&D.  Because I was also talking to a table full of DMs and Players last night, being reminded that most DMs view players the same way Halliburton views Iraq, or Alberta views the rest of Canada.  Players don't do the work.  Players come and players go.  Players are replaceable.  Get what you can out of them, and if they give you trouble, pitch them to the wind.  Because fuck players.

My book How to Run has a theme.  I know, for some, it won't be one that's appreciated.  My advice to DMs is Do it for the Players.  I preach this all the way through.  If you're not making and running your world for the players, you suck at this.  You're a bad DM.  No, there is no gray scale there.  You make your world for yourself, you run it for yourself, you don't view the players' needs as first and foremost in your mind, then you are exactly the sort of crap DM I have avoided all my life.

To an outsider watching you run your world, what kind of DM you are is obvious.  It is easy to see if the players are engaged.  It is easy to tell by the kind of questions they're asking.  All too often, online, I tap into game video and what I hear is the party trying to find something.  "We look here; we go there and see if we find it; we ask these people, do they know?"  And so on.

If you're a player, take a step back from your campaign.  Are you spending most of your time looking for things?  If you are, you are probably running in that world to make the DM happy.

The best way to keep a party busy is to have them go and get something.  That's how we keep populations busy, too.  We all spend most of our day rooting around at work so that we can get the thing we came looking for, a paycheque.  Then we root around getting the things that keep the home going and so we can eat and not starve, and once all that looking for things is done, we begin looking for shit on the box to keep ourselves entertained until its time to look for sleep.  Look here, look there, keep your head down, don't look around at all the other people who have their heads down looking. That way, you won't see shit.

Are you starting a new campaign?  Well, you better not ask players what they want, or else you'll have to spend a bunch of time getting it for them.  Think of something that they can look for.  That will keep them moving nicely, mooing like good cows, until you can think of something else for them to find.  Woot, D&D!

Talked to a fellow last night who bought one of my books after I'd insulted him a few times.  Seems to go that way with gamers.  He was talking about how he was set to run as a DM for the very first time. I can see his face as I write this.  His face revealed everything.  His face was the reason he bought my book, because I told him that my reason for writing anything was to make things better.  He said I hit the exact right button, as he dug in his pocket for enough change.

See, his face in that moment is what blows to hell all the crap I read on-line.  It's the thing about this role-playing preoccupation that make me ... just angrier than I can express.  It is what makes me truly, deeply hate the Wizards of the Coast, and all those guys who created and invented the game.

Because this 20-something man's face - this machinist's face, for that was his occupation - was spooked.  He was afraid to run for his first time.  I have seen that look on the faces of hundreds of would-be DMs.  And none of the rhetoric I read, or the pomposity of the game's founders, or the shit churned out by the WOTC, does jack shit in addressing that issue.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's a great fucking game.  Why is running it so fucking scary?  And why do the people who learn how find they have to be pricks to get past that fear?  Answer me that.


Discord said...

I have to admit, after reading your work, I'm most likely a terrible DM. But I'm inspired to try to be a better one, which is the whole point, right?

I'm intrigued by this idea that having the PCs trying to find something is undesirable. I'm trying to wrap my head around what the opposite of "find something" is. Do you tell the PCs "The sword that you need is here. Go get it!" and then detail the obstacles in their way? Or is the whole idea that they might need this sword for something completely flawed?

Alexis Smolensk said...

"Finding" implies a one-dimensional measure for success. I must find THIS or else I have failed. There is nothing else worth finding. Anything else that is found should be dismissed because it is not the thing we seek. And so on.

Games should be about choice. They should lack definite measures of success. Everything that is discovered should have its own application. Goals should be varied, with non-specific solutions that may be deduced rather than looked for. Searches need not be successful for the effort to be worthwhile. Exploration need not be about finding one thing, but potentially everything that is there.

Harder to run. Less linear. More agency for the players. Doesn't allow the DM to 'know' what must happen before the next search.

Jeremy Murphy said...

Running D&D games is scary because it's public speaking. Which is apparently more frightening to people than spiders. Or bears with chainsaw hands.

But really, it's nice to see that you're all about the players.

