Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Confidence Abounds

Every campaign, I've found, possesses players with a degree of doubt that is expressed as "worst-case-scenario" thinking.  To a certain extent, it is overthinking, the tendency to see dangers and demons where none exist; but as I continue my investigation into game design and user behaviour in relation to RPGs, I am thinking more and more that what I've witnessed these many years is a lack of confidence.

Now, this is a tremendously loaded word ~ and a heartily misunderstood one.  I direct the reader to the work of Dr. Richard Petty of the Ohio State University Department of Psychology, who takes note that confidence is something that our culture seems to want very badly:
"If you go into any bookstore ... you can learn how to get the ultimate self-confidence, unstoppable confidence, instant confidence; and if you're a dummy, there's a book for you: Confidence for Dummies."

People regularly confuse confidence with a lot of different things, with self-esteem, with bravery, with the capacity for motivation, as a recipe for guaranteed success, even as something that can take the place of physical prowess: the only thing stopping you from climbing an ice wall, right now, is your lack of confidence. Confidence, we are told, can conquer any obstacle.

This is not what confidence means at all.  Confidence is nothing more or less than the conviction that your opinion about anything is correct or incorrect.  If I ask you your name, you will confidently tell me what your name is, as you have every reason to believe that you know, at least, what you are called.  If I ask you if you can swim the English Channel, you can confidently tell me that no, you're not capable of that.

But what if I ask, are you a good DM?  Where is your confidence there?

Perhaps you imagine that the right answer is to forthrightly answer, "Yes, damn it, I'm a great DM!" as you've been fed on a steady diet of "To name it is to claim it" or "Thoughts make reality" or other such sentiment that sure to be found in books about gaining confidence.  To which I will ask the next question: if you are excessively confident that you are a good DM ~ if we recognize that this might be overconfidence ~ is that a good thing?

I want to make the argument that a lack of confidence is not necessarily a drawback.  In many ways, a lack of confidence is a reasonable defense mechanism.  If I go to the bushes over there, will there be a tiger?  If I'm confident that there won't be, will that help if I go to the bushes and there IS a tiger?  And if I'm equally confident that there is a tiger in the bushes, and there isn't one, how have I created boundaries around my free will that ought not to exist?

Now, this whole tiger in the bushes thing, this is something players do all the time in campaigns.  As they are talking about what to do next, they are bound to make presumptions about the rigidity of the campaign that are perceived to exist (when they don't) or perceived not to exist (when they do).  Here I want to give some examples (with apologies to the players), in order to deconstruct what is being said and how that reflects on the confidence of the player.  All these examples come from my online campaign, but I'm not going to give directions, for the player's sake.

"I'd like to see how deep this pool really is - it would be good to know if we could swim across without real danger of drowning."

Note that what has been described is only a pool of water.  The DM here (me) has not made any mention of the water being any threat ~ yet it is automatically perceived, confidently, that a threat is possible or even probable.  That's reasonable.  This is D&D.  But for lack of a definable threat, the player has created one of their own . . . one that does not, in fact, make sense.  The depth of the pool has no relevance to the ability of the character to swim across it without drowning.  If the character can swim, the character can swim; and the player, given an opportunity to think the sentence above through, can see immediately the error in thinking. In the moment, however, the only critical element is the sense that there IS a threat, that threat is certain to be connected to the depth of the pool (since a deeper pool enables a larger, more dangerous monster), in which case swimming might be necessary and it is far harder to swim and fight than to walk across a shallow pool and fight.

This produces a muddle in the player's agenda, between the confidence to identify the problem and the lack of confidence in expressing a response to that problem.  Yet the DM doesn't create the muddle; the player's own presumption that there must be something under the water, because this is D&D, compels the player to jump past the certainty into the realm of "what can we possibly do in this worst-case-scenario I have just invented in my brain."

"Would we have enough daylight to trek back? That'd come to 12 hours of hiking today. I imagine there'd be some kind of forced march damage for attempting it ..."

Again, the player here is speaking confidently from the point of view of being out in the woods, a good distance from town, with certainty measuring time that hasn't happened yet and presuming, reasonably given the complexity of my game, that forced march damage would result.  However, no actual knowledge was acquired before the statement was made.  Knowledge was asked for, but before waiting for the answer, the player felt it was necessary to give their own opinion on what would be a likely answer, then a likely consequence for the answer the player has given himself.

Once again, the presumed answer is a worst-case scenario possibility: a tiger is definitely hiding in the bushes.  Why not simply wait for an answer, then make a judgement based on that answer?  As it happens, the trek would not be 12 hours back to town (coming out, they were feeling their way ~ going back, they already knew the way) and at any rate, I don't award forced march damage for 12 hour periods.  But the player confidently believed this was a reasonable assessment of the situation, an assessment that a DM might reasonably make in a campaign, and felt it necessary to express the assessment as part of the process of running.

