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I'm a terrible player sometimes, and I need to get over myself....

I HAVE A CONFESSION!

... I'm Sometimes a Bit of a Troll

The Covid lockdown has allowed me to do a lot of navel-gazing and self-reflection as a human. Keeping this game related allowed me to look at my habits as a player versus my habits as a game master.

I realize I'm not a very good player anymore. It's something that bums me out and worries me. I'm not as generous as a player as I should be. I'm not as supportive, and I'm more critical when I sit down to play. I'm kinda ashamed. This may all be the maudlin ramblings of a person stuck in their house all day, but it's something I want off my chest, so I've written it down and shared with the universe.

Let me unpack some of these a little.

First off, all this assumes that the game table is healthy, and everyone is putting their best foot forward. If the game table sucks, I have no problem with leaving a toxic environment. This is about me being ruinous at a healthy table.

This is a hypercritical look at myself and doesn't consider all the good things I think I do. I'm just focusing on the stuff I perceive as bad at the table and wanting to correct for better enjoyment for all.

SUPPORTIVE

I don't support the GM as I should sometimes. I do support the players, but I fail the GM. I tend to back seat drive sometimes and think I would have handled that scene better. I don't actively sabotage games, but I sometimes say or do things that can feed my self-importance at the table. "This is the way I would have run that" type stuff. It is shitty and annoying, and I'm very sorry for doing it. It's not overt, but I realize I'm doing it, and it isn't cool. It is infantile passive-aggressive behavior.

No GM has ever set out to run a terrible game, but sometimes I hold their feet to the fire a bit more than I should. Again, it's a lack of respect for their abilities and the amount of time and effort they've put into the game.

MY GOAL:  To stop being that asshole at the table. We are all players at the table, and it is my job to make sure everyone is having fun and being the best version of themselves. I can't expect everyone to be me or think like me, and I wouldn't want that if it was possible. The reason I enjoy gaming is that I enjoy the shared space where we make magic happen. I don't want to pass on this poisonous behavior to others.

HYPERCRITICAL

As a player, I'm more critical of the games I play. "This could be better," "Why does the game choose to do X this way?", "This should play out like this."

It's a terrible way to think and a habit I'm not sure where I picked up. When I started doing game design, I can only assume that I started to look more closely at the elements that make up a game and not the game as a holistic whole. I do this with my other media consumption (movies, tv, book, etc.). When I do let go and just allow the content to be what it is, I enjoy it more. Not every dinner needs to be a 4-Star Michelin meal; sometimes, all you need is a fried bologna sandwich.

My Goal: To allow the game to be what it is and lean into what it wants to deliver. Enjoy the game that the person has written and not impose my views on the game. I can go back and do that later if the game fails me or the table.

Department: 
Actual Play
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Comments

Well, it's hard to reflect on one's self and consider what one might or might not be doing to contribute to good play. What exactly kind of responses are you looking for here?

Ron Edwards's picture

I'll take the ball and run with it, not in terms of your own conclusions and decisions, Jerry, but in terms of what the issue raises for all of us.

Toward that end, let's consider a hypothetical person who not only corresponds to what Jerry describes as his concerns, but behaves exactly that for real ... and, also in fact, twenty or thirty times worse.

Now, this person does not have to be willfully un-self-aware or trolling in the sense of not even playing - let's presume they really do want to enjoy play but this behavior has effectively overwhelmed them psychologically and they simply cannot help doing it pretty much all the time ... and they do. To paraphrase Jerry's descriptions of actions at the table, during play:

  • Back-seat driving, or editorializing as a "named and known" GM toward someone else's GMing, with the possible subroutine of correcting procedures of play and debating specific rules' applications.
  • Critiquing and negatively debriefing the game procedures, in implied or explicit comparison with some game they might have chosen instead, or have designed.

I acknowledge that both of these have kernels of great and welcome activity inside them: in the first, the decentralizing of "rules knowledge and use" that we've been talking about here a lot; in the second, reflection and critique as ongoing and interpersonally-supportive activities outside of play. However, I think it's pretty clear how the positive kernels differ from these distorted and ultimately abusive actions at the table.

Acknowledging as well that the above two points were my own exact behavior during 1986-1988, I'll add to them another bullet point:

  • Out-performing others' role-playing and content commitment, in two ways: extra-ordinary backstory and setting contributions, and constant assertions, demands, and performances during play.

Looking back at that time, and taking the most negative view possible of Jerry's great artwork he's provided here (not of the actual Jerry, who presents the more positive version in my experience), I'll tell you what I think.

The root problem is that this person's GMing is what's gone wrong. He or she doesn't only do these things as a player, he or she does them as a GM, as an integral part of being that GM. It's obscured (for purposes of analysis, not invisible in fact) by the mystique and muddled expectations of what "the GM" is supposed to be, as I critized at Slaying the "The" in Seminar. It's also emotionally comfortable for them because they have donned the social authority or alleged mastery to conceive, hold, and apply such judgments as play procedures at will, thus doing all these things is not perceived, at least by themselves, as socially or creatively disruptive.