JDJarvis said...

It wasn't scary 35 or so years ago when I fist did it and it's not scary now. Granted I'm the type of person who isn't ashamed to say "look at what I did".
I used to act on stage and in front of the camera when young and became a certified video producer at a very young age because I wasn't afraid to learn how things worked, to explore further and want to share that with others, and do even better things together with other folks.

Rick Stump said...

Mr. Smolensk,
Why the hostility? I am just opining as to what I have seen and experienced. Note - I mentioned that I have run into hostile DMs and I think that at least a few come from other hostile DMs.
No, I was not subtly digging at your comments - there are bad DMs out there. Fuck knows there are far too many. My comment was seemingly too opaque but I meant the sorts of DMs who trash talk *all* other DMs.
And my comments about my kids was, I hope you will note, about how it has been some times since I saw people nervous about DMing (sorry I am not using your word when I am referring to my own experience); I have obviously seen it.
My repeated statement of 'in my experience' was an attempt to make clear I am dismissing *nothing* about your experience - how could I?! - but only sharing the few thoughts I have from *my* experience. I didn't call you wrong, or stupid, or a liar, I simply did a variation of 'I have seen different things, here is what I think they mean in relation to what you shared'.
As for 'Harbinger Games' - that's me and my kids. They like writing gaming stuff. I do, too. We really don't have much to pitch.
I have been to your blog before and mostly find it interesting or amusing.
I have no idea why you are speculating about my desires, etc., when I didn't mention them and you haven't asked.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hm. I got an insinuating comment that set out to attack how I shouldn't be telling other DMs how to act, that got under my skin, to which I wrote a barely restrained reply - but I've since realized that the originating comment was in fact deliberately malicious. I should never have printed it. It, and my reply, have been removed.

Nearly 100 days and I am still getting the hang of these comment rules.

I apologize all around. Dear reader, you have been doing terrific in giving me meaningful, great feedback to my posts, disagreeing with me or not, and I would like that to continue. Sometimes, a comment that falls right on the edge seems appropriate, and it is only in hindsight that I recognize it's really about hating me.

This was a mean post. People should feel they have cause to hate me for it. The post is confrontational, it generalizes, it calls out a lot of DMs and it attacks people for running a specific type of adventure. I realize fully how hard this must be to swallow.

Increasingly, I'm finding it very hard to listen to people pull out the standardized arguments about things. The game is about fun, or people just don't want to give up their tax money to people who won't work, or Iraq was a mission accomplished, etcetera. I have lost a lot of my patience for these things. Many of you, I know, haven't. So it is hard to see why I may have myself. You don't have my perspective, you don't get it and you don't know why I am writing acidic posts like the one above.

I'm tired of looking at pain. And I'm tired of people finding excuses for why they can't do anything about that. I'm very tired of people who run RPGs in the same old way, who can't seem to keep players or can't figure out why their campaigns have become so . . . tired. I get worked up about seeing pain.

The post is about SEEING victims. Because people won't. They just see dots. They call a fellow who's dead scared 'nervous' because 'nervous' is a nicer word. Or they write, "It wasn't scary . . . when I first did it" (sorry JD). Wasn't scary for me either. But it is for MANY. And I feel empathy for that. I feel angry that others don't seem to feel any empathy, or that others don't do something. I feel angry when someone tells me the problem doesn't exist. It plainly exists. We have to see it, is all.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Rick, you have no idea how many hate comments I receive.

The answer for why I removed your comment and my reply was worked on and posted while you were finishing your reply.

My hostility rose out of the words you chose to highlight, and the lack of specification you made about who you were talking about. In your original comment, and in the one that follows, as of 11:11, you are deliberately vague in who you mean: "the sorts of DMs who trash talk *all* other DMs."

That is very non-specific. Since you're writing it on this blog, I assume you mean me. Given the amount of hate I receive, that would be in keeping with the tactic many people use when they want to attack something without appearing direct. It's a rhetorical tactic. And your whole comment dripped of it. Your present comment does as well.

I am speculating about your desires because you've been less than clear about them. Your writing style suggests an insinuation. This is the net. I viewed that as an attack.

