Friday, October 14, 2016

More from the Unhappy DM (and other sad thoughts) - Part 2

As it happens every so often, it's the posts I hesitate to publish that get the most traction. Thanks for the lively response, guys! One problem with three-parters like this is that it's hard to follow up on the first one, especially if people already made up their mind what's it all about. So I'll go ahead and use parts of a post here I wrote and not only hesitated but didn't publish at all because I thought it's too bleak in its outlook. I'm glad that the response so far indicates that it will meet some understanding ...

If you haven't read Part 1, you might want to start here.


Technology has separated us. We all live in our individual little bubbles and our real life social circles overlap less and less with our digital ones. Some might say family and work will do that to you and that's life. And I would say, it is bullshit. Fact is that we are often forced to work irrational hours and times to earn enough money for the portions of entertainment we want to consume, paying extra for it being "flexible" or a "service" when, in the end, we are just milked and burned out and milked again ...

Pogo [source]**
But I digress. No, really, the current understanding of "work" is a big social problem and that's all fine and dandy, but it's the consequences that really get me riled up nowadays. Our use of technology (or how technology uses us?) may have started as a practical substitute for real life interaction, but with highly diversified life styles and the possibilities of customization, we are, well, fucked.

An individual won't need much more than internet access and some sort of device to use it with to be totally independent from everything else. Customized tv show schedules, enough games to play several lifespans, customized news and opinions. You'd never need anything else, you can just let go and ... drift. It's really that bad and getting worse*.

I could go on and tell you that this happens in cycles and hasn't changed the last 30-something years ... movies, music, cloth, trends, everything gets recycled relentlessly and we are not at a dead end in our development, we are in a brutal, advertise-fueled downward spiral to powerless uniformity. Gleichschaltung, as some bad Germans said in a dark time that should be well behind us, but is everywhere around us instead ...

As I said, I could go on, but this is about gaming and you might just as well see Demolition Man (1993) or Matrix (1999) or V for Vendetta (2006) for entertaining mainstream-ideas where we are heading and Fight Club (1999, based on a novel from 1996) to get an idea why (all four movies and ideas at least 10 years old, based on other ideas far off the mainstream way before that ...). Or go and read 1984.

Change begins with seeing the problem and communicating it. Realizing that we are, indeed and to some extent, slaves to consumerism out of the necessity to "work for a living" (and vice versa) means at least questioning this vicious cycle and maybe looking for an out ...

What's the problem again?

Alright, with that we have the second piece of the puzzle: people are separated. The third piece to understand the Sad DM is, paradoxically so, our need to relate. The smaller the special fragments are that make our life, the harder it gets to find others with the same interests. An easy fix here are mass phenomena. Be a Harry Potter fan and you'll find access easy enough. Dedicate yourself to it and you might end up having a voice, too!

Every niche has fandom like that, but the reason for mainstream being so popular is the low level of investment with relatively high pay-off. That's why we love to take sides. Pokemon GO, Game of Thrones, Star Wars ... you just need to consume to be with the crowd. And the beauty of it is, that the only thing you really need to do is just that: pay for it and invest very little brain capacity. In other words, dedicating your free time to do nothing at all.

On the spectrum now between Extreme Ironing and seeing Big Bang Theory to have something to talk about at work, I'd put role playing games more towards the ironing side of things. It's a niche and we know it. So the problem here is clear: a guy (or girl) dedicating enough time to learn a rule system and create some adventure, maybe even a campaign, maybe using a game that's not so popular (or just old), will more often than not come to a point where the effort doesn't generate the outside dedication it deserves ... And at that point it feels damn close to Extreme Ironing.

Extreme Ironing is a thing now ... [source]
Add people being people to this and every amount of time a campaign manages to gather is a small wonder indeed. But even then, players only prepare for games in the rarest cases and often only come to get entertained instead of contributing, group harmony is always a problem and the more people are estranged from each other (for the reasons stated above) the harder it gets to make gaming a unified effort. Every DM knows aspects of that story told in Part 1, I'm sure.

Now you add family or other social responsibilities and see what's left as soon as you are out of school or university. But it actually goes deeper. The whole SJW phenomenon is somehow connected to this, flame wars fit here as well, as people lose their ability (or decency, because internet) to communicate properly. You don't have to look far to read something stupid on the internet ... And all of that cooks down to:

Freedom is a problem

Yes, I said that. Especially if you are not free and believe everything is free choice. It is actually something like this: in getting told we are - within restrictions -  free to do as we please and do what we want, we are mislead to take the easy road. With telling us, we are perfect as we are and the possibility to keep this delusion alive by having our very own, highly individualized echo chambers, we are raised to ignore that truly interacting with others has the chance of discovering things about us we hadn't been aware of. We are taught into stagnation instead of development.
It's a problem ... [source]
At times I think every possibility for us to learn from the past or to evolve beyond a stage developed in the 1980s, is short-circuited like that to keep us, I don't know, unorganized and paralyzed? Doesn't matter, as those problems exist and we are free able to dedicate our time to do something against those problems (I wanted to add "until they come for us", but that'd sound outright paranoid, right?). Role playing games are, in my humble opinion, one tool to make such a difference.

