Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Something I Hadn't Thought of Before

Here's a breakdown of the argument I keep hearing:
     1.  If I play strictly by the rules and the die roll, it happens too often that players end up losing their characters because of some hapless, unlucky roll connected with an uninteresting or minor combatant, or at the moment when the whole party's survival hinges on one character's roll.  If I don't fudge the dice a little, the players lose characters they like or worse, TPKs keep happening.  I have to do something or the players just hate combat.
     2.  As it becomes increasingly obvious to the players that they are very unlikely to die in combat, it makes combat increasingly boring, to the point that the players will do anything to avoid another drawn-out hack fest.  And combat doesn't really matter anyway, because I've found that what the players really like is role-playing.  Whenever I create an adventure with a lot of role-playing, the players always have the best time.
     3.  Therefore, I think combat is a broken metric.  The game shouldn't be about combat.  It should be about role-playing.  Everyone likes role-playing, so what is wrong with that?

Like the Grinch, I have puzzled and puzzled, and my puzzler is sore.  I don't think there is a solution for this kind of thinking.  I think when a phone or a computer begins to function with this sort of miscalibration, the only thing that can be done is to junk it; I have no idea how a person walks a conclusion like this back from the edge.

But I think I may have an explanation I haven't thought of before.

If you're someone who was born post-1990, and are of a culture able to find this blog post, chances are that you have spent more hours of your life competing against a computer program of some kind than you have a real, living person.  This includes the time you spent playing games in school, or playing sports (unless this is something you excel at), or even time spent participating in debates both formal and informal.  You may have racked up a lot of hours arguing with others over the internet; but whether this is against a "real" person, as far as your animal brain is concerned, is arguable.  But even if we throw that in, if you're the sort to argue on the internet, I'd guess you've still spent more hours playing some sort of video game.

There are three elements about playing video games that make losing easier.

First, it is fairly difficult to argue that a computer game is "cheating" or treating any individual unfairly.  There is a certain inadequacy that arises from knowing others can play this game better than us, but that doesn't change our association with the game system; we know the game's ability to destroy us isn't personal - it tries to destroy everyone, to the same degree [whatever level of difficulty that we select].  And that lack of sentiment reduces our relationship to the game to the same level as we would have with a raging river.  It can kill us, but it won't do so in some special way that enables us to cry foul.  That is a sort of comfort.

Secondly, with a lot of game systems, we can cheat.  Not just in selecting an easier setting, but also in a number of ways, some enabled by the maker and some enabled by some clever person online.  That ability to cheat, even just a knowledge that it is an option, changes the fabric of our perception.  If we really, really want to, we can stick it to the game, but good.  That's comforting.

Of course, there are some games where cheating isn't possible ~ particularly with multiplayer games, where we're playing with thousands or millions of others, who are as faceless and non-personal as the game system itself (through sheer randomization).  And those games, it must be said, attract a particular kind of remorseless, competitive person.  They don't need to cheat ... but there is also a sort of pleasure in knowing that, once they're good enough, there are endless noobs for the easy killing.  After a while, the chance of losing drops precipitously.  Which is also a comfort.

Finally, if we do lose, it's private.  No real person out there in the world knows we've lost.  We may feel a bit of humiliation, that bit of inadequacy I mentioned, but we don't have to subject ourselves to any voice other than our own with respect to the loss.  We don't have to answer for it, or explain ourselves.  It isn't like losing at a game of skill when you're a little child, and your grandparent feels the need to explain, in detail, why you lost.


These comforts have accumulated over the years, even the decades, as video games have proliferated, as the time spent at private gaming has pushed out most like activities ... except that most of my reader here also play role-playing games.

But I think you've probably played more hours of video game in your life, Dear Reader, than you have spent role-playing.  And when that is considered, against the three arguments at the top of this post, I think it helps explain why some people get upset at combats, with actual persons, that they didn't win.

I think it helps explain why a player sees the DM as the ultimate in video game cheats; a cheat that can be negotiated with, that can be browbeat, that can be threatened or made to feel the villain.  I also think it helps explain why the DM, with a similar lifetime spent with cheats, and easier game settings, and a sense of humiliation at a hard loss, can empathize with players who are clearly feeling humiliated because they made a bad choice, or rolled a bad die.  A humiliation that is very much not in private, but shared.

