Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Second Look

Hm.  Yesterday's post got off the chain, no question about it.

I was thinking of this line from Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (this is my second reference, so the reader knows I'm reading the book right now, not for the first time):

"In order to make somebody laugh, you have to be interesting . . . and in order to be interesting, you have to do things that are mean."

It doesn't just apply to funny; it really applies to everything.  The application to humor comes from forcing your audience to listen, to take a second look at what you're trying to say - because if you haven't got your audience's attention, they'll miss the line up for the punchline.  Their attention will wander.

If we're writing anything, we have to start with taunting the reader.  We have to title the piece in a way that makes people annoyed.  We have to challenge the reader to be good enough.  We have to make not being good enough matter.  If there's any chance of convincing the reader that there's something to aspire to, we have to supply the reader with the ideal that some people are good enough while implying that the reader isn't.

That's mean.  It gets under the reader's skin and makes the reader interested.  The reader gets argumentative - and being argumentative is a way of being involved.  We get nowhere as writers if the reader isn't involved.

If we approach writing without being mean, what's written can be easily dismissed.  While reading it, yes, the observer may feel a bit stroked, may find themselves nodding or encouraged . . . but that feeling passes almost immediately when the content is done.  There's no thinking process that follows, no piecing together of the author's intent.  There's a brief lingering of oxytocin, the encouragement that we're all together in this, but there's no substantive development.  It is a hug from a stranger; something that we appreciate when there's no one else to hug.

When reading things that disturb our equilibrium and promote our anger and derision, we're immediately challenged to work through the motivations we possess for making the decisions we've made.  I'm annoyed when I listen to some conservative or Republican spew talking points but it centers my self-perception as a liberal and a socialist.  I'm angry but I'm listening.  I'm engaged.  So I find myself returning to things that enrage me . . . I find myself thinking about them for days, deconstructing both the arguments I'm hearing and my own arguments.  In the process I'm not only informed about what others believe - I am also more informed about what I believe.

This is part of why I'm not concerned with being virtuous about the beliefs of others.  Hammering at the beliefs of others by imposing mine - by tagging a series of visceral instincts in the way of being a good writer - compels the reader to rethink, rehash and reconfirm what they believe.  In the process, if there's anything the reader has taken for granted, anything they haven't truly thought through . . . then in rehashing it themselves, they're going to feel uncomfortable for days.  That's why people who disagree with me still come back and read this blog; because they disagree with me.

This is why people who disagree with each other so strongly can still be friends; because at the heart of it, the principles of belief for both parties are based upon investigation rather than conciliation.  Neither cares if they resolve their differences; that is not the desire.  The desire is that all parties should continue to ensure, daily, that they haven't somehow deluded themselves.

Bringing us back to D&D and the subject of a good party.  It's usually presumed that to have a good party, conciliation is the Holy Grail.  Somehow, we think, we will encourage these players to get along with one another, to think together and be a party with a single, positive agenda.  With that conciliation in mind, we rush to destroy anything that doesn't sound like conciliation.  A disagreement starts and we crush it.  Two players absolutely resist taking part in the same activity and we try to step in and compel them to accept one or the other choice.  We make them roll dice to see who gets the highest roll, to force one or the other participant to adhere for the sake of adherence.  We shout, "Can't we all just get along?"

Many people who read yesterday's post immediately leapt to a conclusion that I browbeat my players into total agreement with an agenda which I probably impose, shouting down anyone who dares murmur a contrary word.  They see my table as an absolutist regime, where the player makes a peep and I land on them with both feet.  It is assumed that what I want is conciliation - where, in fact, I want anything but.

My players don't hesitate to shout back.  Those who read yesterday's post, who failed to grasp that, can't be held at fault; I deliberately left it out.  Because I understand how most tables work.  The DM does have absolute authority, most anywhere.  I knew it would be taken as a defacto truth that I must have such authority as well.  But I don't.  My authority does not derive from it being my world or my game, but from the legitimacy that my players grant to those things.  My players understand this granting of authority and as such they will, without hesitation, fight with me.  And with each other.  And I let them.  Because a party does not become a 'party' through DM-enforced conciliation, but from the privilege of being allowed to disagree and say so loudly.

