Monday, January 4, 2016


This is a very interesting puzzle. In the words of BaronOpal,

". . . this is something that I would have a very difficult time approaching dispassionately due to what I do on a daily basis. I usually have my fill of such pathos during the week. I wouldn't want my playtime to be filled with the same."

The precise context is available in the comments field of my post on addiction.  The Baron's perspective is sensible - we play a game because it provides an escape from the usual difficult, unpleasant aspects of life that we're forced (rather, it is the best means we have) to address in order to pursue our careers, obtain a living wage, support our families and so on.  If we are going to gather together once a week or twice a month to play, then for the love of peace we ought to be able to enjoy ourselves.

It is - as we all know from endless online flame wars that have long since reduced themselves to mere embers since - a slippery slope.  Is it okay to have a character lose a precious item?  A level?  To die?  How much humiliation can a DM apply before stepping across the line and spoiling a session?  How much squick?  How dear can the jokes or barbs from other players become before the 'fun' is ruined?

I have no interest in answering any of these questions with this post.  They've been hashed and rehashed and most of us have our opinions already.  Let's accept that it's very easy to prick a player's sense of dignity and self, promoting a sense of shame or encouraging vulnerability.

I can certainly attest to this myself.  I am profoundly vulnerable as a DM.  I'm concerned about the enjoyment of my players, about the quality of my presentation, about the degree of expectation I place upon my players to manage the paperwork I expect, how much each player is talking and whether or not I'm 'failing' in my own expectations about running a sandbox vs. railroaded world.  These are things I think about all the time and to run my campaign, I don't have the luxury of being certain my playtime won't be spoiled when I fuck up, try to gloss over something the players call me on or actually lose my temper because I'm running a lot of numbers and events happening all at once.

I get around this pressure by reminding myself that I can trust my players (they get angry at me and I forgive them, it works both ways) and that I'm not really seeing any of running my campaign as 'playtime.'

It may be pretentious and all, but I see myself pursuing a form of art.  To explain that, I'd like to reverse the circumstances of the addiction post I wrote last week.  Let's suppose that, in the sandbox I'm trying to run, a character imposes their desire for an addiction on me.

For the sake of argument, we'll say that I don't have an addiction result in my character background generator (I could remove it), but that a player wishing to have an experience they're not enjoying in the real world emphasizes that they'd like to run a character that is addicted to, say, opium.

It isn't that far-fetched.  Writers every day sit down to write stories about persons with addictions, in order to vicariously comment upon the world or explore the interactions between people caught up in something over which they have no control - resembling, in a lot of ways, their own feelings of helplessness, resentment, lack of self-control or whatever in ways that may have nothing to do with something as fine-edged as drug use.  Suppose, for example, I have trouble dealing with my family or speaking my mind when among groups.  These are troubles that can be cathartically evaluated through having a character who experiences a concrete impotence resulting from a concrete substance, something everyone has a least a little experience with and who can therefore relate directly to the problem.

If this player wants to do this in my 'sandbox' world, am I allowed to opt out?  Do I turn to the player and say, "My family are all alcoholics; I'm an alcoholic; I refuse to let you run your character in this manner, period."

This is precisely the sort of crap that ended my interest in running in anyone's world - that I wasn't allowed to do things because the DM had a problem.  Very early on, and here I mean when I was 15, I made a vow with myself that I would let players off that chain.  Though that has been challenged from time to time by things like player-vs-player (which I ban because it destroys games and builds bad blood, even between consenting adults), I strive to compel myself to go along with what players want to do because I think it makes my world better.

Even when that results in things getting squicky.

Things get difficult when I want to hold other people to that standard because it is my world.

While I understand BaronOpal when he describes "the human wreckage that washes into my hospital" as being the reason for not wanting to deal with this kind of thing, I already have a player who watched and experienced that exact same thing in a major metropolitan urban hospital serving a 9-million population base for nine years, when that was her occupation - and she is fine with it.  This makes me wonder if the real issue is that BaronOpal doesn't want to deal with it because he has to all the time or if it's just that BaronOpal hasn't yet dealt with it . . . at all.

Is that a fair question?  Absolutely not.  I apologize for that, Baron.  I don't know you.  I don't pretend to know you.  I only want to clarify the point that the excuse you give doesn't describe every person who is right now or has dealt with the sort of wreckage you're describing.  In other words, that reason alone doesn't cover the spread.  You don't want your playtime filled with the same because you just don't want it.  Period.

