Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Crossing Boundaries

"Everyone at your table volunteers their free time and as we all know, free time is valuable.  You try to prep everyone with session zero to get the feel for how you game master.  You walk players through their character backgrounds to get an understanding of how they want to play.  Give them pre-game house rules so that everyone is on the same page on how act and respond to one during game play.  You try your best to anticipate what your players might do.  You try your best to feel the room and gauge how the table feels about different situations you put them through.  Sometimes, you can't anticipate or read the table.  Sometimes you cross boundaries you didn't know where there in the first place."
"One way to attempt to avoid this is to ask your players, privately ahead of time, what items or issues are off the table.  Compile these items into a list with your own off-limits subjects, and tell your players during the pre-game house rules, 'These items are off the table and might trigger someone sitting at the table with you.  As a game master, it's your responsibility to provide a safe space for your players to open their imaginations in play."

I don't know if my readers have the tenacity to sit through the video above.  However, I am going to try to take it as seriously as I can, once again deconstructing the advice above to determine what value there is in it.

Why This Seems to Work

Frankly, a lot of it is good advice.  You should be speaking to your players, before, during and after sessions to obtain feedback about the tone and direction of the campaign.  Communication is key to a game, as is team-building for the party, and so there are many ways in which inconsiderate or confrontational behaviour can ruin a session.  I am the first person to encourage DMs to talk to their players.  I discuss my ideas and my philosophies constantly, right here on the blog.

Role-playing is inherently an activity in which every part of the human experience can be played out and viscerally experienced, including those things which many people will find offensive.  There is no question about that.  During the video above, Dr. Megan Connell discusses using role-playing as a therapy tool for empowering women and managing the difficulties of autistic patients.  This is not surprising; in the 1950s, psychologists began seeing how theatre could be turned around as a tool for exactly this purpose, to allow people to work out problems in their real life by distancing themselves through role-play.  Role-play was publicized through the media, enabling a group of young designers to incorporate it into wargaming to create role-playing games ... and so naturally, it comes around full circle again as the game is used by psychologists to manage stress and enable fun.

With young people who are struggling to manage the game, this idea of closing off questionable content from the game experience has the benefit of making people feel more comfortable.  It is a form of etiquette, where the social acceptability of subjects, attitudes and behaviors are maintained.  When we are polite, we watch our behaviour with others in mind before ourselves, ensuring that a group experience is social and pleasant.

This sounds desirable.

How Evidence Seems to Support This

We need to be clear about Dr. Connell's agenda in the video, and the agenda of Satine Phoenix as well.

Dr. Connell is concerned with making troubled people less troubled.  She is using her game as a tool, not as an end in itself, as made perfectly clear with many of her statements, where she expresses pride in a patient successfully overcoming an emotional obstacle, associated with that patient's personal self-image.  In each case, it is the game's value as a therapy that is being argued ... and because it is a group therapy, the nature of the experience must be that is it inclusive.  Group therapy was developed as a sensitivity-training tool designed to socialize individuals distinctly lacking in social skills.

This goal is eminently laudable and I commend Dr. Connell's willingness to take the game as it exists and apply it to this purpose.  That's great.

But that is not what everyday DMs are doing with their games.  Not being psychologists, or perceiving the treatment of players as part of the Saturday night game agenda, the good doctor's expectations from a good game are a long, long way from our expectations.

As regards Ms. Phoenix.  I want to take care not to disparage her approach to her game.  Her game, however, is an officially presented product of the Wizards of the Coast; therefore, her views, ideas and perspectives are necessarily managed by the existence of a business operating behind her words.  It is absolutely in the interest of that business to view inclusiveness of participants as their primary agenda, since "viewers" equal "customers."

Moreover, because much of her persona includes appearances at public events, where she will sit on a panel and promote the views of the WOTC, it is understandable that her personal agenda will be to please her employers ~ or at the very least, those people responsible for her having a strong voice on the internet.  Part of that promotion will be to communicate, regularly, and occasionally run, complete and total strangers.  Where running strangers, there are many reasons why any person will want to make it clear where boundaries might be crossed and why avoiding triggers would be a priority.  We have all seen that scene where someone rises at a convention table, screams at the DM and storms out ~ and though there is often much laughter, it is the kind of thing that makes management suits very uncomfortable.

I understand Ms. Phoenix's motivations here; however, not being public presenters, or being concerned with what the WOTC thinks of our game performance, and not ~ for the most part ~ playing with strangers, but with friends, it is difficult to connect the advice in the video with actual experience in a non-monitored situation.

Why the Advice Won't Work For You

I've covered this somewhat already, reading between the lines above.  But it is still a good idea to be considerate and empathic with your fellow-players, so fundamentally the above advice would seem to hold water, regardless of the change in situation.