So what can we do to make this actually work?

Dedication, recognition and ... more work?!

I'm trying something new here: shorter posts and closing with more questions than answers. Part 3 will take care of the rest and connect all the dots as far as I can see them. Humanity has a great gift of evolving through sharing experiences and I think we (or say: most of us) are losing our connection to that drive. That's what we get isolated for, that's why the Sad DM is sad more often than not, maybe it's even why role playing gamers got hunted down in the eighties as satanists or get ridiculed today by shows like Big Bang Theory, maybe it's also why the market would rather see us buying than talking, making and sharing ... I'll leave it at that for now for you to contemplate upon.

And I hope we can continue the lively discussion that started with Part 1. Comments are, as always, very welcome.

Some final thoughts about the Sad DM: It seemed like lots of people took the story about the Sad DM really to heart, but many added that the poor guy had been set up for heartbreak for planning his whole campaign in advance. The story isn't very clear about how he exactly prepared it, but that's not me being clever, it just allowed (in its unintentional vagueness) for some room to project our own ideas in there how he did it. The reactions show that many actually assume he did the very same mistakes so many of us did in their early DM years: going all-in with a super snowflake scenario, having non-player characters essential for the main plot (okay, that part is in there but a classic as far as rookie mistakes go) and putting so much work in there in general that he couldn't anything else but fail.

If I had written somewhere in the beginning that our Sad DM is, say, 16 years old, there'd been just some nodding and the consensus that he'll learn ... And that's a big part of the problem as I see it. There are better ways to prepare campaigns today. Those DMs needn't be alone, as we have decades of experience worth sharing***. Which leads to almost the same questions that came up at the end of Part 1: What do publishers actually do to make it easy on the new customer (or why don't they?)? Where is that recognition? Why isn't there a general platform (a lobby?) dedicated to support and spread our hobby from the very core, like you'd have for chess, for instance? Because, let's be honest, when all is said and done, it's bullshit to discuss what people should be playing and way more important to get dice into hands, right?

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself again and like to get back to what this post here had been about by closing with a reminder from Orwell's 1984 (the slogan of the fascists that control the world in the book):
That book doesn't have an happy ending. Think about that for a second ... And then, maybe read on in Part 3.

* Check out Her (2014), if you haven't already. That's what's coming for us in the very foreseeable future. And once this happens, the isolation will be complete.

** Special Thanks to +JD McDonnell for sharing this picture. The perfect fit for this post!

*** And I'd like to think we do that at least partially with blogs and forums and what-not. But is it really effective? Look around, use what I've written above: it's all echo chambers or vehicles for advertisements. There's no movement right now with enough punch to force a change. That's another strength of capitalist culture, actually: labeling trends to isolate them, then commercialize what swims to the top, building another monetary border where the logic of the market dictates instead of the human drive to evolve from experience. See the changes in the OSR as an example here, if you will.


  1. The idea of technology isolating us is an interesting one, and one that is relatively new. For a long time, technology has over all united people. Better transportation in roads and locomotives were some of the leading factors in the rise of the nation state and nationalism in the late 1800's. However, with the increase in technology applied to our social aspects of our lives and interactive communication, we see the reverse happening. People are fractured and paranoid and the only rule is who is the strongest (or loudest I suppose). It's almost like neo-tribalism. We are all set up in our little online city state communities with other like minded people in an echo chamber of opinions and ego. We pat ourselves on the back for having like beliefs and flame those that believe otherwise. And because there is no law except for might makes right, we can get away with saying some reprehensible things that we normally wouldn't do in the real world.

    Truthfully, this isn't technology's fault. This is our fault. People in general cannot get past their own egos and narcissism. They have to be right, and seeing all of these opinions that differ from their own is anathema to them. It's not just younger millenials blinded by narcissism and self-esteem. It's also the older generation that thinks they've seen it all and dismisses new ideas of an ever changing world. This is all a generalization and obviously, not everyone conforms to this, but it's not far from the truth. Humans have always valued conformity as social creatures, and dissenters are generally ostracized until things change. And with the internet, it's so easy to conform and rest on your laurels knowing that you have a community that you fit in with. People don't try to change things for the better or read dissenting opinions for an alternate perspective anymore (though I question if they ever really did). They are just happy in their internet tribes rebounding the same thoughts and ideas. We need to get better as human beings and stop isolating ourselves from each other just because we can't accept that others have different ideas and perspectives.