And that is very, very, very fair.  No huhu.  But I have been clear already that my world isn't for everyone.

My particular version of playtime includes discomfort and vulnerability.  It includes players getting so upset by what's happening that they actually overload and have to leave the room, or rise up in anger and passion now and then because the degree of immersion is overcoming their defenses or their comfort levels.  Hell, it overwhelms my comfort level all the time.  I used to have this same experience in certain kinds of theater with directors, actors or technicians who would lose it to the point where tirades ended in damaged equipment and sets.

None of this happens because my players are bumfuzzled or because the people I used to work with - for free, most of the time - on stage were deranged.  It's because the level of investment was high, incredibly high, even though none of us were required to take part even for the sake of a paycheque.

Allow me a personal disclosure:  when I was 17 and in high school, the fellow-student who dared to become director of the play we were going to put on that year had a father who had the clout necessary to present The Boys in the Band.  This is a daring, extremely uncomfortable play written about seven homosexual men and one unsure-but-certain-he's-heterosexual man that opened in 1968.  I was in this play in my grade 12 year.  I played the character Hank.  Hank is gay.  I am not gay.  Nevertheless, there is a kiss between Hank and his boyfriend Larry that takes place in the third act.

I was asked many times leading up to my being cast and after I was cast whether or not I would be able to handle the kiss.  The actor playing Larry was, for the record, gay.  We all knew this about Dave, even though it was 1981.  He was a dead ringer for Ric Ocasek of the cars.  Larry's problem with the scene was that he did not feel comfortable kissing another man while knowing his lover, Michael, was going to be in the audience.  Dave, I and Michael worked it all out and when the scene happened (we rehearsed it twice, the presented it once in front of an audience), there were no hard feelings.

Now, was it playtime?  No, I wouldn't say it was.  It felt like work, it felt serious, Dave and I both wanted to be in the business and it was a huge issue for Dave's relationship.  Was it something I was forced to deal with?  No, I could have opted out at any time.  I felt, substantially, that the kiss (written into the play and critical to the plot) was more important than my sexual proclivities.

Did I enjoy doing the play?  Absolutely.  I opened myself up to someone else's take on the world and expanded as a person, cathartically, while thoroughly enjoying the camaraderie of performing while getting the added bonus of pissing off parents, school trustees and one vice-principal, none of whom were actually involved with the play but all of whom felt duty-bound to stop it (as though stopping one small high school from performing the play would end the open and well-known homosexuality that we all knew, even at that time, existed).

I don't think the experience would have been fulfilling if we had played it safe and put on something like Guys and Dolls or Teahouse of the August Moon, both popular family-choices.  I think my outlook, my ideas about performing, my ability to handle it later on when gay actors would hit on me rampantly backstage, were all heightened by my experience and awareness.

I see D&D and role-playing as having the same potential and power to change the way people think about themselves.  I don't want my world limited only to what people are comfortable with based on their already-held notions and experiences about what should happen on a given evening of play.  On the contrary, I believe there's room to promote the possibility of anything happening . . . even if that temporarily sucks to the extreme for the given player.

We're all friends.  We'll be there to help pick the player up again when they've overloaded.  That's what we do.  That's what comes from booting selfish people from my campaign.  Everyone left is empathic . . . even if they do take it awfully seriously.

Perhaps, Baron, you might not feel the experience was dealt with as dispassionately as you suggest.  Perhaps you might find ways to laugh at it or get a new angle on it.  I play with people with all sorts of personal experience, who are friendly and able to talk about those experiences.  You might find you're not quite as full as you think you are.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Alexis

    To what extent would you say that the way you play is "method acting"? I understand that it's not the most extreme form of it (since you don't fence or ride a horse to "train" for D&D), but I'm always grapping with ways to try to converge your ideas to my own public, the seriousness of your ways, your commitment, the way you've managed to consistenly maintain immersion into the game. That is, ways that are shorter that reciting your posts word by word but more informative than "Go read the Tao". Would be "method acting" a good description? And if not, how could I explain?

    I think I understand, but then I cannot explain it, thus I really don't understand.