I have a lot of hostility. Apparently, some of this was misdirected at you. I apologize for that.

The comments rules of this blog state that disagreement should not be based upon your alternate experience, but upon facts, and that the mere whiff of an insult is grounds for deletion. My only error was not in deleting your comment outright. Write your commment differently, and the hostility I feel will not find its way to you.

I'm sorry if this is unfair. I have had to take these steps to protect myself.

Rick Stump said...

Mr. Smolensk,
I apologize for not reading the linked comments policy - I wrongly assumed that the comment rules I currently see directly above my typing were all there was.
Let me also reassure you - I am not passive-aggressive. If I am not naming you, I don't mean you. If I am referring to you I am not shy about making that very, very clear. I save subtle for my plots in-game.
If you have the time and interest I encourage you to read the comments policy page at my blog, as well.
Let me clarify - I have seen a ton of objectively bad DMs and will again. I have been very lucky to be able to avoid them for many years,. But I believe that the nervousness and discomfort I have seen in many would-be DMs (my own personal experience doesn't include outright fear - I am not saying it doesn't happen, I just haven't seen it myself) seems to at least be made worse because of those bad DMs, especially the "I am the DM and I am always right, so all players who argue or disagree will be punished. And all other DMs suck, are doing it all wrong, and only I know how to run the game properly" brigade.

Alexis Smolensk said...

There are many DMs who run very good games. I am convinced that most of those who comment fruitfully upon this blog run good, solid campaigns (they would not put up with me otherwise - they know I am not after them).

I never claim I'm right because I'm the DM - but I do often claim that I'm right because of A, B and C. Players, for the record, are often wrong or problematic, and DMs must have authority in order to run.

I think, however, that this pressure from the players is understood inherently by the DM who has not yet done it, who then feels their only means to authority is an iron grip. It may be because they have witnessed it, but I believe that there's a stronger compulsion to become assholes because they see players as the ENEMY, and not an entity that the DM should serve.

The solution for this misunderstanding has been available all these years, but NO ONE in the field seems to be capable of applying proper leadership training or an appropriate method of management principles to DMing. The game universe has simply IGNORED the problem, leaving people to fend for themselves and do whatever seems right, even promoting the idea that "what the DM says, goes." That isn't even an idea the military buys into. What in hell is that philosophy doing in a GAME?

I repeat; I'm sorry we got off on the wrong foot. I trust that the matter is settled now. Let me know if there's anything I can do to clarify my position further. I'm sorry I cannot restore your original comment. Blogger.

Barrow said...

Some personal experience to illustrate my last comment. My most rewarding DMing experiences come from rattling content off the top of my head, with my players accepting it, eating it up, and responding actively.

I can recall more than once when I did some irksome DMing after a player challenged a rule or component of my world. I can remember feeling flustered, maybe a little defensive and sometime pulling out rule books to try to soothe my ego. I now consider this a cardinal sin, because it had little to do with the rule. It was more about me being right and them being wrong. Taking that position puts the player on the defensive. I still am going to get flustered at times, but I am determined to remember to not think of the game in terms of right or wrong, but to understand the players perspective and address their concern accordingly.

I have been listening to lectures on effective communication. An unintended result is that I have been applying the lessons to my DMing approach. Its been helping, I think, of course along with lessons from TAO and Alexis' book: How to Play.

Barrow said...

"why is running [a game] so fucking scary?" I believe you've answered that question once before. The answer is:

No One is Helping You

To the Person Who Keyed My Car

I could keep going, but I am at work. To summarize, there are limited resources available to DM's to teach them how to create and manage engaging worlds.

To the other question: "And why do the people who learn how [to DM,] find they have to be pricks to get past that fear?" I suggest, a natural defensive reaction to insecurities and the possibility of their communication not being accepted and reaffirmed by the player? It may be these insecurities spawn out of poor training and/or poor communication skills. If a DM lacks experience, guidance, and communication skills, then meet prick. If that DM doesn't have the drive to improve in spite of these failures, then game over.

