Behind the Screen04/25/2003

Where the Heart Is

One of the purposes of this column is to include not only discussion of in-game details and how to enhance them but also to deal with the people issues involved with the flesh-and-blood human beings sitting around the table. The entire experience of D&D is suffused with an emotional and deeply personal subtext of motivations and hopes. You can't invest the kind of time and effort required to play D&D on a consistent basis without investing some of yourself into it, so it should hardly seem odd that there is overlap between intra- and interpersonal issues and the conduct of the game. You cannot honestly and fully deal with the game without understanding at least some of those issues, and hopefully this column may provide suggestions or insights that will help DMs to do just that.


An example: One day at the D&D game, Mary says something to John that she thinks is fairly innocuous, a teasing joke that should be taken in good fun. John explodes with outrage and a crisis ensues. Is Mary in the right, because her comment was meant in fun and should have been taken that way? Is John in the right because he perceived it as inappropriate and offensive? What should the DM say or do?

An analogy: Mary sees a pool of liquid and assumes it is water. She drops a match into it and is surprised when it turns out to be gasoline and it explodes. She can't understand why the "water" exploded from that tiny match; it seems to make no sense. John (the gasoline) knows perfectly well that he is not water, and can't understand why Mary couldn't see the difference or smell the dangerous fumes, or shouldn't have just known that he was gasoline all along. From his perspective, Mary is either an idiot (for not knowing) or insensitive (for knowing and not caring).

The analysis: Mary approached the situation assuming a certain reaction and was surprised when it did not happen that way because she failed to take into account the fact that John would perceive things differently. Mary didn't think that the joke was any big deal, and by extension thinks that John should feel the same way. John has an entirely different cloud of experiences and attitudes through which events are perceived and processed, and in some ways the reaction is as much a reaction to those things as it is to the specific trigger. The "match" thrown into the situation by Mary's joke is the catalyst for the whole reaction, activating the potential barbarian rage that was sitting there below the surface.

The resolution: Is it all Mary's fault? Not entirely, since to an extent John is taking out his anger about other things on Mary, but he is the proximate cause of the explosion and bears the greater share of the responsibility. Whatever the resolution (which, depending upon the seriousness of the conflict, may ultimately involve one of the people leaving the gaming group), accountability must fall more heavily on the one who initiated the crisis. The ultimate effects of the crisis on personal relationships among group members is outside the DM's responsibility, and though that is a factor to consider it must be of secondary importance in resolving the crisis at hand. Favoritism in a crisis can destroy a group's confidence in the fairness of the DM, even if done in the name of friendship.

A frequent issue is when a member of the gaming group feels burned out or worn down by personal or professional circumstances. Causes can range from simple fatigue due to overwork or lack of sleep, to complex and far-reaching concerns such as marital problems, illness, or a death in the family. Job stress can also play a role, whether from one's own job becoming unpleasant or uncertain in its future (or flat-out losing a job and being out of work) or simply from a toxic atmosphere at the company, such as heavy layoffs or other upheavals.

Different people react differently to these kinds of situations. For some, gaming begins to feel like an obligation, a chore. Even if the gaming itself is enjoyable, the prospect of having to be with people and present at least a moderately cheerful or pleasant demeanor when they don't feel up to dealing with people at all is none too appealing. They might even want to play, but don't trust themselves not be snappish and take out frustrations on people who don't deserve them. So whether to preserve their own peace of mind or to avoid spreading the misery they fear has "infected" them, they simply avoid social situations. They drop out of the game, whether for a little while (if the crisis is temporary) or maybe permanently.

Others, however, look at the opportunity to game as a chance for an escape from the slings and arrows of everyday life. The opportunity to play a character has a role in this, since for many gamers the characters they create are often idealized versions of themselves, or of some facet of their personality, and playing allows them to give voice to a part of them that feels frustrated or stifled in their everyday lives (sometimes because of outside issues, and sometimes because it's a part of them that they wish could be more like that character but which they have never been able to fully embrace). In the game, they can do things that they can't in the real world. They can see right and wrong in black and white, and they can take the fight to the enemy. They can fight the power. They can conquer injustice. Some of the make-believe is also bound up in simple acts of whimsy -- a character may have a particular mode of friendly banter or rivalry with another, and the game provides chance to play through that and enjoy the camaraderie. Gaming lets them forget their troubles for a little while, or at least push them to the back of their minds. For at least a time, they can find respite from the worries, or just the humdrum monotony, of everyday life in a technicolor fantasy world where anything is possible.