The bad version of the GM in Jerry's picture is paternalistic, patronizing, stress-inducing + comforting, the arbiter of what goes into and comes out of the procedures at every moment, and the only recipient of what anyone says, and the only producer of what anyone must listen to. That GM is jolly, comforting, entertaining, encouraging ... and in complete, moment to moment, undisputed control.

Therefore when they are not in that anointed position, they perceive themselves to have no control, and they fear, perhaps even rightly, becoming the infantilized and grateful recipient that they themselves demand players to be. In their minds, the only way to be a person while role-playing is to be the GM. So these terrible behaviors are inevitable, because at least they understand they should not become an un-person. The entirely screwed-up context for all play transforms this reasonable desire into horrific thalidomide-esque results.

Historical notes:

  • Playing Rolemaster and Champions, 1986-1988: struggling terribly with this especially in the context of uniform good will and willingness to play among the whole group.
  • Playing Champions, GURPS, and Rolemaster, 1988-1989: successfully escaping/defying these problems in spots and fits and starts, with one or more people in the group falling back into them at any given time so that they were always present to some extent.
  • Playing Champions, 1990-1992: typically successfully playing without these problems, but with one or more people in the group encountering them unexpectedly in spots and moments much to everyone's surprise ("why didn't that work," "why did I do that").
  • Developing Sorcerer and playing hundreds of games, 1992-1998: deliberately "white belting"myself, re-learning everything from the ground up
Helma's picture

I'm not a GM and there may be enough stories about missbehaving players, but I took your post as a welcome reason to reflect on my journey into role playing, short as it may be.
Since autumn 2019 I played in full campains, one shots and couples of sessions of more games than I can count as well as being part of play tests for different designs, Adept Play is a great place for curious minds.
I even tried my hands at Gming (once, certainly not going to talk about that one).
I still don't know in which of all the boxes that are labled with different “player types” I belong. Sometimes, when I'm frustrated with myself I would like to know, but over all, I don't care. I love to play with different people, I learned to get my nerves under control when “meeting” new groups and players.
But I'm still playing without knowing the Rules. Not the rules of a particular game, but the unspoken ones that are part of the social contract around the table. I came to role playing at 50 + with no background at all and I'm still bothered by it.
Nontheless I recently found myself thinking “In this kind of game the player / player character is probably supposed to act a certain way” or “I should see to it that my PC is perfectly equiped, this game is build for the PCs to be a team and complement each other – but I don't care. The others around the table have to live with what I find most engaging, namely characters with flaws that aren't stereotypes. Looking at it from the outside my behaviour would best be described as ignorant and inconsiderate.

I'm sometimes unable to wait for my turn and interrupt people when I'm getting to engaged in the story. It irritates me, I don't even want to think about how much it must irritate everybody else. In addition it probably makes my characters taking up more space than they should.
I'm a complete failure when it comes to describing scenes, especially battle or (worst of all) kills. There should be a way of training that.
I'm getting sloppy in my preparations, not reading the complete book before the first session, namely in the D20 games I'm exploring right now, often skipping combat rules, partly because of my difficulties to concentrate when reading on screen, partly because I've no time, but partly because “everybody else knows this and they will help me out” and “how different from similar games can this be”. Effectivly dumping the burden on others.

I'd rather not GM games and that is partly because everybody else at Adept Play is so much better than I could ever be but to a huge part because I'm lazy.
At least nowadays I rarely ask “Can I ...” in mid-play. I count on others to tell me if I can't. But I wonder how often they don't.
Oh, and I'm always, always playing in to many games at once.
On the plus side, at least for me: I still want to know more and try more and learn about differences but I start to recognize what makes playing a certain game easier or more difficult for me and the games that seem not really down my lane nowadays have a more difficult start but most of what you may offer me to try will look new and shiny and make me want to try it out with you. When I decide to play with you I will give my best.
So, do I have a goal (because that is the more important question, background is overestimated, right)? Oh yes, I want to become a better player: Engaged, knowledgable, supportive, attentive and kind.

What level of social contract rules are you thinking of? A large part of the social contract of an RPG is the same as showing up for a card or board game: show up on time, be ready to play, pay attention to the person who is facilitating, pay attention to the person or persons teaching the rules, learn when it's your turn, take your turn, don't move other people's pieces, don't cause delays in other people's turns or your own.

Specific to most roleplaying is a more variable rules about input and authority when it's not your turn -- what are the limits on suggesting actions or descriptions for things unfolding inside someone else's authority? Who has what authority, is it within the rules to take over authority, and when? These are often unclear in the text of rulebooks and also often different expectations are held by each player. I think this is the realm of what Ron calls "murk."

When you encounter murk, it's not your fault, it's a lack of clarity in the group contract.

noah's picture

Jerry, I had a post simmering when yours went live, and I realized mine was a kind of doppelganger to it. I’m posting here instead of starting a new topic.

