Saturday, August 15, 2015

As Hard As I Can Throw

Speaking only for my campaign, mind . . . there's no chance whatsoever that I would ever adopt the proposal suggested in the previous post.  It isn't a prejudice.  It isn't that I'm old school.  It isn't even that I feel it isn't 'fun' for people who want to play the game that way.

My issues run deeper.

Has the reader ever played baseball for a company league or at a family reunion where it was generally agreed that the pitcher had to throw underhand?  Where it was also agreed that throwing the ball too hard was unfair?  Where people were permitted four strikes instead of three, for the sake of everyone having a good time?  No?

I have.  Uncle Irving is getting along in years and can't hit the ball like he used to . . . but he's a rich farmer and half the participants are in line for Uncle Irving's money in a few years, so whatever - if old Uncle Irving wants thirty strikes, he's going to get them.

Because that's where this sort of thinking goes.  It's the sort of thinking that lowers the badminton net or shortens the distance for bowls; the sort of thinking that demands the better player to sacrifice a rook or a knight before the game starts; the sort of thinking that invented tee-ball so that two-year-old children could experience the thrill of hitting a standing object with a bat.  It is the sort of thinking that says the game doesn't really matter . . . only 'fun' matters.

I've always wondered about this, since in my experience none of these games are much fun at all.  I feel no sense of victory if I've defeated an opponent that was down a rook from the start.  When the distance for bowls gets short enough, I feel like a fool tossing a ball ten feet.  When the baseball game mitigates the rules degree by degree - until I'm being railed against by a family member for selfishly swinging for the fences when Aunt Ruby is in right field - then no, I'm not having any fun.

Ever watch a two-year-old play tee-ball?  They have to be told to swing, then they have to be told to run after the ball has fallen off the post.  Then the poor little tyke is shouted at again, when they've forgotten which direction they're supposed to run - so dad shoves the fellow in the right direction and he sort of stumbles towards another man on the base who is beckoning him to "Come on, come on!"  The tyke's face is a picture of bewilderment, as intimidated he finally reaches his destination as parents laugh and cackle in the stands about how "cute" the little darling is between declaring, "Aw, the darling doesn't know where to go!"

Is the darling having fun?  He doesn't look it.  The parent at first base has to keep pulling him back onto the bag whenever he tries to wander away, keeping him corralled  - where he stays unhappily, since he has no idea what's happening.  Surprised that he's being shouted at again, he turns, falls down - gets a belly laugh from the audience and a round of applause as he wobbles to his feet again - then he's off to second base, as confused as ever.

Watching this sort of thing repeated, I cannot help but think hell keeps a whole tee-ball level where participants are made to play in perpetuity without any understanding why or how it matters.

This is my problem with circumventing rules about distribution or reward for the sake of 'fun' or ensuring that player entitlement to rise up a level every two or three sessions is ensured.  It isn't a reward any more.  It isn't even a measure of relative game play.  After all, what if the characters never went up?  What if the level was perpetually 5th, without any experience whatsoever?  Would it mean there were no goals to fulfill?  No achievements?  No threat from battle?  No reason to play?

Or is it possible, just possible, that we could all agree not to care about levels?  Suppose the game simply had no sense of improvement, the players just acted upon their agency or in the stories the DM fabricated . . . would it be any less of a game?

For after all, going up levels only means the monsters grow harder, the options grow wider, the plethora of weapons and magic increases and the challenges more difficult to face.  In effect, the balance remains.  Play as a 5th level forever or as a 15th level forever, the sense of overcoming obstacles, solving problems and achieving triumph would be the same, would it not?

What is it that makes the level matter?  Is it the entitlement of knowing that it is owed to us for agreeing to play?  Is it the change it will bring to the campaign?  Or is it the sense of finally reaching something through suffering, anguish and pain, uncertain that it even could be reached, after an indeterminate time, perhaps a time that has been long in coming?

What sense of achievement is cousin Levin getting if he needs five swings to hit the ball?  Or is it that  Levin's issue is the inevitable decay of the flesh, the stark cold reality that he's 55 now and every reminder of it brings a painful sorrow.  Is it that Levin, no longer playing in college when his body was strong and he had the freedom to practice, hasn't quite learned any lessons about acknowledging his limitations and coming to terms with them.  It isn't so much the 'fun' Levin expects to have . . . it is the removal of his disappointment, the temporary appeasement of his reality, the removed reminder of his inevitable death that demands that one extra swing and the pitcher's halting slow steps towards the poorly hit in-field grounder that Levin needs.

I don't want to give experience away simply for the sake of succoring my player's sense of dissatisfaction with how little time they have to participate in my world.  I run my world for the players, yes, but to provide opportunities for ambition and for their reclamation, not for the sake of charitable pity.  I would feel dirty to give experience simply because it was Tuesday and they had managed to find a sitter.  I would feel a little disgusted at a player that pouted and wallowed because it had been six runnings and the player still hadn't gone up, which was even worse now because the player had to head out to the company plant for the next two months and was going to miss everything!  I don't want to hear myself saying patronizingly, "Well, okay, you've been a good girl . . . here's 2,000 x.p."

I'm not interested in players whose attention span depends upon advancement.  If I had a player who felt it wasn't worth making plans to attend my campaign because recently there hadn't been much opportunity for experience and treasure, since the party had chosen a safer course that did not guarantee it, then I would show that player the door.  I do as much as anyone to ensure chances for gain and triumph, but I run a world based on player agency, not player entitlement.  If the players don't go up levels, then by gawd and bloody turnips that is their fault and the die's fault and not mine.

I run a world.  I place things in it, I introduce the people and show the pathways.  I provide the hooks and manage the strange happenstance that drives tension, hilarity and drama.  I fill the coffers that pour out when the coffers are found and I put the monsters and other things between the players and coffers when necessary.

But I guarantee nothing.  Zilch.  The party misjudges the enemy or rolls a string of bad numbers and that is going to be the ball game.  Three strikes, that is all anyone gets, and yes, get ready because the pitches are going to be overhand and as hard as I can throw.  There ain't no packed lunch, there ain't no sympathy in the big city, there ain't no sanity clause and nobody rides for free.

If that ain't the way my players want to play, then they can go head on down to the WOTC clubhouse and have it all handed to them, with gravy on it.  Down there, they can learn to suck eggs with grammie.  Up here in the big leagues, however, we play for keeps . . . and if you lose your bee-swirl pee-wee aggie, that's just too damn bad.

We want no casual players 'round here.

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