    The internet isn't the problem. It's outgrown us.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful additions to the argument! I agree to a point. It's true, technology (and the market that instrumentalizes it) play to our worst instincts and the internet is the perfect hotbed for what you describe as tribalism. That's a very important aspect of many, many problems we have right now. But I really believe that we are still able to use this to our advantage and that humanity can strives because of the chances technology offers ... Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Great food for thought!

    2. Communications technology does not connect us. It wraps each of us in a shell (as in OS Shell), through which we communicate with symbols of each other. Everything on the interior surface of your shell is an abstracted representation of a person or an idea. We cannot help but objectify each other, because we're using an object-oriented system to simulate and abstractify the experience of direct communication. When we interact with symbols we are less sincere, less real, less well-tempered and less *sociable* than we are when interacting face-to-face. Concurrent with this phenomenon, our *real-world* communities are fracturing.

      The future may indeed be bright, but this transitional phase is a BITCH.

    3. I totally agree with that, but when all is said and done, it describes a process of reduction. The more prominent the digital social activity becomes in our life, the more it substitutes the "real thing", the more we lose from actually established social rituals. To a point where we give up gender, marriage, age, biological compatibility/resonance and character ... As I wrote above: Gleichschaltung. I hope you are right and this is just a transitional phase. You know, it reminds me a bit of that Russian guy who died and they used AI technology to be able to communicate with the fragments of his digital life, treating it as the real thing. That'd been outright disturbing, to be honest, as I honestly believe it couldn't even be close to what made him a human (with the whole meatspace aspect missing, actually). It just didn't sound healthy.

  2. What if I told you that there were choices on which technologies were to be developed and implemented, some of which would have the opposite effect on our social culture, but that those have been shunted away while the surviellence & isolation technologies have been boosted, pampered and fostered both by mass media and the Government (which protects and defends those technology producers that perform the "correct" functions)? What if I told you it is not technology that is the problem - but the people who are the so-called "Leaders" of industry and politics (in perfect collusion) who are the problem. Left un-coerced technology might have evolved far differently, allowing people to communicate, share, and interact both publicly and privately with ease and security? I don't think we should accept the proposition that this particular evolution of technology - the isolating, insecure, Big Brother Tech - was inevitable. It wasn't. This was made to happen exactly this way at great cost and with great effort by a tiny handful of people who want it this way.

    Just a thought. Batteries not included.

    1. If you told me that, I'd go and believe it :) But I would counter with good old Kant and start talking about emancipation. At least I say as much in the post above. In a sense it's all about education and you don't need the people you write about in your comment to get one. It's harder without, but entirely possible. It's where you start. Not a revolution, no fight, just using what is there in a way people can benefit from. That's why we blog and do tat whole DIY-thing, right?

    2. I find it odd how one can spend a lot of money on a piece of technology, and then be told that if you modify it in any way, then you are committing a crime, because even though you bought it, the company still somehow owns it?

      Somebody much smarter than me once said that we will build our own prisons. One without bars, and we are both jailers and the prisoners. What a brave new world!

    3. You are right. That's Big Corp for you ... What's worse: "Brave New World" is just as relevant today as is "1984". Scary stuff ...

  3. Sometimes I feel guilty for spending so much time thinking about this garbage (RPG), this of course isn't my only distraction, I am fully aware of the brainwashing, it is very difficult to pay attention to anything. We are being manipulated with false problems, over-exposed to images that deaden us to things that should terrify us, lied to about who are the good guys and who are the bad.

    It is happening again, the people who were really behind the Holocaust were never caught and punished, and they aren't sorry. They sacrificed their pawns and now they have a fresh gameboard, the gears of the hate machine are up and running again, and nothing can stop it. What does this have to do with D&D? Nothing, it is what I'm hiding from.

    Everybody points their fingers at Bad Germans, yet nobody looks at them. They look at what they did! But they never look at them. They never ask why these people would turn over their neighbors, why these people would ignore murder, and they really don't want to see that the Wizard of Oz isn't a kindly old fool.

    I think that by simulating war, and the violence of men, as we do in our games, it gives us a chance to control our own entertainment, and be able to do something about these problems. But we can do more. We can become aware. We can simulate, and say stuff at the same time. We can put history under the microscope and see what went wrong.

    Paranoid? D&D turns off the television. It turns of the media, and forces us to think outside of the box, that is healthy!

    I know that this is long and raving, but have you noticed the notable lack of Science Fiction lately? I'm not talking about Star Wars/Trek, I'm talking about futurism. Where is it? Do we even have a future anymore? Or are we just so dead inside to look?

    1. Ripper, you share your love for the hobby by blogging about it. That's as much as you can do nowadays to make a difference, I think.

