Sunday 16 December 2012

Being Arch

Alexis never fails to be interesting. The entry linked to is, I think, genuinely insightful in a way which is quite rare in the blogosphere: it made me think about something that I have never really considered before.

It's this: I think arch self-awareness in role players is often a cowardly defence mechanism.

First, it's important to say that I don't think game sessions should be totally po-faced, and I don't think anybody really thinks that, in the end. Games are fun and should make people laugh.

Secondly, it's important to say that British people are very uncomfortable with two things - genuine emotion, and seriousness. So whenever anything or anyone gets remotely clear to expressing any serious emotions of any kind, our immediate paramount concern is to somehow deflate it and deflect it, usually with humour and sarcasm.

This means that a certain amount of irony, humour and tongue-in-cheek remarks is inevitable in any game that I run; it would go against natural human instincts, and also my national, cultural background to do otherwise.

And yet, I do sometimes think that there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously, and I think a large portion of the reason for this is simply that, if you play an RPG while simultaneously taking the piss out of yourself and being awfully self-aware, you are subconsciously reassuring yourself that you are not, in fact, the horrendous nerd that you might appear to be to outsiders. Although you are a grown man pretending to be an elf, you are a grown man pretending to be an elf and you are aware that it is ridiculous, and you are so comfortable with yourself that you can poke fun at yourself while you do it, etc., etc., and hence you lessen the sting of embarrassment that comes with that very nerdish act.

So there is a part of me that would like to be less arch and piss-takey about my games, sometimes. I don't mean for a second that I'd like them all to be that way. But I do think, wouldn't it be great to run a horror game in which the players genuinely got scared? Wouldn't it be great to run a fantasy game in which the players genuinely felt a sense of wonder and awe? Wouldn't it be great if in a fight the players felt a genuine sense of danger? Because in the end, I think most people who play RPGs would say that the really great campaigns and sessions that stick in their mind are those kind of games. But to run them requires a level of buy-in that my default ironic tone will not generally provide.


  1. But in fact, the genuine feeling shines through much better when it is not forced or overdramatized. When you simply describe events and let the players supply their reactions. Do you deny that Tolkien and Pratchett are quintessentially British and yet somehow capable of emotional impact?

    1. I don't read Pratchett, so I can't speak for his stuff. I think you're right, but avoiding humour is in itself something that requires effort and some amount of "force," don't you find?

    2. Neither author avoided humor, actually, but nonetheless (or rather, because of that) the gravity and sympathy of their key moments still come through.

    3. What I mean is, when Tolkien and (I assume) Pratchett are not being funny, that requires effort on their part - it is still to some extent "forced" inasmuch as it is a deliberate choice.

  2. I think the key is to roll with it. Don't try to predict beforehand what will induce awe and what will be funny. Just present an interesting situation. I have been quite surprised at what has seemed to generate awe, humor, and creepiness for my players.

  3. This seems fairly "GMing 101". The first DMing art, wait, the second, the first is getting people to show up....

    The second DMing art is seeing through the snappy facade. The players want to live and want their PCs to live (have lives) or they wouldn't be there. They drove all the way to your house Through traffic. They inconvenienced themselves. They are IN and you have that in your quiver. If you can't deflect a joke or two or make it fall flat against the genuine fear of losing a PC or not getting the drama rolling then what kind of GM are you?

    You don't fight jokes (just as you don't fight _anything_ your players naturally do or want to do) you _use_ them to your (and therefore the game's and therefore the players') advantage.

    "Use the force Luke!"

    "Well you'd better use _something_ if you want to keep being a 5th level ranger"

    Honestly I don't know how someone could manage to even get through GMing a game without being able to do that.

    1. Sure, but don't you ever wonder what it would be like if there weren't very many jokes because people were taking it very seriously? I do. I don't know if it would be better, but I'm interested in the possibility.

    2. I just don't think the presence or absence of jokes is the key to drama here. I mean, I've played Cthulhu games where I'm running and the players didn't make jokes much and they were just desperate to survive (and one player was genuinely scared and scarable) and I've run them without. It was a lot like all the other games, overall.