"Now I understand that we want to move along towards the interesting bits, but ... we don't want to dive into a pit trap head first."

Again, this is a very common sentiment for any RPG.  But it is, again, worst-case-scenario thinking.  Why specifically would it be presumed that the DM has something specific to be gained from creating a situation where the player's primary action would then produce a consequence of this proportion.  Note that the player does not express concern in terms of, "If we start, it will surely get dangerous."  No. The confidence here is that a yawning pit trap will gobble up the players once the first step (equated to diving in) is made.

It can be argued, and very reasonably, that this is legitimately nothing more than exaggeration.  Yet why exaggerate?  What purpose does it serve?  Very clearly, it serves the purpose of recognizing that there may be a tiger in the bushes and that going towards the bushes, even carefully, even with preparation, would be a very stupid thing to do.  The confidence is that overcompensation, over preparation, is a necessity in role-play, since what can happen so very often does happen.

Now, we can each make a guess as to the origin of this thinking.  Some can argue that the origin of D&D modules stressed the deadliness of traps and dungeons, leaving us with a legacy of mistrust, since so many DMs wholly embraced the mindset that player characters exist to be killed.  Some can argue that there is a very legitimate reason to behave extremely cautiously, to always prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, since presuming there is no tiger would be very stupid.  And finally, some can argue that if experience teaches us anything, the dice are very fickle things and that characters, in the long run, are too precious to squander on a string of bad luck.

Frankly, I feel that all of these explanations, and the confident predictions themselves, stem from a consistent, extremely rigid structure with virtually no free movement in it.  In the last post, Getting Started, I made the point that the easiest system for the DM to run was one of extraordinary rigidity.  To this I will point out that, whether or not that is the degree of rigidity that we play with right now, it is an almost dead certainty that was the system we played when we initially began playing the game, at a young age, with others who, being young, had a limited understanding of game design and a non-existent understanding of how to promote positive, meaningfully satisfying user experiences.  Such concepts did not manifest in our young minds.

So however we want to guess about the reason, because of the culture, because of necessity, because of pragmatism, the facts are that we were trained to look for the worst-case scenario while taking part in minimalistic, strict, high potential threat campaigns, as throwing monsters at parties indescriminately is the first and foremost tactic of every young, uncertain yet eager-to-make-a-great-game DM.

We can't help ourselves.  We're so confident that this is a reasonable course of thinking to possess that we can't separate ourselves from the illogic of it.  Take any part of either of my online campaigns and read through the players' comments for a few minutes.  Example after example will be found there, following the same pattern: question-assumption-probable consequence, neatly describing the player's confident readiness to fail.

This habit ~ for it is plainly a habit, I don't imagine for a moment that any of my players are consciously aware of the pattern ~ makes it very difficult to run a low rigidity campaign with plenty of free movement in it. Consistently, I have to correct and correct assumptions, walking the player back from the precipice of their imagination, knowing all the time how easy that makes it for me to create stress when I want the players to be uncertain.  It is far, far harder to create bravery, or self-reliance, or confidence for a positive response from the world ~ particularly online, where I cannot use the tone of my voice to encourage the party to believe that this NPC really is a friend, and not an enemy, as he would undoubtedly turn out to be in a more rigid structure.

Moreover, it helps me understand a certain player's attitude towards the tools at their disposal a little better. There are players who, not from a need to empower themselves, but from a certainty that failing to innovate will surely result in death, will obsessively dissect every tool and rule that comes across their path.  Every weapon, every tactic, every spell, every bit of information, is seen in terms of the edge between life and death; without this one extra possible use of this specific tool in a situation that they confidently perceive will eventually make itself known, they feel they are certain to fall short of the mark and die.

That clearly speaks of long-playing in an extraordinarily rigid structure ~ for such players rarely view their actions as the critical factor, or their in-group behaviour, elements of the party's strength that are far more powerful than the tools being used.  Other players can't be controlled; they can't be relied upon; and in any case, they are almost certain to die quickly and early.  Only that which exists in my own pocket will save me; so it is what is in my own pocket that most concerns me.

And that is understandable.  Because it is, again, a trained sort of confidence.  It comes with a conviction that this is the way the game is played.

If the reader is a DM wanting a freer, more potential-driven sandbox campaign, undoubtedly you've been running straight into this behaviour.  Yesterday, I wrote that a low rigidity campaign was easier for players, as the number of consequences and enemies pursuing them was lessened, increasing their likelihood of survival and success.

