Friday, July 14, 2017


I've been thinking about players who don't care if the DM is arbitrary or not.  Who don't care if the game challenges them.  Or recognize the connections existing between different elements of the game.  As Lance Duncan explained.  I can't deny it.  I've seen that.

We spoke some about it today and it was proposed that some people are lonely.  Very lonely.  And willing to accept any conditions so long as there is somewhere to go on a Friday night, someone to talk to and something to talk about.  This seems possible.  I don't know.

But the very idea that this is the only reason that any of us can think of to describe the phenomenon is telling.  What group of people would willingly find themselves drawn into a community that supported selfishness, high-handed tactics, deliberate and sanctioned lies, along with preening and crowing about it?

From wikipedia, persons of low self-esteem may show some of the following characteristics (I'll keep to those I think apply, but here's the complete list):

  • heavy self-criticism and dissatisfaction
  • chronic indecision and an exaggerated fear of mistakes.
  • excessive will to please and unwillingness to displease any petitioner [person making a formally drawn request]
  • neurotic guilt, dwelling on or exaggerating the magnitude of past mistakes.
  • sees temporary setbacks as permanent, intolerable conditions.

Add to this a description of "shattered" persons, described just below this list on the wikipedia link:
"The individual does not regard themselves as valuable or lovable.  They may be overwhelmed by defeat, or shame, or see themselves as such, and they name their 'anti-feat.'  For example, if they consider that being over a certain age is an anti-feat, they define themselves with the name of their anti-feat, and say, 'I am old.'  They pity themselves.  They insult themselves.  They feel sorry.  They may become paralyzed in their sadness."

We might suppose this condition is evident; that, not seeing such persons openly display these traits, that we know no one like these people, that they are rare and certainly not, right now, participating in our campaign.

I don't want to say if they're in any campaign that we're running.  How would I know?  Or you? We have, few of us, the training to recognize any such persons.  But they are not rare, they are extremely common, and the probability is that some of the people we know fairly well fall well into this behaviour.

Since role-playing games offer a certain type of bully a platform that gives formality and justification to their bullying, we must presume that insecure, defensive persons find themselves trapped in campaigns to which they quickly fall prey; and I have very little idea what we can do about it.

We don't want to take this stance, where the attempt is to bully the bully [seriously, I can't imagine what sort of a hateful, nasty piece of work this fellow is in real life; he is certainly doing very little to convince me otherwise].

I can't say much for my own attitude, either.  I am sympathetic to persons of low self-esteem, but I have known so many over the course of my life, and tried to help so many without the least bit of success, that I've more or less come to throwing my hands in the air and turning my back.  I could sit and write chapter and verse on a long line of friends who could not stand up for themselves against their parents at 18, who could not stand up to the need to buckle down and work as university students at 22, who could not make their marriage work at 27, who could not think of their children before themselves at 31, who lived in fear of losing their jobs to the point that they would cry in the bathroom rather than stand up at 36, who sat in a steady-state of misery when their partners left them at 43 and so on and so forth . . . but I don't have to do that, because we all have been part of this same cavalcade of misery, particularly those who were willing to stand and fight back and take the hits because the alternative, to knuckle under, seemed much worse.

The hard, bitter truth of growing older is the sheer experience of trying and failing with people, hundreds and hundreds of times.  Of encouraging them, of holding them as they cried, of rushing over to their house to console them when their partners went, of helping them drag their asses to work and helping them get through the shifts and covering their shifts when they didn't show up and telling them, "It's all right, guy; just feel better, okay?"  Of doing it and doing it and doing it, only to watch them spin further and further down the drain until, well, they were gone.  We see them five, ten, twenty years later, meeting them at a food mart or a coffee shop, talk to them for a few minutes and go our way, thinking, "Wow.  So that's John now."  And that is how it goes.  We want them to be better, we want them to be happy, we want them to have found something that set them on the right track . . . but all that happens is time.

So part of that hard, bitter truth is that, habitually, we begin to move away from it when we see it, like that moment when we realize the woman sitting next to us on the bus is holding a copy of the Watchtower or some other equally disturbing handful of tracts.  We don't want them in the campaign because they're trouble.  Not the sort of trouble that causes fights, but the sort of trouble that means John is going to need four times as much patience and attention as everyone else . . . and still John isn't going to get it.  And maybe it would be better if John went and did something else.