      I;ve had sessions where a treasured PC dies and nobody makes jokes for an hour. It's still D&D and is good or bad because, it's not like some magic alchemy occurs turning into TRUE roleplaying.

      I mean, look at Star Wars with jokes (The original trilogy) and without (the prequels) . Which one is better?

      I just think the whole _point_ of GMing is to channel and build on whatever the players' natural impulses are, not dam them up in the hope of turning them into something else.

      I mean: it is Alexis we're talking about here.

    3. The strength of any story being told is the ability to keep the stuff in it mattering despite the stray outside-the-frame thoughts of any audience member.

      If a story is so fragile it can't weather:
      Elf: "...NINE COM PAN YONS!!!"
      Pippin: "Where are we going?"

      Then it isn't a very robust story.

    4. I just think the whole _point_ of GMing is to channel and build on whatever the players' natural impulses are, not dam them up in the hope of turning them into something else.

      Yes, this is exactly the essence of what I was trying to get at.

    5. I think I'm not being very clear about what I mean. What I'm talking about here is not so much the players' attitudes but my own: I find it difficult to stop myself undercutting the tension/emotion with humour and sarcasm. It's one my DMing weaknesses, I think.

  4. I don't know-I can't really relate in practice. I've had some pretty fun sessions where people were joking around here and there. People are generally able to separate between in-character tension and out of character guffaws.

    Maybe it's an issue of proportion? Like when it becomes a power-struggle between the DM and the 'class clown'.

    1. But what if the DM can't resist being the class clown himself?

    2. And to follow up to what I wrote to Zak above, I agree that people are able to separate the tension and the guffaws, but don't you think it would be interesting to run a game in which that separation was not necessary in the first place?

    3. i'm not sure if i would enjoy such a "serious" game. try it and blog about it! :)

      dm as class clown isn't necessarily a problem, is it? are your players complaining? i'd rather have a funny dm than one that takes his game too serious.

  5. Another thought: isn't this desire for control of the emotional experience just another kind of railroad? That is, in a plot railroad, the referee has decided beforehand what will happen and what the players will experience. In, let us say, an emotional railroad, the referee decides that they want tension, or humor, or whatever, and feels sidelined when players take it in a different way.

    Being truly disruptive is a different thing, of course.

    1. Sure, I agree. For some reason this discussion seems to have gone down the lines of "players not taking the game seriously", which isn't what I meant at all. I'm more talking about my own attitude and approach, and the kind of atmosphere my DMing style fosters - one in which nothing is taken very seriously.

  6. Makes sense to me, I was thinking about this in the context of two ways of dealing with "serious stuff" people distinguished on the forge:

    Go at serious stuff but avoid people's personal touchy areas by skipping around them.
    Go at serious stuff and push through discomfort in a supportive and reflective way.

    Obviously British people run on a third loads of the time:

    Avoid serious stuff and redirect into light stuff.

    It's the dinner party model of rpgs, "if anyone mentions politics, religion or detailed matters of business, redirect them onto something general, witty or absurd"

    Games can run smoothly on that for months and years, avoiding the raw stuff.

    But even if you do run like that, you'll still want something pushing in that direction to stop things loosing their colour or detail.

    I think that seriousness doesn't just have to be about death; some games like burning wheel encourage people to put in up-front stuff that they find interesting or valuable, so that you can always bring back some weight when things start to get a little light. (Or go full on into the depths of it if you want to.)

    You know that look people get in their eyes when drunk conversations veer over to something they find important? A little dash of that can add a lot to a game, or ruin it.

    I think one of the weaknesses of burning wheel is that it's too abrupt and concrete in what it asks people for, and I've been trying to find good ways to help people smoothly introduce stuff they find interesting. Obviously almost everyone has examples of this happening in games, where someone flags something up as serious and interesting, I just want to find ways for it to happen more often.

    1. Yes, although I should make clear I'm not necessarily talking about "issues". Just taking the in-game fiction, such as it is, as being serious.