I suppose there could be an academic discussion about the minimum requirements to DM. Like software requiring a minimum specification of hardware. A sort of prerequisite of course work a DM needs to complete before they can run properly. What do you all think those requirements are?"

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Barrow. My management of this blog today has been something of a nightmare.

I really think that my stress level is getting right up there.

I agree about insecurities. Those are tricky things - they can make a DM quiet and unsure, and they can make a DM be a tyrant.

I can't say I'm in agreement with 'requirements' - unless you want to start teaching players to ask for references. I could support that. "Give me the names and numbers of people you've played with in the past." That would probably produce some interesting results.

I would be happy to teach a half-year course in DMing. I couldn't be more condescending than most of my profs in University.

JDJarvis said...

No need for appology, I explained why it's likely I wasn't scared of DMing. People should identify where they are strong and weak, sometimes the weak can be improved, other times it can be overcome by focusing on strengths.

Barrow said...

Your right, at this stage in the game DM's would only have personal references of who they have played with if they were asked to show qualification. This is the problem you address so often, there are too many rule books and not enough books teaching DM's how to run a campaign.

Maybe in the future there will be a required or status quo reading list players will have expected DM's to have read. Then an academic discussion of what should be on that list can occur. Though I am confident the basics principles of communications should be held within one of those books.

Blaine H. said...

Recently, I decided to take a break from running a constant campaign world for about 12 years. Decided that I was in need of the vacation and to let the players I was running for take a turn at the reigns, so to speak. I noticed that in all four cases, their enthusiasm disappeared quickly once they saw the amount of work needed. They never understood and like your post said, there was fear that was either there before hand or rapidly materialized.

And almost all of them resorted to 'Find something' style adventures. I felt on my part that I had failed as a GM if they never learned anything from playing but after reading this, it helped crystalize the idea that they ultimately felt like they needed to keep their players busy. It was odd that the moment you tried to get away from 'find something'... or to use a different term 'go off the rails', it threw them for loop.

They also, like your post stated, tended to view players as disposable... and good players ultimately know when they are being perceived as disposable. They stop caring about the game and the campaigns that do that go into autopilot.

Yet if you encourage player agency, let them set their own agendas instead of just chasing after what ever macguffin the GM sets before them, it really goes a long way to keep players engaged. It is hard to convey that though to GMs and players alike... most use to being merely sheep lead about or wanting to be unquestioned and obeyed. Neither are great but unfortunately make up the bulk of the gaming population.

So yeah, what I gathered from this was simply that you have to treat players with a bit better respect and if you do, you get rewarded for all your hard and often unthanked work by having long and enjoyable campaigns that might never revolve around 'go find this' type adventures except for a small diversion.

Daniel Bergmann said...

I agree with most that the 1st time is the scariest, after all you are looking for approval. everyone thats is Dming desires to be a good DM.

Since i start reading your blog, about 2 years now i have given the oportunity to DM twice. And i used some advices to keep players hooked up, to enhance the detail level, to get a better world running and all...

But I wasnt getting the reaction I was expecting for and i alwayas think to myself i wasnt doing good enough. I was getting a bit frusted at it. I was the only one who care about getting our game to a new level, I was trying hard and i wasnt getting anything back.

Then i realize that some players was making some multiclass builds with their characters that would only work after level 12 or level 14 and that they didnt care about what was happening before that level everything that they was looking for was to get a new level and that's it.

And since generally you, Alexis, dont run till high levels or Pathfinder (or some other system with the same structure) I guess It isnt something that you would explore here.

Some arrive thursday and say "hey, what happended last thursday again?" and i reply "but you were here last thursday" and than i get "but dont remember anything from last thursday" but they know the exact amount of XP they got by heart.

That's frustanting, and maybe when you give the best you can and leave frustated you end up being scary to do it again because unconsciously you may think you will end up frustated again

Guillaume JAY said...

Jeremy : I disagree with "Running D&D games is scary because it's public speaking."
Most DMs are speaking to their friends, in a restricted setting. For most people, it's far less stressful than "Public speaking"

The scary thing for me is being responsible (IMHO) for the evening fun, and my own insecurities about "Am I good at this thing ?", not being the main voice.