Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Why I Will Never Be Mainstream

A week ago, a reader by the name of William made an astute observation, regarding me and my place in the world.  He said,
"The stuff you cover on this blog is unique and deeply fascinating, but not remotely mainstream. The people I've recommended you to see your blogs talking about economic statistics and tune out immediately, missing all of the juicy, innovative stuff that I wanted them to see. It makes ME feel like the weird one for enjoying it so much."

And he's absolutely right.  I'm not mainstream. And it's a headspace I've tried to accept for some time.  Just as anyone who writes wants to be seen as an important voice in *whatever* ... I'd like to be an important voice in RPG table-top game design.  And it is to that end that I've written most of the stuff that I have.

The reason I am not mainstream is not, however, because I talk about economic statistics or various other off-the-beaten path subjects that would make a typical D&D player's eyes turn glassy.  The deeper reason, I am sad to say, would remain even if I suddenly turned my back on some of my principles and started producing, say, one module after another.  I'll try to explain.

We are all sold on a certain marketing premise, which makes itself heard quite often: that 5th edition is what "all the kids are talking about," to quote William, and that, of late, Dungeons & Dragons is enjoying a huge revival, which is transforming family gaming across the country.  The message being sold is that D&D is accessible, and to play, all you really need to do is to start playing, and learn by playing it your way.  All in all, there's a terrific enthusiasm at play in the present media blitz, as article after article emerges in the mainstream that D&D is an all-round, favorable, wonderful experience for everyone who gets involved.

And it might be, for hundreds of thousands of mainstream players, certainly more than I'm ever likely to reach with my little blog and my little book.  Ignoring me, however, as I'm barely a blip ... there yet remains a fly in the ointment of all this positive balm.  Apart from the mainstream media, there are quite a lot of sites, both official and unofficial, which focus upon one unremitting dialogue:  How to Play?

Because there seem to be an awful lot of voices who seem to be struggling with the game.  To the degree that even the official company who owns the game has needfully set about using their flock of hired actor-DMs to make videos on techniques, concepts, game preparation and how to manage rules.  There also seem to be a lot of people in forums who ask questions like, "Does anyone know what I'm doing wrong?" or making statements like, "I'm at a loss at how to run my players and I don't know what to do."  In fact, the presence of such expressions is so common that I'm fairly certain that the reader here is not in the least surprised, or feels that I am cherry picking among the many comments made about D&D.  The sense of uncertainty is pretty consistent, everywhere we might look.

Because of this, I am more or less of the opinion that a lot of people struggle with how to run the game.  It is one of the reasons why I was able to so successfully sell dozens of copies of my book to people at Game Cons who had never heard of me, cold, in less that five minutes usually, despite the book costing $30.  The only reason we did not have more sales was because there really weren't that many straight-up DMs who were at there.  Most of the people we talked to, who didn't buy, were players.

Because people do struggle with how to run the game, I think that most DMs have a dialogue in their minds, which most do not share ... and I think the theme of that dialogue is doubt.  I think a lot of DMs who come off as excessively sure of themselves are compensating; and that a lot of DMs who are definitely not sure of themselves are quite afraid of the possibility that they will never be able to really do this.  I think that people who DM for a longer period of time eventually devise a strategy that is, at one time, more or less willingly to accept that they not be great, but that they do pretty well.  The doubt is still there; but it's controlled.

It's like the dialogue most of us have established about drinking alcohol.  We know it is fundamentally bad for us; but we reason with ourselves that if we don't do it that often, or we don't drink that much, or we don't lose control of ourselves, except on very specific days that are set aside for losing control of ourselves, and we don't get into a car afterwards, then drinking alcohol is fine.

But then we meet that person at a party who states rather coldly, when offered a drink, "I don't drink."  And there's something about that which bothers you.  It seems judgmental.  It seems to be saying that maybe our arrangement with drinking alcohol is a bit of a self-delusion. That maybe we aren't fine.  That maybe we really ought to stop drinking.  Understanding, of course, that we don't really want to stop drinking.  But the doubt is there; and we're upset now.  Because we had this thing under control.

So we have a lot of really smart, really capable DMs, who realize there are issues surrounding their role-playing games, associated with rules, preparation, concepts and techniques, but who have gotten comfortable with their games, and the way they play, and the various methods they've settled on with how to manage players and promote fun and build their game worlds.

And then here I come with my 22-part series on how a D&D game actually works, or my 9-part series on how the cities in your game are a joke, or my big book of why everything you're doing as a DM isn't advanced, and bang, I'm the guy at the party who won't drink when he's offered a beer.