If we play chess, you and I, we have neither of us an "easy" setting that can be toggled.  We have neither of us an expectation that one of us has a little more reason to win, and the other a little more responsibility to make sure the other deserves it.  There's no dialogue on the internet that says two chess players shouldn't have an "me-vs.-him" mentality.

Combat isn't broken.  It is merely as heartless as my bishop will be against your rook.  And as I will be against your pawn formation.

And that's a little too hard at a game-table for a generation raised with faceless enemies.  It's a little hard knowing that the DM can help you out, but won't.  It's a little hard knowing that the DM can have a spellcaster magically appear to raise your 11th level paladin, but won't.

Because obviously the DM is abusive.  And the game is about role-playing.


  1. Sometimes, Alexis, I feel like the best answer...perhaps the ONLY "I can't help you."

    Like when I tried to have a frank, non-antagonistic discussion with a young man on an airplane about Donald Trump and he came to me from the point of view that you can believe none of the negative information about the man because all that information comes from the media and everything in the media is a lie. Everything.

    When you come up against something like that you have to simply say, okay, and move on to someone who doesn't have such an obstinate, deliberately ignorant mindset.

    Some DMs are content to be babysitters for the players, providing them with entertainment the players can't get elsewhere. Hopefully, the players are paying the DM (or, at least, buying the beer). Probably they should be writing code or plot arcs for fantasy adventure video games. Maybe they consider their DMing to be training for such an endeavor (or "practice" if that's already their day job). And if that makes them happy I suppose it's mean-spirited of me to piss on their fun.

    But there are other mediums for straight "role-playing:" both on-line (MUSHs and similar) and in-person (LARPing, some RPGs, other table games). Dungeons & Dragons certainly benefits from some role-playing, but it's designed for action. And risk. And gambling one's (fantasy) life against (fantasy) death.

    It's designed to be a game. Perhaps, in some circles, the game has evolved to how one can "game the DM," but that's certainly not explicit in any of the instructions I've read (even later edition volumes). If what you posit here is true, does it mean folks are taking the game's actual challenge too seriously? I don't think younger folk are devoid of competitive spirit (judging by their approach to sport and athletic endeavor). Do they hate losing so much that there is an actual need for them to "soften" the blow?

    Maybe it's just that Dungeons & Dragons is considered (consciously or not) contemptible. As I get older and more curmudgeonly, I find myself suspecting that to be a larger part of the issue. It would explain a lot of the poor behavior that wouldn't be tolerated in other games.

  2. With great sadness, I find I must agree with you, JB. Some people cannot be helped.

    It would be easier if there were clear dividing lines between the lost and the temporarily missing. It is for the latter that I write posts like this; to suggest that if they are on the edge of drifting into the portrayed argument, perhaps some perspective might save them. After all, I'm not one-at-a-timin' it here. I'm mass communicatin'

    I suspect that the competitive spirit you've witnessed in the young, and I also, happens in circumstances where referees and rule-makers are customarily obtuse about calling penalties, infringements and bad behavior, with the power to eject people who try to argue their way around illegal moves and goals that didn't happen. As I think of it, it's interesting that role-players have made such magnificence out of role-playing their way around problems, while in other social groupings, the people who try to "win by talking" are the most odious, hated and least welcome of participants.

    Dungeons and Dragons is contemptible, in the way it has been managed, in the way it has been presented, in the way that it has been redesigned by morons, in the way it has been sold to children too innocent to know they're being scammed. The company, who sells $50-$80 written content to 10-year-olds, who have no better concept of role-play than pretending to be Harry Potter at birthday parties, does not care how this looks to parents, who can only look down on their children's fascination with the game for decades thereafter, no matter how sophisticated the child's game might steadily become.

    As a contemptible haven, it gives license to the most contemptible people, who - as William Murrill lately said - play in public games because they're not good enough to play with, or have, friends. And this is the most public display of the game's presence in the world. Is there any reason we shouldn't be repulsed and ashamed by this?

    Our only respite is a self-awareness about our behaviour, our games, our efforts at legitimacy, our belief in a less toxic future and the real experience we have had playing among groups of highly intelligent, decent, remarkable people, having been customarily obtuse about closing our doors against the odious hordes.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.