being the mental and scholastic wanderings of Collie Collier
Copyright © 1999 B. A. "Collie" Collier
Back in the good old days of gaming, there were no rules
only a referee with a gun and a chair.
--David L. Arneson
I told Dana Erlandsen that I'd try to give a quick examination of failed games I've been in. It's surprisingly hard to do. I often have strong feelings left over from the game, but I usually have no desire to offend any of the participants. Thus, since my zines go up on my web site, I have to occasionally phrase things carefully, or change some of the 'circumstances' regarding the game, i.e. the genre, the sex of the persons involved, combining elements from different games, things like that.
Still, I'm giving it a try, since I think Dana's right -- it's worth while to examine one's failures as well as one's successes. I happen to believe strongly, after all, that those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it... and I really don't want to repeat these particular game situations. So, without further ado, let's give this a try...
The first game I remember failed for a fairly obvious reason: the GM wanted to play a particular genre, and none of her players did. She happily designed worlds, cultures, characters... all the while not really listening to her players' quiet comments that they didn't want to play such a game. I felt rather sorry for her afterwards, especially since she later seemed almost surprised to realize we really didn't want to play that genre. In retrospect we should have politely been more insistent, I think.
Another game I was in had a good GM, but she wanted us to play characters transplanted to a world where we were all sorely underpowered. Playing the only normals in a world of arrogantly superior superheroes was not exactly fun, but was doable... until our only friendly superhero contact was killed in a random accident. At that point I couldn't see any point in continuing the game -- we were supposed to negotiate some sort of agreement with folks who had no respect for us whatsoever. It was obvious the attempt was doomed to failure because the supers didn't want to talk to us, we had nothing they wanted, and no position to negotiate from... so I quit the game.
Another player who found out I had decided to stop playing said in relief to me, "Oh thank god! I didn't want to be the first to leave!" By the next run the GM had lost all her players... because all of us were tired of the fruitlessness of the game as it stood.
Sadly, for a period of time the GM felt I'd 'killed' her game. Amusingly enough, at one point a roommate of hers berated my sweetie for not "restraining" me enough, and my consequent "crushing" of the GM's self-confidence... which would have made Bob laugh had he not already been grossly insulted by this dreadfully earnest and under-informed individual on other fronts. Fortunately the GM was a good enough friend that some time later we had a long discussion and things were straightened out.
It was during that discussion, in fact, that we discovered another friend of the GM's had gleefully told her that in order to spice up her game the GM should kill the characters' only friend. So in retrospect I don't really hold the GM or myself utterly accountable... she just built a world that was too much for us, didn't know how to dig us (herself included) out of the mess -- and then unfortunately listened to her friend instead of either we players, or her common sense.
Speaking of "crushing the GM's will to run"... I was accused more than once of having done this. In the second case the game unfortunately did not start well. The GM was asked specifically not to include me and one other person in the game, as we both knew we clashed temperamentally. Unfortunately she decided she could "handle it," and included us both -- without notifying either of us. I should have followed my instincts and politely quit the game after that first run, when I walked into the room, saw the person in question sitting there (to our mutual surprised dismay)... and realized the GM expected us both to be there.
Things did not progress well from that poor beginning. One of the players felt that having his character lie to and steal from the other characters was perfectly acceptable, since he was doing it 'for all the right reasons.' Unsurprisingly, once this was discovered there was much uproar amongst the other characters and players. Oddly enough, while I was not the one to speak the most vehemently on this, I was the one blamed for causing the dissent. It was absurd... so I left the game. It cratered soon after.
Amused aside: why is it never the GM who says I've 'crushed their will to run'? And why do these supposed friends of the GM insult their buddies by assuming they're so emotionally fragile? And why do these people feel such a need to point fingers of blame behind my back, instead of either asking me why I did what I did or, better yet, helping their GMing friends regain their confidence and run again? And why, despite all this supposed 'crushing' on my part, are these GMs always willing to run for me again?
What else... ah, diceless. I remember one game I was in that was diceless, that left me with a powerful distaste for that type of gaming. Yes, intellectually I know that diceless games work best with a GM and players that trust each other. Believe me, initially I truly thought I did. Unfortunately, emotionally I ended up feeling so horrifically abused by the GM that my distaste slopped over onto the whole diceless genre. As a consequence of this, I suspect I would have to really trust the GM to be willing to try diceless again.
The best description of this situation was written by someone else talking about a different game. It's long, but she perfectly ennumerates all the same problems I had. I'm going to use her uncredited comments, since a) I can't seem to reach her via e-mail, and b) this way I won't run any risk of revealing relevant info about the actual game I was in.
