Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How Not to Rise to the Challenge

For a long time we had a guy in our group who could be generously described as a sociopath. Actually, he mentioned his therapist had called him that. He was younger that most of the group, so people cut him some slack...for a while. We’ll call him Dryan. Dryan had many delightful personality quirks- most significant of which was his mastery of whining. He could whine out the unfairness of any situation, describe things had conspired against him, and sulk that the world hadn’t just given him what he wanted.

My favorite story, of many, was the night that he was playing in a Rolemaster campaign. The other players had managed to enjoy themselves despite Dryan’s level-best efforts. In any case, their group enters a cave, and the GM describes that there are largish spiders, the size of a football, and they have a bluish glow to them. Dryan immediately begins bitching- "Geez, Scott- Lightning Spiders- my god, how unfair can you be? I’ve read about those, I can’t believe you’re throwing those at us..." on and on about how he knew about these things and Scott was awful for having done this.

Of course, these weren’t monsters from the book or anything. They were just something Scott the GM had come up with on the spot for a little challenge. They were just differently colored spiders. The problem was Dryan, like a number of other gamers, had a social script- one which often worked for him. I’m seen it done in more- and in less- sophisticated ways. Like the "Defer & Naysay" approach, it survives and thrives because it works. We’ll call this approach "Challenge Bitching."

This script can take a number of forms. The easiest one I mentioned above, complaining about the unfairness and difficulty of the challenge presented. Some of that can be in good fun. I had a Champions game where the players would go on after a fight about how tough the opposition had been and questioning the bad guys' abilities and points...which would inevitably lead to me exploding with "But you guys won!" in fury. At that point they’d laugh since I’d fallen for their trap again. That’s fun, and part of the game. But when that turns chronic- with comments about points, challenge ratings, and the decks being stacked against them, it becomes a problem. Some players immediately engage in complaints and rules-riffs the moment a conflict begins. Now, if a group complains, that’s a different matter. That ought to be a sign. But here I’m speaking about the player who starts out any encounter in this mode.

That script offers a certain amount of camouflage for the Challenge Bitcher. He’s addressing the system and mechanics. They blend it with other kinds of genial bitching. It includes an approach I’ll call "Sideways Bitching," where the Bitcher complains that he’s unable to do "anything" (or a specific thing) because the GM’s created deliberate obstacles to that. Where described, these obstacles take the form of Powerful NPCs, Omnipotent Enemies, or Impossible to Break Structures. They may be more generically presented as "he just won’t let me...". Again, these criticisms may not be invalid- but the difference here is that the Bitcher hasn’t actually tested any of these things. They’d decided that the situation is beyond them. That allows them to avoid responsibility in the group, give them an excuse for lack of forward progress, and a sense of martyrdom. This script’s presented to avoid criticism from fellow players for the most part. Good GM’s presented with this will try to find a solution- which isn’t what the Bitcher wants.

Another script/tactic used by the Challenge Bitcher is to react to any challenge presented to them as yet another affront. Challenges- from combat, to social interactions, to just having to roll for something- demonstrate how the GM is picking on the player. The Bitcher may do this at the table- or away in commentary afterward. As opposed to a joshing comment, he uses this as a passive-aggressive reproach to the GM. The message conveyed is that the GM should be picking on other players or offering the player a 'buy' in this situation. This script plays on the GM’s desire to both be fair and to be perceived as fair. That makes handling it at the table more difficult- the GM has to assess the validity of the point. And if the comment isn’t valid, pushing too far can make the situation adversarial. That’s part of the reaction the Bitcher counts on.

Another approach is in body language- where the player becomes visibly angry, pouts or sulks at the table. To be fair, people can get angry at the table- can find themselves showing that more than they intend. The difference comes with players who do this consistently, as a means of expressing displeasure or making the mood uncomfortable so that they get their way. Asking the player at the table about this usually makes the situation worse- entering into a strange "Thanksgiving with the Family" mode. The player can turn the query back on the GM, that the comment’s an attempt to make them angry or call them out in front of friends. They may also take the opportunity to bring another player into the situation, hiding behind their skirts and pointing to the GM’s behavior as antagonistic. Again, the point of the tactic is to reshape the behavior of others- to force them to hesitate, to moderate the difficulty of the situation, or to simply offer the Bitcher what they want.