What I did not say was that players confidently believe this is not possible.  It can't be easier, because whatever the DM might suppose, the players themselves are confidently sure that the world is full of consequences and enemies, ready and willing to kill them.

If we won't describe them, the players will describe them for us.


  1. Ugh. Ugh! Yes...this. I get so tired of encountering this behavior, the perceived "tiger in the bushes," in players. Even players who I happen to be gaming WITH (as opposed to running as a DM). I see it all the time, and it's maddening. Or at least irritating.

    But as you point out: the concepts have already been instilled in formative gaming years. I tend to do less of this (as a player), but...

    Ah, well. I guess the next question here is "so what?" Confidence abounds. Even if we run a low rigidity campaign, players create their own walls. Is this what gives rise to designs rife with "get out of jail free" cards? To embolden the action players are willing to take despite this semi-PTSD syndrome?

    *sigh* Maybe I don't have the patience to walk folks back from the edge. I'd rather just give them the tiger that they're so confident is there.

  2. I think you have put your finger correctly on "get out of jail free" cards. Players might possibly be willing to PLAY if they're sure that even if there is a tiger in the bushes, it won't have any teeth.

    "So what" is the next agenda, isn't it? How is this constructively managed?

  3. Your description of player confidence is the opposite of self-efficacy- the belief in ones ability to succeed. Could it be a misplaced orientation to goals... focusing on threats (goal=not die) rather than opportunities? Is this an issue with players new to RPGs?

  4. I certainly see this behaviour as the opposite of self-efficacy. However, "confidence" can mean a strong belief in one's ability to succeed ~ if the individual has conviction that they will.

    Here is a point that Petty keeps making: confidence is neither positive nor negative. I can be just as sure that I am a bad person as I am sure that I am a good person. I can be sure that I will fail; I can be sure that I will succeed. I can be sure that there is no tiger in the bushes just as easily as I can be sure there is one.

    Surety, or confidence, is a measure of future expectation, based upon one's prior experimentation with the environment. Players have been taught to EXPECT a tiger; but much, much worse, they have also been taught that no matter what they do, no matter how much apparent control they are supposedly given over their environment, the power of that tiger to kill them is out of their hands. It has been decided by the DM, by the rules, by the dice; there is no confidence that the players themselves have any control.

    To put it another way, they are focused on how dangerous the tiger is to them; when they should be focused on how dangerous they are to the tiger.

  5. But I didn't answer your question, kimbo; I felt a strong need just to restate your point in my own words. Hm. Didn't mean to do that.

    Issue with new players? Probably not in the first five minutes, no. But I don't think it takes long to destroy a player's confidence in opportunity when the new player has no reason to feel confident about their ability to play this very complicate game. I feel sure it takes about five minutes of a genre-savvy party's worst-case scenario thinking to infectiously take hold on a new player's consciousness.

  6. Speaking frankly, I haven't been particularly interested in the articles you've been writing since the July Manifesto. While they were well written, they didn't appeal to me specifically like your past work has done. However, they were laying the groundwork for the fabulous post "Getting Started" and "Confidence Abounds". Those really changed my viewpoint and helped me realize what I sort of work I need to do when I start my next campaign.

    I don't always comment on posts, usually because I don't feel like I have anything to contribute. However, I wanted to let your know that the quantity of these past couple posts has been great.

  7. How do you feel this jives with the inaugural combat of Campaign Juvenis? I loved it in that it really set the tone that this was an old school running, with real stakes, but we sure smarted from thereon in, perhaps staining our perspectives for a great deal of time afterward (it not helping that we ended up going back to the same accursed place time and again).

    What did you feel on your end?

  8. All the experiences I've had with online players have left me baffled. I launched the first campaign on my blog in Feb 2009, more than eight years ago ... and since that time I have been struggling with two explanations. Is it that everyone else who plays this game plays it so different from my real life experience, or is it that my real life persona is so different from my text that it encourages different responses.

    I talked with my r/l players all through that fire beetles scene and they, too, scratched their heads and puzzled. The same was certainly true with the Delfig scene and the bizarre responses from that short campaign that ended in Corfu. Again and again the early days of the Senex campaign would go straight to wtf-town, as players would make choices that just made no sense to me, from either a survivalist standpoint or even a character-driven standpoint.

    For instance, why would a fighter not put their highest stat into strength? Why would they dump it in charisma? What rule are they hoping to advantage? Perhaps in real life, I would say, "Dude, that's not going to get you shit. I don't use charisma-driven reaction tables." Perhaps online, I'm more inclined to back off and let the player drive their character into a ditch.

    I'm never quite sure. No doubt about it, however; online players have weirdly different agendas.


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