In some ways this game was a spectacular success: first-rate worldbuilding and characterization (probably the best I have ever done), first-rate writing, a lot of emotional involvement. In other ways it was a spectacular disaster, with both player and GM deeply unhappy by the end. Eventually the game just stopped, apparently because the GM no longer felt any satisfactory continuation could be imagined.
A good many things went into this, but I'd like to focus on the one that seems relevant to the topic of this thread.
In a diced game with open use of dice, the players can generally trust, when they see a roll made, that both success and failure are possible. This cue was lacking in the diceless PBeM: when my character failed at something, I did not know if that was a failure due to circumstances and/or chance, or due to the fact that she had tried something impossible.
PBeM favors conversation over action, so I had designed a character who was totally centered on social and knowledge skills -- the first such PC I'd ever done. Her emotional goals, and mine as her player, thus involved persuading other people, changing their minds, getting them to feel differently about her or about issues, etc. Her "dream scenario" -- the equivalent of a stunning combat success for a combat-centered character -- would have been persuading an enemy to give up an evil plan or to actually become less evil due to her influence.
In retrospect I do not believe that this was ever possible. The GM ran his major enemies as extremely self-assured, strong-willed, almost monomaniacal people ("you have to be strong-willed or dealing with the spirits will destroy you" was one contributing premise). It was probably completely unrealistic to think that the PC could ever persuade such a person or shake their confidence.
But it took me several years to discover this, because the diceless format did not give me any cues as to whether or not success was possible. This could have happened in a diced game too, as most GMs do not use dice for PC/NPC interaction, but there might have been additional clues (at worst I could have called for die rolls once I became suspicious--"Isn't there any chance of this working?")
In effect I was doing the equivalent of playing a combat character in a system where she could never win a major combat. But normally I would expect to notice quickly, especially using dice/mechanics combat, that this was the case -- that the opponents were always too powerful to defeat. Taking two years to find out that I had chosen a character whose fundamental goals were unreachable was not a good experience.
I feel, perhaps wrongly, that if the GM had been using dice he might have rolled one or two spectacular critical successes for my character during those years, and been forced to consider the possibility that she might succeed in persuading someone. I know that as a GM I have been prompted to consider very uncharacteristic outcomes by odd die rolls. I don't know for sure if it would have helped, but it might have.
The alternative is more communication, of course. But it's not easy to see how we could have done it. As I had never played a people-person PC before, I didn't really understand what kinds of goals she would have (it took play to reveal this -- at first I was floundering looking for action-oriented plans which were not appropriate or possible). The GM didn't know that I felt melodramatic change-of-heart scenes should be possible; he may, in fact, have considered them out of genre, but he hadn't made this an explicit part of his introductory genre essay, probably because he didn't realize it himself.
We only really understood what had happened about five years later, when the painful stuff had cooled off enough to be talked about a little bit.
This would not keep me from playing diceless again, but it was certainly a sobering experience. I would probably be much quicker to jump on a string of failures and demand explanations from the GM -- maybe too quick for the good of the game. Without a visible die roll to cue me that both success and failure are possible, I now feel I need to be very careful, whenever I see a string of failures (or successes) to make sure that assumption clash is not to blame. In retrospect I think that many times when my character was trying to persuade, or seduce, or unsettle someone, the GM didn't even consider the possibility that she could succeed. But without the die roll I never knew it.
I have since played a similar character in a low-mechanics diced game. Some of the same issues came up -- "You mean you thought you could persuade her of that? I didn't know you were even thinking along those lines." -but they were made much more obvious by the use, in situations where it could go either way, of a die roll for degree of success at persuasion. When I noticed I wasn't getting a roll, I knew to try to find out why.
Another game I was in had another sort of severe assumption clash between the GM and the players. The GM wanted a straightforward, devil-may-care, swashbuckling attitude to prevail in the game, but didn't mention this previous to the game to us. Unfortunately we the players were viewing the game as more like the 'real world.' Thus we didn't accept an initial NPC offer of training (with a promise of no strings attached) from one of many violently competing factions on our home world. We assumed that were someone to put time, effort, money, and expensive equipment (we're talking at minimum a very well equipped starship here) into training us all, they'd naturally expect at least some return from us... and we didn't want to get into internecine conflict when we didn't really understand what was going on.
We eventually managed to scrabble some training and equipment together on our own. Then the 'bad guys' framed us for the horrible and public assassination of the world leader. In desperation we stole a ship from them and fled the world. With that sort of 'reputation' with the law behind us, we felt it would be wisest to keep fleeing the overwhelming forces continuously arrayed against us until we could figure out how to clear our names. Unfortunately what the GM wanted was more along the lines of turning and charging the enemy, all guns ablaze.
