Saturday, September 17, 2016

We're Alone

Since writing this post in May, I have progressively considered that the principle difficulty in Dungeon Mastering is to be found in isolation.  Virtually every game I can remember playing in my past, including my own game, along with games that I hear of others playing, exist in a vacuum.  The sole exception to this seems to be those games played in clubs, where the atmosphere can only be described as autocratic and unyielding - not the sort of place to transcend our old selves where it comes to running better games, as any contrivance against the standards of play is categorically decried and cast out.

I turn back my memories to when I played in club rooms, where there were five to ten campaigns of various sorts being played within a few feet of one another.  There was no WOTC in those days to sponsor programs that declared what modules would be run, how they would play out or when they would end.  We simply all played our own games, our own rules systems, without even the requirement that those participating be role-playing.  All gamers were welcome.

If it seems, however, that I am praising such halcyon days, I'm not.  Those get-togethers were anything but supportive; there was no rankle, no actual disdain, but there was certainly loads of indifference.  Each campaign would act as if they, and they alone, were entitled to play in that space of many tables, as if to say, "I wish all these other people hadn't shown up today."

With this, there were always the lone entities, people without a game, who didn't have time to actually play (as it was in University or before that, High School) or any interest in playing . . . but they wanted to watch, to fold their arms and make their presence known, to kibbitz the players or ask undesired questions.  Some of these interlopers were genuinely interested, some even made the experience a little better, like having an audience to perform for - but on the whole, not the sort of thing that improved the game's quality.

Barring the WOTC's apparent wish to turn role-playing into a low-grade sport, such as has been done with cooking, table-top is sorely lacking in reliable, practical wisdom and advice.  I see this when I talk to gamers at conventions: they distrust my book's proposed content, knowing how they've been disappointed again and again, or they reach out for it like inhabitants of a desert island seeing a ship.  There's no one - NO ONE - to tell them if their game has any merit, nothing to measure their skills against, nothing to give them reassurance that they are on the right path towards a better game or creating better adventures.

In the bigger sense, for most DMs, there's nothing to do about it.  Without a discernible path, without discernible goals, there's no way to make a strategy.  A strategy to do what?  What, in this game, defines a DM's "accomplishment"?

Most, flailing around for an answer, have learned to say, "A good game" or "A fun game."  But I talk to DMs who have been playing for twenty and thirty years who are worried that if they drop the ball repeatedly for even a single session that their players (who have been coming for three years) will get bored and quit.  One fun session isn't enough to discourage the feeling that the next session won't be and that, with enough bad sessions, the players will find something else to do.

That's horrible.  Playing for years, acting the part of DM for years, and still we feel that we're only one bad month away from the game going tits up.  Who participates in a activity with that kind of uncertainty - much less one with this level of work, sacrifice or outlay of coin?

I think there is an atmosphere of silence describing these issues, supported by the realization by many DMs that they can't speak about their issues with their players - that any sign of weakness would only bring about their worst fears.  It's fear; it's sensing that no one cares about us and our worlds because there's no one's opinion that can be gotten that can possible matter.  We're alone and there seems no alternative.

There is an alternative.  Start talking about it.  To anyone.  Doesn't matter if they play or not, doesn't matter if they understand.  If excellence is something that we want and we don't know how to go about getting it, then we need to learn what other people do in other fields.  Because excellence - and its definition - is possible.  Our uncertainty has been formed by the community being fragmented by so many things for so long.  We have spent so much time battering each other about what to play and how to play that we've spent very little time on why we play.  And why we'd like our play to be better.


James said...

Your blog has helped me tremendously in that regard. I have learned to overthink things less, and make sure that whatever work I do either improves my game or leads to more interesting decisions.

JB said...

@ Alexis:

Gosh, yes...that feeling that one's game is FRAGILE...that it can end at any not only terrible, but EXHAUSTING. The feeling that you have to be ON, a performing monkey for your players, or they'll take their dice and head for the door.

I would guess it's a self-esteem issue that drives the fear...something ingrained into our subconsciousness due to a lack of our own acceptance of gaming as a "legitimate" hobby/pastime. That we should be "doing something better" with ourselves. Ugh.

In some ways, I suppose, the on-line community (the blog-o-sphere) is a bit like a support group. But is it making things better? Or is it making us MORE isolated (as we only find the acceptance and legitimacy we crave by staring into our computer screens)? The alternative you suggest is a step in the right direction...there's a need to build confidence and esteem outside the insular gaming community.

No one's natural eyesight ever got better from years of wearing corrective lenses...only worse.

Alexis Smolensk said...

So here is my question, JB:

Why is it that I don't feel that my game is at all fragile? Why am I positively certain that nothing can end it? Why, after a six-month hiatus (my gawd, what a year it has been) that come October, when I have committed to running again, that I know my players will be bright and bushy-tailed? What is it about my perspective that others don't seem to possess?

You describe it as 'having' to be ON. I like to be ON. Hell, it is like being some kind of utility; where people can tap their characters into the power outlet and do whatever the hell they want, knowing the plug is WORKING again.

How can something that inspires people, thrills them, makes them want to spend six hours of their week on THIS and nothing else, be thought of as "illegitimate"? How is it possible to think that in a world that includes money-organized physical assault, a public forum for gunownership and racism, deliberate opportunities for death-by-car as a "sport," after-championship rioting and drunkenness, you name it. What sort of legitimacy are you looking for?

A few people sit together quietly and participate in an intellectual pursuit and you're concerned that "hobby" is a pejorative. What would you suggest as a "worthy" alternative? Running for President?

I'd be willing to bet that your world, JB, was far less fragile than you thought. I doubt that the sort of people you'd know, JB, wouldn't know themselves the reason they kept coming back. I'm sure they knew quite well what their alternatives were and that your world, when it ran, soared well about all of them. And I'm sure the only person at the table who didn't know it - because you wouldn't BELIEVE it - was you.

The title isn't accurate, you know. None of us are actually alone. None of us are actually leaning on crutches. We're choosing to do this because we want it. More than we want to go to the bar and drink, or gamble, or fuck. Not because we don't like to do those things, but because there are other hours in the week.

It's good to hear from you, JB. It's been a month since you left Paraguay. Had some worry that your plane had gone down in flames.