In my past, I have offended players.  I have been unrestrained in my use of language.  I have been excessively graphic where it comes to violence or sex.  I have been impatient with my players.  On occasion, it wouldn't hurt for me to be more patient and, yes, inclusive.

But let's go back to something I wrote above: "Role-playing is inherently an activity in which every part of the human experience can be played out and viscerally experienced ..."  

Unless your goal is that of Dr. Connell, where you see yourself as a doctor administering to patients, or as Ms. Phoenix, who sees herself as a cruise director for players who have "volunteered" to play in your game, chances are you've had some trouble with the advice being given.  Granted, there are DMs who are grateful to the few players who have deigned to play in their games, who cannot count on other players if these few depart ... and I feel much pity for DMs who are thus trapped in this circumstance.  It is terrible to have one's love exist at the whim of others.

If that is not your circumstance, however; if you don't feel dependent on your players; then it is only natural that yes, you will feel the need to judge them from time to time.  That is a natural impulse.  It is part of the day-to-day world, where you are judged on the internet, at work, by your doctor as he tells you that you need to lose weight, by your mother who isn't impressed with your job, by your neighbor who resents how rarely you shovel your sidewalks free of snow and so on.  Being judged, and judging, are constant experiences.

And now I have to quote The Princess Bride:  "Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something."

Judgement is part of that pain.  We can mitigate our judgement; we can cool it down and put it into phrasing that isn't ranting, such as I have tried to do with this post.  But we can't make ourselves agree with something solely for the benefit of other people, without risking ourselves.

If you try to follow the advice given above, you're going to do nothing more than tie yourself into knots.  In addition to that, you will be giving your players complete power to judge you.  When you set out to please them, to cater to them, to tailor the circumstances of your world to serve their whims, you make yourself a slave ... if not to their conscious desire to mess with you, with emotional complaints and hand signals, then to their unconscious inability to deal with anything out of their ken.  You end by putting yourself at the mercy of their trauma and their neuroses.

That's fine if you have training, like Dr. Connell.  Without training, you're not ready for that shit-scape.

Thoughts on Advice

My players are not "volunteers."  Volunteering is an altruistic activity where individuals and groups provide service for no financial gain.  Coming to play in my world is not a service others perform for me.  I find that particular characterization highly misaligned with my experience as a DM.

As an artist, as a designer, the chance through D&D to explore every part of the human experience is my priority.  My priority is not to run an all-inclusive game for every person who might happen to sit at my game table.  I can, at best, run five or six people a week; this out of the half a million participants who might be playing right now.  I feel I can afford to be selective.

If I happen to offend Jeff, then Jeff is perfectly welcome to play another game with another DM.  My feelings towards Jeff at that moment will likely be unkind and yes, judgmental.  If I see a member of the audience rise and leave the theatre just as the main actor gets out of bed, naked, to turn on the television, without the ridiculous Hollywood charade of wrapping a bedsheet around him so as not to offend the audience, who supposedly aren't there, then YES, I'm going to be terrifically judgmental ... and so will many others, because it is plain that the audience member is a prig.

The present day desire to turn priggishness into a mental state that needs empathy and a redesign of social behaviour is ridiculous.  I won't cat-call them as they cringe at my game table; I will do my best to keep my disdain, politely, to myself.  But if can't deal with what's happening, I feel I am in my rights to say, "I'm sorry, maybe this is not the game for you."

Of course, if they argue, the gloves are off.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

I tend to find myself running for strangers less and less often, so the overwhelming majority of my players are my friends; and I'm less worried about offending my friends than I am complete strangers, so this works out rather well. (Knowing what we do about our backgrounds, personalities, and beliefs, it's difficult for me and my closer friends to truly offend each other, either at the game table or away from it.)

That familiarity, admittedly, does lead me to temper my games slightly to take the peculiarities of my friends/players into account. As a relatively benign example, at least two of my friends are quite freaked out by spiders, so I try not to use them as monsters too often. But this could actually work to my advantage: if used properly, the presence of spiders could both provoke a strong emotional response, and possibly clue them in that something unusual must be happening if I'm willing to push their buttons in that way. (Purely hypothetical at this point... but there was that time that I pushed the buttons of a vegetarian friend in high school by playing a lizardfolk PC.)

Drain said...

Just to subscribe your point of view.

It's not so much that a good running needs to elicit mixed feelings, but that a memorable one should actively stir the pile. As long as it's not personal, all else is part of the experience.

Tone-policed PC language caterers can right fucking exit at stage left, we're having fun with friends over here.

JB said...


[is that allowed?]