RPG discourse that I’ve observed has a tendency to treat the player in the GM’s seat as the one who needs expertise. They’re cast as the one practicing their craft, honing their skills with different systems, formulating and applying best practices. 

The other players at the table are ghostly presences at best. I’ve come across play reports from the storygames space where successful play is defined as a GM loaded for bear with PBTA best practices, plus a game outfitted with the latest narrative tech designed to ‘organically create’ hard choices, plus players who….are there, I guess? 

(At my most cynical, I imagine an iPhone game developer blinking absently when asked what the players do: “Oh, the users? They get to push these buttons after the ads are finished.”) 

I’d love to see more posts, like this one, from participants in the quote/unquote “player” seats. What went well? What went badly? Where do we want to improve? I think, once we’ve “slain the the,” as Ron put it, we’ll find that the craft of being a good player is similar regardless of which seat you happen to be in.

In the Trollbabe game I played with Sam and my brother, I learned a lot about being a player. By granting very clear narration authorities and permitting everyone input on scene framing, Trollbabe forced me to develop skills I haven’t had occasion to before. 

Across several episodes, I had great luck and rolled many successes. Because I wasn’t merely reacting to adversity during those runs of success, I was forced to ask what Gat Venomsdatter, my fearsome shamanistic Trollbabe, wanted to accomplish. I think I’d call this authorial stance - I was acting not only with considerations of ‘what my Trollbabe would do here,’ but also ‘what do these actions mean’ on an ethical, symbolic or cosmic level.

This culminated in the final session, where I made three narrative decisions that I am extremely proud of - 

  1. Long story short, our Trollbabes had awakened a planet-killing weapon sent to earth by the embodiment of cosmic conformity - Sam (in the GM seat) narrated it as “Fleeing entropy, the universe fears being deconstituted into individual parts, and so it seeks vast individuality-crushing unities.” Gazing into the weapon infected susceptible people with a weird tech virus that turned them into cyborgs, living components of cosmic conformity.

    Gat was being pursued by winged insect bots sent to protect the weapon. I blew my Fight rolls, and looking at my character sheet I knew I’d better save resources for later. The bots had me dead to rights. The failure narration was on me. I realized I could narrate something that looked like death while not actually taking Gat out of the picture. I narrated her getting blasted into ashes by her opponents’ beam-weapons.

    A scene later, and my brother’s Trollbabe had ripped the wings off one of the creatures, disabling it. Sam asked me how Gat was coming back. I narrated her reincarnating in the pieces of the destroyed creature, rising up as a monstrous steampunk construct that retained Trollbabe characteristics, stumbling after her Trollbabe companion.
     

  2. While my brother’s Trollbabe engaged in a final battle with the evil overlord of the area, Gat dueled with a tech-virus infected human. If he escaped, the virus could overrun the planet.

    Sam and I went full-on body horror here, with living wires bursting from limbs, faces opening to reveal cyborg visages, and apocalyptic premonitions projected into the sky. The conflict centered around Gat—still a spirit-shaman in spite of her monstrous transformation—trying to force her foe to acknowledge the individual value of each life-form and ecosystem, from blades of grass to elephants.

    It was a hard-fought battle, but Gat emerged victorious, absorbing the virus and incorporating it into her own self. I narrated her looking inward to her defeated foe and saying, “My name is Gat Venomsdatter. I am a Trollbabe. Now, that is your name, and you are a Trollbabe too.”
     

  3. The final conflict was between Gat and my brother’s Trollbabe Asha. Asha had been infected by the tech-virus. Gat was trying to convince her to submit to an exorcism. A couple of rounds in I went for a re-roll. I was losing this conflict and not convincing Asha. I saw “A remembered spell or other magical effect,” and remembered Sam narrating the planet-killing weapon as speaking in eery Morse code-like clicks. I narrated Gat revealing to Asha that they had been conducting this entire argument in click-language without realizing it - evidence of how deeply our natures had been compromised by the virus. Both my fellow players reacted really strongly to this, and I felt like I'd nailed my solo.

There were many moments in this game that gave us memorable, emotional and phantasmagoric fiction, all of them emerging from the three of us using the instrumentation with relish. But these were three moments that would not have happened if I hadn’t been at the table. I hope to bring the same level of intensity and fidelity to characters I play in future that I did to my Trollbabe Gat.

I don't have much to add, but I want to say that I loved reading the ending of your Trollbabe game -- that fucking rocked, I can tell even from this distance to the material.

Regarding the point about getting better as "non-GMs", not to be too flippant about it, but I feel like this whole section of the site is about getting better as a player, no matter which seat you are in. I do think you bring up something powerful and important to discuss more, when you mention RPG discourse treating "players" as little more than warm bodies. I think that's true in a lot of cases and I didn't recognize it until you pointed it out.

There are also things like Play Unsafe, which I remember liking, but I'm not sure how much it impacted my play. I should give it a re-read.

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