      Not sure about the SciFi. There are notably "Her", "Elysium" and "Ex Machina", all influential enough to spawn several mainstream copycats in the last years. "The Martian" could qualify, too. And there's a big load of great SciFi movies between 20008 and 2011 ... I think I know where the problem is, though. I red somewhere that people have a hard time coping with the fact that we now actually live in the future Gibson and so on described in the 80s. We have cyberwars, big corps, virtual reality is becoming a thing (Blade Runner 2 is aimed to be the first VR experience in a cinema ...), there are chips you can implant in your brain and prostheses that make you function like you never lost a limb (I even saw the first powersuit to make someone with a broken spine walk again!) and the biggest threats right now to humanity are (before anything else!) gene editing and artificial intelligence ... All that is hard to digest and our educational systems don't help, either, as they are stuck in the 80s (more or less). People are unprepared and, as usual, fear what they don't understand. It's hard to write something about the future if the present isn't understood to begin with. In a best case scenario nobody will get what you wrote (or made a movie about). It's till striving at the fringes, though :)

    2. I am glad that I don't feel alone, brother.

      It just gets so overwhelming sometimes.

  4. Thanks for throwing the Pogo cartoon in there. It really is one of my favorites, although it is as old as I am and hasn't changed anything it still is a nice sentiment.

    What can the publishers do?

    As I see it the publishers have a problem. They have established a pattern where their business is supported by the continued sales of well-known titles. This means they have to produce and keep producing books whose mere presence adds to the barrier of entry which keeps people out and ultimately pushes everyone but a few die hard fans away. Asking them to create a great game and leave it alone before all the additional stuff they create for it smothers it is tantamount to financial seppuku.

    Drumming up interest in gaming is good, but finding some new way of supporting a business without capitalizing on constant sales is what needs to be done. How? I don't know.

    1. Not a problem. It gave the post that light touch it needed :) I have some ideas what can be done. It's actually quite easy, I think. We don't need any new concepts. The things I'm about to propose are all quite old and tested. They are working and for our hobby they just need a bit momentum ... But more about that on Sunday in Part 3.

  5. I wrote a blog heading down this path, but though thrice about publishing.. You went further with it than I did, and I went in a different direction, but It seems like its an ok topic to discuss now, so I'll clean it up and post it, link it to you and we can discuss further.

    As a GM, I've always created, and recognised for myself that the creation is the fun. I create games, instead of buying and playing games.

    I get my friends to test my games out to see if I was right.. not to finish it, not to publish it, just to see if I was right in my assumptions.

    I have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars & hours not purchasing any gaming books, paying for TV, records, etc, I am not a consumer. I have traveled the world, met thousands of people, shared stories, been a GM to a massive number of strangers, I was a TV addict, now without a TV, without all these consumables, I have 60+ hours a week to create, in my leisure, and I enjoy it.

    I think DMs are, to the greater extent, creators, not consumers.

    Azimov has several stories related to this theme, people becoming seperated by robots doing it all for us, spacers vs earthers. and in the end, only the creatives can make new things, and everyone else is a mere consumer.. but we can't have the consumers feel bad about it.. so the creatives were 'locked away' until they self realised they were the elite.. then they were no longer in prison, they were free. while the consumers thought they were free, but were in prisons of their own making.

    1. I'm still not sure it's a safe topic to talk about :) But please, if you had a post like this in the works, I'd be very interested in reading it. Let me know and I will also edit Part 3 accordingly. The more this is explored, the better!

  6. In end isn't this about commodification, fetishism and alienation?

    What we create collectively (imaginary spaces) are commodified and sold back to us as product that stands against us and appears as a thing outside of ourselves. We then have to make sacrifices to this outside thing (of money and time) that we no longer recognise as the thing we created.

    The original co-operative, social impulse to 'play' (in its widest sense) becomes the consumption of mass-entertainment forms that isolate us from each other even though they may draw us together in false communities (Star Trek v Star Wars, Harry Potter v Dr Who, D&D v Traveler back in the day...).

    Our system does not like people to think and create, it likes them to consume. From Dada to Punk Rock to RPGs, going against the current is a way to become sidelined (ignored, ridiculed) until an angle is introduced that can be turned into a money-making venture, and then it will be milked until it runs dry.

    1. Yup, pretty much what I think how this works. I also think it's getting worse. Or I'm just out of the loop too much ...

    2. I don't know if it's getting worse particularly, but it might be that games are more commodified than they were 30 years ago. It might be cyclic; punk took music back for a while (before punk was also commodified) but the 'indie ethic' still prevails in many areas of music, whereas the 'punk aesthetic' is just another form of corporate fashion.

      It seems to me that the indie/DIY ethic is what is necessary in gaming too, and at the moment, the indie ethic is found in bloggers and small companies trying to produce great stuff - to fit in with a wider format to be sure, but a widely-distributed one.

      I dunno. I might just be rambling, but I see 'points of light' in all of this. The fact that you're asking questions about what it all means is in itself a good sign!