Finally, gaming can be a form of therapy. Beyond the general sense of being able to play out wishes and dreams, you can use it to work through a situation that is troubling you, in the same way you might use a journal to "write yourself clear" on an idea or a situation. Also, simply being in the company of gaming friends who like and validate you can be a source of strength and a counter to the weight of outside troubles, even if you don't explicitly share your troubles or concerns with the group.

A whole new set of concerns results when tension arises between two (or more) people within the gaming group. (as opposed to one player and their job, or one player with their non-gaming spouse or family). This idea was explored in an earlier column ("When Good Times Go Bad"), but I touch on it again here to explore an additional wrinkle. That column suggested that a game-related conflict (whether in-game or out-of-game) could be resolved simply by not playing together anymore. That resolution doesn't work as well in a situation where friendships transcend the game situation. If one player somehow ends up in an irreconcilable strait with another, there is "spillover" onto other people. Players not directly involved in the dispute may feel loyalty with one party or the other. Do they, too, quit the game as a show of support? Moreover, what about their real-world relationships with group members? Will they be tainted by the dispute?

These are very difficult issues. We do not live in a world where everyone gets along all the time, and that is where part of the DM's job as a manager comes in. A DM must be able to understand the points of view of the people involved and should at least try to mediate disputes. One of the roles of a mediator is to act as an interlocutor ("one who talks between" ) for both sides. That presupposes that DMs have the ability and inclination to try to put themselves into the shoes of each party and to help each side see the dispute from the side of the other. If at least a modicum of understanding can be attained, then the DM can try to facilitate some accommodation; if none can be reached, the DM must make the ultimate decision as to where the gaming group will go. Some disputes will ultimately have little impact on the gaming group, but others may have a large impact, including splitting a group in two. To the greatest extent possible, however, the DM should practice, model, and encourage -- in a sense, enforce-- a norm within the gaming group of recognizing and respecting different points of view in a dispute and making decisions based on that.

This is not nearly as easy as it sounds, however. One of the reasons is that human beings have a natural tendency to "universalize" -- to assume that, at some level, all right-thinking people should agree with them. It is a natural first impulse to interpret and judge situations based primarily on your own perceptions. This tendency becomes even more complicated when the people involved in a dispute are from different religious or cultural backgrounds, or are of differing gender or sexual orientation. Just as in our day-to-day life our work and our culture is becoming more diverse, multicultural, and global, we need to keep in mind how some things we say or do might cause offense, quiet distress, or confusion to others at the gaming table. While we approach gaming as fun, it is group fun and a social activity, and carries the same social challenges as life in our modern world. How gaming groups deal with this, and to what degree others do or don't take offense, is just as complicated as in everyday life.

For example, one player might make an offhand comment he considers innocuous, without realizing he has offended another player or made her uncomfortable. Jokes and humor are a famously tricky subject across these lines, because what may be funny to one person may be demeaning or insulting (or simply tasteless and rude) to another. Some players may feel comfortable with the rapid-fire teasing and sarcasm that often proliferates at the gaming table, while others from a different background, or personal and family/cultural history, and style, may take such banter as ridicule.

DMs are well advised to do frequent "reality checks" at the table and away in private, to make sure that players who are just the quiet sort aren't getting hurt over things that others are just seeing as "good fun" or "general rambunctiousness." Consider your players as individuals, and you may be able to avoid misunderstandings and friction before they start. This doesn't mean that you need a complete personal dossier on everyone you play with. It does, however, mean that you have a responsibility as a DM to get to know the people you game with -- their likes and dislikes, their personal issues -- and then take those into account in how you (and they) behave toward one another.

There will be times that you and/or your players have more important things on your mind than the latest hack-fest or save-the-world mission. There is a strange sort of intimacy in gaming, given long play sessions and long periods over which campaigns take place, but that intimacy is always mediated by the game itself. You can get to know others very well, but you can also choose to be very distant in your gaming, not really engaging other than to the extent necessary to keep the game moving. If nothing else, this column is a call to engage, to be purposeful about reaching out to and connecting with the people you game with. Don't just rely on your natural inclinations; develop a habit within yourself of empathizing with others, of learning enough about them to see things from their perspective. What you learn about them and how well you get to know them will affect the richness and enjoyability of your game and can provide a sense of strength, support, and encouragement to anyone in the group experiencing a time of trial.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle and is a full-time homemaker (taking care of his 8-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son, and new dog), a part-time graduate student (working on a Ph.D. in education policy), and an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981. He currently runs a weekly D&D game, having just completed a seven-year-long AD&D (heavily modified) campaign set in the Forgotten Realms. He also plays in a biweekly campaign with a 3rd Edition D&D version of his very first character (Tjaden Ludendorff, a psionic paladin) from 21 years ago.

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