Friday, September 4, 2015

Step Back

Surely people are aware that many D&D worlds thrive on abuse.

I haven't yet been to any group event where I've witnessed DMs and players where I haven't witnessed first hand evidence of defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling and contempt.  That is because when human beings interact with one another - whether having known each other for years or having just met at a gaming table - they habitually seek advantage.  In such situations, these four emotions cannot help emerging.

Players and DMs alike feel they are being attacked for what they believe or what they do, and they immediately speak to clarify, protect themselves and forestall judgment because they feel inherently what's coming: a concerted effort, they believe, to change who they are or how they behave in favor of the 'opposition.'  Defensiveness comes from distrust, which most players and DMs feel for each other, particularly if they don't know each other.  Every dictum brought down by the DM seems to force the distrustful player into a corner and the player responds by balking.  Every suggestion the player has for the DM's style of running seems to disparage the value of the DM's world and as a result the DM becomes guarded and uptight.  Both sides seek to interrupt what the other side might suggest before the suggestion is even made, in fear of what might be said - and in the process, no one at the table listens because everyone is so engaged with protecting their own viewpoint.

To get past this defensiveness, both sides grow more critical.  At first, both sides try to reason, but faced with an overwhelming unwariness the DM or the Player becomes more insistent and less polite about presenting their point of view.  The argument adjusts from what "I Believe" to what "You Believe" - with the latter subject to all sorts of correction and assessment.  Every statement made by the opposition is then parsed, just as it is here on the internet, consistently as a phrase unto itself without any recognition of the context.  Every detail of the other side's perspective is drawn out and pulled under a microscope, evaluated and nit-picked for every flaw.  At this stage there is no potential for trust, since the matter has ceased to be about two people disagreeing and has become about the perfect right answer, couched in language which neither side can agree upon.  This is why semantic arguments always erupt at this point . . . because in determining what's right and what's wrong, the final arbiter that both sides turn to is the definition of the very words they're using.  Semantics always fail, however, because language is far too fluid a mechanism to satisfactorily demonstrate how others are wrong.

Sooner or later, one or the other side surrenders.  The sides agree to disagree or someone simply shuts down.  There's nothing left to say - and if there were, at least one side realizes there's no point in saying it.  The walls go up.  Communication ends.  If we're not going to listen to each other, then better that we don't speak to each other.  Certainly not about this.  Leaving everyone at the table in limbo.  The matter is unresolved.  Those who are left with the task of running the game or wishing still to participate sit quietly, unsure of what to say or do.  One or the other combatant - for that's what they've become - is pointedly silent.  Whatever they might say is dismissive, spoken like the snap of a pencil: "Whatever."  "Sure."  "I'm here."

And so begins the contempt.  We've disagreed and now nothing, ever, can reconcile the wound that has been caused.  I will not forgive, I will not forget.  We're done.

This last can become such a style of participation, especially from the DM, that the beginning of the campaign incorporates it.  The DM approaches the entire game in defiance of the players.  The DM will remark openly, to the players, on how they behave or what they believe, ridiculing them for being players, all in good 'fun' and mockery.  It is a defense mechanism.  This is how it goes: "Before anyone can begin arguing with anyone, let me as the DM make it clear: I view you all with disdain."

It can be subtle.  It can also be openly pompous and arrogant.  But contempt is defensiveness in the extreme - it is the natural progression of all human disagreement, to where we hold others in disregard because to do otherwise would be to let our guard down.

This contempt DMs hold is so pervasive in the community that I have time and again seen and read DMs who declare it with pride and pleasure.  And so have you, gentle reader.

When I wrote my piece about the reader not playing in my world, titling the post that way, naturally my position was equated with what we have all encountered . . . because this is where our experience lies.  Those who rushed forward to condemn me and wag fingers did so because they've been wounded; but the need to do so, with someone in whose world these people will never run, is defensiveness too.  It is the hope that if every DM can be corrected to behave properly, then finally the game will be played as it should be played.

Sadly, the pattern of advantage I describe above does not apply merely to gaming, as we well know.  It applies to the workplace, it applies to family and it applies to marriage.  It is how we are.

I'm in agreement that it should be resisted.  But we cannot make things better by making assumptions, acting defensively and criticizing a campaign and a DM based upon a single post or even a whole blog, with someone's world where we have never played.  Feeling the need to rush forward and 'save the world by amending what I say says more about the criticizer than the criticized.

Step back, take a breath, evaluate your own motivations and then ask questions.  And when the questions come back with answers that make your blood boil, then step back again.

It is what I have been forcing myself to do over and over these last 18 months, as I get my own anger as a default under control.  Because we are probably, none of us, wrong.  Though it has been very hard for me to make myself believe that.

I'm no better than anyone.