Tuesday, September 1, 2015

No, You Can't Play in My World

I play D&D with my friends.  In the case of my daughter, with my family.  I don't think that gets in the way of this post, however, since I hold my friends to the same standards as I would hold new D&D players.

If it chanced that I moved to Seattle, Toronto or Phoenix, I know there are readers of this blog who would be very interested in joining my game.  I think I could do very well in Chicago, Atlanta, Providence or Portland - on the west coast, at least.  I've heard from readers from Vancouver, Winnipeg, Omaha and San Diego, too . . . and overseas in Manchester, Wellington, Strasbourg and Madrid.  You know who you are.

I don't write this to pat myself on the back, sorry.  I write it to make clear the point that were my circumstances different, I would probably find myself playing with relative strangers - for a little while, anyway, until they made the cut and became my friends.

'Made the cut'?  I'm sorry, maybe that wasn't clear.  Some of you are not good enough to play in my world.

There will be many different responses to that, but two of them will stand out.

One Group, particularly of those readers who are already thinking, "I wouldn't play in that guy's world if -" [fill in expletive here], feels on some exceptional level that they don't deserve to be judged.  Ever.  Certainly not in terms of how they play the game.  Even less so for how well they play the game - which, and I'm not kidding here, fucking matters to me.  If the reader can't play with ability, the reader is not welcome.  And what do I mean by ability?  Well . . . that's the point, isn't it?

The Other Group, they have smiles on their faces.  Right now.  They know exactly what I mean by 'ability.'  And they don't doubt for a second that they have it.

Ability is enthusiasm.  Verve.  Commitment.  A strong desire to play.  An awareness of other players and their equally strong desire to play.  Empathy for those players.  Most of all, a resolve to make the game work, both for themselves and for me - for every damn person at the table.

"Oh," says one of the first Group.  "I have that.  No biggie."

I wonder.  Because here's what's going to happen if I find you sitting at my table without enthusiasm, a will to pay attention and as much commitment to the game as I have.  Here's what's going to happen if I catch you selfishly pressing your own agenda with a big fuck-you to your fellow players.  Here's what's going to happen if I catch you with indifference towards another player's situation or troubles - and gawd help you if you show mirth at someone's downfall.

I'm going to boot you.

I'm not going to be kind about it.  You'll get some warning - and unless you're living down being the kid of an alcoholic or some other abusive childhood, you're going to feel that warning down to your bones.  See, I was a kid among alcoholics and I did have an abused childhood so I come from an awful lot of anger - anger that sort of comes to a pleasant simmer that provides a measurable tension at my gaming table.  Some of my players really like it; they know how controlled I am, how on the edge I am . . . and that makes for really good game play.  When I say 'roll' the players do it.

I know that some readers here think I must be a bean-counter during my games.  They think it must all be accounting and rules lawyering.  Um, no.  I'm working, I'm rushing, I'm getting older and it is very easy to wear my patience thin.  That's why, if you're a fucking tourist, you can catch the next bus.

Worse, I'm a social justice warrior.  I really, truly hate seeing anyone unfairly abuse themselves or anyone else.  Unfairly abuse . . . that's not a casual distinction.  Come sit at my table willingly, of your own free will, and get ready.  Because if you fuck around, you're going to hear it from me.

Yet with all this, I have players.  Passionate, loyal, dedicated players that don't miss sessions - unless they're in a hospital or they absolutely cannot get out of a wedding or a shift.  After which I listen to a long, self-abasing speech these players give about how fucking mad they were when they found out they couldn't play.

See, they're not sorry.  They're pissed.

The Other Group is smiling again.

Let me explain something about why you don't have a group like mine.  You're not angry enough.  You're not righteous enough.  You're putting up with way, way more shit than you should be.  You're turning a blind eye to suffering and abuse at your table because you're too much of a chicken shit to step up.  You're cowed.  You're afraid of losing a player.

Whereas I can't wait to show those players the door.  Can't.  Wait.  I can feel it five minutes into a session, when they start to ask the wrong questions and start to make statements about their character's motivations and . . . I can just feel my blood heating from a simmer to a boil.

Just give me a fucking reason, I'm thinking.  Just one reason.

This works because the players I've already collected are just as ready to get rid of the new player every bit as much as I am . . . and because I will hold back until the line is crossed.  I'll make the line very clear, I'll warn the player back from it . . . and I'll make it clear I'm the sort of person that means what I say.

I do get players who aren't afraid of me.  Like I say, if we've both had the same upbringing, if we've both learned the same lessons in childhood, if we've both set our minds to being right while the other person is wrong . . . hell yes, they're not going to scare.  That's a given.

But those people break down into two groups, as well.  People who learned from those lifetime lessons and just want to fucking play - in which case we get along great, even if we lose our tempers with each other - and people who learned nothing from those lifetime lessons.  In which case, I don't want them around.

Now that first group is thinking, "I really, really wouldn't play in that psycho bastard's world if -" [fill in lots and lots of expletives here]

Good riddance.  No great loss.

Everyone else makes the cut.  Everyone else gets to keep coming back and playing in a great world where we're all invested.  Because everyone not invested was shown the door.

Ever walk along with someone when they're shown the door?  It's all sour grapes.  All of it.  They tried out, it sucked, they didn't make the cut and they are understandably pissed.  Hey, seriously.  Understandably.  I get it.  I've been booted.  I haven't made the cut.  I've failed to measure up.  Everyone has.  It is a fundamental lesson in life.  You, me, none of us get everything we want - and it is worse when we realize after the fact that we've just humiliated ourselves in trying to have something that, afterwards, we realized we never did want.