  2. I think you came to an incorrect conclusion with my imprecise language.

    It’s not the squick that would necessarily bother me, although it can be quite so, but rather that combined with the fatigue and boredom. Fatigue, because helping people through their withdrawal is tiring, especially when they’re trying to deck you. Why would I want some echo of the same? Boredom, because having my character be an addict would probably bore me. If you were trying to engage me as a player and make me feel, I would need something else. Through the lens of my patients, I have seen most of the stories addiction has to tell. Maybe this explanation widens the spread.

    Now, if I chose to have my character to experiment with an addictive substance and he became an addict, I would be completely fine with that. I have no problem taking emotional risks with characters and living with the consequences. The difference is that it would be my choice, rather than something imposed upon my character before I had done a single thing with them.

    I would rather have a blank slate whose past and character I explore through the lens of the campaign, is what it comes down to. While I would certainly accept some “direction”, if you will, I see that addiction would take over so much of the character I would need to settle that before I could see who the character was.
    As to my experience, it is an unfair question, as I really can’t prove anything. However, it is an understandable one given I can say anything.

    ”My particular version of playtime includes discomfort and vulnerability.” As does mine. I see your The Boys in the Band with Spoon River Anthology and raise you with To Kill a Mockingbird. (Actually, that’s not really much. I played Judge Taylor, but my son played Dill. It was wonderful to be on stage with him.) I call most things I choose to do that aren’t work or tedious “playtime”. I can see how someone would mistake that for merely frivolity.

    As to your gaming philosophy, I agree and it aligns with mine. I want my players to feel, be challenged, and question their preconceptions. It’s why I read your blog. I think that you would enjoy playing in my game, as I would in yours. The way you describe your group is how I would describe mine. And, I like to think of myself as a flexible human being who tries new things. But, in this situation, you would have to bring your A-game, my friend. I would hate to set you up for failure.

    And besides, what would be the odds that it would come up?

  3. Odds? Pretty low.

    There are other things; choosing to run a woman and starting the game pregnant. Putting that 3 under intelligence and winding up without a leg, a hand or an eye. Having a chronic disease that can't be cured because your constitution is low. Things like that.

    Fair enough, my 'A' game.

    I like the reverse of the 'blank slate,' where the player doesn't choose the same five tropes for establishing their character's indifference, grumbling discontent, perverse selfishness, smarmy superiorcrat or bloody-minded murder-death-killbot proclivity. But we don't always get what we want.

    I am comforted to know that we can take a swing at each other like this from time to time, Baron. My friends never hesitate to smack me down a peg regularly. I hope I can buy you a beer sometime.

  4. Scarbrow,

    Sorry that it took me the day to get back to you. I don't know what to tell you. I don't do much 'acting' in game. Here and there, never scripted, usually just dialogue to provide exposition. Most of my game is flat description, often without much tone or energy because I don't want to give away the importance of things that are very important. I often feel like I repeat myself too much. Or fail to mention something I should have said. Or get the sense I'm talking to an empty house, blank player faces and all.

    I never feel like I've hit the mark until the players turn to each other and start talking. When they drop into problem-solving mode, quizzing themselves, I relax.

    Remember, plays are scripted. My game is not. My strongest ability is that what I have planned for behind pillar is usually so far out of expectation that the players are pleased to learn it's not the same old thing. Monsters don't act like supposed to or motivation strangely normal from some profoundly unnormal beast. Like a chimera that's not looking to raze countryside, just sad and looking for mate. Or a legitimately honest thief/criminal/politician. Whatever I can think of. Then play it straight, not get upset when players do something unexpected as well.

    "Method Acting" is trying to manage the experience of acting by making it 'real' - my best comparison would be to take the world and what is happening in it seriously, and convince the players to do the same. Then recognizing when the players aren't, stomping on that and not letting them use snark, jokes or changing the subject as a defense mechanism.

    That's all that meta-gaming is, really. Defense mechanism. An unconscious coping strategy that denies or distorts the in-game content so that it can be more readily seen as "just a game" and therefore not important. Remove option for this through social pressure and games get more serious. Serious games get more passionate and more immersive.

  5. Your answers are as tracked as our comments, Alexis, don't worry about the time. Through your teachings I'm slowly coming around to realize that social pressure and social contract are really what make the roleplaying game unique, and what brings the special moments that cannot be had on other forms of games. Thank you.

  6. I wish I had put it that simply, Scarbrow. Well done.


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