Saturday, May 21, 2022

My Readers

If I'm to consider why I'm writing, it follows that I should give thought on whom I'm writing to.  What is it that makes a reader of mine?  And, consequently, the sort of person who seeks a rigid exploration of self through a process of aggravation, difficulty and the accumulation of pride ... as these are the games I strive to run.  I ask my players to track their movement in combat, to track how much they're eating and their encumbrance down to a tenth of a pound.  I ask them to accept stark limitations on what they can do, I expect them to maintain a standard of interparty decency and a firm grammatical presentation when explaining their character's actions.  I do this in the spirit of behavioural rules surrounding games like golf, chess, bridge ... and even professional baseball, which dictates exactly where and how a pitcher can stand on a mound before delivering the ball to a batter, whose play is based on an exact imaginary square in the air that the pitch must be "inside" or else counted as a "ball."

Why do my players tolerate this?  And why do I have readers who acknowledge that this is important ... especially when we know quite obviously that many D&D players would find this absurdly anal and very definitely "un-fun."  Having to play according to these ordinances, why is it my players nevertheless laugh quite a lot, and clearly have a very good time, and return to play the instant I ask them?

I think it's relevant to examine why some people drive themselves to do hard things in the first place.  For example, with no expectation of ever winning a competition of any sort, an individual decides they're going to run an official marathon race, 26 miles and 385 yards, in 3 hours and 30 minutes.  This is no where near the record for a marathon, which is currently 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds.  Yet to accomplish the feat of running the distance in 210 minutes, the runner will begin to train for at least a year ... on top of many years of training prior to that in order to run a marathon at all.  This "advanced" training will demand running distances of 35 miles a week, and even more in the weeks before the event takes place.  He or she will need to achieve a "comfortable" rate of 8 minutes per mile, for mile after mile, to meet the task ... and then, during the race, he or she will have to push harder than that.  Harder than ever before.

What for?  What's being gained?  The training is hard.  The race is hard.  And potentially, the goal may not be reached.  The runner may only manage the marathon in 3 hours 40, or 3 hours 35.  Why does he or she not feel devastated?  Why does it make them want to train more, strive harder, achieve that goal the next time?  And why, after reaching 3 hours 30, the runner wants to try for 3 hours 20?  What's going on here?

When we listen to people who "love D&D" talk about how onerous it is to have to account for their equipment and calculate their encumbrance, why is it so many people nod their heads and agree, asserting firmly that calculating encumbrance is a "waste of time" because it's "so time consuming."  We can suppose they don't see the benefit in keeping a record; but my personal experience with players unused to managing encumbrance usually chafe at the lack of material items or how actual calculations slow their characters down in a fight ... much more so than the actual trouble it takes to add and subtract numbers.  Yes, it is a fact that making records of this kind does require a few minutes and often a calculator ... though my players often employ a computer and a spreadsheet, so that the instant they record an item, the total weight is instantly calculated also.  The difficulty is not really the accounting, though this is often the excuse.  The difficulty is the rigid control this places on the character's things and movements.  The limitations.  The making of a part of the game hard that used to be very easy, since we weren't accounting for how fast we moved or how much we had.

Take away these easements, however, and the player quickly feels bound by every choice they have to make in purchasing items, in a way that has nothing to do with how much money they have.  Many, many cool, awesome things they'd like to have along are suddenly too heavy to get.  And since they usually have those things when they play in campaigns that don't record encumbrance, it feels "unnecessary" and "unfair" that they can't automatically have those things now.  It doesn't fit their worldview, such as they've developed it over time.

Think of any activity we don't ordinarily do — say, marathon running.  Imagine that someone else with the power to make us pulls us out of our comfort zone and forces us to head out and do 300, 400, even 500 minutes of running every week.  They start us out by enabling us to walk, but they keep pushing us to run for as much of the time as we're out there moving.  We'd resent that.  We'd resent the time it was stealing from the rest of our lives.  After all, if we wanted to go marathon running, we'd do that.

But if our minds were open, and we were kept at it for a few weeks, we'd notice some changes.  Health, for one thing; we'd feel tired, but more limber getting up in the morning.  We'd notice some of that fat being winnowed away.  Partners and friends would remark on our "looking better" and we'd like that.  Oh, we might say something bitter like, "I ought to look better, given how fucking hard I'm working," but we'd like the comment all the same.

We'd notice other things too.  Three or four weeks in, we'd notice that it's actually easier to spend 90 minutes running.  It isn't actually easier, of course; what's happening is that we're stronger ... but it seems easier from our perspective.  Six to eight weeks in, as we're huddled out to do our forced run, we'd have stopped griping and worrying about it.  What the fuck, we'll do our ninety minutes and then we'll be done.  We're going to spend the time thinking about something else, anyway.  And we are feeling better.  And looking better.  And it's kind of a nice day today.  And we're enjoying the company of the people we run with, who are also looking better and seeming more cheerful.  Twelve weeks in, we're actually looking forward to the run.  We start thinking about how much further we can run in 90 minutes.  We think about how strong we feel, and how much easier it is to run faster.  You know, we really feel changed.  For the better.  Why didn't we do this before?

