Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Boldest Experiment

I was asked if I could satisfactorily answer the following:
"What happens when a character dies in a per-pay enterprise like this? Should they expect not to? Imagine the furor around a video game costing $59 where character death was permanent. Now multiply that by 100."

Sigh.  This makes me sad.  The very intention of the "what if" scenario proposes that people have become so fragile, so needy, so entitled that if they were to spend money for the privilege of playing a game, the ensuing tantrum of their dashed privilege would grow so onerous that my resolution would be swept away in a hurricane of screaming, self-righteous hysterics.

Multiply that by 100.

One hundred of what, exactly?  100 commenters on the internet?  100 players?  I'm certainly not capable of running 100 players at the same time and I find it impressively unlikely that I would be killing 100 players simultaneously if I was.  That would truly be a total party kill, not to be matched in the annals of the game.

But let's imagine that someone has chosen to play in my campaign - and that I've rolled a die, or they have, and as a result they've died.  They are so invested in the game, so invested in their character, that they choose to seek compensation for the death of this character through a means that will cause me harm in some manner.  Let's further assume that this person's perception of me turns so black over the death of this character (remember, paid for), that they truly, deeply, intensely hate me.  We need to multiply something by 100: let's multiply this hatred.  What are the possibilities?

Well, I'm on the internet with my real name.  It's reasonable to assume that someone truly motivated could choose to seek me out, hunt me down and kill me.  This is not the first time I've speculated about something like this.  A little over four years ago, I had a little troll who wrote nasty messages and personal threats and a lot of other things, causing me to remember the story of Billy Pilgrim and Paul Lazzaro from Slaughterhouse Five.

So it goes.

My father, who is 80 now, cannot get it into his head even after forty years of my deciding to be a writer that this occupation actually requires that I be, well, publicly known.  Just a month ago he was cautioning me in serious tones to "be careful" about who knows me on the internet because there are people out there just waiting to use personal information about me to destroy any chance of my getting a "good job."  He is, without a question, a doomsayer of the first order; I remember back in high school, when we first got a Betamax Video Recorder, that my father discouraged us from speaking about it to our friends, arguing basically, "If word gets out that we have one of these, there are people who wouldn't hesitate to break into our house to get it."

Today, my father lives in the same house that I lived in when I was zero.  That house, today, is worth around $800,000.  It sits amid a bunch of other houses that are also worth one hell of a lot of money - and it always has.  We would try to explain to my father that every person in our neighborhood owned a VCR, but that never seemed to get through.

Oh, in case someone is thinking right now, "Why doesn't your father help you?"  Well . . . in the original Fun With Dick and Jane, Jane goes to ask her father for money and gets this speech:

Father: "All right.  It's the monsoon season . . . and you're standing outside in torn raincoats.  Come through this by yourselves and you'll be dry for the rest of your lives.  Take money from me and you'll be wet.  Soaking wet from now on.  Jane, it's the best thing that could happen.  Especially for Dick.  I'm so happy for both of you.  Especially for Dick."
Jane:  "Dad, Billy is doing his work by candlelight."
Father:  "Splendid!  So did Abraham Lincoln."
Jane:  "How are you both doing."
Father:  "Never better!  Jane . . . we have sowed all our lives, and we're now reaping the harvest!  Reap!  Reap!  REAP!"
(this vid was the best I could find)

So, basically, I'm not deserving.

Okay, so I've gone around the barn, down to the store, gotten into an argument with the hairdresser next door and now I'm on my way home.  1.  I already have a public persona; 2. I've already been not liked; 3. every public persona risks some nutjob turning up some day; 4. Given my upbringing, I ought to be insanely paranoid but I've chosen not to be.

Let's contend with a far more likely scenario.  Said player's character dies.  Said player is unhappy.  Said player shouts about it on the internet, tries to raise x100 angry sentiment against me.

Sorry.  I don't see it.  First of all, I don't exactly know what horrible thing can be said about me that hasn't already been said.  Someone could claim to know something about me that's horrible - but that's already been claimed and it turns out that making shit up on the internet is quite ordinary.

Moreover, I ask the readership: consider if this argument would produce much sympathy:

"I paid $100 to play a role-playing game online and my character was killed.  And now I want justice."

Is there a way to add information to that argument that doesn't make the person sound, well . . . I'll refrain from the expletive.  I can at least feel reassured that, living in Canada, there's no practical way to bring a grudge suit against me on the basis of "I'm very rich and I like to use the system to fuck with people."  The legal system is different here; bringing suit is not just a matter of having money.  Moreover, I'd be operating under the legal disclaimer that exists on the Patreon website: so that as long as I follow Patreon's rules, I'm protected.  It would be very hard to bring a suit against Patreon at this time and there are much bigger fish in the kettle to contend with if that were the case.