At one point one player disgustedly made the comment that we were so outnumbered we might as well just drive our space ship up to the enemy stronghold, blow in the wall with the space cannons, and storm the castle, so to speak. I happened to be looking at the GM at that exact second and saw her eyes light up. I didn't understand it at the time, nor did she say anything -- but I realized later that was apparently exactly what she wanted us to do... and exactly what we never would have considered actually attempting.
Things came to a head at one point when we were trapped on a world with no way to get back to our ship, no friends or equipment, and no plans -- we were STUCK. We spent several game days in fruitless attempts to regain our ship, ending up only with the realization that in order to escape we'd need to somehow 'turn' one of the 'unturnable' soldiers. As we sat (freezing, starving, injured, and unarmed) in the hills outside the fortified port our ship was held in, the GM declared an ATV had just "turned the corner" into the canyon, and the soldier driving it announced he'd come to help us.
There had been quite a few blazingly obvious deux et machina saves in the game already.We had asked the GM to please not do this. When such things continued to occur, we had asked the GM how we should interpret this -- was she trying to tell us something? The GM always replied that we should interpret things as we saw fit.
At this latest and most ridiculously obvious bit of GM manipulation the players all reacted with varying degrees of incredulous disbelief. These ranged from sarcastically inquiring as to whether the driver/soldier had thrown his equipment and weaponry out of the vehicle to demonstrate his good intentions (the GM had apparently 'forgotten' to describe that and hastily added it) to sullen silence. One player's reaction was to go into the next room to quietly read a good book for the rest of the evening.
In retrospect it was obvious the GM expected the players to have their characters react to verious game elements in certain ways. If NPCs were wearing black hats they must be bad guys; if NPCs said they were good guys, it must be true. To her, anything the PCs did was okay because it was obviously being done for the "right reasons." Since the GM chose (consciously or no) to not discuss this, the game suffered terribly. As a consequence, our reactions were seriously out of sync with the GM's expectations for the game.
In a situation like this, if you've done your best to communicate clearly and it's not working, I guess the best thing you can do is quietly bow out... because someone's obviously not listening.
Hope this was at least of interest, Dana. ;-) I'll add one comment here for anyone reading this on my website who thinks they recognize themselves here: please don't assume! These examples are carefully crafted from many sources. I'll be happy to discuss any of this in more depth via e-mail, but I assure all that I'm not interested in hurting anyone's feelings... and it's my unpleasant experience that folks most often assume malice, then huffily refuse to ever communicate with you again. I'd like to see that not happen... in fact, what I'd really like is for this zine to help people not make these mistakes.
Unfortunately my second promise, to Dana Erlandsen and David Dickie, has turned out not to be so easy to fulfill. To reiterate, I said I'd try to come up with some examples of how to integrate subjects that cause strong emotional reactions into role-playing games. However I quickly realized that I'd run up against what I call Simpson's Theorem, namely 'If the GM believes that Viking longships are the best means of coastal travel, in his game they will be.'
I got this from a friend (yes, the afore mentioned Simpson ;) who was in a game where this occurred. How does this affect what I wanted to accomplish? Simple -- if I really believe contentious subject X is bad in real life, then odds are in my game it will be also. True, a GM can set up an in-game culture where the contentious subject is open to debate... but how dedicatedly or objectively will they represent both sides of the issue? Do they even want to do the kind of research that will require? The entire situation swiftly devolves into what the GM and players are most comfortable with, not into a real exploration of all aspects of the contentious subject. So I think the best way to handle issues like this is to put them into your game if you wish to -- but be aware that a role-playing game is not a panel of experts on any particular issue, but rather a collection of friends who're there to enjoy themselves.
Instead I will simply close my involvement with the contentious subject of guns here in IR with two observations. The first is that I am quite impressed by the fact that scientists examining this issue for the first time occasionally change their minds after reviewing all the evidence derived from scientific method (i.e. objective, repeatable research that employs legitimate research methods). I find it significant that all the documented changes of mind occur only 'one way' -- from an anti-gun stance to a pro-gun stance.
My second observation is that I do not want to decide for others how they should live their lives. As a responsible adult and citizen, I want to make the important decisions only for my life, including whether or not I will own a gun. Gun confiscation advocates want to take that personal decision-making ability; to force gun owners to give up their guns. In contrast, gun owners do not want to take or force anything -- they do not want to force gun confiscation advocates to own guns.
Comments on Interregnum #32.
Last Updated: Sat Jan 30 2000