Most of my readers, I think, are people who ordinarily like hard things having nothing to do with D&D.  They choose occupations and past-times that tax their spirit and require lots of time.  Things that present lots of insurmountable obstacles that can't be gotten around with a short cut.  In fact, I think many of my readers — and I can immediately think of several — have chosen careers and activities that recognise that "short cuts" lead to both injuries and fatalities.  So when someone writes, "Here are three simple ways to get your game world started," they immediately think about co-workers and activists who decided they could "simplify" the way they arranged their gear or launched off into whatever.

I have an ex-military friend who received his ticket to work as an electrician and for 20 years worked in a train yard fixing electrical locomotives.  From his experience, I can say without doubt that train yards are ridiculously dangerous places, especially at night.  I'll give an example, because I can.

An empty flat-car weighs about 80 tons.  In a train yard, it's necessary to store empty cars along lines of track, where they'll wait until they're needed for loading.  An engine is used to push the car so that it rolls to the end of track — but the engine isn't used to push the car the whole distance.  That would be a waste of energy.  So the engine gives the flat car a bump, setting it to move about 8-10 miles an hour, then lets it go.  The car will roll until it encounters an obstacle ... a line of cars or the end of a track.

At night, slow rolling freight cars are a nightly thing.  There's noise all around, from trains moving, machines running, the railroad shop working and so on producing a steady drone in the distance.  A rolling flat car in the dark of night makes no sound, comparatively.  And because it's flat, it can't be seen against the sky.  In fact, it's invisible.  80 tons, 8 miles an hour, invisible, potentially anywhere in the yard at any time.  People die.  Especially new people.  The old hands learn to recognise the very slight sound, the almost imperceptible movement ... and they know never to walk across a track that as if it's empty of cars.  EVER.

I think people who work in these kind of environments, or who occupy their free time with similarly dangerous activities, "get" me.  They get me perfectly.  They understand I'm not trying to simulate real life.  They understand I'm trying to present a game structure that requires patience, forethought, internal examination and an inescapable element of risk that must be accepted as unavoidable.  They like it.  They purposefully move towards activities of that type ... even ones where actual death isn't involved.  Ersatz death is enough.  And if there is a fail, if something does go wrong, they know enough to admit their fault, confess their fault ... but never to dwell on their fault, because dwelling isn't necessary.

We will make mistakes.  We will forget to buy boots, or fail to buy enough food, or overload ourselves to a degree that becomes untenable.  But when that happens, we don't blame the rules, we don't look to change the game ... we appreciate that the game has repercussions that produce unexpected effects.  Like having to jury rig boots until we can buy them.  Or squeezing out another day from the food we have, and searching for alternative sources.  Or being unproudly willing to dump expensive crap on the road and leave it behind in order to FIX THE PROBLEM.

Too often, other readers from other expressions of the game rely on fixes that demand changes to the game, rather than changes to themselves.  They can't get out and run, and change themselves, because from a young age, they never learned how.  They didn't have a father who made them walk miles into the bush in order to fish an obscure river.  They didn't have a mother who made them sit through hundreds of hours of old movies until they learned to see the genius in old movies.  They never joined a scout troop, or helped build a cabin, or put together a science fair project that took months to plan and build.  They didn't learn to build furniture, or use a drill press or a lathe, or set type for printing, or weld metal.  They didn't perform their own written work on stage in a city-wide drama competition.  They never played on a league sports team, not football or baseball or soccer or hockey.  They didn't run track for junior high school.  They didn't compete in a chess tournament or a junior high school trivia contest aired on local television.   They didn't spend seven days canoeing down a river and sleeping in tents on the shore at night.  They didn't learn first how to play cribbage, bridge or poker, and do it often with intransigent, inflexible elders willing to hit impertinent little boys who remarked on "the rules."

I did all these things before I'd ever heard of D&D ... and a lot of other things besides, most of the time because I was forced to.  Sometimes because the opportunity was there and it sounded exciting.  I think my readers have similar childhoods, which they've brought similarly to D&D.

And I think that many of my D&D playing non-readers haven't.


Sterling said...

That rings true!

DM's Escritoire said...

Fish an obscure river? Check Sat through hundreds of hours of old movies until they learned to see the genius in old movies? Check. Set type for printing? Check Played on a league sports team? Multiple teams, multiple sports: check. Ran track? Check. Four years HS, four more in college. Compete in a chess tournaments AND high school trivia contest aired on local television? Check. Learn first how to play poker, and do it often with intransigent, inflexible elders willing to hit impertinent little boys who remarked on "the rules? Check.

Kinda explains a lot.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Very funny!

James said...

I didn't do any of that, unfortunately.

I follow and read your work because the ideas you taught actively made my game better. I wish me and my group were better at tracking encumberance, but the trade system and "sandbox" concepts have been home runs

Alexis Smolensk said...

Do you and your group play with laptops, James?

James said...

Half the group does for combat only, but the group generally prefers pen and paper

James said...

I use a laptop, however

Alexis Smolensk said...

A simple excel sheet makes encumbrance a snap. It can even be set up with drop-down boxes and weights that pop up instantly. I don't see the problem, really.

James said...

Oh, it is on me. I even have a tracking sheet; I am just bad at remembering to update it