As near as I can tell, this leaves my personal feeling of remorse or regret at killing a player character, given that someone has paid me for the privilege.  This leaves my self-esteem and my resolve in the face of pure, unbridled hatred, as I am told that I have committed a sin by running a fair and reasonable game in which a die roll may result in a character running out of hit points and being killed.

In 1985's Lost in America, the character's wife loses all the money the couple has at a Las Vegas Casino - and in one of the most painful scenes ever filmed in the history of American cinema, Albert Brooks, director and writer of the film, spends six minutes arguing with the owner of the casino in a vain attempt to get his money back.  I'll link the last four minutes of that conversation.

I don't know what sort of person could watch that scene and identify with Albert Brooks - but if that sort of person wants to give me money to play in my world, that sort of person is going to find that I'm on the casino owner's side.

Imagine the furor.

Yeah.  Furor.  Imagine it.

I'm just shaking in my boots.


  1. In Chapter Five of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, "The Three Lessons of Joe Flom," he makes a point about people who are born in 1935 (p. 133 et al). The issue is that there were 600,000 LESS babies born in 1935, so that it was the bottom of the trough where demographics were concerned in America (the same pattern applies to Canada, as it was the deep depression and people resisted bringing more mouths to feed into the world).

    Gladwell's book includes this quote from economist H. Scott Gordon, regarding what life was like for a person born in 1935:

    "When he opens his eyes for the first time, it is in a spacious hospital, well-appointed staff to serve the wave that preceded him. The staff is generous with their time, since they have little to do while they ride out the brief period of calm until the next wave hits. When he comes to school age, the magnificent buildings are already there to receive him; the ample staff of teachers welcomes him with open arms. In High School, the basketball team is not as good as it was but there is no problem getting time on the gymnasium floor. The university is a delightful place; lots of room in the classes and residences, no crowding in the cafeteria and the professors are solicitous. Then he hits the job market. The supply of new entrants is low and the demand is high, because there is a large wave coming behind him providing a strong demand for the goods and services of his potential employers."

    My father was born in early March, 1936.

  2. But the actual thing that would happen if someone died in your pay-to-play campaign is that the player would have the chance to either re-roll a new character or pick up play with a hireling/henchman of their old character, right? I mean, it isn't like you would kick a PLAYER out of the game if their first character died, correct?

    The only way I could see someone getting pissed off is if you just kicked them out of the game if their character died and kept their money. Otherwise, what the hell are they doing playing D&D if they weren't aware of the possibility of character death.

  3. Carl,

    This is a FAR larger issue that worries me than someone being disappointed. What if I am disappointed? What if I am saddled with a toxic player who has the money to pay but refuses to participate in a friendly manner with the group; or acts abusively in a game towards me or others?

    I want the freedom to refund their money and boot them - and this has to be made clear ahead of time, that playing is a privilege, not a right, though one may pay money. A club or a theme park has security that will remove anyone behaving inappropriately - and just for the record, this is why bars do not run tabs and why a drunk is not given the price of the drink he is forced to leave on the table when he's ejected. Nor do I think Disneyland refunds money to people that security escorts off the grounds.

    I don't have that kind of authority, however, which is why I say I'd want to refund money; but I'd also want to make it clear that the money refunded would only be for the latest month (not for multiple months, if it turned out that a player went rogue seven months into the game). I also feel that I may need to isolate a player (or players) from a party, running them on their own in a solo adventure if need be - with the understanding that at the end of the month, without an improvement, the ride is over.

    There are lots and lots of issues that could arise. I'm glad I've at least time-tested a lot of things with the previous experience I have at running online: issues with player vs. player and entitlement. Still, money wasn't involved and money complicates everything.

    I'm absolutely not disregarding the insane difficulties that could arise from random participants with money. This is a strong incentive to make the cost very, very expensive - virtually every institution that desires a legitimate, respectable clientele requires a painful stipend BECAUSE it keeps out the casual participant.

  4. I remember that scene. My favorite part is the mother who is also happy for Dick & Jane.

  5. Perhaps the point was more along the lines of for $75 a month a potential subscriber would expect something more back from you then simply being invited into your kitchen.

    Perhaps your subscribers won't be like the polite, enthusiastic commenters of the previous post; who almost all uniformly "would if they could" or "have plenty of freely available game experiences so wouldn't"... supporting your idea with kind workds but no commitment to pay.

    Perhaps instead of these well-meaning, reasonable-seeming folks your subscribers have no other options in an age of Google+ Hangouts, virtual web-based table-tops but to pay you $900 a year to run D&D for them. Imagine that person.