How cold is that?  It's cold.  I'll admit I'm somewhat sick about it.  I don't like seeing this in me and wouldn't like seeing it in someone else.  Yet writing is about investigating the truth in things, and there are reasons why old men grow hard and impatient and bitter.

Whatever his real name, and some of them are named John, there are a lot of players out there who are lonely and will do whatever it takes to play this game, or any game where they can hear their name out of someone else's mouth.  They will sell their own souls to have that ~ and as we well know, there are a lot of bullies who are buying.

To be clear, I can't offer any solution.  If you have the wherewithal, and you have a player who seems to be hurting and unable to lift themselves out of their personal funk, I encourage you to give them the most energy you can.  It will really matter to them.  It will make a big difference in their lives.  But unless you can steer them towards a professional, who will have the time and patience and expertise to lift them out of that place, don't expect much in return for your wise encouragements and effort.  It won't seem that way, because those people with low self-esteem will tell you that you're right and that they should try to do as you suggest, to help themselves. They'll agree with you all down the line.  Not because you are right, even if you are; and not because your suggestions are good, even if they might be; but because these people can't help themselves. Because agreeing is what they do.  They don't care what they're agreeing to, so long as you feel they're in your camp, because that's all that matters to them.  They'll blow smoke on your fire as long as you let them.

If you're young and you haven't much experience with this, you'll puff yourself up and make yourself believe that you're making a difference, and for a time, sometimes, it will really seem that way.  You'll feel wonderfully altruistic and helpful.

But it won't matter, though you might consider yourself a good person: because people with low self-esteem make bullies feel wonderful, too.

Harsh.  That's very harsh.


  1. Well stated, Alexis.
    People respond differently to these conditions, and so the temptation might be to say, "why can't (sad person) be more like (less sad person)." I am training to be a family therapist and will regularly be dealing with depressed and anxious folks. I will be in therapy myself to help me work with these people appropriately over time. That I see the symptoms in players around my table initially surprised me, but it probably shouldn't have. The training allows me to see things clearer, and to be more helpful, but I do wonder at the impact on the game. I haven't explored it that far yet.

  2. It makes me wonder exactly how frequent this is within members of the hobby.

    Whenever I offer criticism about we run the game, the first response I usually get is, "Well my players keep showing up, so I must be doing something right." I'm disinclined to argue simply because, most of the time, I have no evidence to the contrary. This post makes me wonder, "Just how many of us are affected by... whatever this is? And how many DMs are able to recognize it for what it is? And if they could, would they be able to set aside their pride long enough to understand that it's not a judgment call either way on their ability to run the game?"

    So many questions...

  3. The argument, "My players show up," has always been specious. It is regularly used as the closing argument, Q.E.D., for the quality of a given campaign. But is this because the players choose this game or because the alternative is a night in without company? This is never explored.

  4. Alexis,
    Addicts hanging/hoping for a dopamine hit might be a better the description of players staying with shitty DMs. The real deal engagement game you advocate is by intentional design a dopamine goal pursuing activity, not aimed at fun (mild amusement, in fact these may be mutually exclusive).
    May be of interest, this vid talks about a perception model during goal seeking behaviour. From this i interpret the DMs role is to create the environment that enables players to plan toward a goal and then allows them to act toward it, making it challenging enough and tense enough that they stay engaged in the hunt/explore/problem solve mental frame.

  5. I had those thoughts, kimbo; and, however, did not want to use the word addict.

    Realistically, I'm an addict. I'm making a map when I should be writing my book. But as addictions go, this doesn't shorten my life nor cause my family undue misery as my addiction slowly destroys me.

    But yes, those with poor self-esteem will turn to addictions to sustain themselves. I think the key word in your comment, however, is "hope." They're "hoping" for a dopamine hit whereas I, and those who are trying to play as I do, definitely know they're going to get a dopamine hit.

    What a chasm that is . . . between players going off to their campaigns thinking, "I hope it's a good running" and those thinking, "Once I toss the dragon at them, I'll ..."

    Those poor devils.


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