I also deliberately left out the legitimacy of my position by failing to point out that as I shout at you and boot you from my table, the other players will be applauding.  They will want you gone as much as I do.

I wasn't specific about what are "the wrong questions" a player will ask, but I'll link a post from back in 2012 where I talk about that in depth.  I should have done that with yesterday's post but I was rolling and I missed the opportunity.  That was an example of bad writing.

The arguments around the table can get pretty rowdy at times.  Mostly, I keep out of it.  I don't have to police my players because they know how to argue; now and then I have to keep them on track, particularly with a married couple I have running.  They get going on a game point and hoo boy! - better get your flak jacket on.  Because these two people care.  I mean they really fucking care.

I'll offer advice and clarify what one player is saying to another, if needed.  I'll keep them from physical contact.  But the final resolution for any problem is up to them, not me.

I haven't had the kind of players I'd boot for a long, long time.  Barrow, in yesterday's comments, gave an excellent example of that kind of player:

". . . I have a Fighter who is motivated to build an army for conquest. There was a 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 the PC motivations, such as removing the fighter's motives in the cases above, am I essentially railroading or is the agency still there . . ."

I'm quite sure that most readers recognize the situation - but at the same time, most will fail to see the problem.  The assumption will be that here we have players who can't agree on the agenda at hand and are therefore operating at cross-purposes.  There's no conciliation.

That is not the problem, however.  The problem is that the player has turned to the DM for appeal.  And the DM accepts, somehow, that the player is allowed to do this.  This sets the DM up as the final word in sorting out player disputes . . . and everything from there gets bolluxed up.

In such a situation, the answer is, "Tell them, not me.  Work this out with your fellow players."  And then to refuse to run until the players sort it out.

It cannot be sorted out from on high.

The problems lead to a player being shouted at or booted begin where the player refuses to accept this ruling.  It's taken me two posts to get here and I've had to mess with the reader's head, but this is a very important point.  Players who refuse to deal with other players, who continually treat their fellow players with disregard or contempt because they know they can appeal again and again to a weak DM, are bad players.  They need to have their thought processes corrected.  They need to have it explained to them that gameplay based on "what my character would do" or player-vs-player or anything that tacitly demands the DM's approval is wrongheadedness in the extreme.  Brought about by DMs who think it IS their responsibility to adjudicate in this manner.

It is always presumed that if two players were to launch into PvP in my world, that I would sternly reprimand them and tell them to cut it out.  Not at all.  The only solution that needs applying is to make it clear that no one is dead.  No one can be dead until I, the DM, say they are.  And I won't say it.  Go ahead, fight it out, if you can do that without the other players telling you to cut it out and get your heads back in the game . . . but when it's all over, it means shit.

No one is dead.  And no one is having a personal quest if I won't run it.  Nor are there any town guards to be found if I won't answer the question and feed the player's selfishness.

I am not the player's enabler.  I'm the enemy.  I'm the player's worst nightmare - which is why smart players get together in defense.  I'm not anyone's buddy at the table . . . and when players won't accept that, then there's always trouble.

Funny, though.  Players, I find, love that I'm not the arbiter of their issues.  They love it.  If there's one reason why I have a successful, positive world, despite my personal nature, it's that.  The players make me a DM.  In return, I give them freedom.


  1. I know making How to Run nearly killed you, but you're really whetting my appetite for Volume 2.

  2. Gladwell also says in "David and Goliath" that most progress is made by disagreeable people not just willing but wired to stir things up. ;-)

  3. I remember that section very well, James - the doctor and leukemia - and all through it I could not help seeing a lot of myself in the context. Sadly, I've never achieved anything as remarkable, but I understood very well the mindset of the man who would not be backed down for the sake of convenience or politics.

  4. I took a second look at this and its still great advice. Thank you!


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