    Perhaps this one "desperate sucker", who has been tossed out of every other campaign, becomes a dissatisfied subscriber who would negatively influence the small community of subscribers you propose to have.

    Perhaps the multiplication by 100 is indeed the precise magnification of drama one can expect in so small an echo chamber.

    Perhaps the resulting fallout would leave you with zero subscribers and not even the menial job you hope to escape from with this enterprise. Perhaps you've been through this all before, but perhaps the stakes haven't mattered as much as they do now?

    Perhaps like your dad I'm just a doomsayer, too, and I readily admit there's no way of knowing what will happen until you try. But in reading and wanting to provide an honest answer to your question I was, well, honest.

  6. James,

    Ventures that play the 'what if' game never get off the ground.

  7. On the contrary, ventures that don't realistically assess the market are doomed before they begin. I'm not privy to the extent of your market research, but what I have seen in your comments doesn't fill me with optimism. I'm not trying to tell you what to or not to do... only provide the honest feedback requested. I don't think there's a market there for you. I wish that I saw it. I'd happily be proven wrong.

  8. For a while in the mid '90s I was a professional DM. It's a good gig if you can get it.

    I ran my games in a gamestore, Monday evenings. At first I was paid by the manager, then I transitioned to charging the customers after the manager made a disastrous faux pas, alienating most of the clientele. I charged the group 4 hours minimum wage for a 3 hour game, with the understanding that the extra hour was for preparation. They paid when when we got together.

    Everyone had a good time. The group ranged between 3-7 players and lasted for about 3-4 months. When I had a player who became outraged on how the game went I listened to his complaint and explained my decision. When he continued to act like a child the other players kicked him out. I didn't have to do a thing.

    I ended it when I had enough money to buy my next car. (I had other jobs at the time. But, the DMing was a nice little boost.)

  9. There definitely is a market for this. Black Shield Productions is an organization based in the Pacific Northwest (I believe Montana) and it is a collection of DMs who are hired to run games for events. They offer a variety of game-related services. While I don't believe that running games is the full job of anyone involved, they do get regular work. I don't believe they have attempted to run a full-scale campaign, but it seems like it would be up your alley. Having attended one of their events, it is a very different sort of experience than running in your world, Alexis - it is much more strongly reminiscent of plotted modules (although Black Shield only uses their own material).

    So, there absolutely is a demand for skilled DMs, and people are willing to pay for the privilege of playing with them.

  10. I'm talking to a wall with you, James. Drop it.

  11. I had an arrangement with a game store owner some years back: I ran a weekly game, which brought customers into his store, and I was compensated with store credit. I say "compensated" because there were some requirements. Basically, I had to be "careful" to not turn people away from the game. The whole gig lasted maybe a month because, duh, some people are shitheads and there's little you can do about it except to tell them to get fucked. The owner didn't like that I had to do that, so we ended the agreement. If I were to do it again, I'd be more upfront and direct about my intent to deal appropriately with bad players.

    In other words, I think Alexis has the right understanding of the dynamics involved with an arrangement like this.

  12. I do think there would be a market for this but the challenge will be reaching the right prospective audience. My sense of your blog readership, and people who read/write RPG blogs in general, is that the majority are DMs in their own right and not players (or at least not exclusively players). I think there are a lot of former gradeschool/highschool D&D players who are now making good money and spending a lot of time on video games who would love to run in a campaign like yours, if you can just reach them. These folks don't blink an eye at paying obscene sums of money for games and downloadable content, why would they balk at playing to pay in your game?

    A friend of mine who is a professional MC just started up a weekly gig at a bar in town that is a "live D&D" night where each table at the bar is a party, everyone selects pre-gen characters and the MC/DM runs every table at once through a dungeon, with each table having their own objectives, starting points and the possibility of player vs. player (or really table vs. table) as well as player vs. NPC and monster. He has gotten a great response so far and every night they have more people wanting to pay the cover and play than they can fit in the bar. Obviously not at all what you are talking about doing, but certainly decent evidence that there are lots of people out there willing to pay for even a watered down version of D&D.

  13. For the right price, I think you have a captivated market of players, but I am wondering what percent of your audience are DM's rather than players. I personally don't know many (or any) players who aren't also DM's that would spend an amount of time reading all the great information you have on your blog. So it could be that you would make more by marketing a service(s) to DM's. My $.02

  14. I did a poll a long time ago about that question, LTW: DMs versus Players. While about three quarters of my readers are DMs (if the demographics still hold), some 75% of those DMs also play regularly in games run by other people. That makes about 81% of my readers players.


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