Worse, it's not an if-maybe-might-be thing with me.  I am definitely smug about my not wanting a beer, and I am definitely saying that you're a goddamn drunk, and that all this shit you've been telling yourself about the great world you run is completely crap, because I've spent a lot of time studying and creating in this game and it is really fucking hard not to look at the immense amount of work that I can dance in front of your eyes while telling you you're an alcoholic.

And that is why your eyes glass over.  Because all at once, you realize you've been half-assing this thing for years ... that you've been getting away with the world you have because the players, thankfully, happen to be lazier than you are ... and your response to that is to ...

HATE me.  How could you not?  Jeez, seriously, how could you not?

But you've got to get your sense of control back; you've got to be able to go back to your game and feel, like before, that you're definitely a good DM.  You've got to downplay those economic statistics and all that excessive map-making; you've got to laugh and joke that the wiki even exists; you've got to pick any page from the city posts and yuck it up with you friends ~ "Fuck, look at what this dumbfuck is doing."

Because anything else might mean that ... I'm right.  And that there is a lot of work in front of you.  A lot of work.  And that's ... that's just not going to work with your lifestyle.

So fuck Alexis.  Fuck him.  I hope he dies.  Or at least just goes away.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

But then we meet that person at a party who states rather coldly, when offered a drink, "I don't drink."

I'm that person. Thankfully, my smugness is kept in check by my asocial tendencies, so the drunks aren't likely to run into me at a party.

One of your phrases - that at a DM's first session running, they will be too busy to have fun - is one that I've repeated several times when my peers come to me for DMing advice. I suppose it's fortunate that I'm usually ignored, or met with indifference rather than hostility... but then, you've been writing this blog for almost ten years (and running the game for far longer than that), while I've yet to hit the decade mark with my participation in RPGs.

I suppose my turn at having people hate me will come, but I'm not exactly looking forward to it. In the meantime, I've still got work to do.

James said...

Your alcoholic example cuts deep.

Several of my players love "Critical Roll," (or is it "Role," I never cared to check) and they tried to explain it to me. Our disagreement was that I hated the idea of "the DM supplies the story," because then why are the players there?

But they were like "sure, YOU let us direct the game, but that is a ton of work, and it is unreasonable to expect anyone else to do it."

I was really bewildered by it. They explained to me that every DM just told a story with PCs in it, and I was the weird one.

It was rather eye-opening. I think the community has created an expectation that has both over-burdened DMs and stripped players of agency.

JB said...

I am not antisocial, but I have a strong desire to throttle all of James's players. Sorry...I realize that's kind of the opposite of helpful.

I am actually quite confused by the drinking analogy. Am I the drunk? Or the teetotaler? I admit, I may be confused because I am (at the moment) drinking alcohol. I assume that makes me the drunk. But I don't really have any doubts about how to run a game of D&D. Making it high quality and giving the players the experience they deserve...well, that's a bit of a worry (sometimes). But running it? Nope.

But even though some of your posts DO cause my eyes to glass over, it doesn't mean they don't (more often) also provoke thought and introspection.

Just keep casting your pearls, Alexis. We don't need another mainstream swineherd...there's plenty of those already, and they're not doing all that much for the hogs.

[apologies for mixing analogies]

Alexis Smolensk said...

I look forward to your comments in the clear light of a sober day, JB. Hah.

I have a large pearl room in the back of my thoughts, where I have clams and oysters working obligingly day and night, slathering greasy mucus over small bits of sand. I wrote the post because of the clarity that was offered by the video maker Innuendo Studios. He can explain the drinking analogy if you need it further clarified. The link is hidden in plain sight about mid-post.

James said...


Throttling them seems unnecessary, a slight bashing will do. What and I as m as Leo drinking, so you are not alone, though I imagine the an analogy was more about how someone else's decisions cas n cast a dark shadow on your own.

But I don't blame my players. The literature and every experience has taught them that D&D works a certain way.

James said...

My phone really betrayed me on that one.

**While I am also drinking...

JB said...

@ Alexis:

I DID follow the link and watched a couple-three of those "Angry Jack" vids. I don't disagree with the author's analysis, but I certainly don't find myself reacting to vegans and teetotalers (or Anita Sarkeesian) with the vehement "don't judge me" angry-push-back nonsense. Which is kind of funny, because I've a bit of a rep for angry rants and rages...I just tend to save them for things that hurt others (like right-wing rhetoric, bigotry, pro-gun lobbies, and WotC's non-approach to teaching How-to-DM).

@ James:

The urge to throttle is one born of frustration as much as anything. In the "clear light of a sober day" (over a bowl of hot oatmeal and a mug of steaming coffee) I certainly have more compassion for your players than anger. That being said, there is still some culpability that falls on them, just as there is with the misled viewers of Fox News.

Ugh...I am such a cranky old man these days.