That's how I started this post.  By saying that the people who stay are those who want it.  When I say that, I mean they want it hard.  I mean they're ready to put up with be shouted at or forced to withdraw what they've said or change their minds about how the game should be played or what the hell they're doing there.  That's what committed means:  that when someone tells me what the rules are, I don't think, "Fuck, those are shit rules" . . . I think, "That's going to take adjustment."  On my part.  Not the part of the table.  Not the part of others.  My part.

The players that stay in my world, who enjoy my flashes of passion, who like the rigor and the structure and the ungodly tension, they're people who think that way.  If you, gentle reader, gentle misused reader, revolted and disgusted with my attitude, don't think that way, then you're very welcome not to want to play in my world.

There's only so much room around the table as it is.

I can't accommodate everyone.

As such, I feel justified in accommodating only a few, in exactly the way I want to accommodate anyone.  Conditionally.

If you, O dear DM, haven't figured out that about your table yet . . . jeez, I don't know what to tell you.


  1. Spot on. Very apropos for me at this moment, just having disbanded a campaign that wasn't working and regrouped with the solid players.

    There's always going to be this other group of us who are very grateful for the wisdom we read here, despite knowing we'll never have the chance to experience your game firsthand.

  2. I often wonder what your inbox looks like after a post like this - whether the masses respond in kind and what they have to say...

  3. I know I am a shit for parsing a single line from your post, but I am interested enough to ask and you may be interested enough to respond.

    "[New players]...start to make statements about their character's motivations. . . I can just feel my blood heating from a simmer to a boil."

    What occurred to me after reading that line is that I may have perversely lumped PC motivation (and PC agenda) with player agency. In other words, a player can have full agency in a world without ever achieving any of their PC's motivation. With this in mind, it could be that you disregard PC motivations as totally irrelevant, distracting, and unnecessary. Maybe you disregard them entirely? Or do you, as I previously thought, give value to player motivations so long as they don't trample over other players' motivations, agenda, accomplishments, enjoyment, etc...?

    I am trying to envision what the former would look like in my campaign. For example, I have a Fighter who is motivated to build an army for conquest. There was one time where the Fighter's motive to build an army led him to choose a personal quest over dealing with the group's currently chosen quest.

    Similarly, the fighter might say, "I am only interested in building an army, not getting involved in local problems. Where are the town guards?" Thus, justifying why the group should essentially skip this hook and focus on their own personal agendas.

    If I overrule PC motivations, such as removing the fighter's motives in the cases above, am I essentially railroading or is the agency still there and I am forcing my players to play a better game?

  4. Ozymandias,

    Mostly it's a lot of finger wagging and offense at my poor attitude - without taking into account that if I were abusing my players, they wouldn't come back. People tend to assume that if I'm prepared to raise my voice and boot an asshole, then obviously I talk to everyone that way.


    While I am a long-term advocate for player agency, once that personal agency challenges the whole group's agency, the game grinds to a halt.

    My players are thrilled to be playing in a game where the party's agency is respected and foremost. I run seven people in my one campaign and no one EVER makes up their mind to do their own thing. I don't have to corral them - it simply never comes up.

    Good players want to play together towards a common goal. They want to talk with each other to decide what that goal will be and they want a DM who will let them decide for themselves.

    But if someone new joins the game and decides it's about going their own selfish way, no one in the party wants to deal with that shit. They want an enforcer to handle that - me.

    For the record, there is a HUGE difference between player agency and player 'character' agency. The first is what the player wants. The second is an agenda that the player decides the character SHOULD want - and that is always a bad, bad sign. I hear that and I know trouble is coming.

  5. abused people "don't come back"? come on, alexis, you know much better than this.

    "You're putting up with way, way more shit than you should be. You're turning a blind eye to suffering and abuse at your table because you're too much of a chicken shit to step up. You're cowed. You're afraid of losing a player."

    sure sounds like someone is "coming back for more abuse" ...

    booting assholes is not the issue (every sensible person would boot assholes). your claim that players in your game have to suffer abuse at your hands to show commitment is. i am still waiting for those examples of when you consider it appropriate to shout at a player.

  6. I'm letting your comment through, shlominus, because the readers here are entitled to see what it means to miss the point entirely.

    It's possible you didn't read today's post, so that you're unaware how the post you're commenting on was a deliberate misdirection. I think it very likely that you presume, like most people, that the 'shouting' is one-way; that my players don't also shout at me; and that on the whole, people shouting at one another is a natural expression of wholesome emotion, despite the plethora of voices actively seeking to repress it.

    I read fear in your comment, shlominus. Fear and defensiveness. And a great many assumptions you were intended to make, for, as I said in today's post, this is how we make people engaged.

    Let me make something very clear. I'm not arguing that my players continue to play because abused people don't come back or because they are coming back for more abuse. They continue to play because they get something in my world they don't get elsewhere. They're fearless, passionate and strongly empathic for others like themselves; they want to play with others who are both uninhibited and generous in spirit, mind and intent.

    Those who quickly leap to the conclusions you have leapt to here, shlominus, who are quick to assume the worst based on a few careful omissions, who identify all 'shouting' as 'abuse,' who cannot imagine for themselves that there are legitimate circumstances to shout at a player, are rarely generous.

    Sometimes, people need a good shout. They need to feel free enough to shout, without the moral straight jacket and judgement.

    And sometimes, where an immunity against shouting is established, selfish, ungenerous people enjoy the rife passive aggressiveness that proliferates, where no one ever dares call anyone out for anything they might do, for fear of being tagged 'abusive.'

    There are all sorts of ways to abuse people, shlominus. Many of them are quiet. All of them are dishonest. But you need not fear - when I shout at you, I will honestly do so, saying very sincerely all the things I truly, deeply believe.

    I will have reasons to shout at you, believe that. And while I'm shouting, you'll have every one crisply laid out for you, in order.

    It's up to you to listen.


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