So what’s the problem? Stated as above, these issues would seem easy to spot and to deal with. But, of course, they’re not. They’re bound up in social interactions, tied to other parts of the social contract. In my experience, players who do this kind of thing at the table also do this away from the table. They interact with family and significant others through this passive-aggressive and guilt manipulating approach. And they’ve learned that this script is effective. Even if they don’t get 100% of what they want, they get a portion of it. They make the GM, other players or any source of authority hesitant to interact with them in anything but a positive way. They make the rest of the table have to second-guess their own actions.

To give you a concrete example, I play miniatures and I play board games. In each case I have at least one person I’ve played against a few times who uses this approach- often in a deliberate way. When things goes against them at the table- they slow things down; they get quiet and visibly angry or upset; they go to the rulebook and begin to question every move their opponent has made; they complain about a minor detail they ‘misunderstood’ and imply that the game should be done again or is invalid; they check and recheck their actions in a CCG. They create a singular thought in their opponent’s mind: is it worth it? Is winning worth the experience? And maybe the Dryan or the more articulate versions of Dryan won’t win- but that seed will be planted for next time- that hesitation about making a rules call, about taking advantage, about keeping the game going to victory or letting them win. Now for a board, miniatures or card games- you can usually choose to not play them or play with them infrequently. But over long-term social interactions- such as an rpg table- you have constrained choices. Calling them on it might work- these scripts rely on a "victim" stance. It is difficult to extricate players from this without taking the ‘bad guy’ role. Often these players have grown used to these approaches- with their friends and with their family. They’re expert with them, leaving you with few choices besides walking on eggshells or cutting them out.

And I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of bending to players who have used this pressure at the table. Table management's vital to being a GM. I want things to run smoothly- so when players visibly show upset at the table, I try to figure out how to get around that. So I’ve bowed to that kind of blackmail in the past. Part of me wonders if the player realizes that everyone at the table can tell they’re angry. I used to be more charitable in my interpretation of this, but now I’m fairly sure it is an approach they’ve integrated into their lives with success. So I try to make sure that the whiny player gets taken care of- the squeaky wheel gets the oil...

...which of course isn’t fair. At a table with one or more of these tantrum players, good players can get the short end of the stick. Increasingly, I’ve tried a compartmentalized approach- offering the players rewards, plots and details they want- but not ones connected with the main plot. As well these should be in realms fairly isolated from the interests of their fellow players. It can work, putting them in a pen- but not always. Sometimes the whiner will see over the fence into another player’s yard- and see something shiny, where they’ll rush over and step on others' toes. I have to admit that handling these kinds of problems feels like the weakest part of my GMing skill-set. But the first step to fixing these kinds of problems is to recognize them when they happen at the table. If I can identify that kind of pressure and manipulation in play- directed at me or another player- then perhaps I can figure out a way to redirect it.

Again, I want to stress I’m not saying criticism of a GM isn’t or can’t be valid. Constructive and tactful criticism would be ideal. But we’re human, so GMs often have to filter through the comments and reactions of people at the table to make things better. What I’m talking about here isn’t commentary aimed at making the game better. Instead this is player behavior aims to get what they want. They’re willing to throw the socially-acceptable version of a tantrum to "win." Winning in the game can mean acknowledged superiority in rules-lawyering, letting their character be the best, controlling what happens at the table, or simply being able to exert power over the group. These tactics and scripts aren’t about improvement of play, but gaining control. They’re selfish and isolated- often at odds with both GM and fellow players. A good GM has to filter these out from legitimate problems and address the latter. The GM has to be especially aware when a problem isn’t a lone voice, but instead expresses complaint or unhappiness from the group. The GM has to manage a table despite players who run away from challenges crying.

And here’s the thing- challenges are what makes the game. My solid players rise to the challenge. They’ll complain, react, and express shock at the challenges to come- but when it comes to it, they pick up they’re tools, march forward and deal with it. They work together, they plan and they deal with problems- from the small to the unbeatable with equal panache. They don’t assume I’m out to get them- or at least if I’m out to get them then I have a higher purpose- a better story in mind. The vast majority of my players fall into this category- embracing play, taking on challenges, and pressing forward. It is that, maybe, which makes the bad players stand out so strongly in my memory. I’m writing this as an exorcism, from the ghosts of gaming past. My present groups take on anything thrown at them- offering me a freedom as a GM I’ve never had before.

And that’s pretty cool.